Print

Mafeking, October 25th, 1899.

To-day is the third day of the bombardment by which Commandant Cronje is attempting to realise his threat of reducing Mafeking to ashes. Up to the present it has been impossible to consider very seriously the attempt of the Boers to besiege Mafeking. The earlier bombardment and the series of events which have occurred during the interval have not augmented the gravity of the situation. The Boer Commandant endeavoured to carry out his word by opening the second bombardment of Mafeking upon the day which he had notified Colonel Baden-Powell. We had been incredulous at the threat of the Boers to send to Pretoria for some siege guns. Monday, therefore, was a day of some anxiety for us, and each was curious to know what result the enemy's fire would produce. Upon this occasion, however, the townsfolk had reckoned without taking into account the intentions of Colonel Baden-Powell, and it was a very pleasant surprise to find that the bombardment of Mafeking by the Boers had been converted into the bombardment of the Boers by Mafeking. At a very early hour, two guns, which had been placed near the reservoir, opened fire upon the enemy's artillery in position at the water springs. The artillery duel which was thus started continued for some hours, and if it did not do much damage to either side it made manifest to the Boers that the defences of Mafeking were not altogether at their mercy. About noon, however, the Boers, who had been observed to place some guns in position upon the south-west side of the town, threw shells at Cannon Kopje. Here again, fortunately, no material damage was done.

Somewhat early in the afternoon, the look-outs reported tremendous activity in the Boer camp. Across the veldt, those who cared, might have seen the enemy engaged upon some enormous earthwork, which the general consensus of opinion very quickly determined to be the emplacements for the siege guns. They were about three miles away from the town, and in a position different from that from which the guns had shelled the kopje in the morning. The frequency with which shells had exploded within the limits of Mafeking, had rendered the people somewhat callous of the consequences, and despite an official warning which was issued to the town, a large number of people stood discussing, in excited groups, the value of this news, while no small proportion of the population had gathered upon the west front to watch with their glasses the completion of the enemy's earthworks. It was three miles across the veldt, a mere black shadow upon the skyline, distinguished by its proximity to a local landmark, the "Jackal Tree," where the Boers had intrenched their Creusot gun. It was not so much that there were no other guns around us which had drawn the crowd, as the morbid curiosity to see for themselves what perhaps in a few hours they might never see again. At different points upon the eastern and western heights the Boer guns had been stationed. To the south-east there was a twelve-pounder at a very convenient range, and so placed as to act as a flanking fire to the direct onslaught of "Big Ben." Upon the extreme east there were two seven-pounders, one in position at the water springs, the other covering the entire front of the town. Upon the west and to the north the enemy had similarly placed their guns. There was a seven-pounder emplacement, with a Nordenfeldt support due west, 1,400 yards from the native stadt. Below that, and between it and the north, the Boers had a Maxim. It is, perhaps, somewhat extraordinary that an enemy who has procured the best available artillery advice, should proceed to attack the town in such a fashion, and much of the failure which has distinguished the Boer bombardment is due to the fact that, instead of concentrating their fire upon a series of given spots, they have maintained simultaneous shelling from isolated points. As their shells fell, the damage which they caused was scattered over a wide area, and confined to a building here and there. Indeed, the greater portion of the shells had merely ploughed up the streets. However, it was not to be confirmed that afternoon. An hour after noon on the following day the alarm rang out from the market place, the red flag was seen to fly from headquarters, and the inhabitants were warned to take immediate cover. Within a few minutes of the alarm, the proceedings for that day began, and the first shell thrown from the Boer battery burst over our camp. Presently on the distant skyline a tremendous cloud of smoke hurled itself into the air. The very foundations upon which Mafeking rests seemed to quiver, all curiosity was set at rest, and there was no longer any doubt as to the nature of the new ordnance which the Boers had with them. With a terrific impact the shell struck some structures near the railway, and the flying fragments of steel spread over the town, burying themselves in buildings, striking the veldt two miles distant, creating a dust, a horrible confusion, and, an instant, terror throughout the town. For the moment no one seemed to know what had happened, when the sudden silence which had come upon the town was broken by the loud explosion of the shell as it came in contact with some building. It was a scene of unique interest, the rush of air, the roar of its flight, the final impact, and the massive fragments of steel and iron which scattered in all directions, gave no time for those who had been exposed, to realise the cause of the disturbance. Much as people throng to the spot where some appalling catastrophe has occurred, so, a minute after the shell exploded, people appeared from all directions to run to the scene, and although the shell had caused no very great damage, the noise which it had made, its unusual size and explosive force, did not tend to pacify people. Many were convinced that Mafeking was doomed, and although no loss of life occurred, there were few who did not think that their days were numbered. In the course of the afternoon, after a rain of seven-and nine-pound shells, the Boers opened with this gun again, and although happily no loss of life occurred, the missile wrecked the rear of the Mafeking Hotel, falling within a few feet of Mr. E. G. Parslow, the war correspondent of the Chronicle. The force of the explosion hurled this gentleman upon a pile of wood, blew the walls out of three rooms, set fire to a gas engine, and effectually littered the yard of the hotel. With the curious inconsequence which has marked the Boer proceedings in their investment of Mafeking, the enemy threw no more of these heavier shells during the afternoon, contenting themselves with discharging at odd moments those of lesser calibre.

