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

Return to India—South African War—Conclusion

When Sir Frederick Roberts landed in England on November 17, 1880, he found himself the hero of the hour. Honours fell thick upon him; for his services in Afghanistan he was created a Baronet, received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, and was appointed to the command of the army of Madras.

The march to Kandahar had aroused the greatest excitement and fired the popular imagination, and vast crowds met to cheer the general who, amid so many trials and dangers, had led his army to victory.

His well-earned rest at home was, however, to be but short.

On Sunday, 27th February 1881, came the news of the defeat of the British arms under General Colley by the Boers at Majuba Hill.

On Monday Roberts was asked to take command of the army which was assembling in Natal in order to avenge this defeat. In the short space of five days the general—"ready, aye ready for the field "—had sailed with his staff from Southampton.

As we know, the time for "wiping something off a slate" had not yet come, owing to the strange policy of the British Government. Roberts himself describes how he was sent on "a wild-goose chase." The ship had no sooner entered Table Bay than a telegram was handed to him which ordered him to return at once, as a peace had been patched up, and there was no further need of his services. His stay at Cape Town was indeed limited to twenty-four hours. "The Government seemed to be as anxious to get him away as they had been to hurry him out there."

After a short time at home he again set sail for India, in order to take up the command of the Madras army. This army was much improved during the time General Roberts was at its head. The Madrassi is often a tall, finely set-up, handsome man. In the days of Clive, and even later, he had shown himself a bold fighter, but years of peace had left their mark on him. In spite of his imposing appearance on parade, Roberts saw that the ordinary Southern Indian, as a fighting-man, is "soft."

Still he did not despair of him; he was as a rule better educated and more intelligent than the warlike native of the north. Accordingly the general determined to create an enthusiasm for marksmanship and rifle-practice among the troops. He himself set the example by becoming a keen rifle shot, and he was well backed up in this interest by his staff, among whom was Captain Hamilton, now General Sir Ian Hamilton.

In July 1885, on the retirement of Sir Donald Stewart, Sir Frederick Roberts succeeded to the proud position of Commander-in-Chief in India. During the seven years he held this post, Roberts won the esteem, admiration, and affection of all, Native and European, from the highest to the lowest. Under his command many important improvements in the condition of the army were made; and he brought all his skill and experience to bear on the question of frontier defence.

On the 1st January 1892, Sir Frederick was raised to the peerage, as Baron Roberts of Kandahar and Waterford, and a year later he left India, after forty-one years' service, for good.

On his return from Afghanistan he had been called the "most popular man in England"; now he might be termed, on his departure from his command, the most popular man in the army. "Bobs" was essentially the soldiers' general, and all ranks, British and Native alike, looked on the general with genuine feelings of love and admiration.

Two years after his return to England, he was promoted to be Field-Marshal.

It was during his term of service as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in Ireland, that Lord Roberts was again called upon to lead his country's armies.

The fatal peace of Majuba Hill—"a peace which was no peace"—was about to reap a harvest of disaster and bloodshed.

In the autumn of 1899, the Transvaal Republic, joined by the Orange Free State, declared war on Great Britain. They had been preparing for war for a long time, and in a short time the British colonies in South Africa were invaded by a well-equipped, hostile force.

Then came bad news fast—the fight at Talana Hill, the retirement on Ladysmith, the battles of Belmont, Graspan, and Modder River. These were the dark days of the war.

People at home, as the newsboys in the murky November afternoons shouted their tale of fresh disaster, caught their breath, and wondered if this was the beginning of the end—if the sun of British power was about to set.

The feeling everywhere grew that there was one man who could save the Empire, and turn defeat into victory. All eyes were turned towards "Roberts, the deliverer," as he was already felt to be. At length the Government asked him to take the chief command in South Africa.

"My Lord, for nineteen years I have led an abstemious life in the hope of this day,"  came the reply.

During the preceding week the worst news that had reached England for a century came pouring in. Buller had moved to cross the Tugela, but under the terrible fire of the Boers had been forced to retire, and Ladysmith, with its heroic garrison, was still unrelieved.

During this fight Lord Roberts' only son had been mortally wounded, and had died the following day. Like his father, years before, at Delhi, he had been shot down whilst gallantly saving the guns. As in the case of the father, a v.c. was assigned to him; but alas! it was only to his parents that the honour could be sent.

In spite of personal grief, in spite of the weight of years, Lord Roberts was ready at the nation's call. Nor did he long delay: a week was all the time he asked for, in which to make his preparations. Two days before Christmas he sailed from Southampton, carrying with him the hopes and anxious wishes of a mighty Empire.

"Three English forces were apparently helpless in the face of the armed positions occupied by the Boers; three towns on English soil were beleaguered by hostile forces; three great reverses had befallen three English generals; and 11,000 of the best troops of this country were entangled in Ladysmith. On Saturday, the 16th, we sent for Lord Roberts, and on the following Saturday he was on the high seas."

In these brief words did Mr. Arthur Balfour afterwards sum up the position of affairs, and pay a tribute to the dauntless soldier.

Meanwhile, on board the Balmoral Castle, the active brain of the general was busy, and when, on the 10th of January, the ship reached Capetown, Lord Roberts was ready with his plan of campaign.

