I will now return to the Irish boys whom I left at Smaldeel station, thirty miles north of Brandfort in the Free State. During the few days we spent here, every preparation was made for hot, lively work, for we knew that it was near the time when orders would come to advance and meet Lord Roberts and his great army of 90,000 men, with camion in proportion. On the afternoon of May 1st, 1900, we received instructions to proceed to Brandfort and join with General de la Rey, so, having packed all tents, baggage, etc., in a freight car which we scarcely ever expected to see again, we started on our way, and never a happier or more delighted lot of boys went to a holiday picnic than those that went to face English bullets and shells.
It was a long, cold ride, and late in the afternoon of the following day we were camped in the bush on the bank of the little creek at Brandfort. Rumors were soon going the rounds that the British were near at hand, but it was so dark that we could not have seen them had they been only twenty feet away. So we decided to go to sleep and get up before daylight in the morning, that we might be ready to meet trouble.
In the early morning we learned that the English had slept in the bush on the same creek, a few miles below us, and as soon as the sun came up we saw them. There before us was Roberts with his 90,000 men, by far the largest army that any of us had ever seen, and, as far as we knew, there was to oppose him a mouthful of Irishmen at Brandfort. The Russian attache, Colonel Gourko, the French attache, Captain Demange, and the American attache, Captain Carl Reichmann, were there too. I think everyone of them came near being captured, for they were a plucky lot of fellows and were determined to see how the English would act in the face of a handful of Irishmen. I don't know how the spectacle struck the attaches, but the English reminded me of a lot of ants whose routine of action had been disturbed by some mischievous boy, for they seemed to be moving aimlessly in all directions. I really believe that Roberts and his 90,000 men were afraid that a few hundred Boers might lay an ambush for them at Brandfort. This idea is preposterous, but I tell you that Englishmen are terribly afraid of Boers, and when they see one, that one will appear as many as at least ten to them.
South of Brandfort about three miles, there is a line of kopjes running east and west. Several columns of cavalry were moving south of them and parallel to them. It was plain that they intended to attack that line of kopjes. There were no Boers in them at the time, but the English imagined they were full of them. Early in the morning the Heidelburg Commando, about 600 strong, joined with us at the tall hill by Brandfort. All then went at full speed to reach the kopjes before the English. We barely succeeded, for no sooner had we dismounted than the English began with both cannon and rifle to make it warm for us.
The new boys from Chicago and Massachusetts, although it was their first tune under fire, were in great glee, and with the old men of the brigade began to fire. Although huge shells tore up the earth about them, and thousands of bullets were chipping stones and singing in the air, yet not one of them seemed to realize that he was in any danger whatever. They were all too intent on their own work to realize their danger. Between the Irish boys and the Heidelburg Commando there was a large and very high kopje, so that neither party could see the other. The Irish boys succeeded in driving the English right back and were much pleased with their work. About two p. m., a courier came near me and yelled out, "General Spruit says get your men away as quickly as possible." In loud tones I asked, "What is the trouble?" But he was in too much of a hurry to give answer, and he was soon far on his way across the flat in our rear. I called to the boys and told them to come quickly, as there was imminent danger somewhere. Irish-like, they wanted to argue the case, for they saw no danger and besides they were having a really good time. I quickly told them to come, as there was no time for argument. I knew General Spruit well, and when he says "get out quickly," I know it is time to get out. We raced down the kopje, mounted our horses and started across the flat towards Brandfort. Much to our surprise, we saw all the hills about Brandfort literally covered with English cavalry. I looked for the Heidelburg Commando and found that it must have retreated hours before, for not a man of it could be seen in any direction. We were certainly in a serious position, for our line of retreat was cut off by thousands of English, and there were thousands in front of us. To get out at all, we had to march across an open flat and pass within 2,500 yards of the English, for there was only one pass through the mountains in our rear. We crossed the flat and, having reached the base of the mountains, I called the men and told them that it looked like a hopeless case for us. There really was not the slightest show for us because all the English had to do was to ride down 1,000 or 1,500 yards, and we were completely hemmed in.
