Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Buller, Redvers Henry

BULLER, Sir REDVERS HENRY (1839–1908), general, born at Downes, Crediton, co. Devon, on 7 Dec. 1839, was second son of James Wentworth Buller of Downes by Charlotte Juliana Jane, third daughter of Lord Henry Thomas Howard - Molyneux - Howard, a younger brother of Bernard Edward, twelfth Duke of Norfolk [q. v.]. His father, who graduated B.A. from Oriel College, Oxford, in 1819 and B.C.L. in 1824, and D.C.L. in 1829 from All Souls' College, was M.P. for Exeter and for North Devon, and died on 13 March 1865. His mother died on 15 Dec. 1855. The Builers had been settled in the west country for three centuries. Redvers Buller succeeded to the family manor of Downes on the death of his elder brother, James Howard Buller, on 13 Oct. 1874.

Buller was educated mainly at Eton, where he was fag to the present provost, Dr. Warre, who found him very solid and sturdy, with a will of his own. He was fond of outdoor pursuits, a bold rider, and very observant, but did not make his mark in games or scholarship. He was commissioned as ensign in the 60th (the king's royal rifle corps) on 23 May 1858, and after six months at the depot joined the second battalion at Benares. At the end of February 1860 it embarked for China, and in August it landed at Pehtang with the rest of the force under Sir James Hope Grant [q. v.], and took part in the occupation of Peking. Buller received the medal and clasp, but saw little fighting. He was promoted lieutenant on 9 Dec. 1862, and joined the fourth battalion at Quebec. It was commanded by Colonel Robert Hawley, to whom, Buller afterwards said, he owed all that he knew of soldiering. Hawley persuaded him to act as adjutant in 1868. The battalion returned to England in 1869 ; but on promotion to captain on 28 May 1870, Buller was posted to the first battalion, and went back to Canada, in time to take part with it in the Red River expedition. The troops had to make their way in boats from Lake Superior to Fort Garry, 600 miles, with dangerous navigation and frequent portages. Buller soon attracted the notice of Colonel Wolseley, the com- mander of the expedition. 'He was a thorough soldier, a practised woodman, a skilful boatman in the most terrifying of rapids, and a man of great physical strength and endurance' (Wolseley, ii. 279).

He returned to England in the autumn of 1870, and at the end of 1871 he entered the Staff College. In August 1873, before he had finished the course, he was invited by Sir Garnet Wolseley to go with him to Ashanti as chief intelligence officer. During the advance through the bush he was always in front, and was slightly wounded at Ordashu. He was appointed prize agent after the capture of Coomassie. He was repeatedly mentioned in despatches, received the medal with clasp, and was made brevet-major and C.B. on 31 March 1874.

He served in the adjutant-general's department of the headquarters staff from 1 April 1874 to 30 Jan. 1878, and then went to South Africa with General Thesiger (afterwards Lord Chelrnsford) [q. v. Suppl. II], as a special service officer. The sixth Kaffir war was in progress. A corps, known as the frontier light horse, had been raised locally by Lieutenant Frederick Carrington, a medley of many tongues and types, which needed a strong hand to control it. Buller was placed in command of it, and under him it rendered good service against the Gaikas in the Perie bush near King William's Town (Wood, i. 319 seq.). The campaign was over by June, and its success was due, as Thesiger wrote, to Evelyn Wood's untiring energy and Buller's dogged perseverance (Verner, ii. 146). He was mentioned in despatches (Lond. Gaz. 11 and 18 June 1878) and was made brevet lieutenant-colonel on 11 Nov.

The frontier light horse accompanied Colonel Wood's force to Natal, which was threatened with a Zulu invasion ; and it formed part of Wood's flying column, when Lord Cholmsford entered Zululand in January 1879. Wood's advance was arrested by news of the disaster of Isandhlwana, but he encamped at Kambula, and made diversions. On 29 March the camp was attacked by a Zulu army from Ulundi, which was repulsed with heavy loss after four hours' fighting. On the previous day Buller had been sent out with his horsemen and two native battalions, to seize the Tnhlobana mountains and capture cattle. He succeeded, but the approach of the Zulu army obliged him to make a hasty retreat. The ground was very rough and steep, and many of his men were cut off; out of 400 Europeans, 92 were killed. At great personal risk Buller rescued two officers and a trooper, and on Wood's recommendation ho received the Victoria Cross on 17 June 1879. He was present at the battle of Ulundi, fought on ground which he had reconnoitred the day before. Ho then went home, as his health had suffered from fatigue and exposure. He had been repeatedly mentioned in despatches (Lond. Gaz. 5, 15, 28 March, 7 May and 21 Aug.). He received the medal with clasp, was made aide-de-camp to the Queen with the rank of colonel on 27 Sept., and C.M.G. on 19 Dec. Regimentally he was still a captain, but he . was given a half-pay majority on 13 March 1880. Sir Bartle Frere [q. v.] remarked in a despatch, dated 15 Aug. 1879, that 'the action of General Wood and Buller had destroyed the prejudice of the colonists against the strict discipline of regular military service and their distrust of the ability of Her Majesty's officers generally to conduct operations against the Kaffirs' (Wood, i. 307).

