Mafeking, January 20th, 1900.
Yesterday we completed the first hundred days of our siege, and when we look back beyond the weeks of our investment into those earlier days it is difficult to realise the trials and difficulties which we have undergone, and to believe that the period which has elapsed has witnessed the inauguration of a new era for South Africa. In those early days when we first came here Mafeking was a flourishing commercial centre, contented with its position, proud of its supremacy over other towns, and now, perhaps, if outwardly it be much the same, its future is impressed with only the faint echo of its former greatness. The town itself has not suffered very much; here and there its area has been more confined for purposes of defence, while the streets and buildings bear witness to the effects of the bombardment. Houses are shattered, gaping holes in the walls of buildings, furrows in the roads, broken trees, wrecked telegraph poles, and that general appearance of destruction which marks the path of a cyclone are the outward and visible signs of the enemy's fire. We shall leave in Mafeking a population somewhat subdued and harassed with anxiety for their future, since the public and private losses will require the work of many anxious years before any restoration of the fallen fortunes can be effected. The pity of it is that all this distress might have been so easily avoided, and would have been, had the authorities in Cape Town and at home taken any heed of the very pressing messages which were despatched daily to them; but it was decreed that Mafeking should shift for itself for so long as it was able, and then—surrender. This, however, did not meet with the approval of Colonel Baden-Powell, with the result that we are still fighting and still holding our own. We have even achieved some little place in the sieges of the world, and our present record has already surpassed many of the more prominent sieges. But there is not much consolation to be gained from contemplating the position which we may eventually take up in the records of famous sieges, and, truth to tell, there is such glorious uncertainty about the date of our relief that it is perhaps possible that we may surpass the longest of historic sieges. At one time we confidently anticipated that the siege would be over in ten days. This, however, was in the days of our youth; since then we have learned wisdom, and eagerly seize opportunities of snapping up any unconsidered trifles in the way of bets which lay odds upon our being "out of the wood" in another month. Events are moving so slowly below that it does not seem as though we shall be relieved by the end of February. The relief column, which a month ago appeared almost daily in "Orders," is now no longer mentioned in polite society, although there be little reason to doubt that, at some very remote date, the troops may make their appearance here.
The early part of November witnessed the first attempt of the Commissariat to control the stocks of provisions in the town. All persons holding stocks of Kaffir corn, meal, crushed meal, yellow mealies, and flour, were ordered to declare the quantities and price at which they would be willing to dispose of them to the authorities. Captain Ryan, the Commissariat officer, was an energetic and painstaking individual, whose aim was to prove his department a financial success, and so rigidly did he adhere to this resolve that the questions involved by the Commissariat became amongst the most important of the siege. Traders claimed that the economy of the situation gave them a siege profit, since, as the Government had not been shrewd enough to lay down stores, those who had done this at their own risk, and upon their own initiative, should be permitted, at least, to make a margin of profit in proportion to the prices which they could obtain for their goods. This contention, however, was not upheld by the Commissariat officer, who at once became the best hated man in Mafeking. Oddly enough, although the Government would not allow the merchants to reap the profit, they themselves, in virtue of the expense in connection with the issue of rations, were not above charging these expenses to prime cost, and so exorbitantly increasing themselves the retail price of the articles which they had taken over. What was perhaps the most objectionable feature in the findings of the Commissariat Department was that the merchant himself who disposed of his goods to the Government at a ruling which allowed but the profit incidental to the transaction of business in times of peace, was compelled to buy back, when he required goods of that particular variety, at the price which the Government had placed upon them. This, of course, seemed to the people unfair, and they were quite unable to obtain any satisfactory explanation of such procedure; satisfactory because the reasons vouchsafed assumed the right of the Government to a certain profit, denying, however, that rate in the same ratio of proportion to the individual. Among the chief obstacles against which Captain Ryan had to contend was the maintenance of the daily bread ration, since the supply of flour, of mealie meal, of oats, was not