The Victoria Cross on Monument Hill
PTE JOHN BARRY VC.
Kilkenny man John Barry is one of the five soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment who were awarded the Victoria Cross. The medal was introduced in 1856 during the Crimean war. Approved by Queen Victoria as the highest British award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross was made available for award to “officers or men who have served the forces in the presence of the enemy, and shall have then performed some signal act of valour, or devotion to their country.” This meant all military personnel regardless of rank or social stature could qualify for the award, a significant change to previous individual awards policy. It also became possible in 1902 to award the Victoria Cross posthumously, making it one of the very few British valour decorations available to soldiers, sailors or air force personnel killed during the course of their heroic action (the others included the George Cross and the Mention-in-Despatches). By proportion, in terms of population, the number of Irish people awarded the Victoria Cross is second only to the number of English Officers and men when population size is taken into account. In fact 12% of the 1348 Victoria Cross awards have been to Irish men.
John Barry was born on the 1st of February 1873 in Saint Mary’s parish Kilkenny City . He enlisted in the R I Regt in December 1890 from where he was posted to the 2nd Bn and was dispatched to Lucklow India where he remained until the battalion moved to Jubbulapore in December 1894. He was on active service from 15 September 1897 when the battalion moved to Rawal Pindi during the Tirah campaign . Pte Barry would go on to earn two clasps to his India Medal 1895-1902 ( Samana 1897 and Punjab Frontier 1895-97). Then in early 1900 the 2nd batallion provided a draft of 150 soldiers to reinforce the 1st Bn R I Regt during the second phase of the Boer war in South Africa . Capt Fosbery and Pte Barry were also members of this draft .
The Boer War
The Anglo Boer war was fought by Britain and her Empire against the Boer. The Boer army was comprised of the combined forces of the South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State. The Boer Republics declared war on 11th October 1899 and the conflict would go on for over two and a half years.
There were three distinct phases to the war: The first phase can be described as the Boer offensive during which they were successful in three major attacks. Their commandos invaded northern Natal and besieged the town of Ladysmith and invaded Cape Colony to lay siege to the British garrisons in Kimberley and Mafeking. While the British did achieve some tactical victories at Talana and Elandslaagte, there were serious defeats for the British at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso which became known as ‘Black Week (10th – 15th December 1899). The R I Regt was just debarking from England on the Gascon when news of these setbacks reached them.
The British response during the second phase of the war included the delivery of heavy reinforcements and the taking over of overall command by Lord Roberts with Lord Kitchener as his Chief of Staff, the Royal Irish landed at Port Elizabeth on the on 12 Jan 1900. By the end of May the 1st battalion numbered a full complement of officers, 1180 Ncos and men (150 of these soldiers were drafted from the 5th militia Bn located in Kilkenny) All the while British forces were relieving the besieged towns of, Kimberley (15 February 1900), Ladysmith (28th February 1900) and Mafeking (18th May 1900). On 13th March 1900 Roberts occupied Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, and on 28th May the province was annexed and renamed the Orange River Colony. On 31st May, British troops entered Johannesburg and, on 5th June, Pretoria was taken. The Boer now realised that they needed to change tactics in order to achieve success.
Guerrilla warfare in the third phase of the 2nd Boer war.
Under the leadership of Louis Botha, Christian de Wet, Jan Smuts and Keys de la Rey, the Boer abandoned the British style of war fighting and increased their reliance on small and mobile military units. The mobility of these units enabled them to capture supplies, disrupt communications and undertake raids on the army of occupation. They were very successful in evading capture. The R I Regt were involved in convoy escorts at this time and their first major action took place on the 6th of July when as part of the 12th brigade, the battalion assaulted Vulhuters Kop near Bethlehem, during the action the battalion suffered one officer killed five other ranks killed in addition to one officer and forty seven men wounded.
While the unit was involved in many actions during the rest of the year the next major action occurred on the night of the 7-8 January 1901 when the Boer assaulted the position held by the 1st Bn R I Regt on Monument hill near Belfast in the province of Transvaal on the night of the 7-8 Jan.
Belfast & Monument Hill 7-8 January 1901
The Transvaal town of Belfast was protected by three main groups of defended positions. South of the railway the Gordon Highlanders were in charge of a long stretch of sloping ground; on the other side of the line the Shropshire Light Infantry held Colliery Hill, to the north-west of the town; while the Royal Irish were responsible for Monument Hill, a kopje (Afrikaner term for hill) two miles north-east of the centre of Belfast, and also for one of the 4.7-in. guns, which was positioned on it. These hills, three miles apart, were linked by a party of mounted infantry in a concealed drift half way between them. Early on the 7th of January, 1901, Major Orr’s detachment of the Royal Irish at Monument Hill was relieved by an under strength company group of the R I Regt.
