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Siege of Mafeking: “Be Prepared” November 25, 2013

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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Robert Stephenson Baden-Powell.

Robert Stephenson Baden-Powell.

The story of the siege starts here. For background on the causes and major events of the war, go here. To see all the posts in the series, go to the “tag cloud” in the column at right and click on “Siege of Mafeking.”

Up until mid-September, Colonel Baden-Powell had believed he was to take his two regiments on a raiding expedition into the western Transvaal. Then authorities in London instructed him to stay put in Mafeking and use the town as bait to divert Boer forces. Under B-P’s orders, the town went into a frenzy of activity. With only 1,000 white troops, it would be a challenge to defend a six-mile perimeter against a much larger enemy. Of course, African residents of the Stadt provided indispensable labor—and armed manpower, as it turned out. The native town with its thatched-roof huts was a “twin city” to the white town with its hotel, hospital, convent, general store, and houses.

Trenches were dug. A complex system of small forts was created, each holding up to 40 riflemen. “Bomb-proofs” were built. These were shelters dug into the ground with roofs made of steel rails topped by sheets of corrugated iron. In some of the fancier ones, built for high-ranking residents, porthole-like openings were created that could be closed with wooden flaps, and tarpaulins could be pulled over to keep out the rain.

Luckily for B-P, the postmaster “understood telephones,” as Lady Sarah Wilson described it. Phone lines connected a central bomb-proof with outlying ones, and a system of bells was set up so that any particular quarter of town could be warned when a shell was heading in its direction.

Most famously, B-P instituted dummy defenses. Fake mines were laid to supplement the scanty number of real ones. When he found the supply of barbed wire insufficient, B-P had fenceposts erected with no wire strung between them, and soldiers were ordered to pretend they were climbing over or between the imaginary wires. Guns and a searchlight were shifted from one location to another to fool the enemy into thinking they were more numerous.

Arthur Conan Doyle, in The Great Boer War, had this to say about B-P: [He] is a soldier of a type which is exceedingly popular with the British public. A skilled hunter and an expert at many games, there was always something of the sportsman in his keen appreciation of war. In the Matabele campaign he had out-scouted the savage scouts and found his pleasure in tracking them among their native mountains, often alone and at night, trusting to his skill in springing from rock to rock in his rubber-soled shoes…. Full of veldt craft and resource, it was as difficult to outwit as it was to outfight him. But there was another curious side to his complex nature…. An impish humour broke out in him, and the mischievous schoolboy alternated with the warrior and the administrator. He met the Boer commandos with chaff and jokes which were as disconcerting as his wire entanglements and his rifle-pits. The amazing variety of his personal accomplishments was one of his most striking characteristics. From drawing caricatures with both hands simultaneously, or skirt dancing [playing female roles in amateur theatricals], to leading a forlorn hope, nothing came amiss to him…*

"South Africa August 21 1900." Painting by B-P.

“South Africa August 21 1900.” Painting by B-P.

B-P’s artistic talents had merged with his military ones during a stint as an intelligence officer in Malta. He roamed the countryside disguised as a butterfly collector, sketching outlines of military installations within drawings of butterfly wings.

His experience in the Matabele War in Rhodesia proved controversial. The Colonial Office accused him of executing an African chief, Uwini, by firing squad after promising he would be spared if he surrendered. B-P admitted to the killing but said it had been justified, and he was let off the hook. It was also said he had allowed African warriors under his command to massacre women, children, and non-combatants among enemy prisoners.

B-P may have been “impish” in his manner, but he was above all a man who adhered to the Victorian concept of duty—the most unfashionable idea imaginable today. Old-fashioned values of strength and courage still have a place in today’s culture—though they must often be presented ironically—but duty? Nothing could provoke laughter more quickly in today’s world.

When after the war he published Scouting for Boys in 1908, using the Mafeking Cadet Corps as a model, he emphasized the notion of being a citizen of the Empire. A scan through his chapter subheadings gives a sense of this:

 Play the game: don’t look on; The British Empire wants your help; Fall of the Roman Empire was due to bad citizenship; Bad citizenship is becoming apparent in this country to-day; Peace-scouting; Militarism; “Be Prepared”; Imagination; Responsibility to juniors; Discipline; Religion; Continence.

Ever the “Boy-Man,” B-P was very probably a homosexual—a strictly closeted one. His passionate attachments were to boys or boyish men; he married only at the age of 55, and then at the urging of his mother. He named his son Peter for Peter Pan, according to this YouTube biography.

