About this time the De Beers Company began to turn its attention to the making of shells. We had a very good supply, but not knowing how long we were going to be shut up, the Company thought they might as well be making some, so they turned to and started, and very well they succeeded. Their shells, though perhaps not so nicely finished as those turned out at Woolwich, gave every satisfaction to our artillery officers, and we trust to the Dutch too; and they had the additional advantage of having "With C. J. R.'s Comps." stamped upon them, which must have mightily amused any gentle Boer who got hit by one. The Company turned out about sixty a day, so we had no fear that shells would run short.
Ever since we were shut in, we have been hearing all sorts of rumours as to the date when our relief column would arrive; even after three days we had "reliable" news that it was at Modder River, and as time went on these got more and more inaccurate. Every one you came across had definite information as to the date when it would arrive, and every one's date was different. At last we came to the conclusion that we would expect it when we saw it.
Things went jogging along quietly without much happening. Most days there was a little shooting between our patrols and the Boers, generally without any damage being done, and most days a few shells were fired either at the people guarding our cattle or at Wesselton or somewhere else. Shells we had got used to, and did not much mind, but on some days when the wind was in the right quarter the report of the gun and "whiz" of the shell sounded very close.
Our bedroom faced the quarter from which most of the shells came, and sometimes when the guns woke me up and sounded very close I used to think they were too near to be pleasant. Downstairs in the hall, even if a shell had come into the house, I hardly think it would have touched us, as it would have had to come through two good brick walls, and I don't think they could do that at the range they were firing at.
On the 24th Agnes and I had quite a nice little excitement. I heard from Mackenzie that the men in one or two of the forts were rather short of tobacco. Many of the better-known forts were loaded up with all sorts of presents from the townspeople, but the more out-of-the-way ones did not come off so well. I laid in twenty pounds of Transvaal tobacco and two hundred cigars, and went round to the neglected forts. At one of them that looked north we had quite a bit of fun. The men were very polite and showed us everything—a Maxim gun, amongst others, and the man in charge showed us the way it worked. We had some field-glasses with us, and could see the Boers moving around the veldt about a mile and three-quarters away, between their head camp and the railway.
Presently the armoured train went out, and the Boers fired a gun at it. The gun was about the same distance from us as from the railway, and they fired across us, so we could see the shots well. They fired six shots at the train, but only one went near it, and then they fired a last shot, and this time they had slewed the gun round and fired at our fort. Of course it was too far off for us to see how the gun pointed, but we saw the flash and puff of smoke, and heard the "whiz" of the shell, evidently coming our way. We did not have much time to think, but the men all yelled to us to crouch down behind the rampart, and the shell struck and burst about a hundred yards away, of course quite harmlessly. Then a message came from the conning tower that every one was to leave the fort except those actually on duty, so we had to go.
Later on in the afternoon I went up to the top of the conning tower and had a look round. There is a splendid view all over from there, but I only had a few minutes to spare, and you want to be up there hours to take in all the country round, things look so different from the top side. When the trouble is over I will go up and spend an afternoon there with a glass, and take in everything quietly.
On the next morning (November 25th) we were waked about five o'clock by heavy gun firing, and soon after heavy rifle firing began, so I knew there would soon be some wounded about. I got up and went down to the hospital about six, and Watkins turned up soon after. We waited about a little, and then, as there was no news of any wounded, were just going off to a bit of high ground near the hospital to see if we could discover what was going on.
Just then a telephone message came to say that we were to go out where the fighting was going on, as more doctors were wanted. It did not seem the right order, as we knew that there would be wounded coming in presently, and our allotted post was at the hospital; however, it was an order, so off we went. Watkins had a "bike," but mine was busted, and I was walking. I walked along home without meeting a cab, and then I got hold of a milkcart, which took me about a quarter of a mile, and then I found a cab. I went out as hard as I could go, and followed an ambulance that I could see in front of me. We got a little way beyond the barrier when I met some of our men coming in with about a score of Dutch prisoners, and a dirty, low-class-looking lot they were.
