"Events at Mafeking"
Chapter XX. Events at Mafeking
WHEN the Imperial authorities in South Africa became conscious of the systematic preparations for war which were being made by the two Boer Republics, they took such steps as seemed necessary to prevent the invasion of British territory. That these preparations were insufficient to keep the burghers on their own land was not their fault: they did the best they could with the material at their disposal. With the idea of defending the long stretch of Bechuanaland frontier to the west of the Transvaal, and, if possible, of preventing the Boers seizing the railway line, it was decided to garrison Mafeking with colonial troops under the command of Colonel R. S. S. Baden-Powell—a happy choice.
Colonel Baden-Powell has the reputation of being the finest scout in the British army, and the task which he had performed in quelling the Matabele rebellion added greatly to this reputation. Further, he had a long experience of South African warfare to recommend him, and his cheery good-humour and great personal courage served to make him an almost ideal commander for colonial irregulars shut up in an unfortified frontier town. When leaving England for South Africa in the early summer of 1899, before the outbreak of the war, but at the time when its possibility was foreseen, Colonel Baden-Powell expressed a wish that if hostilities should commence the War Office would find him "a nice warm corner," and he has not been disappointed in this respect, The forces under his command in Mafeking included the Bechuanaland Protectorate Regiment, the Bechuanaland d Rifles, a squadron of the British South Africa Police, and a half battery of the Kimberley Artillery Volunteers; while there were several unattached Imperial officers in the town who proved of inestimable value as the siege proceeded.
Two days after the despatch of the Boer ultimatum a Transvaal force entered Bechuanaland about forty miles to the south of Mafeking, and at once commenced to wreck the railway and telegraph lines. So soon as news of this reached the town, Lieutenant Nesbit was despatched with an armoured train to try to beat back the Boers, and keep open the communication with the south. Unfortunately, the enemy had foreseen the probability of an attack by an armoured train, and had taken precautions against it. They loosened some of the rails without removing them, so that when the engine ran on to them it would be at once thrown over; and this done, they retired to a place of ambush, There they waited until the train had overturned and the inmates were entangled in the wreckage, when they poured a withering fire into the now defenceless party, who returned it as well as they were able. The struggle was too unequal to last long. The Boers were almost completely hidden from those in the train, many of whom had been injured by the engine running off the metals, while the remainder of the party offered a splendid target for the Boer bullets, so that before long the Britishers were compelled to surrender, and so enable the Boers to congratulate themselves on having gained the first success of the campaign,—a fact which, unfortunately, served to confirm the belief already held by many of the burghers, that they were bound to have an easy and complete triumph over the much-despised rooineks.
Perceiving that an attack on Mafeking was probable, and to be ready for emergencies, Colonel Baden-Powell quickly set about protecting the town by every means in his power. Across the entrances to Mafeking empty waggons were drawn up in lines with the idea of minimising the power of the enemy's shells as much as possible, and at the same time of affording a post of vantage to the defenders should the Boers try to carry the town by assault. In addition to these waggons, breastworks composed of sandbags, and carefully planned earthworks, were constructed, while all exterior walls fronting positions where an attack was most likely to be expected were carefully loopholed for rifle and machinegun fire. The country round about Mafeking is for the greater part flat and devoid of cover, with the exception of one or two kopjes near the town, which were promptly fortified and manned by the garrison, while for some distance on each side of the town the veldt was carefully mined, a fact which Colonel Baden-Powell took good care should reach the ears of the Boers, who have a great dread of these subterranean mines. Within the town itself the inhabitants, as was the case at Kimberley, took care to excavate bomb-proof shelters to which they could retire out of the reach of the Boer shells.
It was not long before Mafeking was attacked. On the 14th October a Boer force appeared before the town and opened fire. The garrison at once responded with spirit, and a sharp engagement ensued, which ultimately resulted in the attacking force being beaten off and forced to retire out of the range of the garrison's field-guns. Here the Boers rallied and set about forming a laager. For a day or two the besieging force was content to complete its preparations for a long siege without paying much attention to the town, and to wait for the arrival of General Piet Cronje, who was hastening up, eager to reduce the garrison, and so gain the first great success of the war,-for the news of the British victories at Glencoe and Dundee had not at that time penetrated to the western border.
