Edward Synnott O’Reilly (1880-1946), universally called “Tex” by those who knew him, would enjoy a career that not just saw him fight as a soldier and mercenary but also work as a journalist, teacher, script writer and movie star. Though his work as a writer would raise questions over many aspects of his story as he told it and there is controversy over the truth of some of the claims he makes on his achievements, there can be no doubt that his extensive travels as a soldier for hire led him to have some remarkable experiences.

Born in Texas in 1880, O’Reilly was raised in a nomadic style aboard a covered wagon as his family moved around the Western States following his father’s work building jailhouses. When there was no work the family would return to their ranch outside of San Saba, Texas. The lifestyle meant that O’Reilly would grow up with physical hardship, riding and shooting as natural parts of life. The tough lifestyle of the ‘Wild West’ also meant that he was no stranger to sudden violence and death. In his biography ‘Born to Raise Hell’, co-written with Lowell Thomas – whose coverage turned T.E. Lawrence into the legendary Lawrence of Arabia – he recalls how as a child he was sent to the butchers to buy meat by his mother only to be caught in the middle of a gun  battle between warring gangs. ‘Seven men were killed in about a minute…That was the first time I was ever under fire and I can remember those bullets whistling past my ears,’ O’Reilly said (Thomas, p.21).

Worried by the rudimentary schooling their children were receiving at their hands O’Reilly’s parents decided to move the family to Chicago. It was here in 1898 that, by his own admission caught up in the media-fuelled uproar following the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbour, he enlisted in the US Army to fight against the Spanish in Cuba as a war duration volunteer. Only seventeen at the time O’Reilly had to lie about his age so as to avoid his parents vetoing his recruitment.

Enrolled in Company B of the 4th Infantry Regiment he soon found that the glory that he aspired to which had encouraged his joining was not immediately obvious, being set to peeling potatoes. He wrote that ‘…we were learning the lesson that a rooky is by tradition a humorous animal and is permitted to exist for the sole purpose of entertaining the old soldiers.’ However he would consider himself lucky to be placed in a company in which his captain, Henry Robinson, always remained his ideal of an army officer and the NCO’s were tough professionals with years of experience in fighting in the Indian Wars. He also found a mentor who guided him through the intricacies of military life, Pete Goorskey, an old soldier who became O’Reilly’s ‘bunky’. Tex described that the relationship between ‘bunkies’ was: ‘…one who shares your blankets, your grub, and on the march carries half your “pup” tent. He is your partner in all things…Pete and I became attached by the closest ties of intimate friendship.’(O’Reilly, pp.8-9)

After conducting training at Fort Sheridan O’Reilly’s regiment moved to Tampa where more training was undertaken in storming fortified positions before embarking for Cuba. Marching inland the Americans had to deal with clouds of mosquitoes – whose attentions would result in far more casualties from malaria and yellow fever than did the fighting – and a complete breakdown in their logistics. So bad was the situation that O’Reilly refers to the rations they were issued – the infamous “embalmed beef” that would result in multiple deaths from food poisoning, creating a scandal and post war Court of Inquiry – as ‘a slimy, ill-smelling mess, disgusting in appearance and fatal in effect’ and recalled that when they finally went into action in the Battle of El Caney he witnessed Pete Goorskey fight another trooper for half a canteen of water whilst exposed to heavy fire from the Spanish defences.

This battle sums up much about a war that was planned by a military inexperienced in modern warfare and was still expecting to fight as it had in its last major conflict – the Civil War of almost forty years previous. As a result the Americans launched frontal attacks on prepared positions manned by troops equipped with the excellent Mauser rifle and supported by modern artillery, only carrying the day due to their eleven-to-one superiority in numbers and the courage of the American soldiers who made their assaults up the steep hills.

O’Reilly’s recollections of the Battle of El Caney, fought on the 1st of July, 1898, vividly describe the utter chaos that the battle degenerated into: ‘I ran up that hill till I couldn’t breathe. It was hot as Hades and we were weighed down by our heavy uniforms…I was so dizzy I couldn’t see where I was going. The Spaniards were shelling us all to pieces…Our canteens were empty; we hadn’t been able to get any water. Suddenly I came to a long trench full of Spaniards. I was so exhausted I stumbled and dropped my gun.

‘A Spanish soldier just below me raised his gun and threw a cartridge in. I was trying to get to my feet, but there wasn’t time. He pulled the gun down on me, and out of nowhere a [black soldier] leaped into the air and clubbed him on the head with the butt of a rifle. The bullet missed me. The [soldier] went on over the trench and into the fighting beyond…Just below me in the trench was a young Spaniard, a kid of my own age…standing there with his hands up…[carrying] a canteen. I jumped down into the trench beside him and grabbed it. That was the finest drink I ever had.’

‘The kid asked me if I had any food. I handed over my [rations] and tipped up the canteen again. He was wolfing down the food, and I was emptying his canteen, and we stood there together looking out across the valley, watching the dismounted Rough Riders going over San Juan Hill.

‘A sergeant came along the edge of the trench and yelled down at me: “Bring your prisoner over here!”

‘Then I realized the kid was my prisoner. I hadn’t thought of it before.’ (Thomas, pp.28-9)

After the battles of San Juan and El Caney the Americans advanced upon the hills around Santiago, during which O’Reilly states he never saw a Spaniard though he and his fellows were constantly under fire from the surrounding jungle. Shortly after the American troops took the ridges overlooking the city they were treated to the noise of heavy gunfire coming from out to sea as the two belligerents fleets fought the decisive naval action of the war, the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.

