PALMYRA SQUARE IS a delightful rectangular piazza in the heart of Warrington in Cheshire. I use the word ‘piazza’ because the English word ‘square’ includes many squares which are anything but square. The centre of this open space is filled with the pleasant Queen’s Gardens, the Queen in the name being Victoria. It was near the end of her reign that the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (‘Boer War’; 1899-1902), a bloody conflict between the British Empire and the Dutch speaking colonists in what is now South Africa, occurred. In the middle of the eastern half of Palmyra Square there is the statue of a man in a helmet carrying a rifle in his left hand. His right arm points forward, as does his right index finger. The other fingers of his right hand clutch a pair of binoculars. He is wearing knee high boots, standing on a sculpture of a rock, and dressed in an old-fashioned military uniform. As soon as I saw this statue, I guessed (from the style of the uniform) it was connected the Boer War, and when I looked at the plinth upon which the military figure is perched, I discovered that I was right.
The monument was unveiled by General Sir Redvers Henry Buller (1839-1908), in the year before his death. Buller commanded British forces in South Africa during the Boer War. The man depicted on the plinth is Lieutenant Colonel MacCarthy O’Leary (1849-1900). He was killed on the 27th of February 1900 whilst leading men of his regiment (The South Lancashire) during the Battle of Pieters Hill. Richard Danes in his “Cassell’s History of the Boer War” (published 1901) pointed out that the 27th of February was Majuba Day, which was when the British were soundly beaten by the Boers at the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881. The battle at Pieters Hill, which led to a British victory, facilitated the opening of the road to Ladysmith, which was being besieged by the Boer forces. An informative website (www.alamy.com/stock-photo-statue-of-lt-col-william-mccarthy-oleary-in-queens-gardens-warrington-54385554.html) revealed:
“The Regiment drew many of its recruits from the then-South Lancashire town of Warrington, where Colonel O’Leary was very well known. When the town erected a memorial to the men of the Regiment who died during the war, it chose to feature a sculpture of Colonel O’Leary on campaign in South Africa.”
The statue was sculpted by Edward Alfred Briscoe Drury (1856-1944). Amongst his many other creations is the South Africa Gate on The Mall in London.
The plinth upon which O’Leary stands forever motionless bears a large plaque on which the many members of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the South Lancashire Regiment, who died during the Boer War, are recorded. These include a few officers and too many men of lower rank. Another plaque records the campaigns in which the regiment was involved. Apart from Pieters Hill, these were: Spion Kop, Vaal Krantz, Colenso Kopjes, Tugela Heights, Relief of Ladysmith, Botha’s Pass, Laings Nek; and the occupations of Wakkerstroom, Utrecht, and Vryheid. In other words, they took part in most of the important struggles during the Boer War.
The monument stands in a peaceful square in a small town, once in Lancashire but now in Cheshire, just about 400 yards from the River Mersey. As I stood looking at it during an unusual heatwave when the air temperature was between 35 and 37 degrees Celsius, I wondered how the brave men recorded on the plinth, who would have been encumbered with military equipment and inappropriate uniforms, managed to keep on going during the hot weather that they would have encountered whilst struggling against the Boers in the south of Africa.