Our investment circle was thirty-six miles in length, and at the time the Battle of Colenso was fought, was held by not more than 4,000 men. From Ladysmith to Colenso is about fifteen miles by the main road. By Colenso was General Buller with his army 35,000 strong. In Ladysmith was General White with his army 12,000 strong. Between these two armies was General Botha with his army less than 6,000 strong, including the investment forces south of Ladysmith. General Botha had, all told, ten guns. The two British forces had 150 guns. If, when Buller attacked at Colenso, December 15th, White had moved out with his whole forces to the south and attacked at the same time, the Boers would have been swamped hi a few hours, and most of them would have been captured, for there was no way out of it except by Ladysmith, and, besides, they would have lost all their guns. On January 24th, the same conditions prevailed, except that there were no mountains between Ladysmith and Spion Kop, and the intervening distance was about eighteen miles. Spion Kop is plainly visible from all parts around Ladysmith. The Boer force on the west side of Ladysmith was less than 1,000 strong. Had General White moved out with his entire force and fifty guns, he could have marched to Spion Kop almost without interruption. What did he do on both occasions when he should have been up and doing, if he wished to join Buller, see Ladysmith relieved, and the Boer forces captured and destroyed? Why, he and his 12,000 men simply lay in their holes and silently prayed for Buller's success. When all the conditions are considered, it must be plain to the most simple minded that General White deserved to be forever buried in utter disgrace, but, instead, he was congratulated, promoted, and dined by his queen for his gallantry and success in nearly starving to death some 15,000 soldiers, women and children in Ladysmith. On both of these memorable days the Boers around Ladysmith were all on needles and pins, for they fully expected White and his army to move out, and they knew that if he did it would be impossible for them to prevent a union with Buller, and the consequent destruction of the Boer forces in Natal.
While General Botha was fighting the Battles of Colenso and Spion Kop, Commandant-General Joubert remained at his headquarters by Ladysmith, and on the first of these occasions I remember hearing him say: " No, General White will not make any attempt to unite with General Buller, because he has been defeated so often, that both he and his men are thoroughly cowed and will be satisfied to remain concealed, and fervently ho} e for Buller's success." As it turned out, he provtd to be perfectly correct in his surmises.
About ten days after Spion Kop, February 5th, another attempt was made to break through our lines at Vaal Krantz, by about 3,500 men and several batteries. To oppose these was General Viljoen with less than 100 men. An exciting, hot fight ensued, and, wonderful to say, the English forces retired, recrossed the river, and made no further attempt to accomplish anything in the vicinity of Spion Kop During the fight General Viljoen with two or three men took a desperate chance to save a pom-pom from capture. Under a terrific rifle fire, they hauled the pom-pom across a long flat, and then turned it on the English with great effect. Neither he, nor his men, nor any of the horses were touched, yet all passed through a perfect shower of bullets. In this fight at Vaal Krantz, the Irish Brigade lost three of its bravest, noblest and most patriotic men: Pat Fahey, Mat Brennen and Jim Lasso. They fell as the most advanced men, and they will ever be remembered most affectionately by the Irish boys.
Now I come to the final struggle at Ladysmith, when that awful hole was relieved, and the Boer forces retreated to the Biggarsberg Mountains, eighteen miles back on the road to Dundee.
To meet Buller, General Botha withdrew all his forces from Spion Kop and vicinity, and put them in their old positions in front of Colenso. As to whether General Buller really discovered that Langwani Hill was the key to our positions, or tumbled on to it by accident, I do not know, but, certain it was, that he was intent on getting possession of this hill, by making a flank attack on our extreme left. Langwani Hill was on Buller's side of the river, and once our left was turned, we could no longer hold it. It was not till February 18th that General Buller brought fifteen or sixteen batteries to play upon the Boer positions. It would prove tedious to describe the ten days of terrible fighting that preceded the relief of Ladysmith; so I will simply speak of it in a general way.