The two shells which had been fired during the afternoon gave the inhabitants of Mafeking some little ground by which to judge the nature of the bombardment on the morrow. After the cessation of hostilities word was passed round that the two shells which had been launched at Mafeking were a 64lb. howitzer and a 94lb. breech-loading siege gun, and that it might be reckoned that these were but the preliminary shots by which to measure the range. Officially it was notified that every precaution must be taken to remain within the bomb-proof shelters which the inhabitants of Mafeking had been advised to construct. It is the presence of these pits which explains the slight loss of life that has occurred during the Boer bombardment of Mafeking. Up to to-day the effect of the terrible hail of shells which has poured into the town has been but a few slight wounds. But there could be no doubt that the more serious fighting was at last to take place, and it seemed to us only natural to expect a general advance upon Mafeking in the morning. The night passed with every man sleeping by his arms and at his post. The women and children had been removed to their laager, the horses were picketed in the river-bed, and once again all preparations for defence, and all those measures which had been taken to secure immunity from shell fire were, for the last time, inspected. Firing began very early on Wednesday morning, a gun detachment under Lieutenant Murchison opening with a few shells from our position to the east of the town. When the light had become clear the Boers brought their new siege guns once more into play. We estimated at nightfall that the enemy must have thrown rather more than two hundred shells into Mafeking, and if Mafeking be saved for future bombardment its salvation lies in the fact that it is, relatively speaking, little more than a collection of somewhat scattered houses with tin roofs and mud walls. Any other form of building would have been shaken to its foundations by the mere concussion of these bursting shells. Where bricks would have fallen, mud walls simply threw down a cloud of dust. But if Mafeking be still more or less intact, it can congratulate itself upon having withstood a most determined and concentrated shell fire.

It is difficult to defend the action of the Boers in laying upon Mafeking the burden of these siege guns. We have heard no little from Commandant Cronje upon the rules of warfare, as set out by the Geneva Convention, by time-honoured practices, and by that sense of custom and courtesy which at the present day still brings back some slight echo of the chivalry which distinguished the wars in dead centuries. Nevertheless, there is a grim and ill-savoured travesty in the Boer bombardment of this town. We do not complain, and we must be forgiven if we find some ironical and melancholy interest attaching itself to our situation. Three times has Colonel Baden-Powell pointed out to Commandant Cronje the buildings which enjoy the immunity of the Red Cross flag, yet these buildings are still deliberately made the objective of the Boer artillery; twice have we received flags of truce from the Boers, ignoring altogether the fact that they were but the clumsy subterfuge by which an unprincipled enemy secured to itself some new and advantageous position for its guns; then, as a crowning act of mercy, we have this Boer Commander, so blatant a gentleman that he is by sheer force of his aggressive impudence worthy of our attentions, training upon a defenceless town a 64lb. howitzer and a 94lb. breech-loading siege gun, pieces whose action is relegated by these self-same observances of civilised warfare to towns who possess, in the first place, strong fortifications; in the second, masonry and concrete in their construction.

