About three o’clock in the afternoon a few hundred Boers made a dash for the eleven guns which the English had practically abandoned. Lieutenant Coetzee had gone to the trouble of borrowing a horse for me, so that I was once more in the saddle. Fortunately it was not “Fenian Boy” I had with me on that morning. Notwithstanding the “barbed wire,” of which the English made so much, we crossed the Tugela near the bridge without encountering any difficulty, and Lieutenant Coetzee, myself, and a dozen of the Brigade had the good fortune to be amongst the first fifty men to get to the guns. During the early part of the fight Colonel Bullock and a small body of Devons had made a determined effort to protect Long’s cannon; but the Boer marksmanship had proved so sure and deadly that they were obliged to seek the shelter of a friendly dongs near at hand. When we arrived at the fateful spot we found that a rather unpleasant incident had just occurred between Colonel Bullock and a youthful burgher. On inquiring into the matter we discovered that an altercation had arisen out of some misunderstanding between the two, and that the young Boer had precipitated matters by hitting Colonel Bullock under the eye with the butt of his rifle. Unfortunately we were a few seconds too late to prevent this, but we were in time, however, to prevent any further unpleasant developments.
Our first duty was to place Colonel Bullock and some four or five other officers who were with him under arrest. The names of those other officers I cannot now remember. Bullock was a thorough soldier in every sense, and fought so long and as well as any man could under the circumstances. His soldierly qualities were only exceeded by his gentlemanly behaviour after arrest. The captured guns were given in charge to Cherry Emmet, Chief-of-Staff and brother-in-law to General Botha. He is said to be descended collaterally from our national hero, Robert Emmet, and I could not help thinking it a significant thing that day to find one of the name so honoured in Ireland taking a leading part in an enterprise that would have appealed so strongly to his illustrious ancestor.
On our way to camp Colonel Bullock chatted freely about the events of the day, and was careful to lay stress on the point that he did not hold the Boer army responsible for the rather rough treatment he had just experienced at the hands of the young burgher. He told me that when called on to surrender he had simply asked for a Boer officer to whom he might do so, as he clearly saw that there was no other course open to him. The burgher had evidently misconstrued this quite natural request into a refusal to surrender, and so put the law of force into operation. This was Colonel Bullock’s own view of the incident, and I merely give it as an illustration of the man’s character and his fair way of viewing things. He then expressed a wish that the other captured officers and men would be properly looked after, as he said they had no provisions with them, and had been without food since early that morning. I replied that I had no idea how they would be likely to fare that night, as I had only arrived myself very early the same morning and had been without food all day. I felt safe in promising him, however, that next day he and his comrades would have no fault to find with the Boer commissariat. After some further talk on this topic, he pulled two hard biscuits out of his pocket, and asking me if I would mind sharing a soldier’s fare, offered me one of the biscuits, which I accepted. He continued talking about the battle we had just been through, and said “that for a long time they did not know what to do or where to go,” and, further, “could see no enemy to fire at.” I replied that that was very noticeable shortly after the opening of the battle. He then asked me how long I had been in the country. I told him, and in addition told him of my position as Major of the Irish Brigade. This piece of information seemed rather to disconcert him, and he became remarkably silent for the remainder of our journey to the camp. Probably he would have preferred being taken prisoner by almost anyone than an officer of the Irish Brigade.
Before reaching the camp we witnessed the rather amusing spectacle of a number of Boers straggling along on foot, in twos and threes, towards the captured cannon in what was certainly a most annual kind of “dishabille.” They had their ammunition belt strung around their shoulders, their rifles in their hands, with their shirts hanging down under their coats, and not even the semblance of a breeches among the whole party. This particular style of “undress” parade was amazing and amusing. They had taken off their pants on the other side of the Tugela in order to facilitate their crossing, and had concealed them behind some rocks until their return a few hours later. They did not seem to be in the least degree aware of the comical figure they were cutting, and went their way laughing and chatting like a lot of schoolboys out for a lark. Our English prisoners could not conceal their amazement, and at last one of them, more inquisitive than the rest, asked Lieutenant Coetzee who and what they were. To which Coetzee responded by telling him, with gravity, but with a decided twinkle in his eye, that they were “the Boer Highlanders going out to protect the guns in case of another attempted English rescue.” The Englishman did not seem quite satisfied with this explanation.
Outside General Botha’s brilliant tactics, one of the most notable incidents of the very remarkable day was the easy manner in which the gallant Cherry Emmet was allowed to take away the English cannon. Surely if four or five hundred farmers a few hours previously were able to prevent the English from rescuing those guns, ten or twelve thousand Britishers ought to have been able to keep Emmet and his small commando from hauling them across the Tugela, which they were successful in accomplishing in the broad, clear light of day, without as much of a shot being fired to hamper their progress. That such could have happened is incomprehensible to the ordinary man, unless he comes to the conclusion – which is, I think, inevitable – that the English army was demoralised – that they could think of nothing but of putting as many miles as possible between themselves and their sturdy opponents. I may be allowed to mention here that one of the most valuable trophies in my possession is a bullet-marked portion of a sight belonging to one of those same cannon.
One of our lads – Paddy Lennon, whom I have mentioned before – fell into chat with one of the captured officers in the evening, and casually asked him how he liked South Africa. To which the officer, drawling, answered that he liked it fairly well, that it was not half bad, etc.
“But,” persisted Paddy, “don’t you find it too hot here?”
“Oh, not at all,” replied the officer; “not at all!”
“Well,” interjected Paddy, “there’s a big difference anyhow, between the sort of work ye have here and turning poor, unarmed tenants out of their holdings in Ireland.”
To this remark the officer made no reply.
Paddy was himself captured later on in the campaign and sent to Ceylon. Whilst in Ceylon he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour for striking a soldier who had treated him with insolence, but owing to the American Consul’s intervention, Paddy being an American citizen, he was released after a few months. The treatment to which he was subjected in prison, however, was so severe that his health broke down completely, so that when the peace articles were signed he was unable to leave the island.
Sergeant-Major Frank O’Reilly, who so gallantly came to my rescue on the field of battle, was also amongst those captured and sent to Ceylon. He was born in South Africa, and was a bit of a genius in his way, being capable of turning his hand to anything, from doctoring a horse to cooking a good meal.
On the following day General Botha granted a twenty-four hours’ armistice to General Buller to enable him to bury his dead. One of General Botha’s despatches to Pretoria three days after the battle reads:
“The English Red Cross officials told me that on the one battlefield there were alone 760 wounded, and that when the roll-call took place yesterday morning 3,000 of the enemy failed to answer to their names.”