Buller finally succeeded in turning the Boers' left, and so Langwani Hill was abandoned, but not until the English had suffered severely. At Pieters Hill, Groblers Kloof, and the neighboring hills where the Boers were well placed by General Botha, the hardest fighting took place. In the struggle to force the Boers from their positions, the English were driven back repeatedly to the river, although then numbers were about twenty-five to one against ours. Their dead and wounded ran well into the hundreds at each attempt, and on two or three occasions were allowed to remain as they had fallen on the open veld, during the whole night, to suffer and die. The English have little or no regard for their dead and wounded, as I will in time to come show. In all these advances the English shells were constantly bursting among their own men and were directly responsible for many of their own dead and wounded. Three Irish regiments were always placed in front, and these were supported by English regiments who kept safely in the background. As on previous occasions, some Irish regiments had surrendered after making a slight resistance. I believe, and hundreds of others believe, that the English deliberately and intentionally made the "mistake" of firing their shells into the Irish regiments, to drive them on and force them to take the entrenched positions from the Boers. This was not the first tune, nor was it the last tune that they made a mistake of this kind, and in every case it was the Irish who were chosen to suffer. Twice during these first five days of fighting, the good General Botha had granted an armistice to Buller to be used in caring for his dead and wounded, but these were wofully neglected and advantage taken to make better dispositions of his troops.
It is just as much of a latter-day Englishman's nature to be treacherous as it is for an American Indian to be suspicious. Every repulse was followed on the next day by another advance. The heavy lyddite shells kept continually pounding the hills, tearing off their very tops and filling the air with smoke and stones; yet the brave Boers remained unmoved in their positions, and kept up their deadly fire on the advancing Irish regiments. Each day's work was practically a repetition of the preceding one, until the 27th of February, when there was a great change. The Boers had now lain in the mud and water that half filled their trenches and, without relief and without food, fought incessantly for ten days till, being weary and worn and completely exhausted, they reluctantly left their positions and began their retreat.
The famous Krugersdorp Commando under Kemp held Pieter's Hill to the very last moment, and no one about Lady smith, be he Boer or English, will ever forget the wonderful stand made by those 400 patriots against Buller's whole army and 100 guns. It is perfectly certain that every man of them accounted for at least one Tommie before the final retreat.
On the 28th, Ladysmith was relieved, and the Boers went back to the Biggarsberg Mountains. General White in Ladysmith could plainly see a line of wagons fifteen miles long, yet he made no move to delay or capture them. Worn out and exhausted as the Boers really were, I do not believe that Buller would have been successful in relieving Ladysmith had they not received the report of General Cronje's surrender at Paardeberg on the 27th. This news was deeply felt, and it so thoroughly discouraged the Boers that they lost heart and left positions without orders, which they could have easily continued to hold. To relieve General White and his 12,000 skeletons, General Buller had exploded hundreds of tons of Mr. Chamberlain's lyddite and lost as many men as he succeeded in relieving. Mr. Chamberlain was a big winner, the English heavy losers, and the Tugela Valley is now renowned as an Irish graveyard. A few more wars like the South African would settle all of Ireland's many troubles, because the Irish would all be laid under the sod. How strange it is that a people who have fought against England's tyranny for centuries to secure their freedom, and are still fighting for the same end, will voluntarily join with their old and detested oppressor to deprive another people of their liberty, knowing, too, as they must, that in every instance they weaken themselves and strengthen their old enemy.
Yet, this is exactly what the Irish have done, and I have no sympathy for those who are to-day sleeping in the Tugela Valley as a result of their own voluntary acts.
During a terrific rain storm on the night of the 27th, and in the very eyes of Buller's army on one side and White's on the other, our Irish boys were the chief instruments in pulling down Long Tom from the top of Bulwana Kop. It was fearful and exasperating work, and it was not until two o'clock in the morning that our large gun safely landed at the foot of the kop and started on its way to Elandslaagte. General Botha was near at hand with some 300 or 400 men, but he could have offered little or no resistance had an attempt been made to capture the gun.
Our hundreds of wagons, with all our cannon and maxims, were hauled through heavy mud and across an open flat for twenty miles, and safely landed in the Biggarsberg Mountains, and that, too, in the very presence and before the eyes of an English army of 45,000 trained officers and men, who never moved an inch in our direction.
