Project Canterbury

My Diocese during the War

Extracts from the Diary of
the Right Rev. Arthur Hamilton Baynes, D.D.
Bishop of Natal

London: George Bell, 1900.

Chapter XVIII. Kimberley

Kimberley, Sunday, March 11.--I had promised the Archdeacon to help him, as he represented that they had had no change during all the weary weeks of the siege. So I celebrated at 8, and preached at 11 There was not quite a full church, and the congregation was chiefly military, so many of the civilians have gone away since the relief. I had had little time for preparation, and am afraid I gave them rather too much, not in time, for I was only twenty-two minutes, but there was too much crammed into the sermon, and it may have been a little hard to follow. I tried to suggest that we should bring whatever honour and glory God may give us into his city, the text being Rev. xxi. 24. After church I went round with the Archdeacon to his house. It happens that he and Dent were at Eton together. Then I came back here to luncheon, and afterwards Admiral Maxse had kindly arranged that Major Fraser, of the North Lancashire Regiment, should take us up to the conning-tower from which the defence of Kimberley was conducted.

This place is a large one, scattered over a more or less flat plain, so that the circuit of our defences was about thirteen miles, and it was hard to see how so small a force could have defended so large an area. In fact, if the Boers had had a little more pluck and go, they could certainly have taken the place. We had to climb a most dizzy iron stair leading up to a high tower erected on the top of a shaft in connection with De Beers' mine. From the top we got a splendid view of the whole country round. We could see exactly where all the Boer works were, and where each gun was stationed, and we could see exactly where General French appeared and where he fought the Boers, and at this very moment we could see two helios working away, one communicating with General Lord Roberts and one with Lord Methuen. The latter is a bit to the north-east, but I do not follow all the movements yet. We shall hear in a day or two what they are up to. I fancy Lord Methuen is in the direction of Boshof, and Lord Roberts is not so very far from Bloemfontein. While we were on the tower an explosion took place in the direction of Magersfontein. We did not hear the report, but we saw a ball of smoke very like a shell. We cannot make out what it was. We hope there is not another party of Boers turning up unexpectedly to shut us in again.

To-night the Admiral has asked me to dine with him to meet H.R.H. Prince Francis of Teck. I am much afraid this may have missed the English mail. The train to-morrow morning ought to get to Cape Town on Wednesday morning early, and so I took it for granted that that would be in time for the boat, which does not sail till Wednesday afternoon; but I find that it is announced here that the English mail closes at 9 on Saturday night. However, I still think there is a chance for this, and if you do not get it I hope the people at the Cape will have told you of this trip, and so you will understand.

Monday, March 12.--Last night I dined with the Admiral (Maxse), and Prince Francis of Teck was there, also Mr. Justice Hopley, and the Canadian medical officer, and Mr. Dent. Prince Francis was entertaining and very friendly. He is employed here as remount officer. I think they are glad to find billets of that sort for the Royal officers, as they are not anxious to give the Boers the kudos of shooting them. This morning I went to early service at St. Cyprian's, and after breakfast we started on the drive we had arranged to Magersfontein. We had chartered a Cape cart with a couple of fat horses. I could not believe they had been through the siege, but I found they had, which seems to show that things were not very desperate with the garrison. I found also huge piles of firewood, so that they were in no immediate danger of running short of fuel. We started about 9, and drove out to the south, watching the various signs of the siege. About five miles out we came to Alexandersfontein, which was the Boer headquarters, and the nearest point of their lines. It is a farm consisting of a series of huts, and they were left in a filthy state of mess and disorder, having evidently been used as sleeping places, and apparently for other purposes. To the north of the house there is a slight rise in the ground with a ridge of boulders, which the Boers had fortified, and outside this I picked up a great many empty cartridge cases, showing that there had been stiff fighting about there. Then we drove on again past the Spytfontein kopjes. The English generals evidently expected that they were to be the chief fighting ground. They do not seem to have expected the Boers to make their stand at Magersfontein, which is nearer the Modder River and more exposed.

Three miles short of the Magersfontein kopjes we came to a farm belonging to a man called Bissett. We had hoped to get him as a guide, but he was in Kimberley; but his wife told us where to go, and when we reached the ground we found that a guide was not much needed, the ground telling its own tale. On the right of the road the kopjes begin, rising abruptly out of the plain, which is flat. But the trenches ran right across the road, and I believe for several miles across the open in an easterly direction. In fact, I fancy it was on the flat considerably to the east of the kopjes that the Highlanders got into such a trap. Probably they did not expect any trenches out there. We drove off the road to the foot of the kopjes, and there we left our carriage and walked all along the line of trenches at the base of the hills. The Boers here had learned the value of trenches on the flat instead of on the hill, as from them a rifle bullet covers so much more ground travelling along the flat, which spreads unbroken in front, whereas from a hill there is a good deal of dead ground which the defender cannot cover, and an attacking force gets the benefit of cover.

