Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Colvile, Henry Edward

COLVILE, Sir HENRY EDWARD (1852–1907), lieutenant-general, born at Kirkby Mallory, Leicestershire, on 10 July 1852, was only son of Colonel Charles Robert Colvile of Lullington, Derbyshire, M.P. for South Derbyshire 1841-9 and 1865-8, by his wife Katharine Sarah Georgina, eldest daughter of Captain John Russell, R.N., and of Sophia, twenty-third Baroness de Clifford in her own right. His father was fifth in descent from Richard Colvile, of Newton Colvile, who succeeded his uncle, Sir William Colvile (d. 1680), a staunch royalist. His mother's father was grandson of John Russell, fourth duke of Bedford [q. v.]. Educated at Eton, he entered the army as lieutenant in the grenadier guards on 1 Oct. 1870, and was promoted captain on 15 March 1872. From 1876 to 1880 he was instructor of musketry ; from 1880 to 1883 he was A.D.C. to the Hon. Leicester Smyth, the general commanding the troops at the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1884 he obtained employment in the intelligence department in the Soudan. He was present at the battles of El-Teb (29 Feb. 1884) and Tamai (13 March) under Sir Gerald Graham [q.v. Suppl. I], was mentioned in despatches (Lond. Gaz. 27 March and 6 May 1884), and received the medal with clasp and bronze star. Later in the same year he was specially employed in the Soudan expedition on the Nile which was designed to rescue General Gordon at Khartoum. Attached to the intelligence department, he was present at the action of Abu Klea in January 1885 (despatches, Lond. Gaz. 25 Aug. 1885). He was made C.B. on 25 Aug. 1885 and received the clasp. From 1885 to 1888 he was on the staff in Egypt, and during that period was employed with the frontier field force, being present at the action of Giniss on 30 Dec. 1885 (despatches, Land. Gaz. 9 Feb. 1886).

Repeatedly mentioned in despatches, Colvile achieved a solid reputation as one of the best intelligence officers in the army, and becoming lieutenant-colonel on 1 Nov. 1882, was promoted colonel on 2 Jan. 1886 for his services in the Soudan. In 1893 he was sent to the Uganda protectorate as acting commissioner, and next year he commanded the expedition against Kabarega, king of Unyoro, the slave raider, which proved a conspicuous success. For these services he received the central African medal and the brilliant star of Zanzibar and was nominated C.M.G. on 3 Jan. 1895. Forced to retire from Uganda by ill-health, he came home, and on 5 July 1895 was promoted to K.C.M.G., and on 10 March 1898 became major-general.

After a short time in command of a brigade at Gibraltar, Colvile was in 1899 given the command of the guards brigade in the war with the Boers of South Africa, which was declared on 12 Oct. 1899. He was with the force, under Lord Methuen, which was ordered to relieve Kimberley (besieged since 15 Oct.), and took part in the successful actions at Belmont (23 Nov. 1899) and Modder River (28 Nov.), and the defeat of Magersfontein (10-11 Dec.) (despatches, Lond. Gaz. 26 Jan. and 16 March 1900; medal with clasps). When the South African field force was reorganised on the arrival of Lord Roberts as commander-in-chief (10 Jan. 1900), Colvile was placed in command of the new ninth division, and marched with the main army to attack General Cronje's force. Colvile's and General Kelly-Kenny's division hemmed in Cronje at Paardeberg after desperate fighting (18 Feb.) ; Colvile took part with Lord Roberts in the occupation of Bloemfontein (13 March), after engagements at Poplar Grove and Driefontein (10 March). While at Bloemfontein he became entangled in events which ruined his military career. Colvile failed in his attempt to relieve General Broadwood's column, after it had been ambushed by General De Wet at Sanna's Post (30-31 March 1900), and his failure was assigned by Lord Roberts to a reprehensible lack of vigour. A further disaster befell Colvile later. Lord Roberts, on his advance from Bloemfontein to Pretoria in May, left Colvile, who was still nominally in command of the division, on the line of communication, with orders to press on to Heilbron. At the end of May, Colonel Spragge, in command of a detachment of Irish imperial yeomanry, which had been directed to join Colvile's division, was surrounded at Lindley by De Wet's force. Appeals for help reached Colvile, who disregarded them, and arrived at Heilbron, after severe fighting, according to his orders, on 29 May. Spragge's force was captured by the Boers, with heavy casualties, on 31 May. Colvile's position was difficult ; on the one hand he had been led to believe that his presence at Heilbron by a certain date was essential to Lord Roberts's plans ; on the other there was a definite appeal for help from a part of the force assigned to him, the absence of which increased the difficulty of his march to Heilbron and diminished his usefulness when he arrived there. Colvile failed to realise that an officer in his responsible position must, in exceptional circumstances, take the risk of acting even contrary to orders.

After the disaster at Lindley the ninth division was broken up, and Colvile being sent home reverted to the command of a brigade at Gibraltar. But when Lord Roberts became commander-in-chief of the army on 30 Nov. 1900, he insisted that Colvile should be recalled. Colvile returned to England, and on landing at Dover on 31 Dec. stated his own view of his case to a representative of Reuter's agency. On 19 Jan. 1901 he was placed on retired pay as a lieutenant-general. He skilfully elaborated his defence and complained of his treatment by Lord Roberts in ‘The Work of the Ninth Division’ (1901).

Settling at Bagshot, Colvile, on 24 Nov. 1907, while riding a motor-bicycle, came into collision at Frimley with a motor-car, and died almost immediately of his injuries at Brompton Sanatorium. He was buried at Lullington, near Burton-on-Trent, where his ancestral estates lay.

He was twice married: (1) on 6 Aug. 1878 to Alice Rosa (d. 1882), eldest daughter of Robert Daly and granddaughter of John Daly, second Baron Dunsandle; (2) in 1886 to Zélie Isabelle, daughter of Pierre Richard de Préville of Château des Mondrans, Basses Pyrénées, France, by whom he had one son.

Colvile was a skilful writer and effectively narrated his experiences as a traveller in little known lands as well as a soldier. He published, besides the work cited: 1. ‘A Ride in Petticoats and Slippers,’ relating to Morocco, 1880. 2. ‘The Accursed Land,’ a description of the land of Edom near the Dead Sea, 1884. 3. ‘The History of the Soudan Campaign,’ for the war office, 3 parts, 1889. 4. ‘The Land of the Nile Springs,’ 1895, chiefly an account of the fight against Kabarega in Uganda. 5. ‘The Allies, England and Japan,’ 1907.

[Burke's Peerage; Hart's and Official Army Lists; Celebrities of the Army, edited by Commander Charles N. Robinson, R.N.; R. H. Vetch, Lieut.-General Sir Gerald Graham, 1901; The Scapegoat, a selection from articles in The Review of the Week, 1901; Journal, Roy. Geog. Soc., Jan. 1908; The Times, 26 Nov. 1907; The Times History of War in South Africa, vols. iii. and iv.; Sir F. Maurice, Official History of War in South Africa, vols. i. and ii.]

H. M. V.