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Siege of Mafeking: Conclusion February 11, 2014

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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B-P on the lookout.

Colonel Baden-Powell on the lookout.

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 day after the siege was lifted, the Mafeking garrison turned out for a memorial service at the cemetery. They stood at attention in a hollow square formation as a preacher slowly read the names of those slain in the defense. Three volleys were fired over the graves, the buglers played the “Last Post,” and everyone sang the national anthem.

Colonel Baden-Powell dismissed the remnants of his force, passing them in review and addressing them with a few words of thanks. That afternoon Colonel Plumer’s column departed to repair the rail line to Bulawayo before heading off to see action in the eastern Transvaal. Colonel Mahon’s column remained in town another week, then moved south to join the massive army of Field-Marshall Lord Roberts as it crossed the Vaal and approached Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Far away from this small town on the edge of the Kalahari, celebrations burst out in all parts of the Empire. “MAFEKING RELIEVED” blared the headlines. Parades, fireworks, commotion: the public rejoiced so enthusiastically that a new word was coined to describe the exuberance—“mafficking.” The reaction was much more intense than what followed the relief of Ladysmith and Kimberley back in February.

Mafeking headline

Why the mass hysteria? Two reasons stand out. First of all, the British public had a suitable hero to worship—B-P. Second, the war was finally going the way folks in England had expected. The army of Lord Roberts stood nearly on the doorstep of Pretoria,  having marched inexorably across the Orange Free State. With the capture of the Transvaal capital, surely the war would be over quite soon.

B-P’s heroic image

The newspapermen in town had filed reports throughout the siege, keeping the public informed about the small garrison’s stubborn resistance to the enemy. At the siege’s start, a surprising five correspondents were posted in the little town far removed from the main action of the war. (That was reduced to four after a soldier of the garrison murdered one of them in a dispute.)

War correspondents at their "bombproof" in Mafeking.

War correspondents at their “bombproof” in Mafeking. Hamilton’s dog, pictured here at right, was named “Mafeking.” He was wounded three times but survived the siege.

From their reports the people back home learned of how B-P responded to Boer acts of aggression with the cool-headed politeness valued so highly in Victorian times. For instance,  Angus Hamilton of the Times wrote that when the enemy first shelled the town, “Commandant Snyman presented his compliments to Colonel Baden-Powell, and desired to know if, to save further bloodshed, we would now surrender. Colonel Baden-Powell received this message with polite astonishment, and while not telling the deputy of Commandant Snyman that his shell had only spilt the blood of a fowl, and knocked small pieces out of three buildings, replied, that so far as we were concerned, we had not yet begun.”*

B-P’s calm demeanor intrigued Hamilton: “Outwardly, he maintains an impenetrable screen of self-control, observing with a cynical smile the foibles and caprices of those around him…. He seems to close every argument with a snap, as though the steel manacles of his ambition had checkmated the emotions of the man…. ” Hamilton accompanied B-P on one of his nocturnal spying missions into Boer territory: “As he makes his way across our lines the watchful sentry strains his eyes before him, until the undulations of the veld conceal his progress…. He goes on, never faltering, bending for a moment behind some bushes, crawling  upon his hands and knees…. In a little while he moves again, his inspection is over, and he either changes to a fresh point or startles some dozing sentry as he slips back into town.”

And yet this was a man of peculiar talents. He could draw caricatures simultaneously with left hand and right, sing comic songs, and appear on stage in a wig and a girl’s dress. Lady Sarah Wilson observed that in the theatricals B-P assumed different roles with “Fregoli-like rapidity.” She was referring to the Italian actor Leopoldo Fregoli, who had entertained London audiences on an 1897 tour with his quick-change act, exiting stage left as a street musician and reappearing moments later as a woman stage right.

Leopoldo Fregoli.

Leopoldo Fregoli.

But if the town alarm bells happened to ring during such a performance, B-P instantly put aside the masquerade and calmly took charge. Quite an interesting personality: full of earnest patriotic fervor one moment and indulging in whimsy the next. Whatever his contradictions, the important thing for the British public was that B-P had held the town during those long, hard days.

The “glorious” phase of the war

The Empire entered the war October 1899 thinking it would be over by Christmas. But the ragged Boers, with their unkempt beards and dirty hats, proved a tougher foe than expected. They used their deadly Mauser rifles to win a major victory at Ladysmith, and in mid-December the British suffered the crushing Black Week defeats at Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso.

The picture stayed grim in early 1900. General  Sir Redvers Buller experienced so many setbacks along the Tugela River that he became known as “Sir Reverse.” But shipload after shipload of fresh troops poured into Cape Town and Durban, and Piet Cronje’s February 27 defeat at Paardeberg marked a changing of the tide. Lord Roberts’ huge army of 30,000 pushed aside the outnumbered commandos that opposed it, steamrolling northeast to capture the Free State capital of Bloemfontein and press on toward Pretoria.

