The Relief of Mafeking
From: H. W. Wilson, With the Flag to Pretoria: A History of the Boer War, 1899-1900, London, 1901. CHAPTER XXV.

Officers of the Mafeking Relief Column.

Top row (left to right): Major Karri Davis (Imperial Light Horse), Major Baden-Powell (Intelligence Department), Captain Robinson, R.A., Major Weil (Transport), Captain Peakman (Kimberley Corps), Prince Alexander of Teck, A.D,C., Captain Cobb, A.S.C. Second row: Captain Donaldson (Imperial Light Horse), Captain Maxwell (Kimberley Corps), Colonel King (commanding Kimberley Corps), Colonel Mahon, Colonel Edwards (Imperial Light Horse), Captain Bell-Smyth (Brigade- Major), Captain Barnes Adjutant, Imperial Light Horse). Bottom row: Captain Ker (commanding Infantry detachment), Sir John Willoughby (D.A.A.G.B.), Colonel F. Rhodes, D.S.O. (Chief of Intelligence Department), Captain Smyth (Galloper), Captain Du Plat Taylor (R.H.A.).
Photo by Taylor, Mafeking. 


The Relief Force and its commander--Rapid advance of the Column--Halt at Vryburg--The younger Cronje across the line of advance--Colonel Rhodes' ingenious message--Skirmish with the enemy--Junction with Colonel Plumer's force--Artillery fight--Cronje outwitted-The relief effected.

The Relief Force and its Commander.
As Lord Roberts' army moved out of Bloemfontein on that great march to Pretoria, which it will be our business to record in a succeeding chapter, a small column in the western field of war struck north from Kimberley upon an even more arduous and incalculably more dangerous enterprise the relief of Mafeking. Colonel Mahon, an officer of Egyptian renown, was in command, and with him rode a force of picked men. There were 900 selected troopers of the Imperial Light Horse-the salt and flower of South Africa-and of the Kimberley Mounted Force, 100 infantry from the Scotch, Welsh, Irish, and Royal (English) Fusiliers of Barton's brigade; four guns of M Battery of Horse Artillery; two "Pom-poms"; three Maxims; and last, but not least, 55 wagons laden with forage and supplies for the long journey of 230 miles over the arid veldt. Though attempts had been made to maintain complete secrecy as to the composition and movements of the column, the Boers were, as usual, perfectly informed on every vital point, and the younger Cronje, with a force 1,500 strong, was directed to arrest its march. Since Colonel Mahon could not dispose of more than 1,200 men, the odds were distinctly against him, and it was only by his rapidity of progress and his dexterous tactics that he succeeded in his perilous mission. To support him,. General Hunter with the Tenth Division attacked the enemy on the Vaal, near Windsorton, as the march began.

Colonel Plumer's Attempt to Relieve Mafeking.
On March 21, Colonel Plumer was within 6 miles of Mafeking, and a portion of his force, consisting of about 200 mounted men, came into collision with the Boers who were investing the town. The engagement lasted from 3 to 6 o'clock in the afternoon, and Colonel Plumer, who was himself slightly wounded, and who lost 10 killed including 3 officers, about 25 wounded, and 7 missing, was compelled to retire to  Ramathlabama.

Rapid Advance of the Column.
On May 4 the column crossed the Vaal and left Barkly West, marching through difficult country, bush-covered and abounding in kopjes, towards the far-off village in the north. Great caution was observed, for though the district had already been swept by a mounted column cooperating with General Hunter's division on the Vaal, the Boers might well have returned. The first march was only nine miles long, but on the 5th the column advanced with great speed, covering no less than thirty-one miles. All day the boom of Hunter's guns could be heard; his shells in that clear air could be seen bursting on the kopjes to the right, and his balloon was marked hovering at great height over the battle. But the Boers put in no appearance, though the scouts reported that they were present in force at some distance. Presumably, Hunter's attack was for the time occupying all their attention. At nightfall, the most stringent precautions were enforced; no lights or fires were allowed after 8 p.m., and even pipes and cigarettes were not to be lighted in the dark. For all the men knew the Boers might be all round the column, sheltered by the bush and rocks, and any hour might see the beginning of a fierce attack. At 2 a.m. of the 6th the force silently up-saddled and moved on through pitchy darkness, the men benumbed by the icy cold of the night air. Even as the march began a shot rang out, and for an instant it was taken for the signal of the enemy's presence; fortunately, however, it was found to have been fired by some careless soldier while charging his magazine.

