The siege of Kimberley began on Sunday, October 15, 1899, and continued until Thursday, February 15, 1900. It was somewhat unexpected, for although so near the border it was hardly expected that the Boers would invade British territory. In fact, so little did the military authorities at Cape Town anticipate a siege that it was with great difficulty the Kimberley inhabitants secured any military assistance. On September 21, however, a detachment of 500 men of the Loyal Lancashires, Royal Artillery, and Royal Engineers, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Kekewich, put in an appearance. These were the only regular troops in the town, and but a handful in face of the Boers gathering on the frontier.
There were, of course, local volunteer regiments--the Kimberley Rifles, the Diamond Fields Artillery, and the Diamond Fields Horse--and there were also about 400 men of the Cape Mounted Police. But what were these to guard the treasures of the Diamond City and its population of 50,000 souls?
The Defence of Kimberley.
It was evident that Kimberley must set to work to defend itself, and that it did right nobly. A town guard was formed consisting of about 2,500 men, but they were men of all sorts and conditions. Never was there a happier or a more ill-assorted family! A director of De Beers side by side with a needy adventurer; a millionaire shoulder to shoulder with a beggar! There they were! all sorts and conditions of men, but all animated by one great purpose--to keep the flag flying.
By-and-by the lack of cavalry was severely felt, and Mr. Cecil Rhodes, resourceful as ever, brought up some 800 horses, and the Kimberley Light Horse--now a famous regiment--came into being. The command of it was given to Colonel Scott-Turner, and it was composed of the best riders and keenest shots that could be found. Plenty of these were fortunately available and they greatly distinguished themselves.
No one thought of surrender, and when the length of the siege drew into weeks and from weeks into months, and food ran short and water was cut off, they still kept cheerful. They knew they were practically safe from assault. Surrounding the town is a belt of level country some six miles wide, and they felt certain the Boers dare not cross this belt and face the fire that would be poured into them from the huge cinder heaps which had been transformed into forts.
By-and-by the number of shells dropped into the town increased rapidly. New and more powerful guns were brought to bear upon it, and no man's life was safe. They did their best to reply, and actually, under the direction of Mr. George Abrams (chief engineer of De Beers), they manufactured a 30-pounder gun called 'Long Cecil,' which proved effective at a range of 10,000 yards. Unfortunately, Mr. Abrams was himself killed by a shell not long after he had completed this great work.
From time to time sorties were carried out, and in the boldest of them all, when the Kimberley men got so near that they could look down their enemy's guns, Colonel Scott-Turner was killed.
Perils of the Siege.
But notwithstanding all they could do the enemy's attack grew fiercer. It is estimated that between three and four thousand shells fell in Kimberley during the siege, and the destruction wrought by these was very great. Most of the churches suffered seriously. Many women and children lost their lives. If there was any special function of any kind in progress the Boers were almost sure to know about it and give it their marked attention.
Bugle calls, taken up and repeated through the town, warned the people of coming shells, and then they knew they had only fifteen seconds to reach some place of shelter. Bomb-proof shelters were improvised, caves were dug by the side of houses, and into these the inhabitants ran, with more speed than ceremony, when those bugle notes were heard.
It was, however, felt unsafe to allow the women and children to remain longer in the town, and by the kindness of the De Beers Company they were lowered into the mines, and there for a full week they lived. Among the rest the families of the Baptist and Wesleyan ministers were lowered there. It happened that these two reverend gentlemen met in the street shortly after the descent of their families, and on parting the Baptist said to the Methodist--all unconscious of the suggestiveness of his statement--'Good-bye, my friend; we shall soon meet again either above or below!'
It was no laughing matter, however, to the thousands of women and children living day and night in the mine tunnels some eight or twelve thousand feet below the surface. Theirs was a pitiable condition, and how much longer they could have held out had not help come it is difficult to say.
All this time the Kimberley searchlight was night by night searching the neighbourhood lest any Boers under cover of the darkness should approach the town; and for most of the time, by heliograph or searchlight, the authorities were in communication with Lord Methuen on the other side of those forbidding kopjes. And yet help came not, and the situation was becoming desperate.
Various Forms of Christian Work during the Siege.
In the first place refugee relief work was attempted and successfully carried out. Large numbers had fled for refuge to Kimberley when war was declared, and many of these were penniless. A fund of some L3,000 was raised, and a committee composed of all the ministers of the town carried out the work of relief. Throughout the siege all the ordinary services with one or two exceptions were maintained, and though the men for the most part were on duty, yet the congregations were remarkably good and the men were present whenever they could get away.
The Wesleyan Church has eight churches in Kimberley. As soon as the military camps were formed, the Rev. James Scott organized services for the troops. The Rev. W.H. Richards, the Presbyterian minister, gladly joined in the work, and united Presbyterian and Wesleyan services were held.
The hospital work was effectively done, and Miss Gordon (the matron) with her staff of nurses cheered and soothed the last moments of many a poor dying lad.
The Relief of Kimberley.
But the time of relief was drawing near. Lord Roberts had appeared upon the scene, and his great flank movement was being carried out. General French, at the head of his cavalry division, was making one of the most famous marches in history. The days of inaction were over. Cronje and his forces were saying a hasty good-bye to the hills at Magersfontein, which had so long defied Lord Methuen and his troops, and were flying for their lives.
On Thursday, February 15, huge clouds of dust appeared upon the horizon, and the tidings spread throughout the town that the relief column was in sight. Every available eminence was speedily crowded with people eager to catch a glimpse of the coming troops. Bugle warnings and shells were things of the past. Here they come! They have travelled far and fast! Look at them! Worn and weary, they can hardly sit their horses. But they are here, and at their head is the most famous cavalry officer of the war--our Aldershot cavalry leader, General French. Ahead of his troops, fresh and vigorous, as though he had only just started, he proudly rides into the town. The people gather round and cheer; they almost worship the soldiers who have brought them relief, and then, secure for the first time for four long months, they turn to greet friends and relatives, and the glad intelligence spreads far and wide--Kimberley is relieved!
Christian Work after the Relief.
Very speedily a branch of the South African General Mission was established in Kimberley, and was soon in good working order.
The tent of the S.C.A. was opened in Newton Camp, Kimberley, on March 12. The Mayor of Kimberley was present, and Mr. A.H. Wheeler, the organizing secretary of the association, took charge of the proceedings. The soldiers' roll-call hymn was sung. In this tent large numbers afterwards gave themselves to Christ.
The Rev. Mr. McClelland, Presbyterian chaplain, also moved into Kimberley from Modder River, and for some time assisted in the work. He tells of the sad death of the Rev. Cathel Kerr, of the Free Church Highland Committee. He had been acting chaplain to the Scots Guards, and died in Kimberley hospital.
During the siege an eminent South African missionary passed away--the Rev. Jas. Thompson, M.A., ex-President of the South African Wesleyan Conference. He died with the sound of bursting shells in his ears, wondering what was in store for his church and people. He died as Christians die, and passed
'Where beyond these voices there is peace.'
The work of God spread from Kimberley on every hand. The S.C.A. workers spread out as far afield as Boshof, worshipping in the Dopper Church, and making it ring with Sankey's hymns, where all had been the quiet of the Psalms. We read of conversions here and there and everywhere. Thus in Kimberley also the word of God 'had free course and was glorified,' and the workers 'thanked God and took courage.'