The Camp, Mafeking,
October 22nd, 1899.
There was some sign that the engagement of Saturday between the Protectorate troops and the Boer forces investing Mafeking would have been the precursor of a series of minor fights, which, if not of much importance in themselves, yet would have been of interest and encouraging to the command generally.
As it happens, however, the engagement of Saturday is the first, and, up to the present, the only action of any importance, of any interest whatsoever, that has been brought about between the two forces. General Cronje is evidently a man of some humanity, though it is perhaps possible that the motives which direct his present policy of exceeding gentleness towards the "Rooineken" that he be besieging in Mafeking, aims at procuring for himself, when the inevitable does come, terms perhaps not quite so extreme as would have been the case had the Boer commandant not conducted his operations in accordance with the articles of war.
During the progress of the Sunday following the engagement at Five Mile Bank, Commandant Cronje made a curiously sincere, but not altogether unhumorous demand for our unconditional surrender. Colonel Baden-Powell very properly felt he was unable to comply with any such demand, and with the exchange of notes of a courteous character this incident closed.
During Sunday the town put the finishing touches to the earthworks, lunettes, and to the gun emplacements, which will form a more or less complete chain of fortifications around the town. So much as possible, and so far as it lay within the knowledge and experience of the Base Commandant, Colonel Vyvyen, and Major Panzera, each distinct earthwork was made shell-proof.
From the outside the town looks as if a series of gigantic mounds had been suddenly created. At different points tiers of sandbags, several feet high, protect the more exposed places, and to these again has been added, as an exterior facing, banks of earth. Within such a position as I am now describing there is a deep trench, which is of that depth which enables a man standing upright to fire through loopholes between sacks of sand. Behind the trench is a low shelter of deals with an upper covering of sandbags, intending to serve the garrison of the fort as protection against shell fire.
To those points which are exposed to the more direct attack of the enemy, a Maxim has been detached or a seven-pounder emplaced. The Town Guard man these positions: the work of patrolling, of forming Cossack posts, of maintaining the outer lines of sentries, being undertaken by the Protectorate troops and the Bechuanaland Rifles.
An elaborate system of signals has been arranged. A red flag will fly from Headquarters should the Boers be coming on, and an alarm will be rung in the centre of the town. The streets have been barricaded with carts, and all open places protected by traverses of a useful character. Mines have been placed within and without the town, and an improvised field telegraph or the telephone has been connected with every point which lies beyond the immediate precincts of the defences. Every possible precaution that human ingenuity can devise and the resources of the town supply for the protection of the place, is in order.
Thus did Mafeking prepare for the Boer bombardment, and upon the Monday following this took place; but it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that nothing so ludicrous in the history of modern warfare has been propagated as the gigantic joke which Commandant Snyman, who directed the fire of the artillery, played off against us that day. For many weeks we, along this frontier, had heard what the Boers proposed to do once war should be declared. These forecasts had indeed been sanguinary; the heads of the English people, had we believed in these rumours, were to lie upon the veldt like the sand upon the sea shore.
The bombardment as such was totally ineffective, and so curiously amateur, so wholly experimental, as to move one to astonishment rather than derision. It began at 9.15 a.m., and the first shell fell blind. The second and the third also pitched short, but once the bombardment had been initiated, the feelings of those who had dreaded such an event, more on account of their women and children than on account of themselves, were unperturbed. When the shells began to fall into the town it was found that they were of such poor quality as to be incapable of any explosive force whatever. Judging from their effect the area of damage was not three square feet.
Shortly after the first few shells had been dropped the Boers found the range, and from Signal Hill, their position to the east of the town, threw several shells at the hospital and monastery. Strange as it may seem our most grievous cause of complaint against the Boer plan of war is that they do not respect sufficiently our Red Cross flag. Commandant Snyman had given us no time in which to remove our women and children, and, as a consequence, we established somewhat hurriedly a laager, in which they were confined and which it was hoped would be beyond the fire of the Boer, since we afforded it the protection of the Red Cross flag. This, so far as the laager was concerned, luckily proved to be the case, since on the occasion that Commandant Cronje sent in to apologise for the firing upon the Red Cross by his younger roughs during the Five Mile Bank fight, Colonel Baden-Powell took the opportunity of pointing out to him the precise significance of this flag, and the exact whereabouts of the buildings which enjoined its protection. In the absence of direct evidence of the enemy's intention upon this day, in the repugnance with which one would charge them with wilful abuse of the Red Cross, it is good to believe that Colonel Baden-Powell's letter was not communicated to Commandant Snyman previous to this action, for from the moment that this officer opened the bombardment until his artillery ceased fire for the day, each individual missile was thrown directly across the hospital and monastery. It was unfortunate that these buildings should have been in the line of fire, and it was a fact greatly to be deplored that the hospital should be filled, at such a moment, with women and wounded, the former magnanimously devoting themselves to the work of looking after those who had been disabled in Saturday's engagement. It was perhaps unavoidable, with such a line of fire, that the shells should not drop upon the hospital and monastery. Fearing this as we did, the garrison was filled with consternation when, so abruptly that we had scarcely realised what had been the actual object of the nameless dread by which the camp was suddenly depressed, the inevitable happened and we knew that a shell had burst within the hospital itself. Had this shell been of the quality and explosive character that we had been led to expect, one entire side of the hospital would have been reduced to ruins; as it was, however, the area of destruction most remote from the point of penetration was not three feet in circumference. A little of the masonry was destroyed, a few boards of the floor ripped up, and that was all. Dust and dirt, however, covered everything.
