A DOCTOR'S DIARY IN DAMARALAND
June 17.---There is much tedium in war; but it is like holding lottery tickets: the suspended hope of excitement or reward prevents ennui. To-day I got a little change which was very welcome after three weeks attending to a lot of wounds which do not seem to get very much better. News came in that there had been fighting at a distant outpost, and, there being no regimental doctors available for the duty, I was deputed to go.
Nobody seemed to know where the place was, what the name of it was, or what had been the nature of the fighting. Besides our own motor ambulance, the O.C. motor transport kindly put a large 35 h.p. Chalmers at our disposal, and came himself, bringing with him a greasy little bantam driver whom they called Chipp. "It's seventy miles," says Chipp. "I can do it in three and a half hours." "I can't do it at all: my radiator pipe is leaking, "puts in the somewhat pessimistic driver of the ambulance. However, with the liberal use of hospital plaster and string the leak is stayed. At noon we are ready to start, with a good supply of rations and plenty of petrol. The Chalmers looks very business-like, all bonnet and box seat, the body being replaced by a crude wooden seat with a large sort of tray behind. Knowing the weaknesses of the ambulance well, I chose the box-seat of the Chalmers, between O.C. and Chipp, the pessimistic driver and our tried Sergeant-Major following in the ambulance. "We ought to have had the Red Cross on this car," says the O.C. as we pass over the hill into Klein Windhuk. "Hadn't we better keep close to the ambulance ?" is the best I can suggest. For the first dozen miles or so our way lay along the mainroad which runs through Windhuk towards Gobabis, near our border in latitude 22° S.
This road is different to any I have seen in this country. It looks like a road with a purpose, making for its destination regardless of obstacles. Such a road the Romans might have made. It is quite new; in fact, it does not appear to be finished. The O.C. voiced my thought when he said: "The Germans were making this road to invade the Union by. "One was glad to leave it at Kapp and turn to the left, so as to get away from such an outward and visible sign of German purpose and design. So far we had skirted the northern slopes of the Auas Mountains, but here the range comes to a sudden end with a rugged peak called Ausa Ende, and a fine plain opens out, stretching east as far as one can see. At the foot of the mountain here is a farm known as Swartzklip, where the Germans killed a lot of Hereros, and lost a few men themselves, as the graves show.
Skirting some kopjes to the left, we soon made Neudamm, which is a Government farm with a beautiful natural dam among the rocks, orchards, and some substantial farm buildings. Here we picked up our Burgher guide, who had ridden in after the fight to telephone for us. He looked very fagged, and well he might, for he had been two nights and a day in the saddle, with no sleep, little food, and the excitement of a fight thrown in. Even he did not know the name of the place we were going to, but said it was 120 kilometres. They all talk of kilometres in these parts; the word "mile" is not used. I, who have not learnt to think in the Metric System, translated this into seventy-two miles, but our speedometer subsequently showed that this was the distance from Windhuk.
We now entered the real upland bush country, flat, with spitzkopjes standing up here and there, the grass, bleached by the winter sun and frosts, standing knee-high. The country is well wooded with acacias, nearly all of the wachteinbilje variety. It is an ideal part for stock, especially cattle, and is full of game, such as buck of various kinds (especially kudu), zebra, guinea-fowl, partridge, ostriches, together with such carnivore as leopards and jackals. About 4 p.m. we came to a large farm, Mecklenburg, where a very big dam is being constructed. The two occupants spoke English well. I asked one his nationality. He prevaricated: "I am a British subject." "Where were you born?" " In Cape Town," he replied. "I came here in August to manage this farm, and have not heard from home since." It might be coincidence, but this was the third "British subject " I had found managing a farm for a German owner within a short while. The advantage of this arrangement to the farmer is obvious under present conditions.
The roads about here are really good, for the surface of the country is flat and the soil gravelly and porous. Pointed kopjes stick up here and there on the horizon; we were practically above the mountains. At sunset we came to another farm, Ongono Gotjari, a very bare-looking place where most of the Pietersburg commando were. Our destination was still eleven miles farther on, and we covered this in less than half an hour, so good was the road.
