" C'est avec des plans surs et fortement concus qu'on reussit a la guerre."  Napoleon.


War clouds were rapidly gathering in South Africa in the summer of 1899. Shortly after the repulse of the Jameson Raiders by the Transvaal burghers in January 1896, the two Boer Republics began to import armaments and to push forward preparations for a final trial of strength with the Suzerain Power. That warlike measures were on foot in the Transvaal soon became known in England and gradually led to strained relations between the Imperial and the Transvaal Governments. With the passage of time, tension between the Cabinet in London and the Boers in Pretoria increased, and, by July 1899, it had grown so serious that it was considered advisable to send ten Special Service Officers from Home, in order that a close watch should be kept on the military preparations in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. At this time, Kekewich was in command of the 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, then stationed at Cape Town.

The factors coming into play in South Africa at this period were complex; many of them operated to make the general situation there most difficult. According to the Constitution, the direct responsibility for the defence of the interior of Cape Colony lay with the Cape Government, but the Ministers then in power in this Colony displayed a marked tendency to favour the Boer Republics and exhibited little or no sympathy for those with a leaning towards the views of the Imperial Government. Consequently, the Cape Ministry, when appealed to by the citizens of Kimberley (who urged that active and adequate measures should be taken for the protection of their town), put them off by saying that no dangers threatened them. The idea of the Cape Government appeared to be that should hostilities break out, a contingency which the Ministers were not prepared to admit—and in this view they were supported by Cecil Rhodes, who publicly declared about this time that the Boer military resources were the greatest unpricked bubble in existence—Kimberley could be satisfactorily defended by the local Volunteer Force, consisting of a battery of Field Artillery (six 7-pdr. guns), the Diamond Fields Horse (200 all ranks) and the Kimberley Regiment (420 all ranks), assisted by the Cape Police in the district (about 500 all ranks). It had originally been intended that this force should be commanded by the Commissioner of Police (Robinson), who was to hold the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Colonial Forces— he was actually so gazetted a short time before Kekewich was sent to Kimberley. However, the British Government had towards the end of July, as a precautionary measure, sent three Special Service Officers—Scott Turner (Black Watch), Maclnnes (R.E.) and myself—to the Diamond City, and they had been actively engaged in this locality on various important duties. In time, it became evident that the Cape Government, if left in full control of the defence arrangements for the Diamond Fields, would not move in the matter of providing an adequate force for the protection of the great industry carried on there until it was altogether too late. The High Commissioner, fortunately, now decided to take the matter in hand as one of Imperial, as apart from Colonial, importance.


Early in September, information was received by the military authorities at Cape Town that the Transvaal Government had begun to arm disloyal British subjects in the Vryburg District; in consequence, directions were sent to the Special Service Officers in Kimberley to investigate the matter. Scott Turner and I, therefore, went north to Vryburg on the 10th of the month to make inquiries; however, the day after our arrival, we were instructed by telegram to meet Kekewich at Kimberley, where, we were told, he was proceeding immediately. We had not completed our inquiries, but, in obedience to orders, returned at once, and, in due course, met our new chief.

The mission entrusted to Kekewich was a secret one; however, it was obvious that he had been selected to take command in Kimberley in the event of hostilities. He had had an interview with the High Commissioner on 11th September, and left Cape Town for the north by the 9 o'clock train the same evening, arriving at Kimberley at 9 a.m. on the 13th. Immediately after his arrival Kekewich got into touch with Commissioner Robinson and also the Special Service Officers; he examined the situation very carefully with them, and reported his conclusions to Cape Town without delay. The next day he interviewed the officials of the De Beers Company, who were as helpful to him as they had already been to the three Special Service Officers above mentioned. Many details connected with the defence arrangements were gone into, and a satisfactory understanding was reached as to the nature and the extent of the help the Company was willing to afford the military authorities.

At this time, the Volunteer units were much below establishment, and the forces in Kimberley available for the defence of the Diamond Fields wholly inadequate. Further, steps had not yet been taken to construct any defence works; a scheme had, however, been prepared some months earlier by the Staff at Cape Town, and this had been handed to Kekewich before he started. The scheme provided for the construction of a number of redoubts on the outskirts of Kimberley and of entrenched positions: (1) at the Water Supply Reservoir (south-west of the town); (2) on the Golf Links (south-west of the town); (3) at De Beers Mine (east of the town); and (4) at the Kimberley Mine and its Compound (north-east of the town). The perimeter of the inner line of defences was about seven miles. The original defence scheme also provided for the occupation of a number of advanced posts; the most important of these was the one at the Premier Mine—some four miles from the centre of Kimberley—where an abundant supply of potable water existed.

