The Siege of Kimberley—Antecedent Events—Colonel Kekewich Appointed Commandant—Rhodes Held Up— General Hertzog's Sister—A Quaint Misunderstanding—The Steady Flame of Patriotism—The Kimberley Club Contingent —The Sunday Truce—A Useful Rubber Stamp—The Diamond Fields Advertiser—Major O'Meara Appointed Chief of Staff—Labram Erects a Cold Storage—Rhodes Ordered to Leave—My most Memorable Christmas—Novel Method of Remitting Money—A Big Transaction.
Now to events which led to the memorable siege of Kimberley—a page of history which even the passage of time will not efface.
After the Jameson Raid it was quite obvious to me that hostilities could not be avoided; in fact, the breakdown of the Bloemfontein Conference between Milner and Kruger in May, 1899, prompted me to believe that war between England and the two Republics (Transvaal and the Free State) would be inevitable. Feeling at the time was running very high in the Transvaal, and the unyielding obstinancy of Kruger incensed the English residents of Johannesburg, who were paying nearly all the taxation without the slightest voice in the legislation of the country.
Kruger seemed obsessed with the idea that if the franchise were granted to the Uitlander, political power would be lost to the Boers. This was an absurd contention, because if every seat in Johannesburg was captured by the English, they would still only have formed an insignificant minority in comparison with the number of members of the Rand throughout the Transvaal.
I was convinced that war was looming on the horizon, and I trembled to think what might happen, in that event, to defenceless Kimberley, 500 miles from the nearest port, bounded on the one side by the Free State, and on the other by the Transvaal. I feared that the Republican forces would make a dash for Kimberley, where Rhodes housed the bulk of his fortune, which would have made a rich haul for the invaders. In war the Boers are as prone to succumb to an epidemic of looting as any other army. This statement of fact was proved during the first few days after the commencement of hostilities when, in great strength they made a bold dash for the adjacent farms within a few miles of Kimberley, and made off with over 700 head of cattle.
To sit down and do nothing meant disaster to the diamond mines, and ruination to the commercial community of Kimberley. Could war be averted? I debated the matter in my own mind, and came to the irresistible conclusion that some measures must be taken to protect the town. At a special meeting of the Directors of De Beers Company held on the 26th March, 1896, I pointed out to my colleagues that owing to the proximity of Kimberley to the Free State and the Transvaal, and to the hostile feeling exhibited there, there was considerable danger of an attack being made on our town, and more especially on De Beers. It was therefore decided at that meeting to purchase 500 Lee-Metford rifles, 500 regulation bayonets, 4 Maxim guns and 500,000 rounds of ammunition. On April 10, 1896, Mr. Advocate Richard Solomon, afterwards Sir Richard Solomon, K.C. (later Attorney-General of the Cape Colony, Attorney-General of the Transvaal, and subsequently Administrator of the Transvaal and High Commissioner in London), Mr. C. P. J. Coghlan (who as Sir Charles Coghlan subsequently became the first Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia), Mr. W. P. Mallett, solicitor, and Dr. Fuller, met the directors of the company for the purpose of consulting them on the advisability of approaching the Government with a view to obtaining permission to procure and store arms and ammunition for the protection of Kimberley. It was pointed out that the company was specially likely to be an object of attack, and in the event of the volunteer regiment being called away from Kimberley, there would be neither any organised force, nor weapons with which to arm any force. It was therefore decided that while the company could take no active or prominent part in approaching the Government, the Directors were willing and prepared to assist by providing funds for the purchase of arms and ammunition to be obtained in a constitutional manner, and stored in Kimberley for the sole purpose of defence. The previous order was consequently increased to 1,000 Lee-Metford rifles, 6 Maxim guns and 750,000 rounds of ammunition.
