The Siege Of Mafeking (1900) - LightNovelOnl.com
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These night excursions are eagerly anticipated by the tribe, and almost daily is the consent of the Colonel sought in relation to such an object. During the day the natives who have been authorised by Colonel Baden-Powell to take part in the raid approach as near to the grazing cattle as discretion permits, marking down when twilight appears the position of those beasts that can be most readily detached from the mob. Then, when darkness is complete, they creep up, divested of their clothes, crawling upon hands and knees, until they have completely surrounded their prey. Then quietly, and as rapidly as circumstances will allow them, each man "gets a move on" his particular beast, so that in a very short space of time some ten or twenty cattle are unconsciously leaving the main herd. When the raiders have drawn out of earshot of the Boer lines they urge on their captures, running behind them and on either side of them, but without making any noise whatsoever. As they reach their stadt, their approach having been watched by detached bodies of natives, who, lying concealed in the veldt, had taken up positions by which to secure the safe return of their friends, the tribes go forth to welcome them, and when the prizes have been inspected and report duly made to Headquarters they celebrate the event with no little feasting and dancing. Upon the following day merriment reigns supreme, and for the time the siege is forgotten.
BOMBAST AND BOMB-PROOFS
MAFEKING, _January 20th, 1900_.
Yesterday we completed the first hundred days of our siege, and when we look back beyond the weeks of our investment into those earlier days it is difficult to realise the trials and difficulties which we have undergone, and to believe that the period which has elapsed has witnessed the inauguration of a new era for South Africa. In those early days when we first came here Mafeking was a flourishing commercial centre, contented with its position, proud of its supremacy over other towns, and now, perhaps, if outwardly it be much the same, its future is impressed with only the faint echo of its former greatness. The town itself has not suffered very much; here and there its area has been more confined for purposes of defence, while the streets and buildings bear witness to the effects of the bombardment.
Houses are shattered, gaping holes in the walls of buildings, furrows in the roads, broken trees, wrecked telegraph poles, and that general appearance of destruction which marks the path of a cyclone are the outward and visible signs of the enemy's fire. We shall leave in Mafeking a population somewhat subdued and harassed with anxiety for their future, since the public and private losses will require the work of many anxious years before any restoration of the fallen fortunes can be effected. The pity of it is that all this distress might have been so easily avoided, and would have been, had the authorities in Cape Town and at home taken any heed of the very pressing messages which were despatched daily to them; but it was decreed that Mafeking should shift for itself for so long as it was able, and then--surrender. This, however, did not meet with the approval of Colonel Baden-Powell, with the result that we are still fighting and still holding our own. We have even achieved some little place in the sieges of the world, and our present record has already surpassed many of the more prominent sieges. But there is not much consolation to be gained from contemplating the position which we may eventually take up in the records of famous sieges, and, truth to tell, there is such glorious uncertainty about the date of our relief that it is perhaps possible that we may surpass the longest of historic sieges. At one time we confidently anticipated that the siege would be over in ten days. This, however, was in the days of our youth; since then we have learned wisdom, and eagerly seize opportunities of snapping up any unconsidered trifles in the way of bets which lay odds upon our being "out of the wood" in another month.
Events are moving so slowly below that it does not seem as though we shall be relieved by the end of February. The relief column, which a month ago appeared almost daily in "Orders," is now no longer mentioned in polite society, although there be little reason to doubt that, at some very remote date, the troops may make their appearance here.
The early part of November witnessed the first attempt of the Commissariat to control the stocks of provisions in the town. All persons holding stocks of Kaffir corn, meal, crushed meal, yellow mealies, and flour, were ordered to declare the quantities and price at which they would be willing to dispose of them to the authorities.
Captain Ryan, the Commissariat officer, was an energetic and painstaking individual, whose aim was to prove his department a financial success, and so rigidly did he adhere to this resolve that the questions involved by the Commissariat became amongst the most important of the siege. Traders claimed that the economy of the situation gave them a siege profit, since, as the Government had not been shrewd enough to lay down stores, those who had done this at their own risk, and upon their own initiative, should be permitted, at least, to make a margin of profit in proportion to the prices which they could obtain for their goods. This contention, however, was not upheld by the Commissariat officer, who at once became the best hated man in Mafeking. Oddly enough, although the Government would not allow the merchants to reap the profit, they themselves, in virtue of the expense in connection with the issue of rations, were not above charging these expenses to prime cost, and so exorbitantly increasing themselves the retail price of the articles which they had taken over.