General Cronje for twenty years or so had hated the British with a fierce vindictive hatred which nothing could remove, and was eager to meet them once more in the field. Seeing that the garrison was determined, and realising that a proposal to attempt to "rush" the town across the open veldt would create something like a mutiny in his camp (for the average Boer fighting-man has an intense dislike to showing himself in the open for his foes to fire at from behind shelter), General Cronje decided to fall back on the same tactics which he had adopted with so much success at the siege of Potchefstroom in 1881, and to push trenches forward towards the town, where he might conceal his men and yet enable them to maintain a severe rifle-fire.
The defenders of Mafeking watched the Boers commence to push forward trenches, and at once turned their attention to preventing this as much as possible by means of artillery fire, for as yet the besiegers were outside the range of the rifles. The Boers persevered with their earthworks, however; so on the night of October 25 it was decided to deliver an assault on the most advanced position. With that end in view a squadron of the Protectorate Regiment was sent forward under Captain Fitzclarence to drive the Boers from the trench. The commander's orders were precise: the party was not to fire a shot, depending oil their bayonets to do the work. Silently this little force stole out into the night, and were soon lost to the view of those remaining in the town, where the whole garrison was standing under arms prepared to go to their comrades' assistance if required. After what seemed an age to those in the town the stillness of the night was broken by a shrill whistle, Captain Fitzclarence's signal for his men to charge. So soon as this was heard there was a cry from the Boers in the trench nearest the town; but this was drowned by a defiant British cheer, which was answered by a yet louder one from Mafeking. Gallantly led by Captain Fitzclarence, the Colonials, about fifty strong, sprang into the trench and were driving their bayonets home before the Boers quite realised what was going forward. As the enemy were aroused from their sleep, the sight of the thirsty steel glinting in the moonlight drove terror to their hearts, and many dropped on to their knees and pleaded in piteous terms for mercy,—that mercy which they had denied to the women and children of the refugees fleeing from Johannesburg. The Boers in the other trenches, alarmed by the struggle which was going forward, and of which they could only gain a hazy account, commenced a hot rifle fire, ignoring the fact that by so doing they were in danger of wounding or slaying their own comrades.
After a time Captain Fitzclarence's whistle was again heard above the commotion, and, acting on their orders, the British force at once sprang from the trench and prepared to return to the town as silently as they had come, separating as much as possible so as to lessen the risk of their being hit by the bullets which were falling around them. For some time after they had quitted the trench they could hear the Boers firing and shouting iii their confusion, and unaware of the fact that their assailants had retired. The British losses during this attack were six men killed, and eleven wounded, all of whom were conveyed back to the town by their comrades. In addition, one man was reported missing. The Boer loss was not known precisely, but was estimated at about fifty killed and wounded.
It took the enemy some little time to rally themselves; but after Cronje had summoned Baden-Powell to surrender, "and so avoid further bloodshed" —a demand which the garrison received with a smile—a hot bombardment of the town was commenced by some heavy guns which by this time had been got into position. The commencement of this bombardment was on October 31, the Boers first of all concentrating their fire on a detached hill known as Cannon Kopje, which was garrisoned by a squadron of the Protectorate Regiment under Colonel Walford. After the artillery-fire had been maintained on this position for about two hours, the main body of the enemy skirmished forward across the open veldt and attacked the kopje on three sides. Colonel Baden-Powell took prompt steps to render those on the kopje every assistance possible, and with that idea turned all tile artillery that he could spare from the other parts of the town on to the advancing Boers, and so drew some of the Boer fire from Colonel Walford's men, who were fighting with great coolness and repelling the enemy's attempts to get to close quarters. The fight raged fiercely round this kopje for some hours; for, could the Boers have captured it, they would have been able to speedily reduce the town by mounting their big guns on the summit, and Cronje realised this just as much as Baden-Powell did. In the end the Boers were beaten off, and after five hours' fierce fighting they withdrew to their trenches, raked by a murderous fire from the British rifles and machine-guns as they did so. This was the hottest day's work the garrison had so far been called upon to perform, and they had acquitted themselves with great credit, seeing that none save the officers were trained soldiers in the accepted sense of the word. The losses of the garrison must be considered slight in the face of the desperate nature of the fighting. They were two officers and four men killed and five men wounded. The Boer losses were very heavy—two of their waggons being occupied for nearly the whole of the clay in searching the veldt for the killed and wounded.
