The Siege of Mafeking
War: The Boer War
Date: 14th October 1899 to 16th May 1900.
Place: Mafeking lies on the railway north to Rhodesia in
the Northern tip of Cape Colony in South Africa near to the
Combatants: British against the Boers.
Generals: Colonel Robert Baden-Powell against General
Cronje and from November 1899 General Snyman.
Size of the armies: 1,500 British colonial troops against
initially7,500 Boers reduced in November 1899 to 1,500.
Uniforms, arms and equipment: The Boer War was a serious
jolt for the British Army. At the outbreak of the war British
tactics were appropriate for the use of single shot firearms, fired
in volleys controlled by company and battalion officers; the troops
fighting in close order. The need for tight formations had been
emphasised time and again in colonial fighting. In the Zulu and
Sudan Wars overwhelming enemy numbers armed principally with
stabbing weapons were easily kept at a distance by such tactics;
but, as at Isandlwana, would overrun a loosely formed force. These
tactics had to be entirely rethought in battle against the Boers
armed with modern weapons.
In the months before hostilities the Boer commandant general,
General Joubert, bought 30,000 Mauser magazine rifles and a number
of modern field guns and automatic weapons from the German armaments
manufacturer Krupp and the French firm Creusot. The commandoes,
without formal discipline, welded into a fighting force through a
strong sense of community and dislike for the British. Field Cornets
led burghers by personal influence not through any military code.
The Boers did not adopt military formation in battle, instinctively
fighting from whatever cover there might be. The preponderance were
countrymen, running their farms from the back of a pony with a rifle
in one hand. These rural Boers brought a life time of marksmanship
to the war, an important edge, further exploited by Joubert’s
consignment of magazine rifles. Viljoen is said to have coined the
aphorism “Through God and the Mauser". With strong fieldcraft skills
and high mobility the Boers were natural mounted infantry. The urban
burghers and foreign volunteers readily adopted the fighting methods
of the rest of the army.
Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police
units, the Boers wore their every day civilian clothes on campaign.
After the first month the Boers lost their numerical superiority,
spending the rest of the formal war on the defensive against British
forces that regularly outnumbered them.
British tactics, little changed from the Crimea, used at Modder
River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop were incapable of
winning battles against entrenched troops armed with modern magazine
rifles. Every British commander made the same mistake; Buller;
Methuen, Roberts and Kitchener. When General Kelly-Kenny attempted
to winkle Cronje’s commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments
at Paardeburg using his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted
on a battle of infantry assaults; with the same disastrous
consequences as Colenso, Modder River, Magersfontein and Spion Kop.
Some of the most successful British troops were the non-regular
regiments; the City Imperial Volunteers, the South Africans,
Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who more easily broke
from the habit of traditional European warfare, using their horses
for transport rather than the charge, advancing by fire and
manouevre in loose formations and making use of cover, rather than
the formal advance into a storm of Mauser bullets.
Uniform: The British regiments made an uncertain change into
khaki uniforms in the years preceding the Boer War, with the topee
helmet as tropical headgear. Highland regiments in Natal devised
aprons to conceal coloured kilts and sporrans. By the end of the war
the uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab tunic and trousers; the
danger of shiny buttons and too ostentatious emblems of rank
emphasised in several engagements with disproportionately high
The British infantry were armed with the Lee Metford magazine
rifle firing 10 rounds. But no training regime had been established
to take advantage of the accuracy and speed of fire of the weapon.
Personal skills such as scouting and field craft were little taught.
The idea of fire and movement was unknown, many regiments still
going into action in close order. Notoriously General Hart insisted
that his Irish Brigade fight shoulder to shoulder as if on parade in
Aldershot. Short of regular troops, Britain engaged volunteer forces
from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who brought new
ideas and more imaginative formations to the battlefield.
The British regular troops lacked imagination and resource.
Routine procedures such as effective scouting and camp protection
were often neglected. The war was littered with incidents in which
British contingents became lost or were ambushed often unnecessarily
and forced to surrender. The war was followed by a complete
re-organisation of the British Army.
The British artillery was a powerful force in the field,
underused by commanders with little training in the use of modern
guns in battle.
Pakenham cites Pieters as being the battle at which a British
commander, surprisingly Buller, developed a modern form of
battlefield tactics: heavy artillery bombardments co-ordinated to
permit the infantry to advance under their protection. It was the
only occasion that Buller showed any real generalship and the short
inspiration quickly died.
The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15 pounder guns; the Royal
Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the Royal Garrison Artillery
batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal Navy provided heavy field
artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field
carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible.
Automatic weapons were used by the British usually mounted on
special carriages accompanying the cavalry.
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
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,
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
In November 1899 Cronje marched south leaving the siege of
Mafeking to General Snyman and 1,500 Boers.
Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, commandant
of the Mafeking garrison
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
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
- sSouth Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly