To-day, across our fathers’ graves,
The astonished years reveal
The remnant of that desperate host
That cleansed our East with steel.
Hail and farewell! We greet you here,
With tears that none will scorn—
Oh Keepers of the House of old,
Or ever we were born!
The words are Kipling’s, the year is 1907, the fiftieth anniversary of the Sepoy Mutiny, and the instigator was Kipling’s friend Field Marshal Lord Roberts. Roberts, a veteran of the Mutiny, hoped that a commemorative medal would be issued by the government to those still alive. There was trouble in the sub-continent in 1907 even before the anniversary, and in May the Government of India issued emergency measures in the Punjab, Eastern Bengal and Assam to put down unrest. As Roberts told his former A.D.C., now Viceroy of India Lord Minto, the King approved of a medal like that for Crimean War veterans, ‘but Morley [Secretary of State for India] is a little nervous as to whether any reference to the Mutiny is advisable, considering the disloyal feeling in Bengal and other parts of India.’ [National Army Museum, Roberts papers 7101-23-122, letterbook no. 10, R to Minto, 31 Jan 1907.] Morley was indeed nervous, there was to be no medal, and the veterans’ dinner at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 December given by the proprietors of the Daily Telegraph, for which Kipling wrote the poem quoted, was for the old field marshal a consolation. Nonetheless, at Kensington the veterans made the most of it. Paraphrasing The Times report the next day:
At the Albert memorial the commemoration began with a review by Lord Roberts, witnessed by a large gathering of the public. The band of the 1st Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, the old 32nd Foot, the defenders of Lucknow, played a selection of music.
In the hall Roberts presided at a long table with many distinguished guests, Lord Curzon, General Sir Dighton Probyn, a Mutiny V.C. and A.D.C. to the King, Mr Rudyard Kipling, General Sir Hugh Gough, another Mutiny V.C. and commander of the cavalry brigade at Roberts’s famed march to Kandahar.
The old soldiers were enthusiastically cheered as they took their places. All wore their medals conspicuously displayed. Many who were lame were tenderly helped by Guardsmen or their friends, but the majority were upright, well-preserved men who bore their years bravely. The last piece of music before the speeches was “The Campbells are Coming” by Piper Angus Gibson of the Black Watch, the only surviving piper of those who took part in the Mutiny. It was this Scottish tune which came to the ears of the defenders of Lucknow half a century before as Colin Campbell’s relief force fought its way through the surrounding palaces and gardens guided by two Irishmen, Henry Kavanagh, one of very few civilians to win the Victoria Cross, and Roberts himself.
Curzon made the chief speech and finished to loud cheers with a toast to the surviving veterans among them ‘the hero who was still their hero in 1907, endeared to the nation by half a century of service and sacrifice not one whit less glorious than that of his youth.’ That hero a moment later was on his feet to reply, greeted by prolonged cheers. Modestly he pointed out that those present were mere boys at the time and they must all feel that this commemoration was an honour not paid to them but to the memory of those by whose skill and courage ‘that great epoch’ in our Indian history was brought to a successful close. Some, perhaps the greatest of them, died during the Mutiny, and Roberts specially remembered Sir Henry Lawrence the defender of Lucknow and John Nicholson the hero of Delhi. Of all the men he had ever served under none had impressed him as much as Nicholson.
The occasion closed impressively with the playing of “The Last Post”, the singing of Kipling’s “Recessional”, the reciting of his commemorative poem, and finally “Auld Lang Syne”.
What memories came flooding back to the old men who stood there proudly? And Roberts? For he saw it all, from the first news of outbreak in the Punjab, the suppression of potential mutiny there, the hanging of the Subadar-Major of the 51st Bengal Native Infantry on the parade square at Peshawar, the blowing of forty other mutineers from the mouths of cannon, the siege of Delhi, the relief of Lucknow.
Roberts had discovered by speaking to every veteran on parade – a typical touch – that many of them were living in the workhouse in bitter poverty. Within a fortnight he obtained the King’s patronage for an appeal, which raised Ł38,000. Over 800 were taken from poorhouses and ended their lives in modest comfort. Punch ran a cartoon in sup- port; the “Fair Stranger” whom the aged veteran takes for “Charity” replies, ‘No, I am gratitude, come to pay my debt.’ [Accounts in The Times, 24 Dec 1907; Daily Telegraph, 31 Jan 1907; The Sphere (with sketch) 4 Jan 1908; Punch, 15 Jan 1908; all found in Roberts papers 7101-23-139, vol.xvii.]
Recent historians like William Dalrymple have emphasised the brutality of the British in the Mutiny. To the Victorian and Edwardian public, the heroism of the soldiers fighting against great odds was remembered and admired, and this view was reflected in the 50th anniversary. Both Kipling and Roberts were inseparably associated with India where they met. Both would have agreed with Disraeli that England ‘is really more an Asiatic power than a European’ and with Curzon: ‘As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straightaway to a third-rate power.’ They were together in South Africa during the Boer War; united in the cause of compulsory military service before 1914 and against Home Rule for Ireland. Both lost their sons in war. My story begins in India, goes on to events leading up to the Boer War and the War itself, the years before 1914; the deaths of Roberts and John Kipling; and a conclusion.
