A copy of a letter by Robert Bradshaw Clarke URRY

written during the siege of Mafeking

This letter has been very kindly submitted by Sue Munro who is Roberts granddaughter,

Mafeking, 13th December 1899

My Dear Emily,

I am writing this letter under peculiar circumstances. I do not know it if will ever reach you because at present we are completely cut off from the outer world and are undergoing a siege.

We have been shelled by the Boers for six weeks and have been cut off for two months. The shelling is not always very hot, but occasionally they appear to put new energy into their work and drop 40 or 50 shells into the town in the course of a day, but up to the present with small loss of life.

Of course you know that Fanny and three children left here in September and Minnie with three children in October. Minnie left by the last train that left here, as on the following day the rails were torn up north and south of us by the Boers.

On Saturday, I think, it was the 14th October, the Boers attacked us from the north intending to take the town. They were met by our armoured train with a maxim and other guns on board, and by about 100 men of the protectorate regiment in fact two troops, one under Cape Fitzclarence and the other under Lord Bentinck. The Boers were very badly beaten, although in large force. They were chased by our men and ran like bucks. Our loss was two men killed and seven or eight wounded. The wounded are I believe now all back at their duty. The Boer loss is believed to have been 53 men killed and a proportionate number wounded. This is borne out by native spies and by a railway ganger who came in after the fight.

Two other attempts were made by the boers to attack. One was made on of or our forts (sic), a fort which is the key to the strength of Mafeking. This fort which is on a hill over looking the town, was occupied by about forty five of the B.S.A. Police with a Maxim. The Boers first shelled the fort with a 94 pounder and other guns, during the firing of the big guns our men at the fort were under cover in their trenches and were fairly safe, but on the Boers storming the position they (our men) had to leave their trenches, which unfortunately were outside of the fort and in proceeding to the fort from the trenches had to expose themselves for a sort (sic) space of time, when some of the our men were killed. During the fight Lieut. Pechell and Cape. The Hon. D. Marsnam were killed. The Boers, 700, were driven off with heavy loss.

The other attempt was an attack on the town when the Boers shelled us with five guns including the 94 pounder and in the afternoon attacked us in several places. They were again beaten off.

Owing to the peculiar life we are leading I am somewhat mixed up as to dates and I will roughly give you the different events which have been taken down in a diary.

12th October. Boers pulled up rails. Train with some women and children for the south had to return to Mafeking.

13th October. Martial law proclaimed. Two trucks of dynamite which it supposed through treachery of Boer agents in Mafeking in our Government employ were left on the rails at the station, were discovered and were sent up the line as far as they could be taken (about seven miles), when the driver coming on the Boers uncoupled the trucks, left the dynamite and came back to town in record time. The boers fired into the dynamite when a tremendous explosion took place. There were several tons of dynamite. It is believed that it blew up some boers.

Saturday 14th Oct. The boers made an attack on the town (already alluded to) when they were beaten.

Sunday No firing all quiet.

Monday 16th Boers put a gun into position about four miles off and shelled the town. 64 shells were put in. Result one chicken killed and one dog wounded. Flag of truce then sent in by boers by an English Colonel “Everitt” of Tarkastad called upon us to surrender to prevent further bloodshed. Everett came towards our fort, was blindfolded by order of our commanding officer Col Goold Adams and taken to Headquarters to interview Col Baden Powell, who told the Boer Commandant to go on shelling

Boers on this day cut off our water supply

Tuesday 17th and following days were quiet beyond fighting at the outposts. On Saturday Cronje the Boer General, sent in to say this if we did not surrender in 48 hours he would shell the town with big guns which were coming from Pretoria.

Sunday 22nd Quiet day. Towards evening a big gun arrived for the Boers which they mounted 4 miles south of the town.

Monday 23rd Boer small guns fired a few shells into the town. In the afternoon the big gun started and caused much consternation, but we soon got used to it and found beyond striking a few buildings which were wrecked, no loss of life occurred.

Tuesday 24th Small guns i.e. 7 and 9 pounders fired shells at us at intervals and the big gun which we call “Old Greitjie” sent in 40 shells. A few buildings were damaged.

Wednesday 25th Oct. Was a great day. Five guns started shelling us early including “Greitjie” and shelled until 4 p.m. About 130 shells were fired into us. We are unable to return the fire as our guns are seven pounders and maxims, a Hotchkiss and a Nordenfeldt, which do not carry nearly so far as the Boer guns.