O’Reilly and the other Americans were keenly aware that should the Spanish prevail then they would all be cut off in a hostile land with almost no supplies and face certain death or capture. Fortunately for them the U.S. Navy both outmatched and outclassed their opponents and won a decisive victory.   This was shortly followed by the surrender of the Spanish on Cuba and though the fighting was done the 4th Regiment would spend another uncomfortable month in the country dealing with mosquitoes, disease and hunger. O’Reilly states that men fought over a box of hardtack biscuit as though it were a box of gold dollars.

Returning to the United States the regiment were, much to O’Reilly’s disgust, issued with a tropical khaki uniform just in time for the freezing winter. Despite this and his low opinion of the army’s organizational skills O’Reilly had become used to the camaraderie of the military and when offered the choice of being discharged or sailing to the newly ‘liberated’ Philippines as part of the occupational forces posted there he immediately agreed to extend his enlistment to a full term and go with his regiment.

O’Reilly’s unit sailed for Manila in January, 1899, via the Suez Canal – the first American troops to ever cross the Atlantic – and it was whilst anchored at Colombo in February that the men learnt that fighting had broken out between the Philippines and their former American allies. Landing in Manila O’Reilly found himself put into a confused situation where the Americans were trying to establish dominance over a population that had suffered under generations of foreign dominance and had no desire to continue the experience.

The 4th Regiment soon found itself fighting in Manila to drive out the insurgents and then in pursuing the retreating Filipino army up into the surrounding mountains. They were then posted to the town of Imus in Cavite province, heartland of the independence movement, and charged with securing the area. This was the start of a year of what O’Reilly described as ‘desperate fighting’. On the first morning of the regiment’s arrival in the town, 19 June 1899, they became involved in a fierce battle when ordered to advance upon the town of Dasmarinas, some eight-miles away. According to O’Reilly the American column, composing a reduced battalion of just over two hundred men, walked straight into a trap and found themselves completely enclosed by a circuit of several thousand Filipinos who lay down heavy rifle fire from the surrounding countryside.

Exposed on the open road the unit’s officers ordered the column to retreat to an area where banked sides along the track would provide some cover for the men and their rapidly mounting wounded. Whilst falling back O’Reilly looked over his shoulder and saw a wounded soldier lying in the surrounding paddy fields and rushed back to save him. Hoisting him onto his back O’Reilly tried to rejoin his comrades but was cut off by a number of rebels armed with bolos, the fearsome Filipino machete. Dropping the injured man O’Reilly shot the first assailant but was then reduced to using his bayonet to defend himself. As he put it:

‘There wasn’t time to know what was happening. Half a dozen of them were chopping at me with bolos, and I was automatically going on with my bayonet…There was one second I couldn’t move; an arm held me around the neck, and I saw one of them aiming at me…For some reason he missed, the powder burned the side of my face and I got loose and was at it again…That was the hottest hand-to-hand fight I was ever in. All knife and bayonet work, bloody business. It seemed to last for hours, but it was only a few minutes. Somebody saw us and Captain Andrus and a dozen men came running back. They took the fight off my hands…I didn’t get a scratch, but there were thirty-two bolo cuts on my gun,’ (Thomas, pp.45-6) O’Reilly would always claim that he was nominated for the Medal of Honor for this action, but if so he never received it and there is no official confirmation of such a recommendation.

Despite returning to the comparative safety of his company the battle was far from resolved and the column was forced into a tight perimeter after several attempts to break out failed. It was in one of these that O’Reilly’s close friend and bunkmate, Pete Goorskey, was killed from a shot to the head. He had forty days remaining on his enlistment. When the firing had started he had cheerfully told O’Reilly that as the man with the shortest time on his term in the company he was bound to be killed.

Cut off and in desperate straits the Americans continued to fight for another five hours until almost all of their ammunition was spent, causing one of O’Reilly’s colleagues to remark that he ‘wouldn’t be surprised if this here would be another Custer affair.’ Fixing their bayonets the Americans watched the Filipinos marshalling for another attack before ‘a weird screech sounded over our heads…It was Riley’s Battery and a column coming to our relief. We were too weary to cheer,’ (O’Reilly, p.95)

The action, not considered much more than a skirmish by history books, resulted in eight Americans killed and thirty-two wounded. The Filipino casualties are unknown. But wars have always consisted of these savage little battles which can all be summed up in O’Reilly’s assessment of the action: ‘The fight for Dasmarinas may seem insignificant. To those who took part in it, it seemed hot enough.’

Shortly after this battle O’Reilly transferred to Lowes Scouts, a special unit that was formed to provide intelligence and reconnaissance. In practice the unit acted in a similar role to that of modern day Special Forces by recruiting local volunteers, training and working with them and laying the ground work for what would later become the famous Philippine Scout’s. O’Reilly records that he stayed with the unit for the rest of his enlistment because being in the Scouts meant that ‘we didn’t miss a thing’. He also, as the youngest volunteer in the unit at nineteen, was greatly impressed by the other volunteers, all experienced soldiers and adventurers who ranged from infamous gun slingers from the Old West, Indian War scouts, big game hunters and mercenaries from all over the world.

O’Reilly’s time with the Scouts would see him fight in a number of pitched battles as well as undergoing extreme hardship on long patrols with his Filipino soldiers. On one occasion whilst crossing a bridge over the Pampanga river in advance of an attack he realized that a case of dynamite, fuse already lit, was set to explode under his feet and bring down the bridge with the American soldiers on it. Clambering down in an attempt to disarm the explosive he realised he had lost his knife in the fight and, running out of time, bit through the fuse, badly burning his mouth in the process. O’Reilly laconically observed that anybody with good teeth would have done the same in his place.

