Christmas on the kopjes at Ladysmith! Could anything be more unlike the festival we hold at home in Ireland? A day here of good fellowship, of annual gathering of old friends or widely scattered families; a day of cheery thoughts, when the young look forward with glowing plans to the future, and the old look back with perhaps an occasional sad blending of reflection on the might-have-been; a day on which the worries and troubles are (at least supposed to be) banished from amongst us; and a day which to the young folks, at least, is not all it should be unless it comes with keen frosty air and a dust of snowflake.
Picture us, then, camped out on the South African Veldt, arms in hand on British territory, saddened by thoughts of those of our lads who had recently been killed, worried by more than our share of anxious military night duty, baked by a hot sun over 100 in the shade, and thousands of miles from those we loved. Can you conceive anything more different from the ordinary associations of an Irish Christmas? And yet because the Celtic temperament showed it could rise above all considerations of time and distance, of memory or of trouble, I think it may interest you to learn how 250 fighting Irish exiles celebrated the 25th of December, 1899.
If we made it a day of rejoicing, that should surprise no one who could understand the wonderful spirit that animated the whole Brigade. Remember that these were no hired mercenaries fighting for so much a day; but enthusiastic volunteers, who, because they sought liberty for their own dear land, were glad, indeed, to take a hand in trying to preserve the freedom of the South African Republics. All were eager for a chance of “a slap at England.” There is not the smallest truth in the sneering suggestions of heavy payments made to these volunteer Irish exiles. Nor was there any chance on our side in the war of that profitable looting which the British soldiers, especially when on outpost or foraging duty, turned into a fine art. In one respect, and one only, was this rigid rule of the Boer Army relaxed – we might capture the English military horses and trade them in our own army – if we could get them. Many a narrow shave some of our lads had when, despite all orders, they slipped at night into the English lines after the horses; yet, though they seldom or ever came back without a capture or two, we never lost a man in these escapades. Their very daring was their best safeguard. But for any other material advantage that our lads ever got by their campaigning in a foreign country, they’d have been as well or better off camping out on the Hill of Howth.
Still there never was a strictly kept rule without some exceptions, and, at the risk of digressing, I want to tell how just before that Christmas of which I am writing, Sergeant Dick Hunt, a gallant lad of ours, from the State of New York, in which the wild, dashing bravery of the Celt was blended with the superb coolness of the Yankee, broke this military law for the sake of his much-loved horses. A number of our horses had been killed in recent skirmishes, while many others were surreptitiously “exchanged” by our Boer friends. These colleagues of ours were the best of good fellows, excepting in one respect, the excusable one of being too fond of a good horse. A burgher could never resist the temptation of “exchanging” his broken-down nag for a sound animal of our (or any other) commando if he got the chance. He’d join heartily in his after-supper service of psalm-singing at 10 o’clock, and before midnight he would effect an “exchange” of horses without a ripple of his conscience. We had suffered very badly in this respect. However, Dick Hunt had been away to the capital to arrange for remounts for the Brigade, and his cool Yankee air had so bluffed everybody there that he got the pick of all Pretoria and brought back sixty fine animals. What was his disgust, however, to find on his return that we were running short of forage, and oats especially were nearly as scarce as shamrocks amongst us. He came to me the next evening in his usual quiet way, and whispered that there was a big English farmhouse, well stocked with oats and corn, not more than twelve miles away. Would I give him two wagons, a couple of dozen mules, and six or eight of the boys?
I reminded him of General Joubert’s strict orders against looting.
“Well,” said he, “if it is given to us freely, surely we may take it.”
“Of course,” I said, “if you get a supply as a friend it is a different matter.”
“Right,” said Hunt; “sign the order for the mules and the boys.”
Off went the sergeant that night, accompanied by Joe Tully, an Irish-Colonial, as brave, as cool, and as cunning as any man on the veldt, and half a dozen others. I heard nothing of them all next day, and was beginning to get anxious when in the small hours of the following morning back they came with a huge supply of excellent oats and corn. It appears they marched straight to the “well-stocked English farmhouse” and woke up the family. In walked Hunt and Tully with an air that would do credit to the Guards in Whitehall, announced themselves as Captain Jack Robinson and Lieutenant Tom Smith, of the Light Horse in Ladysmith, and presented an English military order for forage.