Roberts was renowned throughout his life for luck. His first good fortune was being the son of a general in the Army of the East India Company who could advance his career. Against this must be set physical handicaps. Born in 1832 at Cawnpore to Abraham Roberts and his second English wife Isabella, Frederick Roberts remained small all his life. He nearly died of brain-fever as a child and lost the sight of an eye. On both his mother’s and father’s side there was mixed blood, as the late Victorians would have called it, including a half brother who manufactured gun carriages which may have been used against the British in the Mutiny. Roberts said nothing of these in his famous autobiography. In the snobby, race-obsessed late Victorian empire, such a background could damn a man’s career. Poor health and diminutive stature did not prevent him being commissioned into the Bengal Artillery in 1851 and serving as his father’s A.D.C. at Peshawar before being employed on the North-West Frontier. He was there when news arrived of the outbreak of the Mutiny. [The standard biography, now dated, is David James, Lord Roberts (London, 1954); the information about his family’s mix of races comes from Geoffrey Moorhouse, :India Britannica (London, 1983), p.184; Ram Babu Saksena, European & Indo- European Poets of Urdu & Persian (Lucknow, 1941) pp.128-132; and William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (London, 2006), pp.291-2.]
The famed Roberts luck really began then. A half dozen times he was within inches of death. At Lucknow as the 93rd Highlanders advanced into a park swarming with the enemy, Roberts galloped to their front to reconnoitre. An enemy masked battery opened fire from behind the Dilkusha Palace. One shot struck Roberts’s charger just behind him, cutting the horse in two, horse and rider falling in a confused heap. A gasp went up from the Highlanders. ‘Plucky wee Bobs is done for.’ Roberts, unwounded, got clear of his mount, struggled to his feet amidst the rousing cheers of the 93rd, found another horse and was soon in action again, bringing forward artillery. The shot that had killed his horse ricocheted at almost a right angle, and took off the top of the skull of a young Highlander Kenneth Mackenzie, killing him instantly.[W. Forbes-Mitchell, The Relief of Lucknow (London, 1962, orig. publ. 1893), pp.36-7. ]
Roberts was mentioned seven times in despatches and won the Victoria Cross in hand-to-hand combat. It was the start of a successful career. There followed a happy and long-lived marriage and the birth of six children, three sadly dying in infancy. He remained on the staff, at his father’s urging, and in the 1860s and 1870s was at the centre of affairs, in the eyes of men who counted.
His moment for fame came with the arrival of Disraeli’s new viceroy Lord Lytton in 1876 and the outbreak of the 2nd Afghan War two years later. Lytton gave Roberts his chance, promoting him over the heads of senior men to command one of three invading columns. He won a series of striking victories, culminating in his famous three-hundred-mile twenty-three-day march from Kabul to Kandahar in August 1880 and victory over the Afghan leader Ayub Khan. This avenged an Anglo-Indian defeat at Maiwand and made Roberts’s reputation. Roberts’s use of the press was astute. On the march he took three correspondents: Howard Hensman of the Pioneer, who had earlier defended him for shooting hostages in reprisal for attacks on isolated patrols; and two from The Times. Roberts became a hero to stand beside ‘our only general’ Sir Garnet Wolseley. The late Victorian army was marked by the famous rivalry between Roberts and ‘the Indians’ and Wolseley and ‘the Africans’ or ‘Ashanti ring’.
Roberts’s part in the war was not without controversy: his sacking of a war correspondent Macpherson who criticised his methods, his removal of his cavalry brigadier, Massy, who had friends in high places in England, and above all, the hangings at Kabul. In 1879 Roberts occupied Kabul and was instructed by the Viceroy Lytton to find and punish the Afghans responsible for the massacre of a British envoy and his escort. Evidence was hard to find, and indiscriminate convictions and hangings followed. The Official History recorded the trial of 163 and execution of eighty-seven on the two tall gallows which Roberts erected outside Kabul, but others were shot arbitrarily for resisting. [Col. H. Hanna, The Second Afghan War (3 volumes. London, 1899-1910), vol.iii, pp. 140-8; B. Robson, The Road to Kabul: the Second Afghan War 1878-1881), pp. 142-3; H. Hensman, The Afghan War, (London, 1881) pp.49, 165 et seq., & 277.] In November 1879, English newspapers in India began to protest. The Friend of India, a prominent Calcutta journal, ended an article, ‘We fear that General Roberts has done us a serious national injury, by lowering our reputation for justice in the eyes of Europe.’ [Hanna, Second Afghan War, vol.iii, pp. 149-150.]
The repercussions spread to England. Liberal politicians were among those who thought Roberts had gone too far. The news of the defeat at Maiwand and Roberts’s march and victory rescued his reputation in the nick of time. The experiences of British soldiers in Afghan campaigns lay behind Kipling’s later stories and poems, “Ford o’ Kabul River”, “The Young British Soldier”, “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”.
