Fighting the Vampire: Irish Commandos in the Boer War

(Above: The Irish Brigade who fought alongside the Boers against the British army in the Anglo-Boer War. Col. John Blake is sitting in the front row 2nd to the left of the concertina player.

In far-off Africa to-day the English fly dismayed
Before the flag of green and gold born by MacBride's Brigade
(From a pro-Boer song popular in Ireland)

(Right: a map of the tip of south Africa in 1899.)

On Brixton Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa there is a small round concrete foundation surrounded by tall, unkempt grass with piles of garbage scattered around it. It was once the home of a memorial to the Irish who had fought with the Boers against the British Empire in the 2nd Boer War. It was moved to a remote location after the city government allowed a contractor to buy the site. He planned to destroy it. The plaque from the monument reads: “Erected in remembrance of the Irish who fought for the Boer nation in its hour of need 1899-1902. By their sacrifices for Freedom and Right cast an everlasting bond between the Irish people and the Boer nation, and may this monument be a symbol thereof.” Clearly, the sad history of this monument shows many in South Africa do not recall their service, and most in the western world recall neither them nor indeed the war they fought in. (Read the full story of the odyssey of the monument HERE.)

As the 19th century was coming to an end in the southern part of the African continent, in the area that is now South Africa, rumors of war were in the wind. The cause of the coming conflict, like so many in the 19th century, was the avarice of a European colonial power. The very southern tip of the continent was once called the Cape Colony and controlled by the Dutch. In 1806, during the Napoleonic wars, the British invaded and took the colony.

As time went on more and more British moved into the colony and the Dutch colonists, known as Boers, began to bristle under their rule. Many of them began to move out into the areas to the east first and later to the north. It was known as the “Great Trek” and those who moved called “Trekkers.”

"Trekboers crossing the Karoo," painted in 1898, Charles Davidson Bell

They first occupied the Natal area, and when the British annexed that, moved north, establishing two independent republics, the Transvaal (or South African) Republic and the Orange Free State. The British at first took a benign view of this development and recognized both of them. Soon, however, diamonds were discovered in the Orange Free State and gold in the Transvaal, and all that changed. British colonists flooded into both republics, and soon the British insisted they be given voting rights, which would eventually have allowed them to vote the Boers out of power. The Boers refused and in October 1899 the war was on.

Not all the uitlanders, as the Boers called those who had flowed in their two republics since diamonds and gold had been discovered, were British. They came from various other countries, including Ireland. The British might have considered the Irish to also be British, but they did not, as the Irish there, and home in Ireland too, would shortly prove.

As the winds of war gained strength, in Ireland demonstrations of support for the Boer cause and even riots took place. Although there were not large numbers of Irish in the two Boer republics in the late 1890s, perhaps a little over a thousand, many were Irish Republicans. Shortly before the war began the Irish in the Transvaal and Orange Free State issued a manifesto in support of the Boers. It left little doubt how they felt about the British Empire. Near the end, they stated: “With the story of Ireland’s wrongs and sufferings before them, no wonder the Boer people refuse to surrender their cherished independence to the hateful sway of Britain. England has been a vampire and has drained Ireland’s life-blood for centuries, and now her difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. The time is at hand to avenge your dead Irish.” (You can read the full text of the manifesto at the bottom of the page.)

The Irish Transvaal Brigade in the field, complete with flag sent from Ireland by Maud Gonne and the Irish Transvaal Committee. ‘Mind the flag’, were some of the last words of John MacBride before his execution in 1916.

An Irish commando was organized and enlisted about 300 Irish in the Transvaal, though it should be remembered that many Irish also fought for Boer side in Boer units. The Brigade’s commander would be an Irish-American graduate of West Point and ex-cavalry officer in the US Army, John Blake. He had both military training, and combat experience fighting in the Indian Wars. Michael Davitt said Blake had “a slight suggestion of Buffalo Bill.” John MacBride, from Westport, Country Mayo, had done most of the recruiting for the unit and been offered the command. He refused it and became 2nd in command. In Ireland, however, it would become known as “MacBride’s Brigade” and it would fight under a flag sent to them by his future wife Maud Gonne’s Irish Transvaal Committee. Perhaps MacBride made this decision knowing that the soldiers of this new commando were far from trained or experienced soldiers. Most were miners and would need an experienced soldier in command to train them.

