Mafeking, May 26th, 1900.
The imprimatur has now been given to the siege, and that chapter of the war which bears reference to the investment of Mafeking must now be considered as closed. The end of the drama is with us; the curtain has dropped, and the people of the play are scattering—some are dead, some have been wounded, lying nigh to death in the Victoria Hospital, some have passed through this seven months' ordeal suffering neither monetary loss nor physical hurt, but bearing with them, in their minds, the almost indelible impress of an interesting but terrible experience. And so the play is ended, and the great historical drama in which we have enacted our part is soon to present fresh scenes, and with the transformation, let us hope some stirring incident and a picturesque scenario. To the end, of course, there is the story, but it is simple of fact, it is plain of feature, it deals only with what one may consider as the final obsequies of the siege, and in a brief space we will consider them.
The siege is now officially returned as having been raised by General Mahon's force at half-past ten upon the morning of May 17th. It has been quiet since then. The garrison has mainly rested, taking itself idly and participating in the few last deft touches with which Colonel Baden-Powell has adorned the siege. These issues to the relief have been sad, have been pleasing, but mournful or gay they have served their purpose, fitting in most accurately with the long chain of circumstances which has enclosed the siege. There was the time when the garrison attended just beyond the precincts of the cemetery, where the rank and file of the forces which have been beleaguered, stood to attention as they paid their last honour to the dead, to all of those who died so nobly, to those who had been the victims of disease, and who, one and all, had paid the penalty of our success. It was a mournful retrospect which was thus forced upon our notice as the names of our dead were passed slowly in review; but as the mournful cadences dropped from the lips of the preacher we braced ourselves to think that such an end, as we had gathered to conclude, was but the inevitable. As the Colonel stood before us—the man who reaped the glory of the siege—we wondered whether beneath the calmness of his demeanour there lurked any feeling of regret, any half-cherished desire to express aloud to those who stood around him the potency of his sorrows. To him it was but the simple ceremony, and one, moreover, to be got through quickly, and indeed there was but little in the service. Occasionally the breeze, which sighed so tremulously through the hedge of trees that fringe the graveyard, wafted to us snatches of prayer. And that was all, so far as we were concerned—the mere fragments of a passing communion, ending as abruptly as it began, seeming all to concentrate in that one moment when at command three rounds of blank cartridge were fired across the graves. That was the full weight of our honours to the dead, since afterwards—for it does not do to dwell too much upon these things—the Colonel commanding reviewed the remnants of his force, unbending insomuch that he addressed to each unit, a few words of appreciation and of thanks. And then where we had assembled, there did the Town Guard and other corps of the garrison receive their dismissal, since now that the siege was raised they might return to their businesses, to their homes, and to their families to spend a cheering hour or two in an endeavour to compute some estimate of the ruin which has fallen upon their fortunes.
Now that the siege is over, it is not without interest to know to what extent the garrison has suffered. We have had 1,498 shells from the 100-pounder Creusot, but in addition to this the enemy has fired into Mafeking some 21,000 odd shells of a smaller character. These have ranged from the 14-½-pounder high-velocity, armour-piercing, delay-action shell, down to the high-velocity one-pound Maxim, embracing in the series a variety of nine-pound shells—common, segment, shrapnel, and incendiary—several hundred seven-pound shells, and a multitude of five-pounders. This has been the weight of the enemy's artillery fire which has played upon the town since October 12th, and which has supported commandos of Boers which were reckoned as 8,000 men in October, and whose numbers are believed never to have fallen below 3,000 rifles. Throughout the siege there have been some eight guns around us, including the big Creusot piece, but at times there have been eleven, and at rare intervals our spies reported that the strength of the enemy's artillery was fourteen guns. And we have stood this with a certain cheerfulness and with a pretty spirit of determination: moreover, we have returned their fire, claiming to have disabled three guns and killing and wounding several hundred men. Our own casualties from shot and shell and sickness until the end of April were 476. In October there were 77; November, 49; December, 101; in January, 47; February, 68; March, 67; and April, 67. The admissions into the base hospital during this period were 685, while 496 were discharged. Among those who were admitted to the hospital there were 106 deaths. During a similar period and through identical causes, 180 natives were admitted to this hospital, 115 were discharged, 56 died, but irrespective of these figures 398 deaths were registered from amongst the natives. That their mortality was great, the monthly returns from the native population will show. In October 12 natives died; in November, 13; December, 46; January, 64; February, 44; March, 84; April, 135. These figures relate to those patients only who were passed through the base hospital, but the monthly returns bear upon the available strength of the garrison, and are in themselves an index to the conditions of the siege. The town itself has suffered to a great extent, although the amount of damage which the enemy's shell fire has created is insignificant when compared to what would have been the result had the main elements in its construction been bricks and mortar. The tin shanties and the mud walls have given to Mafeking a remarkable salvation, making it possible for the little town to compare, when the weight of metal brought against it is considered, even favourably with Ladysmith. Among the men forming the relief column there are many who were with Sir George White, and from these one gathers that the damage which Mafeking has sustained is infinitely greater than the injuries which Ladysmith can show.
