Kimberley, November 19, 1899. Goodness only knows when this will get posted, for it is five weeks to-day since we were cut off from the outside world, and though all along we have been hearing of troops on the way to relieve us, they are just as far off as ever, for all we know. I think, therefore, that as there will be such heaps to write about when we are relieved, I had better be getting some of it jotted down.
My last letter was written on October 8th, the day after we had had the parade of all our defence forces. Things went along quietly the first part of the next week, though we kept hearing plenty of rumours as to the Boer movements; but on Thursday, October 12th, the war really began, near Mafeking. Colonel Baden-Powell, who commanded there, seeing that war was inevitable, practically ordered all the women and children to leave, as he foresaw that Mafeking would have a very warm time of it.
They left in a special train, and an armour-plated train escorted it as far as Vryburg, and then started on the return journey. All went well till they got to Kraaipan, about twenty miles this side of Mafeking, and there the Boers had torn up the rails, so that the train ran off the road and came to a standstill. Then they pounded away at her with a small field-gun and rifles, until all resistance ceased, after which they took prisoners any men left alive and carried them off.
The first report we got was that the Boers had put a big gun slap in front of the returning train and blown the whole thing to bits, killing every soul in it; but this turned out not to be true, as the engine-driver managed to elude the Boers, and got away down to Vryburg and gave the correct version. Lieutenant Nesbit, who was in charge of the train, had been warned that the Boers held the line and that it was unsafe for him to return, but I suppose he thought there was just a chance of getting through, and so he risked it. He was reported to be badly wounded, but we have no further news of him so far.
This business considerably astonished us here in Kimberley, for though the people farther up country all said that war was certain to come, we did not at all believe it. The result, of course, was to increase the activity of the military, police, and Town Guard, and everything was done to hurry on our defences as quickly as possible. The 13 th and 14th passed quietly without any alarm, but late on the night of the 14th (Saturday), a well-known man fetched me out to see his child, and told me news had just come in that the railway had been torn up at Spytfontein, about eight miles south of Kimberley. Next morning about 6.30 a.m., Stoney came in to tell me that the railway had also been cut at Riverton Road, ten miles north of Kimberley, and that the waterworks at Riverton had been taken by the Boers and our water supply cut off, so we were practically in a state of siege. The alarm was to sound at about 9 a.m., and every one would have to go to his post. This was nice news, but all we could do was to make the best of it.
My first move was to fill up my big rainwater tank, the big bath, and every available receptacle, so that we should have a reserve to fall back upon in case of need; and most of the people did the same thing.
On the next day notice was given that, in order to economise water as much as possible (the reservoir in the town only holding enough for about three weeks), the supply would only be turned on from nine to eleven o'clock each morning, and that any one found watering a garden or caught using water for anything except purely domestic and necessary purposes would have his supply permanently cut off, without respect of persons.
Quite early in the morning a big proclamation was issued, that from that time forward martial law was in force, and that no one would be allowed out of his house between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. without a special permit.
All Sorts of other subjects were touched upon in the proclamation, but that was the most important. I went round doing my work as usual, but at about 11 a.m. the "hooters" gave the alarm, and every one hurried off to his post. Many people had been warned and expected the alarm, but in the lower quarters of the town it came as a surprise, and there was quite a panic there. In some of the better streets, too, where a few excitable women lived near each other, there was a lively state of things, for they ran around frightening each other with yarns as to the number of Boers that could be seen advancing, and how very easily they could take Kimberley, and all the rest of it.
For some time before this the military people had been busy putting up earthworks and loop-holed forts all round the town—lots of them —in the most salient positions, such as on the tops of the debris heaps, and at the points which commanded the roads, etc. They had also formed a Town Guard—which nearly all tile able-bodied men joined—of all ranks, and these men turned out to man the forts. We had only about six hundred Regulars here and about the same number of Volunteers and Volunteer Artillery. These had all been in camp for some days, but as the circle enclosed by the forts was only thirteen miles round, they could not anything like man the forts, so the idea was, and has been all along, that the Town Guard should man the forts whilst the Regulars, Volunteers, and Artillery were camped in a central position, ready to turn out sharp and proceed to any quarter upon which an attack was made.
Rumours kept flying around all the morning, but nothing happened. A patrol of the Mounted Police went out towards Riverton and was chased by a superior force of Dutch and had to leave behind two men whose horses were either shot or fell with them. One of the men I knew well, as he was the man from whom I always bought my horses. They were reported shot, but some days after we heard that they had only been made prisoners.
The armoured train went out both sides of Kimberley, and was fired on and had to retreat. And so it wore on to night, nothing happening but heaps of rumours and a good deal of scare all around.
