Defenses of Mafeking—Invested by Cronje—Baden-Powell's abuse of the Red Cross flag—Kaffirs used for cover by British officers—Snyman replaces Cronje—Baden-Powell in sortie uses dumdum bullets—Importance of Kimberley—Invested by Wessels and De la Rey—Chivalry of Du Plessis—Engagement with armored train at Mackfarlane's Siding—Defenses and environs of Kimberley—De Aar the base of relief—Boers fail to seize De Aar out of regard for Cape Ministry—Preliminary fight at Belmont—Bombardment of Kimberley.
Skirmishes of varying importance and results continued round Mafeking after the capture of the armored train at Kraaipan by De la Rey. General Cronje pushed his lines of investment nearer the town, as opportunity offered, and Colonel Baden-Powell showed much readiness and resource in his methods of defense.
The town stands on ground a little higher than the veldt from which the Boers had to besiege it, and this fact was greatly to the advantage of the defenders. Bomb-proof shelters had been constructed before war was declared, while an adequate supply of ammunition (comprising Mark IV. cartridges) and food for a prolonged resistance had been carefully provided. Approaches on all sides likely to invite an attack were defended by dynamite mines, while the garrison had the active assistance, in the task of vigilantly guarding the place, of 500 or 600 natives of the Baralong and other Kaffir tribes.
General Cronje was only obeying the rules of civilized warfare when he notified Colonel Baden-Powell that he would begin to shell the place at a certain hour. The fact that he gave such notification, however, was not mentioned in the reports which reached London in the earlier stages of the siege. On the contrary, much was made in these despatches of a shell which had hit the Mafeking Hospital. This was denounced as a barbarous act, and adduced as proof that the Boers were not inclined to regard the usages of civilized custom in their conduct of the war. But what are the facts? When Cronje learned that the building had been hit, he wrote to regret the occurrence, and pointed out that " the hospital bore no distinguishing flag, such as is usually employed as a sign to the besieging forces." Cronje also proposed that the women and children should be removed out of the town to a place beyond the reach of shells or dangers of assaults; but no assent would be given to this proposal. Red Cross flags were soon placed over the building set apart for these non-combatants, over the hospital, the convent, the prison, and several other places utilized for defensive purposes; an arrangement which was far more consonant with Baden-Powell's ideas of fighting an enemy than with the letter or spirit of the Geneva Convention.
In one of the earliest skirmishes between the besieged and besiegers a number of Kaffirs got mixed in the fighting. Some of these were taken prisoner, and they declared that 100 of them had been placed in front of the British, and were compelled to act as cover by officers, who forced them to the front with their revolvers. The sortie on the Boer position failed, and the Kaffirs alleged that they were fired upon by the officers during the retreat.
It was this small encounter which inspired some modest English war correspondent to herald it as " a striking British victory," while a reecho of this newspaper achievement reached Australia and caused the Kangaroo Jingoes to go one very much better with the news of the first English triumph. I find that the Sydney (N.S.W.) "Daily Telegraph" of Saturday, October 21, announced the great and glad tidings as follows: " The Transvaal "War.— British Victory at Mafeking!—A Feigned Retreat and a Dashing Sortie!—1,500 Boers Killed!" General Cronje's report of this skirmish told a tale of three Boers killed and of a dozen wounded.
Several offers to storm the town were made in the early days of the siege. The Potchefstroom and Rustenburg commandoes were willing for the task, while the Scandinavian Corps, a body of about 100 Uitlanders of that race, who had joined Cronje's laager, eagerly volunteered to lead any general assault upon the place. No consent, however, would be given to these proposals. General Joubert would lend no countenance to such a plan. Cronje was likewise averse to its adoption. Both erroneously believed that Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley would be starved or shelled into surrender before enough of troops could arrive from England to secure the relief of the forces penned up in the three besieged places. It also appeared to their judgment as a great moral and political triumph for the little Republics to compel 15,000 or 20,000 British and Colonial troops to seek shelter from Boer commandoes within three British towns.
On the 31st of October it was decided to attack a strong position held by Baden-Powell, at a spot called Cannon Kopje, and a number of Potchefstroom men volunteered for the work. There was absolutely no cover of any kind between the Boer lines and this part of the British defensive outworks. The attack was planned I as a surprise in the early hours of the morning, but it was the Boers who were themselves surprised. The English were well on the alert, and allowed their foes to approach near their position before using their guns. The men of Cronje's own commando were shot back with Maxim and rifle fire, and would have lost very heavily in the rash attempt they had made had the British fire not been so badly directed. The casualties were only 4 killed and some 20 wounded.