My next suggestion was that Kimberley, Beaconsfield and the five mines should be fortified. With that end in view, I commissioned Sedgwick Woolley, a Government surveyor, and a retired officer of the Royal Artillery, to make a military survey of Kimberley and surroundings. With the aid of an assistant, he completed the work within six weeks, dividing the territory to be defended into five military districts having a perimeter of eleven and a quarter miles. The debris heaps were selected as forts and redoubts. Mines were marked out where the Boers could occupy positions to bring rifle fire to bear on the defenders. Careful measurements were made of all the surrounding rising ground which the enemy might occupy. So well and accurately was the survey made, that it was adopted in its entirety when war appeared imminent.
At this time there were in the employ of the De Beers Company about 2,000 white men, a large proportion being skilled miners, and 10,000 Kafirs, all accustomed to the pick and shovel. These were set to work night and day, and in less than a week they dug the required trenches. They turned many of the debris heaps into strong forts with parapets made of inverted iron trucks. By dynamite blasting they made holes large enough for the ground to be pressed into them. During this period several Boers from the Boshof District visited Kimberley in order to spy out the land. It so happened that at this time a large number of long trenches had been dug, and cables were being laid for providing the town with electric light and power. Naturally the spies reported that Kimberley was being undermined. Nor did we disabuse their minds of this erroneous idea, as it suited our purpose admirably to allow them to think so.
The Cape Parliament, of which I was a member, was in session during August, September and part of October, 1899. The Bond Party was in power. It sympathised with the two Republics, and all applications for arms, etc., made by the Mayor and citizens of Kimberley and Beaconsfield, respectively, were refused. In one reply to the Mayor the Government said sarcastically, "Are you afraid of a Kafir rising?" This convinced us that in the event of war we could not depend on the Government for any assistance.
Advocate Schreiner, K.C., who was then Prime Minister (after Union, High Commissioner in London), received an assurance from his brother-in-law, Reitz (formerly President of the Orange Free State), that if hostilities broke out the forces of the Republics would not invade the Cape Colony. Schreiner was a very honourable man, and unfortunately he placed too much reliance on the promise of his relatives. So poor Kimberley was left in the lurch! Schreiner was undoubtedly deceived, as the first movement of the Republican forces was an advance towards the Diamond Fields, and the occupation of Magersfontein, some sixteen miles from Kimberley. We were, therefore, cut off by rail from Colonial ports. With his legal mind Schreiner probably thought that he could apply to the High Court for an injunction to restrain the Boers from advancing into Colonial territory. Alas, his theory was rudely shattered.
Lord Milner despatched from Wynberg half a battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 100 Royal Artillery with six seven-pounder mountain guns, and 50 Royal Engineers. This force reached Kimberley about the second week in September. Colonel Kekewich was appointed Commandant of Griqualand West and Bechuanaland. Colonel Scott Turner, who occupied an important position in Rhodesia, joined the Kimberley Force as Chief of Staff. It was a very wise appointment, for he was a brave, capable and tactful officer, possessing organising powers of no mean order.
Rhodes, Dr. Smartt and the Honourable Mr. Rochefort Maguire and Mrs. Rochefort Maguire arrived in Kimberley a few days before the siege. They intended to proceed to Bulawayo, but soon after their arrival the Boers cut the line at Kraaipan, some miles from Mafeking, and on the main line to Rhodesia. The enemy in force also occupied Magersfontein, and with the cutting of the line there, Rhodes and party were perforce held up in Kimberley. This was indeed a fortunate happening for the town, as Rhodes, as Chairman of De Beers Company, shouldered much more responsibility than the entire Board would possibly have cared to exercise.
As was only to be expected, during the siege all the mines were shut down; industries were at a standstill, and nearly the whole of the coloured community were unemployed. Rhodes lost no time in starting relief works at Kenilworth, where long avenues of trees were planted. Gardens were laid out, trenches dug, new roads made, and a trellis-vinery, three-quarters of a mile in length, was erected. They all remain to-day as monuments to Rhodes' foresight.
The poor people, who were thus kept going in employment, were still able to feed themselves on their pay, nor were their families left in distress. Assisted by Captain Tyson, Rhodes commenced a soup kitchen, which proved a veritable boon to the poor inhabitants of the town.