Our guns are used whenever the Boers come within range.

Thursday 26th Oct. A few shots from “Greitjie”. Boers busy making trenches about 2000 from the town.

Friday 27th Oct. Capt Fitzclarence went out at night with 63 men of the Protectorate Regt. and rushed the trenches at the point of the bayonet. The Boers were completely taken by surprise as our men were upon them before they knew it and hardly had time to open fire before Fitzclarence was amongst them with the bayonet. The enemy lost about 80 men. Our loss was six killed and seven wounded. After the bayonet charge the Boers started firing at their own men in the confusion, hence their heavy loss. It is estimated that about 40 were killed by the bayonet and the others by their own fire. Most of the bayonets of our men were covered with blood. The Boers kept up a terrific maxim and rifle fire for some time after, shooting currently at the stars. There would be lull and they would start firing for all they were worth.

One of Fitzclarence’s men diving the firing and just after the bayonet charge, came bounding over the bags of our fort managing to pass our sentry. He was hatless and without his gun. He was in a terrible state of excitement. His vocabulary was very choice. We concluded that he had thought discretion was the better part of valour and had retired before the bayonet charge took place. However this was mere conjecture.

Saturday 28th October Boers busy burying their dead. Greitjie as usual sent in 94 lb shells. The smaller guns assisting.

29th and 30th Nothing eventful with exception of usual shelling on 30th.

Tuesday 31st Boers attacked for when Lieut. Pechell and Capt. Marsham were killed, as previously referred to. During this fight our seven pounders from the town put several shells into the advancing Boers. Cronje, son of General Cronje, was wounded by us and has since died. It is believed that several Boers went home after this fight.

During the whole of November up to the present date the Boers have continued to shell us and to rain bullets into the town. We have lately lost some men from the shellfire and one or two people have been hit by bullets.

The Bank premises up to the present have been knocked about a lot. One 94lb shell struck the office in the front almost completely wrecking it.

Part of shell came through the front bedroom bringing down the ceiling. Another fragment came through the children’s bedroom, making a big hole in the wall. The outside walls are riddled with bullets and particles of shells. Bullets have come through the drawing room window, the kitchen window and one struck the front door, another the bathroom door and they still continue to come. All the women and children are in larger, which the Boers are not supposed to shell although they have an occasional shell fired at them. All the townsmen are doing duty in the forts as ordinary Tommy Atkins’s. I belong to de Kock’s fort and did duty as a private for one month at the fort. I found the life a very hard one. The sentry go at all hours in all sorts of weather. Thunder, lightning and in rain. Want of sleep and food cooked by our own men, no bath in the morning. Sleeping in clothes, perhaps changing once a week, no shaving. Altogether it was no picnic. I had very often to some from the fort to the bank under fire do business for the military authorities. So arranged with Col Vyvian and Major Goold Adams to be detailed for special duty at the bank where I am not located, but not in the house. I occupy a dugout in the yard about five feet deep covered with railway rails, timber and sandbags with about three feet of earth on top. This is how we all live now. In the forts and elsewhere. The officers of the staff have a very excellent bombproof dugout. We are fairly safe so long as a big shell does not actually strikes the dwelling. My first experience of shellfire was on the first Monday before alluded to. We were all in the fort about 40 of us, and every time the shells whistled over us burst near us, we all with one accord bowed ourselves to the ground very flat.

We became quite experts at it. We then had no covered-in trenches but shortly after the commencement of shellfire we had proper covered-in trenches made, which has minimizes the loss of life. I am now writing this on my table in my trench at the bank. The furniture in the trench consists of a bed on the ground, a washstand for a table, a chair. I now sleep on a bed in my room in my clothes and come into the trench when there is any heavy shellfire on.

We do not mind the 7 and 9 pounders now so much, but decidedly object to Greitjie. She generally ceases to fire at dusk and then at about 7.30 to 9.30 she gives us a parting shot. We are in a state of expectation until she goes off and then we are comparatively free until four or five o’clock next morning. This necessitates our rising very early to be in readiness to take cover. The Boers are very good in not shelling after dark. They have however done so on two occasions which makes it rather awkward. They also do not fight on Sundays so that we clean up on Sundays, go to the club and church, have open air concerts, gymkhana’s, sports. People do their shopping. Cricket and football matches are played. On Sunday before last the Wesleyan parson played in a football match.

