After the battle of Brandfort we pitched our camp about six miles from the actual battlefield; and the following morning, while snatching an early breakfast, were attacked by the advance guard of the English army. It took us about an hour to send them to the right-about, immediately after which we returned with renewed appetites to finish our morning meal.
General Delarey took up a new position at Vet River, only, however, to be outflanked after a few hours’ fighting. From this on to Kroonstad we were incessantly engaged in rearguard fighting both day and night. While retreating, General Botha ordered a detachment of the Brigade, under the command of Lieutenant Gaynor and Sergeants O’Reilly and Hally, to destroy the railway line and blow up all bridges, a task which they performed entirely to the General’s satisfaction.
On arrival at Kroonstad we had the pleasure of seeing and meeting for the first time that indomitable patriot, President Steyn. The burghers were in retreat, broken and disheartened, and in their midst I saw a big, imposing looking man, arguing and expostulating with them – to no effect, however, at the time. I was not long in ascertaining the big man’s identity, and was gratified a having a few minutes’ conversation with him after we had been assigned our positions. Colonel Blake, Captain O’Connor, and thirty of the Irish-Americans had been sent on an expedition an hour before, Captain MacCallum and myself remaining in command of the main body.
As we were jogging along, President Steyn came towards me, and asked us in Dutch where we were going. I replied in English that we were simply following the rest.
“You are the Irish?” he inquired, and, on hearing our reply, told us to go back and stand by the cannon which occupied a position some distance away. After getting some further instructions from him we returned to take up our new duty, the President sending a guide with us, and later on he sent us out a huge, well-stocked wagon, drawn by 14 oxes, as we had not our own wagons with us. Towards evening, as we were retiring in charge of the guns, General Botha was standing in the centre of the square, surrounded by his staff, watching the retreat and hurrying the burghers out of the town.
Notwithstanding the fact that we passed through Kroonstad without halting even for a second, some libellous English papers, of the “Globe” type, asserted that the Irish Brigade got drunk on that occasion, a characteristic species of slander which is perhaps scarcely worth refuting, even when repeated in a more disgusting form by a Church of Ireland clergyman. From Kroonstad, past Rhenoster River, and on to the Vaal we had many a fierce encounter. On one occasion a rumour reached Pretoria that the whole Brigade had been captured or killed, and Jim French, of Cork, although seriously ill in hospital at the time, was so excited when he heard this that he insisted on getting out of bed and starting for the front, where the brave lad joined us, looking more like an animated skeleton than a living man. In answer to the inquiry as to why he rejoined us when in such a condition, he gamely replied that when he heard we had suffered such a mauling he thought it his duty to rejoin us at once.
We had scarcely time to rest at Vereeniging when it was up-saddle and off again towards Johannesburg, near which I first encountered the celebrated scout, Captain Dannie Theron. A dozen of us happened to get out off from the main body during one of the night retreats, when we had the good luck to stumble across Theron’s scouts in the darkness. It is a marvel how we escaped being riddled with bullets, as they mistook us for English at first. However, when Theron discovered who we really were, he suggested that we should attach ourselves to him until we came across the main body again. I accepted his proposal, and we had two splendid days’ sniping with Theron and his fearless men.
On the morning of the 31st May we passed through Johannesburg, and as many of our men had their wives and families in the town they slipped away to see them. Others went to look after certain little valuables and possessions, expecting to rejoin us in a few hours. Unfortunately the English were too close on our hells to allow of their doing so, and in the attempt they were one and all made prisoners; amongst those so captured being Gaynor, Dunville, O’Reilly, Lennon, “Butch” Wilson, F. Connolly, Thompson, Duffy, Tully, and several others whose names I cannot recall. Lieutenant Dunville was the best commissariat officer on the Brigade’s staff, and we were very sorry to lose him.
Pretoria, about 30 miles to the north, was our destination, and that night we camped within a dozen miles of it. Col. Blake took the main body of the Brigade into the town on the following morning, leaving ten men behind with me to keep a look-out. A few hours later our chaplain, Father van Hecke, arrived on a bicycle. He had been captured the previous night at Johannesburg, and told that he would not be allowed to leave the town until Lord Roberts interrogated him. He was to have been taken to the English commander at 8 o’clock; but the little Father, who was ever fond of early rising got up at five that morning, mounted his bicycle, and gave the English “leg bail.”
We entered Pretoria that evening, and were much surprised to find it practically deserted. General Botha and the Government at once came to the conclusion that the burghers could be utilised to better advantage on the open veldt than couped up in the city; and so we turned our backs on the former capital after a brief visit. The seat of Government had been shifted to Machadodorp. In the early stages of the retreat the Brigade flag had been sent to Pretoria in charge of Duffy, to be placed under the care of State Secretary Reitz, and as that important and highly patriotic official had gone off with the Government I was naturally uneasy about our treasured flag. Neither Mr. Gillingham nor the official in charge of the Government Buildings could give me a shred of information about it, and I was horribly uneasy lest by any evil chance it should fall into the hands of the English.
