This text is taken from chapter 6 of General Godley's book 'Life or an Irish Soldier'.
Our ship was the Norman and it was very full. We had a little dark inside cabin with two bunks, one on the top of the other, with little ventilation, and it was pretty hot when we got into the tropics. Of the special service officers with whom I was particularly concerned. Colonel Baden-Powell and Majors Lord Edward Cecil (Grenadier Guards) and Hon. A. Hanbury-Tracy (Royal Horse Guards) had gone on ahead by another ship. With us were Colonels Plumer and Hore, Major Courtenay Vyvyan (Buffs), Captains Charles Fitz-Clarence (Royal Fusiliers) and “Peter” Rolt (York and Lancaster Regiment), and many others.
It appeared that our mission, as conveyed to B.-P. by Lord Wolseley, was to raise two irregular mounted regiments, at Bulawayo and Mafeking, which, in the event of hostilities, were to act as a bait for the Boers on the western frontiers of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, and so divert as many of their commandos as possible from the main theatre of operations. Plumer was to raise the regiment at Bulawayo with Rolt as his adjutant, and Hore that at Mafeking, with me in a similar capacity. The names eventually given them were the Rhodesian and Protectorate Regiments.
On arrival at Capetown we found that B.-P. had already gone up-country, and that we were to follow as soon as possible. Lord Milner, who had by this time made up his mind that war was inevitable, was doing all he could to
facilitate the supply to us of our requirements in the way oi equipment, remounts, etc., and his military secretary, Colonel (now Major-General Sir John) Hanbury-Williams, was most helpful. But it is a matter of history that the General in Command, Sir William Buller, disapproved, not only of our going to war with the Boers at all, but of the way in which the campaign was to be opened. This delayed our preparations. The whole atmosphere was charged with uncertainty, doubts and difficulties. We went about dressed as civilians, and when we did eventually get off, travelled up to Mafeking with our uniform cases, and other obvious marks of our profession, labelled Smith, Jones and Robinson Esq.! The only definite event that I remember of our stay at Capetown was a dinner with Cecil Rhodes, and his native band, which, on the “stoep,” played, most discordantly “Pop goes the Weasel” and similar tunes, to his great delight.
At Mafeking we established ourselves at Dixons Hotel. Here we found Dr. Jameson and Sir Charles Metcalfe, and also Lady Sarah Wilson who, with her husband, Captain Cordon Wilson of the Blues, had been on a shooting trip in Rhodesia. B.-P. had taken him on as A.D.C. With them and Major Goold-Adams [Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, subsequently Governor of the Orange River Colony, Queensland, and High Commissioner, Cyprus.], the Resident Commissioner of Bechuanaland, whose headquarters were at Mafeking, I used to play an occasional rubber of bridge. Shortly afterwards, my wife got permission to join me and came up from Capetown, where, mounted by Lord Milner on his well-known grey pony, she had managed to get in some days with the same pack which we had hunted in 1896.
In the evenings, after his strenuous day’s work, B.-P. used frequently to invite her to take a “constitutional” with him, of which the convenient distance and goal was the town dust-heap ! But, as the outbreak of hostilities became imminent, he said that both she and Lady Sarah must leave at once. Lady Sarah went out to a Boer farm in the Kalahari and my wife decided to go up to Bulawayo. Both wished to remain handy for the few weeks during which, if it took place at all, it was expected that the siege would last! On arrival at Bulawayo, my wife went to the hotel, but was soon discovered by various old friends. Colonels Hon. Harry White, Geoffrey Glyn and others. The latter insisted on her going to stay at his house, and later, when he left for the front, she was invited by Sir Arthur and Lady Lawley to stay at Government House. “Joe ” Lawley, [Hon. Sir Arthur Lawley, afterwards Lord Wenlock, Governor of West Australia, Transvaal and Madras] as he was known to all his friends, was then the Administrator of the Chartered Company in Rhodesia. Of their kindness to her throughout the seven months of the siege, it is impossible to write adequately. They would not hear of her leaving, and treated her as one of the family.
During her stay, the Lawleys had to go to Salisbury and took her with them. They had a most interesting trek, visiting on the way my brother Dick, who was then quartered at Enkeldoom. Here, sleeping in a Kaffir hut, she was wakened by a heaving of the bed, which proved to be caused by a pig under it! The first big river they met was in flood, and they had to wait for a day, till a waggon and team of oxen appeared on the opposite bank. In response to an appeal for help, the driver swam his oxen across and hitched them on in front of the coach. The passengers then climbed on to the roof of the coach, the doors were tied open to let the water flow through, and with the long combined “span ” of both oxen and mules, the former could just get a foothold on the opposite bank as the coach began to float, and they were soon safely across. At Salisbury my wife stayed with other old friends, George Bowen, Commissioner of Mines, and his wife.
