Wednesday 16th of October 2002 01:06 AM 
 
Battles: Siege of Mafeking
On the 13th October 1899, Baden-Powell and his force found themselves besieged in Mafeking.

During the period of preparation B.P. had collected enough supplies to last the Protectorate Force four months. The Cape Government had undertaken to protect the railway with detachments of Cape Police. Plans had been made for forwarding telegrams by inland lines, away from the Border, using despatch riders to bridge the gaps, etc. Homing pigeons had also been obtained to fly with messages from Mafeking. The intelligence officers had prepared good maps of the district.

The armoured train built at Buluwayo and Mafeking consisted of the armoured engine with an armed truck in front and one behind. It carried a Nordenfeldt and a Maxim—the whole train was, of course, entirely bullet-proof. Defence mines were laid round the town, and on a rise about two or three miles to the south-east where it was expected the Boers would post their artillery.

Lord Edward Cecil organised the boys of the town into a corps of orderlies, thereby releasing a number of able-bodied men for fighting duties. For artillery, B.P. had one 1-pounder Hotchkiss and four miserable little 7-pounders, two of them very old, deficient of sights, and mounted on rickety carriages with unsound wheels. These two "pop-guns" had been sent up from the Cape in answer to his request for modern artillery. The necessary sights and fittings, new wheels, etc., had to be made in Mafeking, but in a surprisingly short space of time they appeared fit for service.

A special communication railway had been laid for one and a half miles round the north-eastern front of the town for the use of the armoured train, and was, of course, for the defence of the town.

For machine guns, in addition to those on the armoured train, B.P. had six Maxims and one old Nordenfeldt.

Headquarters was established at Dixon's Hotel in the Market Square of Mafeking.

His men consisted of approximately 1000 irregular white troops, 450 in the South African and Cape Police under Colonel Walford, 390 untrained men in the town guard, 75 volunteers, plus 468 armed natives. Opposed to this mere handful were four strong Boer commandoes with a total of nearly 9000 armed burghers, who had with them at least seven modern field-guns and nine Maxims.

In his staff diary B.P. entered a detailed description of Mafeking and its environs:

"The town is rectangular, well suited by its position for defence. Open ground all round, but commanded slightly by rising ground 3000 yards south-east. A small work here, 'Cannon Koppie,' is assigned a garrison."

"The valley of the stream south of the town would afford good cover from fire, but is full of native houses. The natives being armed would keep the enemy from using it. As an additional safeguard I have established a post in a detached building overlooking the valley. The native Statt south-west of the town prevents an enemy using the valley from that end. Natives (men, mostly armed) number about 2000 to 3000."

"The waterworks one mile north-east of the town, are liable to be cut off but some good wells exist in the north part of the town and there is a steam pumping station at the railway bridge."

"Supplies in the hands of storekeepers are plentiful.""

The perimeter of the Defence Works is 10,200 yards (about 5-3/4 miles). On this line we have built thirty-four strong points, and linked them up with communication and support trenches where required."

"The white population consists of 1000 males and 437 women and children. The native population numbers about 4000."



The Story of the Siege Month by Month
On October 13th the garrison had their first scrap with the Boers. A native brought in a report that the Boers were on the railway, five miles south of the town. The armoured train was sent out from Mafeking, the enemy were shelled and disappeared into the thick bush and rocks.

The same day Mr. Quinlan, the station-master, reported that two trucks containing dynamite were standing in the yard. Here they were a source of danger to the town, so B.P. ordered them to be sent north at once by a special engine. Instructions were issued to the driver to push the trucks in front of him, and when he viewed a party of Boers he was to abandon the waggons and return with the engine to Mafeking. The Boers opened fire on the trucks and exploded them. This ruse fairly "put the wind up" the Boers. They thought they were attacking two more or less empty trucks. When the dynamite exploded they were terrified and were afterwards ever shy of the armoured train

On the following day the armoured train again went out to engage the Boers. The enemy replied with a 1-pounder Maxim (pom-pom). The firing was heavy for fifteen minutes and then ceased. B.P., fearing for the safety of the armoured train, sent out the reserve squadron under Captain FitzClarence to relieve the pressure on the train. Later on a message was received from the train that troops were heavily engaged seven miles out, and reinforcements were wanted. B.P. despatched a 7-pounder and one troop under Colonel Hore to cover the retirement. When Colonel Hore arrived on the scene of action he sent back to say that the 7-pounder in action was running short of ammunition, and that FitzClarence was hard pressed but retiring steadily.

