MacBride’s Brigade

Pro-Boer “fever” broke out across Ireland during the Boer War. Demonstrations were held. Riots ensued. British forces avoided a no-go area in Dublin. The no-go area was filled with flags of the Transvaal, one of the Boer republics in South Africa fighting for freedom. 

John MacBride, a member of the Celtic Literary Society, was one of about 1,000 Irish living in the Transvaal at the time war broke out in South Africa. Secret September meetings were held in a Johannesburg shop. Solomon Gillingham and other local Irishmen crafted a proposal to raise a 700-man Irish Transvaal Brigade. The Boer government approved. Buffalo Bill-looking John Blake (an American cavalryman) assumed command.

Only 300 men, many with no fighting experience, joined this commando. Four of those serving were father-son duos. On October 11, 1899, they rode into the British colony of Natal. Ironically, the colony was supervised by an Irish governor (Sir Henry Edward McCallum), led by an Irish prime minister (Sir Albert Henry Hime), and was defended by several British regiments raised in Ireland.  The Irish Transvaal Brigade fought against British Irish regiments for the first time on October 20, 1899, at the battle of Talana Hill.

One of the first of the brigade to perish was eighteen-year-old Tommy Oates at the battle of Modderspruit. His father was also in the brigade. The Irish Transvaal Brigade fought in major battles like Spion Kop. Later, British General Buller’s 5th Irish Brigade broke through the MacBride Brigade’s larger Boer force to relieve besieged British forces in Ladysmith. 

The MacBride Brigade harbored animosity toward Irish fighting on the British side. They also disdained rival Irish commandos that formed. When Colonel John Blake grew more distant, the Irish Transvaal Brigade became the MacBride Brigade when Major John MacBride emerged as its “defacto leader.” MacBride’s enemies within the brigade left to join a newly formed commando led by Irish-Australian Arthur Lynch. A loyal member of the MacBride Brigade referred to the Lynch commando members as “half-breeds” and “a gang of hobos.”

Fifty-eight Irish-American ambulance corps members from Chicago and New York joined the MacBride Brigade in Johannesburg. Only seven acted as doctors. The rest picked up arms to fight with the Boers. They had used their Red Cross status as a guise to make their trans-Atlantic trip to fight alongside the Boers. With this new infusion, the MacBride Brigade moved to the front line to face General Robert’s 45,000-man army. 

Robert’s growing armies helped turn the war against the Boers. So the Boers resorted to more guerrilla warfare. The MacBride Brigade fought in the thick of this new phase of the war, at battles of Diamond Hill and Dalmanutha. However, MacBride’s Brigade vacated South Africa for Portuguese territory in late September 1900 as the Boer cause grew bleaker. But Colonel Blake and many Irish “bitter-enders” remained. Boer leadership finally surrendered in May 1902. Ninety-one Irish commandos became casualties on the Boer side compared to 4,452 Irish casualties on the British side. 

MacBride and other former Irish Transvaal commandos fought the British again in 1916’s rising. British units discovered rifles with Boer carvings on the butts while “mopping up after the insurrection. MacBride told the firing squad poised to execute him after the insurrection the following: “I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South Afircan war to fear death, and now please carry out your sentence.”

Further reading available in the following articles:

Hime, Sir Albert Henry

McCracken, Donal P. “MacBride’s Brigade in the Anglo-Boer War.” History Ireland 8, no. 1 (2000): 26-29. Accessed March 31, 2020.

McCallum, Sir Henry Edward (1852-1919),in%20Yeovil%2C%20Somersetshire%2C%20England.

The Battle of Nomonhan-Khalkin Gol: How the Soviet Union Pacified Its Flank Before Being Bedfellows with Germany

In 1939, both Hitler and Stalin feared fighting a two-front war. Hitler wanted to focus on conquering Western Europe without having to worry about his eastern flank. Stalin had no interest in being embroiled in a two-front war. Japan had been harassing the Soviet Union’s eastern flank for almost a decade. The Soviet Union also wanted to add territory in Eastern Europe without upsetting Germany. While Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop negotiated a Pact that would lead directly to the outbreak of WWII, a little known battle near Manchuria would influence German-Soviet negotiations and shape the fighting of WWII. 

