Redvers Henry Buller, son of a Devonshire squire, M.P. for a division of the county, owner of the manor of Downes, near Crediton, was born on the 7tli December 1839. When only eight years old he was sent to a private school, the head master of which was no doubt a Horatian scholar, and seems to have reflected in his own person the qualities of Orbilius. Walking one day down the street, young Buller thought it capital fun to ring the front-door bells as he passed. Being unfortunately detected by the schoolmaster, he was asked in an angry tone, 'Is this to be an institution for gentlemen or not? 'That depends' said the boy, perfectly prepared to argue the point, but his defence was interrupted by the production of a stick with which the poor child was unmercifully chastised.
'During the holidays' observes Mr. Edmund Gosse in a character study, 'he was always in the open air, neglecting his books a good deal, but learning steadily and eagerly in the classes of the Ecole Buissonniere. He spent his early days at Downes among the farm labourers, with the woodman, the blacksmith and the carpenter, and before he went to Eton had managed to pick up a knowledge of many technical things connected with those occupations, so thorough that it has remained with him ever since. . . . His soldiers have often expressed surprise at his practical knowledge. For instance, in the Zulu war a gun-wagon got jambed in being taken through a deep defile. When the manoeuvre seemed hopeless Sir Redvers got down and showed how the thing was to be done. The men could not help expressing amazement. “ Oh/5 replied the General, “it is only a knack ! I learned it from watching the woodmen in the Devonshire lanes when I was a boy.” '
The Buller family were Harrovians, and Redvers in due course went there, but his stay was brief; for having shocked the excellent pedagogue at that time head master by breaking a window, painting a door red, or some such boyish freak, his parents removed him and sent him forthwith to Eton. Eton has its faults, but its head masters are usually men of the world and do not look with too stern an eye on the exuberance of boyish spirits.
At the house of the Rev. W. B. Marriott, he became the fag of a boy of the greatest distinction, now known as the Rev. Edmond Warre, D.D., lately head master of the College. Dr. Warre—not entirely to one’s surprise—remarks that he was a very solid, sturdy person, who had a will of his own not always identical with that of his seniors. Buller seems to have been a fair classical scholar—when a General Officer he could quote Virgil aptly, for he had had no difficulty in learning by heart—and on a memorable occasion in after life showed the value of the watermanship acquired on the Thames. Otherwise there are no remarkable traditions connected with his Eton career, nor do I remember his making any reference to it except to recall a favourite anthem, and the fact that he never smoked after leaving school. He was happy, but with his own pursuits, and did not specially distinguish himself either in games or lessons.
When just sixteen terrible sorrow overtook him. On his way home for the Christmas holidays, his mother met him at Exeter station. The boy noticed blood on the platform and on her pocket handkerchief. Hemorrhage of the lungs had set in. She was taken into the waiting-room, where a bed was hastily improvised. Young Redvers stood over his mother, giving her relief by fanning her steadily for hours together. Bystanders wondered at his powers of endurance. The boy remained with his mother all night. She could never be moved, and died in the waiting-room a day or two afterwards.
'It was at Eton,’ says Mr. Gosse, in the same sketch, 'and towards the end of his school life, that he determined, quite independently, to go into the Army; but just before joining his regiment he very nearly put an end to everything. He was up in a tree in the woods at Downes, lopping, when he cut his right leg so severely that the Devonshire doctor declared it must be amputated or else he would die. Redvers Buller stoutly replied that he would rather die with two legs than live with one, and he was eventually cured. It, however, slightly hampered his movements and made him a little less agile than he would otherwise have been.’ He had a passion for hunting, rough as it was in those days, acquired a good seat, and rode well to the Tremlett Hounds.