He also claimed to have witnessed the death of the Filipino general Gregorio del Pilar  at the Battle of Tirad Pass. Del Pilar, now a national hero in the Philippines, had been tasked with leading the rearguard for the Filipino army as it retreated northwards and for five hours he and sixty men fought valiantly against overwhelming odds to hold off the Americans, fighting ‘like wildcats’ as O’Reilly assessed it. Spotting the general on horseback at extreme range the scouts began to fire; a hopeless task in O’Reilly’s opinion as the range was at least eighteen hundred yards. However, one of the unit was ‘…one of the finest shots in the army. He lay down and set the sights of on his rifle …and with his second shot he knocked General del Pilar out of the saddle…It was the most spectacular thing I ever saw; almost incredible, but I saw it done,’ (Thomas, p.60)

Injured in the ankle in a fight outside of Santa, O’Reilly was detailed to escort prisoners back to the United States. Even this simple task did not go quietly and he found himself embroiled in ‘the Battle of Nagasaki’, a forty-eight hour brawl between French and British sailors from visiting warships which resulted in a dozen deaths. On the return trip word was received that the Boxer Rebellion had broken out in China and that the foreign legations were besieged. O’Reilly’s guard unit, already in Japan, was sent to China to form part of the growing ‘Eight-Nation Alliance’ multinational task force to suppress the Boxers and secure the colonial nations own interests.[1]

Landing just after the relief of Tientsin in July, 1900, O’Reilly was assigned as an orderly at a new supply depot set up to support American troops as part of the alliance. Ordered to contact the US 9th Infantry to obtain transport O’Reilly set off alone across the paddy fields outside Tientsin, unaware that the Russian unit that the 9th was to relieve had already withdrawn and that he was walking straight into the advancing Chinese. Shot in his still injured leg by the advance Chinese scouts, O’Reilly crawled and limped into a deserted hut and prepared to make a fight out of it. As he waited he spotted coming down the road towards him what turned out to be an American doctor who patched up his leg and, refusing to leave O’Reilly, together they tried to retreat back to the American lines.

Under fire from several hundred pursuing Chinese troops they were forced to take cover in another hut where they found four Russian soldiers looting. ‘They were big, yellow-bearded fellows, drunk and dirty,’ O’Reilly wrote. ‘We could not talk to them, but they could see what was up. They motioned us to go on, and they spread out across the road and lay down, and opened up on the Chinese…The Russians stuck there, held up the Chinese, and fought till every one of them was killed. They stuck it out, four against about two hundred,’ (Thomas, p.104)

O’Reilly’s injury meant that he was out of the fighting in China and he returned to the Philippines for the rest of his enlistment. There he found himself bored with the inaction. A serious case of malaria and dysentery saw him spend time in hospital before his enlisted time expired and he took ship back to San Francisco.

At this point wanderlust got the better of him and he disembarked in Kobe, Japan, to see some of the country. Never one to miss an opportunity he ended up helping to start an English language school and running the Kobe Seaman’s Mission for a Church of England rector. His career as an agent of the Lord only lasted a week before, having kicked out a drunken British sailor, he found himself in a confrontation with a dozen of the miscreant’s colleagues. With his typical dry humour O’Reilly described how: ‘…one of them was just attacking our bookcase…He yanked out a bible and let it drive at my head, and I was never so struck with the Word of God in my life.’ O’Reilly was forced to fire warning shots from his old army revolver to restore order, after which the sailors proceeded to tear up the cobbles in the street outside and smash up the front of the mission. O’Reilly was subsequently fired and thus ended, as he put it, ‘my only experience as a missionary,’ (Thomas, pp.111-2).

Bored of Japan he signed on as a sailor on a vessel bound for Liverpool, but jumped ship in Shanghai. Destitute, his good fortune held and he ran into two old comrades from the Scouts, Frank O’Leary and Hector MacDonald, who had been recruited to form a bodyguard for the Emperor of Korea under the redoubtable mercenary captain Bill Young. The true purpose of the ‘bodyguard’ was to form a training cadre to help develop a modern Korean army. Alarmed at the rise of an aggressive Japan and the defeat of China in the First Sino-Japanese war (1894-5) the Koreans had implemented a rapid modernisation program to try to counter the threat, a forlorn hope as the country would be annexed by Japan in less than ten years.

The sixty-strong mercenary company, all experienced combat veterans, departed from Shanghai but upon arrival at the Korean port of Inchon they were informed that their services were no longer required. O’Reilly states that he believed that the Japanese, whose influence was already strong in the peninsula, had pressured the Korean Emperor to discharge the unit. After discussions between themselves Bill Young declared that they would not accept this, that his men had a contract and that they would await orders from the Emperor. The mercenaries then posted themselves in a hotel in the port and converted it into their barracks.

The situation, according to O’Reilly, put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons. After disarming and chasing away local police sent to remove them the mercenaries had representatives from the Great Powers call on them, insisting they leave Korea immediately. When warned that the Japanese would land marines to expel them Young retorted: ‘Go ahead. We’ll fight them’. After two weeks of threats it was agreed that the mercenaries would be paid the wages they had been promised for their year’s contract. These were issued as cheques that could only be cashed in Shanghai, and the mercenaries all departed back to China.

