In August we left Cape Town, and I went to Bulawayo, where I spent two months. Gordon had been appointed A.D.C. to Colonel Baden-Powell, and during this time was with his chief on the western borders. The latter was engaged in raising two regiments of irregular horse, which were later known as the Protectorate Regiments, and were recruited principally from the district between Mafeking and Bulawayo. At the latter town was also another English lady, Mrs. Godley, whose husband was second in command of one of these regiments. It can easily be imagined that there was little else discussed then but warlike subjects, and these were two dreary and anxious months. We had little reliable news; the local newspapers had no special cables, and only published rumours that were current in the town. Mr. Rochfort Maguire, who was then staying with Mr. Rhodes at Cape Town, used frequently to telegraph us news from there. One day he would report President Kruger was climbing down; the next, that he had once more hardened his heart. And so this modern Pharaoh kept us all on tenterhooks. The drilling and exercising of the newly recruited troops were the excitements of the day. Soon Colonel Plumer arrived, and assumed command of one of the regiments, which was encamped on the racecourse just outside the town; the other regiment had its headquarters at Mafeking. Colonel Baden-Powell and his Staff used to dash up and down between the two towns. Nearly all the business men in Bulawayo enlisted, and amongst the officers were some experienced soldiers, who had seen all the Matabeleland fighting, and some of whom had even participated in the Raid. Others who used to drop in for a game of bridge were Lord Timmy Paulet, Mr. Geoffrey Glyn, and Dr. Jameson. To while away the time, I took a course of ambulance lessons, learning how to bandage by experiments on the lanky arms and legs of a little black boy. We also made expeditions to the various mining districts. I was always struck with the hospitality shown us in these out-of-the-way localities, and with the cosiness of the houses belonging to the married mine-managers. Only Kaffirs were available as servants, but, in spite of this, an excellent repast was always produced, and the dwellings were full of their home treasures. Prints of the present King and Queen abounded, and among the portraits of beautiful Englishwomen, either photographs or merely reproductions cut out of an illustrated newspaper, I found those of Lady de Grey, Georgiana, Lady Dudley, and Mrs. Langtry, most frequently adorning the walls of those lonely homes.
At last, at the end of September, a wire informed us that hostilities were expected to begin in Natal the following week, and I left for Mafeking, intending to proceed to Cape Town and home. On arrival at Mafeking everyone told us an attack on the town was imminent, and we found the inhabitants in a state of serious alarm. However, Baden-Powell's advent reassured them, and preparations for war proceeded apace; the townspeople flocked in to be enrolled in the town guard, spending the days in being drilled; the soldiers were busy throwing up such fortifications as were possible under the circumstances. On October 3 the armoured train arrived from the South, and took its first trip on the rails, which had been hastily flung down round the circumference of the town. This train proved afterwards to be absolutely useless when the Boers brought up their artillery. Night alarms occurred frequently; bells would ring, and the inhabitants, who mostly slept in their clothes, had to rush to their various stations. I must admit that these nocturnal incidents were somewhat unpleasant. Still war was not declared, and the large body of Boers, rumoured as awaiting the signal to advance on Mafeking, gave no sign of approaching any nearer.
We were, indeed, as jolly as the proverbial sandboys during those few days in Mafeking before the war commenced. If Colonel Baden-Powell had forebodings, he kept them to himself. Next to him in importance came Lord Edward Cecil, Grenadier Guards, C.S.O. I have often heard it said that if Lord Edward had been a member of any other family but that of the gifted Cecils he would have been marked as a genius, and that if he had not been a soldier he would surely have been a politician of note. Then there was Major Hanbury Tracy, Royal Horse Guards, who occupied the position of Director of Military Intelligence. This officer was always devising some amusing if wild-cat schemes, which were to annihilate or checkmate the Boers, and prove eventually the source of fame to himself. Mr. Ronald Moncrieff, an extra A.D.C., was, as usual, not blest with a superabundance of this world's goods, but had an unending supply of animal spirits, and he was looking forward to a siege as a means of economizing. Another of our circle was Major Hamilton Gould Adams, Resident Commissioner of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, who commanded the town guard, representing the civil as opposed to the military interests. In contrast to the usual practice, these departments worked perfectly smoothly together at Mafeking.
