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Siege of Mafeking: Flying columns and galloping artillery February 2, 2014

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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Meeting of Baden-Powell and Mahon. Drawing by H.C. Seppings Wright.

Meeting of Baden-Powell and Mahon. Drawing by H.C. Seppings Wright.

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.”

The days passed quietly after Sarel Eloff’s ill-fated attack on the town. The young man of bravado paced back and forth in his cell at the town jail, wearing slippers, riding breeches, and a tight-fitting brown jersey that showed off “the physical development of his shoulders,” Times correspondent Angus Hamilton observed.* Eloff had an air of romance that reminded Hamilton of a hero in an Anthony Hope novel—the Ruritania books that were so popular then.

On May 16 news came that the columns of Colonel Bryan Mahon and Colonel Herbert Plumer had joined forces at Masibi Stadt, just 20 miles to the west. Baden-Powell and members of his staff climbed up to a perch that had been constructed atop a railway shed. In town all remained calm. The final in the siege billiard tournament was being played at the club, and Africans were skinning a horse for the soup kitchen.

Suddenly B-P sprang into action, ordering the Bechuanaland Rifles and Protectorate Regiment to move out promptly to intercept a party of Boers seen crossing the veld in the vicinity of the relief column. Town residents scrambled onto the roofs and peered toward the dust-blurred horizon. Bursting shells marked an encounter with the Boers, but the action subsided and the troops came on toward town.

At dinnertime, the first of the relieving force arrived, nine troopers who’d dashed ahead in their eagerness to reach the town. They belonged to the Imperial Light Horse, part of Mahon’s column, which had originated at Kimberley. The bulk of the relieving force arrived in the small hours of the night. The townspeople left their beds to flock out to the polo-ground, where they watched the procession come into camp.

Under a brilliant moon rolled in endless lines of horses, mules, and oxen with their wagons and their guns, dark shapes casting eerie shadows. The troopers started campfires, and the townspeople wandered about, engaging them in conversation and thumping them on the back in congratulation. But the weary troopers cast themselves on the ground to catch a few hours’ sleep, and the townspeople reluctantly returned to their homes. None in town could sleep, and by 4:00 they were all visiting each other, chattering and joking.

Work remained to be done in the morning. As the Boers had not vacated their laager, the artillery moved a quarter-mile outside town for a bombardment. Lady Sarah Wilson went out to watch. “First came the splendid batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery trotting into action, all the gunners bronzed and bearded. They were followed by the Canadian Artillery… who were that day horsed with mules out of the Bulawayo coach. These were galloping, and, considering the distance all had come, both horses and mules looked wonderfully fit and well. Most of the former, with the appearance of short-tailed English hunters, were stepping gaily out. The Imperial Light Horse and the Diamond Fields Horse, the latter distinguished by feathers in their felt hats, brought up the procession…. Ever since, when I see galloping artillery, that momentous morning is brought back to my mind, and I feel a choking sensation in my throat.”#

Within 30 minutes the Boers had evacuated their camp and moved off hastily with their trek wagons. Residents of Mafeking—townspeople, soldiers of the garrison, Africans from the Stadt—swarmed out to Game Tree Fort and the house that had been occupied by General Snyman. Curiosity seekers and looters alike reveled in all left behind: food of every kind, whiskey and dop, tobacco, sporting rifles and ammunition, clothing, letters and telegrams. Africans staggered off under huge bundles of food, eating as they walked, for they had been severely deprived.

Officers of Mahon's column.

Col. Bryan Mahon, center (no hat), and staff.

Journalist Filson Young, “embedded” with Mahon’s flying column, described a Relief Dinner held for Mahon and his staff.** A souvenir menu, autographed by all who attended, listed items such as oyster patties, roast duck, and strawberry tartlets, washed down with Leoville 1887. The bulk of these items must have been brought from Kimberley. Toasts were made to the Queen and the Royal Family.