After this repulse the Boers settled down to push their trenches forward, and seemed to relinquish their hopes of carrying the town by assault. About this time Cronje prepared to retire from the command at Mafeking, as he saw no immediate chance of capturing the town, and his presence was needed elsewhere. Before he left, however, Baden-Powell played a trick on him which excited his strong, resentment. There was a large quantity of dynamite in the town which the garrison feared might be exploded by a chance shot, and so to avoid this it was decided to load the explosive into two railway trucks and send it some distance down the line, in the hope that the Boers might be tempted to open fire upon it. The ruse acted perfectly. So soon as the enemy perceived two trucks apparently running away down the line, they attacked them with their rifles in the hope of hitting any persons there might be inside.. One of their bullets exploded the whole of the cargo with disastrous effects, many Boers being killed, while others were hurled through the air like so many stones from catapults. It served its purpose, however, by making the Boers very wary of approaching the town.
After the withdrawal of Cronje and the consequent weakening of the Boer forces, those remaining behind proceeded to advance their earthworks nearer to the town and to draw the cordon tighter: to prevent this the defenders commenced counter-sapping about the middle of November. By means of these new earthworks Colonel Baden-Powell's force was able to command the Boer trenches, and to make things very unpleasant for those working in them. In retaliation for this, and to demolish the works if possible, a daily shelling of the town and earthworks was now commenced by the enemy; but as the inhabitants retired to the bomb-proof shelters which had been formed, the casualties were not very severe. About this time Lady Sarah Wilson, the aunt of the Duke of Marlborough, and the only lady war-correspondent in the campaign, was taken prisoner by the Boers, and afterwards exchanged for a Dutch criminal, Viljoen, who up to that time had been imprisoned in the town.
On December 10 Colonel Baden-Powell issued a letter addressed to "The Burghers under arms around Mafeking." In the course of this document the Colonel pointed out to the Boers the causes of the war, and the great resources of the empire against which they had taken up arms. This done, he warned them to return to their homes at once after laying down their arms and to take no further part in the war, otherwise they could not hope to preserve their homesteads when the British advance through the Free State and the Transvaal commenced. General Snyman, then in command of the Boer forces outside the town, was greatly incensed with this letter from the British commandant, especially with the paragraph which stated that "Mafeking would never be taken by sitting down and looking at it." So annoyed was the Boer general, indeed, that he returned a very heated reply to Baden-Powell, whom he challenged to come out of the town and attempt to drive the burghers away—a challenge which the British garrison were well content to pass by without retort.
An intermittent bombardment of the town then proceeded, mainly from the small forts which the Boers had thrown up, the chief of which was situated at Game Tree, about two miles from the town. So annoying to the defenders was the fire from this position that it was decided to make a sortie against it. On the early dawn of Boxing-day, therefore, the garrison stood to arms, and a strong force was detailed for the work. This force was made up of two squadrons of the Protectorate Regiment under Captains Fitzclarence and Vernon, one squadron of the Bechuanaland Rifles under Captain Cowen, and three guns. An armoured train also was manned by a detachment of the British South Africa Police under Captain Williams, with a Maxim and a Hotchkiss. Unfortunately the assault failed, and what added to the bitterness of the British repulse was the obvious fact that there was a traitor in the town who had divulged the scheme of the attack to the Boers, and so enabled them to take precautions to repel it. The fighting was commenced at daybreak, when the British guns opened fire on the forts, while the train moved off down the line so as to bring its occupants within range of the enemy's position. The Boer guns quickly responded to ours, and as the British riflemen moved forward into action, it became evident that the Boers occupied the fort in much greater numbers than had hitherto been the case. Nothing daunted by this discovery, however, the men rushed gallantly forward, led by Captain Vernon, and though the Boer fire was terrible, got to within 300 yards of the fort. Here they were forced to halt, The space between them and the fort was totally destitute of cover, and the bullets were falling on it like hail.
