M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII

ON THE BATTLEFIELD

In October, 1899, when the War began, the stir and excitement that pervaded all classes of colonial society, touched even the Indians, and they desired to take some part in those great events which were happening around them. It was Mr. Gandhi's hope that their action in this crisis might prove at least their loyalty to the Empire, and refute the common sneer that, "if danger threatened the Colony, the Indians would run away." It was his repeated contention, that if they were ready to assert their rights and to claim to be regarded as British subjects, they were equally ready and eager to accept the responsibilities of such a position. He accordingly counselled his people to volunteer for service in whatever capacity the Government would accept them. The proposal was taken up, and a formal offer was sent to the Government, but rejected, the Government saying that there was no need of help from the Indians.

Then Mr. Gandhi interviewed the Hon. R. Jameson, Member of the Legislative Council, to whom he was well-known. Again he was disappointed, Mr. Jameson laughing at the idea. "You Indians," said he, "know nothing of war. You would only be a drag on the army; you would have to be taken care of, instead of being of help to us." "But," replied Mr. Gandhi, "is there nothing we can do? Can we not do ordinary servants' work in connection with the Hospital? Surely that will not demand very great intelligence?" No", he said, "it all needs training."

Disappointed, but not discouraged, the Indian leader applied to his friend, Mr. Laughton, who received his suggestion with enthusiasm. "That's the very thing," he said, "do it; it will raise your people in the estimation of us all, and it will do them good. Never mind Mr. Jameson." So another letter was written to the Government, but this, too, failed.

Meanwhile, the pressure of disaster, and the unexpected developments of the War, were surely modifying the attitude of Natal. Everyone was needed. Briton and Boer were locked in a death-struggle, with the Garden Colony as the prize.

Events followed one another quickly. "It was upon October 30th that Sir George White had been thrust back into Ladysmith. On November 2nd, telegraphic communication with the town was interrupted. On November 3rd. the railway line was cut. On November 10th. the Boers held Colenso and the line of the Tugela. On the 14th, was the affair of the armoured train. On the 18th, the enemy were near Estcourt. On the 21st, they had reached the Mooi River. On the 23rd, Hildyard attacked them at Willow Grange. From then onwards, Sir Redvers Buller was massing his troops at Chieveley, in preparation for a great effort to cross the river and to relieve Ladysmith, the guns of which, calling from behind the line of Northern Hills, told their constant tale of restless attack and stubborn defence" (Conan Doyle).

These were days of intense excitement in Durban, and the strain on all must have been severe. It tended, however, to draw together all sections of the community. It invested with heroism all who were willing to "go to the front," and it helped to awaken those better feelings, which afterwards found expression in the phrase "Sons of the Empire."

Hope centred in General Buller, but his problem was a difficult one, and hope was not always in the ascendant. That open ground on the southern bank of the Tugela River had to be negotiated, and it proved a repetition of Alma to our men. Then, beyond again, there was the passage of the river, and still beyond, “tier after tier of hills crowned with stone walls, and seamed with trenches, defended by thousands of the best marksmen in the world, supported by an admirable artillery." All this meant loss of life. It meant, too, the need of hospital provision and ambulances on a scale much larger than at first had been dreamed of. Hospitals were then formed, and European ambulance corps sent up, while doctors, nurses, and bearers hurried to the front.

It was in this extreme necessity that the Indians obtained success. It is not often that men persist so doggedly in pressing their help upon unwilling people when help means, to those who offer, danger, suffering, perhaps death. It was an object-lesson in that determination to prove themselves worthy of regard, which has since formed such a pathetic feature of their history here.

At this moment, Dr. Booth, who was then in charge of the Indian Anglican Mission, and Bishop Baynes, made another attempt to further the effort of the Indians. At first there was no success, but when the Bishop interviewed Colonel Johnstone, and pointed out the necessity of increasing, or supplementing the provision already made, while the pressure of need on the banks of the Tugela became every day more intense, Mr. Gandhi's offer was at last favourably entertained, and sanction given for the formation of an Indian Ambulance Corps.

So soon as the principle was conceded, it became clear to the European officers that a very corps would be desirable, and an approach was made to the employers of indentured Indians to permit their men to volunteer for this service. The result was gratifying. When the call came, as it did very quickly, the Indians, free and indentured, who responded amounted to a thousand. The rank and file received the ordinary "bearer's" pay; the leaders gave their services. The Indian merchants supplied the stores and uniforms, and Dr. Booth himself joined the Corps in the capacity of Medical Superintendent.

