Baden-Powell at Mafeking

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Mafeking is a town in the dry northern part of South Africa. Its name means 'place of stones'. Today it is called Mahikeng and is the capital of South Africa’s Northwest Province, but in 1899 it was a small town on the railway line from the Cape to Rhodesia. See also: Mafeking and the origin of Scouting.

When the siege of Mafeking began, the British regiment was outgunned, outnumbered, and cut off from the outside world by an army of more than 6000 Boer soldiers. Baden-Powell was in charge of the defence, and he was an expert at the "Game of Bluff".

The Siege of Mafeking[edit]


Just before the start of the Anglo-Boer war in 1899, Colonel Baden-Powell was sent to gather a regiment to defend the border on the north of the Transvaal republic. He chose Mafeking as a supply base.

Mafeking did not have any decent cannons to defend it. B-P received two cannons, so old and inaccurate that one of them was called 'Crooked-tail Sal'. Against this 7-pound gun, the Boer army would bring the 94 pound siege gun known as Grietje, or 'Old Creechy'.

The war started on 11 October 1899, and by 13 October the town was surrounded by an army of thousands of Boer forces, who cut off the roads and rail and also the telegraph line that allowed the town to communicate with the outside world. When a town is surrounded in this way, it is called a siege, and the people in the town have to be careful of all their supplies - food, water, medicines, and of course ammunition.

B-P's regiment consisted of 700 soldiers, to defend a frontier around the town of 10 km, against a Boer force of more than 6000. If the Boers had known how week the defences were, they could probably have taken over the town easily. But Baden-Powell was an expert at the "Game of Bluff".

Warning: landmines![edit]

To prevent the Boers from attacking the town, Baden-Powell made them think the town was surrounded by dangerous landmines. He got the people in the town to carry metal boxes, with dire warnings not to drop or bump them, and bury them outside the edge of the town, and put up signs saying “Warning! Landmines!” Hundreds of these were buried on the outskirts of the town, and the areas marked with warnings for the inhabitants and cattle herds to stay clear. Then he warned the townsfolk to keep inside while the new mines were tested.

"With everyone safe indoors, Major Panzera and I went out and stuck a stick of dynamite into an ant-bear hole. We lit a fuse and ran for cover until the thing went off, which it did with a splendid roar and a vast cloud of dust. Out of the dust emerged a man with a bike who happened to be passing, and he pedalled off as hard as he could go for the Transvaal, eight miles away, where no doubt he told how by merely riding along the road he had hit off a murderous mine. The boxes were actually filled with nothing more dangerous than sand!"[1]

Many searchlights[edit]

To pretend that the town was well protected by searchlights, Baden-Powell asked a traveller who made acetylene lamps in the town to make a searchlight from two shiny biscuit tins, with a lamp attached. At night, first it was shone over the Boer outposts on one side of the town, then rushed over and shone on the other side. Before long, the Boers were convinced that an attack at night was hopeless because the whole town was surrounded by searchlights.

Two more guns[edit]

Mafeking Gun.gif

The same bluff was also used with the town's small supply of guns. Baden-Powell built gun emplacements around the town, and his soldiers would fire a gun from one of them, then rush it to another and fire it again. To the Boers it appeared that there were dozens of guns protecting the town.

Mafeking soon added to its own limited heavy artillery: an ancient cannon, more than 100 years old, was found being used as a gatepost. The gun was repaired, mounted and put into active service. It was named 'Lord Nelson', and fired a ten-pound cannon ball. A Major Godley commented that 'it bumped along the road exactly like a cricket ball, and one old Boer tried to field it with disastrous results to himself.'

Strangely enough, 'Lord Nelson' had the initials B.P. & Co. stamped on it. It had been cast in the foundry of Bailey & Pegg in 1770.

Another gun soon came into action: home-made in Mafeking, in a furnace made of a cistern lined with bricks. The gun was made of a 4-inch steel furnace pipe strengthened by rails from the railway line bent into rings. The chassis came from an old threshing machine. Spherical shells were made by melting down scrap metal. The gun could fire an 8kg projectile almost 4000 metres. The gun was named 'The Wolf' in honour of Baden-Powell: his nickname was Impeesa, the Wolf that never sleeps.