The commandant met me with, "I'm very glad to see you, doctor. They killed two of my men yesterday, and wounded three." His eyes looked tired, anxious, and angry, and a state of restlessness and worry seemed to pervade the whole place. I went straight to the badly wounded man. His white face was all I could see in the dark, stuffy little room. Shot through the stomach, and a leg shattered, his case was hopeless; but he was patient and reasonable, though obviously dying. As he was lying in an utter state of discomfort and filth, we tried to make him a little more comfortable. Another man was shot through the neck from side to side. How the bullet had avoided his spine was a mystery. He was fussy and restless, more frightened than hurt. Speaking generally, the majority of wounded men seem to be in a peculiar psychological state, apart from the shock and collapse, which I can only describe as hysterical. This applies particularly to men who are shot quite unexpectedly, as, for example, those who are ambushed or shot accidentally. It was pathetic to see how gently and unremittingly their comrades tended the wounded. Nothing was too much trouble. Yet they, poor fellows, were played out with fatigue and anxiety. One old man refused to leave the dying boy. They were neighbours at home, he said, and the lad always asked for him if he went out. Our sporting guide, as if he had not already done enough, must needs also hang about and do his bit of the nursing.
As a sleeping-place the farmhouse was very uninviting, and I preferred to brave the elements, bivouacking with my men under the lee of the motorcar. The night was terribly cold, and this, combined with getting up at intervals to attend the wounded, put sleep out of the question. It was with relief and hope that I saw the morning star appear in the east about 6 a.m. I remembered it was the centenary of Waterloo, and the thought of what our forefathers did on that day warmed my benumbed limbs a little. Our blankets were frozen stiff; the water in our waterbottles and a little milk we had were also congealed.
June 18.---During to-day I heard various accounts of the little fight, and how our men had been outwitted by the enemy.
A certain Lieutenant of the Pietersburg commando with his troops had visited the farm a few days previously, and had been received and kindly treated by the farmer. He made arrangements to come again on the 15th and take over some mealies from the farmer. A German officer with a patrol was known to be scouting in the neighbourhood. On or before the 15th he sends a telephone message to the Pietersburg commandant, asking him to send patrols to Gobabis to protect German women and children from the natives. Our commandant feels he cannot refuse this request, which turns out to be a ruse to get him out of the way. While the bulk of the commando are on this wild-goose chase, the Germans double back to Otjihangwe, as this farm is called, to ambush the mealie-seeking Lieutenant.
The Lieutenant, however, having been told by some natives that four German soldiers are now at the farm, approaches with caution. He divides his troop into two parties. Twelve men under a sergeant he lines up in the river-bed, quite close to the farm, and he himself with the remaining twelve takes cover behind a large cattle kraal on the opposite side of the farm. For some inexplicable reason, and contrary to orders, the sergeant instructs his party to rush the farm buildings. This they do without taking any cover, and, running into the farmyard, they are met with rifle-fire from the five separate buildings which constitute the farm, and which are so arranged that our men could get but little cover by hiding behind the walls. Two men were shot dead immediately, and three wounded, including the sergeant, who had rushed up to one of the minor buildings and rather madly emptied his revolver through a window. The remainder of the troop withdraw, taking what cover they could, leaving their dead and wounded in the yard.
It seems the Germans were partly taken by surprise themselves, for the farm offers very little facility for observing an approaching foe, and, besides this, a warning from a woman who was on the lookout at the neighbouring farm miscarried, a native girl to whom she had given a note telling the Germans of our approach, falling into our hands. Had the Germans been advised of the approach, they would in all probability have shot the whole troop down, for they had loopholed the walls and doors, and their rifles commanded the position in all directions.
As soon as the Burghers had retired, the Germans, about twelve in number, evacuated the place, and joined their main body towards the north. Before they left they had time to ill-treat the wounded, for the man who was shot through the neck told me that, as they lay in the yard, the Germans came out and kicked them. He was compelled to get up, and was bundled in a brutal manner into an outhouse. On the other hand, the farmer and a woman on the place did what they could, burying the dead and dressing the wounds. The woman was particularly assiduous in her attentions. Rather too much so, I was inclined to think, for no doubt they had taken part in the ambush, and as likely as not the farmer had shared in the shooting, for I found his sporting Mauser still loaded with soft-nosed bullets, with every evidence of having been recently discharged.
After the Germans had left Otjihangwe, this farmer went over to the Pietersburg headquarters, which were now at Ongono, eleven miles away, and told the commandant that the Germans had left, and that he needed help to attend the wounded. Fearing another ambush, the commandant moved all his men up to Otjihangwe, and when they were near the farm the Adjutant made the farmer walk in front, covering him with a revolver, and promising him instant death if a shot were fired from the house. This farmer and his assistant were put under guard. I never saw two men in a more abject state of fear. They expected summary execution, but it speaks well for the restraint of our men that they were sent down to Windhuk instead of being shot.