What was perhaps the most objectionable feature in the findings of the Commissariat Department was that the merchant himself who disposed of his goods to the Government at a ruling which allowed but the profit incidental to the transaction of business in times of peace, was compelled to buy back, when he required goods of that particular variety, at the price which the Government had placed upon them.
This, of course, seemed to the people unfair, and they were quite unable to obtain any satisfactory explanation of such procedure; satisfactory because the reasons vouchsafed assumed the right of the Government to a certain profit, denying, however, that rate in the same ratio of proportion to the individual. Among the chief obstacles against which Captain Ryan had to contend was the maintenance of the daily bread ration, since the supply of flour, of mealie meal, of oats, was not particularly great. There were many experiments made with the bread, but those which were most unsatisfactory failed because it had been found difficult to sift the husks from the oats once the oats had been crushed. While the issue of this particular bread lasted symptoms of acute dysentery prevailed, and in order to prevent an epidemic of dysentery from breaking out the Commissariat were compelled to adopt other methods of treatment. The bread eventually developed into a weighty circular brown biscuit, weighing anything under six ounces, about nine inches in circumference. These particular biscuits were less spiky, and less liable to create acute inflammation. They were issued to the entire garrison, excepting those who had been permitted to draw an invalid ration of white bread, and were preserved in many cases as mementoes of the siege. Although we have food enough to last several months this precaution is necessary, as when the siege is raised many weeks must elapse before supplies can come in. The garrison has been put upon a scale of reduced rations--1/2 lb. of bread, 1/2 lb. of meat per day. The reductions in bread took place in the early part of the year, while the orders in relation to the meat supply were issued during this week. Matches and milk are prohibited from public sale, and the latest order prevents the shops from opening. All supplies of biscuits, tea, and sugar--preserves also--have been commandeered. The shop-keepers and the hotel proprietors, and indeed anybody who can find any possible excuse for doing so, have trebled the price of their goods, pleading that the inflation is due to the siege. Accordingly, meal and flour have jumped from 27s. per bag to 50s.; potatoes, where they exist at all, are 2 per cwt.; fowls are 7s. 6d. each; and eggs 12s. per dozen.
Milk and vegetables can no longer be obtained, and rice has taken the place of the latter among the menus. These figures mark the rise in the more important foodstuffs as sold across the counter, but the hotels have, in sympathy, followed the example, they, upon their part, attributing it to the increase which the wholesale merchants have decreed. A peg of whisky is 1s. 6d., dop brandy 1s., gin 1s., large stout is 4s., small beer 2s. In ordinary times whisky retails at 5s.
per bottle. This rate has now advanced to 18s. per bottle and 80s. per case. Dop, which is usually 1s. 4d., is now 12s. per bottle; the difference upon beer is almost 200 per cent., and inferior cigarettes are now 18s. per hundred. Upon an inquiry among the publicans here, I was informed that the chief reason for the increase in their prices was to hinder the local soldiery from becoming intoxicated; this sudden regard for the moral welfare of the garrison on the part of the saloon keepers is however, oddly at variance with their earlier practices, and is in reality the flimsy pretext by which they seek to condone an almost unwarrantable act. Hitherto the constantly recurring evils arising from the sale of drink to soldiers and others performing military duties, have been openly encouraged by the hotel proprietors, who, although they now profess a fine appreciation for the moral obligations attached to their trade when prices are high and profits great, took no very serious steps at the outset to allay what was becoming a very serious menace to the community. Moreover, the hotels have demanded from such people as war correspondents and others brought here through business connected with the siege, rates which are far in advance of the ordinary tariffs, with equally preposterous demands for native servants and horse-feed. Indeed, whatever Mafeking may lose through the absence of business with the Transvaal, many will receive ample compensation from the high prices by which those who are able, are endeavouring to recoup themselves, and in a way which it is not possible to consider other than extortionate. Stores of all kinds are, however, rapidly giving out, and it would not have been possible for Mafeking to have sustained the siege so long had not the Government contractor, upon his own initiative, laid in far greater stocks of provisions than were provided for by his contract, and in this respect every credit should be given to the commercial foresight and sagacity by which these arrangements were inspired. For everything which is in daily want, in fact for the bare necessities of life upon the existing scale of reduced rations, Mafeking now depends upon the stores and bonded warehouse which represent the local branch of the contracting firm, Messrs. Julius Weil & Co. In their hands lies the issuing of the daily allowances of bread and meat to the garrison, of the forage for the horses, of the feeding of the natives. Indeed, there seemed no end to the resources of this house. When the siege began, had there been no Weil, the Government stocks would not have lasted two months, and, moreover, they did not know that the Weils had laid in these stores--a fact which again establishes how very meagre were the preparations made for the siege. Therefore, when the time comes to give honour to whom honour is due, notice should be taken of the important _role_ which this firm has fulfilled during the siege of Mafeking.