Rhodes and the members of his party were in residence at the Sanatorium (Hotel Belgrave) during the siege. The enemy apparently ascertained this fact, and on many occasions endeavoured to hit the building with their 100-pound shells fired from a gun in its position at Kamfersdam. The range was about 11,200 yards, and on several occasions shells fell near to the hotel, but it was never actually struck. The Boers, therefore, did not get their much desired satisfaction of killing Rhodes, though had they succeeded they would have gloried in such an achievement. Rhodes, if nothing else, was certainly a fatalist, for he calmly rode about the town and its environs when the shells were flying in the vicinity, heedless of any danger.
Most of the Dutch families in Kimberley resided in Newton—a suburb—when the town was besieged. Happily married were Mr. and Mrs. Smuts—she a sister of General Hertzog, the present Prime Minister—who, with her family of seven, lived in an unpretentious home.
A few days after the investment, a wagon and oxen leaving the township approached one of the British examining posts. It was stopped by the guards, who closely questioned the man in charge, Smuts, who protested that he and his son were merely proceeding to their farm.
"What have you in the wagon?" demanded the sergeant. "Only a little furniture," came the reply.
As Smuts could not produce a permit, the wagon was searched, and in it were found two rifles and some cartridges. Smuts and his son were immediately arrested, taken to headquarters, and later committed for trial. A judge of the Supreme Court and two assessors concluded that Smuts and his son, a youth of but nineteen summers, had intended to join the enemy. The father was sentenced to three years' imprisonment, and the son to eighteen months. After being in gaol a few days young Smuts contracted measles; the disease developed inwardly, and he died.
When the sad occurrence came to my notice, I sent an orderly with a note to Mrs. Smuts asking her to call and see me. The poor woman, on whom the misfortunes of war had already told heavily, thought that more trouble was to follow her unlucky footsteps, and when she arrived at my house, and was confronted by me in military uniform, she appeared to be in a state of nervousness.
I put her at her ease, and after requesting her kindly to be seated, I assured her that I was simply acting the role of a good friend. I sympathised with her in her loss, and tactfully inquired as to the welfare of the members of her family. Mrs. Smuts replied that she was struggling on as best she could. She told me that her neighbours were looking at her askance, and they did not come near her for fear of being suspected by the military.
I felt genuinely sorry for her, and told her so. I recalled that I had known her family for several years, and had remembered her when she was a little girl living with her parents in Bultfontein in the very early days.
"How are you off for food?" I inquired solicitously, to which she replied that she still had some left. I asked her whether a bag of Boer meal, some coffee and some sugar would be of any assistance; if so, I would be only too willing to send them to her. "You need have no compunction in accepting these provisions," I assured her, "as I am the second senior officer here, and nobody can possibly suspect me of being in collusion with the Smuts family."
With tears in her eyes she thanked me, and bade me good-bye. I helped the woman—she was one of Nature's gentlewomen—on this and many other occasions, when foodstuffs were very scarce.
After the relief of Kimberley I made an appeal to the military authorities and secured her husband's release. She was indeed grateful, and later sent me two jars of fruit that she herself had preserved, together with a charming letter of thanks. This eloquent expression of gratitude from a woman of such scant means was more gratifying to me than would have been a valuable present from an affluent friend.
An amusing incident, which might have had serious consequences, took place during the height of the siege. A religious Jew, who laid his "tephillim" (Phylactery) every morning—a well-known custom among the orthodox members of the faith—moved his right arm frequently towards the left during the course of his prayers. This, of course, is part of the ritual, but to the uninitiated this custom appeared most peculiar. With the spy scare abroad, it was thought that this man was signalling to the enemy. The matter was reported to headquarters, and a watch was kept over the unsuspecting Jew, which confirmed the original idea that a spy was at work. The man was arrested and placed in gaol. In the ordinary course of events he would have been tried by the Court of Summary Jurisdiction, and it might have gone hard with him.
