Sir Baden-Powell,
Lessons from the Varsity of Life

Chapter VII:
The South African War
Mission to South Africa

Baden-Powell in his office during
the Seige of Mafeking


I WAS at home in London, just back from India in June 1899, enjoying what I considered my well-earned leave, when, lunching at the Naval and Military Club, a new bomb was hurled at me.

George Gough, A.D.C. to Lord Wolseley, sitting at a table near by, suddenly came across and said: "I thought you were in India. I have just cabled to you to come home as the Commander-in-chief wants to see you."

With such coolness as I could command I said: "Well, here I am"; and after lunch we went down together to the War Office and I was once more shown into Lord Wolseley’s room.

He had a knack of trying to spring surprises on you and was all the better pleased if you were not bowled out by them. I think it was his way of judging a man’s character, and I took care accordingly not to be caught out if I could help it.

On this occasion he said: "I want you to go to South Africa."

With the air of a well-trained butler I said: "Yes, sir."

"Well, can you go on Saturday next?" (This was Monday.)

"No, sir."

"Why not?"

Knowing well the sailings of the South African steamers, I replied: "There’s no ship on Saturday, but I can go on Fridays."

He burst out laughing and then proceeded to tell me that there was danger of war with the Boers, he wanted me to go and quietly raise two battalions of Mounted Rifles and organise the Police Forces on the North-west Frontier of Cape Colony, in readiness should trouble arise.

He had already appointed my Staff, Lord Edward Cecil, Grenadier Guards, to be my Chief Staff Officer, and Major Hanbury-Tracy, Royal Horse Guards, to be Staff Officer.

He then asked me what my address would be before sailing, and I said that if he didn’t want me in London I should be at Henley for the boat races.

"What about kit?"

"I have got all that is necessary, and—South Africa is a civilised country."

He then took me in to see Lord Lansdowne, Secretary of State for War, who accorded me the high-sounding title of "Commander-in-Chief, North-west Frontier Forces."

Having had my instructions I had by that evening formulated in my own mind my plan of campaign.

As I walked (almost danced) home I landed on a street refuge, held up by passing traffic, where I found that my neighbour was Sergeant-Major Manning, of my Regiment, home on leave. I told him I was off to South Africa and he begged me to take him with me. I said I had no authority to take a Sergeant-Major. He said that I should be allowed to take a servant and he could go in that capacity, and it was settled there and then in the middle of the street.

I need scarcely say that he did not long remain my servant, but I made him Regimental Sergeant-Major of the first Regiment we raised, and he then became Adjutant and finally Major.

My orders were to raise two battalions of Mounted Rifles, to mount, equip, train, and supply them, with the least possible delay and the least possible display.

For this purpose Colonel Plumer and Colonel Hore, with several Imperial officers, would be sent out to join me for the purpose, and I should have to make up the remainder of the establishment of officers from likely men in the colony.

Also, I was to take charge of and organise the Police of Rhodesia and Bechuanaland as part of my force.

But I was to make as little show as possible of these preparations for fear of precipitating war by arousing the animosity of the Boers.

The object of my force and its establishment on the north-west border of the Transvaal was, in the event of war, to attract Boer forces away from the coast so that they should not interfere with the landing of British troops: secondly, to protect our possessions in Rhodesia and Mafeking, etc. Thirdly, to maintain British prestige among the great native tribes in those parts.

Mafeking Officers

The personal Staff with whom I had been supplied were entirely new to South Africa. I should have preferred to choose my own Staff Officers had it been permitted before leaving England, in order to have men who knew South Africa and men whom I knew personally. If you make a man responsible for a job you must, if you would be fair to him, let him choose his own tools.

However, in Rhodesia I found many old hands who had served with me before, and among those who were sent out to me from England later were an excellent lot and included a few South African comrades like Colonel Plumer, Colonel Vyvyan, Major Godley and Captain Maclaren.

The duty of my force was to hold the frontier on the west of the Transvaal from Vryburg in Cape Colony to Bulawayo in Rhodesia, a distance of some 650 miles, with two Regiments of Mounted Rifles (if we could raise them) and about four hundred Police, but no regular troops at all.

The railway ran most of the way close to the border of the Transvaal, and a great portion of the country was practically desert inhabited by native tribes.

