Early in 1878 Buller was asked to go to South Africa on special service with General Thesiger, better known, on the death of his father shortly afterwards, as Lord Chelmsford. The moment was rather a critical one, for Turkey had just been vanquished by Russia after a gallant struggle; the Russians were at the gates of Constantinople, and there seemed every prospect of England becoming involved in the war. Reviewing the circumstances with his usual sang froid, Buller, in spite of his friends' remonstrances, decided that England would not be compelled to take an active part, and that, in order to get promotion, he would do well to go to South Africa. His forecast was borne out by the result, and indeed his private correspondence shows many instances of predictions fulfilled almost to the letter.
Among his fellow-passengers on board the Ambiez was Lieut.-Colonel—now Field-Marshal Sir Evelyn —Wood. In Cape Colony a Kaffir war was in full swing, and had been already prosecuted with vigour by Thesiger’s predecessor, Sir Arthur Cunynghame. Buller was at first sent as Staff Officer to Commandant Frost, a very able Colonial, to whose tuition both at the time and in a public speech in 1899 he acknowledged his obligations; but on the 22nd April was appointed to the command of the Frontier Light Horse, a regiment some 250 strong; a most miscellaneous crew, many of the troopers being surf boatmen from the coast, many foreigners; but with a fine leaven of Dutch Boers, from whom Buller learned a very great deal that was useful. Such a collection could not fail to contain a curious admixture of reputable and disreputable persons. Under anyone else the Frontier Light Horse might have become, as Abercromby said of the Militia in Ireland, a terror to everyone except the enemy. But there was a stern side to Buffer’s character, and shortly after assuming his command he had occasion to show it. Having had some hard work, the Commanding Officer gave the men a short rest, but knowing they would spend the interval for the most part in a state of intoxication, he warned them to come to parade sober and fit for service in two days’ time. The regiment answered to his caff pretty well; one man, however, was not only drunk, but actually dared to loudly abuse the C.O. to his face. Buller said nothing except to give the word of command to march ; but, having gone a few miles, halted, and then, in the most conspicuous manner possible, ordered the man to dismount, and sent him about his business. The one example sufficed. Insubordination was quelled for ever, and that it took an astonishingly short time to get his regiment in order was due to that splendid element of magnetic sympathy known as ’power of command.’ The men felt it personally degrading to do anything the Colonel disliked. At a later period a man misbehaved. He was forgiven. He repeated the offence. He was urged to ask forgiveness again, but he was quite unable to bring himself to do so.’I cannot,’ he moaned piteously, ’I cannot face Buller.’
Mr. Gosse tells us that at a dinner party where Mr. Gladstone was present, some one quoted Joshua as an instance of a soldier the like of whom could not be matched in modern history. Mr. Gladstone in his vehement way took this up at once. ‘ Joshua, Joshua!’ he exclaimed; ‘why, Joshua could not hold a candle to Sir Redvers Buller as a leader of men.’
Buller and the Frontier Light Horse became a proverb for everything that was skilful and daring. His own achievements were those of a paladin of old, though it is impossible to get any idea of them from his private letters. At the Perie Bush he surpassed himself. Of his two captains, one was killed and the other desperately wounded. The Kaffirs were at bay among some rocks halfway down the precipitous side of a mountain. They could have been picked oh from below, but a company of infantry detailed for the purpose failed to make its appearance. Advancing from the crest, Buller’s troopers were repulsed. ‘ It was,’ he says, 'some time before we came again. However, with the help of the Fingoes, we got in and killed all the people inside the rocks, about fifteen; not many, but quite enough to make it hot for us, as there was only room for us to go in two and two at a time.’ From this brief notice one would hardly suppose that what actually happened was, that on Evelyn Wood bringing up a company of infantry, Buller, shouting, ‘ Frontier Light Horse, will you allow the red coats to get in front of you?’ made himself into a kind of toboggan, slid down for 40 ft. the precipice which formed the only means of approach amid the concentrated fire of the Kaffirs, and led the attack on the rocks single-handed.
