I was first alerted to this story by watching an episode of Drunk History (UK series, season 1, episode 8, retold by drunken comedian Joel Dommett). I'm fully aware that Drunk History is not exactly a reliable source, so I did some brief research and found that a lot of what he said was pretty accurate.
In 1899 in South Africa, right before the outbreak of the Second Boer War, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, Lord Wolseley, thought that maaaaaaybe trouble might be a-brewin' and tried to persuade the British government to send troops to the region. He failed, and the area remained desperately unmanned by British forces.
Instead, he sent Colonel Robert Baden-Powell (who you might know as the founder of the Boy Scouts) and a few other officers to the area to try to raise some troops there. Their mission was to lure the Boers away from the coasts so, when the war that they knew was coming DID break out, British troops could land safely. Once British troops were there, it would help keep the local people from automatically siding with the Boers.
Of course, if the Boers suspected an increased British military presence, it might escalate things. So Baden-Powell had to recruit in secret and obtain supplies on the sly. Baden-Powell also knew that the Boers were good fighters and drastically outnumbered his own men (including the men he was able to recruit). He therefore decided that the best offense was a good defense: he was going to waste the Boer's time and resources and just outlast them until British reinforcements could be sent. This allowed for some really fun (?) and creative military thinking.
He managed to drum up about 1,500 men (and a good number of preteen and teenage boys, which would later be the inspiration for the Scouting Movement) and held the town of Mafeking. In September 1899, he set to work building defenses around the town. Less than a month later, war was declared and 8,000 Boer troops were sent to siege the town.
The Boers attacked the fort, which was situated a little bit outside of town. The fort held and it took them a while to breach its defenses. Once they broke through, they found it more or less empty. They were sitting there, going, "The fuck?" and then realized that Baden-Powell had built a fake fort (some say this happened more than once and he built a number of fake forts) to lure the Boers out, assess their numbers, just generally waste their time and demoralize them, and possibly even take pot-shots at their soldiers (although I'm not sure how true that last one is).
Guys. This is the exact same plot as the last half hour of Blazing Saddles, with the most relevant scenes distilled into a 2 minute version here. I don't know why it thrilled me so much to discover that something in a Mel Brooks movie was based on fact (whether it intended to recall real events or not). Art imitates life, life imitates art.
Since this was a war based purely on deception from Baden-Powell's position, here are some other hilarious things he did during the 217 days of the siege:
1.) He sent a letter to a friend in Transvaal reporting a huge number of British troops about to land. The letter was discovered by the Boers, who instantly took 1,200 of their troops and marched them back to the ocean, waiting for the arrival of British troops. They sat for ages before realizing that there were no troops, that Baden-Powell's friend had died a while before, and that Baden-Powell, knowing this, had sent the letter to his deceased friend, hoping it would fall into Boer hands.
2.) He didn't want the Boers to know how few troops he actually possessed, so he made the town seem more bustling than it really was. He had some of his troops dress up as women and go about their lives, doing laundry, shopping, and generally seeming like the town was incredibly reinforced and the townspeople had nothing to fear.
3.) He deterred any direct assault on the town from Boer forces, keeping them very much at arm's-length. He built real trenches and gun emplacements all around the town, but also faked out the Boers in terms of the dangerous terrain they'd have to face: he didn't have enough barbed wire to actually surround the town, so he had his men conspicuously PRETEND to put up barbed wire. They brought out all of the supplies, put stakes in the ground, and meticulously pretend that they were unrolling barbed wire for the fences. The Boers were able to see through their telescopes that the men were putting up fences, but were too far away to see that there was no wire linking the posts.
4.) He also kept the Boers from getting close to the town by planting fake landmines. He filled a bunch of boxes full of sand, told his men that they were real landmines (in order to make his men's movements seem naturally nervous and careful), and then sent them off to bury the mines. Obviously, the Boers were watching and going, "SHIT, that is a lot of mines, and they're clearly real. Look how gingerly the men are holding them. We will never be able to get close enough
to even see that there isn't any barbed wire to attack." Just in case the Boers didn't get the message, Baden-Powell put up signs that read "MINEFIELD" in a huge radius around the town.
5.) He also kept up the spirits of the people in the town by having Sunday ceasefires in which church services could be observed, and sports, theatrics, and general play could be undertaken.
Eventually, the Boers were worn down. A nearby siege of another town lead to a shuffling of troops, where 4,000 of the Boers sieging Mafeking were taken elsewhere. News was reported that British reinforcements were actually arriving soon, so the remaining Boers launched an attack. They managed to break through the (largely fake) defenses and set fire to some of the town, but their numbers were reduced enough where Baden-Powell and his men were able to beat them back.
British relief forces arrived days later, and one of the officers was Baden-Powell's little brother, the CRAZILY NAMED Major Baden Fletcher Smyth Baden-Powell, known nowadays as Baden Baden-Powell.
Robert Baden-Powell returned home a few years later as a national hero. Until reinforcements had arrived, the war had gone badly for the British, but the resistence of Mafeking served as a point of hope for a lot of soldiers and politicians.