Brave and courageous to the point of recklessness, Captain Vernon and his brother officers made a dash across this space, followed closely by their men, many of whom fell victims to the Boer marksmanship. Clearly the position was impregnable to assault without a sufficient force of artillery to prepare the way. Not even the desperate courage of Captain Vernon and Lieutenant Paton, who actually reached the walls of the fort and fired through the loopholes with their revolvers at the enemy within, could avail. Reluctantly the force fell back to the armoured train, while the failure of the attack was reported to Colonel Baden-Powell, who after consideration decided to recall his men and to sacrifice no more lives in attempting to carry the fort at the bayonet-point. The storming party thereupon returned to Mafeking, and a short armistice was agreed upon. The ambulances were then sent out to bring in the wounded and the killed, most of whom were found close up to the walls of the fort and on every side of it. The British losses were heavy, being three officers and eighteen men killed, and one officer and twenty-seven men wounded, while three men were taken prisoners, and four more subsequently died of their wounds. The Boer losses were not known, but were probably not so heavy as those sustained by the British, seeing that they had the advantage of fighting under cover the whole time.
After the engagement the enemy admitted having been warned that the attack was about to take place, and as a consequence had been strongly reinforced, while their big guns had been removed farther to the rear into positions of great security. Had Colonel Baden-Powell been able to surprise the position, as he had aimed at doing, there seems to be small doubt but that the assault would have succeeded.
For some time after this attack the Boers refrained from doing anything more than throw a few casual shells into the town, and these did but little damage, thanks to the timely warnings which those on the lookout gave by means of alarm-bells whenever the smoke from the enemy's guns told that a shell had been fired. Sundays were by mutual agreement strictly observed as days of truce in the early days of the siege.
Christmas in Mafeking was celebrated as joyfully as possible, a children's party being held ill the women's laager on tile afternoon of Christmas Day, where a huge Christmas tree was erected for tile little cues. The result of the action on the following morning threw a gloom over the town and curtailed the remaining festivities.
The effects of the siege were now commencing to be felt by those shut up in Mafeking and the constant strain on the nerves occasioned by, the falling of the Boer shells, together with the close confinement tended to affect the health of those in the town. Colonel Baden-Powell and his officers, however, maintained a cheerful front, and by the gaiety of their spirits managed to invigorate the others, and all were prepared to hold out "until the place became a cemetery," as the commander put it in one of his despatches. The provisions in the town were ample for many months to come, and there was a good supply of ammunition at hand for both the field-guns and the rifles, so that there was no thought of yielding, and considerable ground for the message which Colonel Baden-Powell forwarded to Lord Roberts, to the effect that there was no particular hurry for the relief force, as he was detaining outside the town a strong force of Boers who might do more damage elsewhere. This humorous message is strongly characteristic of Colonel Baden-Powell.
Unfortunately about this time the Boers took to deliberately tiring on the hospital and the women's laager, though these buildings were protected by the Red Cross, and the Boers were expressly warned of where their shells were falling. Despite the repeated protests of Colonel Baden-Powell, the enemy continued to bombard these buildings at intervals for some weeks, until tile British commander at length found a sure way of protecting the wounded and the non-combatants by placing such of the Boer prisoners as he had captured in these buildings. He informed General Snyman of what he had done, and from that time the enemy was more careful in his observance of the usages of civilised warfare.
On January 6 the garrison managed to mount an old muzzle-loading naval gun which was found lying by in the town, together with a quantity of spherical shot; and this weapon prove] of service ill helping to keep down the lire of the large gun which the Boers had got into position, and whose shells proved very troublesome. An artillery duel was started early on the morning of this day, and continued until nightfall —a Nordenfeldt and other small guns being brought to bear sin the enemy's big gun, which in the end was temporarily disabled. The weapon was quickly repaired, however, and for some days this artillery fire went on, no particular damage being done by either side; but inasmuch as the Boer fire was diverted from the town towards the redoubts where the British guns were posted, the defenders of the town were quite satisfied with the result. Despite the constant coming arid going which the garrison noted among the besieging force, a sufficient force always retrained outside the town to prevent the British getting the upper hand, and oft January 10 it was estimated that there were 2000 Boers investing the town.
The enemy apparently had now given Up any intentions which they might at one time have had of taking the town by assault, and seemed quite content to try and starve the garrison into submission The shells from their guns were a source of danger and annoyance to the garrison, and this was the worst thing from which those in the town suffered It was against these guns, therefore, that the garrison was chiefly employed. Picked shots were sent for-ward into die trenches to lire at the Boer gunners through the embrasures of the Butts, and by these means they were able ill the end to cause tile withdrawal of the guns farther from the town into a place of greater safety.
