I can only refer incidentally to the important engagement of Spion Kop, as the Irish Brigade were not there, and in any case it has been so often described that its main features are fairly familiar to the public. Of course, like most of the other actions of the war, it has almost invariably been written from the purely British point of view, and consequently held up before the world as a marvellous example of British pluck and endurance. That the unfortunate soldiers who were driven like sheep up the hill in the small hours of the morning on the 23rd January, 1900, showed great endurance during the time they were penned up there, and suffered very acutely, is true enough; but the conduct of the whole affair is admitted even by pro-British writers to have been almost criminally stupid. Yet to read some of these accounts, one would imagine the British performed some daring feat of arms in capturing the hill on that January morning. As a matter of fact there were only a dozen burghers on the hill at the time of the British advance, and they naturally did not offer a very formidable resistance to the couple of thousand of English troops who came tramping up the hill before daybreak. Word was, however, quickly conveyed to General Botha that the British were on the Kop, and, by the time day had fully dawned, that resourceful commander had hastily brought together about one hundred volunteers, whom he sent to check the English troops, and, if possible, drive them off the hill.
The English troops when they reached the summit of the kopje had evidently stayed their march until daybreak, and made no attempt to take up an entrenched position on the Boer side of the hill; a piece of carelessness of which Botha was not slow to take advantage. The hundred volunteers scrambled up the hill in twos and threes, while Botha placed a pom-pom to the right of the Kop, and another to the left. Had the British continued their advance and strongly posted themselves on the Boer side of the hill, instead of foolishly halting midway, they would have been in a far better position to meet the checking movement of General Botha. By their delay they gave the latter the opportunity of disposing of his small force to the best advantage, an advantage which told in the most disastrous fashion against the English, as the appalling record of killed and wounded on their side only too eloquently shows.
When, after daybreak, they continued their advance they were met by a steady fire from the hundred burghers, while the pom-poms did deadly execution on both their flanks. It was a struggle in the beginning of 2,000 to 100, and Thorneycroft, who commanded the British, soon began to realise that the burghers, even though so much inferior to his force numerically, were yet more than a match for his overwhelming numbers. Supports were hurried up to him, until he had 4,000 men under his command, the Boers meanwhile receiving reinforcements that brough their small body up to between four and five hundred men. The British still had a tremendous numerical superiority; but it was the only thing in which they were superior, and the style in which the handful of burghers faced such fearful odds is worthy of the highest admiration. Time after time they charged right up to the English positions, some of which they succeeded in capturing, and when it is remembered that the Boers never carry either swords or bayonets, the truly heroic and dashing character of such exploits can be more readily understood and appreciated.
Altogether the fight lasted for fifteen hours without cessation, and on the night of the 24th Thorneycroft began to think that he and his troops had quite enough of the encounter, and turning their backs on the corpse-strewn summit of the top, they retreated along the line of march they had followed when coming up, leaving 2,000 in killed, wounded and prisoners behind them. The total Boer loss was about 150 men. The battle of Spion Kop will ever remain as an example of how superior generalship, even with a mere handful of troops, can triumph over an overwhelmingly large force where there is no competent generalship to lead and advise. It certainly was a great personal triumph for General Botha, and immensely strengthened his prestige among his countrymen.
Three days after the battle, Father Van Hecke, Lieutenant Coetzee, Sergeant-Major O’Reilly, and I visited the scene of the fight, and we were profoundly impressed with the horror of the spectacle presented to our eyes, whilst we almost became physically sick at the abominable stench which arose from the numberless half-buried corpses, whose positions were firmly indicated by numerous legs and arms protruding up through the soft clay of the kop. It was an appalling and a disgusting scene, from which we hurried away as quickly as possible.
As I have not mentioned Father Van Hecke before, it is necessary to say that he was our new chaplain, sent to replace Father Baudry, whose increasing infirmities rendered him unfit for an active campaign. Father Van Hecke was a Belgian, and only about twenty-five years of age. He soon endeared himself to the men by his kind and gentle manner, and he also earned the wholehearted admiration of the Boers by the way in which he endured all hardships in order to perform his duty. The English were very fond of referring to the bigotry of the Boers, but, like most of their charges against that sturdy race, there was very little foundation for such statements, and I never knew a burgher to pass our chaplain on the veldt without lifting his hat in courteous salutation.
When referring to this matter of the behaviour and demeanour of the Boers, as well as the scene after Spion Kop, I may be excused for giving the following quotation from a report sent to General Warren at the end of January, 1900, by Father Reginald F. Collins, Chaplain to the English forces. Father Collins, after giving an account of an interview with General Botha relative to the interment of the fallen English soldiers, goes on to say: –
“I venture to think it a matter of considerable importance to draw attention to the attitude of the Boers when we met during the carrying out of our duties on those three days. After collecting all the identification papers, letters and personal property of the fallen, and whilst waiting for the graves to be dug, we chaplains were unoccupied, and therefore had plenty of time to talk to the Boers around us. For my part, I confess that the deepest impression has been made on me by these conversations, and by the manly bearing and straightforward, outspoken way in which we were met. There were two things I particularly noted. As there was no effort made to impress us by what was said (they spoke with transparent honesty and natural simplicity, and in nearly all cases the conversations were begun by us), so there was a total absence of anything like exultation over what they must consider a military success. Not a word, not a look, not a gesture or sign, that could by the most sensitive of persons be construed as a display of their superiority.
