Mafeking, March 31st, 1900.
We have lived for so many months now under the conditions which govern a town during siege that we almost accept existing circumstances as normal. We have ceased to wonder at the shortness of our rations, content to recognise that we might grumble from sunrise to sunset and gain nothing by it. We are no longer surprised at the enemy; they seem to take the siege as a joke, but it is a comedy which has a tragic lining. We have astounding spirit; there is no question of the gravity of our situation; there is no doubt that if we were to relax our vigilance for a moment, if we were to withdraw an outpost, diminish the establishment of some trench, the Boers would be in upon us before the garrison had realised that any such alteration in the defences had taken place. Nevertheless, there is really an admirable exhibition of almost uncomplaining acquiescence in the hardships which have fallen to our daily lot. Here and there there is grumbling, but the man who grumbles to-day rejoices to-morrow, since no siege can be endured with fortitude and determination if one dwells unduly long upon the difficulties and trials which beset us. Lately we had an exhibition, and many people in the garrison have consumed the past three weeks in a feverish and untiring activity to complete their exhibits. Ladies accomplished something rather fine in lacework, the men turned their attention to constructing models of the town's defences, and one and all entered into this little break in the monotony of the siege with the cheering intention of getting as much out of the event as was possible. Prizes varying from £5 to a sovereign were offered, and indirectly, each endeavoured to foster the spirit of the town. It had a beneficial effect, this artificial method of killing time, and it realised some £50 for the hospital. There have been other things besides the exhibition to stimulate the spirits of the garrison. Native runners brought us the news of the fall of Bloemfontein, a feature in the campaign which adds fresh laurels to the reputation of Lord Roberts. His continued successes have been an elixir vitæ, and, indeed, so freely have we imbibed of this new medicine, that there have been many who have found themselves possessed of a fresh strength. There is, however, one thing which does not give any satisfaction whatsoever to the little band of men who have held this outpost of the Empire during so many weary months, and this is embodied in the absence of any very definite signs of a speedy relief. Lord Roberts has told us to hold out until the middle of May, but it is a weary wait, and we could well see the van of the column crossing the rise. Within the past few days the town has been swept by rumours about the propinquity of the southern column; we have understood Colonel Plumer has been within fifty miles of Mafeking for some weeks. The rumours anent the southern relief place this column at any point within two hundred miles of Mafeking; some days it has reached Taungs, upon others it has not left Kimberley, again it is a week's march north of Vryburg, and in the meantime we receive telegrams from London congratulating us upon our successful and happy release. Where do these rumours come from? How comes it that London should be in ignorance of our condition?
We, who have followed with so much interest the fortunes of the campaign, sharing in the success of others with all sincerity and feeling reverses like personal insults, are disinclined to deny the existence of a relief column; but perhaps it is not altogether understood that, while we have food lasting till the middle of May, it is not impossible to feel famished upon our present rations at the end of March. Of food in the abstract there is an abundance, but the condition and quality of the ration is such that it cannot be reduced any further without immediately affecting the health of the garrison and proving a very serious obstacle to the successful execution of any work which may be detailed to the command. Experiments have been tried for the purpose of discovering whether it were possible to exist, and to work, upon an allowance of 8 oz. of meat and 4 oz. of bread, and, while it was proved that the garrison might exist upon such short commons, it would be very injudicious to issue this allowance, since it caused a serious deterioration in the stamina of the men; it has, therefore, been condemned. The bread is impossible, and, although every effort be made to improve it, it still resembles a penwiper more than a portion of bread. It is made from the common oats which one gives to horses. These oats are crushed, but, sift them as you please, treat them by every process which the ingenuity of the entire garrison can devise, they positively bristle all over with sharp-pointed pieces of the husks. Recently we have been promised Boer meal, but it would appear, according to Captain Ryan, that the Boer meal is to be held in reserve as long as possible. For the moment we rather hanker after that reserve, and we do not take much of the composite forage which is served us as bread. However, if we are eating the rations of horses, the unfortunate people of Kimberley ate the horses, and so, it would seem, our lot might be much worse. Horses have not become our daily ration yet, although they form the basis of a curious soup which is made and served out to the natives. The smell of that soup turns many weary pedestrians from their usual paths, although the spectacle of the starving natives swarming round the soup-kitchen is one of the sights of the siege.
