Mafeking, November 15th, 1899.
The straits of a beleaguered city are only just beginning to come to Mafeking. A retrospect of the history of the Franco-Prussian war reveals how very great were the sufferings of those unfortunate people who were unlucky enough to be besieged by the Prussian armies. Their difficulties, the dangers to which they were constantly subjected, their constant struggle against the extortionate demands of the few who had been able to "corner" the provisions can perhaps be taken as conveying a general impression of the hardships of a siege. Yet, however, when we come to consider the siege of Mafeking in its more elemental details, the picture is not unlike those presented by the farcical melodrama. It is now nearly six weeks since Mafeking was proclaimed as being in a state of siege, and, although there has been no single opportunity of any commercial reciprocity between ourselves and the outside world, the ruling prices are at present but very little above normal, distress is wholly absent, danger is purely incidental, and, indeed, it would seem, as Colonel Baden-Powell said in a recent order, that "everything in the garden was lovely." This somewhat happy state of things is, of course, to be attributed to the extraordinary foresight and sagacity which characterises the arrangements that the well-known firm of contractors in South Africa, Julius Weil, concluded for provisioning the town. Immense stocks of foodstuffs had been stored in the town before the war, and it is the knowledge of the valuable stores which are lying here which has inspired the Boers to court us so assiduously. The tale might have been different had the Colonial Government been permitted to arrange for any such emergency as a siege. In this respect, so completely opposed to any preparation were Mr. Schreiner and his Cabinet, that it was not even possible to procure through such an agency any adequate means of defence, much less to obtain the essential food supplies. When Kimberley appealed to Mr. Schreiner for permission to send up from Port Elizabeth some Maxims which had been ordered by the De Beers Company, the licence was refused on the ground that there was no cause to strengthen the defences of that town, nor any reason to believe that the situation demanded such precautions. The Colonial Government repeated their policy in relation to Mafeking, and when urgent appeals were sent to Mr. Schreiner, to the Castle authorities, and to Sir Alfred Milner, the influence of the Cabinet was such that no notice was taken of their request.
Nothing perhaps can excuse such an obstructive policy as that which was followed by the Colonial Government upon the very eve of hostilities. It is only when we come to deal with the situation which their neglect has created that we can adequately measure the full extent of their culpability. The claim of so important a centre as Mafeking upon their attention was wilfully ignored with a persistence which is positively criminal, and when taken into consideration with the repeated warnings which were sent to them by leading members of the community of Mafeking it is difficult to believe that the Colonial Cabinet, by so flatly contravening the spirit of their loyalty to the Imperial Crown, were not directly conniving with a hostile oligarchy for the downfall of this colonial town. Had Mafeking been anything but Anglo-Saxon at heart, had it possessed that proportion of debased Dutch and renegade British colonists which is to be found in Vryburg and those other hostile areas in our own colony, the story of Mafeking would have been a story of treachery and deceit, of broken allegiance, and of palsied faith. As it was, when the petition for extra armaments was ignored, the town, disdaining the danger which confronted them, proceeded to stand their ground, and to show, at any rate, a firm front to any enemy that might assail them. While Colonel Baden-Powell organised the defences of the Western Border, the men of Mafeking, under the supervision of Colonel Vyvyen, base commandant, strongly entrenched the position of their town, which hitherto had been open to every corner of the earth. In times of peace Mafeking is a collection of buildings placed upon the veldt, lacking both natural and artificial protection, the centre into which all roads come and from which all classes of people go. It is a thriving mid-African township which, more by good management than by good luck, has become at the present time an important outpost of our Empire. In these days, when the boom of cannon destroys the silences of our splendid isolation, and the scream of shell disturbs the harmony of night, Mafeking rests with patient steadfastness behind its hastily improvised earthworks, seeking shelter when the shells of the enemy press too hotly upon one another, yet always ready for work at the outposts, prepared for the fitful turbulence of our invading foe. Possibly from the Boer trenches Mafeking may look an armoured citadel. Possibly it is the sturdy appearance of our ramparts which have caused the Boers to bring their heavy artillery to bear upon our mud brick walls. Yet there is humour in this situation, since the gravity of our position accentuates the grim travesty of our defences. We have not so much as appears, and it would be unfair to give such a moment as the present the correct estimate of dummy camps which have been built, dummy earthworks which have been thrown up, of dummy guns which are in position. The situation between the Boers and ourselves may be likened to a game of poker, Mafeking possessing no hand, yet retains the privilege of bluffing. In the end it will be seen that the dignity of our impudence has swept the board, although we may be excused from wishing to renew the game. But there is perhaps a finer spirit in the tribute which this place has paid to Queen and country than mere courage. We have the faith of our affections, the steadfastness of a duty which, if inspired, is equally impressed with reverence. Such strain as the siege has put upon the loyalty of the colonists of Mafeking has been welcomed by reason of the opportunity which it has given for the many who have never seen the Queen to show, their honourable allegiance to her Majesty.
