African Seeds

Baden-Powell's game of Bluff



Mafeking - Baden-Powell's game of Bluff

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.

But Baden-Powell was in charge of the defense, and he was an expert at the "Game of Bluff".

The Butterfly Hunter

Many years before Mafeking, B-P had disguised himself as a butterfly hunter in Dalmatia, and spied on the forts and defenses of the enemy. Whenever he met an enemy soldier,
`with my sketch book in had, I would ask innocently whther 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 thourroughly sympathised with the mad Englishman who was hunting insects.'
What the officers did not notice was that Baden-Powell's sketches of butterfly wings included maps of their own forts and defences...

Warning: landmines!

One of the first priorities was to prevent the Boers from storming the town, because they could easily overpower the flimsy Mafeking defence. But Baden-Powell deduced that the Boers were afraid of minefields...

So, to confirm the Boer fears, B-P got strings of the town's inhabitants to carry metal boxes around the town, with dire warnings not to drop or bump them. Hundreds of these were buried on the outskirts of the town, and the areas marked with warnings for the inhabitants and cattleherds 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!

Many searchlights

In the town when the siege began was a traveller who made acetylene lamps. Baden-Powell and Sergeant Moffatt put him to work in creating a searchlight: by soldering together two biscuit tins, and inserting an acetylene burner with a rubber tube supplying the gas. This was attached to a sharpened pole which could be stuck into the ground.

The first night the searchlight was put into use. 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...

Unfortunately the searchlight did not last long: the supply of carbide was soon destroyed, either in a fire caused by a Boer shell, or by flooding after a rainstorm.

Two more guns

The same bluff was also used with the town's small supply of guns. B-P 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.

But Mafeking soon added to its own limited heavy artillery: an ancient cannon was found being used as a gatepost. The gun was soon 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 board ... 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 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: Impeesa, the Wolf that never sleeps.

Barbed Wire

Soon B-P ran out of barbed wire to protect his soldiers' trenches. But he 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 pretned to crawl under the new `obstacles' they had erected... The enemy had no way of telling that there was no wire in place.

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