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A First World War Soldier

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Standing on the river bridge that crossed the main road into Morogoro was a slender figure in the white uniform of a nursing sister. In one hand a tiny Union Jack, in the other a white flag.

"Don't shoot," she cried, "I'm an Englishwoman;" and the bearded South African troopers, who were reconnoitring the approaches to their town, stopped and smiled down upon her. "Take this letter to General Smuts, please; it is from the German General von Lettow;" and handing it to one of them, she shook hands with the other and told him how she had been waiting for two years for him to come and release her from her prison. For this nursing sister had been behind prison bars for two years in German East Africa, and you may imagine how she had longed for the day when the English would come and set her free.

This was Sister Mabel, the only nursing sister we had in Morogoro for the first four months of our occupation. Her memory lives in the hearts of hundreds of our wretched soldiers, who were brought with malaria or dysentery to the shelter of our hospital. In spite of the fact that she was one of the trained English nursing sisters of the English Universities Mission in German East Africa, she was imprisoned with the rest of the Allied civil population of that German colony from the commencement of war until the time that Smuts had come to break the prison bars and let the wretched captives free. She had had her share of insult, indignity, shame and ill-treatment at the hands of her savage gaolers. But in that slender body lived a very gallant soul, and that gave her spirit to dare and courage to endure. So when we occupied Morogoro and Lettow fled with his troops to the mountains, this very splendid sister gave up her chance of leave well-earned to come to nurse for us in our hospital. The Germans had failed to break the spirits of these civilian prisoners, and they had full knowledge of the army that was slowly moving south from Kilimanjaro to redress the balance of unsuccessful military enterprise in the past. One can imagine the state of mind of these wretched people when the news of our ill-fated attack on Tanga in 1914 arrived; when they heard of our Indian troops being made prisoners at Jassin, and saw from the cock-a-hoop attitude of the Hun that all was well for German arms in East Africa. Then when Nemesis was approaching, the German commandant came to their prison to make amends for past wrongs. "I am desolated to think," he unctuously explained, "that you ladies have had so little comfort in this camp in the past, and I have come to make things easier for you now. The English Government," he continued with an ingratiating smile, "have now begun to treat our prisoners in England better, and I hasten to return good to you for the evils that our women have suffered at the hands of your Government. Is there anything I can do for you? Would you like native servants? Would you care to go for walks?" But these brave women answered that they had done without servants and walks for two years now, and they could endure a little longer. "What do you mean," he exclaimed in anger, "by a little longer?" But they answered nothing, and he knew the news of our advance had come to them within their prison cage. "Would you care to nurse our wounded soldiers?" he said more softly. Sister Mabel said she would. So now for the first time she is given a native servant, carried in state down the mountain-side in a hammock, and installed in the German hospital in Morogoro. There, in virtue of the excellence of her work and knowledge, she was given charge of badly wounded German officers, and received with acid smiles of welcome from the German sisters.

To her, at the evacuation of the town, had Lettow come, and, giving her a letter to General Smuts, had asked her to put in a good word for the German woman and children he was leaving behind him to our tender mercies. "There is no need of letters to ask for protection for German women," she told him; "you know how well they've been treated in Wilhemstal and Mombo." But he insisted, and she consented, and so the bearded troopers found this English emissary of Lettow's waiting for them upon the river bridge.

Back came General Smuts's answer, "Tell the women of Morogoro that, if they stay in their houses, they have nothing to fear from British troops, nor will one house be entered, if only they stay indoors." And the Army was as good as the word of their Chief; for no occupied house, not one German chicken, not a cabbage was taken from any German house or garden.

And now the despised and rejected English Sister had become the "Oberschwester," and her German fellow nursing sisters had to take their orders from her. But she exercised a difficult authority very kindly and adopted a very cool and distant attitude toward them. But there was one thing she never did again: she never spoke German any more, but gave all her orders and held all dealings with the enemy in Swahili, the native language, or in English. In this she was adamant.

Now, indeed, had the great work of her life begun; for into those four months she crammed the devotion of a lifetime. Always full to overcrowding, never less than 600 patients where we had only the equipment for 200, the whole hospital looked to her for the nursing that is so essential in modern medicine and surgery. For nurses are now an absolute necessity for medical and surgical work of modern times, and we could get no other sisters. The railway was broken, the bridges down, and where could we look for help or hospital comforts or medical necessities? We had pushed on faster than our supplies, and with the equipment of a Casualty Clearing Station we had to do the work of a Stationary Hospital. No beds save those we took over from the German Hospital, no sheets nor linen. Can one wonder that she was everywhere and anywhere at all homes and in all places? Six o'clock in the morning found her in the wards; she alone of all of us could find no time to rest in the afternoon; a step upon the verandah where she slept beside the bad pneumonias and black-water fever cases found her always up and ready to help. Nor was her job finished in the nursing; she was our housekeeper too. For she alone could run the German woman cook, could speak Swahili, and keep order among the native boys, buy eggs and fruit and chickens from the natives, so that our sick might not want for the essentially fresh foods. Then at last the railway opened up a big Stationary Hospital, our Casualty Clearing Station moved further to the bush, and Sister Mabel's work was done. But there was no elegant leisure for her when she arrived at the Coast to take the leave she long had earned in England. An Australian transport had some cases of cerebro-spinal meningitis aboard, and wanted Sisters, and, as if she had not already had enough to do, took her with them through the sunny South Atlantic seas to the home that had not seen her since she left for Tropical Africa five weary years before.

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