These pages have been prepared with financial assistance from the
Department of Veterans'

South Africa
Nature of the Boer War
Mafeking township
Relief of Mafeking
at Mafeking

Maffra, Victoria, Australia
News of Mafeking's relief
Weekend celebrations
Mafeking Hill Park

List of servicemen 

Boer War

Our thanks to Helen Hammer for making available to us the South Africa campaign medal of 342
Trooper E. Edwards, 4th Victorian Contingent.























Boer War Memorial,
Sale, Victoria]



































Page modified  14/06/2014

Mafeking (South Africa), the Boer War (1899-1902) and Maffra's connection

[Note: this is not a history of the Boer War but an explanation of Maffra's association with it]


South African Background








The nature of the Boer War

      To fully appreciate the "significance" of Mafeking it is important to understand what was actually happening in southern Africa during 1899 and thus why Mafeking’s relief in 1900 was such a psychological boost to Britain and her colonies, way out of proportion to its military value    
      The American Civil War, in which massive casualty numbers, use of heavy armament, trench warfare and civilian deaths were the norm, was a foretaste of things to come in the C20th. The Boer War tactics were, for the times, in some ways a military aberration. What we now call guerilla warfare was finally defeated by relatively large numbers of mobile, mounted troops, but only after the British army had suffered considerable embarrassment and been forced to re-think its tactics and call upon its colonial troops to bolster the home army. The horse too came into its own not all that long before technology made it effectively obsolete.

      Initially the Boer War pitted British military intransigence against Boer maneuverability; ponderously slow (though not large) traditional armies against smaller highly mobile guerilla bands; massed firepower against highly skilled sharpshooters. This is not to say that there were some traditional elements, but in the main this war was different.
     In effect, to start with neither side really had the means to fully defeat the other. Thus towns such as Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking, geographically isolated as they already were, were cut off relatively easily from the south, but the Boers did not have the tactical means to actually overwhelm a town even minimally fortified and vigorously defended. Nor did they have the long-term means to cut all communications.
     On the other hand the British forces were so organisationally cumbersome as to be unable to anticipate or catch up with the Boers, especially while under the command of General Sir Redvers Buller, a man of wide service experience and undoubted courage (he was an early VC winner) but who in his later years was promoted beyond his organisational abilities, and who ultimately became, unfairly, a scapegoat for early failure to satisfy British expectations of an easy victory.

     The economics of southern Africa created an added complication. Cecil Rhodes demanded that Kimberley, with its (or his) diamond mines be relieved first, even though it was not high on the military priority list. Rhodes, the Kerry Packer of his day, generally got his own way though, given his vast wealth and political influence.
     The attempted relief of Kimberly, independent of any real campaign strategy, is typical of the way in which the first part of the war was conducted. The force sent to the relief almost immediately blundered into an ambush because the commanding officer was convinced that frontal attack was the only way to scare the daylights out of these rebel farmers. Incredibly he repeated exactly the same error two days later, with exactly the same result - British casualties and Boers nowhere to be seen. Three days after that the British force again tried a frontal attack and this time, because the Boers had got the picture, the British ran straight into barbed wire; for the third time the Boers took effective pot-shots and then disappeared. Tragically the barbed wire lesson was not learnt, with ghastly consequences fifteen years later in France and Belgium.
     The complete lack of success in this instance was but one of a series of losses and defeats for the British throughout 1899; unfortunately for the suffering troops it was typical too of the inability of the British officers to think laterally. As one commentator I read noted, the field officers weren’t incompetent as such, they were just being asked to operate in conditions totally unfamiliar to them under orders from commanders who were past their used-by date.

     The ultimate failure came with the battle of Spion Kop (24/25 January, 1900), sometimes referred to as "an acre of massacre". The British occupied that hill during the night, thinking to fire down upon a Boer camp after dawn. Came the morning and the British found they were on an exposed ridge only part way up the hill; the Boers were on the real top, having climbed there earlier in the night. Inevitably the British soldiers were picked off like flies or suffered from heat stroke as they lay crouched behind rocks waiting for the night again (a photo of the aftermath looks like the battlefield slaughter of the First World War).

     In other eras bad news could be delayed and kept from the general public at least for a time. The American Civil War became more readily before public consciousness because of the brilliant use of field photography (used again to stunning effect in the TV history of that war). The Boer War was subject to the telegraph and popular newspapers (the Falklands showed that it is possible to place a media black-out on a conflict, but it’s one of the few occasions that it’s actually happened).
     The British Empire had a pretty good idea of what was going on and how bad it was. Queen Victoria was not just unamused, she was deeply distressed and demanded something better be done. The British Empire was in dire need of "good news".
     Success only came when Buller was finally moved sideways and allowed to do what he was best at (fighting) after the British Establishment overcame its prejudice against "upstarts" and appointed a British Indian Army officer, General Roberts, to overall command. Roberts, unlike Buller, was not averse to taking the offensive on a broad scale, and did so first by sacking an alarming number of under-performing officers and by insisting on being given far more troops. Troop mobility was vastly improved by making extensive use of mounted infantry and cavalry. Appeal was also made, to good effect, for support from the newly independent colonies such as Australia and Canada. Within months British successes escalated and within the year the conventional war was effectively over, though continued guerrilla actions persisted into1902.