From time to time Colonel Baden-Powell has issued orders congratulating the townspeople upon their spirit, and commiserating with them upon their unfortunate predicament. They are indeed deserving of great sympathy, since the manly way in which they have come forward in support of the situation has very materially aided the successful resistance given by Mafeking. The forts upon the eastern facing of the town are manned altogether by the Town Guard; these are particularly warlike when beneath the protection of their bomb-proof shelters, and it would be almost a pity should the siege close without any opportunity arising of testing their efficiency. Throughout day and night they are compelled to remain idle in their trenches, and from 9 till 6, and again from 6 till 9, they are not permitted upon any pretence whatever to leave their posts. The life they are leading is of the roughest description, and it certainly appears that by far the greatest proportion of the hardships of the siege has fallen to the share of the Town Guard. At the beginning of the siege, when, according to official reports, there was no ground to believe that it would be of long duration, few people were animated by anything but the plain determination to enjoy any actual hostilities which might eventuate. Now, however, as the fifth week of the siege draws to an end the rigours of the confinement to which the townspeople have been subjected are beginning to tell. The work, the most laborious, the least interesting, and totally without compensation, is that performed by the Town Guard, and as a body this defence force presents strangely contrasting features as the siege progresses. Their hours are early and late, they stand to arms at 4.30 in the early morning, and at intervals during the day the full strength of the fort is mustered. There is nothing with which these men can occupy their minds, and if their inactivity is beginning to irritate them, if the poorness of their food is affecting them, it is to be hoped that the work which they are doing now will receive full and satisfactory acknowledgment, both at the hands of the staff, and of the Government. As a body, the Town Guard is a medley of local salamanders, and if it be possible, by the force of their surroundings, they should become inspired with soldierly instincts, and although after their fashion they may be expected to fight, their greatest wish at the present moment is to obtain from the Government, imperial, colonial, and military, some adequate explanation of the causes determining their present situation. They feel that they have been neglected by Mr. Schreiner and I am quite certain that if that political chameleon were here now, he would suffer as much by reason of his own sins, as for the trouble and worry he has caused the industrious, if benighted, citizens of Mafeking. For the most part the Town Guard is a collection of civilians, who are accustomed to the full enjoyment of comparative affluence, and who, through the exigencies of the siege, are at present living under conditions which would test the endurance of the most experienced soldier. They are penned up within the limits of Mafeking, unable to move with any degree of safety, and condemned to an inactivity which is very irksome to those who have been pressed as volunteers into the defences of the town. They did not expect, in the early days of the crisis, to be actively engaged in defending their town, since, with some hope of having their views adopted, they repeatedly urged upon the general staff the fallacies which distinguished the official forecast of the situation, but the staff was incredulous and Colonel Baden-Powell was impressed with an optimism which now seems strangely at fault. If one is to believe important respected members of the community here, it would seem that they made special and very urgent overtures to the colonel commanding upon the defenceless condition of Mafeking, and now, as they stand to their posts, throughout the heat of an African summer, beneath the deluges of the rainy season, they cull but little satisfaction from the Ministerial refusal adequately to protect their town by sending troops and armaments to it. They say that they were derided, that no notice was taken of their request, that their petition was overruled, leaving to them the work of warding off from the town such a day of bitterness, of exceeding danger, of very genuine disaster, as might have been expected to result from the unprotected condition of the place. The irregular soldiers of the Protectorate Regiment do not, perhaps, deserve so much commiseration, since in all probability their present circumstances are little worse than those which they anticipated when they were enlisting. But there is some force in the case which the inhabitants of Mafeking