On the 2nd October, 1899, the officers selected at the Johannesburg meeting went to Pretoria to receive their commissions from the hands of the venerable President Kruger himself on the stoep of his house. I have a copy of mine before me, and it reads: “Majoor van het Iersche Corps en tevens Speciale Vrederechter” – which means “Major of the Irish Brigade and Special Justice of the Peace.” It was necessary for me to become a J.P. in order that I might have the power to administer the oath of allegiance to recruit myself, as a civil magistrate was not always conveniently at hand. During the ensuing four days I was kept busy swearing in the men and in making general preparations for as early a start for the Natal border as possible. It was an anxious and a trying time, what with the many details attendant on making arrangements for an adequate commissariat and the efforts to keep in check the exuberant eagerness of the men to get to the front. Many of them could not be quite got to understand the necessity of waiting for the perfecting of mere commissariat details, and wanted to start off right away, leaving the foodstuffs to look after themselves. Such things are amusing to think of now, but they were worrying enough at the time, when there were so many vitally important matters to be attended to.
And here again it is necessary to refer to the invaluable services rendered by Mr. Solomon Gillingham in helping to arrange for a suitable commissariat. But for him and his colleagues, Messrs. Louw, Focks, and Coetsee, our Brigade would never have reached Volksrust in time for the beginning of the war – a circumstance which would have saddened and annoyed us all very much. Mr. Gillingham cheerfully took on himself the burden of making these arrangements, and I can assure my readers that of all the duties attendant on the conduct of a campaign, whether in the preliminary steps or during its progress, those relating to the commissariat department are of the most worrying and thankless character. Yet a commissariat officer is popularly supposed to have a particularly easy billet. There could hardly, however, be a greater error; and, from my own personal experience and observation, I can truly assert that the work in connection with the commissariat department is of the most difficult and onerous description. Its importance is, of course, obvious, as the well fed soldier is naturally a much more effective fighting unit than the half-starved one. Thanks to our efficient staff, the Brigade was always well looked after in this respect. There were times, no doubt, when were on short rations for two, three, or four days, especially when on outpost duty; but such a contingency is more or less inevitable, in every campaign, and, as a general rule, we had every reason to feel very well satisfied with the arrangements made.
On the afternoon of the 6th October, the anniversary of Parnell’s death, the Brigade was ready to start for the front. The bulk of the men were of pure Irish blood; but we have several Irish-Americans and about a dozen Frenchmen with us. A few gallant Americans who had never seen Ireland also accompanied us, amongst these being Captain MacCallum, than whom a better or more loyal comrade never existed. It would be impossible to convey any idea of the exultant enthusiasm which swelled the hearts of all the men, and beamed from their eyes, as amidst surging, cheering crowds of spectators we marched to the station. At the head of the Brigade a green flag which had been specially made for the expected rising in Connaught in ’67 was held proudly aloft by Sergeant Joe Wade, of Balbriggan, and the sight of its green folds fluttering in the breeze thrilled every heart with thoughts of what might have been, and still more with hopes of what might be in a not too distant future, when yet another fight for Irish freedom would be waged. The cheers of the assembled burghers were deafening as we marched into the station, and, with many a hearty handshake and many a good wish and prayer for our welfare and safe return, the heavily-laden train steamed off for the front. I should mention that groups of Boer ladies came to the station to wish us Godspeed and to bestow lavish gifts of flowers, fruits, and cigars on the men who were going to help their country in its fight against a foreign aggressor.
At one of the missions on the way to Sandspruit an incident occurred which caused some annoyance at the time. Colonel Blake and a dozen or so of the men left the train to “stretch their legs” and have their canteens replenished. Unfortunately they did not get back in time, and the train started without them. However, they re-joined us on the following day. But, apart from this, our journey was accomplished in the best of good humour, all of the boys who could sing, and even a few who couldn’t contributing songs which were mostly of a patriotic nature. We arrived at Sandspruit on the afternoon of the 7th, where, under the superintendence of Captain Laracey and Sergeant Pat Malone, the horses were taken from the waggons, and by evening time we had our camp pitched and the fires blazing brightly to cook our first meal on the veldt. At first we thought we should have to be content with a supper of bread and coffee; but the Middleburg commando, which was camped close by, came to the rescue with a generous gift of a bullock and half a dozen sheep, and so provided us all with a substantial supper, which we heartily enjoyed after the long journey. That night I went to sleep with the strains of “God Save Ireland” and of “O’Donnell Abu” ringing in my ears.
After a couple of days at Sandspruit we proceeded to Volksrust, where General Joubert reviewed the Brigade. He contributed the men on their fine soldier-like appearance and made a very sympathetic reference to the long struggle which Ireland had carried on against overwhelming odds. Naturally, these encouraging words from the veteran General were heard with pride by the men, and his kindly references to Ireland’s long struggle for freedom were also highly appreciated.
A “Krygsraad” was held on the 11th October, at which a plan of campaign was adopted, and on the same evening war was officially declared. A Krygrsaad, it may be explained, is a war council composed of all the commandants, field cornets, and senior military officers. On the following day the Irish brigade received the order to saddle up and march into English territory, and never was order heard and acted upon with greater enthusiasm. On the day this welcome order was issued we were expecting the arrival of between 30 and 40 additional recruits from Johannesburg, and Colonel Blake, having decided to wait for them, suggested that I should push ahead with the greater portion of the men. In less than an hour the men were in their saddles – the waggons inspanned – and we were off in a gallop for the border.
