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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.


1. Pat H - December 21, 2013

Boer artillerymen were actually the only Boers issued uniforms, showing the degree to which they were regarded as professionals. Just an odd fwiw.

Jenny - December 21, 2013

Yes, you see the uniforms in the photo at top. At the time the war started, there was a crop of young Boer cadets in the Transvaal State Artillery being trained by foreign experts, mainly from Germany. The uniformed artillerists were regarded as glamorous by some Boers, such as the teenaged Joubert Reitz (brother of Deneys Reitz), who ran away from his commando in the battle of Ladysmith to join a gun crew.

2. Roon Lewald - December 22, 2013

Whoever wrote the caption under your Victorian photo of Paul Kruger can’t have seen his residence. Anything further from the grandiloquence of an “executive mansion” than the old president’s humdrum little tin-roofed bungalow (which still exists as a museum) would be hard to imagine. There is hardly even a front garden because the house was built close enough to the sidewalk for Oom Paul and his spouse Tant’ Siena (short for “Gezina”) to sit on the front stoep (verandah) and greet or chat to passersby, Pretoria being small enough in those days for him to be on familiar terms with most noteworthy burghers. The only touch of grandeur about the house was a couple of stone lions – donated by mine magnate Barney Barnato – incongruously flanking the front steps.

Jenny - December 22, 2013

The photograph came from a book titled “Oom Paul’s People” published 1900, authored by a New York newspaper reporter named Howard Hillegas. His text refers to Kruger’s home as a cottage, so I suspect the photo caption was added by someone with the publishing company. Hillegas comments that Kruger liked to pose with his hand on top of the head of one of the lions, thereby illustrating his position in relation to the symbolic British lion.

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