Having made inquiries at every likely place in the town, I at last went to the telegraph office, accompanied by some of the boys – Jim McGuigan and Jack Donnelly, from Belfast; Hubert O’Hara, from Mayo; Mick Davy, from Sligo, and poor Tommy Naughton, from Ardare, Limerick. Armed with their rifles, the four Brigadiers stood around while I asked the English operator to find State Secretary Reitz. He hesitated – said it was impossible – and then, seeing the boys casually fingering their rifles, said he would do his best. He set to work, and after about an hour the welcome reply came clicking back from the State Secretary: “Tell Major MacBride make his mind easy. I have his flag safe.” On hearing this we took our departure, to the obvious satisfaction of the telegraphist.
Gallant Tom Naughton died, like the heroic Irishman he was, some months later fighting against his country’s enemy. Even when wounded to death he still kept firing away, and did not cease until he sank down from sheer exhaustion.
When I heard the flag was safe I commandeered all the necessaries our wagons were capable of holding, and pitched camp about five miles outside the town. Our horses had suffered terribly during the constant fighting and retreating, more especially those of the newly-arrived Irish-Americans, who did not know how to care them so well as the more seasoned campaigners, with the result that we had sixty dismounted men on hands after leaving Pretoria, only about fifty being mounted. Colonel Blake also left the Brigade at this time, attaching himself to one of the artillery commandoes. The command of the mounted men was undertaken by Captain MacCallum and myself, whilst Captain O’Connor took charge of the unmounted. The following morning orders came to take up positions at Irene, where we had a few hours stiff fighting, after which the army was in retreat again. That night Commandant Blignaut (the celebrated runner) and some twenty Boers and Irishmen slept calmly in an archway in Pretoria, and the following morning we rode out of the town, our small party departing at one end of the city whilst the British were entering at the other. From this on to Komatipoort there was no fight that we did not take a hand in, as well as doing our ample share in skirmishing and outpost duty, in conjunction with Commandant Blignaut’s and Captain Karl Trichard’s famous scouts.
An important engagement was fought on 10th, 11th, and 12th of June between Pienaar’s Poort and Kameel Drift in which the Brigade took its usual active part. The skilful and gallant Delarey was in command, and we had the satisfaction of assisting in driving the English helter-skelter before us on two occasions. Bitter disappointment filled all our hearts when on the 12th we received orders to fall back. We retreated slowly, fighting through Elands River, Balmoral, Bronkhorst Spruit, past Middelburg, and on to Belfast. While there we had an opportunity of witnessing one of the most painful spectacles of the campaign – namely, the deportation from Krugersdorp, Johannesburg, and Pretoria of the helpless wives and children of the burghers who were engaged in defending their country’s independence. These poor creatures, after being torn out of their homesteads, some of which were burned before their eyes, were thrown on to open cattle-trucks to be carted away they knew not wither. They were half dead from hunger, cold, and fear. It was, indeed, an eloquent and terrible illustration of the infamously brutal methods to which England does not hesitate to stoop to in her methods of conquest. We did our best to relieve the misery of the poor homeless creatures, and all our cooks got busy making steaming-hot coffee, for which they were extremely grateful.
On the morning of the 24th of August MacCormack and Hayes, who were on special outpost duty, brought me word that the English were advancing in force on Belfast. I immediately wired headquarters. The town was deserted, except for a handful of the Brigade and Captain Trichard’s scouts. Notwithstanding our small numbers, however, we kept the English in check for several hours, fighting from kopje to kopje till the hard-fighting General Ben Viljoen arrived with much-needed reinforcements. MacCormack, like most Longford men, was full of grit and courage. Hayes, who was familiarly known as “Tottie,” was one of the “boys of Wexford,” and in every way a credit to that gallant county. He was in hospital in Mafeking at the outbreak of the war, and on his recovery escaped to the Boer lines. He it was who afterwards led Sarel Eloff into Mafeking, and when that officer surrendered to Baden-Powell, Hayes with 30 burghers succeeded in cutting their way through the English lines, after which dashing exploit he joined the Irish Brigade. After the encounter at Belfast the big battle of Bergendal and Dalmanutha commenced. For two days Generals Botha and Viljoen, with scarcely two thousand men under them, held their positions against the combined forces of Buller, Pole-Carew, and French, under the supervision of Lord Roberts. Here it was that that magnificent corps of great fighting men, the Johannesburg Police, won fresh distinction by the great valour they displayed. Some sixty of them held a kopje for ten hours against thousands of English troops and five batteries of artillery, who kept up an incessant fire on them all the time. At the end of the ten hours these brave fellows, sick from the fumes of lyddite and wearied almost to death, were compelled to vacate the position they had held in face of such overwhelming odds. During the retreat from Bergendal, while repulsing an attack the English made on one of our guns which had got into a tight position, gallant Jack Mullins, a draper’s assistant, was killed.
