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Siege of Mafeking (Oct 1899-May 1900)

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  • Sol Plaatje (1876 - 1932)
    Excerpt from Sol Plaatje: 1876 to 1932 at He was born on Boskop farm in the Boshof district, Orange Free State province in 1876. Plaatje was the fourteenth child to Kethanecwe Bo...
  • William Robert Selmon (1874 - 1962)
    Noelene Selmon says "My Grandfather William Robert Selmon took part in the Siege of Mafeking and Ladysmith. He was with the Imperial Light Horse."
  • Genl. Francois Jacobus Joubert Pienaar, b2c3d4e3f4g9 (1856 - 1932)
    Francois het hom op dieslagveld onderskei en word gedurende die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog aangestel as Veggeneraal.
  • Alfred Milner, 1st Viscount Milner, KG (1854 - 1925)
    See Wikipedia... * " Alfred, Viscount Milner ", Westminster Abbey** Reference: MyHeritage Family Trees - SmartCopy : Jan 24 2018, 6:11:08 UTC
  • Gen. Sir Bryan Mahon (1862 - 1930)
    Wikipedia contributors. " Bryan Mahon ." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Siege of Mafeking

The siege of Mafeking was a 217-day siege battle for the town of Mafeking (now called Mahikeng) in South Africa during the Second Boer War from October 1899 to May 1900. The siege received considerable attention in Britain as Lord Edward Cecil, the son of the British prime minister, was in the besieged town, as also was Lady Sarah Wilson, a daughter of the Duke of Marlborough and aunt of Winston Churchill. The writer, Sol Plaatje was a court interpreter for the British authorities during the Siege of Mafeking and kept a diary of his experiences which were published posthumously The Boer War Diary of Sol T. Plaatje: an African at Mafeking. The siege turned the British commander, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, into a national hero.,

Milner required Baden-Powell to garrison Mafeking and resist any attempt by the Boers to capture it. Unlike Ladysmith and Kimberley, the two accidental sieges, Mafeking was deliberately subjected by the British to a Boer siege....Milner’s plan achieved his aim, in that, while General Joubert attacked the outnumbered British regular troops in Natal, General Cronje marched north-west to Mafeking with 7,500 Boer burghers, a reinforcement that might have been sufficient to drive the British out of Natal, before General Buller could arrive with the re-inforcing British Army Corps. In November 1899, Cronje marched south to confront Lord Methuen’s advance up the railway towards Kimberley, leaving the siege of Mafeking to General Snyman and 1,500 Boers. General Snyman took over the command of the Marico Commando when Cronje left. 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 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.

Among the personalities of 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 the captured 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.

On 31st March 1900, Colonel Plumer attempted to fight his way into Mafeking with the Rhodesian Regiment, but was repelled with heavy loss. On Saturday 12th May 1900, the Boer 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 (the Native Stadt) 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, Mahon's force broke through the Boers eight miles north of Mafeking . The noise of firing was clearly audible in the town and people climbed onto the roofs of the houses and strained their eyes towards the north. An advance patrol of horsemen arrived at seven o’clock in the evening, to be greeted with British sang-froid by a passer-by who said casually, "Oh yes, I heard you were knocking about." As word spread, however, the men were mobbed and cheered to the echo while the crowd sang the national anthem and "Rule Britannia". The main relieving force rode in at 3.30 am to a rapturous welcome from the excited garrison , and the siege ended

The Relief of Mafeking 17 May 1900

On 13 October 1899, only two days after the outbreak of war, Boer forces began to besiege the hamlet of Mafeking, located in northern Cape Colony only 13 kilometres from the Transvaal frontier. Under the command of Robert Baden-Powell, a charismatic cavalry officer, the tiny British garrison managed to hold out for the next eight months. Their resistance became a powerful symbol of British resolve during the bleak early months of the war.

In April 1900, with the Boers at last in retreat and on the defensive, the British began a major effort to relieve Mafeking. Two columns would converge on the town: one would march northwards from the British lines on the Modder River, while a second would strike south from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in conjunction with the Rhodesian Field Force commanded by Colonel Herbert Plumer.

The latter force required reinforcements, particularly in artillery, before it could proceed. Fortunately, "C" Battery, Royal Canadian Field Artillery, had recently arrived from Canada and was in the Cape Town area. Getting to Mafeking was no easy task. On 14 April, the battery, along with a squadron of Australian mounted rifles, boarded a ship bound for Beira in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). This was followed by a five-hundred-kilometre journey by train westward to Marandellas in Rhodesia and another five-hundred-kilometre trek to Bulawayo. From there, the gunners, augmented by mules and with Black South African drivers to draw the guns and ammunition wagons, set off again by rail, arriving at Ootsi, only 100 kilometres north of Mafeking, on 11 May. (The important contributions of these Black South African drivers has gone largely unnoticed for nearly a century.)

The Canadians' column linked up with the one coming from the south at Jan Massibi, about fifty kilometres west of Mafeking on the 15th. The next day, there was a sharp engagement with the Boers in which the four 12-pounders of "C" Battery won a lengthy artillery duel. Despite being both outnumbered and outranged, the Canadian gunners succeeded in driving the Boers from the road leading into Mafeking.

At 4:00 a.m. the next morning, 17 May 1900, Mafeking was relieved. The news set off an Empire-wide orgy of celebrations that added a new word to the English language: Maff'ick, meaning to exult riotously. In Mafeking, there was a special honour for "C" Battery. That night, the reply to a sentry's challenge was “Canada.”.

  • ‘It is understood that you have armed Bastards, Fingos and Baralongs against us – in this you have committed an enormous act of wickedness … reconsider the matter, even if it cost you the loss of Mafeking … disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man’s war.’ - General Cronje to Colonel Baden-Powell, 29 October 1899

The siege and battle for Mafeking constitutes one of the most famous, but also one of the most controversial, episodes in British imperial history. Over 217 days, from 13 October 1899 to 17 May 1900, little more than 1,000 totally outgunned and outnumbered European and African defenders, ultimately only surviving on starvation rations and led by Col Baden-Powell, were initially besieged by 8,000 and, from mid-November 1899, a reduced number of around 2,000 Boer fighters, led respectively by Generals Cronje and Snyman.

Whilst this epic struggle made a hero out of the British leader, Baden-Powell, who eventually went on to achieve everlasting fame as founder of the Scouting Movement, his personal role has recently attracted criticism for alleged gross neglect of the Mafeking African population, leading to a significant number of unnecessary deaths from starvation.

As the quote by Gen. Cronje above graphically exposes, the battle for Mafeking also represented one of the first events of the Anglo-Boer War to highlight the deep racial tensions underpinning this conflict; tensions directly generated by Baden-Powell’s equally controversial decision to arm large numbers of his African defenders, which, from the Boer perspective, constituted a gross violation of the sacred principle of fighting a ‘white man’s war’.

Therefore, it was a battle which presented a major challenge to the existing pre-war social order, whereby a white South African minority sought to sustain, in wartime as well as in peacetime, their coercive dominance over a black South African majority.


Battle Story: Mafeking 1899-1900

By Edmund Yorke

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