1899 - 1902



Anglo Boer War
Home Reasons/Intro Build Up Battles / Sieges Deaths VC's Photographs


The  investment was much less close than formerly. Owing to the increasing activity in other parts of the theatre of war, Colonel Baden-Powell was relieved of the pressing attentions that were previously bestowed on him. Now for the  first time he found himself in touch with the outer world, for telegraphic communication was restored in the direction of Gaberones, about ninety miles north of Mafeking, and from thence a hi-weekly service of runners was  instituted for the conveyance of letters and telegrams, of course at the owners' risk. There was delight all round, and "Old Bathing Towel," as contemporary Carthusians used irreverently to call him, made haste to rejoice  the hearts of those at home with a report of his doings.

On the 4th of February the etiquette of the Sabbath was broken by an accident. The machine-gun at Fort Ayr was fired, and the enemy was not slow to reply.  Lieutenant Grenfell, unarmed and without a flag of truce, pluckily went out to tender apologies for the accident. He was met by the Boers, who exchanged for a flask of whisky two copies of the Standard and Diggers' News, containing  glowing accounts of Boer victories on the Tugela! It needed more than the 'contents of the flask to correct the dismay occasioned by the lamentable, if exaggerated, news of the abandonment of Spion Kop, and the inhabitants could  only console themselves by remembering what a stupendous and gratuitous liar the Boer could be. Luckily for them, they only accepted half of the Dutchmen's tales, and had learnt by experience that the art of editing Boer journals  was dependent on imaginative rather than realistic talent. For instance, "one who knew" described the methods of Volkstem thus :-" When you knew it, something could be extracted. The key to the mystery was this: The  paper always published the exact opposite of what had taken place. For instance, a few days before Cronje's capture it had a grand ~ the Captor.' And underneath came the astounding statement that Cronje had cornered 900 British  Lancers on the Koodoosrand. Alas! for Cronje and his Lancers! They existed only in the editor1s fertile imagination." So, notwithstanding the report of reverses elsewhere, the large heart of Mafeking was still bent on bursting  its cramped shell. If antiquated methods of warfare were carried on in other parts of South Africa, they were certainly not pursued here, for Colonel Baden-Powell was a modern of the moderns. The secrets of the enemy's tactics were  at his fingers' ends, and where science failed to match them resource came in. He knew how to make dynamite spit and scream and threaten; he studied the problem of tension and the art of playing on the nerves of his adversary, and  Cronje's remark, "Not men, but devils," made as that redoubtable one shook the dust of Mafeking off his shoes, must have been the dearest compliment the Colonel's heart could crave. The Colonel, in a despatch forwarded to  Colonel Nicholson-an officer who, with a small column and armoured train, held Mangwe, Palapye, and other places on the rail-dated February 12, described his activities

"MAFEKING, February 12.

"On the 3rd inst. our Nordenfeldt was chiefly occupied in preventing the enemy from completing their new work on the northern slope 'of the southeastern heights. Assistance was rendered by our seven-pounder, emplaced in the  bush to the east of Cannon Kopje. The enemy's siege-gun replied vigorously. During that night the enemy were nervous and restless, and kept firing volleys at our working parties, being apparently apprehensive of attack. Their  firing continued until dawn, when the work in our trenches ceased.

"There was a curious incident at Fort Ayr that Sunday. Our machine-gun there was fired accidentally, and the enemy replied. Lieutenant Grenfell  went out and apologised for the accident. Though the gun had been fired and the enemy had replied, he did not take a flag of truce with him. The Boers met him, and exchanged two copies of the Standard and Diggers' News for a flask  of whisky.

"On Monday, the 5th, irregular shelling continued all day. In the evening heavy rains fell, but the enemy kept up the bombardment till midnight, firing a new incendiary shell, which, however, failed to  take effect.

On the 7th there was a desultory bombardment, and the sharpshooters were busy. On the 8th the enemy's siege-gun fired one shell only.

"On the 11th the enemy were quiet, being engaged in  fortifying their big gun emplacement, and generally preparing to resist attack from outside. A good deal of night-firing was exchanged between our outlying positions and those of the enemy, volleys being fired at short ranges.

"Next day the enemy were fairly quiet. Mr. Dali, a well-known citizen, was killed, and two Cape boys were wounded, while two natives in the town were killed and some four wounded."

The  circumstances of Mr. Dali's death were deeply tragic, for his wife, who was in the women's laager at the time, on hearing of the news was half-distracted by the shock. Owing to the grievous affair the dance that was to have taken  place was postponed to the following day.