particularly great. There were many experiments made with the bread, but those which were most unsatisfactory failed because it had been found difficult to sift the husks from the oats once the oats had been crushed. While the issue of this particular bread lasted symptoms of acute dysentery prevailed, and in order to prevent an epidemic of dysentery from breaking out the Commissariat were compelled to adopt other methods of treatment. The bread eventually developed into a weighty circular brown biscuit, weighing anything under six ounces, about nine inches in circumference. These particular biscuits were less spiky, and less liable to create acute inflammation. They were issued to the entire garrison, excepting those who had been permitted to draw an invalid ration of white bread, and were preserved in many cases as mementoes of the siege. Although we have food enough to last several months this precaution is necessary, as when the siege is raised many weeks must elapse before supplies can come in. The garrison has been put upon a scale of reduced rations—½ lb. of bread, ½ lb. of meat per day. The reductions in bread took place in the early part of the year, while the orders in relation to the meat supply were issued during this week. Matches and milk are prohibited from public sale, and the latest order prevents the shops from opening. All supplies of biscuits, tea, and sugar—preserves also—have been commandeered. The shop-keepers and the hotel proprietors, and indeed anybody who can find any possible excuse for doing so, have trebled the price of their goods, pleading that the inflation is due to the siege. Accordingly, meal and flour have jumped from 27s. per bag to 50s.; potatoes, where they exist at all, are £2 per cwt.; fowls are 7s. 6d. each; and eggs 12s. per dozen. Milk and vegetables can no longer be obtained, and rice has taken the place of the latter among the menus. These figures mark the rise in the more important foodstuffs as sold across the counter, but the hotels have, in sympathy, followed the example, they, upon their part, attributing it to the increase which the wholesale merchants have decreed. A peg of whisky is 1s. 6d., dop brandy 1s., gin 1s., large stout is 4s., small beer 2s. In ordinary times whisky retails at 5s. per bottle. This rate has now advanced to 18s. per bottle and 80s. per case. Dop, which is usually 1s. 4d., is now 12s. per bottle; the difference upon beer is almost 200 per cent., and inferior cigarettes are now 18s. per hundred. Upon an inquiry among the publicans here, I was informed that the chief reason for the increase in their prices was to hinder the local soldiery from becoming intoxicated; this sudden regard for the moral welfare of the garrison on the part of the saloon keepers is however, oddly at variance with their earlier practices, and is in reality the flimsy pretext by which they seek to condone an almost unwarrantable act. Hitherto the constantly recurring evils arising from the sale of drink to soldiers and others performing military duties, have been openly encouraged by the hotel proprietors, who, although they now profess a fine appreciation for the moral obligations attached to their trade when prices are high and profits great, took no very serious steps at the outset to allay what was becoming a very serious menace to the community. Moreover, the hotels have demanded from such people as war correspondents and others brought here through business connected with the siege, rates which are far in advance of the ordinary tariffs, with equally preposterous demands for native servants and horse-feed. Indeed, whatever Mafeking may lose through the absence of business with the Transvaal, many will receive ample compensation from the high prices by which those who are able, are endeavouring to recoup themselves, and in a way which it is not possible to consider other than extortionate. Stores of all kinds are, however, rapidly giving out, and it would not have been possible for Mafeking to have sustained the siege so long had not the Government contractor, upon his own initiative, laid in far greater stocks of provisions than were provided for by his contract, and in this respect every credit should be given to the commercial foresight and sagacity by which these arrangements were inspired. For everything which is in daily want, in fact for the bare necessities of life upon the existing scale of reduced rations, Mafeking now depends upon the stores and bonded warehouse which represent the local branch of the contracting firm, Messrs. Julius Weil & Co. In their hands lies the issuing of the daily allowances of bread and meat to the garrison, of the forage for the horses, of the feeding of the natives. Indeed, there seemed no end to the resources of this house. When the siege began, had there been no Weil, the Government stocks would not have lasted two months, and, moreover, they did not know that the Weils had laid in these stores—a fact which again establishes how very meagre were the preparations made for the siege. Therefore, when the time comes to give honour to whom honour is due, notice should be taken of the important rôle which this firm has fulfilled during the siege of Mafeking.