This windfall soon ran through O’Reilly’s hands and after a brief spell as a bouncer in a Chinese theatre he joined the Shanghai Municipal Police. This force had been established to enforce the laws in the Shanghai International Settlement, a self-governing area of the city which was controlled by nationals from the international powers. O’Reilly served for ten months with the SMP and had a number of adventures that he details in his autobiographies, along with the brutal realities of Shanghai at that time, but of particular note were his experiences in what he calls ‘The Penny War of Shanghai’. Any goods to be transported through the city were carried in wheelbarrows pushed by coolies. O’Reilly states that these men could move a load that horses and cart couldn’t and that the sheer physical exertion of this job soon killed those engaged in it, who lived perpetually on the edge of starvation so low were the wages paid to them. Most had to rent the barrows they used, not even being able to afford the costs of this simple tool.

So when the city council decided that it was to increase the tax it charged for the hire of barrows from two pence to three pence a day it proved the straw that broke the camels back. As O’Reilly put it: ‘Why in the world it was done I don’t know. A penny a day could not mean much to the city, but it was the coolie’s whole profit. It meant that he couldn’t go on living at all.’ The coolies went on strike and began a rampage that lasted for forty-eight hours. All of the SMP officers were called out to try to restore order and pitched fighting broke out: ‘For two days we fought that crazy mob. They came down as if without fear. Although scores were knocked down by policemen’s clubs, they continued to charge straight at the line.’

Nor was all the damage solely inflicted on the Chinese. ‘I was doing the best I could in the melee, according to the methods laid down in the book of rules, when something sailed through the air and struck me on the head. For a time I took a rest in the gutter, while a kind friend bandaged my head and told me that my wound couldn’t possibly be as bad as it looked,’ O’Reilly wrote with typical dry humour (O’Reilly, pp.220-1). The fighting stopped immediately when ‘someone in authority had a brilliant idea’ and revoked the tax.

O’Reilly was then approached to form and train a unit of soldiers to act as the bodyguard of the Toatai of Jiangsu province, an important Chinese official in the region. The Toatai had apparently watched the various foreign military contingents stationed in the canton at drill and had been most impressed by the US marines. He had thus asked the city council to provide him with an ex-American soldier to form his new army. O’Reilly went to the task with a will, designing a modern uniform for the soldiers and acting as officer, sergeant, drill instructor and weapons trainer. Given a thousand men he picked one hundred and twenty-eight to form a company in the standard American model and drilled them rigorously. Unable to pick up the Mandarin language he taught his men to respond to basic commands and whistles. The efficiency of his new unit meant O’Reilly was soon engaged in travelling around China as part of the Empress Dowager’s reestablishment of order in the wake of the Boxer Uprising.

It was at this time that O’Reilly states that he met the military strategist and writer Homer Lea. Lea, who had come to China during the Boxer Rebellion to help train soldiers for the Pao Huang Hui reform movement, was a self-taught expert on military matters, an ardent Sinophile and would become a close advisor to Sun Yat Sen, the man who would become the first president of the Republic of China when the Imperial order fell in 1911. O’Reilly was much impressed by Lea, who at 5’ 3” and a hunchback with frail health was almost the reverse of the 6’4” Texan, and O’Reilly claims that he and Lea used to disagree about the suitability of Sun Yat Sen as a future leader of China.  Whether there is any truth in this is difficult to conclude (much like many of O’Reilly’s stories) but O’Reilly did state that Lea was ‘…the greatest man I ever knew’ (Thomas, p.148). O’Reilly certainly took away from his time in China a powerful impression of the potential of the nation and prophetically wrote that: ‘When she shakes off the yoke of grafting politicians, China will play a leading role in the world’s history,’ (O’Reilly, p.232)

O’Reilly had hoped that the Chinese would authorise the expansion of his unit to a battalion and then a regiment, with a corresponding increase in his own rank. By 1902 he had become disillusioned with the failure of this plan and decided to return to the States. After various misadventures, which saw him robbed of his possessions, forced to ride freight trains and waiter at restaurants for a meal, he finally arrived back in Chicago where he found that after five years at war and travel which had seen him circumnavigate the globe he had a total of twenty-five cents in his pockets, ten more than he had left with. He subsequently got his first journalist job with the Chicago Tribune and worked as a police reporter for a year before his wanderlust got the better of him once again and he took a job as a travelling book seller.

At the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 he ran into an old army buddy and was told that a mercenary army was being organised in New Orleans to depose President Cipriano Castro of Venezuela. O’Reilly was subsequently hired as a machine gunner and states that in 1905 he was dispatched with other mercenaries, including Giuseppe “Peppino” Garibaldi, grandson of the famous Italian revolutionary. He also states that this was the revolution lead by General Matos, a wealthy Venezuelan. This is patently false as Matos’ rebellion occurred in 1902-3 and had been defeated after heavy fighting that took months to resolve. It seems more likely, given his description of the fighting and timescale, that if O’Reilly was involved in one of the abortive insurrections against Castro it was the 1907 affair led by General Parades (which may also have been the same conflict that Charles Sweeny was involved in).

O’Reilly and the other mercenaries smuggled themselves into Caracas in dribs and drabs where they made contact with local sympathisers. From there they moved into the interior of the country to meet up and join with the Venezuelan rebel army that was forming up. O’Reilly records that he was appointed as Chief of Artillery and commissioned as a Major in the rebel army but that this was meaningless as he had under his charge a total of one well-worn Colt machine gun of dubious reliability. An additional machine gun had no breech and an old smooth bore cannon was supplied with balls that were too big to fit its muzzle, rendering both useless.

