Mafeking, November 22nd, 1899.
Within a few weeks of Major Godley's daybreak attack upon the western laager, it was decided to repeat the experiment against the main position of the Boers upon the east side. Had this but come off, from the estimate of the men and guns engaged, the movement would have been as important as any which have taken place. It had been arranged to open a general fire upon the emplacement of the hundred-pound gun and the advanced trenches of the Boer position a short time before sunset, since the closing of day would make it impossible for the enemy, in the absence of aiming-posts and clinometers, to train their artillery upon the town. Now that the enemy have begun to sap Mafeking by a system of advanced galleries, the military authorities here have been waiting for them to come within a certain radius of the town so that we might counter-gallery their position and enfilade their trenches. From their entrenchment at the brickfields, rather more than fifteen hundred yards from the town, Boer sharpshooters have been sniping the town with comparative impunity. When this plan was first projected, natives, under Corporal Currie, Cape Police, were sent up the river-bed, which runs at this particular point within three hundred yards of the Boer flank, to build a trench as near as possible to the position of the snipers in the brickfields. With the successful execution of this piece of work the first steps towards the contemplated reconnaissance had been taken, since this new post, which was constructed under cover of night, completely outflanked the advance trenches of the Boers. When they began to fire upon the town in the morning they were somewhat surprised at receiving a volley from what appeared to be little more than a mud heap. Corporal Currie and his natives drove back the Boers from their advanced post in the brickfields to the first line of trenches in their position, and so long as we retained the river-bed post the brickfields ceased to give shelter to the Boer sharpshooters; moreover, when the Boers had been effectually quieted in the brickfields a little more of the original conception was carried out. Captain Lord Charles Bentinck and A squadron and Captain Fitzclarence with the Hotchkiss detachment were sent to support the native outposts, while a seven-pound gun under Lieutenant Daniels moved into an emplacement in the river-bed. Major Panzera took command of the gun which was to support the Maxim under Major Goold Adams in the north-east corner of the town. In conjunction with this, the extreme eastern flank of the town was defended by a detachment of the Cape Police with a Maxim, and a supplementary force of the same police, under Inspector Marsh, were entrenched across the eastern front of the native location. Thus upon Monday night were the plans arranged. Shortly before midnight Major Panzera, who has charge of the artillery, gave me a courteous permission to accompany Lieutenant Daniels to his emplacement in the river-bed, from which point it was possible to move to our advanced trenches further up the stream. Mafeking had gone to rest when the gun started, and although the wheels were padded and every precaution taken to muffle the noise, it seemed that at any moment, the town would have been aroused. In a little the immediate precincts of Mafeking had been left behind, and the challenge of the last sentry answered. As we moved down to the river-bed the gun detachment hung upon the rear of the gun straining to prevent the shake and rumble of its descent. Silently we crept on; no murmur of human voices, no steel rang a "care-creating" clatter, no rumble of tumbril or gun broke through the darkness to the sentries of the enemy; in about an hour the gentle lapping of the river told us that the journey was at an end, and as we crossed the stream and reached the party working upon the emplacement there was much feeling of relief that the enemy had not sounded the alarm. While Lieutenant Daniels arranged the emplacement of the gun, he permitted me to try my hand at superintending native labour. There were thirty of them, who, commencing about midnight, were to have completed by daybreak, the task upon which they were engaged. It reminded me of the days at college when the house whips stood over the team urging them and coaching them in their game. There was every necessity for speed, and as the night was cold one made the most of the opportunity. The working party was divided into those with picks and those with shovels—the one breaking up the ground, the others heaping up the earthwork. In addition to the natives who were digging there was a small party filling sacks with sand which, when they had been filled, were piled up around the rapidly-rising parapet of the gun. As they worked they sang, droning a war-song which seemed to give zest to their labours. As an experience it was rather fine to feel that even in this perfunctory fashion one was attempting work of some importance. About the scene there was the usual feature of the veldt by night: there was the subdued murmur of the waters tumbling gently over stones or