Great Britain competed with Germany for the Soviet Union’s hand in an alliance during the summer of 1939. The British wanted the Soviet Union to check German aggression. Though Britain had a stronger navy than Germany, Britain was still at a disadvantage in securing a Soviet alliance. The Soviet Union would still have to fear a two-front war with a British alliance. 

The Soviet Union had been on the defensive on their eastern front ever since the Japanese occupied Manchuria in 1931. Japan repeatedly tested Soviet strength and will in outer Mongolia (present-day Mongolia). Japan dreamed of a Greater East Asian coalition that included a united Mongolia. Japan wanted Russian protected outer Mongolia, Japanese-controlled inner Mongolia, and some northern Chinese provinces to form one Mongolian nation. The Soviet Union feared a strong, unified Mongolia on their eastern border. So the Soviet Union sought to keep the Mongols divided and isolated. These opposing visions for the Mongols fueled Soviet desires to secure their western flank. War on their eastern flank seemed inevitable.

Outer Mongolia (the Mongolian People’s Republic) and the Soviet Union verbally agreed that the Soviets would defend the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) against outside aggression. This agreement, aimed at Japan, was formalized in March 1936. A lull in the war between Communist Chinese forces and invading Japanese forces delivered Japan an opportunity to test the Soviet Union more aggressively.

Japan began testing the MPR’s border in December 1938. The contested sector formed a rectangle 50 miles long and up to 20 miles wide along the Khalkha River. Japan sent small patrols to skirmish with Mongol border patrols and then retreat. Japan did this repeatedly until May 28, 1939. Japan interpreted limited Soviet counterattacks as weakness. 

A 4,500-strong Japanese force attempted to encircle a 1,500-man Mongol/Soviet force on May 28th, five miles east of the Khalkha river. Timely Soviet reinforcements turned this encirclement attack back. The battles became almost solely between Japanese and Soviet forces. Both tested their latest fighter planes that clashed in numerous air battles and dog fights. July saw Japan increase their forces to 25,000 troops and bring in hundreds of modern weapons whether machine guns, artillery, anti-tank guns, and tanks. But … Japan would not have enough of the right kind of modern weapon.

Only 12,000 Soviets and 500 Mongols stood battle-ready. Japan struck their positions at several points in early July in Japan’s largest offensive. General Georgyl Zukhov, commander of Soviet-Mongol forces, used his armada of over 450 tanks and armored vehicles, as well as air support to great effect. Zukhov managed to encircle and destroy Japanese troops that had driven into Mongol territory. Japan with insufficient armor to oppose this encirclement lost 4,000 men according to Soviet estimates. The initiative swung back to the Soviets from July 6th until August 20. Artillery and air strikes dominated this phase as Japan tried constructing more defensive fortifications. Japan sent reinforcements mainly from China to bring their troop total to around 100,000. The Soviets also reinforced the war zone. Soviets attempted an armored double flanking encirclement for maybe the first time in military history. The Soviets successfully encircled the Japanese army again between August 20th and August 31st. The Japanese lost around 55,000 men, 25,000 of them killed, in their ultimate defeat. 

Japan admitted to losing 18,000 casualties, its highest admitted casualty number from 1931 until the end of WWII. The Soviet Union successfully demonstrated their latest strategy based on battling for air superiority at the beginning with major ground forces being brought in to puncture and encircle the enemy. The Battle of Nomonhan-Khalkin Gol was the “first test of Soviet strategy since the Russian Civil War.” 