After a few days of frantically training his machine gun team, which consisted of ten locals and a Scottish sailor who was permanently drunk, the rebel army was split into three columns and ordered to march for the town of La Victoria. Greeted outside the town by a commission of local leaders they were hailed warmly and told to proceed into the town. It was a trap. Castro’s Federal troops, assisted according to O’Reilly by turncoat rebels from the other columns, were hidden in the houses on either side of the road into town and as the column straggled into town it suddenly received a close range mass of fire from either side.

Chaos reined as men desperately tried to fight back and were cut down in their hundreds by rifle fire and machetes. O’Reilly’s little troop dismounted their heavy gun from their pack horse and commenced covering fire into the federal troops. A savage running battle developed as gangs of men fought hand to hand, the rebels trying to flee back to the jungle with the federals close on their heels. After having to move his gun three times O’Reilly found that his assistants had had enough and decamped, abandoning him with a thirty-five pound machine gun on his back, now useless as the tripod and remaining ammunition had gone with the rest of the team. Dumping his redundant load down a well O’Reilly quickly followed them.

Out in the jungles the insurrectionists led hunted lives as the army tracked down and killed any it could find. O’Reilly found himself moving from village to village in a desperate attempt to avoid the attentions of the soldiers and bounty hunters, keen to pocket the nine hundred dollar price on his head. Deciding that it was only a matter of time before he was tracked down and killed or captured O’Reilly decided to make a break for Caracas, reasoning that the authorities were unlikely to be looking for him there. Travelling for four nights with a Venezuelan officer he could trust they eventually made it to Caracas where O’Reilly made contact with a rebel sympathiser who had facilitated his entry into the country. The rebel, understandably, was deeply alarmed at the appearance of the bedraggled American in his shop, even more so when O’Reilly made it plain that if he was captured he would be sure to let the authorities know just how deeply the man had been  involved.

This persuasive method soon bore fruit as the rebel made arrangements within days for O’Reilly’s departure from the country and he soon found himself back in New Orleans. From here he returned to San Antonio, married and worked as a journalist and editor. His sense of adventure however was still strong and he crossed the Mexican border to report on fighting between federal forces and rebels in 1908 and is alleged to have been involved in insurrections in Honduras and Nicaragua. He also in 1909 was dispatched on horseback to carry an invitation from the Governor of Texas to President Taft to visit the State, a publicity stunt to attract attention from potential investors and a record ride still commemorated by the Long Riders Guild. O’Reilly rode the 1700 miles from San Antonio to Chicago and delivered his message in full ‘Wild West’ regalia at the West Side baseball park in front of a crowd there to watch the Chicago Cubs play the New York Giants.

O’Reilly on his epic ride

O’Reilly was in San Antonio in 1910 shopping when he heard news that revolution had broken out in Mexico. Popular dissatisfaction with the autocratic dictator of the country, Porfirio Díaz, had finally broken out in full scale rebellion under the leadership of Francisco Madero. O’Reilly knew Madero[2] and had friends in Mexico who had risen in rebellion and his sympathies naturally fell with them. He contacted the Associated Press and was appointed their correspondent on the border and on Boxing Day 1910 joined with a small party of Mexicans who crossed the Rio Grande and set about trying to recruit volunteers for the Maderista cause. After a couple of weeks of roving the countryside and gathering recruits the party had reached forty volunteers and had hoped to join with more rebels that were supposed to gather near the border. These failed to show and half the men were sent out to gather horses from nearby ranches and try to find information on what had happened to the main force.

At this point a Federal column, composed of regular cavalry and the feared rurales militia, was spotted closing on the rebel camp. Two men were sent out to get help leaving just eighteen Maderista’s to face around one hundred and fifty soldiers. The rebels spread out in ambush along the top edge of a stream, giving them a good position and cover looking down onto the plain across which the federales were moving towards them. O’Reilly took up position on the end of the line at a point where the water had cut a sheer sandbank some fifteen feet high. When the federal troops got to within two hundred yards the Maderistas opened fire and the rurales charged them. The militia men, made up of hard men and bandits that had been bought off by Diaz and brutally enforced the law as they saw fit, got to within forty yards of the rebel position before breaking under their fire. The federal cavalry, now on foot, subsequently charged.

O’Reilly was behind a mesquite bush firing into the mass of men when the bank which he was on suddenly collapsed under his weight, dropping him into the river bed in full view of the federales. His Winchester rifle landed on his head, gashing his scalp and knocking him senseless for a few seconds, only to come too with ‘…the sand all around me literally boiling with bullets.’ Grabbing his rifle he had to run down the stream under heavy fire from the enemy soldiers to find a place where he could scramble back into cover. Before he managed this however his stock whip tangled in his legs and he fell flat on his face, allowing the troops to continue their target practice. Thinking he had now been hit twice O’Reilly scrambled up onto the bank and set about trying to find the find extent of his wounds, only to find that apart from a numb shoulder from his drop he only had a cut on his head where his rifle’s foresight had clobbered him. Gathering his wits he went back into action with the other rebels, whereupon he was promptly shot through the leg.

The fight boiled on for the rest of the day and at nightfall the soldiers fell back into the prairie and set up camp. The rebels had suffered three dead and seven wounded but had inflicted twenty-nine killed and thirty-one wounded upon the federal troops. Though they had given a good account of themselves it was obvious that the Maderistas could not stand another days fighting and they slipped back into the United States during the night. O’Reilly filed a story, got his wound treated and after a few days was ordered to join the Maderista army forming in Mulato, near the government stronghold of Ojinaga.

