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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.

In South Africa: Elephant October 29, 2010

Posted by Jenny in memoir, nature, travel, wildlife.
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I am awfully cute

For an introduction about my recent trip to South Africa, go here.

My title for this post is “Elephant” (singular), not “Elephants” (plural). But surely I didn’t see just one? I’m only following the example of my friends Arnold and Sonja, Klaas and Carol.  “If we go at dusk, we may see leopard,” one of them would say, or “The dam is a good place to see hippo.” I don’t even remember what the grammatical term is, but the word is being used as an abstraction, a concept, an essence. “We will see laziness there” instead of “We will see lazy individuals there.” And, around Kruger, I definitely experienced elephant!

I’ve always thought that elephants were one of the most preposterous animals (well, maybe I should save that word for the hippo, and turn it into a hippoposterous). Can you remember back to when you were a child and were first introduced to these remarkable creatures? How wonderful, how delightful, it seemed that such an animal could exist? Really, you say? It splashes itself with water that it lifts up with its nose? It reaches up to the very top of the tree for the freshest, tastiest leaves? It has ivory tusks? It is huge and has feet as big as wastebaskets? (And, unfortunately, the Victorians actually made wastebaskets out of elephant feet.)

Oldster crossing the road

For me, visiting Kruger was a truly magical experience of seeing the animals that I had read about, dreamed about, as a child. When I was flying home from Johannesburg, the woman in the seat next to me said she wasn’t very interested in game reserves: “I’ve always felt that  I could see them in zoos,” she commented. She was not trying to diminish my experience—she was a thoughtful person with whom I enjoyed a long and interesting conversation—but I knew without a doubt that on this particular subject, she was missing something important.

How could she possibly understand the way I felt when I saw my first elephant? That occurred on the night drive we took, a tour at dusk in one of the park’s big open-sided vehicles, driven by a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide.  The light was starting to dim as we drove through the dry, monochromatic savannah. Then someone called out, “Elephant!” And there it was, just a few feet away, a huge gray beast calmly pulling down the leaves from a thorn tree. I could look into its eye. It was looking back at me! And it was in its own home, nearly hidden away, a somewhat drab-colored piece in a huge and complicated jigsaw puzzle, blending in beautifully with the background.

Even the next day, in daylight, the elephants blended in awfully well.

Elephant blending in

It was fun to see them among the trees, and it was also fun to see them creating a traffic jam.

Somehow I don't mind a traffic jam caused by baby elephants

I enjoyed picking out those remarkable shapes in the distance.

Ruler of the watering hole

And…very strange to think that it was a certain ugly, irascible man, a certain president of the Transvaal Republic, who had the foresight to set aside a huge area as a game preserve…to actually protect it from his fellow Boers, who loved more than anything else to hunt…to begin what would eventually become, after various stages, the crown jewel of South Africa and one of the most famous parks in the world.

Paul Kruger watches over the entrance to the park