The morning after his arrest, however, some of his friends called to see me, and explained the matter. They appealed to me to intervene on behalf of this orthodox Hebrew, which I did. During the same day I explained the circumstances fully to Colonel Kekewich, who laughed heartily at the mistake, and immediately sent an order for the release of the old man.
At that time the Intelligence Department of the Boers must have been very inefficient. The majority of the Dutch population lived in Newton, a suburb of Kimberley and less than a mile from the Market Square. Curiously enough, most of the enemy shells fell in that vicinity, resulting in many casualties. This must surely have been very far from the intention of the Commandos.
A few days after the Boers had taken up their positions around Kimberley, two men, at the dawn of day, were seen approaching the Wesselton Redoubt waving a small white handkerchief. An armed party was sent out to meet them, and they were soon escorted inside our defences. They claimed to be Englishmen, who had been commandeered by the Boers. They could not, they said, fight against their own country, so they had taken the opportunity of escaping on a dark night, being now ready to join the British forces.
They both seemed gentlemen, young and strong, who had risked their lives from feelings of patriotism. We posted them to the Town Guard. After the Relief of Kimberley, I heard that they had joined the Remington Scouts.
During the South African War it was brought to notice that many British-born men refused to be commandeered by the Boers, and others had got away at great personal peril to join some of the irregular corps.
When war was declared, three sergeants of the Kimberley Regiment were in England on leave.
They immediately sailed for Cape Town. One of them, Sergeant Devonshire, became attached to his old battalion, the Middlesex Regiment, and arrived with the Relief Column. The other two, both Scotsmen, reported themselves to the military authorities at Cape Town, and requested permits to rejoin their respective regiments in Kimberley. They were told that the town was closely invested; that mounted Boers were patrolling the district; and that they stood a better chance of being captured than joining their regiments. "We will take the risk," they answered. "We know every inch of the road. If you will kindly give us a permit that will pass us to the Orange River (seventy-five miles from Kimberley) where there is a British force, we will get into the town all right."
Admiring their pluck, the officer gave them the necessary pass. They left that night by train for their destination, and they eventually arrived at the Drill Hall, Kimberley, and reported for duty, after experiencing many narrow escapes from being captured. It appeared that they had rested in some secluded spots during the day, and had marched through the night. While this fine spirit animates the Britisher, the Empire is safe.
The Kimberley Club played a memorable part in the defence of Kimberley. When the Town Guard was in the course of organisation, the members of the club decided to form a company of an exclusive character. Every resident member, with the possible exception of one who was really too old, joined the movement, and the new company was readily granted permission to occupy one of the redoubts.
After some preliminary training, the members paraded about 100 strong in front of their own club, and afterwards marched to the Belgrave Redoubt, which they occupied for over 120 days. Captain Mandy, a distinguished looking man, who had seen previous war service, was appointed to command the contingent.
During my rounds of inspection, I frequently visited the Belgrave Redoubt, and always found everything in apple-pie order. Every loophole was numbered, and every man was given a corresponding number to the loophole he was to occupy in the event of the alarm for an attack being sounded. Two men were detailed to serve out, if necessary, reserve ammunition. There was a daily inspection of kit and rifles, and everything was done on strict military lines.
During one of my visits when the men were on fatigue and other duties, Captain Mandy ordered the bugler to sound the alarm. The men lost no time in rushing to the respective loopholes, which were all occupied without a mistake within practically a minute. And even the reserve ammunition men were in their dugout with screw- drivers ready to open ammunition boxes. The compliment I afterwards paid Captain Mandy on the efficiency of his men was well-deserved; indeed, his redoubt would have done infinite credit to any company of an Imperial Regiment. He had a highly intelligent, and well-educated set of men under his command, making it quite unnecessary to rigidly enforce discipline, which was readily submitted to. Seven members of the Kimberley Club afterwards lost their lives in the Great War.
