From the day the greatest gold field in the world was found to crown the desolate Witwatersrand, the Transvaal was marked out for destruction by the English. Had Cecil Rhodes never existed – had Joe Chamberlain never deserted his republican principles – yet we who know England knew well that she would never allow a rich country to exist in proximity to her possessions while that country was weak. That many of the Boers thought otherwise I know well. But the majority of them, like ourselves, were shrewd enough – at least, after the Jameson Raid – to see that a conflict with the English was inevitable, and to prepare themselves for it. To those who have lived in South Africa and to those who know England it would be superfluous to describe by what means the conflict was precipitated. England always slanders those whom she wishes to destroy. She prepared for her assault on the Transvaal by slandering its people. According to her they were barbarous, swindling, lazy, ignorant fellows who hated cleanliness and progress.
They were bigots persecuting those who differed from them in religion, tyrants oppressing the unhappy Uitlanders, who lived like dogs beneath the iron rule of a sordid and soulless oligarchy. They were cowards who at the first sound of an English cannon would throw down their arms and whine for a mercy they did not deserve. How true these charges were the world knows now. The best of the Uitlanders whom generous England wished to deliver from high wages and short hours of labour shouldered their guns for the Boers. The worst of the Uitlanders took refuge in the coast towns and refused to fight for England. That the French – the most liberty-loving people on Earth – the Germans, the Scandinavians, Americans and other Uitlanders – should have formed corps for the defence of the Transvaal is sufficient proof to any man whose understanding is not clouded over by Anglo-Saxonism that they were not oppressed. So far from their business being oppressed, in no country in the world had the workingman as good a time as in the Transvaal. But the motives which induced the Irish Uitlanders to band themselves in the defence of the South African Republic differed in some respects from those of the Uitlanders of other nationalities. England was the country menacing the Transvaal. England was the country that tyrannised over Ireland. When we know war to be inevitable, when the English women were trampling down their own women and children in their haste to run away, I gathered the Irishmen of the Rand and representatives of the Pretoria Irish in Johannesburg, and we resolved to offer our services to the Government. The offer was promptly accepted, and then we issued the manifesto which so much irritated the English in South Africa.
RECRUITING FOR THE BRIGADE.
We had no difficulty in finding recruits for the Irish Brigade. We even found it impossible to refuse the offers of service made to us by some few brave boys who had nothing in common with Ireland except a regard for the old land and a deadly hate of the English. Several Irish-Americans were with us, and some few Americans who never seen our country, neither they nor their fathers. Among the latter was Captain MacCallum, than whom a better and more loyal comrade never existed. But, of course, the bulk of the men were of pure Irish blood – stalwart lads from the mines and young business men who even in that far land had never forgotten the old sod.
Col. Blake at my suggestion was elected to the chief command. Mr. Menton and myself were appointed Majors, and numerous others were given commissions. It was a proud day, the 6th of October, when the Irish Brigade marched through the streets of Johannesburg, with their Martini-Henrys and Mausers on their shoulders, the green flag flying over our heads and hope of a long due vengeance burning in our hearts. The burghers turned out in the streets to cheer us as we passed and the battalioned Uitlanders gave us a superb send-off. It was a fine, sturdy, well-built lot of men that paraded that day on the way to the train, and I could not help wishing as we marched through the cheering crowds that we were going out that day to fight, not only against the English, but in Ireland for Ireland. A couple of days we stopped at Sandspruit, and then proceeded to Volksrust, where we formed up, waiting for the order to advance. General Joubert there addressed us, complimented the men on their fine military appearance, and we spent the remainder of the time in working ourselves into shape for the coming fray. Many of the men had never previously ridden a horse or patted the trigger of a riffle – yet in a few weeks these men were all good horsemen and good shots. Military experts very commonly hold the opinion that the making of a soldier is a thing requiring years of training, but so far at least, as Irishmen are concerned, that belief is unfounded.
PULLING DOWN THE UNION JACK.
