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La lettre de Dimsey destinée à son père est un formidable témoignage des évènements ayant eu lieu lors de l'Expédition Punitive menée au Bénin par l'Amiral Sir Harry Rawson. Nous avons donc choisi de la reproduire dans son intégralité. Il est intéressant de noter que le plus célèbre compte rendu de cette expédition fut lui aussi rapporté par un chirurgien, Felix Roth, frère de Henry Ling Roth, qui rédigea Benin City of Blood en 1903. Dimsey arriva dans Benin City avec la Première division et accompagné d'un seul autre médecin-officier qui trop fatigué par la marche n'était d'aucune aide. Les réserves de médicaments et de vivres étant insuffisantes, Dimsey ne pouvait que prodiguer des soins rudimentaires aux soldats britanniques et n'avait pas le temps de soigner les nombreux porteurs blessés qui moururent pour la plupart sous ses yeux. L'image de chaos qu'il nous renvoie dans cette lettre contraste avec celle, très populaire, renvoyée par la prise de la ville.
At the mouth of Forcados River
off Goshawk Point
27 Feb 1897
My dear Father,
I am now on board my ship, having marched at the head of the First Division, into Benin City, and back again, but I am now down with a mild attack of fever. I will endeavour to give you an account of what I saw of the operation, but you must not expect many details, or thrilling accounts. I lost everything in the fire which occurred the day after the City fell.
The Phoebe went about sixty miles up the river Wwarrigi, and on the 11th February I left her, and with the men of the First Division, who had come up from the Theseus in chartered steamers, marched to a place called Ceri, distance about seven miles; the path was fairly good, but we had to widen it by cutting down the bushes on either side. We found walking most fatiguing , no breeze on account of the dense forest. Many men fell out. On the 12th February we crossed a small river, I do not know the name of it. We were fired on for the first time. We landed on the opposite shore at a village named Olagbo, where the enemy made a fair stand, and one of the officers of the Niger Coast Protectorate received a gun-shot wound in the arm and several native scouts were hit. The Maxims soon drove them out and they left 28 dead for us to bury. We camped for the night and I made a field Hospital out of palm leaves. All the 13th February was spent in finishing the Hospital, and I had the Consul General's private secretary as a patient with fever. Several cases of small-pox broke out amongst carriers, and we had to build another place for them to live in.
14th February. We were ordered to move on to a native village to make room for the reserves, which were coming up, the distance was only three-quarters of a mile, through dense forest, we never saw the sun the whole way. There was no resistance.
15th February. Left camp and marched to a place called Cross Roads distance about three and a half miles; were frequently fired at but could not see our enemy, bush very thick. A Sergeant-major and two privates of Hussars hit.
16th February. We left our camp a the Cross Roads, and marched on to a native village, named Owagi, but before leaving it was found impossible to keep up water supply, and the spies reported that there was no water to be obtained between this and Benin City. It was decided to make a forced march with only 200 men, we took nothing but our blankets and one spare shirt, half the medical stores being left behind, every carrier was loaded with a tin of water. Owagi is about four and a half miles from Cross Roads.
17th February. We left Owagi and marched to Owoko, distance seven miles, dense forest the whole way. We had just finished making the camp for the night when a man of the St. George was shot in the eye, and a moment after a carrier was shot in the liver. We then set to work to clear the bush round the camp, and after firing for about one hour, all was quiet.