There is a feeling of great insecurity in this place. An attack is expected at any moment, as we are only about twenty miles from a large body of Germans, and no communications can be established with any of our troops either by hello or patrol. Consequently everybody is a little " jumpy," especially at nights. The second night even the animals seemed restive, and a large number of cattle in a neighbouring kraal stampeded, and would have been over us, but for the friendly shelter of the motor-car. The horses too were uneasy, dogs barked the whole night, and the very fowls were affected with nerves. Challenges were frequent, and once "Who goes there ?" was followed by a peal of laughter. A sentry had challenged a riderless horse wandering about.
June 19.---During the night the wounded boy died, and as soon as he was buried the commandant decided to evacuate the farm, as it offered no facilities for defence. He still felt very angry, and wanted to destroy the farm. I tried to dissuade him, with what success I don't know, [note: * The farm was destroyed.] for we left directly after breakfast. The women and three little children who had been at the place through all this trying time were sent off to Windhuk in a waggon.
Although the farm was a rather dilapidated and poor-looking place, it was very well stocked with household goods and personal effects, for your German colonial is very fond of comfort and likes good things. There was enough clothing in the farm to stock a shop, enough cutlery and plate for an hotel. In the dirty little kitchen, the thought of which spoilt one's appetite, there were between forty and fifty aluminium pots and pans.
Serviettes, towels, and handkerchiefs, tied neatly in bundles and marked, filled whole cupboards. For three small children there was enough clothing for thirty, and the same applied to toys. There was so much clothing at the farm that most of the men were able to supplement their scanty wardrobes, and some, notably my guide, were entirely re-equipped in German khaki, of better quality than fit. My conscience allowed me to take all the sheets and bed linen I could carry, for our hospital at Windhuk was not too well supplied with these commodities. In one of the outbuildings we found a great quantity of maize and dried beans, but there was no sugar, tea, or coffee, or any of those foodstuffs which the country has to import. Indeed, the shortage of food, other than what the country supplies---which is not much besides meat---is being acutely felt everywhere.
June 25.---We are now getting patients from the south, General Mackenzie's force having reached Rehoboth, sixty miles south of Windhuk. The railway is now open running south, but delays and breakdowns are so frequent that the journey from Rehoboth sometimes takes several days. As the nights are very cold now and food scarce, the sick have a very rough time on the road. One man left Rehoboth with erysipelas, but when he reached hospital it was all over. They are sending them up to us in batches of thirty or forty every day. The men have no severe illnesses, but are suffering woefully from privation, many of them being utterly exhausted in body and mind. Most of them are suffering from dysentery, and their hands and arms are covered with scabby sores.
Both men and horses have reached the limits of endurance, and latterly they have only been trekking five or six miles a day. Men tell me that they are incapable of the slightest exertion, becoming breathless after a short walk, and that they hadn't energy left to catch sheep and kill them, but would wait for a sheep to pass, and then shoot it. Ever since the end of March they have had no regular supply of rations, and for the last month they have existed on meat alone, often not even getting salt. Pathetic tales are told of their privations. One officers' mess had a little flour in a bag which they used most sparingly. This precious bag was in charge of the quartermaster-sergeant, with instructions that he was not to let it out of his sight. The care of this bag was a great anxiety to him, especially at nights, when he was in the habit of using it as a pillow. One morning, however, he found the bulk of his flour gone, although he was still lying on the bag. Some hungry trooper had cut a hole in it, and scooped most of the flour out without waking him. One man was seen searching among some refuse in a cellar. He wished to keep his discovery a secret, because he had found a few little wizened potatoes not fit for pigs. Many seemed to feel the lack of tobacco almost as much as that of food. One ingenious man told me he was fortunate enough to find a tin of tobacco extract, used for dipping animals. Lucerne hay, soaked in this and dried, made, he said, a very good smoke. Others, less fortunate, had to be content with dried leaves.
The horses died from sheer starvation in scores, and many went suddenly blind, which, my informant said, was due to the same cause.
June 27.---I have already mentioned the range of mountains, the highest in the country and running in a north-east and south-west direction, about ten miles to the south of Windhuk. Every night I have watched the sun set on these proud and fierce-looking peaks, and every night I have registered a mental vow to hold my head for a few brief moments higher than they. I had met nobody in Windhuk who had made the ascent, nor anybody who advised it. The matron of the hospital said an officer had once climbed it, and taken two days, but he had said he would not do it again for 10,000 marks.