Included in the Defence of Kimberley was a conning tower between seventy and eighty feet in height; it was an excellent look-out post where all the Boer positions could be observed. Colonel Kekewich and I, during the earlier part of the siege, mounted and occupied this tower an hour before daybreak to watch any movements of the enemy likely to develop into a general attack on the defences, because as a rule troops intending to attack positions creep up as close as possible during the dark and take up favourable positions from where they can rush the defenders as soon as the light permits. On the morning of the second Sunday after we were invested, the Boer lines were very quiet, and showed little signs of activity. Kekewich said, "Harris, the enemy is very silent this morning. I wonder if it means the prelude to an attack; to me it seems very ominous. What do you think?" I replied, "The Boers, from religious motives, would rather not fight on Sundays, and I don't think they will fire a shot if we don't." This proved to be correct, for no firing took place on Sundays during the whole four months of the siege. This was a great relief to the inhabitants of the town, the majority of whom looked forward to the day when no shell would be flying about. Advantage was taken of this to inaugurate Sunday afternoon concerts, when the combined bands of the North Lancashire and Kimberley Regiments played lively music in the park to a large audience, which must have been a great boon to the civilians after six days of risks and anxieties, especially to those with families of young children. A truce of one day in seven in the War zone was a very effective tonic.
At daybreak on November 25, 1899, a sortie from Kimberley under the command of Colonel Scott Turner inflicted serious losses on the Boer Commando occupying trenches at Carter's Ridge. Some thirty-five prisoners were brought into Kimberley.
Early the same afternoon a doctor, carrying a white flag, was escorted to headquarters, with a letter from General Wessels requesting a supply of chloroform, antiseptics, bandages, etc., for his wounded men. This assistance was readily given. The doctor, a Scotsman, said that the casualties that morning numbered nearly 100.
The note from the General was officially marked with the impress of a rubber stamp, and his written signature. We made good use of the specimens. We had an exact copy of the rubber stamp made in town, and also forged the signature. These were appended to permits written in Dutch, and issued to our spies. They were thus enabled to gain admission to Boer laagers on the eastern side of our defences about fifteen miles from the Hoof Commandant's headquarters. In possession of this permit, a certain native was also enabled to look for horses that had strayed. We always gave the description of a horse that would never be traced among 10,000 animals, so it was never found. With these cleverly forged permits we gathered valuable information, besides capturing nearly 200 head of cattle during the siege.
On another occasion one of these forged permits proved serviceable in a different direction, providing the editor of the. Diamond Fields Advertiser with copy at a time when he was sadly at a loss for matter wherewith to fill his columns, diminished though these were in size and number.
And here I would like to record my admiration of our Newspaper Press. I generally read the newspaper in bed at about 7 a.m., when my house-boy brings the early morning coffee. When I take it up I almost invariably say, "I wonder if there is any news this morning." There is always fresh intelligence to wonder at and ponder over, because while I have been sleeping the newspaper staff has been working assiduously, often right into the early hours of the morning, to provide readers before breakfast with a knowledge of the world's occurrences, together with comments on current events. It is a puzzle to me how day after day, week after week, and year after year, the editorial staff can bring out a newspaper with fresh information of world affairs and local happenings, reports of meetings, paragraphs, comments and the rest. I have read articles by the same editor, dealing with entirely distinct subjects every day during the month, comprising child welfare, education, aviation, irrigation, finance, eugenics, sanitation, etc., etc. He must keep himself au fait with current political questions and be in a position to express opinions on these at all times. The writers, as a whole, exhibit a degree of versatility, knowledge and literary ability that contributes in no small measure to make the Press the power in the land that it is.
Many Members of Parliament owe a debt of gratitude to the Press for the many occasions on which its representatives have made interesting and readable speeches that have been delivered in a halting fashion, with many confused sentences. These oratorical effects would have been almost unintelligible to the public without the assistance of the correcting hand of the sympathetic and experienced Pressmen, who reported what the member probably intended saying, but had expressed so incoherently and doubtfully. Personally, I am indebted to the men of the Press Gallery of the House of Assembly, for their having on many occasions conveyed to the public what I had intended to say, but had expressed badly; I have to thank them for having credited me with a fairly good speech when I had the feeling that I had made but a poor effort.
