It is undoubtedly difficult to make people realise the condition of absolute panic into which the cool, steady fire of the burghers threw that enormous force of Britishers on the morning of Colenso. Even that glowing Imperialistic writer, Mr. Conan Doyle, who wrote a fanciful and highly imaginative account of the war, finds it hard to explain the plight into which his khaki heroes were thrown on this occasion, as on many others, and ingenuously puts it that “they were unable to advance and unwilling to retreat.” At the first volley from the Boers they lost their heads so completely that they were too terrified to run away. In plain English, the British simply got into a state of blue funk, and I doubt if in the whole history of the world’s war there is to be found a similar example of so enormous a force becoming so absolutely helpless and demoralised in the face of a body of men so much their inferiors in numbers and equipment. It was certainly a glorious privilege to be able to look on at the “flower” of England’s army being reduced to such a condition before a force of hardy farmers only about one-seventh that number. It was also a tantalising sight for us as well, on account of our not being allowed just yet to take a hand in the great game.
Shortly after the opening of the Boer reply to Buller’s thunderous shelling, General Botha, accompanied by his staff, arrived on the kopje where the Brigade was posted. A little while previously Colonel Long had pushed his two batteries of artillery right up to within a thousand yards of the Boer trenches, with the result that the well-directed fire of a few hundred Mausers soon made it impossible for the Tommies to handle their guns, which were literally peppered with lead. All this time our lads were chafing under their enforced inaction, and I again went to Commandant Trichard to get permission from General Botha for the Brigade to go into the front firing line. This time, to our great satisfaction, permission was granted, and we were ordered to reinforce the Krugersdorp commando at Fort Wylie, near the railway bridge.
There were two ways of getting to our destination – one, by far the safest, was by making a detour of between four and five miles behind the shelter of some neighbouring kopjes; the other, ever so much shorter, was to make a dash across the open plain, about a mile wide, right in front of us, and in full view of the enemy, whose shot and shell incessantly tore across it. I was not very long in making up my mind on account of the impatience of the men to get using their rifles, and chose the latter and more direct route. Every man tightened his horse-girth, took a double supply of ammunition, and then, accompanied by that cool and brave Boer fighter, Lieutenant Coetzee, we swung round the kopje in full gallop, riding in open order some ten yards apart. O’Keefe, Gaynor, Sergeant-Major Frank O’Reilly, Mick Halley, Lieutenant Cootzee, Captain MacCallum, and myself were in the first line; while MacCormack, Dunlop, Wade, Hunt, Tom Belford, Joyce, and the others came thundering along after. Both men and horses were on their mettle. We afforded a splendid mark for the English artillerymen, and they pounded us with shot and shell all the time. Lyddite and shrapnel ploughed the ground in all directions – before, behind, and round about us, the bursting shells shrieked and roared. No man who participated in that thrilling and dashing ride is ever likely to forget it. As one of the boys remarked afterwards: “It banged Banagher all to fits.”
The foe we were galloping to encounter, and whom every man of the party would gladly have given ten years of his life to meet on Irish soil, was before us, and to help to pay back some at least of the long-overdue debt of vengeance was the one burning thought in the minds of all the men as they rounded the kopje on that heart-stirring occasion.
When about half way across the plain a big 4.7-inch lyddite shell burst a few yards in front of me, killing my horse and sending myself somersaulting in the air. The boys all thought I was killed, and MacCallum tried to rein in his horse to come to my aid, but the excited animal was too much for him. The captain smashed his bridle in the attempt to pull up, so that his horse simply bolted with him, and long before he had him in hands again I was on my feet shouting to the men that I was all right, and to ride on to their positions. A hearty cheer from the brave fellows expressed their satisfaction at seeing me uninjured, and not, as they one and all thought, blown to atoms.
