Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

5. Cocoa with Baden-Powell

On the morning of 4 May 1900, nearly a thousand British and Colonial troops left Barkly West near Kimberley on a forced march to Mafeking that was expected to take thirteen days. The commander of the column, Colonel Bryan Mahon, (68) had on his staff a number of officers with a special interest in the proceedings. These included Major Baden F.S.Baden-Powell, brother of the defender of Mafeking; Major Sam Weil, who also had a brother inside the besieged town, in his case a representative of the family firm that held the concession for Mafeking’s food supplies; and Colonel Frank Rhodes, whose more famous brother Cecil had recently been under siege in Kimberley. There were five correspondents with the column: Filson, Pollock, John Stuart of the Morning Post, Charles Falconer of the Daily Telegraph and Charles Hands of the Daily Mail. Mafeking was a small frontier town of no strategic importance, and it has been argued that a commander with a less siege-fixated mentality than Robert Baden-Powell should have been able to break out without help, as the Boer investment was extraordinarily incompetent. Even after he was rescued from Mafeking, Baden-Powell had to be restrained by Roberts from promptly settling down to be besieged again in the next town he came to. And as a correspondent inside Mafeking during the siege remarked later, it was curious behaviour on the part of the cavalry to shut themselves up in the town and begin eating their horses.(69) But at home, the government’s spin-doctors drew a different picture, feeding the public with stories of the jaunty heroism of the besieged during their 217-day ordeal, so that when news of the relief finally came, the celebrations throughout Britain were so extreme that the word ‘mafficking’ was added to the language to describe them. The challenge thrown out by the two little Boer republics had shaken the belief of the British in their own invincibility, and Buller’s reverses in Natal could not be forgotten until something could be presented to the man and woman in the street as proof that the British capacity for endurance and heroism was as great as ever, and British arms still ultimately invincible. The evacuation of Dunkirk performed a similar function in 1940.

Mahon’s column reached Vryburg, the last town before Mafeking, after a march of 122 miles in six days. At Vryburg they were allowed a day’s rest, Filson restraining himself with difficulty from buying useless objects like an axe or a mincing machine simply because he saw them on sale in the shops. He started a diary of the march to be posted home later (the Guardian would publish it in June). When they left Vryburg on May 10 they unexpectedly had to march eight hours that night and three next morning (22 miles in all) before either men or animals could find water. So it went on, at ‘a certain cost to mule and horse flesh’. And when they did reach a watering place it would often prove to be nothing more than a small ‘pan’ (Afrikaans for ‘pond’), and the thirsty mules would wade straight in, churning up mud which the men then had to drink. Not only this, but the authorities in Kimberley had not provided enough fodder for the animals.

Filson observed the march routine. Mahon and his staff rode in front of the guns, discussing such matters as how to deploy scouts and patrols and the best places for a brief rest. Once an hour the command ‘Halt!’ would pass down the column and the great serpent winding through the countryside would come to a stop. The men would have five minutes to lie down and let their horses crop grass before more commands filtered down: ‘Stand to your horses!’ ‘Prepare to mount!’ ‘Mount!’ ‘Walk march!’, and with scouts feeling their way through the bush three miles ahead, the serpent would be off again. A communication problem arose when a runner arrived from Mafeking from Baden-Powell, who wanted to know the size of the column, the number of its guns and the extent of its supplies. No code existed that both relief column and besieged garrison shared, so it was up to Colonel Frank Rhodes, as intelligence officer, to concoct an original message for the runner to take back:

Our numbers are the Naval and Military multiplied by ten; our guns, the number of sons in the Ward family; our supplies, the O.C. 9th Lancers.

It was assumed the Boers, if they intercepted the message, would not be able

to work out that the address of the Naval and Military Club was 94 Piccadilly, that there were six sons in the noble Ward family, and that the 9th Lancers were commanded by a Colonel Small-Little. (70)

On Sunday 13th the column was nearing Mafeking and resting at a watering place known as Kraaipan, when the Boers attacked. Afterwards Filson wrote a graphic account in his diary:

… the afternoon being very hot, I lay down under a tree and left my horse to graze. A cloud of locusts flying high and beating the air with millions of wings made a pleasant sound as of wind in a forest, and listening to these and to the thousand other minute noises that proceed from the insect life on a few square yards of veldt, I almost fell asleep. There was not a sound from the column; you could not imagine a more peaceful spot; and the obvious contrast between the purpose of this little army and its present circumstances impressed me more vividly than ever. And in less than half an hour from that moment of absolute peace the bullets were hailing round us and the air was resonant with the boom of guns …

It was … a bewildering moment for [Colonel Mahon], who had a great, bulky convoy to protect, and had it at the moment in a defenceless position … The shots were sounding quicker, but one could see nothing except the surrounding trees. Colonel Mahon looked coolly round.

