Frederick Roberts (1832-1914) was the son of General Sir Abraham Roberts. The general was initially against his joining the Army and was anxious that he should adopt another career. In his letters Abraham wrote, ‘Freddy will remain at home, Church or the Law,’ and, ‘If Freddy is clever I hope he will not think of the Army.’ (Lord Frederick Roberts, ‘Letters Written During the Indian Mutiny’, (London, 1924), p. xvii). However, he eventually relented.
After attending Sandhurst, Frederick entered the East India Company’s military academy at Addiscombe in Surrey. As was usual with 19th-century educational institutions, the pupils led a tough existence, which might have helped them to cope with the hard career path they had chosen in India. They also learned Indian languages, essential if they were to command native units successfully. To encourage his son, Abraham offered him a gold watch and £50 if he completed his studies and joined the artillery. Frederick passed out ninth out of a class of 40 and entered the Bengal Artillery in 1851.
Roberts’s subsequent career was spent almost entirely as a staff officer, but he still saw a good deal of active service on the Indian sub-continent and in Abyssinia. He won the Victoria Cross at Khudagani during the Indian Mutiny (1857-59) for repeated acts of gallantry. His citation, published in ‘The London Gazette’, 24 December 1858, described how:
‘Lieutenant Roberts’s gallantry had on every occasion been most marked. On following up the retreating enemy on the 2nd January 1858, at Khodagunge [sic], he saw in the distance two sepoys going away with a standard... They immediately turned round and presented their muskets at him, and one of the men pulled the trigger, but fortunately the cap snapped and the standard-bearer was cut down by this gallant young officer... He also on the same day, cut down another sepoy who was standing at bay with musket and bayonet keeping off a sowar. Lieutenant Roberts rode to the assistant of the horseman, and rushing at the sepoy with one blow of his sword cut him across the face killing him on the spot.’
Roberts first came to public notice during the 2nd Afghan War (1878-80) when he commanded the Kurram Field Force and later the Kabul Field Force which occupied the Afghan capital in October 1879. Roberts also led his troops on the famous march from Kabul to Kandahar. Despite the difficult terrain and the high temperatures, he covered 280 miles (400km) in 20 days and hardly lost a man. In September 1880 he then defeated Ayub Khan outside Kandahar and relieved the besieged garrison. For his services, Roberts received the thanks of Parliament, and was appointed both Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) and Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE), becoming a baronet the following year.
‘...the rent in my heart seems to stifle all feelings of joy and pleasure. I could not help thinking how very different it would have been if our dear boy had been with me.’
Letter from Lord Frederick Roberts to his wife Countess Nora Roberts following the death of their son Freddy; sent from Tambosch Spruct Camp, 26 May 1900; cited in D James, ‘Lord Roberts’, (London 1954), p326
Roberts was promoted to lieutenant-general in 1883 and after a brief appointment as Governor of Natal and Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, he was given the command of the Madras Army. In 1885 Roberts succeeded to the post of Commander-in-Chief, India, a position he held until 1893. Appointed Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (GCIE) in 1887, he was promoted to general in 1890, and created Baron Roberts in 1892. During his tenure in India he instituted many reforms of the Indian Army and greatly assisted the development of frontier communications and defence. Roberts was made Commander-in-Chief in Ireland in 1895 and promoted to field marshal.
After the early reverses of the Boer War (1899-1902), Roberts took over command of the British forces in South Africa. From December 1899, together with his chief of staff Major-General Horatio Herbert, Lord Kitchener, he revitalised the British military effort. This was despite having received the devastating news of the death of his son Freddy who had been mortally wounded at the Battle of Colenso (1899). During his successful march through the Transvaal towards Pretoria Roberts wrote to his wife:
‘I suppose I ought to have felt proud and happy this morning when Kitchener congratulated me on being across the Vaal, but the rent in my heart seems to stifle all feelings of joy and pleasure. I could not help thinking how very different it would have been if our dear boy had been with me. Honours, rewards and congratulations have no value to me. So very different to what they were when I used to think of the son who would bear my name. But I must not write like this. God for some wise purpose has taken our dear Freddy from us and we must try and say “Thy will be done!”’ (Letter from Lord Frederick Roberts to Countess Nora Roberts from Tambosch Spruct Camp, 26 May 1900 cited in D James, ‘Lord Roberts’, (London 1954), p326)
Kindly, unassuming and courteous, Roberts was popularly known as ‘Bobs’. His small stature and elderly appearance - he was 68 when he left South Africa in 1900 - probably increased the veneration in which he was held by both the public and soldiers.
On returning to Britain Roberts was made a Knight of the Garter and created Earl Roberts. Despite a bitter rivalry with the Wolseley ring, Roberts was made the last Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, a position he held for three years until 1904. Appointed to the Order of Merit, Roberts died of pneumonia at St Omer, France, during a visit to Indian troops in 1914. After lying in state in Westminster Hall, he was given a state funeral. His body was placed on the carriage of one of the guns his son Freddy had tried to save at Colenso.
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