The action ceased at 10:30 a.m. Casualties in the garrison were two men killed, one cyclist despatch rider missing, two officers and thirteen men wounded, including Lord Charles Bentinck. Four horses were killed and twelve wounded. This was Mafeking's first casualty list.

The same day a report was received in Mafeking from the police at Maribogo to say that the second armoured train which had been promised to B.P., and which had been delayed at Vryburg, had been captured by the Boers at Kraipan. The engine had been hit with a shell, a 12-pounder, which burst the boiler.

A letter came in from Cronje, the Boer General, saying that he had nine wounded Britishers in hospital including Lieut. Nesbitt, shot through the jaw and twenty-two prisoners, all from the armoured train.

On the following day, B.P. reviewed the fighting of the 14th and has recorded:

"The men behaved exceedingly well and worked exactly as we have practiced except that they forgot the principle which I had laid down in standing orders, bluff the enemy with show of force as much as you like, but don't let yourself get too far out of touch without orders lest you draw others on into difficulties in their efforts to support you."

The same evening B.P. went round all the defences and warned the people to expect bombardment.

On 16th October the first shrapnel shell was fired into the town. From that time on, during the whole seven months of the siege, Mafeking was bombarded daily, with the exception of Sundays, which was recognised as a "dies non" by both sides.

That same afternoon at 2.15 a flag of truce came in from the Boers to ask if we would surrender to avoid further bloodshed. To this demand, B.P. sent back the simple answer—"Why ?"

On October 17th B.P. records:

"Our water supply has of course been cut off, but for some time this will not affect us. as all inhabitants have been warned for some days previously to fill up all cisterns and the railway staff to fill up their tanks, trucks, tenders, etc."

"[By the time this was exhausted a home-made water supply was available, made by digging two big wells near the Molopo stream."

"From these wells water-carts were filled up every night and then posted for the day at convenient points about the town for the use of the inhabitants.]"

"In the second round of their firing to-day the Boers were ranging and firing on a sham fort I had rigged up outside our lines of defence with a conspicuous flagstaff and flag on it ! Ordered another sham fort with dummy gun, flagstaff, etc., to be made 200 yards from Cannon Koppie for exclusive use of enemy."

News had come through that Cronje had got a wholesome respect for Mafeking already, and that he was not prepared to fight truck loads of dynamite and field mines.

October 20th. B.P. received a letter from Cronje informing him that, as he was unable to take Mafeking without bombardment, he would begin to shell the town on Monday at 6 a.m.

October 21st. B.P. sent a reply to Cronje's letter saying that he regretted that Cronje could not take Mafeking without bombarding them—but that he was quite at liberty to try that way.

He asked Cronje, however, to respect the Red Cross flags, of which there were three, one over the convent, one over the hospital and one over the women's laager.

23rd October. The enemy began shelling the town. Shells were chiefly directed at the Protectorate Regiment's camp, where the wise commander had purposely left all his tents standing to draw the fire, the men being stationed in the trenches and dug-outs. All their horses were in the river bed and other sheltered spots.

31st October. B.P. found a treasure in the shape of an old 16-pounder in the possession of Mr. Rowlands. Instructions were given for this "antique" to be got into working order, and for shot to be moulded for it. On this day two good officers were killed, Captain Hon. Douglas H. Marsham and Captain C. A. K. Pechell.

The artillery was now reorganised under Major Panzera.