Once the Boers besieged Mafeking on October 16, B-P had the most stolid of Boer generals, Cronje and Snyman, to serve as foils. When the shelling began, Cronje sent in a message: “Surrender to avoid bloodshed.” B-P replied, “When is the bloodshed going to begin?” It wasn’t until nearly the end of the siege that he would deal with a Boer commandant of a younger, more playful nature—Sarel Eloff, one of Paul Kruger’s numerous grandsons.

But now, B-P had to decide whether to venture attacks on the enemy that greatly outnumbered him.

(To be continued)

* Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Great Boer War. London: Smith Elder & Co., 1900.

Boers at Mafeking.

Boers at Mafeking.

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Horseshoe Mountain—made it! November 21, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The tiny summit of Horseshoe Mountain.

The tiny summit of Horseshoe Mountain.

After two attempts, I finally succeeded in my quest to climb Horseshoe Mountain via Horseshoe Branch. The map below shows my route—up the branch, down a draw that leads to a waterfall above the second tributary of Lester Prong. Then down Lester to the Porters Creek manway to return to the maintained trail. (I drew the manway as a straight line on the map, but as you probably know, it crisscrosses the stream).

My route on Horseshoe.

My route on Horseshoe.

This hike offers nothing spectacular. It is for people who like the idea of getting up into a remote stream valley that feels secluded and hidden away because of the two arms of the “horseshoe,” the east and west ridge, that reach around it protectively. I suspect some folks would feel it wasn’t worth the trouble. There’s a lot of vegetation to deal with. But for me, it was definitely worth it.

Heavy rains three days earlier were still affecting the streams, making the rockhopping more difficult than when I tried two weeks ago and went up to the east ridge.

Porters Creek looking downstream from Horseshoe junction.

Porters Creek looking downstream from Horseshoe junction.

Soon after I started up the stream, I passed evidence of a very hardworking pileated woodpecker.

Shavings from woodpecker.

Shavings from woodpecker.

All the little cascades were pretty because of the higher water. This time, I wasn’t able to keep my feet dry. The stream is so hemmed in by rhodo that if you don’t step in the water you’ll spend too much time working around the pools.

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On my trip two weeks ago I passed a waterfall a little below 3800′ that I had seen on Tom Dunigan’s great website. The same thing happened both trips—I went into open woods to the right and climbed a little ways up a hillside, then saw the falls off to the side. For what it’s worth, here’s a zoom photo of the falls partly obstructed by brush. It has two drops.

Maybe 25 feet from top to bottom.

Maybe 25 feet from top to bottom.

Speaking of Tom Dunigan’s website, I’ve gotten addicted to one of his links, to the CalTopo maps with slope angle shading. Click on any location in the Smokies and go to CalTopo, and you can see more easily than by the contour lines alone exactly where the steepest parts are. The flattest areas are shown as pale yellow (27-29 degrees) and the steepest ones as violet (46-50 degrees).  (There’s a blue, 51-59 degrees, but you only see that at the Jumpoff.) Turned out the only violet terrain I encountered on this trip was at the bottom of the draw I followed down to Lester. More about that in a moment.

I passed the side valley I went up on the earlier trip and encountered a Zone of Uncertainty at 4000′. The map shows the main stem of Horseshoe Branch going nearly due south and a side draw with no permanent water angling south-southwest. When I got to the split, I found no water at all in the supposed main stem, a little bit of water in the side draw, and water seeping out of the ground in the middle.

A very pretty spot in between the two draws where water seeps out of the ground.

A very pretty spot in between the two draws where water seeps out of the ground.

On my earlier trip in lower water conditions, the stream had disappeared for a bit and re-emerged higher up, as some of the streams do around LeConte—Styx Branch being a prime example. Thinking the water might reemerge, I continued straight south, following a shallow depression that had no water and looked like it practically never carried water. It was full of rhodo. There was a flat area to the right that made for slightly easier going, so I did that for a while. The photo below shows what, believe it or not, was the easier place to go.

I used the hemlock blowdowns as pathways where I could.

I used the hemlock blowdowns as pathways where I could.

I include this blurry photo to show you what the dry streambed looked like when it wasn’t completely swallowed in rhodo.

A rhodo-free stretch of dry streambed.

A rhodo-free stretch of dry streambed.

The water did come back very briefly, and I refilled a water bottle there. As I climbed more steeply, I hit a stretch of open woods, but it didn’t last.