We had not been allowed to enlist any men, or buy horses or stores, in the Cape Colony for fear of precipitating matters, and it was only now that we were allowed to send out officers to get men. Even so, as the recruits began to dribble in, they were taken over the border into Bechuanaland, where we established a camp at a place called Ramathlabama. These men were of all classes and of all trades—butchers, painters, farmers, printers, tailors, actors, jockeys, soldiers of fortune, etc., and of all nationalities. They were clothed and equipped with stores sent from Cape Town. Then horses began to arrive—horses that had never seen men, and men who had never seen horses, and out of that material we had to make a regiment. The horses were practically all unbroken remounts, and the nice horse lines that we had put down for their reception were entirely wrecked on the first night. The whole of the camp was kept in an uproar, with horses breaking loose and stampeding, and by the morning we hardly possessed a single horse. They were all out on the veldt, many of them invisible except by telescopes. However, by dint of hard and long work they were all recovered, and the first days of riding lessons were really very funny.
Colonels Baden-Powell and Plumer had been working on similar lines at Bulawayo, and as war became imminent, B.-P. reconnoitred the whole of the western border of the Transvaal and made up his mind that Mafeking would offer the best bait He accordingly prepared for the siege, which appeared inevitable, and moved us into the town and its vicinity. A matter that is not generally known helped considerably in the successful defence of the place. It had been decided to levy a new customs duty on all goods entering Rhodesia alter a certain date, and, in anticipation of this, the big merchants of Cape Colony had sent up large consignments of provisions to Mafeking; so that with what had been brought up by B.-P. and Ned Cecil, we had a lot of food
in the town. The Cape Government had also sent up plenty of military rations and stores. In this respect, therefore, the place was well prepared to stand the siege.
The Boers began to concentrate on the frontier on October 5th. It must be remembered that they hated Mafeking particularly for several reasons, the chief of which was that it was the place from which Dr. Jameson started his raid. It was also a big railway depot, and its possession would give the enemy a hold on the line right along the Western border. They had tried to take it from the natives on more than one occasion and had failed. They set out with the intention of not leaving one stone of the town upon another; indeed one Boer, a relative of General Louis Botha, used to send notes to this effect into the town during the siege to Goold-Adams, with whom he was on the friendliest terms. This Botha was a great owner of race-horses, and used to race at Mafeking. He had some very fine horses, of which I was fortunate enough to find one on his farm after the siege was raised.
Measures, under Colonel Vyvyan, for the defence of the town were at once taken in hand, and we began to cast about for armaments. All we could get, however, were two old seven-pounders dated 1820, which did not shoot very far but made a lot of noise and smoke; six good Maxim guns, which proved most valuable; a Nordenfelt; and a splendid little screw mountain-gun. The garrison consisted of 700 enlisted troops of various kinds—Protectorate Regiment, British South Africa Police, Cape Police and Bechuanaland Rifles—and a Town Guard of 300. The Town Guard consisted of every able-bodied man in the place, and some who were very far from being able bodied. The native village of the Baralongs was situated to the west of the town, and contained 8,000 natives. This proved to be a constant source of worry to the administration as time went on, as they all had to be fed. I was detailed to look after the outposts and on October 13th, B.-P. wrote to me as follows:
9.40 p.m. Latest news of enemy is one party intends coming by Riet Vlei (S.W. of you) and up the river bed; the other, with two guns, from Ramathlabama—probably on to Game Tree Hill.
Better “stand to” at 4 a.m. We will assist with fire from Railway works and Armoured Train.
Nothing came of this, but hostilities actually commenced on October 14th, on which day Lord Charles Bentinck,
'9th Lancers, who had joined us, had been sent out with his squadron to try and get a “chance at the enemy.” This was B.-P.’s characteristic way of putting it, and showed the mode in which he had undertaken the task of bluffing the Boers. Bentinck himself fired the first shot of the siege at a Boer scout. What, I believe, was the first shot of the Boer War had previously been fired at our armoured train between Kraaipan and Maretsani, some thirty miles south in the direction of Vryburg. Bentinck’s squadron, supported by Fitz-Clarence’s and the armoured train, which had been ingeniously made in the railway workshops, engaged the enemy for several hours, and eventually effected a well-ordered retirement in the face of a very large force of the enemy. The effect of this fight was far reaching. The Boers held off, and did not molest the town until eleven days later, during which valuable time the defences, which had hitherto been of the flimsiest description, were greatly strengthened and added to. Had the Boers pushed home their attack in the first instance, nothing could have stopped them from riding straight into the town.
B.-P. established his headquarters at Dixon’s Hotel, with a dug-out quite near. A perfect system of telephone communication was installed from this point to all parts of the defences. I was appointed to command the perimeter west of the railway line, and made my headquarters about a mile and a half west of the town, whence I was connected by wire with all parts of my line. My dug-out was at first a mere hole to lie down in, but before the siege was over, it had improved into a regular underground palace.
