Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Lord Roberts by Edmund Francis Sellar
The Story of Lord Roberts by  Edmund Francis Sellar

Early Days—Arrival in India

On the 30th September 1832, Frederick Sleigh Roberts was born at Cawnpore, in India.

Like so many of our great soldiers, Lord Roberts is an Irishman, and he is proud of the fact. His father, General Sir Abraham Roberts, was a distinguished soldier, and like his son spent the greater part of his life in India. While still a child of two years old, Sir Abraham and Lady Roberts brought their boy home to England.

Here they remained together for two years, after which the parents had to return to the East, and their child was left in the care of relatives at Clifton.

In common with so many children born in India, he was at first somewhat small and delicate.

His schooldays began early, as at the age of six he started doing lessons at a dame's school. In his eighth year he went to a school at Clifton kept by a Frenchman, Monsieur Desprez.

Here, though he was really eight years old, his small size and delicate appearance led him to be mistaken for a child of five.

This false idea of the boy's age and strength led to the downfall of one of his classmates. This latter was a French boy about twice the size of Roberts, but a hulking, stupid fellow, who looked with jealousy on the little chap's cleverness and greater success at lessons. Unable to get above him in class, the Frenchman determined to take it out of his school-fellow by bullying.

One day a great outcry arose in the playground, and on a master hurrying up to see what the fuss was about, little Roberts was found lying on the ground, while the French bully was dancing about in a wild state of joy, and shouting out, "Me I have knock Freddy down! Me I have jump on him! Me I have dance on him!" All of a sudden his capers and song of victory ceased. Little Freddy recovered; quickly jumping to his feet, he landed his tormentor a good smack on the nose, straight from the shoulder, with his fist. The shouts of triumph changed to tears; the Frenchman was no boxer, and from that time he took care to leave the little English boy, who could use his fists in self-defence, severely alone.

At the age of ten young Roberts went to a preparatory school, and after remaining there for three years, he went to Eton, where he stayed a year, during which he gained a prize for mathematics; and this fact was recalled forty years later, when Etonians presented a sword of honour to their distinguished school-fellow on his return from victory in Afghanistan.

In January 1847 young Roberts, who had made up his mind to follow in his father's footsteps and become a soldier, entered Sandhurst.

Here he worked hard, and among other honours took a prize in German. His stay was not, however, to be a long one, as his father wished him to follow a career in India, rather than in the English army at home. So, after going to a military academy at Wimbledon, he at length secured a vacancy at the famous military college of the East India Company at Addiscombe.

Here the young man of eighteen began his military studies in real earnest, and he gave himself up to the study of "Fortification"; for already at this age he determined to get on in his profession, and we may be sure he was no idler.

His life at Addiscombe was a most happy one: he was popular with everybody, and had in especial five friends, who all chummed together, clubbing their pocket-money and having all things in common. Out of this common fund the fortunate member who got leave to spend a weekend in London was able to pay his expenses when his turn came.


Roberts on the Quay, leaving Home for India.

Roberts rose to be corporal in the seminary, a position somewhat like a prefect at a public school, and we can well believe that his reign of authority was a mild and popular one, and that the junior cadets regarded him with the same feelings of affection as the soldiers in after years came to feel towards "Bobs," their popular and trusted Commander-in-Chief.

During his stay at Addiscombe, Roberts was by no means strong. But as with Nelson, our greatest sailor, his good spirits and pluck more than made up for any delicacy.

His figure, though small and slight, was well-built. He was wiry and active, and always, we are told, very neat and careful about his dress.

At the end of the year 1851 Frederick Sleigh Roberts was gazetted a second lieutenant in the Bengal Artillery, and two months after the young cadet set sail for the land of his birth, where he was to become so famous. The departure of a cadet for India was in those days a much more serious affair than it is now. Leave could only be obtained—except in case of ill health—once, and that only after ten years in India, during an officer's whole service.

"Small wonder, then," Lord Roberts himself says, "that I felt as if I were bidding England farewell for ever when, on 20th February 1852, I set sail from Southampton with Calcutta for my destination."