can bring against the Colonial Government, and it is to be hoped that the work which they are now doing will receive full and satisfactory compensation at the final adjustment. But there exists little possibility that they will be given any compensation which will be in any way commensurate, since to those who have followed the history of such Ministerial compensation as comes within the region of political economy it will be known that the accidents of war put a somewhat close limit upon the accidence of compensation. Their businesses have in many cases been absolutely ruined, those who were farmers upon the outskirts of the town have had the melancholy satisfaction of seeing their homesteads set fire to by the enemy and their cattle raided. These facts are the simple home truths that do not tend to make them appreciative of the honour and glory which falls to them by playing so prominent a rôle in the defence of their town. They expect, however, to receive medals. Those who were local merchants, men of peace for the most part, with no very keen enthusiasm for martial glory, have seen the industry of a lifetime completely wrecked by the diffidence of the general staff and the unwillingness of the Government to take such precautions as would have placed the town beyond the probability of attack; but, although every one recognises the worthlessness of the material which was placed at the disposal of Colonel Baden-Powell, there exists no reason which can defend the absence of efficient military stores in the town. Upon the termination of the war let us hope that Colonel Baden-Powell will be asked to explain, but for the present the townspeople of Mafeking are singularly unanimous in their desire to co-operate with the military authorities.
Under their direction the Boers have been repulsed for seven weeks, just as without the walls of Mafeking an almost impregnable defence has been constructed. It is perhaps a detail if our defenders be armed with Sniders, Enfields, a few Martinis, and a still less number of Lee-Metfords. Moreover, we have none too much ammunition, our seven-pounders are incapable of sustaining the brunt of an action without being sent to the repairing shop upon its termination, and if our Maxims be beyond reproach, our Hotchkiss and Nordenfeldt are both obsolete and unreliable. These are the more material elements of our defences, and to them may be added the strength of the Protectorate Regiment, Cape Police, British South Africa Police, Railway Division, the Bechuanaland Rifles, and the numerous native contingents numbering, with the Town Guard, some fifteen hundred men. Against this we must place an enemy whose tactics are surprising everybody, whose artillery fire is admirable, whose guns are numerous and first class. They stand off five miles and shell the town with perfect safety, while under cover of their fire they project their advanced trenches daily a few feet nearer the town. We have endeavoured with our artillery and by night sorties to check their progress, but the sapping of Mafeking continues, and is, at once, a very serious, if not our sole, danger. Should their trenches advance much further it will be impossible to move about during daytime at all, and, although we have thrown up bales of compressed hay and sacks of oats to act as shields against the enemy's bullets, and the flying splinters of passing shells, there is no hour in the day in which the streets of the town are not sprayed by Mauser bullets. It is not possible for us to advance very far from our own lines, since, as eagles swoop down upon their carrion, so would the Boers from other quarters attempt to rush the town. Yet there is no doubt that such movement would be very welcome, affording as much keen pleasure to the volunteers of the town as to the newly-raised units of the garrison. We nurture a wild desire to attempt to spike "Big Ben," and it may be that before long Providence will turn from the side of the enemy by presenting us with some such golden opportunity. The big gun is hedged around by barbed wire, guarded in front by mines, flanked upon the one side by a Nordenfeldt-Maxim and upon the other by a high-velocity Krupp. Truly, they could deal out a very warm reception to those who chanced their luck, but a little novelty these days atones for many hours of tiring inactivity, and if the Colonel chose to put a price upon the task there would be no trouble in enlisting for the venture some five hundred volunteers. The siege, as it progresses, seems to give fewer opportunities for coming into positive contact with the enemy; such occasions as there have been are few and far between, and, although Colonel Baden-Powell holds out the promise of such a venture, it has been so constantly deferred that we are for the most part becoming incredulous.