News now arrived of Cronje having crossed the frontier with 6,000 more men and heavy artillery, and there was little sleep for the garrison that night, for, although it was not expressed, few of us thought that it would be possible to hold out for long against such a formidable force. I had confidential instructions with regard to retiring upon the town, but I am glad to say that not a foot of ground did we yield throughout the siege. In fact, at the end of it, our area of defence had been considerably extended. B.-P.’s reply to the news of Cronje’s arrival was to erect at once a dummy fort to the north of the town, with dummy guns and crew and two huge flag-staffs. In the morning we had the pleasure of watching the Boers pound the place all day with a perfect hurricane of shells, till at last they seemed to realize that they had been wasting their energies and ammunition. They then started sprinkling shells all over the place, but without doing much damage. On October 17th the enemy attacked the waterworks to the north-east of the town, and as it was only weakly defended, it fell into their hands. This proved a less serious matter than it might have been, for the old wells in the town and the River Molopo provided an excellent water-supply.
The Boers had got into the habit of using a rising piece of ground to the north-west, from which they could overlook the town, so I determined to build a fort there. This was carried out, and garrisoned, in a single night. B.-P. named it Fort Ayr, as it was built so far out from the town, right out in the air in fact.
October 24th was a memorable day, for it heralded the arrival of a big siege-gun known as “Long Tom,” which was placed in position five miles to the south-west. Next
day the Boers attacked on the west, some thousand strong, galloping up quite close to the defences, but they seemed disinclined to dismount, and would not face the fire from the forts and trenches. Eventually they broke and retired. “Long Tom” was at the same time plugging hundred-pound shells right over the town into our westward defences, but the casualties were very few. One shell pitched clean into a gun-pit containing one of the seven-pounders and its crew, but, instead of blowing all the lot sky-high, it buried its nose in the earth and did not explode. The name of the fort was changed to Fort Luck. The Boers now began to run out trenches round the town, some approaching to within from 800 to 1,200 yards. This made things very uncomfortable for the garrison, and B.-P. decided that something must be done to stop it. Accordingly, on the night of October 27th, FitzClarence was despatched to clear the Boers out of their nearest trench, just past the brick-fields, on the east With excellent arrangements and magnificent courage, this party carried out their task most thoroughly. The occupants of the trench were absolutely surprised, FitzClarence at the head of his men being the first to leap in. He accounted with his sword for four of the enemy, whilst his men got to work with the bayonet. Those Boers who escaped, and rushed back to their supporting trenches, were fired upon by their own people, and the result of this sortie was, as had been hoped, that the Boer trenches were shifted back a considerable distance. For this and other gallant work, FitzClarence gained a V.C.
On October 31st, the Boers made a desperate attempt to capture Cannon Kopje on the south, held by a handful of British South Africa Police under Colonel Walford, with a seven-pounder. The defenders lost heavily, among the killed being Captain Hon. Douglas Marsham, B.S.A. Police, and Captain A. K. Pechell, 60th Rifles, but eventually beat off the attack. After this repulse, the Boers began upping the defence all round, and at last appeared to have settled to attack strongly from the west. They moved a big laager in that direction, and began to get very troublesome. To counter and anticipate their efforts I was ordered to make a sortie, ,and moved off on the night of November 7th, with the squadron commanded by Captain R. Vernon, <5oth Rifles, supported by Bentinck. Before daybreak we had reached a position overlooking the laager, and, on opening fire, effected a complete surprise. We held on till the Boers began to get too strong and outflanked us. Then, as generally happens in such a situation, our bad time came during the retirement. We had a good many men hit. I got a bullet through my hat and my finger cut by a splinter from a pom-pom shell, but we eventually reached Fort Ayr, and there held the enemy in check. The result was that the Boers moved their laager, and consequently our object had been attained.
We now settled down to the regular business of the siege, with everybody well dug in, and the defences in the native stadt in good working order. A system of communication with Bulawayo was established by runners, and B.-P. and Lawley exchanged messages fairly regularly. Letters were generally written on tissue-paper and concealed in the lining of the caps, or soles of the boots, of the messengers. I was able in this way to communicate fairly regularly with my wife, and used to send a duplicate, by the next runner, of each letter that I wrote her. On comparing notes at the end of the siege, we found that there was only one of my letters of which she did not receive either the original or the duplicate. I think I got practically all hers. She used to write out all the news that she could glean from the newspapers which reached Bulawayo, and this was avidly devoured by a great number of people, to whom I circulated it. We got in this way Kipling’s poem, “The Absent Minded Beggar.” She also sent in supplies of saccharine which were most welcome.
Cronje now went away with the bulk of his men to fight the battles of Modder River and Magersfontein, and to meet his fate at Paardeberg. Snyman was left in command with about 3,000 men. To make up for Cronje’s departure, “Long Tom” was specially busy, and we had an average of about seventy shells a day from it. But things on the whole were quieter. We played a certain amount of polo and cricket, got up gymkhanas, concerts, a hone show, and a baby show, generally on Sundays; till Snyman sent in a message to say that he disapproved of Sunday games, and that if we continued them, he would reluctantly be obliged to cease observing the Sabbath.
