It is now exactly seven years since the outbreak of the South African war, and the details of that great struggle are, of course, familiar to most of your readers. But, with the permission of the Editor of this journal, I will try and set forth, as briefly as possible, some facts in connection with the formation of the Irish Brigade and the part taken by it in the campaign, which are scarcely likely to be generally known, and the knowledge of which, I cannot help thinking, should be welcomed by every liberty-loving son and daughter of a race whose renown for bravery and chivalry dates from the time before his history came to be set down in written permanent form.
It was shortly after the Jameson Raid that my own attention was first turned seriously to the course of events developing in the South African Republics. In common, I am sure, with the majority of my countrymen, I read with pain and indignation the news that a body of Irishmen had been organised in Johannesburg to fight with Jameson against the brave burghers of the Transvaal, a circumstance which, of course, was hailed with acclamation by the loyal upholders of the Empire. As I afterwards learned in South Africa, the number of those Irish “heroes” did not exceed 50, and their “loyalty” to the Crown and Constitution had been purchased by the so-called “Reform Committee” for the gift of a rifle and a pound a day for their valuable services. These services were supposed to lie in the direction of protecting house property in Johannesburg, but after the ignominious failure of “Dr. Jim” they got notice that their services were no longer required, and they, one and all, had once more to turn their attention to less picturesque and, I think also, less lucrative modes of making a living.
My own views as to the manner in which Irishmen should act in such a crisis ran, of course, on altogether different lines, and although the Jameson business fizzled out in so contemptible a fashion, I felt convinced that the English would not allow it to be their final attempt on the rich Republics of the Vaal; and I was also very anxious that our countrymen in South Africa should not on the next occasion be found on the side of the would-be grabber and oppressor.
When, therefore, some time in the middle of 1896 I found myself on South African soil, I immediately set to work organising meetings of the Irish residents, at which the duty of Irishmen not alone to help on the fight of their own people for independence, but to safeguard the liberties of other peoples as well, was always insisted on. In the beginning these meetings were generally convened to help on the Amnesty movement at home, and as the Centenary of ’98 drew near we determined to form a committee to co-operate with the central body in Ireland in whatever manner might be taken to worthily honour the names and memories of Wolfe Tone and his gallant associates in the great movement of the United Irishmen.
In the beginning of 1898 our organisation was in admirable working order, and it will be remembered that Mr. Solomon Gillingham, of Pretoria, represented us at the home celebrations, whilst we also held several celebrations in Johannesburg and Pretoria in commemoration of the different stirring events. It may be as well to mention here that shortly after the taking of Pretoria, Mr. Gillingham, who, although born in South Africa, is intensely Irish in all his sympathies, was taken prisoner and held a captive in Ceylon with numerous other prisoners until long after the termination of the war. Mr. Gillingham, I am happy to say, is once again established in Pretoria, where I sincerely hope he may live long and prosper as he deserves.
Early in 1899 it became quite evident that England was determined to force a war on the two Republics at all costs; and I was determined that on this occasion the Irishmen of the Veldt should not be deprived of an opportunity of taking a stand by the side of the Republics against the hereditary enemy and oppressors of their own race. I knew that most of the boys, like myself, would have preferred to meet the English on Irish soil; but as that desirable consummation did not seem to come within the range of practical politics at that time, we were glad to be afforded an opportunity of meeting our enemies on any field, more especially under the circumstances that the Boer cause was one that strongly appealed to our sympathies, and that the brave burghers were numerically very much inferior to the common enemy.
Through the agency of Mr. Gillingham I was brought in touch with the Boer Government, and offered to bring as many Irishmen from Ireland and America as the Government could arm. This offer was, however, declined mainly on the ground that as the English could not put more than 100,000 men into South Africa, there would be no necessity for any considerable augmentation of the Boer forces, as they felt quite sanguine of being able to dispose of that number of British soldiers themselves. At the same time, the authorities declared they would be glad to have the aid and co-operation of such Irishmen as were actually residing in the Transvaal. It is not by any means necessary that I should dwell here at any length on the means resorted to by the Unionist Government to precipitate what the civilised world regarded as a most unequal conflict, or to more than refer to the preliminary campaign of slander entered on against the gallant Boer people.
According to the English Unionist Press, the Boers had been guilty of every crime under the sun. They were held up to public odium as a barbarous, ignorant, and swindling community, who were totally adverse, not alone to progress in any direction, but who had no respect for the most elementary principles of hygiene, or even for ordinary personal cleanliness. They were also represented as being an intensely bigoted people, who remorselessly persecuted everyone who differed from them in religion, whereas, as a matter of fact, educated Boers are just as tolerant in these matters as men of a similar class in any country in the world. The Uitlanders were represented as living like dogs or serfs under the iron rule of President Kruger; and the world was also informed that the Boers were such a cowardly lot that at the firing of the first shot they would throw down their rifles and immediately start whining for a pardon they did not deserve.
The most effective answer to all these aspersions is to be found in the fact that all the Uitlanders in the S.A.R. with the exception of the English and the Scotch, organised themselves into corps to fight under the banner of their “bigoted” and “unscrupulous oppressors.” So far from being oppressed, there was, I honestly believe, no country in the world where the working man had an all-round better time, or was paid on a more generous scale. Very few white men in the Transvaal had been earning less than £1 per day; and I had quite a number of ones in the Brigades who had been earning £100 a month before the outbreak of the war. My personal impression of the Boers is that of a kindly, hospitable, and chivalrous people passionately devoted to the ideal of freedom and intensely religious, without being intolerant of the beliefs of others.
When we knew war to be inevitable I issued a manifesto to my fellow-countrymen calling on them to join a Brigade to assist the Boers in the coming struggle. The issuing of that manifesto greatly annoyed the English residents, who immediately began to make things pretty hot for me in various ways. I did not, however, hope or expect to please these good folk by my call to arms, the first response to which was made at a vast meeting in Johannesburg, which was attended by the Irishmen of that city, by representatives of the Pretoria Irish, and by numbers of Irish employed on the mines. I, as permanent president of the organising committee was moved to the chair, and I have never witnessed a more striking sense of enthusiasm than was presented when I referred in my opening remarks to the opportunity that was about being presented us of meeting the English face to face in the heat of battle. I was offered the position of commander right away; but that high honour I had to decline on account of my lack of military training and experience.
Much to my satisfaction at the time, Mr. Gillingham announced to the meeting that he knew of an American named Blake in Pretoria who had served as a Lieutenant in the United States army, and whom he thought would be willing to undertake the command of the Brigade. I asked Mr. Gillingham to send Lieutenant Blake to me so that we could have a talk over the matter. This he accordingly did, and I was so pleased with the interview that I took Lieutenant Blake to the next meeting, where, on my strong personal recommendation, he was elected to the chief command. Colonel Blake afterwards stated publicly in America that he accepted the command on the condition that none of the men would “expect” or “accept” money for their services during the campaign, in the matter I can only assume that Colonel Blake’s recollection is at fault, as no such stipulation was ever made, the occasion for it not arising in any way, it never being even remotely my intention to bring into existence a mere band of mercenary adventurers. Every man who joined the Irish Brigade, to his honour best said, was a soldier of freedom, and the consciousness that he was serving in the sacred cause of liberty, and above all against the enemy of his own race, was in itself an ample and all-sufficing reward.
In my next article I will tell of the Brigade’s start for the front and our first experience under fire.