As for Mr. Gandhi, I have never known him preach what he was unwilling to practice, and he naturally, in this enterprise, took such an active part, that General Buller described him as "Assistant Superintendent," and when the technical mistake was pointed out to him, he replied that he meant it as "a title of courtesy" for one who had done so much in this campaign.

The call to the front came on the day preceding the battle of Colenso, and the thousand Indians reached the scene of the engagement in time to render invaluable service in the removal of the wounded. They entrained amidst scenes of unusual enthusiasm, reached Chieveley at the moment of need, and, without waiting to satisfy their hunger, marched on to Colenso, and then toiled on at their beneficent work all through the night.

The experience must have been terrible, for the wounded were so plentiful, and visions of dying agony stamped themselves indelibly on the memories of those who saw. Everywhere, over the plain and down by the river, heaps of wounded and dead lay. Roughly speaking, one hundred and fifty were killed, and seven hundred and twenty wounded, in this engagement. it was a call for help to which the Indians eagerly responded, and worked beside their European comrades with rival devotion.

One incident Mr. Gandhi refers to with pride. When the brave son of General Roberts was brought in fatally shot, in the affair of Long's guns, an Indian was detailed to carry him seven miles to the base hospital at Chieveley.

After Colenso, the Indian bearers were disbanded, and sent back to Durban. They were told to expect another call soon. In all, they had given seven days to this work.

The second summons came on the eve of Spionkop, about a month later, and this time they remained three weeks in the field. During this period, they were more than once under fire. In the interval between the two engagements, about thirty-six of the Indian leaders had placed themselves in training under the instruction of doctors, so that they might prove of greater use in hospital work. It was the duty of the bearers to receive the wounded outside the line of fire and tramp with them to Frere, some twenty or thirty miles away. Mr. Gandhi was in charge of one of these parties, and when General Woodgate fell, the dying man was consigned to his care, and he helped to carry the sufferer from the field-hospital to the base-hospital. The agony of the General was excrutiating during that march, and Mr. Gandhi tells how they hurried through the heat and dust, fearful lest he should die before they could reach camp.

It was during the hottest hour of this engagement, when men were falling fast on the further bank of the river, and there were few to help, that Major Bapte came to Mr. Gandhi, and explaining that he knew that the terms of their contract included immunity from the dangers of the firing line, said: "The need just now is great, and although I cannot urge it, yet, if your ambulance will cross the pontoon, and work from the other side, it will be greatly appreciated." The pontoon was, of course, under fire, exposed to the guns of the enemy on the ridge above. The Indian leader put the question to his men, "Would you go?" They said "Yes," without hesitation, and in spite of the peril of death, they crossed the bridge and worked from the other side. None was allowed to climb the hill, but there was no need for that, the work at its base was sufficient, and the awful fire kept the stretcher-bearers employed between Spionkop and Frere for several hours. Not a few of our soldiers owe their lives to the efficient work done by the Indians that day.

They were again under fire at Vaal Krantz, the shells dropping a few yards in front of them as the bearers removed the men. Hospital orderlies, water-carriers, nurses, bearers, all were willing to do or be anything in this dire need; and although not infrequently obliged to accept insults or to stand fire, they acquitted themselves with great credit, and earned the unstinted praise of the soldiers.

The work of British Indians on the battle-fields of South Africa, has received some recognition. Their dead have been honoured. A massive monument crowns an eminence overlooking Johannesburg, raised partly by public subscription, to the memory of those Indians who died in connection with the great war. It was the issue of a burst of enthusiasm for the faithful services done by those Eastern "Sons of the Empire," with whom Mr. Gandhi and his stretcher-bearers worked, when our people were in desperate straits. But that fine feeling has passed. It is difficult to understand how, within sight of this memorial, Indians should be made to suffer imprisonment and ruin, because of their desire to enjoy the rights of British citizens in the land for which they bled.

The memorial is in the form of an obelisk, and on its east side, a marble tablet bears the inscription, in English, Urdu, and Hindi:— {{c|Sacred to the memory of British Officers,
Warrant Officers, Native N.C.O's., and
Men, Veterinary Assistants, Nalbands
and Followers of the Indian Army, who
died in South Africa. 1899-1902.}}

On the other sides there are three tablets bearing respectively these words:—

Mussulman.

Christian — Zoroastrian.

Hindu — Sikh.