Now, having finished about the bombardment whilst it was fresh in my mind, I must hark back and tell you about the De Beers gun. We had heard rumours that a big gun was being made for some time before the second bombardment, and we soon heard from the men at the De Beers machine shops that it was true. I did not go down to see it until it was nearly done; but I looked in a few days before it was completed, and took Agnes down next day, as she was interested in it. The gun has since been christened "Long Cecil," but many of us prefer other names for it; my favourite is "The De Beers Baby," but another good one is "St. Cecilia." It is a splendid piece of work, especially when you consider that many of the tools necessary to do the rifling and other complicated work had to be made in the shops, and that the men were not used to the work, and that even the material used was only, so to speak, makeshift. The gun is about ten feet long, and is built upon the "Woolwich Infant" principle—slender near the muzzle, thicker in the middle, and very much thicker at the breech. The narrow part is about nine or ten inches through, and the thickest part at the breech about twenty or so. The shell it carries is 4.1 inches in diameter, and weighs twenty-eight and a half pounds, so if it drops on a Boer's head, he will probably know about it. Of course a proper gun-carriage and everything complete was made at the same time, and at last all was in order. There was great speculation as to what would happen the first time the gun was fired, but all the people principally concerned were confident he would be all right, and so he was.
They took him out of the shop on the morning of January 19th, and pointed him at the midway pumping-station, half-way from here to Riverton, about six thousand five hundred yards from where he was fired, and let him go. To everybody's delight, he reached it quite easily. The Boers have had a big camp there all the time, as it was out of reach of our other guns, and there were good buildings and plenty of water there. After a few shells had been dropped pretty close, the Boers were seen to be buzzing about and departing like a hive of bees when a brick is thrown into it. A few days afterwards, our men caught a Dutch despatch-rider, and on him was a letter from a Boer to his home people, describing their consternation when the shells began to drop about them as they were at breakfast. They just got up and scooted, leaving their breakfasts behind.
The gun did very good shooting that day, but they took him back to the shop to make the powder-chamber larger, so that it would hold seven pounds of powder instead of five and a half, and so increase his range; but somehow this did not seem to improve his shooting, and though he has done good work during the bombardment, the men seem to think he is not so accurate as before.
On the same day that the gun was tried, I see in my diary that we had a new vegetable issued to us—the common or household mangel-wurzel. Horseflesh and wurzel do not sound luxurious, but they would be all right if there were only plenty of them. The wurzels are the Globe yellow sort, and are very good, not to be distinguished from beet except by the colour.
February 2nd.—Thank goodness, the expected heavy bombardment has not come off. Every day a few shells have dropped in, but only a very few—most days only three or four— so we have had quite a holiday. "Long Cecil" fired one shot early on Monday and no more, and later on we learned that he busted something with that shot and had to go back to the shop again. He was to have been all right again to-day, but has not been fired, so perhaps he is still out of gear.
All this time I have been wanting to send you some money, as I am afraid you will be hard up. I kept waiting and waiting, hoping that we should get communication, but early in January I thought I would wait no more. I went to the bank and got a draft in duplicate just in the usual way, and then I got the military people to let me send the duplicate drafts off by their despatch-riders, with a short letter, on two different nights, hoping that at least one of them would manage to get through. About a week after this, the banks made an arrangement by which the military would flash money to the column, and so on to Cape Town, by the searchlight. So then I wished I had waited a little longer.
About a month afterwards, the military told me that neither of the despatch-riders had got through, and neither of them had returned, so they were [either dead or prisoners. This was cheerful, for my drafts were probably in the hands of the Boers. I don't think it likely that any one else but you could get the money, for the London bank has always had your draft come to them through the same channel all these years, so they would be suspicious if it came into their hands in any other way, especially at these times. They know your signature, too, and therefore there would be little risk, unless they really were criminally careless. All the same, as we could get communication, I thought it wiser to stop that draft by cable from Cape Town, and to tell the Cape Town bank to post another draft to you. This was on January 26th, and next day I cabled to you that we were safe and well. I expected you would know in England that we were heavily bombarded on the 25th and 26th, so I thought that you had better know that we were all right after it all. I have sent off several wires to you, since the siege began, at intervals of three or four weeks, but have no means of knowing whether any of them got through or not.
February 4th.—To-day we have had a new sort of food, donkey - instead of horse-flesh. The butcher who serves me always delights in trying to harrow up my feelings by telling me what the meat is, but I guess he will soon give up, for I always say: "All right, as long as it is meat, it is all the same to me." A few days ago my driver told me that a Chinaman had been offering Mackenzie's driver a good price for cats, which he wanted to eat— five shillings and sixpence for small ones and twelve-and-six for large ones. We have not come to that yet, but the Chinese are fond of cats at all times.
