Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts
Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts VC KG KP GCB OM GCSI GCIE KStJ VD PC (30 September 1832 – 14 November 1914) was a British soldier who was one of the most successful commanders of the 19th century. He served in the Indian rebellion, the Expedition to Abyssinia and the Second Anglo-Afghan War before leading British Forces to success in the Second Boer War. He also became the last Commander-in-Chief of the Forces before the post was abolished in 1904.
Born at Cawnpore, India, on 30 September 1832, Roberts was the son of General Sir Abraham Roberts, a native of County Waterford in the south-east of Ireland. At the time Sir Abraham was commanding the 1st Bengal European Regiment. Roberts was named Sleigh in honour of the garrison commander, Major-General William Sleigh. His mother was Edinburgh-born Isabella Bunbury, daughter of Major Abraham Bunbury from Kilfeacle in County Tipperary.
Roberts was educated at Eton, Sandhurst and Addiscombe Military Seminary before entering the East India Company Army as a Second Lieutenant with the Bengal Artillery on 12 December 1851. He became ADC to his father in 1852, transferred to the Bengal Horse Artillery in 1854 and was promoted to lieutenant on 31 May 1857.
Indian Rebellion of 1857
Roberts fought in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (also known as the Indian Mutiny) seeing action during the siege and capture of Delhi where he was slightly wounded, and being present at the relief of Lucknow, where, as Deputy Assistant Quartermaster-General, he was attached to the staff of Sir Colin Campbell, Commander-in-Chief, India. He was awarded the Victoria Cross medal for actions on 2 January 1858 at Khudaganj. The citation reads:
Lieutenant Roberts' gallantry has on every occasion been most marked.
On following the retreating enemy on the 2nd January, 1858, at Khodagunge, he saw in the distance two Sepoys going away with a standard. Lieutenant Roberts put spurs to his horse, and overtook them just as they were about to enter a village. They immediately turned round, and presented their muskets at him, and one of the men pulled the trigger, but fortunately the caps snapped, and the standard-bearer was cut down by this gallant young officer, and the standard taken possession of by him. He also, on the same day, cut down another Sepoy who was standing at bay, with musket and bayonet, keeping off a Sowar. Lieutenant Roberts rode to the assistance of the horseman, and, rushing at the Sepoy, with one blow of his sword cut him across the face, killing him on the spot.
Abyssinia and Afghanistan
Having been promoted to second captain on 12 November 1860 and to brevet major on 13 November 1860, he transferred to the British Army in 1861 and served in the Umbeyla and Abyssinian campaigns of 1863 and 1867–1868 respectively. Having been promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel on 15 August 1868 and to the substantive rank of captain on 18 November 1868, Roberts also fought in the Lushai campaign of 1871–1872.
He was promoted to the substantive rank of major on 5 July 1872, appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) on 10 September 1872 and promoted to brevet colonel on 30 January 1875. That year he became Quartermaster-General of the Bengal Army.
He was given command of the Kurram field force in March 1878 and took part in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, distinguishing himself enough at the Battle of Peiwar Kotal in November 1878 to receive the thanks of Parliament, be promoted to the substantive rank of major-general on 31 December 1878 and be advanced to Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) on 25 July 1879.
In September 1879 he was despatched, along with Maurice Abraham Cohen an expert in the Urdu language, to Kabul to seek retribution for the death of Sir Louis Cavagnari, the British envoy there. He was also given the local rank of lieutenant-general on 11 November 1879. After completing his mission to occupy Kabul, he was appointed commander of the Kabul and Kandahar field force and led his 10,000 troops across 300 miles of rough terrain in Afghanistan to relieve Kandahar and defeat Ayub Khan at the Battle of Kandahar on 1 September 1880. For his services, Roberts again received the thanks of Parliament, and was advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) on 21 September 1880 and appointed Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) during 1880.
After a very brief interval as Governor of Natal and Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Transvaal Province and High Commissioner for South Eastern Africa with effect from 7 March 1881, Roberts (having become a baronet on 11 June 1881) was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army on 16 November 1881. Promoted to the substantive rank of lieutenant-general on 26 July 1883, he became Commander-in-Chief, India on 28 November 1885 and was advanced to Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE) on 15 February 1887 and to Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (GCIE) on reorganisation of the Order on 21 June 1887. This was followed by his promotion to a supernumerary general on 28 November 1890 and to the substantive rank of general on 31 December 1891. On 23 February 1892 he was created Baron Roberts of Kandahar in Afghanistan and of the City of Waterford.
