Siege of Mafeking

Siege of Mafeking

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Siege of Mafeking
partof=Second Boer War

date=October 13, 1899 - May 17, 1900
place=Mafikeng, South Africa
result=Decisive British Victory
combatant1=United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
commander1=Robert Baden-Powell
Colonel B T Mahon
commander2=General Piet Cronje

The Siege of Mafeking was the most famous British action in the Second Boer War. It took place at the town of Mafeking (now Mafikeng) in South Africa at coord|25|51|34.16|S|25|39|8.71|E|type:city|display=inline,title over a period of 217 days, from October 1899 to May 1900, and turned Robert Baden-Powell, who went on to found the Scouting Movement, into a national hero. The lifting of the Siege of Mafeking was a decisive victory for the British and a crushing defeat for the Boers.


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 (now Zimbabwe). Their aims were to resist the expected Boer invasion of the Natal Colony (now 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 Baden-Powell found himself having to obtain many of his own stores, organise his own transport and recruit in secret. With barely trained forces and aware of the Boers' greatly superior numbers, commando tactics and the failure of the earlier Jameson Raid, Baden-Powell decided that the best way to tie down Boer troops would be through defence rather than attack. Consequently he chose to hold the town of Mafeking 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.

The Mafeking forces comprised 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. A cadet corps of boys aged 12 to 15, later to be one of the inspirations for the Scouting Movement, was also formed to act as messengers and orderlies. The recruitment of these cadets released men to fight, bringing the total engaged in the military effort to around 2000.


Work to build defences around the six mile perimeter of Mafeking started on September 19 1899, and the town would eventually be equipped with an extensive network of trenches and gun emplacements. President Kruger of the Boer Transvaal Republic declared war on October 12 1899. Under the orders of General Cronje the Mafeking railway (railroad) and telegraph lines were cut the same day, and the town began to be besieged from October 13. Mafeking was first shelled on October 16 after Baden-Powell ignored Cronje's 9 o'clock deadline to surrender.

Although outnumbered by over 8,000 Boer troops, the garrison withstood the siege for 217 days, defying the predictions of the politicians on both sides. Much of this was attributable to some of the cunning military 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 was pressed into service. Noticing the Boers had failed to remove any of the rails, Baden-Powell had an armoured locomotive from the Mafeking railyard loaded with sharpshooters and sent up the rail line in a daring attack right into the heart of the Boer camp followed by a safe return to Mafeking.

The morale of the civilian population was also 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 General Snyman's religious sensibilities 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'! [ [ National Army Museum - Combat Cricketers - Sport of Army and Empire] ]

The Boers decided that the town was too heavily defended to take, and on November 19 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 on the evening of May 11, succeeded in breaching the perimeter defences and setting light to some of the town, but were finally beaten back.


The siege was finally lifted on May 17 1900, when British forces commanded by Colonel B T Mahon of the army of Lord Roberts relieved the town after fighting their way in. Among the relief forces was one of Baden-Powell's brothers, Major Baden Fletcher Smyth Baden-Powell.Until reinforcements landed in February 1900, the war was going poorly for the British. The resistance to the siege was one of the positive highlights, 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. 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. Boer losses were significantly higher. The siege established Baden-Powell as a celebrity in Britain, and thus when he started the Scout Movement a few years later, his fame contributed to its rapid initial growth.

See also

* British military history
* British Empire
* History of South Africa
* Military history of South Africa
* Sol T. Plaatje "Mafeking Diary: A Black Man's View of a White Man's War"
* Lady Sarah Wilson became the first female war correspondent, reporting from Mafeking


External links

* [ Trooper William Fuller's Mafeking diary]
* [ McGonagall on the Relief of Mafeking] - William McGonagall's poem and a brief history of the siege.
* [ The Little Princess] - Shirley Temple film which briefly depicts celebration after the relief of Mafeking.
* [ Johnny Walker's site on the Siege of Mafeking, with links to his books]

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