Winner: The British held out until relieved.
Bechuanaland Protectorate Regiment (mounted rifles)
British South Africa Police
It was planned by the British that on the outbreak of war with the Boers Colonel Robert Baden-Powell with two regiments of mounted colonial irregulars would invade the north western tip of the Transvaal from the Bechuanaland/Cape Colony border thereby drawing significant Boer forces away from the invasion of Natal.
Baden-Powell raised his two regiments, one from Rhodesia, the other from Bechuanaland, but Milner the High Commissioner in Cape Town changed the scheme, requiring Baden-Powell to garrison Mafeking and resist any attempt by the Boers to capture it. Unlike Ladysmith and Kimberley, the two disastrous accidental sieges, Mafeking succumbed deliberately.
Baden-Powell sent Colonel Plumer with the Rhodesian regiment to a nearby town, Tuli, while he established his Bechuanaland Regiment in Mafeking with a handful of British officers. The second in command was Major Lord Edward Cecil, son of the British :Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury.
Milner’s plan was successful in that while General Joubert attacked the outnumbered British regular troops in Natal, General Cronje marched north west to Mafeking with 7,500 burghers, a reinforcement that might have been sufficient to drive the British out of Natal before, General Buller could arrive with the relieving Army Corps.
In November 1899 Cronje marched south leaving the siege of Mafeking to General Snyman and 1,500 Boers.
Baden-Powell conducted the defence of the town with great energy and resource, leading the Boers to believe there was a larger garrison than was the case. In November 1899 Baden-Powell launched a series of raids on the Boers lines that caused him some casualties but made the Boers wary of the garrison.
Initially the Mafeking garrison had no artillery. Baden-Powell improvised various items to look like real guns and trains, while engineers manufactured a gun, known as the “Wolf”, from a length of steel pipe. The Boers used the 2 two inch guns they had captured from Dr Jamieson to bombard the town. Dud shells fired from these guns were reworked and discharged at the Boer lines from the Wolf. An officer found an old muzzle loading naval gun serving as a gate post. This gun was christened “Lord Nelson” and drafted into service. Dynamite grenades were manufactured and thrown at the Boer lines and a small railway line was built across the town.
In sharp contrast to the indolent Ladysmith garrison, Baden-Powell kept his men constantly on the move, raiding the Boer lines and keeping the besiegers on their toes.
On 26th December 1899 Baden-Powell launched an attack on Game Tree Fort, a Boer strongpoint to the North of Mafeking. Unknown to the garrison the fort had been significantly strengthened and the attack was an expensive failure.
Among the personalities in besieged Mafeking was Lady Sarah Wilson, aunt of Winston Churchill, in South Africa with her army officer husband. Lady Sarah is said to have been conducting spying activities against the Boers until arrested by General Snyman and exchanged for General Viljoen, held prisoner by Baden-Powell. For the rest of the siege Lady Sarah’s bunker was the social focus of the besieged town and she herself an active member of the garrison.
From January 1900 food stocks in Mafeking fell low. Baden-Powell remedied this difficulty by withholding rations from the sizeable Baralong town in the south west corner of Mafeking.
On 31st March 1900 Plumer attempted to fight his way into Mafeking with the Rhodesian regiment but was repelled with heavy losses.
On Saturday 12th May 1900 Field Cornet Sarel Eloff launched the most significant assault on Mafeking in an attempt to capture the town before it could be relieved by the advancing British force under Colonel Mahon. Few of the Boer burghers were prepared to take part in such a foolhardy expedition.
The operation began with a feint assault on the eastern defences of the town by General Snyman. Eloff then attacked through the Baralong town and captured the police barracks in the centre of Mafeking. Eloff’s men set fire to the Baralong huts as they passed through giving the Mafeking garrison an instant alarm. The Boer plan was that General Snyman would launch a further attack on the town’s defences, thereby subjecting the garrison to assaults in front and rear, but this did not materialise.
Throughout the rest of the day fighting raged around the barracks until Eloff was forced to surrender and the attack collapsed. Eloff was enabled to carry out his boast to his fellow Boers that he would breakfast at Dixon’s Hotel the morning after the attack; but he did so as a prisoner.
The following Wednesday, 16th May 1900, Colonel Mahon’s flying column of Imperial Light Horse and Royal Horse Artillery rode into Mafeking after an epic ride, and the siege ended.
Follow-up: The relief of Mafeking caused ecstatic joy in Britain, out of all proportion to its significance. For a time the word “mafeking” meant to celebrate excessively.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
Baden-Powell went on to establish the world wide Boy Scout Movement, based on the youth corps he set up in Mafeking during the siege.
The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be:
The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Goodbye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger
The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham
South Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly partisan volumes)
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