In April 1880 Buller was appointed to the staff in Scotland, and in July he was transferred to Aldershot. In February 1881 he went back to South Africa, and was appointed chief of the staff to Sir Evelyn Wood, who was commanding the troops, and was also acting governor of Natal. The first Boer war had practically ended at Majuba ; but Wood was engaged in negotiations, and most of the military work was left to Buller. He received the local rank of major-general on 29 March 1881. He returned to England at the end of the year.

Before the end of August 1882 Buller was on his way to Egypt, having been chosen by Sir Garnet Wolseley as chief of his intelligence staff. He reconnoitred the Egyptian position at Tel-el-Kebir, and was present at the battle. He was mentioned in despatches (Lond. Gaz. 2 Nov.), and received the medal with clasp, the bronze star, and the Osmanieh (3rd class). He was made K.C.M.G. on 24 Nov.

He was appointed to the headquarters staff as assistant adjutant-general on 22 July 1883. In February 1884 he returned to Egypt to command the first infantry brigade of the force sent to Suakim under Sir Gerald Graham [q. v. Suppl. I], to deal with Osman Digna. He led his brigade at El Teb and Tamai. In the latter action the two brigades formed separate squares, and the second brigade, which was in advance, was broken and driven back in disorder by a sudden charge of the tribesmen. It was soon rallied owing to the firm attitude of the first brigade, which moved forward, and covered the burning of the Mahdist camp. Graham in his final despatch bore witness to Buller's ' coolness in action, his knowledge of soldiers, and experience in the field, combined with his personal ascendancy over officers and men' (Lond. Gaz. 6 May). He was promoted major-general for distinguished service on 21 May, and received two clasps.

In the expedition for the relief of Khartoum Buller was appointed chief of the staff on 26 Aug. 1884. Lord Wolseley wrote of him as invaluable in that capacity owing to his rare instinct for war (Verner, ii. 270). He was sent forward to take command of the desert column, when Sir Herbert Stewart [q. v.] was fatally wounded. He joined it at Gubat on 11 Feb. 1885, with instructions to take Metemmeh ; but the strength of its garrison and the approach of the Mahdist forces from Khartoum made him decide on a retreat across the desert to Korti. The skill with which this retreat was carried out averted what might have been a disaster. His services were noted in despatches (Lond. Gaz. 27 March, 25 Aug.), he was made K.C.B., and received an additional clasp.

He remained in Egypt till October, and on 1 Nov. he became deputy adjutant-general at headquarters. In August 1886 he went to Ireland for civil employment, to restore law and order in Kerry. The Salisbury administration, on taking office, thought that a ' fresh, vigorous mind, accustomed to strict discipline,' would be useful in overhauling the police arrangements in Ireland (Verner, ii. 328). Buller succeeded so well, that in November he was made under-secretary for Ireland, and called to the Irish Privy Council. He soon found this position irksome. His sympathy with the Irish peasantry made the enforcement of evictions distasteful, and ho was not always in accord with ministers. On 15 Oct. 1887 ho returned to military duty as quartermaster-general, and on 1 Oct. 1890 he succeeded Lord Wolseley as adjutant-general. He held this office till 30 Sept. 1897.

The ten years thus spent at the war office were a period of unusual activity there ; and Buller took a leading part in the changes made to improve the condition of the soldier, and prepare the army for war. The question with which he was specially identified was the reorganisation of supply and transport, combining these two services, and adapting them to the regimental system. He showed a regard for the public purse which was rare among soldiers, and successive secretaries of state, conservative and liberal, thought highly of him as an administrator. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman [q. v. Suppl. II] meant him to succeed George, second Duke of Cambridge [q. v. Suppl. II], as commander-in-chief in 1895 ; but a change of ministry interfered with that arrangement, and Lord Wolseley was appointed. In 1893 Buller had been offered, but had declined, the post of commander-in-chief in India. He became lieut. -general on 1 April 1891, and general on 24 June 1896. He received a reward for distinguished service on 10 March 1892 and the G.C.B. on 26 May 1894. He was made a colonel commandant of the king's royal rifle corps on 13 July 1895, and he became honorary colonel of the 1st volunteer battalion of the Devonshire regiment on 4 May 1892.