From January 15 until the end of February the siege proceeded with great monotony, the only event of interest being the discovery made by the garrison that some of the besiegers were trekking to the north, apparently in the hope of intercepting Colonel Plumer, and so preventing him reaching Mafeking with the relief force. The numbers outside the town, however, were still too great to permit of rile garrison adopting offensive tactics with any real prospect of success. The casualties in Mafeking from the beginning of the siege up to February 24, as they were then known in London, were 5 officers and 59 men killed, and 8 officers and 126 then wounded; while 4 men had died of their wounds, and 14 men were reported as missing.
To turn now to Colonel Plumer's force, which was operating along the southern border of Rhodesia, with the object of repelling Boer invasion in that direction. The base of this force was established at Tuli. Its first move was to watch the "drifts" across the Limpopo, and the first collision between the Rhodesian force and the Boers occurred at Rhodes' Drift about forty miles directly to the south of Tuli. This skirmish resulted successfully for the British force, inasmuch as the burghers were compelled to keep on their own side of the river. The losses on either side were slight.
As at first organised, Colonel Plumer's force was intended solely to protect Rhodesia; but when it became evident tint the Boer plan of campaign did not include any attack In force on Rhodesia, this intention was considerably modified, and Colonel Philter equipped his force with the object of making an attempt to relieve Mafeking. The difficulties in the way of the successful accomplishment of this attempt were many. To reach Mafeking would entail the force cutting itself off from its base always a dangerous expedient, and one discountenanced by military theorists. In addition to this, the railway route on which the force might otherwise have relied had been torn up for some miles, and the column would therefore be dependent cur horse transport; amt lastly, there was known to be a strong body of the enemy between the column and Mafeking. As a set-off against these drawbacks, there was the fact that the column was made up of sturdy colonial lighting men, used to guerilla warfare in South Africa, and inured to living on the open veldt and to providing for themselves; so that what to an elaborately equipped array, accustomed to rely on its officers to see them through, would have been a very risky proceeding, was to these hardy irregulars an effort little out of their ordinary existence.
Before, however, the relief column could set off some severe fighting took place around Tuli, in which Colonel Plumer's men, though numerically inferior, fully held their own, and demonstrated that they were quite competent to fight the Boers by their own methods. The chief of these skirmishes was that which occurred at Bryce's store in the early part of November. In this affair, thanks in some measure to the treacherous use made by the Boers of a flag of truce, the enemy were successful. A detachment of Colonel Plumer's force had halted at the store on their return from a reconnaissance to rest their horses, and had not been there long when they perceived what seemed to be a sham fight proceeding between two bodies of Boers on some hills a short distance away. The colonists, seeing that they were outnumbered, prepared to fall back on Tuli, when they were surprised to see one of the Boer forces advancing at a gallop towards them with a white flag conspicuously displayed. This party was about fifty strong, and rode quickly forward to where the colonists had halted until they were within about 200 yards of the store, when they deliberately poured a volley into the astonished Britishers, who made; a hurried rush towards the store so soon as their hostile intentions were seen. As they entered and prepared to defend the building, the Boers who had remained on the hills commenced to shell the store, carrying away the roof. It quickly became evident that the place was untenable, and after a sharp fight the Rhodesians prepared to make a dash for Tuli, leaving their waggons and some of their mules and horses in the hands of the Boers. Three of the patrol who were wounded, and four others who had not heard the order to withdraw, were left behind and taken prisoners by the Boers, who, despite the use they made of the white flag, treated them with kindness.
Fighting of a more or less desultory character continued around Tuli for some time until about the beginning of 1900, when Colonel Plumer's preparations for his advance to the relief of Mafeking were complete, and the force moved southwards down the, railway line towards Mochudi and Gaberones The line so far had been relaid, and therefore the force was able to be escorted by an armoured train under Captain Llewellyn of the British South Africa, Police. The column moved forward without resistance until the neighbourhood of Gaberones was reached, when the scouts reported that the Boers had taken up a strong position at Crocodile Pools, and were directly in front of the column's line of march. A reconnaissance of the enemy's position was thereupon made, and their laager was found to be heavily entrenched so that for Colonel Plumer to attack it with the force at his command would have been to court disaster. He preferred therefore, to defend the position which he had already gained and to mature his plans before pushing forward. By January 20 he had managed to get into communication with Mafeking by means of native runners, and was thus able to transmit to Colonel Baden-Powell information as to the enemy's disposition in this part of the country which could not fail to be useful. Three days after this a reconnaissance in force of the Boer position was made by Major Bird, accompanied by four squadrons of the force. This patrol soon came into action, making a bayonet charge up the slope of one of the hills against a party of Boers, who hastily fell back without waiting to come to close quarters. The object of the reconnaissance gained, the party fell back on the main column with much useful intelligence, being shelled by a 9-pounder as they retired.
