Monday, September 8, 2008

Robert Baden-Powell: Boy’s Own Adventurer

“We are having a very enjoyable game” – RSS Baden-Powell

Cool as a cucumber: Col B-P
ROBERT STEPHENSON SMYTH BADEN-POWELL was small and wiry and had receding red hair– an unlikely looking military hero. But inside he was as tough as teak. And at the bloody Siege of Mafeking the little chap proved himself a giant.

Mafeking was a remote outpost of the Empire in southern Africa, a small, defenceless, tin-roofed town that found itself on the front line of the Boer War in 1899. Within days of the conflict breaking out it was surrounded by the enemy. They’d come expecting a walkover.

The Boers were led by General Cronje, a veteran hard case known as the “old fox”. He had seven thousand troops in his command and an impressive battery of heavy artillery. Colonel Baden-Powell was in charge at Mafeking. He had just two thousand men, most untrained part-timers, plus an ancient cannon that had previously been used as a gatepost. On the face of it, Mafeking didn’t have a hope.

A more rational man might have run up the white flag. But Baden-Powell had orders to hold the town, so that’s precisely what he intended to do. And while he was at it, he planned to have himself a ripping adventure worthy of the pages of the “Boy’s Own Paper”.

Baden-Powell – “BP” to his mates – was a product of the Victorian public school system. Years of cold baths, sound thrashings and sport had made him the man’s man he was. He had no time for chaps he considered “wasters” or fellows inflicted with “girlitis”. Life, for him, was like a football match. Success was about pulling together.

Despite the long odds, BP was convinced that Mafeking had a (slim) chance if it kept its collective chin up and stood united. Team spirit was what it was all about - and fate had cast him in the role of team captain. In the famous words of the Victorian poet Sir Henry Newbolt, it was time to “Play up! play up! and play the game!”.

The Boers began their bombardment at 9am on 16 October, 1899, and the people of Mafeking braced themselves for total destruction. Dozens of missiles came whistling over a defensive ring of barbed wire and hastily dug trenches. Shells ploughed into the market square, sailed clean through flimsy mud buildings, smashed trees and destroyed telegraph poles. The pounding continued for hours.

But Baden-Powell was ahead of the game. Already the town had been honeycombed with underground bomb shelters where people were safe from shrapnel. A dummy fort with dummy soldiers and fake guns had been built to draw fire away from real targets. Hundreds of fake mines – boxes filled with sand – had been laid with great ceremony to discourage an all-out Boer charge. And the result of that first onslaught? Nobody was killed; no one was even injured.

When the dust settled, an enemy messenger came forward and asked Baden-Powell for Mafeking’s surrender - “to avoid further bloodshed”. The colonel gave him a hard look. “Certainly,” he told the man, “but when will the bloodshed begin?” British casualties thus far, he added, were one chicken dead and a donkey wounded. It was one-nil to Baden-Powell.

General Cronje response was predictable: more bombs and bullets. But Mafeking held steady and Baden-Powell refused to be shaken or cowed. After one particularly heavy bombardment, the colonel sent a runner through enemy lines with a note to reassure the outside world that Mafeking was okay. The message was telegraphed throughout the British Empire. “October 21st. All well,” it read, “Four hours’ bombardment. One dog killed.”

As the Boers continued to blaze away, the colonel’s courage and calmness under fire became legendary. “To see BP go whistling down the street… bright and confident is better than a pint of dry champagne,” wrote a newspaper man in Mafeking. Good humour and optimism came off him like heat. Major Alick Godley, thought it “splendid” to see his boss sitting in a chair surrounded by officers “dictating messages as cool as a cucumber” as shells burst around him.

During the day, BP would stand atop a wooden lookout platform above his headquarters, surveying the town’s defences like Admiral Nelson. At night, he’d crawl into no-man’s land on his belly to spy on enemy positions, amazing his men when he came wriggling back towards Mafeking’s trenches at dawn. He never seemed to sleep and he never stopped humming and whistling. He acted like he was invincible.

It was all an act of course. There were times when Baden-Powell’s heart must have been in his boots. He knew better than anyone that if the Boers were bold enough to try an all-out attack they’d crush Mafeking. And the alternative was equally dire: a grim, drawn-out siege. How long could his isolated garrison hold out under the baking African sun before disease, shells and starvation overwhelmed them?

But surrender was out of the question, and there was nothing to be gained from moping around. So BP kept smiling and whistling and looking on the bright side. If this was to be the final curtain, he was determined that he and his Mafeking team would face it with a bow.

Civilians as well as soldiers were holed up in the besieged town – about 7,500 blacks, 1,700 whites, a few Indians and some Chinese. And since it had been agreed with the Boers that there would be no fighting on Sundays, Baden-Powell turned the day of rest into a day of fun. He organised cricket and football matches. There were gymnastic displays. People promenaded around town in their Sunday best as though they were in London’s Hyde Park. Music hall shows and dances went on into the night.

The entertainment sometimes got bizarre. There were competitions to find the “best siege baby”, the best bull, the finest cow. A parade of old carriages was held. And whenever the colonel put on his “world-wide show of singing and dancing and playing the fool” all sorts of wannabes queued up to strut and grin their hour upon the stage.

One bloke turned out to be a decent conjurer. Others sang comic songs or recited poems. But the star of the show was always none other than Baden-Powell himself. The colonel would bring the house down by prancing around in a wig and ladies’ clothing or impersonating a cockney barrow boy. Then he’d wrap up his act by playing “Home, Sweet Home” on the mouth organ and exit to thunderous applause.

