The Vrouemonument in Bloemfontein, unveiled in 1913 in the memory of Boer women and children who died in the concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War. Picture: CONRAD BORNMAN
The Vrouemonument in Bloemfontein, unveiled in 1913 in the memory of Boer women and children who died in the concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War. Picture: CONRAD BORNMAN

The town formerly called Mafeking (now Mafikeng) gained fame and prominence during the Anglo Boer War. British forces were stationed there under the command of Col Robert Baden-Powell, (often called B-P).

"Perhaps the most original feature of Mafeking defences was the steel-plated locomotive specially brought up from Kimberley," Charles Connell writes in his book The World’s Greatest Sieges. The following record of the siege is from Connel’s work.

Skilled riflemen on board turned the train into a mobile fortress, the author says. The train had open goods wagons with splinter-proof awnings. It could run up and down on a one-mile track.

There were adequate food stocks in Mafeking for the garrison of about 800 men, but a small civilian population and a number of white and black refugees became a problem, he records.

Women and children were allowed to leave before hostilities began, but the majority refused the offer.

And the dangers came soon. Boer president Paul Kruger declared war early in October 1899. According to Connell the announcement was received calmly by the town.

To boost morale the town guard paraded on the town square, where it was inspected by B-P, who told the guards: "All you have to do is to sit tight, and when the time comes, to shoot straight."

The Boer offensive began with the cutting of telegraph wires and the sabotage of the railway lines until the town was completely isolated.

B-P’s response was to send out a party of troops in the armoured train. Further British troops went out in support of the train and the Boers were pushed back.

Connell points out that the resulting casualties on both sides were significant. More than 60 Boers were killed and double the number wounded. The garrison’s figures were two killed and 16 wounded.

B-P’s biggest worry was a surprise attack, Connel writes. To counteract this possibility, B-P organised a 24-hour warning system. At the first sign of any hostile move during the day, bugles would sound. A red flag would be hoisted over Dixon’s Hotel in the town. A red lamp would be lit if the Boers tried to creep up on the garrison after dark.

According to Connell, B-P was not uneasy about daytime attacks, which he was confident he could handle. What he did fear were after-dark attacks.

The reason was that B-P knew that "the Boers were first-class scouts and good marksmen". Apparently he believed that, properly led, they could advance into the town’s inner defences.

However, he said Mafeking would resist "to the bitter end".

The Boers started to shell the garrison on October 16 1900. But after four hours of shelling only a hen was killed, a dog was wounded and a window of the hotel was shattered, the author reports.

In the meantime the Boers had crept closer, until they were within a mile of the perimeter.

At the end of the third week in October, Boer general Piet Cronje warned that Mafeking could expect heavy bombardment. He gave the inhabitants of the town two days of grace before the bombardment would start. But according to Connell nobody seemed to want to leave, though women and children were sent to a nearby farm.

More trenches were dug, and it was announced that church bells would ring to warn people if it was necessary to take cover.

Connell points out that it was the garrison that fired the first shots at the end of the armistice, using muzzle loaders. The Boers fired a shell into the defence zone but the shell exploded harmlessly in the veld.

After that the convent in the town was damaged by two hits, a storehouse was destroyed and buildings were damaged.

At the end of the day the Boers had lost about 80 men.

The daily bombing continued, but no attempt was made "to take the town by storm", Connell writes.

Desperate to have a Boer victory to his credit, Cronje set his sights on a hillock called Canon Kopje. However, his concentrated attack on it was unsuccessful. Connell believes that if the Boers had taken Canon Kopje they probably would have captured Mafeking as well.

The worst ordeal of the siege was the two months of boredom and inactivity. To combat these, football and polo matches were organised and Sunday evening concerts were held. A cadet corps was established to keep young boys occupied.

Christmas was celebrated in the traditional way and a truce was declared.

Connell points out that, ironically, the least disturbing feature of the siege was the daily bombardment, which did little damage.

However, after all this time the garrison was running out of its resources. Ammunition stocks were low. There was little food left and no milk, sugar or coffee.

The end came in the evening of May 16 1900, when the "forward elements of the [British] relief force" rode into the town. The main body arrived the next day and the Boers retreated rapidly.

The long siege of Mafeking was over.