General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC GCB GCMG (7 December 1839 – 2 June 1908)
Redvers Buller is one of the genuine characters of the Victorian British army. He was one of
Sir Garnet Wolseley’s clique of favoured soldiers. Unlike his (initially) financially impoverished patron, Buller was born to a wealthy land-owning Devonshire family whose acres brought in over £14,000 a year (about £10m, $15m today). Eton-educated, he purchased a commission with the 60th Rifles Regiment in May 1858.
In 1860 he took part in the Anglo-French expedition to China in retaliation for the Chinese refusing the establishment of foreign legations in Peking (Beijing). He served alongside Wolseley in the latter and his next appointment, the Canadian Red River Expedition of 1870. He helped in putting down a rebellion by the half-caste Metis people – descendants of North American Indians and European parents. Impressed Wolseley described young Buller as ‘full of resource and personality and personally absolutely fearless, those serving under him always trusted him fully’.
In 1873–74 he acted as intelligence officer under Wolseley during the Ashanti campaign (featured in By Sheer Pluck), during which he was slightly wounded at Ordabai. He was promoted to the rank of major.
Breveted lieutenant colonel, Buller served in the 9th (and penultimate) of the Cape Frontier Wars (also known as the Xhosa Wars or the Kaffir Wars, 1779–1879) in South Africa in 1878. In the following year he commanded the mounted infantry of the northern British column under
Brigadier General Sir Evelyn Wood in the Anglo-Zulu War. The unit was an ‘irregular’, formed of rough-and-tumble Boers and British adventurers, which Buller hammered into an efficient corps. One teenage trooper called his commander ‘tough, brusque, accessible and sympathetic’. When the men went hungry, so did Buller. ‘He was the idol of us all,’ the boy said.
And he was a hero. For his gallantry and leadership at the British defeat at Hlobane (Zlobane) Mountain, Buller later received the Victoria Cross, for saving the lives of three men in the same day’s action in recklessly dashing style. The following day his mounted infantry fought in the British victory at Kambula. After the Zulu attacks on the British position were beaten off, Buller led a ruthless pursuit of fleeing Zulus. His treatment of the Metis people in the Red River Expedition had led to criticism back home, and now more was directed at him for the killing of Zulus who were either wounded or had surrendered. In June 1879, his mounted troops contributed to the decisive British victory at Ulundi, which ended the war.
In the First Boer War of 1881 he was Sir Evelyn Wood's chief of staff and the following year was again head of intelligence, this time under Wolseley, in the Egypt campaign against the rebellion of Urabi Pasha, for which he was knighted. It was his gathered intelligence reports that ensured the British success at the critical battle of Tel el-Kebir. Six weeks after arriving at Alexandria, Buller was back home. But not for long. In February 1884 he was sent to the Sudan to command an infantry brigade, fighting in the battles of El Teb and Tamai as chief-of-staff to the commander, Major-General Gerald Graham. Buller fought well in both actions, his quick thinking and control saving the day during the latter fight. On his return to Britain and the War Office in April, he was promoted to major-general.
Like a yo-yo, he was back in August of the same year as part of Wolseley’s Nile Expedition to relieve Khartoum and rescue General Charles Gordon, as described in Dash For Khartoum. It was Buller’s skill in organisation that got the tattered camel corps back across the desert in the retreat from Abu Kru to Gakdul. Buller subsequently returned to the War Office.
Baker then spent time in Ireland during between 1886–90, but his liberal attitude towards the Irish resulted in his recall to the War Office. In 1890 Buller was promoted to Adjutant General, becoming a lieutenant general in 1891. He anticipated that the Liberal government would appoint him as Commander-in-Chief of the Army on the retirement of the Duke of Cambridge in 1895, but Rosebery’s government fell and the incoming Conservatives chose Sir Garnet Wolseley instead.
At the end of 1898 Buller arrived in South Africa as Commander-in-Chief of all British forces in South Africa at the outbreak of the Second Boer War (1898–1902). He organised as best he could Britain’s scattered garrisons, but was defeated on 15 December by the Boers under Louis Botha at Colenso on the Tugela River while marching to the relief of Ladysmith. Concerns over his ability to command resulted in his being replaced by Earl Roberts, under whom he continued to serve as second-in-command. Further setbacks at Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz earned him the cruel nickname of ‘Reverse’ Buller, but on the fourth attempt, he did relieve Ladysmith, lifting the siege on 28 February 1900. His earlier failures were redeemed by a string of successes.
In spite of later victories, the initial loss of confidence led to his recall in October 1900, when Buller was appointed as head of the Aldershot Command. The British public, however, loved Buller as much as his enemies within the military establishment and the government feared him. As disquiet about the treatment of Boer prisoners of war grew, journalists turned on those whose names had previously been associated with similar treatment. Buller was stung to respond in a public speech to a vicious piece by The Times newspaperman Leo Amery. He was accused of breaching the military code of conduct and, with Roberts’ support, asked
Buller retired to his Devonshire estates and maintained a dignified silence. Since then his reputation has, if anything, become more tarnished by further generations of military commentators. It seems astonishing that such an accomplished soldier should be viewed
as ‘incompetent and indecisive’ when the evaluations have been almost exclusively devoted to his experiences in the Boer War, fuelled by the comments of a very few politically motivated journalists (the same occurred to Lord Baden-Powell after the Siege of Mafeking). Almost every British military luminary made a muck of the Boer War in its early stages, and Buller’s
longer the young turk he had been, but politics demanded he do the duty of holding this particular hot potato that few other generals had any relish for. Buller was a true hero in the Victorian mould.
Above: Redvers Buller photographed at Aldershot and below saving a mounted trooper in the Anglo-Zulu War, His equestrian statue stands in Exeter,
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