While the battle of Dundee was taking place the Johannesburg, Hollander, and German Commandoes, numbering in all about 700 men, were at Elandslaagte, awaiting orders, when a train steamed into the station heavily laden with provisions of all descriptions. It had come from Ladysmith, and was going to Dundee. The burghers captured the train without much difficulty, and were soon regaling themselves on the good things which had fallen so easily into their hands. Among the booty was a goodly supply of intoxicating liquors of all kinds, which proved too much of a temptation for some of the men, who helped themselves too lavishly. Fortunately, however, little or no harm resulted from this over-indulgence; and I only mention the matter because it was freely rumoured at the time that the train was intended as a bait for the Irish Brigade, who were not present at its capture. I can safely say, though, that, even if they were, there was little fear of their making fools of themselves, as they were as reliable and as temperate a body of men as any commander could hope to find. And, in addition to all this, they were too deeply engrossed in their military duties, and too keenly alive to the peculiar responsibilities of their position as representatives of the Irish nation, to make any lapse of the kind even remotely possible.
That same night General French and a strong force of the British moved out from Ladysmith, and the following morning attacked the burghers assembled at Elandslaagte, and after a stiff fight succeeded in getting the best of them. It was at this engagement that the Lancers so nobly distinguished themselves by charging the wounded burghers and transfixing them with their long lances as they lay helpless on the field of battle. This characteristically gallant exploit was elegantly referred to by the English themselves at the time as “beautiful pig-sticking.” Notwithstanding the glowing accounts of the dashing bayonet charges of the British troops which filled the columns of the English newspapers, this was the only occasion on which they came to close quarters with the Boers, and here it was the wounded and helpless they so “gallantly” charged.
In this fight it was that the brave General Koch received the wounds which afterwards proved fatal, through the shameful neglect with which he was treated in the English hospital at Ladysmith. The battle of Elandslaagte should never have been fought, and was the result of unfortunate dissensions among a few of the Boer leaders – dissensions which even the approach of the enemy could not quell or smother.
We continued our march in a leisurely fashion towards Ladysmith on the 24th October. General Joubert would not move quickly, as he said “it was against the Bible to smite a flying enemy.” The Brigade was kept busy helping Commandant Trichardt to bring his big guns along, and we reached the heights around Ladysmith on the 28th. Shortly after our arrival some of the boys under Captain Laracy, of Kilkenny, and Lieutenant Gaynor, of Longford, set out on a scouting expedition and exchanged shots with the enemy’s outposts. Another squad, under the guidance of Sargeants Wade, of Balbriggan, and Halley, of Waterford, scoured the country in another direction. The latter company included two other brave Balbriggan boys – namely, Jack McGlew and Joe Kennedy. In the course of their expedition they located a large quantity of dynamite, which was immediately reported to the General. This identical dynamite afterwards proved very useful in blowing up bridges, etc.
Another remarkable incident of this particular evening relates to a fine North of Ireland man named McGlade, who before coming to South Africa had been the owner of a prosperous business in Belfast. McGlade, who was about 33 years old, and fully 6 feet 4 inches in height, strolled away from the camp, and nothing definite or reliable has been heard of him since. A rumour reached the Brigade that in the course of his ramble he stumbled on an English picket, by whom he was immediately shot as an “Irish rebel.” Whatever may be the truth of this story, one thing is certain that, so far as his comrades are concerned, poor McGlade disappeared completely.
The 29th was passed very quietly, the Catholic members of the Brigade going to Confession and receiving Holy Communion. In connection with this, it is only right to mention that, although the majority of the men were Catholics, we had also between 30 and 40 Protestants in our ranks, including Captain MacCallum. Needless to say anything in the shape of religious differences was absolutely unheard of.
At 4.30 on the morning of the 30th, as the boys were taking their coffee, the whizz of a shell passing over the camp gave warning that the English were about to make an effort to drive us from our positions. The cups were immediately set down, the rifles were grasped, and every man went off on the double to his allotted place on Pepworth Hill. While looking at our flag fluttering in the cool air of that African morning one of the Brigadiers reminded me of the words of Dowling’s Fontenoy: –
“We looked upon that banner
And our memories sadly rose
Of our homes and perished kindred
Where the Lee and Shannon flows;
We looked upon that banner
And we swore to God on high
To smite to-day the Saxon’s might,
To conquer or to die.”
