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Wednesday 17th October 2007, at Larkhill
A Presentation by Dr Rodney Atwood
‘So Single-Minded a Man and So Noble-Hearted a Soldier.’
Field Marshal Earl Roberts of Kandahar, Waterford and Pretoria (1832-1914)
The Autumn 2007 Meeting of the Society was held in the Newcome Hall, Larkhill, on Wednesday 17th October at 11 am. 70 people attended the Meeting, 46 members of the Society, 17 of their guests and seven others.
After the Secretary had given out the customary parish notices, the Chairman introduced the speaker, Dr Rodney Atwood, a recently joined member of the Society. Dr Atwood had been a short-service officer in the RTR from 1971 to 1974 and had ski-ed in the reserves at Her Majesty’s expense for several years afterwards. He had then been a schoolmaster and headmaster for twenty-eight years. He has been attempting to interest publishers in his draft biography of Roberts and Kitchener, but without success, and is now trying to complete a shorter volume on 'The March to Kandahar'. His biographical notes interestingly state that he used to be the world's expert on German mercenaries from Hessen, 1776-1783, but subsequently someone else published a new book. He was introduced to the Society by Brian Pickford, and has greatly enjoyed being a member, the visit to Woolwich being especially good.
Dr Rodney Atwood
Dr Atwood started by explaining that the talk was based on one that he had given at the National Army Museum in March 2006 and an article he had written for the Journal of Military Historical Research Special Publication Number 16 (2007). He explained that he had been asked by the Secretary to say a bit more in this talk about Roberts as a Gunner, but he emphasised that in reality, although commissioned in the Bengal Artillery, Roberts was primarily a staff officer and it was as such that he had achieved his fame.
“On the 4th of August, 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. On the afternoon of 5th August, the octogenarian field marshal, Earl Roberts of Kandahar, Waterford and Pretoria (Fig 1), attended a council of war convened by the Prime Minister Asquith to decide the deployment of the six divisions of the British Expeditionary Force. Roberts, always a confident tactician and bold leader in the field, was heard with respect when he suggested basing the BEF on Antwerp so as to strike in conjunction with the Belgian armies the flank and rear of the invading Germans. Unfortunately, the navy could not guarantee sea communications at such a distance, and the proposal was rejected.1
You might well ask why anyone aged nearly eighty-two should be heard with respect by the leaders of the world’s greatest empire. But Roberts was no ordinary octogenarian, as a look at those at the meeting would show. The commander-in-chief designate of the BEF John French, his corps commanders Douglas Haig and Jimmy Grierson, and his deputy chief of staff, Henry Wilson, had all played a part in Roberts’s epic campaign of early 1900, turning the tide in the South African War. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had been a young correspondent in South Africa, but years before his father, Lord Randolph, had been responsible for making Roberts commander-in-chief of the Indian Army. Most striking was the tall figure of Lord Kitchener, about to be appointed War Minister and become (Fig 2) the most famous recruiting poster in history; he had been Roberts’s chief comrade-in-arms and successor as commander-in-chief in South Africa. Also present was Ian Hamilton, a particular protégé of Roberts, whom he had met many years before on a rocky hillside in Afghanistan as a young Gordon Highlanders subaltern.
Even had he not been renowned as ‘Bobs Bahadur’ (Fig 3), ‘Bobs the Hero’ of the Second Afghan War, author of the famous autobiography Forty-One Years in India, friend of Rudyard Kipling, commander-in-chief successively in India, Ireland, South Africa and England, Master Gunner of the Royal Artillery, the only man to hold the Victoria Cross, the Order of Merit and the Garter, Roberts was known to a wide public in the years before 1914 as the untiring advocate of national service.
In the early months of the war, Roberts among others was concerned that Germany might try to invade Britain. He offered himself as commander of Home Forces to defend the country. Even for a great British hero, this was too much to ask for someone in his eighties. Instead, as regiments of the Indian Army were soon to be deployed via Britain to the western front, Kitchener, in deference to Roberts’s great reputation, gave him the post of commander of overseas forces in England, in fact a sinecure. In November Roberts decided to visit the Indian forces in France, and accompanied by his elder daughter, Aileen, he travelled there.