On the 6th again the march was unmolested and uneventful, save for the capture of several Boer wagons on their way westward from Fourteen Streams. They were moving peacefully and happily through country which the burghers had occupied now for seven months without their occupation being disputed by any British force, and their owners had seemingly not been informed of the advance of Colonel Mahon; so they fell an easy prey. The noise of Hunter's guns in action now grew fainter in the right rear, and on the 7th the column was close to Taungs. All the morning its attention was centred upon a dense line of dust, which could be made out moving north-westward; this was the pillar of cloud denoting Cronje's rapid advance to cut off the column from Mafeking. Boers, too, were reported to the south and east; the column was in the midst of the enemy. But here no precautions were neglected. Colonel Mahon was a man who took no unnecessary risks, and exacted the utmost activity from his patrols. "Any little neglect in the matter of patrolling and choosing bivouac positions," writes Mr. Filson Young, a correspondent with the column, "might mean complete disaster to the column, and the frustration of its end. These little things have often been neglected in this campaign; and whenever there has been a convoy captured, it has been because someone has taken for granted that someone else was holding a drift or pass. So we move warily through a placid country that may become at any moment full of menace; travelling may at any moment be exchanged for fighting, and the roadway for the battlefield; even the green slopes that front us may hide the greatest danger, and the river bed, with its grasses and lapping waters, become a pit of death."

On this day a patrol entered Taungs, cut the telegraph wire, destroyed the instruments, and examined the messages; among these an order from Mr. Kruger was found directing a general retreat to Christiana. On the 8th the column hurried through Pudimoe, where several rebel farms were looted and burned, to Brussels Station, only fifteen miles from Vryburg. At Pudimoe the Boers had intended to take up a position astride of Colonel Mahon's route, but the celerity of the British movements prevented the accomplishment of this purpose.

Halt at Vryburg.
Next day the British rode into Vryburg, and found that a Boer outpost there had taken to flight. The few English in the town hurried out to greet the newcomers, who seemed to them to have started suddenly from the earth; the long nightmare of Boer invasion had ended at last. But Colonel Mahon could make no protracted stay; as night of the 10th fell, the troopers with buoyant hearts and the wagons were again faring forward, after the unusual experience of a twenty-four hours' halt. Already the losses in horses and mules had been serious, owing to the forced marching and the exiguity of the supply of forage; nearly 100 had been left behind on the way. The night's journey was a weary one, as the guides mistook the whereabouts of water, and it was not till 2 a.m. that the force bivouacked, waterless and disconsolate. Even then only three hours' rest was conceded; but in the morning the anxiously-looked-for water was reached, and a long halt was called. Again, on the night of the 11th a long march was accomplished, and on May 12 the column stood a little to the west of Kraaipan, where, in the affair of the armoured train, the first blood had been shed in the war. Since then what sufferings and what sacrifices for two peoples!

Bryan Thomas Mahon, D.S.O
Belongs to a County Galway family. He joined the 21st Hussars in 1883, and  later on the 8th Hussars; Captain, 1888; in 1896 he was transferred to the Egyptian Army; Major, 1897; Brevet Lieut.-Colonel, 1898; Brevet Colonel, 1900; Lieut.-Colonel (12th Lancers), 1900 served with the Dongola Expeditionary Force under Sir H. Kitchener in 1896 as Staff Officer, and received the D.S.O.; distinguished himself in the Atbara and Omdurman battles, and especially in the final destruction of the Khalifa. When war broke out he was on the borders of Abyssinia, but on receiving a telegram from Lord Kitchener, at once hastened south. He has been appointed to the local rank of Brigadier-General on the Staff, South Africa, his promotion dating from May 4, 1900.
Photo by Elliott & Fry.

The Younger Cronje across the Line of Advance.
That day the scouts reported Boers in consider able force to be east, and during the night the enemy pushed forward to a hill on the Metsima Spruit, which bore the familiar name of Koodoesrand, hoping thus to bar the way. But Mahon was by no means eager for a fight. He heard that the enemy were throwing up entrenchments with their usual lightning speed, and decided that it would be best to leave them alone. Accordingly, he turned westward, and marched in that direction nine miles before resuming his northward course. Maneuver was met by counter-maneuver. The Boer scouts stealthily watched him, crawling through the thick bush in which a stranger without his bearings is as helpless as a ship without compass on the trackless ocean, and, on the information which they gave, Cronje marched swiftly north, and a second time placed himself on the British line of advance. Already runners had come in to the British camp from the north. One, from the brave and steadfast Colonel Plumer, announced that that officer would effect his junction with Mahon north-west of Mafeking; the other, from Colonel Baden - Powell, asked for information as to the numbers, guns, and supplies of the column.