Rudyard Kipling, over thirty years younger than Roberts, returned aged almost seventeen to India as a young reporter in October 1882 to work on the Civil & Military Gazette at Lahore and then the Pioneer at Allahabad. He began writing the verse and short stories which made his reputation. He befriended men of the Northumberland Fusiliers, ‘the fighting Fifth’ in their barracks at Mian Mir, the cantonment outside Lahore, and created his “Soldiers Three”, Privates Ortheris, Learoyd and Mulvaney. Judging by Kipling’s writing, Tommy Atkins in India thought Roberts more than a match for Garnet Wolseley. Here is Private Mulvaney in “The Taking of Lungtungpen” (Plain Tales from the Hills p. 115 lines 7-15). The story is set in Burma, where Roberts also served:
‘Wolseley be shot! Betune you an’ me an’ that butterfly net, he’s a ramblin’, incoherint sort av a divil, wid wan oi on the Quane an’ the Coort, an’ the other on his blessed silf—. . . Now Bobs is a sinsible little man. Wid Bobs an’ a few three-year-olds, I’d swape any army av the earth into a towel, an’ throw it away aftherwards. Faith, I’m not jokin’!’
As a ‘three-year-man’ was one on a short-service enlistment, looked down on by hardened veterans like Mulvaney, this was an accolade indeed for Roberts.
In the very strictly hierarchical Anglo-Indian society, the Kiplings were well down the order, until the Viceroy Lord Dufferin’s son fell for Rudyard’s pretty sister Trix. By this time Roberts, having commanded the Madras army five years, was established as Indian Army Commander-in-Chief. He was known for his influence with Dufferin, his popularity with soldiers both British and Indian, and his concern for their welfare. So it is no surprise that the first Kipling-Roberts meeting was about soldiers’ welfare. Kipling wrote in Something of Myself, ‘. . . the proudest moment of my young life was when I rode up Simla Mall beside him . . . while he asked me what the men thought about their accommodation, entertainment-rooms and the like. I told him, and he thanked me as gravely as though I had been a full Colonel.’ [Something of Myself (London, 1937) pp.56-7.] Kipling was then a still relatively unknown correspondent, considered a ‘cad’ by many officers and their ladies for his stories, and Roberts was famous. What appealed to Kipling about Roberts, as well as his fight- ing prowess, was his care for Tommy Atkins. The stories and the poems in Barrack-Room Ballads however are mostly about hardship and disaster, not the triumph of Kandahar. Something of Myself written years later was coloured by subsequent experience and a desire to conceal. Young Ruddy was not going to admire anyone uncritically, not even the hero of Kandahar, who was part of the snobby round of tea parties, balls, amateur theatricals and paperwork at which he sometimes looked askance. It was also the work of the press to sniff out wrongdoing. His first newspaper publication on Roberts, “A Job Lot” on 1 September 1888, came the day after the newspaper’s attack on favouritism or jobbery:
‘The present Commander-in-Chief in India is a fine soldier, who has earned the national gratitude by his public services . . . But among the penalties of Sir Frederick Roberts’ exalted position is the control of a vast patronage, and this … is not always so disposed as to disarm unfriendly criticism, and to secure for his bestowals that unfailing respect which is so desirable’.
The poem, is headed, ‘Not to be sung at Snowdon theatre’ a witty and obvious reference to Roberts’s house where amateur theatricals were performed, Kipling sometimes taking part.
They really were most merciful
They praised his winning ways
His little feet that merrily
Trip on from baize to bays.
They glorified the new canteen.
They called him “Tommy’s Pride”,
But O they said his patronage
was sometimes misapplied…
Perpend, retreat, refrain, reform
O man of Kandahar,
For even pocket-Wellingtons
May carry things too far.
We cannot judge the influence.
The face alone we see.
And if the P——r is wrath,
Oh Lord what must you be.
We’ve heard it before, but we’ll drink once more,
While the Army sniffs and sobs
For Bobs its pride, who has lately died,
And is now succeeded by Jobs.
[Poems of Rudyard Kipling Ed. Pinney, Cambridge 2013, vol iii p. 1901]
On 31 August George Allen’s Pioneer had accused Roberts of using his influence to gain Colonel Neville Chamberlain, one of his proteges, a place on Mortimer Durand’s Afghan frontier mission. Roberts was stung by both accusation and poem. He wrote to the Adjutant-General:
Allen may make any apology he likes, but I will never forgive him. His article about Chamberlain was most uncalled for…I don’t care a straw for fair criticism, but on this occasion Allen mistook the business altogether and the vulgar lines by Kipling were the outcome of his inappropriate attack on me.
Roberts claimed that Durand wanted Chamberlain; he was well fitted for the work and knew Kabul better than anyone. [Reference: National Army Museum, Roberts papers 1971-23-100, vol xi, p.533, R to Elles, 9 Sept, 1888.] On 19 September the Simla Herald launched a counter-attack which uncannily resembled Roberts’s angry letter; that Durand chose Chamberlain because he had done similar work at Kabul nine years before. [Reference: Ibid, 1971-23-139, vol xi, Roberts scrapbook containing both newspaper extracts.]
Perhaps Roberts’s enemies sung Kipling’s chorus; Major-General Granville Egerton recalled in his memoirs of service with the 72nd Highlanders that the ‘sobriquet attached to the pair in India of Sir Bobs and Lady Jobs, was not undeserved.’ [Reference: Edinburgh Military Museums, Egerton MSS M1994/112/92, ‘Reminiscences of the 72nd Highlanders, 16 Feb, 1931, p.4.].