I always swore that I would never be captured alive, and told the boys so. I also told them that I was going to make a run for the road that leads through the pass, and asked them what they wished to do. They said they would make the run with me. We started at once in single file along a path that wound its way through the bush. This led us to the left and front of the English. Every man had his eye pinned on the English, and a dead silence reigned. I was terribly worried and frightened too, for I fully expected to see the English move at every moment and interpose themselves between us and the road. On we rode until we were right in front of them and about 2000 yards distant. I felt a little better, for the English had not yet moved. I was constantly watching the hills on my left, in the hope that I might see a chance of climbing them. Fortune favored me, for I discovered a good path running up the hills, and I concluded that, as it was an emergency, we could go where the goats had gone, and so turned to the left on to this tiny little path. It was a hard climb, but we reached safe ground on top just as the British made up their minds to take us in. They were too late, as usual, and only advanced a small distance, when they turned about and went back. It was a very cold day, but the terrible strain the men and I had passed through, warmed all of us into a heavy perspiration. It was General Hutton who kindly allowed us to escape. He said in his report that he thought we had some English prisoners with us, and therefore did not dare to fire on us. The Chicago and Massachusetts boys had on khaki uniforms, and that is why Hutton was deceived. His excuse was a poor one, just the same, for he could easily have blocked our way without firing a shot, and besides any ordinary field glass at his distance would have shown him that every man carried a rifle. We owed our escape entirely to British stupidity.
As no Boers could be seen from the hills, we made up our minds that we were very far behind everybody. As it was now nearly sundown, we started out to put a few miles between us and the British. We had not gone far when we found ourselves in the camp lately occupied by the Heidelburg Commando. Here we found coffee, sugar, bread and meat, and as we had had nothing to eat all day, we stopped and had a good feast. Then our poor, tired horses enjoyed their feast too, and it gave me more pleasure to see them at their mealies than to eat myself.
It was dark before we saddled up and started on our way in search of the Boers. Finally we reached the main road and near by was a stack of oats at a farm house. I told the boys to help themselves, and every man piled on his horse all the oats he could well manage. We then went on our way until we reached a little farm in the open flat that I knew was about nine miles from Brandfort, so here we concluded to camp for the night. It was about ten o'clock when a courier rode into camp looking for me. He pointed out the direction of General de la Key's camp and told me that the General wished to see me early in the morning. I was anxious to see the General too, for I did not like the idea of being alone in front of Lord Robert's army. Early on the following morning I took two men and started in search of General de la Rey. My directions carried me obliquely towards Brandfort and I concluded that the General must have camped very near the English. We had gone about a mile when I saw seven men dressed as the Boers usually are, riding alongside a hill between us and Brandfort. The two Africander scouts with me declared they were Boers, and I declared they were English in Boer clothes. The way they held their legs and their position in the saddle had formed my opinion. An Englishman on a horse always reminds me of a wooden clothespin. We decided to go ahead, for our direction would not lead us into trouble, yet I did a lot of thinking about those seven men, for there was a very deep kloof near them, and the whole English army could be easily concealed in it. We had gone about another mile when we came upon one of General de la Key's men on the look out. I knew him and asked him if he had seen the seven men. He said no, and then pointed out to me just where General de la Rey was encamped. I galloped all the way, because I thought there was danger in that kloof. I was so certain that I told Commandant Trichardt, of the artillery, that the English were near at hand, and that he would do well to in span and prepare for business.
I did not get to see General de la Rey because he had gone to see his brother who had been seriously wounded the previous day. I must say that before reaching General de la Rey's camp I sent one of the men with me, Hendrik Slegkamp, after giving him my wire-cutters, back to the Irish camp with instructions to saddle up as quickly as possible and fall back to some kopjes about two miles in the rear. All the farms in that country are entirely surrounded by wire fences and one can't get through without wire-cutters. The last I saw of Hendrik, he was going at a full gallop. After chatting with Colonel Trichardt for about fifteen minutes, he ordered all mules and horses to be spanned in and saddled up, and then we started back towards my own camp. Knowing the exact direction, we took a short cut and, having reached the top of a ridge about one mile from General de la Key's camp and about two miles from my own, we were fired upon from a mealie field. Across the flat I saw the Irish boys under fire and flying to the kopjes in the rear. We could not get through the wire fences because I had let Hendrik have my cutters, and the English at long range were making it very warm for us. There was a little cottage about 400 yards away, and we put spurs to our horses and reached it as quickly as possible. A little Dutch woman showed us a sheep path which would lead us to the small gates that opened from one farm to the other. That was about the hottest path that we ever travelled, for the English had found our range and were making use of it. My boy's horse was slightly wounded; otherwise we were all right. I saw that the Irish were safe on the kopje, but we could not get to them on account of the wire fences. Just as General de la Key's men had saddled up and all were ready to move, the English opened fire on him, but he managed to get his guns, wagons and everything out safely. The whole country seemed to be alive with English, and they all came out of that deep kloof where I had seen the seven men. I felt it in my very bones that the English were in that kloof, and acted accordingly. It was a lucky thing for all of us that I did.
