“Les bombes ne sont rien, absolument rien; elles ecraseront quelques maisons; mais cela n'a jamais influe sur la reddition d'une place."  Napoleon.



Rumours had for some time been current on the Diamond Fields that the Boers were bringing one of their "Long Toms," a 6-inch gun firing a projectile weighing about 90 lb., from Ladysmith to Kimberley. Kekewich had long expected that some such move might be made by the enemy to hearten their own people. The diary of a Frenchman which contains an account of the journey of the gun from Pretoria to Kimberley later fell into British hands. It appears that this piece of ordnance had been sent to Pretoria for repairs, on the completion of which it started for the Diamond Fields with an escort of Frenchmen, who had accepted military service under the Boer Republics. The first part of the journey was made by rail; leaving Pretoria at 6 p.m. on 30th January, the gun and its escort arrived at Brandfort one and a half hours later, and detrained. The march to Kimberley was in the nature of a triumphal progress; leaving Brandfort on 31st January, the gun arrived at Kamfersdam Mine, some 8,000 yards to the northwest of the Conning Tower, at 7 p.m. on 6th February, and was at once hoisted to the top of the debris heap, upon which an emplacement had been constructed.

At 11 a.m. on 7th February the officer on watch at the Conning Tower observed a puff of smoke at the head-gear of the Kamfersdam Mine; it was "Long Tom" confirming the accuracy of the rumour that had preceded his advent. His monster shells were soon bursting over different parts of Kimberley and Beaconsfield; all parts of our defended area, with the exception of the Premier Mine Redoubt, were within his range from the Kamfersdam position. The cases of the shrapnel shell fired by "Long Tom," after shedding their contents, followed most erratic courses in the air; their flight gave rise to peculiarly weird noises, which greatly terrified the women and children. "Long Cecil" was at once ranged on Kamfersdam and succeeded to some extent in keeping down the fire of the Boer big gun; indeed, one of the former's shells struck the timber head-gear on the debris heap and sent splinters of metal, and of timber also, flying in all directions. Later, it was learnt that some of "Long Cecil's" projectiles had caused casualties among the team working "Long Tom."

When Bloemfontein was occupied some weeks later, a large-scale map of Kimberley was found at the Raadzaal; thereon were prominently marked all the buildings of importance, such as the military Headquarters in Lennox Street, the Kimberley Club, the Town Hall, the Hospital and several other premises of similar importance. A note on the map indicated that it was used at Kamfersdam for the purpose of laying "Long Tom" indirectly on the various targets fired at on the Diamond Fields.

We had become quite accustomed to the shelling by the Boer 9-pdrs. and 15-pdrs., and found no difficulty in carrying on our work at the headquarters office during the severest bombardment. But when "Long Tom" was in action, the noise made by the bursting-shell and the shrapnel shell cases was such as to render it impossible to concentrate one's thoughts. Many of the clerks and telephone operators employed at the military Headquarters and in the redoubts were civilians; in some cases the bombardment was too much for them and they absented themselves from duty and the soldiers had to carry on as best they could. The fact that "Long Tom" had come into action against Kimberley was at once communicated to Methuen. Within a very short time of the arrival of the first six-inch shell in the town it became evident that a prolonged bombardment with this type of projectile would have a very demoralizing effect on the civil population, particularly in view of the circumstance that very little bomb-proof cover existed on the Diamond Fields. On 8th February Kekewich reported that, "having regard to the population and the class of troops defending the town," the situation was serious. Several buildings were struck by six-inch shell this day, one of them being set on fire. The Fire Brigade gallantly got to work to deal with the conflagration, which could be seen at Kamfersdam; the Boer artillerymen now shelled the burning building with increased vigour.

On the second day of the bombardment, a system of signalling was introduced to give the people warning that "Long Tom" had speeded one of his shell towards Kimberley. A signaller was posted at the Conning Tower and kept observation on Kamfersdam; as soon as he noticed a puff of smoke issue from the muzzle of the Boer gun, he waved a flag. On this signal, buglers who had been stationed in suitable positions sounded a "G". "Long Tom" being some 4 miles from the centre of the town, the people were in many instances able to seek the protection of some kind of shelter and thus avoid being hit by fragments or splinters of the shell. Usually about 15 seconds elapsed between the sounding of the bugle alarm and the arrival of "Long Tom's" messenger of death.