While this series of battles turned against Japan, the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was signed on August 24, 1839. News of this Pact stunned the Japanese. A “complete turn-about of Japanese policy” resulted. Japan had been focusing on growing its military-industrial capacity by trying to dominating resource-rich areas in Korea and Manchuria. This drive brought them into conflict with a weaker China, but ultimately a Soviet Union that proved surprisingly strong. After the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact and after the Battle of Nomonhan-Khalkin Gol, Japan turned towards what she believed to be softer targets in nearby British and American colonies in Southeast Asia and beyond. 

The Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact produced a ripple effect that shook Europe. The grand clash of modern militaries at Khalkin Gol produced waves that would be felt globally. Some waves crashed immediately. Others didn’t for years. Hitler invaded western Poland on September 1st, just a week after the Pact was signed. Stalin invaded eastern Poland on September 17, less than three weeks after defeating the Japanese at Khalkin Gol. These two thrusts are common knowledge to many WWII history buffs. 

The Battle of Nomonhan-Khalkin Gol’s link to the Battle of Stalingrad is not common knowledge. Operation Barbarossa dashed Stalin’s hope of pacifying Germany less than two years after the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact’s signing. In 1939, Stalin had laid fertile ground for a German invasion when he purged more than 60% of his military commanders at all levels for fear they weren’t loyal enough to him. He executed about 90% of his highest commanders. Inexperienced, poorly led Soviet forces were annihilated during the early weeks of the German invasion in the summer of 1941.

This is where Khalkin Gol came in. Stalin had 1,700 tanks and 18 army divisions and 1,500 aircraft shifted from Mongolia to help stop the German advance. Some historians credit these battle-tested troops and equipment with decisively turning the tide of the German invasion. Soviet tanks proved more than a match against German panzers. Partly because of his family’s lower-class status, General Zukhov (leader of Soviet-Mongol forces previously) survived Stalin’s purges. Zukhov’s experience proved crucial in the Battle of Stalingrad that decisively bled the vast majority German army into eventual surrender.

The Battle of Nomonhan-Khalkin Gol also determined the fate of Mongols for decades. The Japanese defeat spelled a split between Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia. A Mongol union that Japan and some Mongol nationalists had hoped for was further thwarted by WWII. Inner Mongolia was eventually absorbed by China with those Mongols having autonomy only in name. The MPR’s “freedom” depended on the Soviet Union for decades until the USSR’s dissolution. 

More can be found in the following sources:

Lecture 33 of The Decisive Battles of World History available on Great Courses Plus.

MOSES, LARRY W. “SOVIET-JAPANESE CONFRONTATION IN OUTER MONGOLIA: THE BATTLE OF NOMONHAN-KHALKIN GOL.” Journal of Asian History 1, no. 1 (1967): 64-85. Accessed June 27, 2020.

The Heliograph’s Chapter in Communication’s Story-Part 1

Heliographs in the Boer War

Military necessity mothered many metamorphoses of communication. The heliograph was one. 


The month is February. The year is 1900. The battle is near Paardeberg. The problem is General Piet Cronje’s Boer force is surrounded. Cronje’s men are outnumbered more than 3:1 by a 15,000-man British force led by General Frederick Roberts. Cronje has blundered repeatedly into this current situation, but fellow Boer leader Christian De Wet is just miles away with a force of 1,500 giving the British forces fits. If De Wet and Cronje can get on the same page,  De Wet can burst a secure a hole long enough in the British circle for Cronje’s beleaguered Boers to escape. 


Obviously, a dispatch runner could be an answer here, but beyond the obvious danger of slipping through British lines, there is no efficient way to guarantee receipt of the message or a speedy reply. Terrain feels constant while weather can change on a dime. Both constantly present challenges and opportunities to the soldier, to the tactician. Terrain and weather make distance irrelevant or prohibitive. So can timing. For the past 100 years, most conventional armies have leaned on some form of the radio or telephone. But telephone landlines required time to lay and control of the land, and took much less time to cut. Walkie talkies were not yet widespread. 


