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Buller in South Africa

Julian Symons describes how, in the year of South African crisis, 1899, Buller, once regarded as the ablest of British commanders, was stricken by a strange failure of nerve.

Julian Symons | Published in History Today

At twelve minutes past two on the afternoon of October 14th, 1899, Sir Redvers Buller left Waterloo Station on his way to South Africa, as Commander-in-Chief of the British armies in the field against the Boers. The Duke of Cambridge and Lord Wolseley, the past and present Commanders-in-Chief of the Army, were there, with the Prince of Wales, to bid him goodbye, and these three followed Buller to his saloon.

“A few words and a hasty grasp of hands between the Prince of Wales and Sir Redvers Buller, and the train, under the charge of Mr. Holmes, assistant superintendent, was in motion.”

Buller was at this time nearly sixty years old, and even those who disliked his brusque speech and overbearing manner thought that he was the most able General in the British Army. As far back as 1885, Lord Esher had noted in his Journal: “Buller is said to be the best man—take him all round—in the British Army. Not a very pleasant fellow.”

Two years later, Buller, after having failed utterly in South Africa, had been relieved of his command and retired on half pay. His name has come down to us as that of a classically incompetent General and an extremely stupid man. The verdict is not quite just. Despite his appearance and manner, Buller was neither stupid nor illiberal; and it was less incompetence than a failure of nerve that caused his disasters in the field.

Redvers Henry Buller was one of the eleven children of a wealthy Devonshire squire, owner of the manor of Downes, near Crediton. The wealthy squire was also a Liberal M.P. and a staunch supporter of free trade; and so far as Buller himself had any political feelings, they inclined towards Liberalism. Like his father, he was always on easy terms with working people. There was no military tradition in the family, and Redvers’ enlistment in the Army was a considerable gesture of independence.

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