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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.

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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.

Siege of Mafeking: Boers take the bait November 11, 2013

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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Click for zoom.

Click for zoom.

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.”

Why on earth did the Boers devote so much manpower—around 7,000 men, or about a fifth of their total strength—to an out-of-the-way village located at the borders of the Cape Colony, Bechuanaland, and the South African Republic (the Transvaal)?

The historical record consists almost exclusively of British documents, so we don’t have a good answer for the question. We only know that the Rustenburg, Zeerust, and Lichtenburg commandos massed at the Transvaal border near Mafeking shortly before war was declared October 11, 1899.

The Boer command reduced numbers at Mafeking after the siege’s first month, but nevertheless, the commandos tied up at this little town could have been occupied much more usefully at the battlefields of Natal or in the action south of Kimberley.

In the map above, the two Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State are shown in white. The British colonies of the Cape Colony and Natal are shown in red, together with the British protectorates. Mafeking sat in a largely unpopulated region, the vast Kalahari extending north and west. The town’s strategic significance for the British was its location on the rail line between Rhodesia and the Cape Colony. Troops could be moved there from south or north for incursions into the western Transvaal. But then again, cutting the rail line on either side would be a trivial matter.

At the start of the war, the Boers looked for military leadership from veterans of the lesser-known First Boer War of 1880-1881, a disaster for the British. Many of them also had experience in the never-ending “native campaigns.” So did the British, incidentally. Colonel Robert Baden-Powell played a significant role in the Second Matabele War in Rhodesia and the Ashanti War in the Gold Coast.

The Commandant-General of the Transvaal Boers was Piet Joubert, hero of the First Boer War. He built his reputation as a cautious but clever man and earned the nickname of “Slim Piet” (Clever Piet). Unfortunately for the Boers, by the time of the Second Boer War, caution dominated and cleverness had disappeared.

Commander General Piet Joubert.

Commandant-General Piet Joubert.

A certain young Boer fighter, Deneys Reitz, knew Joubert. “He was a kindly, well-meaning old man who had done useful service in the smaller campaigns of the past, but he gave me the impression of being bewildered at the heavy responsibility now resting upon him… One afternoon [just before the start of the war] he showed me a cable which he had received from a Russian society offering to equip an ambulance in case of war, and… I was astonished to hear him say that he had refused the gift. He said, ‘You see, my boy, we Boers don’t hold with these new-fangled ideas; our herbal remedies are good enough’.”*

Joubert had no strategic vision for the Boers. He was injured early in the war and died in March 1900. He was replaced by Louis Botha, who had become de facto leader of the Boers in any case.

The man chosen to lead Boer forces at Mafeking was Piet Cronje, another veteran of the First Boer War. Cronje had more on the ball than Joubert, but he never caught on to the concept of mobility that proved to be the Boers’ greatest strength. After leaving Mafeking, he achieved successes in the Kimberley campaign, but that was due largely to relying on strategy devised by Koos De la Rey. He was defeated February 1900 at Paardeberg in a hugely significant victory for the British, and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.

General Piet Cronje.

General Piet Cronje.

When Cronje departed Mafeking, he was replaced by J.P. Snyman, whom we saw pictured in the introductory post. Very little is known about him—apart from a few anecdotes from Mafeking— except that he was demoted by Botha early in 1900. To his credit, he continued fighting anyway.

On the British side, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’s initial instructions were to raise two regiments and prepare to raid into the western Transvaal when war broke out. But the orders from London changed: he was to build up a garrison at Mafeking, stay put, and let the Boers attack. Mafeking was to serve as bait to draw Boer forces off to outskirts. Baden-Powell had around 350 men in the Protectorate Regiment, 200 in the Bechuanaland Rifles and Cape Police, and 300 volunteers from residents in the town (numbers vary from one account to another).

As it turned out, these numbers would be considerably amplified by men from the “Stadt”—the “native” side of town. The Africans made a crucial contribution to the British defense.

Under Baden-Powell’s orders, entrenchments were dug around the town’s 6-mile perimeter and gun emplacements were created. His artillery looked feeble: he had four 7-lb. guns, six Maxim machine guns, and a variety of other lightweight pieces. The Boers would soon bring in an array of guns, including one of their 94-pounder “Long Toms.”

It’s not clear what instructions Cronje had from Joubert or from anyone else. It looks very much as though the men from Rustenburg, Zeerust, and Lichtenburg were gathered at Mafeking simply because it was an obvious target in their neighborhood. These were not professional soldiers, just citizens with bandoliers criss-crossed over their ordinary suits, carrying Mauser rifles—as were all of the Boer fighters.

October 13, two days after war was declared, the Boers arrived before Mafeking. Telegraph and rail lines were cut. The next day, they started driving in the pickets around town. Baden-Powell sent out his armored train and a squadron of the Protectorate Regiment to support the pickets. In the ensuing action, two were killed and 14 wounded on the British side; we don’t know the Boer casualties at this point or any other during the siege. The defenders prevented the Boers from entering the town. It seems incredible they were able to do this, but Cronje had sent only 800 of his total force.

On the 16th, Cronje sent in a message saying the British must surrender; Baden-Powell thumbed his nose. The Boers began shelling the town, and the siege began in earnest. For the next 217 days, the Mafeking residents were to live under a barrage of whirring, screaming missiles exploding in the streets, the stores, and even the hospital.

(To be continued)

*Deneys Reitz, Commando. Prescott, AZ: Wolfe Publishing, 1994.

Boer fighters.

Boer fighters.