The Relief of Mafeking

Richard Cavendish describes the relief of Mafeking, following a seven-month siege, on May 16th/17th, 1900.

The siege of Mafeking lasted seven months from October 1899, when the little town was surrounded by a Boer force of some 5,000 men under a redoubtable leader, Piet Cronje. The British garrison commanded by Colonel Robert Baden-Powell (B-P for short) numbered about 2,000 officers and men. Also in the town were some 7,500 black Africans, some of whom were refugees from the surrounding country. One of the reasons why the siege was bound to be in the news was the presence in the beleaguered town of journalists from four London papers – The Times, Morning Post, Daily Chronicle and Pall Mall Gazette. Their dispatches were slipped through the Boer lines by native runners who carried them to a telegraph office fifty miles away. To conserve supplies for his fighting men, B-P made many attempts to get the useless mouths among the native Africans to leave the town – without much success since they had to run the gauntlet of the besiegers and most of those who made the attempt were either shot or flogged and sent back. The modern allegation that he deliberately starved the Africans to feed the whites and force the blacks out, however, has been vigorously challenged.

In November, Piet Cronje withdrew with two-thirds of his men, leaving the rest under Commandant J.P. Snyman to continue shelling the town and trying to starve it into surrender. By mutual agreement there was no action on Sundays, when everyone relaxed, picnicked and played cricket and polo, and B-P took care to adopt a carefree and confident demeanour to keep morale high. The Pall Mall Gazette correspondent called him "a man in a thousand". The weeks wore slowly on until at the end of March a small British relieving force was smartly seen off by the Boers. In the first week of May both Baden-Powell and the besiegers received word that a far more powerful British flying column of 1,100 men under Colonel B.T. Mahon, mainly South African irregular cavalry with field artillery, had left Kimberley on its way to Mafeking. In the early morning hours of May 12th the Boers mounted a last attempt to take the town, led by a dashing young officer named Sarel Eloff, who was a grandson of President Kruger. Eloff and his force broke in, but were held and after Eloff had shot some of his own men for running away, he surrendered. He was taken to B-P, who characteristically invited him to supper.

On May 16th, 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.

The news was greeted with hysterical rejoicing in Britain after the disasters of the earlier days of the war. Riotous flag-waving crowds sang, danced and cheered themselves hoarse for hours on end in London's West End and at Covent Garden Wagner's Lohengrin was halted when the news was shouted from the gallery and the Prince of Wales beat time in his box as the audience burst into song. In the provincial towns factory sirens hooted and brass bands played. B-P was the hero of the hour. His qualities of courage and resourcefulness spiced with an engaging humour and a gift for effective understatement were exactly what the moment needed.