Mafeking, January 31st, 1900.
In itself the situation has not developed over much, but in relation to the siege there are two tragedies to chronicle. The Boers are still investing us, in more or less the same numbers, and with but little difference in the strength of their artillery. Sometimes we miss an individual piece, judging from its absence that it has been sent north to reinforce the Dutch who are endeavouring to circumvent the movements of Colonel Plumer's column. However, these periodical journeys of the five-pounder Krupp, the one-pounder Maxim, or the nine-pounder quick-firing Creusot do not last for any great time, and, as a matter of fact, Commandant Snyman has not permitted himself to be deprived of any one piece of artillery for much longer than a week. The garrison here, jumping at conclusions in the absence of any definite news, finds in these disappearances some slight consolation, since we at once affirm that Colonel Plumer must have arrived at some point in which the presence of the enemy's artillery is urgent and necessary.
The gun which we would very gladly spare is the one hundred-pounder Creusot, whose occasional removal from one emplacement to another is a source of much anxiety to every one in the garrison. In the beginning of the siege—a date which is now very remote—"Big Ben" hurled its shells into this unfortunate town from an emplacement at Jackal Tree. In those days it was almost four miles distant, and we took but little notice of a gun which flung its projectiles from such a distant range. Those were the days in which we dug holes by night, and speculated rather feebly during the day upon the resisting power of the protection which we had thus thrown up. But the gun moved then to the south-eastern heights, a matter of barely 4,000 yards from the town, and of sufficient eminence to dominate every little corner. Those were the days in which we dug a little deeper and went round trying to borrow—from people who would not lend—any spare sacks, iron sleepers, or deals, so that our bomb-proofs might be still further strengthened. However, as time passed, we even got accustomed to the gun in its new position, and, much as ever, there were many who felt inclined to promenade during lapses in the enemy's shell fire. Now, however, this wretched gun has again been moved, and, according to those who know the country, is within two miles of the town—a little matter under 3,000 yards.
In accordance with the fresh position of the Creusot gun we have been compelled to extend our eastern defences in order that we may, at least, direct an artillery fire upon their advanced trenches. To the north-east and south-east we have put forward our guns and to the south-east have increased a detachment of sharpshooters, who, from a very early date in the siege, have occupied a position in the river-bed. These men are only two hundred yards from the sniping posts of the Boers, and through the cessation of hostilities upon Sundays, they have grown to recognise one another. Sunday has thus also brought to the snipers an opportunity of discovering what result their mutual fire has achieved during the week, and, when from time to time a figure is missing, either side recognise that to their marksmanship, at least, that much credit is due. Among the Boers who occupied the posts in the brickfields were many old men, one of whom, from his venerable mien, his bent and tottering figure, his long white beard, and his grey hair, was called grandfather. He had become so identified with these posts in the brickfields that upon Sundays our men would shout out to him, some calling him Uncle Paul, others grandfather, and when the old fellow heard these remarks he would turn and gaze at our trench in the river-bed, wondering possibly, as he stroked his beard, brushed his clusters of hair from his forehead, or wiped his brow, what manner of men those snipers were. He has been known to wave his hat when in a mood more than usually benign; then we would wave our hats and cheer, while he, once again perplexed, would, taking his pipe from his pocket, slowly retrace his steps to his trench. The old man was a remarkably good shot, and from his post has sent many bullets through the loopholes in our sandbags. He would go in the early morning to his fort and he would return at dusk, but in the going and coming he, alone of the men who were opposing us, was given a safe passage. One day, however, as the Red Cross flag came out from the fort, we, looking through our glasses, saw them lift the body of grandfather into the ambulance. That night there was a funeral, and upon the following day we learnt that he had been their best marksman. For ourselves, we were genuinely sorry.
Yesterday there occurred another of those acts of war which illustrate in such a very striking fashion the silent tragedies which are enacted, and with which perforce many unwilling people are connected, during the progress of a campaign. There are, of course, many issues to the career of a soldier, and perhaps not the least important of these is the arduous and very dangerous task of collecting intelligence. In the ranks of society, men who are known to be spies are regarded with silent contempt, and ostracised from the circle of their acquaintances, so soon as their calling is ascertained; but the duties of a military spy differ in almost every respect from the individual who becomes a social reformer. In the field the military spy carries his life in his hand, since his capture implies an almost immediate execution without any possibility of reprieve. Last night such an occurrence took place at sundown, when, as the sun sank to its setting, a native, who had been caught within our lines, and who confessed to be an emissary of the Boers, was taken out and shot.