The vast floating hotels which now cross the ocean were in those days undreamt of. Steamships were still in their infancy, the boats small and slow. The Suez Canal did not exist. People either had to go round the Cape to reach India, or else take the P. & O. to Alexandria; from thence the journey was made by river and canal to Cairo, from Cairo a diligence ran to Suez, and there the weary traveller had again to embark on a P. & O. which took him to Calcutta.

The steamer Roberts sailed in to Alexandria was the Ripon, commanded by Captain Moreby, a distinguished officer and a kind, fatherly man, especially attentive to the home-sick young "griffins"—as new arrivals in India are called.

The freshness and novelty of life at sea is a great cure for home-sickness. A passing ship, a school of porpoises, the sight of land—all become objects of excitement and interest. Then games of many and various kinds fill the time, and the passenger at his voyage's end usually steps on shore with a feeling of regret, and kindly feelings towards the trusty vessel which has reached port in safety, and which has, for the time being, been his home.

After Alexandria the journey across the desert was made in a vehicle like a bathing-machine, drawn by four mules, and in this Roberts and five other young cadets bumped and jolted from Cairo to Suez.

The sight of Cairo made a great impression on young Roberts. It was his first real view of the "gorgeous East," and he eagerly took in every detail of the sort of scenery which was to become in India so familiar to him.

At Suez the "griffins" embarked on the Oriental, and the terrific heat of that region was soon met with. Only those who have made the voyage know how great that heat may be. Should there be a following wind the stanchions and even the deck seem to be red-hot; and it is only by stopping and sailing full-speed astern that the ship can be cooled down and become a bearable habitation.

"I don't know how we shall fight in India if it is as hot as this," Roberts is said to have remarked.

At last, on the 1st of April, Calcutta was reached, and the young cadet stepped on shore in the land of his birth.

After a dreary dinner with an invalid officer of his own regiment (surely no cheerful omen!) young Roberts went to bed, regretting his many comrades of the ship, and feeling lonely and home-sick. Next morning at an early hour he was astir, and made the best of his way to Dum-Dum, where he lost no time in reporting himself and joining his regiment.

Here the same cheerless welcome waited him; there were scarcely any soldiers in the fort, and his second dinner in India, instead of consisting of a cheery mess-party, as he may have pictured, was a lonely meal with another subaltern.

The outlook was most depressing for a young man just arrived in the country.

"I became terribly home-sick, and convinced that I should never be happy in India," he afterwards used to relate.

One night, on the rare occasion of his dining out, he encountered on his way home a furious cyclone. His native servant was walking ahead of him with a lantern, but the light was soon blown out, and his guide continued on his way, thinking his master was following him. The latter shouted to his servant to stop, but the roar of the tempest drowned his cries. The night was pitch dark, several trees had been blown down, and huge branches were being driven through the air like thistle-down. Nearly blown off his feet, and in no little danger from the falling trees, it was only after weary hours wandering up and down and groping in the darkness that Roberts at length reached the safety of his own bungalow.

Next morning he sat down and wrote to his father, begging that if possible he might be sent to Burma. The old general replied with the glad news that he hoped shortly to be given the command of the large Peshawur division, when his son could then come and serve under him.

The young man hailed the news with delight; his dislike to India and his discontent vanished as if by magic; and when in August the wished-for order from his father came, he set forth with boyish eagerness for the frontier.

His journey thither took up nearly as much time as his whole stay at Dum-Dum. The macadamised road went no farther than Meerut; from there the remaining six hundred miles had to be made in a doolie or palanquin—a sort of sedan chair carried on men's shoulders. The heat was so great that travelling by day was impossible, and the stages had to be made by night. However, everything has an end, and at last, after being nearly three months on his journey, he reached Peshawur, where he found his father; and we can well imagine with what feelings of joy the pair greeted one another. They met "almost as strangers." "We did not, however," Lord Roberts himself tells us, "long remain so. His affectionate greeting soon put an end to any feeling of shyness on my part, and the genial and kindly spirit which enabled him to enter into and to sympathise with the feelings and aspirations of men younger than himself rendered the year I spent with him at Peshawur one of the brightest and happiest of my early life."

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