The 14th November this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Field Marshal Lord Roberts, the most well-known soldier of his time, whose extraordinary life has much to tell us about Britain during the age of empire. In his new biography, published to coincide with the anniversary, Rodney Atwood explores Roberts' military career as well as his status as a symbol of empire and his celebration in British culture. In today's blog post, he gives us an introduction to Roberts' life and legacy and how his book provides a more balanced view of his subject's triumphs and failings.
When Field Marshal Earl Roberts (1832-1914) died of pneumonia visiting Indian soldiers on the Western Front on 14th November, 1914, the British Empire lost one of its most remarkable soldiers as well as a link with its history stretching back to the Indian Rebellion of 1857. British and Indian soldiers mourned. Major-General Henry Rawlinson, one of his protégés , wrote: ‘…one of the saddest days of my life. I went in to pay my last respects to my dear chief. I could not believe that he was dead.’ Pertab Singh, Maharajah of Jodhpur, insisted on accompanying Roberts’s body to the ferry after a short service of Remembrance at St. Omer. When the Scottish Rifles (The Cameronians) marching to the front heard the news, their colonel’s face ‘assumed a look of incredulity mixed with an expression as though some catastrophic disaster had occurred’. When his men were told that ‘Bobs, the idol of the Army [was] dead?’ the thought that came to everyone’s mind was ‘Why, it couldn’t be true!’ The battalion which had been swinging along to snatches of popular song lapsed into gloomy silence.
The Sunday night edition of The Times of 15th November headed its front page ‘Sudden Death of Lord Roberts’. ‘A profound shock of sorrow will be felt by the nation at the announcement of the death of Field-Marshal Lord Roberts… One of the most famous and best beloved of British soldiers passes away in an hour of national trial….’ The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, his former comrade-in-arms, spoke for the Army in the House of Lords: ‘To us soldiers, the record of his life will ever be a cherished possession.’ Roberts’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, where he was buried close to Nelson and Wellington, was attended by members of the royal family. His friend Rudyard Kipling, unofficial poet of Empire, wrote his third set of verses on Roberts as a tribute.
Lord Roberts enjoyed widespread fame on his death. He was renowned as ‘Bobs Bahadur’, ‘Bobs the hero’ of the 2nd Afghan War. He had been commander-in-chief successively in India, Ireland, South Africa and England. He was the only man to hold the Victoria Cross, the Order of Merit and the Garter. To a wide public in the years before 1914 he had been the untiring advocate of national service.
His career embodies contradictions. Essentially a kindly man and devoted husband and father, he showed ruthlessness in his hanging of eighty-nine Afghans at Kabul in 1879-1880 and his removal of commanders in South Africa whom he deemed inefficient. He infuriated many by his self-advertisement, but showed a modern streak in his awareness of the media’s importance. He was deeply loyal to those who served him well, but his ‘Indian ring’ in rivalry with Sir Garnet Wolseley’s ‘Africans’ may have had the unfortunate effect of dividing army reformers who were opposed to the Duke of Cambridge’s intense conservatism. In the Ulster Crisis of 1914 he was among unconstitutional opponents of an elected government. He was known as a lucky general, but his last great campaign, at the head of the National Service League in the years before 1914, failed, although it increased his reputation for foresight -- the Times hailed him as ‘the Nestor of the Army’ on his death. Nestor was the oldest and wisest of the Greeks at the siege of Troy. His admirers believed that his predictions of German intentions were vindicated by the invasion of Belgium in August, 1914
His career spanned over sixty years, from his commissioning into the Bengal Artillery of the East India Company’s army in December, 1851. His victories in the 2nd Afghan War (1878-1880), ushered in thirty-nine years’ peace between that country and British India. His contribution to the strategic defence of India was one reason why Russians regarded this period as ‘a dark page’ in their Asian history; the ‘Great Game’ ended with Afghanistan firmly in the British sphere of influence. He campaigned for better soldiers’ pay and conditions of service. More than any other commander he championed the Gurkhas; they continue to serve in our army today. He and his wife began army nursing in India. Although not tested against a major European enemy, he successfully waged war against the Boer commandos. His strategic offensive of February, 1900 and his capture of a Boer force at Paardeberg turned the tide of war and secured eventual victory unless there was a loss of nerve by the British government. He failed to anticipate the seriousness of the Boer guerrilla campaign, but he secured the infrastructure of railways, mines and cities which gave Lord Kitchener the bases for his anti-guerrilla campaign. Less creditably, Roberts began the internment camps, which under Kitchener became infamous As the British Army’s last commander-in-chief, he contributed to providing the improved Short-Magazine Lee-Enfield Rifle, the 18-pounder field gun, better officers’ education and staff reforms. In the years before 1914, he warned of the coming threat from Germany.
Earlier biographies of Roberts uncritically accepted the portrait sketched in his autobiography Forty-One Years in India. Recent works by academic historians have been more critical, based on the assumption that he manipulated the press to his advantage. This new biography seeks to strike a balance, portraying Roberts’s solid achievements while not hiding his faults.
Rodney Atwood received his PhD from the University of Cambridge, UK and has served in the Royal Tank Regiment. The Life of Field Marshal Roberts is available to buy from November 20th. You can find out more about the book, and sign up to be notified when it's published on the Bloomsbury website.