The siege drags on, however, the days seeming to be an endless monotony in which there is absolutely nothing to sustain one's interest. Week by week we make a united and laborious attempt to whip our flagging energies into some activity. It is a hideous spectacle, but this Sunday celebration reveals how very trying has become the situation. The military authorities have been at their wits' end to find amusement for the garrison, and this effort has developed into a Sabbatarian charade in which we all assume an active co-operation, and try to think that we are having a very giddy and even gushing time. Colonel Baden-Powell, in this respect, makes an admirable stage-manager. Authors, scenic artists, stage hands, scene shifters, there are, of course, none; but in the middle of the week the Chief Staff Officer becomes the town crier, crying lustily, by means of proclamation, that, by the grace of God, upon the coming Sunday there will be a golf match or baby show, a concert or polo match, even some attempt at amateur theatricals. The Sunday respite is, however, immensely appreciated, and, indeed, it is a very welcome panacea to our siege-strung nerves. Where in England you people are saying, "Oh, bother Sunday," "How like a Sunday," we say, "Thank God it is Sunday," implying, for that day in seven, a period of absolute rest and no little contentment. We are warriors on Sunday: bold, bad, and brave. We have our horses out on Sunday and take a toss as elegantly as we take our neighbour's money at cards in the evening, when fortune favours. We drink, we accept one another's invitations to meals of unsurpassing heaviness; we even invite ourselves to one another's houses. We drink, we eat, we flirt, we live in every second of the hours which constitute the Sunday, and upon the passing of the day it is as though we had entered into another world. As midnight arrives, we hasten back to our trenches filled with the good things of the day, even with the zest to penetrate the mysteries of another week of siege. In the morning we stand-to-arms at four o'clock, not because there is any special purpose for doing so, but rather that we may satisfy ourselves that we are soldiers; and then the labour of the day begins, and for six more days we stand-to-arms and wonder when the devil the enemy are coming on. We are very brave then, and at times we take ourselves so seriously that into each breast there comes the spirit of the Commander-in-Chief. Then we criticise the war, talk fatuously of what we would do, struggle somewhat ingloriously with the archaic jargon of the army, until, if our speech betrays our ignorance, we, nevertheless, make a mighty lot of noise. Then we are satisfied, though doubtless each thinks the other somewhat of a fool.
To the man who looks on at all this, the gradual change which has come over the garrison is plainly discernible. In the beginning, when the Boers made war upon us, there was a contempt for bomb-proofs; there was a contempt for many other things besides, since each individual knew better than his Post Commander, and did not hesitate to tell him so, or rather to imply that he had told him so; but the scorn of bomb-proofs was mightier than the sword. In those days we feared nothing beyond mosquitoes and the creeping things of earth, but the change came silently, and although few people commented upon it, the transformation was completed within the first month of the siege. It grew, as it were, in a single night, from a village of mud-walled houses into one in which every other man owned something of a dug-out. For the first few days, while scorn of dug-outs was rife, he who built himself a haven kept it to his inner conscience, recalling it, when its existence was forced upon him, with something of an apologetic air. Thus we existed; then the staff built an underground room, and upon the Sunday that followed this momentous event many there were who visited it, and who, gathering wrinkles, went quietly to their gardens and did likewise. Thus insidiously came the transformation, and although there are still a few who talk disparagingly of these bomb-proof shelters, their faces wear an anxious look when the enemy are shelling, and strangely enough, as the fire waxes hotter, they easily find excuses to visit friends, lingering, the while, in the congenial gloom of their host's dug-out.
So greatly have ideas expanded upon this subject that at one of the hotels an underground dining-room is in course of construction. This is at Riesle's, whose proprietor, at last, has been induced to build his boarders—mostly war correspondents—a dug-out, since he had given places of shelter to the servants, to his native boys, and to his family, seemingly thinking that since the boarders kept the hotel going they could very easily shift for themselves. But then that is always the creed of the publican. These dug-outs are large excavations some ten by fourteen feet and seven feet deep, upon which there is placed a layer of iron rails which are procured from the railway yard; over these there is usually a layer of thick wooden sleepers, which again are covered over with sheets of corrugated iron. The earth from the hole is then piled up on this, and, after the dug-out has been inspected by the Town Commandant it is considered safe for habitation; a few cases and chairs equip it with certain accommodation, although there are a few into which trestle beds have been placed. It is not very healthy passing days and nights in these inverted earthworks, but it is eminently safe, and has been the sole means afforded us for escaping the enemy's fire. Fortunately the Boers have made no attempt to advance upon the town under cover of their guns, for if they did so we should have to stand-to-arms and face the music of the flying splinters. Every post has been supplied with one of these underground retreats, and quite the larger proportion of the townspeople have constructed private shelters for themselves.