I was informed that we shot a Boer a day or two ago. Our men snipe the Boers whenever they see anything to shoot at. Our snipers are of course in trenches outside of the forts which encircle the town, and continually fire at the Boers who of course return the fire, so that musketry fire is heard all day long pretty.

We have a small printed slip issued every evening with the new of the day and with general orders. The news is very scanty and is generally about a month old.

Being under martial law means that the officer comdg. has absolute power to do anything he chooses. We are to all intents and purposes soldiers of the Queen. The Legion that was never listed. I admire Col Baden Powell. I think that he is one of England’s coming Generals. Have you read his book on Matabeleland? His Chief Staff Officer is Lord Cecil. Captain Nilson of the Blues is also on the staff. His wife, Lady Sarah Nilson, was taken prisoner by the Boers while on her way to Mafeking from a farm down south, where she had been staying for a time. Lady Sara was taken by the Boers to their laager just outside of Mafeking and kept a prisoner for some days, when the Boers sent into the Colonel stating that Lady Sarah was in their hands and asking for an exchange. After much negotiation and the coming and going of number white flags an exchange was at last arranged. The prisoner given in exchange for Lady Sarah was a convict in gaol here undergoing hard labour for the crime of inciting natives to rebel.

Lady Sarah has not had an underground room built, ceiled and contilated, where she will be perfectly safe from shellfire.

It is amusing to hear the “narrow squeaks” as they are called, everybody has had. They are no doubt true in a great many cases. I am not the exception to the rule.

December 16th Shelling still continues every day. This morning at 2.30 a.m. the Boers fired into the town. They have never done this before at such an hour. They fired a 94 lb shell as a commencement which knocked down part of the front of Dixons Hotel. Col Baden Powell and staff are living at Dixons. This is the first shell which has struck Dixons, although the Boers have tried to hit the hotel several times previously but up to day it has remained unhurt. The 94lb shell was followed by other guns, some of the shells came over the bank. We are staying in the Bank at the back at the time. The first gun was fired at 2.30a.m. and at once went down to our trench and remained there until about six. Our small guns, 7 pounders at the largest we have, started firing at the Boer trenches as soon as the big gun went off and put in about twenty shells. I must explain that the Boer trenches are about 1700 yards distant. The big gun is over three miles off or about that, so that our guns cannot reach the big gun. The trenches being within range and being full of Boers with mausers who fire into the town all days, we shelled then as a sort of retaliation and appeared to quiet them. The big gun however fired about eleven shots at our guns and our men apparently thought it wise to stop firing as the explosion of the big shells is tremendous and dangerous.

We looking forward to tomorrow, Sunday, when we have the luxury of a tub and a shave.

Sunday 17th Dec. Church at 20.30 a.m. About 30 men of Lord Bentinck’s troop marches to church. Polomatch in afternoon. Weather oppressively hot, so did not attend. Went to the hospital to visit the sick. Saw Goodyear, Gevians (?) and Martin. Goodyear is laid up with a bullet wound right through his thighbone and is getting on nicely. Gervians who is a blacksmith, suffering from the effects of an explosion. There is a regular craze here for collecting unexploded shells and seeing that the Boers have fired about two thousand shells into the town, the number of unexploded shells is large. The first thing one does on securing an unexploded shell is to endeavour to have the charge extracted, a very dangerous proceeding. However, Gerrans had successfully drawn the charges of several shells. Although he had been warned of the dangerous nature of the work, he did not seem to realize that there was any danger in it and on about completing the extraction of the contents of a 94 lb shell , it exploded, killing a man named Smith, who happened to be passing at the time and shattering the foot of Gerrans’s man. Gerrans had some of his fingers blown off and his legs were riddled with particles of shell. He will not lose any of his limbs.

Martin is suffering from Rheumatism, the effect of sleeping in the trenches.

After dinner at Dixons went to Bells per invitation where a numerous crowd had assembled. Lord Cecil came in during the evening of what a splendid scout Col Baden Powell is. He wears a peculiar kind of shoe which is noiseless and is very seldom in be at night. His time for sleeping being 9 – 11 in the morning. He is said to have been right up to the Boer trenches about 2 miles out i.e. where the big gun is placed.

18th As I am writing this the Boer 5 lb Armstrong gun is lobbing shells into the town. They do not do much damage unless they actually hit you and a great many of them do not explode. The big gun and other Boer guns have been very silent this morning.

