Mafeking, February 14th, 1900.
In the history of the siege of Mafeking there should stand forth an event as remarkable to posterity, if, perhaps, not quite so historical, as the famous ball which was given by the Duchess of Richmond on the eve of Waterloo. It may be, indeed, a trite comparison, since its only relationship is contained in the fact that the officers were called away to the field of battle; but, with so much uncertainty in European circles upon the conditions of the garrison, this fact and its issues tend to show the spirit with which the town is sustaining its precarious existence. Although we have some 3,000 Boers around us, with twelve different varieties of artillery, and despite the steady increase in fatalities from shot and shell which marks each day, we can yet stimulate our flagging spirits to a pitch in which a ball is accepted and welcomed as an essential to the conditions of the siege. A mere detail, yet one of sufficiently striking importance and showing how very sombre and how serious is the daily situation, will perhaps be found in the postponement of this ball from Saturday night until the succeeding evening—a proceeding which was rendered necessary by the death of a popular townsman from a 100-pound shell in the course of the previous morning. Recent Sundays have revealed a tendency, upon the part of the enemy, to ignore that generous and courteous concession to a beleaguered garrison which General Cronje granted, by professing his willingness to observe the Sabbath, insomuch that the Boers have maintained rifle fire until 5 in the morning, commencing again at any moment after 9 o'clock at night. This Sunday was no exception, and we had the usual matutinal volleys.
Towards 8 o'clock in the evening the streets near the Masonic Hall presented an animated, even a gay, picture. Officers in uniform and ladies in charming toilettes were making their way to the scene of the festivity, each with a careless happiness which made it impossible to believe that within a thousand yards of the town were the enemy's lines. Immense cheering greeted the strains of "Rule Britannia," played by the band of the Bechuanaland Rifles, and then the dance commenced. The town danced upon the edge of a volcano, as it were; and while it danced the outposts watched with strained eye for any sign of movement in the enemy's lines. As dusk closed in the outposts had reported to the colonel commanding that the advanced trenches of the enemy had been reinforced with some three hundred Boers, and that their galloping Maxim had been drawn by four men to a point adjacent to our outlying posts in the brickfields, while what appeared to be the nine-pounder Krupp had been put into an emplacement upon the south-eastern front. This news Colonel Baden-Powell did not permit to become known, since he very properly wished to allow the garrison to enjoy its dance if occasion offered; and accordingly the dance began. It was early when the enemy sent their preliminary volley whistling over the town; in an instant the animation of the streets which had preceded the dance was apparent once more, as around the doors of the Masonic Hall a number of people collected from out of the ball-room. Officers raced to their posts as orderlies galloped through the streets sounding a general alarm. We were to be attacked, and a man can serve his guns, can ply his rifle, can stand to his post in evening pumps and dress trousers as efficiently and as thoroughly as he can were he clothed in the coarser habiliments of the trenches. For a few minutes no one quite knew what would happen, and greater mystification prevailed as the noise of firing came from every quarter of our front. Urgent orders were issued, to be obeyed as rapidly; Maxims were brought up at a gallop, the reserve squadron was held in readiness, coming up to Headquarters at the double. The guns were loaded and trained, and within a few minutes of the general alarm, the ball-room was deserted and every man was at his post.
It was a fine night, and the moon was full. Here and there, silhouetted against the skyline, those who were watching could see the reinforcements marching to the advanced trenches. There had been little time to think of anything, to collect anything, the men who were sent forward simply snatching their rifles and ammunition reserves. For a brief moment there was exceeding confusion in the forts that had been ordered to furnish reinforcements for any particular trench; but this duty was performed so quickly, and the town was in such readiness to repel attack, that our mobilisation would have reflected credit upon the smartest Imperial force. Presently there came a lull in the firing, and the ambulance waggon made its way to a sheltered point, prepared to move forward should it become necessary. I watched for a few minutes the scene in the Market Square, paying particular attention to Colonel Baden-Powell and his staff officers, who had congregated beyond the stoep of the Headquarters office. Now and again Lord Edward Cecil, the Chief Staff Officer, would detach himself from the group to send an instruction by one of the many orderlies who, with their horses, were in waiting. It was a cheering spectacle, the prompt and methodical manner in which our final arrangements were perfected. Then the staff group broke up, and the C.S.O. explained the possibilities of the situation. The enemy contemplated an attack upon our south-eastern front, concentrating their advance upon our positions in the brickfields. If such, indeed, were the case, we could promise ourselves a smart little fight, and one, moreover, at point-blank range. We had so fortified our trenches in this particular quarter that, happily, there was no prospect of any disaster similar to that which befell our arms at Game Tree. Towards midnight heavy firing broke out upon the western outposts, caused, as was afterwards proved, by the success of our native cattle raiders, who, managing to elude the vigilance of the Boer scouts, had driven some few head of cattle through their lines into our own camp. The sound of this firing drew the Chief Staff Officer to the telephone in the Headquarters bomb-proof, whereupon I made my way to the point against which we had assumed that the attack would be directed.