‘We must try with the guns,’ he said, and ordered another squadron out on the right.

The orderly rode away with the order, and at exactly five o’clock the fire broke out furiously and bullets began to whistle over us. Everyone put his horse into a canter by instinct … I returned to the convoy to look after my cart.

The convoy was moving on now on as broad a front as the shrubs and trees would permit of; it raised a cloud of dust, which the level rays of the sun lit like a rainbow, and the bullets began to come in a hail. Well, that is rather exaggerated – not a hail. But on a summer day after oppressive heat and dark clouds the raindrops begin to splash on the ground; and this fire, which many old stagers who have been through several fights describe as the hottest they have known, was something like that. There was no cover; everyone was under fire; so there was nothing to do but to dismount and lead one’s horse along beside the convoy. Every now and then with the clear high ‘phit’ of the mauser bullet would come the hideous twisting whistle of the martini – really a horrible sound. There was something like panic among the native drivers; they walked along bent almost double, taking what shelter they could; one I saw crawling along on his belly, and the sight made me laugh, although I had at heart too much sympathy with him to be really amused. The mules and horses, alarmed by these strange whistlings in the air, began to neigh and scream, and they added to the general tumult. One gave up wondering whether or no one would be hit, but merely wondered whether it would be a graze or a ‘plug’. Thjere were the usual number of miraculous escapes; the driver of the wagon beside which I was walking tumbled off his seat like a sack, stone dead; a mule in the wagon behind me leapt and kicked, and sank on the ground; my horse jumped as a Martini bullet smote the sand at his heel; yet I think there was never a bullet nearer me than a dozen feet. Major Baden-Powell, who is accompanying the expedition for his brother’s relief, had his watch, worn in the left breast-pocket, smashed to atoms, but his skin was not even scratched.

… Only ten minutes of fighting, and over thirty casualties; six killed, twenty-four wounded, one missing.

But when one had been through those ten minutes, it was not the men lying stark and still in the grass beside the ambulance that made one astonished; it was the sight of people walking about and talking that made one wonder whether or no one had been dreaming. It was decided to halt. Everyone lay down where he stood, and it was a strange, troubled night, with horses stumbling about in the moonlight and blowing with astonishment into one’s face. (71)

The  Boers had made off as soon as the British artillery opened fire. Among the casualties was Charles Hands of the Daily Mail, badly wounded at the beginning of the skirmish.

Mahon now made a detour to join up with another relief column, which had marched down from Rhodesia under the command of a Colonel Plumer. A third column, Carrington’s Canadians, the column Amery had wanted Filson to join for the Times, was in the middle of a remarkable forced march from Beira in Mozambique and would reach Mafeking just too late to take part in the relief. The combined forces of Mahon and Plumer, led by Mahon, moved off at daybreak on Monday 14th, expecting to get their first sight of Mafeking from every new rise in the road. Filson was buying eggs at a black village when somebody who had climbed a mound of rubbish shouted ‘There’s Mafeking!’ and there it was, a tiny cluster of white near the horizon, glistening amid the yellow-brown of the surrounding countryside. There was a moment’s silence, then Mahon said, ‘Well, let’s be getting on.’ When the column halted eight miles from Mafeking just after midday, they were attacked by some two thousand Boers who fought for five hours in a last attempt to stop their progress. As Filson watched, Boer artillery shells landed with uncanny accuracy wherever no one happened to be at the time. Eventually the Boers were beaten off. The British suffered less than forty casualties. It was decided not to approach Mafeking itself till next morning. But at midnight, to everyone’s surprise, the order came to advance after all, because a Major Karri Davies had ridden on ahead and been astonished to find the way to the town absolutely clear.

I think men were never so willingly awakened from sleep; not even the wounded grumbled, who had also to be roused from their beds on the grass and repacked into the stuffy ambulance. At about 12.30 we were ready to start, but during the first mile there were long halts and delays while the guides argued and boggled about the roads. At last the strain became too great, and Major Gifford, Captain Smith and I resolved to ride on and trust to finding the right road. We knew the direction by the stars, and started across the veldt a little south of east.

