"A la guerre, le premier principe du general en chef, c'est de cacher ce qu'il fait, de voir s'il a les moyens de surmonter les obstacles et de tout faire poor les surmonter quand il a resolu." Napoleon
LORD ROBERTS SENDS A MOUNTED FORCE TO RELIEVE KIMBERLEY: KEKEWICH HANDS OVER HIS COMMAND TO FRENCH
BOERS DISQUIETED BY BRITISH MOVEMENTS
The Boer field-guns opened fire on Kimberley and Beaconsfield at 6 a.m. on 12th February, but it was an hour later before "Long Tom's" projectiles began to make their screeching noises over the town. During the day, four houses in Kenilworth, were set on fire by "Long Tom"; they were completely destroyed; fortunately, no one was hit. A record in the Frenchman's diary, which has already been referred to, seems to indicate that information had been sent out to the Boers that the people in Kimberley had taken refuge in Kenilworth with a view to avoiding "Long Tom's" attention; in consequence, the six-inch gun was now trained on Kenilworth, with the result mentioned above. Colonel Villebois-Mareuil (of the French Army) was at this time acting as military adviser to General Kolbje, who was in command of the Boer commando investing Kimberley on the west and north. From the time of the arrival of "Long Tom" at Kamfersdam, Villebois-Mareuil had been urging the Boers to deliver an attack against our defences and had worked out a scheme for the purpose, but it was too daring to be acceptable to the cautious commanders who had been entrusted by Kruger and Steyn with the responsibility for the capture of the Diamond Fields. Several foreigners had joined the Boer forces investing Kimberley, and, no doubt, had been looking forward to the day when they could fill their pockets with sparkling gems, and some of them were, as we learnt later, keenly disappointed with the dilatory methods of the Boers; in their view "ces gens-la font la guerre comme si c'etait un pique-nique," and they resolved accordingly to seek better luck "sur un autre champ d'operations." Apparently, the Boers had finally decided that an attack de vive force should be delivered against our northern defences on 12th February, but when the time for the delivery of the assault arrived they were in a highly nervous state owing to the activities of the British forces. "Long Cecil" and our "snipers" had also inspired in the Boers a most wholesome respect for the defenders of Kimberley. We had also had some good luck this day; in the evening a rumour reached the military Headquarters that Leon, an agent of the famous Creusot firm, who had been employed as a gun-layer at Kamfersdam, had been shot through the head by our "snipers." This rumour was later confirmed. Although a bullet had passed right through Leon's head, he eventually recovered completely. Under the date 12th February, the following entries occur in the Frenchman's diary previously referred to:
" Reveilles par fusillade nourrie; anglais profite journee hier pour rapprocker tranchees de Camfordam. Tir tres precis, situation dangereuse. . . . Leon blesse a la tete; balle entree par tempe et eraflee cervelle. . . . Mouvement offensif general anglais s'accentue. Attaque possible pour ce soir. Attendons toujours hommes promis par General Kolbje pour attaque Ottoscopie. Mouvement contremande."
The diarist now left Kimberley for Pretoria with some of his compatriots; they appear to have been as badly off in the matter of rations in the Boer laagers as we were in Kimberley.
"Long Tom" continued to shell us on 13th February; one of its projectiles hit the brick chimney-stack of a corrugated-iron building and brought it down. Three men, a woman and a child were buried under the debris and badly injured. During this day, much smoke could be seen in the direction of Jacobsdal; many were our surmises as to what this meant. The general opinion was that a battle was taking place, but was too distant from Kimberley for the guns to be heard. It was evident that the Boers were much disquieted; they apparently expected that the direct telegraph wire between Bloemfontein and their headquarters at Spytfontein would be cut. Kekewich had established a small post on Otto's Kopje, which was held by some die-hards, who were familiarly known as "The Forty Thieves"; the officer commanding this post reported during the day that the enemy was very busy building a telegraph line across the veldt westward of Carter's Ridge, in order to connect up the Intermediate Pumping Station with the Spytfontein position—the Boer headquarters at the former place were in telegraphic communication with Pretoria via Fourteen Streams and Potchefstroom. In these circumstances, it was decided to make an attempt to interrupt the telegraphic communications north of Kimberley. A native was sent north as soon as it was dark; he was instructed to cut and remove as great a length as possible of the telegraph wires on the railway, at some point northward of Dronfield Siding. This task was successfully accomplished.
