Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting and the Siege of Mafeking

An NRA firearms instructor was visiting our Federal Way Noon Kiwanis Club and I found out he goes all over the Northwest instructing Boy Scouts in firearms safety and marksmanship skills. I also found out that Major General Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, was a hero during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) due to his central role in holding a railroad town called Mafeking on the edge of the Transvaal and the Kalahari Desert.

As related by Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) in The Great Boer War, Baden-Powell was a skilled hunter who had out-scouted Zulu trackers, often alone and at night. He was a combination of a precocious but mischievous school boy, resolute warrior and commander with administrative abilities that shone well during the 217 day siege of Mafeking.

Prior to Mafeking, he had performed service with the 13th Hussars in India, held special service in Africa and then returned to India to take command of 5th Dragoon Guards in 1897. He even performed some secret service activities in Africa disguised as a butterfly collector!

During the time right before commencement of the Boer War in 1899, he wrote a manual summarizing his training lectures to recruits on military scouting. He was organizing frontier militias to aid the regular British Army against the Boers when he was trapped in Mafeking. An 8,000 man Boer Army surrounded Mafeking which the South African Government had left totally unprepared for an attack.

A Boer raiding party captured an armored train along with two7-pound cannon. Colonel Baden-Powell led about nine hundred defenders (including shopkeepers and other local residents of Mafeking), including the garrison that consisted primarily of irregular troops, volunteers and police. The circumference of the town was five or six miles so Baden-Powell supervised construction of numerous small forts manned by ten to forty riflemen.

The Boers deployed two 12-pounders and a huge gun brought from Pretoria that lobbed a 96 pound shell. About one hundred of Mafeking’s defenders launched a successful sortie with bayonet only. Men on both sides died in the Boer trenches. After a few more sorties, it became obvious that the defenders could not afford to waste lives by launching attacks against such a large force. Nevertheless, Baden-Powell taunted the Boers by sending messages telling them they could not take the town by looking at it!

Both sides had excellent marksmen. The Dutch deliberately targeted women and children, according to Sir Arthur.

Baden-Powell maintained morale with comic shows, cricket matches and other sports and concerts. An ordnance factory was started in the railway workshops and kept busy manufacturing fuses, powder and shells. Eventually the factory produced a 5.5 inch smooth-bore gun that performed at good ranges with great accuracy. A force sent from Rhodesia was delayed by difficulties:

The force was originally raised for the purpose of defending Rhodesia, and it consisted of fine material pioneers, farmers, and miners from the great new land which had been added through the energy of Mr. Rhodes to the British Empire. Many of the men were veterans of the native wars, and all were imbued with a hardy and adventurous spirit. On the other hand, the men of the northern and western Transvaal, whom they were called upon to face, the burghers of Watersberg and Zoutpansberg, were tough frontiersmen living in a land where a dinner was shot, not bought. Shaggy, hairy, half-savage men, handling a rifle as a medieval Englishman handled a bow, and skilled in every wile of veldt craft, they were as formidable opponents as the world could show.

The big Boer gun repeatedly had to be moved farther from the English sharpshooters. But six months of resistance under great hardship and constant shelling drained Baden-Powell’s resources. As the inhabitants of the town ate locusts and the world looked on, the besiegers increased in number. Three hundred Boers entered the city at one point only to become pinned down by merciless rifle fire- with 117 Hollanders, Germans and Frenchmen taken prisoner within the city. The failed Boer attack was the last such attempt to be made and the siege was soon lifted. Baden-Powell became a hero and his manual, entitled “Aids to Scouting”, became so popular that in 1908 he rewrote it for young men and boys.

His manual became a best-seller and all over the world scouting groups were formed on an ad hoc basis. WW I started and Lord Kitchener averred that Baden-Powell was more valuable to the war effort leading the Boy Scouts. By 1922 there were at least a million scouts in 32 countries; 3.3 million in 1939. We should all thank men that lead the Boy Scouts and for countless NRA instructors that devote major portions of their lives to make it possible for marksmanship to continue as part of the Boy Scout heritage.

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