No one, I think, can review the career of Sir Redvers Buller without realising how well-spent a life his was. From 1868, when he took up his profession in earnest, to 1901, either in the field or at the desk he was almost uninterruptedly at hard work. He had little rest; little holiday. He was a man totally devoid of ambition. His own inclination, after five and thirty years’ service, would perhaps have been to lead the life of a country gentleman; but England has never had a son to whom the thorny path of duty was more sacred. His country could not do without him, and he gave up his life to its service. For his work in high office the Army, aye, and the whole nation, owes him a debt of gratitude hardly, if at all, less than it owes Lord Wolseley. In his military career he had this advantage over Lord Wolseley and many other generals, that he began it with thirteen years of purely regimental service; and though he never commanded a battalion, he was at all events Colonel of the Frontier Light Horse for fifteen months in the field, and had a sympathy with regimental officers often lacking in men whose service has been principally passed on the Staff of the Army. His views on a subject were always characterised by breadth and originality. He set himself a high standard; he lived up to it, and expected others to do the same. ‘Buller,’ remarks one of the ablest of his companions in arms, ‘was a first-rate organiser; his mind was always clear; he knew what he wanted; he gave clear orders and saw that they were obeyed.’ His brain worked very rapidly. He could pick out the heart of a matter in a moment, and would give his opinion in a brief, epigrammatic expression. His shy manner no doubt sometimes repelled people, but it was not difficult to penetrate the veneer and to be assured of the innate gentleness of his nature. In 1884, in the hospital at Wadi Haifa, an officer of our regiment, so near death that he seemed to be sinking, opened his eyes and saw the stern General leaning over his bed. Then, to his astonishment, two tears fell on the coverlet. The Bishop of Nottingham remarks that, though undemonstrative, he was always sympathetic and ready to help, either by counsel or, if necessary, in a more material way. On one occasion at Kurot on the Nile, the Father, passing by his tent, was cheerily hailed by Sir Redvers asking if he could do anything for him. It so happened that Father Brindle was at the moment greatly disturbed by something which he thereupon mentioned to the General, who at once put aside his own urgent work, listened to the tale, sent for the correspondence, mastered the facts, and then said: ‘When I have fairly considered the thing and have decided according to my conscience what should be done, I never trouble myself with the consequences, because I have acted to the best of my ability. Take my advice and do the same’ “It was not’ adds the Bishop, ‘what he said; it was the generous, kindly feeling which made him put aside his own great anxieties and his own incessant work to give me a word of comfort that touched me to the heart’
Another characteristic was the simplicity of his nature. He would ignore his title and merely give his name as General Buller. A young officer, who had occasion to speak to him at the War Office, apologised for intruding on his time. ‘.All I am here for is to be of use’ was Buller’s kindly answer.
Sir Redvers’ was a very fine and rare character, and he was a man endowed with great constructive ability. His chivalrous reverence for women was a conspicuous trait. In reviewing his career, it is not the question whether his dispositions on any particular occasion were or were not the best possible. The moral of his life is his high sense of honour, his devotion to his duty; he was the servant with ten talents, and those talents being devoted to the service of his God and of his country, he left the morale and self-respect of the Army better—far better—than he had found it. It was during his tenure of the office of Adjutant-General that excess of drink almost disappeared from the Army. His moral courage was not less conspicuous than his physical. We see in his character a trace of Lord Dorchester, a trace of Moore, a trace of Lincoln, but it is only with Napoleon that we can make any comparison in regard to that splendid magnetic sympathy which was by far Buller’s highest and grandest characteristic. And how deep that sympathy sank into men’s hearts, hundreds of instances can be given. Let two suffice.
One day in London he called a cab and asked the fare to Kensal Green. The cabman replied,’I would drive you, Sir Redvers, all round London for nothing.’
In the train—on the day of the funeral—an Artilleryman began talking about the war. He had, he said, lost two brothers on the Tugela. Up to that point he retained his composure, but when the name of Sir Redvers passed his lips he burst into tears.
