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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Edward Nolan

Tullow Street, Carlow

By Pat Foley and Michael Purcell. Oct 2007

6569 Private Nolan, Edward of Nolan's Shop 77 & 78 Tullow Street, Carlow, the shop was well known to generations of Carlovians as "Nannie Nolans" .Michael Purcell bought a box of letters that had been wrote by  Ned during his Army service days, along with his Boer War Diary from his sister Nannie in 1969 for 10 shillings. Edward  Nolan joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers shortly before the outbreak of the Boer War. From his letters and other records, we will attempt to re-construct his service and experiences during the war. However before we do this it will be useful to take a brief look at the background to this conflict.

     Towards the end of the 19th Century South Africa had two Boer Republics; The Transvaal and Orange River. They were surrounded on the north, west, south and south-east by the British in Rhodesia, Cape Colony and Natal. Further west lay German South-West Africa and the Portuguese in their East Africa colony. Relations between Britain and the Boer Republics were never very good. The Boer president Kruger had tried to exclude the British from Boer territory. However by 1895 this had become impossible as large numbers of "Uitlanders" (i.e. British) had entered the Transvaal to operate the Rand mines. The Boer policy towards the "Uitlanders" was one of discrimination, with no political rights and high taxes. Britain had two choices, to try to listen to the "Uitlanders" appeals for help or leave them to their fate. Negotiations at Bloemfontein ended in deadlock and Britain started to reinforce the garrison in South Africa. The Boers called for this to halt and when this did not happen the Boer Republics declared war on 11th October 1899.

      The 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers were stationed in Alexandria and they reached South Africa on October 12th 1899. Edward was in the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers. The 2nd Battalion, 944 strong and commanded by Colonel Reeves, left Colchester by train for Southampton on 23rd October and sailed for Africa on the same day aboard the "Hawarden Castle" along with other reinforcements. The ship refuelled with coal at Las Palms on the 28th.

      Meanwhile the war was going badly for the British. The towns of Mafeking and Kimberley were under siege and Ladysmith was also under threat. The 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers had been caught in an ambush on October 30 th and almost the entire regiment had been either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Those that managed to escape were formed into two companies.

      The "Hawarden Castle" refuelled in Cape Town on 11th November and on 15th arrived in Durban where the 2nd Battalion disembarked and were ordered to join General Buller in Natal. The Battalion travelled by rail in coal trucks arriving at Pietermaritzburg on the railway between Durban and Ladysmith, late in the evening. On the 17th they joined Major General Barton's Fusilier Brigade at Mooi River, a small station on the line, south of Estcourt. Over the next two days earthworks and other defences were constructed in case of attack. On 22nd November Boer artillery shelled the camp at 1.30 pm and at around 4pm some 300 - 400 Boers advanced to within 2000 yards of the camp but they were soon forced to retire with some loss due to concentrated artillery fire. The following day the Boer artillery shelled the camp at 6 am and the British artillery deployed to Faugh Hill their counter battery fire silenced the Boer guns. On the 24 th the Boers cut the railway line and shelled Estcourt. The Boers proceeded to retire towards Colenso. On November 27 th the brigade marched 21 miles to Estcourt. On December 9th they marched 12 miles to Frere. Here they were joined on the 10th by General Buller. On the 12th the Fusilier Brigade marched with six Naval guns to Cheivley. The Boers had dug in on the high ground across the Tugela mountains from Colenso.

General Buller decided to launch a frontal attack on the Boers on December 15 th. The Fusiliers Brigade was in reserve except for four companies of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, which were to escort the Naval Guns, along with three companies of the Scots Fusiliers. However the battle began badly for the British as an overconfident artillery officer brought his guns within rifle range of the Boers and the entire battery was pinned down. Meanwhile the Infantry formed up for the advance with the Irish Brigade on the left flank, Fusilier Brigade in the centre and 6 th Brigade on the right, with the 4th Brigade in reserve. The advance came under heavy fire with the Irish Brigade taking heavy losses as they were still in close formation when the Boers opened fire. After about ten hours of heavy fighting General Buller ordered his forces to retreat. The British lost 1,126 officers and men killed, wounded or captured as well as 10 field guns. The 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers lost 4 killed, 21 wounded and 11 captured. Shortly after the battle on the 22nd December Edward wrote the following: 

      "I suppose you have seen in the papers about the great battle fought here at Colenso the 15 th December it was the greatest England has fought yet. It started at 4 o'clock in the morning and did not finish until 4 in the evening. Between killed and wounded their was upwards of about 12 hundred, the Boers lost over two thousand killed. We were in the firing line escorting the naval guns........our regiment was very lucky as there are only a few killed and about 30 wounded and missing we are only about 1 1/2 miles from the Boers at present. The naval guns is shelling them every day. We are getting some very hard nights here on outpost duty we are out in all kinds of weather."  

