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.

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