Peter Dunne – Connaught Ranger

This is a story of soldiering in the 19th century, when England ruled nearly half the world with a standing army of approximately 100,000 men.  It was a life; full of action and bravery some of the time, but mostly a life of humdrum boredom, basically a lowly labourer’s life in uniform.

In Ireland in the 19th century the best employer around for the vast majority of the unemployed in Ireland was the British Army.  Providing you were reasonably fit, you had a chance of travelling the world, earning a living wage and being confident of sustained employment for at least seven years and longer if you wanted it.  Irishmen flocked to the colours in all sorts of regiments, certainly into the six southern Irish regiments of the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Regiment, the South Irish Horse and the Prince of Wales Leinster Regiment but also into English regiments, so much so that in the late 19th century it was estimated that 50% of the British Army were Irish, some 50,000 men.  In the army a soldier was fed every day and received a decent level of basic education which was more than was on offer in the civilian world by 1890.  From 1870 to 1890 illiteracy amongst the common soldier declined from 70% to virtually zero.  It almost guaranteed employment once the soldier felt ready for life out of the army.

Into this reasonably cushy existence stepped Peter Dunne in 1888.  Peter had been born in Carlow Town on 1st February 1868 and four days later was baptized in the Cathedral Church of the Assumption in the town.  He would have received a miserly education and would have started in employment at 12 or 13 years of age and he would soon begin to realise what life was about in a really turbulent period of Irish history with 20 years of civil unrest which became known as the Land Wars.

Peter enlisted in the Connaught Rangers and was given the regimental number 3058 and was sent for basic training to  Renmore Barracks in Galway and then posted out to C Company of the 2nd Battalion, who were based in Aldershot in England.  Peter had signed up for seven years in the colours and five years after in the Special Reserve where he would be living a full civilian life and on half army pay as long as he took part in the annual two week Summer Camp.  However in times of national danger and if the Army mobilised he would be called upon and would have to report to regimental headquarters within 24 hours ready for duty.

He did not have to wait long to taste the excitement of Army life because in June 1889, the Khedive of Egypt, Tewfik Pasha, started to get annoyed at British interference in his rule of Egypt and the Sudan.  The 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers were ordered out to put a flea in the Khedive’s ear. On the 13th July Peter and his comrades boarded the troopship The Himalaya bound for Alexandria.  The Battalion as it left England was more or less at full fighting strength with 23 officers and 924 men.

They docked in Malta for re-coaling on 22nd July where the Battalion was given orders to stand fast.  Because of the urgent need for fighting soldiers in Egypt, the Maltese garrison, The Black Watch, a Scottish regiment, had been sent out two weeks previously.  The Connaught Rangers took up quarters at Verdala Barracks and St Clement’s at Cottonera, where they stayed on garrison duty until November 2nd 1989 when four companies moved to Pembroke Camp and the other four to the island of Gozo which is about 6km north west of Malta.

Garrison duty was a mind numbingly boring but necessary part of army life, drilling, washing, polishing and painting, keeping the barracks in extremely clean conditions to ward off any infections.  A thousand men cleaning, sweeping and polishing would soon drive the bugs away and thus prevent contagion.  There was drill and rifle practice and the odd ceremonial duty to perform but even that could not raise any hairs.  During this period and it was noted in the battalion diary, several high ranking visitors complimented the CO on cleanliness including the Duke of Cambridge, the Commander in Chief of the British Army, on his visit to Malta in 1891.  By that time the Battalion had moved back to Verdala Barracks where the drilling, cleaning, sweeping and polishing continued apace.

There was only one bright spot in that year of 1891 when the ship carrying the 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers docked for re-coaling, en route from Aden to Pembroke Dock in Wales.  This was the first and only time the 1st and 2nd Battalions had met since the army reforms of 1880.  The next time was when the decimated 2nd Battalion was incorporated into the decimated 1st Battalion in Northern France in December 1914.  On this occasion from the 1st Battalion only the officers and NCOs came ashore, the men were left shovelling coal.

1892 was very similar to 1890 and 1891 only the Battalion moved to Fort Manoel relieving the 1st Royal West Kents who went home at the end of their tour of duty.  Peter’s Company was moved out to Gozo in September 1892 whilst half the Battalion, in the form of A, D, E and H Companies (13 officers, 2WOs and 527 men) moved to Cyprus to build roads.  B, C, F and G Companies stayed on Gozo for another two years and four months enjoying the weather and the peace of the island but still drilling, cleaning, sweeping and polishing.  The two half battalions eventually joined up in Alexandria in February 1895 where they were again on garrison duty and where the well-controlled Khedive kept his notions to himself.