Colonel Baden-Powell issued an order which broke to the besieged the information that the Commander-in-Chief had requested them to hold on till May. Hearts dropped to zero! If  properly conserved, it was believed that provisions might be eked out till the Queen's birthday, but the quality of the fare was bad enough without consideration of the quantity. The men were tough, they were game for anything; but  the women-helpless, worn, unnerved, surrounded by children, and limited to the confines of an insanitary laager-they made an additional tangle to the already knotty situation. The townsfolk going to the posts in the trenches, with  their own lives in their hands, had upon them the burden of thought for those, their weaker belongings, who were waning with anxiety and disease-waning many of them into their graves. Still the garrison grumbled little. It set out  as Sabbath decoration for the forts and trenches some smart Union Jacks which had been worked by the ladies in the town,, and the dauntless ones engaged in a concert, the programme of which was vastly appreciated. Here "B-P.  's " well known talents came in handy, for he played the Chevalier of the entertainment and displayed all the versatility of that renowned performer. From the aesthetic Paderewski (with his hair on) to a Whitechapel Coster is  a good jump, but the gallant Colonel, who had so long impersonated Job to order of the British Government, was not to be defeated by minor representations, however various. After this joviality a ball was attempted, but alas! with  sorry success. Before the gaily attired guests were well under way the uproar of Maxims and Mausers had begun. They tried to dance. It would have been a case of Nero fiddling while Rome was burning. A staff officer arrived ordering  all to fall in. Soon there was a general stampede, officers fled to their posts, orderlies rushed off to sound the alarm, the galloping Maxim tore through the blue obscurity from the western outposts to the town; the Bechuanaland  Rifles and the Protectorate Regiment hurried to the brickfields, the Cape Police made for the eastern advance posts, while the ladies, charming, disconsolate, led them precipitately to places of refuge. There,

the lambent beams of the moon, were seen excited shadows, all either rushing to their bomb-proof shelters or scudding to the sniping posts of the river Showers of bullets flecked the sapphire air, and the  exquisite serene night was changed into a long, wakeful, quaking anguish. The Boers kept up their firing operations throughout the small hours, but at dawn, when they received a quid fro quo from the British quarter; they  deemed it best to subdue their ardour for a brief space. Rest was short lived. On the 13th the gunners again made themselves offensive by endeavouring to hit the flour-mill, and they succeeded in their efforts, though  fortunately without destroying it. They pursued their murderous industries throughout the day, pouring bullets on any one who dared to show a nose in the open, and about noon succeeded in seriously wounding Captain Girdwood,  who was returning to luncheon on his bicycle.

The unfortunate officer-one of the most popular fellows and as gallant as he was jolly-never rallied after receiving the fatal wound and died on the following day. In  the evening he was buried. The solemn rite was conducted with simplicity under the mild moonbeams which silvered the gloomy scene and softened the rigid faces of the bronzed warriors who hung in melancholy regret round the open  grave.

The Boers sometimes endeavoured to affect jocosity. From the advanced trench, which was some hundred and ten yards from the besiegers' main trench, their voices could be heard travelling on the breeze. The  prelude to their attacks began not seldom with " Here's a good morning to you, Mafeking," or other remarks of cheery or personal nature. Then rattle, rattle, and one of the British band would drop. On one of these  occasions an amusing if tragic ruse was perpetrated. The Boers were known to be fond of music, and some one of the tormented hit on the happy idea of performing for the benefit of the hostile audience. The savage breast was  soothed. The Boers were "drawn." They stopped to listen. Enraptured, they advanced nearer, nearer. Finally, two enthusiastic, inquisitive heads protruded from cover-protruded never to protrude again!

The  Boers soon began to try the expedient of attacking Mafeking by proxy. Assaults were made, or rather attempted, by a mongrel force, composed largely of mercenaries-Germans, Scandinavians, Frenchmen, and renegade Irish (probably  "returned empties" from the gallant Emerald Isle), ne'er-do-weel's, who felt it necessary at times to do something for their living. These were assisted by natives, who were pressed into their service to make a  convenient padding for their front in advance, for their rear in retreat, as they took good care to save their own hides when retirement was obligatory.

Fortunately their artillery practice, which was patiently  kept up, was very inferior, otherwise Mafeking would soon have been in ruins. On one afternoon the enemy plied his siege-gun and another gun with great vigour. Out of eight rounds one shot besprinkled two of the besieged with  dust; a 5-pounder gun from one quarter and a 5-pounder Maxim from another filled the air with deplorable detonations for two whole hours, yet happily no life was lost. To this hot fire the inhabitants replied only with their  rifles. It was wonderful in what good stead their rifles had stood them, and it was thanks to them, and not to the Government, that the town had been saved at all.