The spy was a young man, and a native of the stadt, which is a portion of Mafeking, and one who had accepted the work of carrying information to the enemy because he did not sufficiently realise the punishment which would fall upon him, were he to be captured. His instructions from the Boers had been remarkably explicit, and the sphere of his activities embraced our entire position. He was to visit the forts, counting the number of men, and taking special notice of those to which guns had been attached. He was to report upon the strength of the garrison, the condition of our horses, the supplies of foodstuffs, and he was to stay within Mafeking for about ten days. He was captured a fortnight ago, as he was creeping in, snatching cover from the bushes and rocks which spread over the south-eastern face of the town. When he was caught, as though momentarily realising the possibilities of his fate, he at first refused to say who he was, whence he came, or what had been his purpose. However, among the native patrol that had so successfully surprised him were some who knew him, whereupon he stated that he was simply returning to the stadt. In the earlier part of the siege almost every native who came across the lines gave this same excuse, until the suspicion was forced upon us that the Baralongs were acting in conjunction with the enemy. However, this was not proved to be the case, the chief repudiating the suggestion and disclaiming any authority over those natives who happened to be beyond the lines at the outbreak of the war. Nevertheless, it had been impossible to prevent the Boers receiving information through native sources, and for the future, there remained no alternative but that which implied the immediate execution of captured spies. An increase in the Cossack posts at night somewhat checked the mass of information which was carried to the Boers across our lines, and in an earlier instance, when a native came in from the Boer camp and said that the big gun had been taken away that morning upon a waggon, he was given the benefit of forty-eight hours' grace, with the understanding that, should the gun fire during that period, he would be at once sentenced to death. For a day this man watched the emplacement of the big gun, and twenty-four hours passed without Mafeking receiving any shells from it. The day following was half over, and it was about noon, when the Boers disproved the story which they had instructed their spy to tell, and fired into the town. The man then confessed that his errand had been inimical, and that he himself was hostile to our interests. At dusk the sentence of the Summary Court of Jurisdiction was carried out, and that spy was shot. But this other at no time seemed to understand the gravity of his offence, and when we captured him he informed his captors and the Court that he himself had meant no harm. However, he confessed, endeavouring to minimise his offence by showing that at the moment of his capture he had gathered no information, yet his pleas were futile, and he at last seemed to understand that his doom was sealed. From then, as he returned to the prison to await the execution of his sentence, he said nothing more.
Last night the shooting party came for him, marching him to a secluded point upon the south-eastern face, and there they halted him, a silent figure in a wilderness of rock and scrub. Around him there was the scene of the veldt at eventide. There was the gorgeous, flaming sunset, its ruddy gold turning the azure of the sky to clouds of purple, pale orange, and a deeper blue. Here and there the heavens were flecked with fleecy clouds, which gambolled gently before the breeze. In the distance lay the green-clad veldt, simmering a russet brown beneath the glories of the sunset. At our feet it sloped, breaking into rocky sluits, banked up with bushes; over all there was the zephyr, tempering the heat. It was a moment meant for rejoicing in the beauty of earth's loveliness rather than for dimming it with the sadness of some crimson act. Presently we arrived, and as we bent across the slope the blood-red stream of passing sunlight played around the shallow heap of earth, thrown out from this man's final resting-place. It was visible, much as were the deeper shadows of the excavation some seventy yards away, when, as though wishing to spare the prisoner, his eyes were bandaged by the officers of the party. With that a sudden silence fell upon us, and each seemed to feel that he were walking within the shadows of the valley of death. The prisoner, supported on either arm, stumbled in the partial blindness of the bandage, seeming, now that his last hour was at hand, to be more careless, more light-hearted than any of the party. Then we halted, and he was asked whether there were anything further which he wished to say, and he was warned for the last time. He shook his head somewhat defiantly, but his lips moved, and in his heart one could almost hear the muttered curses. Then for a space he stood still, and a few yards distant, in fact some ten paces, the firing party formed across his front. There were six of them, with a corporal and the officer in command of the post, and there was that other, who in a little was to pay the penalty of his crime. There was a moment of intense silence as we waited for the sun to set, in which the nerves seemed to be but little strings of wire, played upon by the emotions. Unconsciously, each seemed to stiffen, as we waited for the word of the officer, feeling that at every pulsation one would like to shriek "Enough, enough!" As we stood the prisoner spoke, unconscious of the preparations, and the officer approached him. He wanted, he said, to take a final glance at the place that he had known since his childhood. His prayer was granted, and as he faced about, the bandage across his eyes was, for a few brief minutes, dropped upon his neck. In that final look he seemed to realise what he was suffering. The stadt lay before him, the place of his childhood, the central pivot round which his life had turned, bathed in a sunset which he had often seen before, and which he would never see again. There were the cattle of his people, there were the noises of the stadt, the children's voices, the laughter of the women, and there was the smoke of his camp fires. It was all his once—he lived there and he was to die there, but to die in a manner which was strange and horrible. Then he looked beyond the stadt and scanned the enemy's lines. Tears welled in his eyes, and the force of his emotion shook his shoulders. But again he was himself: the feeling had passed, and he drew himself erect. Then once more the bandage was secured, and he faced about. The sun was setting, and as the officer stepped back and gave his orders, a fleeting shudder crossed the native's face. Bayonets were fixed, the men were ready and the rifles were presented. One gripped one's palms. "Fire!" said the officer. Six bullets struck him—four were in the brain.