"War, war is still the cry—war even to the knife!"—BYRON.
"The Boers are in the stadt!" Such was the ominous message that was quickly passed round from mouth to mouth on Saturday morning, May 12, 1900, as day was breaking. One had to be well acquainted with the labyrinth of rocks, trees, huts, and cover generally, of the locality aforementioned, all within a stone's-throw of our dwelling, to realize the dread import of these words.
All the previous week things had been much as usual: inferior food, and very little of it; divine weather; "bridge" in the afternoons; and one day exactly like another. Since the departure of the big gun during the previous month, we had left our bomb-proofs and lived above-ground. In the early hours of the morning alluded to came the real event we had been expecting ever since the beginning of the siege—namely, a Boer attack under cover of darkness. The moon had just set, and it was pitch-dark. A fierce fusillade first began from the east, and when I opened the door on to the stoep the din was terrific, while swish, swish, came the bullets just beyond the canvas blinds, nailed to the edge of the verandah to keep off the sun. Now and then the boom of a small gun varied the noise, but the rifles never ceased for an instant. To this awe-inspiring tune I dressed, by the light of a carefully shaded candle, to avoid giving any mark for our foes. The firing never abated, and I had a sort of idea that any moment a Dutchman would look in at the door, for one could not tell from what side the real attack might be. In various stages of deshabille people were running round the house seeking for rifles, fowling-pieces, and even sticks, as weapons of defence. Meanwhile the gloom was still unbroken, but for the starlight, and it was very cold. The Cockney waiter, who was such a fund of amusement to me, had dashed off with his rifle to his redoubt, taking the keys of the house in his pocket, so no one could get into the dining-room to have coffee, except through the kitchen window. The two hours of darkness that had to elapse were the longest I have ever spent. Hurried footsteps passed to and fro, dark lanterns flashed for an instant, intensifying the blackness, and all of a sudden the sound I had been waiting for added to the weird horror of the situation, an alarm bugle, winding out its tale, clear and true to the farthest byways and the most remote shanties, followed by our tocsin, the deep-toned Roman Catholic Church bell, which was the signal that a general attack was in progress. We caught dim glimpses of the town guard going to their appointed places in the most orderly manner, and I remember thinking that where there was no panic there could be but little danger. An officer of this guard came down the road and told us all his men had turned out without exception, including an old fellow of seventy, and stone-deaf, who had been roused by the rifle-fire, and one minus several fingers recently blown off by a shell. I went out to the front of the house facing the stadt, and therefore sheltered from the hail of bullets coming from the east; and just as we were noticing that objects could be discerned on the road, that before were invisible, forked tongues of lurid light shot up into the sky in the direction where, snug and low by the Malopo River, lay the natives' habitations. Even then one did not realize what was burning, and someone said: "What a big grass fire! It must have commenced yesterday." At the same moment faint cries, unmistakable for Kaffir ejaculations, were borne to us by the breeze, along with the smell of burning thatch and wood, and the dread sentence with which I commenced this chapter seemed to grow in volume, till to one's excited fancy it became a sort of chant, to which the yells of the blacks, the unceasing rattle of musketry, formed an unholy accompaniment. "Hark, what is that?" was a universal exclamation from the few folk, mostly women, standing in front of Mr. Weil's house, as a curious hoarse cheer arose—not in the stadt, half a mile away, but nearer, close by, only the other side of the station, where was situated the B.S.A.P. fort, the headquarters of the officer commanding the Protectorate Regiment. This so-called fort was in reality an obsolete old work of the time of Sir Charles Warren's 1884 expedition, and was but slightly fortified.
The Boers, after setting fire to the stadt, had rushed it, surprising the occupants; and the horrible noise of their cheering arose again and again. Then a terrific fusillade broke out from this new direction, rendering the roadway a place of the greatest danger. My quarters were evidently getting too hot, and I knew that Weil's house and store would be the first objective of the Boers. I bethought me even novices might be useful in the hospital, so I decided to proceed there in one way or another. Although the rifle-fire was slackening towards the east, from the fort, on the west it was continuing unabated; and the way to the hospital lay through the most open part of the town. Calling to our soldier servant of the Royal Horse Guards to accompany me, I snatched up a few things of value and started off. "You will be shot, to a certainty," said Mr. Weil. But it was no use waiting, as one could not tell what would happen next. The bullets were fortunately flying high; all the same, we had twice to stop under a wall and wait for a lull before proceeding. Then I saw a native boy fall in front of me, and at the same moment I stumbled and fell heavily, the servant thinking I was hit; and all the while we could hear frightened cries continuing to emanate from the flaming stadt.