But, doubtless, those people who send us ridiculous messages of congratulation may think that this is, after all, but the mere detail of the siege—the side issue which should be expected, and which should in any case be endured with a fine toleration. That is all right; we do not mind the bread, we do not mind the aroma of the soup-kitchen, but we do object to preposterous messages of congratulation telling us "the siege is over," at the very moment when the enemy is shelling us simultaneously from five different points. The other day they endeavoured to concentrate their fire upon the centre of the town, and, if they did not do this altogether, they most certainly fired into Mafeking a weight of metal that has exceeded every other day's. We had from sunrise until dusk 79 Creusot shells, 100 lb. each; 35 steel-capped, armour-piercing, delay-action, high-velocity Krupp, 15 lb. each; 29 9-pounder Krupp; 57 3-pounder Maxims; and such a merry flight of 5-pounders that these shells have become a drug in the market, and to such an extent that we would very gladly exchange between here and London, a few such stormy petrels as a polite and cordial memento of the day of our deliverance. It is true that in part we are relieved, since we have chosen to take the initiative into our own hands and expelled the enemy from a position on the south-eastern facing of the town which they have occupied since the beginning of hostilities. This has given us immense relief, since it has practically placed the town beyond the effective range of the Mauser rifle and the Boer sharpshooters.
The trench was exceedingly well made, divided by traverses, protected with a rear bank and a strong head cover. It was a mercy that we did not attempt to storm it, and its remarkable strength and composite construction goes some way to explain the difficulty which we have experienced in making much impression, either by shell fire or storming party, upon the Boer entrenchments. We did this in a single night, having led up to such a climax by devoting our attentions to this particular quarter. We bombarded them by day, we sniped them by night, and sapped them in the intervals. For a brief moment the enemy checked us, but it was only for a moment, and our fire was so warm and so persistent that they relinquished their attempt to prevent our advance, leaving, however, in their trench at the moment of evacuation a little trifle, possibly forgotten in their scramble to the rear, of 250 lbs. of nitro-glycerine. The mine was at once located, the wires were cut, the trench was occupied, and in the morning when day dawned, instead of there being the roar of a great explosion, there was simply the ruddy blaze of our artillery fire from the gun emplacements which they had constructed and which we had converted to our own use. But we have taken care of that little mine, and possession of the trench leaves us masters of the situation. This, however, is the only relief that has come to Mafeking.
The Boer possesses a natural aptitude for digging ditches and throwing up earthworks, since his instinct tells him what not to do, much as this same intuition teaches him how to secure the natural fortifications of a kopje, and has made him, as the war has proved, a foeman worthy of our steel. We have despised the Boer; we have contumaciously called him a barbarian; but, nevertheless, these nomads of the South African veldt have given the mighty majesty of England a lesson which will take her many years to forget. Boer tactics are unique, but one has to witness them to believe in their feasibility. Their horses are so trained that when the reins are thrown over their necks they remain immovable. Their fighting is based on this fact, combined with the dictates of common-sense and their empirical, yet successful manner of encountering us in the Gladstonian War. Each commando of one hundred men is their unit; these are concentrated in scattered groups in rear of their outpost lines, and upon coming in contact with the enemy they endeavour to encircle their adversary, cantering in eccentric circles until they are able to dismount in a fold of ground near some coign of vantage. They are extraordinarily adept at making the best of their cover, and they are most patient, waiting hours for a shot, prone upon the ground, under a scorching sun. It would seem that they have maintained their time-honoured system, applying to the present campaign tactics possessing great mobility, rapid powers of concentration on vulnerable points, and as rapid retreats therefrom if seriously threatened. This power of rapid movement incidental to all being mounted gives them great advantage, increasing their powers of offence and defence, and representing the crux of their theories of war. The Boer carries on his horse one hundred rounds of ammunition, and rations of sun-dried beef sufficient for four days. The horses feed upon the veldt. In four days the Boer can cover two hundred miles, and it is this ability to move from point to point with extraordinary despatch, that makes the Boer force a body of mounted infantrymen possessing great strategical value. It has been impossible not to admire the tactics which the Boers have pursued in investing Mafeking, and where they have detached a force for any special purpose the execution of their work has been accomplished with laudable celerity. They dismantle and re-set, at an emplacement some miles away, their big Creusot gun—a process which seldom occupies them longer than between dusk and dawn; sometimes we see them moving their guns northwards, and hear from natives that they arrived at a point some thirty miles from Mafeking by daybreak. It may be that in respect to the mobility of their forces we have much to learn, and let us at least profit by the lessons which are thus afforded us.