It was a far cry from what was happening on weekdays. At the start of the standoff, the Boers had made several attempts to overrun Mafeking’s defensive trenches. But after facing unexpectedly fierce resistance they switched tactics. Commandant Snyman took over from General Cronje. A massive siege gun arrived from Pretoria pulled by sixteen oxen. The Boers dug in and focused on trying to bomb and starve the little town into submission.

No one in Mafeking was safe as hundreds of shells and thousands of bullets rained down. A small boy was mortally wounded when a bomb dropped on him from the sky while he was playing marbles. A woman took a stray bullet in the neck and died instantly while pouring her husband a cup of coffee. The town’s makeshift hospital and cemetery quickly began to fill.

Frontline clashes claimed many more lives. One of the bloodiest incidents came ten weeks into the siege - at dawn on 26 December, 1899. BP ordered a surprise attack on a Boer position known as Game Tree Fort to try to knock out a gun. The assault was a disaster: twenty-six men were killed, twenty-three wounded, and a handful captured. The Boers lost just three soldiers. The day became known in Mafeking as Black Boxing Day.

As the New Year approached and the nineteenth century drew to a close, the future could not have looked grimmer for Baden-Powell and his team of part-time warriors. They remained outgunned and outnumbered. Rumours that British reinforcements were on their way had come to nothing. The enemy kept lobbing shells. And fever, diphtheria and dysentery had started to take a deadly grip on the town.

To make matters worse, Mafeking’s food was running out. By February 1900, the first three deaths from starvation were reported among the poorest black Africans.

Yet Baden-Powell remained chipper. He issued special postage stamps for “the independent republic of Mafeking” with his face on them in place of the queen – everyone thought that a splendid joke. He kept a special list of miraculous escapes that people marvelled at (a guy who got shot in the head was at number one: the bullet passed through his skull, just behind the forehead, and exited without causing any serious damage). And he threw his weight behind the “Mafeking Mail” newspaper (slogan: “Issued Daily, Shells Permitting”).

The Boers had long ago cut Mafeking’s rail and telegraph links. But thanks to brave African runners who risked their necks to slip past the encircling enemy with notes, some communication with the outside world was maintained. On 12 April a telegram arrived for BP from a surprising fan back in Britain – the queen. The message was short and sweet: “I continue watching with confidence and admiration the patient and resolute defence which is so gallantly maintained under your ever resourceful command. Victoria R.I.”

As the siege dragged into its seventh month, the colonel’s unflagging boyishness even seemed to rub off on the Boers. One day an enemy commander sent over a jokey note asking if his men could join in one of the garrison’s Sunday cricket matches. “Sir, I should like nothing better,” was Baden-Powell’s neatly typed reply, “after the match in which we are at present engaged is over. But just now we are having our innings and have so far scored 200 days, not out, against the bowling of Cronje, Snyman, Botha… we are having a very enjoyable game.”

Around this time Baden-Powell also sent an amazingly chirpy telegram to his commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts. “After two hundred days’ siege… the patience of everybody in Mafeking in making the best of things… is a revelation to me,” it reads. “The men… have adapted themselves to their duties with the greatest zeal, readiness, and pluck, and the devotion of the women is remarkable. With such a spirit our organization runs like clockwork, and I have every hope that it will pull us successfully through.”

The men and women who were “making the best of things” and “having a very enjoyable game” were by this stage close to starvation. Horse meat and a rough porridge made from oat husks was the only food. Malnourished horses, BP notes in his diary, were “dying as fast as they can be made into sausages”.

Mafeking’s native Africans raided Boer cattle at night to bring in more meat. A soup kitchen was set up for the poorest and weakest. But a staggering seven hundred blacks still died of hunger and disease during the siege, many of them children. That’s hundreds more than the total killed by shells or in battle, black and white.

By the start of May the situation was dire. About a quarter of Mafeking’s fighting men were now dead or wounded in action. The last scraps of food would be gone within a few weeks. It looked like the game was almost up and Baden-Powell was forced to start thinking about how he might evacuate the town.

But then, finally, some good news. Word reached Mafeking that a British relief force was on its way – two thousand fresh men, artillery and machine guns. The Boers got wind of this too and made a last desperate attempt to storm the stubborn, bullet-riddled town. But again BP’s half-starved men held firm. The British reinforcements fought their way steadily closer, driving the enemy before them.

On 16 May an advance patrol of eight riders reached Mafeking to be greeted by a nonchalant passer-by. “Oh yes, I heard you were knocking about,” was his only comment. But by the time the main relief force marched in the following morning, such battle-hardened stoicism had evaporated. Gaunt faces stared at the rescuers “as though they were angels”, wrote a journalist who arrived that day. “One man tried to speak; then he swore; then he buried his face in his arms and sobbed.”

The siege was over. The game was won. The people of Mafeking had gone two hundred and seventeen days not out against the enemy’s fast bowlers. And the victory was largely down to one remarkable man – their gutsy, unflappable and always cheery team captain, Colonel RSS Baden-Powell.

When the news reached Britain of the relief of Mafeking, the country went nuts. Thousands poured onto the streets of London to celebrate. Baden-Powell became a national hero. The little colonel was quickly promoted to a bigwig major-general.

And of course Baden-Powell’s story doesn’t end there. Within a few years he’d gone on to create the world’s greatest youth movement, the Boy Scouts. The movement’s original ten-point Scout Law has Mafeking written all over it. “A Scout goes about with a smile on and whistling,” reads law number eight. “It cheers him and cheers other people, especially in time of danger.”

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Jeal, Tim, Baden-Powell (London, 1989)
Ferguson, Niall, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003)
Aitken, W Francis, Baden-Powell, The Hero of Mafeking (London, 1900)