The day had fully broken, and never had the roads appeared so white and wide, the sheltering houses so few and far between. At length we reached the hospital trench, and the last 500 yards of the journey were accomplished in perfect safety. My dangerous experiences ended for the rest of that dreadful day, which I spent in the haven of those walls, sheltering so much suffering, and that were, alas! by evening crammed to their fullest capacity. It was a gruesome sight seeing the wounded brought in, and the blood-stained stretchers carried away empty, when the occupants had been deposited in the operating-room. Sometimes an ambulance waggon would arrive with four or five inmates; at others we descried a stretcher-party moving cautiously across the recreation-ground towards us with a melancholy load. It is easy to imagine our feelings of dread and anxiety as we scanned the features of the new arrivals, never knowing who might be the next. During the morning three wounded Boers were brought in—the first prisoners Mafeking could claim; then a native with his arm shattered to the shoulder. All were skilfully and carefully attended to by the army surgeon and his staff in a marvellously short space of time, and comfortably installed in bed. But the Boers begged not to have sheets, as they had never seen such things before. Among the English casualties, one case was a very sad one. A young man, named Hazelrigg, of an old Leicestershire family, was badly shot in the region of the heart when taking a message to the B.S.A.P. fort, not knowing the Boers were in possession. Smart and good-looking, he had only just been promoted to the post of orderly from being a private in the Cape Police, into which corps he had previously enlisted, having failed in his army examination. When brought to the hospital, Hazelrigg had nearly bled to death, and was dreadfully weak, his case being evidently hopeless. I sat with him several hours, putting eau-de-Cologne on his head and brushing away the flies. In the evening, just before he passed into unconsciousness, he repeated more than once: "Tell the Colonel, Lady Sarah, I did my best to give the message, but they got me first." He died at dawn.
All through the weary hours of that perfect summer's day the rifles never ceased firing. Sometimes a regular fusillade for ten minutes or so; then, as if tired out, sinking down to a few single shots, while the siren-like whistle and sharp explosion of the shells from the high-velocity gun continued intermittently, and added to the dangers of the streets. So the hours dragged on. All the time the wildest rumours pervaded the air. Now the Boers had possession of the whole stadt; again, as soon as night fell, large reinforcements were to force their way in. Of course we knew the Colonel was all the while maturing his plans to rid the town of the unbidden guests, but what these were no one could tell. About 8 p.m., when we were in the depth of despair, we got an official message to say that the Boers in the stadt had been surrounded and taken prisoners, and also that the fort had surrendered to Colonel Hore, who, with some of his officers, had been all day in the curious position of captives in their own barracks. Of course our delight and thankfulness knew no bounds. In spite of the dead and dying patients, those who were slightly wounded or convalescent gave a feeble cheer, which was a pathetic sound. We further heard that the prisoners, in number about a hundred, including Commandant Eloff, their leader, were then being marched through the town to the Masonic Hall, followed by a large crowd of jeering and delighted natives. Two of the nurses and myself ran over to look at them, and I never saw a more motley crew. In the dim light of a few oil-lamps they represented many nationalities, the greater part laughing, joking, and even singing, the burghers holding themselves somewhat aloof, but the whole community giving one the idea of a body of men who knew they had got out of a tight place, and were devoutly thankful still to have whole skins. Eloff and three principal officers were accommodated at Mr. Weil's house, having previously dined with the Colonel and Staff. At 6 a.m. Sunday morning we were awakened by three shells bursting close by, one after the other. I believe no one was more frightened than Eloff; but he told us that it was a preconcerted signal, and that, if they had been in possession of the town, they were to have answered by rifle-fire, when the Boers would have marched in. These proved to be the last shells that were fired into Mafeking.
