On arriving at the place where our camp had been we made the unwelcome discovery that there were no provisions of any kind either for men or horses, and proceeded at once to the station, where we were just in time to procure a supply from a train that was just starting with all the provisions that had been left behind by the different commandoes. Our horses having been provided with a good feed of corn, we sat down on the veldt ourselves and did ample justice to a meal of tinned beef and bread, which was the first food any of us had tasted for over twenty-four hours. An attempt was made by a small body of English cavalry to get out of Ladysmith, but it was a half-hearted affair at best, and a few well-directed rifle shots sent them back in double quick time.
We were soon on the march again in the rear-guard of the Boer army, proceeding in a leisurely fashion, our food largely consisting of the fresh young corn which we pulled right out of the fields as we marched along. The venerable President of the Transvaal Republic came down to Elandslaagte, and personally addressed the burghers, imploring them to keep cool and to keep on the fight for their nation’s existence. The Brigade was not present on this historic occasion, but I was told afterwards that the President’s speech made a very deep impression, and considerably heartened the burghers, more especially when he offered to lead the army in person, a course from which he was only dissuaded with much difficulty. Personally I think it a pity that he was not allowed to have his way in this matter, as the burghers were so devoted to him that his actual presence at their head would have been a constant source of inspiration and encouragement.
Just before arriving at Glencoe I beheld the famous trek of the whole army, one of the most remarkable sights that it is possible to imagine. Across the seemingly illimitable veldt hundreds and hundreds of wagons, laden with provisions, tents, medical appliances, and all the innumerable appurtenances of an army on the march, were struggling along in a procession of colossal and most imposing dimensions. Above the lumbering of the ponderous, heavily-laden vehicles was to be heard the cracking of innumerable long whips, and the voices of the Kaffir boys expostulating with or cheering on the mules or bullocks under their charge. It was about this time I first meet Commandant Riccardi, who was in command of the Italian Scouts, and who afterwards married a grand-daughter of President Kruger’s. Riccardi was a brave and daring fighter, who was much beloved by his men, and he was a genuine admirer of the Irish Brigade.
We delayed some time at Glencoe, where we celebrated the National festival in a very pleasant fashion, and with many thoughts of the dear old land and the beloved ones there. It was about this period that we were joined by the contingent that came from Ireland, and right glad we were to welcome these brave fellows into our ranks, and to hear some news straight from home. Martin MacDonnell D’Arcy, Jack Donnelly – who brought me a letter and some shamrock from the late and much lamented Ethna Carberry (Mrs. MacManus), Owen O’Kelly, who had been an assistant in Egan’s, Talbot street – Jim McGuigan, and Jack Daly, of Belfast, and young Harold, from Kingstown, were among the recruits. Jack MacArdle, another Belfast boy, joined us at the same time, and proved a very valuable soldier. Poor MacDonnell D’Arcy was killed in San Francisco about three years ago by an electric tramcar, after passing unscathed through the trials and dangers of an arduous campaign. He came of a rebel stock, and was a grandson of “Big Joe” MacDonnell, who fought with great bravery with Teeling and the French at Carrignagat in 1798. It was from these brave lads that we first heard of the permission which Queen Victoria had given to her Irish hirelings to wear shamrock in their caps on St. Patrick’s Day. That night Colonel Blake and myself sent a joint letter to the Freeman’s Journal protesting against this degradation of the national emblem; but unfortunately our letter never reached its destination.
From Glencoe we moved on to Helpmakaar Pass, where we made friends with the German commando. A few days previously I went to Pretoria to see if permission could be obtained for some of the Irish soldiers, who were prisoners, to join our ranks; but the Boer Government would not allow it. Just as I was about starting back for camp I got a wire from Solomon Gillingham saying that Michael Davitt was expected that evening and not to go without seeing him. I accordingly took the first train back to Pretoria, and met Davitt for the first time. We had a long talk about Irish affairs, during the course of which he told me that he had resigned his membership of the House of Commons ostensibly as a protest against the Boer war, but that his chief reason was that he saw the hopelessness of expecting anything like justice from an English assembly. He then went on to tell me how I had been nominated for South Mayo, but that he did not approve of my nomination, as I had not been selected at the Convention. At the same time, he said, he thought it a pity I should be opposed, as my election at the time would focus the attention of the world on the Irish struggle. I then explained my views to him, saying that under no circumstances could I be induced to become a member of the English House of Commons, as I did not believe that Ireland’s freedom could be gained through the good graces of the English Parliament and people; but that as I had been nominated I should have been returned unopposed. Not, of course, I was careful to explain, on personal grounds, but simply on account of the position I held, which would have made my election a very significant sequel to his (Davitt’s) resignation, and pointed the moral of the political situation between Ireland and England very emphatically and, I thought, effectively. There was practically no difference between us on this point, and we then indulged in a long talk about our numerous common friends. I gave him a cordial invitation to come down to our camp and address the boys, which he at once accepted. On my return to camp I made arrangements to send a guard of honour, consisting of twenty men under Lieutenant Gaynor, to meet Mr. Davitt at Glencoe, about 25 miles from camp, while Blake and myself were to meet him a mile or two from Helpmakaar Pass with all the available men not on active duty. Unfortunately, however, he was not able to come down at the time appointed, and when he again visited Natal we had been transferred to the Orange Free State.
