The day after this letter was written the Boers attacked the place in the early morning, and I began to keep a diary, which I continued more or less till I left the country. Perhaps it would be convenient here to give a rough sketch of the village of Zeerust and its defences at the present time:—
The available garrison was made up as follows:—
Infantry.—North Lancs. Between 400 and 500.
Yeomanry.—43rd and details. Between 40 and 50.
Guns.—Two, with mounted men (N.Z.), about the same number. In all, about 550 available men.
1. Signal Kopje, on which were the two guns, was held by the New Zealanders.
2. West Kopje, by the infantry, who had a dummy gun on the top of it, consisting of a log on the wheels of a cart.
3. “A” Kopje, by the Yeomanry in their trenches, and, later on, a blockhouse.
4. The Gaol, by infantry, with a Maxim.
Besides these, all round, south of the town, running between West Kopje, Signal Kopje, and A Kopje, were trenches, bomb-proofs, and blockhouses, manned by the infantry; and between A Kopje and Mill post there was C post, all held by the Yeomanry.
“Monday, Jan. 7, 1901.—There have been several sniping parties round here before this, and one or two minor attacks on outposts, etc., especially on 26th December (Boxing day), but the main attack seems to have begun to-day. Up three times Sunday night—at 1.30, 3, and 4 o’clock. First time Capt G. came telling us to get ready, and to be up and have our saddles on by 3. Town guard (formed of 20 or thereabouts of loyal inhabitants of town, who elected their own lieut., and got rifles, uniform, etc., from the Government) called us, but G. told us to go to bed again for another hour. At 4, ready. At 5.30 Boers opened heavy fire on all sides of town. Firing continued for three hours. I went with Capt G. and Sutherland to cemetery outside town. I held horses. They went inside. Saw Boers, but did no firing. Came back and had breakfast. Most of the day I was employed in taking messages to supply depot at far end of town, and getting rations for different parties of troops. Firing all day. Bullets buzzing about overhead. At about 8 o’clock they got into the Kaffir location at the N.-E. end of the town, and began firing into it. Saw the Kaffirs running like mad, bending double, down into the town. Boers thereupon got into location. Snatched grub when time. Our 15-pounders on Signal Kopje put some good shells amongst them, above and around Kaffir location. Boers did not fire a gun, probably because they had none. Capt G. had two shaves during the day; one while running down from the gaol, an isolated building at the E. of the town between the Kaffir location and the Rustenburg road, going due E." (I saw him galloping furiously down the road leading to the town, with bullets kicking up the dust all round him. The gaol was a low stone building surrounded by a wall, in which were loopholes and sandbags. A small party of infantry held it, with one Maxim gun); “and another while taking the town guard to trenches near the E. post.” (E. post was a farmhouse about a mile from the town, surrounded by fruit trees, and fields with high thick quince hedges all round it.)
“Took ration out to S.-E. post in cart. (S.-E. post was a small party of infantry stationed in trenches down by the river.) And again after dark to E. post Found the Tommies at former much perturbed, having been driven from E. post and legged it as hard as they could the whole way in. E. post retaken soon by town guard and New Zealanders. In evening went out with nine Kaffirs to burn dead horses, oxen, and general rubbish, while so doing heard final volleys from W. Kopje direction, fired presumably on our men at Signal Kopje. Niggers all bolted behind rocks.” A Tommy sitting about 10 yards away from me behind some stones he had piled up, kept letting off his rifle at nothing that I could see. “Came back and took note out to town guard at E. post. Now quite dark. Lost my way. Got entangled in barbed wire, and horse bogged in ditch. Nearly shot by sentry. Women and children all removed to church.” Some shots were fired in the road behind my establishment at about 10 o’clock at night, and the sergeant of the guard told me he had shot a barking dog.
