“Devoted Valour”: The Boer War and Arguments for Irish Loyalty

“Devoted Valour”: The Boer War and Arguments for Irish Loyalty

This week, Sam May (New-York Historical Society) examines Irish participation in the Boer War and concerns over Irish loyalty to the British crown. 

Both the centenary of the Somme and the recent Brexit vote have inspired conversations about the island of Ireland’s position within the North Atlantic Archipelago and the legacy of Ireland’s soldiers in Britain’s foreign wars. Recently, Dr. Paul Huddie and Steve Marti have shared thought provoking posts on how the Crimean War and the Great War encouraged discussions of “Celtic Fringe” identities and imperial unity.[i] In this post, I argue the Boer War deserves a closer look as a transitional conflict that inspired both anxieties and new hopes for imperial unity.

After the relief of Ladysmith in February 1900, The Times published a letter from the commander of the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. In it, Lieutenant Colonel Mills explained:

Though I am not an Irishman myself by birth, I am one in heart, and I am delighted to think that the way in which Irish regiments have behaved during this war will prove to the world that Her Majesty has no more loyal and true soldiers than those in her Irish regiments.[ii]

Similar sentiments of Irish loyalty appeared in many media sources at the turn of the century. This concept of the loyalty of the Irish, however, conflicts with perhaps more familiar images of Irish-nationalist resistance and belong to a particular period when the public discourse on Ireland was changing in part through discussion of Irish service in South Africa.

During the Boer War, the army became a unique space for discussion of Ireland’s position in the British Empire as new images of the Irish people emerged through public descriptions of the Irish regiments. Often employing classic stereotypes, numerous authors took advantage of the service of the Irish regiments to project a firm sense of Ireland’s loyalty and exhibited a public display of hope for a more inclusive relationship within the Union.


Figure 1: “Last Rights” in C.F. Romer and A.E. Mainwaring, The Second Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the South African War: With a Description of the Operations in the Aden Hinterland (London: A.L. Humphreys, 1908), 10. 

One prolific author who made note of Irish service in South Africa was Winston Churchill. An eyewitness to the triumphal procession into Ladysmith, he spotted: “in front of all, as special recognition of their devoted valour, marched the Dublin Fusiliers, few, but proud.” Churchill described how the men sported sprigs of green in their helmets, “remembering their emerald island.”[iii]In this passage, Churchill combined characteristics of Irishness and loyalty noting that it was for particularly “devoted valour” that the Dublin Fusiliers marched in the van.

In a less ambiguous gesture, the monarchy followed the news of the relief of Ladysmith with the official blessing of green adornments for Irish soldiers. Due to the losses incurred by the Irish brigade in the battles leading up to the relief of Ladysmith, the army in Natal received the following order: “Her Majesty the Queen is pleased to order that in future, upon St. Patrick’s Day, all ranks in Her Majesty’s Irish regiments shall wear, as a distinction, a sprig of shamrock in their head-dress, to commemorate the gallantry of Her Irish soldiers during the recent battles in South Africa.”[iv]Queen Victoria singled out the Irish regiments for the losses they had suffered and awarded the right to wear an Irish national symbol on the day celebrating Ireland’s patron saint. By order of the monarch, this symbol of Irish national identity was transformed into a symbol of Irish loyalty.

The Crown continued to celebrate Irish service with the creation of the Irish Guards in 1900. The Navy and Army Illustrated commented on the occasion writing that the Queen would certainly choose to make the announcement during her visit to Ireland because “There is no country in the world more susceptible to sentiment as Ireland, and there are in the Army no corps more strongly imbued with esprit de corps than the Irish.” [v] While perpetuating stereotypes of Celtic emotionality, British writers portrayed this event as a moment honoring and recognizing all of the Irish regiments and something of which all Irish people could be proud.

While the British press commended the apolitical bravery of the Irish regiments in combat, the role of the Irish regiments on home service complicated the conversation. Some politicians and generals considered the Irish regiments to be untrustworthy when serving in Ireland.[vi]When the government approved foreign service for the militia during the Boer War, the Irish militia battalions sailed for England. One nationalist MP asked “Why are not Irish regiments allowed to protect their own country with arms in their hands?” He was answered by a unionist MP who remarked “Because they are rebels.” This comment inspired laughter and cheers from unionists. Clearly not all opinions of the Irish had been changed by their role in imperial defence.[vii]

Policies for home defense may not have changed in light of the service of the Irish regiments in South Africa, but the extremely positive images of the Irish regiments printed in newspapers, journals, and military histories continued to add to the ways in which the British public learned and formed opinions about Ireland as well as the British Nation and the Empire. With the outbreak of the Great War, the conversation on Ireland changed once again, and by 1922 many of the Irish regiments ceased to exist. The Boer War offers a valuable window for examining the cultural significance of Irish service before the Home Rule Bill, the Easter Rising, the Somme, the Good Friday Agreement, and Brexit.

[i]Paul Huddie, “’Unparalleled Unity’? A four nations approach to ‘British’ conflicts, the armed forces and society,” Four Nations History, February 1, 2016; Steve Marti, “Hands Across the Sea: Irish and Scottish Battalions in the Australian and Canadian Expeditionary Forces, 1914-1918,” Four Nations History, February 8, 2016.

[ii]G.A. Mills, “The Irish Regiments at the Front,” The Times, May 4, 1900, 6.

[iii]Winston Churchill, The Boer War: London to Ladysmith Via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton’s March (London: Pimlico, 2002), 212-214.

[iv]“The Queen and the Irish Regiments,” The Times, March 8, 1900, 7.

[v]“Round the World,” March 31, 1900, in Navy and Army Illustrated, vol. 10, 27.

[vi]Terence Denman, “’Ethnic Soldiers Pure and Simple’? The Irish in the Late Victorian British Army,” War in History 3 (1996): 260.

[vii]“The Forces in Ireland,” The Times, February 3, 1900, 8.

Sam May works for the New-York Historical Society and is completing his teaching certificate in secondary-school history. He received his BA in history from the University of Pittsburgh and his MA in history from the University of Alabama where he studied Modern Britain. 



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