Colonel Baden-Powell did not look on my presence with great favour, neither did he order me to leave, and I had a sort of presentiment that I might be useful, considering that there were but three trained nurses in the Victoria Hospital to minister to the needs of the whole garrison. Therefore, though I talked of going South every day by one of the overcrowded trains to Cape Town, in which the Government was offering free tickets to any who wished to avail themselves of the opportunity, I secretly hoped to be allowed to remain. We had taken a tiny cottage in the town, and we had all our meals at Dixon's Hotel, where the food was weird, but where certainly no depression of spirits reigned. I even bought a white pony, called Dop, from a Johannesburg polo-player, and this pony, one of the best I have ever ridden, had later on some curious experiences. One day Dr. Jameson arrived on his way to Rhodesia, but he was hustled away with more haste than courtesy by General Baden-Powell, who bluntly told him that if he meant to stay in the town a battery of artillery would be required to defend it; and of field-guns, in spite of urgent representations, not one had reached us from Cape Town. We used to ride morning and evening on the flat country which surrounds Mafeking, where no tree or hill obscures the view for miles; and one then realized what a tiny place the seat of government of the Bechuanaland Protectorate really was, a mere speck of corrugated iron roofs on the brown expanse of the burnt-up veldt, far away from everywhere. I think it was this very isolation that created the interest in the siege at home, and one of the reasons why the Boers were so anxious to reduce it was that this town was practically the jumping-off place for the Jameson Raid. So passed the days till October 13, and then the sword, which had been suspended by a hair, suddenly fell.
On that day Major Gould Adams received a wire from the High Commissioner at Cape Town to the effect that the South African Republic had sent an ultimatum to Her Majesty's Government, in which it demanded the removal of all troops from the Transvaal borders, fixing five o'clock the following evening as a limit for their withdrawal. I had delayed my departure too long; it was extremely doubtful whether another train would be allowed to pass South, and, even when started, it would stand a great chance of being wrecked by the Boers tearing up the rails. Under these circumstances I was allotted comparatively safe quarters at the house of Mr. Benjamin Weil, of the firm of the well-known South African merchants. His residence stood in the centre of the little town, adjacent to the railway-station. At that time bomb-proof underground shelters, with which Mafeking afterwards abounded, had not been thought of, or time had not sufficed for their construction. On all sides one heard reproaches levelled at the Cape Government, and especially at General Sir William Butler, until lately commanding the troops in Cape Colony, for having so long withheld the modest reinforcements which had been persistently asked for, and, above all, the very necessary artillery.
At that date the Mafeking garrison consisted of about seven or eight hundred trained troops. The artillery, under Major Panzera, comprised four old muzzle-loading seven-pounder guns with a short range, a one-pound Hotchkiss, one Nordenfeldt, and about seven .303 Maxims—in fact, no large modern pieces whatever. The town guard, hastily enrolled, amounted to 441 defenders, among whom nationalities were curiously mixed, as the following table shows:
Arabs and Indians, 15
Total = 441
This force did not appear sufficiently strong to resist the three or four thousand Boers, with field-guns, who were advancing to its attack under one of their best Generals—namely Cronje—but everyone remained wonderfully calm, and the townspeople rose to the occasion in a most creditable manner.
Very late that same evening, just as I was going to bed, I received a message from Colonel Baden-Powell, through one of his Staff, to say he had just been informed, on trustworthy authority, that no less than 8,000 burghers composed the force likely to arrive on the morrow, that it was probable they would rush the town, and that the garrison would be obliged to fight its way out. He concluded by begging me to leave at once by road for the nearest point of safety. Naturally I had to obey. I shall never forget that night: it was cold and gusty after a hot day, with frequent clouds obscuring the moon, as we walked round to Major Gould Adams's house to secure a Cape cart and some Government mules, in order that I might depart at dawn. At first I was ordered to Kanya, a mission-station some seventy miles away, an oasis in the Kalahari Desert. This plan gave rise to a paragraph which I afterwards saw in some of the daily papers, that I had left Mafeking under the escort of a missionary, and some cheery spirit made a sketch of my supposed departure as reproduced here. Later on, however, it was thought provisions might run short in that secluded spot, so I was told to proceed to Setlagoli, a tiny store, or hotel as we should call it, with a shop attached, thirty-five miles south in Bechuanaland, on the main road to Kimberley, from which quarter eventually succour was expected. My few preparations completed, I simply had to sit down and wait for daybreak, sleep being entirely out of the question. In the night the wind increased, and howled mournfully round the house. At four o'clock, when day was about to break, I was ready to start, and some farewells had to be said. These were calm, but not cheerful, for it was my firm belief that, in all human probability, I should never see the familiar faces again, knowing well they would sell their lives dearly.