Early in September, 1900, at the earnest solicitations of Botha and the other Generals, the lion-hearted President, Paul Kruger, left for Lorenco Marques on his European mission. The English of course lied characteristically about the old warrior’s departure; but in the conditions prevailing at the time his most trusted advisers considered he was serving the cause best by leaving. The old man felt the severance very keenly, and big tears streamed down his furrowed cheeks as he said good-bye to his faithful followers.
As we neared Nooitgedacht we lost two fine fellows, Mick O’Hara, from Limerick, and Luther, an American, the former of whom last his life in saving the men from an ambuscade. While engaged on outpost duty we came between two hills held by the English, but which our men thought were occupied by the Johannesburg commando. O’Hara it was he who made the unwelcome discovery, and he and a corporal had ridden up quite close to them before doing so. Suddenly noticing a tunic of khaki, he sang out, “Who are you, anyhow?” and promptly came back the response, “We are the English; hands up!”
“Hands up, be damned!” he yelled back; “run, corporal, run, and warn the boys.”
As he spoke the heroic lad had thrown himself between the corporal and the British, and he fell dead, riddled by English bullets. Who will despair of Ireland while she can produce such gallant fighting men?
When we at length were forced back to Komatipoort we hoped to be allowed to make a last stand there; but the Portuguese authorities sent up word, which amounted to a command, asking the Boer General in command there not to fight so near the frontier. Of the remnant of the Brigade which had survived down to this point only six had horses, and one of these, my own, in fact, was badly lamed from a bullet wound received at Bergendal.
It will easily be understood that, especially at the closing stages of the war, men on foot were useless to the Boer army. The tactics of General Botha and his colleagues at that time were entirely in favour of rapid movements from point to point, harassing the enemy here to-day, and twenty miles off to-morrow; and in such circumstance would be less an aid than an incumbrance.
With most of our men in this condition, and hemmed in against the Portuguese border, with strong British forces on three sides and a large detachment of Portuguese in our rear, we were driven at last to the selection of an alternative surrender to England or Portugal, and we naturally chose the lesser evil. We crossed into Portuguese territory on the 23rd September with sad and drooping heads and weary hearts, ending our fight against our country’s enemy. But we could claim to have fought steadily right across the country from border to border.
Just before parting from our Generals at Hector Spruit we received the following letters, which speak for themselves. The translations were made by Judge Kock: –
“In the name of the Government of the South African Republic I hereby express my hearty thanks to Major MacBride of the Irish Brigade for the valuable services rendered to our country during the war.
F. W. REITZ,
Hectorsprait, S. African Rep.”
Dear Sir – Hereby we have much pleasure in expressing our deepest gratitude towards you and your Irish Brigade for all the military services rendered during the past twelve months, in which we are engaged in a war against Great Britain.
We appreciate very highly the assistance which you have so sincerely rendered to us during this war.
We wish you and your men a hearty farewell on your return voyage.
B. VILJOEN, General.”
We were also furnished with letters from General Botha to the Boer representatives at Laurenco Marques, which provided for the men a small gift of money and the payment of their passage to America. On their arrival in New York they were met by John Devoy, on behalf of the Clan-na-Gael, and after having been well looked after in that city were sent to various parts of the country. I myself went to Paris, where I was met by my mother, brother, Mr. John O’Leary, Dr. Ryan, etc. Some time afterwards John O’Leary came again to Paris to make a presentation of a sword of honour on behalf of an Irish committee, while a deputation from the “Major MacBride Club” presented me at the same time with a handsome revolver.
And so, although, as I have mentioned, some half-dozen of our men had left us to join other commandoes before the final sad but glorious fighting retreat, and many others were still prisoners of war, there ended the Transvaal Irish Brigade. It had gone through twelve months’ campaigning, had engaged in a score of fights, had been entrusted with much special and dangerous duty by the Boer Generals, and had reached the end, having a record behind them which will for many generations preserve in Transvaal homes the fighting traditions of the Irish race. It had shown to England that many Irishmen still believe that there is only one thing less dear to them than fighting for Ireland and her cause, and that is fighting against England for any good cause at all. The flag of green and gold had been handed to them at the beginning of their fighting career, and they sent it back to Ireland marked with glory.
For those comrades who sacrificed their lives in that sacred cause of liberty, I pray God’s rest. To those who worked so unselfishly together, who made a laugh of trouble and a jest of pain, and who are still living in the hope of doing as much or more for our own land, I pray that we may meet once more under that flag of ours in a struggle even nearer and dearer to our hearts.