Agnes still declared she did not want a shelter made on our premises, but I could see she was a good deal shaken by these infernal shells, so I went to Gardner Williams and asked him to let me have timber and iron from the De Beers stores, and a white overseer and some natives to build me a fort. He was very good, and consented at once. I felt sure Agnes would feel happier with a shelter, and we neither of us felt safe sleeping upstairs, when the gun was liable to fire at any moment, and the first shell might be the very one to drop on us, so we thought if we got a fort, we would sleep all night in it and not have to turn out first thing directly the gun went.
On this second day of the big gun a system of signalling was established which was a great help to us. The gun was firing ordinary powder and not cordite, and so made a big puff of smoke. This could easily be seen from the conning tower and other prominent positions in the forts. Directly the look-out on the conning tower saw the puff, he waved a red flag, and a bugler standing by him blew the alarm. The gun was about three and a half miles from us, so there was an appreciable interval between the puff of smoke and the arrival of the shell. If the bugler got his little tune off smart, there was about fifteen seconds, and this gave you plenty of time to dodge under a wall or put up your umbrella (one man was actually seen to do this) or rush into your fort, but often the interval was much less.
At the Sanatorium there was a look-out station on the roof, from which the puff of smoke could be seen, and the look-out there banged on the dinner-gong for all he was worth directly he saw it. I thought Rhodes was having plenty of meals when I heard the gong going so often, until I found out that it was a shell signal.
At another place the look-out hammered one iron bar on another which was hung up by the end. This is a cheap sort of bell which is common in this country, and can be heard a long way. From many places people could see the red flag wave, though they did not hear the alarms. In front of the Town Hall a policeman was stationed in an auctioneer's pulpit to blow his whistle when he saw it. On the whole, we had heaps of music these days.
Next day (February 9th) was about the worst of all, as they pumped shells into us almost all day, only stopping for refreshments or to cool the gun. They began about 6 a.m. and went on till dark. About nine a shell went into a house near the station, killing a baby in its mother's arms and badly damaging the mother, ripping open one breast, blowing off part of a hand, and scratching and bruising her neck and chest, and fracturing her skull. At first she did well, but took a wrong turn about thirty hours after, and was dead in thirty-six.
Another shell went through a store close behind me when I was seeing patients at the office, and scattered pieces on the roof above my head; but I sat tight, and went on with the prescription I was writing. All the same, I was badly scared, for it is not nice to know that the last shells have fallen somewhere near you, and to hear the bugle go, and then go quietly on with what you are doing, with your ears pricked up for the boom of the gun and the whiz, wondering all the time whether this is the one that is going to get you or not. When you hear the shell bump into some other building and burst with a crash, you are happy at once, for you know you have got off once more.
We soon found that if the shells burst in a building, the pieces were stopped and could not fly; but if the shell burst in the air, or struck hard rock or road, they flew in a fearful manner, some of them going hundreds of yards, buzzing like a steam-saw all the time. These pieces were far more dangerous than the shell itself, and we did not like them a bit. A fair proportion of the shells did not explode; either because they were bad or because, as they were fired at a very short range for so big a gun, they struck on their sides and not on their points.
Some of them ricochetted off hard ground, and went half a mile before dropping again. The pieces sometimes weighed fifteen to twenty pounds, but more usually were from two to ten—and these were quite big enough.
By-and-by we found that there was a certain sort of method in the firing. They would point the gun at some particular object—the Town Hall and the conning tower being the favourite ones—and fire eight or ten shots till the gun was hot. Then they would point it somewhere else for eight or ten shots, and so on. As a matter of fact, their marksmanship was disgraceful; I don't think they once hit anything they aimed at, but they did a fair amount of damage all the same. Sometimes they departed from this rule and fired anyhow, no two shots in the same direction, and then things were not pleasant. Take it all round, it was not pleasant work going round to see your patients when the firing was on; but if they were firing in one quarter, you left those patients until they had slewed the gun round a bit to another quarter, and then went to see them.
I think the doctors' drivers had the worst job of all, for they had to sit in the carts and wait whilst we were in the houses. As a matter of fact, the houses were little, if any, safer than the open, but somehow you felt safer inside than out. Several drivers chucked up their jobs and hooked it, but mine stuck to his work like a brick and never flinched or hesitated wherever he had to go, though he admitted he was often badly scared. That was precisely my feeling. I was badly scared, but the work had to be done, and I felt that if a shell were destined to hit me, it would do so whether I were in or out, and whether in a shelter or not, and so, though I did not try to get hit, I went about my work as usual, and never missed a single office hour or visiting a single patient on account of the shells. And I think all the doctors did the same. You bet my driver lost nothing by sticking to his post. When we were relieved, I gave him ten pounds, and our Zulu boy five pounds, for he had come and done his work just the same as usual.