• Captain Fosbery commanded the A Company (Coy) personnel.
• Captain Milner commanded the D Coy personnel.
• Lieutenant Dease the only lieutenant with the party was located with A Coy
The total strength of the troops defending the hill on that day numbered only ninety-three officers, NCOs and men. Captain Fosbery realised, on surveying the position that the defences that he had taken over from his predecessor needed to be finished. In reality the number of soldiers for work parties at his disposal was substantially reduced mainly because D Coy had just returned from an arduous spell of train-escort duty. Therefore wishing to allow Captain Milner’s men time to rest, Captain Fosbery kept them in reserve.
By sundown, however, much of the work had been accomplished, and when General Smith – Dorrien OC of the Brigade (figure 9) came to visit the post he was satisfied with the improvements made, however he disapproved of the loopholes, which he directed should be altered but because darkness was falling it became impossible to carry out this order and its execution was postponed until the next day . The flat top of the hill was about eight hundred yards long and less than a quarter of a mile in width; At the northern end a rough stone defended position, four feet high, enclosed the 4.7-in. gun farther to the south a semi-circular trench partly surrounded the tents occupied by D company; A short way down the south-western slope of the hill a blockhouse of stone and sods was virtually completed, and scattered along the perimeter of the plateau were eight small trenches, two of which were not yet ready for use. The scheme of defence involved the post being protected by a strong barbed-wire fence, but as darkness fell this portion of the defences was not completely finished. Captain Fosbery then sent two sections to a subsidiary post connecting Monument Hill with the left flank of the Gordon Highlanders, leaving himself with six sections available to deploy in his perimeter force. The dispositions were sited as follows: Two sections of A company were to man the perimeter trenches, with a sentry posted a few yards in front of each; the remaining section of which Pte Barry was a member with the maxim machine gun was to act as support in the defended position, from which the 4.7-in. gun had earlier been withdrawn. This tactical decision by the Brigade Commander suggests that he had concerns over the vulnerability of the position. The three sections of D company were to sleep in their tents, but to be ready at a moment’s notice to man the trench near their quarters.
During the evening a mist settled down upon the country round Belfast, so heavy that in the town itself the range of vision was limited to twenty yards. On Monument Hill the fog was described like a heavy Dublin fog. The conditions effectively prevented the Royal Irish soldiers from patrolling to the north-east, east, and south-east, where the steep sides of the kopje fell into broken ground, (these slopes were difficult to conduct clearance patrols around even in good visibility in daylight). Consequently the safety of the post was entirely dependent on the vigilance and sharp hearing of the sentries in front of the trenches.
The Boer objectives
On the 07-08 Jan the Boer commanders planned an attack on the main rail line from Pretoria the main objective being the area of Belfast. A number of smaller attacks, which may have been meant simply as diversions, were made upon Wonderfontein, Nooitgedacht, Wildfontein, Pan, Dalmanutha, and Machadodorp . These seven separate attacks, occurring simultaneously over sixty miles, show that the Boer forces were still organized and under one effective control. The general objective of the operations was undoubtedly to cut Lord Roberts’s communications and to destroy a considerable section of the railway.
The burghers had surrounded the town of Belfast (the main effort) and were assailing it forcefully on every side. From information obtained by the British officers captured during the engagement, it is known that General L. Botha, who had under him about two thousand men which were deployed as follows.
• Ermelo Commando was tasked with driving the Gordon Highlanders from the southern positions.
• The Middelburg Commando was to engage the Shropshire Light Infantry at the Colliery hill.
• General B. Viljoen, with seven hundred and fifty of the Johannesburg and Bocksburg Commandos, were tasked with the capture of Monument Hill (The decisive terrain).
Monument Hill was considered as the decisive ground not only because of its tactical importance, but also because the burghers were determined to capture the big gun which they assessed was positioned on the top of the kopje. Fortunately as already outlined General Smith-Dorrien had decided that it should be redeployed back into the artillery lines at nightfall; subsequently the gun was denied to the Boer.