And so the siege is ended; but if this were taken in its more literal sense it would imply that there has been an immediate change for the better in our condition. But such is not the case. We have been relieved of the presence of the Boers, a matter which did not greatly trouble us, but there has been no alteration in our scale of diet—a matter which does greatly trouble us; we are still issued four ounces of rusty bread and a pound of scraggy meat, and there is still an absence of table delicacies. We have no sugar, we have no milk, we have neither eggs nor fowls. In point of fact we have nothing, and indeed there has been no change. Yet we understood that Field-Marshal Lord Roberts in his kindly and generous way had sent us a mob of prime bullocks, and a convoy of something other than hospital luxuries. This is told to us upon the authority of Major Weil, who controls the commissariat, and if it be true, it is still most certainly the case that the commissariat officer who has controlled the food supplies of the garrison during the siege is still, relatively speaking, doling out his sugar by the thimbleful, and ladling his flour with a spoon. However, there is to come a time some day when Captain Ryan will be far away, and the hours of meal times will be graced with such luxuries as we have not seen for seven months. It is only recently that the issue of horse meat was stopped, but there is a very general belief that if the horses are not being slaughtered for human consumption, their carcases still play an important part in the soup with which the garrison is served. Of course, the days of starch puddings and other table delicacies which were manufactured from toilet necessaries are over, while we believe that an effort is to be made to improve, but not increase, the bread allowance and to put fresh meat on the public sales. But these are the boons of the future; since we are relieved that is held to be sufficient for the present. However, our thoughts do not dwell much upon our food, we rejoice so much over our liberty that we can spare but little time for grumbling, and indeed feel but little inclination. The town is bright again, and people throng the streets as though a load had been lifted from off the backs of every one. The shops are open, the post office has resumed its work, and now once more accepts telegrams and letters. During the siege there has been but little opportunity to send to the outer world any message of a private character that contained more than a few words. Letters were almost out of the question, and were expensive luxuries even to war correspondents, who were compelled to employ special runners at high prices to carry their despatches to the nearest office. Lately, and when the investment of the enemy was not so close, the intelligence department did manage to pass through the lines small parcels of mail matter. The occasions have been infrequent, and there were so many people who were anxious to write that it became necessary to restrict the general public to a certain limit of space. It does not seem that many letters got through, since now that we have had time to overhaul the laagers of the enemy we have found much correspondence in their waggons. We have also found a number of telegrams, and these provide interesting reading and bear importantly upon the situation. Moreover, it would seem that our estimate of the Boer forces in the field is much exaggerated, for President Kruger complains bitterly to Commandant-General Botha of the paucity of numbers at the command of the State President. The Commandant-General had but fifteen hundred men with him in Natal, while General Snyman mentions the numbers of the various commandos which he has summoned to his assistance, and by which he hopes to secure an additional eight hundred men. But from the telegrams it would seem that, for the most part, the Boers are timorous and tired of fighting. The Field Cornet of Christiana asks what he is to do with twenty men, and states that the Johannesburg Police are bolting. "What, then, am I to do with my men?" At this moment the British troops were within one hour's ride of Christiana. General Snyman has many interesting comments upon the situation on the Molopo, and if President Kruger believed one half of the intelligence that General Snyman telegraphed to him, his knowledge of the situation must have been obscure. From the despatches which passed between this worthy General and the State President, mention is made quite frequently of the desperate assaults upon our lines which General Snyman organised and in some cases personally carried out, and which upon many occasions resulted in the capture of one of our outlying positions. If this be true such positions as were captured must indeed have been outlying, in fact so far beyond the perimeter of our defences as to altogether have escaped the notice of the garrison. But it does not seem that President Kruger believed everything that General Snyman communicated to him. In one message Oom Paul requests immediate information upon the whereabouts of Colonel Plumer. There is a certain pathos in the question of the aged President asking General Snyman, "Where is Plumer? You must know," and one gathers that the old man saw somewhat further into the future than the majority of his councillors, since he gives it as his opinion that Mafeking will be relieved. But prophets have never been respected in their own country. General Snyman does not seem to have found favour in Pretoria; perhaps the character of the man was too well known, since the State Secretary, Mr. Reitz, is ordered by the State President to inquire as to whether the failure of General Snyman's reinforcements to support Commandant Eloff in his attack upon the town on May 12th was due to drunkenness or to cowardice. "If it be drunkenness, let us say so," advises Mr. Reitz, "since it would be better that the truth be known than that it should be believed that General Snyman was a coward." Does this sentence contain the secret history of the failure of Commandant Eloff? If it be so one can afford to be generous and to sympathise with President Kruger, even to feel a certain pity for Commandant Eloff.