During the day I was sent with a message to the Intelligence Officer, who was superintending the stowing away of the women and children in the church. This building is one of the most exposed in Zeerust, standing, as it does, on the top of a rocky eminence at the edge of the village, higher up than the rest of the buildings, and close by the spruit which runs by on the outer side of the mound. The unfortunate officer seemed to have his work cut out for him. The church and ground outside was filled with ladies, Dutchwomen, and children of all sorts and sizes. Some were crying, others talking loudly; some of the children were playing and laughing, and others screaming. All were making some sort of noise. Some families had hauled in their mattresses and other belongings, and were settling down in the church, and piling the pews up to make room to stow themselves and their goods, and the row in the church itself was wonderful to hear. For a long time I could not get the officer to listen to me, and when he did, it was with a worried and faraway expression that plainly showed he was not getting it all his own way with the ladies.
“Tuesday, Jan. 8.—Lieut B., the provost marshal, was shot in the arm at 3 this morning at E. post He approached the post from the road, accompanied by a civilian or one of the town guard, and, on being challenged by the sentry, either did not answer or did so inaudibly. The sentry fired at him, the other man having stepped aside on hearing the challenge. The bullet shattered the lower end of the left humerus, and B. sank to the ground. On being carried to the hospital, his arm was at once amputated above the elbow.
“As expected, no sign of the enemy to-day, and things began to settle down again. I forgot to mention that yesterday at 11 o’clock the Boers sent in to say that, unless we surrendered unconditionally by 3 o’clock, he (the commandant) would bombard the town from three sides. Accordingly at 3 I expected a shell, but none came, and it became apparent that it was merely a piece of their usual bluff. Nor was there any artillery fire from them during the day.”
Our casualties on the 7th were not serious. A hospital orderly was hit in a curious way, curious because it must have been a chance shot, as the hospital is surrounded by trees except on the town side. He was leaning quietly in the doorway when a bullet hit him in the hand.
“Wednesday, Jan. 9.—Every one expected an attack to-day at dawn, but none came. In the morning, however, a Boer patrol was sighted, and at about 12 a report came in that they were coming on in force from the south side of the town. Every one got ready, and there was the usual furious galloping up and down the main street. Two shots were fired, I believe, but no more.
“Thursday, 10th.—Boers sent in to ask for medical comforts for their sick and wounded. It seems to me to be carrying the thing a bit too far for the besieged to carefully keep the besiegers supplied with medical comforts. We shall be sending them out daily rations and an allowance of Mauser ammunition soon. They also raised an objection to the church being used as a white-flag refuge for the women and children, and said that they would not respect the building when they shelled the town. So the women and children are to be removed, I believe. My new commandeered grey pony seems to be doing well; anyhow, anything rather than that mare.
“Friday, nth.—Bomb-proof pits and dug- outs being made all over the town. Some of the outlying houses are being turned into forts, and the windows blocked up, and a few men put in each. We seem to be in for a bombardment sooner or later. The report to-day is that they are coming on us with four guns, but driven by General French’s troops. If that is so, they won’t have much time to get into position. Tried brown horse from main stable. Much improved. Took great fancy to him. But there are always his forelegs to remember.” He was apt every now and then to go lame on one foot or the other. “Finally decided to stick to the grey, which, although not half so showy, is sound all over. In the evening the Boers sent in to the commandant to say that they were about to attack with three generals, 1000 odd men, and five guns.
“Sat, 12th.—No attack. Another rumour is that the attack is to be on Monday, not to-day. ‘John’ left us to work up at the supply depot last night. We now only have Frederick and Piccanini, Pete having walked off long ago. Also got rid of the big bay mare, the little black pony (of no earthly use), and the sound mule. We now only have left my old crock I got from the M.I., swopping him for the mare, the mule whose leg I opened up with a razor, and a couple of donkeys. So our family in the main stable is much reduced. Been hard at work all day fortifying the church in which the women and children were. Built up twelve windows with sacks of earth and stones. My job was to build up the inside of the east door (the church is built in the form of a cross) with old biscuit boxes filled with earth and piled three abreast against the inside of the door up to about 7 ft. 6, with stones on the top, so that bullets coming from the most exposed side cannot come flying through the church. The place is perfectly bullet-proof. Each window has two loopholes to fire from. If they shell us, however, we shall not be so comfortable. Capt. G., an engineer, S., and self did it all, with niggers, of course.