On 9 Oct. 1898 Buller succeeded the Duke of Connaught in the command of the troops at Aldershot, but remained there only a year. On 14 Oct. 1899 he embarked for South Africa to enforce the British demands on the Transvaal republic, at the head of 70,000 men, the largest army which England had ever sent abroad. His knowledge of the country and the people, combined with his reputation as a soldier and administrator, justified the selection. He was informed of it in June, but it was not till the end of September that he could form a plan of operations, owing to the doubtful attitude of the Orange Free State. When it became clear that the Free State would be hostile, his plan was to advance on Bloemfontein with 45,000 men from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East London, while 15,000 men should defend Natal, and 7000 should guard Kimberley and other points in Cape Colony. But the whole of the British force could not reach South Africa before December, so that the Boers had the advantage of the initiative.

They declared war on 11 Oct., and invaded Natal with 23,000 men. When Buller arrived at Cape Town at the end of the month, he learnt that Sir George White not only had been unable to drive them back but was shut up in Ladysmith. The situation was of the gravest, and Buller decided to sacrifice the organisation of his army corps, to send most of the regiments on to Natal as the transports came in, and to go there himself. He hoped to return to Cape Colony and resume his plan of advance, after relieving Ladysmith; and in the meanwhile Lord Methuen was to relieve Kimberley, which was also invested, and Generals French and Gatacre [q. v. Suppl. II] were to cover Cape Colony. His decision was much criticised, but in the circumstances he 'had absolutely no alternative but to attempt to relieve both garrisons simultaneously' (Henderson, Science of War, p. 368).

On 15 December, having assembled 18,000 men, he moved on Colenso, and made a frontal attack on the Boer position behind the Tugela. There were only 6000 Boers, but they were well hidden, and their fire was so heavy that the attack was not pressed. It cost the British 1100 men and 10 guns. Three days before, Buller had reported that a direct assault on this position would be too costly, and that he meant to turn it by a flank march westward. News of the checks met with by General Gatacre at Stormberg and Lord Methuen at Magersfontein led him to change his mind; he did not like to expose his communications to an enemy elated by success.

In the battle of Colenso he was himself under fire, and was hit by a shrapnel bullet, while he was trying to save the guns. In the evening he reported that he was not strong enough to relieve White, adding 'My view is that I ought to let Ladysmith go, and occupy good positions for the defence of South Natal.' Next day he sent a cipher message to White, asking how long he could hold out, and suggesting that he should make the best terms he could. The reply of the Government was, that the abandonment of White's force would be a national disaster of the greatest magnitude. They urged him to devise another attempt to relieve it, and promised reinforcements. They also decided to send out Lord Roberts as commander-in -chief in South Africa, leaving Buller to devote himself exclusively to the operations in Natal.

Lord Roberts arrived at Cape Town on 10 Jan. 1900. Buller, having been joined by a fresh division under Sir Charles Warren, had just begun an attempt to reach Ladysmith by a wide sweep westward. But the Boers had ample time to shift their ground, and the attempt ended in failure at Spion Kop on 24 January. Warren was in immediate command of the principal force engaged, but Buller was often present, and exercised some control. There was divided responsibility, and Warren's report, forwarded with Buller's comments and those of Lord Roberts, led to much subsequent recrimination. Buller was invited to write a fresh despatch better suited for publication, but this he flatly refused to do. The papers were at first published with large omissions, but ultimately in full (Cd. 968, 17 April 1902).

A third attempt to penetrate the Boer positions, by way of Vaal Krantz, had no better success; but in the middle of February the British began to get possession of the Hlangwane heights, east of Colenso, and after a fortnight of obstinate fighting they entered Ladysmith on 28 February. It was the day after the surrender of Cronje at Paardeberg, and Lord Roberts's progress in the Free State had drawn away some of the Boers from Natal. The relief of Ladysmith had taken nearly three months, and cost 5000 men.

Buller's leadership was severely criticised at the time and afterwards. He showed instability of view and purpose. His care for his men, which was incessant, made him shrink from staking heavily for success. 'The men are splendid,' he reported during the fight at Spion Kop; and they remained staunch to him in spite of failures, recognising the extreme difficulty of his task, and regarding disparagement of him as a slur on themselves.

Two months were spent in recuperation and re-equipment. In April a division was sent to join the main army, leaving three divisions in Natal. In May, after much discussion with Lord Roberts as to his line of advance, Buller moved on the Biggarsberg; and skilfully turning the Boer positions, which were not strongly held, he entered Dundee on 15 May. At the end of the month he opened negotiations with Christian Botha, who was in command of the Boers at Laing's Nek, but they came to nothing. Instead of a direct attack on the Nek, Buller turned it by way of Botha's pass, and after a sharp action at Alleman's Nek on 11 June reached Volksrust in the Transvaal. Lord Roberts had entered Pretoria on 5 June.