The next event of interest was an artillery duel, which commenced on the afternoon of January 31, between the British guns and a small fort, which was rather severely handled. This duel continued at intervals until February 2, when Major Bird, accompanied by 150 men, made a demonstration on the right flank of the enemy's position. A sharp infantry action then took place, the Boers being strongly posted on a ridge commanding the road to Mafeking which passed through the hills by means of a nek or pass. The result of this skirmish was indecisive, both forces holding their ground with great tenacity, and when the fighting tensed neither side could claim the advantage.
Seeing that the enemy was in such strength, Colonel Plumer determined on a night attack, as being less costly than any other movement he could adopt; so on February 12 Major Bird moved forward with a strong force against the Boer position at Crocodile Pools. The laager at this spot was situated in a naturally strong position on the top of a rocky kopje and was further defended by means of earthworks which had been thrown up wherever possible, while the sides of the hill were protected by the closely thorn-bushes which grew around in profusion. The attacking force reached the foot of this kopje without the alarm being given; but in climbing the slope some of the boulders which were strewn almost were displaced, the noise waking the Boor watchdogs which were kept in the trenches, and these animals by their barking effectually aroused the enemy, who immediately poured a heavy rifle-fire into the advancing ranks of the British. Despite the fire and the steepness of the ascent, Major Bird and his men rushed forward; but before they could get near enough to use their bayonets. Several dynamite mines were exploded under them, and this fact, coupled with the heavy fire they were under, caused Major Bird to withdraw his force and report the state of affairs to Colonel Plumer, as it was clear that the place was impregnable to assault save by vastly superior forces to those at his disposal. Having examined the position for himself, Colonel Plumer decided that to attempt to carry it with the bayonet would mean the sacrifice of more lives than he could afford to lose: so the force returned to old quarters at Gaberones and there awaited such developments as should enable them to strike at the enemy with a greater chance of success.
It soon became obvious to all that Colonel Plumer's force was not nearly strong enough to relieve the beleaguered town without aid from the south. Many rumours were rife in London as to Lord Roberts' intentions for none believed for a moment that the town would be allowed to capitulate after the gallant manner in which it had held out. Many were, the leaders that were selected in England as likely to go to the aid of Mafeking. At one time Lord Methuen's force was said to be moving up the railway line from Kimberley to Mafeking. When this was seen to be incorrect it was announced that the real objective of Sir Frederick Carrington, who was then landing his force at Beira, was to reinforce Colonel Plumer and so raise the siege of Mafeking; and later, when it became known that Sir Archibald Hunter was concentrating a considerable force at Kimberley, which comprised a very large proportion of cavalry and mounted infantry, public opinion in England veered round once more, and it was this force that was generally looked upon as the one destined for the relief of Baden-Powell and his plucky band.
It is not too much to say that the eyes of the whole world were, turned towards the little, Bechuanaland town at this time, and when it was announced that Lord Roberts had asked the garrison to hold out until May 18, by which time he hoped to relieve them, the tension became greater than ever. They were weary days in London, those days of watching and waiting for the news that was so terribly loll, in coming, and as each portion of the great army under Lord Roberts was accounted for hope sank to zero when no force that was obviously moving up to Mafeking could be traced. Methuen was at Boschof and Warrenton, Hunter was driving the Boers before him at Rooidam, Carrington was organising his base camp at Marandellas, and Plumer was marking time at Gaberones. Where, then, was the long-delayed relief to come from? That was the question that each was asking himself, and the answer was known to none. Lord Roberts kept his secret well, so well, in fact, that even after it was known that the siege was at an end none could say for some days who had led the force or how it was composed.