No longer was Cronje's taunt, that the British were "tied by the leg to the railway," to hold good. The little man, who had marched from Kabul to Kandahar, had his method of attack prepared, and was ready to move swiftly and strike hard.

Some time had, however, to be spent at Capetown before all the arrangements could be made. Finally, on the 6th of February, Lord Roberts left Capetown, and two days after he reached the Modder River camp. Here for two or three days he remained, his head-quarters for the time being the railway carriage in which he had travelled.

"Ladysmith must be relieved,"  Lord Roberts had from the first declared.

On the 15th the relief of Kimberley was accomplished, and this success roused the spirits of all—the soldiers fighting in the field, and the anxious watchers at home. Back from Kimberley French and his tired cavalry rode: the great object now was to round up Cronje and his army.

At Paardeberg, Cronje and his Boers lay, lulled by a feeling of false security. Gradually the British forces under Lord Roberts drew the net closer.

The Boer general was taken by surprise; in spite of repeated warnings, he had scoffed at the idea of a British army moving so swiftly and so secretly. Little did he know the man he had to do with, this new general who had infused such life and activity into his troops.

The Boer leader at last saw that his position was getting desperate; already he could be seen signalling frantically for help. At sunrise, on the 18th February, he woke to find himself "hopelessly and helplessly beleaguered." "'Bobs' had got old Cronje at last," the soldiers said.

On the 27th day of February, the anniversary of the Boer victory at Majuba Hill, the end came. The white flag went up, and Cronje and his burghers, to the number of about four thousand men, laid down their arms.


Surrender of Cronje after Paardeberg.

For nineteen long years the Boers had taunted the Englishmen and boasted of their victory, saying how, if ever war again broke out, they would drive the red-coats to the sea. Now, at last, the day of reckoning had come, and they themselves were to know the bitterness of defeat.

The very day Cronje surrendered, General Buller, after desperate fighting, found the way to Ladysmith practically open; and, on the 3rd of March, his army was able to join hands with the gallant garrison.

Success followed success; ever moving onwards, the army reached Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State. The town surrendered promptly, and Lord Roberts hoisted the British flag, a silk Union Jack, worked especially for the occasion by Lady Roberts' own hands.

Here the army rested for a bit, but soon they were on the march again, and closing in on Johannesburg—"the golden city"—which surrendered on the 31st of May, and was occupied by our troops. Again the army pressed on, this time to Pretoria, and Roberts, playing for a great stake, launched his troops at the Boers, and again was victorious, and the capital of the Transvaal was in the hands of the British.

The fighting still went on, however, round the city, and it was not till seven days afterwards that the Boers were finally dispersed, and driven from the neighbourhood of Pretoria.

At Bergendal, Buller and the men from Natal again defeated the Boers, and this was the last great fight of the war.

How long the Boers still in the field resisted we all know, but the backbone of the fighting had been broken, and Lord Roberts' work was done. He had marched and fought his forces over a huge area—an area greater than France, Germany, and Austria. The war was now practically over: the veteran fighter had turned gloom into joy, defeat into victory. His work was done, and the time had come for him to say farewell to the gallant army he had so ably led.

The lessons of the war still remain. It has knit together the whole British Empire. It was a war fought not alone by a British army, but by the militia, yeomanry, and volunteers of Great Britain, and by our brothers across the sea—the men of South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Ceylon. Lord Roberts was the first general to command an army of Britain and of Greater Britain—an imperial host.

The mother country had been in sore distress, and her children in the colonies had heard the parent voice and hastened to her aid.

"So we stand," said Lord Roberts, in his farewell address at Capetown, "and please God, will continue to stand, a united, world-wide dominion, bound together by indissoluble ties, and ever ready to carry out the destiny of our race. God has brought us out of what in the dark days of last December appeared to be the valley of the shadow of death, and we can now look back on those days of tribulation with deep gratitude for the mercy vouchsafed to the Queen's troops."

On the 2nd of January Igor, Lord Roberts reached England, and next day he rendered his last obeisance to the Queen he had served so long and so faithfully. From her dying hands almost he received, as reward for his latest and greatest services, the Order of the Knight of the Garter and an Earldom. A few days later he entered on his new duties as Commander-in-Chief, and at this post he remained for three years.

The veteran Field-Marshal had more than doubled the span allotted. by the ancient law of India, which says that a man shall be twenty years a fighter. But, though he had reached the verge of threescore and ten years, the rest he had earned had no attractions for him as long as there was work to be done. "The truth is," he had said, "that the mother country takes long to understand that the best way to avoid war is to be well prepared for it."

He who was ever ready to take the field at a moment's notice, in order to fight the enemies of his country, now set himself the task of preparing the country itself for the stern duties of war.

"I shall continue to work for the army as long as I can work at all," Lord Roberts has said. "The experience I have gained will greatly help me in the work that lies before me, which is, I conceive, to make the army of the United Kingdom as perfect as it is possible for any army to be. This I shall strive to do with all my might."

But it is not only with the regular army that Lord Roberts is concerned.

On every occasion has he urged the youth of our country to train themselves to arms, as the only real means of peace and of safeguarding our Empire.

Under his fostering care a spirit of patriotism has been awakened, and it is to be hoped that the day is not far distant when every able-bodied man in the country will have learnt to be able to shoot, and to fight, if necessary, for his hearth and home. Then—

"Come the four corners of the world in arms, And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue, If England to itself do rest but true."

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