If a dinner was held for the staff of Colonel Plumer, no journalist was present to record the event. The situation differed substantially for the two columns that merged only at the very end. Mahon had pulled off the feat of traveling 240 miles in 12 days across dry stony veld. But Plumer and his Rhodesian Regiment had been in the vicinity since early March, using Gaberones as a base and making several attempts to reach Mafeking from the north. On March 31 Plumer had ventured within a day’s march but met with strong resistance near Ramathlabama. Casualties amounted to 12 killed and 26 wounded, including Plumer himself. He had only 350 men—he needed reinforcements.

Railway journey from hell

Beira, 1905

Beira, Portuguese East Africa, 1905.

Canadians and Australians came to Plumer’s aid by a very roundabout route. The “C” Battery of the Canadian Artillery sailed on the “Columbian” to Cape Town, and after two weeks camped at Stellenbosch received orders to reboard and proceed to Beira in what is now Mozambique.

Meanwhile, the transport steamer “Maplemore” had sailed from West Australia to Cape Town carrying the Queensland brigade (three regiments) and hundreds of horses and mules. Immediately upon arrival they were instructed to go on another 1,700 miles to Beira.

Horse offloaded from ship.

Horse offloaded from ship.

Veterinary-Lieutenant Burns described the journey for the Adelaide Advertiser.  He didn’t have anything good to say about Beira: “The whole place is most unhealthy, being a swamp for about 50 miles inland, and white men cannot live there and be happy.” Men and horses traveled via a 2-ft. gauge railway to a place in the jungle called Bamboo Creek (Vila Machado), where they had to transfer to a 3-ft. 6-inch gauge line. This cumbersome process ended up taking two weeks, “in a melting hot sun and in a tropical atmosphere like a Turkish bath,” as Burns described it.

Mortality ran high among the horses and mules: about 500 of them died there from the African horse sickness. Burns said, “One got sick of seeing the niggers continually dragging away dead animals. The work got too much for them, so we had some trucks with an engine night and morning to take away the animals that died in the interval.” In the meantime the men wandered about in the bush shooting big game.

By the broader gauge railway they eventually reached Marandellas (Marondera, 40 miles east of Salisbury [Harare]) and traveled in coaches to Bulawayo. There they transferred back to rail for a 500-mile journey to Ootsi, beyond which the Boers had blown up the tracks. A forced march of 70 miles finally got them to Masibi Stadt to join Mahon. The two columns arrived within an hour of each other, according to Arthur Conan Doyle.##

Somehow Mahon’s men got more of the glory. That column comprised the Imperial Light Horse, mainly Johannesburg Uitlanders; the colonials of the Kimberley Mounted Corps; the Royal Horse Artillery; and 100 infantry specially picked to symbolize the Imperial homeland: 25 each from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. When some of Mahon’s column pressed ahead to reach Mafeking first, Plumer’s men were said to have groused about it. Yes, it was true Mahon’s flying column had covered a remarkable amount of ground in a short time, but the Rhodesians had suffered casualties, while the Queenslanders and Canadians had made that godawful journey.

Plumer’s column left town May 19 and soon saw action in the eastern Transvaal. Plumer himself stayed in the field throughout the war, chasing Christiaan De Wet across the veld in the harrowing days of guerilla warfare. Like many of the top British officers, both Plumer and Mahon went on to serve in WWI. Plumer commanded the 2nd Army and won a famous victory at Messines. Mahon commanded forces at Gallipoli and served in the Mesopotamia Campaign before being appointed Commander-in-Chief of British troops in Ireland, dealing with the Irish republicans.

(Coming next: Conclusion)

* Angus Hamilton, The Siege of Mafeking. London: Methuen & Co., 1900.

# Lady Sarah Wilson, South African Memories. London: Edward Arnold, 1909.

** Filson Young, The Relief of Mafeking: How It Was Accomplished by Mahon’s Flying Column. London: Methuen & Co., 1900.

## Arthur Conan Doyle, The Great Boer War. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1900 and 1902.

Col. Herbert Plumer, 1899.

Col. Herbert Plumer, 1899.

Siege of Mafeking: “A bold and foolhardy man” January 24, 2014

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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1st Lt. Sarel Eloff of Fortress Artillery Corps (R), unnamed 2nd Lt. of Staatsartillerie (L)

1st Lt. Sarel Eloff of Fortress Artillery Corps (R), unknown 2nd Lt. of Staatsartillerie (L)*

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.”