But to return to my story, it is a mystery to me how the Diamond Fields Advertiser managed to keep going during the siege of Kimberley, when the wires were cut, railway communication stopped, and a strict military censorship was established. Owing to the scarcity of paper the Advertiser was ultimately reduced to one small sheet. At the beginning of January news was so scarce that the editor drew very largely on the Napoleonic Wars and Nelson's achievements to fill one small page. The editor related his trouble and difficulties to me, saying he would give £5 for every copy of a Cape, Transvaal or Free State newspaper he could procure. Thereupon I instructed one of my spies, a Basuto named David, to make his way to the Boer Hospital at Jacobsdal and endeavour to get possession of some newspapers and bring them back to Kimberley, and also, of course, whatever military information he could glean.
I will not relate the exact instructions I gave him as to what he should do or say in certain eventualities. He got there all right with two cows and a forged permit from a Boer Commandant, who purported to be sending these animals to provide milk for the patients. My emissary was duly installed as a hospital orderly, bided his time, and slipped quietly away during a very dark night, arriving back in Kimberley about a fortnight after he had left, with some very important information and, what was of more importance to the Advertiser, two up-to-date copies of the Diggers' News (Johannesburg) and two copies of the Bloemfontein Post. These four newspapers of different dates were a godsend to the Advertiser, and the manager duly gave the spy £20, and proceeded to publish extracts from these newspapers extending over several days in January, 1900. The Advertiser was prepared to purchase more newspapers at the same figure, but the next adventure was not so successful, and the editor had to fall back on Kingslake's History of the Crimea.
In one of these four newspapers, I might add, I was amazed to see a big headline which read, "Colonel Harris—The great cattle thief." Under this unmerited compliment, was a graphic account of the loss of a large number of oxen from the Boer laager at Susanah, about six miles from the Wesselton Redoubt.
As I read the article, I smiled to myself. I recollected orders from enemy headquarters in which great praise was bestowed on a particular Commando that had captured 700 head of cattle around Kimberley at the beginning of the siege. What a peculiar mentality! The Boers " captured," but I "stole." Had I been unfortunate enough to have been taken prisoner, in all probability I would have been put on my trial as a cattle thief—a very serious crime in the eyes of the Dutch!
Colonel Kekewich was a well-built, handsome man. He was fair-minded, painstaking, humorous and devoted to duty, leaving nothing to chance. Despite the fact that he occasionally suffered from neuralgia in the head, he was never away from duty. Often when I was conversing with him on defence matters, he would rest his elbows on the table, put both hands to his head, and not utter a word for ten or fifteen minutes. I could see from his flushed and perspiring face that he was suffering agony, but he never once complained, and resumed the conversation as if nothing had happened. I grew to admire him very much. Even in the darkest days, he always had a smile and a joke for all. He got on very well with almost everybody, until his Chief of Staff, Colonel Scott Turner, was killed at Carter's Ridge on 28th November, 1899.
When Major O'Meara was appointed to that position, things did not go as smoothly as formerly. This brave officer seemed to have an unhappy knack of rubbing civilians up the wrong way. Suspicious and cynical, and deficient in diplomatic tact, he caused much friction, and at times made matters rather difficult for Kekewich. I am sure that if Scott Turner had lived there would never have been any disagreement with Rhodes.
One day one of my native spies brought me some very important information. Having to rush away at the time to one of the other Redoubts, I instructed the native to report the matter to Major O'Meara. The Major, however, did not believe the boy's story, which turned out to be perfectly true, and had him marched off to gaol. The next morning several of my native spies came to me in great excitement, complaining that their comrade was in gaol, and declaring that if that was the treatment they were to receive for the services they were rendering at great risk to themselves (they did not mention the high rates of pay), they would remain in the location until the war was over. I interviewed Kekewich, who immediately sent an order for the release of the boy. Had he not done so, the valuable services rendered by these natives would have been lost to the cause. A few weeks later these same natives drove 187 head of fine oxen into Wesselton—cattle which they had captured from the Boers during a very dark night, and which proved a godsend to many hungry people.
