Redvers Buller is remembered in rather negative terms because of his failures in the Boer War of 1899-1902. He has become a byword for military stupidity and out-dated attitudes to changing 19th century society. The photo of him that accompanies this biography shows him in the uniform of the King's Royal Rifle Corps into which regiment he was commissioned in 1858, and of which he was appointed Colonel in 1895. The usual photo of him, that is familiar to many, is less flattering and tends to reinforce the general view of a bovine character. The association with cattle comes from the cow-like expression, the name Buller and the fact that he came from landed gentry. He certainly favoured country people over town people and was prejudiced against 'suburban-bred' officers.
Buller's early military career was very successful. He was keen and tough with good leadership skills. These were noted by Sir Garnet Wolseley on the Red River Expedition in Canada, and he gained entrance into Wolseley's 'ring' of favourites. During the Zulu War he won the Victoria Cross at the battle of Hlobane (Inhlobana). The account of his heroic deed says:
'Lieut-Col Buller, while being hotly pursued by Zulus, rescued a captain of the Frontier Light Horse (Capt D'Arcy)and carried him on his own horse until he overtook the rearguard. On the same day, under the same circumstances, he carried a lieutenant (C Everitt, also of the Frontier Light Horse), whose horse had been killed under him, to a place of safety. Again on the same day, he saved a trooper (also Frontier Light Horse) whose horse was exhausted, and who otherwise would have been killed by the Zulus who were within 80 yards of him.'
Praises were heaped on him and he was appointed ADC to the Queen with whom he got on famously. Buller loved soldiering so much that when he married Audrey daughter of the Marquess of Townshend, he interrupted his honeymoon to serve under Wolseley in Egypt. But it wasn't all plain sailing. He had a bad temper which caused him to fall out with fellow officers, including Wolseley at one point. The worst mistake Buller made at this stage of his career was to make an enemy of the Prince of Wales. This was to rebound on him badly when the POW became King.
After Egypt and Sudan Buller was desk-bound for 10 years, first as Quarter-Master General and then as Adjutant-General. He was virtually running the army himself since the Duke of Cambridge was increasingly incapacitated. During this time he set up the Army Service Corps which was a great boon to all soldiers. His regard for the well-being of soldiers made him very popular. On the down side he showed a deep disregard of civil servants and politicians who wielded more power than he realised.
His appointment as Commander-in-Chief for the Second Boer War unnerved Buller because it had been a long time since his last active service, and the army was the largest ever sent abroad. His relationship with the Secretary of State for War, Lord Lansdowne, was as bad as it could be. At first the campaign seemed to go well and when Ladysmith was besieged he decided to take most of the army to Natal. But his attempts to relieve Ladysmith failed badly at Colenso, Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz. It was especially unfortunate that Lord Roberts's son was killed at Colenso; Buller received much of the blame for this and Roberts, his successor, could never forgive him.
The main criticisms of Buller's command in South Africa were:
Buller made a disastrous error when he sent a telegram to Lord Lansdowne implying that he would abandon the attempt to relieve Ladysmith. He also telegraphed General Sir George White, commanding the garrison in Ladysmith, apparently urging him to surrender. Lansdowne now had the excuse to sideline Buller and put Lord Roberts in charge. But he didn't just fade away. During the next few months Buller's force captured Pieters, formally entered Ladysmith, occupied Machadodorp, defeated Botha at Lydenburg and marched north as far as Pilgrim's Rest, occupying the principal Boer positions.
Back in England Buller was happy to continue with his pre-war job in command at Aldershot. But he had to counter criticism from the Times writer, Leo Amery, and his bad temper got the better of him. He gave a speech to defend himself but in doing so he breached army discipline. This was enough to have him sacked, in October 1901.
Buller may have fallen foul of the establishment but he was still highly regarded by his soldiers. He was conspicuously humane in a generally inhumane profession. He had done much whilst in administration to improve conditions, and on campaign he ensured that his men were well equipped. Under him the army never lacked for anything, nor did they suffer the same hardships or disease which characterised Roberts's operations. On the few occasions when his men went short, Buller shared their discomforts, at one time going hungry and sleeping on the ground without a tent in the Drakensberg mountains when his troops had advanced ahead of their supplies.
1839 7th Dec. Born at Downes, Crediton, Devon
Buller: A Scapegoat? A Life of General Sir Redvers Buller 1839-1908 by Geoffrey Powell (Leo Cooper 1994)
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