It was on this day (February 9th) that the De Beers people began to put up my splinter-proof shelter. It was put in the passage way between the dining-room and the storeroom, and the entrance to it was just outside the back door of the house proper. If you look at the plan of the house, you will see exactly where it was. The passage is nearly seven feet wide, and so there was plenty of room.
First of all strong steel plates five-eighths of an inch thick were put up against the wall of the dining-room, then a framework of huge mine props twelve inches thick was put up; the roof was made of similar timbers, and was seven feet high, and on the top of these another steel plate was laid.
The shells could not come from the kitchen side at all, so we just left that wall as it was. Then the two sides were built up with sacks filled with earth taken out of the garden and laid endways, so that a shell or splinter would have to come through quite two feet of earth before getting at us. We were late beginning our fort, so nearly all the sacks were gone; but I went round to several of the bakers and fossicked out a good lot. It took a lot of earth to fill the sacks, and this had to be dug out of the garden. I had a nice patch of barley growing for my horses, but this all went into the sacks, together with lots of bulbs and other garden-stuff. The bulbs will not be hurt, but the rest of the truck will be beyond resurrection.
On the first day the fort did not make much progress, as the boys were sawing the timbers the right length and getting the materials together. I think they liked working here, for we gave them lime juice to drink, as it was very hot, and they said they were very hungry, so we gave them some big chunks of very coarse brown bread, which they seemed to appreciate. Everybody was on short commons at this time, so I expect the compound boys were getting very little except mealie-meal porridge, and none too much of that.
By the way, I ought to have told you that at about this time I sold one of my horses to be killed and eaten. He was one of the original horses I bought when I took over the practice, and had done heaps of good work for me. Before the war, as he was getting old, I turned him out to grass on a farm, meaning to let him end his days in peace there, getting him in for a few weeks now and then to relieve a sick or lame horse. When the war broke out, I had to get him in, or let the Dutch steal him. For a time I kept three horses, but now forage got so scarce that I had to get along with two. I would never have sold him to be worked and hammered about in a Scotch cart, but now it was a case of either turning him out to die of starvation on the veldt or selling him to be eaten. So I sent the old chap to the butcher, and he went to feed the Lancashires. He fetched thirteen pounds.
I must tell you some more about the shelling on this same day (February 9th). It went on till dark. One shell went through Watkins's back fence, into a shed where carriages were stored, and smashed a victoria into little bits, but did not explode, fortunately for Watkins. Another (and this is about the most wonderful escape of the siege) fell into a room where a lady was in bed, just missed her hip, broke the side of the bedstead into bits, and harmlessly buried itself in the foundation under the floor. Had it exploded, she would have been blown into little bits, but it did not.
The last shell that night was the biggest tragedy of the siege. It went into the Grand Hotel at the corner of the Market Square, and killed George Labram, the chief engineer to the De Beers Company. He, of all the people in Kimberley, had probably done more to frustrate the plans of the Boers and make things unpleasant for them than anybody else. He fixed up the new water supply when our proper supply was cut off; he made the shells for our guns to use; and it was he who manufactured "Long Cecil," having to make many of the necessary tools for the rifling from his own ideas; and in many minor ways he had helped the military to worry the Boers.
He was an American, and just as smart as they make them, even in America, and was a first-rate fellow into the bargain. He had had several narrow shaves with the shells, but this day it seemed as if he were doomed. Coming away from the machine shops at half-past five a shell very nearly got him, and then he came to the hotel for dinner. His room was on the top floor, and the hotel was directly in the big gun's line of fire when it was aimed at the Town Hall, so it was not a safe place.
Labram stayed downstairs in the hotel till the firing seemed to have ceased, and then he went up to wash before dinner, and a final shell came along and killed him. He was shockingly mauled, half his head being caved in, also his chest and abdomen, and both his thighs were so smashed up that they just hung on by a few shreds. The only consolation was that death must have been instantaneous, and he can have felt no pain. One of the hotel servants was in the room at the same time, and he was not touched.
The poor chap's wife was away in America, so the De Beers Company arranged to have the body embalmed as well as they could, and have it soldered up in an air-tight coffin, so that he could be taken home and buried later on. This accident, as you may well imagine, cast a heavy gloom over us, for everybody knew and liked the man, and none of us could feel that it was not possibly his own turn next.
