On Tuesday, October 24th, a patrol of our men was out, and ran across a strong force of Boers, whose object was evidently to raid these cattle. A brisk engagement ensued about six miles out. Reinforcements went out to our men, but owing to their being guided by a man who did not know the ground well, they got into difficulties, and were well peppered by a body of Boers who had taken up their position behind the bank of a dry dam, of the existence of which the guide was ignorant. The colonel, seeing there was likely to be a defeat, sent out some of the Lancashires in the armoured train, and they cleared the Boers out in style, and converted what was very nearly a disaster to our men into at any rate a drawn game. The Boers drew off, and so did we. The butcher's bill on our side was pretty heavy—three killed and about twenty-five wounded, four of them severely. Out of the wounded, three were officers, and two of them were severely damaged, the bullets having splintered up the thigh-bone in both cases.
The Boer loss was not, and never will be, known, but must have been pretty heavy. The only certain thing about it was that their commandant was killed. He was left on the field when the Boers retired, and, being a man from Boshof and well known in Kimberley, he was easily identified by our people. He was in Kimberley on the Saturday afternoon that all the forces were reviewed, and is reported to have rather sneered at the show, saying it would just be a nice handful for the Boers. Thank goodness he got his dose early, and as he was well known and popular among the Boers, his death jarred them up considerably.
We had a pretty busy time at the hospital when the wounded came in. I got five of them under my hands, but only two were more than trifles—an officer shot through the chest and a sergeant shot through the arm, splintering up the bone. We doctors had all of us seen a few bullet wounds with revolvers and such like, but had no experience of the modern rifle bullet, and it was a revelation to us. The bullet, especially of the Mauser rifle which the Dutch use, is so small and travels with such velocity that it drills clean through everything, and unless it strikes a vital part, or hits a bone or big artery, the injury it inflicts is ridiculous. The officer shot through the chest left the hospital on the eighth day, and returned to duty on the ninth, and his duty consisted of at least twelve miles' riding every day. Wounds through the fleshy parts heal in a couple of days, and give no trouble after a week.
But a Mauser bullet will drive clean through anything. One poor chap in another engagement was shot in the ribs of the right side, far back, and the bullet travelled right through him in a slanting direction and came out at the outer side of the left thigh, about its middle, cutting the spine right across on its way and completely paralysing him. He only lived a few hours. Another bullet in this Dronfield fight of which I have been speaking hit the ammunition box of the Maxim gun. The ammunition is carried in a stout canvas belt, like the leather thing they call a bandolier. The box is stout, and the cartridges are solid brass (not cardboard), and yet the bullet drove through the box, and through no less than ten cartridges, with the intervening twenty thicknesses of canvas, and none of the cartridges exploded.
After this brush, things were very quiet for several days. We got news of some of the Natal fights, and heard that the Boers had been repulsed from Mafeking every time they tried to take it, which encouraged us a good deal. There were many disquieting rumours, though, as to the strength of the Boers and the big siege-guns they were bringing to bombard us with. The alarmists talked glibly about forty-pounders, as if you could carry them about in your waistcoat pocket, though our artillerymen told us that a forty-pounder is so heavy that it would take about seventy mules or oxen to drag it. This, however, was a detail which the alarmists ignored. They could raise the mules right enough, but that they would get a heavy gun eighty miles across country without a foot of metalled road in the whole distance seemed to me too big a job for their size.
All on from October 8 th we had beautiful rains at intervals of a few days, and the water came in very handy. I got in another big water-tank and arranged my water-pipes to run into it. During every rain I slopped around with a bucket and a mackintosh, filling every available receptacle just like old times at home. Our garden was coming on beautifully when we had to give up watering it, but the rains kept it just going, and I managed to keep the vines and vegetables alive with bath and slop-water. At first we filled the tanks and kept them as a reserve in case the water in the reservoir gave out before we were relieved, but by the time we had been shut up about three weeks the De Beers Company, as usual, came to the rescue.
One of their mines, Wesselton, has a big stream of underground water in it, and this water has for the last year or two been pumped into a dam at Kenilworth, from which it is taken to the floors and used for washing the "blue" or diamondiferous earth. In one place this water-main ran not very far from the water company's main, so De Beers' put on a lot of niggers and joined the two, and were then able to pump from Wesselton to the reservoir. So we had a good supply of water once more, much harder than our regular supply from the Vaal River, but quite good all the same, and quite sufficient for all purposes except watering gardens. After this supply was fixed up, we felt quite safe in using any rain-water we saved for the garden, and did so; but a good many of the shallow rooted things had died, though the vegetables were flourishing.