Two more shells penetrated the same building in the course of the attack—the one burst in the principal waiting-room, the other played havoc with the children's dormitory. Fortunately no one was injured, and it was a happy omen for future shelling that throughout the whole of the first bombardment no human life was lost in Mafeking. There were no casualties, and three buildings, the hospital, the monastery, and Riesle's Hotel, alone were struck. The dead comprised one chicken. There were many narrow escapes. My horse was fastened to the hitching-post outside Riesle's Hotel at the very moment that a shell burst against the steps of the verandah, but this animal would seem to enjoy a happy immunity from shell fire, since at the Five Mile Bank engagement there was a shell which burst within three or four feet of him.
Our guns made no return whatever to the fire of the Boers, beyond a chance shot which exploded by accident. After this very ineffective and amusing bombardment had continued for some hours the enemy ceased firing, and from their position only 2,000 yards from the town, and to which they had moved from Signal Hill, where the attack had begun, the usual messenger, half herald, half spy, was despatched to our lines. It has become quite a feature of the Boer operations against Mafeking for them to enjoy at every few hours a cessation of hostilities under a flag of truce, and, I regret to say, that these constant messages in the middle of an action, from the Boer Commandant to Colonel Baden-Powell, are sent with an ulterior motive. The Boer Commandants would appear to lack that experience of the conditions of warfare which should enable them to perceive the folly and futility—if not the guilt—of such procedure as they have been following since operations against this town began. It was, perhaps, as much through our own ignorance of the character of the enemy whom we were fighting as anything, that they secured any profitable information by these tactics, since we had expected that they would observe the unwritten regulation which restricts the progress of a flag of truce to a point half-way between the lines of the two forces. Upon no occasion at this period in the investment did the Boers recognise this custom, but securing cover where they could they crept down to our lines under protection of the white flag. By these means they secured valuable intelligence.
The Boer emissary was allowed safe conduct into our lines, and was escorted by Captain Williams, of the British South Africa Police, who was in command of the armoured train, and Lieutenant the Honourable Hanbury-Tracy of Headquarters Staff, who had been sent out to meet him. The messenger was conducted to Colonel Baden-Powell, who received through this medium a second demand for unconditional surrender. Commandant Snyman presented his compliments to Colonel Baden-Powell, and desired to know if, to save further bloodshed, we would now surrender. Colonel Baden-Powell received this message with polite astonishment, and while not telling the deputy of Commandant Snyman that his shell fire had only spilt the blood of a fowl, and knocked small pieces out of three buildings, replied, that so far as we were concerned, we had not yet begun. While the Headquarters Staff were deliberating upon the reply to such a momentous message, the messenger was regaled with beer and bread and cheese. He was escorted back at 4.45 p.m., and for the time being shell fire ceased.
On Monday the armoured train took up a position in advance of the town, and in such a manner that it was completely sheltered from the Boer position. It so happened that the Boer messenger came directly upon this train, which was patiently waiting for the enemy's line of fire to be advanced a few hundred yards further, before opening its artillery. The little ruse which we had so carefully planned was thus forestalled, and to prevent further disclosures being made the herald was therewith blindfolded. It was a strange spectacle to see this Boer being brought through our lines with a somewhat soiled handkerchief across his eyes. His flag of truce comprised three handkerchiefs tied to a bamboo, and as he came forward it waved with a motion in which fright played as great a part as dignity.
The Boer Commandant had evidently determined to shell Mafeking from three positions, but force of circumstances, and the undesirability of throwing up earthworks under the telling fire which would have been poured into him from our own trenches, prevented him bringing his heavy artillery into position. He had stormed Mafeking from Signal Hill with a twelve-pound Krupp, but when he advanced into a range of 2,000 yards he fell back upon a seven-pounder, and a nine-pound high-velocity Krupp. These guns were quite unprotected by earthworks and could be easily seen from the town. Indeed it was the possibility of their being put out of action by our guns which instigated the Commandant to secure a cessation of hostilities by despatching his messenger upon some fatuous errand to Colonel Baden-Powell while he and his entire force busied themselves in erecting breastworks about his field pieces.
