13 Oct 1899 – 17 May 1900
Mahikeng, South Africa
United Kingdom, Kingdom of Great Britain
Second Boer War, Boer Wars, Siege of Ladysmith, Battle of Colenso, Battle of Magersfontein
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 as Lord Edward Cecil, the son of the British Prime Minister, was besieged in the town. The siege turned the British commander, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, into a national hero. The relief of Mafeking (the lifting of the siege), while of little military significance, was a morale boost for the struggling British.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899, Lord Wolseley, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, who had failed to persuade the British government to send troops to the region, instead sent Colonel (later Lord) Baden-Powell, accompanied by a handful of officers, to the Cape Colony to raise two Regiments of Mounted Rifles from Rhodesia. Their aims were to resist the expected Boer invasion of the Colony of Natal (now part of KwaZulu-Natal Province), draw the Boers away from the coasts to facilitate the landing of British troops, and, through a demonstrable British presence, deter the local people from siding with the Boers.
Like the British government, the local politicians feared that increased military activity might provoke a Boer attack, so the British officers decided to obtain many of their own stores, organise their own transport and recruit in secret. Although the two regiments were raised in Rhodesia, Baden-Powell chose Mafeking to store supplies for his forces due to its location – both near the border and on the railway between Bulawayo and Kimberley – and because of its status as a local administrative centre. As well, the town had good stocks of food and other necessities. However, Mafeking was isolated, exposed and close to Boer controlled areas. Baden-Powell, whose orders were to command a highly mobile field force of cavalry, made the mistake of allowing his over-accumulation of stores at Mafeking to dictate his actions. Consequently, he chose to immobilize half his force to hold Mafeking against a Boer attack. Baden-Powell later claimed his forces were barely trained and he was aware of the Boers' greatly superior numbers, commando tactics and the failure of the earlier Jameson Raid and decided that the best way to tie down Boer troops would be through defence rather than attack. However, contrary to Baden-Powell's claims, his forces that remained outside the besieged town showed they were well trained as they performed remarkably well in their intended mobile role.
The Mafeking defending forces totalled around 2,000, including the Protectorate Regiment of around 500 men, around 300 from the Bechuanaland Rifles and the Cape Police and a further 300 men from the town. The British garrison armed 300 African natives with rifles. were nicknamed the "Black Watch" and used to guard the perimeter. Prior to the siege, Lord Edward Cecil formed the Mafeking Cadet Corps of boys aged 12 to 15 (claimed to be one of the inspirations for the Boy Scouts) who acted as messengers and orderlies and released men to fight.
Work to build defences around the 6-mile (10 km) perimeter of Mafeking started on 19 September 1899; the town would eventually be equipped with an extensive network of trenches and gun emplacements. President Kruger of the Boer South African Republic declared war on 12 October 1899. Under orders of General Cronje the Mafeking railway and telegraph lines were cut the same day, and the town began to be besieged from 13 October. Mafeking was first shelled on 16 October after the British commanders ignored Cronje's 9 o'clock deadline to surrender.
Colonel Baden-Powell had postage stamps printed with his own picture on them. In late 1899, he authorized the printing of siege banknotes. Made by Townshend & Son, Printers (Mafeking) using woodcut printing, notes were backed by the Standard Bank of South Africa and issued in denominations of 1, 2, 3, and 10 shillings, and 1 pound. Each note has the facsimile signatures of Robert Urry, Standard Bank of South Africa (Mafeking branch manager) and Captain Herbert Greener, Chief Paymaster of the British South African police. Redemption of the notes ended in 1908.
Although usually outnumbered by Boer troops, the garrison withstood the siege for 217 days, defying the predictions of the politicians on both sides. In reality, the Boers risked little to tie up Baden-Powell's force and stores and for most of the time the number of Boers actively engaged in the Siege were few. While at one time the Boer troops numbered over 8,000 and more artillery was briefly brought up, most of these were merely moving through the siege camp. The Boers were able to take control of the railway and roads just outside the town and used the siege camp as a staging post. Baden-Powell remained invested in the town despite repeated orders and, for most of the time until he ate his own horses, having the capacity to break out. As the siege drew on, it became apparent to the Boers that mounting public pressure in Britain would force attempted relief of Mafeking, tying up far more British forces. With few soldiers, no modern artillery and little risk, the Boers tied up enormous British forces. Much of this has been over-attributed to cunning deceptions instituted by Baden-Powell. Fake landmines were laid around the town in view of the Boers and their spies within the town, and his soldiers were ordered to simulate avoiding barbed wire (non-existent) when moving between trenches; guns and a searchlight (improvised from an acetylene lamp and biscuit tin) were moved around the town to increase their apparent number. (See Jon Latimer, Deception in War, London: John Murray, 2001, pp. 32–5.) A howitzer was built in Mafeking's railway workshops, and even an old cannon (dated 1770, it coincidentally had "B.P. & Co." engraved on the barrel) was pressed into service. Noticing the Boers had failed to remove any of the rails, the British commanders had an armoured train from the Mafeking railyard loaded with sharpshooters, armed with the Martini-Henry Mark IV rifle, sent up the rail line in a daring attack right into the heart of the Boer camp, followed by a return to Mafeking. However, the casualties made this Baden-Powell's only attempt at such an attack and, again, it raised questions of why Baden-Powell did not mount a break-out. Often British soldiers had to dress as women just to undertake normal activities such as fetching water and sewing to deceive the enemy.
