About this time the military began to worry us with proclamations. First we all had to report how many horses we had, and a few days later there was a notice that horse-owners might use the horse-feed they had, but when that was done none would be issued except for horses used for military operations. Fortunately my stablemen had a fair supply. Then there was a trouble about condensed milk. None was allowed to be sold except on a doctor's order, and then only for infants and sick people, and one wrote more orders for milk than for prescriptions about this time.
We had been for some time on an allowance of meat. At first it was not very strictly adhered to, but now it began to be doled out in the regulation quantity. We were very lucky, for our butcher used to send us ours the same as usual; but he was the only butcher allowed to have meat by the military, and most people had to go and wait their turn and scramble for the meat. As most of the men in town were in the Town Guard, in many cases the women had to go and try to get the meat allowance for themselves, and were often shoved out of the way and did not get any. There was a great deal of growling about the meat supply, and as there were lots of cattle, it seemed as if a better allowance could be made and a better system of distributing it arranged. Of course I suppose the military officers did their best to arrange these things, and as there were not many of them, they had their hands very full.
As time went on, however, a lot of dissatisfaction arose in the town as to the way the officers went on their way rejoicing and issuing orders that were very nice from their point of view, but did not seem at all calculated to promote the welfare of the townspeople. And a military officer is like a mule —he is so puffed up with his own importance that he never listens to any other view of a matter except his own. Personally our officers were very nice people, but as a body I have no doubt their creed was that Kimberley was made for the especial benefit of their regiment.
Well, after this I must get back to the recording of events; but really, except for rumours about the upcoming column, nothing happened until December 9th. On that day our artillery went out to the Homestead and tried to shell the Boers out of a strong position they had taken up in one of the outside mines, Kamfersdam; but though they blazed away merrily at each other for a long time, not such a great deal of damage was done. One of our men was killed and three were slightly wounded. The Boer loss was two killed and a few wounded, but we don't know how many, and we did not drive them from their position.
On Sunday (the 10th) a little distant firing was heard late in the afternoon, and it was reported that a few shells had been seen bursting on the Spytfontein hills, where the Boers were massed in strong force, the shells having evidently been fired by the relief column.
On the next morning heavy cannon firing began before five and kept on till after nine. It was tremendous, and was just like volley firing with cannon. A dozen reports would come in quick succession, the whole of them perhaps in less than a minute, and for about four hours this sort of thing was almost incessant. Some of the shells could be seen bursting in the same kopjes as on the previous night, but whether the bulk of the noise was from our guns or the Boers' we did not know. Of course, after all this we were confident that our column would come in in the afternoon, but somehow or other it did not; and though I am now writing on December 16th, and all this took place five days ago within twenty miles of here, you know far more of what happened than I do. As our column has not arrived, we imagine that the Dutch position was too strong for our men to force, but whether this is really so is not known.
We are all mighty sick at the lack of news. Whether the officers have any or not we do not know, but they are very careful that the civilians know nothing. Sixteen days after the fight at Modder River we were allowed to have extracts from the despatches published, and that is about the time any news is allowed to mellow before we are presented with it. We don't want to know what are the plans of the general, but we can't help wanting to know something of the things that have happened. I suppose the Army red tape forbids anything being told civilians until it is too old to interest them. And the folly of that red tape! Oh, Lord, how silly it is!
The military orders on one occasion towards the end of November contained the interesting information that on October 6th a company of the Town Guard went out to the rifle butts to practise, and returned after they had finished. Another day the tit-bit was that mule No. so-and-so, belonging to the Royal Artillery, had died, and was accordingly struck off the strength of the regiment from the date of its death. Then, again, a few nights ago, when the searchlights were signalling, an important message was sent through, and all concerned strained their eyes to get hold of it rightly. When got it was: "What is the number branded on the hoof of the horse issued to O_____?" O_____ is the military doctor, and he has not heard the last of that horse yet.
After the heavy cannonading on the 11th, everything was deadly dull for a time. A few distant guns were heard on the 12th, and now and then the Boers dropped a few shells into Wesselton, but beyond this there was no news, and nothing doing outside. Inside there was great excitement, for somehow a rumour got around that a proclamation would be issued to the effect that all women and children, and all men not actually bearing arms or in some other way indispensable to the defence of the town, would be compelled to leave Kimberley as soon as the railway was opened. A notice was printed that free passes on the railway would be given to people not able to pay the fare to wherever they wished to go, and this gave some colour to the compulsory story.
