During the summer of 1899, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell of the British army found himself in a pickle. He’d been put in charge of making sure the British Empire retained her settlements in South Africa. Problem was, the nearby Dutch colonists—the Boers—were gearing up to seize them, and there were a lot more Boers than Englishmen in the area. To make matters worse, British government officials refused to send Baden-Powell more troops or supplies. They thought it would be best not to provoke the Boers by appearing ready for war.
Of course, Baden-Powell knew to always be prepared. He planned in secret for the imminent invasion, recruiting and gathering his own men and supplies. Rather than spread his troops far and wide, the colonel consolidated his limited forces in the inland town of Mafeking. He thought if he could hold onto the town long enough, he would be able to keep Boer troops away from the coast, where British reinforcements would eventually land.
When the Second Boer War erupted in October, the colonel and his 500 troops found themselves surrounded by 8,000 Boer soldiers. With little else in his arsenal, Baden-Powell engaged in the art of deception. If he could make the Boers believe that Mafeking was better defended than it really was, he figured he could keep them at bay.
And so the theatrics began. The 42-year-old colonel ordered his troops to act as though they were planting minefields, even though they had no mines. He ordered them to create gun turrets, even though they had neither the manpower nor the artillery to arm them. And to make the perimeter appear well guarded, Baden-Powell made his men pretend to avoid barbed wire along the edge of town. He even had them parade around at night with a fake searchlight made from a lamp and a biscuit tin.
While many of Baden-Powell’s strategies were based in make-believe, at least one of his tactics was rooted in reality.
He called upon a troop of 12- to 15-year-old boys from the town known as the Mafeking Cadet Corps. He then used this tiny army to relay messages, help out in the hospital, and act as scouts and guards.
Decked out in khaki uniforms and wide-brim hats, the young cadets traveled around town on donkeys. (Later, when food became scarce during the siege, the donkeys were eaten, and the boys switched to bicycles.) Their duties kept the boys busy and gave them a sense of purpose. More importantly, the Cadet Corps left the outnumbered British soldiers free to fight, effectively quadrupling their manpower.
Life in the Woods
What gave Baden-Powell the idea to use adolescent boys in battle? Well, he had a peculiar childhood. The son of a natural-history professor, Robert Baden-Powell grew up in a nature-loving family. When his father died in 1860, Robert was just 3 years old. His newly widowed mother was determined to make men of her five sons, so she pushed them to vigorously explore the outdoors. In fact, she once challenged her boys to travel on their own from their house in London to a rented cottage in Wales. After the brothers paddled a boat up the Thames by themselves, they hiked the remaining distance. Several days later, they arrived safely at the cottage, where their mother was waiting for them.
During their camping and boating adventures, the boys took as little with them as possible. They slept under hedges and haystacks, and they caught and cooked their own meals. In the end, the exercise not only taught them the skills to survive in the wild, but it also fostered a sense of independence and resolve. Baden-Powell knew that under the right circumstances, boys could be relied upon. And during the Siege of Mafeking, they proved invaluable.
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The siege lasted 217 days, and through it all, Baden-Powell managed the town’s defenses, explored enemy territory, made cannons from scrap metal, drew sketches of his surroundings, taught the cadets woodwork and camping, and organized cricket matches on Sundays. (He achieved so much that many of his troops believed he didn’t sleep.) Most impressively, he also found time to edit the pages of his book, Aids to Scouting—a guide to surviving in the wilderness that would later become the first manual for the Boy Scouts.
As the British press reported daily on the marathon siege in Mafeking, Baden-Powell became a household name. When British reinforcements finally arrived and freed the town in May 1900, Baden-Powell was praised as a hero. He was named the youngest major-general in the army, and 38 of his boy cadets were awarded medals from Queen Victoria. In Britain, the victory celebrations were so great that a new word entered the language to describe the parties—”mafficking.” Today, the term is still used in England to mean rejoicing.
Although Baden-Powell hadn’t intended Aids to Scouting for young boys, his newfound fame meant it quickly appeared on children’s nightstands across Great Britain. The colonel had long been concerned that new military recruits were clueless about basic outdoor survival techniques. He wrote the wilderness guide for them, but after witnessing the bravery of the Mafeking Cadet Corps, Baden-Powell recognized how much the book could mean to young people, too.
In 1908, Baden-Powell wrote a second version of Aids to Scouting just for children called Scouting for Boys. He had tested his ideas by leading a group of 22 boys on an expedition to Brownsea Island off the coast of England, where he taught them the skills of the outdoors. (This is known as the first official Boy Scout meeting.) Not surprisingly, the book became an instant best-seller, and Boy Scout troops spontaneously appeared all over Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Canada. In 1910, the first Girl Scouts joined the movement, and Baden-Powell quit the military to devote himself to scouting full-time. Under his care, more than 1 million scouts joined organizations in 32 countries in less than 12 years. Today, there are 30 million members worldwide, and the movement that began as a necessity of war shows no sign of slowing down.
This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.