The morale of the civilian population was given attention, and Sunday ceasefires were negotiated so that sports, competitions and theatrical performances could be held. Notable were the cricket matches held on a Sunday. Initially, the religious sensibilities of General J. P. Snyman (in command after Cronje departed) were offended, and he threatened to fire upon the players if they continued. Eventually Snyman relented and even invited the British to a game. Baden-Powell replied that first he had to finish the present match, in which the score was '200 days, not out'!
As in the case of the nearby Siege of Kimberley, the Boers decided that the town was too heavily defended to take. On 19 November, 4,000 Boers were redeployed elsewhere, although the siege remained and shelling of Mafeking continued. Aware of the approaching British relief columns, the Boers launched a final major attack early in the morning of 12 May that succeeded in breaching the perimeter defences and setting fire to some of the town, but were finally beaten back.
On 12 May, at about 4 am, Field Cornet S. Eloff led a force of 240 Boers in a daring assault on Mafeking. Covered by a feint attack on the east side of the town, the attackers slipped between the Hidden Hollow and Limestone forts on the western face of the defences. Guided by a British deserter, they followed a path beside the Molopo River to where it enters the Stadt, the village where the native Africans lived. Eloff's party burst into the Stadt unopposed and set fire to the huts in order to signal the attack's progress to Snyman. By about 5:30 am, the Boers seized the police barracks on the outskirts of Mafeking, killing one and capturing the garrison's second-in-command, Colonel C. O. Hore and 29 others. Eloff picked up the telephone connected with the British garrison headquarters and boasted to Baden-Powell of his success.
The fire had, however, already alerted Mafeking's garrison, which responded rapidly to the crisis. The African police (of the Baralong tribe) had wisely stayed out of the way when Eloff's party roared through the Stadt. As soon as the Boers moved on, the 109 armed Baralongs cut off Eloff's escape route. Snyman, "the most stolid and supine of all the Boer generals in the war," failed to support Eloff. Meanwhile, the elaborate telephone network of the town defences provided timely and accurate information. Major Alick Godley and B Squadron (Protectorate Regiment) were sent to smother the attack and along with D Squadron, some armed railway employees and others. Eloff's men were soon isolated into three groups.
With two squadrons, Godley first surrounded a group of Boers holed up in a stone kraal in the Stadt. These men surrendered after a sharp fusillade. Godley drove the second group off a kopje and they mostly managed to escape. All day long, Eloff and the third group held out in the police barracks, finally capitulating in the night. The British lost 12 dead and 8 wounded, mostly Africans. Boer losses were 60 dead and wounded, plus a further 108 captured.
The siege was finally lifted on 17 May 1900, when a flying column of some 2,000 British soldiers, including many South African volunteers from Kimberley, commanded by Colonel B. T. Mahon of the army of Lord Roberts, relieved the town after fighting their way in. Among the relieving force was Major Baden Baden-Powell, brother of the town garrison commander.
Until reinforcements landed in February 1900, the war was going poorly for the British. The resistance to the siege was seen as one of the positive highlights in the media, and it and the eventual relief of the town excited the liveliest sympathy in Britain. There were immense celebrations in the country at the news of its relief (creating the verb to maffick, meaning to celebrate both extravagantly and publicly). "Maffick" was a back-formation from Mafeking, a place-name that was treated humorously as a gerund or participle. Promoted to the youngest major-general in the army, and awarded the CB, Baden-Powell was also treated as a hero when he finally returned to Britain in 1903.
However, the remaining stores that Baden-Powell had amassed in Mafeking were so great that they were able to re-supply Mahon's force and operations in the area for some time. While a sorely needed publicity victory for the British, the British commanders believed Baden-Powell had been foolish to risk so many supplies and allow himself to be besieged and had made no effort to break out and had overstated the number of Boer forces tied up while in fact tying up considerably more British forces. For Baden-Powell and in the British media, the siege was a victory but for the more practical Boers it had been a practical and strategic victory. For no significant achievement, the town people and garrison suffered 212 killed and over 600 wounded. For the British Army commanders, it was a distraction and nuisance and soon after, after Baden-Powell's further poor combat performance in completely abandoning the mostly Rhodesian soldiers and Australian diggers at Elands River, Baden-Powell was removed from any combat command.
Three Victoria Crosses were awarded as a result of acts of heroism during the siege, to Sergeant Horace Martineau and Trooper Horace Ramsden for acts during an attack on the Boer Game Tree Fort, and to Captain Charles FitzClarence for Game Tree and two previous actions.
In September 1904 Lord Roberts unveiled an obelisk at Mafeking bearing the names of those who fell in defence of the town.
In all, 212 people were killed during the siege, with over 600 wounded with further losses among the local Baralong. Boer losses were significantly higher. The siege established Baden-Powell as a celebrity in Britain, and when he wrote Scouting for boys in 1908, his fame contributed to the rapid growth of the Boy Scout Movement.