A welcome patch of open woods.

A welcome patch of open woods.

At 4800′ I encountered slimy sandstone bluffs and worked my way around them. I didn’t encounter much Anakeesta in this valley.

Looking back toward lower west ridge.

Looking back toward lower west ridge.

Can you imagine what it will be like when all those dead hemlocks come down? I fear that bushwhacking in five or ten years will become terribly arduous.

I hit the summit area a little to the west of the high point. There’s room at the very top for just a few people to stand under the laurels. The ground showed signs of hiker traffic. Those would be, I guess, people using the Horseshoe slide and people following Peter Barr’s example and climbing 5000-footers. I’m willing to bet practically all—probably all—of those hikers came from the direction of the Boulevard or from Lester Prong, not up Horseshoe Branch

Looking toward Shutts Prong drainage.

Looking toward Shutts Prong drainage.

Looking toward Charlies Bunion and companion ridges.

Looking toward Charlies Bunion and companion ridges.

Now I had to get off the mountain. I looked at the big slide that runs down the east side. The top is colored violet on the slope angle map.

Slide on Horseshoe. Photo taken October from Charlies Bunion.

Slide on Horseshoe. Photo taken October from Charlies Bunion.

I have to be honest. Even though I went down the slide three years ago with a couple of friends, fear came into my heart. I could climb up it, and I’d planned to do that in September but didn’t get that far. But not down it,  not by myself. I just couldn’t get myself to drop down onto that very steep place. I’ve run into this sort of thing before. It’s a matter of psychology and perception.

I decided I would explore the draw that hits Lester Prong above the second tributary (the one you use to climb the Bunion). I don’t recommend this route. It turned out to be okay in the upper section, bad in the middle, and scary at the bottom. I slid down the upper part on my butt. Since rhodo branches have a way of pointing downhill on steep slopes, you’re going with the grain instead of against it, and you just hold onto the branches to control your speed.

In the middle I ran into greenbrier mixed into the rhodo. That was miserable. The briers finally thinned out, but when I got to about 4200′ I suddenly realized I was just above a cliff. Below me and a little to the side I saw a waterfall, very pretty with the recent rain. The rhodo was so dense that I couldn’t see what was solid ground and what was a dropoff. I decided to traverse away from the waterfall. Danger lurked just below. I cautiously made my way across the slope and saw a spot below that looked doable. I lowered myself down carefully, holding onto branches. Now I saw a series of short little drops. I clung to a branch of witch hobble, slid down—now I had come to the end of the witch hobble branch. I let go and dropped. Fortunately I got down to the bottom without injury. It shook me up a bit, and I didn’t think to take a picture of the nice waterfall. I sat and rested and had something to eat before I was ready to go on.

Once I went on down the stream, I saw that if I had gone a little bit further I would have reached a very manageable slope, but the rhodo was so dense I hadn’t seen that. Looking downslope in dense vegetation is tricky. I continued down Lester Prong, passing the second tributary, the small stream that starts at the Horseshoe slide, and the first tributary. Those tributaries on the east side of Lester are the gateways to the steep crags around the Bunion.

I reached the manway and continued on to the backcountry campsite. It was quite an adventure.

Lester Prong near first tributary.

Lester Prong near first tributary.

Siege of Mafeking: Boers take the bait November 11, 2013

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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Click for zoom.

Click for zoom.

The story of the siege starts here. For background on the causes and major events of the war, go here. To see all the posts in the series, go to the “tag cloud” in the column at right and click on “Siege of Mafeking.”

Why on earth did the Boers devote so much manpower—around 7,000 men, or about a fifth of their total strength—to an out-of-the-way village located at the borders of the Cape Colony, Bechuanaland, and the South African Republic (the Transvaal)?

The historical record consists almost exclusively of British documents, so we don’t have a good answer for the question. We only know that the Rustenburg, Zeerust, and Lichtenburg commandos massed at the Transvaal border near Mafeking shortly before war was declared October 11, 1899.

The Boer command reduced numbers at Mafeking after the siege’s first month, but nevertheless, the commandos tied up at this little town could have been occupied much more usefully at the battlefields of Natal or in the action south of Kimberley.

In the map above, the two Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State are shown in white. The British colonies of the Cape Colony and Natal are shown in red, together with the British protectorates. Mafeking sat in a largely unpopulated region, the vast Kalahari extending north and west. The town’s strategic significance for the British was its location on the rail line between Rhodesia and the Cape Colony. Troops could be moved there from south or north for incursions into the western Transvaal. But then again, cutting the rail line on either side would be a trivial matter.