Of the total of approximately 50,000 people in Kimberley and Beaconsfield at this time, about 20,000 were whites, one half of them being of Dutch extraction. Consequently, there was quite a large body of persons within our defence lines whose sympathies were entirely on the side of the Boers, and many of them made no attempt to conceal the fact. This was the factor that created the element of weakness in the military situation on the Diamond Fields. It had already been reported to military Headquarters both by the Staff Officer of the Kimberley Town Guard and the detectives of the Cape Police who were attached to the Intelligence Department that, in a certain Dutch quarter of the town, a movement had been started for a demonstration in favour of surrender. Kekewich attached no undue importance to these reports, but, with the advent of "Long Tom," he had to reckon with the possibility of the anti-British section of the population attempting to stampede their fellow citizens into taking a step prejudicial to the military interests.

It will be readily realized that the existence of the divided allegiance of a large proportion of the people in Kimberley to which reference has been made was at all times a source of anxiety to Kekewich. It need hardly be said then that he was naturally much per turbed when the Mayor of Kimberley (Oliver) called | to see him early on the morning of 9th February and informed him that Rhodes had sent a note to him (the Mayor) saying that it was his intention, in exercise of his rights as a ratepayer, to call a public meeting in Kimberley. Kekewich asked the Mayor to use his influence with Rhodes to dissuade him, pointing out the danger those attending the meeting would run should the Boers shell the building or other place of assembly decided upon for the meeting. It seemed almost certain that the hour and place of meeting would be notified to the enemy by their sympathizers; this had been done already in connection with Scott Turner's funeral, and, in consequence, a few minutes after the cortege was due to leave the hospital on the evening of 29th November, the Boer artillery had opened fire and planted a shell in the middle of crossroads, near the hospital, which the procession was to pass. Fortunately, on that occasion some delay had occurred in moving off from the hospital and, in consequence, no one was hit; the Boer artillery fire was kept up that evening until after the three volleys at the graveside, the cemetery also being shelled. Kekewich, at the same time, stated that if Rhodes should still persist in requisitioning such a meeting, an order would be issued forbidding it on military grounds. The Mayor was one of the few independent men on the Diamond Fields; he was clear-headed and fully appreciated Kekewich's point of view, and was ready to support the Commandant in the matter.

Later in the morning, Rhodes called at the military Headquarters and informed Kekewich that he was arranging with the Mayor for a meeting of the citizens of Kimberley, in order that their views should be forwarded to Lord Roberts. Kekewich informed Rhodes that such a meeting might seriously prejudice the military interests and that he had already most strongly impressed the seriousness of the situation on the Field-Marshal who was therefore fully informed thereon. Kekewich intimated that he would forbid the holding of any such meeting if the matter was persisted in. Rhodes thereupon became exceedingly violent and let himself go; he stated that unless full and definite information were given him within 48 hours of every step and measure being taken by the military for the relief of Kimberley, he would call a meeting in spite of any orders forbidding it. "Before Kimberley surrenders," he shouted, "I will take good care that the English people shall know what I think of all this." After this outburst, Rhodes rushed out of the office.

In the meantime, "Long Tom" continued to bombard the town; it opened fire at 6 a.m. on the 9th. The shelling was particularly heavy this day and several buildings were struck and badly damaged; some civilians were, unfortunately, also hit and injured by fragments of Boer six-inch shell—these fragments in some cases did damage at a distance of over 200 yards from the spot where the shell of which they formed part first struck the ground. "Long Tom" remained in action until dusk; the last shell fired by it before the gun-team ceased its labours for the day was responsible for a terrible tragedy. This projectile struck the south-east corner of the roof of the Grand Hotel, causing the walls of the building to collapse inwards. Labram, who had been directing the fire of "Long Cecil" during the day, had but a few minutes earlier entered his bedroom, which was situated in the top story of the hotel, in order to get ready for dinner. He appears to have been standing at a wash-stand placed in the very corner of the building that was struck; he was crushed to death by the falling masonry. The event caused immense sorrow in the town, no one being more grieved at the fatality than Kekewich, who had made so close a friend of Labram that it almost seemed they had known one another all their lives.