Attack on Monument Hill
On Monument Hill the night sentries had been posted at dusk, and the officers of A Coy R I Regt divided the duty between them, Capt Fosbery taking the watch with Lt Dease due to relieve him at 2 am. Everything was quiet until about 2345hrs, when Lt Dease, who was in a shelter near the tents in the reserve position, heard a distant challenge, followed almost immediately by a rifle shot. Nothing happened, and as nervous sentries often fired at imaginary enemy, no one was disturbed by the shot. However the shot was not fired by a British soldier but by a burgher, who shot the sentry posted forward of the north-east trench. Lieutenant Dease was trying to go to sleep again, when two more shots rang out; he dashed out of his shelter and met with Captain Fosbery in the fog; both officers hurried to the centre of the plateau to assess the situation. On the way they came under heavy fire from a party of Boer who, after scaling the northern and north-eastern slopes of the kopje, had surprised and overran two of the trenches, therefore investing themselves inside the R I Regt lines. They rushed forward and reached the gun position just as the burghers were advancing to it.
The maxim machine gun team was fighting desperately from the gun position against overwhelming odds; it was soon swamped by sheer weight of numbers. Pte Barry quickly realised that his position was becoming untenable and that his machine gun was in imminent danger of being captured by the Boer. Fully cognisant of the potential danger that losing the machine gun to the enemy entailed, he managed to grab a pick axe and lunging forward he smashed the point of the pick into the barrel. Pte Barry had effectively disabled the weapon by puncturing the cooling system. It was while carrying out this action he was cut down by a volley of Boer rifle fire from a range of less than five yards; he would die of his wounds shortly afterwards. This selfless act carried out by a Kilkenny soldier was witnessed by Lt Dease who recognised the valour and bravery being displayed by one of his soldiers. Pte Barry would later be mentioned in dispatches and be part of the very first group of recipients to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
The Curtain Closes
All around the hill top the Boer soldiers were taking positions quickly and because the nature of the trenches prepared by the defenders during the day their restricted fields of fire prevented them from bringing effective fire to bear on the attackers at short range.
Around these positions Boer detachments (from twenty to two hundred strong) suddenly loomed up out of the fog and enveloped the defenders from all sides. The Boer then demanded instant surrender from the remaining Royal Irish soldiers. Though caught in an absolute death-trap, most of these small groups of four or five soldiers showed fortitude, refusing to lay down their arms until such times one or more of their number had been killed or wounded. Here Lance-Corporal George Dowie, a veteran who had served in the Egyptian war of 1882, met his death. He was in command of a small trench, which he succeeded in holding during the first assault; he refused to surrender, though he must have realised that resistance was hopeless, however with tenacity he continued to fight on desperately until a number of burghers, rushing in from behind, overwhelmed the party and left Dowie dead in the position he had defended with honour.
The reserve fared no better than the sentries or the soldiers in the support position. When roused by the sound of battle, the men of D Coy occupied the trench system which protected their tents. At first the attack came from their front and right, but as the capture of the Maxim machine gun position gave the Boer control of the Northern end of the kopje, a fresh body of the enemy attacked them from the rear. There was a short, violent struggle ; then the burghers surged forward, and hemmed in the men of D Coy so closely that many of them could not use their bayonets, and while the Boer in front seized the muzzles and pointed them in the air, those behind knocked the Royal Irish defenders down with the butts of their Mauser rifles. By this time Captain Milner was severely wounded: and the soldiers of his company, who were not killed, wounded, or prisoners ceased to be a coordinated fighting force. Singularly or in small groups they tried to make their way towards Belfast, but in the fog they stumbled across large parties of the enemy and were captured. Out of the original ninety-three officers and men of the Royal Irish on the hill only seven escaped; 86 of the brave defenders lay dead, wounded, or were in the hands of the enemy. Within half an hour after the first shot was fired the defence had been crushed completely. The only sounds to be heard on Monument Hill were the groans of the wounded and the hoarse shouts of the burghers as they collected the rifles, ammunition and sought unsuccessfully for the 4.7-in. gun, which they hoped to turn on the garrison of the town of Belfast.
When the attack began General Smith-Dorrien had only two companies (one of the Royal Irish and one of the Shropshire Light Infantry) available as reinforcements for the posts north of the line. Both companies turned out and waited for orders. Lieutenant – Colonel Spens, Shropshire Light Infantry, immediately reconnoitred towards Monument Hill, and on the way he met a soldier who reported that Captain Fosbery’s detachment had been destroyed. Halting his party, Spens went forward with a small group of men to conduct a close target recce of the kopje. He worked his way up until he reached a wire fence from which he could see the burghers teeming over the camp which they were looting. Convinced that the post was lost he withdrew, taking with him the men of two small outlying sentry positions whom the enemy had not discovered, but who, in his opinion, would inevitably be captured as soon as the fog lifted.
