Little Annie's Mafeking diary is discovered

Click to follow

Exactly 100 years ago, Annie Rayne, a Scottish girl, became caught up in the new century's first horror story, the Siege of Mafeking, which gripped the attention of Britain.

Her diary, which has just been unearthed in library archives, has revealed a remarkable account of survival through eating locusts, donkey flesh and oats collected from stable floors. Yet researchers for Angus Council in Montrose, where the diary written in a school jotter have been discovered, have been able to discover nothing more about the girl's identity than her age - she was 12 - and her name.

For 217 days, the Boer forces surrounded the British garrison in the dusty, sparsely populated northern Cape in what is now South Africa. When relief finally came, the celebrations in London were such that a new word "Maffick", meaning "to rejoice with hysterical boisterousness", entered the English language.

Annie's account describes how she arrived in Mafeking from Pretoria with her mother and a baby sibling. They were urged to go there by Annie's uncle because he thought they would be safe from the Boer War. In fact, Annie found herself in the thick of the conflict.

"One day," she wrote, "a little friend and myself were carrying the food to the institute when the big gun called Big Ben fired and we were given orders to throw everything we had in our hands and lie flat on the ground. The big shell burst past a fence where we were lying and the pieces flew all over the place.

"A piece struck the little girl who was with me in the heart and killed her on the spot. The same piece rebounded and struck me in the forehead and gave me a nasty gash, but I was able to get up and going about in a few weeks, although it gave me a fearful shock."

Annie wrote ofweekly food rations of four ounces (110g) of bread, eight ounces of horse flesh, or donkey flesh, and two ounces of tea. There was no sugar or milk and the biscuits were so hard they had to be put in boiling water for an hour or two before they could be eaten.

Towards the end of the siege, she said, the family was living on starch made into puddings and filled with locusts. There was "great excitement" when a cloud of locusts came and the townspeople scrambled to catch them. She also described how her mother boiled white shirts, and they drank the water that came off them.

Annie's account tallies with other survivors, notably J E Neilly who wrote of the locustsas a "godsend": "The starving ones gathered the insects up in thousands, stripped them of their heads, legs and wings and ate the bodies."

The column arrived to relieve the siege on 17 May 1900. But Annie's story ended: "We had to wait a whole month before we could get a train to Cape Town and when we got there nobody knew us we were so thin. My mother was the only woman in the whole of Mafeking that went into the siege with two children and came out without losing any."

Fiona Scharlau, Angus council's archivist, said: "The little diary turned up in a manuscript collection and we know nothing more about [Annie]. We have not been able to trace any descendants... Obviously, because of the 100th anniversary, we would love to hear from anyone who can shed light on it."

The siege, which began on 12 October 1899, ended when the army relieved the British garrison of 700 men under Col Robert Baden-Powell, plus 7,000 Africans and 1,700 European townspeople. Although Baden-Powell was hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, his skill and determination won him enormous admiration. He returned to England a war hero and went on to found the Boy Scout movement.