If there was one thing that Roberts liked even more than writing to the Times or making speeches in the House of Lords on military questions, it was talking to soldiers. The old field marshal was in great spirits. Leo Amery, journalist, conservative politician and army reformer, wrote in his diary: ‘I doubt if [Roberts] ever enjoyed two days more…Meeting the Indians was a special delight to him and he insisted on stopping his car and talking to every turbaned soldier he met, and visited them in their hospitals…’2 On 12th November he called on another protégé, Major General Sir Henry Rawlinson. Rawlinson was later to have the mixed distinction of commanding the Fourth Army on the BEF’s most disastrous day in the First World War, the first day of the Somme; and also the most brilliant, 8th August, 1918, ‘the black day of the German army’ in Ludendorff’s words. He wrote in his journal, ‘Lord Bobs and Aileen turned up to tea, both in the best of health and spirit. They went round the Indians and the 6th Division, and I took him to see some of the wounded Indians who are in hospital here.’3
On 13th November Roberts climbed to the top of the Scherpenberg next to Kemmel Hill near Messines for a distant view of the trenches; the day was cold and wet and windy, and Roberts caught a chill. It quickly turned to pneumonia, he fell very ill, and after a brief rally he died at 8 pm the next day, 14th November. Henry Wilson, at whose mess he had dined two nights before wrote: ‘The story of his life is thus completed as he would have wished, dying in the middle of the soldiers he loved so well and within sound of the guns.’4 Rawlinson went to see his former commander on the 15th. His Division was pinned in the Ypres salient, the men in liquid mud in the trenches; and those guns were German artillery pounding the BEF; his thoughts were of Roberts: ‘…one of the saddest days of my life. I went in to pay my last respects to my dear chief. I could not believe that he was dead.’5
Wilson and Rawlinson had been Roberts’s men, advanced by his patronage. But there is other evidence of how deeply his death was felt. Captain M D Kennedy of the Scottish Rifles (The Cameronians) was leading his company with the battalion on a fifteen-mile march on rough, muddy roads when a motor-cycle despatch rider was seen approaching rapidly. He halted, dismounted, saluted and explained to the colonel that Roberts had died. Kennedy recorded that the Colonel’s face ‘assumed a look of incredulity mixed with an expression as though some catastrophic disaster had occurred’.
What’s the trouble?’ someone called out.
‘Lord Roberts died yesterday,’ came the reply.
‘Lord Roberts died yesterday?
Bobs, the idol of the Army, dead? Why, it couldn’t be true!’ was the thought that came to everyone’s mind as the news was passed from man to man. ‘Bobs’ dead? … And the battalion which had been swinging along to snatches of popular song lapsed into gloomy silence.6 The Sunday night edition of The Times of 15th November headed its front page ‘Sudden Death of Lord Roberts’. ‘A profound shock of sorrow will be felt by the nation at the announcement of the death of Field-Marshal Lord Roberts… One of the most famous and best beloved of British soldiers passes away in an hour of national trial, to prepare for which he had exerted himself with unsparing devotion.’ His family received numberless tributes, and on 20th November his younger daughter Edwina, married to Major Harry Lewin of the Royal Artillery, replied on her mother’s behalf to an old friend Colonel James Dunlop-Smith, formerly secretary to the Indian viceroy Lord Minto: ‘You are so kind & I know you loved Father; there was no one like him and it is impossible to believe he is not there to tell all one’s troubles & joys to. But he was so happy in France and his leaving was very perfect. No pain & so near the Army he loved.’ 7
Reporting Roberts’s funeral at St Paul’s, The Times recorded on 21st November that the oldest survivor of the siege of Delhi during the Indian Mutiny was present and told interested readers that No. 2 Mountain Battery represented among the uniformed throngs had been raised in 1746 and had served at Plassey. It claimed it had lost all but one officer and six men in the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Robert’s life did not quite go back to the Black Hole, but his career covered a remarkable span. He was born at Cawnpore, on 30 September, 1832, the son of General Abraham Roberts (Fig 4), a long serving officer of the East India Company, and his second wife. He came of an established family of Huguenot descent in County Waterford in Ireland. Between them Abraham Roberts and his son Frederick served nearly a century in the armies of India. The difference between father and son illustrates changes in British society. Abraham Roberts’s first three children were all borne to an Indian woman, either wife or mistress. One became a colonel in the army of the native ruler of Lucknow; another John a devout Muslim known as Chhote Sahib manufactured gun-carriages there. These may have been used against the British in the Mutiny. Abraham Roberts’s first English wife died after seven years of marriage, and Frederick Roberts’s mother was Isabella, widow of Major Hamilton Maxwell. According to Geoffrey Moorhouse, Isabella’s mother was a Rajput. There were thus mixed relations on both sides, not unusual for those days. Roberts said nothing of these in his autobiography: in race-obsessed late Victorian India, being dubbed a Eurasian could damn a man’s career. Isabella Roberts had two children from her first marriage. Frederick Roberts was the eldest child of the new marriage. By contrast with his father, he was to be married to one woman, an archtypical memsahib, for fifty-five years. 8