After relinquishing his Indian command and becoming Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India (GCSI) on 3 June 1893, Lord Roberts was relocated to Ireland as Commander-in-Chief of British forces there from 1 October 1895. He was promoted field marshal on 25 May 1895 and received the Order of St Patrick during 1897.
Second Anglo-Boer War
On 23 December 1899 Roberts returned to South Africa on the RMS Dunottar Castle to take overall command of British forces in the Second Boer War, subordinating the previous commander, General Redvers Buller. His appointment was a response to a string of defeats in the early weeks of the war and was accompanied by the despatch of huge reinforcements. For his headquarters staff, he appointed military men from far and wide: Lord Kitchener (Chief of Staff) from the Sudan, Frederick Burnham (Chief of Scouts), the American scout, from the Klondike, David Henderson from the Staff College, Neville Chamberlain from Afghanistan and William Nicholson (Military Secretary) from Calcutta. Roberts launched a two-pronged offensive, personally leading the advance across the open veldt into the Orange Free State, while Buller sought to eject the Boers from the hills of Natal. Having raised the Siege of Kimberley, at the Battle of Paardeberg on 27 February 1900 Roberts forced the Boer General Piet Cronjé to surrender with some 4,000 men. After another victory at Poplar Grove, Roberts captured the Free State capital Bloemfontein on 13 March. His further advance was delayed by his disastrous attempt to reorganise his army's logistic system on the Indian Army model in the midst of the war. The resulting chaos and shortage of supplies contributed to a severe typhoid epidemic that inflicted far heavier losses on the British forces than they suffered in combat. On 3 May Roberts resumed his offensive towards the Transvaal, capturing its capital Johannesburg on 31 May. Having defeated the Boers at Diamond Hill and linked up with Buller, he won the last victory of his career at Bergendal on 27 August. The Boer forces disintegrated, and with the war apparently effectively over, Roberts handed over command on 12 December to Lord Kitchener. He returned to England to receive yet more honours: he was made a Knight of the Garter and also created Earl Roberts of Kandahar in Afghanistan and Pretoria in the Transvaal Colony and of the City of Waterford and Viscount St Pierre.
He became a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John on 11 March 1901 and then a Knight of Justice of that order on 3 July 1901. On 9 August 1902 he was also appointed one of the first members of the Order of Merit. He was also awarded the German Order of the Black Eagle during the Kaiser´s visit to the United Kingdom in February 1901.
Lord Roberts became the last Commander-in-Chief of the Forces on 3 January 1901 and served in that role for three years before the post was abolished as recommended by Lord Esher in the Esher Report in February 1904.
National Service League
In retirement was a keen advocate of introducing conscription in Britain (directing the National Service League) to prepare for a great European war. Following his return from the Boer War, he was instrumental in promoting the mass training of civilians in rifle shooting skills through membership of shooting clubs, and a facsimile of his signature appears to this day on all official targets of the National Smallbore Rifle Association.
In 1907 a selection of his speeches was published under the title A Nation in Arms. Roberts provided William Le Queux with information for his novel The Invasion of 1910 and checked the proofs. In 1910 Roberts' friend Ian Hamilton, in co-operation with the Secretary of State for War, Richard Haldane, published Compulsory Service in which he attacked Roberts' advocacy of conscription. This caused much hurt to Roberts. He replied, with the help of Leo Amery and J. A. Cramb, with Fallacies and Facts (1911).
In an important speech in Manchester's Free Trade Hall on 22 October 1912 Roberts pointed out that Cobden and Bright's prediction that peace and universal disarmament would follow the adoption of free trade had not happened. He further warned of the threat posed by Germany:
In the year 1912, just as in 1866 and just as in 1870, war will take place the instant the German forces by land and sea are, by their superiority at every point, as certain of victory as anything in human calculation can be made certain...We may stand still. Germany always advances and the direction of her advance, the line along which she is moving, is now most manifest. It is towards...complete supremacy by land and sea.