To have slaughtered these animals immediately would have been a waste of precious food. There was no grazing inside our defences because of the absence of rain for several months. Nor at this time was there a Cold Storage in Kimberley; only a small steam ice-making machine.
Having discussed" the matter with Kekewich, he went to Rhodes, and asked him whether De Beers Company would help. Rhodes was always ready and willing to assist whenever possible. He sent for Labram (mechanical engineer to the company), told him of the captured cattle, and asked him whether it was possible to erect a Cold Storage to hold 200 oxen.
"There's no difficulty about that," he replied. " I can insulate one of our small stores, and then install our ice-making machine." Rhodes answered, " Go ahead." Labram did. He organised three shifts of mechanics who worked night and day and within four days the Cold Storage was completed and ready to receive the carcases—a fine performance, but not to be compared with the gun he made shortly afterwards. But more anon concerning this feat.
During the first six weeks of the siege the relations existing between the military and civil population were most cordial, in striving in different spheres to exert their best efforts in a determination to prevent the town from falling into the hands of the Boers.
A Supply Committee was organised to regulate the distribution of food. This organisation consisted of a hundred of the most prominent business men in the town. A census of the population was immediately taken; stock lists of all the necessaries of life held by the storekeepers were carefully prepared and controlled, and ration tickets were printed and issued weekly. When stocks were running low, quantities were gradually decreased.
Everything worked with clock-like precision during the regime of Colonel Scott Turner, who was an ideal Chief Staff Officer, and the bravest of the brave. After his death, however, matters took a turn for the worse, and much disagreement characterised subsequent internal arrangements.
Information was gleaned by the inhabitants that Kimberley was to be relieved about the end of November, 1900. Rhodes and many others often expressed the opinion that the military machine was moving too slowly. I told Rhodes that I was sure Kimberley could be relieved if a large British force marched direct on Bloemfontein. This I thought would be as effective as if a big British force marched straight to Kimberley. Relief would be automatic and immediate.
General Methuen must have been confident of success, because only a few days before the battle of Magersfontein he sent the following message to Kekewich, " On my entry into Kimberley, Mr. Rhodes must take his immediate departure."
Kekewich showed me this message, and I could see he was very upset about it. I exclaimed, "For God's sake, Colonel, don't forward the message to Rhodes!" He answered gravely, "I must. It is an order from my General."
Rhodes duly got the message, and the fat was in the fire. He was certain in his own mind that this drastic order had been inspired from within, and that the Kimberley staff were the culprits. Maguire and Smartt honestly agreed with Rhodes. Unfortunately Methuen's attempt failed, but the relations between Rhodes and Kekewich afterwards became very strained. This was a great pity, especially as both men had done so much in their different spheres to keep the town intact from the would-be invaders.
I felt extremely sorry that this disturbing message had ever been sent, though I am certain that Kekewich never prompted it. It left me in an awkward position as a friend of Rhodes while still under the command of the Colonel. I managed, however, to keep aloof from the frayed tempers created by this irritating event, and con- tinued loyally to serve my Commanding Officer, not in the least influenced by this unfortunate misunderstanding.
This untoward happening did not prevent Rhodes showing extreme kindness to the wounded officers of the Loyal North Lancashires. As soon as railway communication was restored, they were invited to Groot Schuur (his private residence at Rondebosch) where everything possible was done for their health and comfort. These officers were not slow in expressing their gratitude, and if any of them are still on this mortal coil, they must well remember their happy stay at this historic residence.
Unquestionably the most memorable Christmas I ever spent was that of 1899 during the siege of Kimberley. Now for a story of a Christmas dinner party given at my house at which Colonel Kekewich and all the senior officers of the garrison were my guests.
