Sir Robert Baden-Powell,
Lessons from the Varsity of Life
, 1933

Chapter VII:
The South African War
Mafeking, Defense and Relief

The celebration in London on news
of the Relief of Mafeking


Our searchlight.

After the enemy had cut the line north and south of us on the 11th of October their artillery appeared on Signal Hill, three miles out of the place, where we had a look-out picket.

This came in and reported in good time, so that I was able to watch the guns wheel into position and open fire upon us.

The first shell fell very short, and while I was watching these from a corner of the street, a girl came bicycling past me. I said: "Young lady, you had better go home and get under cover. The Boers are beginning to shell us."

She said: "Oh, are those shells? May I stay and look at them?"

But I packed her off home. She would soon learn to know quite enough about shells, when they got the range of the town. But her fearless spirit was typical of that which distinguished all the women of Mafeking.

I was always expecting a night attack, and in order to discourage this we started searchlights in every fort, that is to say we made one searchlight with a big cowl made of biscuit tins on top of a pole which we stood on the ground and fumed gently round in the direction required.

There was a man in Mafeking who was a commercial traveler in acetylene lamps, and he had a few of these and a small supply of acetylene with him, so he tatted a lamp into this reflector with an acetylene burner and one night showed a great flare from our fort at Cannon Kopje, with a splendid searching beam that quietly traversed the country round. Later in the night the same lamp appeared in a fort in a totally different part of the defences, and this was repeated for several nights, every time in a different fort, so that the enemy believed we were well supplied with searchlights which would be turned on the moment they attempted any attack. As a matter of fact we soon ran out of acetylene so could not do much more in that line.

Apropos of disturbing the enemy at night I had a joyous little dodge of my own. I had a big megaphone made out of tin, with which I could proceed to one of our advance trenches in the night, and play a ventriloquist stunt upon the enemy, as I found that one’s voice carried quite easily twelve hundred yards, and I would command an imaginary attacking party, giving in the voice of the officer orders to advance very silently, and asking Sergeant Jackson if his men were all ready.


"Sergeant Jackson" would then reply: "Tell Private Thomas to get his bayonet fixed," etc., etc.

Presently this would be responded to by tremendous rifle fire as the Boers took the alarm, and as I hoped called up reserves from their sleep in camp.

We always tried to make the night as lively as possible for our foes and as quiet as possible for ourselves, for the men needed all the rest they could get.


We had a number of excellent rifle shots in the garrison and these men were detailed to creep out on to the veldt and to pick off gun layers in the enemy’s batteries and officers, etc. They devised a method whereby each man went out during the night, carrying with him a trenching tool and a green window blind. Having arrived at the point where he expected to get a good view of the enemy’s gun emplacement he would dig a pit for himself and when daylight came he would coil down in this with the window blind stretched over him to hide the hole, and quietly slumber there till the afternoon

Generally about sunset he would get to work, with the sun on his back and shining on the enemy. He would put in his shots very often with deadly accuracy, while being in the eye of the setting sun himself it was almost impossible for the enemy to locate him and therefore to retaliate.

We played this game also even with our guns, having moved them fairly near to the enemy’s camp by night, lying doggo all day, and just as the sun was dipping over the horizon in the west the guns would let them have round after round for the few minutes left of daylight.

Another bright invention which necessity mothered upon us was—bombs.

When our enemy entrenched themselves in earthworks close to the town we pushed out small works towards them where our men could be under cover to harass them and eventually drive them back. To get to these works we had to dig deep pathways.

Thus by degrees we established a regular system of trenches quite on the lines of old-time warfare. Eventually we got to a point where we were only thirty yards from the enemy and here we stuck for some days till we thought of bombs or hand grenades.

Trench Warfare at Mafeking

These we made out of old meat or jam tins filled with dynamite or powder with a fuse attached, and we hurled them into the Boers’ trenches. They soon replied with more artistically made hand grenades. But they did not like ours and they withdrew their advanced trench a few yards; and there we stuck for a fortnight at sixty-eight yards apart.

To Sergeant Page, who had done sea fishing from the rocks at East London, it occurred to "cast" bombs from the end of a fishing rod, which he did with great effect and a range of nearly a hundred yards.