At the end of the month, B.P. reported that the enemy shelling had done little damage to the town, and that casualties so far had been small, but that the perpetual hum of the Mauser rifle bullet was getting on people's nerves.

November opened with the usual bombardment, and an attack on Cannon Koppie.

B.P. devoted most of his time to improving and extending his system of defence. In his staff diary of 1st November is an excellent sketch-map of the fortifications.

The last attack on Cannon Koppie was a determined effort on the part of the Boers to enter the Mafeking defences.

The shelling of the town was now becoming more intense and the buildings were suffering, but, owing to the fact that most of the houses were built of wood, tin or wattle, the shells did not do the amount of damage which might have been expected, as they went clean through them instead of blowing them to bits as in the case of more solid brick or stone buildings.

On 4th November the town was shelled from 5.30 to 6 a.m., from 9 till 11, and from 2.30 to 5 p.m. The garrison suffered only seven casualties, thanks to the system of dug-outs which had been completed.

On November 10th B.P. reported that the town was bombarded from a new work the Boers had made at Game Tree, but that most of the shells fell on the dummy fort.

Sunday, November 12th was as usual a day of rest. Cricket matches were held and the band of the Volunteers played at the hospital and women's laager.

At this period the Eastern Defences were completed and connected up by covered ways. Cannon Koppie was complete with a bomb-proof dug-out.

On 14th November, B.P. took a census. This showed: Whites—men 1074, women 229, children 405. Natives, 7500 all told. Supplies: meat, alive and tinned, 180,000 lbs.; meal and flour, 188,000 lbs.; corn and mealies, 109,100 lbs.

White rations required daily were 1340, native ditto 7000; thus there were 134 days' rations for whites, and 15 days' rations for natives.

The next day "Gretje" (a nickname given by the garrison to the Boers' biggest gun) fired her three hundredth shell into the town.

In the diary for the 17th, B.P. entered:

"The monotony and strain of trench work and continual call to arms is beginning to tell on men and officers. In the evening sent despatch runner to Kimberley with letter to Mr. Rhodes and Chief Staff Officer informing them of our situation."

On November 18th the enemy became more aggressive. They advanced their main battery at the southeastern heights about 300 yards, and on the north-west front they pushed their outposts towards the cemetery. These moves were counteracted by the garrison by extending their saps towards the enemy's new works.

On 21st November the town was steadily bombarded from 5 a.m. till sundown. A good deal of damage was done to the defence works.

An advanced work in front of the cemetery was finished, another dummy fort was completed and the parapet on Cannon Koppie was strengthened. The enemy had a scare in their trenches and were firing wildly all night. They vacated and dismantled their advanced work near the rifle butts.

The damages to buildings by shell fire up to date amounted to 4689.

It was estimated that the stock of native food would last until December 15th The food for whites was estimated to last three months.

December started quietly. On the 3rd a letter was received from Lady Sarah Wilson, saying that she had arrived in Sneyman's laager opposite Mafeking, but that he would not allow her to pass into Mafeking unless Viljoen, a Boer, was released from prison in Mafeking, where he had been confined on a charge of theft.

On December 7th, Lady Sarah Wilson was handed over by the Boers in exchange for Viljoen. (This was not the Viljoen who afterwards became the noted Boer general.)

Sunday, December 10th Sports were held for the townspeople and the garrison, but the band was no longer able to play—a shell having destroyed a number of its instruments.

December 18th The casualties to date were: killed 23, wounded 53, missing 49, total 125. In addition, 163 natives had been killed and wounded. The total casualties to horses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys amounted to 859. There had been seventeen deaths from natural causes among the non-combatants.

Christmas Day, 25th December, 1899. By tacit consent of both parties no shots were fired, and both sides kept Christmas Day as a holiday.