All the intelligence reaching Kimberley during September pointed in the direction that war was inevitable. The Cape Ministry, however, still nourished the idea that a collision between the Boer Republics and the Imperial Power could somehow be avoided: Cecil Rhodes also seemed up to the last to think that the Boers would not fight, and so advised the military authorities at Cape Town.[1] Nevertheless, the possibility of the Boers attempting to rush the Diamond Fields, even before a declaration of war, had to be kept in view. Kekewich, whose position was that of an adviser only, consequently made suggestions to Robinson as to the distribution of the Volunteers and the Police, indicating the positions to be occupied, should the enemy make an attaque brusquee.

Kekewich did not intend to leave anything to chance; having satisfied himself that the small force of Volunteers and the Cape Police then under the command of Robinson, would be totally inadequate to keep the Boers out of Kimberley, he put himself immediately into touch with the Mayor of Kimberley with a view to obtaining his assistance for the purpose of quietly raising a small citizen force—the Town Guard—the framework for the organization of which had already been prepared by Scott Turner. It was necessary to deal with this matter through the Mayor, and not through the Government officials, as the Cape Ministry had set its face against the raising of a Town Guard. The importance of the step taken by Kekewich will be readily appreciated when it is stated that at this time a large part of the Police tinder Robinson, twenty officers and 437 men, were distributed, in compliance with the instructions of the Cape Ministry of Defence, along the railway between Kimberley and Mafeking, a distance of 220 miles. This force was holding eleven posts, the largest of which, that at Fourteen Streams railway bridge, consisted of four officers and 130 men, while the three smallest posts were each occupied by one officer and fifteen men. Robinson had duly reported to his superiors that the arrangements for the defence of the railway were wholly inadequate; however, the only result was that a reinforcement of 175 police was sent to Kimberley from the Eastern District of Cape Colony.

Although Kekewich realized that he would, in the event of war, have to rely largely on local levies raised by himself, yet he hoped to induce the military authorities at Cape Town to provide him with a small nucleus of Regulars. He had, the day after his arrival, reported semi-officially to the C.S.O., Cape Town, how very unsatisfactory was the position of affairs in Kimberley; a passage in his letter ran: "The need for troops is, I think, very great, and Robinson's arrangements for defence as above detailed most inadequate; he has so few police at his disposal." In consequence of his representations, the military authorities at Cape Town decided to send a small body of Regulars to Kimberley at once, and at 7 p.m. on 18th September, Kekewich received a telegram from the C.S.O., Cape Town, informing him that four companies of his own battalion and detachments of R.A. and R.E. would start for the Diamond Fields the same night. Accordingly, Kekewich made arrangements with Robinson for detachments of Cape Police to be sent down by the first train next morning to Modder River and Orange River to guard the bridges at these two very vulnerable points on the railway.


The decision was now taken to place Kekewich in command of all the Imperial and Colonial troops in Griqualand West and Bechuanaland, and he was, in consequence, gazetted lieutenant-colonel in the Colonial Forces. The situation thus created was somewhat delicate, for only a few days previously Robinson had been given the rank of lieutenant-colonel and he was now deprived of it without any previous warning. However, Kekewich, who had very early in his career established a reputation as being a very tactful officer, by his judicious handling of the matters entrusted to him, retained the goodwill of Robinson with whom he continued to work in absolute harmony, not only at this time but throughout the whole siege.

The fact that Kimberley was garrisoned by Imperial troops would, of course, become known to the Boers as soon as the troop-train from Cape Town reached the Diamond Fields, In some quarters, it was even expected that the presence of Regulars there would immediately precipitate matters. Kekewich did not think so, but he wished naturally to be in a position to meet every contingency without being taken by surprise. Accordingly, on 19th September he arranged that a post should at once be established in a commanding position and a sharp look-out kept during daylight towards the Orange Free State, so that the earliest possible information might be obtained of the appearance of Boers, whether in small or large bodies —the country round Kimberley is generally open, and a man provided with a good telescope, as was the case here, would have been able to detect mounted men approaching Kimberley in a body, whilst still some eight to ten miles distant. At the same time, orders were given for mounted police patrols to move along close to the frontier fence during the night. Another of the steps taken was the issue of ammunition to the Diamond Fields Artillery, in order that its guns should be ready for action at the shortest notice. Finally, having arranged with the De Beers Company for the necessary working parties and for the temporary provision of any funds required by the Imperial officers in Kimberley, Kekewich, on his own responsibility, gave orders that the construction of the defence works should be put in hand at once. Without further delay, working parties were moved to the most important parts of the defence line to be occupied, and they were soon busy throwing up the earthworks, the designs for which had been got out by Maclnnes.

