After the rout of Sir George White’s large force, as described in last Saturday’s Freeman, the Brigade advanced in the direction of Ladysmith, and by four o’clock in the afternoon was within easy distance of the town. Here we halted, awaiting the expected order to storm the town along with the other commandos – an order which unfortunately never came. The tedium and anxiety of waiting behind the rocks was enlivened by the flight and bursting of an occasional shell from the naval guns in the town.

Suddenly Captain MacCallum sprang to his feet and shouted, “By Jove, Major, we are surrounded. It’s all up now!”

This abrupt announcement naturally startled me, and I asked him what were his grounds for it. I had scarcely asked the question when, after a second look through his field-glass, MacCallum threw his hat in the air, at the same time giving a war-whoop that would have done credit to a Red Indian. He had been scanning the field very closely, and his sharp eye detecting a thin khaki line winding round the edge of a kopje some few miles away on our right flank, he at once, and quite naturally came to the conclusion that the Brigade was being surrounded, as flanking movements were in much favour with the British Generals. The second look through the glasses, however, which caused him to much jubilation, revealed the fact that though the thin khaki line was winding round the kopje, the men of whom it was composed had no arms in their hands, and were, in fact, a batch of prisoners who were being rounded in by a few dozen Boers. We were all as much pleased as MacCallum himself at this welcome intelligence.

Our duties in guarding the guns on Pepworth Hill had so completely engrossed our attention that we had no means of knowing anything of the doings in other parts of the field. We could hear the incessant short, sharp crack of the rifles away on our right, and the deadly hiss of the Pom-poms on our left; but as to how our friends were faring we had not the slightest idea. The men whom Captain MacCallum at first had suspected of turning our right flank turned out to be the 817 men whom the dashing De Wet had captured at Nicholson’s Nek. A lot of rubbish had been written about the stampede of the mules, and about English ammunition having run short; but, as a matter of fact, neither the one nor the other was the cause of the English surrender. General De Wet had written an account of the affair, which is accurate in every detail, and tells how his commando of 300 burghers arrived at Nicholson’s Nek and found it occupied by the English. They immediately proceeded to storm the kopje, which they succeeded in doing in the face of a terrific rifle fire which the English were enabled to pour on them from their strong positions. The fight was very fierce while it lasted, and so telling was the Boer fire and so undaunted their advance that, although the English outnumbered them by four to one, and occupied a commanding position on the hill, they at length had to surrender into the hands of the valiant burghers.

Referring to this engagement in his “Three Years’ War,” General De Wet says, with regard to the number engaged: –

“I took careful note of our numbers when the battle was over, and I can note with certainty that there were not more than two hundred burghers actually engaged. Our loss amounted to four killed and five wounded. As to the losses of the English, I myself counted two hundred and three dead and wounded, and there may have been many whom I did not see. In regard to our prisoners, as they marched past me four deep I counted eight hundred and seventeen.”

So much for Nicholson’s Nek and the alleged responsibility of the mules for the disaster. It is a wonder the English did not make one of their dashing bayonet charges.

That evening, when we returned to our camp, or, rather, to the place where our camp had been, we were astonished to find nothing but a scene of disorder and destruction. Nothing was as it had been in the morning. Our tents were simply flying in ribbons from their poles, and all our belongings were scattered about in confused battered heaps. One would imagine that the English gunners knew it was the camp of the Irish Brigade, and concentrated their most venomous fire on it, as the place was literally cut to pieces by their shells. Of the tent which Colonel Blake and I had occupied the night before the battle nothing was left but a ragged strip of canvass flying like a forlorn-looking banner from the pole. A bucket, half full of coffee, out of which our breakfasts were being served early that morning, had two bullet holes in it, whilst a tin cup I had been using was battered out of all shape. All the other tents were in an equally tattered condition, so that for many a day after, we had to sleep behind rocks, with the blue sky as our covering.