The trenches were the most surprising thing of all. I had no idea how elaborately they were constructed, and now that I have seen them I can better understand how at Potgieter's the Boers were able to lie quiet amid the terrible bombardment, and also at Colenso and elsewhere. The trench is about five feet deep, so that as I stood in it to fire I could just see comfortably over the edge, and an enemy could have seen no more of me than my eyes, and not even this much in many places, as the sandbags at the top were arranged with a gap between, making loopholes for the rifle. The sides were perpendicular, and at the top of the side facing the enemy there were big boulders, so as to keep them from slipping away, and on top of the boulders two rows of sandbags filled with earth till they were as hard as rock. Over the top of these a certain amount of earth had been piled, so as to make the whole compact, and on the outer side facing our men only a mound of about eighteen inches was visible, and even then was concealed in some places by brushwood heaped against it. Then across the top of the trench the iron uprights of wire fences and poles had been placed, and across these, covering half the breadth of the trench, skins of bullocks and sheep were stretched or corrugated iron, and earth piled on the top, so that they had regular little houses half the breadth of the trench, and a splendid shelter against our shells. No shell which did not burst right on the lip of the trench would do them much harm. However, we found a good many of our own shrapnel bullets along the edge of these shelters and in the bottom of the trenches, showing that there had been some splendid practice on the part of our artillery. Then every eight or ten yards there was a little bridge across the trench to enable men to run rapidly across.

In these trenches and about them were all sorts of refuse--all the signs of the Boers' recent habitation. There were cases and bottles, empty meat tins and biscuit tins, old hats, and boots, and coats, and sacking, and nearly all their food and tobacco seemed by the names on the tins to have come from England. These trenches were absolutely continuous along the whole length of the kopjes, and in some cases there were return trenches at an angle with the main ones. Then we came to a break in the kopjes, and in the middle of them a secluded little valley, which had evidently been a laager. The earth was quite bare of grass, as if large troops of horse and men had been about, and in the kopjes around were all sorts of shelters roughly constructed out of the abounding boulders. Then the main line of the kopje was continued about a quarter of a mile further forward. We walked across to this and resumed our investigation. In the rear of this second line of kopjes was a regular little village made by digging out the side of the hill and building walls of boulders, and iron uprights and wire stretched across the top, and brushwood, making the little houses into arbours. Here evidently the Boers had lived when off duty, and again there was a profusion of litter, including some quite respectable cases, and I noticed one tin trunk in fairly good condition. They had evidently left hastily, and had not been able to remove all their goods. On the outside of the kopjes the line of trenches continued, and far beyond where we went. I am told that altogether there are about fifteen miles of trenches. The labour they represent is prodigious.

Then we looked at the results of our artillery fire. There were constant holes made in the ground by our shells, and most of them were stained with the yellow of lyddite, and fragments of exploded shells were all about the place. Then we returned a bit and climbed one of the highest of the kopjes, where evidently the Boers' biggest gun had been. There was a large gun emplacement carefully constructed. It was in the middle of two high banks, with a flat platform for the gun to run to and fro upon, and in front there were sandbags piled on each side, leaving only room for the muzzle of the gun. The rock had been smashed up completely and thrown in all directions. Another six feet of elevation would have made the shot hit the gun itself. As it was it must have hit some of the gunners with fragments of shot and shell and put the gun out of action for a time. Another shot had gone just over the top, and had hit the rock at the far end of the gun platform.

We picked up a great variety of cartridges on the field. Very obviously they had used many beside the ordinary Mauser. Bissett had picked up a large number of soft-nose or expanding bullets, which are contrary to approved usage, and make a nasty wound. I found one cartridge case a great deal bigger than the rest, which probably represented an elephant gun. It is terrible to think what slaughter the Boers would make among an enemy approaching across the perfectly open plain. When you are standing in the trench your eye is little above the level of the ground, so that while you are hardly seen at all, the enemy approaching looks very big and presents a splendid target. No wonder Lord Methuen was not able to do anything against them here. If only he could have gone round, as General French did afterwards, and got behind the Boers, and so threatened their lines of communication, he would perhaps have been able to make them forsake this stronghold. But probably he had not men enough to carry this out, or he was not mobile enough, and the risk of having his own communications cut was too great. Thank God the Boers are out of it now!

There was so much to see that there was no time for sketching; but Mr. Dent took some photographs, of which I hope some day to have a copy, but not yet, as he sends them to England to be developed. Then we returned to the Bissetts, made our tea, and opened our tinned tongue and had luncheon. Meanwhile a furious storm of locusts was passing over us. Then we drove back again to Kimberley. Dent and I drove round to the station to see about getting a compartment reserved for the downward journey to-morrow. Dined at the Club with the usual set.

Project Canterbury