By the time Brownrigg returned Buller was thoroughly imbued with love of his profession. He felt disappointment that he had no opportunity of becoming the actual Adjutant. But his turn for promotion was now at hand. The 4th Battalion came home in the summer of 1869, but in May of the following year Buller, after twelve years5 service, was gazetted Captain and posted to the 1st Battalion, at that time assembling in Thunder Bay, Lake Superior, for the Red River Expedition. He was not very anxious to join it. He was convinced that there would be no fighting, and having been abroad during nearly eleven of the previous twelve years, felt perhaps that he was entitled to a little home service. But his hesitation was brief, and the 10th June found him at Thunder Bay.
The circumstances of the problem about to be solved were rather curious. The Hudson Bay Company, by virtue of its original Charter, claimed possession of the whole Dominion of Canada to the north and west of the province of Ontario. The claim was, of course, inadmissible, and such rights as those to which it was in reality entitled had been bought in 1869 by the Government of Canada. But some of the French Canadians still contended that the country was not legally under British rule. One Riel raised the standard of revolt at Fort Garry, a trading station of the Hudson Bay Company, near the town of Winnipeg. Englishmen boast of their capacity for business; Frenchmen exercise it. What Riel was now doing was merely the traditional French policy of establishing a line of forts behind British settlements, thus confining them to the sea coast and excluding them from the hinterland.
Colonel — now Field-Marshal Lord — Wolseley was appointed to command the British force, which consisted of the 1st Battalion of the 60th Rifles and two battalions of Canadian Militia. The distance from Thunder Bay to Fort Garry by the river route was over 600 miles. After the first few miles of road the whole journey was to be done by boat. The route ran, not along sluggish streams and calm lakes, but through foaming rapids studded with sunken rocks, in which the most wary steersman could hardly find a passage. Canadian voyageurs were provided, but Buller quickly found that he knew a great deal more of boat craft than they did; and although the Government maps were faulty to the last degree, and his own for a considerable distance was the foremost boat, he took the helm himself and successfully steered through the intricate and almost impenetrable channels. Anon the course lay along the surface of a lake : smoother indeed than the river, but sometimes lashed into fury by wind and storm, and so densely dotted with islands and indented by creek and bay that it was almost impossible to see whether the true channel was being threaded or whether the helmsman was unwittingly steering for the shore. Here Captain Buller’s boating experience in Eton days stood him in good stead. Noticing one night that the water ahead—which shone clear in the moonlight—was dead calm for some miles, while rippled water could be seen through an opening between islands, he instantly judged that the latter must be the true course, and turning sharp to the right gained the proper channel, while every other boat’s crew, accompanied by a less competent guide, going straight on, found itself headed off by the shore and had a five-mile row round the bay.
Every now and again the head of the lake or river would be reached and a portage would have to be crossed. Boats were emptied of their stores and hauled over rollers to the next point of embarkation, perhaps a mile or two distant, while the rifles, food, &c., were carried on the backs of the crew. In such work Buller was unsurpassed. Lord Wolseley remarks that, ‘All the officers of the expeditionary force soon became expert in making portages and in mending their boats, no one more so than my able friend and valued comrade, Redvers Buller. It was here that I first made his acquaintance, and I am proud to feel that we have been firm friends ever since. He was a first-rate axe-man, and I think he was the only man with us of any rank who could carry a 100-lb. barrel of pork on his back [Lord Wolseley understates the case. Speaking in a private letter of the very first (the Kashiborine) portage, Captain Buller writes : ‘ The portage was about three-quarters of a mile long. Over it we had to carry on our backs all our loads, consisting of about twenty-eight barrels a boat, and then to drag the boats over. This took us just a day, and we camped the other end, having finished it. I carried five loads over. I thought them heavy then ; they averaged about 100 lb. apiece. To show how practice improves one at this -work, I should say that, coming down from Winnipeg, my loads over twenty-seven portages seldom averaged less than 1801b., and I carried through without putting down or resting, which at first I had to do every 150 yards or so.’ Lieut. St. Maur—the present Duke of Somerset—whose sobriquet, ‘Anak,’ denoted his herculean size and strength, habitually carried an arm-chest across the portages.]. He could mend a boat and have her back in the water with her crew and all her stores on board whilst many would have been still making up their minds what to do. Full of resource, and personally absolutely fearless, those serving under him always trusted him fully.’ Six boats conveyed Buller’s company. That of his subaltern, Lieut. Burs tall, had its stern literally torn out by a rock; but with the aid of canvas, white lead, and a covering of tin Buller himself mended it, as indeed he mended all the other boats of his company, which were constantly knocking up against rocks. His own boat was, however, absolutely unhurt from start to finish.