At daybreak on the morning of 14th February, Peakman was sent out with a small mounted force to the eastward of Kimberley; he soon came into contact with a body of Boers, who had established themselves at Tollpan. The enemy was driven away from this position, our only casualty being one officer slightly wounded. Just as daylight began to appear, some natives arrived at Fraser's headquarters at Beaconsfield; they reported that the Boers had evacuated Alexandersfontein—about seven miles south-east of Kimberley. Fraser at once moved forward with a detachment of the Town Guard under his command and occupied the position abandoned by the enemy, reporting to Kekewich that he had done so; he also forwarded a statement containing the story told by the natives. Briefly, their story was that during the night a Boer despatch-rider had arrived in Alexandersfontein, his horse covered in foam; he had reported that he had been present at an engagement on the Riet River between the British Cavalry and a part of Cronje's commando, which had had to give way; in consequence, the British: Cavalry had been able to make the passage of the river. This news created consternation in the enemy's laager at Alexandersfontein, and the Boers there, who had, as usual, their families with them, began immediately to pack up their belongings. Within a very short time of the arrival of the despatch-rider, the commando had trekked away, with its retinue of women and children; whither they had gone, Fraser's informants were unable, or maybe unwilling, to say, excusing their ignorance by explaining that it was still very dark when the Boer column moved off.
There was a plentiful supply of water at Alexandersfontein, and the locality provided suitable campgrounds for a fairly large force—at least an infantry division. Consequently, Kekewich at once reinforced Fraser with some mounted men, two guns of the Diamond Fields Artillery, a section R.E., and a company of the Loyal North Lancashire lads; in order that Fraser should be released so as to carry on his duties as O.C., Beaconsfield, O'Brien was sent from the Premier Mine Redoubt to take command at Alexandersfontein. Before the change in the command could be effected, a party of Boers, who had apparently not been informed that Alexandersfontein had been evacuated by their comrades in arms, marched into the place; finding British troops in possession, they put up a fight, during which one Boer was killed and, at the same time, eight Boers, including two despatch-riders, were taken prisoners. A few wagon-loads of supplies were also captured and at once moved into Kimberley.
The Boers did not intend to let the Kimberley troops have undisputed possession of Alexandersfontein; they turned their guns on Wimbledon Ridge on to the new arrivals and peppered them with segment shell, and also brought a field-gun into action in a new position to the eastward of Alexandersfontein. The infantry, assisted by the R.E., worked away bravely, entrenching themselves in under the fire of the Boer artillery; they suffered a few minor casualties. The Boer prisoners were sent up to the military Headquarters, where they had to undergo a cross-examination; they stated that during the night their telegraphic communications with Bloemfontein and also to the north had been suddenly interrupted. This circumstance caused dismay in the minds of their leaders, who imagined that a British force had under cover of darkness, got through to the north of Kimberley and cut them off from the Vaal. "Long Tom" remained, however, in action throughout this day and, at intervals, endeavoured to get rid of some of his ammunition; but our "snipers" were very much alive and on the spot. Indeed, the Boer gun-layers had so hot a time that they shirked their duty to such an extent that "Long Tom's" effort this day was of the feeblest.