“Sunday, 13th.—Proceeded with our fortifications with great vigour. Capt. G. rigged up a marvellous scaffolding arrangement, about 30 feet high, out of saplings, with cross-pieces nailed on, and a small platform on top. This comes just under a circular window high up at one end of the church. Here we can sit and view the country round, and snipe comfortably. On knocking off work for lunch, hear there has been an accident with one of the mines. The explosion had been heard and seen from the town, high up on the range of kopjes to the N.-E. of the gaol, and soon a crowd of men went up, accompanying two ambulance waggons. Then the news comes that one of the patent mines invented by Lieut. Wallace, N. Lancs Regiment, consisting of a lyddite shell buried in the ground, weighted so that a man walking over it would be just heavy enough to set it off, has accidentally been exploded, and that Lieut. W. and a corporal have been killed and five men wounded. Simply ghastly. Wallace stepped on it somehow. He was an excellent officer, and his men were very fond of him. He had just been made provost marshal. B., his predecessor, had his arm blown off.
“Mon., Jan. 14.—This was to be the day for the attack. Every one on the qui vive. Big commando 3 miles out, etc., etc. Hourly alarms. Capt G. sent me off at 9 o’clock at night with four niggers to get eight days’ provisions for the twelve who are to be in the church in case of attack. Up half the night fussing about, etc. Capt. G. went off with all boys obtainable to build our wall.” The wall in question was a double one, with a space about 18 inches wide in between, so that a man might run along there, bending down. It led from the low ground outside the hospital up the mound to the church door. “S. slept all night in the church taking guards. When I awoke again it was just getting light, and I was expecting to hear the first shot every second. It didn’t come. It will be a case of crying wolf too often soon. Getting on well with church. Hard at it all day, and succeeded in straining wrist again. Built wall all the time. Inside a large tank has been filled with water. The grub has been stored underground. Commandant came and had a look. Nearly all windows blocked now. Wall, or rather walls, as it is double, to protect from rifle fire on both sides, is nearly finished. No more, as wrist is stiff.
“Tues., Jan. 15.—News comes that at a council of war held lately, the Boers decided to fight to gain possession of the town till they had not a round left, and if they could not then take it they would come in and lay down their arms. Somebody remarked on hearing this that it would save much time and trouble if they threw their ammunition into the river and walked straight into the town. Busy at church all day. Door I had carefully and with great labour banked up with biscuit boxes, all had to come down for some new plan. Long grind in the sun ‘rock-shifting.’
“Wed., Jan. 16.—Church does not progress apace owing to everything having to be undone as soon as it is done. Windows which I had taken two days of hard labour to bank up and loophole with rocks have now all to come down to give place to boxes filled with shale. Same with our wall. A large part of it got to be chucked down and built up again with loopholes. . . .
“Thurs., Jan. 17.—Absolutely normal in every respect. No news. No reports even. What would I not give for to-day’s Daily Telegraph or Standard ? Though we are stagnating here, great things may be going on at home in Parliament and out here too. Who knows but what peace was declared a week ago ? or England at war with Russia or some one ? I have found a Scotchman of the Edinburgh type. He is an R.E. and works in the church. I found he must have been in E. when I was there. We compared notes. He watched the torchlight procession of ’98, so might have seen me, blackened, bearded, be-dressing-gowned, and be-turbaned.
“Brown horse came back from the N. Lancs to-day. Shall have him after all. Am sick of this old grey, his trot is like a small-boat in a choppy sea, and he is incorrigibly lazy. When you get on the bay you do feel you have got horse-flesh under you. He moves well, and the old grey has to be slogged and thumped into it. I shall risk the other’s game leg. It is all right as yet.
“Frid. 18th.—Absolutely normal All day in church boxing up those windows. An arrangement of three boxes filled with shale, placed side by side so as to allow of two loopholes. On the top is placed one long box covering all these, and on the top of this, big stones. By degrees we are making the church very strong. In fact, it is impregnable to rifle fire. Ten men could hold it against a thousand.