December 26th. B.P. came to the conclusion that the time had come for the garrison to be a little more offensive. He therefore gave orders for an attack to be made on Game Tree Hill. The right wing of the attack was under the command of Major Godley, the left wing under Colonel Hore. Some 300 men with guns, Maxims and the armoured train were employed in the attack. At 2 a.m. the force paraded, and shortly after dawn the British guns opened fire. The advance was effected with the greatest gallantry, and the whole movement was carried out without a fault. The Boer fort was reached. This was found to be a sunk work with a double tier of loopholes and roofed in. The only entrance was blocked with sandbags. Here the attackers lost heavily. Captain Vernon, Captain Sandford and Lieut. Paton were shot dead whilst firing their revolvers into the loopholes. Having heavily punished the Boers, the force retired with a loss of twenty-four killed and twenty-three wounded.

These serious casualties and increased sickness in the town, due to scanty rations, necessitated the reorganisation of the ambulance services. Three hospitals were established, a general hospital, a convalescent hospital and a hospital for women and children. The doctors in charge were Dr. W. Hayes, Surgeon-Captain Holmden, with Lady Sarah Wilson as matron, and Dr. T. Hayes.

On December 30th the difficulty of small change had become acute, and it was impossible to sell less than sixpenny worth of meal because there was no smaller coin. B.P. therefore issued special paper notes.

January passed quietly. But in February, life in the besieged town became more strenuous. On 1st February, "Gretje" fired her nine-hundredth shell. During this month another count was taken of all provisions. Calculations were made as to how long they would last. Also there was only sufficient forage for fifteen days, and 356 shells left for the artillery. In the shape of flour, meal, etc., there was sufficient to last the garrison for 105 days, though this only allowed half a pound per head per day. But supplies for the natives were running short. Horse-soup kitchens had to be established.

On the 13th, Captain Girdwood died of wounds. He was a heavy loss, as he had been the right-hand man to Captain Ryan in the commissariat department.

Towards the end of the month the garrison pushed their defence works still nearer to the enemy, with the idea of eventually undermining them

On February 19th the first member of the garrison (a native) died of starvation.

On February 23rd, B.P. reports:

"Our soup kitchen in town is working most successfully. To-day's work with it goes as follows: Half a horse 250 lbs.; mealie meal, 15 lbs.; oat husks, 47 lbs. This made 132 gallons. The soup was of the consistency of porridge. Fifty pounds of above will feed 100 natives."

"Another case of starvation occurred to-day, making the third that has come to notice."

26th February.

"The home-made 6-in. Howitzer was completed and taken out to fire, but the charge strained the junction of breech and barrel. Another day's work will make it serviceable."

"Three new soup kitchens have started."

February 28th.

"Runners entered the town from Colonel Plumer with despatches. From these it was learned that Kimberley had been relieved by General French on February 9th. This good news put fresh courage into the garrison."

Despatch runners were natives who managed to creep in and out at night through the enemy's outposts with letters. They carried these rolled up in little balls covered with lead paper used for packing tea.

These balls were strung together with string and hung down the runner's neck. If he was in danger of being captured by the enemy he dropped his necklace on the ground, where it looked much like the stones, and he had nothing on him to incriminate him. Letters and despatches were all written in a most cheerful strain so that if they fell into the hands of the enemy they would give them a false impression and no inkling of the strain which the garrison was suffering. The runners were paid fifteen pounds every time they got through successfully. But a good many of them were caught and shot by the Boers, so they well deserved their pay.

March. During the first week of March a new estimate of available food was made. The following scale of rations was decided on: 1/2 lb. meat, 4 oz. meal, ~ oz. of rice or vegetable. Tea, coffee, sugar.

On March 16th the defenders introduced an improved "loophole" for their front-line trenches. The "loopholes" consisted of steel plates, the opening for the muzzle of the rifle being three inches square. These steel plates were camouflaged and surrounded by sandbags. The Colonial Corps sharp-shooters reported them as excellent. They put a man in each loophole. Four of them started singing to a concertina. The Boers, wondering what all this meant, began to look through their own loopholes. One bold man looked over the parapet. The sharp-shooters killed him.

At this time B.P. was informed that he must be prepared to hold out until the middle of May. This news was, of course, a great blow to all concerned, as everyone had fervently hoped that they would be relieved long before this.