The same morning at breakfast I sat opposite to Commandant Eloff, who was the President's grandson, and had on my right a most polite French officer, who could not speak a word of English, Dutch, or German, so it was difficult to understand how he made himself understood by his then companions-in-arms. In strong contrast to this affable and courteous gentleman was Eloff, of whom we had heard so much as a promising Transvaal General. A typical Boer of the modern school, with curiously unkempt hair literally standing on end, light sandy whiskers, and a small moustache, he was wearing a sullen and dejected expression on his by no means stupid, but discontented and unprepossessing, face. This scion of the Kruger family did not scruple to air his grievances or disclose his plans with regard to the struggle of the previous day. That he was brilliantly assisted by the French and German freelances was as surely demonstrated as the fact of his having been left more or less in the lurch by his countrymen when they saw that to get into Mafeking was one thing, but to stay there or get out of it again was quite a different matter. In a few words he told us, in fairly good English, how it had been posted up in the laager, "We leave for Mafeking to-night: we will breakfast at Dixon's Hotel to-morrow morning"; how he had sent back to instruct Reuter's agent to cable the news that Mafeking had been taken as soon as the fort was in their hands; how he had left his camp with 400 volunteers, and how, when he had counted them by the light of the blazing stadt, only 240 remained; moreover, that the 500 additional men who were to push in when the fort was taken absolutely failed him. He was also betrayed in that the arranged forward movement all round the town, which was to have taken place simultaneously with his attack, was never made. The burghers instead contented themselves by merely firing senseless volleys from their trenches, which constituted all the assistance he actually received. This, and much more, he told us with bitter emphasis, while the French officer conversed unconcernedly in the intervals of his discourse about the African climate, the weather, and the Paris Exhibition; finally observing with heartfelt emphasis that he wished himself back once more in "La Belle France," which he had only left two short months ago. The Dutchman, not understanding what he was saying, kept on the thread of his story, interrupting him without any compunction. It was one of the most curious meals at which I have ever assisted. That afternoon these officers were removed to safer quarters in gaol while a house was being prepared for their reception.
As after-events proved, Eloff's attack was the Boers' last card, which they had played when they heard of the approaching relief column under Colonel Mahon, and of his intention to join hands with Colonel Plumer, coming from the North. After lunch, two days later, we saw clouds of dust to the south, and, from information to hand, we knew it must be our relievers. The whole of Mafeking spent hours on the roofs of the houses. In the meantime the Boers were very uneasy, with many horsemen coming and going, but the laagers were not being shifted. In the late afternoon a desultory action commenced, which to us was desperately exciting. We could see little but shells bursting and columns of dust. One thing was certain: the Boers were not running away, although the Colonel declared that our troops had gained possession of the position the Boers had held, the latter having fallen a little farther back. As the sun set came a helio-message: "Diamond Fields Horse.—All well. Good-night." We went to dinner at seven, and just as we were sitting down I heard some feeble cheers. Thinking something must have happened, I ran to the market-square, and, seeing a dusty khaki-clad figure whose appearance was unfamiliar to me, I touched him on the shoulder, and said: "Has anyone come in?" "We have come in," he answered—"Major Karri-Davis and eight men of the Imperial Light Horse." Then I saw that officer himself, and he told us that, profiting by an hour's dusk, they had ridden straight in before the moon rose, and that they were now sending back two troopers to tell the column the way was clear. Their having thus pushed on at once was a lucky inspiration, for, had they waited for daylight, they would probably have had a hard fight, even if they had got in at all. This plucky column of 1,100 men had marched nearly 300 miles in twelve days, absolutely confounding the Boers by their rapidity.
We heard weeks afterwards how that same day of the relief of Mafeking was celebrated in London with jubilation past belief, everyone going mad with delight. The original event in the town itself was a very tame if impressive affair—merely a score or so of people, singing "Rule, Britannia," surrounding eight or nine dust-begrimed figures, each holding a tired and jaded horse, and a few women on the outskirts of the circle with tears of joy in their eyes. Needless to say, no one thought of sleep that night. At 3.30 a.m. someone came and fetched me in a pony-cart, and we drove out to the polo-ground, where, by brilliant moonlight, we saw the column come into camp. Strings and strings of waggons were soon drawn up; next to them black masses, which were the guns; and beyond these, men, lying down anywhere, dead-tired, beside their horses. The rest of the night I spent at the hospital, where they were bringing in those wounded in the action of the previous afternoon. At eight o'clock we were having breakfast with Colonel Mahon, Prince Alexander of Teck, Sir John Willoughby, and Colonel Frank Rhodes, as additional guests. We had not seen a strange face for eight months, and could do nothing but stare at them, and I think each one of us felt as if he or she were in a dream. Our friends told of their wonderful march, and how they had encamped one night at Setlagoli, where they had been taken care of by Mrs. Fraser and Metelka, who had spent the night in cooking for the officers, which fact had specially delighted Colonel Rhodes, who told me my maid was a "charming creature." But this pleasant conversation was interrupted by a message, saying that, as the Boer laagers were as intact as yesterday, the artillery were going to bombard them at once. Those of us who had leisure repaired at once to the convent, and from there the sight that followed was worth waiting all these many months to see. First came the splendid batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery trotting into action, all the gunners bronzed and bearded. They were followed by the Canadian Artillery, who had joined Colonel Plumer's force, and who were that day horsed with mules out of the Bulawayo coach. These were galloping, and, considering the distance all had come, both horses and mules looked wonderfully fit and well. Most of the former, with the appearance of short-tailed English hunters, were stepping gaily out. The Imperial Light Horse and the Diamond Fields Horse, the latter distinguished by feathers in their felt hats, brought up the procession. Everybody cheered, and not a few were deeply affected. Personally, ever since, when I see galloping artillery, that momentous morning is brought back to my mind, and I feel a choking sensation in my throat.
