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  • James Houser

May 17, 1900 - Second Boer War & Relief of Mafeking

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 17, 1900. After 217 days of siege, a flying column of 2,000 British troops of Lord Frederick Roberts’ army break through the Boer defensive lines to relive the garrison of Mafeking. This victory is a huge morale boost for the British public, with celebrations in London to rival V-E Day 45 years later – but the Second Boer War drags on, and goes from near disaster to grinding guerrilla conflict. The first modern war, or the last imperialist war?

On February 27, I gave background on the Boers as part of my post about the Battle of Majuba. If you want a refresher, the link is on the website. If not, I will keep the recap short.

The Boers were/are the descendants of the original Dutch settlers of Cape Colony, which is now South Africa. After the British took over South Africa in the Napoleonic Wars, their policies and rule alienated the Boers until they made the “Great Trek” into the interior of the country to escape British rule. There, they founded two independent nations: the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

Over the next several decades, British imperial expansion brought the borders of British South Africa ever closer to the Boer Republics, especially when diamonds and gold were discovered in South Africa. The British defeat of Zululand in 1879 meant that the Boers were now the only real obstacle to expansion in Africa. When the British provoked a war with the Transvaal, they were treated to a humiliating defeat at Majuba Hill in 1881, which resulted in a new treaty recognizing Boer independence. Now we’re caught up.

After their 1881 victory, the Boers were safe – at first. The wheels of British imperialism rolled forward, though. Several large diamond-mining towns sprang up right across from the Boer borders: Kimberley, Ladysmith, and Mafeking were among them. Mafeking was by far the most remote of these towns, at the end of a long rail line almost 1400 miles from Cape Town. It abutted right against the border of Boer Transvaal, and was so far from the rest of British South Africa that it was considered indefensible.

The discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886 prompted large-scale immigration of prospectors, settlers and capitalists into the Boer Republic, similar to the California Gold Rush of 1849. The Boers had long maintained a traditional pastoral society, adhering strongly to their cultural mores, religious practices, and culture; this included virulent racism and suppression of native Africans. The sudden arrival of thousands of foreigners caused reflexive anxiety, and new laws were passed keeping the rights of citizenship and voting from the new immigrants. The Boers, suspicious of the British in general, saw imperial overtones in this new wave of globalization.

They were right. In 1895, with the ascendancy of the Conservative Party in Britain, a new clique of imperialists set their sights on annexing the Boer Republics. Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, was chief among them, and he was assisted by Cape Colony’s Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes, who was also an executive of multiple Cape mining companies. Chamberlain and Rhodes blatantly desired the British dominance of South Africa, and their policies placed the Empire on a collision course with the Boers.

In 1896, Chamberlain and Rhodes tried to sponsor a coup in Transvaal, but it was a dismal failure; the Boers captured the would-be conquerors and deported them. This move placed Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal, on high alert, and he renewed his alliance with his fellow Boers in the Orange Free State. The Boers, flush with cash thanks to high taxes on the gold miners in their borders, began to buy enormous amounts of rifle ammunition and modern Krupp artillery from France and Germany. Though they were almost landlocked by the British – an intentional policy by Chamberlain – they still had an open port through their rail line to Portuguese Mozambique, which would supply them throughout the coming war.

With the coup having failed, the British Imperialists turned the “plight” of British citizens in the Boer states into a major crisis. When a British subject was killed after an altercation with a Boer constable, Chamberlain vowed justice, and yellow journalism helped turn the public in his favor. War spirits were at an all-time high, and the British public demanded justice for the British immigrants in Transvaal, who were “treated as slaves.” This was all horseshit, of course, but it served its purpose. When the British started moving more troops into South Africa, the Boers demanded that the troops (obviously meant for an attack) be withdrawn; when they were not, the Boers declared war.

The Second Boer War crosses the line between the “imperial” wars of the 19th Century, where European and American armies overran poorly equipped natives in the American, African and Asian landmasses, and the “modern” wars of the 20th Century. On the one hand, the Boer War was an imperialist war – maybe Britain’s last blatantly imperialist war – and very much a “gentleman’s” war from a military perspective. Officers still kept great decorum, even with their enemies; prisoners were regularly exchanged; very strict discipline was kept and little savage looting occurred.

On the other hand, and far more convincingly, the Second Boer War was thoroughly modern. It was one of the first wars where mass media played a decisive role at home; in addition to being the first war ever caught in any portion on film, it was frequently photographed, and thanks to modern communications technology news was transmitted home in a matter of hours. The war had a sense of immediacy that few Britons had ever experienced. It eventually led to the downfall of the Conservative government. As the last Imperialist war, and as Queen Victoria’s last war (she died in 1901), it seemed to mark the end of an era.

Just as importantly for the men on the pointy end, the Second Boer War was a revolution in warfighting. The Boer military was underrated at the beginning of the war, mainly consisting of militia battalions known as “commandos.” As the British troops discovered, though, the Boer military was flexible, mobile, and deadly; their accurate rifle fire caused surprising casualties, and the modern Krupp artillery they had gained from Germany proved far more devastating than the British expected. British tactics had to undergo serious reform in order to finally defeat the Boer armies. For the British Army it was a rude wake-up call that set them on the path to reform. Had the British not been shaken awake by the Boers, they would have had some very rude surprises come 1914 – which was already rude enough.