Throughout his life close family was a constant theme. Victorian families in India knew separation and early death. Roberts himself lost brothers and sisters in infancy and three of his six children. There is no reason to doubt the affection of the boy for his parents. When father was fighting in the 1st Afghan War, mother and children were home in Ireland; Roberts told of crowding round Mrs Roberts to hear father’s letters read, and of how stories of Afghans and fighting were woven into his early memories. He was small and delicate, and nearly died from an attack of brain-fever. Although he survived, he lost the sight of his right eye.9 He was never more than 5’ 4” and would have failed a physical examination for today’s army. Mrs Roberts did her best to provide young Fred with a good education, ensured that he attended Eton in 1845, and wanted him to go to Oxford or Cambridge and enter the church. Roberts, by contrast, said, ‘I had quite made up my mind to be a soldier, I had never thought of any other profession.’ 10
Roberts’s career, apart from the last two decades, was inseparable from India, from his early commissioning in the Bengal Artillery and service in savage battles of the Indian Mutiny, winning the Victoria Cross in hand-to-hand combat, mentioned in despatches seven times, and soon known to his seniors in the words of Captain Oliver Jones as ‘one of those rare men who, to uncommon daring and bravery in the field, and unflinching, hard-working discharge of duty in the camp, adds the charms of cheering and unaffected kindness and hospitality’. (Fig 5) Brigadier General Hope Grant commanding the Moveable Column reported, ‘Lieutenant Roberts’s gallantry has on every occasion been most marked.’11
After the Mutiny he remained on the Quartermaster-General’s staff, a shrewd career move, suggested by his father because that department was in effect the operations staff of the army. In 1878 he left it as Quartermaster General.12 He was at the centre of planning throughout the 1860s and 1870s, and able to catch the eye of men in power.
His transformation into a national hero began with the arrival of Disraeli’s new Viceroy, Lord Lytton, in 1876. Disraeli’s government was suspicious of Russian intentions in central Asia and Lytton was an advocate of the ‘forward policy’, to control the border peoples and the mountain passes to Afghanistan and ensure the ruling Amir was friendly to Britain (Fig 6). Roberts had long been a partisan of this view.
He greeted Lytton on his arrival at Bombay. ‘His Excellency received me very kindly, telling me he felt that I was not altogether a stranger, as he had been reading during the voyage a paper I had written … a year or two before, on our military position in India, and the arrangements that would be necessary in the event of Russia attempting to continue her advance south of the Oxus.’13
Roberts was given additional responsibility, became one of Lytton’s close advisors and was promoted over the heads of senior officers to command one of three attacking columns in the 2nd Afghan War.
As a fighting general Roberts distinguished himself in three campaigns. In 1878 his was the smallest column but saw most action. His victory in his first battle at the Peiwar Kotal (Fig 7) was the most important of this phase of the war. He used tactics which were frequently to serve him well. Feinting at the enemy’s front, he led a flanking force by a night march over precipitous mountain passes. The Afghans were routed from a position which some of them may have regarded as impregnable, held by superior numbers and with plenty of artillery.14
The first campaign of the war ended with the flight and death of the Amir Sher Ali, and with his son Yakub Khan signing the treaty of Gandamak, pledging ‘to live in perfect peace and friendship’ with India and to conduct his foreign relations in accordance with British wishes. An embassy was sent by Lytton to Kabul, but on 3rd September, 1879 unpaid Afghan regiments rose in anger against the foreigners and after heroic resistance against impossible odds Major Louis Cavagnari and his escort were massacred. Once again Roberts was lucky, as his was the only body of troops still together who could avenge the massacre. His force was small and his weak transport such that he could only move half his men at a time. His brilliant march and victory on the Charasia heights outside Kabul enabled him to occupy the city.15
Roberts was urged by the Viceroy to find the culprits behind the massacre of Cavagnari and his escort. Lytton had been very close to Cavagnari, and his angry instructions to Roberts were explicit: ‘All such persons captured and denounced by your informants should be promptly executed in the manner most likely to impress the population… For, remember that it is not justice in the ordinary sense, but retribution that you have to administer on reaching Kabul.’16
In reinforce these harsh instructions there was the scene of Cavagnari’s last stand with bloodstains on the walls, bullet-holes, skulls and bones of mutilated corpses and signs of a desperate struggle.17 As a young subaltern Roberts had unflinchingly watched mutinous sepoys blown from the mouths of cannon, and he was only too willing to carry out Lytton’s orders. What happened next was the dark side of Roberts’s part in the war, testimony to a streak of harshness. Lytton had expected evidence to show the guilt of important men, but none could be found, no important men were executed except the Kotwal (Chief Constable) of Kabul. So it was ordinary Afghans who were hanged on the tall gallows which Roberts erected outside Kabul. The Official History recorded the trial of 163 and execution of eighty-seven, but others were shot arbitrarily for resisting.18 Roberts’s chief of staff, Colonel Charles Metcalfe MacGregor confided to his diary, ‘Bobs is a cruel blood-thirsty little brute,’ in contrast to correspondent Howard Hensman and Surgeon Colonel Joshua Duke who commented on the proverbial treachery of the Afghans and the mutilation of the bodies of dead Indian and British soldiers.19