It has been thought by some that the General was ultra-sensitive to Press criticism. The idea is incorrect. It was only when he thought his honour at stake that he spoke out. In a private letter, written shortly after the relief of Ladysmith, he remarks apropos of newspapers :
‘What I really most like to get is abuse of myself ; sometimes it makes me laugh, and sometimes it really helps me, so I am always pleased to get it. Some of the papers are very funny; they first state an impossible thesis, and then proceed to condemn me because my conduct has not been on all fours with that thesis. Others, of course, hit blots. The hardest luck I have, I think, is being constantly abused for the censorship of Natal. So far as I am concerned there is no censorship. X shut up a person the other day, and was going to imprison the editor because he published an article abusing me; but I telegraphed to him, “ For Heaven’s sake let the chaps go on; there is nothing so refreshing as abuse.” ’
Towards those who had transposed his dispatches and misrepresented his actions Sir Redvers was too high-minded to bear ill-will. He looked upon such behaviour philosophically and made allowances. In a long conversation with the writer not very long afterwards lie talked freely of events. He gave praise where due, pointed out where mistakes had been made and statements had deviated from the truth, but all in a quiet, judicial manner, entirely free from acrimony; and even as soon as the first Sunday after leaving Aldershot, when the soreness could not have begun to pass away, being with a cousin at St. Paul’s Cathedral, he whispered to her that he wished to attend the Holy Communion’just to remove any bitterness.’ Yet, in words of Sir Walter Raleigh (another Devonshire hero) when on his trial, he might truly have said,’All things that make for me are put down to cunning. All things that make against me are thought probable.’ But really, for us of his regiment, the opinion of prejudiced politicians is of absolutely no importance. He was good enough for us. We are proud of him.
Lightly they talk of the spirit that’s gone,
And o’er his cold ashes upbraid him.
The lines are as appropriate to the one hero as to the other. In the case of Sir John Moore the virulence of calumny has given way to admiration of talent too dazzling for his contemporaries. The meed of praise for Sir Redvers has yet to come. In both instances it was the foe that was the first to do justice to the dead. And on hearing that he had passed away, the Boers lost no time in sending to Sir Redvers’ family their tribute of respect. Foremost among them was Louis Botha.
It is too soon as yet to assign to the General his place among Englishmen; but acrid criticism is already giving way to respectful comment, and it may be asserted with confidence that whatever the future may have in store for others, it will only enhance his reputation.
Whatever record leaps to light
He never shall be shamed.
At the Veterans’ dinner this year, Field-Marshal Lord Grenfell and Lieut.-General Sir Edward Hutton paid eloquent tribute to his memory. ‘ Sir Redvers Buller,’ said the latter, Was, and always will be, a great personality—one who has left the impress of his strong character deep in the minds of all soldiers of his day. . . . The secret of his power lay not in his great intellect, not in his grasp of affairs, not in his powerful physique, not even in his indomitable will power, but in his power of sympathy, in his love for and fellow-feeling with those round and below him, concealed—and therefore intensified—by a certain roughness of manner and abruptness of speech. . . . The well-known instinct of the British soldier invariably saw through and below the surface, and descried the real Buller, the born leader of men. [Applause.] Modest, retiring, and devoid of personal ambition, it was this intense sympathy and love for others which prompted the many acts of gallantry to save the lives of his men in the Kaffir and Zulu wars, and which gained for him the name of the ‘Bayard of South Africa.’ It was the same feeling which infused his own bold spirit into the hearts of the shaken troops at Tamai in 1884, and again into the battle-worn and overstrung men of the Desert Column in 1885. It was the same feeling which caused the Army of Natal to ignore in the trying days on the Tugela any idea of reverse so long as Buller led them and was satisfied with them. The man who can thus inspire men by sheer force of sympathy and will power is truly and in reality a great man. The makers of our Empire have never sought popular applause. They have been content that history and posterity should rightly appreciate their services. That was doubtless our hero’s wish. To us Riflemen, however, let the life and memory of Redvers Buller be a beacon of unsparing devotion to duty, and an example of self-sacrificing thought for and sympathy with others.’ [Loud cheers.]