George Labram

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“Well,” said Rhodes, “build one now to celebrate the time you are to save the British.” Labram disappeared into the De Beers shops on Christmas eve; two days later work began. With stock metal, Labram and his men managed to forge in little more than three weeks a fine breech-loading rifled cannon with a four-inch bore capable of throwing a twenty-eight-pound shell. Christened Long Cecil, the gun went into action on January 19, with Labram himself in charge of a crew drawn from the men who had built it. The first target was the captured pumping station, a full eight thousand yards distant. Labram scored a hit. As the earth geysered around them, the Boers scattered, frightened and astonished.

By February 7 the Boers had brought up in retaliation one of their Long Toms, a six-inch Creusot gun manned by a team of French mercenaries which fired a ninety-six-pound shell. As this formidable weapon opened on the town, Labram replied with Long Cecil, shifting the gun from place to place, “his gaunt, quick-moving frame,” one De Beers official recalled, “and deliberate, nasal accents...as conspicuous as...his loose civilian dress among the dapper uniforms.”

The American civilian actually succeeded in checking to a degree the fire of Europe’s finest artillerists, but the fighting was beginning to tell on him. On the evening of February 9, a friend met Labram coming in from a trying day in the lines, his face pale with strain. “I’m no fighting man,” he said, “and this sort of thing is getting on my nerves. ” He went up to his hotel room to wash and change for dinner. He was still there when the last Boer shell of the day plunged through the roof and killed him instantly. Rhodes sent a tribute to the press, and Kekewich gave his unlikely ally a full military funeral. Long Cecil spoke out over Labram’s grave; the gun was still in action when Kimberley was relieved less than a week later.