Ireland’s Wars: The Irish Commandos

An oversight on my part prevented this post from going up on its usual day last week, and I only realized this the other day. Apologies!

Due to the gold and diamond trade, South Africa was a popular destination for immigrants throughout the world, and Ireland was no exception. Settlers would flock to work in mines and elsewhere, and some would grow attached to their new homeland, and resentful of outside efforts to exert domination. Numerous Irishmen and men of Irish descent would serve in the Boer armies of the Boer War, in various commandos. But there were two “named” Irish units as well, the ideas of two men from different parts of the globe, but with the same purpose.

John McBride was born in Mayo in 1868, the son of a shopkeeper. In his younger days he was swept up in the growing nationalist environment, becoming part of the so-called “Gaelic revival”, involved in Irish literary societies and the nascent Gaelic Athletic Association. As part of this he soon become friends with one Arthur Griffith, a printer and newspaper writer, and they both eventually became members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. By the mid 1890’s, his activities had garnered him attention from the British authorities, who deemed McBride to be a “dangerous nationalist”, and someone to keep an eye on. For that reason maybe McBride volunteered to emigrate to the United States to work there for the IRB, and later moved to South Africa.

In 1896, McBride was working as a gold miner in a facility not far from Johannesburg, one of the “uitlanders” that were the main political issue of the day. McBride however, didn’t consider himself as being in need of British rescuing, and was continuing his nationalist activities whenever he could, organising a commemoration of the 1798 rebellion in the Transvaaal upon its centenary, around the same time Griffith visited the area. By that time, McBride had established himself as one of the leading lights of the local Irish nationalist community.

When the war began, McBride was quick to offer his services to the Transvaal Republic, and to attempt to organise a unit of similarly minded men. What McBride would organise would be officially known as the “Irish Transvaal Brigade” and more colloquially as the “Irish commando” or “McBride’s Brigade”. The majority of its make-up would have been men of Irish birth or Irish descent employed in the mines on the Rand, eager to either strike a blow against Britain now that the occasion allowed, or to continue earning pay as the mines closed for the war. Many of its membership would be Irish-American especially. While its overall numbers would fluctuate wildly during the fighting and would never reach true “Brigade” status, the commando was still able to put 150 to 300 or so men in the field at any one time.

McBride did not initially lead the Brigade. That honour instead went to Colonel John Y.F Blake, a former US cavalry officer who had been prospecting in South Africa, and now grasped at the chance for some adventure: McBride would his second in command. The Boer Republics were more than happy to form such units from foreign nationalities – as long as they were white of course – and indeed much of the overall political strategy of the war for both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State would involve attempting to win the sympathy and support of outside powers, especially Britain’s rivals in Europe, like the German Empire. Europeans flocked to join the Boer banner, and the Irish would not be the only foreign unit to fight on the side of the Boers.

McBride’s Irish were to prove a useful addition to the Boer armies. Their first major engagement was as part of the Boer defence at the Battle of Ladysmith, where General George White launched his failed multo-pronged offensive to try and prevent the siege from beginning. The Irish were part of the force that defended Boer artillery at a position called Pepworth Hill: they carried ammunition through fire-zones to other guns, taking their first casualties in the process. These included Colonel Blake himself, hit in the wrist, and his injury led McBride to take overall command.

The Irish remained as a sort of informal guard for the best of the Boer artillery – the famed “Long Tom” gun – in the earlier stages of the resulting Siege of Ladysmith, before being moved to the opposite front, to take part in the Battle of Colenso. During the furious artillery duel and desperate efforts to save the British guns left stranded in front of the Boers, the Irish were unexpectedly moved up to plug a gap in the overall Boer line. McBride was thrown from his horse during the maelstrom, but survived, as did the overall commando.

When Roberts took overall command of the British and began his slow, ponderous but otherwise irresistible advance, the Irish Brigade were obliged to fight in a series of low-intensity retreating movements, as the forces of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal gave ground at a steady rate. The Irish performed admirably in this period, even if the overall Boer strategy was a demoralising one. Being miners by trade, the Irish were often used to guard and then blow-up bridges ahead of the British advance.

With the coming of the guerrilla war, the commando was largely disbanded: some left to return back to Ireland or America, others to neighbouring African territories like Mozambique, while others merged into other Boer units. Capture by, or surrender to, the British was a dangerous thing, as any Irish would still be seen as British citizens, who could then conceivably be charged for treason and executed.

A second commando was organised in the early weeks of 1900. It was primarily the vehicle of Arthur Lynch, an Australian of Irish descent, who had travelled to South Africa to work as a war correspondent for a French newspaper. Heavily pre-disposed to the Boers, Lynch soon abandoned journalism and joined up with the Transvaal, volunteering to raise a unit made-up of Irish and Cape colonists, opposed to the British.

Like the first commando, dubbing Lynch’s unit a “brigade” was a gross over-statement: Lynch may have been given a Colonel’s rank and been treated as such, but he led little more than 70 or so men at a time. However, the optics of such a unit were not to be discarded, and soon a “Brigade” they were. On the other side of the world, no one would know the reality, only that another unit of Irish were fighting under the Boer flag.

They saw active service, but of a more limited amount than McBride and his commando, used primarily to aid in the Boer retreat from Ladysmith when the siege was broken. They fought in numerous small-scale engagements until the main bulk of the Boer armies reached Johannesburg, and there they were essentially disbanded as the Boers broke up. Those who wanted to keep fighting were subsumed into other commandos.

Though their service could do little to stem the tide against the Boers and they vanished into the ether before the guerrilla phase of the conflict really got going, the Irish contribution to the Boer war effort was still notable, another example of Irish abroad proving a thorn in the side of the British. For their individual commanders, there was still drama and adventure to come, especially MacBride, as they both made their way back to Britain and Ireland.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Irish Commandos

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Boer War In Ireland | Never Felt Better

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