During the evening I reached the Irish boys, and we crossed the Vet River and went into camp. Early next morning we met General de la Rey and his men, and there was general rejoicing. The general said he was going to give fight on the river, and put Roberts to a little trouble. With the Irish, he had about 2,500 men to fight Roberts and his 90,000.
The position was a good one, but of course the general knew that he could do no more than make the English do a lot of work, and possibly knock a few of them down before he had to retreat. Roberts finally showed up, and the deployment of that great body of men into fighting formation, with absolute mathematical precision, was really beautiful. I was so interested that I could scarcely take my eyes from such beautiful military figures. That awful man, that brave man, that gallant man, Major J. L. Pretorius, seemed to have no idea of the beautiful at all, for just before the military figure was completed in all its beauty, he fired a shell that fell right among them. That shell simply played the deuce and ruined a most artistic picture. Instead of order, precision and beauty, we now had to witness disorder and pandemonium generally, for the English soldiers broke away, some running one way and some another, not one seeming in the least inclined to take a chance on the next shell that might follow. It was marvellous what havoc one tiny shell could raise in a military-trained and thoroughly disciplined army. Major Pretorius was nothing but a youngster, but then there was nothing in the British army that was anywhere near his equal. For a change, and as the Irish boys were the latest arrivals, General de la Rey said he would hold us as reserves. Major Pretorius started the fight with that shell, and soon 30,000 English with cannon and shell were trying to lay low General de la Rey and 2,500 patriots. When the fighting became really hot and close, the reserve, the Irish boys, were sent for and told to come as quickly as possible to the road crossing the river. We went, but to go into the firing line we had to pass through the belt especially shelled by the English guns. The boys did not murmur; they went out. Strange to say, not one of them received a bullet. Now, they had a close range, and didn't they send the bullets to the right place? I think they did, and I know they did. There were a lot of British to our right and front hi a kopje about 1,000 yards distant. I think they were Irish, for the English turned their maxims on them, killed many of them and kept them from firing on us. We did not fire on them because the English were doing the work for us.
That was really a pretty fight in which the Boers did not suffer, and about sundown General de la Rey ordered us to fall back. The Irish boys kept firing away until it was fairly dark, and I became frightened for fear they might be captured. The Boers had all left, and had those fool Englishmen known anything, they might have given us a run for our lives. We remained in order to see out of danger a few young Boers who were in an arroya very close to the English. When we did finally go back, mount our horses and start towards Smaldeel, we ran into the very boys that we had assisted to get out of the arroya, and by a mere piece of luck they didn't fire on us. I was calling to the men to hurry up and my voice was recognized, otherwise we would have received a volley. I had a very excellent pair of field glasses given to me by a Russian Count and I made good use of them when the English were arriving to engage us. In Natal, the Transvaal and the Free State, from the day the war first began, I had tried to convince the Boers of the great importance of destroying the enemy's line of communication. I never suceeded in making any headway, however, for they could not be made to believe in the destruction of property. Here at Vet River I handed General de la Rey my glasses and told him to witness the trains on the opposite ridge from which thousands of infantry were tumbling to give us battle. The general realized now for the first time the strength of my argument, and was thereafter bent on destroying the railway lines. He suceeded in partially convincing General Louis Botha that the destruction of the lines was of the first importance. Volunteers for the purpose were called for, and it was the Irish Brigade that promptly responded. In fact, I believe that the men of the Irish Brigade were the only ones that did, and I believe that they were the only ones among the Boers that understood the business. It having been decided by the Council of War that the bridges and railway lines were to be destroyed, I selected the men that I knew would do the work well. There were little Mike Halley, the ever to be remembered Joe Wade, Jim O'Keefe, Dick Barry, Tom Herlihy, Tom Tierney, and several others whom I selected for this most important work.