Just before the outbreak, Dr Fuller decided to send his wife and family away to Cape Town, and he went part of the way with them. He had only just got back when he had a wire that his baby had been killed in an accident near Beaufort West, so off he went on Friday to his wife, passing Dr. Watkins on the way, the latter on his return from an English holiday. On the Saturday the railway was cut, and so Fuller could not return, but had to go on to Cape Town, and Watkins took his place to work with me at the hospital.
Rhodes turned up here, too, the last day the railway was open. Many people were wild with him, thinking that he would be an additional inducement to the Boers to attack us; but I think it was very plucky of him to come and stand by the town which made him, and with which he is so intimately connected. He did not stay idle long, but began at once to raise a regiment of his own—the Kimberley Light Horse—paying for everything in connection with them out of his own pocket.
Next day (Monday, October 16th) was much quieter. Nothing had been seen or heard of the Dutch, and there were various rumours that relief from Orange River was close at hand, which quieted the people down a good deal.
The 17th was not a happy day for us altogether, though we heard that the Boers had been beaten back from Mafeking and lost many men. Nearer home we heard that the people at Vryburg and Warrenton were either too afraid or too disloyal to help the Mounted Police there, and as the latter were far too few to defend the places successfully without the townspeople's aid, they retired on Kimberley, leaving Vryburg and the Fourteen Streams bridge at Warrenton over the Vaal River to the Dutch. The captain in charge of the Vryburg men was so broken down at having to retreat that it is reported he blew his brains out a few miles from Vryburg. The men at Fourteen Streams left their tents with lights burning in them, but brought everything else off safely. When morning came, the Dutch fired into the deserted camp for two hours, and then sent a Kaffir to see whether any one was left alive! They were surprised to find every one-had gone.
The two lots of police got in safely, via Barkley, on that day (Wednesday, October 18th). Nothing happened except that Agnes's troubles began. Heaps of people had rushed into town on the first day of alarm, and had no occupation or means of livelihood, and a relief committee was formed to inquire into their cases and help them if they were deserving. Agnes, always a too willing horse at any philanthropic foolishness, commenced to work six hours a day at this game. After a few days she was dead beat, and so I cut the work down to three, and even that knocked her over after a couple of weeks. When there was a talk of relief, as usual lots of folks declined to work, but tried their best to get food for nothing.
One day over one hundred and sixty natives were told that if they wanted help they must work for it, and stone-breaking work was offered them. Three accepted it, and that was about the style of most of the people who applied for relief.
On Thursday, October 19th, there were all sorts of rumours about as to the railway having been broken all the way down to Hex River and that the Colonial Dutch had risen to join the Transvaal. This made a run on the provision stores, as if it were true, it meant that it would be a long time before we could get new supplies of food in. At least some people thought so, forgetting that most of our supplies come via Port Elizabeth, which is nearly two hundred miles nearer. Anyhow, there was a run on provisions, etc., and the storekeepers naturally put the prices up, and they did it with a vengeance. Paraffin, which had been selling at sixteen shillings and sixpence, went up to three pounds for a ten-gallon case, and other things in proportion. We had got in a fair stock of stuff previous to this, but I bought two sacks of flour to be on the safe side.
This tremendous run up of prices made it very hard on the poor, and so the military authorities took the matter in hand, and issued a proclamation next day that all prices were to be exactly the same as they were before the siege began. This was a very good thing, and of course they took good care to see that it was carried out by providing heavy penalties for any one who did overcharge.
We have had plenty of military proclamations, but most of them have been quite wise, such as forbidding the sale of liquor to natives except during very limited hours, and later on absolutely prohibiting the sale of liquor to them at all. The bar-keepers did not like this last order, but after one of them was fined thirty pounds and got his bar completely closed till the end ot the siege came, they saw that they had to obey it.
At about this time my new single-horse trap was completed, and I tried two ot my horses in it and found they went very well. This was lucky, for horse-keep looked like getting dear, and as we were shut in, there was not so much work in the outlying places. I therefore thought that I would sell out all but my best horses, and do the work with three, or even two, if keep got to be too dear. I did the good citizen by lending one horse to the Volunteers, on condition that I was to have him back when things came right, but if he died or got shot, that was better than having him looted by some thieving Boer. I sold another horse to the Light Horse, and found that I could do my work with the three remaining ones quite well, running a single horse half the day and the old cart with a pair the other half.