By this time the railway workshops had made an excellent howitzer, which was named “The Wolf” after B.-P.—the name that the Kaffir gave him being “The Wolf that never sleeps ”—and very excellent work it did. Soon afterwards, I was riding one day into Rowlands’ Farm, which had been 1 made into the women’s laager, and noticed that one of the gate-posts was a gun. We dug it up, and found it was an old ship’s carronade. The resourceful railway workshops made cannon balls for it, mounted it on a wooden carriage, and we soon had it down on the eastern front ready for action. The first shot was aimed down the main road to Johannesburg, and with great interest we watched the flight of the projectile, which looked exactly like a cricket ball. It bumped down the road into the Boer laager among the waggons, and one old Boer tried to field it, with disastrous results to himself. The effect was that the laager moved about three miles farther back. This great piece of ordnance was appropriately named “Lord Nelson.” The plucky crew of the Nordenfelt, not to be outdone, started to creep out at night and get within range of ”Long Tom,” with the result that he also had to shift farther back.
During all this time Lady Sarah Wilson had been at a Boer farm in the vicinity, till at last the Boers paid her a visit and took her prisoner to Snyman’s laager. From there, after a great deal of negotiation, she was exchanged for a horse-thief named Viljoen, who was in prison in Mafeking, and came in under a flag of truce to join us. She had a dug-out in the town, and was a great asset to the garrison—always cheery and continually working and looking after the hospital. It was very nice to be able to go and see her occasionally. On Christmas Day she gave a dinner in her dug-out. Ben Weil, one of the great firm of contractors, of which Julius Weil was the head, who had been caught in Mafeking, had somehow or other got hold of a turkey, and we had a great feast.
In the meantime, B.-P. had decided that we must make an effort to establish ourselves farther north of the town, in order to give a hand to, and be within reach of, Plumer, when he should arrive with our relief. With this view, an attack was arranged on the Boers’ fort at Gametree Hill, about three miles to the north. It took place on Boxing Day, and was carried out by Vernon’s squadron, supported by FitzClarence’s. Unfortunately there was little doubt that the Boers had got wind of it, and the attack was a complete failure. I was put in command, and made my headquarters near the railway line north of the town. Going out in the armoured train to see for myself how things were going, I found that the assault on the fort had been repulsed and that Vernon and a great many of his men had been killed [There were over fifty killed and wounded.]. With great reluctance I had to recommend to B.-P. that it was no use renewing the attack. This was the only really bad setback that we experienced throughout the whole siege.
With January upon us, food began to get short, and the rationing had to be very strictly carried out. Any sugar and milk obtainable was kept for the women and children, and we started to make a kind of porridge, called sowen, from the husks of the oats. This, with horse sausages and brawn (nude from the hides and hoofs of the horses), and four ounces of oatmeal biscuit, was the usual ration. Soup kitchens were also started, and there was little animal life of any kind that did not find its way into the soup. February was a dull month, but the men were beginning to get definitely weak and had it not been for B.-P.’s amazing energy, personality and ubiquity, I think that there would have been a good deal of alarm and despondency in the garrison. But he was always thinking of various stunts to keep up our spirits, and there was nobody and no part of the defences that he did not visit continually. Frequency, after spending, as one did, most of the night wandering round and visiting the outposts, I have lain down for a little sleep, and have been awakened at daybreak—to see B.-P. sitting at the edge of my dug-out, having walked out before the sun rose. It really was a rather strenuous time, and it is curious to reflect that one never had one’s boots off for eight months, except in the daytime.
It was about this time that it was realized that all the silver in the place had found its way to the native stadt, and B.-P. decided, therefore, to issue notes, which was accordingly done. The pound note in blue was of attractive design, and is to-day an interesting memento. He also proposed to issue penny stamps for the town, threepenny sumps for forts, shilling sumps for up and down the country, buying ordinary Bechuanaland Protectorate and British Bechuanaland sumps, and making a surcharge of “Mafeking besieged” on them. The local penny sumps were subsequently the cause of a great deal of adverse criticism, and it was said that Queen Victoria was seriously annoyed at B.-P.’s head having been put on them. But I am sure that B.-P. was in no way responsible. I had frequently to go from my outpost headquarters to see Cecil, and upon one occasion, when I found the postmaster with him, they told me about the surcharge on the stamps. As we all were always trying to think of anything that could be done to create interest, or amuse, or keep up the spirits of the garrison, I said at once that I thought this was an excellent idea, and one of us suggested that the local stamp should be a special one of our own, which we all agreed would be a good idea. This led to a discussion as to what it should be like and what should be on it, and one of us three— I cannot in the least remember which—said (more in joke than anything else, and solely with the idea in our mind of doing something that would amuse the garrison), “Oh, B.-P.’s head, of course !” My recollection is that Cecil and the postmaster then arranged to have this done, entirely as a stunt, and as a surprise to B.-P., certainly without consulting him. I am afraid that none of us thought it might in any way be misinterpreted, or even that these special sumps would get abroad, as they were to be used only in the town.