The charge and the alternative nickname remained with Roberts throughout his career, to the War Office in 1901. He was after all building up the “Roberts ring” as a counter-weight to Wolseley’s “Ashanti ring”. An accurate view of Roberts, not unfavourable, but not rose-tinted, is in Kipling’s controversial poem “One Viceroy Resigns” late in the same year imagining Dufferin giving advice to his successor about his council:
. . . Look to one—
I work with him—the smallest of them all,
White-haired, red-faced, who sat the plunging horse
Out in the garden. He’s your right-hand man,
And dreams of tilting Wolseley from the throne,
But while he dreams gives work we cannot buy;
He has his Reputation—wants the Lords
By way of Frontier Roads. Meantime, I think,
He values very much the hand that falls
Upon his shoulder at the Council table—
Hates cats and knows his business. . .
The third line is a reference to Roberts’s renowned horsemanship, which Simla would have understood. ‘Dreams … we cannot buy’ referred to his plans for extra forts, railways and troops on the North-west Frontier, plans which were frequently rejected or reduced on grounds of cost. ‘Wants the Lords’, hinting at his ambition, would also raise wry smiles among Indian Army men who had nicknamed the march to Kandahar ‘the race for the peerage’. Roberts was known to hate cats, and at one moment at Kabul in 1879 there was nearly a moment of high farce as the British paraded impressively and Roberts prepared to read a proclamation. A cat appeared, and he went white as a sheet. Fortunately two of his staff shooed it away.
The poem resembles a verse in the later ” ‘Bobs'” of 1892 congratulating him as ‘the pocket Wellington’ for his peerage. Once again, perhaps, the words of Tommy, not of Kipling:
There’s a little red-faced man,
Which is Bobs,
Rides the tallest ‘orse ‘e can-
If it bucks or kicks or rears,
‘E can sit for twenty years
With a smile round both ‘is ears-
Can’t yer, Bobs?
It is worth having “One Viceroy Resigns” in front of us when we consider another verse:
Oh, ‘e’s little but he’s wise,
‘E’s terror for ‘is size,
Do yer, Bobs?
This hit at Roberts’s rival Wolseley was unfortunately untrue, but Kipling knew it and may have written ironically. If ever there was a media general who like Montgomery some fifty years later cultivated his image and the press, it was Roberts, who gave future Generals and Field Marshals their start by attaching them to his staff or military family and using their talents. Among these able young men was Ian Hamilton, later defeated at Gallipoli, who had literary aspirations, wrote some good books and some execrable poetry, sent Kipling’s work to Andrew Lang and was a pall bearer at his funeral. An A.D.C., Neville Chamberlain, the inventor of snooker, no relation of the Prime Minister but nephew of the commander of the Moveable Column in the Indian Mutiny, did much of Roberts’s writing for him. It was Chamberlain who adapted Lucia di Lammermoor for a staging at Roberts’s home Snowdon at Simla, with a prologue written by Kipling, to raise money for Lady Roberts’s “Homes in the Hills”, convalescent homes doubling as bases for nurses.
Lady Roberts in effect founded Indian Army nursing. Roberts’s wife was accused (not to her face) of “petticoat government”. In 1888, from Simla, George White, an admirer and later Roberts’s successor as Indian Army commander-in-chief, wrote to his wife, ‘The Chief and Lady Roberts have been kindness itself. Sir Fred the most attentive host I have ever stayed with and Lady R. is most kind. The party consists of Sir F. Lady R their son Freddy . . . Miss Roberts looks about 17, and a younger girl … It is the nicest family party possible. The children are on the nicest terms with their father and mother.’ Later he wrote, ‘[Lady R.] is a prejudiced woman & nothing is too bad for those she does not like but I think she is a warm friend. One thing is very certain, that she takes too much part in Sir Fred’s business and that it is generally known.’ There is however no Lady Roberts story in Plain Tales from the Hills: Kipling knew where to draw the line.
Roberts’ and Kipling’s paths separated in the early 1890s, Kipling married the American Carrie Balestier and went to Vermont, Roberts retired from India, denied employment for two years, and then in 1895 took over the Irish command, a backwater in which to end his career. The War Office and the plum jobs in England were dominated by Wolseley’s ‘Africans’. The Pall Mall Gazette of 17 August 1893 pub- lished a letter from ‘One who knows’ complaining of distribution of top jobs in the army, ‘The net result is little short of a scandal. Lord Wolseley remains amply provided for; two of his best pupils, Sir Redvers Buller and Sir Evelyn Wood, reign at the War Office as Adjutant and Quartermaster-General. The Duke of Connaught, junior by service to them all, obtains Aldershot. The only officer who is left in the cold is the general who has performed the greatest feat of arms of any living Englishman. . .’
Roberts was not idle. In January 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, with impeccable timing, he published his best- selling autobiography — Forty-One Years in India: From Subaltern to Commander-in-Chief was a runaway best-seller. Five days after the book’s appearance one reviewer commented, ‘There has been only one thing to do in London this week – to go to India with Lord Roberts. No autobiography has been so run after for years, and novel reading is in abeyance.’ Roberts sent Kipling a copy with the following letter:
Dear Mr Kipling,
You who take and have made others take such a keen interest in our soldiers, and have brought India so near to the people of Great Britain by your jungle stories and vivid word pictures, may, perhaps, come to read the narrative of a soldier’s life in India. At all events the book will serve to assure you that you are most kindly remembered by,
Yours very truly,
This suggests the two men were not very close, although in 1894 Kipling had sat next to Roberts at a London dinner and proposed a toast to him. Kipling told his former editor at Lahore Stephen Wheeler, ‘ “Bobs” has sent me a copy of his Forty One Years in India, which I am amazed at the things he does not say. . .’. The hangings at Kabul are the obvious omission, and Kipling as a correspondent for the Civil & Military Gazette had an intimate knowledge of Afghan affairs and in March 1885 attended the Rawalpindi conference between the Amir Abdur Rahman and Dufferin.’ To Roberts however he wrote, ‘never did living leader of men have so many passionate worshippers among his rank and file.’ He also recognized the extraordinary skill with which Roberts made it a platform for his views on imperial policy, the north-west frontier and British rule in India.