Kekewich recognized that it was imperative that strong measures should be taken to keep down "Long Tom's" fire; the damage that was being done by it was considerable. He hit upon the expedient of pushing forward "snipers" as close up to the gun emplacement on the Kamfersdam debris heap as possible. A natural bank, giving good cover to riflemen, existed some 1,500 yards to the southward of "Long Tom's" position; a dozen picked shots occupied this bank one hour before daybreak on the morning of the 10th, taking their rations with them. The duty was assigned to them of dealing with "Long Tom"; throughout the whole day, as soon as the muzzle of the gun showed signs of movement, i.e., when the Boer artillerymen started to run it up into the firing position, our "snipers" poured well-sustained volleys directed on the embrasure through which the gun fired. How very efficacious was the fire of our "snipers" can be gathered from a record in the diary of the Frenchman to which allusion has already been made. He states under the date 10th February:

"Reveilles ce matin 1 5 h. par obus qui tombent dans notre camp de waterworks. Entendons vive fusillade cote Kimberley; courons Camfordam. Tranchees anglaises etablies pendant nuit a 1,200 m.; tres dangereux pour pointeur. Dum dum et lee sifflent dru; impossible repondre. Rentrons camp."

The success met with by our "snipers" was quickly apparent to us and was so marked that the experiment was repeated daily for the remainder of the siege; the practice adopted was for the detachment to take up its position in the advanced trenches before it was daylight and to retire therefrom after dark each day, the men laying out all day on the qui vive.


The issue of the Diamond Fields Advertiser for 10th February contained an article[1] entitled "Why Kimberley cannot wait"; it was really, in great part, a repetition of Rhodes' tirade of the previous day; many of the phrases uttered by him in Kekewich's office during the interview of the 9th being reproduced almost word for word. This leading article, as was the case with the one entitled "An Impossible Rumour,"[2] was not submitted to the Press Censor before publication. The article was a hysterical one and particularly mischievous, since it disclosed very fully the majority of the weak features in the military situation in Kimberley. This being the second occasion on which the editor of the paper had wilfully defied the military authorities, Kekewich issued orders for his arrest. Apparently, Rhodes had foreseen that Kekewich would take such a step and had taken the precaution to hide his man, who could not be found; reports indicated that Rhodes had sent him down into one of the mines.

Rhodes called at military Headquarters with the Mayor of Kimberley at about 2.30 on the afternoon of the 10th. Addressing Kekewich, who was at the time seated at his desk, Rhodes started off: "Yesterday, you forbad a public meeting, but I have held a meeting all the same; it was attended by the twelve leading citizens in Kimberley." He then informed Kekewich that at the meeting in question a document had been drawn up containing the views of these gentlemen; he had it in his hands and tendered it to Kekewich. The latter then stated that he had received two heliographic messages from Lord Roberts in reply to the representations which he, as Commandant, Kimberley, had made as to the situation in the besieged town. Kekewich expressed the view that Rhodes should, before handing in the document in his possession, read the Commander-in-Chief's messages— these messages were framed in a most friendly tone and counselled patience for a few days longer. Having read these communications and stated that he was not satisfied with their contents, Rhodes now persisted in his request that Kekewich should receive the communication containing the views of the leading citizens of Kimberley and demanded that the representations therein contained should immediately be "flashed" in extenso to Lord Roberts. Kekewich told Rhodes that, as our messages could all be read by the Boers, the communication he had handed in would have to be put into cipher, and, being so very long, no promise could be made that the whole of it would be sent off the same day, as the signallers were very busy dealing with military work. Kekewich, however, undertook to send a precis of it off as soon as it had been coded. Rhodes thereupon flew into a violent rage and was most vituperative; inter alia, he accused Kekewich of having withheld the text of Wessels' ultimatum from the people of Kimberley (for the part Rhodes played in this matter, see p. 52 et seq.) and of keeping him in ignorance of the fact that the Commander-in-Chief had arrived at the Modder River (Kekewich was at this time himself ignorant as to the whereabouts of Lord Roberts, who, for obvious reasons, wished to keep his movements secret).[3] Rhodes also again made grossly insulting remarks about the British Army and, finally, clenching his fist, made a rush at Kekewich, shouting the meanwhile: "I know what damned rot your signallers are wasting their time in signalling. You low, damned, mean cur, Kekewich, you deny me at your peril" The Mayor and a staff officer were standing in front of Kekewich's desk and Rhodes' doubled fist shot over their shoulders. Kekewich at once rose from his desk; he was ashen pale and the fire of fierce anger shone in his eyes. For a moment it looked as if the two men would come to blows, but Rhodes suddenly turned round and made for the door and was hastily followed out by the Mayor.