In March, a nephew of Kruger’s, Sarel Eloff, arrived at the Boer laager, with the object of encouraging Snyman to make a last and determined attack to take the town. Plumer had arrived at Setlagoli, and we were in fairly constant communication with him by runners. April, the last month of the siege, was, I think, on the whole the most strenuous of all. Bombardments were heavier, and the women’s laager and the hospital suffered, as well as the defences. Plumer made a reconnaissance in force as far as our old camp at Ramathlabama, but found it impossible to get through the Boer lines, and, wounded himself, had to retire on his camp.
By the middle of April the supply of forage had been entirely exhausted, and the question of rations became rather critical. We were turning out a lot of horse sausages, but the men were getting much reduced in strength by the long continuance of this sort of diet. I remember towards the end of April taking part in a conference with Goold-Adams and Cecil, at which we decided that the idea of making any further reduction in rations was out of the question. At the same time we realized that to increase them from our small reserve stock would mean that all supplies would be finished by the end of May. We tried sending out natives to Plumer to bring back cattle, but the attempt to get them in failed.
At last, on May 12, the long-expected attack by Eloff and his men took place. I had been out most of the night and had only just got back to my dug-out and lain down, when, some time before daybreak, I heard a tremendous outburst of firing and shouting from the direction of the native stadt, and realized that the Boers must have got into it. I found that all communications with the stadt were cut off, but I was still in telephone communication with B.-P., who eventually told me that the Boers had penetrated through the stadt, had seized the British South Africa Police Fort, had taken prisoner Hore, who used it as his headquarters, and his garrison, and that things were looking rather serious. He said that he would send out FitzClarence’s squadron, which was in reserve, and that I must do my best, with Bentinck’s and Marsh’s [Captain F. C. Marsh, Royal West Kent Regiment] squadrons, to round up those Boers who were still in the native stadt. My difficulty was to get these squadrons assembled. Eventually, I decided that the best thing to do was to concentrate as best we could on the south side of the stadt, and then drive it from east to west, and so cut off those Boers who had got into the fort from the parties which had remained in the stadt. To get to the rendezvous I had to go out in front of our defences and gallop round across the Molopo River, and outside the stadt. After I had crossed the river, I was well sniped from the stadt, but I had managed to keep my pony (one of the few remaining in the garrison) in fairly good condition, and made my pace so fast that I evidently presented a rather difficult running target; the bullets whistled either over or behind me. Our drive was entirely successful. Marsh, at the head of his squadron, showed great gallantry in rounding up a considerable number of Boers in a cattle kraal, and those we did not take prisoner were all eventually driven out by the way they had come in.
In the meantime, Eloff and his men, having been entirely cut off, surrendered to Hore, their prisoner, and this anxious day ended well
There were some amusing incidents of the Boer occupation of the fort. Hore and his men had the unpleasant experience of being fired at by their own people from the edge of the town, and had to lie flat on their stomachs most of the day, while a light-hearted member of Eloff's following, Comte de Fremont, spent his time playing little French chansonettes on the piano. Another of Eloff’s followers, one Baron von Weiss, shortly after his incarceration in the town gaol, asked to see B.-P., and begged to be released, as his detention would cause him very particular inconvenience. B.-P.’s reply was that he should have thought of that before he came into Mafeking. On further investigation, it proved that he was an officer of the German Army on leave, and that his leave being shortly up, he was afraid he might get into trouble.
At last, on May 17th, we were relieved. Mahon, with a column of about a thousand men, had been despatched from Kimberley to join hands with Plumer. He marched 250 miles in less than a fortnight and met Plumer at Jan Massibi’s on the Molopo River, about seven miles west of Mafeking, to the day. The story of Mahon’s cypher message to Plumer before their meeting has often been told, but can well bear repetition. The message, sent by native runners, was as follows: “My force consists of the number of the Naval and Military Club multiplied by ten.” As regards this, all soldiers know that the number of the Naval and Military Club is 94 Piccadilly. “My supplies are the Colonel of the 9th Lancers.” The Colonel of the 9th Lancers was Litde, commonly known as “Small.” “The number of my guns is the number of boys in the Ward family.” There were many officers with Plumer who knew that Lord Dudley and his brothers numbered six, i.e. a battery.
Their combined forces attacked the Boers west of Mafeking on the 16th, and had a sharp fight which resulted in their getting within reach of us, but without absolutely breaking through. About nightfall, a patrol under Major Karri-Davies came in through the Boer lines, followed some time after dark by a solitary horseman, who proved to be B.-P.’s brother. Major Baden-Powell of the Scots Guards. Mahon and Plumer, in the meantime, had decided on a night march through the Boer lines, and in the small hours of the morning, I was roused by a message from Fort Ayr to say that the head of the column was coming in. I jumped on my pony and rode out to meet them. The first person I encountered was Colonel Frank Rhodes, whose first and typical remark was “How’s your wife ? ”, she being an old friend of his. At daybreak, we saw Snyman’s commandos, which had been harassing the relieving force, breaking round our flanks to the east, and at the same time the Bom’ eastern laager breaking up. The columns having settled down for a few hours’ rest just inside my outposts, I was ordered by B.-P. to get all possible guns down to the east side of the town to shell the retiring enemy. A Canadian battery which had marched 800 miles from the north, in a marvellously short time, to join Plumer, and whose guns, in default of hones, had been drawn by Zeederberg’s coach mules, were first out. Mahon’s horse artillery quickly followed. Between them, they hastened the Boer retreat, and so ended the siege. B.-P. was good enough to say, in his despatches, that, during it, I had been his "right-hand man.”