‘Not till I read it in full . . . ,’ said Kipling, ‘did I understand the wonderful skill of it, from an artistic point of view. In its utter simplicity and directness it reads like the detached account of some interested by-stander who chanced to have been present at the world’s history, and even I, who know, I think, every step of your career, was amazed by it. The papers have been so taken up with the matter of the book that, so far as I have seen, they had not in the least done justice to the perfection of technique . . .’
This was praise indeed; and he told Roberts that the gift and the accompanying letters were ‘a source of pride and gratification’ to him. The poet was as proud as the General of Britain’s rule in India.
The two men’s roles in Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations are revealing: Roberts was properly part of them, leading the colonial contingents in the procession on his grey ‘Vonolel’, the only horse to be awarded the ‘Roberts star’ campaign medal for the march to Kandahar. Kipling, by now world famous and back in England, celebrated quietly in Sussex, watching the lighting of bonfires and beacons at Beachy Head; he had refused all honours and offers to become poet laureate on Tennyson’s death. He would not write to order, but everyone was waiting for him to speak on the Jubilee. Almost a month after the celebration his “Recessional” appeared in The Times reminding the imperial people they should never lose a sense of obligation to God’s Law and to duty which alone justifies the will to power:
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!
Kipling’s reminder of the fleeting nature of power and the need to answer the call to a higher law was meant to counter the worship of power to which the hoop-la of the Jubilee might lead. On “Recessional” ‘s message I quote George Orwell, whose view of the British Empire was almost diametrically opposed to that of Roberts and Kipling.
“Lesser breeds without the Law” – This line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a matter of course that the ‘lesser breeds’ are ‘natives’, and a mental picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a coolie. In its context the sense of the line is almost the exact opposite of this. The phrase ‘lesser breeds’ refers almost certainly to the Germans, and espe- cially the pan-German writers, who are ‘without the Law’ in the sense of being lawless, not in the sense of being powerless. The whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a denunciation of power politics, British as well as German.
Meanwhile war threatened in South Africa. Roberts wrote to his friend, the former Viceroy Lord Lansdowne, now secretary of state at the War Office, offering his services, even prepared to come down in rank. General Redvers Buller however was ear-marked for South African command. Meanwhile Freddie Roberts the field marshal’s son failed his staff college exam. Father had to plead with the adjutant gen- eral Evelyn Wood, a Wolseleyite, to admit Freddie. In late Victorian England a famous name opened doors. Wood replied to Roberts on 11 October, 1899. ‘I am happy to inform you that your son, Lieutenant the Hon. F. Roberts, has been selected by the Commander-in-Chief for a nomination for the Staff College. Lord Wolseley has desired me to add that it has given him much gratification to be able to meet your wishes.’ Wolseley wrote two days later in reply to a Roberts thank-you, ‘If your son was not to have a nomination for the S.C. who should have one? Besides he has a very good reputation of his own as a soldier.’ He did indeed. Like his father he was mentioned several times in dispatches for service on the North-West Frontier.
Earlier that year, in March in New York, Kipling’s beloved daughter Josephine had died; in the next months he continued to see her in every corner of his life. Kipling’s poem “The Old Issue” attacking President Kruger of the Transvaal appeared in The Times on 28 September 1899. In October Kruger presented his ultimatum to the British and shortly afterwards fast moving Boer commandos invaded Natal and Cape Colony. Kimberley, Mafeking, and Ladysmith were besieged. Kipling welcomed the opportunity to throw himself into the war effort to escape his grief over Josephine. That month, October, he wrote “The Absent-Minded Beggar”; after British defeats of Black Week he noted that ‘the simple minded and pastoral Boer seems to be having us on toast’, and in February 1900 he reached Cape Town.
Buller had already sailed for South Africa, deeply pessimistic. Roberts was still in Ireland, thirsting for action. Freddie volunteered and found himself in December a ‘galloper’ under Buller. When Buller’s attack at Colenso broke down, he thought his two batteries of guns under Colonel Long were about to be lost. He called for volunteers. Seven gunners of the Royal Artillery came forward, and were joined by Captains Congreve and Schofield and Lieutenant Freddie Roberts, comrades of the 60th Rifles. The group hitched up the limbers and rode forward into a storm of fire. Congreve said he had ‘never seen bullets thicker even at play or field firing’. His horse was hit twice, threw him off and he crawled into a small nullah or gulley where ‘another bullet went into the welt of my boot & came out at end of toe cap but did not scratch me’. Roberts was hit three times, first, fatally in the stomach, then in the leg and arm. He fell in the open. The bullets and shells whistled overhead. When the fire slackened Congreve, a doctor and a gunner got him into cover, dressed the wounds, ‘& then lay in a blazing sun & without a breath of wind till 5 p.m. when the Boers surrounded us & took us prisoners.’ In the late afternoon Freddie Roberts and the other wounded were sent back in the care of the ambulance men and placed on a hospital train. A friend in the 60th, Captain Henry Warre, visited him next morning:
‘I found him on the train in a terrible state & I am afraid in pain. . . His pluck was extraordinary & he said Good bye warrior we’ll meet again soon. I must say I thought he was dying at the time, it was terrible. I cld’nt take his hand but just caught hold of his elbow & I think he moved it as an acknowledgment as he cldn’t speak at the moment.’ The future field marshal Major William Birdwood was sure he would not live. ‘I am very sorry: he is such a dear good fellow and so absolutely unspoilt, and loved by every one. . .’