In Mafeking itself the garrison managed to keep up its spirits, though food was becoming scarcer and scarcer. As had been the case at Kimberley and Ladysmith, the horses in the town were handed over to the commissariat department, while porridge made from sowans appeared on the daily menu. Enteric and dysentery were rife, and malaria had broken out in the women's laager; but one and all were determined to hold out until the last gasp and to keep the flag flying, though—saddest of all—the children's graveyard near to the women's laager grew fuller and fuller each week as the delicate young lives succumbed to the trials to which they were subjected. The man who brought about this war will have a heavy account to answer when the Judgment Day arrives,
But little news filtered through from Mafeking to the outside world, though what there was told of the increased privations which the inhabitants of the town were enduring. Not that there was any whining or cavilling at the delay in relief reaching the town: that is not the way of Baden-Powell and those who served under him. They knew that so soon as the Field-Marshal in command could do it, he would put an end to their sufferings, and they looked forward to the time arriving. The laconic "All well" which the commanding officer maintained until the last, showed the cheeriness of their spirits, though to those who could read between the lines the story was obvious.
The Boers had long given up any intentions they might at one time have had of carrying the town by storm, but their dogged determination to starve the garrison into surrender was increased by the news of the defeats and repulses they were. suffering in the other theatres of war.
As the middle of May approached, and the day Lord Roberts had named for the relief of Mafeking; draw nearer, the enemy prepared to make their final effort; so on May 12 Commandant Eloff, the grandson of President Kruger, led a storming-party against the town, selecting the old British South Africa police fort as his objective. News had reached the Boers of a strong British column having arrived at Vryburg on its way northwards, and with a new-found courage they determined to come to close quarters with the half-starved garrison of Mafeking, trusting to their superior numbers to gain them the day.
Their plan was well conceived, and only very narrowly escaped success: had Cronje been in supreme command instead of Snyman a different ending to the siege might well have been recorded. Under cover of darkness General Snyman made a feint attack with his artillery on the eastern side of the town, while Eloff with some 700 men rushed the outer ring of forts to the west, driving the British pickets in before him, taking the garrison by surprise, and eventually compelling the officer in command of the forts, Colonel Hore, to surrender. The alarm, however, had been given to Colonel Baden-Powell by telephone, and he took prompt measures to stem the tide. He had no intention of being beaten in the last lap, as it were.
As the day broke, things seemed almost hopeless for the garrison. The native quarter of the town was in flames, fired by the Boers; one of the forts was in the enemy's hands, and its commandant taken prisoner, and an exulting telegraph was received from the Boers stating this fact. Nothing daunted, Colonel Baden-Powell set about retrieving his fallen fortunes, and the reserves under Major Panzer were sent forward at the double to form a new line of defence along the railway, to keep the enemy in play, while the remainder of the force carried out one of the most daring movements that the annals of the British army can show. This was nothing less than an attempt to get between Eloff and his party and the main body of the Boers, and subsequent events showed how well Baden-Powell had laid his plans.
The position at this time was indeed an extraordinary one. Colonel Hore was a prisoner in his own fort, the supports of Commandant Eloff—who had sent to Snyman to say that the town was practically in his hands—were effectually beaten back, and he himself surrounded without his apparently being aware of the fact. So the fighting raged for some Hours, Eloff maintaining the position he had gained, while the garrison drew the cordon tighter and tighter around him. Had it not been for the underlying grimness of the thing, the situation would have been comic in the extreme.
At last the Boer storming-party realised what had happened when it was too late for them to remedy their blunder. They tried to force their way back, but in vain. Whichever way they, turned there were countless British rifles spitting vicious tongues of death-dealing flame at them; while a 7-pounder, under Lieutenant Daniels, was adding to their discomfiture. Not even Cronje was trapped more neatly than were these Boers under Eloff. Early Al the day the first party of about eighty Boers surrendered to the garrison that they had hoped to take by surprise, but the rest maintained their ground with the courage that is born of despair.
Had General Snyman only possessed sufficient military skill to have grasped the situation even at tills time, he could have turned the tide and gained the day; for the British force, weakened as it was by the seven months' siege it had undergone, and tired out by its long spell of fighting, would have been too weak to have offered more than a feeble resistance to the overwhelming odds that the Boers possessed.
