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Mafeking, April 30th, 1900.

We have duly celebrated the two hundredth day of the siege, and if one examines closely into the condition of a town which has withstood the attacks of the enemy during two hundred days, it is to find a spirit that is strong and self-reliant among the garrison and to realise the sadness of the picture which presents the aspect of a town slowly passing into ruin. The ravages of the siege have in no way been so prominent as has been the case during the last few weeks. Mafeking of yore was somewhat stately, although it was merely a colonial up-country centre, possessing nothing which was grandiose or even elegant. But its calm and unruffled dignity sprang from clusters of stately trees around which it had sprung up, and from which in these days of tempest and adversity it snatches something of their independence, something of their indifference to the press of battle. But now it is almost a treeless town, and it is difficult to go anywhere without meeting the signs by which one may read the stress and privation which a siege imposes upon a beleaguered village. Mafeking was never a tiny town; it rambles too far over the veldt to be considered even compact, but these natural features are now greatly aggravated by the ruin which has fallen upon the outlying areas of the town, causing even the most central streets to be disorderly in appearance. From a very early date in the siege we have been accustomed to the spectacle of ungainly structures stretching across those thoroughfares which were exposed to the enemy's fire. These traverses were among the earliest preparations of the war, but now, in addition to these, at frequent intervals in the streets one comes across shelter-pits which have been excavated in the various thoroughfares. These protections against the enemy's shell and rifle fire were not perhaps any lasting imposition upon the elegance of the place, but as the siege developed its effects became more formidable and were more calculated to leave traces of a permanent character. To-day, perhaps, we are achieving to the end of this enforced vandalism, since we have already utilised the garden fences and demolished for the value of the wood which they may contain any houses which may have been damaged by shell fire. Indeed, just now, we are buying up the deserted huts of Kaffirs who have either been killed or who have made their way with safety through the lines. These huts comprise no small quantity of wood, so we are pulling them to pieces on account of the props which support the reed roofing. But before we ventured into the stadt for our wood, the trees in town were trimmed of their branches, or, as in many cases, chopped down altogether, and as a consequence the outward and visible sign of the results of the siege is an infinite sense of desolation. There is now no longer the gentle rustle of the trees as the night winds sigh through them; no longer do the birds scramble amid the branches, screaming merrily. There is no bird life now, for we have been unable to consider sentiment in the ordering of our daily life. The best timber in the town enjoys no greater immunity, since young and old trees each serve their purpose. Where there was once order, there is now confusion. Streets blockaded at one end are also furrowed by the many shells which have come into the town; the walls of the houses have been riddled with bullets, or wide, ragged holes gape where the projectiles of "Big Ben" pounded their way through. Telegraph poles and lamp posts are bent and twisted, some lying completely broken upon the roadside. The roads and paths are covered with weeds, and everywhere the neglect of the seven months' siege is in evidence. It is a depressing spectacle, and it is well just now to close one's eyes to everything—to the famine which is stalking in our midst, to the fever which is raging round the outposts, to the ill-conditioned horses and cattle, to the weary, patient women, to the children who, unfortunately fortunate, have survived so much distress, and yet if one looks a little forward it is difficult to see that the remedy will be forthcoming. It has required the labour of years to rear the trees, and in many cases the houses that were wrecked and upon whose sites lie piles of rubble, represented the successful conception of a life's handiwork which, destroyed in the passing of a moment, can never be altogether replaced. There are many men and some few women who have lost everything they possessed, and even if they receive an adequate compensation will still feel the absence, in their new abodes, of those subtle sentiments which made the fruition of their efforts so dear and treasured to them. It is impossible not to feel this when one perambulates through the town; every spot recalls something to the mind of some one, an indelible association, emanating from the siege and which time cannot obliterate. Men remember where they stood when some particular house was shattered, others recall their proximity to a bursting shell, whose explosion tore up the roadway. It is these things which will never be effaced, since they are the impressions which have struck deep down upon the mind, leaving an afterglow. But as a rule we keep our cares, feeling that so many people have so much else to worry them, recognising also that upon one and each of us the siege hangs sorely. There can be no doubt that it has left its mark, not only upon the town, but upon the garrison. The men are just a little gaunt, just a little unkempt; the women are haggard and careworn, for it is difficult to keep up one's spirit when from day to day there comes no news, only that curious, ironical instinct, that perhaps it may be that we are not to be relieved at all. The garrison is famished, that is, in reality, the kernel of our situation. Our energies are exhausted because our vital processes are insufficiently nurtured. We are all listless; we all feel that the siege has been a strain of the most severe description, and we are holding