In November, 1879, English newspapers in India began to protest. The Friend of India, a prominent Calcutta journal, ended an article, ‘We fear that General Roberts has done us a serious national injury, by lowering our reputation for justice in the eyes of Europe.’20 The repercussions spread to England. Liberal politicians were among those who thought Roberts had gone too far. Even Lytton, who had urged him on, was worried.21 Roberts, however, soon had other things to think about: a national uprising of Afghans. His forces were driven back from the surrounding hills, and he wisely decided, outnumbered as he was, to abandon Kabul and concentrate his men in an extended fortified camp nearby, Sherpur. The Afghans, enraged by the executions and urged on by their holy men, hoped to repeat the success of the 1st Afghan War when an entire Anglo-Indian army had been destroyed. Roberts was equal to the occasion. At first light on the morning of 23rd December, 1879, he and his men fired starshell to illuminate the thousands of attackers with assault ladders, then with well-directed fire drove them back. Roberts sent out artillery to enfilade the enemy and cavalry in pursuit.22
The Afghan War, however, might have ended with Roberts in disgrace. In place of his patron Lytton, Gladstone’s Liberal government appointed Lord Ripon who had criticised the Kabul executions. In the spring of 1880 General Donald Stewart, Roberts’s friend and senior officer, marched from Kandahar to Kabul to assume the chief command, to Roberts’s chagrin. Negotiations were already under way to recognise Sher Ali’s nephew, Abdur Rahman, as Amir, and to evacuate the troops, when news reached Kabul of the disastrous defeat of an Anglo-Indian brigade at Maiwand, west of Kandahar, on 27th July, 1880, by another claimant, Ayub Khan. Stewart unselfishly stood down, and the Viceroy Ripon told the Indian commander-in-chief General Haines to direct Roberts to march to Kandahar with a picked force.23
The famous three-hundred-mile, twenty-three-day march from Kabul to Kandahar and ensuing victory over Ayub Khan made his reputation (Fig 8). The drama of the march, that ten thousand men disappeared from public gaze and then re-appeared to save a beleaguered garrison and win a smashing victory, caught the public’s imagination. Roberts’s use of the press was astute. The writing of war correspondents formed Victorian public opinion of their soldier heroes. In his classic Ashanti Campaign of 1873-4 Sir Garnet Wolseley had been accompanied by numerous correspondents. His reputation as ‘the very model of a modern major general’ was well established when George Grossmith appeared on the stage in 1879 in Pirates of Penzance aping his gestures.24 On the Kandahar march, Roberts took three correspondents: Howard Hensman of The Pioneer, who had earlier defended him for shooting hostages in reprisal for attacks on isolated patrols; and two from The Times, General Luther Vaughan, a former Indian Army officer, and Major George White of the Gordon Highlanders, a fellow Irishman, who won the Victoria Cross for courage and leadership, on Roberts’s recommendation.
Ayub Khan’s army was soundly beaten, his thirty-two guns taken, his camp captured (Fig 9). It was one of the foremost Victorian feats of arms, to rival the heroic soldiers’ battle of Inkerman and Wolseley’s night march and attack at Tel-el-Kebir. British prestige was restored. Ayub however bounced back next year, and had to be beaten again by Abdur before the latter was secure on the throne and British India gained thirty-nine years’ peace with a strong and friendly Afghanistan. The controversy between the ‘Forward School’ and ‘Masterly Inactivity’ continued.
The victory made Roberts (Fig 10). He was now a hero to stand beside Garnet Wolseley. Punch was soon to dub him ‘our only t’other general’.25 As the discontented MacGregor wrote when Roberts rode out of Kandahar at the war’s end, ‘What a lucky devil he is, two or three years ago he was a Colonel, now he will be a peer a Lieutenant-General and Commander-in-Chief of one of the Presidencies.’ 26 MacGregor was right about the last. In 1881 Roberts became Commander-in-Chief at Madras of the southern of three Indian armies. Then, in 1885, he succeeded his friend Sir Donald Stewart as overall Commander-in-Chief. Roberts commanded the Indian Army for nearly eight years. His influence was far-reaching, partly because of excellent relations with Viceroys Dufferin and Lansdowne, partly because his successor was that George White who served under him in Afghanistan. After MacGregor’s death in 1887, he became main spokesman of the ‘Forward School’, advocating building strategic railways and defences and stationing troops on the north-west frontier against possible Russian invasion.27 Thus Roberts’s measures to increase the efficiency of the Indian Army and to recruit the best men, ‘the Martial Races of the north’ (Fig 11) now believed to be based on a mistaken neo-Darwinism, but with a long-lasting influence, were directed against a war with Russia.28 He was popular with soldiers both Indian and British, noted for his care for young recruits, but tough on those two idols of the enlisted man, drink and sex. His attitude may have been partly due to his wife.