Anyhow, though there was no official notification that any such scheme was contemplated, it was known that such a plan had been debated by the Town Council and the military, and later on that the colonel had received positive orders from headquarters to carry it out. The reason was that as the railway from here to Orange River (eighty miles) ran through what was practically enemy's country, it would need to be guarded all the time, or the Boers would rip it up again. Then to efficiently guard that length of line would need an enormous number of men, for unless almost every yard was looked after carefully, a single Boer could sneak in and take out a rail or two and so disgruntle the line again. As this enormous number of men could not be spared for long, the authorities saw there was a choice or two things—either to bring up food to Kimberley or take Kimberley to the food, and then let the line look after itself.
Naturally, being officials, the wrong thing seemed right to them, and they seem to have decided to take Kimberley to the food. This was very nice in theory, but when you consider that all the colonial towns—Cape Town as well as others—were already overcrowded with refugees from up-country, the hotels and boarding-houses being full up, it seemed to our people that in leaving Kimberley they would just be going from the frying-pan into the fire. Then, again, heaps of people who were struggling along here, and only just able to make ends meet, would be hopelessly ruined by leaving.
The railway notice said that no excess luggage would be taken, and this meant practically that the people would have to go with what they stood in. Oh, it was a foolish notion, and the very mention of compulsion got the people's backs up. Had there been any attempt to carry out the compulsory exodus, I firmly believe there would have been civil war in the town, and that would either have resulted in surrendering it to the Boers or in telling the military to get out and leave us to look after ourselves. One man told the colonel in almost so many words that if our own countrymen were going to turn us out of the homes we had earned and worked for, surrender to the Dutch could not possibly bring anything worse upon us. Anyhow, feeling ran very high, and the whole town was badly upset.
To do our colonel justice, I believe he saw the absurdity of the proposal at once, but he had his orders and could not absolutely go against them, though he did not actually hurry to carry them out. Had he been able to publish a proclamation when the scare began, to the effect that hard times were coming and that it was advisable for all people who were able to do so to leave the town, and that every possible assistance and facility would be given them to do so, but that no one who did not wish to leave would be compelled to go, none of this feeling would have arisen.
I suppose that this would have been too directly flying in the face of the orders of his superiors, and so could not be done. Anyhow, a very strong protest was sent off by Rhodes and other important people, showing the folly of compelling the people to leave, and for the present the matter stands over till our relief column arrives.
It is pretty generally thought that the wire which Rhodes and some other prominent men sent off some weeks ago, urging that immediate relief must be sent to us, caused the issue of the compulsory departure order, the authorities at the Cape or at home thinking the matter to be more pressing than it really was.
At present, however much any one wants to get away, there is no communication, so it can't be done. All the week (December 11th to 17th), we have been longing to hear some news of the column's advancing, but not a syllable of news have we heard. Rumours are around in plenty, the favourite one being that as the Boers hold a very strong position in the Spytfontein kopjes, through which the railway comes, and our men failed to shell them out, it is said that the next move is to try and surround them in the kopjes, and cut off their food and water supply, at the same time bringing the railway round the kopjes, either on one side or the other, in spite of the Boers. It sounds all right, and the country to the east of the kopjes is pretty flat for a railway, and has no very steep gradients; but it is rather a big order, and would apparently take a long time. To-day (December 18th) we had news in the paper of the big fight on the 11th at Spytfontein, and our guesses were not far out. There was a heavy engagement there, and we lost severely, as any attacking force must always do when advancing in the open against a strongly entrenched enemy. The column did not succeed in turning out the Boers, but inflicted a heavy loss upon them, possibly heavier than our own, but of that we cannot be sure. However, an irregular force feels the loss of its men far more than a regular one, especially a Boer force, for they are as a rule mighty frightened of getting hurt. We hope, therefore, that the Boer loss has been great enough to discourage them a little, but this we shall find out later.
