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Stevens: Chapter XXIII - The siege of Mafeking

THIS was the longest siege of any, and the story, which shows the pluck and resource of the garrison and inhabitants, is full of deeply interesting incidents.

Mafeking is a smart little town on the Bechuanaland railway, about eight miles from the Transvaal border, and 237 miles north of Kimberley. It has hotels, churches, and a race-course, and is 4,194 feet above the sea level. At the outbreak of the war it had no fortification.

Colonel R. S. S. Baden-Powell, its defender, has achieved fame for his stout and cheery resistance and his versatility. Women and children were sent southward and those who remained went into laager to the west of the town. Several houses were turned into hospitals, and the sisters of the Roman Catholic convent and other ladies, volunteered to care for the sick and wounded. The camp was defended by earthworks and mines, guns were well placed, (one, a 16-pounder ship cannon, that had been used as a post for 20 years), and at night the searchlight flashed in all directions for scouts. Every man in the place almost became a volunteer, even the lads assisting the garrison of 800 regulars. From the commanding site long tracts of the brown veldt could be scanned, and the wily patrols of the commandoes could be watched at several miles' distance.

The watchers had not long to wait for the enemy. On Oct. 12th Boers crossed the border at Maribogo, 40 miles to the south, cut the telegraph wires, and advanced to Kraaipan, a few miles northward, tearing up two miles of the railway. Refugees (women and children) for Capetown, piloted by an armoured train, had just got through. In returning Capt. Nesbitt, in command of fifteen men, was warned by the police at Maribogo, but he determined to make a dash for it. The train was fired upon where the rails had been removed in the night-time. It was first blown up and the fifteen men thrown out; then the Boers volleyed into them with 9-pounders and rifles. Being overpowered, the squad gave in at five in the morning, Flowerday, the driver, escaped into a sluit alongside the line and crawled on his stomach for a mile and a half. Two trucks of dynamite, stored at the station, were drawn out to a siding some distance from the town, when, seeing the Boers approaching, the driver of the engine left the trucks and put on steam to run home. The enemy fired into the trucks, and the explosion was such that the engine, now a mile and a half away, was almost lifted from the metals.

Fighting began on the 14th, when Captain Lord Chas. Bentinck and his patrol engaged the enemy to the north of the town. The Boers fired on the ambulance sent to recover two bodies, and yet the same afternoon Cronje forwarded a letter suggesting that civilized warfare should be shown with regard to wounded men.

Sundays were sacred by agreement; the rest of the week the watchmen had to be on the qui vive, and when it was seen that a gun was to be fired by the enemy the bell of the Roman Catholic Church twanged, and everybody sought shelter. The aim of the attackers was not always the forts or the camp, but the hospitals, where the Red Cross flag fluttered, came in for shells as well as private dwellings, so that many, like Lady Sarah Wilson, lived in a bomb-proof cavern under the ground. Her ladyship, in a graphic letter says—after describing the daily routine:—

" Civilians and innocent individuals are struck down and terribly mutilated, suddenly and almost without warning. I say almost, for when the big gun is loaded the look-out at head-quarters, from whence all her movements can be accurately watched, gives the alarm by sounding a deep-toned bell, and when the gunners go to fire her this is supplemented by the shrill tinkle of a smaller bell—not much louder than our ordinary muffin bell—but which can be distinctly heard in this clear atmosphere. After this second warning about three seconds elapse before the explosion.

"Apropos of this wise measure, which has been the means of saving many lives, the town dogs have by now fully grasped its meaning, and whenever the bell rings begin to bark loudly in all quarters; so that if by chance one fails to hear the hasty shrill voice of our trusty little friend, the dogs' voices in unison cannot fail to warn one to take shelter.