By now fighting was raging across the whole of Northern Mexico as federal and rebel troops fought to control the critical regions and towns along the Mexican-American border. The rebels urgently needed to take Ojinaga, located across the Rio Grande river from the Texan town of Presidio, to secure arms and ammunition supplies from sympathisers in the United States. Recognising the importance of denying these logistics to the Maderistas the federal troops launched a major attack on the mustering rebel army on the 7th of February, 1911 and O’Reilly found himself fighting in a two day pitched battle.

After the defeat of this attempt the federal troops fell back on Ojinaga and dug in whilst the Maderistas dug entrenchments and invested the town, which proved far too formidable for the rebels attacks to take. After two months of sporadic fighting the rebel command received word that a column had been dispatched by the federal government to relieve the town and O’Reilly was part of the force sent to intercept them at the Mula Pass. The Maderistas made good time into the mountains and by the time the federal soldiers arrived on the 29th of April they had established a strong defensive position on the ridgeline above. O’Reilly described it as an “ideal” location with a flat approach in front over which the federals would be advancing exposed to fire and with a high cliff anchoring the right side of their line, which the rebels believed – mistakenly – to be unclimbable.

The battle started well for the Maderistas, with the federals artillery firing overshooting their positions in its preparatory barrage and the federal infantry charged into the teeth of the rebel’s rifle fire. O’Reilly records that the federal attacks were rapidly broken up by this and victory looked assured when suddenly the rebels started to take fire from their right flank. A unit of Pima Indians fighting for the government had scaled the bluff and were busily shooting at the Maderistas lined up below them. The result was pandemonium as the rebel troops to a man turned and fled in a rout. O’Reilly stated that: “When I saw all those Mexicans leaving their posts, abandoning their victory, running away like cowards in the face of the enemy – well, I don’t like to be in the minority. I ran too.” (Thomas, p.190).

O’Reilly’s troubles were not yet over. Watching his compatriots fleeing on horseback he reached his own steed only to find it had been killed. Fleeing on foot across the plain he ran until he was exhausted and stopped to catch his breath. Unfortunately by this point the federales had sited a machine gun on the ridge that had been the rebel defence line and, seeing no other targets in range, opened fire at O’Reilly, stitching a line of bullets just ten feet from the mercenary leading him to jump up and run “…another mile before I knew I started.”

The Famous “Blue Whistler” cannon, a memorial that was stolen March 17, 1911 from it display in El Paso and saw use in the Mexican Wars. Its impossible to be sure, but the tall man standing at the front of the picture may be O’Reilly.

O’Reilly spent three days wandering alone in the Mexican bush before making it back to Maderista positions at Mulato. He then joined the volunteer legion, composed of foreign mercenaries and adventurers, and took part in the seizure of Santa Rosalia (Carmargo) for the rebels. By now fighting was raging across the entire country with armies fighting under leaders such as Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón, all of whom were united in the need to depose Diaz but would soon end up competing with each other in the post-war Mexico and leading to another nine years of strife for the country. However, this was still in the future and with the signing of the Treaty of Ciudad Juarez on the 21st of May, 1911, the aging Diaz went into exile in France, Madero was elected President in October and O’Reilly went home.

As usual he was not destined to stay there for more than a few months. Madero proved unable to reconcile the differences between the land owning gentry and the peasants nor assuage the expectations of his former followers that reforms would be made to help the suffering agrarian classes. Rebellion once again broke out under Zapata in the South and in the North under former Maderista general Pascual Orozco, whose Colorados – ‘red flaggers’ – were committed to land reform. O’Reilly once again headed for Mexico to help his former comrades, but the divided loyalties that a civil war throws up meant that he quite often found himself fighting against former comrades. Particularly ironic was that two American mercenaries that O’Reilly had highest regard for – Sam Dreben and Tracy Richardson – joined the Colorados and helped them achieve a stunning victory at the First Battle of Rellano by smashing a railcar filled with explosives into the town, causing a rout and breaking Madero’s federal army in the north.

American volunteers with one of the factions in the Mexican Civil Wars

O’Reilly himself escaped death by a whisker when attempting to blow up a railroad outside Juarez, then controlled by the Colorados. Involved in cross-border raids from the United States into Mexico to disrupt the Colorados communications he was transporting a boat load of supplies and explosives that he and his party had brought over the Rio Grande when they were ambushed by a well-armed party of red flaggers. Cut off on the Mexican side of the river and unable to swim O’Reilly had to hide in the bulrushes whilst the rebels searched for him and his colleagues, killing any they could find. After squirming in the mud for several hours O’Reilly was able to make his way downriver to a boat and regain the safety of the United States.

Following his sabotage efforts he moved to Douglas, Arizona to report for the Associated Press on the fighting and also to join up with federal forces that were massing in the cross-border town of Agua Prieta. Here he claims to have met Álvaro Obregón – the ultimate winner of the war and President from 1920-24 – for the first time and joined the army as it marched into Chihuahua, participating in the Battle of Ojitos and fighting alongside Yaqui Indian auxiliary troops. The defeat was the last of the mopping up operations against the Colorados who had been crushed at the hands of Madero’s new army commander, Victoriano Huerta.

