Failing an assault, we resume the bombardment. The firing is slow and inaccurate. The English reply in much the same fashion, when suddenly their new cannon appears on the scene, not altogether to our surprise, for some intercepted letters had warned us of its manufacture. It was the famous Long Cecil.
The Long Cecil was a gun of about 12 centimetres, made in Kimberley itself during the siege with a piece of steel taken from the machinery of the De Beers mine.
The piece was drilled and rifled with the means at the disposal of the besieged.
The closing of the breech, a somewhat fantastic arrangement, was based on the Canet system. In default of a trial field, the range was arrived at from observations of actual firing against us.
Long Cecil accordingly began to speak, and to speak very much to the point. Several times we were covered with earth, and I am certain that out of twenty shells, the extreme error was not more than 200 metres. One fortunately fell diagonally on Long Tom's very platform, rebounded, and burst a little way off. Seven men were killed.
The next day, Thursday, passed in almost precisely the same fashion. Towards five o'clock the interchange of amenities between Long Tom and Long Cecil began, and lasted till 8.30; at 8.30, breakfast. After breakfast, the guns went to work again till 11. At 11, lunch, rest. From 4 to 6, another cannonade. At 6, dinner.
This respect for meal-times is charming, and greatly facilitates life in the field.
It is a pity the attention of the Powers is not called to this subject by an international convention! Many affections of the stomach would be hereby avoided.
Encouraged by the example of their big brothers, the little 12 and 15-pounder Krupps and Armstrongs join in the concert.
The English have five, and we have four. It is delightful, and one can't complain of a single second of boredom.
On Friday, the Colonel's request is still unanswered.
'Wait a little while!'
Sternberg has had enough of it. Recognising the impossibility of persuading Du Toit to take decisive action, he starts off to Jacobsdal, where the English make him a prisoner. He was a great loss, for he had an extraordinary repertory of adventures, which he told in a very amusing manner, and, besides, he was a capital cook.
The 'boys' in these regions, greatly inferior to those of the Soudan in this respect, claim to be cooks as soon as they know how to light a fire. Accordingly, we prepare our meals ourselves. Tinned meat, a bit of roast mutton, or a stew, are the usual dishes.
The Colonel eats very little, and only takes grilled meat; he drinks tea or milk, and never touches wine or spirits. He does not smoke. He is a striking contrast to the rest of us, who eat like ogres, drink like sponges, and smoke like engines!
Our contingent, consisting of Breda, Leon, Michel, Coste, my friend De C---- and I, remain with Villebois.
Michel has calculated the ranges, and we fire all Friday night. The points aimed at are: the searchlights, Cecil Rhodes' house, the Grand Hotel, the last high chimney on the left, and that on the right.
Erasmus was unable to suppress a gentle amusement at the sight of our preparations for night-firing. But when he grasped the idea that we were in earnest, and that his Long Tom was being loaded, the benevolent smile with which one would watch a spoilt child engaged in some innocent folly changed to a look of real anxiety. He thought poor Michel had gone mad. He finally got used to the novel proceeding.
Firing ceased on both sides about 12.30 a.m. Early on Saturday morning it began again. One of our shells fell on the De Beers magazine, transformed into an ammunition factory, and caused an explosion and a fire.
The English, despairing of silencing our Long Tom with their Long Cecil, replied to every shot at the town by a shell into our laager. The accuracy of their fire with this gun at a range of about 7,000 metres was remarkable. We were indeed a capital target: a green rectangle of 200 metres in the midst of a yellow, arid plain.
The shell arrived in thirty-four seconds, but did no great damage, for a watchman gave the alarm, 'Skit!' each time when he saw the smoke, and we retreated into shelter.
The telegraphists of the staff, who were working in a little house, were placed in communication with the watchman by means of a bell, and, warned half a minute before the arrival, they had time to take refuge in a neighbouring trench.
We learnt later that a similar system had been adopted in Kimberley as a protection against Long Tom, and hence the small number of killed during the siege. One of the first victims of Long Tom, however, was the engineer of the Long Cecil, who had just finished his work. A shell burst on his house and killed him in his bedroom. Another cause of the slight mortality on both sides was the bad quality of the fuses for the projectiles, which often burst imperfectly, or not at all. Thus, one of the English shells fell in the machinery of the waterworks, only a few inches from our reserve of a hundred shells, and happily failed to explode. Another went through a cast-iron pipe, over a centimetre thick, and buried itself in the earth without exploding; its fuse was completely flattened on the projectile by contact with the pipe.