Whenever we have had a little time all through the siege, we have wondered how Mafeking was getting on. We have had news at long intervals, and generally much to the same effect—viz., that heavy bombardment is still going on. It is simply wonderful how that little place has held out, and we would give anything to help them to hold out until they are relieved. If they are able to do so, I think their defence will be one of the pluckiest in history. They have been shelled almost the whole of the siege, and our shelling has been the merest child's play to theirs. The Boers have never used anything heavier than a twelve-pounder against us so far, while at Mafeking they have used forty, sixty, and even a hundred-pounder, and yet those chaps hang on and keep getting a few Boers here and there when they have a chance, and simply will not give in. Fortunately they were well supplied with food at the beginning, and got most of their women and children out.
December 24th.—All the last week things have been quiet. Our men have been out a few times, and a little shooting has been done on both sides, but we have had no one hit, and I don't expect they have either. The Boers are leaving us alone, and both sides are just waiting. Our men cannot advance on the Boers, as their position in the kopjes at Spytfontein is too strong, and the Boers cannot leave Spytfontein without letting the relief column get into Kimberley, so they are apparently just sitting looking at each other—at any rate, as far as we know. In the meantime the Boers are leaving us in Kimberley quite alone, and are even dismantling the forts from which they shelled us earlier on, probably taking the sandbags to fortify other positions from which to harass the column.
Our Kimberley men are quietly doing all they can to prevent the Boers being comfortable in these positions again by filling up the wells and cutting the dams; so that if they do come there again, their water supply will be a difficulty to them. We hear now that the Spytfontein lot are rather in difficulties for water, and that is quite likely. We hear, too, that typhoid and dysentery are playing them up, which is more than likely, for the average Boer is a filthy beast, and has less idea of sanitation and cleanliness than the domestic barn-door hog. We are getting quite our share of these troubles, in spite of all our care, and the Dutch must be having a warm time with them.
On the 21st we had another sad mishap. A corporal in the Mounted Police, after going round and inspecting his outlying pickets, went off towards the Boer lines without saying anything to his men. They did not see him go, and consequently when they saw a man some four or five hundred yards away spying and scouting about, they fired at and killed him. It was just getting dark, and he had not said a word to any one about going, so no blame could possibly be attached to the men. It was absolutely his own fault, but it is very sad to kill one's own men all the same. There is no doubt that a man who was shot earlier on in the siege in a mysterious manner when out scouting was killed in the same way by his own men.
We have not had any cheerful news about our forces down the colony and in Natal this week—in fact, they all seem to be making a mess of it. To the non-military man who knows something of the country, all three columns seem to be running their heads against stone walls when they try to turn the Boers out of the hills in Natal, at Stormberg, and at Nauwpoort. Many of these hills are almost unscalable, and to try and take them in face of a strong force armed with magazine long-range rifles seems the height of folly.
The plan that commends itself to the common-sense civilian mind is to keep a sufficient force at these hilly places to prevent the Dutch advancing into the colony, and then to send a column into the Free State through the flat country anywhere between here and Orange River. However, I hope those in charge of the Army really do know what they are about, but at present it seems as if, when they had spelt "South Africa," they had come to the end of their knowledge.
We have now been cut off for ten weeks, and seem just as near relief as we were at the beginning. Personally I have not felt the nip much yet, if at all, because I have a good balance at the bank, and all our tradespeople know that we are good payers, so we get things often when other folks don't. Soon after the siege began we started quietly getting in stores, and we are pretty well supplied, so that I think we could last out a month quite comfortably, and six weeks by spinning things out, even if we could not buy a thing in town, but the bulk of the people are nothing like so well off. Many of them got in lots of stuff, but began to use it directly the siege began, which is the worst sort of foolishness. So far we have not touched any of our reserve, and keep adding to it little by little as we can. There is some talk to the effect that we may be required to hang on till the end of January, and for all one can see, that is the earliest date we shall get free, so once again I will remark, Damn the Government! It is beginning to be very hard now for infants and invalids, as there is very little food to be got of the sort they ought to have. Most of the milk-farms just outside the town have been looted and the cattle driven off by the Boers, so that there is hardly any fresh milk to be had, and there is no great stock of condensed on hand. The military people are husbanding the latter as carefully as they can, but I don't see how it can last very long. No one can buy a tin of milk without a doctor's order, and this has to be countersigned by the military officer in charge of all stores. Most of us doctors are careful to give orders only to proper cases, but I am afraid that others give them indiscriminately.