After the action at Taba-ka-Udoda, Buller again distinguished himself by returning to rescue wounded men who had been left behind in a very nasty cave in the Bush. The Kaffirs were subdued by the autumn. For these repeated acts of gallantry Buller was mentioned in Lord Chelmsford’s dispatch, and in November received the brevet of Lieutenant-Colonel. He mentions a sixty miles’ march in eleven hours, which brought him into Natal; and one of 488 miles in twenty-one days from Maritzburg to Burger’s Fort in the Transvaal, via Newcastle and Lydenburg. Here at Lydenburg he awaited the more serious Zulu War, which was evidently close at hand [At this period the veldt swarmed with herds of deer. ‘ I have/ says Buller, in a letter written at this time, ‘ two most charming pets, black greyhounds, who sleep in my bed and keep me warm all night, and are generally cheerful and charming during the day. I had great fun at Kokstadt coursing bucks. I never succeeded in catching one, but we had some wonderful runs, and I got a most wonderful “ purl,” for poor old “ Bob ” put his foot in a hole and turned a complete somersault over me. They all thought I must be killed, but by some happy luck I was not hurt in the least; neither, I am glad to say, was Bob’]. The Transvaal Republic, bankrupt in finance and threatened with destruction by its black neighbours, had, in 1877, been incorporated in the British Empire. Among those neighbouring tribes none were better organised or more formidably menacing than the subjects of Cetewayo, King of Zululand, on the eastern border of Natal. To the Zulus, by law and custom of life, war was a necessity. If the British debarred him from fighting the Boers, Cetewayo felt that he had no option but to fight the British. His men were not only hardy in the extreme, but were organised in impis or legions, and highly trained in the art of war. The Zulus could march, manoeuvre, and fight. In January 1879 Lord Chelmsford crossed the frontier of Natal to enforce obedience. A few days later one of his columns was surprised and cut to pieces at Isandhlwana. For a time matters were critical, but Evelyn Wood (who commanded a column with Buller as his lieutenant) held his own; and when reinforcements arrived from England, the tide turned. A reconnaissance of the Inhlobana mountain revealed the enemy in overwhelming force. Buller’s orders were not complied with, and he found himself hard pressed on the edge of the mountain with a precipice behind him. The destruction of his whole force seemed inevitable, but with the utmost coolness Buller dismounted his men, pushed the horses by main force down the edge of the steep, and following with his troopers made good his retreat, though with the loss of 100 men. Again and again did Buller go back during the retreat to pick up wounded men, and he received the Victoria Cross, which he had probably earned a dozen times over. The words of the Gazette were as follow :—
'For his gallant conduct at the retreat at Inhlobana on the 28th March 1879, in having assisted, while hotly pursued by the Zulus, in rescuing Captain C. D’Arcy of the Frontier Light Horse, who was retiring on foot, and carrying him on his horse until he overtook the rearguard; also for having, on the same date and under the same circumstances, conveyed Lieut. C. Everitt of the F.L.H., whose horse had been killed under him, to a place of safety. Later on Colonel Buller in the same manner saved a trooper of the F.L.H. whose horse was completely exhausted, and who would otherwise have been killed by the Zulus.’
Pursuing its advantage, the Zulu army attacked Wood the following day at Kambula, but after a hot fight was repulsed, and the repulse was turned into a rout by the pursuit of Buller and his cavalry. To say that during this campaign the Colonel had the entire confidence of his men is to understate the case. He was known as the ‘Bayard of South Africa,’ and was looked on as a hero of heroes for the reason that, as during the Bed River and Ashanti expeditions, he thought of everyone but himself. His powers of endurance were remarkable. He was on one occasion in the saddle from 11.30 p.m. till 9 p.m. the next day, and then from 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. on the day following. He habitually reconnoitred ten or fifteen miles in advance of the British cavalry, and, whether in reconnaissance or pursuit, showed every characteristic of that rara avis, a cavalry leader. As is the case with every able man, his powers of observation were great. One day he noticed a Zulu shepherd with his flock on the opposite side of a mealie field, and at once halted his party.’That man/ he remarked, ‘ would not be there if his friends were not between us and him.’ And so it proved. He is described at this period as ‘ a silent, saturnine man.’ Yet to his friends he was cheery and ready to talk. But he was not a man to stand impertinence. ‘ I am amused with your advice that I should flatter newspaper correspondents, as only yesterday I had occasion to pull one through a thorn bush to teach him manners/ he writes cheerfully; adding,’if he revenges himself by caricaturing me, buy a copy of his paper and keep it for me!’ Another correspondent, who had been treated with confidence, actually told Colonel Buller that he considered himself justified in reading and making use of any private correspondence he might happen to find, and was surprised next day to be turned out of the Colonel’s tent. This man used afterwards to say, ‘I hate him and he hates me’ (this was a mistake), ‘nevertheless he is the greatest genius I have ever met.’ On meeting the officer who had accompanied the Prince Imperial on his last ride, Buller’s indignation broke out, but his sense of justice led him afterwards to emphasise the fact that the officer had never before been under fire, and to add that he might have done well on the next occasion. The same sense of justice was keenly shown on a court-martial which tried another officer for an error of judgment. Little as he sympathised with his conduct, he drew attention to every point which could tell in the prisoner’s favour, and the latter considered that to him he owed his acquittal. His gentleness of character asserted itself also on other occasions. The brother of Cetewayo offered to capitulate with his tribe, on the condition that the women and children received British protection. Wood and Buller rode out to escort them into the British camp. Buller, like a true, fastidious Etonian, loudly declared that nothing would induce him to touch the vermin-covered children. But they had not got far on their return journey before General Wood, looking round, saw Buller with three Zulu babies in front of him on the saddle, and three others perched up behind!
On the day before the battle of Ulundi, Colonel Buller reconnoitred the Zulu position, and determined the ground on which the battle was fought. He fully carried out his intention of discovering the true strength of the enemy, and withdrew his forces with great skill and coolness from a veritable nest of hornets. On the following day the enemy’s attack was repelled, and as the Zulus flinched from our fire Lord Chelmsford ordered the British cavalry to charge. After giving the message to the officer concerned, the A.D.C. told Buller of the General’s order. Buller, assegai in hand, dashed like lightning with the Frontier Light Horse to the front, driving the Zulus before him in irremediable confusion. A few days later Sir Garnet Wolseley succeeded Lord Chelmsford in command, but Buller came home, for the war was to all intents and purposes at an end, and he was suffering from the effects of a wound which refused to heal. On reaching England the Colonel was summoned to Windsor Castle, where Her Majesty the Queen—the shrewdest judge of character—appreciating his fearless honesty, his modesty, and his somewhat unconventional mode of speech, made him one of her Aides-de-camp1 and treated him with a kindness and generous confidence which she never abandoned during her life.
When he afterwards related the subject of his conversation with the Queen, some of the courtiers were startled at his frankness.’If I am not to tell the truth to my Sovereig'/ replied Buller ,’I don’t know to whom I am to tell it.’