"And so we sat tight."—Despatch from Mafeking to WarOffice
February came and went without producing very much change in our circumstances, and yet, somehow, there was a difference observable as the weeks passed. People looked graver; a tired expression was to be noted on many hitherto jovial countenances; the children were paler and more pinched. Apart from the constant dangers of shells and stray bullets, and the knowledge that, when we were taking leave of any friend for a few hours, it might be the last farewell on earth—apart from these facts, which constituted a constant wear and tear of mind, the impossibility of making any adequate reply to our enemy's bombardment gradually preyed on the garrison. By degrees, also, our extreme isolation seemed to come home to us, and not a few opined that relief would probably never come, and that Mafeking would needs have to be sacrificed for the greater cause of England's final triumph. Since Christmas black "runners" had contrived to pass out of the town with cables, bringing us on their return scrappy news and very ancient newspapers. For instance, I notice in my diary that at the end of March we were enchanted to read a Weekly Times of January 5. On another occasion the Boers vacated some trenches, which were immediately occupied by our troops, who there found some Transvaal papers of a fairly recent date, and actually a copy of the Sketch. I shall never forget how delighted we were with the latter, and the amusement derived therefrom compensated us a little for the accounts in the Boer papers of General Buller's reverses on the Tugela. About the middle of February I was enchanted to receive a letter from Mr. Rhodes, in Kimberley, which I reproduce.
[Transcription of letter:
"Jan 12 / 1900
"DEAR LADY SARAH,
"Just a line to say I often think of you[.] I wonder do you play bridge, it takes your mind off hospitals, burials and shells. A change seems coming with Buller crossing the Tulega. Jameson should have stopped at Bulawayo and relieved you from North. He can do no good shut up in Ladysmith[.] I am doing a little good here as I make De Beers purse pay for things military cannot sanction[.] We have just made and fired a 4 inch gun, it is a success.
This characteristic epistle seemed a link with the outer world, and to denote we were not forgotten, even by those in a somewhat similar plight to ourselves.
The natives and their splendid loyalty were always a source of interest. Formed into a "cattle guard," under a white man named Mackenzie, the young bloods did excellent service, and were a great annoyance to the Boers by making daring sorties in order to secure some of the latter's fat cattle. This particular force proudly styled itself "Mackenzie's Black Watch." There were many different natives in Mafeking. Besides the Baralongs before alluded to, we had also the Fingos, a very superior race, and 500 natives belonging to different tribes, who hailed from Johannesburg, and who had been forcibly driven into the town by Cronje before the siege commenced. These latter were the ones to suffer most from hunger, in spite of Government relief and the fact that they had plenty of money; for they had done most of the trench-work, and had been well paid. The reason was that they were strangers to the other natives, who had their own gardens to supplement their food allowance, and blacks are strangely unkind and hard to each other, and remain quite unmoved if a (to them) unknown man dies of starvation, although he be of their own colour.
The native stadt covered altogether an area of at least a square mile, and was full of surprises in the shape of pretty peeps and rural scenery. Little naked children used to play on the grass, pausing to stare open-eyed at the passer-by, and men and women sat contentedly gossiping in front of their huts. The whole gave an impression of prosperity, of waving trees, green herbage, and running water, and was totally different to the usual African landscape. To ride or drive through it on a Sunday was quite a rest, when there was no risk of one's illusions being dispelled by abominable shells, whose many visible traces on the sward, in the shape of deep pear-shaped pits, were all the same in evidence.
Standing in a commanding position among the thatched houses of the picturesque native stadt was the Mission Church, of quaint shape, and built of red brick, the foundation of which had been laid by Sir Charles Warren in 1884. One Sunday afternoon we attended service in this edifice, and were immensely struck with the devotion of the enormous congregation of men and women, who all followed the service attentively in their books. The singing was most fervent, but the sermon a little tedious, as the clergyman preached in English, and his discourse had to be divided into short sentences, with a long pause between each, to enable the black interpreter at his side to translate what he said to his listeners, who simply hung on his words.
All the natives objected most strongly to partaking of horse soup, supplied by the kitchens, started by the C.O., as they declared it gave them the same sickness from which the horses in Africa suffered, and also that it caused their heads to swell. The authorities were therefore compelled to devise some new food, and the resourceful genius of a Scotchman introduced a porridge called "sowens" to the Colonel's notice. This nutriment, said to be well known in the North of Scotland, was composed of the meal which still remained in the oat-husks after they had been ground for bread and discarded as useless. It was slightly sour, but very wholesome, and enormously popular with the white and the black population, especially with the latter, who preferred it to any other food.
