Read WITH THE FLYING COLUMN TO MAFEKING: CHAPTER XXV of The Relief of Mafeking, free online book, by Filson Young, on ReadCentral.com.

A MEMORIAL OF THE SIEGE

There is nothing pretty about the place where the dead defenders of Mafeking are laid. It lies in a little square of brown stone wall, planted amid the dreary waste outside the town. There are no green lawns, no twisted yews, no weeping willows; the few fir trees hold themselves stiffly up, as though in pride at this triumph of the vegetable over the animal; and the great bushes of faded geranium only throw into relief the regular lines of limestone mounds, each with its prim wooden cross of advertisement. Always an ugly and a dreary place, it was, when I saw it a few days after the relief, more dreary than ever; for the sun, whose presence makes the difference of a season in this bare land, was hidden behind dark stacks of cloud flying westward before a cold gale.

From a sandbag protection at one corner of the cemetery there is a view on all sides to the horizon. The town, the empty railway station, the hospital, the network of shelter trenches, connecting earth-works, redans, redoubts, forts, and emplacements; the straight line of railway-ruled across the plain to the horizon these make the view. Hardly anything is moving except the white flag on the hospital and the colours on the forts. Sometimes a figure crosses the open stretch between the hospital and the town, but outside the cemetery itself hardly a man is to be seen. The wind hums in the empty hearth of a locomotive, through the stiff trees of the cemetery, past the signal, standing like a sentinel gone to sleep with his head sunk on his breast, waiting in an attitude of invitation for the train that is seven months overdue.

One’s eye returns along the shining rails until it rests again within the yard, in a far corner of which a couple of orderlies detailed for burial fatigue are hacking with picks at the hard, white earth. The graves are in prim, uniform rows the soldiers’ graves, I mean, for even here the military element swamps the civilian, and one hardly takes note of the private graves, they are so few. But the soldiers’ graves are arranged with military precision, row behind row, each row containing twenty graves or more. And at least seven or eight rows of graves are marked by the regulation cross, while there are many rows on which as yet no crosses have been erected. The painted words on the crosses become monotonous as one reads from the head of the first row down to where the mounds give place to gaping caverns five or six prepared for the dying, whom even now the doctor is plying with physic in the hospital. Trooper A, Private B, Colour-Sergeant C; the names vary, indeed, but there are only three versions of the manner of death “Died of wounds,” “Died of enteric fever,” “Killed in action” the three epitaphs for soldiers in South Africa.

It was strange, amid the dreariness and stagnation of this place, to think of the jubilations at home. What cheering, what toasting, what hilarity! But here the sparkle in the wine had died, leaving the cup that had brimmed flat and dull and only half full after all. Food was scanty and of the plainest quality, there was no news from the outside world, disease was still busy; and here, set forth in the hard limestone, was the bill for all the glory and excitement. The bill, but not the payment; that was being made at home by the people who cared for what lies beneath the limestone.

The evils of a war are so direct and obvious that they are apt to be discounted or accepted as Fate, and classed among the thousand unavoidable ills beneath which we must patiently sit. But are they? In a war, the necessity and even justice of which are doubted honestly by many, where all share the responsibility and few the personal cost, it is hard to see the hand of an impartial Fate.

A strange place, you may say, in which to attempt the adjustment of mingled impressions. Yet in the midst of our crude existence at Mafeking, where life was shorn of all the impalpable things that make it real and reduced to a simple material level of food and sleep and noise, it was a kind of relief to spend an hour in the place where men had gone down into rest and silence. In normal circumstances one may avoid such places, but after the din of arms and the shout of victory there was a sense of companionship to be found in the place that stood for the ending of disputes. Peaceful, yes; but how was the peace gained? It is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country; but blood and fire, grief and anguish had filled the vestibule of this sleeping-chamber; and peaceful though it be, the graveyard of Mafeking is a place to induce in Englishmen some searchings of heart.

“Oh, surely not,” says the music-hall patriot; “the brave fellows who lie there have died a glorious death, and the glory is ours as their fellow-countrymen”; and he drops a tear and a shilling into the particular tambourine which happens at the moment to be raising the loudest clamour, and honestly believes himself to have achieved some nobility at second-hand.

Our glory? Hardly that. Those who, justly or unjustly, place the martyr in his last predicament do not wear his crown; and the glory of Trooper A’s death does not rest with you or me, but with those in whose hearts his memory is quick and real. To count these scores of deaths, as it were, to our credit in the war, to esteem them merely as things for which more vengeance must be taken, would be the last and greatest mistake. Surely they lie in the scale of responsibility, they are things for which an account must be rendered, by which an obligation is incurred to use well the fruits of victory.

There is no need that the wind should moan over this desolate patch, or that the tattered geranium should scatter its withered leaves on the unlovely ground. Were it as sweet as a garden in Delos, were the ground carpeted with violet and primrose and shadows of laburnum, the burying-ground of Mafeking would still be a sad spot on the chart of British South Africa.