Years before, during the Indian Mutiny, Roberts had written to his partly crippled sister Harriet, ‘You must look out for some nice girl with “blue eyes and yellow hair”…for me, Harriet dearest, who will console me for having to return [after my leave] to the gorgeous East.’29
The girl whom Roberts wooed and married at Waterford Church, 17th May, 1859 was Nora Bews, the tenth and youngest child of John Bews, retired Black Watch officer (Fig 12). She was twenty, he was twenty-six, and they were together for fifty-five years. Nora’s first act of support for her husband was to forego a planned three months’ extension of leave, which would have cost him his post in the Quartermaster General’s department.
Although later the pain of childbearing, the loss of three of their six children in infancy, the climate of India, and supporting her husband through thick and thin took the flush of youth from Nora’s cheeks, early photographs30 show a comely enough young woman. In the winter of 1862-3, Lieutenant Owen Burne, on the viceroy’s staff, recorded, ‘Fred Roberts [who] joined us as a Deputy Quartermaster-General…had come to Simla to join the Headquarters Staff with a charming bride, who proved a great accession to our select circle, as being not only handsome, but full of goodness and brightness.’31
Roberts’s diaries testify to his love of his family. At the great opportunity at the start of the Afghan War, he wrote on 26 September, 1878: ‘Very sad saying goodbye to the dear children.’ And the next day, ‘Parted from my own darling wife at 8 a.m.’32 As wife of the Commander-in-Chief India, Lady Roberts’s main achievement was to begin Indian Army Nursing and establish ‘Homes in the Hills’, rest homes for nurses at hill stations, doubling as nursing establishments for officers. The work of her nurses, replacing ill-trained orderlies, was effective. In an epidemic of cholera, the chief medical officer praised ‘the valuable services rendered to the cholera patients by the nursing sisters … Nothing could exceed their attention and care of these patients….’33
Not all Lady Roberts’s actions won accolades (Fig 13). There was muttering about ‘petticoat government’ because of her alleged influence. Her letters to Lord Minto suggest a more active role in affairs than was expected of Victorian wives.34 Even the Queen had written in 1895 when Roberts had an outside chance of becoming commander-in-chief in England that he was ‘ruled by his wife who is a terrible jobber’ and that his candidature was impossible ‘on account of his readiness to listen to his wife, & her notorious favouritism.’ Hugh Bixby Luard of the Indian Medical Service wrote in his reminiscences, ‘it was said that any ambitious officer who wished to get on found it advisable to get favour from Lady Roberts at Simla’. Luard mistrusted the story: ‘…[Roberts] was a good judge of character, devoted solely to the public interest, and rarely made a bad appointment: but naturally out of a host of equally competent officers chose those whom he knew most about: and that he exercised the same discretion in considering Lady Roberts candidates or favourites.’35 But in September, 1888, Rawlinson, a member of the commander-in-chief’s military family, wrote, ‘I can only regret that Lady R. has any knowledge of the official patronage, which should be solely and entirely under Sir F.[’s] own thumb.’36 Although doubtless an intriguer, today she would be a Virago Classic heroine, for she spoke out for women and married officers against the redoubtable Kitchener, who deplored officers with wives.37
The Robertses were a close-knit family with a good sense of fun, plenty of leg-pulling or ‘chaffing’ in the contemporary phrase. It was said that Roberts’s love for a delightful home was deeper even than for the army. Spenser Wilkinson, the military correspondent and historian, visited Roberts in India, observed a happy family and enjoyed himself greatly. Years later, an account of a dinner party at Ascot with the Robertses describes the girls teasing their mother and father teasing the girls.38
Roberts returned from India in 1893. Following the Duke of Cambridge’s retirement in 1895, Wolseley’s ‘Ashanti ring’ held sway at the War Office, and Roberts succeeded Wolseley as Commander-in-Chief Ireland, a backwater in which to finish his career. He was approaching retirement, but still longed for command in the field. Urged by Rawlinson, he offered his services in April 1897 to Lord Lansdowne, now Secretary of State for War, for command in South Africa if increasing tension there led to hostilities. In August, 1899 he invited Lord Kitchener to Ireland. Roberts’s son Freddie had served as ADC to ‘K’ in the Sudan campaign against the Dervishes. Roberts and Kitchener got on well, and Kitchener made it clear that if Roberts were offered a command he would be willing to serve as chief of staff.39 War in South Africa broke out on 11th October, 1899 (Fig 14). Roberts once again offered his services to Lansdowne, but General Sir Redvers Buller, one of Wolseley’s ‘ring’, was earmarked for command. When Buller was beaten at Colenso, the third British defeat of the infamous ‘Black Week’, he sent two very pessimistic telegrams to London and one to Sir George White, besieged at Ladysmith. Members of the government lost confidence in him. Lansdowne and the Prime Minister’s nephew Arthur Balfour played a key role in Roberts’s appointment superseding Buller.40 The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, insisted that the forty-nine-year-old Kitchener accompany the sixty-seven-year-old Roberts.41 On the day that Roberts prepared to embark news arrived of the death of his son Freddie from wounds received at Colenso trying to rescue captured guns. Two days before Christmas, 1899, when Roberts sailed on the Dunottar Castle, in top hat, dark coat, black armband for Freddie, posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the hopes of Great Britain went with the little field marshal. To his wife he wrote later, ‘I could not help thinking how different it would have been if our dear boy had been with me.’42