" The dogs, indeed, play a great part in this siege—one belonging to the base commandant has been wounded no less than three times; another, a rough Irish terrier, has accompanied the Protectorate Regiment in all its engagements; a third amuses itself by running after the small Maxim shells, barking loudly and trying hard to retrieve pieces; while the Resident Commissioner's dog is a prudent animal, and whenever she hears the alarm bell tears into the bomb-proof attached to her master's redoubt, and remains there till the explosion is over.

" What are even more to be feared than the monster gun's projectiles are the shells from the high-velocity Krupp gun, for which no warning can be given, as the flash and explosion are practically simultaneous, and the poisonous little I-pounder Maxim shells, which seem to come everywhere, are generally fired in threes or in fours. As the latter whistle overhead the sound resembles that of a very long cattle whip sharply cutting the air, cracked and manipulated by a master hand; very different is the sickening whirr of a big shell, followed by the dull thud and crash denoting where it has dealt death and destruction. At least 700 of the 94-pounder shells have been fired into this undaunted little town, and it is computed in all certainly 5,000 missiles of different kinds of destructive power from the Boer artillery have found their billets here (by the end of March). There is something very cowardly in the fairly regular evening shell from the big gun, which is usually loaded and aimed at sundown and fired off between 8 and 9 p.m., or even later, over a partially sleeping town, very early hours being kept here, when the Boers must know men and women may be killed indiscriminately. For this last shot wearied women and children generally wait before leaving their shelters and seeking their beds in their various houses; but sometimes, as a refinement of cruelty, it is not fired at all, and these evenings the poor things creep to bed at last with many forebodings."

About the 22nd of Oct. Cronje wrote to Powell, confessing his inability to take the town by storm, but warning him that he was expecting a siege gun for Tuesday, so he might get ready 1 In reply to this courteous consideration Powell informed his combatant that the place was surrounded by mines, which could be easily exploded from headquarters or automatically, and as the goal was chiefly tenanted by Dutchmen, he hoped Cronje would respect the orange flag floating over it. Amongst other correspondence was a request that Powell should surrender and save further trouble; to which Powell answered that he would let his " friend the enemy" know when he had had enough fighting. On another occasion, Powell issued a proclamation to the district explaining the nature of the difference between the Queen and the Republics and asking for loyalty. Cronje wrote the Baralong chief, Wessels Montsio, that as he was going to shell that place, he had better get rid of the women and children, but after consulting with Mr. G. C. Hebell, the magistrate, the chief sent word back, that he had no quarrel with the Boers and was loyal to the Queen—that the women and children were safe in his kraal and he hoped the Dutchmen would not interfere with him.

On the 24th, a huge .100-pounder fell shrieking into Mafeking market square, by which the besieged knew that the big tormentor had come; besides which there were 12-pounders, Maxims, Nordenfeldts, Hotchkisses, and Krupps. Sometimes the besiegers bombarded in earnest; at other times they seemed to be quite indifferent.

The outposts were at first so near that on the " day of rest" British and Boer conversed in a friendly way. It was a day when the garrison indulged in baths, shaves, clean shirts, polished boots, and went to church if so disposed. The respite was much prized.

On the 31st, the Police under Col. Watford held an unprotected fort against an advance of the enemy, who were driven back. We lost eight men killed at Cannon Kopje. On Nov. 3rd, a brickfield was captured by us and the Boer sharpshooters were driven off. The victories in Natal were celebrated on Guy Fawkes Day by a display of fireworks. On the 7th, a sortie and retreat drew the enemy within range of our rifles' in the trenches, and the burghers suffered for their blunder in killed and wounded.

In this way the siege had its variety. Church bells on Sunday, with a band playing in the square, amateur photographers taking snapshots, and Divine service. Then on week days, booming shells now and again, keeping every one above ground in jeopardy. 300 shells fell in 36 hours on the 24th and 25th of October. Sometimes Mauser bullets whistled through the street as customers went shopping, or as you sat down to dinner, a shell six inches in diameter and 23 in length, might crush into your home.