All this day, besides the work on private shelters, big public shelters were being made wherever there were convenient places. These were made by the De Beers Company's boys and the natives who were working on the roads for the Relief Committee, about which I will tell you later on. Most of the shelters were made in the sides of the debris heaps, which are almost all over the town. A deep trench was cut in the sloping side of the heaps, and then this was lined and roofed with timber and galvanized iron, and a thick layer of earth was thrown on to the top and hanked up against the front face of the shelter. Several of these shelters were many yards long and had several openings, so that people could get in and out easily.
In Beaconsfield, on one side of the main road, there was a big heap with an almost perpendicular face, and here they just drove tunnels straight into the heap. It looked very funny from the road to see these catacombs. The big bridge which carried the road over the railway near the station was made into a shelter by leaning timbers against the sides of it, putting steel plates next them, and then banking up with sandbags and loose earth. Many people who lived near the station took refuge under trenches in the big station building, and in the engine-sheds, in the ashpits, and under the engines, of which we had a dozen or more in Kimberley.
Speaking of the railway reminds me that a shell struck one of the rails near the station and knocked out a piece of rail twenty-two inches long, and deposited it upon the roof of an hotel over a hundred yards away.
All through the bombardment the people who lived near any of the culverts which carry the rain-water off used to shelter there when shelling was going on, and many of those who lived near debris heaps made their own private excavations there. All round the public gardens a wide drain, quite ten feet deep, runs, and many of the good-class people made shelters there by getting old railway rails or tram rails, and roofing a part of the drain in with these, piling loose earth on the top.
On the next day (Saturday, February 10th) we were all very depressed on account of Labram's death, and we expected heavy shelling again, but we had comparatively few shells that day. A few came in between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., and then no more till about 4.30 p.m., but we had a few of the smaller shells from guns in other parts. These, however, we quite disregarded; after the big gun we cared for none of the smaller ones. They were to be treated as if the Boers were spitting at us.
Of course there were all sorts of reasons given why the big gun rested so long—it had burst, or they were short of ammunition, etc. The real reason was that some of our men had got into a position about seventeen hundred yards from the big gun, and made it lively for the men working it whenever they brought it out to fire.
We had at first thought that it was what is called a disappearing gun, which is worked from a deep pit, only being raised to be fired, but it was nothing of the sort; its carriage moved sideways, so it was hauled behind a strong fortification to be loaded and then pushed out to be sighted and fired, and directly it appeared from behind its shelter, our riflemen and big "Cecil" let rip at it and the men working it. They made it so warm for them that they did very little all day. Later on we heard that the two principal men on the gun were Frenchmen, and that one of our bullets curled one of them up, going clean through his head. This dodge of ours was kept up until we were relieved, and five or six of the men at the gun are said to have been killed altogether. Anyhow, it damped their ardour a good deal, and prevented them firing as much as they otherwise would have done.
I was fairly busy all the day, as I did an operation for a bad case and had a lot of other work besides. In several places I found my patients who were too ill to be up, lying on mattresses in their shelters, and ghastly little dog-kennels lots of them were. The entrances were of course very low and narrow, to prevent splinters of shell flying in, and I had to back down into them, just as I used to have to do into the North Sea fishing-smack cabins. The atmosphere of them reminded me of the smacks too, as they were fearfully hot, and in most of them there was not the least attempt at ventilation, though a few had pieces of iron piping stuck through the roof. During the day our own shelter advanced rapidly; the roof was all completed and the most exposed side built up to within about two feet of the roof, and the other side nearly finished too. About half-past four the gun started again, and went along till about half-past six, but very little damage was done. One small piece came through the club verandah roof, and another slightly wounded one of the Lancashires. When the gun stopped, we congratulated ourselves that we had got off easily, but we were a bit too previous. Labram's funeral had been arranged for 8 p.m., for it was sure to be a very large one, and the Boers would be able to see it, and fire at the people following, by daylight, so it was decided to have it by night. Directly the procession left the hospital gates (it is said by people who were looking out) a rocket was sent up somewhere not far off the hospital, and the big gun started immediately, and put in four or five shells very close indeed to the funeral. Some infernal traitor had, no doubt, told the Boers all about the funeral arrangements, and sent up the rocket to let them know when it started. This sort of thing we had got quite used to, for our half-hearted special court (called "martial" because there are no soldiers in it) never convicted any traitor unless absolutely compelled.