The Tommies marching on Pretoria.

The Tommies marching on Pretoria.

The relief of Mafeking came just two weeks before Roberts captured Johannesburg. Six days later the British flag flew over Pretoria, Paul Kruger and his Government officials fled in a railcar, and it seemed victory had been achieved. Many of the war correspondents went home, never suspecting the war could continue until May 1902.

Two years of guerilla warfare lay ahead. General Lord Kitchener came in to wage war with scorched-earth tactics, burning down the Boer farms, forcing the commandos against barbed-wire fences in gigantic “drives,” and putting the women and children into concentration camps. When the Boers finally surrendered, they were wearing grainbags for clothing and subsisting on game and handfuls of plundered corn.

Postscript: Sol Plaatje

The adroit young African Sol Plaatje stopped keeping his diary at the end of March, too busy with his work as a court interpreter and freelancing work he did for the British newspapermen—he had access to information unavailable to the white community.

When the siege ended, town officials paid tribute to the residents of the Stadt. The blacks had contributed much to Mafeking’s defense, in organized units such as the “Black Watch” and more informally, as when they prevented Sarel Eloff’s men from escaping through the Stadt.

The Africans who’d arrived at the Stadt as refugees to live alongside the resident Baralongs were promised their own farm as a reward, and all were promised protection from the Boers.# But British authorities disarmed them after the siege. The blacks therefore found themselves defenseless against a raid in January 1902, when a party of Boers carried off all their livestock. Meanwhile, the promised farm never materialized.

Mafeking’s Civil Commissioner, Charles Bell, commended Plaatje as “a faithful interpreter” and praised the reports he drew up on “the Native situation.” This emboldened Plaatje to ask for a raise, and he did receive a small increase in salary. In December 1900 Plaatje went to Cape Town to take a civil service exam, but his ultimate ambitions lay higher. He started a bilingual newspaper, The Bechuana Gazette, aimed at advancing black interests. He became a prominent spokesman for African opinion and went on in 1912 to become the first secretary of the South African National Congress, forerunner of the ANC. But his hopes of equality for blacks were never realized before he died in 1932.

His diary of the siege, contained in a dilapidated leather scrapbook, was given by his grandson to a researcher named John Comaroff in 1969 and first published in 1973.

#  #  #

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

#A discussion of Plaatje’s later life can be found in Sol T. Plaatje, Mafeking Diary: A Black Man’s View of a White Man’s War. Edited by John Comaroff with Brian Willan and Andrew Reed. Cambridge, UK: Meridor Books, 1990.

Sol Plaatje, undated photo but probably after the war.

Sol Plaatje, undated photo.

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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: Horse-meat soup January 19, 2014

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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Black soldiers at Mafeking. Blacks and whites had unequal rations.

Black soldiers at Mafeking. As food ran short, blacks and whites had unequal rations.

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 unavoidable, morbidly fascinating question about any siege is, “What did they end up eating, as weeks and months went by?”

Kimberley ration ticket.

Kimberley ration ticket. I’m sure the soup was delicious…

The siege towns

The three towns besieged from the first days of the war—Kimberley, Ladysmith, and Mafeking—faced very different challenges. Kimberley was the diamond-mining town, and Cecil Rhodes himself figured among the besieged population of 50,000 total, 10,000 of them black mineworkers confined in big compounds for the duration of their contracts. These fenced, guarded barracks were rationalized as a means to prevent theft of diamonds. For an interesting discussion of the subject, go here.

The white townspeople were able to subsist on dwindling rations of bread and questionable meat supplemented by vegetables grown in home gardens. The “mine boys” had no gardens. They made do with less than a pound of rationed mealies (corn and corn meal) per day. Many suffered from scurvy, and mortality ran high.

Ladysmith, having figured in critical action before the siege, had 14,000 troops in tent camps or dug into dog holes around the perimeter. In town resided 3,000 white civilians and 2,400 black servants and workers who’d failed to get away in the two days between General Sir George White’s crushing defeat by the Boers and the start of the siege.

Shell damage to Ladysmith town hall.

Shell damage to Ladysmith town hall.

Vegetables were scarce, but at least the supply of meat and bread remained adequate, especially after the painful decision was made to sacrifice the mounts of the cavalry brigade. This was supplemented by tough, chewy portions of “T.O.”—trek oxen. As it turned out, food was less of a problem for Ladysmith than typhoid and dysentery.

By contrast, Mafeking was a Twin City of sorts, an African settlement dating to the 1850s consisting of thatched-roof huts, paired with a white town established 1885, featuring the usual hotel, shops, church, and tin-roof bungalows. The population of the “native Stadt,” together with refugee mineworkers from the Rand gold mines, totaled 7,500 blacks, while the white townspeople plus the garrison of two regiments numbered 1,300.

