The Siege of Kimberley, or Why you should not piss off engineers

The 1871 discovery of diamonds on Colesberg Kopje produced a stampede of more than two thousand miners to a remote area of what we now call the Northern Cape.  By the end of that year, the Cape Colony had successfully named the territory a crown colony called “Griqualand West,” despite the Afrikaner Orange Free State’s arguments that the area fell within its natural borders.  Within two years, the growing town had been renamed Kimberley after the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, and by 1877 it had been annexed by the Cape Colony.  The Cape had stolen the diamonds of Kimberley, fair and square!

The ambitious Cecil Rhodes wanted to control the wealth of the gold mines within the Afrikaner Transvaal (discovered in 1886), and he engineered a raid by forces of six hundred men under Sir Leander Starr Jameson to raise the British-favoring uitlanders in rebellion.  This force of men crossed into the Transvaal on December 29th, 1895.  Within five days, Jameson was compelled to surrender, and the uitlanders remained out of the conflict.  Rhodes’ involvement was exposed, and he was forced to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1896.  The British desire for the wealth of Johannesburg remained, however, and on October 11, 1899, the Second Anglo-Boer War began with Boer forces crossing into British-held areas.


The Hotel Belgrave (now the McGregor Museum)

Kimberley was an obvious target because it was highly exposed and wealthy.  Cecil Rhodes had instigated the construction of a sanitarium for lung ailments in 1895; the completed building had almost immediately begun service as the Hotel Belgrave.  Rhodes occupied two rooms in this Hotel to keep an eye on his business interests during the war.  Almost immediately, the Boers made their presence felt in Kimberley, with 7500 soldiers encircling the city.  Rather than gaining the city as a base, the Boers were intent upon starving out the British population.  The siege line pressed quite close to the Hotel Belgrave, and a Gatling gun emplacement was constructed on the east-facing upper balcony of the hotel.



The entrance hallway of the Hotel Belgrave is particularly lush.

The British forces in Kimberley were led by Colonel Robert Kekewich and consisted of four regiments of North Lancashire Loyal Regiment along with some Royal Engineers.  They were supported by 2000 civilians, most of whom worked for the mining companies.  This allegiance meant that Cecil Rhodes had considerable weight to throw around in the conduct of city defenses.  He and Kekewich were frequently at loggerheads, with Mr. Rhodes arguing that the relief of Kimberley was an urgent necessity while Kekewich argued that the military situation put higher priority elsewhere.


Rhodes and Kekewich (left and right, respectively) experienced a rather contentious relationship.

Militarily, Kimberley was faced with a critical problem.  The Boers possessed artillery that could reach inside the city, but the British forces were limited to 2.5 inch mountain guns that could not answer at this distance.  De Beers Chief Mechanical Engineer George Labram and workshop foreman William Berry decided on an audacious plan to design and manufacture a powerful rifled howitzer from a three-meter billet of steel in the workshop.  He had already worked some minor miracles by designing a refrigerator for perishable foods and setting up the plant to build shells for the mountain guns and to manufacture small arms.

He and his engineers started the project to build a powerful howitzer on December 26, 1899.  They sought a weapon that could fire a nearly 12.7 kg shell approximately 7.6 km (28 pounds for 4.7 miles).  Along the way, the engineers had to solve many problems of construction, such as how to compensate for the metal being lower in carbon content than appropriate for guns, how to rifle and strengthen the barrel, and how to survive direct hits on the workshop by Boer artillery.  The workshop also produced shells for the gun, some stamped “WITH COMPTS CJR.”  Their single focus produced a viable weapon by January 18th, 1900, only 24 days after beginning the project!


“Long Cecil” today

The gun was named “Long Cecil,” in honor of Cecil Rhodes.  The next day, the gun was fired for the first time by Mrs. Pickering, the wife of his company secretary.  The round landed in a Boer laager at a distance of 7.2 km.  After several test shots, the engineers retired to work out the proper elevations and powder charge for a given range.  On January 22nd, the gun was fired by the Diamond Fields Artillery detachment.  In the first days of its use, some minor elements were broken by the strain of fire, but the workshop was able to fashion replacements.

The Boers responded in kind.  On February 6, they were able to emplace a “Long Tom,” a 155 mm Schneider siege gun, to support their shelling of Kimberley.  Three days later, their final shot into the city landed in the Grand Hotel of Kimberley, killing George Labram.  The Boers continued to shell the city, and the British responded by sending over 3,000 women and children into the diamond mines for safety from the shelling.

The siege at Kimberley was relieved on February 15th by British forces.  In the short interval of its military operation, Long Cecil fired more than 200 rounds against the forces around Kimberley.  It was displayed for visiting royalty in later years.  In the end, this one-of-a-kind howitzer was given a permanent home at the Honoured Dead Siege Memorial in Kimberley, right next door to a monument designed by Sir Herbert Baker to resemble the Tomb of Theron in Sicily, featuring a dedication written specifically for the memorial by Rudyard Kipling.


The Kimberley Honoured Dead Memorial

6 thoughts on “The Siege of Kimberley, or Why you should not piss off engineers

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