Botha’s scheme of manoeuvre provided for the simultaneous attack on seven posts along the railway. General Smith-Dorrien commanded a 1,700 strong force protecting a perimeter of 15 miles. The strong points were too far apart to be able to provide mutual support to each other. These attacks were duly made, but in most cases they were not serious and in no case did they fully succeed. The statistics illustrate that Belfast was the real objective of the burghers, for out of 179 casualties sustained in the defence of these seven places, 143 were incurred by the troops in the vicinity of Belfast. The Royal Irish on Monument Hill had by far the largest casualties. Of the three Officers on Monument Hill, Captain Fosbery was killed, Captain Milner was severely wounded and Lieutenant Dease was injured (both were taken prisoners). Among the ninety non-commissioned officers and privates eight were killed outright, five died of their wounds, twenty two were wounded in varying degrees of severity, and fifty-one were taken prisoner. The Boer on their side also lost heavily: in the attack on Belfast. In total fifty-eight burghers were killed, of whom fourteen fell at Monument Hill.
General Smith-Dorrien, in his report on the events of the 7th-8th of January, stated that the heavy loss in killed and wounded among the Royal Irish was “sufficient evidence that their defence was a fine one.” He specially mentioned Captain Fosbery for his “splendid work in command of the post,” adding that from all sides he heard how well this officer had behaved until he was shot down. In Force Orders, dated the 12th of January, 1901, he expressed his “appreciation of the steadiness of the Royal Irish soldiers on the morning of the 8th. He would specially mention the fine defence of the Royal Irish piquet on the kopje under the command of Captain Fosbery, until overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers after a hard fight. He regretted the losses, but does not consider them heavy, considering the determined nature of the attack. He also considers that had it not been for the fog the attack would have been much more easily repulsed.”
That heroic action.
The General wrote as follows of Private John Barry:
“I would especially call attention to the heroic conduct of No. 3733 Private J. Barry, Royal Irish, who seeing the machine gun surrounded by Boers seized a pick and began to smash the action, which he completed in spite of the threats of the Boers, I regret to say that the Boers in retaliation shot him dead, or I would have recommended him for a V.C.”
The War Office decided to award this honourable decoration to John Barry, although he was not alive to wear it, and it was presented to his widow to be held as a treasured heirloom in Barry’s family. Thus, for the third time since the Order of the Victoria Cross was instituted, a member of the Royal Irish Regiment was to win this, the highest possible prize for valour in the British army.
His citation published in the London gazette on the 8th August 1902 reads
No. 3733 Private J. Barry, 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment. During the night attack on the 7th and 8th January, 1901, on Monument Hill, Private Barry, although surrounded and threatened by the Boers at the time, smashed the breach of the Maxim gun, thus rendering: it useless to its captors, and it was in doing this splendid act for his country that he met his death.
With the passage of time Pte John Barry has been relatively forgotten in his native City. His act of heroism shows the absolute selflessness he displayed, which undoubtedly saved many British soldiers lives. Had the weapon been captured intact it would have been deployed by the Boer commandos in future operations. In fact the Maxim machine gun would be retaken by the R I Regt four months later still unrepaired. The Maxim is now located in the National Museum in Collins Bks Dublin. Pte Barry is buried in a military plot in Belfast, Transvaal, South Africa
Pte Barry’s medal group has changed hands a number of times it is now located in the Lord Ashcroft Collection in the Imperial war museum in London. It was purchased at auction for £85,000. The medal group includes the Victoria Cross, the reverse of the suspension bar inscribed ‘Private J. Barry, Royal Irish Regiment’, the reverse centre of the cross dated ‘8th Jany. 1901‘, together with Hancocks’ & Co card box of issue; India General Service 1895-1902, 2 clasps, Punjab Frontier 1897-98, Samana 1897 (3733 Pte., 2d Bn. Ryl. Ir. Regt.); Queen’s South Africa 1899-1902, 3 clasps, Cape Colony, Wittebergen, Belfast (3733 Pte., 1st Rl. Irish Regt.) minor edge bruises and nicks to the campaign medals (figure 16).
In the loyal traditions of The 18th Royal Irish Regiment, Pte Barry made the ultimate sacrifice. Being a veteran of 12 years service and having seen active service in India, he understood the capability of the weapon he was crewing and its lethal potential. Soldiers like him, Lance-Corporal Dowie, their Commanding Officer Captain Fosbery and the other soldiers deployed on Monument hill on that fateful night epitomise the ethos and espirit de corps of the Regiment. Like their ancestors who stormed through the breach in the Citadel of Namur in 1695, the brave men who defended the hill on the night of the 7-8 of January 1901 made the ultimate sacrifice in the true traditions of the Regiment.