Mafeking, February 28th, 1900.
In many ways this month has been the most eventful of any during the siege. Other months of the siege have secured for themselves a certain notoriety, because they have been identified with some particular engagement; but this month of February has seen our labour in the brickfields brought to a successful consummation, and, at a moment when the garrison was congratulating itself upon the triumphant issue of such an adventurous and adventitious undertaking, we have been brought face to face with the contingency that even yet it may not be possible to continue to occupy so advanced a post. If I return to the subject of the brickfields after such a short interval, it is because there, more than anywhere else in Mafeking, the clash of arms is predominant. These many days we have followed out our scheme, endeavouring to circumvent the enemy by pushing forward a line of entrenched posts until they should embrace an area which would enable us to outflank their main lines and enfilade their advanced trenches. There was a moment when this was actually completed, a moment in which we who were in the advanced forts, knew that if we could but hold the position we held the invaders in such a fashion that they would be compelled to abandon their posts. But there was the shadow of uncertainty, since we were rather reckoning upon the hitherto recognised fact, that the Boers belonged to that class of fighting peoples who never purposely attack if they could secure their ends by entrenchments and delay. For one day we rather gloried in the work, until towards dusk we realised with a swift and fearful astonishment that the Boers were intending to sap us. We have supposed it to be by accident rather than by design that a man, in the uniform of some German regiment, appeared of a sudden to arise out of the ground at a point some thirty yards distant from what we had considered to be the end of the Boer trench. His presence explained much, since the night before we had been perplexed at hearing the sound of picking and shovelling a little in advance of our position. At that time we had concluded that the noises emanated from the natives, who were deepening and strengthening the advanced trench of the Boers; but with this figure suddenly appearing, we realised that there was quite a different story to be told, one which implied that our previous opinion of the enemy was in error, and that they intended to make us fight for our position or to turn us out. The situation was rapidly becoming as interesting as any which has developed from the siege. Sap and counter-sap were separated perhaps by eighty yards, and so gallantly and vigorously did the enemy work that we could see them approaching yard by yard. It was impossible for us in the time at our disposal to do very much to stop them; we could simply keep a look-out and drench their trenches with volleys upon the slightest provocation. It was useless to fire upon the natives working in the sap, since it was only possible to see the points of their picks as they were swung aloft, catching for a moment the radiance of the sun. Still they came on, and one night we knew that before dawn they would be into us. That night no one slept in the advanced trenches, and Inspector Marsh, who has very generously permitted me to stop with him for the past month in his quarters in the brickfields, visited the posts hourly. Between two and three we slept, and for a short space there was a perfect calm in our lines. At half-past four we stood to arms, to hear that the enemy had made contact with our trench. As we found this out, news was brought that the big Creusot gun had taken up its position upon the south-eastern heights, and so commanded our entire area. The inevitable had arrived and perhaps for a brief moment we were all a little subdued. As the sun rose Inspector Marsh, commanding the south-eastern outposts, under directions from Headquarters, warned every man to take such cover as was obtainable.
The situation would have given satisfaction had there been any prospect of an equal contest, since man to man we were not unmatched, but it would be impossible for the occupants of these advanced posts to attempt conclusions with an enemy who could bring to their assistance a high-velocity Krupp and a 100 lb. Creusot. There was immediate excitement, and Inspector Marsh telephoned the news to Headquarters. For the moment that was all which could be done—inform Headquarters. Then, with our rifles in our hands, with an extra supply of ammunition by our sides, we waited the inevitable, and we waited until night; but upon that night nothing happened. As dusk drew down, and as the calm of night was broken only by the rumbling echoes and tremors of the work in the enemy's sap, we threw out a working party of some two hundred natives, starving and ill-conditioned, but the best that we could procure, intending to make the effort to check once and for all the advance of the Boers. We worked all night, and dawn was breaking as we drew off, but we had passed them. In a single night we had carried our sap some thirty yards beyond theirs, and at such an angle that we enfiladed their sap, while only eighty yards divided the pair. The Boer line of advance was deeper than ours by some five feet, but all that day white man and Cape Boy strove to deepen our new trench, and by night it was perhaps a foot deeper than it had been. It was dangerous work; it was exciting. The crackle of bullets was never absent; they struck all round one, and there were a few fatalities. That night we worked again, and so did they. Indeed, each side volleyed heavily all night to protect their working parties. We were not extending our trench; it was already a hundred yards sheer into the open, but in the morning when we looked, the Boer trench was barely thirty yards away from ours. That day we did nothing but await the inevitable again. We slept, since it was certain that on the morrow a fight would come. Once more there was nothing for it but to wait in such readiness as we could be in, for anything that the enemy might attempt. They began at dusk by throwing dynamite bombs into our sap—some burst, some fell blind; but this work was futile, since they had not yet reached sufficiently near to effect any damage. When they did obtain such access, we also had a little pile of bombs. Tooth for tooth—we were not going to give up without fighting. Then the end came suddenly, for Headquarters telephoned that the big gun had taken up its original position, which was barely two thousand yards distant on our left flank. With this message we began to comprehend what the next day would bring forth.
