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Siege of Mafeking: Lady Sarah Wilson December 31, 2013

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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Lady Sara Wilson.

Lady Sara Wilson.

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.”

On December 6, Mafeking saw the arrival of a person who did much to liven the spirits of the town’s beleaguered residents.

Lady Sarah Wilson was the wife of Lt.-Col. Gordon Chesney Wilson, aide-de-camp of Col. Baden-Powell. They had both been at Mafeking on the eve of the war, but B-P had insisted that Lady Sarah leave town before the Boers rushed the town. She set off in a Cape cart pulled by six Government mules, accompanied by her maid and an African driver.  My white pony Dop brought up the rear, ridden by a Zulu called Vellum, she wrote in her book South African Memories.*

She was born Lady Sarah Isabella Augusta Spencer-Churchill, the youngest daughter of the Duke of Marlborough and the aunt of Winston Churchill. Supremely confident, accomplished, witty, and adventurous, she was an outstanding member of the upper class of the world’s most powerful empire. She was entitled, in the most literal sense of the word.

She shared the virtues, the attitudes, and the prejudices of her class. She had a strong sense of civic responsibility and, once she returned to Mafeking, did much to help out at the town hospital. She presided as a hostess at B-P’s Sunday events, distributing prizes to winners of cricket matches and bicycle races. She hosted dinners for officers of the garrison at the “bomb-proof” that was constructed for her upon her arrival, complete with a telephone.

Below is an illustration from her book, showing B-P at top and the bomb-proof at the bottom.

B-P at top; interior of bomb-proof at bottom.

B-P at top; interior of bomb-proof at bottom.

She was condescending in her attitude toward the Boers, sharing anecdotes about their ignorance that were intended to amuse. Their appearance disgusted her. I never could have imagined so many men absolutely alike: all had long straggling beards, old felt hats, shabby clothes, and some evil-looking countenances. It is understandable that a citizen of a nation at war wouldn’t feel kindly toward the opposing side—but then again, not a few accounts of the war written by British soldiers described their foes in terms of respect. See for instance With Rimington by L. March Phillipps.

Her attitudes toward blacks were typical for her class and for the time. The British prided themselves on their more enlightened attitudes, and after all they had banned slavery in 1834—which led the Boer Voortrekkers to head off into the veld, away from the British-controlled Cape. But this didn’t mean the British saw the Africans as equals. Like others in her set, Lady Sarah called blacks “Kaffirs” or “niggers,” complaining for instance that “only Kaffirs were available as servants.”

When B-P sent her away from Mafeking on the eve of the siege, October 14, she journeyed southward in her cart, into the dry, empty country of Bechuanaland, and proceeded to a tiny town called Setlagoli. But the Boers were said to be approaching there, and so she departed for Mosita, where she stayed for more than a month. During the weeks I remained at Mosita, the only book I had to read was “Trilby,” which I perused many times.

Trilby was the very popular book by George du Maurier published 1895.Trilby O’Ferrall, the novel’s heroine, is an Irish girl working in Paris as an artists’ model and laundress; all the men in the novel are in love with her. A leading character is Svengali, the evil mesmerizer.

Svengali at work.

Svengali at work.

Lady Sarah stayed with a Mrs. Keeley, whose husband, the veld-cornet of the district, was shut up at Mafeking. The family were sympathizers with the British. Lady Sarah followed the news from Mafeking as best she could, making a risky trip to the larger town of Vryburg to get better information. Restless and bored, she made up her mind to try to get back into Mafeking.

She returned to Setlagoli and sent a letter to General Snyman, who by now had taken over command of Boers at Mafeking. She requested a pass into the town, but Snyman refused. Not easily discouraged, she went in person to Snyman’s laager to suggest she be exchanged for a Dutch lady who wished to leave Mafeking. Quickly surrounded by curious Boers, she found they would only be willing to exchange her for a Dutch horse thief by the name of Petrus Viljoen, now held prisoner in Mafeking. They took her off to stay at the camp hospital, and she waited for news, sending messages to her husband in town.

At last the exchange was agreed, and she rode into town in her cart under a truce, accompanied by Boer artillery officers. Petrus Viljoen was led out under a white flag, and the exchange was accomplished. From the first redoubt Colonel Baden-Powell and Lord Edward Cecil ran out to greet me, and the men in the trench gave three ringing English cheers, which were good to hear; but no time was to be lost in getting under cover [as the truce was expiring] and I drove straight to Mr. Wiel‘s house, and had hardly reached it when “Creechy”…sent a  parting salute, and her shell whizzed defiantly over our heads.

Lady Sarah at the entrance to her bomb-proof.

Lady Sarah at the entrance to her bomb-proof.

* Lady Sarah Wilson, South  African Memories. London: Edward Arnold, 1909. Available on Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14466/14466-h/14466-h.htm#158 .

(To be continued)

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I am grateful for the Plott Balsams December 23, 2013

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Life experience, plants, Southern Appalachians.
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Looking toward Pinnacle Bald from the Fox Hunters Camp.

Looking toward Pinnacle Bald from the Fox Hunters Camp.

I am so glad to live close to the Plott Balsams, a range that includes several 6000-foot peaks, located just southeast of the Smokies and north of Sylva, North Carolina. It takes me just fifteen minutes from my house to reach a major trailhead at 3000′ on Fisher Creek.

I was going to say I am lucky to have the Plott Balsams so near, but that isn’t quite the right word. That suggests that I ended up here by chance, when actually I am here because I made certain choices in my life. Years ago I opted for self-employment, which gave me the freedom to work from home and therefore the freedom to choose where I live.