Far from it, there was a sadness, almost anguish, in the way in which they referred to our fallen soldiers. I can best convey the truth of this statement and show that there is no attempt at exaggeration in using the word ‘anguish,’ by repeating expressions used, not once, but again and again by great numbers of them as they inspected the ghastly piles of our dead, ‘My God! What a sight!’ ‘I wish politicians could see their handiwork.’ ‘What can God in Heaven think of this sight?’ ‘What a cursed war that brings these poor fellows to such an end?’ ‘We hate this war. This war is accursed. Every day, on our knees, we all pray that God will bring this war to an end.’ ‘It is not our war; it is a war of the millionaires.’”
On the evening of the day on which we had visited Spion Kop, O’Reilly and myself were going the rounds of the different commandoes when we came across a dozen burghers seated around a fire amusing themselves with three unexploded English shells which had come into their possession. Their method of deriving amusement from these rather dangerous toys consisted in putting them on the fire and watching the sparks fizzle up something like a small display of fireworks. The first one fizzled away quite harmlessly, much to the delight of the simple-minded burghers, and they then repeated the process with the second shell, which started fizzling away like the first. I did not quite realise what they were doing; but O’Reilly, with the instinct of an old campaigner, quickly seeing the risky nature of their pastime, called out to me to come away at once. Amidst cheers and laughter, they put the third shell on the fire, when it almost immediately exploded, killing one of the unfortunate men and wounding three or four others. I record this incident because it is one of many experiences which showed me that, shrewd and experienced as these sturdy burghers undoubtedly were, yet in some respects they were for all the world like a lot of big children.
Although the Brigade was not present as a body at most of the fighting along the Tugela, individual members of it took part in most of the battles, four splendid young fellows losing their lives in this way. Their names were Brennan, Richardson, Lasso, and Paddy Fahy. General Ben Viljoen, speaking to me later on in the campaign about poor Fahy, paid his memory a very high tribute, saying he was one of the bravest young fellows he had ever come across.
We were only able to spend one day in the neighbourhood of Spion Kop, as we had only three days’ leave from Ladysmith. When we got back to camp an incident which occurred to one of the boys caused considerable amusement at the time. The hero of the incident was out from camp, engaged in the laudable occupation of trying to raid some of the enemy’s horses, and in the course of his proceedings came across a Kaffir spy from Ladysmith, whom he promptly captured and brought back to camp, where he received instructions to bring his prisoner to General Joubert. This he accordingly did, and, after handing up his captive, evidently felt that he had fully discharged his duty in the matter, and was starting back for camp again, when, to his disgust, he was ordered by the General to mount guard over his prisoner all night. There was, of course, nothing for it but to obey, and he carried out his vigil as patiently as possible under the circumstances; but when he got back to camp in the morning he registered a solemn vow that it would be the last prisoner he would ever take.
Somewhere about this period the Brigade was presented with a second flag by the Transvaal artillery. It was a very handsome flag, made of green cashmere, by the wife of one of the artillerymen, and had a harp worked in yellow silk thread in the centre. The presentation of this flag was a kindly and thoughtful act, which met with high appreciation by the members of the Brigade. We had it with us for the remainder of the campaign, and were always uneasy about its falling into the hands of the English. On Sundays it used to serve as an altar-cloth for Father Van Hecke; and on our way back to Europe we presented it to that devoted little priest as a memento of the Brigade.
Shortly after Spion Kop I received a letter from Sol Gillingham, of Pretoria, informing me that Arthur Lynch had just arrived there and was setting about organising a second Irish Brigade.
I wired at once in reply: “Before doing so, come down; Bring Lynch and Oates with you.”
We thought the starting of a second brigade an unnecessary and a foolish move at the time, as in reality we had not enough of men for the first. Arthur Lynch I had met at home in Ireland, and from what I knew of him was rather anxious to have him with us. But he was evidently determined on carrying out his idea of a second corps, and I regretted very much at the time, and regret still, that he did not join us. They did not come down to Ladysmith in response to my telegram, but set to work organising their brigade, which, when it was ready to start for the front consisted of about 100 men, of whom half-a-dozen were Irish and about another half-a-dozen Irish-Americans. The remainder was made up of men of various nationalities. Colonel Lynch had as his officers Major Mitchell and Captain P. J. Oates; and certainly no men could have done more with the material at their disposal than they did.