A little farther on I met some more of them, and the men who were bringing them in told me the Boers would pot me if I went farther out. However, the ambulance was still ahead, so on I went after it. The rifle firing had been getting a good deal slacker, and by the time I caught the ambulance it had practically stopped. Three or four ambulances were just starting for the hospital, and every one seemed to have been attended to, but they brought a Boer along with a big hole in his head, and I bandaged him up and sent him along in one of them. The ambulances were on the road just under the crest of a hill, and a good lot of our men were scattered on both sides of the road, also under the brow of the hill. Dr. Watkins was somewhere about. I saw his bicycle on the roadside, but could not see him.
After waiting for a little time, an order came from the colonel that our ambulance was to move off to the left, keeping under cover of the hill, so we went along over the. veldt for a few hundred yards, and then pretty smart rifle firing began again at the men near whom we were. Then we got an order to draw off home with the ambulance, as our men were going to retire. This being the case, I did not see that I was doing any good there, and I knew that a lot of wounded had gone along to the hospital, and there was only the junior house-surgeon there to receive them, Russell having gone out with the Army doctor to see the fun. So I decided to get back to the hospital as soon as I could.
I took a beeline across the open to my cab, and, as the firing was fairly hot, was a little exposed to it. Five or six bullets whistled over me, probably not aimed at me at all, but I have no doubt they would have laid me out quite as neatly, if they had hit me in the right spot, as if they had been meant for me.
The small-bore bullet makes a tiny little "whiz," more like a big mosquito than anything else, and does not sound as if it could possibly hurt.
I got back to the cab all right, and went straight along to the hospital, and found, as I had expected, heaps of wounded, and no one to look after them. I waded right into them, and Watkins and some more of the doctors soon turned up, so we got them shipshape before long. I got some badly wounded this time. One poor youngster of eighteen was shot in the abdomen, and his bowel was cut open about ten times. I had to cut one piece about ten inches long clean out, and to stitch up a lot of other places; but I felt that he had no chance, and sent for his people and told them so at once. He died about six hours after. His father and mother had cleared out when the war scare began, but he would not go; he stayed and joined the Light Horse. Another man fell to me with a badly broken arm, the bone being very much shattered; and another with a bullet clean through his liver. Another had a bullet in his thigh, which I cut out and have stuck to, together with a big bullet I picked up on the veldt. Our loss was six killed and twenty-nine wounded, but we believe that the Boers lost very heavily, and we took thirty-five prisoners.
I forgot to say that two severely wounded Boers fell to me at the hospital. Both of them were rather badly hit, but they did well, and were not long about it. As soon as they were able to get up, I had them transferred to the gaol hospital, as they could easily escape from the big hospital. The man whose head I bandaged up on the field was badly damaged—in fact, Shields said that when he took off my bandage, about a third of the man's brains fell out, and this is very nearly the absolute truth. Anyhow, he lived three days, and would probably have lived altogether, but they washed him, and, being a Boer, the shock to his system was so great that he succumbed.
The history of the day's fight was that our men drove the Boers out of the ridge from which they had been shelling the town with heavy loss, but as strong reinforcements of Boers came up, they very wisely retired, and did not attempt to hold the position.
Watkins got out a few minutes before I did, and was right up in the firing line whilst the fire was still very hot, but he came out all right. Some well-known men were hit in this fight. One poor chap (he is one of the three men who rent my old house) got the middle part of his lower jaw smashed into splinters. It is a horrid wound, not dangerous to life, but I am afraid the deformity that is left will be very bad.
Most of the Boer prisoners were of the very lowest class, and came from Bloemhof, a little Transvaal town not far from Christiana, where I have been several times. Two at least of them came from Barkly West, where they had been working in some relief work that the Government had started for the benefit of poor whites. But this is Boer gratitude. Some of these prisoners had Free State newspapers on them, which gave us later news than any we had been able to get.