Kitchener had told the Queen that it gave him ‘the greatest pleasure to serve under Lord Roberts, for whom he has the highest admiration,’43 but nearly all contemporaries contrasted the two. Leo Amery’s Times History of the War: ‘Rarely have characters so different combined, on the spur of the moment, to form so effective and smooth-working a partnership… [Kitchener] was used by his chief not so much as a staff officer, to work out his plans and convey his orders, but mainly as his right hand man, on whom he could, with implicit confidence, devolve any important piece of organizing work that turned up, or whom he could send round to “hustle”…’44
War had changed since the Afghan campaigns. The magazine-fed Mauser rifle and the Maxim gun gave much greater firepower (Fig 15). The fighting in South Africa had revealed serious British shortcomings. In mobility, initiative, shooting and field craft they were inferior to their Boer opponents. Serious deficiencies in staff work, maps, intelligence and mounted troops had to be made good if Roberts and Kitchener were to defeat a mobile enemy. They could not remake the army overnight, but Roberts issued new tactical instructions, ‘Notes for Guidance in South African Warfare’ to counter the threat from smokeless magazine rifles and to operate more prudently in South African conditions, employing careful reconnaissance and deploying in open order, making use of cover. He added 3,000 Mounted Infantry to his force. His head of intelligence, Colonel G F R Henderson, commandeered a parcel of Transvaal maps from a shipment intended for the Boers.45 An intelligence department of local men and British officers was formed. Intelligence officers were attached to each column.
Transport was also reorganised, the transport companies sent out to South Africa under Buller’s painstaking arrangements being broken up and augmented by extra wagons which Roberts purchased in Cape Colony, an additional 300 on the day of his arrival, and 400 later.46 Campaigning in South Africa with its great distances, extremes of climate and rivers difficult to ford stretched the Victorian army to its utmost. Roberts proposed to march nearly five hundred miles to seize Bloemfontein and Pretoria and on to the furthest borders of the Transvaal. He took responsibility for the reorganisation in a confidential telegram to Lansdowne, but it appears that both men were in favour of the change. Kitchener loyally carrying out his chief’s wishes was blamed by many for implementing the new transport system.47 If there was a mistake, it was in cutting the ambulance wagons to a bare minimum. The nearly-disastrous loss of 176 ox-carts and their supplies at Waterval Drift to the daring Boer commando leader, Christiaan de Wet, early in the campaign was the result of poor staff work, not the reorganisation.48
Roberts visited hospitals to see their preparedness. At a convalescent home at Capetown he went to the room of Captain Walter Congreve, who with Freddie had tried to save the guns at Colenso. Roberts in public had kept his grief in check, but when Congreve gave him eyewitness details of his son’s heroism and fatal wound, he broke down. ‘It was a most dreadful interview,’ wrote Congreve in his diary.’[Lord Roberts] sat on my bed & sobbed as tho’ his heart was broken & I could do nothing for him except tell him of Freddie’s bravery.’49 Roberts wrote to Lansdowne, ‘What would I not give to have [my dear boy] with me now.’50
Roberts’s plan meant first a western thrust to relieve Kimberley, and then across to Bloemfontein. Elaborate measures of deception were undertaken, and reinforcements sent to General French to make it seem it was proposed to cross the Orange River by the direct line over Norval’s Point. On 10th February Roberts summoned senior officers of the Cavalry Division to the Modder River and spoke to them: ‘…I am going to give you some very hard work to do, but at the same time you are to get the greatest chance cavalry has ever had. I am certain you will do well….’ 51
The cavalry did extremely well in trying conditions of heat, dust and thirst, bursting through the Boer skirmishers to relieve Kimberley and then turning back to cut off General Cronje and over 4000 men on the Modder River at Paardeberg. Cronje was caught between French on one side and the hard marching British infantry divisions, hustled forward by Kitchener and their divisional commanders. He dug in along the river. On the day battle was joined, however, Roberts was ill, and Kitchener in command was no tactician. British attacks on Cronje’s well-defended laager were driven back with bloody losses. When Roberts arrived he called off proposed attacks and settled down to a siege. Kitchener went back to deal with threats to the lines of communication. But while the press and critics reverberated with stories of Kitchener’s bull-headedness, Roberts’s caution was to reap an even more bitter harvest after his men filled their water-bottles with ‘dead horse soup’52 as Tommy Atkins called water from a Modder polluted by Cronje’s dead animals, killed in the British bombardment. Roberts’s army was delayed at Bloemfontein six weeks by an epidemic of enteric fever (typhoid).
