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Joe Wade - South Africa Part III

Updated: Mar 18

Joe Wade was involved at both Ladysmith and Colenso towards the end of 1899. Both were significant battles in the initial Boer offensive of the Anglo-Boer war. On Dec 14th 1899 Col. Blake was ordered to send 30 men to Colenso. Major John MacBride was to lead these men and chose Joe Wade as one of those to accompany him. The battle of Colenso was a huge victory for the Boer, and it was here that MacBride described Sergeant Joe Wade as carrying shells to the guns which were being fired at the advancing British troops. This Boer victory was the final victory before the British relieved the besieged towns of Ladysmith, Kimberly, and Mafeking. The Irish Brigade were on the retreat, yet were revelling in dare devil tactics of striking the enemy and blowing up bridges.

The Irish Transvaal Brigade at their camp at Ladysmith


Source: Ben Viljoen, My reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War (London, 1902), p. 19.


May 1900 the Irish Brigade were at the Vet river, it was decided that railways would be targeted as trains full of British infantry were arriving on the opposite ridge. The Irish Brigade volunteered to destroy the bridges and railway lines. Col. Blake said he selected his best men for the job which included ‘the ever to be remembered Joe Wade.’ In blowing up the bridges at Sand River they were exposed to cannon and rifle fire, yet managed to get the job done. When the bridges and railway lines had been destroyed General Botha, who later became the first prime minister of the union of South Africa, ‘sent for Sergeant Wade, Mike Halley and Dick Berry to be given further instruction.’



Irish brigade onboard a Boer train on the retreat.

The last phase of the Anglo-Boer war took place between October 1900 and May 1902. John MacBride and the majority of the Irish brigade had by this time left South Africa. The last few of the Irish Brigade who did remain were known as the ‘bitterenders’. Sergeant Joe Wade and his friends from Balbriggan, Joe Kennedy and John McGlew were included in these bitterenders. They joined the Johannesburg commando of General Ben Viljoen where they conducted a hard-fought guerrilla war against the British who had adopted a scorched earth policy. The British destroyed Boer farms and placed many civilians into concentration camps. It was at these horrific British concentration camps that 26,000 women and children died of malnutrition and disease.

There is an account of Col. Blake that on Jan 8th 1901 Joe Wade, Joe Kennedy and John McGlew were involved in the attack of one of two forts at Monument Hill, Belfast in the Transvaal. Here there was close combat fighting with the enemy and the fort was captured for a few hours. Blake has also documented an incident in June 1901 where the bitterenders along with the Johannesburg commando were involved in capturing around 300 Australians at night while they were sat around their campfires. One of the Irish lads, Mike Hanafin, came across an Australian bugler and threatened him with his rifle to sound ‘cease firing’. The bugler did so, and the Australians ceased firing. The Australian major in command ordered him to sound ‘commence firing’ and according to Col. Blake, either Joe Wade or the other Sergeant Mike Halley ‘rammed the muzzle of his rifle against the major's stomach, and told him that he could have all the fight he wished. The major, in an awful tremble, threw up his hands and said "No, no, no, I don't want to fight any more’

Near Balmoral, the Johannesburg commando, had set about capturing some blockhouses to move a cannon and wagons across the railway line. From ‘a hole in the ground under the blockhouse’ Mike Hanafin was shot at point blank range. Dick Hunt went to help him, but he was already dead. When he attempted to pick him up, he himself was shot. Luckily the bullet had grazed his forehead. Joe Wade and Joe Kennedy came to his assistance and the three of them carried Mike Hanafin’s body away before returning to the blockhouse. ‘They now knew about these holes, and they crept up to one of them, slipped the muzzle of their rifles just over the edge of the hole, without the Tommie knowing it; they fired and the Tommie fell dead. This frightened the other Tommies who were watching at other holes, and the blockhouse was surrendered.’


An example of a blockhouse during the Anglo-War. This example is from Burgersdrop and around 440 of differing designs were built by the British.

Source: Rute Martins of Leoa Photography


In Vrieskraal on 16th August 1901 a young Boer said he found a few Irish Americans swapping clothes with the captured British soldiers. One of these men were Joe Wade who was neatly dressed in the uniform of the 19th Hussars who were a British Cavalry Regiment. He was talking to a captured soldier ‘who was wearing in exchange Joe’s tattered trousers patched and torn to ribbons… Where modesty decreed that clothes should be soundest, the trousers were most at fault, and Joe remarked “I suffered much from sunburn and exposure in those parts”… A little distance away stood a young Hussar, wearing the limp and greasy hat of his captor’

The war ended on the 31st May 1902. Joe Wade and the other bitterenders surrendered with the Johannesburg commando at Potloodspruit, his war was done. In August 1902 funds of $3000 were raised in response to an appeal from Col. Blake to enable him and 11 comrades to return back to the United States. Joe Wade, Joe Kennedy and John McGlew were 3 of these remaining 11 who travelled back to the United States.


Col. John Y.F. Blake lived in New York after the war, in 1907 he died in his apartment of gas asphyxiation in an apparent suicide.


Major John MacBride travelled to Paris where he married the Irish republican revolutionary Maud Gonne. They had a son Sean MacBride in 1904, who became an Irish politician, before divorcing in 1905. After his divorce he returned to Ireland and was executed by the British in 1916 after the easter rising in Dublin. When facing a firing squad, he refused a blindfold and said, ‘I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South African war to fear death and now please carry out your sentence.’


John McGlew married Margaret Bowden in 1913 in Boston where they lived. They had a son in 1914 who died from traumatic birth. On March 22nd, 1915 he died at age 42.


Joe Wade is on the 1910 census living in St. Louis with his wife Sabine Jackson who he had married in 1908. At the time he was working for a bank as a bookkeeper. He died in 1924, St. Louis.



Grave of Joe Wade, St.Louis



Mr. Kennedy at White Hart, Stephenstown. Home of Thomas Wade, (my great grandfather) brother to Joe Wade.

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