Buller’s defeat at Colenso, the third of the infamous ‘Black Week’, was followed by defeatist telegrams and his supersession by Roberts. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, insisted that the forty-nine-year- old Kitchener accompany the sixty-seven-year-old Roberts as chief of staff.
As Roberts accepted the command the news of Freddie’s death reached him. Freddie was not just the much loved only son in a close-knit family; his father was rolling out the red carpet for him, just as Abraham Roberts had done for his son. The loss devastated the family. The military correspondent Spenser Wilkinson called on them in London: ‘It was a sad group that received me, for the Chief, Lady Roberts and their two daughters were in tears.” They dealt with grief as did families in those days, holding it back in public, letting go their emotions in private. Once in South Africa Roberts visited hospitals to see their preparedness. At a convalescent home at Cape Town he went to the room of Captain Congreve. When Congreve gave him eyewitness details of his son’s heroism and fatal wound, he broke down. ‘It was a most dreadful interview,’ wrote Congreve in his diary. ‘[Lord Roberts] sat on my bed & sobbed as tho’ his heart was broken & I could do nothing for him except tell him of Freddy’s bravery.’
Queen Victoria herself intervened to insist on young Roberts being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
In South Africa ‘Bobs and K’ struggled to overcome serious British shortcomings in staff work, maps, intelligence and mounted troops. They could not remake the army overnight, but Roberts issued new tactical instructions, added 3,000 Mounted Infantry to his force, formed a large intelligence department and reorganised transport. Roberts proposed to march 500 miles to seize Bloemfontein and Pretoria and on to the furthest borders of the Transvaal. On 10 February he summoned senior cavalry officers to the Modder River and spoke to them: ‘I am going to give you some very hard work to do, but at the same time you are to get the greatest chance cavalry has ever had. I am certain you will do well. . .’
The cavalry did extremely well in trying conditions of heat, dust and thirst. The relief of Kimberley and the capture of General Cronje and over 4,000 Boers on the Modder River at Paardeberg on Majuba Day, 27 February marked the first major British victories, the turning point of the war. The press exulted. Kipling’s friend ‘Taffy’ Gwynne, chief correspondent of Reuters, wrote, ‘Now the man for me, parexcellence [sic], is Bobs, gallant Bobs, plucky Bobs, magnificent Bobs. How splendidly he has managed the whole thing and what tremendous risks he has been willing to run.’
After a pause the advance continued. Bloemfontein capital of the Orange Free State was occupied on 13 March. Buller was able to advance in Natal. The strategic initiative had passed to the British, nine weeks after Roberts’s arrival and four weeks after the start of his offen-sive. He renewed his advance in May, into the Transvaal, and occupied Johannesburg and Pretoria and annexed the two Boer states. After a final battle at Diamond Hill, the Boer forces dispersed. Komati Poort, on the border with Mozambique, was occupied. In nine months Roberts had advanced 500 miles, defeated the main Boer armies, and occupied their capitals.
This was a remarkable achievement for a sixty-seven year old. It lost nothing in the telling, thanks to Roberts’s management of the press and his ability to write exciting and readable despatches and release them before the correspondents got theirs off. He made full use of Kipling, who arrived in South Africa just before his attack and was given carte blanche to roam and report. Roberts launched a newspaper offensive, closing down pro-Boer newspapers at Bloemfontein and establishing The Friend, inviting Kipling and Dr Arthur Conan Doyle among others to write. The Friend welcomed Kipling on to the staff with a leading arti- cle praising him for having ‘contributed more than anyone perhaps towards the consolidation of the British Empire’ and for his unique abil- ity ‘to translate to the world the true inwardness of the Tommy’s character’. Gwynne noted in January, 1900 that Kipling was ‘delightful and as full of energy as ever. Enthusiastic to a degree.’ And in April, ‘What marvellous work for the empire he [Kipling] is doing.’
On 28th March at a formal dinner, attended by Roberts, Sir Alfred Milner, Kipling, and war correspondents, Roberts praised the last, ‘May I call you comrades?’
Roberts and Kipling shared a concern for soldiers’ health. When Roberts’s wife and daughters joined him at Bloemfontein Lady Roberts once again stirred up the hospitals, brought out more nurses and improved care in a war in which medical incompetence was rife, as noted by Kipling. He likewise paid almost daily visits to Cape Town hospitals and was much moved by the affection of the soldiers, but full of caustic remarks about the officers. Julian Ralph, a fellow journalist, heard the men say as Kipling left an army hospital, ‘God bless him; he’s the soldier’s friend.’
