Mafeking, November 7th, 1899.
A short canter from Mafeking across the sloping expanse of the veldt and the interior lines of its western defences lie before one. It can be said that Cannon Kopje to the south-west and Fort Miller to the north-west are the two most outlying extremities of the outposts on this front. Between them there is an almost unbroken chain of earthworks, manned by detachments from squadrons of the Protectorate Regiment, from the British South Africa Police, from the Cape Police, and even from the Native stadt. These men live the lives of soldiers whose every moment is engaged in watching a foe that might at any opportunity which is given them charge down upon our lines. Unlike the Boers, we do not despise the native interests, and much of the weakness of our position emanates from the fact that we have incorporated within the mystic circle of our armed defence the most outlying areas of the native reserve. These, indeed, can very properly be considered the exterior lines of the western outposts. It would have been a very simple thing for Colonel Baden-Powell to have ordered the destruction of the Native stadt, compelling its inhabitants to seek what protection they could from the inclemency of the elements, from a benign Providence, and the rapacious Boer. Mafeking, without the Native stadt, could have been much more easily defended, since the base of the slopes, across which our advanced trenches now extend, would have been defended from the ridges of the acclivities which rise from them. This would have given to the advanced outposts some commanding heights from which the western plains could have been more easily swept. As it is, however, the policy which Colonel Baden-Powell is adopting towards the native tribe, whose huts were here many generations before white men ever set their feet in this part of the country, is one which extends to them the same Imperial protection as he has extended to the colonists in Mafeking. Where the Native stadt had been included in any portion of the defences, the Baralongs have been assisted to defend, and have been instructed in the means by which they might secure immunity for themselves and for their stadt.
The entrenchments of the Boers rise like mole-hills from the surface of the plain, although there is a curious regard for what has been humorously termed "three mile limit." The valley of the Molopo River sets a background to the Boer position, the placid waters of the stream wind through their lines, while their chief laagers have been constructed upon the ridges of its watershed. From Cannon Kopje a commanding view of the whole country on all sides of Mafeking may be obtained, the Boer laagers giving to the expanses of the valley the aspect of a mining camp. From different points of observation the daily life of the enemy can be noted. In the early morning the smoke of many fires swings in thin spirals to the sky, and the silence of the plain is broken by the echoes which echo back the noises of the camp. It would seem that they are as regular in the ordering of their camp life as we are. When the sun has warmed the air, and evaporated the morning dew from the grass, we can see them out-pinning their horses, driving their cattle to fresh pastures, and endeavouring by the establishment of sentries and Cossack posts to take the siege of Mafeking as a very serious element in their lives. Everywhere there is the green of early summer covering the plain with the sheen of Nature's youth. Between the lines of the two camps graze herds of cattle, in themselves affording tempting bait to the predatory instincts of the Boers, who, if they did not lack the courage of their desires, would have already attempted to raid the browsing oxen. So far as our own outposts are concerned, along this line there are many days in which nothing whatever happens, just as there are others in which the dawn of day is made hideous by the scream of shells, the singing of the Mauser, the angry rustle of the Nordenfeldt and Maxim. The Boers have many guns along this side, and from time to time they treat us to bombardments, lacking both purpose and any definite result, beyond the expenditure of much ammunition. When the shells are falling every one who can seeks cover, watching with some impatience their passing, and could we in these moments but give existence to our wishes, it would be that opportunity might come at once to turn the tables upon our enemy. It is neither very honourable nor very pleasing to have to preserve discretion as the better part of valour, but, while we remain the objective of their fire, our pent-up energies are developing a fine hatred against the foe. Colonel Baden-Powell has some hope of giving indulgence to the spirit which animates his men, and, even if the moment be somewhat uncertain, no small contentment is derived from such belief. Morning and night we gird our loins for the attack, but night and morning we awaken to a sense of infinite disappointment, yet when it comes they may expect an avalanche, and, in result, an overthrow.
Day is dreary, sun-swept, dusty, teased with insects, and infinitely wearisome, but with the coming of night, the fragrant coolness of the air, the soft lisping of the evening breeze bringeth contentment. Each evening, when the peace of the camp be settled and the men resting, there is always an outpost standing within a few hundred yards of the Boer camp. If the night be fine, he lies behind the stones of a neighbouring kopje; but whether it be fine or wet, the guard is posted; the safety of the camp depending upon his vigilance. Sometimes he is relieved hourly, sometimes his watch is of four hours' duration. It depends upon the proximity of his post to the enemy's lines, but, lying there within earshot of the Boers, it is just possible to realise the full gravity of our situation. The element of danger is greater in these nocturnal hours, and men go to rest, their spirits buoyed up with the infinite zest which comes from anticipating a night attack. They sleep beside their arms, their posts are doubled, and the officers of the watch make hourly rounds. In the distance, across the plain and enveloped with the darkness of the veldt, the difficulty of seeing intensified by shadows, the outline of the Boer laagers can be demarcated. Their camp fires die down one by one, and presently, beyond the restless moving of their cattle, no sign of life animates their position. It is in such moments that those who lead us deplore the paucity of the numbers under their command, since, were it possible to spare the men, there have been several occasions, when a midnight dash, after the fashion of Captain Fitzclarence, or the repetition of the reconnaissance at daybreak such as Major Godley so gallantly led, could have been organised with equally satisfactory results.