The first rumour about the waterworks had been that the Boers had blown up the pumping machinery on the first day of the siege, but this turned out to be incorrect. They took possession of it and of the enginemen, and were going to blow it up, but a wily engineman is reported to have said: "Why do you destroy your own property? When you have taken Kimberley, you will want a water supply just the same, and it will cost a good deal to replace the machinery." He went on to suggest that they could cut off the Kimberley water and do themselves a good turn at the same time by pulling up the pipes at a place six miles from the river where they ran through a pan which had water in it only after very heavy rains; then they could pump river-water into this pan, and thus have a watering place for their horses much nearer Kimberley. The Boers tumbled to this plan and carried it out. Of course the engineman's idea was to try and save the pumps if possible, but the Boers have laid dynamite ready to blow them up if they have to retreat, and they probably will do so unless the wily man manages to wet the dynamite.
The hotel-keeper at Riverton where we have stayed several times is said to be doing a roaring trade, as the Boers are paying him for all they take, but this was arranged by the commandant who was shot. He was a great friend of the hotel-keeper's. Whether this state of things will go on now, nobody knows, but the Boers are quite equal to demanding every penny he has and then shooting him when they retreat. That is what one is afraid of for the outlying people. So long as all goes well with them, the Boers may be fairly civil, but when they are beaten and have to retreat, there is no dastardly cruelty of which they might not be guilty. The cowardly brutes have said that in that case they intend to shoot men, women, and children. On the other hand, if they were to win, their programme, as laid down by their own rabble, is "to shoot all the Englishmen and to give their women to the Kaffirs." These are the people of whom Olive Schreiner writes, "The simple God-fearing farmer," etc., etc.
All this time we were, of course, under martial law and not allowed out between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. without a permit. Many special constables were sworn in, and patrolled the streets at night in pairs, one with a rifle and the other with a revolver. At first they were very energetic, and it was "Halt! Who goes there? Advance one and give the countersign" at about every hundred yards. After a week or two they quieted down a bit, but are still fairly lively, particularly if you are in a cab driving at night. A few nights ago I was stopped in a cab by a most ferocious individual. He yelled out: "Why don't you stop? If you don't stop the minute I challenge, be God I'll shoot!" At least, that was the sense of what he said, but his accent was beyond me; however, thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that he was either a Jew drunk on Scotch whiskey or an Irishman ditto with German beer.
After the Dronfield fight on October 24th nothing happened in the war department for a long time, but I was pretty busy medically, and a case of smallpox developed down in Beaconsfield, which made rather a scare, but the man and another man who shared his room were promptly taken out to the lazaretto, and no further cases developed.
On the 31st we received our first intimation that the Boers had got some artillery with them, as they fired some shots from a field-gun at a patrol of our men which was out in the Free State direction to the north-east of Kimberley, but no one was hit.
On November 1st about 2 p.m. we heard a tremendous explosion, and on looking round saw a huge column of smoke to the north, over the dynamite magazines, so we guessed that the Boers had blown up the De Beers' stock of dynamite, and this afterwards turned out to be true. This dynamite had been stored in the town, but the Town Council got scared, fearing that if bombardment took place and a shell struck it, it would blow the whole town to bits, so they had it removed some distance out. The De Beers people used to fetch in what they wanted every day, but on this same morning the Boers had fired on them when they were going out, and so they had to return without any.
The Company was very angry with the Town Council about this, because they said that they could have kept the dynamite with perfect safety inside the town limits, by dividing it up into small lots, and keeping these in separate places. The mines had to be shut down very soon after this for want of dynamite, but it did not really make much difference, as they ran short of fuel only a few days after. On this same day, too, we started on brown bread by military order. There was a far larger stock of coarse meal than of flour in the town, so the colonel ordered the making of white bread to cease, and all the bread to be made of three-quarter meal and quarter flour.
On the 2nd a smaller dynamite magazine was blown up, but it only made a very small explosion compared with the first one. On this day a Jewish patient of mine amused me very much. He had a store out at Windsorton, but he and his family lived in Kimberley. He managed to get out to his store to see how things were going on, and the Boers had not interfered with him, beyond frightening the soul out of him with their boasting. They told him that they had shelled Mafeking and killed everybody in it, and that they were going to do the same for Kimberley. He came straight back to fetch his wife and family out to the store "for safety," though his wife had only been confined a fortnight. He must have been badly scared, for he said the Boers had commandeered a hundred pounds' worth of goods from his store, but "that is nothing." For a Hebrew to call a hundred pounds "nothing," means that he is off his head with funk. I asked him what the Dutch said of the Dronfield fight, and he replied that they had told him they had killed forty English, wounded one hundred, and captured one hundred and fifty horses.
"You know yourself," I said, "that four were killed and twenty-five wounded that day, so how can you believe them in other things when they lie so frightfully about the things you do know?"
To my great surprise, he decided to stay in town, but I did not at all expect he would be so sensible.