The Boer emissary arrived at 2.30 p.m., and no sooner had he been received by us than the Boers began to work with pick and shovel, continuing their labours throughout the conference. By the time that their herald had returned two emplacements had been prepared and their locality partially concealed by a quantity of small bushes and scrub with which they had been covered.
It may be that Commandant Snyman was unaware of the breach of faith he was committing in working upon his trenches under a flag of truce. It is our hope that this should prove to be the case, since we would not willingly believe that the Boers be so lost to the sense of fairness which should underlie the provisions which prevail during any cessation of hostilities as to promote a condition of truce for interests of their own. But should this be, indeed, the extent of the ignorance of the Boer Commandant upon the conditions governing war, let us trust that he may soon furbish up his knowledge upon these especial points.
When the messenger returned to his lines, the Boers proceeded to advance in force upon the waterworks, and, driving in our outposts, they have since maintained a control over our water supply. The town, therefore, is wholly without water from this source, although we be not in any way frightened at the loss of the springs, since many wells have been opened out and many promising springs have been located within the radius of the town, some of which watered the troops of the Warren expedition. When we consider that to the majority this is their first experience of war, and that the length of the siege is unknown and more than likely to be protracted, it must be admitted that Mafeking is bearing itself wonderfully well. The few women and children who remained here show a dauntless front, while the men are only too anxious, and indeed too willing, to indulge in some sniping on their own account.
Nevertheless, the position of Mafeking at the present moment is one which, if giving no cause for alarm, is at least unsatisfactory. Our wires are still cut to north and south. Our line is up, and all around us the Boers are supposed to be encamped, yet as the days go on it is becoming harder and harder to realise that we are seriously engaged in war, and we are more inclined to believe in the cheery optimism of Colonel Baden-Powell. It is very like some gigantic picnic, although it may doubtless be food for disquieting reflection. Occasionally we sleep out at night, and are in the trenches all day, but upon the whole it is quite impossible to believe that we are engaged in repelling an enemy who already are investing us.
To get away from the hotels, to get more into contact with the spirit of the siege, I have been camping out for some days at the most outlying position upon the west facing of the town, but even by such means it is infinitely difficult to find much that is instinctive with active and actual campaigning. We perform the duties of a vedette, watching by day and night, sleeping at oddly-snatched moments, ever ready, and straining our vision in wild efforts to find trace of the foe. But it amounts to but little in the end.
Since Monday we have seen small detachments of the Boers daily, we have even exchanged outpost fire with them, while we have on three different occasions turned our guns upon their position at the waterworks; but these occurrences are purely incidental and not wholly relative to the main features of the situation. It has become quite necessary for us to justify our own existence, and since there be but such vague signs of war around us, this desire has become infinitely more difficult of fulfilment. As the time passes we receive messages daily from different units in the Boer commando to friends in Mafeking, which are sometimes amicable, sometimes impudent in character; but to increase the irony of our situation, if we be engaged in the press of battle at dawn, it is certain that at dusk we shall be dining with no small degree of luxury at the hotel.
At present there has been no misery, for there has been no war, and apart from the five lives that have been lost already, Mafeking to-day is as it was a month ago. It would seem as though this gigantic war, which so many people have been urging upon the Government, in relation to the operations of the enemy along this frontier may develop into a series of cattle raids by armed Boers. But if there be little in the immediate situation to alarm us, there is behind the rose and silver of the clouds a dark spot, a spot which growing bigger, ever bigger as the days go by, implies that signs of the times are not wanting to prove that our official optimism, forecasting the siege as but of three weeks' duration, is based upon anything less secure than the imaginings of a man who, knowing the hollowness of his words in his own heart, seeks but to cheer the hearts of the garrison. There was little sign of readiness in the Imperial troops, little to show that they can relieve Mafeking before the year dies out in the birth of the closing twelve months of the nineteenth century. But it were heresy to say so now. The idle singer of an empty day dares not pronounce the denunciation of his country in her hour of danger. Nevertheless, if Mafeking be not relieved before the Christmas season, the hour of our existence will be an hour of travail, impressed with the echoes of much suffering and saddened by the memories of many who will be dead. But for the time we will ignore the gravity in our situation, mock at our splendid isolation, our scanty resources, since to dwell too long upon the guilty splendour of the naked truth is to beget an earnestness which will depress our spirits, allowing us to read out the future of the siege in words of deadly omen.