A counter attack of a most determined character was made a few weeks later by Baden-Powell upon General Snyman. This Boer officer had replaced General Cronje in the command of the investing burghers when the latter was appointed by the Federal Governments to the head command of the forces which were to bar Lord Methuen's advance to the relief of Kimberley. Snyman was left with 2,500 Boers to carry on the shortsighted plan of wasting time and men in front of this small place. He and Baden-Powell, in their tactics during continuance of the siege, resembled a pair of pugilists, fencing and ducking, retiring and advancing in a ring; scientifically up in the tricks of the " noble art," but bent more upon an exhibition of skill for an applauding gallery than upon serious business. In this style of carrying on war, it must be frankly admitted that the Marico Commandant was no match for his histrionic British adversary.
Once in December (appropriately enough on Boxing Day) Baden-Powell planned and attempted a real attack upon Snyman, and the result, as reported to the Executive at Pretoria, was disastrous to the assailants. The Boer general's account of the affair reads:
" This morning the enemy offered a desperate assault upon one of our forts. They made a combined attack with cannon, Maxim, and musketry, and they had an armored train to their rear. They charged us with such violence that some of them were shot dead right upon the side of our fort, and with God's help we retained our position and our fort. We are also in complete possession of the battle-field. The number of English dead is 55, which does not include the various human freights they previously carried home in their armored train and in their ambulance wagons.
" The loss of the British was so severe that our burghers had to assist them in hoisting their dead and wounded into their vehicles, assistance which they most thankfully acknowledged.
" Our casualties are one killed, two men seriously wounded, and six slightly. The burghers fought most courageously. We also made three Britishers prisoners of war."
In a later report General Snyman remarks that the cartridges taken from the enemy during the morning's battle were Dum-Dum (Mark IV.) bullets.
In a subsequent despatch the Boer general said that "the enemy's official admissions show a loss of 108 dead and wounded." Along with this message to Pretoria, Snyman sent the following communication which he had received from Colonel Baden-Powell:
" Mafeking, 27th December, 1899.
" To General Snyman, before Mafeking.
" Sir—I wish to express my thanks to those of your burghers who lent kindly assistance yesterday in carrying our dead and wounded from the battle-field. Their friendly offices are most highly valued by the comrades of the fallen.
" I have the honor to be, etc.,
" Colonel Commanding H. M.'s Troops at Mafeking."
In the " Volksstem " of Pretoria and the " Standard and Diggers' News" of Johannesburg the names and addresses of the killed and wounded on the Boer side in the attack on the Platboomfort on the 26th of December were printed, and the list consisted of 1 killed and 10 wrounded, only.
The Federal Governments attached an importance to Kimberley, both politically and strategically, which Mafeking did not possess. The Diamond City stood for Rhodes and Co., and Rhodes and Co. were the primary authors of the war, in having been the plotters and organizers of the Jameson Raid, of which the conflict that commenced on the 11th of October, 1899, was a direct sequence and result. Kimberley, therefore, was a factor in the situation which appealed more strongly to Dutch feeling than did either Ladysmith or Mafeking. It was near the point of junction between the British and Free State territories, and would be a menacing quantity on the right flank of such Federal force as would have to contest the way of the enemy's advance on Bloemfontein. Cecil Rhodes, too, when hostilities were declared, had rushed to where his immense interests were centered and imperiled, and, calm and passionless as the Boers have shown themselves to be in every emergency throughout the whole campaign, there was no disguising their bitter feeling against their arch-enemy in the early days of the war, and the eagerness of their wish to lay hands upon him.