Nonetheless, the surrender of Cronje on Majuba Day, 27th February, (Fig 16) with a tenth of Boer strength, marked the first major British victory, a turning point of the war. The press exulted. ‘Taffy’ Gwynne, chief correspondent of Reuters, wrote to Lady Violet Cecil, daughter-in-law of the Prime Minister, ‘… Now the man for me, parexcellence [sic], is Bobs, gallant Bobs, plucky Bobs, magnificent Bobs. How splendidly he has managed the whole thing and what tremendous risks he has been willing to run.’53
Lansdowne wrote to Roberts, that the news had ‘filled us all with joy. Nothing could have been better done, and we all look forward to a vigorous prosecution of these admirable tactics.’54 After a pause the advance continued. Bloemfontein capital of the Orange Free State was occupied on 13th March. Buller was able to advance in Natal. The strategic initiative had passed to the British, nine weeks after Roberts’s arrival and four weeks after the start of his offensive.55
He renewed his advance on 3rd May, into the Transvaal, and occupied Johannesburg on 31st May and Pretoria on 5th June (Fig 17). After a final battle at Diamond Hill on 12th June, the Boer forces dispersed. Komati Poort, on the border with Mozambique, was occupied on 24th September. Transvaal President Kruger had fled to Europe. The Orange Free State had been annexed on 28th May and the Transvaal on 1st September. In nine months Roberts had advanced 500 miles, defeated the main Boer armies, and occupied their capitals.
This was a remarkable achievement for a sixty-seven year old. It lost nothing in the telling, thanks to Roberts’s management of the press and his ability to write exciting and readable despatches and release them before the correspondents got theirs off. At Bloemfontein he closed down the anti-British newspapers Express and the Friend of the Free State, and with the help of Colonel Eddie Stanley, his press censor – later the Earl of Derby, the ‘uncrowned king of Lancashire’ – established The Friend, inviting Rudyard Kipling and Dr Arthur Conan Doyle among others to write.56 The annexation of the Orange Free State was filmed by an early motion picture camera (‘The Biograph’), the film shown throughout Europe and savagely hissed at the Folies Bergere in Paris.57 The Times always praised Roberts, and by the end of the summer of 1900 was saying that the war was all but over and would have been already, but for a small band of irreconcilables.58
These Boer irreconcilables had met at Kroonstad on 17th March, 1900. At first in despair, they decided to change tactics, and concentrate on destroying enemy communication lines; their forces to be in smaller units and abandoning slow-moving wagons.59 The first harbingers of new warfare were De Wet’s (Fig 18) brilliant successes against British forces at Sannah’s Post and Reddersburg. But General Louis Botha and the main Boer army continued to fight conventionally until Roberts’s forces reached Komati Poort and Lieutenant-General Archibald Hunter in the mountains near the Basutoland frontier had captured an even larger Boer force than that taken at Paardeberg. The Boers could no longer win, for with a Unionist victory in the ‘Khaki Election’ Britain would not give up through war-weariness.