Shortages now became most apparent. Bank-notes and postage stamps, and coins for currency, had all disappeared, but B.P. was equal to the occasion. He himself drew a design for 1, 10S., 3s., and 1S. banknotes for immediate issue. He also arranged for local postage both for town and Buluwayo.

For March 22nd, B.P. made the following entry in his staff diary:

"Propose to issue 1d. stamps for the town, 3d. stamps for forts, 1S. stamps for up and down the country, buying Government stamps and making a surcharge on them."

The proceeds were to go towards paying runners, the expense of whom mounted up to nearly 4. These runners were freely used by public and press, the letters being carried free of charge.

The specially designed Mafeking Siege Stamps which appeared later were prepared and issued without B.P.'s knowledge.

As these stamps were the cause of some discussion and false rumours at the time and afterwards, I draw your special attention to the above statement and to my authority in making it which is as follows:

General Sir Alexander Godley, K.C.B., K.C.M.G., who commanded the Western Defences of Mafeking throughout the siege, and of whom B.P. said in his despatch that he was his right-hand man during the siege, has given me the following information, which I quote in his own words:

"I HAD FREQUENTLY to go in from my outpost headquarters west of the town to see Colonel Lord Edward Cecil (General Baden-Powell's Chief Staff Officer), and upon one occasion when I did so I found the Postmaster with him, and they told me that they were going to surcharge the ordinary Government stamps with ' Mafeking Besieged.' As we all were always trying to think of anything that could be done to create interest or amuse or keep up the spirits of the garrison, I of course said at once that I thought this was an excellent idea, and one of us— I cannot in the least remember who—suggested that we should have a special stamp of our own, which we all again agreed would be a good idea. This led to a discussion as to what it should be like or what should be on it, and one of us three—I could not say which—said (more in joke than anything else, and solely with the idea in our mind of doing something that would amuse the garrison)—' Oh, B.P.'s head of course ! ' and my recollection is that Lord Edward and the Postmaster then arranged to have this done entirely as what would now be called a ' stunt ' and as a surprise to General B.P. and certainly without con: suiting him. I am quite sure that he never was consulted on this subject, and that he was rather horrified when he found it had been done. I am afraid that none of us thought that it might in any way be misinterpreted or even that these special stamps would get abroad, as they were to be issued purely for use IN the town."

On 30th March, B.P. took another census. This showed a grand total of 8974 souls in Mafeking.

During the end of March the enemy were fairly quiet, in fact—thought B.P.—much too quiet. So he stirred up their big gun by occasional shots into the battery from his Hotchkiss.

The total number of casualties incurred during March was sixty-four.

During the first week of April many runners came through from Colonel Plumer's column, and on April 4th, Lieut. Smitherman arrived. He came to reconnoitre the road, and see if it would be possible to run the gauntlet with waggons containing supplies.

On 5th April, forty cattle thieves were able to escape from Mafeking with the object of getting to Colonel Plumer, and returning with cattle for Mafeking.

April, the last month of the siege, was perhaps the most strenuous of all. Bombardments were heavier, and on April 11th thirty high velocity shells were fired into the women's laager, and the hospital was

"Pompomed."

On 12th April the following message was received from Her Majesty the Queen: "I continue watching with confident admiration the patient and resolute defence which is so gallantly maintained under your ever resourceful command." Dated 1st April.

Lord Roberts also telegraphed: "Hope to relieve you by 18th May."

Gun ammunition was almost exhausted, only sixty rounds was left per gun. B.P. therefore ordered that no guns were to be fired without his orders.

By April 15th the garrison had suffered 389 casualties from shell and rifle fire.

By April 20th the supply of forage had been entirely exhausted, and the horses were only getting grazing. But as they were often driven in by the enemy's fire, they were getting into a very low condition, and objections were being raised that, owing to their poor condition, they would not be fit for sausages. B.P. ordered the experiment to be made at once. He visited the sausage factory during the night. It was in full swing on two horses, and turning out a very good looking lot of sausages. It was hoped to do this at the rate of 1000 lbs. a night, using the horses' own guts for skins.