19th Our seven pounders started shelling the Boer trenches at 5 a.m. this morning. The three maxims of ours also joined in. The 7 pounders fired about twenty shells, I hear, with accuracy. The Boer gun returned the fire to our poor little seven pounders but did no damage. They also fired their one pound maxim at us. This one pound maxim carries a one pound shell, she is about two miles away. We are in hopes of hearing of reinforcements soon. This is the 67th day that we have been cut off.

Firing in the distance this afternoon by our maxim evidently at Major Godleys camp on the west side of the town.

20th Dec Morning. Riflefire kept up at intervals, bullets whizzing past but nearly all high. No big guns on the job. Discovered that two more fowls have been stolen making six minus since the siege. Soldiers of the Queen I expect. Locking up fowls tonight as eggs are very dear and if we are not relieved before 1901 the fowls may come in handy before we get on to the horses, dogs, etc.

A swarm of locusts passed over the town this forenoon the largest I have ever seen. They have eaten everything almost that is green. They appear to be going towards the Transvaal. Weather very warm. In the afternoon firing heard in the distance at Canon Kopje which turned out to be our Nodenfeldt firing at the Boer big gun at 1500 yards. The Boer one pound maxim replied. The Big gun only fired one shot.

21st Usual rifle firing at intervals by Boers into town, a death like stillness prevails at present.

An old cannon which was used by the Boers against the natives here about 15 years ago has been brought to light and is now in the course of being put in order. Is said to be a 16 pounder and carries a solid iron cannon ball. It will be interesting to know hat the first shot will do, and how far it will carry.

My boy states that this gun was taken from the Boers by the natives. The Big gun fired one shot into the market square again damaging Riesle’s Hotel. Rifle firing very hot in the afternoon.

Had the usual visitors in the afternoon, Weir, Bolus who brought Stag and with them this time.

With reference to the big gun which we are putting in order, referred to above. I am informed that this gun was not taken from the Boers by the Natives, but was purchased by the natives for 500 head of cattle. It is, I believe, very old fashioned and resembles those used by Nelson in days gone by.

In which it gives a graphic description of the relief of Mafeking.

Coming events casting shadows etc. Usual rifle fire this morning and an occasional shell from the Boer 5 pounders.

I wile some of my time away by playing chess with Bolus,. He is however a poor player. Xmas day is to be observed tomorrow the 24th as the Boers do not recognize Xmas but generally give us a rest on Sunday. There is to be morning market at 6 am sports at 11. and service in all the churches with carol singing in the evening. A Xmas tree for the children is to be erected in the Masonic Lodge when Lady Sarah Wilson will give away presents to the children which have been provided by Mr Weil.

This afternoon the Boer one pound maxim fired into the town several times, and heavy volleys of bullets were also fired by the Boers. Major Bailey, I hear, got a bullet in the head whilst riding about. It is reported to have grazed his head so he will probably get over it. This is the second time he has been hit. On a former occasion a bullet struck his water bottle. He was then riding out to our troops on the day of the first fight when the Boers fired volleys at him and shot his horse. He says that he felt something damp trickling down his back and found that his water bottle was leaking, a bullet having gone right through it. He made for the armoured train which was near at hand.

I had an afternoon out with him on the day of the heavy shelling. He with three others volunteered to go and take up a position on the recreation ground on the day of the heavy shell firing. It put one in mind of fireworks only was somewhat dangerous none of us ducked we had eventually to take cover in a trench near the convent where we remained until the shelling slacked off.

I hear that Major Bailey was not wounded by a bullet, but had a fall from his horse at polo and received a cut in the head; this gave rise to the report that he was wounded by a bullet.

Sunday 24th Church at 10.30 good attendance. About 20 men of Col ? Horse regiment present. Had an excellent dinner at Bells Whitely and Harland Bill and Mr Bell and myself. Champagne and roast pheasant, plum pudding, and grapes. Not bad for siege times. The Xmas tree at the Masonic Lodge a great success. The band played very well. Crowds of people outside wagonettes loaded with children drove through the streets. Sports were held recreation ground. Tea at Bells in the evening ? Minchin, ? Geunnel ? Conan and whitely and Mr Bell. Church at 7.30 Chruch decorated Large congregation carol singing our maxim at one of our east forts was fired through an error on the Boers.

25th Colonel Baden Powell sent out a flag of truce this morning with a message apologising for firing on Sunday as this against the arrangement made in reference to Sunday fighting.

It has been arranged to have a quiet day the Boers agreeing not to fire so we can have out dinner in peace.

Copyright© Sue Munro 2008