Hitherto I have nothing but scenes of victory and the enthusiasm which followed success to record. But darker days, bringing test and trial of every man in the splendid volunteer army of the Boers, came with the closing days of February.
On the 23rd of that month, seventy men of the Irish Brigade were ordered to the fighting line close to Colenso. Fighting round Ladysmith had slackened off, and the men of the Brigade were getting tired of the camp life and the monotonous sentry and outpost duty; so that there was the keenest competition amongst them all to secure selection for the Colenso continent. Indeed some of them had even to be placed under temporary arrest to prevent them stealing out of camp to join those selected. Colonel Blake was still suffering from the effect of his wound, and had to remain in camp with the balance of the Brigade, while I took charge of the picked men for the fighting line. An hour after the order had been received we stood ready waiting, as Commandant Trichard rode into camp to inspect the men and give us the order to proceed. At once the men swung into the saddle and with a hearty cheer from both sides we were off.
Four hours’ hard riding brought us into close proximity to the Artillery Camp, where we off-saddled for the night. Captain MacCallum made a special inspection of the men to see that they had given more than ordinary attention to the horses and to the rifles, for none of us knew what time our orders would arrive. We had a quiet night, however, and slept soundly until the call came at four o’clock in the morning. Quarter of an hour later we were on the march across the kopjes to the position assigned to us on the right of Pieter’s Hill, and above five hundred yards from the British lines; our neighbours being the Middelburg and Ermelo Commandoes. The horses were sent back to a grazing ground about a mile in the rear, the men rushed through a hearty breakfast and sought their positions amongst the rocks; and as daylight broke over the hills the sniping of the British lines started. The three days’ fighting at Pieter’s Hill had begun for the Brigade. Night and day the sniping went on between the two lines; our men taking turns in sleeping and eating at stray intervals, and throughout the rest of the twenty-four hours watching for the chance of a shot at a British head, arm, or leg in the opposite line. The arrangements for an unlimited supply to the skirmishing line of ammunition and provisions were splendidly carried out, and when the 27th broke bright and sunny our lads were still in position, as cheerful and eager as ever. Nothing showed more the Celtic spirit of the men at any time during the campaign than the merry joke and laugh which went from rock to rock even after those three days’ hard work in the active fighting line.
Before the day was well on us, it became clear that the British were preparing for an advance on Pieter’s Hill. Cannon fire was concentrated on it, and for hours the roar of the heavy guns, the bursting of shells, and the splintering of rocks made up a deafening noise, while the fumes of the lyddite were absolutely sickening. Opposite our own position the enemy’s lines were being pushed forward gradually until barely two hundred yards separated us from the British. Upon the hill there lay an insignificant body of thirty or forty brave burghers; but for hours all efforts to dislodge them failed utterly. More than once the British force advanced to the foot of the hill under the protection of a heavy shell fire; again and again the plucky band of burghers drove them back. Reinforcements were pushed forward from the British regiments in the rear, and towards evening a force of 3,000 men attacked the hill, and, though they suffered severely, they worked from point to point for nearly two hours till they reached the top, when the gallant little burgher band was forced to retire.
The Brigade was kept busy all this time endeavouring to hold the forces opposite our own line in check. A particular chance came to our marksmen at one time, when, as the main body of the British climbed Pieter’s Hill, the skirmishers incautiously stood up to cheer. It was the last cheer on earth for many of them. As evening approached it looked as if an attempt would be made to rush our position; and Captain MacCollum, Sergeants MacDonough and Higgins (Higgins was wounded at the battle of Modderspruit, but insisted on returning to his duty at Christmas, and was never happier than when – to use his own phrase – he was “hitting her up”) were moving busily up and down the line, keeping a sharp look-out ahead, and seeing that the men had their revolvers ready. The excitement grew to such a high pitch that we could scarcely restrain the lads from jumping up and firing standing out in the open.
“For God’s sake, Major,” cried one young lad, whose grandfather was out in ’48, and whose father had to fly from Ireland in ’67, “let us get at them with the butt of the rifle!”
A moment after his arm was shattered by a stray bullet, and as he was helped to the rear, the only remark of the brave lad was, “I wouldn’t mind if it was only for Ireland.”
As darkness fell, the fire slackened on all sides. So far from the capture of the hill having in any way disheartened the Boer advance lines, they were full of the idea of repeating the Spion Kop episode; and all through the early part of the night we were expecting an order to advance to the recapture of the hill. But at two o’clock in the morning an aide-de-camp from General Lucas Meyer came to us with orders to fall back and protect the cannon. This was disheartening for our lads, who had fought hard to maintain their position, but worse was to follow; for the aide-de-camp whispered to us officers that Cronje had surrendered, that the Boers were momentarily panic-stricken, and that all General Botha’s noble influence was unable to prevent a retreat. It was not Buller and all his army that relieved Ladysmith and drove the Boer army from around Colenso, but Cronje’s surrender.