At Pretoria I heard that an Irish-American ambulance corps, consisting of some 60 men, was on its way to join us; and on my return informed Colonel Blake of the fact. He at once decided to go and meet them, and during his absence news of the Queen’s visit to Ireland reached us. We decided to celebrate the event by looking out for Englishmen to shoot. On the very day of her arrival seventy men of the Brigade, accompanied by the same number from the German commando, set out on a scouting expedition in search of the enemy; but although we scoured the country from Helpmakaar Pass to the Tugela we had not the good fortune to come across even one. The following night, on our way back to camp, the German commandant and myself were riding side by side at the head of the troop, when our horses unconsciously quickened their paces to such an extent that we soon found ourselves tearing along the road in a regular gallop, and the men behind naturally followed suit. It was a glorious moonlight night, and the road was in excellent condition, so that we did not check our headlong gallop until we came near the outposts, my horse “Fenian Boy,” being full six lengths ahead of the crack German horse. The result of this gallop was that on the following day I received a friendly challenge from the German to race “Fenian Boy” against his horse. The challenge was at once accepted, the course was marked out, and, amidst the cheers of the Irishmen, the gallant little horse, with O’Reilly in the saddle, even bettered his performance of the previous night.
Although Helpmakaar was a beautiful spot, the boys soon got tired of it on account of the unwillingness of the English to show fight, and we accordingly sent on a petition to headquarters asking to be sent to the Orange Free State, where all the fighting was now being done. This was in April, and four days after sending the petition we had a wire from Colonel Blake from Pretoria saying that we were to pack up immediately and start off for the Free State. The men were much elated at this, and lost no time about making ready. We said farewell to Commandant Trichard and his sons; and General Lucas Meyer, who was in command of the district, asked me when saying good-bye to convey his thanks to the men of the Brigade for their bravery and vigilance. We started off by a special train, and arrived in Johannesburg about the 25th April, where we were joined by the Irish-American contingent under Captain Patrick O’Connor, of Moylough, Co. Galway, and Lieutenant Hugh Ryan, of Tipperary. After three days’ rest in Johannesburg we entrained for Smaldeal, in the Orange Free State. I met Davitt for the second time in Pretoria, in company with Sol Gillingham, and we again had a long and pleasant talk. He was anxious to secure some souvenirs of the Brigade for the proposed National Bazaar in aid of the Wolfe Tone Memorial, and I promised to let him have a small Mauser rifle and an English shell, which, however, he afterwards found he was unable to take home.
We arrived at Smaldeal in good form, and proceeded at once to Brandfort, which we reached the night before the battle, and camped within a mile of the British outposts. The following morning we took up a position, while awaiting definite orders from General Delarey, on a hill outside the town. General Delarey had only a few thousand men under his command to hold Lord Roberts in check. The Russian and American attaches were watching the English advance from the hill which we occupied; and just before orders reached us to go to the support of one of the other commandoes I heard one of the attaches say to the other that the massing and marching of troops on the English left was only a “feint,” and that the enemy would probably enter the town through the open plain in front. I immediately told this to Colonel Blake, and advised him to take up a position in a shoot that intersected the plain about a mile in front of the town; but he said that he had just received orders to go to the support of the Heidelberg commando, and there was nothing for it to obey. Accordingly Colonel Blake, Captains MacCallum and O’Connor, and myself placed ourselves at the head of our men and set out for the position assigned us. We had four hours’ hard fighting before the British entered the town in the identical manner the attache had forecasted.
This was the first occasion on which the contingent from Ireland and the Irish-Americans came under fire, and right bravely did they come through the ordeal.
Just before taking up our position, one of our recruits, John Dunne, was accidentally wounded by one of his comrades. The poor chap was obviously suffering great pain; yet his sole response was to my sympathetic remarks was: “O Major, I would not mind in the slightest if I even had got one shot at them.” Dunne was taken prisoner afterwards and sent to India. He is in Dublin at present. We were the last commando to leave the field and, while retreating, one of our men Johnny Boyle, of Donegal, evidently not quite satisfied with his day’s work, rode back towards the town, and when quite near it dismounted from his horse and in the coolest and most deliberate fashion shot three of the enemy. He then remounted his horse, and on his way back to us was surrounded by a party of burghers, who showered all sorts of favours on him in recognition of his daring exploit. Boyle is at present in the United States, I think, where I trust he is doing well.