Colonel Buller had not been long at home when he was posted to the 2nd Battaliom, at that time engaged in the Afghan War. His baggage had actually been sent on by ship, and he was on the point of starting in person when stopped by peremptory orders from the Duke of Cambridge. His position as a captain and brevet-colonel would certainly have been anomalous, and might perhaps have resulted in his commanding a company and a brigade on alternate days.
During the early part of 1880 a General Election was evidently at hand, and Redvers Buller was invited to stand in the Liberal interest for North Devon. As to his political views he always called himself an old Whig, but it may be doubted whether the description was accurate. Buller, in his love of the people, was a Tory in the highest sense of the word; in his keenness for reform he was a Radical. In view of his immense local popularity his election was assured, but the Colonel frankly said he could not support Mr. Gladstone on all questions, and the project consequently dropped. That he would have been a force in the House of Commons cannot reasonably be doubted, for he had a wonderful power of converting men to his own views.
After a few months of Staff service in the North British district, Colonel Buller was appointed Assistant Adjutant-General at Aldershot, the command at that time being held by Sir Thomas Steele. During the summer he attended the manoeuvres of the German army. But service in the field was once more at hand. The Zulu War had freed the Boers from danger on the part of the blacks, and they once more demanded their independence. On the refusal of the British Government they took up arms, and after taking in ambush a British regiment at Bronkhurst Spruit, crossed the frontier and occupied Laing’s Nek in the British Colony of Natal. Sir George Colley marched against them with a couple of battalions, his whole available force; but in January 1881 was repulsed in an attempt to storm the strong position. Several British garrisons in the Transvaal had been already beleaguered, and matters became serious. Reinforcements were sent out. The Staff was increased. Sir Evelyn Wood went out as a Brigadier-General, and in February Buller left England to take up the duties of Deputy Adjutant- General. He reached Cape Town on the 26th, and received next day from Wood the startling news that Colley had been killed and his troops defeated at Majuba. But long before he could join General Wood at Newcastle in Natal hostilities had ceased. The following extract from a local newspaper describes his departure from Pietermaritzburg:—’Yesterday morning the dispatch of a Newcastle mail from the Post Office was an object of unusual interest, to judge by the rapidly gathering throng of spectators who crowded on the Post Office steps, leaned against the rails, or loafed around the buildings. There were two military passengers standing by, upon one of whom all eyes were turned. A tall, muscular, wiry-looking man, with bronzed face and grizzly beard, clad in the ordinary dark- blue service tunic—the left breast of which blazed with bright-coloured medal ribbons—drab cord breeches and yellow leather boots, helmet on head, and grasping a serviceable-looking sword. This was Colonel Buller, the Devonshire soldier, the hero of Zlobane, Kambula, and Ulundi, General Wood’s right-hand man, the crack commander of cavalry irregulars, a brave officer, a true gentleman, and one who won the esteem and respectful admiration of those whom he commanded and those who knew him only by reputation.’
On reaching Newcastle, Evelyn Wood and Buller went to Laing’s Nek to review the Boer army, being received by a guard of honour, composed of Boers who had served under Buller’s command during the Zulu War as troopers in the Frontier Light Horse.
Duties of civil administration compelled General Wood to hand over military affairs entirely to Buller, who, at the end of March, was granted the local rank of Major-General. Headquarters were at Newcastle, and a fine force, amounting to some 14,000 men, including our 2nd and 3rd Battalions, was assembled partly at that town, partly at Estcourt, and partly at the advanced post of Mount Prospect. The Boers declared that Buller’s arrival was the equivalent of a reinforcement of 10,000 men to the British Army. The two Generals worked out a scheme for the attack of Laing’s Nek from the east, which was considered absolutely certain of success, and justified Wood in saying that he held the Boers in the hollow of his hand. Buller’s powers of command and administration were conspicuous. His A.D.C., Captain Donald Browne, remarked to the writer that, old friend as he was of the General, he had had up to that time no notion of the extent of his capacity. The Headquarter Staff was largely composed of Riflemen. In addition to the General and his A.D.C., Colonel—now Lord— Grenfell was Chief of the Staff, and Major—now Sir Ronald—Lane was Deputy Adjutant-General. Some few who read this will perhaps remember the cheery meetings between our 2nd and 3rd Battalions; the former commanded by Colonel Algar, the latter by our present Colonel-Commandant, Sir Cromer Ashburnham; the first at Mount Prospect, the second at Bennett’s Drift. Near Mount Prospect was also another of our Colonels-Commandant, viz. Sir Edward Hutton, at that time a captain in command of a company of mounted infantry [The writer recalls an incident of the period perhaps not entirely devoid of interest. With Captain F. W. Archer and Captain M. C. Boyle he went for a shooting expedition along the Buffalo river. Transport was hard to get, and General Buller very kindly lent us a team of army mules, telling us to take the greatest care of them. So we did, but one mule was weakly from the outset. After a few days we returned towards Newcastle: the mule got worse and worse, and one evening just before reaching the town, the driver reported its death. We were much annoyed, and so, we knew, would be the General. In the morning, in accordance with his regulation, we sent the driver to cut off its foot; but by this time the mule had happily come to life again. When the General heard the story he was much pleased that the raison d’etre of his order had been so clearly proved.]
The year wore on, and though more than once the peace seemed likely to be broken (for the Boers were stubborn and a party in our Cabinet seemed ready to drive them to extremities), matters settled down and hostilities were never resumed. Buller was glad, for he thought the Boers had been badly treated in 1877. At the same time, he strongly disapproved of the way in which quasi-independence was now given back to them, and his letters give a remarkable prophecy that a very much more serious war, in which we should be confronted with both Free State and Transvaal, would break out before many years had elapsed.