After the early morning hours had been whiled away Commandant Cronje made preparations for a general advance upon the town under the protection of his cannon fire. This was the moment which each of us had longed for. As the Boer advance seemed to be concentrated upon the eastern side, I proceeded to the redan at De Koch's Corner under Major Goold-Adams, and, later on, to another a little lower down in the same quarter of the town under Captain Musson. At this time, any one who can, is supposed to bear arms to defend our position, and, so as to more completely identify themselves with the movement for protection of this place, the correspondents that are here are each carrying their rifle and bandolier, and taking up their stand in some one of the trenches. The correspondent of the Chronicle, Mr. E. G. Parslow, the correspondent for Reuter's, Mr. Vere Stent, and myself, requested Captain Musson, a local dairy farmer, who has been placed in charge of one of the redans upon the east front, to allow us to assist him in the protection of his earthwork, and it was from there, as a consequence, that I watched the bombardment of Mafeking, taking an active part in any rifle practice which Captain Musson permitted to his men. At Major Goold-Adams's there had been stationed a Maxim detachment, and it was not long before its sharp rat-a-tat-tat was heard speaking to the enemy. The warm reception which was accorded to the Boers from this redan soon began to draw their fire. With "Big Ben" discharging its 94lb. shells in every quarter of the town, and a 12-pounder from the north-west dropping shrapnel with much discrimination over that quarter, the enemy upon the east side soon followed the example so shown them and discharged shells at the redans along their front. The range was singularly good, and in a very few minutes shells were dropping over and in very close proximity to our two redans. Between the two, and but a little removed from the line of fire, was the building of the Dutch Reformed Church, and several of the shells intended for the Maxim in Major Goold-Adams's fort found lodgment in its interior. The front of this church had been penetrated in several places by the shells, when the gun was slewed suddenly round upon the hospital and a shell fell in an outhouse attached to the monastery with disastrous effect. When the smoke had cleared away little was left of the building beyond a pile of smoking ruins. Above Captain Musson's redan our untimely visitors constantly burst and scattered, and we began to realise fully the value of the bomb-proof shelters. In a little while, however, the Boers relaxed their shell fire, and beyond maintaining sufficient fire to cover their advance, the heavier guns were for the time silent. With this, the Boers began to open out in extended order upon the east side of the town, advancing on our west to within 900 yards of our defences. At each point the Boer advance was protected by the guns, the heavy artillery to the south-west seeming to be the centre of a circle of armed men, who were advancing slowly upon this gallant little town. At no time did the enemy, however, beyond the few upon the west side, come within effective range of our rifles or our Maxims, contenting themselves with taking up positions at 2,000 yards, and dealing out to us prolonged rifle fire with some intermittent shelling. The firing was very rapid, very general, and more or less impotent. Indeed their expenditure of rifle ammunition and their extreme prodigality in shells was as much playing into our hands as reaping them any advantage.

By night we reckoned that over two hundred shells had been fired alone, though it was very doubtful whether there be two hundred pounds worth of damage to credit to them. We have had two men wounded, while here and there it is believed that certain of the enemy received their quietus. Whether we beat them off or whether they lacked the spirit to attack us it be impossible to determine, and it is enough to say that, whatever may have been their intention, Mafeking remains as it was before the first shot was fired. At night, after the attack, Colonel Baden-Powell issued a general order congratulating his forces and the people in Mafeking upon their calmness during the heavy fire to which they had been subjected.

As we are situated at present, it is impossible for us to leave our trenches in order to give battle to the enemy, but we are still buoyed up by the hope of being able before long to take in our turn the offensive. In the meantime, most of us live with our rifles in our hands, our bandoliers round our shoulders, existing upon food of the roughest kind, peering over sandbags at the distant position of the Boers, or crouching in the shell-proof trenches as their shells burst overhead. There is much gravity in our isolated position; there is the danger that, by good luck more than by skill, Mafeking may be reduced, but there is no reason to fear that the determination and courage of the town will give way. Above all else that may be calculated to endure.

 

Parent Category: Books
Category: Angus-Hamilton: The siege of Mafeking
Hits: 188