18th February. Left Owoko and marched on Benin city. On leaving the camp the rear-guard were attacked, most of the Division had marched off, and only myself and Capt. Campbell remained. I mean the only officers. We lined up a bank and I soon spotted a ruffian sneaking behind some bushes. I called out to three of our men to fire, and I saw him roll over to rise no more. During this little engagement I was wounded in the leg by a slug, it did not penetrate beyond the skin and I did not return myself as wounded, for I thought it would worry Mother. Distance from Owoko to Benin City, six and a half miles, still only a narrow path through the thick forest. All of a sudden we came into High Street, Benin, a wide street with thick bush on either side, in the middle they had a large old canon, loaded with scraps of iron, this they fired and it tore the heel off a gunner and smashed a man's ankle. They fired at us from the bush and there was a man up a tree who shot Dr. Fyffe. I did not see him as I was far too busy. There was no end of carriers wounded and in a few minutes we had seventeen whites wounded and four killed. The Marines charged down the street, and I was left with a small guard to attend wounded and bring them on when possible. The men with the rockets did splendid work they dropped two right into the King's compound, where we expected a heavy fight, it was too much for them, they all bolted and Benin was taken. I then brought along the wounded into the priests' compound, but could not place them under cover as the houses were full of the remains of human sacrifices, covered in human blood. Now my work began in earnest. Only one other medical officer besides myself was taken on to Benin City, the surgeon of my Division, a first rate man, was left at the Cross Roads. The man who came on with me was so done up with the march that he could do nothing. All the operations fell onto me. We had been on an allowance of water of two quarts per day per man for two days, and nothing but biscuits and tinned beef to eat, so I did not feel fit for much work. However I performed sixteen operations and made the wounded as comfortable as possible. I had not time to look after the wounded carriers, and several died near me when I was operating.
We were disgracefully found, or rather not found at all in the way of appliances. I believe they had them in the Hospital ship Malacca, but they never reached the front. I never turned in the night we entered Benin. At midnight the First Division received orders to take the water-supply of the City at all costs, there was no water in camp. At day-break I moved off again leaving the wounded with a sick-berth steward. We went along a very deep cutting where we could only go in single line, all overgrown with bushes and creepers, I cannot understand why they did not attack us from above, they could easily have killed the lot of us but we never saw a soul. After a march of about one and a half miles we suddenly came upon a beautiful river. We threw out guards and then we all bathed and drank. None of us had washed since leaving Cross Roads, it was a treat to find good running water. After filling up our cans, we returned to the City and I removed all the wounded into the King's Palaver House, a fine building.
21st February. Some carriers fired a native hut and fire spread to the Hospital. Removed wounded under great difficulties, saved all.
22nd February. Left my Division by order of C-in-C and placed in charge of all wounded and to bring them down to Ologbo with dispatch . The march back was very trying, we carried the men in hammocks on poles, besides the wounded we had many cases of sickness. A steam-launch met us at Ologbo and took us down to Waruge, where I gave up charge and went on board the Phoebe, quite done up. I arrived on board at mid-night on the 24th February, after being seventeen hours on the journey from Cross Roads.
This is what I recollect of the Benin expedition. Of course the whole of my time was taken up with my work and you will get a much better general account from the papers than I can give you. I lost my notes in the hospital fire and can render no returns to the Admiralty. This is unfortunate, for I have no influential friends to work for me. I do not know whether the Admiralty will acknowledge my services in any way. One is so soon forgotten unless one has a lot of push, and I would far sooner go without any reward than ask the C-in-C to work for me. We leave very soon for the Cape, where we shall soon be all right. We have nearly a third of our crew down with fever, but none are very bad, very much like bad influenza. It is strange to look back on the past and think of all the dangers one ran and yet all along I felt confident that I could do what was required of me, even if I died afterwards, My only funk was that the fever would knock me over and that I should have to be carried back. Luck was very good. I am one of the very few white men to have seen Benin City.
My private opinion is that the Admiralty are very greatly to blame for allowing the Navy to undertake an expedition of this kind. We have no equipment for field service, and much of the sickness might have been saved if we had had a proper Commissariat and Transport Department. We had no regular meals from the time we left the ship until our return, except in Benin City, where we captured some cattle, and I found a large iron pot and made gallons of beef tea, which I served out to all ranks. The individual pluck of the men was splendid, specially the Marines, they all waited as patiently as lambs until I could attend to them, and I never heard a complaint although the night we entered Benin they slept in the open, many without even blankets. Now I hope you can read this, I find writing in bed difficult. I got your letter yesterday, and was surprised to hear that you are not up yet, take my word for it that there are many worse places than a good bed and plenty of food in Crouch End. I shall not write until we arrive at Cape, so don't be anxious. Given them all my love and believe me
Your affectionate son,
Post Lot Text
A BENIN IVORY FLYWHISK