- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2000

Two military scholars today will ride to the relief of the father of Scouting, Robert Baden-Powell, whose reputation has been under siege for nearly 40 years as a war criminal and closet homosexual.

Their book, which sets out to rehabilitate his character, counts as one of the most timely rescue operations in British imperial studies. For it is to be published on the 100th anniversary of what once was regarded as Baden-Powell's most significant moment: the relief of Mafeking, in South Africa.

The defeat of a nine-month Afrikaner siege of the British garrison that he led in the small South African town during the Boer War prompted three days of street celebrations in London.

On the crest of this fame, Baden-Powell until then an unimportant 44-year-old colonel went on to found the worldwide Scouting movement and become a revered model for youth.

But since the 1960s, his prestige has been weakened by a battery of books that accuse him of saving the white garrison only by imposing a racist "leave or starve" policy on its black members, causing hundreds of deaths.

One South African historian, Pat Hopkins, said last year: "This can only be described as a crime against humanity for which he deserves to be reappraised as a war criminal."

Other studies have said he was distracted from his duties by infatuation with Kenneth "Boy" McLaren, a handsome young fellow polo-playing officer. Colleagues had to stop him from riding single-handedly to the rescue when McLaren was captured by the Boers.

But the new book finds that Baden-Powell was an indisputably brilliant soldier whose mass-evacuation policy was a blunder under great pressure "the product of naivete and misjudgment rather than any concept of premeditated murder."

He abandoned it as soon as it caused deaths, and introduced emergency kitchens with horse-meat soup as soon as he realized hunger was rife. The authors agree that hundreds of black people nevertheless died of starvation or from Boer bullets during the evacuation attempt.

But they add: "These were not the actions of a war criminal." Even Baden-Powell's critics in the garrison gave him credit for his "extensive remedial measures." There also was no clear evidence that the commander, who later married and had three children, was even a repressed homosexual.

The writers, Edmund Yorke and Malcolm Flower-Smith of the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, base their defense on what they say is the fullest study and analysis so far made of diaries kept by garrison soldiers and civilians during the siege.

"Other writers have used these selectively to attack him," Mr. Yorke said yesterday.

Their sources include Baden-Powell's staff diaries, which show he started the evacuations after getting a "bombshell" telegram on Feb. 8, 1900, from the British commander, Lord Kitchener, indicating that Mafeking could not be relieved for four months.

Baden-Powell had based garrison rations on a prospect of relief within two months. Lord Kitchener ordered him to "send as many women and children and natives as possible away" to save rations.

But the authors say the papers indicate that this harsh policy was not aimed at the township's 7,000-strong majority of blacks, the Baralong tribe, who were valued soldiers and boosted food stocks by rustling Boer cattle. Its victims were 2,000 "outside Africans," including Shangaans.

Their food rations in Mafeking were cut off. Baden-Powell negotiated safe passage for them with the besieging Boers to British-held territory, supplying a military escort and food wagon. But the truce was broken.

The first attempt to drive 900 blacks out at night was scattered by Boer snipers. The second, by day, saw them "decimated" by Boer attacks.

"The policy of forced evacuation was a blunder," Mr. Yorke said. "Baden-Powell was the reluctant victim of external military imperatives. He realized his errors and dropped it."

Of allegations about Baden-Powell's "confused sexuality," the book says his concern about McLaren was influenced by his role as the captured soldier's senior regimental officer as well as by friendship. His diaries expressed the same concern for McLaren as for all the wounded in the Boer hospital.

His aborted rescue plan was "exactly the kind of exciting lone adventure" that would have appealed to the founder of Scouting.

"There is no evidence of improper conduct," said Mr. Flower-Smith.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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