The difficulties both at Kimberley and Mafeking were the result of the obstructive policy adopted by the Colonial Government before the outbreak of hostilities. While the storm-cloud hung on the horizon, Kimberley had  appealed to Mr. Shreiner for permission to send up from Port Elizabeth Maxims which had been ordered by the De Beers Company, and the licence was refused on the ground that there was no necessity to strengthen the defences of the  town. The appeals from Mafeking were treated in much the same way, the authorities at the Cape suggesting that there was no reason to believe that the situation demanded extra precautions!

Ingenuity and pluck had been the backbone of British defence, not British guns. An ordnance factory was established, and excellent shells were cast, and even powder manufactured. 'Plus the alarm lest ammunition  should run out before the arrival of relief was allayed. The great ambition of the garrison was to complete a 5-inch howitzer, and throw "home-made shells from a home-made gun with home-made powder."

Major Baillie described with some pride the self-contained nature of the community: "We have our Lank, our ordnance factory, and our police; and we flourish under a beneficent and remote autocracy. And now, as regards the  ordnance factory, it was started for the manufacture of shells for our 7-pounder, for shot, brass and iron, for our antique cannon, and for the adaptation of 5-pounder shells (left here by Dr. Jameson) to our 7-pounders by the  addition of enlarged driving-bands. These have all proved a complete success, and too much praise cannot be given to Connely and Cloughlan of the Locomotive Department, who have. organised and run the factory. As great a  triumph has been the manufacture of powder and the invention of fuses by Lieutenant Daniels, British South Africa Police and the Glamorgan Artillery Militia, which render us secure against running short of ammunition. A gun  also is being manufactured, and will shortly be used. This factory is of long standing, but the authorities had not allowed us to allude to its existence.

Other manufactures, too, were commenced, for manufacture it  must be called-the art of making the poor skeletons, at one time known as horses, into succulent meat. Some declared that the number of cats and dogs was visibly thinning, but none dared pry too closely into the workings of the  wonderful machinery that fed them. A number of the Protectorate Regiment's horses were slaughtered, and any others that were shot by the enemy were passed on to the commissariat.

A soup-kitchen, under the supervision of Captain Wilson, was opened for the purpose of supplying some 6oo natives with nourishing food, and rendering them contented with the vicissitudes of fate. The compound was  scarcely inviting, and resembled a third-rate haggis. In two great boilers scraps of such meat as could be gathered together were simmered down, and to this immense stockpot was added various meals, which gave the mess the  necessary consistency. The natives bought it eagerly at 6d. a quart, and really rejoiced in it.

The blacks, indeed, suffered less than the whites. The latter were paying a guinea a day for very scant fare, while the Baralongs, who were earning from Is. to 2S. 6d. a day, were able to sustain life on half their wages,  and save the rest to buy luxuries, a wife possibly, when the stress of the siege was oven The young children suffered most of all, for malaria and unsuitable food played havoc in the women's laager, and the graveyard was filled  with small victims to the Imperial cause.

About the middle of the month the Boers became abnormally active, and for several days sounds pf digging and picking suggested that they were throwing out new trenches beyond those they already manned in the region of  the brickfields. The full significance of the activity was discovered by Sergeant-Major Taylor, who-in charge of three pits which formed the most advanced post-suddenly espied, some fifty yards in advance of the limit of the Boer  trenches, a hostile figure! The apparition wore a German uniform, and Sergeant-Major Taylor was soon aware that the enemy were intending to sap the British position. Colonel Baden-Powell was informed of the impending danger, and at  night a counter-sap extending 100 yards was thrown out, from which point it would be possible for the besieged to fire on the new work. The tension of the situation was extreme. Eighty yards only separated the combatants, and the  enemy continued to burrow, approaching little by little, while the British continued to harass them in their labours by an active fusillade whenever a chance presented itself But the operations continued, and every hour brought the  Boers nearer. At last a night came when the enemy had almost reached his goal, and, moreover, had moved the Creusot gun to a position on the south-eastern heights so as to command the entire area. With due precaution the defenders  tried to occupy the advanced posts, but the Doer firing was so correct and persistent that the position was rendered untenable. Sergeant-Major Taylor, a splendid fellow-who more than once had ventured eavesdropping to the edge of  the Doer trenches-and four others were mown down in their gallant efforts to save the situation. The enemy, satisfied with his exertions in this direction, now began to turn his attention to the forts in the rear-a bad move, for  while the Dutchmen hammered in that region the British rapidly seized the occasion to construct a traverse across the mouth of the sap. This, of course, was not carried forward without attracting the attention of the enemy, who  fired fast and furiously. But the task was accomplished, after which the Boers and the British, worn out, rested from their hostilities. For a day and a night the Boers were in occupation of the advanced hole and the sap that had  been carried from it, but it was soon recaptured, and the connection made with the Boer trenches blown up with dynamite.