Notwithstanding these urgent reasons for the capture of Kimberley, the operations directed to that end were of a forcibly feeble character from the beginning. There was not alone an inefficient military direction,but a divided one as well; several Free State Commandants being in charge of the commandoes in front and to the south of the Diamond City, each very jealous of every other's power and authority. Mr. C. J. Wessels, member of the Free State Volksraad, was made Commandant-in-Chief of the western forces, with Mr. Jacob Prinsloo, another M.V., in charge of the burghers who were to defend the dangerous position north of the Orange River Station, from whence the main British force was expected to advance either on Kimberley or Bloemfontein. Had Commandants Andries Cronje, of Winburg, and Christian De Wet (both also Free State M.V.s) been sent to the west in the first instance, instead of Wessels and Prinsloo, Mr. Cecil Rhodes would have passed most of his time during the war in Pretoria as a prisoner. De Wet's natural military talent would have told him that the one way in which to insure the fall of Kimberley was first to secure the capture of the British position and stores at De Aar, and that the surest way in which to lose both places was to pay more attention to the Diamond City than to the key of the whole western military situation. Wessels and Prinsloo, however, were members of the Free State Kriegs Committee, and this fact doubtless explains their appointment.
The number of men in Wessels' commandoes was too small for a vigorous investment of Kimberley, and no effective move was made before the 5th of November to subject the town to a regular siege. General De la Rey had been detached from the forces in front of Mafeking with 1,500 burghers with which to reenforce the commandoes further south on the Bechuanaland. border. On his way to Kimberley he crossed into British territory, and captured the important town of Vryburg; considerately allowing the Colonial magistrates and police to retire from the place without molestation. The day after joining forces with Wessels, he succeeded in destroying a formidable mine north of Kimberley, which had been carefully prepared so as to invite a belief that it was a neglected ammunition depot, instead of a mine of 200 cases of dynamite and 100 of nitro-glycerine. Electric wires connected the building with the town, but De la Rey's foresight averted the blow which had been so deliberately planned, by standing off at a safe distance with his guns and then blowing the place and the explosives into the air. There had been one or two encounters between small bodies of both forces before the arrival of De la Rey, in one of which a patrol under Field Cornet Botha (of Boshof) engaged an armored train on the south side of Kimberley. A week before this event a train from Cape Town was allowed to pass on its way, owing to the fact that some ladies were seen to be aboard. Commandant Du Plessis, who was at the time in charge of the small force holding the line at Belmont, would not consent to have the train fired upon, nor even searched. There was no acknowledgment on Colonel Kekewich's part of this considerate act of courtesy and forbearance. The mine of nitro-glycerine and dynamite on the line of the Boer positions north of the town was the retort courteous of the British defenders of Kimberley.
The engagement with the armored train at Mackfarlane's Siding on the 25th of October was undecisive. The train and its occupants, estimated at 400 troops with four guns, steamed back to Kimberley after a two hours' contest with the burgher patrol under Field Cornet Botha. This brave officer and 5 of his men were killed, while 6 more were wounded. The number of English casualties was not known in the Boer lines.
The combatants within Kimberley were estimated at 4,000; comprising 500 or 600 regular troops, including men of the Royal Engineers, and about 2,500 Volunteers, with companies of Cape Police, local forces, and mounted infantry. Colonel Kekewich, an experienced officer, was in chief command, and had a battery and a half of field guns, and ten Maxims.
The mounds of " tailings " thrown up in the course of diamond mining were admirable ready-made forts, on which guns and riflemen secured the best possible protection, and rendered the town unapproachable except to a formidable force prepared to sell many lives for the chances of a fortunate assault. These heaps of tailings were likewise an effective shield against Boer shells to many of the enemy's otherwise vulnerable positions within the city. There was, therefore, as much of calculated confidence as of Jingo boasting in Mr. Cecil Rhodes' celebrated message, that he was as safe in Kimberley as if he were in Piccadilly, while he believed General Buller would be in Pretoria by Christmas.
The Orange River is crossed by a splendid bridge, a little to the west of the junction of the Orange Free State with Cape Colony, and the country from thence north to Kimberley, a distance of about 90 miles, is typical of South African scenery. The railway line follows a course of least climbing, and winds in and out between occasional kopjes and ridges, on each hand, in its progress north. These hills generally rise up from the veldt without the connecting "neks" with other elevations, which are a marked feature of the mountainous districts of Natal, and do not, therefore, offer positions quite as advantageous for Boer defensive lighting as those of the eastern British colony. It was along this line of country that the English army was to move, and the kopjes referred to offered the only positions from which a greatly inferior force could hope to contest successfully the way.
The stations on the line after the railway crosses the bridge are Witte Putts, Belmont, Graspan, Honeynest Kloof, Modder River, Merton, Spytfontein, Wimbledon, Kimberley; roughly averaging a dozen miles from each other. Magersfontein is situated between Modder River and Spytfontein a little to the east of the railway line. The Free State border lies parallel with the Griqualand West territory, through which the railway runs, and is seldom more than a few miles away from the line the whole of the distance from Orange River Bridge to the Diamond City. There is neither river nor mountain barrier between the Boer and British countries from the Orange River to Mafeking.