The patriotic Britisher welcomed them with open arms, and as the dawn was breaking by the time the wagons were loaded, he refused to allow them to leave till the following night on account of the frightful risk they’d run passing through the Boer lines. I sincerely hope that when the farmer sent in his account the War Office honoured the order of Captain Jack Robinson, of the Light Horse, for they were, I was told, a pleasant, hospitable people, and gave our boys the best they had in the house. Anyhow, with millions going astray in their commissariat accounts, the War Office wouldn’t miss the value of the couple of wagon-loads of forage that gave an extra Christmas feed to the horses of the Irish Brigade.
But I have been getting away from my story of Christmas Day, and how we spent it. We had a good deal of fighting during November, and the early part of December. The Boer army, ranging between 2,000 and 6,000, held the hills all around Ladysmith in which the British army of 12,500 were cooped up. The English Intelligence Department had not been able to discover that Ladysmith was being besieged by less than half the number of the army inside, and so the fighting was confined to odd dashes, in which, however, there was a good deal of sharp fighting. The Irish Brigade had been detailed to support the artillery (by special request of Commandant Trichardt, who had command of the Transvaal Artillery, and who said that he could sleep easier if his Irish friends were near him), and as the objective point of the English sorties was chiefly the heavy guns, we had a big share of night alarms.
For ten days before Christmas things had been quiet – too far quiet for the Brigadiers – who were occasionally a little difficult to manage. They would lie up on the rocks all night, endure any hardship, be quite contented with a chunk of hard bread, sing songs and crack jokes – when the fighting was going on. But let them settle down to camp life for one week and there was ructions. Nothing was right. Unlike the British arrangements, the Boer commissariat, especially in the early part of the war, was magnificently managed, and in the days of the Ladysmith siege the Boer camp resembled a vast picnic. We had an ample supply, limited only by our appetites, of fresh beef and bread, and plenty of delicious coffee and splendid tobacco. Yet a quiet week in camp made our boys so uneasy that one evening just before Christmas a deputation waited on me to complain that the men were not getting enough of — jam. Two large tins for every eight men, it appeared, were not sufficient to satisfy lads who would strive for a chance of dangerous outpost duty, which meant lying out all night with the “heel of a loaf” in one’s pocket, and his life in one’s hand. They were annoyed at first when I laughed, but the humorous side of the demand for more jam dawned on them, and they fled, making jokes at one another’s expense.
Anyhow, the officers of the Brigade were delighted that the approach of Christmas Day gave an excuse for rousing the men. The next best thing to a fight with the enemy was a jollification in the camp, and so we determined to welcome Father Christmas in style. Many of the Transvaal ladies came down to see their husbands and brothers, and we gave all a Cead Mile Failte to the Irish camp.
We had a special welcome for Mrs. Trichardt, the wife of the artillery commandant, for that good lady, accompanied by her husband, and her sons and daughters, visited us on the 23rd to present to us the flag which was sent by the Irish Transvaal Committee. It had been brought out by a French officer, who was obliged to wrap it round his body when he arrived at Delagon Bay, for the steamer on which he was a passenger was stopped and searched by the English.
Needless to say, we had a full muster of men for the arrival of the flag. The Brigade had at this time fought with distinction in three battles – Dundee, Modderspruit and Colenso – besides, it had made half a dozen dashing attacks on Ladysmith, and the Boers were proud of their Irish allies; so that the presentation of the flag was made the occasion of a gathering of officers from several of the other commandoes to do honour to the Brigade. Mrs. Trichardt made a capital little speech when handing over the flag to the Irish Volunteers. She knew, she said, that the men would always stand by the flag and die rather than bring discredit on it. Our lads cheered again and again when, in conclusion, she expressed the hope that the day would come when the men of Ireland would fight under that flag for the freedom of Ireland. Speeches were also made by Commandant Trichardt, Colonel Blake, Lieutenants Coetzee and de Jager, Father Baudry (the chaplain of the Brigade), and myself. Altogether we had a big day of it, and the men seemed never to tire of cheering Ireland, the Irish Transvaal Committee, the South African Republics, and, lastly, but most vociferously, Mrs. Trichardt herself. Then the big flag was planted in the midst of the camp, and there was a tear in many an eye, and a lump in many a throat, when we stood around and, having drank the toast of “Ireland a Nation,” sang with our guests:
Know ye the land so wild and hard,
And yet so wondrous fair.