In South Africa both Roberts and Kipling saw the failure of complacent British leadership at company, battalion, brigade and divisional level. In two short stories, “The Way That He Took” and “The Outsider” Kipling described the incompetence of a colonel who refused to accept a warning of a Boer ambush and of a snobbish subaltern of the ‘Royal Rutlandshires’ unfit to command; both stories were published in the Daily Express. Roberts told Lansdowne of the shortcomings, but he took action: in eleven months he removed five generals of division, six cavalry brigadiers, eleven of seventeen cavalry COs, half a dozen infantry colonels. A new verb came into the language: ‘to Stellenbosch’, from the unfortunate Major Gough who was felt to be competent only to man the cavalry remount depot at that South African town. Major Ivor Maxse of the Coldstream Guards wrote to his wife,‘I think most of the Stellenboschers deserve their fate. The cruelty and wickedness in such matters lies at the door of the War Office, which frequently insists on appointing men to command who are notoriously unsuited.’
What Roberts failed to do was to end the war, which continued for a further seventeen months. The farm burning, hostages, concentration camps – the ‘Methods of Barbarism’ denounced by Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal leader – were started by him and then introduced full-scale by Kitchener, who succeeded Roberts and finally ended the war in May, 1902.
Roberts’s successes enabled the Unionists to win the Khaki Election. It was now impossible for the Boers to triumph. Britain would not become war-weary as the Americans did in Vietnam. Kipling returned to England in the summer of 1900 to finish Kim, published early the next year; he repeatedly went back to South Africa. Roberts returned at the end of 1900 to claim his rewards: the Garter, Ł100,000, and the top job he had coveted, Commander-in-Chief of the British army in succession to his rival, Wolseley. Installed in the War Office he wrote encouragingly to Kitchener, and finally sent out Ian Hamilton as chief of staff. Dispatched to co-ordinate operations in the western Transvaal Hamilton was able to pull off a victory on the stony hillside at Rooiwal which helped convince Boer leaders to seek peace.
The Boer War gave a shock to British complacency – ‘no end of a lesson’. It brought Roberts and Kipling closer togetherm fearing that the empire would decline if their countrymen did not make changes. They sought to jolt them out of their comfortable ways, to learn the lessons of this ‘first-class dress parade for Armageddon’. Roberts asked Kipling to write a poem that would spur them on. While “The Islanders” castigated the flannelled fools at the wicket and the muddied oafs at the goals, Roberts and his supporters at the War Office introduced the new Lee-Enfield rifle for service. The accurate shooting which Roberts and Ian Hamilton had taught the Indian Army was extended. Everyone knows that the BEF shot so well at Mons that the Germans thought machine guns were firing. Kipling set up a village shooting club and wrote to Roberts for surplus Lee-Enfields. There was an eighteen-pounder field gun for the artillery, and improved edu- cation for officers as well as new Field Service Manuals. Henry Rawlinson and Henry Wilson, two of Roberts’s proteges, proved outstanding commandants of the Staff College, which began to turn out trained staff in goodly numbers. Roberts’s reforms were cut short when he was ejected from the War Office by Viscount Esher’s reform committee in 1904. His efforts to awaken his countrymen continued when he became President of the National Service League in November 1905.
The National Service League had been formed in 1902 by George Shee to demand compulsory national service for home defence, but not abroad. The League’s message was defensive, never advocating aggressive or pre-emptive war. Although it included famous names, Kipling and C. F. Moberly Bell of The Times, by 1905 it still had only 2,000 members and little influence. Boy Scouting, founded in these years and supported by both Kipling and Roberts, was a parallel movement, but not a substitute.
Roberts’s prestige and energy transformed the National Service League’s campaign. It became to press and public ‘Lord Roberts’s cru- sade’, and he became the idol of those who shared his fears and the object of hatred of those who opposed the idea of compulsory service as anti-democratic, militaristic, un-English. He was aided by a series of books about invasion. He encouraged William Le Queux to write The Invasion of 1910, serialised in the Daily Mail; a front page map showed the relentless German advance from their northern landings south on London. He caused a sensation with his speech at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 22 October 1912 by his comments on Germany and because the first Balkan War being fought simultaneously added weight to his words:
Germany strikes when Germany’s hour has struck. That is the time-honoured policy relentlessly pursued by Bismarck and Moltke in 1866 and 1870. It has been her policy decade by decade since that date. It is her policy at the present hour. It is an excellent policy. It is or should be the policy of every nation prepared to play a great part in history.
The radical press attacked him, claiming that his real wish for a pre-emptive strike on Germany was unmasked. The Daily Mail replied, MFONT COLOR=BLUE>’Our politicians must give a clear lead. . . Not one of them but feels in his heart that Lord Roberts speaks the truth.’ In that year even the reluctant Times came to his support, and by 1913 the case for compulsion seemed to be enjoying greater success than ever before, including most senior soldiers. However neither political party would support the campaign.
Was there any substance to Roberts’s invasion claims? Count Schlieffen’s plan was for an invasion of Belgium and France, not Britain, and assumed Britain’s ‘contemptible little army’ would play a minor role or none at all. What Roberts’s scheme could have done was to provide the British Expeditionary Force with a vast reserve of trained men who, mobilised and thrown into the scales in 1914, might have inflicted such a severe defeat on the German invaders as to end the war quickly. As it was, Britain’s effort on land 1914-18 was a prodigious feat of improvisation.
