In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Brave Men’s Blood
Reynolds straightened. His back hurt, his head spun and his eyes were gritty and painful. Worst of all he was filled with a sense of frustration and anger, anger at what he had been forced to do for the last nine hours. He looked at the bloody figure on the crude operating table in front of him. “Finish the dressing and then see if you have room for him with the others.” The orderly nodded and took the surgeon’s place at the table.
“Oh, and scrub the table down and try to clean the place up if you can. God knows when we will have our next lot.” He glanced around the small room, lit flickeringly by the light from a failing oil lamp. There was blood everywhere. It had stained the storeroom table, hastily pressed into service when the hospital had burned down. It lay in pools on the floor, slippery underfoot or blackly congealing, depending on the length of time it had been there. There was blood on the white painted mud and stone walls and on his own apron and clothing. It was on his skin and under his eyelids. It was all around him.
James Henry Reynolds was not unaccustomed to blood. He was a Dubliner, ten days short of his 35th birthday and had served the Army sufficiently long to have become a Surgeon Major. Throughout this long night he had cut and probed, stitched and clamped and reset broken bones, with the thought that not ten miles away over a thousand of his fellow countrymen were even now stiff and cold in death. The next few hours would determine if he and all the patients he had laboured so tirelessly to save would suffer the same fate.
“I’m going to visit the ward.”
Ward? It was not a ward but a cold, dirty store house and draughty corridor. He picked his way through the prostrate men, some moaning in pain, others crying feverishly.
“Steady, lads, hang on. It will be over soon.” He realised what he said and swore softly under his breath. “Easy, boys, easy now.”
Reynolds nodded to his two medical orderlies and went outside into the compound. The first silver fingers of dawn were beginning to lift the dark veil of an African night. He leaned against the wall and, for the first time, saw the carnage that his night’s work had only permitted him to hear. Off to his left the hospital still burned, silhouetting the weary soldiers, leaning on the wall of mealy bags and biscuit tins which had protected the little garrison from the wave after wave of Zulu attacks.
God in heaven, was it really less than twenty-four hours since he and the chaplain had climbed the Shylane Hill. They had heard the gunfire from Isandlwana, had seen the smoke arising from the Camp. Something dreadful was happening. Then they had seen the riders galloping towards the river and splashing across the ford. The two men scrambled down the small hill. With Chard and Bromhead he had listened to the riders. Disaster. All massacred. Lord Chelmsford dead. The Zulus are coming. Thousands of them. Run for your lives. The Natal Native Horse had ridden off as had the Natal Native Contingent taken to their heels. Was that only yesterday?
“How are you, Chard?”
“I think I’ll live, doctor.” He scanned the veldt with his glasses. “At least for the moment.”
Lieutenant Bromyard offered the surgeon the tin mug from which he had been drinking. “How are things in there?”
Reynolds drank deeply. “I’ve done what I can, but we will lose some of them.” He went to the improvised wall where a weary soldier started to get to his feet. “Stay where you are, lad.”
Even in the early light of dawn the sea of black bodies shocked the surgeon. Here too was blood, rivers of it. Men lay in all kinds of grotesque attitudes, some with gaping chest wounds, others with stomachs ripped apart, entrails spilling out. Some of the Zulus moaned or cried out.
“Oh, my God.” At the wall the bodies were two and three deep, and the black tide rolled as far as he could see. He glanced back at the two officers. “Will they be back?”
Chard rubbed at his bloody bandage. “I don’t know,” he said simply. “I just don’t know.”
“Can we stand?”
Bromyard spoke. “One day. Possibly two. No more. There are less than five hundred men between here and Durban,”
The surgeon looked away, searching the horizon, lightening by the minute. He crossed himself. The stench of blood was in his nostrils, the blood of brave men, black and white. Within days the same stench might cover all of Natal. “God preserve us.”
Written by my Father B.M