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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.