Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Thesiger, Frederic Augustus

THESIGER, FREDERIC AUGUSTUS, second Baron Chelmsford (1827–1905), general, born on 31 May 1827, was eldest son of Frederick Thesiger, first baron [q. v.], by Anna Maria, youngest daughter of William Tinling. Educated at Eton, he was commissioned as second-lieutenant in the rifle brigade on 31 Dec. 1844, and exchanged to the grenadier guards as ensign and lieutenant on 28 Nov. 1845. He was promoted lieutenant and captain on 27 Dec. 1850. He went to Ireland in February 1852 as A.D.C. to the lord-lieutenant (the earl of Eglinton), and from January 1853 to August 1854 he was A.D.C. to Sir Edward Blakeney, commanding the forces there. He joined his battalion in the Crimea on 31 May 1855, and served there till the end of the war, being A.D.C. to General Markham, commanding second division, from 18 July to 29 Sept. 1855, and deputy assistant quartermaster-general from 8 Nov. 1855 to 24 June 1856. He was made brevet-major (2 Nov. 1855) and received the medal with clasp, the Sardinian and Turkish medals, and the Mejidie (5th He was promoted captain and lieutenant-colonel on 28 Aug. 1857, and exchanged into the 95th (Derbyshire) regiment on 30 April 1858, to take part in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny. He joined the regiment in November, and was present at the last action in which it was engaged, the capture of Man Singli's camp at Koondrye, where he commanded the infantry of Michael Smith's brigade of the Rajputana field force. He received the medal. From 13 July 1861 to 31 Dec. 1862 he was deputy adjutant-general of the British troops in the -Bombay presidency. He became brevet-colonel on 30 April 1863, He was employed in the Abyssinian expedition of 1868 as deputy adjutant-general, and Lord Napier spoke of his ’great ability and untiring energy' in his despatch (Lond. Gaz. 30 June 1868). He received the medal, and was made C.B. and A.D.C. to the queen.

Thesiger was adjutant-general in the East Indies from 17 March 1869 to 15 March 1874. In a lecture at Calcutta in 1873 on the tactical formation of British infantry he maintained that much less change was needed than most people supposed, and that the two-deep line still met the case {Journal of the United Service Institution, xvii. 411-23). Having returned to England, he commanded the troops at Shornclifle as colonel on the staff from 1 Oct. 1874 to 31 Dec. 1876, and then a brigade at Aldershot. He received a reward for distinguished service on 22 May 1876, and was promoted major-general on 15 March 1877. In February 1878 he went to South Africa, to command the troops, with the local rank of lieutenant-general. He took over the command from Sir Arthur Cunynghame [q. v.] at King William's Town on 4 March. A Kaffir war was in progress in that neighbourhood, the Gaikas having invaded Cape Colony and established themselves in the Perie bush. On 12 June Thesiger was able to report that this war had been brought to an end, thanks mainly to Colonel (Sir) Evelyn Wood and Major (Sir) Redvers Buller (Lond. Gaz. 15 July 1878). But there was a general ferment among the natives of South Africa, and he went to Natal in August to make arrangements for an expedition against Sekukuni, who had been giving trouble in the north-east part of the newly annexed Transvaal. The expedition, under Colonel Rowlands, V.C., reached Fort Burgers, on Steelpoort river, at the end of September, but owing to want of water operations had to be suspended, to be resumed a year later.

A more serious business claimed attention. The Zulu king, Cetywayo, had an army of 40,000 men, well trained, well armed, and eager to 'wash their spears.' He was a standing menace to Natal and the Transvaal, as Sir Garnet (now Lord) Wolseley had pointed out three years before. It was difficult to guard a frontier of 200 miles against so mobile an enemy, and the high commissioner. Sir Bartle Frere [q. v.], thought it best to bring matters to a head by presenting an ultimatum, in which Cetywayo was called upon to break up his military system. On 11 Jan. 1879, the term allowed for acceptance having expired, the invasion of Zululand began. Lord Chelmsford, as Thesiger had become by his father's death on 5 Oct. 1878, had over 5000 European troops available and nearly 8000 armed natives. He decided to operate in three columns of nearly equal strength. The centre column (which he accompanied) crossed the Buffalo at Rorke's drift ; the right, under Colonel Pearson, crossed the Tugela near its mouth, eighty miles to the south-east ; the left, under Colonel (Sir) Evelyn Wood, had already crossed the Blood river, thirty-five miles to the north of Rorke's drift. All three were to converge on Ulundi, the king's kraal, fifty to sixty miles off.