Among the pastimes was the publication daily of " The Mafeking Mail"—a special siege slip; the terms for it were 1/- per week, "payable in advance." It contained " General Orders by Col. R. S. S. Baden-Powell, Commanding Frontier Force," and in one number we see the garrison was allowed the use of paper money for lack of coin.

It was noticed that when, after the 24th of November, Cronje moved to another scene of operations, his successor, Commander Snyman, shifted some of the guns, and a shell entered Riesle's Hotel, knocking over some war correspondents playing billiards. On the 2nd of December a Mauser bullet struck Mr. Warnes, chemist, in his dispensary, wounding him in the shoulder.

Pushing our trenches forward by counter-sapping, our sharpshooters on the east side of the town got within range of the big gun and could punish its crew. Eventually the earth-redoubts extended for seven miles round the town and thus afforded greater protection.

The enemy's scouts at one time got so close that a stone-throwing contest took place, and one Sunday a Tommy Atkins playing a concertina as a lure, and on the Sabbath! a music-loving Boer put his head out of his trench, and whiz! a shot goes through his brain, or rather a part of his skull is blown away.

On another Sunday, our men, sitting upon the parapets, held a friendly conversation with a detachment of the enemy, and an enterprising photographer endeavoured to get them into line while he photographed them, but they were evidently suspicious and feared that the temptation to turn a Maxim upon them instead of the camera would prove too great.

On March 10th, we were informed—" Since the Boers moved their siege gun, ' Big Ben,' back to its old position on the east side of the town, only about three shots have been fired from it, making 1,180 shells fired by this gun alone, and the total weight of metal thrown sixty tons."

This weapon was the scourge of the place, and many instances of its mischief are recorded, such as that when a native was struck and fell headlong down the steps leading to Mr. Welsh's underground offices. The steps were drenched with blood. The poor man had a leg* ripped open and smashed from the groin to the knee. He died in the hospital next day.

Tropical thunderstorms, with heavy showers, intensified the horrors, when the gunners and riflemen were flooded out of their trenches and the bomb-proof shelters and the women's laager became untenable.

Christmas was kept as cheerily as was possible under such circumstances, and the officers drank the toast, in champagne—" Peace on earth to men and good will in Mafeking!"—which seems odd in a condition of war. In the afternoon a committee headed by Lady Sarah Wilson provided a Christmas Tree for the children, to enjoy which they had to leave their dark holes and the women's compound. The Boers, being Christians, also observed the day in meditation on the " herald angels" and the birth of the Prince of Peace!

As if to compensate for the day's inactivity there was on the morrow a stiff fight at Game Tree Fort, which we found impregnable—the entrance to it only admitted one person at a time—and we beat a retreat with the loss of 21 killed and 33 wounded.

Among the dead were Captains Vernon and Sandford and Lieut. Paton. New Year's day was not a holiday. The Boers cruelly shelled the women's enclosure, killing a little girl and wounding two other children. In January the convent was once more shelled despite its flag, and Lady Wilson was wounded. As the shelling of the women's quarters continued, "and Commandant Snyman took no notice of protests, Powell let him know that some Boer prisoners would be placed there, and that of the 400 females in the laager half were Dutch. Spies have been the pests of the British officers everywhere, and on one occasion when these Dutch women arranged to sleep elsewhere there came a storm of shells among the British women left behind, at which their Holland sisters clapped their hands and laughed with delight, it is said.

After three months the food supplies became a serious question, and there was issued an order that whatever horses were shot were to be handed over to the commissariat for "beef" and soup—though mules were •preferred as nearer Bovine flavour. Four biscuits and a piece of horseflesh became a soldier's day's rations, and the poor people had to be fed by a relief committee. Disease and privation began to fill the graveyard near the women's refuge and there was much weeping and sorrow. The sufferers wanted to know why no relief column came to their rescue. All they heard was that Colonel Plumer, with a little column of irregulars (under 1,000) from Tuli, in Rhodesia, 400 miles away, was slowly approaching, and after months of marching and hindrances many, they heard in March that he was actually at Lobatsi, only 40 miles away; then on the 31st that he was within six miles, having just lost seven officers and men.