It was reported amongst my friends at home that, in order to escape from Mafeking, my maid and myself had ridden 200 miles. One newspaper extract was sent me which said, concerning this fictitious ride, that it "was all very well for Lady Sarah, who doubtless was accustomed to violent exercise, but we commiserate her poor maid." Their pity was wasted, for the departure of my German maid Metelka and myself took place prosaically in that most vile of all vehicles, a Cape cart. Six fine mules were harnessed to our conveyance, and our two small portmanteaus were strapped on behind. The Jehu was a Cape boy, and, to complete the cortege, my white pony Dop brought up the rear, ridden by a Zulu called Vellum. This boy, formerly Dr. Jameson's servant, remained my faithful attendant during the siege; beneath his dusky skin beat a heart of gold, and to him I could safely have confided uncounted treasures. As the daylight increased so did the wind in violence; it was blowing a perfect gale, and the dust and sand were blinding. We outspanned for breakfast twelve miles out, at the farm of a presumably loyal Dutchman; then on again, the wind by now having become a hurricane, aggravated by the intensely hot rays of a scorching sun. I have never experienced such a miserable drive, and I almost began to understand the feelings of people who commit suicide. However, the long day wore to a close, and at length we reached Setlagoli store and hotel, kept by a nice old Scotch couple, Mr. and Mrs. Fraser. The latter was most kind, and showed us two nice clean rooms. Here, anyway, I trusted to find a haven of rest. This hope was of short duration, for Sergeant Matthews, in charge of the Mounted Police depôt, soon came and told me natives reported several hundred Boers at Kraipann, only ten miles away. He said they were lying in wait for the second armoured train, which was expected to pass to Mafeking that very night, carrying the howitzers so badly needed there, and some lyddite shells. The sergeant opined the Boers would probably come on here if victorious, and loot the store, and he added that such marauding bands were more to be feared than the disciplined ones under Cronje. He even suggested my leaving by moonlight that very night. The driver, however, was unwilling to move, and we were all so exhausted that I decided to risk it and remain, the faithful sergeant promising to send scouts out and warn us should the enemy be approaching. I was fully determined that, having left Mafeking, where I might have been of use, I would run no risks of capture or impertinence from the burghers, who would also certainly commandeer our cart, pony, and mules.
Then followed another endless night; the moon set at 1 a.m., and occasionally I was roused by the loud and continuous barking of the farm dogs. At four o'clock Vellum's dusky countenance peered into the room, which opened on to the stoep, as do nearly all the apartments of these hotels, to ask if the mules should be inspanned, for these natives were all in wholesale dread of the Boers. Hearing all was quiet, I told him to wait till the sergeant appeared. About an hour later I opened my door to have a look at the weather: the wind had dropped completely, the sky was cloudless, and a faint tinge of pink on the distant horizon denoted where the east lay. I was about to shut it again and dress, when a dull booming noise arrested my attention, then almost froze the blood in my veins. There was no mistaking the firing of big guns at no very great distance.
We are accustomed to such a sound when salutes are fired or on a field-day, but I assure those who have not had a like experience, that to hear the same in actual warfare, and to know that each detonation is dealing death and destruction to human beings and property, sends a shiver down the back akin to that produced by icy cold water. I counted four or five; then there it was again and again and again, till altogether I reckoned twenty shots, followed by impressive silence once more, so intense in the quiet peace of the morning landscape. On the farm, however, there was stir and bustle enough: alarmed natives gathered in a group, weird figures with blankets round their shoulders—for the air was exceedingly cold—all looking with straining eyes in the direction of Kraipann, from where the firing evidently came. I soon joined the people, white and back, in front of the store, and before long a mounted Kaffir rode wildly up, and proceeded, with many gesticulations, to impart information in his own tongue. His story took some time, but at last a farmer turned round and told me the engagement had been with the armoured train, as we anticipated, and that the latter had "fallen down" (as the Kaffir expressed it) owing to the rails being pulled up. What had been the fate of its occupants he did not know, as he had left in terror when the big gun opened fire. Curiously enough, as I afterwards learnt, these shots were the first fired during the war.