The Imperial troops reached Kimberley on the evening of 21st September; their arrival had a most reassuring effect on the townspeople, and gave a fillip to recruiting for the Town Guard. Kekewich was now able to provide trained instructors for the Kimberley Regiment, and, in consequence, steps were at once taken to arrange additional parades for the Volunteers, and their efficiency was rapidly raised to a high level. Kekewich was, however, still beset by many anxieties, chief among them being the absence of horses for the mounted troops he hoped to raise— there were at this time only seven or eight mounted police available in Kimberley for patrolling purposes. Another matter of urgency was that relating to the arms required for the Town Guard, when it should be raised. Routine methods might have proved too dilatory for satisfying these wants in time to meet the impending crisis. Accordingly, Kekewich saw the officials of the De Beers Company and urged upon them the importance of immediate steps being taken to procure horses and to get as many rifles and as much ammunition as possible into Kimberley from the coast towns before the railway communications were interrupted. The Company's officials took both the matters in hand: arrangements were made by them to supply the horses from De Beers Stud Farm, and Kekewich was informed that the Company had in store six machine-guns, 442 rifles and about three-quarters million rounds of ammunition—purchased at the time of the Jameson Raid—and he was authorized to take possession of these weapons; they were accordingly removed the same night by the 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. The Company also made an attempt to purchase a further supply of rifles and ammunition at Hope Town and the coast towns, but a difference arose between the buyers and sellers as to the price. Unfortunately, before an agreement could be reached on this important point, Kimberley was cut off from the south.

Numerous other details had to be attended to by Kekewich; he had to make arrangements with the civil authorities in relation to many matters coming under their jurisdiction, such for instance, as the removal of dynamite from the inhabited quarters of the town to places of safety outside it; the guarding of the magazines where it was stored; the use of the Civil Prison for the confinement of military prisoners. Agreement was easily and rapidly reached between the military and civil authorities on these several matters; the latter at all times gave Kekewich the most willing and loyal help and he was deeply grateful for it.

So many rendered valuable services in connection with the defence that it would occupy too much space to name them individually. But there is one name which ought to occupy a prominent place in every account of the Defence of Kimberley, namely, that of George Labram, an American citizen, who was Chief Mechanical Engineer to the De Beers Company; the value of the assistance he afforded and the work he did for the military authorities, both prior to and during the siege, was inestimable. He it was who designed and erected, on the head-gear of the De Beers Mine, the "Conning Tower," which formed the Commandant's principal Report Centre; here, at a height of some 155 feet above the ground, throughout the duration of the-siege, officers took their regular turn on watch-duty, in order that the earliest warning of an impending attack might be circulated to the several section headquarters. For the purpose of ensuring a rapid transmission oi the Commandant's orders at all times, Labram connected the Conning Tower with the telephone exchanges in Kimberley, and also provided direct lines to the important defence works. At the foot of the head-gear, a small hut, about the size of a ship's cabin, was erected, and it was here that Kekewich spent his nights with his Chief Staff Officer during the four months of the siege. Among the other works carried out by Labram in the early days of the investment were the erection of an observatory at the Reservoir Redoubt and the installation of searchlights in certain of the redoubts, namely: (1) on the Observatory in the Reservoir Redoubt; (2) in the No. 1 Washing Machine Redoubt (north-west of Kimberley); (3) in Fort Rhodes (northeast of Kimberley); and (4) in the Premier Redoubt. By this means the principal approaches from the enemy's positions to our defences were constantly swept by beams of light during the hours of darkness. There seems to be good ground for supposing that it was to some extent due to this illumination of the foreground that the Boers were deterred from making a rush at night-time on Kimberley's defence works. The knowledge too that land-mines had been buried in front of our lines undoubtedly had a considerable influence on the Boers, who by no means liked the idea of being blown to pieces by hidden agencies. In many other ways also did Labram help the military authorities; some of this other work will be mentioned later.