General White had 12,500 men under his command in Ladysmith, and about 50 cannon of all descriptions. The Boer investing force numbered 6,000 men, and 6 or 8 cannon. After the fight we discovered that the English gunners must have known the Boers would occupy Pepworth, as the number of yards from certain positions were carefully marked on the face of the rocks. This precaution, of course, considerably added to the accuracy of their fire, which otherwise would not have been of much account.
Pepworth Hill is an eminence of considerable height, and, I should say, some 7,000 yards from the town of Ladysmith. Commandant Trichardt was in command on the hill, and he placed the Earmelo commandos to the left of his guns (one Long Tom and two Creusots), and the Irish Brigade to the right. It was the centre of the Boer position, and it was on this hill that General White made his principal attack. We, naturally, felt very proud at being placed in so prominent a position in the big fight. The duty imposed on the Brigade that day was of the most difficult and most trying character. It was our duty to lie there and protect the guns in case of a British charge. Lying down and doing nothing is not, a difficult or trying occupation at ordinary times, and any of my readers will, doubtless, call to mind acquaintances of theirs worthy of high distinction in this direction; but it is something different when the din and clash of battle is in one’s ears, and when a couple of dozen of big guns are pouring an incessant rain of shells around and about. This was the severest fire we had yet experienced. Shells of all kinds and sizes whizzed and burst in every direction – grape, canister, time-concussion shells kept the atmosphere pretty warm – yet the boys of the Brigade did not seem to mind, and whenever a slight cessation in the infernal uproar would allow it, the gallant fellows chatted and joked just as if they were in the most ordinary and everyday conditions of life. One of the boys voiced a very general feeling when he said that he wished their friends at home could see them. It was, perhaps, as well, however, that some of their women-folk at least didn’t.
After about an hour’s fighting, Colonel Blake was wounded by a pellet from a shell, just above the right wrist, and retired to the field hospital. The command of the Brigade then devolved on myself, and I felt the responsibilities of the position keenly at the time. Sometime afterwards, poor Tommy Oates, who was barely twenty years of age and as brave as a young lion, had his skull smashed in by the casing of a shell. He was fully fifteen minutes dead before his comrades were aware of the fact.
At 8’clock a.m. he had asked me if I would have a slice of bread and cold meat, to which I replied, saying, “Not just now,” as there seemed to be signs of a British advance. An hour later, no advance taking place, I called out to him to pass along the food. He was lying about six yards away at the time.
Dunlop, who had been editor of a weekly paper in Johannesburg before the outbreak of the war, and who was lying between us said, “Tommy is asleep, Major.”
“All right,” I replied, “let the young lad sleep.”
Dunlop then drew nearer Oates and took another look at him: “My God,” he said impressively, “he is dead.”
Poor Tommy, who was the Brigade standard bearer, was our first killed in battle. His father came from near Killarney, and is at present in Brooklyn.
About the time young Oates was killed the English received a much-needed reinforcement in the shape of two huge naval guns from Durban. The first few shots from these monsters disabled half a dozen young artillerymen. Remarkably fine fighters these same artillerymen were, too, all young Boers between the ages of 18 and 30, with any amount of dash and bravery, and as cool as cucumbers. A serious situation now arose. The ammunition for Long Tom began to run short, and there were none at hand to serve it. The fearful English artillery fire had driven everyone off the kopje, with the exception of the men who were working the big guns and the Irish Brigade. Commandant Trichardt sent an aide-de-camp to me (Blake being in hospital) to ask for volunteers to carry up the ammunition. The aide-de-camp first encountered Captain MacCallum, who passed the word to me that volunteers were wanted for this dangerous work. I immediately called for volunteers, stating the service required, and dozens of once sprung to their feet.