Once again at a loose end, O’Reilly became embroiled in some questionable activities involving the recovery of cattle and horses that had been abandoned in Mexico by Mormon settlers. O’Reilly always maintained that he had agreements with the refugees to restore their lost animals to them for a fee per animal but whilst involved in the operation newspapers in El Paso broke the story that he was leading a gang that was raiding the Northern Mexican territories[3]. On his return to the United States[4] he was arrested by a cavalry patrol for violating America’s fickle neutrality laws and put on trial in Douglas but acquitted when a number of local dignitaries vouched for him.

These events kept the mercenary occupied until February, 1913, when Huerta launched a coup, seized control and had Madero murdered. Many of the old Maderistas, notably Carranza, Pancho Villa and Obregon, rose in rebellion once again and fighting renewed. Tex initially avoided returning to Mexico but eventually found himself fighting with the rebel Constitutionalist faction against Huerta’s forces in the mining town of Cananea. Here he faced a machine gun duel against another American mercenary, a situation that O’Reilly described as “silly”. The pair faced each other across the town, Tex dug in between two oil tanks and his opponent in the fortified barracks that the rebels were attempting to seize. Eventually O’Reilly was able to hit the American in his arm and knock out his gun and after the Constitutionalists seized the town he was able to rescue his former foe and see him spirited out whilst lynch gangs, looking to string up the ‘gringo’, searched.

In late 1913 he joined up with Villa’s troops, the Division del Norte, in Ciudad Juarez. He would subsequently claim to be have made a major by Villa and ironically disparages other American mercenaries who claimed high rank with the Villista army. The truth of this is uncertain (like a lot of O’Reilly’s claims) but he states that he went on to have fought with the Constitutionalists in the decisive battles at Tierra Blanca, Chihuahua and Ojinaga that smashed Huerta’s Northern federal army.

It was in from this period that O’Reilly also makes claim to knowing the answer to a question that has vexed a number of investigators and historians since – what happened to the renowned writer, journalist and Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce. Bierce had joined Villa’s army as an observer and witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca before vanishing without trace in December, 1913. Though he states he never met Bierce, O’Reilly does say that he was able to establish that he had been killed by federal soldiers and also located and marked a grave that he believed to be Bierce’s.

O’Reilly soon had his attention taken back up with the fighting as Villa’s soldiers moved south to finish Huerta off. He fought at the battles of Gomez Palacio and Torreon and then was involved in the pursuit of the federal army as it retreated, eventually coming to bay at the battle of Paredon in May 1914.  Here O’Reilly records that the fighting was the fiercest that he witnessed in the whole of Mexico, with three thousand men killed in two hours as the last federal force was annihilated. He also recorded one event that left him mystified. During the battle O’Reilly manned a machine gun with another mercenary “Silent” MacDonald manning another three hundred yards to his right. After the battle O’Reilly discovered the other soldier-of-fortune had been killed and been stripped of his clothes, which was standard practice in the conflict, but that someone had also very carefully skinned the sole of one foot on the corpse. He admitted that the act baffled him and MacDonald, like so many of his fellow mercenaries, was buried on the battlefield as no one knew if he had any family to notify.

The climax of this phase of the war came with the battle of Zacatecas in June 1914. Again, O’Reilly states he was at this crucial battle and described in vivid detail how during the battle the machine gun he was manning in support of Villa’s troops broke down. Hunkering down with the gun under a poncho due to the heavy rain that was falling, O’Reilly tore down the weapon and had to rely on his assistant, a Mexican he only knew as ‘Bill’, to warn him if the federal troops got close to their position in which case they would have had to make a run for it. As he desperately tried to fix the gun in the dark it occurred to him that should Bill lose his nerve and run then the first he would know about any federal troops nearby would be a taking a bayonet or bullet.  Fortunately, and much praised by O’Reilly for his courage, Bill stuck with the mercenary and they were able to get their gun running again in time to see Villa’s cavalry sweep over the federals and start a slaughter that would finally crush the federal army and end the usurpers rule.

Huerta fled soon after and the rivalry between Villa, Zapata, Obregon and Carranza would now set the scene for the continuing tragedy that the Mexican Revolution had become. By September Carranza and Villa were at each others throats and two new factions formed; the Conventionalists led by Villa and Zapata and the Constitutionalists under Carranza and Obregon. Before hostilities exploded into full war in January, 1916 O’Reilly, who claims to have personally known Villa, Zapata and Obregon, was involved in a form of shuttle diplomacy trying to work out a compromise agreement between the feuding leaders. Once his efforts failed he moved into the role that today would be described as a ‘private military contractor’ and as the war re-escalated in 1915/6 was working for a mining company protecting shipments of silver ore with a troop of Indian guards.

Thoroughly sick of the continued fighting amongst the various factions in Mexico, O’Reilly returned to the States and returned to writing articles for newspapers and magazines. Displaying his talents for fiction he created the character of Pecos Bill in 1917, a cowboy equivalent to Paul Bunyan, who had a number of exciting adventures and has since passed into Texan folklore and been subject to a number of novels and movies.

His success at writing did not long suppress his lust for war, which was rekindled by America’s entry into the First World War in 1917. Initially turned down by the Marine Corps and the army due to his age and the fact he was recovering from pneumonia O’Reilly was able to pull strings and arrange for recruitment into the Texas National Guard. Though he was commissioned as a Captain in the 9th Texas Infantry Regiment in September,1918 and put in command of the regiment’s 1st battalion’s machine gun company he was too late to fulfil his wish of seeing combat in France, something he described as “the disappointment of my life” (Thomas, p.260). Despite this his ability as a trainer and commander was recognised by his promotion to Major in July, 1919.

