Note: Thomas Hickey served in South Africa with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and took part in the actions mentioned below, in Colenso, Ladysmith, etc. When Mollie Hickey started school in Grantham Street she was asked what her father did in the army. She replied that her father went to Africa to fight the heifirs (she meant Kaffirs!).


On 9th October 1899 the Boers gave the British an ultimatum that they withdraw their troops from the borders of the South African Republics. The British refused and two days later the Anglo Boer War commenced.

The mounted Boer commandos immediately swept into the British Colony of Natal and pushing back the British troops in only 21 days, they were at the doors of the town of Ladysmith, the last major obstacle facing the Boers before they reached the coast. The British troops, under the command of General Sir George White, were told that their duty was to stand firm in the town and to prevent it from being taken.

So began the Siege of Ladysmith. 21000 Boers pitted against 12000 British troops encircled in the town. British troops at Ladysmith
British troops at Ladysmith

For more than 100 days the siege continued, the daily tedium, the fighting, the sniping, the lack of food, the disgust at having to eat their own horses.

One bungled attempt after another as the great British army was put through its paces by a bunch of farmers. One failure after another by the British military hierarchy. Some lessons were learnt, others not and the foundations were laid for the devastation to be caused to thousands of "Tommy Atkins" on the battlefields of Europe only some 15 years later.

The Irish in South Africa

This is an excerpt of a book review by K. Myers that I believe appeared in the Irish Times.

One hundred years ago today, two groups of Irishmen began to move into battle against each other. On the one hand were the recently recruited defenders of the Boer Republic, the Irish Transvaal Brigade, which had largely been raised by John MacBride, and which was part of an Afrikaner incursion into the British-ruled state of Natal. There, waiting for the Irishmen of Johannesburg, were two regiments from the home country: the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Distant mirror The Boer War, as it turned out, in the distant mirror it provided for events in Ireland, was a remarkably prescient instrument. Transvaal Irish republicans were to fight the Irishmen of the British Army. Irish Home Rule civilians who were living in the region - men such as Alfred O'Flaherty, an Oxford gold medallist in Sanskrit from Galway, who had been editor of the Standards and Diggers News - tended to support the British; and on the other side stood the tough miners, often explosives experts, representatives of a robust form of unconstitutional nationalism whose most eminent defenders at home were John O'Leary and Maude Gonne. Yet paradoxically, the most coherent opponents of the war in the United Kingdom were John Redmond's party.

So the veldt reflected little facets of Ireland's complexities. On their way into Natal from Transvaal, the Irish Brigade, in the van of the Boer army, passed by the graves of Gen George Colley from Dublin and Lt Maurice O'Connell, nephew of the Liberator, killed in action in 1881 at Majuba in the first Boer war of 1881.

The governor of Natal was an eminent Irish unionist, Walter Hely-Hutchinson; and one British soldier to become an early Boer captive was James Craig, later to be the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, just as another Boer War veteran, ex-Dublin Fusilier Jack Hunt, would be helping to raise and train the new Free State army.

Prisoners of war For as Donal McCracken remarks in MacBride's Brigade - Irish Commandos in the Anglo- Boer War (Four Courts Press), from which much of this Diary is drawn: "Even 10,000 kilometres from home nothing was simple for the Irish." Quite - pace Roger Casement, who later in the war denounced the Boers for allowing Irish prisoners of war (captured as British soldiers) to enlist as soldiers in the pro-Boer Irish Brigade. Tut tut. And what is one to make of Arthur Lynch, a fighter for the Boers who was sentenced to death by the British but reprieved, and later became MP for Galway, later still a colonel in the British army?

One hundred years ago today MacBride's soldiers moved south from the Natal town of Newcastle, to the moveable contents of which they had generously helped themselves. The two sides, defenders of the Boer Republic and Defenders of Natal, met at the Battle of Dundee (or Talana). The heights were held by the Boers, a flank by the Transvaal-Irish. The assault on them was led by the Irish Fusiliers and the Dublin Fusiliers, the heights bloodily and slowly taken.

As it happens, for all the bloodshed, much of it Irish, the two sets of Irish barely met, which might be a relief; but all things considered, does it matter who kills you? At least the battle gave rise to a marvellous poem of which I reprint merely one verse:

On the mountainside the battle raged, there was no stop or stay;
Mackin captured Private Burke and ensign Michael Shea,
Fitzgerald got Fitzpatrick, Brannigan found O'Rourke;
Finnigan took a man named Fay and a couple of lads from Cork.
Sudden they heard McManus shout, "Hands up, 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.

The Irish Brigade at Colenso

The picture shows the Dublin Fusiliers trying to cross the Tugela river. This was a disaster, owing to the officers' lack of preparation and ignorance of the layout of the land. The Boers were entrenched on the opposite side of the river, and due to a loop in the river where the Dublins were meant to cross, they were exposed to a withering fire from three sides. They suffered hundreds of casualties before they were withdrawn.

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