I paid a price of uneven income and financial uncertainty for a while, but now I am in a more secure situation thanks to good financial advice and good investments.

Not everyone would want to live in a town of just 7,000 people that is also the largest town in its county—a pretty unpopulated area. And some probably scratched their heads when a couple of years ago I opted to move away from Asheville, such a fun place to live with so many interesting things to do. It’s just an hour away from here, and it’s nice to know it’s there, but I don’t go there all that often.

My life is very quiet. My main activities are writing, reading, and hiking. That would be too quiet for most people!

I head up to the Plotts two or three times a week, usually to go up the East Fork trail. It’s good exercise—quite a steep trail—but also I go because there’s something deeply restorative about it.

Today I headed out to get in a last hike before I leave town tomorrow to be with my sister in Massachusetts. After yesterday’s heavy rain, the mountains were shrugging the water off their backs. I made the short bushwhack from the trail to get over to the big waterfall.

Waterfall on East Fork of Fisher Creek.

Waterfall on East Fork of Fisher Creek.

Looking the other direction.

Looking the other direction.

The falls keep plunging down and down in stages, and you can’t get a picture of the whole thing at once.

I hiked up to the Fox Hunters Camp, a flat area at close to 5000′. Last winter the Jackson County rescue squad cleared out some brush there and opened up the view. The rescue squad does trail work each year before the infamous “Assault on Blackrock” trail race in March.

Even though the main area of the Fox Hunters Camp is bare, it has an incredible variety of plant and bird life. I saw hummingbirds there several times last summer. A couple of tall spruces grow down at the end.

Looking down the West Fork valley toward the Tuckasegee valley.

Looking down the West Fork valley toward the Tuckasegee valley.

Interesting mosses grow there, including this one that sends out long runners.

Moss and laurel.

Moss and laurel.

There are carpets of wintergreen.

There are carpets of wintergreen.

A shrub there is full of buds for next year. The buds remind me of leucothoe (dog hobble), but it’s a deciduous shrub.

All set to bloom next year.

All set to bloom next year.

There is a grove of red spruce not far below the camp where I like to stop and look at the dark, somber shapes of the trees.

A gathering of spruce.

A gathering of spruce.

Spruce are probably my favorite tree.

Grow and flourish, baby spruce!

Grow and flourish, baby spruce!

The streams in the Plotts take a different form than in the Smokies. Rather than scouring out U-shaped basins, they flow over the jumbled surface as if they were just temporary flows—even down in the zone of permanent water flow.

Left fork of the East Fork.

Left fork of the East Fork.

A magical place.

Lower East Fork as seen from trail.

Lower East Fork as seen from trail.

Siege of Mafeking: The big gun arrives December 20, 2013

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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Boers with "Long Tom" siege gun at Mafeking.

Boers with “Long Tom” siege gun at Mafeking.

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.”

“Bring out the big guns” is a hackneyed expression. But that is exactly what the Boers did when the war began.

They had four of them, 155-mm Creusot guns that lofted 96-lb. shells over distances of up to 11,000 yards (more than six miles). Paul Kruger had acquired them at the time he built four forts around Pretoria to defend the Transvaal capital. His citizens scratched their heads over the costly construction of forts at Despoort, Klapperkop, Schanzkop, and Wonderboomport. The forts turned out useless to keep the British from occupying Pretoria, but the guns did much damage wherever they traveled, pulled across the veld by long teams of oxen. Three of them went to the siege towns of Mafeking, Kimberley, and Ladysmith.

Long Tom on its way to Kimberley.

Long Tom on its way to Kimberley.

Once Baden-Powell rejected Cronje’s call for surrender, the Boers got the Long Tom at Mafeking into position and started hammering the town. Soon a routine was established. A lookout would observe through binoculars as the Boers moved the gun’s barrel into position. An alarm was telephoned to the quarter of town toward which the barrel pointed. Folks scurried into their “bombproofs” and waited for the thunderous sound. The shells knocked down walls and of course killed people, though there were many miraculous escapes.

The British residents took to calling the gun “Creechy”  or “Big Ben.” Sol Plaatje dubbed it “Au Sanna” and joked about the gun’s parting shot each evening at 9:00, calling it the “Bad night shot.” The Boers had many other smaller pieces of artillery, but it was “Creechy” that really grabbed the attention.

In the meantime B-P tried what he called “kicks at the Boers,” sending out raiding parties to attack points along the Boer lines. He did this October 27, November 3, and November 7. Both sides suffered casualties, but nothing conclusive resulted.

The two sides set ground rules for the siege. There was to be no fighting on Sundays. Certain places were declared off-limits, such as the women’s camp and the convent in town, as well as the ambulances. B-P and Cronje disputed these points from time to time, for instance when Cronje claimed a Maxim had been fired from inside the convent.

Many of the Boers were strict Calvinists, regarding non-religious activities on Sundays as an abomination. The British, on the other hand,  thought Sundays were a fine time not only for church but for leisure pursuits. A siege edition of the “Mafeking Mail” started up, announcing events such as a Sunday “Cycle Sports” competition on the Recreation Grounds. Prizes were distributed, including a clock, a handpainted fan, and amber cigarette holders. Among the events were a three-lap race (walk, then run, then cycle) and a half-mile bicycle race in fancy costume.

African boys started collecting the unexploded “dud” shells that sometimes landed in town and selling them as souvenirs. Prices ranged from ten shillings sixpence for a one-pounder Maxim shell to six pounds for a Creechy/Au Sanna shell.

The first weeks passed with some excitement, but life soon became a grind.

(To be continued)

Paul Kruger.

Paul Kruger.