The siege drags on, however, the days seeming to be an endless monotony in which there is absolutely nothing to sustain one's interest. Week by week we make a united and laborious attempt to whip our flagging energies into some activity. It is a hideous spectacle, but this Sunday celebration reveals how very trying has become the situation. The military authorities have been at their wits' end to find amusement for the garrison, and this effort has developed into a Sabbatarian charade in which we all assume an active co-operation, and try to think that we are having a very giddy and even gushing time.
Colonel Baden-Powell, in this respect, makes an admirable stage-manager. Authors, scenic artists, stage hands, scene shifters, there are, of course, none; but in the middle of the week the Chief Staff Officer becomes the town crier, crying lustily, by means of proclamation, that, by the grace of God, upon the coming Sunday there will be a golf match or baby show, a concert or polo match, even some attempt at amateur theatricals. The Sunday respite is, however, immensely appreciated, and, indeed, it is a very welcome panacea to our siege-strung nerves. Where in England you people are saying, "Oh, bother Sunday," "How like a Sunday," we say, "Thank God it is Sunday,"
implying, for that day in seven, a period of absolute rest and no little contentment. We are warriors on Sunday: bold, bad, and brave.
We have our horses out on Sunday and take a toss as elegantly as we take our neighbour's money at cards in the evening, when fortune favours. We drink, we accept one another's invitations to meals of unsurpassing heaviness; we even invite ourselves to one another's houses. We drink, we eat, we flirt, we live in every second of the hours which constitute the Sunday, and upon the passing of the day it is as though we had entered into another world. As midnight arrives, we hasten back to our trenches filled with the good things of the day, even with the zest to penetrate the mysteries of another week of siege. In the morning we stand-to-arms at four o'clock, not because there is any special purpose for doing so, but rather that we may satisfy ourselves that we are soldiers; and then the labour of the day begins, and for six more days we stand-to-arms and wonder when the devil the enemy are coming on. We are very brave then, and at times we take ourselves so seriously that into each breast there comes the spirit of the Commander-in-Chief. Then we criticise the war, talk fatuously of what we would do, struggle somewhat ingloriously with the archaic jargon of the army, until, if our speech betrays our ignorance, we, nevertheless, make a mighty lot of noise. Then we are satisfied, though doubtless each thinks the other somewhat of a fool.
To the man who looks on at all this, the gradual change which has come over the garrison is plainly discernible. In the beginning, when the Boers made war upon us, there was a contempt for bomb-proofs; there was a contempt for many other things besides, since each individual knew better than his Post Commander, and did not hesitate to tell him so, or rather to imply that he had told him so; but the scorn of bomb-proofs was mightier than the sword. In those days we feared nothing beyond mosquitoes and the creeping things of earth, but the change came silently, and although few people commented upon it, the transformation was completed within the first month of the siege. It grew, as it were, in a single night, from a village of mud-walled houses into one in which every other man owned something of a dug-out.
For the first few days, while scorn of dug-outs was rife, he who built himself a haven kept it to his inner conscience, recalling it, when its existence was forced upon him, with something of an apologetic air. Thus we existed; then the staff built an underground room, and upon the Sunday that followed this momentous event many there were who visited it, and who, gathering wrinkles, went quietly to their gardens and did likewise. Thus insidiously came the transformation, and although there are still a few who talk disparagingly of these bomb-proof shelters, their faces wear an anxious look when the enemy are shelling, and strangely enough, as the fire waxes hotter, they easily find excuses to visit friends, lingering, the while, in the congenial gloom of their host's dug-out.
So greatly have ideas expanded upon this subject that at one of the hotels an underground dining-room is in course of construction. This is at Riesle's, whose proprietor, at last, has been induced to build his boarders--mostly war correspondents--a dug-out, since he had given places of shelter to the servants, to his native boys, and to his family, seemingly thinking that since the boarders kept the hotel going they could very easily shift for themselves. But then that is always the creed of the publican. These dug-outs are large excavations some ten by fourteen feet and seven feet deep, upon which there is placed a layer of iron rails which are procured from the railway yard; over these there is usually a layer of thick wooden sleepers, which again are covered over with sheets of corrugated iron.
