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Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Siege of Mafeking

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The Siege of Mafeking
by J. Angus Hamilton (1900)

This is the second of two tales (026 and 027) reflecting imperialist clashes of the nineteenth century; those like the previous one describing local adversaries in conflict, and the other, one of the last colonialist imperialist encounters during the Boer War.

Both are tales of brutal warfare and plunder, with the savagery on both sides and amongst local rivals for power. Whether the battlefield was New Zealand or South Africa, that violence is what it most memorable about each. Neither is for the faint-hearted.

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One turns from this to learn that streets in the town are barricaded, that the houses are sandbagged, that the railway is patrolled by an armour-plated train, which is imposing if incapable of much resistance. It is fitted with Nordenfeldt and Maxim quick-firing machine guns, and provided with a phonophone and an acetylene searchlight which stands like a fiery dragon at one end of the car. The train is in three parts, the engine being placed between two trucks. Each of the vehicles is about thirty feet long, mounted on four pairs of wheels, and is capable of holding sixty men. The entire train is covered over with 3/4-inch steel armour-plate over double iron rails, but at some recent trial the bullets from Lee-Metfords and Martinis penetrated at 200 yards' range through all thicknesses of armour.


In the meantime Commandant Eloff demanded the unconditional surrender of the twenty-three men who were established at the fort, an order which, had Colonel Hore refused, implied that every man with him would be shot. Then, in that moment, it was known that the cheering which had been heard in Hidden Hollow a few moments before was the triumphant chortle of the Boers as they stepped within the inmost lines of our defences.
Around the fort there was silence--there was a terrible silence; there was a man who was weighing in his hand and in his heart the lives of twenty-two others, who was considering in a fleeting moment of time the flight of an honourable career which had brought to him a string of six medals, and who saw in one of two steps instant death for his little band and irrevocable and almost irretrievable ruin in the other.
The pause was indeed death-like; there was the hallowed uncertainty of a future existence, but there was the moral certainty that no living future would fall to the lot of any of the twenty-three men upon whose ears the cry had fallen of surrender.
The position was hopeless. With the Boers behind them, with the Boers flanking them, with the Boers in front of them, with three hundred of the enemy within a circumference of seventy yards, what more could an honourable man and a gallant officer do than accept the responsibility of his situation and save the lives of his men by complying unconditionally with the demand of the enemy?
Thus did Colonel Hore surrender. It was impossible to withdraw to the town. Such a movement would have meant retirement over seven hundred yards of open, level ground without a particle of cover and with a force of three hundred of the enemy immediately in the rear; moreover the situation imperatively demanded this action in consequence of events over which he had no control. It was, perhaps, a moment as pathetic and great as any in his career.
The surrender was effected at 5.25 a.m., and was not without incident, for with the garrison holding up their hands, their arms laid down, with five Boers within a few yards of the Colonel with their rifles at his breast, there was one man who went to his death. "I'll see you damned, you God forgotten----" said Trooper Maltuschek, and he went to his Maker the next moment. The news of such a catastrophe did not tend to relieve the gravity of the situation.
With the Boers in the fort and in occupation of the stadt, it was necessary so to arrange our operations that any junction between the stadt and the fort would be impossible; at the same time we were compelled to prevent those Boers who were in the stadt from cutting their way through to the main body of the enemy. The situation was indeed complex, and throughout the remainder of the day the skirmishing in the stadt and the repulse of the feints of the enemy's main body, delivered in different directions against the outposts, were altogether apart from the siege, which we were conducting within our own investment.
From the town very heavy rifle fire was directed upon the fort, which the Boers in that quarter returned with spirit and determination. But the position in the stadt had become acute, since, behind our outposts and our inner chain of forts, which are situated upon its exterior border, were a rollicking, roving band of four hundred Boers, who, for the time being, were indulging in pillage and destruction wherever it was possible.

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