Mafeking, February 3rd, 1900.
The main occupation of the garrison just now is to speculate upon the progress of the work of trench-building, which is being rapidly pushed forward in the brickfields upon the south-eastern face of the town. It is eminently a safe occupation, since our activity in that quarter is absorbing the almost undivided attentions of the enemy in the adjacent trenches, and therefore giving to the town an enjoyable and protracted respite from rifle fire. This, however, exists throughout the day only, since night is made hideous and uncomfortable by the heavy fire which the enemy turn upon it, and which is returned, with very pleasing promptitude, by the town forts and the occupants of the trenches in the brickfields. The area of war, localised thus as it is in the brickfields, is an interesting testimony to the progress of our arms here in Mafeking. We began the siege by abandoning this position and with it the very excellent sniping opportunities it gave to the Boers. The 8,000 men that Commandant Cronje had with him in those early days, made it impossible for our small garrison to hold, with any prospect of success, positions so far outlying from the front of the town. It is, however, quite a different thing to occupy those trenches to-day, since the veldt intervening in the rear, has now been carefully protected, and we advance not at all until the post which is in occupation at the moment, has been securely fortified and connected with adjacent outposts by well-covered trenches. We are now, after almost six months' siege, some 1,700 yards in advance of the town, and the south-eastern outposts, as these brickfield forts are called, constitute our most outlying positions around beleaguered Mafeking.
Very gradually, and with infinite pains and labour, we have sapped from town until the company of Cape Boys that is posted in the "Clayhole," under Sergeant Currie, is within two hundred yards of the Boers' main trench—a point from which one may hear at times our enemy holding animated discussions upon his failure to capture Mafeking. When war was first declared Commandant Cronje threw strong detachments of sharpshooters into the brick kilns which we ourselves now hold, and at this present moment, there is no position in those which we have seized, that was not originally in possession of the Boers. Innumerable traces exist of their temporary occupation, and where it has been possible we have preserved these; so that the town itself may at some future date be able to see the remains of the Boer investment. These little facts give to our work here a greater significance, insomuch that it may be assumed that an enemy who has been fortunate enough to secure for himself a strong position, is not so foolish as to abandon it voluntarily. This, of course, is quite the case, and many have been the occasions when the town has been able to watch affairs between outposts being briskly contested in these very trenches.
Nothing is quite so pleasant, so invigorating, nor quite so dangerous as life in these brickfield posts. Inspector Marsh, Cape Police, in whom the command of the south-eastern outposts has been invested, most kindly permitted me to join his quarters. We are aroused in the morning as the day breaks by a volley from the Boer trenches, and in all probability the derisive shout, "Good morning, Mr. damned Englishman!" to which the Cape Boys usually return the salutation of "Stinkpots!" which is the euphonious rendering of a Dutch word calculated to give, more especially when coming from a nigger, the utmost possible offence. The day may then be said to have begun, although, between this and any further ceremonies, there is usually a mutual cessation of hostilities, in order that each side may enjoy a cup of matutinal coffee. The coffee is made in town and brought out, since orders are exceedingly strict against the lighting of fires on outposts. Sometimes the day proves long, but usually it is one of an exciting character, and one in which it behoves the men to move with the utmost care. The enemy would seem to have filled their advanced trench with a number of picked sharpshooters; for it is quite an ordinary occurrence for them to fire, at five hundred yards range, through our loopholes; nor are these chance shots, for there is one man who seems to put the bullets precisely where he wishes, since, at least once during the day, he will test the accuracy of his aim by emptying his entire chamber through one porthole. Such sharpshooting compels one to move with a large amount of precaution, since if so much as a finger be shown above the top of the sandbags there is every likelihood of it being perforated by a Mauser bullet. But if this be the manner of our existence, the Boers do not take any risks either, and move between their portholes with the greatest precaution, until this system of watching one another may be said to have developed a class of work which consists principally of lying upon one's stomach in readiness to fire—if there should occur the slightest opportunity.
Sometimes, if the day be quiet, we creep from trench to trench, even venturing to the river; but upon the whole, however, there is not much of this visiting accomplished, since the Boers have the habit of attempting to lull us into security and then spoiling the delusion with a well-directed volley. Recently the advanced trenches of the Boers were so heavily reinforced that we expected an attack upon the brickfields; in fact, one night we were almost positive that the enemy were about to make an attempt to wrest this position from us. They did not do so, nor have they made any night attack, since the Dutchman does not like to meet his enemy by night, unless he himself is ensconced safely behind some sacks and his foe in the open. Upon such an occasion he will fire until his ammunition is expended. However, we expected them, and although they made no advance, they poured in at daybreak, at somewhat under four hundred yards range, a most terrific fire. They turned upon us a 9-lb. Krupp, a 5-lb. Creusot, a 3-lb. Maxim, and about five hundred rifles. It was an amazing morning and a most interesting experience, while for some hours afterwards the air seemed to ring with the droning notes of the Martinis and the sharp crackle of the Mauser. Of course we fired back, since we never allowed the Dutchmen to turn their guns upon us without treating the gun emplacements and embrasures to several volleys. It is good sometimes to impress upon the Boers the uselessness of their efforts. Out here in these brickfields we appear to be upon the edge of a new world, with the limits of the old one just below. Mafeking itself is only 1,700 yards distant, but the undulating ground, the rocky ridges, the simmering heat, and the mirage give rise to the impression that the town, of which the brickfields is the outpost, is many miles away. We live a peaceful, almost serene existence, disturbed only by the hum of passing bullets. There is no pettiness of spirit, no mutual bickerings, no absurd jealousies; one does not hear anything of the clash between the civil and military elements. That is all below us in the little town which sits upon the rising slopes with that appearance of chaos and despair which now mark its daily existence. Black care is not here, and thank heaven for it; for indeed a luxury beyond comparison is the quiet and peaceful day.
Mafeking at last is siege-weary—and, oh, so hungry! It seems months since any one had a meal which satisfied the pangs that gnaw all day. We have been on starvation rations for so many weeks that time has been forgotten, and now there seems the prospect of no immediate help forthcoming! We are so sick of it, so tired of the malaria, diphtheria, and typhoid that claim a list as great almost as that caused by the enemy's shell and rifle fire! We ask, When will the end be? and then we shrug our shoulders and begin to swear; for we have such sorrows in our midst, such suffering women and such ailing children as would turn a saint to blasphemies!