Murray had been waiting in an adjacent room for an interview with the Commandant; he had heard all that had passed during Rhodes's visit and tactfully made his business short. Kekewich then went into the question as to the manner in which the communication left by Rhodes should be dealt with; he decided that the essential parts of the communication should be put into code, the language used in the original text being followed without alteration. The full text was as follows:

" On behalf of the inhabitants of these towns, we respectfully desire to be informed whether there is any intention on your part to make an immediate effort for our relief. Your troops have been for more than two months within a distance of little over twenty miles from Kimberley, and if the Spytfontein Hills are too strong for them there is an easy approach over a level flat. These towns with a population of over 45,000 people have been besieged for 120 days and a large portion of the inhabitants has been enduring great hardships. Scurvy is rampant amongst the natives; children, owing to a lack of proper food, are dying in great numbers, and dysentery and typhoid are very prevalent. The chief food of the whites have been bread and horseflesh for a long time past, and of the blacks meal and salt only. These hardships we think you will agree have been borne patiently and without complaint by the people. During the past few days 'die enemy has brought into action from a position three miles from us a 6-inch gun, throwing a 100-pound shell, which is setting fire to our buildings and is daily causing death among the population. As you are aware the military guns here are totally unable to cope with this new gun. The only weapon which gives any help is one locally manufactured. Under these circumstances, as representing this community, we feel that we are justified in asking whether you have any immediate intention of instructing your troops to come to our relief. We understand that large reinforcements have recently arrived in Cape Town and we feel sure your men at Modder River have at the outside 10,000 Boers opposed to them. You must be the judge as to what number of British troops would be required to deal with this body of men, but it it absolutely essential that immediate relief should be afforded to this place."

As a first step, a short summary of the above communication was at once prepared and embodied in cipher message which was sent to the Chief of Staff the same day; it ran as follows:

"F. M.'s of 9th Feb. and C 85 this date communicated three leading citizens and I trust will have excellent effect. Mayor, Rhodes and nine other leading citizens held private meeting to-day before F. M.'s two messages received. Rhodes and Mayor called at my office this afternoon presenting lengthy document for communication by flash to yon. Summary as follows: first, answer required whether immediate effort being made to relieve Kimberley; second, duration siege, shortness proper food, hardship endured, disease prevalent strongly represented; third, consternation destruction life and property caused by enemy's siege gun pointed.out; fourth, their views military situation stated."


During the afternoon, and within a very short time of the transmission, of the foregoing communication, Kekewich received a message from the Commander-in-Chief, with instructions that a certain part thereof should be communicated to Rhodes and the Major of Kimberley. The message to the civilians ran as follows:

" I beg you represent to the Mayor and Rhodes as strongly as you possibly can disastrous and humiliating effect of surrendering after so prolonged and glorious defence. Many days cannot possibly pass before Kimberley will be relieved, as we commence active operations to-morrow. Our further military operations depend in a large degree on your maintaining your position a very short time longer."

In the latter part of this message Kekewich was instructed to forbid any public meeting in Kimberley and to go even to the length of arresting any person, however high or influential his position, who might attempt to act in defiance of his orders. No name was mentioned, but it was quite clear that Lord Roberts realized who was the prime mover in the agitation now on foot in the Diamond Fields in relation to immediate relief. Finally, Kekewich was informed that arrangements for the relief of Kimberley were complete. Certain information had been asked for concerning the topography of the country and the water supply in the region southward of Kimberley, and particularly in the direction of Jacobsdal, and this had been furnished, with blue-prints of a map prepared in Kimberley from route reconnaissances made by a Special Service Officer only a short while before the Diamond Fields were isolated. The Commander-in-Chief instructed Kekewich to look out for helio signals in four or five days' time in a direction south-east and south-south-east of Kimberley. This seemed to indicate that at last the route which Kekewich had, in his early messages to Orange River, advocated as being the best for the last stage of the journey into Kimberley was about to be adopted by the force now being sent to our relief.