To-day Colonel K---and I decided to make the attempt. Our plan was to ride as far as possible, and then have a shot at the Moltkeblick. Unfortunately, we were rather late in starting, and we rode and rode over thorn-clad foot-hills without apparently getting any nearer. It was half-past one before we reached a point where it was too steep and rocky for the horses to go farther.
The northern approach to the Moltkeblick is through a magnificent gorge about three-quarters of a mile wide. On either side of the gorge, and quite detached from the mountain, is a mighty cone-shaped peak, both of them being nearly as high as the Moltkeblick itself. They stand before the entrance like giant sentinels, silent and everlasting. Our hearts sank when we saw the distance still to go, but we decided to climb for two hours, and then, if not at the top, to turn back. Skirting the right side of the gorge, the Colonel led off at a brisk pace over level but very rough ground, and I instinctively felt that this was to be a race for the honour of being the first Britisher to climb the highest mountain in British" South-West Africa. We crossed over to the left side of the gorge to follow a ridge running up to the summit, the Colonel leading easily.
And now the climb began. The mountain is covered with large stones of granite and sandstone which are very angular. They are loose and slip easily, and between them are tufts of grass and small mimosas. Consequently every step is grief, and every other one pain. The Colonel zigzagged along at a killing pace, and, in order not to lose heart entirely, I soon ceased to look at him. About half way up I stopped, on the point of throwing up the sponge; but I was much encouraged to see that my rival, too, was in difficulties, for he frequently stopped and turned round, ostensibly to admire the view, but in reality, I think, to get a little breath. Soon we were level. Near the summit we were confronted with 100 feet or so of almost vertical rock, and the Colonel edged away to the left, where it was less steep. I regretted my temerity halfway up this steep bit. Fortunately, however, the grass was firmly rooted, and I dragged myself to the summit and looked round. No Colonel in sight, and the beacon only a few yards away. Jumping to my feet, I hurried up to it. In less than half a minute the Colonel was there too. "God save the King!" gasped I. "Johnnie Walker first as usual," was his disappointed retort.
The outlook from the top of the Moltkeblick is simply sublime. This great ridge of broken sandstone runs east and west like the teeth of a saw. On the north it is accessible, but on the south, at the point where we were, it seemed a sheer drop of, I suppose, 2,000 feet, the rugged ends of the strata protruding a little like giant steps. To the south and east blue mountains bounded the horizon, what was apparently a great plain lying between, but no doubt containing hills of considerable height, indistiguishable at so great a distance. The white river beds, fringed with green, could be seen meandering south or east as far as the eye could reach. Northward the valley of the Swakup could be made out cutting its way through endless mountains; while a little to the west Windhuk was represented by a few white dots, the Telefunken station still visible; but man's handiwork now seemed insignificant, its great pillars resembling a little clump of black pins. Westward the mountains tailed off into the :Komas Highlands, stretching toward the desert and the ocean like a sea of hills.
Following the usual custom, we had to think of something to leave at the summit. The most appropriate thing we could produce was a George V. 1912 shilling. Him we placed in a broken German beer bottle, and hid at the base of the metal beacon to watch over as much of the Empire as can be seen from any one point.
July 3.---To-day there is official news that General Botha's troops have occupied Otavi, Marnie Botha's brigade and the S.A.M.R., to whom the I.L.H. are attached, being the troops engaged in the movement. Only a few Germans were captured, we are told; the others have retired north into the "fly belt." War breeds rumour even more than peace. One day we hear Franke has shot himself, the next that he has accepted our terms, the third that he is under restraint, suffering from delirium tremens; but the Germans aver that he has done none of these things. "Franke is a brave man " is their only comment. A junior staff-officer told us the following: The Germans have squared it with the Portuguese and retired into Angola; they will wait until our troops leave, and then take the country again. When told that this must involve Portugal with England, he glibly replied: "Oh ! but we do things differently out here."
Yesterday and to-day the town has been crowded with men of the Central Force. They are nearly all British, and come from Natal. They are to go back immediately via Luderitzbucht, and are a little disappointed, after weeks of trekking under the hardest conditions imaginable, that they are not to have a share in the final drive. Many of them hint that the Burghers are being favoured, but they have no real cause for dissatisfaction or complaint. Even if their services were required further, neither men nor horses are in a condition to undertake another long trek. They have borne the burden and heat of the day, and everybody knows they have played their part as well as it could be played. An old German soldier who fought at Gibeon said they were the bravest and worst-equipped soldiers in the world, and that he would sooner meet other troops once a day than meet once a year the men who chased him at Gibeon.
Doctor's Diary in Damaraland index