• Graham Watkins

Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell died this day in 1941 in Nyeri, Kenya.

Updated: Jan 10


Speaking with a reader at a recent book fair I was interested to learn he'd been a boy-scout in Kenya and, every Sunday morning after church parade, his troop would spend time tidying Baden-Powell's grave. Today is the anniversary of Baden-Powell's death and the anniversary reminds me of how, it is said, the boy-scout movement started.

It all began in 1899 during the Boer War and in particular the Siege of Mafeking where Colonel Baden-Powell, as he was then, was in command of the town's defences. His second in command, Major Edward Cecil was, according to B-P as he liked to be known, incompetent. However B-P couldn't sack Cecil because Cecil's dad was the British Prime Minister.

To get around the problem B-P ordered Cecil to take command of the white boys in Mafeking between the ages of eleven and sixteen, assisted by a drunkard named Lieutenant Moncreiffe. It was a crushing humiliation which would haunt Cecil for the rest of his life. The cadet force Cecil created was, by all accounts, effective - cycling between gun positions with messages under sniper fire and even helping disarm Boer prisoners.

The legacy of Mafeking fascinated me. The 217 day siege not only inspired a wonderful worldwide youth organisation it also changed how warfare was conducted and was a foretaste of the horrific slaughter of World War I. Indeed many of the lessons learned at Mafeking created the stalemate that cost so many lives in that Great War.

I love South Africa and returned to explore the Boer and Zulu War battlefields before writing A White Man's War a novel based on events which occurred during the siege.

Baden-Powell and legendary Zulu king Cetshwayo are among the real people who take the stage in the book.

Then there are others such as Ntombi Thabisile and her family who are simply figments of my imagination. Well, perhaps that’s not the right way to put it. They were not conceived in my mind because they also lived through those times of turmoil and terror. Certainly they have fictional names but they are, in fact, an amalgam of people whose lives I have carefully researched. Their experiences help sweep aside any misconceptions and have enabled me to provide accurate insights into their lives when they were caught up in A White Man’s War.

The story begins with a letter from the Boer commander General Piet Cronje.

Sir

It is understood that you have armed Bastards, Fingoes and Baralongs against us - in this you have committed an enormous act of wickedness...reconsider the matter, even if it cost you the loss of Mafeking... disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man's war.

Signed

General Cronje 29th October 1899

General Cronje's orders are clear; take Mafeking and drive the British out of Africa but Colonel Baden-Powell, Mafeking's commanding officer, is no ordinary soldier and his defence of the town will be no ordinary fight. Themba Jabulani is a victim of a white man's war. A war where there are strange rules. A war where innocents will be sacrificed and heroes will be made. Jabulani is one of the innocents, struggling to survive with his wife Ntombi and young child. Cronje's letter signals the start of the Boer War and a siege that will last seven months, claiming an unknown number of lives.

A White Man's War is a story that takes place during that siege, the Siege of Mafeking. The defenders of Mafeking were commanded by an unconventional man who played to win, regardless of the cost. Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, B-P to his friends was an experienced soldier and a ruthless maverick. The Boer War and Mafeking in particular would make him more famous than his godfather, the railway engineer he was named after. It would make him a Baron and change the way future wars would be conducted. Ignoring conventional principles of war, B-P invented new ways to defend the town. Outnumbered and outgunned, his men would thwart the Boers time and again. Mafeking was a strange gentleman's war punctuated by truces, cricket matches and ferocious fighting.

The price for holding Mafeking would be enormous but it wouldn't be the Christian white people who would pay the largest share, it would be the natives, the innocent bystanders caught up in the white man's fight for South Africa.

A White Man's War is a story of a siege, regarded by some as a great adventure but by others as a human tragedy. B-P would learn from Mafeking and go on to found the greatest youth movement the world had ever seen while others, less fortunate like Themba Jabulani, would suffer a very different fate.