causing stray groups of bullrushes to shiver; then from the bank there spread the veldt, rising in soft-clad hillocks, or falling in snug hollows, the green expanse tinted with the silvery light of the moon. Beyond ourselves and our cordon of sentries there should have been no one, although occasionally we thought that, just above the skyline, lights played about the shadowy outline of the Boer gun. But if they heard us they took no notice, and as dawn broke across the east the finishing touches to the gun were quickly given. Brown earth was strewn upon the whitened patches of the bags which had not been properly covered, the humidity of the fresh-turned soil mingling with the fumes of working natives. For the night's work, as we gathered our tools together, the best evidence of our labours was the grim muzzle of the gun which leered through its embrasure. It spoke defiance, and as the day which then was breaking, drew to its close we should know whether its sense of might had been effectually established. And so we returned to town talking upon the strength of the emplacement and upon its strategic value. As we left the gun we were alone, when suddenly, without a sound, the figure of the Colonel was seen coming across the veldt. He passed us quickly, and as we followed him we wondered what he knew, but before noon those who had been informed of the contemplated attack had learned the news. As he had crept up the lines he had passed detached parties of Boers withdrawing from the extreme rear of their position. The explanation was obvious, but he stayed until daybreak to make certain of his ground, and by the light of early dawn the trenches which we were so shortly to fire upon were found deserted. Thus do the spies work within our camp, taking to the enemy news of everything which happened, and thus does the Colonel circumvent them. However, if we did not attack them with our guns, for the remainder of the day the advanced squadrons in the river-bed justified their position by keeping down the crew from the big gun. They poured in volleys at 1,400 yards, and, for the first time in the siege, no shells were thrown. As they retired from their trenches, so they withdrew their gun, and we had a day of peace.
But how wearily the time passes; moreover we are still enduring the straits of a siege and the torments of a bombardment. For almost seven weeks we have defied an enemy who encircle us upon every side, and who has summoned to its aid, for the purposes of breaching our trivial earthworks, the finest guns from their arsenal in Pretoria. The Boers outnumber us in men and in artillery, and not a day has passed since the siege began that they have not thrown shrapnel and common shell, omitting minor projectiles, into the town. And still we live, with just sufficient spirit to jeer across our ramparts at the enemy. They Mauser us, and shell us; they cut our water off, and raid our cattle; they make life hell, and they can do so, so long as it may please them; but no one was ever so deluded if they think that by such means Mafeking surrenders. From time to time we have given them a taste of our quality, and if on occasion we have lost some few, it is a source of melancholy satisfaction to know that their loss has been the greater. It is not long since the Boers attempted to blow the town to atoms through the agency of dynamite, though, similia similibus curantur, they went to heaven prematurely by an undesirable explosion. It was night, and the town was just about to rest, when it was shaken to its foundations by a most deafening roar; sand and stones, fragments of trees came down as hail from the skies, the whole place being lighted with the lurid glow of blood-red flame. To the north of Mafeking, and so close to the cemetery that it might have been a pillar of fire coming to earth to claim its own, an immense arc of fire and smoke was ejected out of the ground. After it there came silence, broken here and there by the rattle of the débris upon the roofs of the houses, and by the shouts and shrieks of a town in the confusion of a panic. That night those who slept had dreams of the day of judgment, while those who lay awake were restless, quaking with an insidious terror. In the morning the cause explained itself, since barely half a mile up the line was an enormous rent in the ground, the line itself being strewn and scattered with the rubbish of an earthquake. The Boers, with much ingenuous enterprise, had despatched upon a purely friendly mission a trolly load of dynamite; unfortunately, where they had started their infernal machine the declivity of the line had precipitated the truck backwards toward their own camp, and having very foolishly lighted their time-fuse before they had surmounted the crest of the rise, they had not the courage to stop the progress of the somewhat novel engine of destruction. Apparently it had rolled slowly downwards, tracking the instigators of such a deed with very fatal persistence, until the time-fuse met the charge, and powder and dynamite went off together. Upon the morrow there was much sadness in the Boer camp, and much silence.