In blowing up the long and high bridge at Sand River, the Irish boys were exposed both to cannon and rifle fire, but not one flinched and their work was well done. It was while some Anglo-American engineers were trying to repair this bridge, that Majors Seymour and Clements, (both Americans) were killed by General De Wet and his men. I am sure that neither I nor the Irish boys would have shed a tear had the whole lot been killed. All were mercenaries in the strict sense of the word, and this class of men are not fit to live in any country.
Here I must mention a little incident in which Mike Halley was the principal actor. At the time that the bridges and railways had been blown up in good form and we had crossed Sand River and arrived at Riet Spruit very near the Sand River, General Botha had sent for Sergeant Joe Wade, Mike Halley and Dick Barry to give them further instructions. Strange to say, General Botha always waited until the last moment, in fact, to the moment when it was too late to do good work. The boys were always on the alert and sometimes acted without orders, blew up the bridges according to my instructions and felt much satisfaction. Now, when they were called up, General de la Rey happened to meet Mike Halley and bounced on him for too much enthusiasm. Mike did not know the general, and thinking he was an ordinary Boer, said "What in hell do you know about it, anyhow?" This settled the general and he replied, "Go ahead. You know your business, my boy."
When Mike was informed that he was addressing General de la Rey, he promptly went to him to offer his apology.
The boys were now given full swing and rails, ties and bridges were constantly flying in the air till we reached the Vaal River, the Transvaal border, where orders were received from General Louis Botha to destroy nothing more. What a puerile display of military knowledge! Lord Roberts moved along this long line across the flats of the Free State. He had three columns, each 30,000 strong. One followed the road along the railway line and the other two were on the right and left flanks. There were not over 2,500 Boers and three or four cannon to oppose him on these wide open flats, yet it took him twenty-three days to drive that little band of patriots a distance of 110 miles, and every foot of the distance was hotly contested.
When we reached Kroonstad all were very tired, but the Irish boys wished to do some more work before they left the town. The English, of course, were at our heels, but that did not concern them in the least. We rigged up a spring wagon with six mules, loaded it with provisions and ammunition and were ready to move out just after blowing up the bridge and thoroughly alarming the town, when it suddenly occurred to Mick Ryan to destroy the provision depot. It was an immense building filled with sufficient supplies to support an ordinary army for many days. I told Mick to go ahead and do his work well. He built a good fire against the building, and some Englishmen came up with water and put it out. Mick then warned them not to try to do it again. He kindled another fire, and when it blazed up, one of the same Englishmen dashed up with a bucket of water and put it out. Mick struck him on the head with his rule, knocked him senseless and then warned the others that if any attempt was made to put out his fire again he would give them some bullets. He made up his fire again, and this time no one disturbed it. When the building was well on fire, some one yelled out that there were several cases of dynamite near the burning part of the building. Everybody fled for their lives, and Mick saw that immense supply depot burn to the ground. It was about eleven o'clock at night, and the great light was plainly visible to Lord Roberts and his army who were about three miles distant. The English are not yet through damning the Irish Brigade for their good piece of work.
The main part of the brigade went forward with the cannon, and it was just thirty of us that remained behind to finish up the good work.
After the supply depot was burned we left town and camped about three miles out on the Heilbron road. We had learned that the English had put themselves between us and the Boer forces, so we had to take this route. Early next morning we were just ready to move out when we saw about 400 cavalry coming for us. We hastened off and kept ourselves in safety although the English pursued us as rapidly as they dared. They did not give up the chase until we were near the little town of Heilbron.
