top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

A White Man's War

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

A White Man's War

I visited South Africa in 1995, to watch the Rugby World Cup Final and remember seeing Nelson Mandela walking onto the pitch at Ellis Park Stadium before the game wearing a Springbok's rugby shirt. The crowd went wild. After 34 years of apartheid, his release from prison was the beginning of a new age. Not even the monstrous bulk of the New Zealander Jonah Lomu could dampen South Africa's momentum that day. More than 60,000 were cheering the Boks to victory. The final score was South Africa 15 points to New Zealand's 12. I'd visited South Africa before as a young sailor in 1971 when I found the country a strange, intimidating place. Since then, I've returned several times, always wanting to see more. During one visit, I was shown a photograph, taken during the siege of Mafeking, of a Black African standing before three British officers. The man looked terrified and with good cause. He had just been sentenced to death for stealing food. Looking at the picture, I felt ashamed and determined to learn more about the circumstances. It was the beginning of a personal journey into history and a world I knew very little about. My research included a holiday, a present from my wife, touring Boer and Zulu War battlefields. It was a fascinating and, at times, a moving experience particularly visiting Isandlwana and Spion Cop where so many lives were lost because of British incompetence. South Africa is a beautiful country and still has its problems but I found the people, both white and black, welcoming and hospitable.

The siege of Mafeking lasted 217 days and turned Colonel Robert Stephenson Baden-Powell into a British national hero. The exploits of Mafeking's garrison, fuelled by tales of the can-do, stiff upper lip attitude of the defenders and particularly Colonel Baden-Powell, fired the British public's imagination. The darker side of the story; the abominable treatment of the natives, was largely forgotten. They didn't count. As General Cronje wrote on the 29th October 1899, 'This was a white man's war.' This book is a work of fiction with a few minor changes to chronology but much of the story is based on the recorded historical events of the siege and it is proper that I acknowledge my principle sources. First of these is Thomas Pakenham's excellent book 'The Boer War' published in 1979. If anyone wants to learn more about the Boer War and the siege, I highly recommend it. The second was Baden-Powell's own account of the siege of Mafeking. His 'boy's own' style of writing is endearing if somewhat dated. I also drew from three contemporary diaries 'Mafeking - A Diary of the Siege' by Major F.D. Baillie published in 1900, 'South African Memories' by Lady Sarah Wilson published in 1909 and 'The Siege of Mafeking' by Trooper William Robertson Fuller. I'm not sure when Fuller's diary was first published but the copy I read included an interesting introduction, written in 1998 by his grandson, John William Fuller. Trooper Fuller's account of the siege, reflecting as it does an ordinary soldier's perspective, is far less jingoistic than the others. He ended the siege guarding Eloff and the other captured Boer officers. The final words in his diary, written on the 28th May 1900, were, 'Here endeth my diary and may I never be in a besieged town again.' There are other resources, too numerous to mention but I must include, Colin 'Johnny' Walker's website 'The Mafeking Cadets.'

Why, I wondered, did Baden-Powell demote Major, Lord Edward Cecil, his chief of staff, to the role of leading the town's cadets, a boy's organisation which existed before Baden-Powell's arrival? It must have been very humiliating for Cecil. B-P didn't think much of Cecil, a fact demonstrated by his report at the end of the siege when he wrote of Cecil, 'Stuck pluckily to his work although hampered by illness in the first part of the siege.' Later he went further, 'Did his best but was not much use.' There are more charitable views of Cecil, including Sergeant Major Gwynne's who wrote to his sister saying, 'Lord Cecil was the nicest man in the whole garrison. It was on his shoulders that fell the majority of the work.' A second officer was assigned to help Cecil in his new role, Lieutenant Ronnie Moncreiffe. Moncreiffe was a heavy drinker and spent much of the siege under arrest. Had B-P dumped what he considered to be his worst officers on the cadets to be rid of them? If B-P did, the results must have surprised him. According to accounts, the boys Cecil commanded were always smartly turned out, well disciplined and effective in their duties during the siege. When Sarel Eloff and his men surrendered, the cadets helped disarm them and escort them to the Masonic Hall. B-P recognised the importance of the work done by the cadets during the siege and the boys received the Queen Victoria's South Africa Medal with the Defence of Mafeking Bar. On the 30th June 1900 the cadets were each awarded a grant of one pound for their services. After the war, Linden Webster met the Boer sniper responsible for knocking him off his bicycle. The man apologised saying he was sorry because he believed he had killed Webster. Three of the cadets, including Linden Webster, were invited to represent Mafeking at the Coronation of Edward VII, in London, in 1902. When he was 26, Warner Goodyear the bicycling cadet, admired by Baden-Powell, died from a sporting accident. Hearing of his death, Baden Powell donated money for a suitable memorial.