The Commandant, since he surrendered to us, has taken life very philosophically. He is confined in the gaol, and with him are Captain de Fremont and some half-dozen others. The majority of the prisoners are lodged in the Dutch Church and in the Masonic Hall. Their time hangs heavily upon their hands, but when the tedium of their imprisonment becomes too great they indite long letters to their friends, using much paper, in villainous denunciations of the English, in complaining bitterly of their food, and in villifying Snyman.
Commandant Eloff smokes and reads and talks. Sometimes he becomes abstracted, and again upon Sundays he is dejected. As I had the pleasure of meeting him in the British South Africa Police Fort upon May 12th, the occasion upon which he captured me, I called upon him in the gaol. He was pacing the courtyard, but he stopped and smiled when he saw me, and as I saluted him he held out his hand. "My prisoner," said he, amiably. "The fortunes of war," said I, and he waved a hand in the air as he accepted a cigarette. His costume was free and comfortable. He wore a brown jersey, a pair of riding breeches, and slippers. The jersey fitted him, and he seemed to take some pains in showing the physical development of his shoulders. His arms also were strong, and with every move of his body his muscles quivered. He was lithe, supple and active, and as he stood there with the whitewashed walls of the gaol behind him, with his companions around him, and a guard upon each of the four walls which enclosed the courtyard, an air of romance clung to him and he might have been for the moment some creation of Anthony Hope, casting in his mind for some entrancing but desperate situation. He puffed my cigarette vigorously and began a conversation. "You know," said he, "I don't like horseflesh." "I am sorry," said I, "but you should have taken Mafeking before." "We shall have it yet," said a man at the table, whereupon the Commandant shrugged his shoulders and threw the end of his cigarette somewhat petulantly from him. "If," said I. "Ah," said the Commandant, and there was a pause in which we all laughed. He looked at me for a moment as though he thought. "It is possible," said he, and he punctuated his words with little nods. As he finished Captain de Fremont joined us. "My God," said he; "you English." Eloff laughed. "Do not let us make this Fashoda," said he. "Yes, it is possible," he began again, "and I think we should have captured your town, but Snyman——" he paused and spat. "I wish to God you would make Snyman a prisoner," said he. The conversation had become interesting, and I passed my cigarette case around again. It returned to me empty, but Commandant Eloff had begun to smoke a pipe. "Are not you Dutchmen tired of the war?" said I; "the end, after all, is inevitable." Captain de Fremont spoke again. He twisted his cigarette between his fingers and remarked with an air of incisive inanity, "Life and death are inevitable." "And the English," said Commandant Eloff, whereupon I laughed. The Commandant once more took up the thread of the conversation. "We attacked you because it seemed to me that you had relaxed your vigilance. How could we otherwise have pierced your lines?" His view was right—at least I thought so. "We expected you," said I. The Commandant shook his head and looked at me somewhat quizzingly. After all it was a palpable lie. "No," said he; "you should at least allow us that amount of energy. You did not expect us, and had Snyman pressed home the attack upon your eastern front and supported me with the guns and reinforcements, I think that Mafeking must have fallen." He paused for a moment, and said, slowly, "I am certain that we should not be prisoners." "It was bad luck," said I, "we would rather have you with us than against us, but this time you will remain with us." He glanced at the four walls, upon each of which there was sitting a guard. "I notice," said he, "that I am well protected." The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders, as I suggested he would rather be outside. "Give me a chance," said he, and he snapped his fingers. "What, don't you know," said I, "what has occurred this morning?" In a flash his mind reverted to the firing upon the previous day. "Tell me, what was that firing last night?" "Mafeking has been relieved," said I. The Commandant said nothing, and once more there was a pause; but before we spoke again the sergeant of the guard clanged upon the door with his musket. "Time is up," called he, and the door opened. For a moment the Commandant could see through the open space of the doorway, beyond and above the heads of the five guards who were waiting outside, the glimpse of blue sky, a line of trees, a stretch of veldt. "Is there anything I can do for you?" said I, before I went. He waved his hand. "Nothing," said he, "except fresh meat." I stayed for a moment and pointed outside. "Fresh meat and fresh air are both outside." I thought I caught a sigh: it seemed to lurk for a moment amid the harsh and grating noises of the bolts as they were thrust forward in their sockets.