When the funeral was over, we expected the shells to stop. I had to see a patient at the hospital, and two more in the main road between my house and there. At nine I started out, and when about a hundred yards or so away, I saw a big flash of light. As it was a dark, cloudy night, I thought this was lightning. Then I heard the bugle, but did not take much notice of it, as the bugle in the camp close by always goes at nine; but a minute after I heard the boom of the gun, and then the shell came along mighty near—so near that I cowered down under a galvanized iron fence, not that that would be any protection, but anyhow it felt safer. Some pieces of shell, or stones thrown up by the shell, rattled on the roofs round me. I picked myself up and moved on a little to the first patient I wanted to see. A few shells went whilst I was in the house, and when I came out, the patient's husband walked down his garden with me to the gate. Half-way down the garden, rip came a shell very close, and we both dropped flat and pulled in our heads and lay close like tortoises. The pieces dropped all round us, but we were not touched.
We picked ourselves up and felt over our bodies, just to see that no arms or legs or heads had dropped off, and then I moved on to the next patient—the one on whom I had operated that afternoon. She was well under morphia, but the shells were dropping all round her house and had frightened her a good deal. Whilst I was seeing her, one burst close by, and the pieces rattled on the roof of the room she was in. When I left her, I stayed on the front verandah for a couple of minutes talking to her husband, and whilst there, "bang" came a shell into a house exactly opposite where I was, but on the other side of the road. Then I went on to the hospital.
Shelling is bad enough in the daytime, but it is heaps worse at night. In the day you can see where the shell lands, and if it is not too close, you feel all right, but at night, first you hear the bugle and you try to sit tight and pretend you did not hear it, then comes the "boom" and "whiz," and you have to pretend harder than ever. Even when the shell bursts and you know that one, at any rate, has not got you, you don't feel happy for another minute or so, for the splinters fly so, that there is plenty of time for you to congratulate yourself on escaping the shell and then get your head caved in by a splinter.
After I got to the hospital the shells did not seem to be quite so close. I sat on the verandah with the doctors, and yarned to them and listened to the music for quite an hour and a half. I wanted to get off home, as I knew Agnes would imagine that I had butted up against a shell, but all the same, good as home seemed to be, where I was was plenty good enough, as the shells were falling then. One landed fairly near the hospital, and a good-sized piece of it came through the roof of one of the outlying wards, struck a lamp that was burning, and smashed it, carrying away a thick iron bar that supported it, but none of the patients were hit and nothing was set on fire.
After half-past ten the firing slackened a little, and on timing the shells there seemed to be about eight minutes between them, so I thought I would have time to get home between two, but then they began again quickly, so I did not start. We expected they would stop at midnight, as the Boers are consistent in that one respect—they don't fight on Sunday. Later on, about a quarter-past eleven, I determined to come home after the next shell, and risk getting hit; so when it had come, I started, but was stopped at the lodge-gate by a man who wanted to take me off to a case. I sent him off to get a cab, as it was a good long way off, and started for home myself, and as luck would have it, there were no more shells. I believe the Dutch were going by Transvaal time, and so twenty-five minutes past eleven with us is twelve with them.
Agnes had been sitting in our fort, which was nearly finished, and fancying that every shell had struck me. Many of those I had heard had gone very near to the house, and one only just missed it, bursting about one hundred and fifty yards farther on. After the case was over, I went off to bed quite calmly, as I felt sure that we should have a rest all the next day, and so it proved. All the same, I turned out as soon as it was light (at about 5 a.m.), to finish my fort. I was not at all sure that the boys would turn up to work on Sunday, so, as there was not much to do, I thought I would get it finished myself.
I had some sacks left, and I began to fill these, but you don't make much progress shovelling with one hand and holding the sack open with the other. By-and-by Agnes looked over the top verandah to see what I was after, and, seeing how awkward it was, she came down and held the sacks open whilst I shovelled. We had about eighteen sacks, and just as they were all full the miner and the natives turned up.
There was not very much to do, really, except fill up about two feet of one side of the fort, but as the boys had turned up, I got them to alter the other side, where the entrance was. They had made a square entrance just like a doorway, and very much too large, so that fragments of shells could come in quite easily, if they came in the right direction. I made them build a sort of projecting spur in front of the opening, so that no piece could possibly fly in unless it had first come through the house. I made them narrow the doorway very much, leaving only just room to squeeze in, and then you did not want to eat too much dinner or you would stick fast. This, however, did not matter so much on siege fare, as big dinners were not easy to get.