Barbed Wire[edit]

Soon Mafeking ran out of barbed wire to protect the soldiers' trenches. But B-P noticed that from a distance, all he could see was soldiers crawling under some invisible obstacle - he could not actually see the wire. So he told them to continue putting up posts and stringing imaginary wire between them. Then they would pretend to crawl under the new “obstacles” they had erected. The enemy had no way of telling that there was no wire in place.

The Butterfly Hunter[edit]

B-P butterfly map.jpg

Many years before Mafeking, B-P had disguised himself as a butterfly hunter in Dalmatia, and spied on the forts and defences of the enemy. Whenever he met an enemy soldier, "with my sketch book in hand, I would ask innocently whether he had seen such-and-such a butterfly in the neighbourhood, as I was anxious to catch one. Ninety-nine out of a hundred did not know one butterfly from another - any more than I did - so one was on fairly safe ground in that way, and they thoroughly sympathised with the mad Englishman who was hunting insects."[2]

What the officers did not notice was that Baden-Powell's sketches of butterfly wings included maps of their own forts and defences!

The Mafeking Cadets[edit]

B-P had only a few hundred soldiers to defend Mafeking, so every soldier was vital. To help them, they trained a group of 40 boys as Cadets, to carry messages, do look-out duty, help in the hospitals, and many other jobs. They had their own khaki uniforms. One of their most important jobs was to act as lookouts to warn the townsfolk when the big Boer siege gun was aimed at the town, to give them a chance to take cover before the shell arrived.

First the cadets took messages by donkey, but as the food in the town ran out, the stock of donkeys gradually ended up in the kitchen! So instead they used bicycles, and often had to deliver messages by bicycle under heavy fire. In one famous story, B-P warned one of the boys that he could get hit, and he replied “I pedal so quick, sir, that they'll never catch me.”

At the end of the war, the cadets were awarded a special medal to thank them for their part in defending Mafeking. And a few years later, when Baden-Powell was forming his ideas for the Scout movement, he remembered the cadets and wrote about them in the first book about Scouting. So in a way, the cadets were the first Scouts in the world!

Baden-Powell - the hero of Mafeking[edit]

Mafeking was besieged for 217 days before the British army arrived to relieve the town. Back in Britain, the papers every day carried news of the "plucky defenders" under Baden-Powell (B-P), Impeesa, the wolf that never sleeps.

The town's defenders became the heroes of the British Empire, like a sports team taking on a much more powerful side, and still holding out against them, and B-P, the captain of the Mafeking side, became famous for his stories of bluff and courage - his jaunty messages like "Four hours bombardment. One dog killed" made him a favourite of the British press, and a welcome change from the stories of defeats and frustration at the hands of the Boer forces.

When Britain heard that Mafeking had been relieved after 217 days, the news spread like wildfire, and huge street parties sprang up as thousands of people celebrated this important symbolic victory.

When B-P eventually returned from the war, he went first to Cape Town, where he received a huge welcome from the crowds. At the port of Southampton, where he finally returned to Britain, the crowds again welcomed their returning hero.

Mafeking was famous and Baden-Powell was a hero in his own country. But who could guess that the most famous product of the siege would come from the group of boys who made up the Mafeking Cadets. Under their leader Warner Goodyear, the boys of Mafeking were the model for the Scout movement which soon grew to virtually every country of the world.

Primary sources[edit]

  • Hillcourt, Baden Powell - the two lives of a hero
  • Pakenham, The Anglo-Boer War
  • Grinnell-Milne,
  • MacDonald, Sons of the Empire: the frontier and the Boy Scout movement
  • Illustration of Mafeking cannon from a supplement to the Mafikeng Mail and Botswana Guardian, 3 September 1982

See also[edit]


  1. Baden-Powell, quoted by Duncan Grinnell-Milne in Mafeking.
  2. Baden-Powell, quoted by Hillcourt in Baden Powell: the two lives of a hero.