Of the half-hearted measures taken by the War and Colonial Offices in 1899, when a war with the Transvaal seemed to be more probable every day, one of the most intelligent was the commissioning of R. Baden-Powell, who had formerly served in Bechuanaland and had recently commanded the 5th Dragoon Guards, to “organize the defence of the Bechuanaland and Rhodesia frontiers.” It would neither involve a great expenditure of money, nor be likely to wound the susceptibilities of the Transvaalers, who might be provoked by more vigorous and minatory measures: and thus little harm would be done if after all it were found to be an unnecessary precaution.
For these reasons it commended itself to Pall Mall, but its chief merit was that it sent to South Africa a capable, versatile and zealous soldier, whose mind did not run in the grooves. Yet if Baden-Powell had been sent to Kimberley instead of to Mafeking, Kimberley would probably have fallen—after an outbreak of civil war within the lines between him and Rhodes. It would have been impossible to insulate the personal electricity with which each of them was so highly charged, and short circuiting must have occurred.
The object of the contemplated display upon the Bechuanaland and Rhodesia frontiers was twofold. They ran through the indefinite border belt which separated black from white territory, and activity on them would not only be witnessed by the tribes and exert an impressive influence on the native mind, but would also draw away the Boers and prevent them concentrating their forces. The central position of Mafeking on the Western line, and the stores and supplies which had been collected in the town, attracted Baden-Powell to it. It was singularly ill-adapted to hold defensively against an active enemy.
In spite of recruiting difficulties raised by the Facing-both-Ways Ministry at Capetown, which in a less tolerant and philosophic age would at once have been swept away by a storm of indignation, he raised two irregular regiments: the Rhodesian Regiment, which was sent into Rhodesia under Plumer, and the Protectorate Regiment under Hore.
The Cape Ministry did what it could to prevent the Protectorate Regiment going to Mafeking, and the corps was in fact mustered outside the Cape Colony, and only entered the town a few days before war was declared. As at Kimberley, so also at Mafeking, the Schreiner sect set itself placidly to thwart the gentle and tentative early efforts of the British Government to deal with the situation.
When P. Cronje appeared before Mafeking, Baden-Powell had a force of less than 1,200 men, none of whom were regular soldiers and less than half of whom were efficiently armed, with which to sustain the siege of an open town by 7,000 Boers. He had also four small field guns of obsolete pattern, to which were added later on a home-made howitzer and an ancient man-of-war’s smoothbore, which had left the foundry during the Napoleonic wars. In its youth it had probably fought the French through a porthole, and now having in the interval trekked across the South African veld into the possession of a native tribe, was discovered in a Baralong kraal, restored to active service, and, mounted on a Dutch wagon, aided in the defence of a little settlement 400 miles away from the sound of the sea.