The bread ration in town has been cut down within the last few days. Previously it was fourteen ounces per head, now it is only ten and a half, so stores have to be husbanded a good deal. For the last few weeks we doctors, or rather the careful and conscientious ones of us, have been having an awful time with food permits. The regular rations issued consist of bread, horseflesh or beef, mealie meal, and crushed mealies, with vegetables about once in ten days, and tea or coffee and sugar. For the last few weeks nothing more of any description is allowed to be sold without a doctor's written order.
The doctors all have orders not to give permits except in cases where the people are sick, and then only in very moderate quantities. As I have told you before, every patient you have ever seen comes up and demands a permit for something, many of them being manifestly in robust health. The usual story is: "I won't eat horseflesh, and so I must have something else." My answer to these people has invariably been: "Our orders are that we are not in any way to help people who refuse to eat horseflesh, therefore you can wait till you are hungry enough to eat it, or you can starve. You will get no permit from me."
The fat Jews, who have always lived on the best of everything, naturally do not like this, and so they go off to some other man they can bully, blarney, or bribe, and get whatever they choose to ask for, cursing me fluently all the time. They say their religion forbids them to eat horse, so as a rule they ask for bacon.
Some of the doctors are notorious for giving permits for anything to anybody. I am afraid I am notorious in the other way, having the reputation of giving "nothink to nobody," and consequently am not particularly beloved. However, I have done the square thing, and none of my sick people have had any reasonable request refused; but the loafers and guzzlers have had a bad time at my hands. None of this bother would have arisen if the Army doctor, who is really responsible for the proper issue of the medical comforts, had been a man of grit; but though a nice enough fellow, he has no backbone, and is too fond of red tape and sealing-wax. If he had gone into things a bit, he would easily have found out the offending men; and then, if he had been the right sort, he would have got the colonel to give him a free hand, and then would have gone to each offender, and talked like this: "Look here, my child, you are not playing the game. I give you fair warning that if you don't draw in your horns, I will refuse to recognise your signature on any permit, and don't you forget it." That is the sort of yarn I would have reeled off to them, and I would have run the permit business satisfactorily inside a week if I had been responsible; but he is too mild, and the colonel is too busy to tackle the job in earnest.
At last, about a week ago, the Food Supply Committee struck over the business, and told the colonel that this permit system was being scandalously abused, as the comforts meant for the sick were being frittered away on perfectly healthy and strong people. The colonel appointed a committee to inquire into it, and both Mackenzie and I were members of it. I had on several occasions worried the colonel myself, so he knew I was interested in it.
We devised a stringent system of issuing permits and their supervision, which I hope will work much better, but the supervisor is hopeless; he seems absolutely to have no savvy whatever. For instance, one rule is that no patient shall draw more than one comfort, except in cases of urgent need, and these cases must have a written explanation of the urgency of their need on the back of their permit. The sensible way seems to me to be this: issue one of the things ordered at once, and go down to the patient's house and satisfy yourself that the others are really required before issuing them. But Mr. Wronghead says issue all the things at once, and then go and see if they were really needed. As if either doctor or patient would care what happened, as long as the things were got. I did get a penal clause put into the rules, providing that any doctor not acting up to them should, at the discretion of the colonel, forfeit his right to sign permits, but I am afraid it won't be acted up to. These rules were just a month too late—in fact, on the first day they were in force the last tin of butter in the town was issued, and if it had been taken proper care of, and only issued to the sick, there would have been enough to last us through the siege.
After February 4th things jogged along quietly until the 7th. On that morning I was called to a confinement in one of the outlying parts of the town, rather near one part of the Boer lines. Whilst there, in addition to the usual intermittent shelling with both our and the Boer guns, I heard a much bigger gun begin. There was a big boom, then a tremendous whiz somewhere over or near the house I was in, and then, by-and-by, a good big boom when the shell burst. I was pleased at this, as I thought this was "Long Cecil" potting at the Boers at Carter's Farm, so I felt comfortable and happy. When I came out after it was all over, my driver, Daniel, looked pretty sick, and said: "The Boers have got a big gun at Kamfersdam, and are firing into the town with it." And so it was. He said the shells were falling near the Market Square, across which I wanted to go.
This looked cheerful, but I had to go up town, so we drove off. When we nearly got to the Square, we heard a shell bump into something fairly close to us, but we did not stay to inquire. Later on I found out that this shell had dropped into a house on the left side of the street, and a big piece of it flew across the road and killed a horse in a shoeing forge on the right side of the street, less than a hundred yards behind me. If I had been coming up about one minute later, that piece might quite easily have got me.
A piece of the same shell flew diagonally through an open window in the De Beers office at which a friend of mine was sitting. It went past him without touching him, struck an iron safe, bounced off that to the wall, and from there into the fireplace, where it stopped. The piece weighed eleven pounds, and my friend departed without waiting to put on his hat, and had three drinks one after the other before he began to feel better.