Colonel Rhodes' Ingenious Message.
Such information was not lightly to be entrusted to any messenger; there was no cipher of which Baden-Powell had the key; but in these straits, Colonel Rhodes, the intelligence officer with the column, succeeded in inventing a most ingenious reply, unintelligible to the Boers, but clear as daylight to the British. It is thus given by Mr. Filson Young: "Our numbers are the Naval and Military multiplied by ten; our guns, the number of sons in the Ward family; our supplies, the officer commanding the 9th Lancers." The key to the message was that there were 940 men, 94, Piccadilly being the number of the Naval and Military Club; that the guns were six, that being the number of sons in the house of Dudley; and that the supplies were little.

Skirmish with the Enemy.
All the morning of the 13th the advance continued through the bush veldt, "which consists," says Mr. Young, "of long, rank grass, with thorn bushes at small intervals, and hardwood trees at greater distances-the whole something like an English paddock or park of young trees." The going was so heavy that the wagons straggled, and this in spite of the fact that Boers were from time to time seen on the right flank, and in spite of heavy clouds of dust which were made out, slowly converging on the British route. About 3.30 p.m the "pip-pop " of the Mauser was heard to the south-east, while the column was in the bush; the convoy was at once ordered to close in, and M Battery was called upon to open fire on the nearest dust cloud. The range, however, was too great, and the guns had to wait. Then from the south-east the roar of a heavy rifle fusillade ran with the swiftness of a forest fire along the front. Bullets came in showers; Mr. Hands, the cheerful and capable correspondent of the Daily Mail, was severely wounded, and in a few minutes a dozen men were prostrate. Yet there was nothing whatever to be seen. Of the Boers' presence there was no sign or token except the whistling bullets and the crackling musketry.

The convoy closed up with the troopers around it. There were some narrow escapes, and many casualties. Major Baden-Powell, brother of the famous Colonel, had his watch smashed to pieces, but himself escaped without a scratch. Mahon showed imperturbable coolness with the bullets flicking up the dust at his feet; at an order from him the four horse guns and the two "Pom-Poms " changed position and opened in the direction from which seemed to come the fiercest fire. As if by magic the situation changed. A few fierce blows from the "Pom-Poms," a dozen rounds from the guns, and the Boer fire ceased as suddenly as it had begun. The enemy had had enough, and the fight was over. Yet the casualties in that half hour's skirmish were serious. Six men lay dead, twenty-four were wounded, and one was missing. The force bivouacked where it had fought, though Cronje had the effrontery to pretend that it had only escaped because it took to precipitate flight. He marched north once more, drawing in reinforcements from Snyman's commandos in front of Mafeking, and yet again took post athwart its line of advance.

H. W. Wilson, With the Flag to Pretoria: A History of the Boer War, 1899-1900, London, 1901. 
Colonel Mahon's Line of March from Barkly West to Mafeking
H. W. Wilson, With the Flag to Pretoria: A History of the Boer War, 1899-1900, London, 1901. 
Chapter XXV: "The Relief of Mafeking" Part Two
H. W. Wilson, With the Flag to Pretoria: A History of the Boer War, 1899-1900, London, 1901.
Chapter XXVI: "The Siege of Mafeking." Part One
Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell (Robert Baden-Powell), Lessons from the Varsity of Life, 1933. 
Chapter VII: "The South African War
"This small place, which sprang in the course of a few weeks from obscurity to fame ..." opens Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's retelling of The Siege of Mafeking.  Author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Conan Doyle provides an excellent contemporary account of the siege in his history, The Great Boer War: A Two-Years' Record, 1899-1901. 
It was at the Siege and Defense of Mafeking during the South African (Anglo-Boer) War that Baden-Powell made his name and first gained public recognition. 1999 marks the beginning of the Centennial of the War. Developed as part of that observance, Perspectives on the South African War provides a collection of links to original and contemporary sources on the South African War.
The Baden-Powell Home Page. Links regarding the life and services of Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, Defender of Mafeking, Founder of the World Scouting Movement.

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