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

Marriage—At Home—Return to India—The Lushai Expedition—Abyssinia

The young Mutiny hero had a very pleasant voyage home, travelling overland through Europe by way of Trieste, Venice, and Switzerland, and arriving in England in the end of June. "The intense delight of getting home after one's first term of exile can hardly be exaggerated, and certainly cannot be realised save by those who have gone through the exile, and been separated, as I had been, for years, from all that made the happiness of my early life," writes Lord Roberts. "Every English tree and flower one comes across on first landing is a distinct and lively pleasure, while the greenness and freshness are a delicious rest to the eye, wearied with the deadly whitey-brown sameness of dried-up, sandy plains, or the all too gorgeous colouring of eastern cities and pageants."

His people were living in Ireland, in the county of Waterford, and General Roberts, wonderfully hale and hearty in spite of his seventy-four years (fifty of which had been spent in India), was greatly delighted to welcome his son home again, and to hear from his own lips all that so deeply interested the veteran concerning the tragedy of the Mutiny.

Roberts was a fearless horseman, and many a good run did he have during the winter with Lord Waterford's hounds, the famous "Curraghmore." While on leave, Roberts met Miss Norah Bews, whom he married on the 17th May 1859, the ceremony taking place in the parish church of Waterford, which was most gaily decorated for the occasion.

The honeymoon was spent in Scotland, and was interrupted by a command from the Queen for Roberts to be present at Buckingham Palace on the 8th June, in order to receive at her Majesty's hands the decoration of the Victoria Cross.

On the 27th June, little more than a month after their wedding, the newly-married couple started for India.

The heat in the Red Sea was appalling, hotter even than on Roberts' first trip, and to make matters worse they encountered a terrific storm in the Indian Ocean. To quote Lord Roberts: "Eventually we arrived in Calcutta, in rather a dilapidated condition, on the 30th July."

Roberts was soon actively employed. The dominions which had been formerly ruled by the East India Company were to be formally taken over by the Queen. To celebrate this event the Viceroy, Lord Canning, made a great triumphal tour, "a six-months' march over a thousand miles," and to Roberts fell the duty of organising this huge pageant.

Mrs. Roberts accompanied her husband on this tour. Lucknow was their first halt. We can well imagine with what interest the young couple went over the places, now quiet and peaceful, which had but a short time before been the scenes of so much violence and bloodshed.

"I made use of the next week," writes Roberts, "which was for me a comparatively idle time, to take my wife over the ground by which we had advanced two years before, and explain to her the different positions held by the enemy. She was intensely interested in visiting the Sikandarbagh, the Shah Najaf, the mess-house, and, above all, that glorious memorial of almost super-human courage and endurance, the Residency, mined, roofless, and riddled by round shot and bullets."

After his duty with the Viceroy was ended, Roberts, his wife, and their little daughter, who was born on March 10th, went to Simla. Here, in a glorious climate, they lived in a bungalow well named Mount Pleasant, which was approached through a forest of rhododendron, along a path crimson with fallen blossom. Both were delighted with their new quarters. "Our servants had arranged everything in our little abode most comfortably; bright fires were burning in the grates, a cosy breakfast was awaiting us, and the feeling that at last we had a home of our own was very pleasant."

Lieutenant Roberts' promotion, when it came, burst with surprising rapidity. When the East India Company's army became joined to the Queen's forces he got his step; on 12th November 1860 he became a captain; the following day his name appeared in the Gazette  as a brevet-major!

This year he had again the management of the Viceroy's camp, but this was on a much smaller scale than the year before. During the Viceroy's progress Roberts had plenty of shooting, and on this occasion shot his first tiger.

"Not considering myself a first-rate shot," he says, in his usual modest way, "I thought I should be best employed with the beaters; but, as good luck would have it, the tiger broke from the jungle within a few yards of my elephant; I could not resist having a shot, and was fortunate enough to knock him over."


Tiger Hunting.

Roberts had been disappointed in not being sent with the expedition to China, with whom we were then at war. His old chief, Sir Colin Campbell, now Lord Clyde, had thought it hardly fair to send off a newly-married man so far on such a dangerous mission, and was much surprised that both the young major and his wife should not be more grateful to him for having spared them the separation. When Mrs. Roberts told him how sorry they both were at his having to stay behind, the old Scotsman burst out in his rough, half-playful way: "Well, I'll be hanged if I can understand you women! I have done the very thing I thought you would like, and have only succeeded in making you angry. I will never try to help a woman again."

Though he was not to take part in the fighting in China, Roberts had his chance nearer home, towards the end of 1865.

As usual, there was trouble on the frontier. Many of the rebels who had escaped the Mutiny had fled over the border, and with the aid of fanatics were continually stirring up the tribes to revolt. In order to check this disturbance General Garvock was despatched with a force of about five thousand men. Major Roberts was with the mountain battery which led the way, and was in the thick of the two days' fighting which followed, and in which the tribes were completely beaten. The terms of peace were that the Bunerwals should go and destroy the village of the fanatics who had made all the trouble. This they consented to do, and Roberts and six other officers went with them to see the agreement carried out.

It was a dangerous job for the little band of Englishmen. The villagers looked on in sulky silence as their homes were set on fire. There was deep anger in their hearts towards the hated white men who were the cause of the deed, and who now stood amongst them.