Though our men were not told the disastrous news, they fell in at the word, thinking at the time that the retrograde movement was but part of the preparation of a general advance on Pieter’s Hill. But as the sun appeared over the kopjes we could see the entire Boer army, with the exception of two or three commandoes, in full retreat. The cannon had been removed back to Klip River, and our men followed back with sad hearts. There was but one welcome relief in our backward march; when at the river our good chaplain, Father Van Hecke, met us with a trolley-load of good things, which he distributed to the lads with many a hearty word and pleasant smile to rouse them from their gloomy feelings.
Long Tom was still up on Lombard’s Kop, and the Brigade was drawn in to support Major Wolmarans, which held a position to the right of the road near the foot of the kop. The Boers and the Irish altogether barely numbered 150, but the advance of the British cavalry towards Ladysmith was held in check by them till darkness fell. Close upon midnight reinforcements from one of the other commandoes arrived. Our lads had scarcely had a moment’s rest for over twenty hours, and for the last five or six of these were under a heavy downfall of rain; so I decided to take them back to camp for rest and refreshment. We could scarcely mount our horses, and the poor brutes, from cold, wet, and hunger, were nearly as bad as ourselves. But we had not gone more than 100 yards when we met a party of twelve and stopped them with the usual challenge. It was General Botha and his staff. I have often heard that the greatness of a General shows itself more in defeat than in victory, and never could have been seen a more notable or more saddening example of it. On the day of the Colenso victory, when I had last seen General Botha, his face wore a proud, bright smile, not so much that of a mere successful tactician as of a single-minded patriot whose entire heart was devoted to the cause of his country, and who saw that day at Colenso the fulfilment of his highest hopes. Now there was the same noble look, but with it, instead of the old bright smile, there was grim determination, and a sad sternness that almost brought a lump to one’s throat to watch. For thirty hours the great General had been in the saddle, moving from point to point, ordering, appealing, and arguing, in an almost hopeless effort to stop the deplorable effect of what had already become known as the Cronje fright.
And here let me interpose to say that I trust my remarks with regard to the great body of the Boers will not be misunderstood. It is not sufficiently recognised that the forces of the South African Republic were entirely made up of volunteers, and that instead of ordinary regiments, in which strict discipline could be maintained, the commandoes simply represented districts, and the men who came in without inducement, or pay, or reward of any kind, were merely held together by local companionship and with more or less looseness, working to a great extent in accordance with self-made rules. They had been led to expect great things from General Cronje; had he even been defeated in a fair, open fight, in which he gave a good account of himself, it would have comparatively little effect on the burghers around Ladysmith and the adjacent country; but the sudden and appalling news of his compete surrender came with such a shock that for the moment it brought but one impression – that the whole cause was lost. So it was that district after district started to move until, despite the influence of our great General, three-fourths of the army was in retreat. Many writers have told how nobly and how quickly they returned to the call of duty, and fought with magnificent pluck and endurance to the end; and therefore anything I have to say in record of the Brigade’s experiences of that sad day of Pieter’s Hill must not be taken as any reflection on those who proved their right to stand in the front rank of the noblest patriots of the world’s history.
“Where do you go?” demanded General Botha. Despite his long, weary day and night he was on his way to see for himself the fate of the guns.
I explained that, the Boer reinforcements having arrived at our position, I was taking our men back to camp for a short rest until morning, and that our horses were absolutely done up.
“We and our horses are nearly finished, too,” he said. “But,” he added, in an inexpressibly sad tone that went straight to the hearts of us all, “there are so very few to look after the guns.”
“Right you are, General,” went up from the Brigade, and, without waiting for the word of command, round went every man and back to the positions near the guns. The rain was still falling in torrents, and all round was pitch darkness, relieved now and again by flashes of lightning. Hour after hour we stood there, waiting anxiously for the rumbling sound that would tell us that “Long Tom” was on the move. Delay after delay kept our attention fixed on Lombard’s Kop that night; but at last word came that the big gun was in safety, and the order to retire was obeyed with as much alacrity as our worn-out bodies were capable of.
Colonel Blake, as soon as the Boer retreat had commenced, set the men in camp to pack up calmly and quietly, and by the time we got back everything was cleared off, in good order without a sign of confusion.