THE HIGHLAND BRIGADE BURIES ITS DEAD.
By Lieut.-Colonel W. T. Reay.
How am I to describe the sadly impressive scene at Modder River on the
evening of the 13th of December? The sun has just set, and the period of
twilight has commenced. The great heat of the day has passed, and
although there is not a breath of wind, the air is cool and refreshing.
The whole British camp at Modder River is astir. Not, however, with the
always gay bustle of warlike preparations; not with the laughter and
jest which—such strange creatures are we—almost invariably come from
the lips of men who dress for the parade which precedes a plunge into
battle. There is this evening a solemn hush over the camp, and the men
move from their lines in irregular and noiseless parties, for the time
their pipes put out of sight, and their minds charged with serious
thought. To what is given this homage of silence as the soldiers gather,
and mechanically, without word of command or even request of any kind,
leave a roadway from the head-quarters' flag to a point a quarter of a
mile away, where a dark mound of upraised earth breaks the monotonous
flatness of the whitey-green veldt? For these are mere spectators,
deeply interested, it is true, yet still only spectators. What, then, is
afoot? Civilians, hats off, and attention everyone. The Highland Brigade
is about to bury its dead.
Stand here at the head of the lines of spectator soldiers—here where
that significant mound is; here at the spot selected as a last
resting-place—and observe. The whole Brigade, some of the regiments
sadly attenuated, is on parade, and has formed funeral procession, under
Colonel Pole-Carew. First come the pipers, and it is seen that they have
for the nonce discarded their service kit, and are in the full dress of
their several clans. "Savage and shrill" is the Byronic description of
the pibroch, which, in the "noon of night," startled the joyous
revellers before Waterloo. Now it is a low, deep wail, yet voluminous
and weirdly euphonious, that comes from the music-makers of the
Highlands, and every heart stands still to listen. Oh, so sad it is!
"The Flowers of the Forest"—("He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut
down")—they are—playing, shall I say? No; rather does the music flow
out from the very souls of the pipers in a succession of strangely
harmonious moans, and soul calls to soul. Yet beneath it all, beneath
the dominant note of heart-bursting sorrow, lurks that other
element—"the savage and shrill." Yes, indeed; soul calls to soul
through these pipes—calls for sobs and tears for the brave who have
fallen—calls for vengeance on the yet unbeaten foe. The Highland
Brigade is burying its dead.
Following the pipers marches a small armed party. It would have been the
firing party, but volleys are not fired over soldiers' graves in time of
war. Then the chaplain, in his robes, preceding the corpse of General
Wauchope (who had fallen at the head of his men), borne on a stretcher.
One of the bearers is of the dead man's kin—a promising young Highland
officer. Then come the several regiments of the Brigade, the Black Watch
leading. The men march with arms reversed, stately, erect, stern, grim.
They lift their feet high for the regulation step of the slow, funeral
march. But observe that even in their grim sternness these men are
quivering with an emotion which they cannot control—an emotion which
passes out in magnetic waves from their ranks to those of their comrade
spectators of England and Ireland, and brings tears to the eyes and
choking sobs to the throats of the strong and the brave. "Talk not of
grief till thou hast seen the tears of warlike men!" The Highland
Brigade is burying its dead.
In a separate grave, at the head of a long, shallow trench, the body of
General Wauchope is laid, in sight of and facing the foe. The chaplain
advances, and the solemn service for the dead is recited in a clear and
markedly Scotch voice, while all bow their heads and either listen or
ponder. A grief-stricken kinsman's quivering hand drops earth upon the
body at the words, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and the grave of the
General is quickly filled in. There, beside the trench, already lie the
corpses of fifty officers and men. They had been carried to the burial
place earlier in the day. There, at the end nearer to the General's
grave, the officers are laid. Beside them their comrades of minor rank
in life, all brought to a worldly level by the hand of death, are placed
in the trench. It is an excavation only about three feet deep, but it is
twelve feet wide, and the dead men are put feet to feet in two parallel
rows, twenty-five on each side. They are fully attired, just as they
were brought in from the battlefield, and each is wrapped in his
blanket. The sporan is turned over on to the dead face, and the kilt
thrown back, the rigid limbs showing bare and scarred in the unfilled
trench. The Highland Brigade is burying its dead.
Once more the chaplain steps forward, and a new funeral service is
commenced. Again great, powerful men weep. Some grow faint, some pray,
some curse. "Oh, God! oh, God!" is the cry which comes from bursting
hearts as comrades are recognised, and soil is sprinkled over them by
hard, rough hands, which tremble now as they never trembled in the face
of a foe. Then the burial parties get to work, gently as a sweet woman
tucks the bedclothes round her sleeping child. The soft soil falls
kindly upon the shreds of humanity beneath. Men cease to weep, and
catch something of the "rapture of repose" of which a poet has sung.
Mother Earth has claimed her own, and the brave are sleeping their last
sleep in her kindly embrace. Again the dirge of the pipes, and the sweet
strains of "Lochaber no more" fill the evening air. The Highland Brigade
is burying its dead.
Meanwhile, the cable has carried its budget of sad messages to the old
land. There, in a wee cottage by the bonnie burn side, the bereaved
mother bows her aged head and says, "Thy will be done." There also the
heart-broken once wife, newly-made widow, pours out the anguish of her
soul as she clasps her fatherless bairn to her warm bosom. Her man comes
no more. For the Highland Brigade has buried its dead.