Where Nature’s powers her treasures guard
For those who do and dare?
Transvaalers join the chorus, singing
Of heroes hand in hand,
Where’er our rifle shots are ringing,
There is our Fatherland,
There is our own, our Fatherland!
But at last we are at Christmas Day. High time, I’m sure I hear you say, but, to tell the truth, the memories of those stirring times come crowding on me so thickly as I write that I find it hard to keep my mind to what I set out to do – to tell you how we spent Christmas Day in front of Ladysmith. And, after all, if a Christmas number must be published early in December, I suppose it is no great harm to let the Christmas memories wander over the rest of the month. We all sprang up early that morning, and after an extra shake to our clothes and an extra scrub to our faces, were ready for roll call at six o’clock. Then off to hear Mass, said by Father Baudry, served by Joe Kennedy, of Balbriggan, at 6:30 – or, at least, the bulk of us who followed the old faith. For I must repeat what I said elsewhere – that the Transvaal Irish Brigade was no gathering of one section; fully 15 per cent of its members were Protestants, and there were no more bitter haters of English oppression amongst us. I never throughout the whole campaign heard a word of dissension on religion amongst the boys; and let us hope that the day will arrive when, like those men of the Irish Brigade, our countrymen will all unite for Ireland, and will know no other difference. But Father Baudry was chaplain to the whole Brigade, and the dear old man had no stauncher friends than those who did not belong to his faith. Many a time have I seen the lads put aside some little delicacy with the remark that perhaps the Father would like it. Father Baudry had been through three campaigns, and was an old friend of General Buller. He had been one of those who made the arrangements to receive the Empress Eugenie on the occasion of her sad visit to South Africa after the Prince Imperial had been killed, and he it was who had coffined the remains of that unfortunate and misguided Prince.
After Mass, Lieutenant Dunville, a Dublin man, and a very capable officer, distributed the good things which were sent us from Pretoria and Johannesburg by a committee of Irish and Boer ladies organized for that purpose, and by Messrs. Gillingham, Tom Connolly, Oates, and Major Menton. On ordinary days in camp our idle time came after breakfast, for, with the temperature over 100 in the shade, the hot part of the day was not the time one felt most active. But when our Christmas breakfast was finished we had to get into work of preparation for the afternoon, for we had went round open invitations to all the neighbouring commandoes to sports and a concert in the evening, and we had a big number of special guests to dinner as well.
The Boer army was lying right round Ladysmith, each commando occupying one of the commanding kopjes which surrounded the town. Our camp lay close to the scene of the bloody fight of Modderspruit, behind one of these kopjes, on which our guards were mounted, and supporting the artillery commando. Stretching away to the railway of the outer country is a mile and a half of ground level plain, and here we held our hearts, determined to get all the fun we could of the day, even if we could not fully appreciate all the orthodox sentiments of Christmas. There was plenty of goodwill amongst our men, but peace on earth would not hold much place in our minds for then we were always looking out for news of the latest skirmish or the result of the last shell which had burst over our army.
