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

At Peshawur—Meeting with Nicholson

During his journey up to Peshawur Roberts had rested at Cawnpore, which was his birthplace. At Meerut he saw for the first time a body of the famous Bengal Horse Artillery, a force which has been described as "unsurpassed and unsurpassable." All the young soldier's ambition was fired to become one day a member of this grand corps, and he had already formed "a fixed resolve to leave no stone unturned in the endeavour to become a horse-gunner."

In the meanwhile, however, Roberts lived with his father, and had a tremendous amount of work to do. His duties were twofold, for he not only acted as his father's aide-de-camp, but also continued to do his duty as officer with the 2nd Company 2nd Battalion of the Bengal Artillery (known locally as "The Devil's Own ").

On the 1st of January 1853, Lord Roberts relates that he was at a dinner-party when the unlucky number thirteen sat down. It would be in accordance with the superstition could we relate the after-fate of the party by death and misadventure. Strange to say, the very opposite has to be chronicled. No less than eleven years after all the thirteen were alive, having passed through the terrible times of the Mutiny, during which five or six had been wounded.

In the autumn of the same year the health of old General Roberts began to fail, and he was, under advice from the doctors, obliged to leave India for good. So weak and ill was he that his son thought it his duty to accompany him part of the way down to Calcutta.

While travelling with his father Roberts missed his first chance of seeing active service and "smelling powder." There was trouble on the frontier; a number of the Bari villages were in revolt, and an expedition had to be sent to punish them. Although the young lieutenant galloped back as fast as relays of ponies could carry him, it was no good. He heard, indeed, the guns of "The Devil's Own " booming in the distance, but by the time he came up, to his grief and disappointment he found the fighting was over, and his baptism of fire was not yet to take place.

He was, however, to encounter another enemy of the British soldier in India, and during the winter he became very ill with fever. So serious was his illness that he was granted six months' leave of absence. This time he spent in a most delightful trip to Kashmir, on which he was accompanied by another lieutenant of artillery. The two young men had a splendid holiday; the country is one of the most beautiful and fertile in the world. The climate is good, and especially refreshing are the cool nights and fine early mornings, after the continual heat of the plains.

Thoroughly set up by the change, our hero returned to Peshawur, and here he reached the height of his boyish ambition in receiving shortly afterwards the coveted "jacket" of a lieutenant in the Bengal Horse Artillery—the force he had set his heart on joining.

They were, indeed, a splendid body of men, mostly Irishmen, and great, strapping fellows, "almost all big enough to have lifted him from the ground with one hand." In such a crack corps good horsemanship was a point of honour with all, and Roberts soon set himself to become a good rider. So successful was he that he was chosen to ride in the regimental brake, which was drawn by six horses, ridden postillion fashion by three officers.

Again the old enemy, fever, laid him low, and once more the doctors sent him to Kashmir to get better. From Kashmir he set out on a four hundred miles' march to the famous hill station, Simla, and here came the "turning-point" in his career.

He was asked to lunch one day with Colonel Becher, the Quartermaster-General. After some talk, Colonel Becher, struck by the young man's soldierly qualities, told him he wished he could have him attached to his department. An appointment of this sort was sure to bring with it a rapid rise in his profession, and Lieutenant Roberts jumped at the idea. From that time it was the goal before him, till in the spring of 1856, far sooner than he had dreamt of, the Deputy-Assistant-Quartermaster-General was required for special service, and Roberts was offered the post.

His delight, however, soon received a check; his appointment could not be sanctioned because he had not passed the necessary examination in Hindustani. This was to be held shortly. Nothing daunted, the young lieutenant engaged a native teacher, and set to work with all his might to learn the language. The time was short, but he made the most of it, and when July and the examination came, he passed the test with flying colours.

Shortly after he got what he had wished for: the vacancy was given him, and he was now a staff-officer, with every prospect of speedy success.

While on tour in his new capacity he received an offer which, had he accepted it, would have changed his whole life, and one of her greatest soldiers would have been lost to the country. This was none other than the chance of a post in the Public Works Department. The salary would, of course, have been far larger than that of an officer in the army, but Roberts was a soldier and the son of a soldier, and he determined to stick to his profession, so the offer was gratefully declined.

In order to join General Reed on a tour of inspection, Roberts accomplished a wonderful ride of a hundred miles in eleven hours, with but one short rest for refreshment. During this tour of inspection Roberts met for the first time a young subaltern in the Inniskilling Fusiliers, who will always be associated with the heroic exploits of the British army, and who many years after, as Sir George White, engraved his name on the annals of our race by the heroic manner in which he "kept the flag flying" at Ladysmith during the dark days of the Boer War.

An incident worth telling, as showing how unprepared everybody was for the outbreak of the Great Mutiny, came under the young staff-officer's notice at Nowshera.

The 55th Native Infantry were stationed there, and their colonel, who had been hitherto used to clean-shaven Hindu Sepoys, was loud in his complaints of the big-bearded Sikhs who had lately been enlisted in his regiment, and who he declared quite spoilt the smart, trim appearance of the ranks on parade.

Two months later the Hindus had broken out into mutiny: of all the regiment only the despised Sikhs remained loyal, and the colonel, who had declared he would stake his life on his trusty Hindustanis, mad with grief and disappointment, blew out his brains.

While in these parts Roberts met for the first time that modern hero of romance, the great John Nicholson. Perhaps no man ever impressed him more, either before or since, and Nicholson was a fit hero for a young soldier's worship and respect.

Like Roberts, he came of Irish stock, though his ancestors had, in the reign of Elizabeth, been sturdy Cumberland dalesmen who had emigrated to Ireland. He had come out to India as a boy of sixteen, and nearly all his time had been spent keeping order among the unruly tribes of the frontier.

The natives literally worshipped him as a god: he had been known to flog the men who knelt before him in prayer as to a god-like saint. The tribesmen looked on him as no mere mortal man. "You could hear the ring of his horse's hoofs from Attock to the Khyber," ran the saying on the frontier.

John Nicholson was a man of splendid size and strength, six foot two in height, and of commanding aspect. "He was a man cast in a giant mould, with massive chest and powerful limbs, and an expression ardent and commanding, with a dash of roughness: features of stern beauty, a long black beard, and a sonorous voice. His imperial air never left him." No wonder this modern crusader fired the imagination of the keen young soldier.

"Nicholson," says Lord Roberts, "impressed me more profoundly than any man I had ever met before, or have ever met since. I have never seen any one like him. He was the beau-ideal of a soldier and a gentleman. . . ." The great man soon showed a regard and affection for the ardent young officer, and the two were together almost from that hour until Nicholson's heroic death in the streets of Delhi.

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