While the residents of Mafeking adjusted to their diet of horse meat and ground oats, an idealistic young officer of the Johannesburg Fortress Artillery Corps plotted an attack on the town. Sarel Eloff, one of Paul Kruger’s numerous grandsons, planned to lead a force before dawn through the native Stadt, a weak point within Baden-Powell’s line of defense. From there, with reinforcements from General J.P. Snyman pouring in at first daylight, Eloff’s men would take just short steps to reach B-P’s headquarters and capture the town.

Alas! The attack failed, and the stolid General Snyman was largely to blame. He and his listless, undisciplined crew from Rustenburg and Marico did not care to leave the security of their trenches, and Eloff’s party of 240 men (far less than the 700 he’d counted on) was surrounded and eventually captured.

General Snyman.

General Snyman.

Eloff had only recently arrived among the Boers at Mafeking. He brought with him a corps of Uitlanders (foreigners) and surely was regarded as an outsider by Snyman’s commandos. There was a terrific clash in personality between Eloff and Snyman. Their attitudes about Mafeking’s Sunday cricket matches will illustrate the point. Snyman had sent off an outraged complaint that the British would stoop to such ungodly entertainments on the Sabbath. Eloff, on the other hand, made the following communication to B-P:

“I see in The Bulawayo Chronicle that your men in Mafeking play cricket on Sundays and give concerts and balls on Sunday evenings. In case you would allow my men to join in the same it would be very agreeable to me as here outside Mafeking there are seldom any of the fair sex and there can be no merriment without their being present….”**

B-P responded: “My side is in at present and yours is in the field. You must bowl us out before your side can come in.”#

Eloff’s checkered past

B-P knew all about Eloff. The man had a history. Rewarded for early exploits with an appointment as Lieutenant of the Johannesburg Police, he made rude comments about Queen Victoria at a public meeting in Krugersdorp.

I wonder what he said about her?

I wonder what he said about her?

This led to an exchange of blows with British citizens and, before long, his resignation from his position. He went off to Europe for a cooling-off spell, a popular remedy of the period for all sorts of problems—a tour of castles on the Rhine while the head cleared, debts were settled, or the unsuitable love interest was forgotten—that sort of thing.

When Eloff returned, he joined the Fortress Artillery Corps and received schooling from Captain Adolph Schiel, an expert from Germany. “Here he developed an industry and assiduity that did him honor,” gushed a Cologne newspaper in an article published just before the Mafeking attack: Germany, strong ally of the Boers, followed events closely. The paper went on to say that Eloff had also been trained in specialized horsemanship by Count Zeppelin of the Uhlans (marvellous!) and transformed himself from “a young firebrand” into “a slender young man with handsome, open countenance and attractive character.” The article appeared in translation in The Daily Telegraph after the attack failed, as if to mock Eloff’s pretensions.

The Rustenburgers

General Piet Cronje had long since departed with most of the western Transvaal commandos to fight more important battles, leaving behind Snyman with men from the small farming town of Rustenburg and the even smaller town of Marico. Practically nothing has been written from the perspective of those struggling, weatherbeaten men, but an article in the South African Military History Journal by Lionel Wulfson makes use of a Rustenburger’s diary and letters to give a picture of daily life in those trenches and sandbag forts.##

Boer fort at Mafeking.

The diary-keeper, Hermann Schoch, was better educated than his neighbors, who farmed tobacco and wheat in soil that alternated between bricklike consistency in drought and a rubbery, puddinglike concoction in wet seasons. They suffered from malaria and bilharzia in hot weather. They tended to be laconic, independent, and stubborn.

Schoch groused in a January 1900 letter that his campmates refused to move their laager to drier ground when heavy rains turned the site into a morass, “thro’ laziness or thro’ not caring for filth,” and kept “haggling” over the problem rather than exerting themselves. Two months later, he wrote of how Snyman ordered the burgers to sleep in the trenches at night—on the chance the British relief column might turn up unexpectedly—but when he discovered he was nearly the only one to subject himself to this discomfort, he joined the others in disregarding the order.