      General Buller was now replaced as Commander in Chief by Lord Robert with Lord Kitchener as Chief of Staff. On January 24 th 1900 General Buller attacked the Boer positions on Spion Kop but the attack failed. The Fusilier Brigade was in reserve and did not take part in this action. The Brigade was in reserve until February 17th  when the Royal Irish Fusiliers captured a small hill on the extreme left of the Boer positions. The next day the 18th accompanied by the Scots Fusiliers they attacked the Boer front line by scaling Green Hill, which they captured suffering only a handful of casualties. The next day the Brigade captured the feature called Hlangwane which had been abandoned by the Boers during the night. However the brigade was under fire throughout the day and the Boers attempted to retake Hlangwane but this counterattack was driven of by the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Edward sent another letter shortly after the battle and sounds an optimistic note as regards the length of the war.

      "...we don't do any more fighting till Ladysmith is relieved again then the war will be nearly all over..."

Edward now comments on the relative strengths of the opposing sides;

      "...there was one big battle since the last battle I wrote to you 1,500 killed and wounded, of the fight England is loosing a terrible lot and the Boers is loosing twice as many as use but England can replace them but the Boers cant'."

      Despite the tactical superiority of the Boer forces, they could not replace their losses, whereas the British have an almost limitless supply of men and materials.

      On February 21st General Buller began to cross the Tugela and after several days of heavy fighting several ridges north of the river were captured though only after the British forces had suffered a large number of casualties.

      On the 27th of February General Buller prepared to capture three key hills Pieter's, Railway and Inniskilling. The Fusilier Brigade was ordered to attack Pieter's. The brigade formed up with The Royal Irish on the left the Royal Scot's on the right and the Dublin Fusiliers behind in support. The order to advance came at noon and the brigade scrambled up 500 feet of rocky hillside and emerging on a flat crest, they then fixed bayonets and charged, captured the nearest Boer positions with a loss of 13 killed and 63 wounded. The Royal Irish were the first to occupy the captured position's. The Scot's came under heavy fire but eventually they also managed to entrench themselves. A prolonged gun battle ensued with the Boers still holding on to the north end of the hill as nightfall approached by which time Railway and Inniskilling Hill's were in British hands. At 6 p.m. three companies of the Royal Irish led by Major F. F. Hill advanced to try and drive off the remaining Boers. They came under a withering fire which resulted in every single officer being killed or wounded. However the Royal Irish hung on and at midnight the Boers retreated. General Buller had at last destroyed the Tugela Line. The battle for the three hills had cost the army 500 casualties, 100 of them were Royal Irish Fusiliers. Edward wrote the following about the battle:  

      "...we are after marching 90 miles in 4 days........1,500 Boers attacked us they came within 15 yards of us shouting hand up and come out you is our turn for the hills we never left where we were, when the Boers had the rocks they would't come out so we are getting our own back. ...we went out to collect the killed we carried in 50 Boers dead and buried them we lost 4 killed and 18 wounded."

      Now Edward tells us of an interesting fact about the battle: 

      "...was part of the Boers Irish Brigade attacked, little new that it was the Irish they had to meet." 

      The next day the garrison at Ladysmith was relieved and the siege was over. The Fusilier Brigade entered Ladysmith on March 3rd. Thus the 2nd Battalion had rescued the remaining two companies of the 1st Battalion. The situation in South Africa was now very promising. General Buller in Natal now had an army 55,000 strong. In the Orange Free State Lord Robert's forces had captured the state capital Bloemfontein on March 13th.

      Meanwhile the Royal Irish had remained in Ladysmith and lost several men from fever and dysentery. Lord Robert's now sent for General Hunter's division which comprised the 5th Brigade and the Fusilier Brigade. The division left on April 14th for Durban by rail and then boarded a ship the "Yorkshire" for Cape Town. Edward in his letters  is unsure of the reason for this:

      " brigade is moving back to Cape Town and then we will go to Cape Colony, but we don't know for what we are going as there is rumours about our brigade going home."

      Edward now writes that he was wounded but gives no indication as to when it occurred………

      "I am sure youse are glad to hear the wound was not much. I may thank God I escaped so lucky the same shell killed a man of the Welsh Fusiliers. I have seen 6 men carried far away with one shell........the wound I got you can't see the mark of it but the least scratch the War Office must let your people know about it."

      …….and gives us some idea of the conditions for the soldiers:

      "...there is a lot of fellows dying out here from enteric fever and dysentery thank god I haven't got any sickness yet..."