Quite a cavalry force came out of Ladysmith, but when a few of the Irish boys opened fire on them, they all turned and fled back to town. The English should have captured all our wagons and cannon, and would have done it, too, had they known anything about their business. Buller and White together could have easily trained 150 cannon on us and forced us to abandon everything, but they seemed satisfied to stop just where they were, and, no doubt, congratulated themselves that the Boers had escaped without doing them further damage. Some time before the relief of Ladysmith, the Free State Commandos had left and gone to meet Lord Roberts, who was advancing towards Bloemfontein; so it was only the Transvaal Commandos who took up positions in the Biggarsberg Mountain passes. As the English had a big force on the Tugela River, about eighteen miles in front of Helpmakaar, the Irish Brigade was ordered to go to Helpmakaar and hold them back. Should the English get hold of this place, our positions in the Biggarsberg would no longer be tenable, for the line of retreat to Laing's Nek would then be seriously threatened. We found the Piet Retief Commando there, but about four miles behind the position it should have occupied. We learned, on questioning the officers, that it was too dangerous a place for Piet Retief men, and they would not risk a stand there. We then went and had a look for ourselves, and we decided that 200 men in the position could easily prove a match for any 5000 Englishmen who might come, so we were satisfied to try our luck. It was the strongest position for defence that I had yet seen, for it was impossible to flank it; and to take it, the attacking force had to come along one road, and the distance from the foot of this steep mountain to the top was at least two miles. The English knew that position and that mountain, and never made any effort to take it during our month's residence there.
In the month of April, I received word from Pretoria that about 1,000 Irish and Irish-Americans had arrived at Delagoa Bay, on their way to join my brigade. I was in great glee on receiving this long expected news, and lost no time in going to Pretoria, not only to meet them, but to prepare for them a red hot time with the English. I arranged with the President and Executive Council, to recall the brigade from Helpniakaar, bring it to Elandsfontein, where I would join it with something like a thousand IrishAmericans, and all proceed to Fourteen Streams, where I knew there would be some interesting fighting. Having done this, I at once took the train to Middleburg where I would meet the good boys from free America. I was thoroughly convinced that the Irish and Irish Americans were intent on doing something good for down-trodden Ireland by proving that England's difficulty was Ireland's opportunity. My hopes were high, and all sort of plans and schemes were passing through my mind when the steam whistle announced that I was in Middleburg. Here I found that the long expected boys would arrive on the following morning. The whole town learned of their coming, and all turned out to greet them. Finally came what I at first supposed to be the advance guard, the American Ambulance Corps of fifty-eight men from Chicago and Massachusetts. They were warmly received with the shouts and hurrahs of the assembled multitude. When I found tune to breathe I asked when the fighters would arrive. The answer was "We are the fighters ! No more coming that we know off." Now I felt so thoroughly disappointed that I made up my mind to drop dead on the spot, but was saved from such a terrible ordeal by the idea suddenly occurring to me that possibly others would soon follow. I long lived in hope, but only to be disappointed in the end, for no more ever came.
Later on I will give the reasons, for I have since learned just what the trouble was. I was genuinely glad to see the Irish boys, and from them learned that it was through the efforts of my trusted old Arizona friend, Colonel John F. Finerty, of Chicago, and my new and most highly esteemed friend, Patrick J. Judge, of Holyoke, Mass., that sufficient money was raised by private subscriptions to equip thoroughly the Ambulance Corps of fifty-eight men and land them in the Transvaal.
It was not the fault of those two patriotic Irishmen that 100,000 Irish and IrishAmericans were not sent to South Africa to assist that little handful of Boer patriots in their struggle with the mighty British Empire for liberty and independence. In due time I will put the fault just where it belongs. The Boers had enough ambulance corps, so the Chicago and Massachusetts boys removed their red cross chevrons and, after being well equipped as fighting men, we all went to Johannesberg to join the boys of the old brigade who had just arrived from Helpmakaar. Having met, what a rollicking, joyful good time all these jolly Irish boys had!