On May 10, he wrote, “There is… a movement on foot to storm Mafeking one of these days. Volunteers have been called for, but with the exception of the Uitlanders under Commandant Eloff the call has not been responded to at all. It may be that all will be ordered to go, but that is hardly likely as our Burgers are not given to obeying orders when they are in conflict with their own personal views.”

The attack

“We breakfast at Dixon’s Hotel tomorrow morning,” Eloff announced at the laager on the evening of May 11. At 4:00 a.m., as the main Boer force made a diversionary attack on the east side of town, Eloff led his men around to the west and slipped between two British forts. They followed the Molopo River into the Stadt and there set fire to the huts. If Eloff intended the fire as a signal to Snyman, it also signaled instantly to B-P. Alarm bells sounded in town.

Cries of panic rose among the flaming huts, and the Baralong residents ran out of harm’s way. However, once the women and children cleared the scene, the Baralong men gathered up their antique muzzle-loaders and closed in behind the Boers, cutting off any escape.

Eloff’s party advanced unopposed and quickly captured the barracks occupied by Colonel Hore, B-P’s second in command, and made prisoners of Hore and 30 others. Eloff picked up Hore’s phone and called B-P to taunt him with the capture.

That was the high water mark of Eloff’s day. Two squadrons moved efficiently to surround the barracks and two other positions occupied by the Boers. Eloff waited for Snyman’s reinforcements… and waited. As the hours ticked by, his confidence waned, and his prisoners heard him complaining to his associates. The noise of rife-fire and shells crashed around the barracks, and the prisoners feared they might be executed. Toward evening, Eloff came to talk to the colonel. To Hore’s amazement, he said he would surrender if Hore could call for a cease fire. It was all up for Eloff: his men were surrounded, while Snyman had done nothing more than order pointless firing from the trenches.

Boer casualties amounted to 60 killed and wounded, plus 100 taken prisoner. British casualties: 12 dead and eight wounded.

Lady Sarah meets Eloff

Lady Sarah Wilson spent the day at the town hospital, watching as casualties came in—mainly Boers—and attending to a wounded private from the Cape Police. At 8:00 p.m. came the news that the Boers had surrendered. She rushed over to see the prisoners led in, “followed by a large crowd of jeering and delighted natives…. [The Boers] represented many nationalities, the greater part laughing, joking, and even singing… the whole community giving one the idea of a body of men who knew they had got out of a tight place….”###

The next morning Lady Sarah joined town notables in a breakfast with Eloff and a “most polite” officer who’d come from France to help the Boers—who spoke only French. “In strong contrast to this affable and courteous gentleman was Eloff, of whom we had heard so much as a promising Transvaal General. A typical Boer of the modern school, with curiously unkempt hair literally standing on end, and light sandy whiskers, he was wearing a sullen, dejected expression….”

The breakfast proved a peculiar event, as she went on to describe. Eloff complained to the company about having been left in the lurch, while the French officer interjected polite comments about “the African climate, the weather, and the Paris Exhibition.”  They alternated in their separate threads of conversation, the Frenchman concluding “with heartfelt emphasis that he wished himself back once more in ‘La Belle France’.”

The odds are this poor man did not return to France, nor Eloff to Johannesburg, until sometime after the war ended in May 1902. They would have been sent to one of the giant British POW camps in Ceylon or Bermuda—or perhaps, as they were officers, to St. Helena. And so ended Eloff’s dream of glory.

(To be continued)

* Photo from J. Robert Williams, “Adolf Schiel, Commandant of Johannesburg Fort, and the Fortress Artillery Corps.” South African Military History Journal, June 1990. The officer at left wears a uniform in an Austro-Hungarian style, while Eloff wears an undress uniform. As mentioned earlier in this series, artillerymen were the only men among the Boers to wear uniforms.

** Quoted in Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979.

# This is how B-P summarized his response in a later collection of inspirational tales.

## Lionel Wulfson, “Hendsuppers of the Rustenburg Commando.” South African Military History Journal, December 1991.

### Lady Sarah Wilson, South African Memories. London: Edward Arnold, 1909.

Dixon's Hotel

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.