      [Both Enteric fever (also known as Typhoid fever) as well as Dysentery are caused by contaminated food or water.]

      Edward's brigade disembarked on the 23rd and began the train journey to Kimberley. The plan of advance was a general move into the Transvaal on a wide front. On the extreme right General Buller was to clear northern Natal while General's Methuen and Hunter were to cross the Vaal on the left and in the centre the main column was to march on Pretoria. The 2nd Battalion now marched with the rest of General Hunters division north from Kimberley and reached the Vaal. On the 4th May they crossed up to their waists in water for 300 yards as there were no bridges in the area. The next day May 5th as they advanced through very thick bush at Rooidam the Boers opened fire on the lead scouts. The British artillery opened fire on the Boer position and the infantry came up as a firing line and eventually drove them off after 10 hours hard fighting. The British lost 9 killed and 39 wounded while the Boers left 30 dead on the field.

      On the 7th General Hunter occupied Fourteen Streams where the railway crosses the Vaal. The Boers now retreated for several miles. Having spent a week at Fourteen Streams and rebuilt the destroyed railway bridge General Hunter advanced on the 15 th along the north bank of the Vaal and on the 16th he entered Transvaal. Meanwhile Mafeking was relieved on May 17th and on the same day the division marched north west out of Transvaal and back towards the railway, which had to be repaired to open communications with Mafeking.

      The division spent two days at Vryburg and then marched back into Transvaal towards Lichtenburg in the north east. The distance between Vryburg and Lichtenburg was 116 miles and the terrain was barren and waterless. Therefore General Hunter had to send his battalions off one at a time, at half day intervals, in order to guarantee even a meager water ration. Food was also scarce and the nights bitterly cold. Nevertheless by the June 3 rd General Bartons Fusilier Brigade had reached Lichtenburg where large numbers of Boer's surrendered. Meanwhile Lord Roberts had captured Pretoria. The division now march south east and by June 14 th was at Potchefstroom having marched 360 miles in a little over five weeks. Edward describes this period to us as follows:

      "...I couldn't answer you letter before this as we had rather hard times of it........we were on the march from the 1st of May till the 3 rd of July 3 months we only got a couple of days when we had to go away again, we marched over 700 miles now and a couple of fights with the Boers. The Boers last position is 50 miles from where we are now they can't go any further they are nearly in the Portuguese territory at present."

      The Brigade was now sent to Johannesburg. From here the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers along with the Royal Fusiliers were ordered to join Major General Hutton at Pretoria. The plan was for General Hutton to drive the Boers from the high ground south east of Pretoria. His force consisted of an infantry brigade, which included the two fusilier battalions, a mounted brigade and 22 artillery pieces. On July 4th the Royal Fusiliers and Royal Irish Fusiliers joined General Hutton's force. During the next week General Hutton's forces gained some ground and by the 16th July about half his force including three companies of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers held a long ridge of high ground known as the Tigerpoort Range. The other half of the force was in reserve. At dawn the Boers commenced an artillery barrage which lasted for three hours, before they launched their attack. The three companies of the Royal Irish were occupying two hillocks, which together with a ridge manned by New Zealanders commanded the Witpoort Pass. The Boers pressed home their attack and forced the New Zealanders to retreat and at one point come close to surrounding and overrunning the 2 nd Battalion's trenches. But the Royal Irish were entrenched in strong positions and stubbornly stood their ground and held on despite being outnumbered by 6 to 1. After six hours of fighting Canadian reinforcements arrived and helped to drive off the Boer attack. The battle had lasted thirteen hours and the 2nd Battalion lost 5 killed and 22 wounded. General Hutton came over the 2nd Battalions positions after the battle to congratulate them on their gallant defence commenting that;

      "…put an Irish man in a tight corner and he will find a way out of it"

       A week later Hutton's force was ordered to take part in a sweeping movement south of the railway. The advance began on the 23rd and by the 25th had marched 68 miles. They were then held up for a day by a storm. However on the 27th they occupied Middelburg, 100 miles from Pretoria. There was a lull in the fighting and the Royal Irish spent a month at Middelburg. The advance was then resumed and by the end of August Machadodorp and Nooitgedacht had been captured and the men of the 1st Battalion had been freed. The 2 nd Battalion now moved into Machadodorp which was to be its home for a whole year. Meanwhile the British forces had completed the invasion of the Boer Republics. However although the Boer forces had been dispersed they had not been beaten. The Boer leaders were determined to continue the war. In January 1901 they launched a series of attacks on the Pretoria-Delagoa line. The

2nd Battalion in the Machadodorp area were responsible for the defence of three hill positions. They had been reinforced by a small number of artillery and cavalry.