“Sat 19th.—Nothing doing except windowing, etc., at the church. S. is an indefatigable worker. He sleeps there, and is at it from morning till night. He doesn’t seem to care how many others may be employed. I believe he would rather be there and do it all by himself. He is a typical rough colonial, hard-bitten looking chap. Of course, having been all the world over, mining in Australia, New Zealand, and at Klondike, naturally he knows his way about a bit. I don’t believe he would mind a bit if Capt. G. said all the windows were to be pulled down and put up differently. He would begin it all over again quite cheerfully. One thing is that his work seems easy to him, perhaps, as he is a very powerful man. His appearance again is typical. Just one of Paul Hardy’s (Strand Magazine) miners. Burnt a dark brown in face and arms, black hair and moustache. Very tall and straight.
“A new horse came in to-day. It belonged to poor Wallace. It looked splendid. Glossy, strongly made, and in good condition, but on G. riding it, it turned out to be a rotter. Short stepping, weak in the legs, and bad over rough country. He disposed of it to the M.I.
“We are getting roast beef every other day now. We generally get a piece of rib weighing 6 or 7 lbs., as we have G.’s rations, he feeding himself at the ‘hotel.’ This we hand over to old Mills, a civilian in the town, who roasts it for us on consideration of having a chunk off it. As he can get no fresh meat for his family, the benefit is mutual. He sends his little boy down to get it. Every other day we get tinned meat. Roast would be better with vegetables, but still it is a great treat. I read voraciously nowadays. It is the only thing to preserve my reason. I very often devour four novels a week; always three. I shall soon have read all the readable books in the little library. Hall Caine, Rita, Conan Doyle (especially), Mrs. Hungerford, Dickens (fancy putting Dickens last). All these I patronise. I heard yesterday that our outgoing mail was captured. …
“Sunday 20th.—Much colder to-day. I was swearing at the heat the other day, but I was jolly glad when it began to get hot again to-day. It was, or seemed to me, quite chilly up to 10 o’clock, although the sun was shining. Am going to wash breeches, putties, and a towel this afternoon. I must away to ‘dinner ’ now. S. has put the billy on. We drink about a quart of tea or coffee each, at each meal. Took on new Cape boy, ‘Henry’ or ‘Hendrick,’ I don’t know which.”
There is also a letter of this date, but it contains little that is not in the diary—
“Jan. 20.—…Not a jot or tittle of outside news filters through to us. . . . It seems to me I shan’t see much of the English winter. Suppose I am condemned to another month in this hole, that brings me out at Feb. 20. Then suppose we have another month in the country, and begin to go down country about March 20; we are muddled about at Cape Town till the end of March, and embark about April 5. That lands us home just at the end of April. That is my programme. I wonder if there is anything left of the contents of my kit bag, left at Cape Town a year ago. I ought to find some flannels in it which would be nice for the voyage. Also a thick waistcoat for putting on when we pass Madeira. ^5 in gold. A knife. My watch-chain, and other things too numerous to mention. ‘I wish ter goodness,’ as old B., a master at school, used to say, that some of the Xth would come along this way, and that I could hitch on to them. I am soliloquising this because there is absolutely no news to tell you. I am afraid you wouldn’t be wildly interested to know that I am just going to wash my one and only pair of unmentionables, which, by the way, were very kindly given me (!) by Capt. G., a rather smart khaki pair, like those I bought in Mafeking. My regulation ones were ventilated in many places. I am also going to include in the laving (is that right ?) process my one and only pair of putties, and one of my two pairs of somewhat holey (if not wholly so) socks. While I am engaged in washing these I shall wear the ventilated ones. To say that this place is dull would be a mere truism—a hollow mockery. There is a breathless heat and stillness all day. Such lovely days they are. If we had them at home it would be nothing but tennis, and boating, and picnic-ing, etc., but here they are absolutely wasted. There is complete and sunny silence from morn till eve, except when we are banging away carpentering, etc., up in the church. It is a dead-alive, do- nothing sort of hole. There is no one who can see a joke. S. is very dour; quite teepical, in fact. ‘Mon, that wouldna do at all, d’ye see ?’ etc., ad nauseam. No one has a spark of humour; the people just exist and nothing more. I suppose one can’t expect much from a place cut off and surrounded by Boers as this is. What idiots the B.’s must be; can’t have a glimmer of fun amongst them. Fancy sitting round a miserable hole like this, right at the tail end of a campaign. They know they haven’t the ghost of a chance, and yet seem to have an unaccountable desire to be shelled and hunted from place to place, half starving, with their women-folk and children hanging on to them in their laagers, or lonely, hungry, and miserable in tumble-down houses and shanties in the towns. … The everlasting heat makes one bad-tempered, too. ... If one could only have a cold day now and again, etc., etc., ad lib. I couldn’t have got out of bed the wrong side this morning, because it is against the wall. I think it must be our windows in the church. We had to begin pulling them all down, after we had, with much searchings of spirit, and straining, and grunting and groaning, built them all up and loopholed them for tiring through, and then build them all up again on a new plan, which ought to have been thought of in the first place. The wall also had to come down, and is to go up again. I certainly must be in a very bad way to grumble at my dear old Sol. Only this morning it was a bit chilly (I thought it), and I was longing for the usual baking state of things again. I think that what riles me so much about sticking in this place is that it is such an unconscionable waste of time. But, anyhow, it is a long lane that, etc., and this oyster-like existence must come to an end sooner or later. … There is a biggish orchard at the back here, and as the fruit is just getting ripe, I am often to be seen swaying wildly about in the tops of the fig-trees, grabbing at the luscious fig. That reminds me, I meant to send you a good specimen of a fig leaf. I’ll go and get one.
“Monday, 21st.—Have nearly finished at the church. Yesterday wrote home and enclosed two fig-leaves. Haven’t posted the letter yet. On the morning of that day a man named Sinclair, who had been commandeered by the Boers and had escaped, came in. He said they are much disheartened, and many will be in the town before long. Their commandants have no heart for anything. They have plenty of food, in fact have a mill in full swing, turning out 700 bags of corn a week, but they are very short of clothes, and have none too much ammunition. Sickness has broken out among their cattle, and so they split up their laager into three. Their commandant was wounded in the mouth, fighting against Methuen three months ago between here and Ottoshoop. Nothing going on here to-day.
“Tuesday, 22nd.—Shunned church. Copied out H.M. Imperial Government vouchers and one return of commandeered live stock for the captain. Rode round to outlying houses (Coetzee, Brown, Starke, etc.) and succeeded in' raising sixteen more eggs for the hospital. In afternoon rode to library and changed Rita’s ‘Vignettes’ for C. D.’s ‘Dark Shadow and Beyond the City.’ Have read nearly all his works now. Asked one of the doctors if he could lend me a Materia, Anatomy, or Phys.; said he hadn’t a book with him, but told me of a man who might have one. Was the chairman in that row at Glasgow when several H. surgeons ducked one unlucky one. Said he deserved it. Seemed a decent chap. ‘Henry ’ decidedly an acquisition. Speaks English.
Sensible. Knows how to clean and tidy up room, and does it without being told. Ditto grooming and saddling up horse. Lives in Cape Town. Gave him old pair breeches and old khaki coat. Fruit beginning to get ripe, and make daily attacks on the figs. Peaches not so forward. Young green oranges beginning to appear. Roast very poor.
“Wed., 23rd.— Hardly out of saddle all morning. Went out beyond outpost and collared all eggs and fowls coming in to market for hospital.—Twelve dozen eggs and six fowls. Three Dutchmen with the cart tried to get them down to the market and sell them, but hung on to them and got them down to C. Office. Went round and raised ten eggs from houses. In afternoon copied out H.M.G. vouchers, etc., and took them across to O’Gorman (R.A.M.C.) to sign. Paid for fowls and eggs taken, 9s. and 1 8s. 9d. respectively. Pony (brown) galloped hard all time. Could hardly hold him, especially when carrying basket of eggs in right hand. In evening went to get two boxes of biscuits for our boys. Pony went a bit lame; hope it will wear off. Boers expected to attack to-morrow morning. Said to be 3 miles off to-day. Saw big beacon burning some way off on top of a kopje, evidently signalling to brother Boer on the other side of the town. Gave Kleinjohn reading lesson.
“Thursday, 24th.—No attack. Gun fired about 9 o’clock last night, and I thought, as did every one else, that it was the alarm, but this morning heard that it was trained on to a farmhouse during the day and fired at night. At the last moment, however, the commandant made them shift it, so as to put the shell close by the house, because he said there were women and children in it Brown pony went lame. Picked and stewed a lot of peaches. Very good, but Hendrik put too much sugar.