Copies of the part of the message intended for the civilians were, in accordance with Lord Roberts' instructions, sent immediately to Rhodes, to the Civil Commissioner and to the Mayor of Kimberley. Kekewich was, however, somewhat uneasy concerning the publicity which might be given in relation to relief plans by the recipients of tie message; he felt that it would be unwise to publish the fact broadcast that the Relief Column was about to advance at once, as the information was sure to get out to the Boers within an hour or two of its becoming known to the public, with consequences which might prove unfortunate. For this reason, not only were the communications marked "Secret" and the usual precautions taken, but a covering letter was also sent to each of the addressees; therein they were requested in express language not to divulge the contents of Lord Roberts' message to anyone. Rhodes, however, still refused to consider any information concerning military matters communicated to him either as confidential or secret; accordingly, he read the message publicly at the Sanatorium Hotel and also on the stoep of the Kimberley Club, prefacing his act with a statement that the military authorities had marked the communication to him "Secret" and had also written requesting that the contents of the message should not be divulged.

Later, some one appears to have called Rhodes' attention to the significance of the introductory words of Lord Roberts' message. Anyhow, at 6 p.m. Rhodes' private secretary called at military Headquarters with a message from Rhodes to the Commander-in-Chief and asked that it should be signalled to Modder River. The message ran: "There is no fear of our surrendering, but we are getting very anxious about the state of the British Army. It is high time you did something." Kekewich pointed out to the bearer of the message that its tone was highly offensive and he could not be a party to its transmission. The private secretary then returned to his own headquarters, but only to be back with Kekewich in less than an hour afterwards. Rhodes had altered the phrasing of his message, which now ran: "Thanks for your message. We have never thought or spoken of surrendering, but the endless delay of your predecessor led us to believe that no efforts were being made for our relief and by force of circumstances this community would have been crushed. I thought it right to send you the situation from the principal citizens."

It is necessary to deal here with a suggestion made by partisans of Rhodes; they have stated that Kekewich seems to have assumed that Rhodes deliberately intended to advise the citizens to surrender, and on the 9th communicated this impression to Lord Roberts. Kekewich made no such assumption. Further, in a letter dated 11th November 1900, addressed by Lord Roberts' Military Secretary to the Mayor of Kimberley, a categorical denial is given to the allegations made against Kekewich to the effect that he reported that surrender was contemplated and that he mentioned 17th February as the latest date to which the town could hold out.[4] The Military Secretary, in the concluding sentence of his letter states, "his Lordship gathered that the situation was of exceptional gravity." To represent that a situation is one of "extreme gravity" does not amount to a suggestion that the citizens of a besieged town have been given counsel to surrender.

Rhodes, however badly he behaved, certainly had no intention to counsel surrender, but both in the language he used to Kekewich and in the letters and communications addressed by him to the military authorities, he seems to have set to work deliberately to create the impression that Kimberley might surrender if the Relief Column did not hurry up. Attention has already been called to the fact that in his evidence given before the War Commission, Buller stated that a threat to surrender had been read into the messages sent to Cape Town by Rhodes and his friends in October;[5] these messages neither Kekewich nor his Staff had seen. Having knowledge of these earlier messages, it is perhaps not surprising that when the bare information was communicated by Kekewich to Lord Roberts that Rhodes was proposing to call a public meeting, the Commander-in-Chief should have assumed that the question of surrender might be forced to the front, possibly by some irresponsible group of persons in the town with strong leanings towards the cause of the Boer Republics. Kekewich's own view was that Rhodes was bluffing, and he felt that the latter, a man possessing the immense power and influence he did, was, in playing the leading part in a game of bluff adverse to the highest interests of the State, acting in a particularly reprehensible and dangerous manner.