Peter’s seven year stint in the Army ended in October 1895 never having fired a bullet in anger.  He must have been bored stiff and decided to try his lot in civilian life.  He had obviously made an impression on his senior officers because Major Wood, his Company commander wrote him a reference saying that “I have always found Peter an exceedingly willing and good soldier, always to the front when there was any hard work to be done.  I wish him every success in his efforts to obtain employment in civil life”.

Peter possibly had other ideas has well.  A girl he had met in Carlow prior to enlisting had been sporadically writing to him, a girl from out the country who was in service in the town.  When he returned to Carlow, this friendship grew.  Jane Doyle was the daughter of James and Winifred Doyle, farmers of Boley, a townland in Wicklow, just outside the town of Shillelagh. She was born on 5th April 1868 and had waited patiently for Peter.  They courted and in early 1897 when they were both 29 years old they married and shortly afterwards moved to Dublin where Peter had found work.

They must have thought themselves extremely lucky with Peter in regular work, his savings from the Army and his half pay from the Special Reserve and they settled in Richmond Cottages, a neat little row of houses just off Summerhill near its junction with Gardiner Street.  Soon Jane was pregnant and on 19th June 1898 their daughter Molly was born.

Peter had just completed his two weeks at Summer Camp to fulfil his fourth year in the Special Reserve and he was back home in Dublin and enjoying his almost idyllic life with Jane and little Molly, with Jane again pregnant with their second child, when the bombshell dropped.  The Boer farmers in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal in South Africa rose up for the second time in nine years, declared war on Britain and laid seige to Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley.  The British Army mobilised on 12th october 1899 and the Special Reserve told to report to regimental barracks.  Peter had just entered his last year in the Reserve and he immediately reported to Athlone Barracks where the 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers were in residence, his own Battalion being in India.

Peter and Jane in 1897

His letters home at this time were sad, he was lonely and worrying for poor Jane and Molly and concerned as to whether Jane in her later stages of pregnancy, was receiving money from the Army and asking for a pair of scapulars (a religious keepsake).  Jane might have been poorly in these latter stages and Peter was not receiving much news.  Jane it seems did not start to receive her separation allowance until the Army Pay Office in Galway signed her Army Form D455 on 13th March 1900 four months after Peter had left Ireland bound for South Africa.  She was granted 1s 5d per day (seven pence) plus 6d (two and a half pence) per day deducted from Peter’s pay plus 7s 6d (thirty seven and half pence) per month.  How she existed in all that time is anybody’s guess.  However she did and gave birth to a healthy child, Annie, on 11th December 1899.

532 men of the 1st Battalion were passed fit for duty and they were joined by 332 men who were the pick of the reservists, one of whom was Peter and they entrained for Queenstown where they boarded the SS Bavarian on 10th November 1999.  The only thing of interest that day so the Battalion diary mentions is that one man deserted prior to sailing and he put an underage youth in his place on the boat.  They were three days at sea before this legerdemain was discovered and the youth was disembarked at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands on 14th November.  What happened to him or the deserter is unknown.  The Battalion reached Durban on 1st December where they disembarked and were immediately entrained for Pietermaritzberg where they camped until 5th December and where they discovered that they were under the command of General Redvers Buller, one of the most inept generals the British Army ever produced.

Norman Dixon in his book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence says of Buller “…General Buller… failed miserably.  Irresolute from the outset, the three defeats at Magersfontein, Stamberg Junction and Colenso sapped whatever confidence he had.  From being weak and fearful, he became a veritable jelly of indecision. His plans became vague and indefinite and his specific orders scarcely more enlightening.  His lack of moral courage in the face of adversity revealed itself most clearly in his propensity for making scapegoats of his subordinates”.  He was eventually drummed out of the Army in 1901 but not before Spion Kop.

The 5th Brigade moved to Frere Camp on 7th December with the Connaughts were the 1st Enniskilling Fusiliers, the 1st Border Regiment and the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, none of them knowing what kind of incompetent was making decisions for them.  Buller’s force consisted of 706 officers and 18672 men.  On 15th December 1899, when Annie his daughter was just four days old, Peter had his baptism of fire when Buller ordered them to cross the Tugela River, just south of Colenso against a well-fortified Boer position.  Buller as usual did not realise the strength or position of the enemy and the Rangers lost 28 officers and men, 110 wounded and 12 taken prisoner and in all, the Brigade lost 525 men killed, wounded or missing.  It must have come as an awful shock to Peter after soldiering for 11 years without any conflict at all.  The whole force retreated back to Frere Camp where it remained until January 10th 1900

On the 12th December Peter must have learnt of Jane’s impecunious state in Dublin but not knowing of Annie’s birth and he sent her a letter enclosing five shillings, all he had, because as he said “we get no pay in the front line, we are about eight miles from the enemy and this five is no good to me here, we can get nothing to buy with it”.