The British base for the relief of Kimberley was De Aar, some 70 miles south of the Orange River, and the Free State main laager was at Jacobsdal, on the Reit River, near its junction with the Modder. The advanced posts of both forces were on the south and north side of the Orange River, respectively. As already pointed out, the failure of the Free State Government to order a dash upon De Aar, and the capture of the Orange River Bridge after war had been declared, were mainly due to the existence of a Bond Ministry at the Cape. These Ministers were the loyal subjects of England, and the racial friends of the Boer Republics. The British showed no consideration whatever for the difficulties of the Schreiner Cabinet in this embarrassing relationship, except to distrust them, and the Boers ought to have equally disregarded the racial ties, and to have dealt with the Cape as England did. This view, however, found no favor with President Steyn and his Government. They had their own peculiar, and too considerate, ideas of the obligations which their kinship with the Afrikander Bond placed upon their actions in the war, and, rather than cause trouble to the Cape Ministry in their relations with the British, the latter were allowed to save De Aar and to secure the passage over the Orange River. The capture of both places by the Boers in October would have insured the fall of Kimberley, and all which that would have meant in the fortunes of the Federal campaign from November to May.
On the 10th of November a Free State commando, 350 strong, in occupation of Belmont, was attacked by some 700 Lancers and mounted infantry, a little to the west of the village. The Boer officer in command was Field Cornet Van der Merwe, of Prinsloo's command, and his only artillery consisted of a single Krupp gun. The British were under the orders of Colonel Gough, and had a battery of field artillery. Van der Merwe took up position on a hill called Kaffir Kop, a few miles west of Belmont, dividing his small force into two parties, and awaited the attack of the enemy. The Boer gun put itself out of action after the third shot had been fired, and the fight which followed was continued by the Free Staters with their Mausers only. The tactics of the enemy neutralized the loss of the service of the Krupp, as the British officer sent his mounted men within 600 yards of the hill held by Van der Merwe, and thus gave the burghers, who were posted on the point nearest the advancing troopers, a target for rifle practice, and soon a score of saddles were emptied. The encounter continued for three hours, the enemy foolishly prancing round the Boer position, losing men in pursuit of this riding exercise, and showing no inclination to come to closer quarters. A fight between twelve of the Fauresmith burghers and a troop of mounted infantry, to the right of the Boer position, ended the day's engagement. The dozen Boers were cut off from their main body, who were away a couple of miles to the left, but so steady was their stand and so straight was their shooting that they held off over 150 of their assailants until the English retreat was sounded. Van der Merwe had only two men wounded in the action, and a dozen horses shot. The British losses were not known to the Boer officer, but the estimated casualties were 50.
The fight on the 10th was but a preliminary to a formidable British advance, and steps were taken by the Federal Governments to make preparations more adequate to the task of keeping back the force which was now ready to spring forward from the Orange River to the succor of Kimberley. It was resolved to transfer General Piet Cronje from the lines before Mafeking to the southwest, in order that he might assume command as fighting general of the forces with which Methuen was to be encountered. The intention of the two Governments had been to give Cronje the task of meeting Buller in case the English generalissimo, then at sea, was to lead an army by Norvals Pont to Bloemfontein, and to delegate to De la Rey the duty of barring Methuen's march on Kimberley. When, however, it was found that British feeling and prestige demanded Buller's first attention in the plan of relieving Ladysmith, Cronje was entrusted with the operations south of Kimberley. Unfortunately, however, he did not reach Jacobsdal until after the battle of Enslin was fought on the 25th of November, the results of which fight and that of Belmont only emphasized the imperative necessity there was for relieving Jacob Prinsloo from the command of the most important section of the Free State forces.
Previous to the first battle fought by Methuen in his efforts to reach Kimberley, the Free State generals, Wessels, Du Toit, and Ferreira, with De la Rey as fighting general, had continuously bombarded the Diamond City since the arrival of the Transvaal contingent as a reenforcement. There was, however, no effective unity of action between the generals, and, beyond holding their positions which were occasionally attacked in sorties and surprises by the English garrison, and in shelling the town in return, there was neither serious loss inflicted nor sustained by either side around Kimberley during November.