In the midst of this rather exciting experience, what was my astonishment when a little chap named Willie Smith, from Johannesburg, who had attached himself to the Brigade, but to whom I had given strict injunctions not to attempt to come along with us, galloped up to where I was standing, a target for the British gunners, and generously offered me his horse. To the present day I feel ashamed of the language I used to that fearless boy. I was dumbfounded to see him on the field, and soundly rated him for his disobedience to orders – a nice return, surely, it must have seemed to that gallant little chap for his daring and generosity. But it was really concern for his welfare that annoyed me, at the fearful risk he was running and to refuse his proffered assistance. He hesitated a moment, and then rode into position with the men. He was only 13 years of age. An instant after young Smith’s departure, Sergeant-Major Frank O’Reilly galloped back to me on the splendid charger he had captured from the British at Ladysmith, and jumping out of the saddle, asked me to mount in his place. I flatly refused, and ordered him on to his direction. He just as flatly declined to go, saying “Major, this time I must refuse to obey your orders,” and actually insisted on riding between me and the line of fire until we got safely to our position. In thus exposing himself and sheltering me Frank O’Reilly accomplished as heroic a deed as the bravest soldier could be capable of on the field of battle.
When we got to our destination we had a delightful time of it, in O’Reilly’s own words, giving the English “a taste of the South African snow.” The English gunners continued their attention to us in the shape of lyddite and shrapnel shells; but they really did very little damage, and contributed not a little to the enjoyment of the situation. Our lads returned these English compliments tenfold, and certainly made up for their previous inaction by the rapidity of their rifle fire. The firing of the British all through the campaign was admittedly, very bad; but at Colenso it must have reached the lowest point. The fact of the matter is that the “flower” of England’s army had so bad a fit of the “shakes” during that morning that the men were scarcely able to use their rifles at all, not to speak of firing straight or accurately. Of course, nothing of this appeared in the British Press at the time, and one of the explanations given by the correspondents to account for the delay in crossing the Tugela was to the effect that the Boers had covered the bed of the river with barbed wire – a yarn for which there was never even the shadow of a foundation.
It is only fair to say that General Botha was reported at the time as having praised the Connaught Rangers and Dublin Fusiliers for their fighting qualities; but it is, indeed, only poor consolation for an Irishman to know that some of his misguided countrymen wasted their fine soldierly qualities in helping the great vampire Empire, which had fattened on the best blood of their own country, in destroying the lives and liberties of the brave burghers of South Africa.
The two batteries of Colonel Long’s artillery, which I have already mentioned, continued to be a source of great anxiety to the English Commander. They were unworkable and practically undefended, as our fire was kept up with such intensity in their direction that any man who attempted to come near them was immediately doomed. General Buller asked several times for volunteers to rescue the cannon from their dangerous position, and surely if English bravery is anything like what it is vaunted to be, at least a thousand men might have been expected to volunteer out of that mighty force to try and rescue the imperilled batteries. Something less than fifty volunteers responded for the dangerous but glorious work, and among these brave soldiers was young Lieutenant Roberts, son, as is well known, of Lord Roberts. This small band of heroes made a gallant attempt to save the guns; but they were too small in number to be able to hold out sufficiently long against the deadly fire of a few hundred carefully aimed rifles. I saw young Roberts fall mortally wounded myself, but, of course, did not know who he was till afterwards. At almost two o’clock in the afternoon the British began to tire of the unequal combat (the overwhelming preponderance of numbers and guns was on their side), and commenced one of those “masterly retreats” for which they are so deservedly famous. In fact, so great was their hurry to get away that their cavalry repeated their Modderspruit tactics, and rode over the retreating infantry. Once or twice the English galloped their ambulances right across the line of fire in order to protect their running soldiers. When they got out of range, we had to sit inactive on the kopje looking at them flying helter-skelter over the veldt.
General Botha had obtained a notable victory over an immense British force, commanded by a valiant and hard-fighting General; but unfortunately he was not allowed to utilise that magnificent victory. Although Botha was in command at Colenso, still Joubert was the Commander-in-Chief, and he would not allow him to follow up his well-deserved success. It was heart-breaking to have to sit on the kopjes looking at the flying English, and to be unable to make their retreat still more “masterly.” It was a great opportunity lost. Once the British started to run they should have been kept on it till Durban was reached, and then driven into the sea.
In my next article, I will tell of our race for the English cannon, and of the capture of Colonel Bullock.