But predictions of the war’s end were premature (Fig 19). Roberts had defeated but not destroyed the enemy, and the commandos dispersed to fight on. Roberts himself wrote to the Queen on 4th October that fighting continued and that ‘the ubiquitous General De Wet is still at large’.60 The last of Britain’s Victorian colonial wars turned into the first of the people’s wars of the Twentieth Century, and the methods of the future, farm burning, hostages, concentration camps, were started by Roberts and then introduced full-scale by Kitchener, who succeeded Roberts and finally ended the war in May, 1902.61
Roberts’s strengths and limitations were summarised by the High Commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner, writing in October, 1900: ‘As a leader of men in the field he is, I believe, without equal….He is head & shoulders above every Englishman in S.A. today. But, when it comes to a most complicated problem, half military, half political, & wholly unprecedented, he is out of his depth. And he is 60 & very fatigued. Impossible to set a man, whose gifts are quick perceptions & prompt action, with diminished powers, to tackle a job, wh. needs above all to be most carefully and elaborately thought out.’ 62
Nonetheless, Lord Salisbury’s election victory followed the announcement of Roberts’s annexation of the Transvaal, and Roberts returning to England at the start of 1901 could claim his rewards: the Garter, £100,000, and the top job he had coveted, commander-in-chief of the British army in succession to his rival, Wolseley. Installed in the War Office he wrote encouragingly to Kitchener, who was chasing Boer commandos with mobile columns of mounted infantry and trying to fence them in with lines of blockhouses. Roberts defended his successor against attacks by cabinet ministers, pressed Kitchener’s claim for the Indian command, and finally sent out Ian Hamilton as chief of staff.63 Dispatched to co-ordinate operations in the western Transvaal Hamilton was able to pull off a victory on the stony hillside at Rooiwal which helped convince Boer leaders to seek peace.
Meanwhile, as Commander-in-Chief, Roberts found that he had little of the scope offered in India. Useful reform was achieved; for example, introducing the eighteen-pounder field gun and a new rifle, the magazine-fed Lee-Enfield. Roberts took a keen interest in the Staff College: his protégés Rawlinson and Wilson both proved outstanding commandants.
With his lengthy experience on the Indian Army staff, Roberts was keen to create a General Staff, and set Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Ellison to work. The Committee established under Viscount Esher to reform the War Office took over Ellison’s work and finished it, the difference being the name they gave to operations staff; ‘General Staff’, rather than ‘Quartermaster General’s Staff’, as Roberts would have had it following Indian Army practice. Ellison wrote, ‘The credit of creating a General Staff belongs to the Esher Committee, but to Lord Roberts is due the initiative which gave us a staff system in 1914 so widely at variance with what had obtained in the Boer War.’64
As part of their reforms, Esher’s Committee abolished Roberts’s post of Commander-in-Chief, and his removal was tactlessly handled, but Roberts never harboured bad feelings.65 Esher continued to be impressed with the energy and vision of a man over seventy years old. In January, 1910 he found him ageing a little, ‘but wonderfully open-minded and virile for so old a man. He is full of modern ultra radical ideas about the army and tactical fighting….’66
Roberts’s last years were spent campaigning in vain for compulsory service and working, behind the scenes, to prevent the army being employed to coerce the Ulster Protestants. On the outbreak of the First World War, the Irish crisis was temporarily forgotten. In four months Roberts and many others were dead.
At the time, he was a hero of empire, but the terrible losses of 1914-1918 far overshadowed his achievements in Afghanistan, India and South Africa. He was, however, lucky in his reputation. The public remembered the marches to Kandahar and Pretoria when the gallows of Kabul and the epidemic of Bloemfontein were forgotten. Roberts had, after all, thrice restored British arms after defeat or disaster.
He had great charm and retained a not entirely deserved reputation for kindness throughout his life. He took exceptional pains with people, and was astute in assessing human nature. Ian Hamilton, his chief protégé wrote, ‘The quickness of his one eye was astonishing and disconcerting. He could come into a room and in a moment he could see that two of his Generals were conspiring and that another was making love to somebody else’s wife. His sense of hearing was so acute that he could hear what Lady Bobs was saying to her neighbour at the far end of a long dinner table.’67 He helped those who helped him, Kitchener, Hamilton, Rawlinson and Wilson. He cultivated a patriotic press. At a time when courage, duty, the empire, the family were revered, he seemed to epitomise British ideals. His small stature and his famous nick-name endeared him to many, and on his death his reward was burial at St Paul’s Cathedral, resting place of Wellington and Nelson. Viscount Esher, who knew Roberts well and shared his intense patriotism, wrote a stirring passage in his journal:
‘I first saw Lord Roberts thirty-five years ago…. He had returned from Kandahar, covered with renown… In late years I saw much of him. It was a high privilege to know so single-minded a man and so noble-hearted a soldier. His love of his country was a passion. His constant thoughts were directed to the welfare of England and the security of the Empire ... ‘His attachment to the Army was deep, his love for a delightful home was perhaps deeper still, while his fidelity to the friends who loved him, and to those who served him, was as profound as his ever-ready sympathy, and was given with all the loyalty of his great little heart.’68
Dr Atwood concluded his talk by thanking the members of the Society for the information that they had sent him and wanted in particular to give the Revd Michael Gilman and Major Douggie Goddard an opportunity to elaborate on their contributions to the talk.
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