I realised that to distribute men all along the border would be futile, so Colonel Plumer took the duty of raising his Regiment in Rhodesia, while Colonel Hore organised his at Ramatlabama, sixteen miles north of Mafeking.

The reason for this was that Ramatlabama was in Imperial territory, in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, whereas Mafeking was in Cape Colony, and the Cape Government, being in sympathy with the Boers, would not allow us to raise troops in that territory.

Incidentally this proved a help to our scheme of producing a moral effect on our enemy, since Ramatlabama was to the Boers a dread spot, because it was there that Dr. Jameson had three years previously organised his Raid on Johannesburg.

Thus the forming of a mounted column in this same spot naturally foreboded our making another rush from this place to capture Pretoria and the President.

At least that is what President Kruger evidently thought, judging from his frequent telegrams to his border Commandants in which he repeatedly urged them to watch Ramatlabama.

Ramatlabama was nothing more than a name, a small railway siding; there was no town there.

Mafeking, on the other hand, was a town of some two thousand white inhabitants, nine hundred miles from Cape Town, with railway workshops, sidings, and goods sheds; so it was here that I collected from Cape Town our stores of food, equipment, etc.

When eventually Colonel Hore had organised his Regiment at Ramatlabama I got permission from the Cape Government to place an armed guard in Mafeking to protect these stores; but as the strength of that guard was not stipulated I moved the whole Regiment into the place without delay.

At the same time Plumer’s newly raised Rhodesia Regiment, together with the British South African Police in Rhodesia, took post at Tuli on the border at the ford of the Crocodile River where the main road of the Transvaal entered Rhodesia.

Thus, at the end of September we held two important strategical points both of which attracted considerable forces of Boers for a longish period during the early months of the war. They attracted more attention from the Boers owing to the fact that both forces were mounted and therefore palpably intended for active aggression and not merely for passive defence.

In this way we endeavoured to carry out, as fully as possible, our instructions, which you may remember were :

1. To draw Boer forces away from the coasts during the landing of British troops.
2. To protect British subjects in Rhodesia, Bechuanaland, and Mafeking.
3. To maintain British prestige among the Bechuanaland Matabele, and other native tribes in those parts.

Ultimately we might link up our forces and form a column for attacking the Transvaal from the north-west, in co-operation with the troops coming from the south.

That was the general idea, but in the meantime—in order not to precipitate war we had to enlist our men unostentatiously in different parts of Cape Colony, Natal, and Rhodesia, equip them, obtain remounts, and train these as well as the men, collect our supplies and transports, and all this within a space of three months with very little help from the General or from the local Government.

It must be remembered that the ordinary training of soldier, even with everything ready found, usually takes. at least twelve months. So it meant in our case intensive and energetic work on the part of all. The marvel is that, although we only started in July, we had our force ready for service and in the field when war was declared by the Boers on the 11th October, 1899.

I don’t propose to weary you with a detailed description of the so-called siege of Mafeking; enough and more than enough has been written about it in books and the papers of the time. As an actual feat of arms it was a very minor operation and was largely a piece of bluff, but bluff which was justified by the special circumstances and which in the end succeeded in its object.

The besieged consisted of a thousand men, newly organised and armed, six hundred white women and children, and seven thousand natives. We retained there at first over 10,000 Boers under Cronje and later smaller numbers under Sneyman, from October 1899 till 17th May, 1900.

Lessons from the Varsity of Life, Chapter VII:The South African War, Mafeking: Defense and Relief
"Mafeking," from E. E. Reynolds, Baden-Powell, The Story of His Life, 1943.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries dedicated his medical skills to the army during the South African (Boer) War.  He wrote the first edition of The Great Boer War in 1900, updating it in 1901, covering the war to October 11, 1901.  Starting with the Preface in September, 1999, the major excerpts will be published in commemoration on the Centennial of the South African War. 
Perspectives on the South African War.  A collection of links to primary and contemporary resources on the war in South Africa.
The South African War Virtual Library contains a wide selection of research data related to the South African War. This site presents an archive of easily accessible and concise material concerning the War. It is not intended to be a new historical ‘front’, but instead an organised amalgamation of a wide variety of available material.
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Copyright © Lewis P. Orans, 1997
Created: 11:32 AM on May 17, Mafeking Day, 1997

Last Modified: 8:06 PM on June 16, 1997

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