I must now mention the important item of supplies and how they were eked out. The provisions sent to Mafeking by the Cape Government before the war were only sufficient to feed 400 men for a little over a fortnight. At that time a statement was made, to reassure the inhabitants, that the Cape Ministry held themselves personally responsible for the security of the railway in the colony. Providentially, the firm of Weil and Company had sent vast stores to their depôt in the town on their own initiative. This firm certainly did not lose financially by their foresight, but it is a fact that Mafeking without this supply could have made no resistance whatever. There were 9,000 human beings to feed, of which 7,000 were natives and 2,000 white people. It can therefore be imagined that the task of the D.A.A.G. was not a light one. Up to April the town consumed 4,099 tons of food-stuffs; 12,256 tons of oats, fodder, meal, and flour; and 930 tons of fuel; making a total of 17,285 tons. Of matches, the supply of which was soon exhausted, 35,400 boxes were used, and to take their place tiny paraffin lamps were supplied to all, which burnt night and day. Fortunately, the supply of liquid fuel was very large, and it would have taken the place of coal if the siege had been indefinitely prolonged. Among miscellaneous articles which were luckily to be obtained at Weil's stores were 2 tons of gunpowder and other ammunition, 132 rifles, insulated fuses, and electric dynamos for discharging mines, etc.
About a month after the siege started, the C.O. placed an embargo on all food-stuffs, and the distribution of rations commenced. From then onward special days were allowed for the sale of luxuries, but always in strictly limited quantities. At first the rations consisted of 1-1/4 pounds of meat and 1-1/4 pounds of bread, besides tea, coffee, sugar, and rice. As time went on these were reduced, and towards the end of March we only had 6 ounces of what was called bread and 1 pound of fresh meat, when any was killed; otherwise we had to be content with bully beef. As to the "staff of life," it became by degrees abominable and full of foreign substances, which were apt to bring on fits of choking. In spite of this drawback, there was never a crumb left, and it was remarkable how little the 6 ounces seemed to represent, especially to a hungry man in that keen atmosphere.
One day it was discovered there was little, if any, gold left of the £8,000 in specie that was lodged at the Standard Bank at the beginning of the siege. This sum the Boers had at one time considered was as good as in their pockets. It was believed the greater portion had since been absorbed by the natives, who were in the habit of burying the money they received as wages. In this quandary, Colonel Baden-Powell designed a paper one-pound note, which was photographed on to thick paper of a bluish tint, and made such an attractive picture that the Government must have scored by many of them never being redeemed.
It was not till Ash Wednesday, which fell that year on the last day of February, that we got our first good news from a London cable, dated ten days earlier. It told us Kimberley was relieved, that Colesberg was in our hands, and many other satisfactory items besides. What was even of greater importance was a message from Her Majesty Queen Victoria to Colonel Baden-Powell and his garrison, applauding what they had done, and bidding them to hope on and wait patiently for relief, which would surely come. This message gave especial pleasure from its being couched in the first person, when, as was universally remarked, the task of sending such congratulations might so easily have been relegated to one of Her Majesty's Ministers. I really think that no one except a shipwrecked mariner, cast away on a desert island, and suddenly perceiving a friendly sail, could have followed our feelings of delight on that occasion. We walked about thinking we must be dreaming, and finding it difficult to believe that we were in such close contact with home and friends. In less than ten minutes posters were out, and eager groups were busy at the street-corners, discussing the news, scrappy indeed, and terribly deficient in all details, but how welcome, after all the vague native rumours we had had to distract us during the past weeks! We were content then to wait any length of time, and our lives varied very little as the weeks slipped by. The bombardment was resumed with vigour, and the old monster gun cruised right round the town and boomed destruction at us from no less than five different points of vantage. When the shelling was very heavy, we used to say to ourselves, "What a good thing they are using up their ammunition!" when again for a few days it was slack, we were convinced our foes had had bad news. What matter if our next information was that the Boers had been seen throwing up their hats and giving vent to other visible expressions of delight: we had passed a few peaceful hours.
Many casualties continued to take place; some were fatal and tragic, but many and providential were the escapes recorded. Among the former, one poor man was blown to bits while sitting eating his breakfast; but the same day, when a shell landed in or near a house adjacent to my bomb-proof, it merely took a cage containing a canary with it through the window, while another fragment went into a dwelling across the street, and made mince-meat of a sewing-machine and a new dress on which a young lady had been busily engaged. She had risen from her pleasant occupation but three minutes before. The coolness of the inhabitants, of both sexes, was a source of constant surprise and admiration to me, and women must always be proud to think that the wives and daughters of the garrison were just as conspicuous by their pluck as the defenders themselves. Often of a hot afternoon, when I was sitting in my bomb-proof, from inclination as well as from prudence—for it was a far cooler resort than the stuffy iron-roofed houses—while women and children were walking about quite unconcernedly outside, I used to hear the warning bell ring, followed by so much scuffling, screaming, and giggling, in which were mingled jokes and loud laughter from the men, that it made me smile as I listened; then, after the explosion, they would emerge from any improvised shelter and go gaily on their way, and the clang of the blacksmith's anvil, close at hand, would be resumed almost before the noise had ceased and the dust had subsided. One day a lady was wheeling her two babies in a mail-cart up and down the wide road, while the Boers were busily shelling a distant part of the defences. The children clapped their hands when they heard the peculiar siren and whistle of the quick-firing Krupp shells, followed by dull thuds, as they buried themselves in the ground. On my suggesting to her that it was not a very favourable time to air the children, she agreed, and said that her husband had just told her to go home, which she proceeded leisurely to do. Another morning the cattle near the convent were being energetically shelled, and later I happened to see the Mother Superior, and commiserated with her in having been in such a hot corner. "Ah, shure!" said the plucky Irish lady, "the shells were dhroppin' all round here; but they were only nine-pounders, and we don't take any notice of them at all." No words can describe the cheerful, patient behaviour of those devoted Sisters through the siege. They bore uncomplainingly all the hardships and discomforts of a flooded bomb-proof shelter, finally returning to their ruined home with any temporary makeshifts to keep out the rain; and whereas, from overwork and depression of spirits, some folks were at times a little difficult to please, not a word of complaint during all those months ever came from the ladies of the convent. They certainly gave an example of practical religion, pluck, charity, and devotion.