The first action of the war involved the Boers invading the British held Natal region. The Irish, some barely knowing how to ride recently acquired horses or fire their newly issued rifles, were with them. At the battles of Talana Hill and Modderspruit, they were assigned to guard the “Long Tom” artillery pieces of the Transvaal State Artillery

At Talana Hill (also known as the Battle of Dunee), the first major battle of the war, as had happened so many times in the past, Irishmen fought on both sides as the Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Irish Fusiliers took part in the British attack on the hill. A large number of the Irish on the British side were captured and back in Dublin, an anonymous poet commemorated the event. Here is an excerpt from it:

Fitzgerald got Fitzpatrick, Brannigan found O’Rourke;
Finnigan took a man named Fay – and couple of lads from Cork
Suddenly they hear McManus shout, “hands up or I’ll run you through”,
He thought it was a Yorkshire ‘Tyke’ – ‘twas Corporal Donaghue!
McGarry took O’Leary, O’Brien got McNamee
That’s how the ‘English fought the Dutch’ at the Battle of Dundee

Monument to Sean MacBride in his
hometown of Westport, Co. Mayo.

On Monday, October 30, at the Battle of Modderspruit, MacBride had his horse shot from under him but was not seriously hurt. Col. Blake was not as lucky, as a serious shell wound to his arm put him out of action for about six weeks. That put MacBride in actual command of the brigade upon which the Irish had already bestowed his name. The Boers at this point had surrounded the British in the town of Ladysmith and hunkered down for a siege that would last 118 days.

This was not a happy time for the Irish Brigade, as the boredom of siege warfare took its toll on morale. By the time it was over their numbers were down to under 100 and Blake was taking less and less interest in his command. At this same time, a second Irish Brigade was formed in Johannesburg under Australian Arthur Lynch. Lynch had arrived to be a war correspondent for "Le Journal" of Paris,” but soon took up the Boer cause. After the war, Lynch would be an MP from Galway (after surviving a guilty verdict for treason and a death penalty sentence that was commuted) and later West Clare. He would later be a colonel in the same army he fought in Africa. As is often the case in such circumstances, the relations between the two Irish units were less than cordial, and they never served together. Meanwhile, MacBride’s Brigade was reinforced by 58 Irish-American recruits who snuck out of the US pretending to be an “ambulance corps.”

When the British broke the siege of Ladysmith and the Boers retreated into the Orange Free State, MacBride’s former miners put their demolition skills to work blowing up bridges and anything else that might help delay the pursuing British. Lynch’s 2nd Irish Brigade was part of the rear guard of the Boer army. On two occasions they performed very well in holding off the British. The British advance could not be stopped, however, and by May the Boers had retreated all the way into the Transvaal.

Col. John Blake

Once back in the Transvaal the Boers changed tactics from conventional warfare to a guerrilla campaign. With knowledge of the local terrain being vital in such a campaign, the Boer’s felt the Irish were ill-suited for what was to come and disbanded both units.  Some of the members stayed and fought with Boer units, but most left.

MacBride would famously die in the execution of leaders of the Easter Rising. He wasn’t involved in the planning or leadership of the event at all, only becoming involved because he happened to be in Dublin for the wedding of his brother. His execution probably owed more to his service in the Boer War than anything he did in Dublin.

Blake would not enjoy any such national fame or celebrated death. He was found dead of asphyxiation in his apartment in New York City in January 1907. His gas stove had been left on either accidentally or on purpose, we’ll never know, but Blake was dead at age 50.

The Boer War is little known or remembered in most of the western world. Later in the 20th century, the segregated society in South Africa was so vilified for their racist practices that few were likely to sympathize with the plight of their ancestor in their fight with the British earlier. But the conduct of the British toward the Boer population during that war was at the very least reprehensible, and abominable is probably more accurate.

In an effort to break the will of their husbands and sons, the British rounded up nearly the entire Boer population of women and children input them in the world’s first concentration camps. Some thirty-thousand farmhouses were torched along with a number of towns and over 100,000 interned. The families of men who had been captured and were no longer fighting were given full rations while the families of those still fighting were given reduced rations. Conditions in the camps were barely livable, and for many, not livable at all.

As the inmates weakened from starvation diseases like typhoid and dysentery ran rampant through the camps, much the same as happened in Ireland during the Great Hunger. It’s estimated that over 26,000 women and children died in these merciless camps. The picture of 7-year-old Lizzie van Zyl (below), one of the victims of those inhuman camps, tells the story far more distinctly than any words can do.