Our sports commenced with the tug-of-war, in which, as in all other events that day, our hottest and most successful competitors were the artillerymen. The Brigade won the first pull after a desperate effort but in the second and third the artillerymen walked right over us. We had bad luck, too, in the long jump, won by Lieutenant Coetzee, and in the foot race, which was carried off by another of Commandant Trichardt’s men; but we got our own back again in the pony racing. Dunlop’s “Irish Lad” won the first race, my own “Fenian Boy” the second, and Pat Darragh’s “Derry Lass” the third. My pony had been christened “Fenian Boy” by some of the lads because they said that though he was quiet there was a lot in him; and our friends of the artillery consoled themselves for losing this race by the fact that “Fenian Boy” was ridden by little Luke Trichardt. Young Luke was a splendid type of the lads of the Transvaal. He was only 15 years of age when the war broke out, but he would not stay at home, and though his father sent him back twice he made his way down to the front again, finally telling the Commandant that he need not keep him if he did not like, as he had arranged to join the Irish Brigade. That settled it. He was not sent home any more. In spite of his youth he was a splendid marksman, and as cool as a veteran in the face of danger. Luke Trichardt’s two brothers, Karl and Fannie, also fought throughout the campaign, and are with their father still living near Middleburgh, in the Transvaal; but Luke himself is studying medicine in Dublin at Trinity College, to which his father had sent him in the belief that amongst the Trinity students his son would find all the sentiments that animated our Irish Brigade. He has to stand many a bit of chaff from some of the students, but a thousand years in Trinity would never dim his belief in the future independence of South Africa.
With the closing in of the evening our sports came to an end, and the boys entertained their guests to a hearty supper, washed down by coffee and “billy-tea.” Then, lighting pipe and cigar, we all gathered round for our smoking concert, at which Colonel Blake presided. The brothers Trichardt opened with the “Volkslied,” the Transvaal National Anthem, a verse of which I gave you a translation of above; and then Pierce Murphy of Wexford, who had been at Mafeking at the outbreak of the war, and just managed to get away to join us in the nick of time, turned our thoughts away to Ireland with a splendid rendering of “Adown the Glen Rode Sarsfield’s Men.”
Old Pat O’Grady, an ex-88th man, amused us with “Come Along, Jocko, and We’ll Both Leave the Town;” then Johnny Boyle of Donegal sang us a song in Irish, but our enthusiasm reached its highest pitch that night when Tom O’Byrne of Dublin stood up and gave us a splendid rendering of the new “Song of the Transvaal Irish Brigade,” which he had received a few days before. Several of the lads had learned it with him, and as he sang, one by one took up the song until finally even the English pickets could hear the whole Brigade singing Cugan’s stirring words:
Oh mother of the wounded beast!
Oh mother of the tears!
The sons you loved and trusted best
Have grasped their battle-spears;
From Shannon, Lagan, Liffey, Lee,
On Afric’s soil to-day,
We strike for Ireland, brave old Ireland,
Ireland far away!
We smite for Ireland, brave old Ireland,
Ireland, boys, hurrah!
Jim O’Keefe, who since died in the United States, sang the “Boys of Kilkenny,” and this, too, was heartily received by us all, for “Jim” was popular, and Kilkenny had also given more than its share of brave lads to the Brigade. We had, too, the “Boys of Wexford,” “The West’s Asleep,” “Who Fears to Speak?” while all stood up finally to chorus “God Save Ireland.” Then our guests left us, the outposts were changed, the boys retired to their tents, little by little the camp sank into silence, and the lights went out on the last Christmas Day that we had together. By the close of the year that followed, that Brigade of the bravest and most lovable Irishmen who had gathered together in this generation were scattered. Some of those who sang and joked that Christmas Day fell fighting for the liberty which England denied them in Ireland and Africa alike; others who survived the war have died since in America from the wounds or sickness they had contracted in the campaign. Some settled in Africa, others are living in the United States, a few are at home in Ireland. The survivors have one great desire, and that is to see the British flag unfurled in their own land. God be with them all to-day. Better or nobler or more unselfish comrades never had man, nor could wish to have. True to one another in battle or in camp, but above all true to their loved motherland, to whom their first thoughts ever turned.
Some on the shores of distant lands
Their weary hearts have laid,
And by the stranger’s heedless hands
Their lonely graves were made;
But though their clay be far away
Beyond the Atlantic foam,
In true men like you men
Their spirit’s still at home.
The dust of some is Irish earth;
Among their own they rest;
And the same land that gave them birth
Has caught them to her breast;
And we will pray that from their clay
Full many a race may start
Of true men, like you men,
To act as brave a part.