It is a remarkable fact that during the whole siege the Boers never fired on a Sunday, and we were only too glad to reciprocate. We naturally assumed that there would be the same observance on Christmas Day, and our anticipations were fulfilled.
By this time a great inroad had been made into our foodstuffs, and people were living on half rations, which included horseflesh. The citizens spent anything but a joyous Christmas, but, one and all, they put a good face on things. They accepted the inevitable with good grace, and we all did our best to remind each other that it was Christmas, despite the difficult position we were in. Of course, I suffered with the rest of the community so far as living was concerned.
It goes without saying that there was a great scarcity of fat turkeys and plum puddings, but, undeterred by this, I issued invitations, and busied myself in procuring provisions here and there for some time beforehand. I succeeded in getting some eggs at a shilling each. I could only get thirteen potatoes (at the price of two shillings each), which proved rather awkward, as my party numbered fourteen. For many years, Solomon, a coloured man who kept a livery stable, used to fatten a turkey for me for Christmas. He was doing so on this occasion. I earlier informed all the officers whom I had invited to dinner that if anything happened to the turkey the dinner was off. They were, therefore, all praying that nothing unforeseen would take place.
Five or six days before Christmas Solomon came to me with a long face. I asked "What's the matter?" He replied, "Some thieves came down last night to my stable and stole all the poultry I had left." When he said that I had visions of having to cancel my Christmas dinner, but even as the thought flashed through my mind, Solomon added, "but they have left one thing behind, and that is your turkey." I expressed joy at the good news, and regret at his loss, and remarked, "I will take care of that turkey now."
I duly received the bird, and proceeded to the Public Gardens where we kept our reserve companies. Here I instructed the Captain of one of our Town Guard Companies to mount a Corporal's Guard over this turkey. He carried out my instructions, and the bird was guarded night and day until a day or two before the feast.
All the guests arrived at the dinner and admired the turkey, which weighed twenty-six pounds. But the potato problem remained. I instructed my servant to give everyone a potato, but to miss me. Colonel Kekewich suddenly asked, "Where is your potato?" My reply was, "I don't care very much for them." "No, that won't do. Fair rations," said Colonel Kekewich, and insisted that all the officers should give me a piece of theirs. The result was that eventually I had more potato than anyone else in the room.
I am sure we all appreciated that Christmas fare, more especially because at the time we were living on the barest necessities of life. Some portions of the turkey which remained I sent to the Corporal's Guard, who shared in the luck consequent on the bird not going the way of the others in that stable. Kimberley had been practically cut off from the outer world. Many residents were anxious about cash remittances to their families oversea, but the banks could not assist, as postal and telegraphic communication had been cut off.
The position was placed before Colonel Kekewich, and after discussion with his staff and Mr. Labram, it was decided to send messages at night to Modder River by means of one of the De Beers Company's powerful electric searchlights. This method proved a great success. The messages were helioed to Modder River, telegraphed to Cape Town, and then despatched to various parts of the Cape Colony, or cabled to England as the case might be. Two nights per week were devoted to this novel and enterprising method of remitting money.
Those who desired to forward cash proceeded to the banks in the usual way, filled in the prescribed forms, and paid in the necessary amounts. The banks prepared a list of the names and addresses of the payees, and these were duly transmitted by searchlight signals. We afterwards ascertained that in every instance the correct amount was duly received.
At this period the De Beers Company possessed all the claims in the five local mines, with the exception of one block owned by the New Bult-fontein Company. Rhodes, who was anxious to acquire this property, had for nearly ten years made many fruitless attempts to do so. He now thought that a good opportunity presented itself during the siege, so with the aid of the searchlight and despatch riders, he got into communication with the Directors of the company in London. After negotiations, which were not of a protracted nature, he purchased the block of claims, and so completed the De Beers Company's holdings of all the diamondiferous ground in the five mines. It is very seldom that a big transaction involving many thousands of pounds is effected by such exceptional methods.