It had at no time been an easy matter to obtain reliable intelligence of what was taking place in the two adjacent Republics. A few British subjects in Kimberley who had relatives in the Orange Free State had, from time to time, been, able to indicate to the Special Service Officers the trend of the opinion of responsible men in Bloemfontein with regard to the developments then in progress. However, towards the middle of September information from both Republics ceased altogether, and it became practically impossible to get "agents" to go into what was, to all intents, already enemy territory. On 27th September, an opportunity presented itself to me to visit Boshof, and with Kekewich's sanction, I availed myself of it. Leaving Kimberley a little after 6.30 in the morning, I rode the thirty-six miles to the Boer dorp on a bicycle; the track was sandy and a blazing sun beat down on the treeless veldt. Parts of the way it was impossible to pedal and there was nothing for it but to wheel my machine. It had already struck four in the afternoon before I reached Boshof. About two hours later, an armed party of Boers, with Cape Carts carrying impedimenta, arrived in the dorp and drew up in front of my hotel—it was at once rumoured that the little commando had ridden in from Winburg. The whole place was soon in a great state of excitement and much commotion arose. The hotel proprietor, a British subject, upon seeing the commando, exclaimed: | This means war," and expressed his intention to leave Boshof with his family next day. For many reasons I decided to spend the night in the dorp; it was a restless one, for throughout the hours of darkness much noise prevailed in the streets, giving me the impression that other parties of mounted men were on the move and arriving in Boshof. I was naturally anxious to get back to Kimberley at the earliest moment in order to give the alarm, but it would not have been wise to make an attempt to leave Boshof while it was still dark. Accordingly, I postponed my departure until 6 a.m. on the 28th, and then quietly started on my return journey, and, in order to allay suspicion, took a road leading in a westward direction. Between ten and eleven o'clock, I found myself at Windsorton Road railway station (twenty-seven miles west of Boshof), and at once sent short telegrams to Kimberley and Cape Town reporting what I had observed on the previous evening. Later in the day I returned to Kimberley by a goods train and found that work on the defences was now being pushed on with the greatest vigour, the size of the working parties having been increased to the utmost limit.

On 29th September Kekewich sent the following appreciation of the situation to Cape Town:

"Information from so many independent sources indicates very strongly that offensive movement of some magnitude against Kimberley is intended; in consequence, personally credit Boers to have formed such a plan, however unsound strategically such movement may be, on account of great political results expected to follow. Would further point out even now greatest difficulty experienced in obtaining confirmation of reports and information of any value. Consider it is not unreasonable to suppose early information Boer movements will not be obtainable in event of hostilities, therefore strongly urge that every measure proposed for defence of Kimberley should be forthwith sanctioned."

The same evening, Kekewich received a telegram from the High Commissioner giving the necessary authority for the enrolment of men in the Town Guard, which, it was laid down, should be an Imperial Force. Steps were accordingly taken immediately to swear in those who had already expressed their willingness to serve in this Force, and to whip up additional recruits.

Refugees had now already begun to come into Kimberley from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Kekewich felt that many of these men would be very suitable for service in a locally raised Mounted Corps, and as they were, unfortunately, unable at this time to earn a livelihood, Kekewich sought authority to enlist them for service in the Colony. He could get no reply to his recommendation on this point from the military authorities at Cape Town; no doubt this was due to the fact that they had to consult still higher authorities. However, events were now moving rapidly, and on 1st October Kekewich received a telegram from Cape Town, informing him that Commissioner Robinson and the Police under the latter engaged on the defence of the railway were, from the date last mentioned, placed under his (Kekewich's) instructions.

Kekewich had, ever since his arrival in Kimberley, felt grave doubt as to the wisdom of distributing the police in small detachments along the railway, as had been done by the Cape Ministry of Defence. These posts would not, if surrounded and attacked by superior forces accompanied by artillery, have been able to hold out for many days in their isolated positions without support; this support it would not have been possible to give them. Accordingly, on 2nd October, as a preliminary step, Kekewich ordered the concentration of the police at the four most important points on the railway, namely: Kraaipan (70 all ranks); Vryburg (107 all ranks), Taungs (89 all ranks), and Fourteen Streams (175 all ranks).