The affair between the outposts began about a quarter to five in the morning. The first 100 lb. shell fell between our trenches and those of the enemy: it seemed that they had wished to secure the range. They had secured it. The three holes which form our advanced position contain no cover whatsoever, since there is none to put up, and whatever earth had been thrown up was commanded by the enemy's fort upon the south-eastern heights. Each hole contained a shelter from the sun, a corrugated iron arrangement, supported by props, with a sprinkling of earth on top. The shooting was magnificent, and it will be difficult to find, when the various comparisons be drawn, marksmanship more precise or more accurate. Each was wrecked in turn: a shell to a shelter. When this work had been accomplished, the big gun directed its attention to the brick-kilns, in which we had posted our sharpshooters. In a little time the three were heaps of ruins. Between the intervals of shelling the Boers fired volleys from the three points: from the fort on the south-eastern heights, from the fort in the river-bed, and from their main trench. The company of Cape Boys in the advanced hole could not be expected to relish the triple fire, which was in turn endorsed by shells from the big gun. The holes are not very large, nor very wide, nor high: they are natural depressions in the soil, in which water had collected and caused a further subsidence. When the enemy volleyed from the advanced trench, they had to crouch under the lee of a bank that was facing the direction of the fort on the south-eastern heights; when they wished to avoid shell and rifle fire from this fort, they had to run the risk of finding shelter in the direct line of fire from the main trench. If they endeavoured to move to the second hole, they had to do so under fire from all three points. It was rather an unpleasant state of things for the Cape Boys, who, moreover, could find no point from which to return the fire of the enemy. In an hour some twelve shells had been thrown into the first hole, and there were five fatalities. Whenever we endeavoured to occupy the sap the big gun shelled it, until it was no longer possible to maintain a post in a position so exposed. We fell back to the second hole, and the enemy began to shell other points in the brickfields. They sent two to Currie's post in the river-bed; they scattered them plentifully about the first, second, and third forts—entrenched posts by which it is hoped to keep back the Boers, should they successfully carry the Cape Boy holes. The situation was becoming serious, and we had been compelled to abandon the sap and evacuate the first hole. At the moment it was a question of whether the Boers were coming on, and as we waited in the expectation of seeing them advance down our own sap into our original position, the shelling ceased, for the Boers had gone to breakfast. That was our supreme opportunity, and although they must have seen us from the south-eastern heights, we employed ourselves in saving from the wreck what was possible. All the shelters had been pounded into débris: rifles and bayonets lay about broken and twisted, here and there were remains of camp utensils, and blood-stained clothing. It was a scene of ruin, and as we crept into it upon our hands and knees the confusion of the place struck one sadly. Sergeant-Major Taylor had been hurt by the second shell, and has since died, while another of the wounded has also succumbed. While the firing lasted the position was untenable, and we fell back from the sap into the most advanced of the holes. Here the situation rapidly became impossible, for the character of the outwork prevented any one from taking cover. But despite the galling fire, the Cape Boys behaved with admirable courage and endurance, and it was only when three men in the advanced hole had been seriously wounded, that they fell back behind the bank of the second pit. In a little, when the gun had effectually driven us from the advanced hole, the enemy began to shell the forts in the rear. At that moment there were two things to be done: one was to bank up the mouth of the sap, since the enemy had already reached it and were firing down it, the other was to throw up a rampart across the mouth of the second hole. Under a heavy fire Corporal Rosenfeld, of the Bechuanaland Volunteers, and myself undertook and accomplished the one, while at night the work upon the rampart was begun. By morning it was finished, but in the night the enemy had occupied our sap. The length of the first hole then alone divided us. Within the next few hours, however, the position of affairs changed as rapidly again. At a moment when the enemy were least prepared a strong party rushed the hole and sap, expelling the Boers by vigorous use of bayonets and dynamite bombs. Since then the Boers have left our advanced works severely alone.