We still had a few days’ supplies in reserve, which were distributed at once to the relief force, and we could have held out for twenty days more on quarter rations. But we were not sorry to be relieved. We had contained a force of Boers varying from 3,000 to 9.000 for seven months, and I think had thereby thoroughly justified Lord Wolseley’s prescience in sending us to that part of the theatre of war.
We had been amazingly lucky to have such a man as B.-P. at our head. His courage was unbounded, his versatility was extraordinary and his sympathy with all sections of the community most marked; of his energy and ubiquity I have already made mention. The Boy Scouts will testily to his genius and personality for all time.
Many South Africans came in with the Relief Force. With Plumer were Colonels (now Sir) Weston Jarvis, Geoffrey Glyn, Jack Spreckley, John Nicholson, Bodle and Bowden of the British South Africa Police, Hoel Llewellyn (now Chief Constable of Wiltshire), Nesbitt, V.C., “Sandy” Butters, “Pa” Garraway (afterwards Sir Edward, and Resident Commissioner of Basutoland) and many others. With Mahon, as well as Frank Rhodes and Karri-Davies before mentioned, were Prince Alexander of Teck (now Lord Athlone), Sir John Willoughby, Sam Weil (brother of the Ben who was in Mafeking with us), Donaldson and Billy Davis of the Imperial Light Horse, Hon. Maurice Giffard, Colonel Edwards (afterwards Major-General Sir Allred, and Commandant of the Rhodesian Forces) and various British officers attached to the Imperial Light Horse and Kimberley Light Horse, prominent among them Captain (now Lieut.-General Sir Tom) Bridges.
One of the first items of news that I heard was that my brother Dick had been wounded. I went to the lines of the British South Africa Police with which he was serving, but the last they had seen of him was when he was hit. I then tried the hospital, but he had not reached there, and it was some time before I eventually traced him to Plumer’s supply waggons, where I found him lying rather disconsolately on the top of a waggon load of mealies. I got a stretcher and had him carried into my dug-out. Later on he was moved to hospital in an ambulance. He had rather a severe bullet wound, the bullet having first passed through his arm, then round his ribs, eventually lodging close to the base of the spine, from which it was fortunately successfully extracted next day.
A few days after the Relief, we heard that the line to Bulawayo had been repaired and that a train with supplies for us was coming down, with the Lawleys and my wife on board. I got leave to travel up the line and met her at Mochudi.
Soon after, Mahon left with his column to rejoin Sir Archibald Hunter’s force and it was decided that B.-P. was to march through the Western Transvaal and link up with the main army under Lord Roberts, which was then about to occupy Pretoria. Lord Edward Cecil being required to help in a semi-civil and administrative capacity with the pacification of the country about Zeerust, I was appointed chief staff officer to B.-P., who trekked with one column, via Ottoshoop, the Lead Mines, and Mabalstadt. Meanwhile Plumer, with another column, followed a more northerly route via Zeerust, the idea being that the two forces should converge upon, and reunite at, Rustenburg.
There was at this time a lull in the hostilities. A good many Boers were surrendering and the Western Transvaal seemed quite peaceful. This prompted Lady Sarah to conceive the idea of driving across to Pretoria, and thence making her way south, and she invited my wife to accompany her. Ben Weil provided them with a Cape cart and a pair of very good-looking white horses, which, judging by their excellent condition, he had evidently had the forethought to send out of Mafeking before the siege began.
They were wise enough not to ask for leave, which would almost certainly have been refused, and started to follow in our wake. Soon outstripping our slow-moving columns, they found themselves stopped by information that it was not safe to continue along the main road. They turned down towards the Lead Mines and were again stopped by friendly Boers, who said they could not possibly go on alone and must wait for the British troops. Chafing at the delay, they spent two days in a Boer farmhouse and impatiently awaited our arrival. Some of Plumer’s column, seeking contact with us, were the fust to arrive, and a little later, Charlie FitzClarence, riding with the scouts of our advance guard, observing every military precaution and peeping cautiously round the corner of a kopje, was rewarded by the sight of two ladies, one with a red parasol, and Weston Jarvis in a red balaclava cap, sitting outside a Boer farmhouse and indulging in a hearty dinner.
They followed us into Rustenburg and from there made their way across the Magaliesburg to Pretoria. Here Lord Roberts, riding one day through the market square, suddenly and to his intense surprise, came upon two ladies, one of whom (my wife) he had last seen hunting in Meath. The other, he thought, was by this time well on her way back to England by the western route to Capetown.
Lord Roberts now expressed a wish to see B.-P., so he and I, with Gordon Wilson, Algy Hanbury-Tracy, and a small escort, rode into Pretoria. On the way, we encountered a column under “Curly” Hutton, which had been operating in the neighbourhood of the Magaliesburg, and I met for the first time the New Zealand troops, with whom in later years I was to serve for so long. They gave B.-P. a great ovation.