When this work was done, I still wanted a lot of sacks to make the place secure, so I went down to Dr. Stoney's brother and got some from him. He had promised me a few, but I found he could let me have a lot—far more than the boy I took with me could carry. He lent me his Scotch cart and two horses, and we tumbled the sacks in. Of course I rode home on the top of the pile, much to the amusement of Dr. Stoney and his brother, who stood on their verandah and jeered at me. Dr. Stoney's only regret was that his camera was out of gear, as he said "the sight of Kimberley's boss doctor sitting on a pile of sacks in a Scotch cart, and clad in dirty flannels and big Boer hat, and with a little Hottentot as driver and a raw Kaffir in a red shirt as footman, was too good to be lost." One of my best patients cut me dead on the way up, as he did not recognise me, though nobody worried much about clothes these times.
With the fresh lot of sacks, the boys finished up the fort in style. I had been in too many stuffy forts that week to neglect ventilation in my own, so I built in a strong iron grating opposite to the entrance, in a place where it was practically impossible for any bit of shell to come, and it answered splendidly. There was a nice through current of air all the time. When the miner took his boys away, he said: "I don't know anything about shells, but if the whole house falls on that fort, it won't hurt."
That was my view too. If the big gun kept in the same place, we were absolutely safe; but if they started others in different quarters, we might not feel so happy. The fort was seven feet square and seven high, so my six feet three had heaps of room in every direction. Agnes pinned sheets and big bath-towels all round the walls inside, and brought our bedding and mattresses down into it, with a looking-glass, a clock, some books, a box of sweets, and all sorts of other gear, and we had provisions close by if things were really bad, so when we had pinned a photo of Kitchener on the wall with a big diamond brooch, we felt as jolly as could be expected. We slept in the fort every night after that, for the Boers often started their gun at daylight, and if we were upstairs, we had to keep our ears pricked to hear the first shot and then bolt for the fort, whilst if we were in the fort, we slumbered calmly, feeling that if a shell did happen to get us there, destiny must be very decidedly against us, as it would have to work so hard to find us.
The photo of the fort shows its construction on the west side and the ventilating grating.
Our servants were told that they could come into it any time they heard the bugle. Lizzie came in for a few times, when she was handy, but as a rule did not bother, and was really very plucky. John, our Zulu, preferred to get behind the big water tank. I don't think that would have saved him, but he was happy there, so that was all right. He was very funny one day. We heard Lizzie lecturing him about something, and he retorted: "Don't make such a noise; I can't hear the gun go off." The boom of that gun would have extinguished a megaphone, so that was a great tribute to Lizzie's vocal powers.
I shall not forget this Sunday in a hurry. It was a day. First of all, everybody was so delighted that it was Sunday, as that meant rest from the shells. Kimberley is not exactly composed of Sunday-school superintendents, and as a rule is rather bored by Sundays, but not this one. Then, again, everywhere you went, forts were being built, and the clang of sheet steel, railway rails, old iron railway sleepers, etc., etc., was heard all over the place. The streets were full of carts and handcarts and wheelbarrows, and even natives carrying materials for forts. Many people could not get boys, as the demand was so great for labour, and so they had to do the work themselves.
Several of the merchants had large stocks of the coarse Boer salt, which is got by crystallisation from the salt pans, and they made forts of this. It is packed in large sacks, and answered splendidly. In the first bombardment, I had seen at a baker's a fort made entirely of sacks of flour. It was very good, but all the same, I was just as pleased I did not deal with that particular baker. But the gem of the collection in the way of forts was one I saw in the Malay camp. It belonged to a coolie, and he had a large dog in a kennel. He evicted the dog and banked up the kennel with old zinc baths and paraffin tins filled with earth, and I have no doubt was a little king in that yard, as nobody else had a fort at all there.
Towards afternoon the vague rumours of heavy bombardment beginning directly after midnight began to take shape, but the shape was different in each house. Anyhow, everybody was sure that Monday was going to be a bad day, and whether there were to be two new big guns or twenty was immaterial. Early in the afternoon notices signed by Mr. Rhodes were posted up in many places, and sent around the town on a cart, to the effect that women and children were advised to take shelter in the two big mines. It was promised that arrangements would be made to lower them down, and make them as comfortable as possible. This being signed by Mr. Rhodes was looked upon as a confirmation of the rumours, as many people at once concluded that Mr. Rhodes had had private information as to what was going to happen on the morrow, and a regular panic ensued.