About a quarter of a mile from town the guns unlimbered, and we could not help feeling satisfaction at watching the shells exploding in the laager—that laager we had watched for so many months, and had never been able to touch. The Boers had evidently never expected the column to be in the town, or they would have cleared off. We had a last glimpse of the tarpaulined waggons, and then the dust hid further developments from sight. After about thirty minutes the artillery ceased firing, and as the atmosphere cleared we saw the laager was a desert. Waggons, horses, and cattle, all had vanished.
After their exertions of the past fortnight, Colonel Mahon did not consider it wise to pursue the retreating Boers; but later in the afternoon I went out with others in a cart to where the laager had been—the first time since December that I had driven beyond our lines. I had the new experience of seeing a "loot" in progress. First we met two soldiers driving a cow; then some more with bulged-out pockets full of live fowls; natives were staggering under huge loads of food-stuffs, and eating even as they walked. I was also interested in going into the very room where General Snyman had treated me so scurvily, and where everything was in terrible confusion: the floor was littered with rifles, ammunition, food-stuffs of all sorts, clothes, and letters. Among the latter some interesting telegrams were found, including one from the President, of a date three days previously, informing Snyman that things were most critical, and that the enemy had occupied Kroonstadt. We were just going on to the hospital, where I had spent those weary days of imprisonment, when an officer galloped up and begged me to return to Mafeking, as some skirmishing was going to commence. It turned out that 500 Boers had stopped just over the ridge to cover their retreating waggons, but they made no stand, and by evening were miles away.
On Friday, May 18, the whole garrison turned out to attend a thanksgiving service in an open space close to the cemetery. They were drawn up in a three-sided square, which looked pathetically small. After the service Colonel Baden-Powell walked round and said a few words to each corps; then three volleys were fired over the graves of fallen comrades, and the "Last Post" was played by the buglers, followed by the National Anthem, in which all joined. It was a simple ceremony, but a very touching one. The same afternoon Colonel Plumer's force was inspected by the Colonel, prior to their departure for the North to repair the railway-line from Bulawayo. They were striking-looking men in their campaigning kit, having been in the field since last August. Some wore shabby khaki jackets and trousers, others flannel shirts and long boots or putties. However attired, they were eager once more for the fray, and, moreover, looked fit for any emergency.
The next few days were a period of intense excitement, and we were constantly stumbling against friends who had formed part of the relief column, but of whose presence we were totally unaware. Letters began to arrive in bulky batches, and one morning I received no less than 100, some of which bore the date of September of the year before. My time was divided between eagerly devouring these missives from home, sending and answering cables (a telegraph-line to the nearest telephone-office had been installed), and helping to organize a new hospital in the school-house, to accommodate the sick and wounded belonging to Colonel Mahon's force. All the while my thoughts were occupied by my return to England and by the question of the surest route to Cape Town. The railway to the South could not be relaid for weeks, and, as an alternative, my eyes turned longingly towards the Transvaal and Pretoria. It must be remembered that we shared the general opinion that, once Lord Roberts had reached the latter town, the war would be practically over. How wrong we all were after-events were to prove, but at the end of May, 1900, it appeared to many that to drive the 200 miles to Pretoria would be very little longer, and much more interesting, than to trek to Kimberley, with Cape Town as the destination. Mrs. Godley (to whom I have before alluded) had arrived at Mafeking from Bulawayo, and we agreed to make the attempt, especially as the Boers in the intervening country were reported to be giving up their arms and returning to their farms. In the meantime it had been decided that Colonel Plumer should occupy Zeerust in the Transvaal, twenty-eight miles from the border, while Colonel Baden-Powell and his force pushed on to Rustenburg. On May 28 Colonel Mahon and the relief column all departed to rejoin General Hunter in or near Lichtenburg, and Mafeking was left with a small garrison to look after the sick and wounded. This town, so long a theatre of excitement to itself and of interest to the world at large, then resumed by degrees the sleepy, even tenor of its ways, which had been so rudely disturbed eight months before.
Later on, when I was at Zeerust, I met a telegraph clerk who had then been in the employ of the Boers, and he told me how indignant all were with General Snyman for deserting Eloff on that occasion. When one of the Veldtcornets went and begged his permission to collect volunteers as reinforcements, all the General did was to scratch his head and murmur in Dutch, "Morro is nocher dag" (To-morrow is another day).
Now Major-General Mahon.