Siege of Mafeking: Fiasco at Game Tree Fort January 10, 2014Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
Tags: Colonel Baden Powell, Game Tree Fort, Lady Sarah Wilson, Siege of 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.”
On December 26, 1899, British troops at Mafeking made a bold strike at their besiegers. It proved disastrous for them. From that point onward, they made no more major attacks on the Boers, opting to wait for the arrival of a relief column. That would not come for another five months, and food was starting to run short.
Col. Robert Baden-Powell ordered the attack—that we know. But we don’t know exactly why he decided to mount an assault on a fort that turned out to be impregnable: a blockhouse eight feet high, roofed over, with three tiers of loopholes for the defenders to fire through.
A number of explanations emerged. Lady Sarah Wilson was told the object of the attack was to capture a Boer gun that had been wreaking havoc in the town. H.W. Wilson, author of With the Flag to Pretoria, contended the purpose was to “open up communication to the north and to extend the area of pasturage for the large number of cattle in the town.”* Other accounts say B-P thought it would be a morale booster, like his other “kicks” at the Boers—taking action of some sort seemed better than sitting around.
Accounts from the British perspective uniformly explain that the fort had been strengthened since the last reconnaissance—even that it had been transformed overnight from a small structure with just one tier of loopholes into a real fortress—because B-P’s plan had been betrayed by “Dutch spies.” But how recently had that last reconnaissance taken place? Had it actually been done the day before, Christmas Day?
Each account gives different numbers for the troops that went out, but it seems that of more than 60 men who went out to fight, only ten returned. Around twenty-five were killed and twenty-eight wounded. The assault began at 4:15 a.m. with an attempt by the feeble British artillery to damage the fort. This accomplished nothing, and “Creechy” and the other Boer guns soon returned fire. At 5:00 a signal was given to the British artillery to cease fire, and two squadrons of the Protectorate Regiment marched forth.
H.W. Wilson wrote, “The men dashed forward in swift rushes, keeping admirable order, their officers well in front, with such spirit and gallantry that all who saw were filled with admiration.” They paused to fix bayonets and pressed on toward the fort. “And now the Boer fire blazed up with a fury and intensity that appalled the onlookers. The fort vomited bullets in sheets from every loop-hole.”
Captain Fitzclarence, who had a reputation as a brave and aggressive fighter, fell with a severe wound to his thigh, but his fellow officers led the way to the fort, where they attempted to empty their revolvers into the loopholes. There more were killed, including Captain Ronald Vernon, who succumbed after being wounded three times. Lady Sarah wrote, “I could hardly realize in particular the death of Captain Vernon, who had been but a few short hours before so full of health, spirits, and confidence.”#
But isn’t that always what happens in battle?
With most of the officers killed or wounded, “there was no one left to lead and none to follow,” H.W. Wilson wrote. The few still standing retreated—walking slowly. B-P raised the Red Cross flag, and the Boers ceased fire.
Angus Hamilton of The Times of London described the aftermath. “The scene here was immensely pathetic, and everywhere there were dead or dying men…. The attitude of the Boers around us was one of stolid composure, not altogether unmixed with sympathy…big and burly, broad in their shoulders, ponderous in their gait, and uncouth in their appearance, combining a somewhat soiled and tattered appearance with an air of triumph…. Here and there they made some attempt to rob the wounded and despoil the dead.”**
Lady Sarah walked to the hospital, where she was asked to superintend a convalescent home being organized to manage the heavy load of new patients. She arranged for beds, crockery, kitchen utensils, and food to be supplied from the town store. “As I ran back to my quarters, the bugle-call of the ‘Last Post,’ several times repeated, sounded clear in the still atmosphere of a calm and beautiful evening, and I knew the last farewells were being said to the brave men who had gone to their long rest.”
(To be continued)
* H.W. Wilson, With the Flag to Pretoria. London: Harmsworth Bros., 1901.
# Lady Sarah Wilson, South African Memories. London: Edward Arnold, 1909.
**Quoted in Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979.