RELIEF AT LAST
February 15th now arrived; it was a momentous day. Lord Roberts' message of the 10th had indicated that, on this date at latest, Kekewich might expect to receive heliographic signals from the direction of JacobsdaL It had been borne in on Kekewich that important developments were taking place, and there was no mistaking the fact that the Boers had now fairly got the "jumps"; "Long Tom," however, still tried to impress upon us his importance and was not ready at present at all events "to hop it." The smaller guns on Wimbledon Ridge seemed to be encouraged by the boldness of their big brother on the Kamfersdam heap; it may be the Boer artillerymen thought that it would be better to make us a free gift of the ammunition at their "dumps" rather than trouble us to cart it away later. The Boer ordnance therefore treated us to a little of their music this day, and took a small toll, wounding a few of the troops, Fraser, who had returned to his headquarters at Beaconsfield, was keeping an extremely sharp look-out in the direction from which we had now been expecting to see a Relief Column approach the Diamond Fields; about 3 p.m. he espied a heliograph signal, the origin of which he estimated to be fifteen miles away, and telephoned up to Kekewich calling his attention to the same. A few minutes later, an orderly who had ridden in on a "push" bicycle from Alexandersfontein arrived at our Headquarters in Lennox Street; he was in a breathless condition, being the bearer of a despatch from O'Brien, who had given instructions that it should reach the Commandant with the least possible delay, O'Brien's despatch informed Kekewich that an immense body of mounted men was advancing on his post, and that, unless he was very strongly reinforced, he would not be able to hold on to Alexandersfontein. Poor O'Brien, his confidence in himself and his men was really most amusing. Where did he think Kekewich was going to raise reinforcements in sufficient numbers to enable the gallant commander of the Alexandersfontein position to repel a daring force of the magnitude of that racing to save Kimberley; the force bearing down on Alexandersfontein was none other than the Cavalry Division under French.
As the hands of the clock approached the hour of four in the afternoon, Kekewich received a helio message from French himself, conveying the information that he was advancing to the relief of Kimberley and asking whether he was on the right road. French's message also stated that camp-grounds would be required that evening with water sufficient for 5,000 men and 10,000 animals. Kekewich replied to French at once, giving him the information he wanted, and at the same time indicated that he would proceed to Alexandersfontein to meet him. Kekewich recognized that, although the relief of Kimberley was now imminent, the accomplishment of this purpose would not end the war. He felt that there was still something that he could do with a view to helping the situation generally, and quickly came to a decision as to the next step which should be taken by the troops under his command. "Long Tom" had remained in action almost up to the time of the receipt of French's helio message. Kekewich therefore thought that it might be possible for him to cut off the retreat of this piece of Boer ordnance; in any case, it was something worth trying for, and no serious risk would be incurred by our troops in making such an attempt, small though their numbers were, as the Boers were now fairly "on the run."
Accordingly, before starting off to meet French at Alexandersfontein, Murray was called to our Headquarters and instructed verbally that he was placed in command of a mixed force which was to start off as soon as it could be collected together; his task was to cut off the retreat of "Long Tom" and to take as many prisoners as possible. The troops at the premier Mine Redoubt and Alexandersfontein were too far away to be utilized for further operations that day, but all the mobile troops manning the northern sections of our defences were withdrawn from their posts, and together with the mounted men, the guns of the Diamond Fields artillery and the infantry in reserve, placed under Murray's command. The only troops not placed under Murray were the mounted men guarding our live-stock, and the members of the Town Guard, who under the conditions of enlistment, could not be sent to a distance greater than eight miles from the Market Square. The several commanding officers affected were instructed at once and the verbal orders given to Murray were confirmed in writing; the force which came under his command consisted of four guns of the Diamond Fields artillery, two horsed-maxims, about 400 mounted men and 200 infantry. This force was quickly collected and moved north at once.