Remembering the sergeant's warning, I decided to start at once for Mosita, twenty-five miles farther away from the border, leaving Vellum to bring on any further intelligence when the sergeant, who had been away all night watching the Boers, returned. We now traversed a fine open grassy country, very desolate, with no human habitation. The only signs of life were various fine "pows" stalking sedately along, or "korans," starting up with their curious chuckle rather like the note of a pheasant, or a covey of guinea-fowl scurrying across the road and losing themselves in the waving grass. Meanwhile the driver kept up an incessant conversation with the mules, and I found myself listening to his varying epithets with stupefied curiosity. During that four hours' drive we only met two natives and one huge herd of cattle, which were being driven by mounted Kaffirs, armed with rifles, to Mosita, our destination, where it was hoped they would be out of the way of marauding Boers. At last we reached the native stadt of Mosita, where our appearance created great excitement. Crowds of swarthy men and youths rushed out to question our driver as to news. The latter waxed eloquent in words and gestures, imitating even the noise of the big gun, which seemed to produce great enthusiasm among these simple folk. Their ruling passion, I afterwards found, was hatred and fear of the Boers, and their dearest wish to possess guns and ammunition to join the English in driving them back and to defend their cattle. In the distance we could see the glimmering blue waters of a huge dam, beyond which was the farm and homestead of a loyal colonial farmer named Keeley, whose hospitality I had been told to seek. Close by were the barracks, with seven or eight occupants, the same sort of depôt as at Setlagoli. I asked to see Mrs. Keeley, and boldly announced we had come to beg for a few nights' lodging. We were most warmly received and made welcome. The kindness of the Keeleys is a bright spot in my recollections of those dark weeks. Mrs. Keeley herself was in a dreadful state of anxiety, as she had that very day received a letter from her husband in Mafeking, whither he had proceeded on business, to say he found he must remain and help defend the town; his assistance was urgently needed there in obtaining information respecting the Boers from the natives, whose language he talked like his own. She had five small children, and was shortly expecting an addition to her family, so at last I had found someone who was more to be pitied than myself. She, on the other hand, told me our arrival was a godsend to her, as it took her thoughts off her troubles.
Affairs in the neighbourhood seemed in a strange confusion. Mr. Keeley was actually the Veldtcornet of the district, an office which in times of peace corresponded to that of a magistrate. In reality he was shut up in Mafeking, siding against the Dutch. The surrounding country was peopled entirely, if sparsely, by Dutch farmers and natives, the former of whom at first and before our reverses professed sympathy with the English; but no wonder the poor wife looked to the future with dread, fearful lest British disasters would be followed by Boer reprisals.
Towards sunset Vellum appeared with a note from Sergeant Matthews. It ran as follows:
"The armoured train captured; its fifteen occupants all killed. Boers opened fire on the train with field artillery."
In our isolation these words sank into our souls like lead, and were intensified by the fact that we had that very morning been so near the scene of the tragedy—"reverse" I would not allow it to be called, for fifteen men had tried conclusions with 400 Boers, and had been merely hopelessly outnumbered. The latter had, however, scored an initial success, and the intelligence cast a gloom, even where all was blackest night. Vellum brought a few more verbal details, to the effect that Sergeant Matthews had actually succeeded in stopping the armoured train after pursuing it on horseback for some way, expecting every moment to be taken for a Boer and fired on. He asked to speak to the officer in charge, and a young man put his head over the truck. Matthews then told him that several hundred Boers were awaiting the train, strongly entrenched, and that the metals were up for about three-quarters of a mile. "Is that all?" was the answer; then, turning to the engine-driver, "Go straight ahead." Here was a conspicuous instance of English foolhardy pluck.
The evening was a lovely one. I took a walk along the road by which we had come in the morning, and was soothed by the peaceful serenity of the surrounding country.
It seemed to be impossible that men were killing each other only a few short miles away. The herd of cattle we had passed came into view, and caught sight of the water in the dam. It was curious to see the whole herd, some five or six hundred beasts, break into a clumsy canter, and, with a bellowing noise, dash helter-skelter to the water—big oxen with huge branching horns, meek-eyed cows, young bullocks, and tiny calves, all joining in the rush for a welcome drink after a long hot day on the veldt.
The last news that came in that evening was that all the wires were cut north and south of Mafeking, and the telegraphists fled, as their lives had been threatened.
Captain Gordon Wilson, Royal Horse Guards, now Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson, M.V.O.
Now Major-General Sir Herbert Plumer, K.C.B.
Now Marquis of Winchester.
Now Marchioness of Ripon.
Now Lady de Bathe.
Died in Africa, 1909.
Now Sir Hamilton Gould Adams, Governor of the Orange River Colony.
Dutch for a peculiar kind of cheap brandy very popular with the Boers.
This return was given me by Major Gould Adams.
This was incorrect. The officer in charge and two others were severely wounded, the driver and stoker killed by the explosion of the boiler.