Murmurs at last led to threats of violence; the tribesmen began to crowd round Roberts and his dauntless companions. At this moment the staunchness of the Bunerwals probably saved their lives. "You are hesitating whether you will allow these English to return unmolested," broke in an old, grey-bearded chief. "You can, of course, murder them and their escort, but if you do you must kill us Bunerwals first, for we have sworn to protect them, and we will do so with our lives." The little band returned in safety, though they had had a narrow escape for their lives: and on his return to Simla Roberts found his wife had been most anxious for his safety. She had accidentally heard the expedition described as "madness" by Sir Hugh Rose, the Commander-in-Chief. "It was madness, and not one of them will ever come back alive," he had said while passing her tent. We can well imagine with what delight she hailed her husband's return, as, till the morning of the day he returned, she had had no news of his safety.

Shortly after this, Major Roberts was ordered home on sick leave, and with his wife he sailed in February, on board a transport, for the long voyage round the Cape.

His first action at the inspection parade on board ship was to let off all the culprits detailed for punishment. He addressed the men in a few short, manly sentences, told them that he was unwilling to commence their acquaintance by awarding punishments, and that he hoped their future conduct would show him that he had not made a mistake in being too lenient.

"The officers seemed somewhat surprised at my action in this matter," says Roberts, "but I think it was proved by the men's subsequent conduct that I had not judged them incorrectly, for they all behaved in quite an exemplary manner throughout the voyage."

After a few months at home Major Roberts again sailed for India, in March. In that year a brigade was sent from Bengal to Abyssinia. The king of the country, Theodore, had ill-treated and imprisoned some Europeans, and it was determined to punish him. Roberts was chosen, much to his delight, to go with the troops as Assistant-Quartermaster-General, and on the 3rd of February they anchored in Annerly Bay, near Zula, a port of Abyssinia.

He was not, however, to take part in the fighting, but had to remain as senior staff officer and look after the transport arrangements. The heat was almost unbearable, 117° in Major Roberts' tent. Roberts was very fortunate in finding an old friend and Eton schoolfellow on duty in the harbour. This was Captain Tryon, afterwards Admiral Sir George Tryon, k.c.b. , whose untimely end, many years afterwards, in the sinking of h.m.s. Victoria, plunged the whole nation into mourning. To his old schoolfellow, our hero tells us, he owed many a good dinner, and, what I appreciated even more, many a refreshing bath on board the Euphrates"—a transport fitted up for Captain Tryon and his staff.

For four months Roberts stayed in the furnace heat of Zula. On the 17th April news came that Magdala had fallen, and the object of the expedition was accomplished.

On the 2nd June Sir Robert Napier, Commander-in-Chief, returned to Zula, and on the 10th he embarked for home, taking Roberts with him as his bearer of final despatches.

On his arrival home Roberts was met by his wife, and on the 14th of August, among the rewards for the Abyssinian Expedition, his name appeared for a brevet lieutenant-colonelcy. On January 4, 1869, Colonel Roberts, with his wife and child, again left for India. On the voyage they experienced the great sorrow of losing their little girl, who died on board ship, and was buried at sea.

The next two years were spent quietly at Simla, in a round of official duties. Among other things, Colonel Roberts went through a course of electric telegraphy, and was soon able to send and to receive messages on the instrument. In the summer of 1871 there again was a chance of active service for the young colonel.

In the district round Cachar, between South-eastern Bengal and Burma, it was found that the tea-plant would thrive to an extraordinary degree. Gradually the jungles became cleared, and the tea-gardens were pushed further and further into what had been but lately the wilds.

The native tribe, the Lushais, whose territory was thus encroached upon, were a wild, fierce people. From time to time they had raided the tea-gardens, done the planters much damage, and carried off prisoners. Small expeditions had been sent out to punish them; but, from various causes, these had not met with much success. The Lushais became bolder, raids on the gardens became more frequent, until at last the raiders kidnapped the daughter of a planter, a little girl named Mary Winchester.

It was then thought that the time for action had come, and this was absolutely necessary for the future security of British subjects. Two columns were therefore fitted out, and Colonel Roberts was appointed as chief staff officer, his orders being "to fit out and despatch the two columns and then join General Bourchier at Cachar."

The progress of the columns was slow; the way lay through a dense jungle with thick undergrowth, and at times the men could only march in single file. At one time the road was "blocked by a curious erection in the form of a gallows, from which hung two grotesque figures made of bamboos." "A little further on it was a felled tree which stopped us; this tree was studded all over with knife-like pieces of bamboos, and from the incisions into which these were stuck exuded a red juice, exactly the colour of blood. This was the Lushais' mode of warning us what would be our fate if we ventured further."

After some fighting, the tribe saw that the Government was in earnest, and soon came to terms.

On New Year's Day 1872, Colonel Roberts received the news that he had gained an important step in his department, and had been appointed Deputy-Quartermaster-General. A few days later he got the news of the birth of a son and heir at Umballa. Though there had not been much fighting, the expedition had had a trying time, marching in the jungle and subsisting mainly on tinned foods, and no one was sorry when peace was made and the troops were able to return. For his services against the Lushais Colonel Roberts received the c.b.

For the next four or five years Colonel Roberts was to spend a life of duty and routine without actual fighting. He had much to do with making the arrangements for the Prince of Wales' successful tour in India in 1875.

Again, in January 1877, he was kept busy in forming the huge camp at Delhi when, amid much pomp and ceremony, the Queen was proclaimed Empress of India.

Shortly after, events in Afghanistan began to look threatening, and Roberts was soon to find a wider field for his military genius.

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