Colonel Blake, having recovered from the effects of his wound, returned to camp on December 12th to resume his duties, and was glad to find the men in such splendid condition and first-rate fighting form. All sorts of rumours had been afloat for some time as to the exact date on which General Buller was likely to make a start for his Christmas dinner at Pretoria; and there was a considerable amount of impatience among the Brigadiers at the delay in being sent down to Colenso. The men had been on the tip-toe of expectation ever since it had been made known that I was to take a body of men in that direction, although the exact number to be taken was a mystery to myself at the time. The matter was definitely settled, however, between seven and eight o’clock on the evening of the 14th, when Commandant Trichard sent word to Colonel Blake to the effect that “Major MacBride and thirty men were to get ready immediately to accompany him to Colenso.”
The undoubted satisfaction that this definite order aroused in the Brigade was considerably modified, however, by the smallness of the number, and there were heart-burnings “go leor” in the ranks as to who would be among the fortunate thirty. I fear I made some enemies that evening when the rather ticklish business of selecting the men had to be tackled, as the Brigadiers who services had to be refused, naturally enough, found it hard to understand on what grounds they were rejected. Nevertheless, by the time that Commandant Trichard, his two sons, Karl and Luke, Lieutenant Coetzee (chief of the staff), and some others arrived at our camp we were in the saddle waiting impatiently to make a start. It is impossible, unfortunately, to remember the names of all that accompanied me on that occasion, but amongst them were: Captain MacCallum, Sergeant-major Frank O’Reilly, little Mick Halley and Bill Power, of Waterford; Jim O’Keefe; the Balbriggan trio, Dunlop, Fitzgibbon; long Jack O’Connell, from Cork; Dick Hunt, of New York State; Maurice Joyce, from Clare; Jim MacCormack, and that great, big, sturdy fighter, Paddy Lennon from Down.
Although the month was December, it was a beautiful mid-summer night when we started quietly off on our twenty-five mile ride. We reached our destination shortly after midnight, off-saddled, gave our horses a feed, spread our rugs under the shelter of a low wall, and, with our saddles for pillows, were soon fast asleep. At half-past three that morning Lieutenant Coetzee awakened me and said that Commandant Trichard was going to have a look at the positions, and wished me to accompany him, so that he could point out where the fighting was going to take place. After a refreshing cup of coffee with the Commandant we proceeded to a high hill, where he had two of his guns posted under the command of Captain Pretorius. When he had pointed out the different positions to me he sent me back for the men, whom I was instructed to post on the hill where we stood. On returning I found that MacCallum had started the boys at breakfast immediately on my departure, so that they had nothing to do but saddle their horses and be off.
I was considerably surprised, however, to find nearly sixty men where I had only left thirty; but soon learned that twenty-five of the lads had stolen out of camp an hour or two after our departure and followed us down. It was too late to send them back, and, to tell the truth, I was secretly glad of the addition to our numbers.
But when I felt it my duty to upbraid them for leaving camp without Colonel Blake’s permission, Joe Tully most effectually silenced me by saying, “Sure we may all be dead before evening, and then you will be sorry for saying anything to us.”
There was no answering this, but to move out at once to our positions, which we did in a canter, and had the satisfaction of occupying them before the first shot was fired.
The Boer army along the Tugela numbered between four and five thousand men; and their guns consisted of two 15-pound Creusots, two pom-poms, and two small Krupps. This tiny force had to cover a front of some nine or ten miles. General Lucas Meyer, who was to have command, had gone back sick to Pretoria; and the active command therefore devolved on the indomitable General Louis Botha. General Botha, who knew every inch of the ground, had disposed his small force with marvellous skill, and he gave strict injunctions that no man was to fire on the enemy until they came to within seven or eight hundred yards. It was on this occasion that General Botha first had the opportunity of displaying those superb qualities which have since made his name world-famous as one of the greatest natural born leaders of men that ever lived in any period.
It was a magnificent spectacle that bright, sunny South African morning to see the British forces, 35,000 strong and with seventy guns, deploying into their positions on the opposite side of the Tugela River. It was nearly five o’clock in the morning when we first caught sight of the vast masses of men and horses moving steadily across the plain in our direction. The division of the Irish Brigade was posted with the artillery on a high kopje some distance behind Fort Wylie, so that we had a splendid and uninterrupted view of the stirring panorama. The men, of course, would have preferred being in the front fighting line, and I asked permission of Commandant Trichard to take them there; but he replied that we would have to remain where we were for the present, until he could see where our services would be most required. A feature of the English advance, much commented on by our lads at the time, was the complete absence of both bands and standards. They did not seem to be possessed even of a tin whistle to play “Britons never shall be slaves”: and as for the flag “that braved a thousand years, the battle and the breeze” – it was conspicuous by its absence.
General Botha’s army, which numerically was not quite one-seventh of Buller’s, and which in the matter of heavy guns was practically unarmed, was at the same time in no way undaunted by the deploying of this huge and heavily armed force against them. Calmly and impassively they watched the approach of the foe, awaiting the order to fire.
Suddenly the roar of Buller’s seventy cannon breaks the serenity of that beautiful summer morning, and lyddite and shrapnel shell come shrieking and tearing in every direction. The method adopted by the English gunners was to concentrate the fire of one or two batteries on a single kopje, commencing at the base, and gradually sweeping along the side, right up to the summit, about which the fire would play for a few minutes, when with deadly thoroughness the shells would be dropped right over the crest of the kopje, the back of which would thus be as effectually shell-swept as the front had been, so that there would be not a square inch of the kopje left untouched. Of course, if there had been any Boers on the kopjes subjected to this drastic shell shampooing, it would have been very bad for them; but I have seen kopje after kopje so bombarded, with not a sign of a human being about them from base to summit, so that, beyond sending sundry pieces of rock flying about in all directions, the English guns might as well have been firing at the sun.
Firing of this thorough but harmless character went on for an hour or more, making the more hideous with its infernal racket, and all the while there was not a sound from the Boer lines. On the English side of the river noise and fury – signifying, indeed, nothing – on the Boer side – the silence of the grave. The shells tore big holes in the veldt, and split the rocks into fragments, while the stench of the lyddite was sickening. And yet the burghers made no sign. The General’s order was being obeyed scrupulously. The men in khaki advanced gallantly in close formation – quarter-column, I think, they call it – and they looked so spick and span, and marched with so much precision, that from a spectacular point of view nothing could be finer or more effective. But all at once from the Boer left and right, the short, sharp hiss of the deadly mauser is heard, as its little leaden messengers fly on the wings of Death, and at the same moment our two creusots open fire and commence to drop their shells right into the midst of the advancing English troops. It was magnificent. Mick Halley, Joe Wade, Paddy Lennon, and Long Jack, with their coats off, are carrying shells to the guns; Commandant Trichard and Captain Pretorius are busy superintending, and the gallant young artillerymen are working like demons, with the joy and fire of battle in their eyes.
But what a transformation in the British ranks! They are not now marching to the attack “as cool as if on the parade ground.” They are not now marching against savages untutored in the ways of war, although their opponents know nothing of dressing ranks or “quarter-column formations.” But they know how to obey orders and to shoot straight, and in this latter respect enjoy an undoubted advantage over the enemy. The Anglo-Irish mercenaries, with the fighting courage of their race, make a desperate effort to hold their own; but as for the others, one would imagine that some terrifying volcanic eruption had taken place in their midst.
My next article will continue by description of the battle of Colenso, and the active part played therein by the Irish Brigade.