As is often said, the victors write the history, so few then or now are aware of the atrocity that was visited upon the women and children of the Boers. If more people knew the full story of Great Britain’s brutal treatment of the Boer population, it would be clear that the Irish and Irish-Americans who fought against what the British did there fought on the right side there. Thus did the British Empire usher in a century in which man’s inhumanity to his fellow man would reach an unimaginable crescendo.


2nd Boer War (Wikipedia) 

A Boer Girls Memories of the War

The Funeral of Col. John Blake

Sean MacBride (Wikipedia)

Brixton to Orania: The great trek of the Irish Volunteer Monument

The Irish Manifesto of Sept 13th 1899

“The Government of the Transvaal being now threatened with extinction by our ancient foe, England, it is the duty of Irishmen to throw in their lot with the former, and be prepared by force of arms to maintain the independence of the country that has given them a home, at the same time seizing the opportunity to strike a good and effective blow at the merciless tyrannic power that has so long held our people in bondage. The position in the Transvaal to-day is exactly similar to what it was in Ireland at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion.

The memory of the massacre of Drogheda by order of the infamous regicide Oliver Cromwell is still darkly remembered in Ireland, and England of that day applauded and justified the cold-blooded butchery as a righteous judgment executed.

With the story of Ireland’s wrongs and sufferings before them, no wonder the Boer people refuse to surrender their cherished independence to the hateful sway of Britain. England has been a vampire, and has drained Ireland’s life-blood for centuries, and now her difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. The time is at hand to avenge your dead Irish. England’s hands are red with blood, and her coffers filled with the spoil of Irish people, and we call upon you to rise as one man and seize upon the present glorious opportunity of retaliating upon your ancient foe. Act together and fight together. Prepare! The end is in view. The day of reckoning is at hand. Long live the republic! Irishmen to the rescue! God save Ireland!”

Views: 13228

Tags: Africa, Military History

Comment by James O'Brien on January 2, 2015 at 12:48am

Great stuff, Joe. Here in Australia every small community has a cenotaph to those killed in wars. Usually there is a section dedicated to those that died in the Boer Wars It is sad to see the lists of young men from these dry and parched farming districts that went off to kill other poor struggling farmers like themselves in South Africa. Sadder still is to see so many Irish names on the Boer War side of the memorials beneath the inscription ‘Roll of Honour’ or some suchlike phrase.

Comment by Dermott Hayes on January 2, 2015 at 8:34am
Colonel John Blake, the American born commander of the Irish Brigade, wrote an account of his adventures in South Africa. His grandson, John Blake later wrote a best selling novel as well as the Oscar winning screenplay for Dances with Wolves

Comment by Joe Gannon on January 2, 2015 at 11:09am

James, and when you realize that all that fighting and killing was being done because the British wanted to get their their hands on the gold and diamonds that had been discovered in the Boer held regions, it's all the more tragic. None of the British, Scottish, Irish or Australians who were risking their lives to take it away from the Boers was ever likely to see any benefit from the victory there. Those who would eventually get rich off it were mostly sitting around in nice cozy offices in London.

Comment by Joe Gannon on January 2, 2015 at 11:14am

Dermott, I wasn't aware of John Blake's connection to the writer of "Dances with Wolves." It's one of my favorite movies.

Comment by Dermott Hayes on January 2, 2015 at 6:25pm
I've done some research on the 'Brigade. One of the best books on its history is Donal P. mcCracken's MacBride's Brigade (Irish Commandos in the Anglo-Boer War). I've also read Blake's own account of his experience in South Africa. That's how I discovered the connection between him and the Dances with Wolves' writer, whose name is William Blake (my mistake).
Comment by Gerry Regan on January 3, 2015 at 11:06am

I'm particularly curious -- and saddened -- by the apparent dismissal of the monument now at Brixton Hill. Was a statue originally part of the monument, which apparently exists solely as a foundation in great disrepair? Are there photos available to highlight the gross neglect visited upon this monument?

Comment by Joe Gannon on January 3, 2015 at 12:47pm

Gerry, here's a good article on the odyssey of that Irish Brigade monument in South Africa. It includes photos of the monument as it stands in the new site and also pictures of where it was before.

I've just added it to the links at the end of the article as well.


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