Nevertheless, a good many, too many indeed, did burst with satisfactory results--to those who fired them.
A good many of the Boers accordingly took the precaution of digging a sort of tomb several feet deep, in which they piled mattresses and blankets. They spent all night and part of the day lying in this shelter.
On Saturday morning, on arriving at the battery, we were surprised by a whistling sound. The English, harassed by the fire of Long Tom, had dug trenches during the night to a distance of about 1,200 yards, and had manned them with riflemen. Their fire was not yet very galling, because of the distance between us.
Colonel de Villebois, seeing clearly what would happen, renewed his request for a party of men. He now only asked for twenty-five to make an assault that very night, for he pointed out that the shanjes (trenches) would be pushed forward during the night, and that our battery would become untenable. But he was repulsed by the eternal 'Wait a little while!'
Long convoys of Kaffirs that the English could no longer feed came out of the town every day, preceded by huge white flags. Some were allowed to pass after a parley, others were sent back again.
The Colonel feared that an attempt would be made against Long Tom by night, as a sequel to the offensive movement on the part of the garrison indicated by the making of the trenches.
Everyone goes to spend the night at the battery, and we take the opportunity of firing at the town. It proves to be merely a pastime. The English reply, but do not attack us.
On Sunday, February 11, we rest all along the line. The Burghers sing hymns in chorus, and do not cease till late in the evening. A sort of patriarchal simplicity obtains among them. Yesterday the Colonel was shaving. A Boer entered without saying a word, sat down on his little camp-bed, and remained there motionless. The Colonel, used to their ways, took no notice, but waited for the visitor to explain his visit. As this was prolonged considerably, the Colonel continued his toilet by a tub taken puris naturalibus. The Boer remained, staring silently at him. At last, his toilet ended, the Colonel explained to the visitor that he must go, as he wanted to close his tent. The Boer departed without a word. About ten minutes afterwards he came back with a friend, who explained that he wanted the Colonel's razor. He would bring it back afterwards. It was very hard to make him understand that the Colonel wished to reserve the implement for his private use.
On this Sunday, the day of rest, we accordingly went off to bathe at a spring four kilometres from our laager. We enjoy this peaceful pastime in the company of a young clergyman who was at one time in the camp. When Long Cecil began to bombard us, he judged its war-like thunders to be incompatible with his sacred function, and set up his tent beyond its range.
On Monday morning the firing began again early. Leon and the Colonel went off to the battery. Our horses had been turned out to graze by mistake, so we did not start till an hour after them. On arriving, we found the balls whistling more smartly than on Saturday. We could plainly distinguish the buzz of the dum-dum bullets amidst the whir of the ordinary charge.
During the two nights, the English had pushed forward their trenches to a distance of from 700 to 800 yards from us. We went up on the platform, where the Colonel, his glass in his eye, was talking imperturbably to General du Toit. At the same moment we saw Leon, who was standing behind them, spin round and fall across the gun-carriage. The poor fellow had been shot right through the forehead just above the eyes.
The Colonel at once raised him in his arms, others started off in haste for an ambulance; but the bullets were now falling round us like hail. Two horses were wounded in an instant, and a Burgher fell, a bullet clean through his body.
Poor Leon was still conscious. He bid us all good-bye calmly, taking a particularly affectionate leave of the Colonel, to whom he was greatly attached. The Colonel took a little water to wash the blood from his face, and placed the empty pannikin on the parapet of sacks filled with earth behind which we were sheltered. So heavy was the English fire that the pannikin instantly fell to the ground pierced by a bullet.
At last a cart appeared with an attendant and a stretcher. The wounded, who numbered about a dozen by this time, received first aid; then Leon was carried off on a stretcher.
What a journey was that march of three kilometres, the first part of which was performed under a rain of bullets! The head of the wounded man was swathed in cloths, which we kept wetting continually, holding an umbrella over his head, for the heat was intense--it was eleven o'clock in the morning. Blood poured from his mouth and nose. Poor fellow! we made up our minds that it was all over with him.
We reached Waterworks in two hours. But the little house that had been turned into a hospital was no longer safe since the bombardment of our camp had begun. A telegram had therefore been sent to Riverton Road, where there was an ambulance-station with a good doctor. Towards one o'clock an ambulance-carriage arrived and carried off our comrade.