It was bitterly cold, and we were all both sleepy and hungry, but there was an excitement in the air that kept us easily going. After about half an hour we heard voices ahead, and descried the shapes of horses and men. Our hearts sank for a moment, only to rise again when we recognised Colonel Peakman, who, having been in command of the rear-guard on the previous day up till nine o’clock at night, was now taking his turn at advance guard at one o’clock the next morning. As a Kimberley man, it had long been his ambition to lead the relieving force into Mafeking, and I think no one grudged him the honour. Amongst all, indeed, there was a certain amount of competition, and the four correspondents who survived to the end of the expedition became strangely silent about their intentions for the evening. I pinned my faith to Peakman, as I knew he was as anxious as anyone to be in first.

Well, we joined the Advance Guard, which presently went on along the road pointed out by the guide, and for an hour we jogged on at a fast walk, until we had clearly ‘run the distance’, as they say at sea. Still no sign of the trenches or forts which should mark the outward boundary of the defended area. We pulled up, and the guide was questioned.

‘Two miles more,’ he said.

We rode on for another quarter of an hour, and still found nothing before us but the rolling veldt; not a light, not a sound except the beating of the horses’ feet. Again we halted, and this time Colonel Peakman himself questioned the guide, and the man had to admit that he had mistaken his way, and that we were on the lower road, longer by a good three miles than that originally intended. We had no connecting files with the main column, and, as it had a guide of its own, it was certain that it would take the shorter road, and probably be in before its own Advance Guard. A bitter moment, in which things were said to the guide; but some of us hoped that the slow convoy, with its tired and galled mules, would even yet take a longer time on its short road than we on our long one. So we went on again, this time at a trot; the excitement seemed to extend the horses, so that even they could not be restrained. In ten minutes we saw men sitting by the roadside, and found a hundred very weary Fusiliers, who had been sent to take Israel’s Farm at the end of the fight, and told to go on afterwards.

‘Had anyone passed along the road before us?’ ‘No’; and with a gasp of relief we hurried on. In a few moments the group in advance pulled up, shouting ‘’Ware barbed wire!’

We all stopped, and there were frantic calls for wire-cutters. With four reportslike the snapping of big fiddle-strings the last barrier before mafeking was removed, and we passed on again, this time at a hand-canter. In a few minutes we heard the sound of a galloping horse on the road, and a mounted man challenged us.

‘Halt! Who goes there?’


‘Who are you?’ (The excitement was too high for the preservation of the proper formula.)

‘Colonel Peakman, in command of the Advance Guard of the Relief Column.’

‘By Jove, ain’t I glad to see you, sir!’

It was an officer sent out by Colonel Baden-Powell to meet us and bring us in. We left the squadron, and the five of us went on, this time at a gallop, over trenches, past breastworks and redoubts and little forts, until we pulled up at the door of the headquarters’ mess.

Ah, the narrative is helpless here. No art could describe the handshaking and the welcome and the smiles on the faces of these tired-looking men; how they looked with rapt faces at us commonplace people from the outer world as though we were angels, how we all tried to speak at once, and only succeeded in gazing at each other and in saying ‘By Jove!’ ‘Well, I’m hanged!’ and the like senseless expressions that sometimes mean much to Englishmen. One man tried to speak; then he swore; then he buried his face in his arms and sobbed. We all gulped at nothing, until someone brought in cocoa and we gulped that instead; then Baden-Powell came in, and one could only gaze at him, and search in his jolly face for the traces of seven months’ anxiety and strain.

After an hour we went out and found the column safely encamped just outside the town. Everyone was dog-tired, and although it was half-past five in the morning and the moon was sinking we lay down and were immediately asleep – in Mafeking. (72)

When he woke Filson sent the Guardian two news telegrams. After all that had happened, it must have felt particularly sweet to be able to wire

I had the honour of being the first correspondent to enter Mafeking

It had been every correspondent for himself. Pollock mistaking a right-flank guard for the advance guard, had reached Mafeking in time to see Mahon meet Baden-Powell – but too late for cocoa, as Filson gleefully pointed out to him. The next day Filson wrote the account I have just quoted and posted it to the Guardian as soon as possible, together with two letters written earlier that described the march of the relief column. A month later the Guardian published the whole lot together, filling more than five close-printed columns. (73)