These papers gave a letter from the commandant who was bombarding Kimberley, in which he said he had directed his shells to the middle of the town to "do as much damage as possible."This, like firing on ambulances, is directly against the Geneva Convention, which lays down that bombardment should, as far as possible, be directed against fortifications, and not against private buildings. But the Boer cares for none or these things; he is just an ignorant savage, and knows and cares nothing for conventions.
On the whole this was a good day's work, though we lost rather heavily; but it showed that the Boers were not always invincible, even behind their earthworks.
The next day a doctor came in from the Boers for chloroform and brandy. He was a Scotchman, and said he had been compelled to go with the Boers—which is a little thin, as he could have stayed in Kimberley if he had wanted to when he was here. He got his chloroform and brandy all right.
On the 28th we had another fight. When I came in to lunch I found a note from the captain of the Ambulance Corps asking me to be ready to go out with the ambulance at 3.30 p.m., as our men were going out in force. I wrote a note to say all right, but ran across the man who he said had told him to write to me. In the course of conversation I said that I should be there to time, and he asked me what I meant. When I explained, he was surprised, and said I must stay at the hospital and not go out, as he had got a wigging for sending Dr. Watkins and me away from our posts a few days before. I was a bit disappointed, but of course had to obey orders; and, as it turned out, I did not miss much. All the afternoon there was lots of firing, both rifle and artillery, but no wounded turned up. About half-past seven we got news that the wounded were coming in, so I went down to the hospital.
Dr. Mackenzie had been somewhere watching the fight, and came in with glowing accounts of the way in which our men had hammered the Boers, stormed their fort, taken their big gun, and generally done great things. This was very nice, but when the wounded turned up we began to hear another tale. The first few said that we had lost heavily, but knew no details; and then others came who told us that Colonel Scott Turner, who commanded all the mounted men, was killed, and lots of others, and that we had not taken the gun, or fort, or anything else.
The wounded kept straggling in by ones and twos, and now and then an ambulance brought more, and so it went on until about 2.30 a.m., when the last one was finished. Altogether about thirty wounded were treated, but I only got about six of them, for, after doing a few, Watkins got a man who was shot through the bowels, and he asked me to help fix him up. It was a worse mess than I had had with my own man a few days previously, and took nearly two hours to fix up. The poor chap only lived about twelve hours after.
We got home to bed about three, and were uncommonly glad to get there. Next day was a very sad one, for by this time we knew that we had lost a lot of men, but how many we did not know till the Boers sent in to say they had nineteen of our dead, and we could fetch them; and so we did. The total loss was twenty-two killed at the time, and two died after in hospital. The nineteen were so smashed up that there was some ground for the rumours that after our men had retired the Boers had gone round and finished off any wounded who were still alive. They had all been very near the Boer fort, so that might account for the severity of their wounds, but nobody knows except the Boers.
The colonel was shot dead, quite close to the fort, leading on his men. He was a very brave man, but rash, and though the townspeople were a good deal upset at his death, there was a curious undercurrent in his own men's sorrow. They all felt that he was reckless, and likely at any time to endanger all their lives. Of course they all knew that any of their sorties were very risky, but Turner always seemed to go in for unnecessary risks, and the men naturally did not like it.
All the dead were buried on the Wednesday afternoon (November 29th), and the whole town was gloomy. It is said that Scott Turner's orders were to attack the Boer position and do what he could, but not to press the attack on the fort, as that would be too costly; but Turner could not hold himself, and went for the fort.
In one of the Boer positions which our men took they captured one hundred and fifty shells of a very deadly kind, seven barrels of gunpowder, and a few other things; but the price we paid for them was far too heavy. On that same Wednesday night we got signals from the relief column that they were coming along.
From this time things were pretty quiet, and there was no further firing into the town. Most of the Boers were supposed to have gone down to meet the column, but they left enough to prevent our men doing much; though no actual fighting took place until December 9th, when our men went out to the Homestead and had an artillery fight with the Boers at Kamfersdam. There was a lot of firing, but not much damage was done; one of our men only was killed and two wounded, all of these by the bullets from shrapnel shell, which are just like those I used to make with a mould at home.