On the 20th the Protectorate Regiment gave a dinner, which turned out to be quite a luxurious repast. Invitations were supplemented by the request to bring their own bread! Some of the officers shot a few  locust-birds, small as quail, which, when carved judiciously, went round among the guests. Added to this there was a sucking pig, obtained none knew whence, but nevertheless most welcome.

On the 22nd, Sergeant-  Major Looney of the Commissariat was sentenced to five years penal servitude for the misappropriation of comestibles and stores, which had been going on for some time. The Commissariat was reorganised by Captain Ryan (Army  Service Corps) with untiring energy and economy. To the soup-kitchen went everything, scraps of meat, or hoof, meal, unsifted oats, bran, all were turned to account, and food of a sustaining, if not luxurious kind, was provided  for every one. At this time the Boers were growing despondent, and began to doubt their chance of forcing the town to surrender. From a conversation overheard by some wary ones who had crept close to the enemy's trenches, it  appeared that. President Steyn had urged Commandant Snyman to carry the town by storm, and afterwards to come to the rescue of the Free Staters, with his force, but the Burghers had expressed their opinion that it. was now too  late to take Mafeking, they should have done so the first week.

The inhabitants were very pleased with their own ingenuity, and in their ordnance workshops the manufacture of shot and shell went on apace. The  mechanics of the railway works, by a system which seemed to act on the lines of a conjuring trick, turned out from the shell-factory about fifty rounds a day. No waste was allowed. Even the fragments of the enemy's shells were  utilised. These and scraps of cast iron were purchased at two pence a pound for smelting, and two pence, it must be remembered, was now a magnificent disbursement, as money was growing more and more scarce. Curiously enough,  the present foreman, Conolly, was at one time manager of the shell department of the ordnance factory at Pretoria, where he personally supervised the manufacture of the larger shells. He now necessarily took a parental interest  in the shells flung into Mafeking by the Boers' Creusot gun, and also in those new ones that were flung out of Mafeking as a result of his own and others' inventive genius! A good deal of shelling took (ace, and that on the  23rd was said to be a salute in honour of Independence Day in the Orange Free State. The inhabitants of Mafeking would not have grudged their enemies the, to them, distressing attempt at festivity had they then known that four  days later the death-blow of that independence would be struck, and the salute was destined to be the last in the history of the Republics!

Fare was growing more and more meagre. Horseflesh was diversified by bread  made from horse forage; water, to say the least of it, was becoming interesting only to bacteriologists. The native population for the most part starved; they now and then indulged in a raid and brought back fat fare, which for  a day or two had a visible effect upon their ebon skeletons, but they brought it at the risk of their lives.

Uninterrupted deluges of rain made existence a perpetual misery, the trenches and also the bomb-proof  shelters were flooded, and the hapless inhabitants, saturated, fled into the open, uncertain whether death by fire was not preferable to death by water. The first, at all events, promised to be expeditious, while the second  offered prospects of prolonged sousing and exquisite tortures of enduring rheumatism. Daily the state of affairs became less tolerable. Typhoid and malaria stalked abroad, and in the children's and women s laager diphtheria had  set in.

On the 25th a message was received from the Queen. Its effect was electrical. It was vastly heartening to feel and to know that the great Sovereign herself knew and sympathised with the history of the  struggles and privations, the loyalty and pluck of this little hamlet in a remote corner of Her Majesty's possessions. It seemed more possible now to starve patriotically, and, with every mouthful of nauseating mule or horse,  to put aside personal discomfort and to remember the gracious fact that each individual was a symbol, a sorry and dilapidated one perhaps, but nevertheless a symbol of the majesty and might of Greater Britain. In addition to  the royal message there came two days later the stimulating intelligence that Kimberley had been relieved, and that Lord Roberts was advancing on Bloemfontein!

On Majuba Day, all made sure that some sort of attack  might be expected, and they prepared to welcome it with a salute from the new howitzer gun which had engaged the genius of the siege arsenal. The Boers, however, were quiet. A good deal of psalm-singing took place in the Boer  camp, while the besieged put the big gun through his paces.

Ash Wednesday was observed without sackcloth and ashes. Mafeking had been enjoying Lenten abstinence for months past, and therefore when, at the service  on the following Sabbath, the parson reminded them that it was the fast season, every one in the church enjoyed the joke so hugely that smiles were with difficulty suppressed. As one of the congregation afterwards suggested,  they had had so much " Extra Special" fasting that they ought to be let off Lenten obligations for five years.