The earth from the hole is then piled up on this, and, after the dug-out has been inspected by the Town Commandant it is considered safe for habitation; a few cases and chairs equip it with certain accommodation, although there are a few into which trestle beds have been placed. It is not very healthy passing days and nights in these inverted earthworks, but it is eminently safe, and has been the sole means afforded us for escaping the enemy's fire. Fortunately the Boers have made no attempt to advance upon the town under cover of their guns, for if they did so we should have to stand-to-arms and face the music of the flying splinters. Every post has been supplied with one of these underground retreats, and quite the larger proportion of the townspeople have constructed private shelters for themselves.
SOME SNIPING AND AN EXECUTION
MAFEKING, _January 31st, 1900_.
In itself the situation has not developed over much, but in relation to the siege there are two tragedies to chronicle. The Boers are still investing us, in more or less the same numbers, and with but little difference in the strength of their artillery. Sometimes we miss an individual piece, judging from its absence that it has been sent north to reinforce the Dutch who are endeavouring to circumvent the movements of Colonel Plumer's column. However, these periodical journeys of the five-pounder Krupp, the one-pounder Maxim, or the nine-pounder quick-firing Creusot do not last for any great time, and, as a matter of fact, Commandant Snyman has not permitted himself to be deprived of any one piece of artillery for much longer than a week.
The garrison here, jumping at conclusions in the absence of any definite news, finds in these disappearances some slight consolation, since we at once affirm that Colonel Plumer must have arrived at some point in which the presence of the enemy's artillery is urgent and necessary.
[Illustration: War Correspondents and their Bomb-proof Shelters.]
The gun which we would very gladly spare is the one hundred-pounder Creusot, whose occasional removal from one emplacement to another is a source of much anxiety to every one in the garrison. In the beginning of the siege--a date which is now very remote--"Big Ben" hurled its shells into this unfortunate town from an emplacement at Jackal Tree.
In those days it was almost four miles distant, and we took but little notice of a gun which flung its projectiles from such a distant range.
Those were the days in which we dug holes by night, and speculated rather feebly during the day upon the resisting power of the protection which we had thus thrown up. But the gun moved then to the south-eastern heights, a matter of barely 4,000 yards from the town, and of sufficient eminence to dominate every little corner. Those were the days in which we dug a little deeper and went round trying to borrow--from people who would not lend--any spare sacks, iron sleepers, or deals, so that our bomb-proofs might be still further strengthened. However, as time passed, we even got accustomed to the gun in its new position, and, much as ever, there were many who felt inclined to promenade during lapses in the enemy's shell fire. Now, however, this wretched gun has again been moved, and, according to those who know the country, is within two miles of the town--a little matter under 3,000 yards.
In accordance with the fresh position of the Creusot gun we have been compelled to extend our eastern defences in order that we may, at least, direct an artillery fire upon their advanced trenches. To the north-east and south-east we have put forward our guns and to the south-east have increased a detachment of sharpshooters, who, from a very early date in the siege, have occupied a position in the river-bed. These men are only two hundred yards from the sniping posts of the Boers, and through the cessation of hostilities upon Sundays, they have grown to recognise one another. Sunday has thus also brought to the snipers an opportunity of discovering what result their mutual fire has achieved during the week, and, when from time to time a figure is missing, either side recognise that to their marksmanship, at least, that much credit is due. Among the Boers who occupied the posts in the brickfields were many old men, one of whom, from his venerable mien, his bent and tottering figure, his long white beard, and his grey hair, was called grandfather. He had become so identified with these posts in the brickfields that upon Sundays our men would shout out to him, some calling him Uncle Paul, others grandfather, and when the old fellow heard these remarks he would turn and gaze at our trench in the river-bed, wondering possibly, as he stroked his beard, brushed his clusters of hair from his forehead, or wiped his brow, what manner of men those snipers were. He has been known to wave his hat when in a mood more than usually benign; then we would wave our hats and cheer, while he, once again perplexed, would, taking his pipe from his pocket, slowly retrace his steps to his trench. The old man was a remarkably good shot, and from his post has sent many bullets through the loopholes in our sandbags. He would go in the early morning to his fort and he would return at dusk, but in the going and coming he, alone of the men who were opposing us, was given a safe passage. One day, however, as the Red Cross flag came out from the fort, we, looking through our glasses, saw them lift the body of grandfather into the ambulance. That night there was a funeral, and upon the following day we learnt that he had been their best marksman.
