Known by his men as ‘Little Bobs’, Frederick Roberts was, unusually for a soldier, short, frail and partially sighted in one eye. Born in Cawnpore (now Kanpur) in India on 30 September 1832, Frederick Sleigh Roberts spent forty-one years on active service in India before transferring to South Africa.
Joining the army of the British East India Company aged nineteen in 1851, the following year he was appointed aide to his father. The two men were strangers to one another, having met only the once, when Roberts Sr was on leave in England.
Frederick Roberts first saw action during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and was involved in the capture of Delhi following a 106-day siege and the relief of Lucknow and Cawnpore. The following year he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his “marked gallantry”.
In 1878, now a Major-General in the British Army proper, Roberts led the occupation of Kabul during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
On 27 July 1880, news arrived that 300 miles from Kabul, outside the city of Kandahar, near a village called Maiwand, the British had fought and suffered a humiliating defeat to a force of Afghans. 969 British and Indian soldiers had been killed and almost 200 wounded. (Today Afghans still raise a toast to the victors of Maiwand.) Chased back to Kandahar, the British survivors from the Battle of Maiwand came under a sustained siege.
Kabul to Kandahar
Roberts, still in Kabul, was ordered to relieve the Kandahar garrison. Thus, setting out on 9 August 1880, with 10,000 soldiers and 8,000 camp followers, and accompanied by almost 10,000 mules, ponies and donkeys, Roberts began the march from Kabul to Kandahar. The convoy covered 334 miles in 23 days. Back in Britain, the march captured the public imagination making Roberts a national hero. The Afghans besieging Kandahar, learning of Roberts’s imminent arrival, fled. Roberts himself fell ill and, much to his chagrin, had to transported much of the way in a doolie (a kind of litter). As the relieving column entered the city on 31 August, Roberts insisted, for the sake of dignity, on riding in on horseback.
Roberts then defeated the hostile Afghans in the Battle of Kandahar on 1 September 1880, and settled a more compliant puppet on the Afghan throne.
In 1881, in South Africa, following the defeat of the British at Majuba Hill and the death of Sir George Pomeroy Colley, Roberts was dispatched to rescue the situation. But by the time he got there, Colley’s successor, Evelyn Wood, had signed an armistice with the Afrikaans, and concluded the First Boer War.
Roberts returned to India and in 1885 was appointed its Commander-in-Chief.
Second Boer War
During the Second Boer War (1899-1902) Roberts was again appointed C-in-C, arriving to take over in January 1900. Forces under his command relieved the city of Kimberley ending a 124-day siege. ‘It is a great feat to have accomplished,’ gushed the Daily Mail, ‘and the happiest omens for the future. There is no one like Bobs!’ More victories followed.
In December 1900, with the war seemingly won, Roberts returned to England, passing command to his number two, Horatio Kitchener (who would later be remembered as the minister of war during the first half of the First World War). However, with the Boers not knowing the meaning of defeat and launching a sustained campaign of guerrilla warfare, the conflict dragged on for another seventeen months until its conclusion in May 1902.
On 17 December 1899, during the Boer War, Roberts’s 27-year-old son, also named Frederick, was killed in action at the Battle of Colenso, and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Roberts and his son are only one of three father / son recipients of the VC.
Roberts was showered with awards and titles during his lifetime. On 2 January 1901, he was made a Knight of the Garter, presented by Queen Victoria. His was the last such presentation – for three weeks later, on 22 January, the queen died. He took part in Victoria’s funeral procession where he met the queen’s grandson, the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, who bestowed on Roberts the Order of the Black Eagle.
Roberts was in northern France in St Omer in November 1914 inspecting Indian troops, soon after the outbreak of the First World War, when he caught pneumonia and died on the 14th. He died as he had lived – among soldiers. He was 82.
Frederick Roberts was laid in state in Westminster Hall, the first of only two non-Royals to be so honoured during the 20th century. (The other, 51 years later, was Sir Winston Churchill).
Rupert Colley’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, a compelling drama set during the First World War, is now available.