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Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts


VC, KG, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, KStJ, VD, PC, FRSGS (30 September 1832 – 14 November 1914) was one of the most successful British military commanders of his time. 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. He was known and referred to (but not to his face) as "Bobs". His son was called "Young Bobs"

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 Aide-de-Camp to his father in 1852, transferred to the Bengal Horse Artillery in 1854 and was promoted to lieutenant on 31 May 1857.

Roberts fought in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 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 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 2 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.

He was also mentioned in despatches for his service at Lucknow in March 1858. In common with other officers he transferred from the East India Company Army to the Indian Army that year.

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. He was commander of the Kabul Field Force and brought at least 20 field guns (usually horse-drawn mobile cannons) with his army during the conquest and occupation of Kabul during the second phase of the war. His move against Kabul was sparked by the assassination of Cavagnari, the British envoy in Kabul and the official who had signed the Treaty of Gandamak with Amir Mohammad Yaqub Khan in May of that year.

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 created a knight of the Order of St Patrick during 1897.

While in Ireland, Roberts completed a memoir of his years in India, which was published in 1897 as Forty-one Years in India: from Subaltern to Commander-in-chief.

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, George 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 - during which, Lord Roberts's son was killed, earning a posthumous V.C.

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 Pretoria 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.

Strategies devised by Roberts, to force the Boer commandos to submit, included concentration camps and the burning of farms. Conditions in the concentration camps, which had been conceived by Roberts as a form of control of the families whose farms he had destroyed, began to degenerate rapidly as the large influx of Boers outstripped the ability of the minuscule British force to cope. The camps lacked space, food, sanitation, medicine, and medical care, leading to rampant disease and a very high death rate for those Boers who entered. Eventually 26,370 women and children (81% were children) died in the concentration camps. 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 Order 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. He was also awarded the German Order of the Black Eagle during the Kaiser´s visit to the United Kingdom in February 1901. He was among the original recipients of the Order of Merit in the 1902 Coronation Honours list published on 26 June 1902, and received the order from King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace on 8 August 1902.

Lord Roberts became the last Commander-in-Chief of the Forces on 3 January 1901. During his time in office he introduced the Short Magazine Lee Enfield Rifle and the 18-pounder Gun and provided improved education and training for soldiers. In September 1902, Lord Roberts and St John Brodrick, Secretary of State for War, visited Germany to attend the German army maneuvers as guest of the Emperor Wilhelm. He served as Commander-in-Chief for three years before the post was abolished as recommended by Lord Esher in the Esher Report in February 1904.

He was the initial president of the Pilgrims Society during 1902.

In retirement he 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.[60] 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. Eight years later on 11 January 1911, the Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup (so named because Roberts donated the trophy cup) was organised at Crans-Montana (Cranssur-Sierre) by winter sports pioneer Arnold Lunn. An important part of the history of skiing, the races was a forerunner of the downhill ski race. The Kandahar Ski Club, founded by Lunn, was named after the Cup and subsequently lent its name to the Arlberg-Kandahar ski race. The name Kandahar is still used for the premier races of the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup circuit.

He took part in the funeral processions following the deaths of Queen Victoria in January 1901 and King Edward VII in May 1910.

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 Lieutenant General 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's claim may not be the whole truth as Gough was on first name terms with Roberts's 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. His body was taken to Ascot by special train for a funeral service on 18 November before being taken to London.[80] After lying in state in Westminster Hall (one of two individuals who were not members of the royal family 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 had lived at Englemere House at Ascot in Berkshire. His estate was probated during 1915 at £77,304 (equivalent to £7.29 million today).

On 28 February 1908 he was awarded the Volunteer Officers' Decoration in recognition of his honorary 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.

Lord Roberts received civic honours from a number of universities, cities and livery companies, including:

Honorary Freedom of the City of Cardiff - 26 January 1894
Honorary Freedom of the borough of Portsmouth – 1898 (and received a Sword of Honour from the town in 1902)
Honorary Freedom of the City of Canterbury - 26 August 1902
Honorary Freedom of the borough of Dover - 28 August 1902
Honorary Freedom of the City of Bath - 26 September 1902
Honorary Freedom of the City of Winchester – 9 October 1902
Honorary Freedom of the City of Liverpool – 11 October 1902
Honorary Freedom of the borough of Croydon – 14 October 1902
Honorary Freedom of the borough of Bournemouth – 22 October 1902
Honorary Freeman, Worshipful Company of Fishmongers

In 1893 He was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (FRSGS).

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.

An American with Lord Roberts
by Ralph, Julian

Lord Roberts, a biography
By Violet Brooke-Hunt (1901) (pdf)

The story of Lord Roberts
By Harold Felix Baker Wheeler (1915) (pdf)


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