They eventually crossed the Tugela River, which meandered all over the country south of Colenso and formed a major obstacle in their thrust north to Ladysmith.  There followed nearly five weeks of sporadic fighting back and forth over the Tugela until the town of Colenso was finally entered on the 20th February.  Seven more days of intensive combat occurred as the Brigade eventually relieved Ladysmith on the 28th February.

During this time they had confronted the Boers at Spion Kop, a 1400 feet high lump of rock that could easily have been by-passed on route for Ladysmith but Buller and his subordinate generals decided that this rock had to be captured, a decision that ranks as one of the British Army’s worst.  Peter had the good fortune for his company (C Company) to be kept in reserve whilst the Brigade lost 68 officers and 976 men who were listed as killed, missing or wounded attempting this foolhardy mission.  This loss amounted to 23% of the attacking force before Buller and his generals decided to withdraw.

They set up camp just north of Ladysmith and awaited the Boers next move. Battle hardened Peter was able to relax for a few days.   He would by now know of Annie’s birth and would be rejoicing at the happy event.  In camp Peter picked up a bug, probably from infected water and he was put into a military hospital outside of Ladysmith called Hyde’s Farm along with a few other soldiers who had contracted this fever.  He died there of enteric or typhoid fever on the 10th April 1900 and he is commemorated on the Ladysmith Memorial which is in the grounds of All Saints Anglican Church on Murchison Street in the town. On it are the names of 66 Connaught Rangers who fought and died in the Relief of Ladysmith.

So that was the end of Peter after seven years of peaceful boredom in the colours and four good years in the Special Reserve, four months of eventful army life in South Africa and three happy years of married life.  He was smitten with a disease he could have picked up anywhere.

Queen’s South Africa Medal

In 1901 Peter posthumously received the Queens Medal for service in the South African War with clasps for Tugela Heights and The Relief of Ladysmith.  Exactly like the medal in the picture shows.  Scant consolation for the family, life went on and Jane with the two little girls had to manage.  The two girls had a good Dublin upbringing and eventually became school teachers.   Annie served with the Cumann na mBan, the female version of the Irish Volunteers and did sterling work in the War of Independence 1919-1921.  Jane, who never re-married, spent years in very menial work and it took its toll as this picture, taken around 1910 shows.

Jane Dunne in 1910

On the 5th September 1934 Annie married a member of the Garda Siochana, William Kavanagh.  William had been a member of the IRA in the War of Independence and had served time in Mountjoy, Wormwood Scrubs and Dartmoor.  He was in the anti-treaty forces during the Civil War and had stood in the Four Courts with Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellowes, but all that is another story to be told elsewhere.  Their marriage certificate shows they were married at the chapel of University College Dublin where Annie was in residence at the time and where the bride’s father’s profession was proudly put down as soldier.  Peter was never to be forgotten.

Eventually in the late 1940 Jane and Molly pooled their resources and did what was almost unheard of in those days: bought a house and moved to 12 Carlisle Street in Portobello off the South Circular Road in Dublin where Jane died on 24th June 1944, aged 76.  She had been 44 years a widow.

The married couple, Annie and William, eventually rented the house next door to Jane and Molly, 10 Carlisle Street to emphasise the family’s closeness and unable to have a family of their own, adopted a little girl, Maura.  Here are the family gathered in 1968, 100 years after Peter’s birth, with the two daughters of a Connaught Ranger, Molly and Annie, seated and William Kavanagh and Maura behind.  Maura is holding her two year old daughter Vivian to whom we are indebted for much of this family’s history.  Annie died age 80 on 13th May 1980 and Molly followed on 15th February 1983 aged 86.  Two ladies born into tragic circumstances but who lived to tell the tale, our bridge between a time of Empire, glory, poverty and Irish Independence and almost to the present day.  Has there been much improvement in all that time?  At least we have a memory of brave men and women and times past.

One thought on “Peter Dunne – Connaught Ranger

  1. Thanks for the information as my grandfather James Carty 5912 served at the same time as Peter he ended with the rank of Sergeant. James Carty purchased his discharge and stayed in South Africa. He joined the police force in Port Elizabeth and changed his name to James Joseph Carthy. He died on the 12th December 1908 also from a fever. Do you by any chance know if there were any photos of the Connaught Ranger in South Africa?
    I have his Queen and King’s medals with bars for Tugela Heights, the Relief of Ladysmith, Transvaal, Orange Free State and Cape Colony.
    Thanks Mike McCarthy

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