X. THE BOER WAR
I must skip many other experiences of the period
between 1897 and 1899 and come straight to the Boer War.
When the war was declared, my personal sympathies were
all with the Boers, but I believed then that I had yet no
right, in such cases, to enforce my individual
convictions. I have minutely dealt with the inner
struggle regarding this in my history of the Satyagraha
in South Africa, and I must not repeat the argument here.
I invite the curious to turn to those pages. Suffice it
to say that my loyalty to the British rule drove me to
participation with the British in that war. I felt that,
if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my
duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the
British Empire. I held then that India could achieve her
complete emancipation only within and through the British
Empire. So I collected to gather as many comrades as
possible, and with very great difficulty got their
services accepted as an ambulance corps.
The average Englishman believed that the Indian was a
coward, incapable of taking risks or looking beyond his
immediate self-interest. Many English friends, therefore,
threw cold water on my plan. But Dr. Booth supported it
whole-heartedly. He trained us in ambulance work. We
secured medical certificates of fitness for service. Mr.
Laughton and the late Mr. Escombe enthusiastically
supported the plan, and we applied at last for service at
the front. The Government thankfully acknowledged our
application, but said that our services were not then
I would not rest satisfied, however with this refusal.
Through the introduction of Dr. Booth, I called on the
Bishop of Natal. There were many Christian Indians in our
corps. The Bishop was delighted with my proposal and
promised to help us in getting our services accepted.
Time too was working with us. The Beer had shown more
pluck, determination and bravery than had been expected ;
and our services were ultimately needed. Our corps was
1,100 strong, with nearly 40 leaders, About three hundred
were free Indians, and the rest indentured. Dr. Booth was
also with us, The corps acquitted itself well. Though our
work was to be outside the firing line, and though we had
the protection of the Red Cross, we were asked at a
critical moment to serve within the firing line. The
reservation had not been of our seeking. The authorities
did not want us to be within the range of fire. The
situation, however, was changed after the repulse at
Spion Kop, and General Buller sent the message that,
though we were not bound to take the risk, Government
would be thankful if we would do so and fetch the wounded
from the field. We had no hesitation, and so the action
at Spion Kop found us working within the firing line.
During these days we had to march from twenty to
twenty-five miles a day, bearing the wounded on
stretchers. Amongst the wounded we had the honour of
carrying soldiers like General Woodgate.
The corps was disbanded after six weeks' service.
After the reverses at Spion Kop and Vaalkranz, the
British Commander-in-Chief abandoned the attempt to
relieve Ladysmith and other places by summary procedure,
and decided to proceed slowly, awaiting reinforcements
from England and India.
Our humble work was at the moment much applauded, and
the Indians' prestige was enhanced. The newspapers
published laudatory rhymes with the refrain, 'We are sons
of Empire after all.'
General Buller mentioned with appreciation the work of
the corps in his despatch, and the leaders were awarded
the War Medal.
The Indian community became better organized. I got
into closer touch with the indentured Indians. There came
a greater awakening amongst them, and the feeling that
Hindus, Musalmans, Christians, Tamilians, Gujaratis and
Sindhis were all Indians and children of the same
motherland took deep root amongst them. Everyone believed
that the Indians' grievances were now sure to be
redressed. At the moment the white man's attitude seemed
to be distinctly changed. The relations formed with the
whites during the war were of the sweetest. We had come
in contact with thousands of tommies. They were friendly
with us and thankful for being there to serve them. I
cannot forbear from recording a sweet reminiscence of how
human nature shows itself at its best in moments of
trial. We were marching towards Chievely Camp where
Lieutenant Roberts, the son of Lord Roberts, had received
a mortal wound. Our corps had the honour of carrying the
body from the field. It was a sultry day -- the day of
our march. Everyone was thirsting for water. There was a
tiny brook on the way where we could slake our thirst.
But who was to drink first ? We had proposed to come in
after the tommies had finished. But they would not begin
first and urged us to do so, and for a while a pleasant
competition went on for giving precedence to one another.