A dropping fire was kept up all day between the fort where Eloff had placed himself and the British force, but this gradually died away, and at length all was silence. This silence was broken by a tremendous outburst of firing from the fort, which caused the garrison to fly hastily to their posts; but to their surprise they found that the Boer fire was not directed towards the town, but in the direction of the main Boer laager. The affair was an enigma to those inside the town, but later they learnt that it was Eloff and his men firing on about eighty of their party who declined to stay longer in the fort and prepared to return to the main body. The Britishers now closed in towards the fort, and the end was not long delayed, for Eloff at length surrendered to Colonel Hore, his own prisoner. The victory of the garrison was thus complete. They had taken in all about 120 prisoners, and could have greatly increased this number had it not been for the fact that so many extra mouths to feed meant a serious drain on their small stock of food. This was the last event of importance in the siege, and a brilliant achievement it was. Five days later, in the early morning of May 17, the combined forces of Brigadier-General Mahon and Colonel Plumer entered the town amid the frantic enthusiasm of the garrison.
This relief fell upon the world like a bolt from the blue. Who the leader was or where the force had come from were mysteries that none could explain. Vague rumors from Boer sources of a force being on its way to Mafeking from the south reached England from time to time, but no one knew whether to believe them or not. From what was afterwards learnt, a force composed almost entirely of mounted men, principally from the Imperial Yeomanry and the Colonial Volunteers, with Horse artillery and quick-firing Vickers-Maxims or "pom-pom" guns, and in light marching order, had been detached from Sir A. Hunter's force on May 4 under the command of Colonel Mahon, with instructions to push straight on to Mafeking without delay. Silently this force, about 3000 strong, quitted Kimberley and worked its way northwards along the railway line, the rapidity with which it moved completely nonplussing the Boers, who offered but feeble opposition until Vryburg was reached, which occurred on May 9, the force having covered a distance of 120 miles in five days. A halt of two days took place at Vryburg while communications were opened up with Colonel Plumer and arrangements made for the effective co-operation of the two forces.
When the force under Colonel Mahon again moved forward they came into contact with the enemy at Koodoosrand, the Boers occupying a strong position right across the line of march; but the combined fire of tine Royal Horse Artillery, "pom-pom," and Maxim guns which the British brought to bear on them proved so hot that they were forced back after a short but sharp engagement, and the road was left open to the, advancing force.
The two forces, Mahon's and Plumer's, met at the little village of Madibi, about twenty miles west of Mafeking, and early on May 15 they came across the enemy, who had placed themselves between the relief force and the besieged town. A hot fight ensued for an hour or so, but at the end of that time, the Boers had had enough, and were glad to fall back to the trenches on the eastern side of Mafeking, where they were assailed by Baden-Powell's force aided by the guns of the now rapidly approaching relief force.
After a short halt the relief force moved forward once more, and finally entered Mafeking on May 17, and the siege of Mafeking was at an end, the town having been relieved on the day previous to the one that Lord Roberts had named as marking the limit of their endurance.
The casualties in the town during the investment amounted to 5 officers and 62 men killed, 8 officers and 143 men wounded, and 5 men had died of their wounds. In addition, many in the town had died from disease.
It was but an incident in the war this defence of the little out-of-the-way town of Mafeking, and the final issue of the war would not have been affected in the least, whatever the result of the siege had been; and yet when at length the electric wires throbbed with the welcome news, and carried it to the outermost portions of the empire, scenes of joy—wild, delirious, heartfelt joy—took place such as had never before been known. It will be long before there is another day in London to approach that famous Saturday, the 19th of May, when the entire population rejoiced over the deliverance of Colonel Baden-Powell and his gallant band after a siege of 18 days.
The reason for the outburst is not far to seek. The plucky defence of the little town had gone straight to the hearts of all as nothing else would have done, and so the British race all the world over "let itself go," to use an expressive colloquialism.
A word of praise is due to Colonel Plumer and his men, whose good work in protecting the railway line from Bulawayo to the south, and so immensely furthering the rapid provisioning of Mafeking, is liable to be forgotten among the other events of the war—the more so as there were no brilliant pen-artists with this force, as there were with almost every other. But in Rhodesia the events of Plumer's long contest with the Boers round Mafeking will long be remembered, as they deserve to be throughout the empire.
As for the siege of Mafeking itself, that will go down to history side by side with the famous defence of Lucknow, and the empire's youngest limb—Rhodesia—may well be proud of the part which her sons played in this bright episode in the history of the empire.
Lewis P. Orans, 2009