For ourselves, we were genuinely sorry.
Yesterday there occurred another of those acts of war which illustrate in such a very striking fashion the silent tragedies which are enacted, and with which perforce many unwilling people are connected, during the progress of a campaign. There are, of course, many issues to the career of a soldier, and perhaps not the least important of these is the arduous and very dangerous task of collecting intelligence. In the ranks of society, men who are known to be spies are regarded with silent contempt, and ostracised from the circle of their acquaintances, so soon as their calling is ascertained; but the duties of a military spy differ in almost every respect from the individual who becomes a social reformer. In the field the military spy carries his life in his hand, since his capture implies an almost immediate execution without any possibility of reprieve. Last night such an occurrence took place at sundown, when, as the sun sank to its setting, a native, who had been caught within our lines, and who confessed to be an emissary of the Boers, was taken out and shot.
The spy was a young man, and a native of the stadt, which is a portion of Mafeking, and one who had accepted the work of carrying information to the enemy because he did not sufficiently realise the punishment which would fall upon him, were he to be captured. His instructions from the Boers had been remarkably explicit, and the sphere of his activities embraced our entire position. He was to visit the forts, counting the number of men, and taking special notice of those to which guns had been attached. He was to report upon the strength of the garrison, the condition of our horses, the supplies of foodstuffs, and he was to stay within Mafeking for about ten days. He was captured a fortnight ago, as he was creeping in, snatching cover from the bushes and rocks which spread over the south-eastern face of the town. When he was caught, as though momentarily realising the possibilities of his fate, he at first refused to say who he was, whence he came, or what had been his purpose. However, among the native patrol that had so successfully surprised him were some who knew him, whereupon he stated that he was simply returning to the stadt. In the earlier part of the siege almost every native who came across the lines gave this same excuse, until the suspicion was forced upon us that the Baralongs were acting in conjunction with the enemy.
However, this was not proved to be the case, the chief repudiating the suggestion and disclaiming any authority over those natives who happened to be beyond the lines at the outbreak of the war.
Nevertheless, it had been impossible to prevent the Boers receiving information through native sources, and for the future, there remained no alternative but that which implied the immediate execution of captured spies. An increase in the Cossack posts at night somewhat checked the mass of information which was carried to the Boers across our lines, and in an earlier instance, when a native came in from the Boer camp and said that the big gun had been taken away that morning upon a waggon, he was given the benefit of forty-eight hours' grace, with the understanding that, should the gun fire during that period, he would be at once sentenced to death. For a day this man watched the emplacement of the big gun, and twenty-four hours passed without Mafeking receiving any shells from it. The day following was half over, and it was about noon, when the Boers disproved the story which they had instructed their spy to tell, and fired into the town. The man then confessed that his errand had been inimical, and that he himself was hostile to our interests. At dusk the sentence of the Summary Court of Jurisdiction was carried out, and that spy was shot.
But this other at no time seemed to understand the gravity of his offence, and when we captured him he informed his captors and the Court that he himself had meant no harm. However, he confessed, endeavouring to minimise his offence by showing that at the moment of his capture he had gathered no information, yet his pleas were futile, and he at last seemed to understand that his doom was sealed. From then, as he returned to the prison to await the execution of his sentence, he said nothing more.
Last night the shooting party came for him, marching him to a secluded point upon the south-eastern face, and there they halted him, a silent figure in a wilderness of rock and scrub. Around him there was the scene of the veldt at eventide. There was the gorgeous, flaming sunset, its ruddy gold turning the azure of the sky to clouds of purple, pale orange, and a deeper blue. Here and there the heavens were flecked with fleecy clouds, which gambolled gently before the breeze. In the distance lay the green-clad veldt, simmering a russet brown beneath the glories of the sunset. At our feet it sloped, breaking into rocky sluits, banked up with bushes; over all there was the zephyr, tempering the heat. It was a moment meant for rejoicing in the beauty of earth's loveliness rather than for dimming it with the sadness of some crimson act. Presently we arrived, and as we bent across the slope the blood-red stream of passing sunlight played around the shallow heap of earth, thrown out from this man's final resting-place. It was visible, much as were the deeper shadows of the excavation some seventy yards away, when, as though wishing to spare the prisoner, his eyes were bandaged by the officers of the party.