At the start of the war, the Boers looked for military leadership from veterans of the lesser-known First Boer War of 1880-1881, a disaster for the British. Many of them also had experience in the never-ending “native campaigns.” So did the British, incidentally. Colonel Robert Baden-Powell played a significant role in the Second Matabele War in Rhodesia and the Ashanti War in the Gold Coast.

The Commandant-General of the Transvaal Boers was Piet Joubert, hero of the First Boer War. He built his reputation as a cautious but clever man and earned the nickname of “Slim Piet” (Clever Piet). Unfortunately for the Boers, by the time of the Second Boer War, caution dominated and cleverness had disappeared.

Commander General Piet Joubert.

Commandant-General Piet Joubert.

A certain young Boer fighter, Deneys Reitz, knew Joubert. “He was a kindly, well-meaning old man who had done useful service in the smaller campaigns of the past, but he gave me the impression of being bewildered at the heavy responsibility now resting upon him… One afternoon [just before the start of the war] he showed me a cable which he had received from a Russian society offering to equip an ambulance in case of war, and… I was astonished to hear him say that he had refused the gift. He said, ‘You see, my boy, we Boers don’t hold with these new-fangled ideas; our herbal remedies are good enough’.”*

Joubert had no strategic vision for the Boers. He was injured early in the war and died in March 1900. He was replaced by Louis Botha, who had become de facto leader of the Boers in any case.

The man chosen to lead Boer forces at Mafeking was Piet Cronje, another veteran of the First Boer War. Cronje had more on the ball than Joubert, but he never caught on to the concept of mobility that proved to be the Boers’ greatest strength. After leaving Mafeking, he achieved successes in the Kimberley campaign, but that was due largely to relying on strategy devised by Koos De la Rey. He was defeated February 1900 at Paardeberg in a hugely significant victory for the British, and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.

General Piet Cronje.

General Piet Cronje.

When Cronje departed Mafeking, he was replaced by J.P. Snyman, whom we saw pictured in the introductory post. Very little is known about him—apart from a few anecdotes from Mafeking— except that he was demoted by Botha early in 1900. To his credit, he continued fighting anyway.

On the British side, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’s initial instructions were to raise two regiments and prepare to raid into the western Transvaal when war broke out. But the orders from London changed: he was to build up a garrison at Mafeking, stay put, and let the Boers attack. Mafeking was to serve as bait to draw Boer forces off to outskirts. Baden-Powell had around 350 men in the Protectorate Regiment, 200 in the Bechuanaland Rifles and Cape Police, and 300 volunteers from residents in the town (numbers vary from one account to another).

As it turned out, these numbers would be considerably amplified by men from the “Stadt”—the “native” side of town. The Africans made a crucial contribution to the British defense.

Under Baden-Powell’s orders, entrenchments were dug around the town’s 6-mile perimeter and gun emplacements were created. His artillery looked feeble: he had four 7-lb. guns, six Maxim machine guns, and a variety of other lightweight pieces. The Boers would soon bring in an array of guns, including one of their 94-pounder “Long Toms.”

It’s not clear what instructions Cronje had from Joubert or from anyone else. It looks very much as though the men from Rustenburg, Zeerust, and Lichtenburg were gathered at Mafeking simply because it was an obvious target in their neighborhood. These were not professional soldiers, just citizens with bandoliers criss-crossed over their ordinary suits, carrying Mauser rifles—as were all of the Boer fighters.

October 13, two days after war was declared, the Boers arrived before Mafeking. Telegraph and rail lines were cut. The next day, they started driving in the pickets around town. Baden-Powell sent out his armored train and a squadron of the Protectorate Regiment to support the pickets. In the ensuing action, two were killed and 14 wounded on the British side; we don’t know the Boer casualties at this point or any other during the siege. The defenders prevented the Boers from entering the town. It seems incredible they were able to do this, but Cronje had sent only 800 of his total force.

On the 16th, Cronje sent in a message saying the British must surrender; Baden-Powell thumbed his nose. The Boers began shelling the town, and the siege began in earnest. For the next 217 days, the Mafeking residents were to live under a barrage of whirring, screaming missiles exploding in the streets, the stores, and even the hospital.

(To be continued)

*Deneys Reitz, Commando. Prescott, AZ: Wolfe Publishing, 1994.

Boer fighters.

Boer fighters.