Another thread common to Roberts and Kipling in these years was their sense of history, a view which strengthened their patriotism and their conservatism. Kipling wrote his account of English history for children, Puck of Pook’s Hill in 1906:
‘Well,’ said Puck to the children, ‘what did you think of it? Weland gave the Sword! The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It’s as natural as an oak growing.’
Roberts to the House of Lords declared his sense of the past: ‘We are links in a living chain pledged to transmit to posterity the glorious heritage we have received by those who have gone before us.’ This shared vision led Roberts to side with the die-hards in the House of Lords crisis of 1910-1911, and his view of empire and his Irish background made him a figurehead for Ulster resistance to Home Rule. He, Kipling, and Edward Elgar among others supported the British Covenant. The ferocity of Kipling’s language showed that he and Roberts could not believe what was happening: in the former’s words, ‘A province and a people of Great Britain are to be sold to their and our enemies.’ Roberts wrote to the Prime Minister begging him not to use the army to shoot down fellow countrymen while defending those who never missed ‘an opportunity of slandering and vilifying the army in the grossest manner’. In an agony of soul, sure that his beloved army would be torn apart, he went to the King to plead royal intervention; the King’s efforts were in vain. In the summer of 1914 war appeared imminent: war in Ireland as both the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood began arming and Winston Churchill and Jack Seely, First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State for War respectively, made bellicose speeches promising what would happen if Ulster resisted. Into this came news of the Archduke’s assassination and the European crisis. The day of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, Colonel Henry Wilson and his wife arrived for a weekend at Englemere, the Robertses’ home at Ascot, Wilson saying the news was far more serious than expected. On 4 August Carrie Kipling at Bateman’s wrote in her diary that she had a terrible cold. Rudyard added underneath, ‘Incidentally, Armageddon begins: England declares war on Germany.’ This brings us back to 1907. Kipling’s Mutiny anniversary poem included a third verse:
One service more we dare to ask—
Pray for us, heroes, pray,
That when Fate lays on us our task
We do not shame the Day!
The day had come with Germany’s invasion of Belgium. We all know sadly what, for that generation, not shaming the day meant. Roberts’s last favour to his friend, a commission for John Kipling in the Irish Guards, had fatal results. John was killed six weeks after his eighteenth birthday, on 27 September 1915 at the battle of Loos.
In August 1914 Kitchener, Roberts’s former comrade-in-arms in South Africa and now Secretary of State for War, appointed him Colonel-in-Chief of overseas forces in England, in fact a sinecure. In November Roberts decided to visit the Indian soldiers in France. Accompanied by Aileen his elder daughter, he travelled there, in great spirits, like a schoolboy on his holiday. The journalist Leo Amery wrote in his diary: ‘I doubt if [Roberts] ever enjoyed two days more… Meeting the Indians was a special delight to him and he insisted on stopping his car and talking to every turbaned soldier he met, and visited them in their hospitals. Old Pertab Singh [Maharajah of Jodhpur] was here to tea the day he came to us, and it was great to see the devotion in the old Indian warrior’s eyes and his joy when Bobs addressed him as “dear old friend”.’
On 13 November, a wet, cold and windy day, Roberts caught a chill climbing to the top of the Scherpenberg near Messines for a distant view of the trenches. It quickly turned to pneumonia, and after a brief rally he died at 8 p.m. the next day. The Sunday night edition of The Times of 15 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, to prepare for which he had exerted himself with unsparing devotion.
His family received numberless tributes. His younger daughter Edwina replied on her mother’s behalf to an old friend:
You are so kind & I know you loved Father; there was no one like him and it is impossible to believe he is not there to tell all one’s troubles & joys to. But he was so happy in France and his leaving was very perfect. No pain & so near the Army he loved.
Kipling and Roberts: one a contradictory writer of genius, the other a soldier in the second rank of Britain’s famous generals. Both small men who struggled to overcome handicaps, both world-famous symbols of empire. The Strand Magazine of December 1911 answered the question ‘Who are the Ten Greatest Men Now Alive?’ by placing Kipling second and Roberts seventh. Both had strong-willed wives with an important part in their careers, and loving daughters who guarded the flame after father’s death and ordered the destruction of revealing private papers. Both men loved India – with the British of course firmly in control. Some of the descriptive pages of Forty-One Years parallel Kim, without its supreme mastery. In his astute wooing of the press, Roberts strikes a modern note. Kipling might once have had reservations about this. His unsung heroes were the men of the I.C.S., the engineers who built the great dams and bridges, and officers like Bobby Wick, hero of his short story “Only a Subaltern” who gives his life for his men, dying of cholera he contracted nursing them in an epidemic. Roberts going out to retrieve the situation in South Africa after his son’s death was for Kipling and the empire a consummate example of sacrifice and service, and the old field marshal’s dying in the field in 1914 was yet further proof.
Roberts had in the eyes of the empire and its greatest poet achieved an imperial apotheosis. Kipling wrote his third Roberts poem in tribute:
He passed in the very battle-smoke
Of the war that he had descried.
Three hundred mile of cannon spoke
When the Master-Gunner died.