With that a sudden silence fell upon us, and each seemed to feel that he were walking within the shadows of the valley of death. The prisoner, supported on either arm, stumbled in the partial blindness of the bandage, seeming, now that his last hour was at hand, to be more careless, more light-hearted than any of the party. Then we halted, and he was asked whether there were anything further which he wished to say, and he was warned for the last time. He shook his head somewhat defiantly, but his lips moved, and in his heart one could almost hear the muttered curses. Then for a space he stood still, and a few yards distant, in fact some ten paces, the firing party formed across his front. There were six of them, with a corporal and the officer in command of the post, and there was that other, who in a little was to pay the penalty of his crime. There was a moment of intense silence as we waited for the sun to set, in which the nerves seemed to be but little strings of wire, played upon by the emotions.
Unconsciously, each seemed to stiffen, as we waited for the word of the officer, feeling that at every pulsation one would like to shriek "Enough, enough!" As we stood the prisoner spoke, unconscious of the preparations, and the officer approached him. He wanted, he said, to take a final glance at the place that he had known since his childhood. His prayer was granted, and as he faced about, the bandage across his eyes was, for a few brief minutes, dropped upon his neck.
In that final look he seemed to realise what he was suffering. The stadt lay before him, the place of his childhood, the central pivot round which his life had turned, bathed in a sunset which he had often seen before, and which he would never see again. There were the cattle of his people, there were the noises of the stadt, the children's voices, the laughter of the women, and there was the smoke of his camp fires. It was all his once--he lived there and he was to die there, but to die in a manner which was strange and horrible. Then he looked beyond the stadt and scanned the enemy's lines. Tears welled in his eyes, and the force of his emotion shook his shoulders. But again he was himself: the feeling had passed, and he drew himself erect. Then once more the bandage was secured, and he faced about. The sun was setting, and as the officer stepped back and gave his orders, a fleeting shudder crossed the native's face. Bayonets were fixed, the men were ready and the rifles were presented. One gripped one's palms.
"Fire!" said the officer. Six bullets struck him--four were in the brain.
LIFE IN THE BRICKFIELDS
MAFEKING, _February 3rd, 1900_.
The main occupation of the garrison just now is to speculate upon the progress of the work of trench-building, which is being rapidly pushed forward in the brickfields upon the south-eastern face of the town. It is eminently a safe occupation, since our activity in that quarter is absorbing the almost undivided attentions of the enemy in the adjacent trenches, and therefore giving to the town an enjoyable and protracted respite from rifle fire. This, however, exists throughout the day only, since night is made hideous and uncomfortable by the heavy fire which the enemy turn upon it, and which is returned, with very pleasing promptitude, by the town forts and the occupants of the trenches in the brickfields. The area of war, localised thus as it is in the brickfields, is an interesting testimony to the progress of our arms here in Mafeking. We began the siege by abandoning this position and with it the very excellent sniping opportunities it gave to the Boers. The 8,000 men that Commandant Cronje had with him in those early days, made it impossible for our small garrison to hold, with any prospect of success, positions so far outlying from the front of the town. It is, however, quite a different thing to occupy those trenches to-day, since the veldt intervening in the rear, has now been carefully protected, and we advance not at all until the post which is in occupation at the moment, has been securely fortified and connected with adjacent outposts by well-covered trenches. We are now, after almost six months' siege, some 1,700 yards in advance of the town, and the south-eastern outposts, as these brickfield forts are called, constitute our most outlying positions around beleaguered Mafeking.
Very gradually, and with infinite pains and labour, we have sapped from town until the company of Cape Boys that is posted in the "Clayhole," under Sergeant Currie, is within two hundred yards of the Boers' main trench--a point from which one may hear at times our enemy holding animated discussions upon his failure to capture Mafeking.
When war was first declared Commandant Cronje threw strong detachments of sharpshooters into the brick kilns which we ourselves now hold, and at this present moment, there is no position in those which we have seized, that was not originally in possession of the Boers.
Innumerable traces exist of their temporary occupation, and where it has been possible we have preserved these; so that the town itself may at some future date be able to see the remains of the Boer investment.
These little facts give to our work here a greater significance, insomuch that it may be assumed that an enemy who has been fortunate enough to secure for himself a strong position, is not so foolish as to abandon it voluntarily. This, of course, is quite the case, and many have been the occasions when the town has been able to watch affairs between outposts being briskly contested in these very trenches.