We stayed a couple of nights at Pretoria, saw many friends, and heard from Winston Churchill, at first hand and on the spot, the story of his escape from the Staats Model School.
Our orders were to remain at present at Rustenburg, so we returned there and spent the time pleasantly enough, riding about the country. One day I rode with Charlie FitzClarence up to Olifant’s Nek and went into a farmhouse to get some coffee. The owner, a fine-looking old Boer, was most hospitable and drew our attention to a gallery of portraits on the walls, of various members of the Royal Family. He then told us that his name was Rex, that he was a direct descendant of George IV, that the valley in which his house was situated was known as the Rex Valley, and that the family had moved up there from George, the town in Cape Colony where they had originally settled. FitzClarence at once claimed cousin-ship with him, ] The FitzClarence family are the descendants of William IV by the famous actress, Mrs. Jordan] and we parted the best of friends.
But it was not long before hostilities broke out afresh, and a column under Lord Methuen, with whom was General Smith-Dorrien, came in after some hard fighting close by, in which my cousin, Dick Wilson of the Yorkshire Hussars, was killed.
In the meantime, my wife had seen Lady Sarah off from Johannesburg to Capetown, and had returned in Weil’s Cape cart, which dropped her at Rustenburg on its way back to Mafeking.
B.-P. was now ordered to leave a garrison in Rustenburg and to march towards Pretoria with his main force. We were, however, only a couple of days’ march out, when news arrived that General Lemmer was advancing on Rustenburg with a big commando. We hastily turned about, and B.-P. despatched Hanbury-Tracy, with a small body of picked mounted men, to ride on ahead and let the garrison know that we were returning. He got in just before Lemmer’s arrival and, by a combination of bluff and excellent dispositions, kept the latter off, till our near approach left him no alternative but to depart.
Meanwhile, I had sent an S O S to my wife, telling her that she must get out of the place somehow or other and go back to Mafeking, and that she must try and do it without creating any suspicion or alarm among the inhabitants. Fortunately, she had scraped acquaintance at the hotel with a New Zealand colonel, Davies, who was on his way from Pretoria to meet a reinforcement of New Zealanders which had landed at Beira, and were on their way down-country to Mafeking. Together, they concocted a plan by which they should leave after nightfall, my wife and Davies in his Cape cart, and his adjutant, Captain Matthews, riding her horse. She accordingly packed her trunk and told the landlady, who was obviously suspicious of her movements, that she had been unexpectedly offered a lift back to Mafeking and had to leave at short notice. It was a very dark night and, after going some distance, they saw a camp-fire ahead. Having already passed the outposts, which on our departure had been withdrawn to the immediate proximity of the town, it seemed likely that it was a party of Boers. But they decided to chance it, and on approach were delighted to be challenged by an outpost of our troops, which the order to withdraw had never reached. After crossing the Magaliesburg at Magato’s Nek, they took a wrong turn and would have driven into the arms of the Boers coming down from the north, had not my wife, who is possessed of a particularly good bump of locality and eye for country, realized that they were heading in the wrong direction. Davies got down to look for a place to turn and, not having realized in the inky darkness that the road ran along the top of a steep bank, fell down it, but fortunately without hurting himself. They eventually got back to the right road and soon after daylight reached Eland’s River, a post on our line of communications commanded by Colonel Hore. He gave them breakfast and fresh horses, and after driving all day they stopped soon after dark at a Boer farmhouse and asked for food and lodging. But the farmer and his wife were in bed and refused to get up, so they invaded the kitchen, and, heating up some milk which they found there, had to be content with it, and a frugal repast of what was left of the supplies with which they had started from Rustenburg. They then laid themselves down to sleep as best they could on the “stoep,” and waited for daylight to resume their journey, eventually reaching Zeerust after a somewhat strenuous trek. There my wife found Lady Edward Cecil [Now Viscountess Milner] who had arrived to join her husband, and decided to stay and keep her company instead of going on to Mafeking.
Shortly after our return to Rustenburg, we heard that Hore at Eland’s River was being besieged by a considerable force of Boers under De la Rey. General Sir Frederick Carrington was on the way from Mafeking to his relief, and it was arranged that Plumer should take out a flying column to co-operate with him. But he had hardly got half-way before news came that De Wet was on his way to Olifant’s Nek, and he was recalled by orders from Pretoria. Carrington's attempt to relieve Eland’s River failed, and De Wet got through at Olifant’s Nek, at night, by a mountain track above our troops who were holding the pass. So Plumer’s recall was of no avail to anybody.
I was at this time talking one day to my wife at Zeerust over the telephone and, as a curious accompaniment to our conversation, we could hear the noise of the guns and the whistle of the bullets over the wires at Eland’s River.