In order that Lord Roberts should fully appreciate the conditions under which the defence of Kimberley was being carried on by him, Kekewich sent a telegram in the following terms to his Lordship on the morning of 11th February:

"Rhodes during siege has done excellent work; and also, when his views on military questions have coincided with mine, he has readily assisted me, but he desires to control the military situation. I have refused to be dictated to by him. On such occasions, he has been grossly insulting to me, and in his remarks on the British Army. More can be explained when we meet. I have put up with insults so as not to risk the safety of the defence: the key to the military situation here in one sense is Rhodes, for a large majority of the Town Guardsmen, Kimberley Light Horse and Volunteers are De Beers' employes. I fully realize the powers conferred on me by the existence of Martial Law, but have not sufficient military force to compel obedience. Conflict between the few Imperial troops here and the local levies has been, and must continue to be, avoided at all costs."

Was ever another British commander placed in a more trying position? The above message vividly describes the personal policy pursued by Kekewich . during the siege; he wished to avoid taking any step or adopting any measure which might "risk the safety of the defence." In the last quoted phrase lies the explanation as to why Kekewich did not act with a violent hand against Rhodes. It has been suggested that as the situation on the Diamond Fields was a military one, Kekewich should, the moment Rhodes began to interfere, have taken the strongest possible action against him. This is not the place to discuss what should or should not have been done by Kekewich, but it may be of interest to record that it has been argued at different times that one or other of the following courses might have been adopted by Kekewich. Rhodes ought to have been arrested and kept in military confinement until the Relief Column arrived in Kimberley; he ought to have been ordered to leave Kimberley at once and made to take his chance of avoiding capture by the Boers; or he ought to have been tried under Martial Law, and even the extreme penalty of that Law enforced against him.

Those who have made the foregoing suggestions cannot have correctly appreciated the difficulties of Kekewich's position. The very close contact in which the Commandant of Kimberley lived with the people on the Diamond Fields had taught him that although there were many who distrusted Rhodes, and even disliked him intensely, yet his partisans were undoubtedly in the majority. Shortly after Kimberley was isolated Kekewich had set up a Court of Summary Jurisdiction to deal with offences under Martial Law. The Court was a mixed tribunal presided over by a Judge of the Cape Supreme Court; its members were partly civilians (Government officials whose normal duties were connected with the administration of justice) and partly of soldiers (senior military officers). The military members were too occupied with their purely military duties to attend the meetings of the Court, which dealt extremely leniently with the ordinary offenders brought before it. Rhodes could, of course, have been arraigned before this Court, but the idea of the adoption of such a course did not enter the mind of anyone at the military Headquarters in Kimberley. Such a proposal would not have commended itself to Kekewich, had it been made; even a threat to deal with Rhodes in this way would probably have brought the two factions in Kimberley into collision and precipitated matters.

Being a Sunday, there was no shelling on this day (the 11th); however, in the afternoon a regular panic prevailed in the town.[6] There had been rumours flying about the town that "Long Tom" would start bombarding us again at midnight and that we were to have a very hot time of it on Monday. Early in the afternoon, notices in bold letters were exhibited in many places, and a cart, with a similar notice, was sent round the town; they ran:


The suggestion that the women and children should take shelter in the mines was a good one, but in this matter Rhodes acted without in any way consulting either the Commandant of Kimberley, or the Mayor. As soon as the people saw these notices they concluded that Rhodes had private information of what was going to happen on the morrow; in consequence, taking serious alarm, the young and the old, whites and blacks, rushed for the mine-heads; they were lowered promiscuously down into the galleries of the two mines named in the notice. These operations began at 5.30 p.m., but were not completed until long after midnight; more than 1,000 persons took refuge in tie Kimberley Mine and about 1,500 in the De Beers Mine. Had the military and civil authorities been consulted by Rhodes, as they ought clearly to have been, the end in view could have been accomplished without causing any panic and, at the same time, proper arrangements could have been made for feeding the people and making other arrangements for their comfort. As it was, all the supply arrangements in the town were disorganized and wastage occasioned. Moreover, the women and children of all classes and colours were huddled together in the galleries in the utmost confusion; no latrines were provided and the conditions existing in the mine galleries were reported to beggar description.

[1] See Appendix III

[2] See p. 89

[3] See The Times History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1900, Vol. III, at p. 365

[4] See Diamond Fields Advertiser of 15th November 1900

[5] See p. 59

[6] See Besieged by the Boers, by E. Oliver Ashe, M.D., at p. 178


Parent Category: Books
Category: O'Meara: Kekewich in Kimberley
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