Through Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods (bordered sometimes by romantic scenery, sometimes by arid desolation) rowed the convoy after crossing the watershed dividing the streams which flow into Lake Superior from those which flow into Hudson Bay; and then reached along the terrible Winnipeg river. Here even Buller’s science might have been at fault, but he had happily just been joined by a first-rate Indian guide, and after eleven days of incredibly hard work, Fort Alexander, a Hudson Bay post on the east bank of Lake Winnipeg, was reached, and the perils of the voyage were over. Splendidly as the Riflemen had worked— mostly in torrents of rain—Buller thought the men of the 1st Battalion less handy than those of the 4th—they had not had Hawley’s training—but he said they had a grand tradition of Delhi and earlier campaigns which carried them through everything. Riel’s stronghold, Fort Garry, was reached on the 24tli. It was already deserted. The birds had flown. But so much had they been taken by surprise, and so narrow was the margin for escape, that Riel’s unfinished breakfast still lay on the table. The band played the regimental march as the Riflemen entered the fort—the two regiments of Canadian Militia had not yet come up—and to the accompaniment of the National Anthem, the Union Jack was hoisted on the walls. From the further bank of the river two men stood watching the ceremony. It afterwards turned out that they were Riel and his secretary! Not a shot was fired from start to finish, and Buller caustically remarked that he was disgusted at having come so far to hear the band play ’God Save the Queen.’ But, although Buller was unconscious of the fact or indeed of having done anything out of the common, the Red River Expedition was everything to him. Fie had trained himself in the backwoods and Colonel Hawley had trained him in the details of his profession. This was his first opportunity of reaping the fruits of both, and in doing so he was fortunate in coming under the eye of the rising soldier of the day. Magnificently as the whole Battalion, commanded by Colonel Randal Feilden and led by good captains, had done, Colonel Wolseley quickly singled out Redvers Buller; and he recommended him and Captain John Owen Young—another excellent officer—for promotion to the brevet rank of major. But the Horse Guards authorities decided that, as there had been no fighting, the brevets must be given to the two senior captains, irrespective of merit. The temporary loss of brevet rank made no difference to Buller: he was placed on Wolseley’s list of able men and thenceforward proved himself indispensable. But even this did not represent the true measure of his success. His feats of strength, his surpassing skill, his coup d'oeil, caused the Riflemen to look upon him as something superhuman; while his thought for everyone but himself, and his wonderful magnetism of sympathy endeared him to their hearts. Those who have heard the old soldiers of the 1st Battalion say with an emphasis impossible to reproduce, ‘ He was a gentleman,’ the term of the very highest praise which it is possible for them to use, will bear me out in what might otherwise be thought an exaggeration. And what was the reason of this spell ? It was because his men realised that his interests were identical with their own, that there was no barrier of so-called class distinction between them, that he was totally devoid of partiality except for merit, and that, like a true king among men [The original meaning of the word ‘ king ’ is one who can do things better than other people], he could do everything better than they could; that he was in short their truest friend and a model for Riflemen of every age and generation. No wonder that, when asked a few years later his opinion on flogging, he could say, ‘I never found any difficulty in maintaining discipline without punishment.’ The present is an age in which education is much talked about, if little understood. The opportunities of mutual education afforded by the relations in which officers and men of the 60th and other regiments stand towards each other— more particularly on such occasions as the Red River Expedition—are little appreciated by the world at large.
Incredible as it seems, although Fort Garry—to use Lord Wolseley’s expression—was as far from a telegraph station as Kent from Rome, Buffer in a letter dated thence on 24th August mentions ’rumours of great European Wars, and the French being licked.’ Now, the first defeat of a French Division at Weissemburg had taken place only twenty days previously, while the first general actions at Woerth and Spiclieren did not take place until the 6th of the month. Truly a bird of the air had carried the matter! The stay at Fort Garry was very brief. Leaving the Militia regiments in garrison, the 60th began to retrace its steps before the end of August. Captain Buller, with his company, selected for the purpose by Wolseley, greatly shortened the distance by marching overland as far as the north-west angle of the Lake of the Woods, when he again took to his boats, which had been brought round by another company. Nothing further of interest occurred until the Battalion reached Montreal early in October.