There was no help from the nearest places, Vryburg, the capital of Bechuanaland, 96 miles southward, offered no resistance to the invaders. Seeing that neither the Police nor the volunteers were prepared to stand a siege, Major Scott, the British commandant there, shot himself. But at Kuruman, 80 miles west of the Cape railway, Mr. Hilliard, the magistrate, barricading the historic mission chapel, held it with a handful of men for two months till he was overpowered, and had to surrender, with 112 men, who were removed as prisoners.

By the end of March the bread was both darker and scarcer, yet there was soup for everybody who needed it; and to entertain the inhabitants there was an exhibition of paintings, sketches, photographs, musical, poetical and prose compositions, &c, done during the siege. The same day there was a meeting of the Town Council and Chamber of Commerce for the consideration of applications for compensation by the inhabitants for losses incurred through the siege. The estimated damage to houses was £100,000, and other losses £100,000, while the compensation claimed by the municipality was £50,000. Scarcely a house had escaped damage, a few were entirely destroyed, 'and yet the loss of life had been small, considering that some 1,400 94-pound shells and several thousand smaller projectiles had burst in the streets, sending lethal particles over an area of 400 yards.

In a letter to Colonel Powell, the petitioners pointed out these results of the siege which had lasted (to March 27) for 166 days, during which the male inhabitants had borne arms for the defence of the town. The fact was stated that in many cases they had become destitute, and wanted to be assured of compensation in order by some means to recommence business when relief came. In forwarding this document to the Commander-in-Chief, the Colonel gave a full recommendation for its favourable consideration.

Jan Cronje, son of the St. Helena prisoner, was now in command of the besiegers, and hearing of the approach of the relief columns from the north and south he withdrew his forces beyond rifle fire of the British, who mounted a gun on a trench evacuated.'

Colonel Plumer, arriving with 270 mounted Infantry and a Maxim at Ramathlabama, advanced to within sight of Mafeking and had an hour's fight with the Boers, but had to fall back on his base with three officers and seven men killed, three officers and 24 men wounded and eleven missing, in addition to which a number of horses were killed and wounded. The Colonel was slightly injured. One of his Lieutenants (an accomplished scout) managed to enter the town with a message —the first white visitor for six months.

By the end of April Lady S. Wilson's letters to the press became more pathetic. The signs of semi-starvation increased — those originally fat became lean and gaunt, faces were white and bony. Oat bran porridge produced sickness.

But there was no yielding. The bullets and shells of the enemy were collected and re-cast as shots, and even a new cannon was attempted. On one occasion a number of hungry Fingoes, intent on raiding the Boers' cattle, were led by two Baralongs into a trap and all but one were killed.

The want of discipline in the ranks of Boer volunteers was manifested nearly every day by the wilful destruction of property and life which could not affect the purpose of the investment.

Thus parties of native women and children were allowed by patrols to creep through the Boer lines in order to return to their homes, some of these fine sentries receiving bribes as low as eighteenpence; then on April 9th, when thirteen black women went out, instead of being challenged, the " pious" Dutchmen fired upon them at fifty paces, killing ten and wounding two others. The massacre was reported to Snyman.

In April some of the natives and whites were glad to eat locusts, which come in swarms like bees and settle on the vegetation. All food in the town was now commandeered, and nothing sold over the counter. Happily the wholesale houses had got in large stocks in preparation for the siege. Mr. Ben Weil, up to April 20, had supplied the town and authorities with 409 tons of food stuffs, (2,000 lb. to a ton); raw produce (meal, flour, grain, and fodder, 1,225 tons); spirits, wines, and beer, 17,302 gallons—altogether 1,728 tons of goods. As for fresh meat, the natives occasionally raided the Boer cattle and thus helped the supply. Whisky was 8/- a case, and 1/6 a tot; a glass of beer 2/-, a small bottle of stout 5/-, and gin 12/- a bottle.