The gun kept on firing until midday, when it stopped to cool and let the Boers have dinner, but it started out again about three in the afternoon, and went at it hot and strong. About four I was at Ruffel's, calling for messages, and heard a big shell come over and burst not very far away, and then I came down to the house for tea. When I got near, I saw a lot of people rushing up the lane along the long side of the house, and I found that the shell had landed in our next-door neighbour's stable. There was a very sulphury smell in the air and a big cloud of dust, but our house seemed to be all right. I rushed indoors and called for Agnes, and she answered that she was all right, neither of the servants hurt, and the house untouched.
Agnes was upstairs putting on her hat to come out with me when she heard the shell whiz and explode, and saw the whole stable roof lift up. Fortunately the shell fell in soft ground and went in some way before it burst, so the pieces did not fly about, and beyond wrecking the building, no damage was done. Our house was filled with dust and smoke, and splinters of wood and roofing flew over into our garden. A few fair-sized stones came over too—one weighing about six pounds—and two whole sheets of galvanized iron: one fell on our beetroot bed, and the other cut the cord of the verandah blind and notched the verandah rail.
Our domestic took shelter under her bed, but was unearthed, unhurt, without difficulty. Agnes was ready to go out with me, so I took her, as she did not feel safe in the house. Up to this time she had stood the shelling splendidly, but this was coming a bit too close to be pleasant, and rather took the curl out of us both. Whilst we were on our rounds, we went into Ruffel's branch shop near the station, and a piece of shell had just dropped through the roof there, which they showed us. It was a solid piece of about eight pounds weight and an inch and a half thick, and showed us a little what these shells were like.
Later on (they were shelling all the time) we had to go into the De Beers workshops, and there we found one of the big shells which had not exploded. It had fallen out on the veldt at the back of the hospital. The people who picked it up took it to Rhodes, who gave them five pounds for it. He sent it down to the shops to have the powder taken out of it and to get it polished up. Down there they handled it very gingerly, for only a few weeks before we had had news from Mafeking of a blacksmith trying to open a similar shell when it exploded, blew off one of his legs and one of another man's, and killed a third man, so they had good reason to be careful, and accordingly let it soak in water for a few hours.
My driver had seen one of the men who picked this shell up, and told me he had said it was as big as the handbag that I carry instruments about in. Seeing that this came from a coloured man, of course I did not believe it, but it was under, rather than over, the truth. This infernal shell was eighteen and a half inches long and six inches in diameter at the base, and weighed eighty-seven pounds. We found later that the shells were not very accurately made, many of them being twenty inches long and weighing over one hundred pounds. As you can imagine, the sight of this shell did not encourage us, for we knew that a gun big enough to carry this shell could reach any part of Kimberley or Beacons-field, so that there was no possibility of getting out of its range, and we also saw that there was no building in Kimberley, except perhaps the strong-rooms at the banks, that would not be penetrated easily by it.
Fortunately the gun was fired from a place almost directly opposite the front door end of our house, so if we kept either in the little passage at the back of the dining-room or, better still, in the covered way between the house and the kitchen block, we should be fairly safe, for we had come to know from experience that a shell is usually exploded by the first wall it touches, but that it has sufficient impetus to carry it through that wall, and actually bursts in the first room it comes into. Coming from the direction they did, these shells would have to come through at least two pretty solid walls before they reached the other end of the house, so we felt fairly safe. The shelling went on until about dark, and then stopped, greatly to our relief. The damage done was not great; two men were hurt by splinters of wood, and a child was more seriously hurt and subsequently died, not exactly from the shell wound, but undoubtedly that helped.
Next morning we expected to be roused out quite early by the big gun, but to our great delight it did not start, so as the day crept on all sorts of rumours began to fly about, principally that "Long Cecil," who had been pounding away manfully at this Boer gun all the previous day, had smashed it up.
When lunch-time came and no big gun, we began to feel quite cheerful, but about four o'clock they began again, and for some time heaved a shell into us every two minutes, but they could not keep that up long, as of course the gun got hot and had to cool off". One of the early shells burst in the air, and a piece of it dropped through a roof near the bank and knocked a man's brains out, killing him on the spot. Another came through a photographer's opposite the club and burst on the pavement, and fragments of it flew on to the club verandah and out at the side, one of them rising high again and knocking the cross off the end of the Catholic Church at the side of the club. A patient of mine got a chunk of this in his leg as he stood at the club. Just where the shell came through the photographer's wall, a big portrait of Rhodes hung, and the shell landed squarely in the middle of this and knocked it into smithereens. A little later on another shell dropped into a big shop next door to S.'s and set fire to it. The whole place burnt down, and S.'s place caught fire, but they managed to put it out.
When this happened, I had only just left S.'s private house, where I was seeing Mrs. S., who was ill. S. and I had been joking (we had to joke to keep up our spirits) about the shells, and he had asked me to give him some medicine to make his knees feel stronger when the gun went off, and the next minute his shop was nearly destroyed.