His time with the National Guard did not curtail his writing and O’Reilly moved into the new and burgeoning film industry. From 1919 onwards he would write scripts for the films Honeymoon Ranch, On the High Card, West of the Rio Grande – all of which he also acted in – and Shanghai Bound and I Am The Woman as well as appearing in the film Trails End. It was whilst shooting these films in San Antonio that Tex spotted an aspiring actress named Allene Ray at a stage show who he invited to join the cast. Ray would go on to be one of the great screen heroines of the silent film era following her casting in O’Reilly’s films[5].

O’Reilly’s subsequent career is somewhat mysterious and may possibly be largely the invention of Lowell Thomas. In 1922 he is said to have returned to soldiering and in the company of two of his old Mexican colleagues, Tracy Richardson and Dan Edwards, went to fight for Greece in the Turkish War of Independence, allegedly as a General. After the loss of the city of Smyrna war in September 1922 O’Reilly and Edwards returned to the States and then made their way to China and performed military functions there, though details are sparse.[6]

It is perhaps his talent for writing fiction that explains O’Reilly’s statements concerning the last events of his career as a mercenary. According to his biography he was in 1924 approached by a group of financiers with a job to negotiate for a mining concession with Abd el-Krim, leader of the Riff nation that was fighting a savage war against the Spanish in Morocco. O’Reilly would prove a failure as a negotiator when he assisted several French and Spanish prisoners – who were looking at a very grim end at the hands of their captors – to escape. After this he states that he received a commission as a company commander in the Spanish Foreign Legion and took part in the retreat from Xauen (Chefchaouen), a brutal battle as the Spanish army in Western Morocco fought its way back to safety over several months under continuous attacks. O’Reilly paints a vivid picture of the hardships of the retreat, fighting through Rif attacks and savage hand-to-hand combats.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that this is a flight of fantasy on the part of someone who had become a prolific writer of fiction. There is no record of O’Reilly serving as an officer with the Legion at this time; indeed foreign officers were extremely rare in the Legion, which served as a training ground for a generation of Spanish officers. Though it is possible O’Reilly signed on under a nom de guerre, a very common practice in the Legion, the fact that he states to have returned to America in 1925 would make his term of service a year at most. This would be contrary to the unit’s accepted standard of at least four years of service (Alverez, p.16), nor was the Tercio de Extranjeros renowned for making exceptions.

O’Reilly would live out his remaining days making a living writing and living on a reputation which may or may not be entirely justified – something that can be said of many who follow a career as a soldier-of-fortune where fact and image are very often two separate entities but hard to tell apart. He died in 1946 in the Veterans Hospital, Sunmount, New York, the claimed veteran of ten wars from 1898-1925.

O’Reilly, standing on left, with famed heavy weight boxer Jack Dempsey

[1]                      There is some discrepancy in O’Reilly’s two autobiographies of his role in this event. The first denies he took part in any fighting with the Boxers and states that he remained on duty in the Philippines throughout; the second gives a vivid account of his actions in China. As he also expresses regret about his actions in China and lambasts against the widespread looting of the country it is possible that he omitted this period from his first recollections out of shame. It is equally possible that this is pure invention.

[2]                      It should be noted that there is some controversy as to how much of O’Reilly’s testimony is to be trusted with regards to his Mexican exploits. Dr. Ira Bush, a doctor who worked on behalf of the Maderistas states in his autobiography Gringo Doctor that O’Reilly was the biggest liar in the foreign volunteer legion.

[3]                      “Filibuster Attracts Many”; El Paso Herald, September 13, 1912

[4]                      One newspaper report states that the band returned on foot and robbed by their supposed comrades amongst the rebels.

[5]                      ‘”Honeymoon Ranch” At The Rex Theatre Today Only”; The Bemidji Daily Pioneer, June 18, 1921, Page 4

[6]                      Literary Digest, June 23, 1923; As this article was written by Lowell Thomas and is unverified by any other source known it is possible that it is fictitious.

 

Sources:

Alvarez, Jose E.; The Betrothed of Death; The Spanish Foreign Legion During the Rif Rebellion, 1920-27; Greenwood Press, Westport CT (2001) 

Jowett, P. & De Quesada, A.; The Mexican Revolution 1910-1920; Osprey Publishing, Oxford (2006)

O’Reilly, Edward S.; Roving and Fighting: Adventures Under Four Flags; The Century Co., New York (1918) – republished Kessinger Publishing (2012)

O’Reilly, Edward S. and Thomas, Lowell; Born to Raise Hell; The Unbelievable but True Life Story of an Infamous Soldier of Fortune; The Long Riders’ Guild Press (2001)

de Quesada, Alejandro; The Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection 1898-1902; Osprey Publishing, Oxford (2007)

History of the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry; compiled by SSG Hammond, revised by SPC Neumann; http://www.jmrc.hqjmtc.army.mil/jmrc_command_docs/1_4_unit_history.pdf; accessed 05/05/2012

 

Acknowledgements:

Professor Bickers – University of Bristol; Dr. Lawrence Kaplan – The Homer Lea Research Center; John “Smokey” Koelsch and John Hardman for sharing their expertise on the Mexican Civil War; James Chive of the Adjutant General’s Department, Texas National Guard; Professor José E. Alvarez – The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD).

 

Author Bio:

Ed Nash has spent years travelling around the world and, on occasion, interfering as he sees fit. He has taught English in remote Indian schools, nearly been struck by lightning on horseback in the mountains of Lesotho and worked with ethnic minorities in Burma. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria. His book on his experiences there, “Desert Sniper”, was published by Little, Brown in September, 2018.