On the 21st of April a case of whisky was raffled for and fetched £108, and a fowl fetched 30/-. A pound of flour, sold by auction, realised two guineas, which was given to the nursing sisters.

There were at this time 1,900 persons on the daily rations list, and every one was eating horse flesh.

The bombardment became very uncertain, and when the Commandant was away brandy-drinking Boers spent a good part of the day in sleep. The monster gun had sent 1,300 shells, and when these 100-pounders did not burst they were sold for as much as £6. Three men, who did not understand them, were blown to pieces in trying to unload these awful bombs, and others were killed and wounded.

During the day-time the town had a deserted appearance. It was between sunset and moonrise that women ventured from the warrens and scurried to the shops— that men drove through the dusty streets the mules and goats from the veldt for the watering. Even as you sought the shelter of your home for sleep, that refinement of Boer cruelty, the night gun, might make you jump.

Snyman made an abortive attack on the south-western outposts on May ist, and shelled Mackenzie Fort for two hours, to no purpose; but on Saturday morning, the 12th, a remarkable thing happened—the besiegers got into the town; it was the final desperate attempt, and it failed. No doubt it was caused by the news of the approach of the relief column.

It was 4 a.m., and a fine, starlit, though moonless morning, when the town was aroused by an unusual fusilade on the east side—a feint. The garrison bugle and the church bell summoned the Town Guard to the redoubts, and the fight began.

Led by two rebel deserters some 300 men had, under cover of the darkness, crept along the Molopo river, and rushing the piquets, had entered the Baralong stadt or location, and at 5-30 there arose a lurid glare, which speedily increased. They burnt the native kraals, a mile in length. On they came, and our men did not fire. We had learnt a lesson from them in trapping. Some of them, shouted, " Come out, you skulkers; we are going to take Mafeking," when a comrade, spying danger, called out, " Run, run, here are the rooineks," at which the braggarts tried to retreat, but were cut off by the fire from the forts on either side. The Dutch pressed 150 foreigners into the laager, some were penned up in a stone kraal, and another lot hid in a hollow behind a kopje, while a braver party rushed the camp close to the railway in the town, and seized the old fort held by 15 men of the Protectorate Regiment, who mistaking the Boers for Britons did not fire. Then the excited invaders raised a cheer and even telephoned to B.P.'s head-quarters—"I am a Boer; we have taken Mafeking!" " Have you indeed!" was the laconic reply, and the wire was disconnected. Each of the attackers had three bandoliers (equal to 300 rounds of ammunition), and food and water for three days.

B.P. gave them the option of surrendering, which they declined, so the fight went on all day.' Major Godley took 25 prisoners in the stadt, and another party were allowed to escape. Those who were surrounded in the fort tried to make off, but most of them were captured, including Commandant Sarel Eloff, Kruger's grandson, Baron de Bremont, Captain Vom Weiss, and several field cornets— in all ten officers; seventeen out of the no prisoners were Frenchmen, and several were Germans. Ten of the enemy were left killed and nineteen wounded, others were dragged away at nightfall. We lost four killed and six wounded. The town was wild with delight at the victory. Eloff dined with Powell, who was now promoted to the rank of Major-General.

Appended is a summary of the casualties in Mafeking since October 12, when the siege commenced, to the end of February, 1900, as officially given by Mr. Ronald Moncrieff, extra A.D.C.:—

Combatants.

Officers     Men     Total

Killed and died of wounds    6........... 53...... 59
Wounded                            11......... 90...... 101
Missing                               1.......... 36...... 37
Died of sickness                   0.......... 8....... 8

Totals ..........................18 ........ 187..... 205

Civilians, non-combatants, and natives.

Men     Women         Natives     Total
and children

Killed                                 2....... 4............. 34......... 40
Wounded                            6....... 3............. 95......... 104

Totals                                 8....... 7............. 129........ 144

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