On 22 Jan. came the disaster of Isandhlwana. The centre column had encamped under the hill so named, and Chelmsford, learning that his scouting troops, ten miles ahead, were in need of support, joined them on that morning with more than half his force, leaving six companies of the 24th with two guns and some native troops to guard the camp. The cavalry vedettes were to be far advanced, but the infantry outposts to be drawn in closer, and the force was to act on the defensive if attacked. At mid-day this camp-guard was suddenly attacked, enveloped and annihilated by a body of 10,000 Zulus. Of the six companies only three men escaped ; the total number of Europeans killed was 860. Chelmsford had been warned by Kruger and others that laagers should be formed, but that precaution was not taken ; and the troops, relying on the effect of their fire, fought in too open formation. 'We have certainly been seriously underrating the power of the Zulu army,' was Chelmsford's own confession (Verner, ii. 148).

In addition to the loss of men and the moral effect of such a blow, the transport and camp equipment of the column were lost and the natives deserted in large numbers. The invasion of Zululand was brought to a standstill ; the right column entrenched itself at Etshowe, the left at Kambula, and the remains of the centre column recrossed the Buffalo at Rorke's drift. The successful defence of the post there, held by one company of the 24th against 3000 Zulus on the night of the 22nd, discouraged the Zulus from pushing on into Natal. Reinforcements, which had been refused in the autumn of 1878, were now sent out from England to the number of 10,000 men, but took some months to arrive. On 3 April Chelmsford relieved Colonel Pearson's force at Etshowe, having on the previous day beaten off 10,000 Zulus, who attacked his laager at Gingihlovo. Wood had won a similar victory at Kambula on 29 March.

In June Chelmsford resumed the convergent advance on Ulundi, which had failed in January. The first division, under General Crealock, marched near the coast to Port Durnford, and established a new base there. The second division, under General Newdigate, was joined by Wood's flying column, and by 1 July they reached the White Umvolosi near Ulundi, Chelmsford being with them. They met with little resistance on their march, but there was one deplorable incident: the death of the Prince Imperial on 1 June. He had been allowed to join headquarters as a spectator, and was put in charge of a small scouting party, which was surprised by a few Zulus. Five of the party rode off, but four, including the prince, were killed. On 4 July Chelmsford crossed the Umvolosi with 4166 white and 958 native troops, twelve guns and two gatlings. Formed in a hollow rectangle, they marched on Ulundi. The Zulu army, estimated at 20,000, attacked in its usual enveloping fashion, but was soon driven off and suffered severely from the cavalry in its flight. The Zulu power was broken, Cetywayo's kraal was burnt, and he became a fugitive (Lond. Gaz. 19 Aug. 1879).

Before this battle was fought Chelmsford had ceased to be the commander of the forces in South Africa. Isandhlwana had caused much murmuring in England, and the government had been blamed for 'replacing the able Thesiger by the incompetent Chelmsford.' There had been friction between him and Sir Henry Bulwer, the lieutenant-governor of Natal, as to the raising and employment of native levies; and the government decided to send out Sir Garnet Wolseley to supersede them both. Wolseley landed at Durban on 28 June, and joined the first division at Port Durnford on 7 July. He disapproved of the plan of operating with two widely separated forces. Chelmsford accordingly moved southward to St. Paul's mission station, and met Wolseley there on 15 July, On the 27th he left Durban for England. He was mentioned in Wolseley's despatch (Lond. Gaz. 10 Oct. 1879) as entitled to all the merit of the victory of Ulundi. He had been made K.C.B. on 11 Nov. 1878, and received the G.C.B. on 19 Aug. 1879, also the medal with clasp.

He became lieutenant-general on 1 April 1882, and general on 16 Dec. 1888. Prom 4 June 1884 to 29 March 1889 he was lieutenant of the Tower of London. On 7 June 1893 he was placed on the retired list. He had received the G.C.V.O. on 22 Aug. 1882, and been made colonel of the 4th (West London) volunteer battalion of the king's royal rifle corps on 27 Aug. 1887. He was given the colonelcy of his old regiment (the Derbyshire) on 30 Jan. 1889, and was transferred to the 2nd life guards on 27 Sept. 1900. He died on 9 April 1905, at the United Service Club, having had a sudden seizure while playing billiards there. He was buried with military honours at Brompton cemetery, his grave being next to his father's. He was well described by the duke of Cambridge in 1879 as 'a gallant, estimable and high-principled man, generous to others, unsparing of himself, and modest withal.' (Verner, ii. 165.)

A portrait of him by Harris Brown is in the mess of the 2nd life guards, and another by the same artist is in the possession of his widow. A cartoon portrait appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1881.

He married on 1 Jan. 1867 Adria Fanny, eldest daughter of Major-general John Heath of the Bombay army. She survived him, and he left four sons, of whom the eldest, Frederick John Napier, third Baron Chelmsford, was governor of Queensland (1905-9) and afterwards of New South Wales.

[The Times, 10 April 1905; Official Narrative of the Zulu War, 1881; Further Correspondence on the affairs of South Africa, presented to parliament, 1878 (5 parts), 1879 (12 parts); John Martineau, Life of Sir Bartle Frere, 1895; Willoughby C. Verner, Life of the Duke of Cambridge, 1905; Sir Evelyn Wood, From Midshipman to Field-Marshal, 1906.]

E. M. L.