The defence works were now approaching completion, and on 2nd October the Regulars to form the permanent garrison of the Premier Mine Redoubt (two 7-pdr. guns with a detachment R.A and one officer and seventy other ranks 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment) were moved into it. This was altogether a busy day, for in the afternoon a telegram reached Kekewich from the Military Secretary to the Governor of Cape Colony, giving him authority to call out the Volunteers in Griqualand West and Bechuanaland. Kimberley and Vryburg were alone affected; at the latter place, the Mounted Rifles numbered sixty all ranks, but they had neither horses, saddlery, nor equipment of any kind. The necessary action was taken on the telegram; but Kekewich felt that too sanguine views still prevailed at the seat of Government (in Cape Colony) as to the feasibility of holding the territories, recently placed under the jurisdiction of the Commandant, Kimberley, by a mere handful of Volunteers, and the small isolated posts of police dotted at points too widely separated to afford each other support. The same evening a telegram, handed in at Mafeking at 3.10 p.m., was received by Commissioner Robinson, who passed it on to Kekewich; the message stated that the position on the border was critical and that the Boers had begun to mass on the frontier.

In view of the foregoing intelligence, the first parade of the Town Guard was ordered for the next day, and, on the 3rd, the several divisions of this force assembled at their respective rallying posts. Many spies were in the town at the time, and one or more of them probably sent information concerning this defensive move on Kekewich's part to Boshof. This may account for the action taken by the Landrost of Boshof, who, on the 4th, telegraphed to President Steyn that British troops had crossed the frontier at Kimberley and had been engaged with the Orange Free State burghers, inflicting loss on them. Apparently, without in any way attempting to verify the Landrost's statement, Steyn at once sent a remonstrance to the High Commissioner, and immediately ordered the artillery at Bloemfontein to the Kimberr ley border with an ample escort. Intelligence concerning these movements reached Kimberley the same day, and, about the same time, a telegram was received from the High Commissioner by Kekewich, who was called upon for an explanation.

It did not seem outside the bounds of possibility that the Landrost's telegram, Steyn's remonstrance and the movement of a Boer force to the Kimberley border were all part of a scheme hatched by the Boer Republics for rushing the Diamond Fields, without a previous declaration of war. Indeed, reports to this effect had reached Kekewich; accordingly, arrangements were made to have the defence works manned before day-break on the following morning. The alarm was sounded at 1 a.m. on the 5th; the troops, including the Town Guard, moved at once to their war stations, which were occupied without a hitch and remained on the alert until 7 a.m. At this hour, as no signs of any move on the part of the enemy had been observed, the Kimberley garrison was withdrawn from the defence works and dismissed. But thenceforward a small force was placed permanently on duty in the principal posts of the defence line.


Immediately south of Kimberley, and lying on a lower level, is situated the township of Beaconsfield— a municipal area then outside the jurisdiction of the Kimberley Town Council. As the proposed works along the commanding ground along the southern boundary of Kimberley (in accordance with the original defence scheme) completely overlooked Beaconsfield, and therefore rendered the township untenable by an enemy which might succeed in making a temporary lodgment therein, it had been thought unnecessary to extend the main line of defence so as to include this place within its perimeter. It had, however, always been intended that a few advanced works should be constructed on the debris heaps lying to the eastward and south-westward of Beaconsfield, and that these should be permanently garrisoned. Those who had planned the original defences were of opinion that the Boers would never dare seize Beaconsfield so long as the southern defences of Kimberley continued to be held; Kekewich entirely agreed in this view, but the inhabitants of Beaconsfield were not satisfied with the protection which this scheme would afford them. The Mayor and Town Council of Beaconsfield viewed with concern the prospect of having to remain outside the limits of the main line of defences, and brought pressure to bear on Kekewich in order to obtain such a modification of the defence arrangements as would meet their representations on the subject. The number of troops under Kekewich's command was obviously inadequate properly to garrison even the works round Kimberley alone, but, nevertheless, Kekewich eventually decided that administrative advantages might be obtained by bringing Beaconsfield within the main line of defence. Accordingly, additional defences were planned to cover Beaconsfield, and they were begun without delay: on their completion the perimeter of the defended area was increased to nearly 13 1/2 miles.

The Boers massed opposite the Diamond Fields were at this time getting somewhat restless as they lay within easy reach of their principal objective on the South African Western Front; they seemed to be particularly annoyed at the searching beam of light which nightly swept the ground between the Premier Mine Redoubt and their laager at Olifantsfontein nearby. During the night of 7th October, a shot was fired from Free State territory and came whizzing over the Premier Mine Redoubt: this was the first overt act of hostility committed on the Kimberley border. There is little doubt that the target aimed at was the reflector of the searchlight, but the bullet found some other billet. War not having yet been declared, in view of the policy laid down by the authorities in Cape Town, no retaliatory action was taken by the Kimberley troops.

[1] War Commission, 1903 [Cd. 1791]. Q.13790