He claimed that Germany was making enormous efforts to prepare for war and ended his speech by saying:
Gentlemen, only the other day I completed my eightieth year...and the words I am speaking to-day are, therefore, old words—the result of years of earnest thought and practical experience. But, Gentlemen, my fellow-citizens and fellow-Britishers, citizens of this great and sacred trust, this Empire, if these were my last words, I still should say to you—“arm yourselves” and if I put to myself the question, How can I, even at this late and solemn hour, best help England,—England that to me has been so much, England that for me has done so much—again I say, “Arm and prepare to acquit yourselves like men, for the day of your ordeal is at hand.”
The historian A. J. A. Morris claimed that this speech caused a sensation due to Roberts' warnings about Germany. It was much criticised by the Liberal and Radical press. The Manchester Guardian was disgusted at the "insinuation that the German Government's views of international policy are less scrupulous and more cynical than those of other Governments...Prussia's character among nations is, in fact, not very different from the character which Lancashire men give to themselves as compared with other Englishmen. It is blunt, straightforward, and unsentimental". The Nation claimed Roberts had an "unimaginative soldier's brain" and that Germany was "a friendly Power" who since 1870 "has remained the most peaceful and the most self-contained, though doubtless not the most sympathetic, member of the European family". The historian John Terraine, writing in 1993, said: "At this distance of time the verdict upon Lord Robert's Manchester speech must be that, in speaking out clearly on the probability of war, he was doing a patriotic service comparable to Churchill's during the Thirties".
Roberts became vice-president of the Public Schools Alpine Sports Club during 1903. Part of the history of skiing, a forerunner of the downhill ski race, the Roberts of Kandahar Cup occurred during Crans-Montana (Crans-sur-Sierre) eight years later on 11 January 1911, organised by winter sports pioneer Arnold Lunn, with the trophies donated by Lord Roberts. The name Kandahar is still used for the premier races of the World Cup circuit.
On 28 February 1908 he was awarded the Volunteer Officers' Decoration in recognition of his service in the Volunteer Force. His long list of honorary military posts included: honorary colonel of the 2nd London Corps from 24 September 1887, honorary colonel of the 5th Battalion, the Sherwood Foresters (Derbyshire Regiment) from 29 December 1888, honorary colonel of the 1st Newcastle upon Tyne (Western Division), Royal Artillery from 18 April 1894, honorary colonel of the Waterford Artillery (Southern Division) from 4 March 1896, colonel-commandant of the Royal Artillery from 7 October 1896, honorary colonel of the 3rd Battalion, the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment from 1 January 1898, honorary colonel of the City of London Imperial Volunteers from 10 March 1900, honorary colonel of the 3rd Volunteer Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment from 5 September 1900, colonel of the Irish Guards from 17 October 1900, honorary colonel of the 2nd Hampshire (Southern Division), Royal Garrison Artillery from 15 August 1901, honorary colonel of the 3rd (Dundee Highland) Volunteer Battalion, the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) from 19 September 1903, honorary colonel of the North Somerset Yeomanry from 1 April 1908, honorary colonel of the 6th Battalion, the City of London (Rifles') Regiment from 1 April 1908, honorary colonel of the 1st Wessex Brigade from 1 April 1908, honorary colonel of 6th Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment from 1 April 1908, honorary colonel of The Waterford Royal Field Reserve Artillery from 2 August 1908 and honorary colonel of 1st (Hull) Battalion, The East Yorkshire Regiment from 11 November 1914 (three days before his death). Additionally he was Colonel of the National Reserve from 5 August 1911.
Roberts was approached for advice about the Ulster Voluntary Force, formed in January 1913 by Ulstermen who had no wish to be part of a Home Rule Ireland. Too old himself to take active command, Roberts recommended Lt-Gen Sir George Richardson, formerly of the Indian Army, as commander.
On the morning of 20 March — the morning of Paget’s speech which provoked the Curragh Incident, in which Hubert Gough and other officers threatened to resign rather than coerce Ulster — Roberts, aided by Wilson, drafted a letter to the Prime Minister, urging him not to cause a split in the army.