      On a dark rainy night of January 7th-8th the Boers attacked the 2nd Battalion's positions. However the Royal Irish held their ground and threw back the Boers. The Battalion lost only two killed and ten wounded. The war continued to drag on with the British building block-houses at regular intervals, Boer civilians were placed in concentration camps, and farm houses were burned down to deny shelter to the enemy. The Boers retaliated by sniping, blowing up railway lines and bridges, and making occasional large scale raids.

       In September 1901 the 2nd Battalion moved out of Machadodorp with a column. In December they were moved to Standerton 120 miles south west of Machadodorp. Edward gives the following account of this movement, the Bortha mentioned was one of the Boers principal commanders:

      "...we have just left Maehadodorp we were there just over twelve months we left it a month yesterday when we left it we joined a column at Wonderfontum we marched from there to Emelo which we burnt down we stopped there a day and then marched back it took us five days going and five days coming back when we got back we were ordered down to Natal as Bortha had got down there we trained it down to Newcastle we started on the march from there but only got about 13 miles when we were ordered back we trained from there to Dundee on our way we passed the famous Majuba and Talana Hills we marched out here, Rooikop, from Dundee it is about thirty two miles we are watching ahead in case Bortha tries to get through again it is a very miserable hole. The trek that we are watching is where our mounted infantry got a cutting up I expect you have seen all about it in the papers, can't say how long we will be here but I expect about six weeks."

      The war continued for a while longer and then in March 1902 peace negotiations began and peace came on May 31st 1902. The war was finally over. The total losses of the 2nd Battalion was as follows:

Killed in action:    

2 officers


40 rank and file

Died of disease  





       Edward tell us of his last few weeks in South Africa:

      "We are expecting to go in a very short time. We have started to pull up all the barbed wire along the Blockhouse line and are expecting to pull down the Blockhouses in a few days time........the Regiment is not going home........we hear for a fact that we are going out to India."

      Edward was not the only Carlowman in the war. In his letters he mentions the following:

      "I met Joe Green after the battle of Colenso....and Paddy Scully of Pollerton and Bohanna too and Jim Bradey and George Murphy of Closh they were all glad to see me." 



by E. Nolan, D. Coy R.I.F.


The Batt. R.I.F. left Colchester on the morning of the 23rd Oct., 1899 by train en route for Southampton, arrived at Southampton and embarked on board the Hawarden Castle at 6 a.m. same date and sailed for South Africa, arrived at Las Palmas 28th … 15th Nov. 1899 … we received a good reception and some presents from people of Durban, we entrained in coaltrucks for Pietermaritzburg where we arrived at 8 p.m. and marched to barracks. 


Dec. 15th – a day that will not likely be forgotten by those that took part in this battle……….. 4 Coys going with the Bde. and 4 with the Naval guns.   We did not go far before the roar of cannon told us we were in for a hot day's work – our Naval guns opened fire first and the Boers replied from 3 or 4 different positions and about 6 a.m. the infantry got into battle formation and advanced the Irish Bde.   in the left and the Fus. Bde. with Lord Dondonalds Bde. on the right.  The Irish Bde. were the first to lose heavily as they were in close formation when the enemy opened fire on them – the day was well on by this time and the heat was getting unbearable and no water to wet our mouths with and after 10 hours hard fighting our troops retired with a loss of 1,147 killed wounded and missing and 10 guns captured – the Boer loss was said to be 2,000.


We have now come to the end of this account of Edward Nolan's service in the Boer War . Below are the medals he received. The clasps indicate the battles/campaigns he took part in.  

South Africa Medal.
Clasps for above:
Cape Colony, Transvaal, Tugela Heights, Relief of Ladysmith. 

King's South Africa Medal.

Clasps for above:

South Africa 1901, South Africa 1901


Letters of Edward Nolan
Boer War casualty lists.
Regimental History Royal Irish Fusiliers.
Public Record Office WO 100 245, WO 100 345


Edward Nolan of the Boer War letters came from the Tullow Street family known as "The Darter Nolan's".  They were not related to the Nolan's, the Horse-Carrier firm, from Burrin Street.

Edward Nolan survived the Boer War and came back to Carlow to live with his sister Nannie in their shop on Tullow Street.

Michael Purcell

Note from Angela Lawson:

My grandfather William Rice served in the Boer War and I wonder if he was ever mentioned in these diaries mentioned above. He was from Carlow. It is said that he took part in a ? military propaganda film during the Boer war where he "wore a bandage and used crutches to limp across a field. Part of the "fee" for doing this was a "slap up meal". If you have any information at all I would be truly grateful to hear from you.

Angela Lawson

Edward Nolan SONG

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