It was to an old post in a somewhat new shape, then, that I made my way, a journey which amply compensated for any lack of excitement in the events of the last few days. Fitful volleys from the Boers made it impossible to walk across the section of the veldt intervening between the rear of these advanced posts and the town, while at present, these posts form a little colony, connected as they are now among themselves, but cut off altogether from communication with the town until the pall of night comes to shield the movements of those compelled to make their way between the town and the brickfields. Soon, those who are posted there hope to see a trench constructed, affording passage at any moment with the base; but until this happens it is a pleasant scramble, a little dangerous, and somewhat trying. The ground is rough and stony, sloping slightly, in open spaces, to within a few yards of the Boer lines. It is commanded in many points, and upon this particular night it seemed to suit the purpose of the enemy to play upon it with their rifles at irregular intervals. To reach the river-bed was easy, to scramble up the river-bed with one's figure thrown out against the skyline is better appreciated in imagination; to put it into practice is to walk without looking where one is going, since one is continually sweeping the enemy's positions to catch the flash of the enemy's rifles. When the flash is caught, if the bullet has not hit one first, it is wiser to throw dignity to the wind and oneself upon the ground. In this position, prone and very muddy, even a little bruised, I found myself, until the fierce but whispered challenge of a sentry told me that my temporary destination had been reached. At this fort there was little to betray the excitement which consumed its gallant defenders, beyond the fact that the entire post was standing to arms. With a laugh and a jest we parted; and cut across what would have been the line of fire had a fight been raging at that moment. There was a low, elongated wedge a few yards distant upon the left, against which the moon threw black shadows. It was the Boer position, and as they had been firing frequently, warning to proceed cautiously was not altogether disobeyed. Inspector Marsh's post was then very shortly gained, and with this officer I passed the night.
It was 2 a.m. when Inspector Marsh turned out to make his last round before the men in his command stood to arms at daybreak. Whatever else was not evident, it was now certain that there would be no attack until the break of day, and so, upon returning to our post, we lay upon the stony ground and slept. It seemed that Time had scarcely scored an hour when we woke up, and, taking our rifles with us, buckling on our revolvers, stood to the loopholes. Day broke solemnly and with much beauty, night fading into grey-purple and soft, eerie shadows. Trees looked as sentinels, and there was no sound about us. Indeed, the spectacle of a large number of men expecting each minute the opening volley of an attack, was thrilling, and in that cold air their martial effect was a sufficient and satisfying tonic against the river mists. We had been standing some few minutes when from up the stream came the croaking of the bullfrog, so loud and emphatic that the older veldtsmen knew it at once to be a signal. This had scarcely been passed round when from that black line upon the sky there broke a withering sheet of flame; it was a magnificent volley, and swept across our intrenchments. We held our fire, crouching still lower and peering still more anxiously through the sandbags. Dawn was rapidly advancing, and as the light became clearer the enemy heralded its advance with a merry flight of three-pounder Maxims. They burst among us, hitting nobody, and falling principally upon the trench occupied by Sergeant Currie and his Cape Boys. Then we fired, or rather our most advanced trench opened, and in that moment the engagement began. However, beginning brilliantly as it did, under the snapping of the Mausers, the droning hiss of Martinis, and a roaring deluge of shells, it was short-lived. Sergeant Currie and his men bore the brunt of the rifle fire, replying shot to shot, undaunted and unchecked. The reverberating echoes of the firearms, of the exploding shells, to the accompaniment of the insulting taunts of the Cape Boys were somewhat deafening. When the advanced trenches of the enemy started, volleys came also from the ridge of the acclivity leading from the river-bed to the emplacement of the nine-pounder Krupp. Between them again, there were smaller trenches joining in the rifle practice, which, while it lasted, was so hot that it was not possible to creep through the connecting trenches, or, indeed, to move in any manner whatever. Within three hours the enemy threw some thirty nine-pounder Krupp, some twenty-five five-pound incendiary shells, an overwhelming mass of three-pound Maxims, and a few rounds from the cavalry Maxim. Bullets innumerable had whizzed across us, to be answered by rifle fire as brisk again, and so rapidly returned that few of the defenders had even time to think.
But we wondered, as the day grew brighter and two hours' firing had passed, what would be the end, considering ourselves fortunate that the enemy made no attempt to rush any one of the brickfields in his command. Occasionally, as we fired, Inspector Brown, in charge of the river-bed work, exchanged signals with Inspector Marsh, the post commander, through a megaphone, much to the discomfiture of the Boers, who, as the stentorian commands rang out in any lull of firing, were sadly perplexed. These signals had, of course, been arranged beforehand, the men knowing that they were the merest pretext and one by which it was hoped to confuse the Boers. Upon the part of the enemy it must have been rather alarming to hear between some temporary stoppage in the firing a voice in thunderous tones crying out, "Men of the advanced trench, fix bayonets," an order which would be invariably followed by hearty cheering from the Cape Police and insults of an exceedingly personal character from the Cape Boys. However, everything draws to an end, and the Boers, abandoning their intention of turning us out of the brickfields, ceased fire, giving to ourselves an opportunity to prepare breakfast. We ate it where we had previously been firing, the men passing the tins of bully and the bread rations from one to another. Then just where we had been fighting, with the scent of the burst shells and the smoke of the rifles hanging in the air, thin spiral columns of smoke arose in the rear of the few brick-kilns, and coffee was presently brought to us. Until mid-morning we maintained our posts, but with the luncheon hour we took it easy, although preserving a watchful attitude towards the Boers. Thus passed the day with little further firing, and some sleeping, terminating in a merry dinner—under siege conditions—with Inspector Marsh and Inspector Brown, in the dug-out of their town post.