From the prison I strolled to my hotel. The day was fine, the cold of the morning had given place to a warm and brilliant sunshine. It was the Queen's birthday, and our little world seemed at peace. For the moment we were forgetting the strife and tribulations of the past seven months, and in our anxiety to do honour to her Majesty there was much commotion in the town. Flags were flying and bunting was fluttering from the verandahs of the houses. Here and there, passing in a cloud of dust, were the troops marching to the parade. There was to be a review and there was also a general muster of arms. In the centre of the Market Square were the guns which we had captured from the enemy. In a corner, but surrounded by an admiring crowd, were the two pieces which we had improvised during the siege. There was "B.-P.," there was also "The Wolf," and acting as guard to these guns, were two men who, the day before had reached Mafeking from Pretoria, having eluded the vigilance of their sentries and walked one hundred and eighty miles in a gallant and successful attempt to gain liberty and freedom. The men were almost as interesting as the guns. But time was speedy and the war correspondents were anxious to attend the parade. The review was a study in contrast, the contrast between a birthday parade and that review at the cemetery where the souls of the dead were passed in inspection and for whom prayers were offered. The parade stretched from end to end of the ground immediately in front of the British South Africa Police Fort, taking place upon the very spot where the town had so valiantly contested the attack which Commandant Eloff had organised. Behind the lines of the men were the white buildings of the Protectorate Barracks, while from the flag-mast, which stands aloft in the centre of the fort, there floated the Union Jack. The scene was indeed a study in contrast. We were at peace now with the elements of war within our midst. We were fighting then, a grim and determined struggle waging all round us, and in a way this birthday parade was the issue of that day's fighting, since had the end been otherwise, it might have been Commandant Eloff who passed in review order upon the birthday of our Queen Empress. We formed up, detachments from the different corps and the artillery upon the right of the line. It was only the siege artillery, and nothing very much at that. The pom-poms and the guns of the Royal Horse Artillery were guarding the front of the town, and could not be spared.
And so we waited, when of a sudden there came a cheer from the rear and we realised that General Mahon was approaching. There was no band, there were no horses, the entire parade were dismounted. The Colonel inspected, the men dressed, and the Colonel returned to the saluting base. He seemed conscious of the crowd, and stood as though he realised that the parade which he was now holding meant to him so much more than the mere abstract honour to the Queen. It signified the end of his labours, epitomising his successes, touching with ironical glory the honours which the near future must surely bring to him, and as he stood he seemed quite nervous. It was one of the few occasions upon which I have ever known him to be moved. The men who had come to his relief were passing by him, and ever and anon one heard the commands of the officers calling to their squadrons as they gained the shadow of the saluting base, "Shoulder arms; eyes left." Then Colonel Baden-Powell would raise his hand, taking and returning the salutes as they were made. In the distance there was a haze of dust through which a gaudy sunlight was flickering, and in the distance and, beside us, there was the heavy music of the armed tread, as squadron after squadron marched by. The air was filled with sound and sentiment, but yet the crowd that stood behind was quiet and quite subdued. It was no wonder that they were impressed, that they recognised in the rumble of the distant feet and in the flowing masses of men the hour of their deliverance. Their troubles were indeed past, their siege was over, and the moment was approaching when those who had been in their midst during so many months would be again upon the move, advancing this time against the enemy upon Pretoria. But the hour was not one in which to say farewell. It was an hour which lived for itself, an hour that bore to each of us some knowledge of our liberty, and a secret appreciation of the duties which our Empire asked of us. We were all contented, happy in the knowledge that the siege was over, but imbued with even a greater happiness since, upon this day, her Majesty was sharing with us the joys of our good news. And presently the ceremony concluded, and for the remainder of the day we attended sports and organised a concert; while that night there was a dinner and a pyrotechnic display in Market Square. We dined and drank the Queen, and drinking this, streamed to the air where the rockets were already rushing to the ewigkeit with the roar of the racing tide. And then beneath the steely beauty of the moonlight and the soft radiance of countless stars we sang "God Save the Queen" and wandered home, chanting as we went the strains of "Rule Britannia." Thus in a cloud of loyal enthusiasm were brought about the closing scenes of the Siege of Mafeking.