They were twenty-four very exciting hours that began when we moved from Jan Massibi's at daybreak on Wednesday and ended when we lay down to snatch a little rest at daybreak on Thursday. Many miles were travelled, a great enterprise was brought to a successful issue, a tough battle was fought, men received wounds and died, Mafeking was relieved: enough incident and adventure to fill months of ordinary life. The bare events are recorded here, but the emotional history of those twenty-four hours will probably never be written. But as you read the narrative, put yourself in the place of those to whom it was not a story but a piece of life, and then perhaps you will realise something of what it meant to them.
Not much of the story remains to be told.
At midnight between Wednesday and Thursday I was awakened by a general stir in the surrounding camp, to find that the moon was shining brightly, lighting up busy drivers, and the troops getting their horses ready. We were to advance. Major Karri-Davies had ridden on into Mafeking, and, with the luck which rewards daring, had found the road clear, and sent back a messenger with that information to Colonel Mahon. I think men were never so willingly awakened from sleep; not even the wounded grumbled, who had also to be roused from their beds on the grass and repacked into the stuffy ambulance. At about 12.30 we were ready to start, but during the first mile there were long halts and delays while the guides argued and boggled about the roads. At last the strain became too great, and Major Gifford, Captain Smith, and I resolved to ride on and trust to finding the right road. We knew the direction by the stars, and started across the veldt a little south of east.
It was bitterly cold, and we were all both sleepy and hungry, but there was an excitement in the air that kept us easily going. After about half an hour we heard voices ahead, and descried the shapes of horses and men. Our hearts sank for a moment, only to rise again when we recognised Colonel Peakman, who, having been in command of the rear-guard on the previous day up till nine o'clock at night, was now taking his turn at advance guard at one o'clock the next morning. As a Kimberley man, it had long been his ambition to lead the relieving force into Mafeking, and I think no one grudged him the honour. Amongst all, indeed, there was a certain amount of competition, and the four correspondents who survived to the end of the expedition became strangely silent about their intentions for the evening. I pinned my faith to Peakman, as I knew he was as anxious as anyone to be in first.
Well, we joined the Advance Guard, which presently went on along the road pointed out by the guide, and for an hour we jogged on at a fast walk, until we had clearly "run the distance," as they say at sea. Still no sign of the trenches or forts which should mark the outward boundary of the defended area. We pulled up, and the guide was questioned.
"Two miles more," he said.
We rode on for another quarter of an hour, and still found nothing before us but the rolling veldt; not a light, not a sound except the beating of the horses' feet. Again we halted, and this time Colonel Peakman himself questioned the guide, and the man had to admit that he had mistaken his way, and that we were on the lower road, longer by a good three miles than that originally intended. We had no connecting files with the main column, and, as it had a guide of its own, it was certain that it would take the shorter road, and probably be in before its own Advance Guard. A bitter moment, in which things were said to the guide; but some of us hoped that the slow convoy, with its tired and galled mules, would even yet take a longer time on its short road than we on our long one. So we went on again, this time at a trot; the excitement seemed to extend to the horses, so that even they could not be restrained. In ten minutes we saw men sitting by the roadside, and found a hundred very weary Fusiliers, who had been sent to take Israel's Farm at the end of the fight, and told to go on afterwards.
"Had anyone passed along the road before us?" "No"; and with a gasp of relief we hurried on. In a few moment's the group in advance pulled up, shouting "'Ware barbed wire!"
We all stopped, and there were frantic calls for wire-cutters. With four reports like the snapping of big fiddle-strings the last barrier before Mafeking was removed, and we passed on again, this time at a hand-canter. In a few minutes we heard the sound of a galloping horse on the road, and a mounted man challenged us.
"Halt! Who goes there?"
"Who are you?" (The excitement was too high for the preservation of the proper formula.)
"Colonel Peakman, in command of the Advance Guard of the Relief Column."
"By Jove, ain't I glad to see you, sir!"
It was an officer sent out by Colonel Baden-Powell to meet us and bring us in. We left the squadron, and the five of us went on, this time at a gallop, over trenches, past breastworks and redoubts and little forts, until we pulled up at the door of the headquarters' mess.
Ah, the narrative is helpless here. No art could describe the handshaking and the welcome and the smiles on the faces of these tired-looking men; how they looked with rapt faces at us commonplace people from the outer world as though we were angels, how we all tried to speak at once, and only succeeded in gazing at each other and in saying, "By Jove!" "Well, I'm hanged!" and the like senseless expressions that sometimes mean much to Englishmen. One man tried to speak; then he swore; then he buried his face in his arms and sobbed. We all gulped at nothing, until someone brought in cocoa and we gulped that instead; then Baden-Powell came in, and one could only gaze at him, and search in vain on his jolly face for the traces of seven months' anxiety and strain.
After an hour we went out and found the column safely encamped just outside the town. Everyone was dog-tired, and although it was half-past five in the morning and the moon was sinking we lay down and were immediately asleep—in Mafeking.
