Recently I met with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association in Durrow to deliver a talk about a picture, seen by a member on display at the Ashbrook Arms in the town. This picture we see below is entitled Royal Dublin Fusiliers in Durrow 1899. The following presentation was delivered to the RDFA on Saturday 18th September 2021. Slightly off topic, I also briefly discussed some of the Laois born men who fought in WWI and who died within the ranks of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the battlefield.

The findings show that it wasn’t just the RDF that participated in these vast manoeuvres but a host of many regiments from the British Army who were living in the shadow of defeat since the First Boer War (Dec 16, 1880 – Mar 23, 1881) almost a decade earlier. As war clouds loamed again such activities were essential to finely tune the troop and horse to train for the fight ahead. Based on the experience of the recent unsuccessful campaign in South Africa, where the Boers tactically out manoeuvred the British Army in the field, with a reliance on speed in concentration and attack, and a readiness to withdraw. Manoeuvres on this scale, helped the army to prepare for the engagements which were to follow. Field Marshal Lord Frederick Roberts was present in Durrow during the August 1899 manoeuvres. Whilst at the Blackford Estate near Stradbally in August 1899; he is quoted as saying in the Irish Examiner as follows:

So what detachments were involved in the Kilkenny-Queen’s County Manoeuvres which occurred in early August 1899 as part of the autumn military manoeuvres?
From the sources available there seems to have been a wide array of formations involved. These included the 1st Battalion of the Connacht Rangers, members of the Cheshire Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, 14th Hussars, the dragoons, a detachment of Royal Engineers, 2nd Battalion of the Leinster Regiment, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 3rd Battalion King’s Royal Rifles, the rifle brigade, Yorkshire light infantry, and finally the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, likely represented by both battalions. Incidentally all these units were involved in the Natal Field Force which was reassembled for the Second Boer War which began two months later, on the 11th of October 1899. Lord Roberts the chief commander on the ground at Durrow, was also the overall commander in South Africa later that year. Arguably, manoeuvres here at Durrow were a key prelude to what turned out to be a successful campaign, second time out, a campaign which concluded three years later in 1902!
References to the manoeuvres, can be found in newspaper articles from the period. Assembly day began on Saturday the 5th of August from which they lasted for approximately 2 weeks. For men of the Cheshire’s, things got off to a shaky start when it was reported on the 5th of August in the Freemans Journal that:

 

This was likely the topic of conversation as troops assembled in and around Durrow, and where the men were enjoying the exceptionally warm weather over a game of cricket Presided over by Viscount Ashbrook as reported in the Leinster Express that Saturday:

After the weekend’s assembly, and with a blistering sun on their heads, the serious business of manoeuvres began that week. Two opposing forces, one in red (Northern) and the other in blue (Southern) faced off. The following was reported on the 12th of August in the Leinster Leader:

 

The Leinster Express goes on to explains that the troops were using a new form of transport during the manoeuvres, that of the humble bike:

 

This account evidently shows how military planning for the coming campaign was innovative, focusing on the mobility and fast deployment of troops in a fluid battlefield as experience had shown in the First Boer War.
Another entry from the Freemans Journal describes the scene in and around Durrow on the 14th:
The Red Army Camped at Dunmore Demesne last night, with their furniture and belongs, an army of 5,000 men. The Blue Army Camped as on the proceeding night at Castle Durrow Demesne, the journalist goes on to say:

 

However, the presence of the manoeuvres in the area was seen by some as disruptive and destructive, especially by farmers in the area who resented hundreds of infantrymen and horse treading over their land, breaking down fences and damaging crops which, at this time of the year were due for harvest. Lord Castletown wrote that “the people were well paid for any damage done” but the reality was that the compensation received fell far short. There were also reports of soldiers raiding farmsteads and wells in the area, as in the stifling weather the soldiers as we have seen were literally falling with the thirst. A report in the Leinster from that week read:

 

On the other hand, bakers, butchers, milk producers and so on were very pleased to have the troops in town as their businesses flourished for the two weeks. Bakers worked around the clock and beef was sold by the carcass. Bread for the manoeuvres of 1899 was purchased from Johnny Forestal whose bakery was on the site of the present Durrow pharmacy having been selected as their main bread supplier. He felt justified in erecting a sign on his shop that read “Johnny Forestal Baker by appointment to his majesty’s forces” which however, he was promptly told to remove.
Lord Castletown, local landowner, M.P and soldier was present as a staff Major in Lord Robert’s circle. In his book EGO he refers briefly to the manoeuvres when he states the following:
“I witnessed a rather sad episode during the campaign on the hill behind Durrow called the Ballagh. Of course, all the countryside was out, and Lord Roberts and his staff were standing on the hill. A Kilkenny lady asked me to introduce her to Lord Roberts, which I did. She introduced her two sons who were both going into the army at once. I heard Lord Roberts say I’m afraid they will not see much fighting unless they go out to India, but I am very glad they are to be soldiers. The shadow of the Boer War was even then on the wall and those two boys were destined to die before Christmas – one shot through the head and the other died of typhoid”.

 

Manoeuvres over a bridge at Durrow 1899
Manoeuvres over a bridge at Durrow 1899

To Conclude, the manoeuvres that were held in and around Durrow in 1899, were part of the British military planning for what was to become the Natal Field Force which was deployed to South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The Royal Dublin Fusiliers formed a relatively small contingent within these manoeuvres, which assembled on the 5th of August and continued for approximately two weeks, whilst moving on towards the Curragh. According to sources the Red Army consisted of 5,000 men with the Blue Army being slightly smaller. Significant disruption was caused by this large assembly of men and horse, but it also provided a boost to trade and commerce in the area.

 

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Sinead Holland at the Laois Library Services for pointing me in the right directions in researching this topic. Also, Durrow Facebook Page for some pictures.

References:

O.Brien, Ed. 1992., An Historical and Social Diary of Durrow 1708-1992

www.irishnewsarchive.com

 

Post Author: Laois Archaeology

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