The next day (November 3rd) was a very anxious day. The alarm sounded at 10 a.m., the Boers again trying to raid the Kenilworth cattle, but after a good deal of long-range firing they were driven off, only one man of ours being wounded. The men had just got in, when another attack seemed likely on the opposite side of the town. There was pretty heavy fighting there for a couple or hours, and we got our first sound of artillery fire, our guns backing up our mounted men, and blazing away well. Between them they managed to drive the Boers off, with two men on our side wounded. Dr. Watkins got a man wounded through the right lung, who ultimately did quite well, and I got a poor chap who was shot in the side of the head, and who died on the operating-table as I was seeing if anything could be done for him.
The sanitary system here is a pail system. All the closets have pails, and these are taken away, and fresh ones put in, every other night. The full pails are carted away in big covered vans that always remind me of the menagerie vans that used to come through Garton on the way from Roos to Aldborough. There are a good many of these vans, and they take a lot of oxen to draw them. The work is done by short-sentence native prisoners, under proper guards, and vans, oxen, and natives— in fact, the whole plant—are kept at a big compound, a mile from town.
On this afternoon the Boers made their attack from this quarter, and began by raiding all the vans and the oxen that pulled them. This looked like altogether disorganising the sanitary service, and in the afternoon edition of the paper (a piece the size of a single sheet of notepaper, price threepence) a request was issued to all householders to dig holes three feet deep in their gardens or yards, and empty their pails into them, adding a covering of earth. This looked all right, but how to dig a three-foot hole when eighteen inches brought you down to solid rock, as it does in some parts of the town, was not explained by the authorities. Then, again, for every man who would carry this scheme out properly, there would certainly be ten who were too idle or careless to bother about it. On the face of it, this plan was no good. I did my own scavenging for one day, but then the sanitary contractors managed to carry out their work with other plant, and so this difficulty was got over.
On the next day everything started quiet, but the De Beers' steam "hooter" went at noon, because a party of Boers were hovering round Wesselton. in a threatening way. Our people dropped a few shells about their ears, and they concluded that they did not want Wesselton as badly as they had thought. On this day (November 4th) we heard of the twelve hundred men in Natal who had pursued the Boers too far and been obliged to surrender when their ammunition gave out, and very sick we felt about it. I also heard of the packet of dynamite that had been found under the big bridge in the centre of the town. A policeman went under the bridge, and some men scuttled away, leaving a parcel behind them which turned out to be dynamite. As a matter of fact, unless a hole had been drilled deep and the dynamite properly put in it, there was not enough to burst the bridge. But it showed plainly what we all knew quite well, that we had traitors in the camp.
When the trouble first began, and martial law was proclaimed, a court-martial was established. Its members were partly Army officers, and partly civilians. The civilians were the resident magistrates of Kimberley and Beaconsfield, the Civil Commissioner of Kimberley, and one of the High Court judges. This court tried all people who broke the martial law provisions, such as those who were out after hours without permits, who broke through the barriers, or had arms in their possession illegally, or who were in any way in communication with the Boers. In theory the constitution of the court seemed all right, but in practice it was absurd. The military members were too full of more important work to attend, and so the civilians had it all their own way. They were all men who had to do with civil law cases, and consequently were always wanting minute and conclusive evidence before they convicted a man. That is all right in civil work, but it is no use in a case like ours. What was wanted was a court of men who knew no law, but understood common sense. A court like this would have decided that if there was the shadow of suspicion against a man, it would be safer to gaol him out of harm's way until the siege was over.
But this court was ruled by the superior officer of the others in ordinary times, and most offenders were dismissed with a caution. Everybody was very disgusted with the court in consequence. On one occasion some men were seen on a debris heap waving flags to the Boers, whilst they (the Boers) were actually firing shells into the town. Some police went and collared the men, and then this extraordinary court asked the police whether they could positively swear that their captures were the men who waved the flags. As the heap was half a mile off, of course the police could not swear to them, so they were dismissed with the usual caution.
On this same day (November 4th) there was a rumour that the Boers had sent an "ultimatum" to the colonel that if he did not surrender in twenty-four hours, they would bombard the town. Whether true or not, this yarn was widely believed, and many people expected the shelling would begin at daybreak on the 6th, but it did not. They fired two shells at sunset at Wesselton mine, and we thought we were in for a night bombardment. The hooters went, and every one turned out to his post, but nothing happened.
This was the last we heard of the hooters, and everybody was glad. It was a weird, ghastly sounding alarm, and scared nervous people out of their senses, so the colonel stopped it and instituted a cone alarm, like a wind cone on a pier, but so far I have never seen it. The hooter was the one used to tell the miners their time, and we were used to two blasts from it when the shifts changed, three times a day, but the three blasts frequently repeated during this part of the siege fairly gave one the horrors, especially at night. It will be a long time before we forget those three blasts, and when things are settled and we start our usual two again, it will be some time before we give up pricking up our ears and listening for the third hoot when we hear the first two.