The first duty of a soldier is said to be to obey, but I am afraid I violated that duty at the start of the war, and I am not sorry for having done so. When at length the weary wait was over and we got the order to advance into English territory, the Brigade was beside itself with joy. As it marched across the border, with the Irish flag proudly waving in the breeze in the van of the Boer army, the cheers echoed and re-echoed round Majuba and through Laing’s Nek. I had received orders to halt at Majuba but somehow or other the order was forgotten in the excitement. The English were fleeing before us and leaving their commissariat waggons behind, the Brigade pressed on through the Nek right up to Newcastle, which the panic-stricken enemy abandoned without firing a shot. The Union Jack was flying over the town when we got there. Down it came, and we floated the Boer flag and our own over the deserted British town. The pursuit of the English from the borders of Natal by the Brigade was its only act of disobedience to the Boer Commandant-General’s orders and it was forgiven us.
A few days later we took part in the battle of Dundee, and it was very amusing afterwards to read in the English papers the story of that glorious British victory, of the dashing bayonet charges of the British troops and the capture of the Boer cannon. The British victory on that occasion was so complete that the British troops ran away and left their guns and stores and wounded behind them. Dundee was not a British retreat, it was a rout. A mad, disorganised rabble, abandoning everything, even their wounded generals, they fled as their predecessors fled from Castlebar in far away Ireland, from the soldiers of Humbert and the brave Connaught peasants. You can judge of the truthfulness of the English press by referring to their description of that mad, cowardly, ridiculous fight of their troops before a force numerically very much their inferior.
But England found something to console her through a blunder resulting from dissensions between two generals – one of whom is since dead. Seven or eight hundred Boers were surrounded at Elandslaagte by an English force five times their strength, and defeated. Even blunder and all, the English would have suffered another defeat that day had not the unfortunate disputes between the leaders broken out even while the fight was raging on the hill top. At Elandslaagte the British got in with “cold steel,” as they boasted. It was the only time they did. Not one of the bayonet charges, none of the hand-to-hand fighting that were solemnly recounted in English papers ever occurred. The first and last time they tried fighting at close quarters was at Elandslaagte. Their cowardly lancers succeeded in killing the wounded burghers, but when they came across unwounded ones with clubbed muskets in their hands, their “pig sticking,” as they called it, was checked.
Elandslaagte did the Boers some service. It brought them closer together and taught them that discipline was necessary. While the Elandslaagte battle was going on, the Irish Brigade were with Commandant Trichardt bringing up the guns. We reached the heights around Ladysmith on the 27th of October, 1899, and immediately began to let the English know we had arrived. At 4.30 on the morning of the 30th we were awakened by the first shell and found the English were advancing from Ladysmith. The gunners stood by their guns and the great fight of Modderspruit and Nicholson’s Nek began. The Boer army around Ladysmith did not number more than 2,500 men that day – the English advancing force was five times as numerous. The kopje where we were stationed soon began to feel the effect of the English artillery fire. Grape and cannister, time-concussion shells poured all around us. The gunners began to fall by their guns. Then were witnessed scenes of unexampled bravery – one wounded gunner, Corporal Pretorius, fighting on though he was wounded in two places. A member of the Brigade standing on a rock gave directions to the gunners where to fire.
The Boers, unable to stand the awful hail fell back. The ammunition for the guns begins to run short, and there are none to serve it. A few minutes and the guns will be silenced – Commandant Trichardt thinks of the Irish Brigade. Colonel Blake had been wounded early in the fight and left the field, long before the ammunition for the guns ran short. In the subsequent fighting in Natal he took no part and left the Irish Brigade entirely when we were driven back to Pretoria. The Commandant sent me for volunteers to carry ammunition to the guns. I called for volunteers, dozens sprang to their feet – I chose a dozen men, placing them under the command of Sergt. Joe Wade and Dick MacDonough, and amid showers of bursting bombs they served the guns, while around the kopje indifferent to the fearful storm of shells, the other members of the Brigade lay with their guns in their hands, laughing and joking.
“Allmachta!” said one of the Boers afterwards, “you Irish fear neither God nor the big guns.”