On 24 May Baden-Powell gave a lavish dinner for leading figures of town, garrison and relief column. Newspaper men were not invited, but two days later Pollock, Falconer, Stuart and Filson gave another dinner for Mahon and the ten senior officers of the relief column. Hands, still in hospital, sent a ‘cheery and amusing’ letter. When Pollock and Filson, some months later, each published his account of the campaign in book form, both reproduced the printed ‘bill of fare’ for this dinner. Whatever privations the inhabitants and garrison had suffered during the long siege (the blacks had suffered worst, some being executed for stealing goats and most having to shoot dogs for food), this menu shows that, for some at least, there was a good deal left in the larder (see illustration p xxx). The four correspondents present each proposed a toast, Filson coming last with ‘The Intelligence and Transport Officers’. Each man was limited to 150 words to which listening was compulsory plus, if he wished, 400 more to which listening was voluntary. However, despite such junketings, life in Mafeking soon became ‘dull beyond words’ for the new arrivals. When Mahon left town after eleven days on May 28, Filson and Pollock went with him. They marched south for four days, and instead of vintage wines it was back to drinking muddy water

churned up by mules’ hooves. They entered the Transvaal on June 3. Two days later, on his 24th birthday, Filson talked to an Afrikaner family who were terrified because ‘the kaffirs were jumping about’. In fact, the blacks were taking advantage of the confusion caused by the white man’s war to pay off old scores, and next day four were caught looting by a patrol and shot. On the same day a telegram reached Filson from Scott, recalling him to England. When he had sent this telegram, Scott sat down to write a long letter going over past misunderstandings and disagreements. Though still not satisfied with Filson’s explanations, he decided that, in the event, Filson had justified his behaviour by his work:

You have done us good service and I am very glad that things have turned out that way. I was sorry to wire a further recall the other day but I hope and believe that the war – apart from scattered resistance – is now practically over and I hope to recall Atkins also very soon. He will be glad when I do. You will understand my writing quite plainly. I think it best and most friendly. (74)

When this letter reached Cape Town Filson had already left for England and it didn’t catch up with him for six or seven weeks. He was one of the first to go, but within a fortnight most of the correspondents had been ordered home. While Mahon and his men had been recuperating in Mafeking, Roberts had supervised the annexation of the Orange Free State to the British Crown as the Orange River Colony, before marching into the Transvaal to take Johannesburg (May 31) and Pretoria (June 5). It all seemed so easy, and no one imagined that it would take Kitchener two more years to wear down the resistance of the Boer guerrillas. Not the last war in which a powerful invading force would seriously underestimate the strength and determination of local resistance. Filson now moved to Lichtenburg, forty miles south-east of Mafeking, where he spent three days packing up and preparing to leave for home. The ‘moving home’ was dismantled and Filson gave his horse ‘Little Bobs’ to Pollock who had just lost his own. On June 9 the column left Lichtenburg. Filson stood chatting to Mahon as he watched them pass, then rode back to Mafeking to write his last letter to the Guardian.


68 Colonel (later general Sir) Bryan Thomas Mahon (1862-1930) came from Galway and served in India, Egypt and the Sudan before leading the Mafeking relief column. He went on to serve in the Dardanelles during the First World War, and from 1916-18 was British commander-in-chief in Ireland, then from 1922 a Senator of the Irish Free State. Who’s Who listed his recreations as shooting, hunting, polo, pig-sticking and steeplechase-riding.

69 To me the whole affair of the siege was at the time, and always has been, an enigma: what in the world was the use of defending this wretched railway-siding and these tin shanties? To burrow underground on the very first shot being fired in a campaign, and to commence eating his horses, seemed to me the strangest role ever played by a cavalry leader with his regiment of mounted men… ( Montmorency, unpublished MS in PRO: WO 108.29, quoted in Gardner Mafeking, A Victorian Legend (1966), 198.

70 The Relief of Mafeking 237. Here Filson over-eggs the pudding. There was no such officer as ‘Colonel Small-Little’; the commander of the 9th Lancers was Colonel Malcolm Orme Little.

71 Manchester Guardian, 18 June 1900, reprinted in The Relief of Mafeking 239, 241-3 & 244.

72 Manchester Guardian, 18 June 1900, reprinted in The Relief of Mafeking 261-5

73 Manchester Guardian, 18 June 1900.

74 C.P.Scott to FY, 7 June 1900.

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