And so the moons waxed and waned, and Mafeking patiently waited, and, luckily, had every confidence in the resource and ability of Colonel Baden-Powell. An old cannon had been discovered, half buried in the native stadt, which was polished up and named "The Lord Nelson," from the fact of its antiquity. For this gun solid cannon-balls were manufactured, and finally fired off at the nearest Boer trenches; and the first of these to go bounding along the ground certainly surprised and startled our foes, which was proved by their quickly moving a part of their laager. In addition a rough gun, called "The Wolf," was actually constructed in Mafeking, which fired an 18-pound shell 4,000 yards. To this feat our men were incited by hearing of the magnificent weapon which had been cast by the talented workmen of Kimberley in the De Beers workshops. In spite of there being nothing but the roughest materials to work with, shells were also made, and some Boer projectiles which arrived in the town without exploding were collected, melted down, and hurled once more at our enemy. Truly, there is no such schoolmaster as necessity.
On Sundays we continued to put away from us the cares and worries of the week, and the Church services of the various denominations were crowded, after an hour devoted to very necessary shopping. During the whole siege the Sunday afternoon sports on the parade-ground were a most popular institution; when it was wet, amusing concerts were given instead at the Masonic Hall. On these occasions Colonel Baden-Powell was the leading spirit, as well as one of the principal artistes, anon appearing in an impromptu sketch as "Signor Paderewski," or, again, as a coster, and holding the hall entranced or convulsed with laughter. He was able to assume very various rôles with "Fregoli-like" rapidity; for one evening, soon after the audience had dispersed, suddenly there was an alarm of a night attack. Firing commenced all round the town, which was a most unusual occurrence for a Sunday night. In an instant the man who had been masquerading as a buffoon was again the commanding officer, stern and alert. The tramp of many feet was heard in the streets, which proved to be the reserve squadron of the Protectorate Regiment, summoned in haste to headquarters. A Maxim arrived, as by magic, from somewhere else, the town guard were ordered to their places, and an A.D.C. was sent to the hall, where a little dance for the poor overworked hospital nurses was in full swing, abruptly to break up this pleasant gathering. It only remained for our defenders to wish the Boers would come on, instead of which the attack ended in smoke, after two hours' furious volleying, and by midnight all was quiet again.
During the latter part of this tedious time Colonel Plumer and his gallant men were but thirty miles away, having encompassed a vast stretch of dreary desert from distant Bulawayo. This force had been "under the stars" since the previous August, and had braved hardships of heat, fever districts, and flooded rivers, added to many a brush with the enemy. These trusty friends were only too anxious to come to our assistance, but a river rolled between—a river composed of deep fortified trenches, of modern artillery, and of first-rate marksmen with many Mausers. One day Colonel Plumer sent in an intrepid scout to consult with Colonel Baden-Powell. This gentleman had a supreme contempt for bullets, and certainly did not know the meaning of the word "fear," but the bursting shells produced a disagreeable impression on him. "Does it always go on like that?" he asked, when he heard the vicious hammer of the enemy's Maxim. "Yes," somebody gloomily answered, "it always goes on like that, till at length we pretend to like it, and that we should feel dull if it were silent."
Although the soldiers in Mafeking were disposed to grumble at the small part they seemed to be playing in the great tussle in which England was engaged, the authorities were satisfied that for so small a town to have kept occupied during the first critical month of the war 10,000—and at later stages never less than 2,000—Boers, was in itself no small achievement. We women always had lots to do. When the hospital work was slack there were many Union Jacks to be made—a most intricate and tiresome occupation—and these were distributed among the various forts. We even had a competition in trimming hats, and a prize was given to the best specimen as selected by a competent committee. In the evenings we never failed to receive the Mafeking evening paper, and were able to puzzle our heads over its excellent acrostics, besides frequently indulging in a pleasant game of cards.
In the meantime food was certainly becoming very short, and on April 3 I cabled to my sister in London as follows: "Breakfast to-day, horse sausages; lunch, minced mule, curried locusts. All well." Occasionally I used to be allowed a tiny white roll for breakfast, but it had to last for dinner too. Mr. Weil bought the last remaining turkey for £5, with the intention of giving a feast on Her Majesty's birthday, and the precious bird had to be kept under a Chubb's lock and key till it was killed. No dogs or cats were safe, as the Basutos stole them all for food. But all the while we were well aware our situation might have been far worse. The rains were over, the climate was glorious, fever was fast diminishing, and, in spite of experiencing extreme boredom, we knew that the end of the long lane was surely coming.