The Relief of Mafeking
17 May 1900
On 13 October 1899, only two days after the outbreak of war, Boer forces began to besiege the hamlet of Mafeking, located in northern Cape Colony only 13 kilometres from the Transvaal frontier. Under the command of Robert Baden-Powell, a charismatic cavalry officer, the tiny British garrison managed to hold out for the next eight months. Their resistance became a powerful symbol of British resolve during the bleak early months of the war.
In April 1900, with the Boers at last in retreat and on the defensive, the British began a major effort to relieve Mafeking. Two columns would converge on the town: one would march northwards from the British lines on the Modder River, while a second would strike south from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in conjunction with the Rhodesian Field Force commanded by Colonel Herbert Plumer.
The latter force required reinforcements, particularly in artillery, before it could proceed. Fortunately, "C" Battery, Royal Canadian Field Artillery, had recently arrived from Canada and was in the Cape Town area. Getting to Mafeking was no easy task. On 14 April, the battery, along with a squadron of Australian mounted rifles, boarded a ship bound for Beira in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). This was followed by a five-hundred-kilometre journey by train westward to Marandellas in Rhodesia and another five-hundred-kilometre trek to Bulawayo. From there, the gunners, augmented by mules and with Black South African drivers to draw the guns and ammunition wagons, set off again by rail, arriving at Ootsi, only 100 kilometres north of Mafeking, on 11 May. (The important contributions of these Black South African drivers has gone largely unnoticed for nearly a century.)
The Canadians' column linked up with the one coming from the south at Jan Massibi, about fifty kilometres west of Mafeking on the 15th. The next day, there was a sharp engagement with the Boers in which the four 12-pounders of "C" Battery won a lengthy artillery duel. Despite being both outnumbered and outranged, the Canadian gunners succeeded in driving the Boers from the road leading into Mafeking.
At 4:00 a.m. the next morning, 17 May 1900, Mafeking was relieved. The news set off an Empire-wide orgy of celebrations that added a new word to the English language: Maff'ick, meaning to exult riotously. In Mafeking, there was a special honour for "C" Battery. That night, the reply to a sentry's challenge was “Canada.”.