A few days after the battle of Modderspruit I received orders from General Joubert to take half a dozen men with me and go to Colenso to blow up the bridge there. The order rather astonished me, chiefly because Colonel Blake, being wounded, and I in sole command of the Brigade, I did not think it right that I should be asked to leave the men in order to superintend the blowing-up of a bridge. Besides this, the most advanced body of the Boer army at this time had not penetrated further than eight or nine miles south of Ladysmith, and Colenso at that period was occupied by the English. I must confess that I was not much impressed with the wisdom of sending half a dozen men on a mission that seemed to have such a slender chance of being successful. General Joubert, I know, did not like me. I had spoken rather hotly and impatiently to him after the battle of Modderspruit, when he refused to allow us to follow up our undoubted advantage and smash the flying English enemy, and I fear he never forgave me my hastiness.

Nevertheless, I determined to carry out the order, although I was convinced it meant certain death for all of us. I selected for the perilous enterprise Sergeant MacCallum, Jim O’Keefe, Pat Fahy, Joe Tully, Joe Wade, and Tom Balfour – all, well-known dynamitards on the Rand.

An hour after receiving the order we were in the saddle, taking three days’ rations with us, and cantering towards the General’s tent to get the dynamite and receive final instructions. Having procured our material and instructions, I asked the General for guides, as none of us know the lie of the country. He replied by saying that he was sending two guides with us as far as the Wakkerstroom commando, and that the commandant of that commando was to furnish us with a guard of fifty men to protect us while we were blowing up the bridge. Towards nightfall we reached the Wakkerstroom burghers. The Commandant informed us that he could not send out the men that night, and that we had better remain where we were and start at daybreak. At four o’clock in the morning I accordingly woke up the Commandant and asked him for the guard; but he informed me that he could get none of his men to go as it was “too dangerous a job.” I answered that I must fulfil my orders at all costs, and that I would push ahead with my own six men and the two guides. But alas! when the guides heard that no guards would accompany us, they also refused to come, and actually jumped on their horses and rode back to the head lager. The Commandant, seeing my predicament, said that Commandant Botha (afterwards the world-renowned General Botha) would be in the vicinity in a few hours, and that I had better see him. As I could not possibly push ahead without guides, knowing nothing of the country or the positions occupied by the English, I could do nothing but wait to consult Commandant Botha.

At eight o’clock that morning Louis Botha arrived, and to him I explained the fix I was in. Before answering he smiled quietly, and then informed me that the order had been countermanded during the night; but that there was a bridge near at hand which he would like to have destroyed; and we accordingly set out for it, accompanied by a guard of two hundred men. MacCallum and his “dynamitards” were not long about blowing it up; and I could not help regretting that the job had not been done four days earlier, as in that case the naval guns could not have been brought to Ladysmith. General Botha is such a famous man that it would be quite superfluous for me to say much about him here. I ever found him most courteous and sedate, but a man of inflexible will who never seemed to be in a hurry about anything. He also appeared to have a frame of iron, and could get through an amazing amount of work in a day. It is a matter for great regret that he had not supreme command in Natal from the start, as the course of the campaign would then have been quite different. I will have a good deal more to say about this great general and leader of men as this narrative proceeds.

We returned to camp that evening, and I at once made my report to General Joubert, who, although characteristically taciturn, seems to have arrived to the conclusion that the mission on which he had despatched me was an impossible one under the circumstances. The following day the Brigade took part in an abortive attack on Ladysmith. In fact, hardly a day or night passed for the next three weeks that we had not some sniping at the English. The Brigadiers were always on the lookout for a fight. Some of them when off duty and hearing the sound of rifle firing miles away would immediately jump on their horses and make at full speed for the place where the skirmish was going on, and return in the evening with marvellous tales to excite the envy of their comrades. In the hours in which we were not so occupied I devoted my attention to getting our camp once more into order. A new supply of tents was sent down from Pretoria, and these we erected behind a small kopje some few hundred feet high, which we had been told off to hold in the event of the English making a dash for the railway, which was about a mile and a half in our rear. Before the end of the month our camp was in model condition, and our Brave lads were as happy and comfortable as it was possible to be under the circumstances. The roll was called punctually at 5.30 every morning; and in this connection I may say that it is a matter of sincere regret to me that I have not a complete list of the names now, as I think they should one and all be known and remembered in Ireland.

Next week I will deal with the attack on the Rooi Kopjes, and the events leading up to the Battle of Colenso.