CHAPTER 24. THE SIEGE OF MAFEKING.
On October 13th the Boers appeared before Mafeking. On the same day Colonel Baden-Powell sent two truckloads of dynamite out of the place. They were fired into by the invaders, with the result that they exploded. On October 14th the pickets around the town were driven in by the Boers. On this the armoured train and a squadron of the Protectorate Regiment went out to support the pickets and drove the Boers before them. A body of the latter doubled back and interposed between the British and Mafeking, but two fresh troops with a 7-pounder throwing shrapnel drove them off. In this spirited little action the garrison lost two killed and fourteen wounded, but they inflicted considerable damage on the enemy. To Captain Williams, Captain FitzClarence, and Lord Charles Bentinck great credit is due for the way in which they handled their men; but the whole affair was ill advised, for if a disaster had occurred Mafeking must have fallen, being left without a garrison. No possible results which could come from such a sortie could justify the risk which was run.
On October 16th the siege began in earnest. On that date the Boers brought up two 12-pounder guns, and the first of that interminable flight of shells fell into the town. The enemy got possession of the water supply, but the garrison had already dug wells. Before October 20th five thousand Boers, under the formidable Cronje, had gathered round the town. 'Surrender to avoid bloodshed' was his message. 'When is the bloodshed going to begin?' asked Powell. When the Boers had been shelling the town for some weeks the lighthearted Colonel sent out to say that if they went on any longer he should be compelled to regard it as equivalent to a declaration of war. It is to be hoped that Cronje also possessed some sense of humour, or else he must have been as sorely puzzled by his eccentric opponent as the Spanish generals were by the vagaries of Lord Peterborough.
Among the many difficulties which had to be met by the defenders of the town the most serious was the fact that the position had a circumference of five or six miles to be held by about one thousand men against a force who at their own time and their own place could at any moment attempt to gain a footing. An ingenious system of small forts was devised to meet the situation. Each of these held from ten to forty riflemen, and was furnished with bomb-proofs and covered ways. The central bomb-proof was connected by telephone with all the outlying ones, so as to save the use of orderlies. A system of bells was arranged by which each quarter of the town was warned when a shell was coming in time to enable the inhabitants to scuttle off to shelter. Every detail showed the ingenuity of the controlling mind. The armoured train, painted green and tied round with scrub, stood unperceived among the clumps of bushes which surrounded the town.
On October 24th a savage bombardment commenced, which lasted with intermissions for seven months. The Boers had brought an enormous gun across from Pretoria, throwing a 96-pound shell, and this, with many smaller pieces, played upon the town. The result was as futile as our own artillery fire has so often been when directed against the Boers.
As the Mafeking guns were too weak to answer the enemy's fire, the only possible reply lay in a sortie, and upon this Colonel Powell decided. It was carried out with great gallantry on the evening of October 27th, when about a hundred men under Captain FitzClarence moved out against the Boer trenches with instructions to use the bayonet only. The position was carried with a rush, and many of the Boers bayoneted before they could disengage themselves from the tarpaulins which covered them. The trenches behind fired wildly in the darkness, and it is probable that as many of their own men as of ours were hit by their rifle fire. The total loss in this gallant affair was six killed, eleven wounded, and two prisoners. The loss of the enemy, though shrouded as usual in darkness, was certainly very much higher.
On October 31st the Boers ventured upon an attack on Cannon Kopje, which is a small fort and eminence to the south of the town. It was defended by Colonel Walford, of the British South African Police, with fifty-seven of his men and three small guns. The attack was repelled with heavy loss to the Boers. The British casualties were six killed and five wounded.
Their experience in this attack seems to have determined the Boers to make no further expensive attempts to rush the town, and for some weeks the siege degenerated into a blockade. Cronje had been recalled for more important work, and Commandant Snyman had taken over the uncompleted task. From time to time the great gun tossed its huge shells into the town, but boardwood walls and corrugated-iron roofs minimise the dangers of a bombardment. On November 3rd the garrison rushed the Brickfields, which had been held by the enemy's sharpshooters, and on the 7th another small sally kept the game going. On the 18th Powell sent a message to Snyman that he could not take the town by sitting and looking at it. At the same time he despatched a message to the Boer forces generally, advising them to return to their homes and their families. Some of the commandos had gone south to assist Cronje in his stand against Methuen, and the siege languished more and more, until it was woken up by a desperate sortie on December 26th, which caused the greatest loss which the garrison had sustained. Once more the lesson was to be enforced that with modern weapons and equality of forces it is always long odds on the defence.