However, within the last few days, Colonel Baden-Powell has taken advantage of the enemy's position upon this front to order the western outposts to spend some few hours in worrying the enemy. It was a very pleasant little outing for us, and eminently beneficial, since the excitement attendant upon such a manœuvre was as wholesome as a bumper of champagne. Word had already reached me of this contemplated move upon the enemy, and Lieutenant Paton, of C Squadron, was good enough to offer the hospitality of his hut for the night in question. We dined, not with the guilty splendour of the Trocadero or amid the sombre magnificence of Prince's, but in the rough-and-ready fashion which falls to those who, carrying their lives in their hands, have at most but a moment to spare for such unimportant incidents as breakfast and dinner. As a humble offering to the board I had drawn from the Army Service Stores a tin of canned mutton, and procured somewhere—which may or may not have been a private garden—a luscious marrow, and with these I hied myself to Lieutenant Paton's quarters. Along this western front there are many delightful and very genial officers. There is Major Godley, who is in command of the whole line; Colonel Walford, who commands Cannon Kopje; there are Captain Vernon and Captain Marsh, who, with Major Godley, are Imperial special service men; Lieutenant Holden and my host. The distances between their quarters are but slight, and perhaps the most entertaining moment in the siege is that which enables us to foregather at Major Godley's, chatting with eagerness and charming frankness upon the possibilities of the war as they are suggested by our immediate environment. By the time that I had arrived Lieutenant Paton's boy had prepared a savoury stew, and such was the scarcity of fresh meat that we had no hesitation in dedicating the canned mutton to some other meal. We ate, and pleasantly indulged in lime juice and water, smoking with contented elegance some choice cigarettes. After we had dined a short conference was held at Major Godley's, and then to rest, perchance to spend the night in sleeping, or perchance, to scratch; for fleas and flies, the parasitic mosquito and the insidious ant, make both day and night a source of irritation.
The men of C Squadron under Captain Vernon, the Bechuanaland Rifles under Captain Cowan, and three guns under Major Panzera and Lieutenant Daniels, of the British South Africa Police, were engaged in the movement, and distinguished themselves in what they did as well as can be expected. At a quarter to two we turned out. Greatcoats had been left behind, men slinging their waterbottles and bandoliers upon their shoulders. We were to meet at the base of a hill rising a few hundred yards across the veldt from Major Godley's. Night hung heavily upon us, the sky was dark, and everything seemed to point to the wisdom of choosing such a night. We stepped out briskly, although to our strained nerves the soft tread of the men sounded as the rumble of a juggernaut. However, we proceeded very quietly, and the sheen of sand, the white lustre of the road, the rustle of the thorn bushes were presently left behind as we took our stand in the rear of Major Godley's troop. In the valley at the base of the hill we halted. Before us, a scarcely perceptible rise silhouetted against the sky, the bushes lining the summit throwing themselves into prominence against the grey, black, background, while here and there trees tossed their arms silently and warningly in the breeze. All around us there was the hum of insect life, that monotonous dead level buzz of countless insects and the baying of the bull frogs. And we waited, when out of the darkness came Major Godley, a tall, thin figure impressed with energy and determination, inspecting the lines.
The squadron was dismounted, and had fallen in by troops, the dull khaki of the Protectorate Regiment scarcely showing up against the grey-blackness of the night; and at either end of the line there was a squad of Bechuanaland Rifles and a contingent of natives. As they stood there, there were nearly one hundred men, and, though the order had been given to be in this position at 2.30, and the hour had come, we were waiting for the guns. Presently, as we waited, barely a mile from the Boer laager, there was the rumble of artillery in the distance. As we heard it officers and men believed that at any moment the Boer camp would sound the alarm. We could hear the guns rising over hillocks, falling heavily upon stones, or crushing back upon some boulder. Indeed there was noise enough to wake the dead themselves. The rattle of the limber was only a little more acute than the tension on our nerves. Men swore silently at the guns and showed their restlessness as the noise grew louder. In a little the Major bustled up all eagerness and fluff and worry, and then as the guns trailed behind us and the little column moved on, it seemed that every step we advanced further would have brought the Boers tumbling about our ears. Much as one creeps about a house at night treading on every board which creaks in preference to those which do not creak, so was the march of the column. As the guns came on they seemed to find stones everywhere. Wheels fell into snug hollows, jammed in ragged holes, and bumped with such heaviness that the night was made hideous by the echo of their rumble. Occasionally we stopped, as though to allow the peace of night to settle. Then we moved forward once again and in a little we halted for the final stage. The guns took up their position to the left of the column, the hundred men lying in extended order across the veldt. Before us there was the ridge of rising veldt and scrub, and so we rested, fretting with curious impatience at the signs of life which began to animate the enemy's camp. When we stood up we could see the dull white of their waggons bent in position for their laager; we could see the fires within, we could hear in the still silence of early dawn the chopping of wood as the axe fell upon the logs. The sides of the valley threw back the noise until, echoes echoing back, the sound caught our ears, and so we watched and waited until gradually dawn came.
The dull-black beauty of the night passed, slipping into grey and leaving the uncertain mystery of an early morning sky. A red streak across the east threw glimpses of light into the canopy of heaven, when, as a signal of its birth, there came the words to fire; then the line of creeping figures which had gained the ridge pressed their rifles through the scrub and bush which hedged the top, and, crouching to the ground, opened the reconnaissance. The objective of the night attack which Major Godley was commanding had been to effect a reconnaissance in force against the western laagers of the Boers. In respect to the constant increase of the force that surrounds Mafeking, almost the one means of temporarily checking their advance which remains to us is through the medium of these attacks. Information had been brought into headquarters that the Boers were massing upon the east side of the town, the small laager on the west being temporarily evacuated. The night dash would both surprise and annoy the enemy, and anything which combined such benign ends was very welcome. The guns were to throw a few shells, the men were to fire a few volleys; when the squadron would fall back by troops their reconnaissance completed. We opened by volleys poured incontinently into their camp, but so soon as the guns had discharged the first shells into the laager, the little signs of order which had animated the natives disappeared, and although they maintained their line they began an independent practice. It was the first time that native arms had been incorporated with our men, and it is to be hoped, before the next experiment is repeated, they will have been got more under control. Excellent as they may be on their own account, they are almost altogether useless when removed from the immediate spheres of utility. Our fire at first was high, and many rounds of bullet and shell fire were absolutely wasted. Presently Daniels secured the range for the guns, and shells, prettily planted, ruined many waggons. The sortie, so far as we were concerned, proceeded merrily, doing no material damage, but making a hell of a lot of noise. The glories of the early morning were soon enveloped in the heavy smoke from the rifles of the natives, who still continued blazing independently and indifferently at the enemy's position and who also generally struck the earth a few yards short of their own front of fire. The opportunity which was thus afforded of both surprising and annoying the enemy was very welcome, and the night dash was entered into with infinite zest. So soon as the guns had discharged their first shell our men began to fire by volleys, but the sortie had not progressed very far when the activity in the Boer lines showed that they were preparing to repel a force much larger than the mere reconnoitering party which was actually before them. In the uncertain light of rising morn a body of 600 Boers could be seen riding from the main laager upon the western front to the support of the minor camp. We have hitherto thought the Boers timid at close quarters, but in this case there was every sign of haste and eagerness on the part of the reinforcements to arrive upon the scene of action. We could see them dismounting as they came up and run to the laager, some of them firing as they ran, others of them forming into detached parties and firing from isolated positions. After volleying for some minutes our men fulfilled the object of their morning excursion and were preparing to retire by troops, when, owing to the presence of the reinforcements, firing became general. Our rifles replied to their rifles, our two seven-pounders replied to their guns, but beyond this nothing was permitted to interfere with the successful completion of our work. It mattered very little to us how fiercely the enemy's Nordenfeldts spat out defiance or what their rifles said, for we fell back steadily, the different troops doubling fifty, one hundred, and one hundred and fifty yards each time. The fire as the various troops took up the retirement became very hot, the enemy cheerfully Mausering into space. For some hours after our men had gained the security of their own trenches the enemy maintained a heavy fire upon the several outposts along the western front. During the retirement of C Squadron Major Godley had ordered Captain Cowan to occupy Fort Eyre, a rifle trench, with a detachment of Bechuanaland Mounted Rifles, so that he might check any signs of advance which the enemy might display. In consequence of this, Major Godley, Captain Cowan, Lieutenant Feltham, and their men experienced as severe a fire as any which has, at present, been received from the Boers. The enemy made a determined rifle attack upon the work, but lacking the courage to charge, after some few hours' rifle firing, they withdrew.
These little encounters are all that the outposts have with which to pass their time, and the success with which they have been conducted has been sufficient to check the enemy, and to cause him to reflect upon the relative value of the means at our command. The defence of the western front lies wholly in the hands of men from the Protectorate Regiment and a few native contingents. The Town Guard is not en evidence upon the west side, the area of their exertions being confined to the more immediate precincts of the town. And by this it does not seem that the Town Guard will have much opportunity to distinguish itself, since, unless its members volunteer to take part in any sniping expedition, those manning the interior line of our trenches, which are those occupied by the Town Guard, have received positive orders to withhold their fire until the enemy is upon the point of rushing the town. Several times it has been thought that this was going to happen, and the local defensive force had hopes of justifying its existence, but hitherto the valour which underlies the good intentions of the Boers is not sufficient to inspire them to convert an excellent suggestion into a practical experiment. Thus despite the Boer telegrams to Europe there has been no battle round Mafeking; a few slight skirmishes upon our part, much proud boasting upon the part of the Boers is the limit of mutual operations which have centred around Mafeking. We are waiting, and in the interval, preparing. That is all which can be said.