Lieutenant Gaynor, though wounded in the arm, absolutely refused to leave the field. Plunkett, another of our boys, got an empty English shell, washed it and used it to make coffee in while the battle raged. We lost that day heavily, having a dozen killed and wounded. But when the evening fell the English were in panic-stricken flight and the Boers had taken 1,100 prisoners at Nicholson’s Nek, another portion of the field. The Britishers were so beaten and demoralised that they threw their arms out of their hands in the streets of Ladysmith, expecting the Boer army to enter every minute and take the town. Alas! General Joubert never gave us the order to advance. Despite the overwhelming numbers of the British, 500 men could have captured the whole garrison, and how different then would have been the course of campaign. The honours that day were ours. Commandant Trichardt came to us and thanked us in the evening, and next day, General Joubert congratulated the Brigade on behalf of the Transvaal Government. We buried our dead on the battlefield and their companions carved a rude cross which we raised above the graves of our first comrades slain in battle. They died as Irishmen should die, with guns in their hands and their faces turned to their hereditary foe.
From the day of Modderspruit until the day we attacked the Rooi-Kopjes, 30th of November, the Brigade found much amusement in skirmishing and sniping at the enemy. At the Rooi-Kopjes the Brigade dashed up to the assault on the forts and had them practically captured, when through some unforeseen accident, the Boers left us unsupported and isolated. Shortly afterwards the guns were placed under charge of the Irish Brigade, and the first night we had charge of the guns, one of the boys went looking around for English surprise parties. He stumbled into a Boer picket, and when challenged he told them he was “a poor, unfortunate Irishman.” He had been nearly shot in mistake.
“Why,” said the burgher to him, “did you not sing out ‘friend’!”
“Sure,” was the reply, “devil a friend I have in the world, and I’ve been down trying to shoot my enemies.”
CROSSING THE TUGELA.
Our next engagement was at Colenso, where we were at first supporting the guns, but we got tired of our comparative inaction and with some difficulty obtained permission to go into the front fighting line. To get there we had to cross an open plain that was swept by shot and shell. We drove the spurs into our horses and a fierce joy swelled our hearts with the knowledge that we were going to meet our ancient foe once again in pitched battle and prove their masters. When about half way across a shell burst within a few yards of me, throwing myself and my horse to the ground. Immediately Sergeant Major O’Reilly rode forward and offered me his horse. I ordered him on, as he had planted himself beside me straight in the line of fire in order to screen me by exposing himself. The brave fellow absolutely refused to go, and an Irish Colonial boy of thirteen – young Willie Smith of Johannesburg – galloped up fearlessly through the shell storm and offered me his horse also, which of course I refused. Incidents like that make one feel proud that he is Irish. We got safely to our position and spent hours pumping lead into them, or as O’Reilly called it, giving them a “taste of South African snow,” until they fled in their usual fashion, leaving eleven of their cannon in our hands.
HOW THE GUNS WERE CAPTURED.
Some of the incidents at Colenso of which I was an eye-witness were really remarkable. At one time the English galloped their ambulance right in front of the firing line to cover the retreat of one of their regiments. Again, when the English infantry wavered about advancing, the English guns were turned on them and scores of the unfortunate wretches were shot down by their own comrades. Later in the afternoon I had the pleasure of being amongst the first twenty men to cross the Tugela and take possession of the English cannon; Lieutenant Coetzee and myself placed Lieutenant Colonel Bullock under arrest. Bullock was a brave man and fought as long as he possibly could. In connection with the taking of the cannon I may mention that Lieutenant Roberts, son of Lord Roberts, was the only man in Buller’s enormous army that made any attempt to save them. The bulk of the British officers showed themselves on the day of Colenso and afterwards to be absolutely incompetent. The burgher army of Colenso barely numbered 4,000, not one-third of whom were actively engaged against Buller’s immense army of 40,000. General Botha had achieved a great victory which placed him at once in the front rank of generals, and there was jubilation in our camps that evening. The cry was raised by the Irish and the Boers, “To Durban! To Durban! They are on the run now; let us keep them on the run!” was the universal opinion. But General Joubert said “it was against the Bible to smite a flying enemy.”