We did not know it, but we were in a besieged town. Officially the relief did not take place until ten o'clock that morning, when the Boers hurried away with their last gun. I was awakened at eight by the sound of heavy firing, and as soon as my horse was ready rode away to the north-east corner of the town (we had entered from the north-west), to where the greater part of our column was in action. Through glasses one could see something being drawn up the purple slope of a hill six miles away—the last gun of the besiegers. Earlier in the morning our troops had advanced on all the Boer positions which were still occupied (only the eastern ones were then held), and had shelled the enemy in the midst of his preparations for flight. It was only a rear-guard action; indeed the engagement was practically limited to the artillery; and all I was in time to see was the flight. It was a good sight, the mounted men galloping in open order up the hillside which the morning sun was throwing into a thousand patches of light and shade. They were soon out of range, and we stood watching the disappearing specks of black crawl like flies up the furthest ridges, here in groups of a dozen, there in twos and threes, until the last one had vanished from our view; and thus the siege of Mafeking came to an end.
There was joy in the camps of the relieving column when it was known that they had also taken part in the siege; "Another bar," said the medal-hunters.
Colonel Mahon's column consisted of 900 mounted men of the Imperial Light Horse, under Lieutenant-Colonel Edwardes, and the amalgamation of local troops known as the Kimberley Mounted Corps, under Colonel King; 100 picked volunteers from the Fusilier Brigade; four guns of M Battery Royal Horse Artillery, under Major Jackson, and a pom-pom section (two guns), under Captain Robinson, the whole artillery force consisting of 100 men; three Maxims, 56 waggons, and several private Cape carts, 660 mules; in all, 1,200 horses and 1,100 men.
The staff was: Colonel Mahon, 8th Hussars, brigadier; Captain Bell-Smythe, 1st Dragoon Guards, chief staff officer; Colonel Frank Rhodes, late Royal Dragoons, chief of Intelligence Department; Prince Alexander of Teck, 7th Hussars, A.D.C.; Major Jackson, commanding Royal Artillery; Major Sir John Willoughby, late of the Blues; Major the Hon. Maurice Gifford, attached to the Imperial Yeomanry, general staff; and Lieutenant F.W. Smith, Kimberley Mounted Corps, galloper. There was not an officer on the staff whose industry and good sense did not contribute to the success of the expedition; and we correspondents owe a peculiar gratitude to Colonel Rhodes, who acted as Press Censor. No doubt his own experience as a correspondent helped him to fulfil what is always a responsible and seldom an easy office. He was always considerate, always interested, always kind and always fair.
Here ends an imperfect narrative of the relief. What the deliverers saw on Thursday morning was a little white town lying in the midst of a wide shallow basin of green moorland; and it reminded one of a town that had been long deserted and in ruins. I am not exaggerating when I say that by far the greater number of houses in the town had been struck by shells, and that very nearly all had been struck either by shells or bullets.
After the engagement on Thursday morning the relieving column formed up and entered the town, headed by Colonel Baden-Powell, Colonel Mahon, and his staff. As one passed house after house, one with a gaping hole in its side, another with the chimneys overthrown, another with a whole wall stove in, none with windows completely glazed, all bearing some mark of assault—as this panorama of destruction unfolded itself one marvelled that anyone should have lived throughout the siege. And when the procession formed up in the dilapidated Market Square, and the whole of the Town Guard mustered—Kaffirs, Parsees, Jews, Arabians, Englishmen, Dutchmen, nearly every sort and nationality of men—and when the Mayor read an address expressing in the conventional terms of such compliments the emotions of this motley crowd, one asked oneself what it was that had held these very ordinary-looking people to so heroic an intention. Remember that the defence of Mafeking had been one big bluff, that there was nothing to prevent the Boers, with determination and careful arrangement, from taking the place at almost any time, and you will realise how startlingly that question asserted itself. I like to think that there were many men in Mafeking whose courage alone would have disdained surrender; but there was one man in whose face one found the answer to the riddle. Brains alone would not have done it; heart alone would have fainted and failed under those long months of danger; but the officer commanding this garrison had both brains and heart, and so he taught his men to endure.
I do not pay the garrison of Mafeking so poor a compliment as to suppose that the mere hunger for luxuries, serious misfortune though it be, was the signal trial of its endurance. Ladysmith suffered worse in this respect and did not complain. In Mafeking there was always a plentiful supply of green vegetables, of tobacco, and of wine, and it was only with a smile that the heir to one of the wealthiest estates in England told me that they had latterly invented a brawn made with glue from the hides and feet and ears of mules and donkeys.
But nearly 30,000 shells fell into a town covering about the same area as Cowes; in many streets not a man dared show himself save under the cloud of a dark night, for they were swept by rifle bullets; hardly one of the many forts on the circumference of defence held weapons half so formidable as the stout hearts that served them. Thirty thousand shells! I have been in the neighbourhood of perhaps a hundred bursting shells, and every burst will be a memory for a lifetime; but thirty thousand! The heart stops at the thought. Yet here was the little ruined town; here were the men with weak bodies and cheery faces to prove that courage can raise the mind beyond fear and suffering; that, given an ideal and a chance in the leadership, men may be counted on for something far greater even than bravery.