When the Boers declared war in 1899, they realized that attack was their best option. As in the First Boer War, a number of quick successes might convince the British to make peace. The Boers also knew that if they stayed on the defensive, British reinforcements would arrive and they would be greatly outnumbered. On October 11, 1899, the Boers launched an attack. Striking east, they invaded British Natal and surrounded the major mining city of Ladysmith. Striking south, they tried to encourage Boer populations still living around Cape Town to rise in support. Finally, they attacked west to surround the two major towns that stood against their borders – Kimberley and Mafeking.

Far in the north, Mafeking was a distant post compared to the major centers of Kimberley and Ladysmith. The British garrison was under Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, who had chosen Mafeking as his center of resistance despite its proximity to Boer territory. Baden-Powell’s men were mostly untrained local militia, almost 1,000 men in all, along with four muzzle-loading cannon and a handful of machine guns.

When he realized that war with the Boers was imminent, Baden-Powell immediately sent away most of the town’s women and children and began fortifying Mafeking. Among those who stayed were Lord Edward Cecil, son of the Prime Minister, and Sarah Wilson, war correspondent and Winston Churchill's aunt. Baden-Powell encircled the town with earthworks and constructed bombproof shelters for those civilians that remained. He also created a number of “minefields” – most of which were dummy mines, with a handful of live ones detonated periodically to keep the Boers at bay.

When the Boers surrounded Mafeking on October 13, 1899, Baden-Powell had his forts garrisoned and protected. He was 250 miles from Kimberley, the next point on the railroad – which was itself surrounded – and 1,400 miles from Cape Town. Any reinforcements would have to first relieve Kimberley and then come to his aid. Baden-Powell and the men of Mafeking were very, very, very far from home, and just as far from any help.

One of the first things Baden-Powell did was organize the native Africans into a battalion to help reinforce the garrison. This incited choice remarks from the Boer commander Piet Cronje, who sent him a message: “It is understood that you have armed Fingos and Baralongs against us – in this you have committed an enormous act of wickedness…disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man’s war.”

The Boers bombarded Mafeking day and night for the next several months, particularly with a Creusot 94-pounder gun called the “Long Tom.” Baden-Powell proved an inspiring and confident commander, informing his militia and armed civilians that the Boers could never enter Mafeking. He posted billboards taunting the Boers within the town, including an outraged proclamation that their bombardment had killed a chicken and smashed a window the night before. Somehow the defenders found an 18th-Century naval gun, refurbished it, and used it to drive off some Boer cavalry patrols with homemade shells.

The British forces in the south were trying to relieve the besieged cities, especially Kimberley and Ladysmith – Mafeking could only be relieved once Kimberley had. In December, however, the British suffered catastrophic and humiliating defeats at the hand of superior Boer marksmanship, artillery, and modern tactics. The series of defeats was so demoralizing that they became known as “Black Week.” As the British public reeled from the unexpected defeats and reinforcements were sent to break through to the surrounded towns, the short but powerful messages slipped out from Mafeking became a tonic.

The Boers had decided that the town was too tough to take, and sent most of their forces to fight the advancing British in the south. Even as the siege and shelling continued, though, the British in Mafeking began to starve. Soon they were reduced to eating their horses – the only means of escape if the worst happened. As the siege continued, the failure of the British attacks down south meant that no rescue could be expected soon. The gloom began to settle in.

On February 15, 1900, Kimberley was finally relieved after British General John French led a cavalry division into the town and defeated Cronje’s Boers, forcing them to surrender. Immediately the British began planning to relieve Mafeking, the last British town still under assault. When the Boers realized the British were coming (heh), they launched a final assault on May 12, but it failed to take Mafeking after Baden-Powell’s quick response. By now, the garrison was reduced to locusts and oat husks, but their struggle was almost over.

On May 17, 1900, 2,000 British soldiers finally broke through the Boer ring into Mafeking itself, including Robert Baden-Powell’s brother Baden. (Yes, his name was Baden Baden-Powell. Don’t do this to your child.) As they approached, the cavalrymen were mobbed and cheered to the spontaneous singing of “Rule Britannia.” The Siege of Mafeking was at last over.

In Britain, the news was greeted with hysterical rejoicing. The stories of the siege had been one of the few bright spots in British public opinion after the catastrophic defeats of Black Week. Crowds of jubilant Britons waving flags, dancing, singing and cheering carried on for hours in East End. Performances of operas and sonatas were broken up when men burst in to announce the news, and patriotic fervor erupted in the concert halls. Factory sirens blared and brass bands played. Baden-Powell was immediately a national hero, and the Relief of Mafeking became a cultural touchstone.

Despite the public reception, the reality was less sanguine. Baden-Powell has come in for sharp criticism from military men of his own time and from later historians, with one question – why defend Mafeking? If most of the civilians were gone, why not break out and make your way to Kimberley? His later conduct in the war showed poor judgment and common sense, and he was later quietly sidelined before the Second Boer War ended. Robert Baden-Powell gained fame of a different kind, though, when he became founder of the Boy Scouts.

The Second Boer War, meanwhile, dragged on. With the defeat of the Boers in open battle, the struggle seemed over as the Boer capitals were taken by British reinforcements under Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener. The war, however, had entered a new phase – the guerrilla phase. In the dry land of South Africa, the British were about to discover once again that taking cities does not mean the war is over.

The Second Boer War was about to enter a new and devastating phase. It was time to learn a new and terrible word: counterinsurgency.

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