All this time work has been pretty brisk. Dr. Fuller got cut off, as I have previously told you, and I have a few of his best patients, and besides this, there is a lot of sickness about. The men kept moderately well because most of them are in the Town Guard out in the forts, and so they get more fresh air and less whiskey than usual, but a good many get fever or diarrhoea or dysentery, the last two from the coarse food and the quantity of water they drink on the hot days. This makes a lot of work, but not paying work.
Quite early Mackenzie and I decided that we should treat all members of the defensive forces free, unless their illness was due to drink or other foolishness. It did not seem fair to charge these men, many of whom actually were risking, and all of whom might have to risk, their lives in the defence of the town and us, and though I think we were the first to start this, all the other doctors quickly fell into the same way. But there was lots of paying work, too, amongst the women and children, the latter especially giving us a bad time. At the best, young children die here with great rapidity in the hot weather; and the upside-down state of affairs of course makes things worse than usual this year. Then, too, quite half one's patients go off to the sea for December and January, and they can't get away this year. So on the whole the amount ot paying work has been a good deal larger than usual this season. But we don't get much money in, all the same, for several reasons. First of all, Dorward, our collector, is in the Town Guard, and gets very little time off, and then we have told him only to send accounts out to the people who can well afford to pay. Even if he were at liberty as much as usual, we should not let him go round collecting as he usually does. The folks have too much on their hands to be worried for doctors' money just at present. As long as we can make enough to live on, we shall be satisfied for the present.
December 26th.—Christmas over once more, and relief as far off as ever. Early on in the siege, the folks who wanted to be really funny talked about relief reaching us about Christmas-time, and we all thought this was a joke, but the jocular part does not seem quite so excruciatingly funny now. Christmas Day was very quiet, even more so than the one I spent on the North Sea. There we had sufficient excitement when we found that the leg of pork we had been saving for Christmas had gone bad, but even that was denied us here. We did not expect our ducks, for which we paid a pound, to be anything much, and they weren't. We had Dr. Stoney and his brother to dinner, and I think they enjoyed themselves in a quiet way.
There had been rumours that a great fight was going to take place again at Spytfontein, but nothing happened. To-day there have been rumours that Plumer has got down from Bulawayo and relieved Mafeking, but that is much too good to believe until properly confirmed. There have been rumours of another sort for the last few days—viz., that the Boers have captured a train full or lyddite and other ammunition somewhere between Orange River and Spytfontein, and this is so bad that it probably is true. We have no doubt that the Boers will get hammered in the end, but at present most of the signs point the other way. We here in Kimberley are hoping a good deal from Sir Charles Warren. He has been up this way before, and knows both the country and the Boers, but whether he will come or not is very doubtful. There are many men here who served with him before, and they have great belief in him.
We had a Christmas message from Sir Alfred Milner. He did not wish us a merry Christmas, but a lucky one, and we appreciated the wording of the message.
Yesterday we had a new proclamation, to the effect that no one should kill or cause to be killed any ox, cow, bull, sheep, lamb, goat, kid, or pig without permission. So things are getting rather tight. Our next-door neighbour has a small red pig (looks like a Tamworth) about six weeks old, that runs about his yard. It seems too funny that he should not be able to kill this small swine without getting a permit. I suppose the idea is that people who kill at home will not be allowed meat from the butcher till they have eaten their kill.
The Boers have been shelling at Wesselton Mine again to-day, but I don't think they have done any damage. It must be an awful sell to them to find that we have managed a decent water supply after they cut us off from the river. Of course they know about our getting water from Wesselton, and I suppose they keep potting away there in the hope that they may burst up the pumps, but as the machinery is all in the mine, I don't think that they have a very gaudy chance of doing so. However, the more they shoot the better, for modern guns don't stand an unlimited amount of firing, as the rifling wears away, particularly in the heavier ones, so we hope they will pot away (harmlessly) with great vigour.
December 31st.—Very little has happened since I wrote in the way of war. On several occasions we have heard distant firing, so our relief column is either shelling the Boers or being shelled; but which, we don't know. To-day there is a rumour that our men have taken Scholtz Nek, which is an important point held by the Boers not far from Spytfontein, but we have not had this confirmed yet. The paper has been for the last few days full of yarns as to how the War Office and England is wakening up to the fact that they are in for a bigger business than they imagined. This is very reassuring, but one can't help feeling mad at the way we are kept cooped up here, and, as far as we know, no fresh steps at all being taken to help us out. We had hoped that Warren would come up this way, but to-day I hear he has gone to Natal.