Residents of Mafeking would have fared better than those of Kimberley and Ladysmith were it not that the Mafeking siege ran until May 17, 1900, while Kimberley was relieved February 15 and Ladysmith February 28. News trickling in about the other siege towns only added to the frustrations of Mafeking residents as they festered those three long months from February to May.

Controversy over Mafeking food rationing

Baden-Powell (center front) and staff

Baden-Powell (center front) and staff

B-P’s handling of the food shortage became a matter of controversy among historians in recent times, although the private diary of Col. Vyvyan of his staff reportedly shows that B-P made adjustments to his policy when it was shown to him that it could have inhumane consequences. Yet certain aspects of that policy cannot be disputed. In a nutshell, the daily food ration for whites was more generous than the ration for blacks; the ration for horses was reduced so as to give horse food (oats) to blacks, while whites did not share in this plan; in the last months of the siege blacks were pushed out of town, running the gauntlet of hostile Boers, in order to reduce the number of mouths to feed; blacks suffered from starvation, particularly the refugee workers from the Rand gold mines who had arrived at the start of the war.

In all this, it’s easy to pass judgment on the attitudes of the past. These attitudes are unacceptable to us today, but the simple reality was that neither the Boers nor the British of that time regarded blacks as equal to whites. I look at the diary of Sol Plaatje, an African with many unusual insights, to try to understand his attitude about the situation.  In his entry for January 13, he wrote, “The following shows that there is a very great difference between black and white even in a besieged town. ‘Fresh meat rations to be reduced to 3/4 lbs. from Monday inclusive.’ It is a notice by Capt. Ryan…to the townites [the white civilian residents].” The implication is that blacks received smaller or no portions of meat.

Plaatje’s tone is matter-of-fact, not angry or bitter. He never did take an angry position, maintaining his good humor, leavened by sardonic touches, throughout the siege. Here is an excerpt from his diary entry for February 27, describing horsemeat given to the blacks who were being led away from the town. It is a rather horrifying description: “I saw horseflesh for the first time being treated as human foodstuff. It looked like meat with nothing unusual about it, but when they went to the slaughter-pole for the third time they found that there was no more meat left and brought the heads and feet. I was moved to see their long ears and bold heads, and those were the things the people are to feed on. The recipients, however, were all very pleased to get these heads and they ate them nearly raw.”*

March 15: “The administrators of martial law have authorized the municipality to levy dog tax as they want to get rid of as many dogs as possible. Some unlicensed dogs were found, destroyed and buried by the town ranger. Our local Zambesi friends unearthed them, immediately the ranger’s assistants left the scene, and promptly cooked them for dinner, which gave the Barolong sections of the community the impression that there is more in a dog than they were ever told…”

March 21: “I have not seen my siege friends (the beggars) today. There were always scores of them every day at the residency and they were relieved by the soup kitchen…. It is really pitiful to see one who was too unfortunate to hear soon enough that there was a residency in Mafeking, and being too weak to work, never had a chance to steal anything during the last six days, and so had nothing to eat. Last month one died in the Civil Commissioner’s yard. It was a miserable scene to be surrounded by about 50 hungry beings… and to see one of them succumb to his agonies and fall backward with a dead thud.”

Lady Sarah Wilson observed: “All the natives objected most strongly to partaking of horse soup, supplied by the kitchen…as they declared it gave them the same sickness from which the horses in Africa suffered, and also that it caused their heads to swell. The authorities were therefore compelled to devise some new food, and the resourceful genius of a Scotchman introduced a porridge called ‘sowens….’ This nutriment, said to be well known in the North of Scotland, was composed of the meal which still remained in the oat-husks after they had been ground for bread and discarded as useless.”

But we see from Plaatje’s description that the “natives” were quite willing to eat even the ears of horses when they were starving.

Lady Sarah did experience reduced rations herself. “Occasionally I used to be allowed a tiny white roll for breakfast, but it had to last for dinner too.” And, “On April 3 I cabled to my sister in London as follows, “Breakfast to-day, horse sausages, lunch minced mule, curried locusts.”#

How long could this go on? The Mafeking residents anxiously followed every scrap of news about the approach of the relief column, part of the army of Lord Roberts that had been advancing northeastward for months—slowed down by fighting major battles such as at Magersfontein. And before that could happen, the Boers decided at last to make an attack on the town.

(To be continued)

* Sol Plaatje, Mafeking Diary: A Black Man’s View of a White Man’s War. Edited by John Comaroff with Brian Willan and Andrew Reed. Cambridge, UK: Meridor Books, 1990.

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