As soon as the railway was repaired Buller advanced to Standerton, and by 4 July the Natal army came in touch with the main army. A combined movement on Belfast was arranged, and on 7 Aug. Buller marched north with 11,000 men. On the 21st he came into collision with the left flank of the Boer forces under Louis Botha, which were opposing the advance of Roberts eastward, along the Delagoa Bay railway. On the 27th the Boers were defeated in the battle of Bergendal, so called from an intrenched kopje on the Boer left which was stormed by Buller's troops. As Lord Roberts reported on 10 Oct.: ‘The success of this attack was decisive. It was carried out in view of the main Boer position, and the effect of it was such, that the enemy gave way at all points, flying in confusion to the north and cast.’ Thus it fell to Buller to give the coup de grâce to the resistance of the Boer republics in the way of regular warfare. Their operations from that time onward were of a guerilla character.

While part of the army went on to Komati Poort, Buller marched north to Lydenburg, and made a circuit through that mountainous district, dislodging the Boers from some very strong positions and dispersing their bands. On 2 Oct. he was back at Lydenburg, and took farewell of his troops, for the Natal army was to be broken up. He went to Pretoria on the 10th, and in a special army order of that date Lord Roberts thanked him for the great services he had rendered to his country. He returned to England by Natal, and was presented with a sword of honour at Maritzburg. He landed at Southampton on 9 Nov. He was warmly welcomed and received the freedom of the borough, an example soon followed by Exeter and Plymouth. He was the guest of Queen Victoria at Windsor on the 17th. His services were mentioned in Lord Roberts's despatches of 28 March, 3 and 10 July 1900, and 2 April 1901. He received the G.C.M.G. and the Queen's medal with six clasps.

In January 1901 he resumed command of the Aldershot division, and on 1 Oct. this was merged in the 1st army corps, under a new organisation. Buller had still two years of his five years' term to complete, and he was given command of the corps for that period. But it had been announced that the new army corps would be commanded in peace by the men who would lead them in war, and his appointment was sharply criticised in the press. He was aggrieved that the war office did not defend him or allow him to defend himself. At a public luncheon at the Queen's Hall, Westminster, on 10 Oct. he made a speech which his friends admitted to be a grave indiscretion, and which the government held to be a breach of the King's Regulations. On the 21st he was removed from his command, and was not employed again, though he remained on the active list five years longer. A motion in the House of Commons by Sir Edward Grey, on 17 July 1902, blaming the action of the government, was defeated by 236 votes to 98.

He spent the rest of his life as a country gentleman, regarded locally as one of the foremost worthies of Devon, and meeting a hearty reception at Birmingham and Liverpool, when he visited them in 1903. An equestrian statue of him by Captain Adrian Jones was erected at Exeter in 1905, near Hele's school, by ‘his countrymen at home and beyond the seas,’ bearing the inscription ‘He saved Natal.’ In February 1903 he gave very full evidence before the royal commission on the war, which was reprinted in pamphlet form (pp. 160). He was prime warden of the goldsmiths' company in 1907–8. But his health was beginning to fail, and he died at his home near Crediton on 2 June 1908. He was buried at Crediton with military honours, the escort consisting of a battalion of rifles and a battalion of the Devonshire regiment, which alike laid claim to him. The depôt of the rifles is at Winchester, and in the north transept of Winchester cathedral a memorial of him, a recumbent figure in bronze on a tomb, by Mr. Bertram Mackennal, A.R.A., was unveiled by Lord Grenfell on 28 Oct. 1911. There is also a memorial in Crediton church. H. Tanworth Wells [q. v. Suppl. II] painted a portrait in 1889. There is a cartoon by ‘Spy’ in ‘Vanity Fair’ (1900).

On 10 Aug. 1882 he married Lady Audrey Jane Charlotte, daughter of the 4th Marquis Townshend, and widow of Greville Howard, son of the 17th earl of Suffolk. They had one daughter.

|[His life has yet to be written, but there is a good sketch by Captain Lewis Butler, of his regiment (pp. 120), 1909. In 1900 Mr. Edmund Gosse contributed to the North American Review a character study of him as ‘a genial country gentleman and a man of refined intellectual culture.’ See The Times, 3 June 1908, and for special campaigns, Huyshe, Red River Expedition, 1871; Brackenbury, Ashanti War, 1874; official narrative of the Zulu War, 1881; Maurice, Campaign in Egypt, 1887; H. E. Colville, Sudan Campaign, 1889; Sir Evelyn Wood, From Midshipman to Field-marshal, 1906; Wolseley, Story of a Soldier's Life, 1903; Willoughby C. Verner, Military Life of the Duke of Cambridge, 1905; Maurice, War in South Africa, 1906–8; Royal Commission on the War in South Africa, Evidence, ii. 169–223, and appendix J, 1904; South African Despatches, 2 vols., 1901; Knox, Buller's Campaign in Natal, 1902; Chron. King's Royal Rifle Corps, 1903–1909.]

E. M. L.