People afterwards laughed at the idea of our going back to medieval methods with our trenches and bombs, little expecting that within a few years the most modernised armies would be at it again on just the same lines in the Great War.

As time went on naturally we began to get anxious about our food supply; everybody was strictly rationed and my wretched Staff had to live on a lower ration then the men, as we were then able to judge how little was necessary for keeping us going, and at the same time the men could not complain that the officers were living on the fat of the land while they were starving.

Dying in a good cause.

Incidentally we learned to economise very rigidly in the matter of food and also to devise food substitutes.

When a horse was killed his mane and tail were cut off and sent to the hospital for stuffing mattresses and pillows. His shoes went to the foundry for making shells. His skin, after having the hair scalded off, was boiled with his head ‘and feet for many hours, chopped up small, and with the addition of a little saltpetre was served out as "brawn."

His flesh was taken from the bones and minced in a great mincing machine and from his inside were made skins into which the meat was crammed and each man received a sausage as his ration.

The bones were then boiled into a rich soup, which was dealt out at the different soup kitchens; and they were afterwards pounded up into powder with which to adulterate the flour. So there was not much of that horse that was wasted.

Our flour was made from the horses’ oats, pounded and winnowed. But with all our appliances we never succeeded in getting completely rid of the husks. We managed thus, however, to issue to every man daily a big biscuit of oatmeal.

The husks of the oats were put to soak in large tubs of water for a number of hours, at the end of which the scum formed by the husks was scraped off and given as food to the hospital chickens, while the residue formed a paste closely akin to that used by bill-stickers. This was called sowens, a sour kind of mess, but very healthy and filling.

Amongst other things we supplied for the invalids in hospital a special blancmange which was made from the Poudre de Riz commandeered from the hairdressers’ and chemists’ shops.


As money was a necessity for paying wages and for stocks commandeered we took over the cash in the Standard Bank, but also found it necessary to issue paper money of our own. I therefore drew a design for one-pound banknotes and printed minor ones for two shillings and one shilling.

The design for the one-pound note I drew on a boxwood block, made from a croquet mallet cut in half, and this I handed to a Mr. Riesle, who had done wood engraving. But the result was not satisfactory from the artistic point of view, so we used that as a ten-shilling note and I drew another design which was photographed for the pound note.

These could all be exchanged for cash if presented within six months of the end of the siege. But none of them were presented, since people kept them or sold them as interesting mementos.

Mafeking banknote.

Thus the Government scored at least six thousand pounds and for two years afterwards were calling on me for explanation of what they supposed was faulty bookkeeping which showed us so much to the credit. Sentiment didn’t enter into their calculations.


We also found it necessary to issue postage stamps for the transport of letters within the defences. My Staff in designing some of these stamps issued a set with my head on them, without my knowledge. As they were entirely for local and temporary use it was not a matter of any importance, but later I heard that it was considered a piece of gross lese majesté on my part, if not of treason, to print my own head on the stamps, and that the Queen was very annoyed with me! Well, if she was, Her Majesty did not show it but on the contrary sent me most gracious and appreciative messages both during and after the siege, and personally directed my promotion to Major-General. It is amusing to see how rumour gets about.

Very much of the praise that was showered on Mafeking for holding large forces of the Boers up in the north-west at a time when they were needed in the south and for reassuring the native tribes of the frontier, was really due to (then) Colonel Plumer and his Rhodesian column co-operating with us outside the place. If any proof were needed it is to be found in Kruger’s captured telegrams to his commandants before Mafeking in which his anxiety was shown by continual injunctions to "Watch Plumer at all costs," and his repeated bleating of "Where is Plumer?"


Some letters came to us from the Boers on one or two occasions in an unorthodox way, being fired into the town in shells. They were to convey news of their friends to Boer families we had in the place. In one instance the gunner who fired the shell said that he only wished he had something to drink our health in. This was so nice of him that I sent him out a bottle of whisky under the white flag.

When I was in South Africa again recently a man came to me in De Aar and said that for many years he had wanted to meet me and thank me for an excellent bottle of whisky I had sent him, and this was my friend the gunner.