Mafeking - the town

     By no means the most significant victory militarily, but by far the most important psychologically, was the relief of Mafeking, both because it had caught the public’s imagination and because it was the first real success. Never mind that the truth bore little resemblance to what people wanted to believe.
     Mafeking was the northernmost town in the Cape Colony, for Europeans a lonely outpost in the middle of the veldt. It had earlier been the jumping off place for various raids by Cape Colonists into the Boer territory of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal but was otherwise undistinguished. The town consisted of a collection of tin houses (cf Kalgoorlie or Broken Hill in about the same era) and was not formally fortified. Its main purpose was as a railway terminus and service centre. In 1899 its European population was approximately 1,700, including a troop of soldiers; the African population swelled to approximately 7,000 as essentially pro-British farmers and graziers left their kraals for the assumed protection of the town as the Boers harried the region.
     The town’s great asset was Robert Baden-Powell, the British officer who happened to be billeted with his troops in the town when it was first cut off. A 43 year old colonel, he had no formal military training but was able to muster a defence sufficient to ensure that the town was not over-run or even invested for long. It was his personality, though, which made him perfectly equipped to keep a population in hand while it waited out the time before relief. He was said to be personable, entertaining, theatrical, an artist, a practical joker. He was also a writer, his best known book Reconnaissance and Scouting becoming the subsequent inspiration for the Scouting movement. He was a spin doctor’s dream. And it has to be admitted that he was also a very good self-publicist and after Mafeking that paid off handsomely.
     A comment in the Maffra Spectator (17/05/1900) unconsciously reveals just a little of the underlying suffering which did occur but which was hidden as it involved the indigenous population.  "Advices from Pretoria state that Mafeking has again been attacked, and the native quarter is reported to have been burnt down."  This, as we know now, was little more than hours before the relief, and after nearly forty weeks of safety. The Africans played a significant part in the defence (200+ were killed, far more than the defending Europeans) but were barely mentioned during and especially after the "siege"; both Boers and British tried to perpetuate the myth that this was a "white man’s war" and both sides, though intent on slaughtering each other, were loathe to arm Africans. In the aftermath of the euphoria at the raising of the siege, £29,000 was contributed to a relief fund in England to assist in the rebuilding of the town, yet not one penny was given to the Africans to compensate for their deaths, loss of farm land, etc.

Mafeking - the relief

     Mafeking was officially relieved on 17th May, 1900, after a "siege" of 271 days, initially by a nine-man advance party in the early evening, followed by the main column later that night. Popular imagination seemed to assume great privation and constant bombardment during those days. In fact, although the town was definitely cut off from physical contact with the south for the duration, it was only directly under threat occasionally - in the first few weeks and ironically a few days before rescue. When relieved, there was still an adequate supply of provisions and morale was high. It’s even been reported that on the actual day of rescue the inhabitants, having become aware of the approaching British troops in the distance, returned to complete a billiards competition before they went out to welcome their saviours. Appearances had to be kept up to the last.
   The relief was achieved after some sharp fighting by two columns, one commanded by Colonel Mahon, the other by Colonel Plummer.  Mahon's was comprised mainly of troopers from the Cape Colony plus a small, but significant token number of British and Imperial troops, including some from Queensland.  Plummer's force also contained Canadian artillery and Australian infantry, who were called upon particularly later in the campaign.
   Much to Plummer’s chagrin, nine troopers from Mahon's column, led by a Major Davies, took the initiative and dashed ahead of the relieving force to claim the honour of being the first to enter the town.  Several of those Queenslanders were included in the nine.
     Irrespective of the military importance of the relief, one thing is certain. The British Empire went ballistic with excitement and self congratulation, even if the inhabitants of Mafeking itself were fairly laid back. Anyway, now they were rescued they hardly mattered. British pride had been restored by British pluck and stoicism and that did matter. Queen Victoria was overjoyed; her Prime Minister was considerably more relieved than Mafeking; the "hero" Baden Powell was promoted to major-general (the youngest ever in the British army) and later made a peer.

The Mafeking aftermath

     One subsequent "claim to fame" that can be attributed to Mafeking after the relief was barely mentioned during the Boer War and has been largely ignored since.
     With the relief of all threatened towns completed, the task of mopping up pockets of resistance began. Reminiscent of the Highland Clearings of the C18th, little mercy was shown on either side, and it was at this time that the infamous "Breaker Morant" incident involving the shooting of Boer prisoners by Australian troopers occurred in neighbouring Rhodesia.
     As part of this campaign Lord Kitchener, formerly Roberts’ second-in-command and now in charge, expanded the policy of rounding up Boer women and children and concentrating them in camps beside railway terminals. These 'concentration camps' were supposed to be run on military lines, which, given the troops’ experiences, was no great recommendation. There is no evidence at all to suggest that what we now call "ethnic cleansing" was either Roberts' or Kitchener’s intention, but so many died of disease in these camps that it had the same effect.  Add to this the later policy of farm burning and it is not hard to understand the deep hatred of the British which abided for decades.
     According to reports from English philanthropic groups which sent out observers, Mafeking, because of its particular isolation and the ravages of typhoid fever, was the worst camp of all.  In October 1902 alone. for example, the death rate exceeded 30%.  Modern day TV images of African refugee camps suggest that little has changed.

     From what I can gather, the colonial troops generally arrived after the initial successes. Maffra’s best known Boer War participant was Norman McLean, son of Allan McLean (a Maffra resident who became Premier of Victoria in 1899 and in1901 Gippsland’s first Federal parliamentarian).