In the Firing Line (Paardeberg, 1900)
Brave Father O'Leary Speaks of the Boer Campaign
The Chaplain Fell Asleep Amid the Hail of Bullets—Many Mistakes Made by the Intelligence Department—Father O'Leary Has Borne all the Hardships of the Forced Marches with the Canadians—Wears Two Medals
The Evening Telegram, St. John's Newfoundland, 13 November 1900
The Rev. Father O'Leary, of the First Contingent, stayed at the Place Viger Hotel last night, upon his way to Ottawa to see his brother, who is seriously ill, says the Montreal Gazette. In his khaki helmet and clerical coat, with the cross of the chaplain and the maple leaf of the Canadians upon the collar, and two shoulder straps, Father O'Leary looks admirably well. He wears two medal ribbons, one the official ribbon of the Imperial medal to be issued to all who took part in the war, the other the ribbon of a special medal, presented to him and a few others as a particular recognition of their services, by the authorities at Cape Town.
But numberless hardships fell to the worthy chaplain's share. He marched nearly all the way with the men, as far as Kroonstadt, for though he had a horse and a spring cart for a few days, the animals were so hard-worked that they succumbed, and he preferred to trudge his thirty miles on two biscuits day after day rather than be left behind. The worst want was the lack of water, but the number of spiders and insects that crawled about the tents at night were very trying, and it was particularly hard to submit to the inspections of a tarantula upon the face for fear of his deadly fangs. However, through it all Father O'Leary kept up, until enteric mastered him at Korrnstadt, and he was taken back to Bloemfontein.
Here he lay delirious and at death's door for ten days, and when he was sent further south he suffered a most trying relapse at Deilfontein, and after a stay at Wynberg was forced to go home. He states that, in his opinion, the hospitals were as good as they could be under the circumstances. Of course, at Bloemfontein, with its 5,000 sick, and its one line of rails, there was much suffering; but no one could help it, and Dr. Ryerson, the Canadian Red Cross commissioner, by his intelligence and activity, did much for the whole army.
At Deilfontein, the C.I.V. hospital, there were almost too many luxuries; the ordinary private even being supplied with champagne, and in England nothing could exceed the kindness of his reception when he arrived. Lady Dudley, a perfect stranger to him, wrote to offer accommodation free of cost at any hotel he might select on the Riviera, or in England, and everyone treated him most thoughtfully.
When the Contingent arrived in Africa things looked terrible blue. As they lay at Belmont the wounded from Magersfontein kept pouring back in a continuous stream in carts and trains, and the moral effect was terrible. No time was so bad on the nerves as the month they lay idle, with nothing to do but build railways, endure sand storms and keep watch among putrefying corpses upon a kopje. But when Lord Roberts arrived the whole aspect of things changed. The Contingent was brigaded with the Gordons, and at once struck up a warm friendship with them. The two regiments used to help each other in every way, pitching the tents or forwarding them after them every time there was a chance.
Yet it was the Gordons who, to their deep regret, bayoneted the Canadians at Paardeberg. The firing line of the Contingent had been ordered to advance, whilst the supports and the Highlanders threw up shelter. When the Boer fire was drawn the firing line were to retire, but when they did do the Gordons, believing that nothing could survive the murderous volleys of the enemy, took them for Boers and treated them accordingly.
Another great mistake at Paardeberg was made by the Intelligence Department. The Canadians had reached the crest of the outward slope of the river-bank. What ought to have been known, and was not, was that the river was as impossible to cross as a millrace, and that the top of the inward slope was not only a sheer drop of 15 feet, but was lined by 500 Boers, who had not yet fired a shot, and were waiting to fire at close quarters. The Contingent charged with the bayonet, but the Boers escaped under the edge of the declivity to the ford, whither they could not be pursued as they were covered by the fire of their friends on the opposite bank.
But is the Intelligence Department was defective, the practice of the artillery was magnificent. They did not bombard the Boer laager continuously, but only when a man was seen out of cover. On one occasion three or four of the enemy made a rush for an ammunition waggon. At once four shots from a howitzer battery were placed in a space not forty feet square, and neither enemy or waggon were seen again. If the Canadian attack had failed the whole force of the artillery would have been turned upon Cronje with shrapnel and nothing would have survived after the storm. Shrapnel was infinitely more effective than lyddite shells. The high trajectory of the howitzer batteries ensured the bursting of every shot fired while many of the lyddite shells from the 4.7 guns with their almost level course, never burst at all, and the much-talked of fumes, poisonous as they are on ship-board, in the open were quite innocuous.
Father O'Leary's own position at the great battle was right in the firing line. He had borne all the hardships of the forced march and the short rations with the men. At first under fire it was very trying to feel the top of the long grass in which he lay actually cut down by bullets, and he never got used to the spiteful sound of the pom-poms. But tired nature asserted itself and he fell asleep in the midst of it all, with a request to his neighbour to awaken him if anything important occurred.
The bursting on an English shell right over his head aroused him and he saw that the shelter he was sharing with a soldier was not sufficient for both. With the utmost courage Father O'Leary determined to make for a nearby ant heap and, regardless of the storm of bullets he drew, he raised himself on his hands and knees and managed to get safely behind it. Then came the famous charge and he was in the midst of it, picking up Colonel Alwarth as he fell. After the battle he went around with the stretcher-bearers, attended the wounded, comforted the dying, and burying the dead. Worn out with fatigue, he slept for an hour or so on the ground and resumed his mission of mercy, and it was not until the next day that he found his regiment again. As Father O'Leary tells his experiences as mere ordinary facts, it is easy to see why he was the most popular of all the men who left Canada for the front.
Father O'Leary's medals were sold at auction by Jeffrey Hoare Auctions Inc, in September, 1014. Although the pair of medals had an auction estimate of $600, the final hammer price was $3800 (with buyer's premium and sales tax, this was a final cost to the buyer af nearly $5000).