Major Lord Edward Cecil never got over Mafeking. Years later, when told that Baden-Powell was buying a house and would be his neighbour, he commented, 'I dread anything that reminds me of that ghastly time. I really dread it.' Others had a different view. 'It's good to be an Englishman,' wrote Major Baillie in his diary, during the fighting. General Cronje died in 1904, ostracized by his own people. Sarel Eloff was transported, with 5000 Boers, to St. Helena, a remote island in the Atlantic from which escape was considered impossible. The Island had been Napoleon Bonaparte's prison and was where he died. On the 2nd February 1901, together with two other prisoners, Eloff stole a fishing boat but the oars had been removed and he was quickly recaptured. He remained a prisoner until the end of the war. I have visited St. Helena. It's one of the most remote islands in the world and the idea of escaping by rowing boat shows he was a either a brave or foolhardy man. Because of Murchison's action at the police station, which Baden-Powell drew to Lord Roberts' attention, his death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. The half-mad lieutenant lived out his days in an institution, which I believe was on the Isle of Wight.

The saddest part of the siege of Mafeking was, in my view, the treatment of the natives. Major Baillie acknowledges the importance of the Baralong, Black Watch who fought alongside the British. Without their help, it's probable that Mafeking would have fallen and Baden-Powell consigned to a minor historical role. History, they say, is written by the victors and that is true of Mafeking. In the strictest sense, the Boers weren't defeated; they simply withdrew so Mafeking wasn't a victory but, like Dunkerque when the British army was rescued from France, the British would claim to be the winners. Regardless of who won, holding the town for 217 days was a remarkable achievement. Apart from the mention of a few individual Baralong, no thanks were offered to the Black African garrison of Mafeking who helped defend the town. Of the £29,000 relief fund raised in England, to rebuild Mafeking, none went to the Baralong, who had lost everything and there are no records of men like Themba Jabulani or the thousands of others who suffered.

Mafekin's Black Watch

The Boer War dragged on for another two miserable, brutal years. The lesson of Mafeking, that an entrenched small force could defend against an enemy superior in numbers and armed with artillery and high velocity rifles, was learned. Trench warfare and the stalemate it creates, was invented at Mafeking. The tactics would be reused during the Great War of 1914-1918 with awful consequences for the participants. To finally defeat the Boers, the British developed other novel forms of warfare including concentration camps and what is today euphemistically called ethnic cleansing.

In 1901, Canon Farmer, a British missionary in the Transvaal, wrote, 'I should be sorry to say anything that is unfair about the Boers. They look upon the Kaffirs as dogs and the killing of them as hardly a crime.' In his book, Pakenham asserts the Boers openly admitted killing the armed Africans they captured. The British were no better. Sir Alfred Milner (Later Lord Milner) High Commissioner for South Africa from 1897 to 1905 and one of the chief instigators of the war, summed up attitudes when he commented,' You only have to sacrifice the 'nigger' and the game is easy.' Milner returned to South Africa in 1928, was bitten by a tsetse fly and died of sleeping sickness. Africa had taken its revenge on the man who, it is said, started 'The White Man's War.'

bottom of page