On Tuesday, the 13th, we missed the salute Long Tom had been in the habit of giving the enemy at daybreak. What had happened? We sent off for news. General du Toit replied that Erasmus declared the gun was broken, and could not be fired. He himself had not been to inquire into the damage, and seemed to be no more concerned than if he had been told it was raining at Chicago. We set off to Kampferdam in great distress, expecting to find the gun a wreck.
As we approached, however, we saw that it was still in place, apparently wondering at its own silence. We examined it carefully all over, but could find nothing to account for the catastrophe, and, in despair, we sent for Erasmus.
Standing back a couple of paces, he showed us that one of the beams of the platform, which had received the full force of the recoil, had sunk some few centimetres. It was a matter of no importance, and did not interfere with the firing in any way. But Erasmus, I suppose, did not feel inclined to work the gun that day. He had told Du Toit that it was broken, and the General had at once accepted the statement. After a severe reprimand to the recalcitrant gunner, the firing recommenced as usual.
Our provisions began to run out in camp, in spite of a stock of potatoes we had discovered at the waterworks. It was accordingly arranged that we should start off with two others of the party to get fresh stores, and a cart and mules, at Pretoria.
The Colonel, believing that the lack of offensive action among the Boers would prolong the siege indefinitely, determined to set out himself on the 15th for Colesberg, where we were to rejoin him in a few days. We started on the 14th, bound for Brandfort and Pretoria.
On setting out, my mare, an excellent mount, but very fiery, brought me suddenly to the ground, to the great amusement of the Colonel. The same accident having happened to Breda a day or two before, it began to be looked upon as a special privilege of the ex-cavalry officers!
At nightfall we arrived at Riverton Road, where Leon was lying. During the evening the Colonel himself came over to inquire for him. He had had a good day, and the operation that was judged necessary had been fixed for eleven o'clock that night, to avoid the heat of daylight. We waited about the door of the baggage-shed, which had been converted into an ambulance.
The operation, which proved perfectly successful, lasted an hour and a half. The doctor, a Scotchman called Dunlop, assured us that our poor friend was out of danger.
At daybreak on the 15th we started, the Colonel for the camp, we for Brandfort. It was terribly hot, and we were in a hurry, for a rumour of Lord Roberts' arrival had got about. It seemed likely that there would be some more lively work on hand very soon, and we were anxious to get through the drudgery of revictualling as quickly as possible.
In the evening we reached Boshof, where a good many wounded had been brought since our last visit. We rode all day on the 16th, slept in the bush, and started again at daybreak on the 17th. Towards noon we took a rest of an hour and a half, and consumed a tin of corned beef.
It was nearly two when we mounted again under a sky of fire, not to draw rein till we reached Brandfort at ten o'clock on Sunday morning, save for a compulsory halt of two hours from three to five in the morning, when the darkness made it impossible for us to continue our journey in the trackless sand and tangled bush.
We had been in the saddle twenty-six hours out of thirty to accomplish our journey of 120 miles, and had taken three and a half days, riding over sixty kilometres a day, in average heat of from 38 deg. to 40 deg. (centigrade), without fodder and almost without water, in a wild, unknown country.
Our horses were dead-beat, and we entered the village on foot, dragging the poor brutes by their bridles. What was our stupefaction to hear that the siege of Kimberley had been raised without any engagement the very day after our departure!
The surprise, it seems, had been complete. There was a cry of 'The English!' and then a panic, which barely left time to carry off the guns and waggons. Part of the ammunition was left behind, some provisions, Long Tom's break and its platform. The Colonel had escaped with Breda. But in the confusion one of our comrades, Coste, was lost, and eventually joined Cronje.
A story which amused us all at the time may be told here. A volunteer, no longer in his first youth--well over fifty, in fact--had come to join the Colonel just at the time of the English attack. A very eccentric character, and slightly bemused by drink, he found himself in the thick of the stampede, without any clear idea of what it was all about.
Suddenly the Burghers, who had never seen him in the camp before, struck by his odd behaviour, demanded his passports. Not understanding a word of Dutch, he had some difficulty in making out what they wanted.
At last he produced the necessary paper. The pandours of the moment scrutinized them carefully, then, shaking their heads in the fashion which among all races implies negation, they said:
'No good! Obsal!' (mount).
