The author of this book, a young Belgian woman, was a vocational nurse from an early age. As a child she had assisted in caring for the wounded of the Franco-Prussian War. Serving as a nurse in a private hospital she answered the call for trained medical help by joining the staff of an ambulance sent out to South Africa by the Dutch and Belgian Red Cross. She worked in the war zone especially caring for Boer wounded and sick until the summer of 1900 when she was recalled to Europe upon the sudden death of her husband. After quickly settling her affairs she felt compelled once again to return to Africa, on this occasion volunteering to serve as a Nursing Sister caring primarily for British sick and wounded. This remarkable woman tells her story across time providing the reader with a vivid view of her humanitarian work in two opposing camps and on both sides of the lines, thus giving the modern reader a possibly impartial but inside view of the protagonists of the Boer War.
The gratitude of my wounded patients is touching. They had heard that “Sister was hungry,” and they were all anxious to share their rations with me, poor fellows! Their conduct moved me all the more when I thought of the Boer wounded, who used to look askance at me whenever, not having time to leave the hospital, I made a hasty meal in the ward. If they had only dared, how soon they would have snatched my hard-earned food from me; while the English soldiers, who had confessed to me that, when on active service, they had nothing but army biscuit to eat for days together, were anxious to share with me now that they had better food. Here is my head attendant wanting to know whether I am dissatisfied with him, and what I mean by hiding my troubles from him! He is trying his best to spoil me now, baking rolls for me, and delightedly bringing me coffee when there happens to be any. What balm it was to me, this sweet brotherhood, this goodness of the poor and humble, this exquisite delicacy that exists only in the heart of the people! Never did I appreciate it so highly. And how sorry they were to leave me when their turn came to be taken to other hospitals.<br>
“But you will be much more comfortable,” I told them. “This is such a wretched place.”<br>
“You are here, though. Sister,” said one.<br>
“I would rather be worse off, and have you to look after me. Sister,” said another.<br>
“Here’s a keepsake for you,” said a third, giving me his shoulder-strap with the regimental number. “I hope you won’t forget me. Sister.”<br>
Was not this an utterance straight from the heart of the people—the childish heart that closes to all who understand it not, but opens so widely to those who seek it? Never, never shall I forget what these men were to me—never!<br>
For a surgical nurse who understands her business, the English doctors are the best possible masters, inasmuch as they leave even the most difficult dressings to her care, and trust her thoroughly in everything relating to the nursing and conveyance of the wounded. The German doctors are just, kind, marvellously skilful, and extremely conscientious. Their constant goodness to me makes up for much that is hard to bear.<br>
How many more of these poor fellows, English and Boers, are to fall? When is this horrible butchery to stop? An English doctor tells me that eight hundred wounded are expected here this evening. Eight hundred! Good heavens!
I waited for the convoy nearly all night, and at daybreak the long line of waggons, with their dismal load of mortality, began to cross the plain. There were six hundred and seventy-three wounded men (according to the official figures), heaped on top of each other, all in need of fresh dressings, but having to wait their turn until the worst cases had been picked out. What a task it was to make this selection under the gaze of those imploring eyes! May Heaven have pity on them, and on me! How wretchedly small and helpless I felt! How I yearned for arms long as Charity, and a bosom as wide as Humanity itself, to clasp them all to me in an outburst of love and grief! They never knew what an anguish of rebellious despair was hidden beneath the Sister’s impassive exterior.<br>
When the bulk of the work had been disposed of, the German doctors arrived. They were in a great hurry, but were most devoted, and their skill and knowledge were highly appreciated by the English soldiers. I never told the doctors this, because it might have been construed as flattery, but I must place it on record here. After finishing my work with the Germans, I was able to give my whole attention to the dressings entrusted exclusively to me. For hours the work went on, until the last poor sufferer had been eased, and the last “Thank you. Sister” uttered. Then I went out to see the patients still in the waggons, but I could give nothing but verbal consolation, as it was forbidden to apply any dressings outside the hospital.<br>
All the supplies came from the German ambulance, not only for the big surgical hospital, but for mine, and we were compelled to be sparing in our use of bandages and other necessaries. I am afraid the English ambulance is insufficiently provided. In accordance with my orders from the German ambulance surgeon, I was obliged to tell one of the English doctors that I could not allow him to take anything for cases outside the hospital. Nevertheless, he continued to send soldiers for a little of this and a little of that, and I could tell well enough that he was without the proper necessaries. My position was difficult, my pity as a woman and my duty as a nurse urging me in opposite directions. Strict discipline, however, must be observed on active service, and I gave the English doctor to understand that I must obey my superiors, the German doctors, at any cost.<br>
“You are quite right, Sister,” he replied, saddened and discouraged, as I was also, by our helplessness.<br>
The look of things outside the hospital was far from encouraging. There were countless waggons with heads, arms, and legs protruding from them. Lying on the ground were forlorn groups and clusters of humanity in khaki uniforms, with blood and matter oozing through their mud-stained bandages; groups of three or four trying to drag themselves along, some carrying their comrades. Among them were men with freshly amputated arms and legs and heads swathed in bandages, from which their faces stared out, swollen and ghastly. Oh, these faces all turned towards the Sister! Oh, these suffering eyes, these infinitely imploring eyes! And oh, the uselessness of all one’s longing to ease their pains! Yet I continued my rounds, because it did the poor fellows good even to see a Sister.