Kekewich now rode off to Alexandersfontein; on the way there an advanced party of Australians and a few Lancers were passed on the southern outskirts of Beaconsfield. Kekewich increased his pace and hurried on through Wesselton Village; when still some one and a half miles from Alexandersfontein, the first formed body of the relieving troops was met. These troops consisted of Rimmgton's Scouts, a squadron of the Scots Greys and other units of the Regular Forces; the gallant Mike (Rimington) and several other senior officers were with this body. Kekewich now halted and inquired for French's whereabouts; nobody could enlighten him. Presently, an officer, who had just come up from the direction of "Susanna,'' a Boer work about four miles south-east of the Premier Mine Redoubt, informed Kekewich that the commander of the Cavalry Division was in the neighbourhood of the Boer work just mentioned with a Horse Artillery Battery which was shelling the Boer laager at Olifansfontein (about half a mile south of "Susanna"). Kekewich then galloped towards "Susanna," but on arrival there found that French had left. Porter, who was commanding the 1st Cavalry Brigade, now came up; he stated that he had no definite instructions as to his bivouac and inquired for a suitable place. Kekewich thereupon acted as guide and led Porter and his brigade to Blankenberg Vlei, to the east of Kimberley railway station.
The Siege of Kimberley was now definitely at an end; during the four months the Diamond Fields had been isolated the Boer artillery had fired some 8,500 rounds into our defended area and we had replied with a little over 2,100 rounds, mostly from our 7-pdrs. The toll taken from the civil population by the Boer artillery amounted to nine persons killed and sixteen wounded. The skill with which Kekewich had employed his small force had kept the Boers at such a distance from our main defence line that at no time was the whizz of a Boer rifle bullet heard in any inhabited quarter of the town. The people in Kimberley and Beaconsfield had throughout these dreary months shown great fortitude and accepted the trying conditions with exemplary patience. The local levies and the Regular troops behaved in a most commendable way, and proved themselves in every way worthy soldiers of a great race.
To Kekewich there remained but one more thing to do; an officer senior to himself having arrived in the territories which had been placed under his jurisdiction, he desired, in accordance with the customs and traditions of the British Army, to report himself to that officer and take his instructions. There seemed to be only two places in Kimberley to which the Cavalry Commander could have repaired with a view to establishing his headquarters in the town, namely, the Kimberley Club, where our own Headquarter mess was established, and the Sanatorium Hotel. After leaving Porter at Blankenberg Vlei, Kekewich decided that, on his way back to the Kimberley Club, he would call in at the Sanatorium Hotel on the off-chance of meeting French there. As we approached the building we heard sounds of merriment and many voices in the hall, and a few minutes later we entered the hotel. Tables were laid in the hall, laden with all manner of luxuries, champagne was flowing freely, and to us, who had seen nothing but the meagre rations served daily at the Kimberley Club for many weeks past, this display of dainties came as a great surprise. Rhodes, was now entertaining French and his staff, who, we learnt, had been invited to stay at the hotel as his guests during their halt in Kimberley. Rhodes was in the hall when Kekewich arrived; the two men had not met since the stormy interview of the afternoon of 10th February, and Kekewich naturally wished to avoid any altercation, so he remained by the door by which he had entered. Fortunately, a staff officer came along and Kekewich went forward and told him that he wished to see General French. Rhodes observed this and, rushing forward, attempted to block the stairway, shouting; "You shan't see French; this is my house, get out of it." Kekewich took no notice of Rhodes' ill-mannered conduct, but accompanied the staff officer upstairs. It may here be stated that the Sanatorium Hotel was in no way a private house, nor was it Rhodes' personal property; it belonged to the De Beers Company, like most things in Kimberley.
Kekewich went into the room occupied by French and saw him alone; the interview was extremely short, and the former at once returned to the Kimberley Club. The conclusions, if any, the Cavalrv Commander had then come to as to the conduct of Kekewich during the siege must have been founded alone on information derived from ex parte statements made by Rhodes. On the ride back to the Club Kekewich said little, but from that little it was not difficult to draw the inference that he had met with an icy reception. But why attempt to penetrate behind the veil?