Dynamite has played a not unimportant rôle in the history of our siege. Cronje has heard from native spies, and from his friends in our camp, that Mafeking is set within a circle of dynamite mines, and he has protested against its use in civilised warfare. Since then, however, he has not only discharged dynamite by trolly loads into the town, but he has threatened, in his vague and shadowy fashion, to send to his capital for some dynamite guns. It would seem, then, that a warm time is coming to Mafeking; the pity of it being that we are kept so long and in such unnecessary suspense. If Cronje were the gallant warrior whose dignity he assumes in addressing the garrison, he would have either taken or abandoned Mafeking some weeks ago. As it is, however, with occasional letters of regret for such untimely procedure, he still elects to bombard an inoffensive and unoffending township. The other morning, after the usual series of dull days, the activity in the Boer camp suggested to us that the town was about to be attacked. From the south-west the big Creusot opened fire at intervals of twenty minutes, the intervening periods being pleasantly filled in with Mauser and Martini fire and shells from two nine-pound high-velocity Krupps. In a very short space of time the list of fatalities included a native dog, a commissariat mule, and many buildings. After such a bloodless bombardment the Boer legions gallantly rode round to the east with the apparent intention of attacking the town. Then we thought that, in that moment, our defence would be justified, but he is wisest who determines what is to be the nature of the Boer movement when that movement has taken place. Down the serried lines of armed Dutchmen old Piet Cronje, as his friends call him, or General Cronje, as a sycophantian Boer press describe him, rode. He was a gallant sight—albeit we could only just see him some two thousand yards distant. After a temporary and casual inspection of his force, General Cronje turned his head towards Mafeking, and waving violently one arm in the air, cantered with much solemn apprehension towards our trenches. He had covered in this desperate effort some thirty yards, when perhaps a natural superstition caused him to turn his head. Was there a man dismayed in the Boer lines? Not one; but nevertheless, they were not taking any such manœuvre just then. Cronje stopped and cantered back again, seeming to hold an indaba with his petty officers. They gathered round him, they talked to him, pointing towards their lines, and shouting at one another; but there it ended. In a little while we saw a silent figure, moody and taciturn, guarded by two orderlies, ride slowly around from the east front to the headquarters of the executive on the south-west. Thus Cronje failed, not through any fault of his, but because the idle braggarts who form his army have not the spirit of whipped curs. Since then Cronje has made no effort to storm Mafeking, and it is very much to be doubted whether until the siege be raised the attempt will be renewed.
One must sympathise a little with Cronje since he has not been able to sustain in his attack upon Mafeking the high reputation which he enjoys among his countrymen. Now that he has been recalled to Natal, we here hope that he may be able to find some opportunity to distinguish himself. His force without Mafeking is a raw, lawless body of Western Boers, the majority of whom have followed him on his march. We say Natal, but there is no very positive ground for believing that it is in that direction that the new field of his activity lies. It may be that he has gone South, and if such should happen to be the case, it will not be long before he will come in contact with men who will test his mettle to the utmost. There have been many rumours of reinforcements: some people, addicted with a greater faculty of imagination than power of veracity, have even seen the advanced outposts of the relief, which, of course, is ridiculous. They mistake some scattered party of Boers for advanced scouts. We do not think that there is much real chance of the siege of Mafeking being raised before the New Year, since such would be opposed to the stately and insular procedure of the Imperial and Colonial War Offices. Hitherto it has apparently ignored the claims of Mafeking. All conditions of people here united in their efforts to secure some more or less reliable armament from the Government, but the reason, above all others, which made this impossible was that the Imperial authorities at home, in their fatuity, could not bring themselves to believe that the war, which South Africa knew to be imminent, would come to pass. Nevertheless, in face of their neglect, we are snug in Mafeking, although our artillery be hopeless; and since the war began we have gradually added to our defences. After many days' bombardment a breach was effected in one only of the town's earthworks. That was very quickly repaired, so quickly indeed that before nightfall it had already been restored.