On 21st April a conference was held with Lord Edward Cecil, Major Goold-Adams and Major Godley. All agreed that the men were much reduced in strength by the long continuance of low diet. So that not only could no reduction be made in rations, but an increase was absolutely necessary. On the other hand, if the increase was made, supplies would come to an end by the end of May.

But the garrison did not lose heart. New stunts were tried daily.

A traveller in acetylene happened to be in Mafeking when the place was cut off by the Boers, and he had a small supply of it and some jets with him.

A big tin reflecting cowl was made with triple lights inside it, and B.P. had it stuck up on a pole which could be turned by hand in any direction, and it gave a strong beam of light.

This pole was set up in one fort and shown two or three times in the night. On the following night it appeared in another fort and was then hastily transferred to another. By means of this trick the Boers were induced to think that Mafeking had a regular installation of searchlights, and it made them more than ever shy of trying a night attack.

On April 23rd a new acetylene searchlight was tried on the armoured train, 360-candle power. It was a complete success.

On April 27th, B.P. sent a telegram to Lord Roberts bringing to his notice the good spirit, zeal and pluck of the garrison, after 200 days of siege.

May. Plumer was now being strengthened with both men and guns, including the Canadian artillery, consisting of 12-pounders. Columns were also making headway from the south. The Boer investing forces were getting anxious, and it became a case of now or never. They therefore planned a grand and final attack to take Mafeking.

This attack was launched—and defeated—on May 12th, and it is graphically described in B.P.'s first letter to his mother after the relief of Mafeking, which is an historic document:

"I DON'T KNOW where to begin with a description of my joys, I am like a spring that has been bent to breaking point and has now been released. The breaking-point was on Saturday the 12th, when at 4 a.m. the enemy made their grand effort to take Mafeking. Eloff, their most determined leader, with about thirty French and Germans, headed the attack and led the Boers straight through our outer line of defences and into our very midst. But we checked them at our inner line of defence, so that they could not get into the heart of the place. We closed our outer line round them, so that when day dawned they found themselves shut in.... Only after nightfall did we finish the job; we killed and wounded 70 of them, captured Eloff and I08 Boers, and drove the remainder headlong out of the place.

"THE PRISONERS TOLD us that our relief column from the south was getting near. On the 16th we heard their guns as they fought their way towards us. We pushed out to meet them, and during the night they marched in from the westward. Next morning I took the whole force out and started attacking the Boers in their camps and trenches. They did not wait for more, but hurried off as fast as they could go to the Transvaal. Now we are resting the horses but hard at work relaying railway and telegraph, and hope within the next two days to be in communication with Buluwayo.

"AT 3.AM. ON the 17th I was awakened by Baden [his Mother recorded] at my bedside, so you may guess I was very much overjoyed.... The end of the Siege has in itself been a grand refreshment to me, it was a long strain of anxiety, and I had to wear a mask of cheerful nonchalance all the time."

SOURCE:
Eileen K. Wade, The Piper of Pax: The Life Story of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, 1924. Chapter XI: The South African War.

 

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Further Reading

Baillie, F.D. Mafeking: A Diary of the Siege. Westminister: Constable, 1900. DT934M2B34.

Comaroff, John. L. [ed]. The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje: an African at Mafeking. London: Cardinal, 1973.

Cowen, V. 'Diary of the Siege of Mafeking'. Unpublished MS.

Gardiner, Brian. Mafeking: a Victorian Legend. NY: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1967. DT934M2G32.

Grinnell-Milne, D. Baden-Powell at Mafeking. London: Bodley Head, 1957.

Hamilton, J.A. The Siege of Mafeking. London: Methuen, 1900. DT934H35.

Stanislaus, Mother M. 'Diary of the Siege of Mafeking'. Unpublished MS.

Young, F. The Relief of Mafeking. London: Methuen, 1900.