The newspaper correspondents, perhaps naturally went direct to the Sanatorium Hotel to obtain information concerning the Defence of. Kimberley. Many of them were quite content when they had heard one side of the story; a few of them, however, came on afterwards to the Kimberley Club to learn the other side of the story. Documentary evidence being available, some of the latter decided that it would be wise on their part not to form any hasty judgment, based alone on what they had been told at the Sanatorium Hotel, as to Kekewich's conduct.
THE DAY AFTER THE RAISING OF THE SIEGE
When Kekewich was leaving French after his interview, the latter stated that the Cavalry Division would be operating to the north of Kimberley on the morrow. Kekewich was invited to accompany French during the operations which were to take place. One of the De Beers' directors had offered a reward of £1,000 to the troops should they capture "Long Tom," and apparently the Cavalry Division was going to make an attempt to win it. Anyhow, an advance to the north offered some prospect of capturing a valuable war trophy. On the morning of the 16th, Kekewich went out to Blankenberg Vlei, accompanied by a staff officer. At 6 a.m., French, arrived at the rendezvous and at once advanced with, two of his cavalry brigades and his mounted infantry to the northward. Bringing up their left shoulders, the squadrons rapidly approached the old Orange Free State frontier, where a halt was called and the various formations were told off to their several tasks. The C.S.O. of the Cavalry Division and Kekewich's staff officer had met but a few years earlier at Camberley; there was a mutual recognition and they accordingly rode together for a short time. The cavalry and mounted infantry were once more on the move. In talking over matters, French's C.S.O. expressed the view that, in his opinion, Kekewich had on the previous day failed to appreciate the situation correctly. An exchange of views on military matters is always interesting, and therefore Kekewich's staff officer inquired what Kekewich should have done and was informed that as soon as the latter had become aware that the Cavalry Division was approaching Kimberley every available man in. the town should have been sent north to cut off "Long Tom." This was comforting, and as a copy of Kekewich's orders to Murray was in the staff officer's pocket, it was produced and handed to French's C.S.O. to read. About this time, that is to say, very shortly after the cavalry formations had started off on their respective missions, a sharp fusillade and the fire of guns was heard on our left. French now sent off one of his orderly officers to ascertain what was takfng place; information was quickly brought back that Kimberley troops were attacking a Boer position at Dronfield Siding. The Kimberley troops in question were none other than the reserves and other troops which had been sent forward the previous afternoon under Murray. Here was further proof that Kekewich's appreciation of the situation was after all correct. Murray had come into contact with the enemy about dusk on the previous evening and had remained out all night in order that touch should not be lost. An attempt had then been made by the Kimberley troops early on the morning of the 16th to continue the advance, but they had been held up; Porter was now sent to their support.
When French's cavalry had joined in the fray, the battlefield extended from Dronfield to MacFarlane's Farm (some five miles apart). French now took up a position on the eastern edge of Dronfield Ridge and surveyed the field; we could see the Boers at MacFarlane's Farm retiring northward. An attack was now launched from the south and the east against the enemy at MacFarlane's; the Boers were driven out and were soon in full retreat. French rode on and when we reached a position some twelve miles north of Kimberley, we could distinctly see to the southward and westward of us a large scattered army of Boers making a desperate attempt to escape from the lance and the sword that had so unexpectedly made their appearance on the Diamond Fields. To the north of us, there lay an immense laager crowded with wagons; prisoners captured by the Australians stated that "Long Tom" was in that laager. But the efforts of the Cavalry Division to carry off this prize proved fruitless. A scorching sun was beating down on the veldt and no water was available for either man or beast. The horses were getting exhausted, and many lay down and died at once. French called off his troops late in the afternoon, and we started back on our return journey to Kimberley, the last four or five miles of which was a most distressing experience; we rode literally along a lane formed by the carcasses of mounts that had left Blankenberg Vlei in the early morning of this day. So far as the Cavalry Division was concerned, from the strategical point of view, the 16th was a wasted day.