Here we met President Steyn, and Judge Hertzog, and I can remember that the only subject discussed was the importance of playing on Lord Roberts' line of communication. I finally convinced them that it was the only way they could successfully fight such an immense army, and President Steyn telegraphed President Kruger for permission for the Irish Brigade to remain in the Free State. President Kruger wanted us in the Transvaal, so we said good-bye, and left for Rhenoster River at the railway crossing, where we learned that the Boers had taken up positions. General De Wet, however, went to work on Roberts' communications, and soon established for himself the greatest name of all the Boer officers in the field. Had we done in the Transvaal what De Wet did in the Free State, Roberts would have been driven into famine, and utterly disgraced himself in the eyes of the world; but this is not the place to explain, so we will wait until we reach Pretoria. We left Heilbron early in the morning, and at night we were with General Botha and the Boer forces. We now learned that General Botha had officially reported us as captured in Kroonstad and he was very much surprised when I reported to him. Having told him what we had done in Kroonstad, and assured him that we had not been in any real danger, he instructed me to take position at the road crossing, on the river. These road crossings of rivers are always the warmest places when it comes to a fight, and as the English were then near at hand, I fully expected on the following day to have a most interesting time. On reaching our position, and having taken a good look at it, I was then convinced that the English would not attack, but would go around our flanks. I told General Botha that he would find that I was right, because this Rhenoster River is the best defensive position I had seen in the country. The banks were very deep and steep, and the river bed was caked sand, over which flowed a skim of water. We could gallop our horses for miles in that river without being seen or in any way exposed to artillery fire. To attack the position, the English would have to advance over a grassy plain, gently sloping to the river, and 2,500 Boers in the river could easily have killed as many English without taking any risk whatever. I was certain that the English knew all about the strength of this river position and would therefore dodge it. It was about three o'clock on the following morning when we received orders to retreat, as the English had crossed the river on our left and right flanks. As it was very dark, we concluded to wait until daylight before retreating. Just as it was good light we moved away, and an English battery on a ridge some 2,500 yards distant, sent three shells at us, to move us along more lively. There was no more fighting of any consequence until we reached Klip River, near Johannesburg. The little band of patriots were always in touch with the big English army, and occasionally, some shots would be exchanged near the bridges which the Irish boys were charging with dynamite, but no damage was done. I didn't understand then, nor do I understand now, why that great British army did not at least make an effort to capture that small band of Boers and all their cannon, while crossing the great open plain between Brandford and the Vaal River. For the operations of cavalry and artillery, there is no country in the world more favorable than those immense Free State prairies, and had Roberts made any use of his thousands of cavalry, he could have taken the Boer guns at any time, and the 2,500 Boers with them. He seemed frightened, and I believe he was, for he had not yet forgotten the slaughter at Magersfontein. We could never understand, either, why he followed the small Boer force, and left behind that daring man, General Christian De Wet, with 10,000 men. But more about this after we reach Pretoria. To the south of Johannesburg, General Botha had some short but lively fighting, and forced the English to move around to the west, where General de la Rey warmed them up hi good form.
The English also came in on the east, where there was a little skirmishing that did not amount to anything. We passed through Johannesburg, and went to within six miles of Pretoria. The Boers and British were actually camped side by side just north of Johannesburg, but the Boers were the first to find this out at daylight and so managed to escape being captured. General Botha is a pretty reckless man, and he did not get out any too quickly.
I urged the council of war at Vaal River to allow me to blow up certain mines in Johannesburg, but it was no use talking, not one of them would agree to it. They did not believe in the destruction of property. It was the mines of the very men who, with Chamberlain, Milner and Rhodes, had labored so hard to bring on the war, that I was so anxious to blow up, and I regret to this day that we did not destroy them. All the immense stores of provisions in Johannesburg and Pretoria I wished so badly to destroy, that I fairly begged for permission to do it, but all in vain. With De Wet and 10,000 men behind Roberts, and on his line of communications, and all provisions in Johannesburg and Pretoria destroyed, Lord Roberts would have been a defeated man, for the reason that he had no food for his army. As it was, his men came nearly starving to death on half rations. I can never forgive the Boer generals for leaving such quantities of good supplies for the British. The railway and telegraph lines between the Vaal River and Pretoria should have been completely destroyed, yet General Botha gave me strict orders not to disturb either. We were simply playing into the hands of the English, and doing more for them than they could possibly do for themselves. On the fifth of June we had to leave Pretoria, and, strange to say, we left the Pietersburg and Delagoa railway lines, all in good order with plenty of engines and cars for immediate use by the English. Why General Botha insisted on leaving all these lines intact, and well equipped for the English, I cannot understand. There was not a burgher in the field, that did not realize that the destruction of all railway facilities was a matter of grave importance. Much as I admire General Botha, not only as a brave man, but as a first-class fighter and an able general, I must condemn him for his opposition to the destruction of the enemy's communications, and for his failure to destroy the enemy's supply stores. General De Wet had done his work so well that General Roberts was cut off from all communications with the Colony, and there was no food to be had in the country, except in the Boer supply stores.