Roberts had asked the CIGS John French to come and see him at Ascot on 19 March; French had been too busy but invited Roberts to visit him when next in London. On the morning of 21 March Roberts and French had an acrimonious telephone conversation in which Roberts told French that he would share the blame if he collaborated with the Cabinet’s "dastardly" attempt to coerce Ulster, and then, after French told him that he would "do his duty as a soldier" and obey lawful orders, put the phone down on him. Soon after, Roberts received a telegram from Hubert Gough, purporting to ask for advice, although possibly designed to goad him into further action. Roberts requested an audience with King George V, who told him that Seely (Secretary of State for War), to whom the King had recently spoken, had complained that Roberts was "at the bottom" of the matter, had incited Gough, and had called the politicians "swine and robbers" in his phone conversation with French. Roberts indignantly denied this, claiming that he had not been in contact with Gough for "years" and that he had advised officers not to resign. Roberts’ claim may not be the whole truth as Gough was on first name terms with Roberts’ daughter and later gave her copies of key documents relating to the Incident.
Roberts also had an interview with Seely (he was unable to locate French, who was in fact himself having an audience with the King at the time) but came away thinking him "drunk with power", although he learned that Paget had been acting without authority (in talking of "commencing active operations" against Ulster and in offering officers a chance to discuss hypothetical orders and to threaten to resign) and left a note for Hubert Gough to this effect. This note influenced the Gough brothers in being willing to remain in the Army, albeit with a written guarantee that the Army would not have to act against Ulster. After Roberts’s lobbying, the King insisted that Asquith make no further troop movements in Ulster without consulting him.
Roberts wrote to French (22 March) denying the "swine and robbers" comment, although French’s reply stressed his hurt that Roberts had thought so ill of him.
Roberts died of pneumonia at St Omer, France, on 14 November 1914 while visiting Indian troops fighting in the First World War. After lying in state in Westminster Hall (one of two non-Royals to do so during the 20th century, the other being Sir Winston Churchill), he was given a state funeral and was then buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.
Roberts married Nora Henrietta Bews on 17 May 1859; they had six children of whom three, a son and two daughters, survived infancy. His son Frederick Hugh Sherston Roberts VC was killed in action on 17 December 1899 at the Battle of Colenso during the Boer War. Roberts and his son were one of only three pairs of fathers and sons to be awarded the VC. Today, their Victoria Crosses are in the National Army Museum. His barony became extinct, but by the special remainder granted with them he was succeeded in the earldom and viscountcy by his elder surviving daughter, Aileen. She was succeeded by her younger sister Edwina, who died in 1955, when the title became extinct.
Lord Roberts French Immersion Public School in London, Ontario, Lord Roberts Junior Public School in Scarborough, Ontario, and Lord Roberts Elementary Schools in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Winnipeg, Manitoba are named after him. Roberts is also a Senior Boys house at the Duke of York's Royal Military School.
The Lord Roberts Centre – a facility at the National Shooting Centre built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and HQ of the National Smallbore Rifle Association (which Roberts was fundamental in founding) is named in his honour.
On 29 May 1900 Pretoria surrendered to the British commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts. Due to the frequency of malaria and because the area had become too small, he relocated his headquarters from the vicinity of the Normal College to a high-lying site 10 km south-west of the city – hence the name Roberts Heights. Roberts Heights, a busy military town, the largest in South Africa and resembling Aldershot, soon developed. On 15 December 1938 the name was changed to Voortrekkerhoogte and again to Thaba Tshwane on 19 May 1998.
The grave of Roberts' charger Vonolel (named after a Lushai warrior whose descendants Roberts had fought in 1871) is marked by a headstone in the gardens of The Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts.|
- Works by Frederick Roberts at Project Gutenberg
- Lord Roberts' British Honours
- Account of Earl Roberts' funeral
- Frederick Roberts and the long road to Kandahar
- National Portrait Gallery: Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (1832–1914), Field Marshal
Sir Neville Chamberlain
|C-in-C, Madras Army
Sir Herbert MacPherson
Sir Donald Stewart, Bt
Sir George White
The Viscount Wolseley
Prince Arthur, Duke of
Connaught and Strathearn
Sir Redvers Buller
British Forces in South Africa
The Lord Kitchener of Khartoum
The Viscount Wolseley
|Commander-in-Chief of the Forces
Sir Neville Lyttelton
as Chief of the General Staff
Sir Collingwood Dickson
|Master Gunner, St James's Park
Sir Robert Biddulph
|Peerage of the United Kingdom|
|New creation||Earl Roberts
Aileen Mary Roberts
|Baron Roberts of Kandahar