Two men ranged themselves on either side of the unlucky wight, a complete novice in horsemanship, and galloped off with him to a farm several miles off.
'Dismount! Your passports!'
About fifteen persons, men, women and children, were grouped round a table. The passport, handed round once more, is discussed by the assembly, each person present giving an opinion. The general verdict is unfavourable, for heads are again shaken.
'No good! Obsal!'
The poor volunteer, aching from his furious gallop, begins to think things rather beyond a joke; but, anxious to conciliate, he remounts, and gallops off again under escort. On arriving at another farm another inspection, also unfavourable, takes place.
'No good! Obsal!'
This time the worm turns. Pale, exhausted and racked with pain, he opposes the force of inertia to the rigour of his tormentors, who, convinced that he is a spy, set him against a wall and load their rifles. This argument is so convincing that he remounts, and finally makes them understand that he will be able to find someone to answer for him at Brandfort.
Two days later he arrived there, fasting, exhausted, and still guarded by his escort. Fortunately he was recognised and released. He never returned to the front.
* * * * *
We leave for Pretoria by the first train, and arrive on the evening of the 20th. We at once set to work on our re-victualling mission.
Two days later, I got a telegram from Colonel de Villebois-Mareuil. Having heard of the arrival of a good many French volunteers at Pretoria, he agrees to take the command of them, and orders me to get them together. A letter to M. Reitz, sent off at the same time, explains the project.
Among the new arrivals are ex-petty officers, ex-sailors, ex-legionaries ... a motley crew. Their equipment will take several days, and it is arranged that they are to join us at Colesberg, for which we start by that evening's train.
During this short sojourn at Pretoria I was presented by Colonel Gourko to Captain D----, the French military attache, one of the most charming men I have ever met.
We noticed numerous placards on the town walls, giving notice of thanksgiving services for February 26 and 27. It is the anniversary of Majuba Hill, which is celebrated every year with great pomp. This year, in spite of the national pre-occupation in current events, the traditional custom is to be kept up. The usual review of the troops by the President and the Commander-in-Chief cannot, of course, take place; but the shops and offices will be closed for forty-eight hours, and the whole population will flock to the churches.
Shortly after our departure, at a station the name of which I forget--perhaps intentionally, for I feel a qualm of remorse at the recollection of it--a little fox-terrier playing about the train jumped into our carriage. We were just starting.... It would have been cruel to throw the poor little beast on to the platform at the risk of maiming it or causing it to be run over.... In short, we kept her, and christened her Nelly. She was very pretty, pure white, with a black patch on her head and another on her back. I felt remorseful--until the next station; then I overcame my scruples. I am so fond of dogs.
At Brandfort, a counter-order awaits us, directing us to go to Bloemfontein, where the Colonel awaits us, in consequence of Lord Roberts' latest operations. We land our cart, our mules, and our provisions. But our worn-out horses have to be replaced. The Colonel, impatient to be gone, will not wait for us, and starts for Petrusburg, where we are to join him as quickly as possible.
On the 28th, the news of Cronje's capitulation reaches us. We know nothing of the details, but the moral effect is terrible.
We had got together hastily at Pretoria a cart, harness, mules, and three black boys. Individually, each of these acquisitions is highly satisfactory. The cart is a superb omnibus, freshly painted gray; the harness is almost new, the mules very handsome--a little black one in particular. The boys were chosen to suit all tastes: one tall, one short, and one of medium height. But it proves very difficult to establish any sort of cohesion between these various elements.
At the first attempt the harness breaks, the mules bite and kick. It needs the cunning of an Apache even to approach the little black one. The boys are stupid, and speak neither Dutch nor English, nothing but Kaffir. The omnibus alone remains stationary, but it creaks and groans in a pitiable fashion when touched.
A second experiment is no more successful than the first. The third gives a better result: the vehicle moves, and even goes very near to losing a wheel.
This remarkable result is achieved, firstly, because all the rotten leathers of the harness are in pieces, after a double series of joltings and strainings; only the solid ones are left. Secondly, the pretty little black mule has run away, after breaking some dozen halters, so that we are saved the trouble of harnessing her. Lastly, we have stationed the three boys at a safe distance, begging them on no account to help us, and Michel, who as an old artilleryman is an adept in harness, does wonders. Finally we get off, escorting our omnibus, which groans aloud at every step.
We look like 'The Attack on the Stage Coach' in Buffalo Bill!