Hore was eventually relieved by a force under Lord Kitchener, who had pursued De Wet up to Olifant’s Nek, and another force under Ian Hamilton had arrived in our vicinity to intercept him. But as he had slipped through, we were now again ordered to march on Pretoria. On arrival at Commando Nek, we heard that De Wet was near by, and sure enough he soon materialized in the shape of a message summoning us to surrender. I took it to B.-P. and asked him what reply I was to send. He said that it was to be to the effect that he (B.-P.) could only suppose that it was a mistake, that De Wet’s staff officer had probably misunderstood him, and that what he really meant was to offer to surrender to us, in which case he would be delighted to fall in with the wishes of the elusive guerrilla leader. Thirty-four years later, when having tea with Captain and Mrs. Colin Bain-Marais in the Parliament House at Capetown, I met the Boer staff officer. Pen Wessels—then a member of the South African Parliament—who told me De Wet had been much amused, and we had a good laugh over the incident.
After a short halt in the environs of Pretoria, we were ordered to the Northern Transvaal, where we came under the orders of a force commanded by General Sir Arthur Paget. With it we had a good deal of desultory fighting about Hainan’s Kraal, Pienaar’s River and Warmbath, and penetrated as far north as Nylstrom. B.-P. was now taken to raise and organize the South African Constabulary. Plumer succeeded to command of his column, and I became his chief staff officer. I much enjoyed this trek. Arthur Paget was a fighting general, and went for the Boers wherever and whenever he could, and my service with Plumer was the beginning of a great friendship which lasted till his death.
A gradual augmentation of Plumer’s force led to his having to give up the immediate command of his Rhodesians. I was fortunate enough to succeed him in command of the Rhodesian Mounted Brigade, consisting of the Rhodesian and Protectorate regiments and a regiment of British South Africa Police. No finer body of mounted troops can be imagined and I hoped to finish the campaign at their head. For a time we were based on a place called Sybrandt’s Kraal in the Eastern Transvaal, and from there made raids and expeditions against Boer commandos and hostile villages in the vicinity. It was at this time that I first made acquaintance with the Australian mounted troops with whom I was eventually to be so closely associated in the Great War. I have vivid memories of a race meeting organized by the Australian Bushmen (as those contingents which formed part of Plumer’s Force were called), and of vast flocks and herds, captured by Vialls [Major Vialls, late 14th West Yorkshire Regiment] and his West Australians, being shepherded into camp by practised hands. At the race-meeting, the so-called “snake ” fences of solid timber, erected by the Bushmen, fairly “put the wind up” us Britishers and South Africans, who had never seen anything of the kind before, but we hardened our hearts and competed over them without, as far as I can remember, any material damage to either man or horse.
By this time, I had heard that I had been selected for transfer to the new regiment of Household troops, the Irish Guards, which had been raised, at the express wish of Queen Victoria, to commemorate, as she expressed it, the valour of her Irish regiments. My old regiment, at Talana Hill and elsewhere, had particularly distinguished itself, and this, coupled with the fact that my old Mounted Infantry Commanding Officer, Colonel Freddy Stopford, had sponsored me with those responsible for making recommendations to Her Majesty for appointment to her Brigade of Guards, left me in no doubt as regards acceptance of the honour now offered to me—sorry as I was to sever my connection with the celebrated regiment to which I had hitherto had the honour to belong.
But now, to my great sorrow, I fell sick, and was taken to the Irish Hospital at Pretoria. There, it was discovered that I was suffering from a particularly virulent form of tapeworm, probably contracted from drinking bad water, either in Mafeking or in the Eastern Transvaal. As it seemed likely that this complaint would take some time and very special treatment to cure, and as my new regiment was clamouring for me to join, it was decided to send me home.
I dined with Lord Kitchener shortly before leaving. He was kind enough to give me to understand that, if I was able to stay, he would give me command of a column of mounted troops, and Lord Milner pressed me, both verbally and by letter, to accept one of the high appointments in the South African Constabulary which was then in process of being raised. But the medical authorities were quite clear that I ought to go home, and I did not feel up to it, so home I went.
In the meantime, my wife had been moved on from Zeerust to Mafeking, and again from Mafeking to Kimberley, and on our way down country, we met at De Aar Junction. At Beaufort West, we got out of the train to have dinner, leaving our small luggage in the railway carriage. While we were away, the train was shunted some little way down the line. We had some distance to walk to rejoin it, and when we arrived, I found that my despatch-box was missing from the rack in which I had left it. In it was a gold watch which I prized because my father had worn it during the Crimean War, two complete sets of Mafeking stamps which at that time were worth about £120 apiece, two or three “shaft” sovereigns, the message from De Wet to which I had made previous allusion, and, worst of all, a very complete Mafeking diary which I had kept, with great effort and most meticulous care, throughout the whole siege. Every effort to retrieve the box was unavailing, and I swore I would never keep a diary again, and never have.
On arrival at Capetown we found that I had been detailed to go home in a troopship. So my wife went by the Scot, and I had to travel, in company with Prince Alexander of Teck, “Peter” Roll, Herbert Lawrence, Angus McNeilland other friends, in an old tub called the Fort Salisbury which, after a slow and uneventful voyage, landed us safely in England.