I received a letter from the Boer Commandant, Sarel Eloff, one day, in which he said that he and his friends proposed coming into Mafeking shortly to play cricket with us.

To which I replied: "My side is in at present and yours is in the field. You must bowl us out before your side can come in."

Not long afterwards he made his effort to do so, but the attempt failed and Commandant Eloff and over a hundred of his officers and men were captured by us. (See arrow line on Plan).


A week after our repulse of Eloff’s attack Mafeking was finally relieved, on the 17th May, by Mahon and Plumer’s columns in co-operation.

We received then the inspiring telegram sent to me by the Queen:

"I and my whole Empire greatly rejoice at the Relief of Mafeking, after the splendid defence made by you through all these months. I heartily congratulate you and all under you, military and civil, British and Native, for the heroism and devotion you have shown.

V.R. and I (Victoria, Queen and Empress)."


After we got out of Mafeking my column reinforced by fine contingents of Australians and Canadians, pushed into the Transvaal through the districts of Zeerust and Rustenburg, and eventually joined hands with Lord Roberts’ main army at Pretoria.

It is a long story of much marching, few supplies, minor skirmishing and lots of incident, but not worth boring you with in detail.

A comic touch was given on one occasion when we surprised De Wet’s column at Warmbad. A number of Boers were captured by the Australians in the act of bathing. The "Diggers," being in rags themselves, eagerly commandeered their prisoners’ clothing, and garbed in frock coats and Boer hats brought back their captives clad in towels.

Bringing in a prisoner.

In a recent sketch of my life by Mr. Winston Churchill, he has pointed out what I had not before realised, namely, that my over-advertised doings in the South African campaign had drawn upon me the dislike of Army Headquarters, and that my "bright fruition of fortune and success was soon obscured by a chilly fog," and that perhaps it was lucky for me that I was not therefore used in "those arduous and secret preparations for the Great War" which preceded it.

As a matter of fact for the next seven years following my share in the South African campaign I was fully employed by the authorities on two of the biggest jobs of my life—one of them in direct preparation for the Great War (as the next two chapters will show)—and for which I received honours far above my deserts.

Thus I never noticed that "chilly fog" of which he speaks.

The ribbon to the left displays the colors of the Queen’s South African Medal awarded for service during 1899-1901 in the Anglo-Boer War.

Lessons from the Varsity of Life
Chapter VII:The South African War
Mission to South Africa
"Mafeking" from E. E. Reynolds, Baden-Powell, The Story of His Life, 1943
H. W. Wilson, With the Flag to Pretoria: A History of the Boer War, 1899-1900, London, 1901. Chapter XXVI: "The Siege of Mafeking." Part One.
H. W. Wilson, With the Flag to Pretoria: A History of the Boer War, 1899-1900, London, 1901. Chapter XXV: "The Relief of Mafeking." [Note: Thumbnail of Major Baden F. S. Baden-Powell, brother of B-P, from photo of "Officers of the Mafeking Relief Column"]
"This small place, which sprang in the course of a few weeks from obscurity to fame …" opens Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s retelling of The Siege of Mafeking.  Author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Conan Doyle provides an excellent contemporary account of the siege in his history, The Great Boer War: A Two-Years’ Record, 1899-1901. 
It was at the Siege and Defense of Mafeking during the South African (Anglo-Boer) War that Baden-Powell made his name and first gained public recognition. 1999 marks the beginning of the Centennial of the War. Developed as part of that observance, Perspectives on the South African War provides a collection of links to original and contemporary sources on the South African War.
Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell (Robert Baden-Powell), Lessons from the Varsity of Life, 1933
Contents and Introduction
Baden-Powell Photo Gallery:
Early Years and Military Years
Return to the Baden-Powell Home Page

Return to the Pine Tree Web Home Page

Your feedback, comments and suggestions are appreciated.
Please write to: Lewis P. Orans

Copyright © Lewis P. Orans, 1997
Last Modified: 11:32 AM on May 17, Mafeking Day, 1997

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

Site Created with Microsoft ® FrontPage TM