“Friday, 25th.—Went out to E. post with fatigue party to get corrugated iron from ruined house there. Got figs and peaches, and also meat hook. Sent for two boxes biscuits for boys. Wrote and posted long letter to F., also one home. Washed shirt Went up to canteen and got a dozen matches. Starke sent four eggs. Pony still lame. S. is cutting down trees. Mail arrived here yesterday by runner. No war news.
“Sat., 26.—Hear the Queen is very ill. Hope poor old girl will last till war is over. Also hear that some thousands more I.Y. are to be sent out, and that all volunteers attached to regulars have been sent home, and fresh ones sent out in their places. Heard a report that we were to have 5s. a day after Jan. 5 next, the day we enlisted. I must have about £9 or £ 10 owing to me now. Washed breeches. Went up to canteen and bought is. soap. Pony cast both fore shoes, and going very tender. Mem. Get him shod by N.Z. farrier on Monday. Went up to S.-W. post to get eggs, etc., but had all been sent in. Changed Conon Doyle’s ‘Great Shadow ’ for Boothby’s ‘Strange Company.’ Wrote to R. Big guns heard day before yesterday. Boers quiet. S. still cutting down trees. Has cleared about half a mile of country up the spruit away from the church. Mem. Try and raise putties from N.Z. quartermaster, or failing him, N. Lancs, ditto.
“Sunday, 27th.—Absolutely normal. Capt. did not appear all day. Further rumours about illness of Queen.
“Monday, 28th.—S. out all day, and came back in evening loaded with pumpkins and vegetable marrows of Brobdingnagian proportions. Numerous kids visited me during day. Joe Seymour (four) and the two Catos (seven and eight) in great form. The two former engaged in desperate conflicts, generally ending in cries. Hendrik disappeared. He turns out to be a thieving rascal after all. Yesterday I took out razor to do a shave, and found it rusty, dirty, and one curly black hair on it; now (i) I always clean it carefully when I put it away, and my hair is not black. (2) I had noticed that morning that H. had been shaving, as a suspicion of a goatee beard had disappeared. Ergo, I reasoned, it was a clear case. When next I saw him I asked him, not ‘have you been using my razor ? ’ because I knew that he would swear black and blue he hadn’t, but ‘why didn’t you clean my razor when you had finished with it?’ He was much taken aback and tried to laugh it off. So I said that he had been a very good boy in some things, but that if ever I caught him touching any of my things again he should go, besides getting a hiding. He cleared that night, and I haven’t seen him since. To-day I find that he has taken half of what was left of my tin of Navy Cut as a souvenir.
“Went up to N.Z. farrier and got pony shod. For a wonder, he swore and hit the horse with his hammer once only during process.
"Tues., 29th.—‘La Reine est morte; vive le Roi!’ Heard the news to-day. They say she died on the 22nd. Poor old soul. One can’t call it sad, over eighty as she was. But what a pity it should have happened at this time. It may prolong this war. 11 is tremendous news. What a stir it will make at home. I daresay this war hastened it, as she took it much to heart. Suppose they’ll crown the Prince some time in Feb. Shouldn’t wonder if he will begin hanging some of those brutes down in the Colony and elsewhere. It will lop months off the war if he does. Taking it very quietly here. All flags half-mast No salute from guns, as short of ammunition. What a funeral it will be. The Queen dead! Can hardly believe it. The greatest, best, kindest queenliest sovereign in the world is dead!
“Went to library and changed Boothby’s ‘Company’ for Wood’s ‘Channings.’ Asked N.Z. quartermaster for putties. Said he’d try and get me a pair. S. got bad cold. Capt. drove B. out in spider. Buried poor Long, 43rd I.Y., yesterday. That makes two from 43rd.
“Wed., 30th.—Impressive service held in Market Square. Chaplain spoke very well. S. and I attended with the 43rd I.Y. All the ladies turned up. Got receipts from Beyn- ham” (the chaplain who looked after library, mentioned before) “for six seats for Soldiers’ Club.”