About the first day I had the new cart out I had an amusing experience. After the first alarm the military people blocked up all the small streets leading into the town with barricades of old waggons, carts, water-tanks, and other heavy lumber, and where this was not available they put up strong, high, barbed-wire fences, eight or nine strands. This was, of course, to prevent any rushing of the town by the Boers, and most of the barricades were artfully arranged so that if a rush were made the Boers would be blocked just under the forts or redoubts, from which our men could pot them with great comfort, both with rifles and Maxims, of which we had a good supply. Not that previous experience led us to believe that the Boers would be likely to rush us, as they prefer to be behind shelter and shoot at long range, and have far too great a respect for their own dirty hides to venture an assault. Another little surprise packet that was carefully arranged for them was to bury dynamite in the places that seemed likely for them to use as attacking points (of course at a safe distance from the forts), and arrange for the electrical firing of them when required.
This little dodge was diligently talked about and very soon got over to the Boers, but as no one but the initiated few knew just where the dynamite was buried, it left the Boers with the pleasant feeling that wherever they chose to attack it was just as likely as not that their worthless insides would be blown out by dynamite, which I have no doubt did not much increase their ardour.
The main streets were barricaded in just the same way as the small ones, but an opening was left in the centre, and a guard was put on either side of Volunteers or Town Guard or police (all fully armed), with orders to allow no one to pass in or out without a properly signed permit, and even then to search both their carts and pockets if they thought fit. The first day these orders were in force I wanted to see a patient about one hundred yards beyond one of the barriers. I did not know the orders, as no notice of them had been given, and when I got near the barrier I saw carts being stopped, so I said to the man on guard, "Are you going to stop me too?"
"Yes," he said, "unless you have a permit."
"May I leave my cart here and walk over there to see the patient?"
"No; if you have no permit, neither you nor the cart can pass."
So I said, "All right, orders are orders; I will go and get a pass."
The joke was that the man on guard was a patient of my own and knew me well, but he was quite right.
On more than one occasion Rhodes has been stopped at the barrier, and asked for his permit; and at one barrier, where the orders were to search everybody, the guard stopped him and told him that he would have to be searched. Rhodes fumed and blustered, and said he had never heard of such insolence, but the guard was firm; so Rhodes burst out laughing and produced a permit to pass the barrier without being searched. He was just trying it on. Whatever else he may be, he is no coward; he goes through the barrier and rides far out on the veldt almost every afternoon with only one or two friends and no escort at all. He always wears white flannel trousers, and is most conspicuous. Nothing could save him if a Boer chose to lie in wait and pot him with a long-range shot; and as the Mauser rifle which the Boers use carries well over a mile, the shooter could be well in amongst his own people long before any of ours could get a chance at him.
That this could easily happen is shown by what did happen on October 20th. A patrol of the Mounted Volunteers (Diamond Fields Horse) was out scouting early in the morning; no Boers were seen anywhere about, when a shot was fired, and one of the sergeants fell off his horse—dead. The men hunted everywhere round about, but could not find a sign or footprint of anybody. The modern ammunition is smokeless powder, so no smoke was seen and no one knows who fired the shot.
On the same day we heard that the Boers had issued a proclamation declaring Bechuanaland to be Transvaal, and Griqualand West Orange Free State, territory; but of course our commander, Colonel Kekewich, promptly issued a counter-proclamation, warning all loyal subjects not to have any truck with such foolishness, as these territories were still British, in spite of the Boer proclamation.
Kekewich is the colonel in command of the Lancashires; he is a Devonshire man, though his name does not sound like it, and is a splendid fellow. Everybody likes him. He is the head of the whole business, and must have an anxious time, as he is responsible for everything. I think I told you that a big look-out had been put up on top of the most centrally situated mine-head gear. This must be about a hundred and twenty feet above the street level, and gives a splendid view of all the surrounding country; and here the colonel spends most of his day, watching what the Boers—and our own men too, for that matter— are up to. The top of this tower is in telephonic communication with all the forts, so that orders are sent from it to all points with great rapidity.
At night there are strong electric searchlights in commanding positions at the forts, and they are at work during all the dark hours, so that it is impossible for the Boers to make any advance without its being at once seen. That is the advantage of having an immensely wealthy company like De Beers' in the place. They have skilled mechanics and electricians, and machinery and appliances, to do almost anything, and a jolly mess we should have been in without them. As a matter of fact, though, we should never have been besieged but for the mines. The Boers openly gave out that they wanted to take Rhodes prisoner and to blow up his mines, and did not wish to injure anybody else.
After the first alarm the De Beers people brought in all or a great part of their cattle from their outlying farms, and herded about fifteen hundred of them just outside Kenilworth. Having failed to do much by cutting off our water supply, the Boers thought they would next try for our food supply, and I suppose their natural love of cattle stirred them up too, for if there is anything that a Boer will risk his immortal soul to get, it is cattle.