ourselves in for the final rally, anxious to support the position, determined to hold the town and occupy till the end our posts. Yet there is a false note through it all, and in those moments when one finds oneself alone one realises how artificial is the gaiety which we profess, feeling, by intuition, that one's own emotions are alike those of one's neighbour. However, each one of us endeavours to make an effort to maintain in public some appearance of interest in the daily conditions of the siege. It is a difficult part to play, because, as I have said, there is so much that is unsatisfactory in our position. The signs of the times are read by little things, and if one goes for a walk round the outposts it is as well not to mention in the town the presence of the fever flags which float over certain areas near which it is not permitted to go. There are three such places; one is remote from our lines, well out into the veldt, where, isolated and apart, living in a world of their own making for the time being, is a family fighting against the ravages of diphtheria; between them and the stadt there is the smallpox reserve, where the yellow jack droops from the trees beneath whose shade the tents of the patients have been pitched. Still nearer into town at the hospital the flag of mercy protects a building in which there is much malaria, some typhoid, and a few cases of enteric fever. This is the gamut of our sickness, and it is in these quarters that we, who are hale and hearty, look with anxious eyes. There are many there who will pay their lives as tributes to the siege, for, as in Ladysmith, so are we reduced to horseflesh, being fortunate enough to possess, however, a small store of medical comforts. The sick cannot be given very much, but we are very solicitous for their welfare, and only lately the garrison as a body, surrendered the ration of sugar to the needs of those who were ailing. Our rations are sadly diminished; three-quarters of a pound of minced horse-meat occasionally interchanged with mule and donkey flesh; four ounces of horse forage, a microscopical quantity of tea and coffee, pepper and salt, comprises the daily issue. Few of us have extras, but there are many who indulge in experiments with certain toilet adjuncts of an edible nature. Scented oatmeal, violet powder, poudre de ris, and starch, have all been tested, and it would seem that starch is the more adaptable. Recently I was allowed to taste a starch blancmange, with glycerine syrup; it was excellent, and infinitely better than scented oatmeal porridge. We also fry our meat in cocoa-nut oil, in dubbin, and in salad oil—if we can "find" any. Indeed, there is quite a boom in grease-stuffs for culinary purposes. Aside from starch, violet face powder gives very fair results, but when used as an ingredient for brawn, it is a hopeless failure. It will be seen, therefore, that we are somewhat puzzled to know how to satisfy our appetites, and we attempt infinite devices in order to supplement our daily food supply; occasionally we shoot small birds and less frequently we catch fish, but the size of both birds and fish is such that a day's bag is seldom sufficient for a meal. If the Europeans be exerting themselves to discover new processes by which to cook inedible compounds, the natives also are at their wits' end, and have resource to a variety of dishes which under more favourable circumstances they would not touch. Pet dogs that are sleek, family cats that are fat, are stolen nightly from the hotels and empty houses, but they are invariably traced to native marauders, who, inspired by hunger, prowl around by night seeking what they may devour. These details give a somewhat gloomy aspect to our situation, and if the truth be told our plight is quite sufficiently serious, but it must not be imagined that by reason of these things we are faint-hearted; we are not so. If we can pull through, and we are proposing to make every effort, we shall be content, and we are content, even at the present crisis, to think that it is not altogether impossible that very earnest efforts are being made to expedite our relief, and so alleviate our distress. Our constitutions, perhaps, are somewhat impaired by the scarcity of food, by dysentery and by fever, but we are well enough if the pinch should come and the Boers again make a serious attack upon the town. We will beat them off; possibly we may laugh at their efforts. It is only at odd moments that we become depressed, when the intelligence does not seem satisfactory, when our personal worries press too closely upon us. In those moments we may perhaps take an unduly gloomy view of the situation, but it is not so quick set that it cannot be dissipated by the receipt of some good news, by a cablegram from the Queen, or a message from Lord Roberts. It is these things after which we hanker, and it is these things by which we keep up our hearts. That there should be any possibility of a weak spirit manifesting itself at this late hour need not be considered seriously for a moment, since above all else, the garrison and townspeople of Mafeking have devoted themselves to the work of holding this important outpost to the Empire until such moment as the relief may come. In the beginning we withstood six thousand men, just now there are not two thousand men around us, and if they have more guns now than they had, we have also strengthened our weak places and thrown out a chain of outposts through which it should be impossible for an enemy to penetrate. Thus we have made ourselves secure against everything but the menace of starvation, and if there be anxiety upon our behalf in the centres of the civilised world, the message which we send touches not upon the question of relief, but asks that it should be remembered that, even if our spirits endure, our foodstuffs will not last for ever. That is the gist of our prayer, and we trust that it may receive some hearing.

Parent Category: Books
Category: Angus-Hamilton: The siege of Mafeking
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