[Illustration: Plan of the Brickfields.]
Nothing is quite so pleasant, so invigorating, nor quite so dangerous as life in these brickfield posts. Inspector Marsh, Cape Police, in whom the command of the south-eastern outposts has been invested, most kindly permitted me to join his quarters. We are aroused in the morning as the day breaks by a volley from the Boer trenches, and in all probability the derisive shout, "Good morning, Mr. damned Englishman!" to which the Cape Boys usually return the salutation of "Stinkpots!" which is the euphonious rendering of a Dutch word calculated to give, more especially when coming from a nigger, the utmost possible offence. The day may then be said to have begun, although, between this and any further ceremonies, there is usually a mutual cessation of hostilities, in order that each side may enjoy a cup of matutinal coffee. The coffee is made in town and brought out, since orders are exceedingly strict against the lighting of fires on outposts. Sometimes the day proves long, but usually it is one of an exciting character, and one in which it behoves the men to move with the utmost care. The enemy would seem to have filled their advanced trench with a number of picked sharpshooters; for it is quite an ordinary occurrence for them to fire, at five hundred yards range, through our loopholes; nor are these chance shots, for there is one man who seems to put the bullets precisely where he wishes, since, at least once during the day, he will test the accuracy of his aim by emptying his entire chamber through one porthole. Such sharpshooting compels one to move with a large amount of precaution, since if so much as a finger be shown above the top of the sandbags there is every likelihood of it being perforated by a Mauser bullet. But if this be the manner of our existence, the Boers do not take any risks either, and move between their portholes with the greatest precaution, until this system of watching one another may be said to have developed a class of work which consists principally of lying upon one's stomach in readiness to fire--if there should occur the slightest opportunity.
Sometimes, if the day be quiet, we creep from trench to trench, even venturing to the river; but upon the whole, however, there is not much of this visiting accomplished, since the Boers have the habit of attempting to lull us into security and then spoiling the delusion with a well-directed volley. Recently the advanced trenches of the Boers were so heavily reinforced that we expected an attack upon the brickfields; in fact, one night we were almost positive that the enemy were about to make an attempt to wrest this position from us. They did not do so, nor have they made any night attack, since the Dutchman does not like to meet his enemy by night, unless he himself is ensconced safely behind some sacks and his foe in the open. Upon such an occasion he will fire until his ammunition is expended. However, we expected them, and although they made no advance, they poured in at daybreak, at somewhat under four hundred yards range, a most terrific fire. They turned upon us a 9-lb. Krupp, a 5-lb. Creusot, a 3-lb.
Maxim, and about five hundred rifles. It was an amazing morning and a most interesting experience, while for some hours afterwards the air seemed to ring with the droning notes of the Martinis and the sharp crackle of the Mauser. Of course we fired back, since we never allowed the Dutchmen to turn their guns upon us without treating the gun emplacements and embrasures to several volleys. It is good sometimes to impress upon the Boers the uselessness of their efforts. Out here in these brickfields we appear to be upon the edge of a new world, with the limits of the old one just below. Mafeking itself is only 1,700 yards distant, but the undulating ground, the rocky ridges, the simmering heat, and the mirage give rise to the impression that the town, of which the brickfields is the outpost, is many miles away. We live a peaceful, almost serene existence, disturbed only by the hum of passing bullets. There is no pettiness of spirit, no mutual bickerings, no absurd jealousies; one does not hear anything of the clash between the civil and military elements. That is all below us in the little town which sits upon the rising slopes with that appearance of chaos and despair which now mark its daily existence. Black care is not here, and thank heaven for it; for indeed a luxury beyond comparison is the quiet and peaceful day.
Mafeking at last is siege-weary--and, oh, so hungry! It seems months since any one had a meal which satisfied the pangs that gnaw all day.
We have been on starvation rations for so many weeks that time has been forgotten, and now there seems the prospect of no immediate help forthcoming! We are so sick of it, so tired of the malaria, diphtheria, and typhoid that claim a list as great almost as that caused by the enemy's shell and rifle fire! We ask, When will the end be? and then we shrug our shoulders and begin to swear; for we have such sorrows in our midst, such suffering women and such ailing children as would turn a saint to blasphemies!
[Illustration: Cape Boys Hurling Stones at the Boers as They Endeavoured to Rush the Sap.]