I am afraid I cannot accurately remember the names of all the men I selected for this arduous task; but to the best of my recollection they were – Sergeant Wade, Sergeant O’Keefe (brave Jim O’Keefe of Kilkenny, died 3 years ago in the United States); Corporal Pat Darragh, from Derry; Corporal Dick McDonough, from the Kingdom of Kerry; and Trooper Thomas Hawney, Kerry; Patrick Fahey, Louth; P. Barrett, Meath; – Edge, Dublin; Duggan, Down; and Olsen, a sturdy Norwegian, who had joined the Brigade pending the raising of a Scandinavian corps. With a defiant cheer, which was heard in the English lines, the gallant Volunteers rushed to their perilous task and served the guns amidst a veritable torrent of bursting bombs. A few minutes later the big guns were talking again, the first shells brought up by the Irish Volunteers scattering an English infantry regiment like chaff before the wind. Their attention was next directed on a cavalry regiment, which in a short time was galloping madly across the plain, riding over their own infantry in their haste to get out of range. Two of the brigadiers, Jim McCormack, of Longford, and Frank Connolly, of Antrim, got quite excited at sight of the runaways, and, jumping up, shook their rifles in the direction of the retreating English, shouting at the same time – “You are going the wrong way. Why don’t you come on, you damned Tommy Atkins.”
Lieutenant Gaynor was seriously wounded, receiving two bullets in the arm as he stood by my side. I ordered him to retire to hospital, and much against his grain the brave fellow left the field. In half an hour he was back again, saying in the most cheerful tone, “Major, I’m fit for fighting now, and I don’t want to lose the fun.”
At the same instant I had a stone knocked out of a ring I was wearing by the splinter of a rock. Ten minutes later Cox, a young Irish-Colonial of the very best type, was killed, and Hugh Carberry was mortally wounded. Carberry was a fine shot and in every respect a good Irishman. The people of Armagh did credit to themselves in erecting a statue to that gallant soldier of freedom. Andy Higgins, of Down, had his knee shattered; Olsen was wounded in the breast; Denny Kavanagh, of Galway, had his hand smashed – Denny was lying behind the same rock as “Big” Mick Ryan (we had two Mick Ryans – one was known as “Big Mick,” and hailed from Tipperary; the other came from Clare or Kerry, and was known as “Mick the Liar.” Why he was so nicknamed I could never understand, as he was most exact and truthful.)
Denny, however, asked “Big Mick” for a drink of water, to which that worthy replied by saying: “I have no water, Denny, and cannot go for it now; but here is a piece of bread for you.” The good-hearted fellow, not being able to oblige his comrade in the way he desired, evidently did not wish to seem disobliging, and so offered him the only thing he had in his possession in the way of refreshment.
We had some four or five others wounded as well, whose names I cannot now remember. The conduct of the Brigade that day won the admiration of the whole Boer Army. “Allmachtig,” said one old Boer, gazing open-eyed at the Irishmen, laughing and singing while the shells were dealing destruction in all directions, “these Irishmen fear neither God nor the big guns.” Plunkett, one of the boys, said to be a relation of the late Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, took up an empty English shell, washed it out, and used it to make coffee in, while the battle raged, of which Joe Tully, an Irish-Colonial, remarked that he had often heard of shell cocos, but that he had never heard of shell coffee before. Altogether the Brigade suffered heavily, our killed and wondering numbering a dozen. We had, however, the satisfaction of participating in the complete rout of White and his 12,500 men. The English infantry threw their arms out of their hands and made a wild race for the town, whilst the cavalry charged blindly over the flying infantry, hundreds of whom they crushed to death. The retreat was one wild scene of panic – every man for himself, and his Satanic majesty take the hindmost.
The victorious Boer Army should have entered Ladysmith that evening, but General Joubert would not allow us to chase the flying English, giving as his reasons that “it might cost another hundred men, and that God would not like it,” this being the second time inside a week in which Joubert allowed his religious scruples to hamper his tactics. After the battle Commandant Trichardt rode round and personally thanked the Irish Brigade for their conspicuous bravery, and on the following day General Joubert thanked us on behalf of the Z.A.R.
Up to this battle, which the English called Ladysmith and the Boers Modderspruit, the less educated burghers had regarded our men with suspicion, because, hearing them speak nothing but English, they considered that they must also be English in sympathy, and that they would, in fact, be only too ready to betray them at the first big opportunity. The Brigade’s work at Modderspruit, however, definitely settled the minds of those not unreasoning doubters. For the information of my Gaelic League friends, I should say in this connection that we had several excellent Gaelic speakers and traditional singers in the Brigade, and that no evening passed without the olden tongue being heard around our camp fires.
Next week I hope to be able to reach Colenso in my article.