I had received orders to pitch camp on the Natal side of Laing’s Nek to await the arrival of Colonel Blake with the remainder of the men; but in the rush and excitement I seem to have forgotten the order, and as we rode past Majuba the cheers of the Brigadiers echoed and re-echoed around that historic old hill. It was easy to see by their bright, flashing eyes; by the manner in which they patted the necks of their horses, by the determined way in which they clutched their rifles and looked at their flag, carried by young Tommy Oates, that the men were thinking of the old land, and were eagerly anticipating the hour that would bring them face to face with their hereditary enemy. Their only source of anxiety was the fear that a blow might be struck before they caught up with the advance body of the Boers. By dint of hard riding, however, we picked them up before Newcastle was reached; and we had the satisfaction of entering that English town on October the 15th in the van of the Boer army. The Union Jack was flying over the town when we entered; but it was quickly hauled down and the Vierkleur set proudly flying in its place, while over our own camp we hoisted the green flag of our country.
The day before we entered Newcastle I, for the first time, met Commandant Trichardt, who had command of the States Artillery – a magnificent body of trained and disciplined young Boers. Mr. Gillingham had brought me to the commandant’s camp, and in the course of a general conversation, after being introduced, I said that I feared I had somewhat overstepped others by advancing so far; but, to my great delight, he only laughed, and said he would take all the responsibility for my action on his own shoulders. From that day forward Commandant Trichardt proved himself a true friend of the Irish Brigade; and there was not one of the men who did not love and respect that brave and loyal soldier, who, with his two sons, Carl and Luke, fought so nobly to maintain the freedom of the South African Republics. His son Luke was at this time a mere boy of fifteen, but a splendid horseman and an excellent shot. After the war Luke came to Dublin, where he is at present a student at Trinity College.
He left Newcastle on the evening of the 15th and pitched camp some two hours’ ride from the town, where we were joined in a few days by Colonel Blake and his detachment. General Joubert did not seem to be in a hurry to advance, and for a man of his prestige conveyed the impression of being unnecessarily cautious, if not timid, in his tactics. The result was that we only covered between 60 and 70 miles within a week, notwithstanding that we were in no way hampered by the enemy. Joubert, with all his fine qualities, had not sufficient dash for the position he occupied at the time, and, I think, it is now generally admitted by everyone familiar with the details of the campaign that if Botha, Steyn, Delarry, or De Wet had been in command at this stage, the English would have been driven headlong out of Natal, a considerable force of burghers would have crossed into Cape Colony, with the result that the Republican army would have been strengthened by the addition of at least 20,000 fine fighting men.
Camp was struck on the 18th, and on the following night in the midst of drenching torrents of rain we marched on Dundee. On the morning of the 20th the attack commenced, and the Brigade received its first baptism of fire. We were with the artillery, under Commandant Trichardt, Blake, of course, commanding the Brigade, and at withstanding the thrilling novelty of their situation, the men behaved splendidly. There was no shrinking or shirking of duty. Every man was alert, active, and determined, the one thought uppermost in all their minds being that of upholding the honour and dignity of their beloved country. The marksmanship of the English gunners were wretchedly poor, and their shells of very defective quality, many of them sinking into the veldt with a heavy thud without exploding. I had an idea before the outbreak of the war that if a shell exploded anywhere within a hundred yards of me I would either be a dead man or horribly maimed and mutilated, and it was, therefore, with anxious eyes that I watched the flight of the first shell in our direction. It was with a considerable feeling of relief that I saw it sink harmlessly into the soil a few hundred yards short of the mark. After this a few sailed right above our heads, falling well beyond us, and quite by accident I am certain one flopped right into our midst without so much as turning a hair on the head of any man in the Brigade. That was sufficient to prove that English shell fire was not of much account in the eye of the Brigade.
During the course of the battle of Dundee, the boys had, for the first time, the satisfaction of pouring a few volleys into the enemy’s ranks. On the same day, some thirty or forty of the boys were with Commandant Trichardt’s men at the Navigation Collieries, when Colonel Moller and his Dublin Fusiliers and Irish Fusiliers were driven into a cattle-kraal and compelled to surrender. A number of the prisoners had been at school in Ireland with members of the Brigade who, naturally, could not help feeling sad and humiliated at seeing their own countrymen and former schoolmates in such a humiliating position.
At Dundee, the British showed themselves absolutely incapable, and if Generals Erasmus and Meyer had shown a little more confidence in themselves and the men under their command, General Yule and his men would never have been able to effect their famous “masterly retreat.” We were all very much amazed, some time afterwards, when we read the English accounts of the “glorious British victory,” at Dundee. So complete and glorious was their victory that the English troops ran clean away, leaving their wounded, including the gallant Penn-Symons, on the field. They also left several months’ supply of provisions, and a vast quantity of ammunition, including about 100 cases of dum-dum bullets, for the victorious Boers. Several trunks and portmanteaus, directed to various English officers, “British Army of Occupation, Pretoria,” were also left behind – perhaps in the excitement of so sweeping a “victory.” I fear the burghers who picked them up did not take the trouble of forwarding them to their intended destination, nor did the owners of the “lost luggage” get to Pretoria themselves quite so soon as they expected.
In my next article I will deal with Elandslaagte and the Siege of Ladysmith.