The two officers could use a system of shouting men to relay the message like the ancient Persians, but this would present at least four problems. This shouting relay team would risk garbling the message, would take longer greater depending on the distance, could be thwarted if the enemy was wedged between them, and would proportionately waste manpower based on the distance the message had to travel. Sending someone on horseback to relay the message could be an option, unless of course the enemy was already wedged between the general and the colonel.


If the message to the colonel were simpler, the general and colonel could communicate using flags much like the Egyptians or Chinese first did. Cretans four thousand years ago may have sent tactical messages using polished silver or bronze plates to flash messages, but these were likely simple as well. The Ponca tribe used reflective pieces of mica to communicate between hunting and war parties in the 1800s, but these were likely simple messages such as “enemy to your left” using say three flashes. Two men in the early 19th century would make waves felt by militaries for decades: Samuel B. Morse and Carl Friedrich Gauss. See part 2 for the rest of this story.

To learn more on your own see:


Evans, Nick. “THE BRITISH ARMY AND COMMUNICATIONS, 1899-1914.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research94, no. 379 (2016): 208-24. Accessed June 5, 2020.


Nasson, Bill. The Boer War: The Struggle for South Africa. Stroud, United Kingdom: The History Press, 2011. P. 167-179.


Smith, Steven Trent. “Light Conversation: The Heliograph”

The Heliograph’s Chapter in Communication’s Story- Part 2

Heliographs during the Anglo-Boer War

Mathematics and mirrors are not what most immediately associate with the military. 

Gauss’s heliotrope made its debut in 1821 looking much like a surveyor’s transit pictured below,

but with a mirror mounted on top.

Gauss’s heliotrope could reflect light at precise angles for up to 20 miles to allow effective bearings to be taken. 

Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph transmitted its debut message “What hath God wrought” between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland in 1844 using its code of dots and dashes.

Just 33 years later, Henry Mance’s heliograph, which combined Morse code with aspects of the heliotrope (also pictured below), was wielded for the first time by the British in their punitive Jowaki Expedition against Indian freedom fighters.

Heliographs found an ideal climate in South Africa during the Boer Wars with messages being transmitted as far as 90 miles in sunny conditions. 

Some operators succeeded sending signals using the moonlight.

A well-trained team of heliographers could transmit messages of 12 to 15 words a minute. 

Cloud cover or missing lines of sight made heliograph use impossible.

Early in the Boer War, the British used heliographs as they struggled to gain control of South Africa. 

The more mobile that forces had to be, the more vital the heliograph since rapid mobile operations often didn’t leave time to dig and fortify telephone or telegraph lines.

Poor weather prevented Boer General’s Piet Cronje and his surrounded army from using a heliograph to coordinate a timely relief effort by Christian De Wet and his commando. Cronje would devastate the Boer war effort by surrendering his remaining 4,000 Boer soldiers to a British force 3 times larger, costing the Boers across South Africa 10% of its fighting force in one moment. 

As British troops numbers climbed to the hundreds of thousands and the Boers started to be reduced to thousands, the British were able to lay increasingly more telephone line. Telephone line that they had enough numbers and fortifications to protect against Boer attempts to cut them. 

These telephone lines and increasingly more secure telegraph lines would make heliographs with all their vulnerabilities and necessarily large communication teams less essential.

However, heliographs were crucial for a time in the Boer War and also used widely in many US campaigns to further dominate native American tribes (in the future states of Montana and Arizona for example).

They were even kept in supply by the British Royal Signals into the 1960s, and were still used by some forest services well into the 20th century.

Gauss’s heliotrope Surveyor’s transit

To learn more see:

Evans, Nick. “THE BRITISH ARMY AND COMMUNICATIONS, 1899-1914.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research94, no. 379 (2016): 208-24. Accessed June 5, 2020.

Nasson, Bill. The Boer War: The Struggle for South Africa. Stroud, United Kingdom: The History Press, 2011. P. 167-179.

Smith, Steven Trent. “Light Conversation: The Heliograph”