The Siege of Mafeking - The Boer War

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,


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 Bechuanaland border.

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 officer casualties.

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.

British Regiments:
Bechuanaland Protectorate Regiment (mounted rifles)
British South Africa Police
Local Volunteers.

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.

Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, commandant of the Mafeking garrison

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)

Major-General Baden-Powell’s official report on the Siege of Mafeking

The Siege of Mafeking - The Boer War

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