Life of General the Right Hon. Sir Redvers Buller
By Charles Henderson Melville CMG
There is a statue on the Crediton road on the edge of Exeter of a soldier mounted on his horse, an inscription on the plinth reads; “He saved Natal.” This is Redvers Buller VC, a personal hero of mine who served in the Zulu Way of 1879, one of my favourite periods in history.
‘Life of General the Right Hon. Sir Redvers Buller’ is a biography about the Crediton VC recipient. The book was available only on Print on Demand (POD) by Bibliolife who try to keep old, out of print books alive.
Redvers Buller was a son of a Devonshire squire, who made his way in the army, winning a VC in the Zulu War by saving several men while under fire, was sent to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum, led the army to victory for the Relief of Ladysmith, which subsequently allowed for the final victory in the Second Boer War. In Ireland, he reorganised the police to try to stem the rise of discontent and possibly one of his most important success, was the formation of the Army Service Corp (ASC) which allowed for better supply of weapons and food for the army. This has now become the Royal Logistics Corp and historians say, that without the ASC the Great War would not have been possible.
The book was written in 1923 and the age of the book is its advantage as well as disadvantage; the author interviewed the Buller family, including his wife and sister for information, and tries to use Buller’s letters and notes, and also those of his contemporaries. The downside is that one must remember when reading the biography that so much has not happened. The occasional comparison’s to the ‘modern army’ is in fact an army that has not experienced World War 2, and is the army of the British Empire at it’s most powerful. The events in of the book happened only twenty to seventy years previously.
The language can be difficult and to some reading today, offensive, showing just how much the English language has changed over the last ninety years. There is a use of the ‘N’ word but this is not used to be offensive but used correctly for the time. The spelling of some place names have changed too, such as ‘Kabul’ spelled as ‘Cabul’. The author of the book is an ex-soldier and the vocabulary draws much from the military area, which can be and obstacle for those less militarily minded.
The book is almost a historical source in its own, and written very personally. Originally written by a Brit for the British market, British items are often referred to as ‘ours’ (Our army, our men etc). The author does not state his opinion or judgement on the actions of the time, but does compare them on occasion to his own experience. The use of ‘I’ in many historical books is not common in modern books and in Biographies, only when the author knew the subject.
The biggest complaint of the book must be the ending. Or rather sudden stop. Reaching the end I was at first angry that the publisher had failed to print the whole book and was readying an e-mail of complaint. Searching the internet I found that they had included the book as originally written. The book ends with Buller’s successful reforms in Ireland. However the book fails to continue. After Ireland, Buller served in the Second Boer War, having several defeats before achieving a string of major victories. After that, he had humiliating press coverage and was forced to resign his position. Why the life of Buller does not continue, I do not know. Maybe the author wanted to remove Buller’s humiliation of defeat and resignation. This fails to give a full overview of his life and excludes one of his great victories, that despite defeat he won in the end and the masses loved him, so much so that they erected the statue mentioned earlier and in Crediton church there is a large memorial to him.
For all its foibles, the book does give much detail on Buller’s life that is not available elsewhere. The picture of Buller that is so often seen is a portly gruff looking Victorian soldier. This biography tells a different story. One anecdote tells of his time at the military training school where he got up to pranks that would not look out of place with today’s young or even the ‘Inbetweeners’. His letters tell more of his heart and opinions. It is interesting to see his view of the ‘enemy’. He never hates them and there is no sign of racism. Indeed, he says of the Zulu’s as ‘fine fellows’ despite narrowly avoiding death with them, and he dislikes fighting the Boers as they had served alongside him in the Zulu wars. These views were never made for public consumption as a soldier is expected to do his duty, regardless of personal opinion. Havnig read quite widly on Buller, this level of detail is absent, and other writers only concentrate on his military successes and failures, and there are also very few biographies on Buller alone at all, even in his home town of Crediton.
The other important note that can be drawn from this book is that there are many parallels that can be drawn with modern life. The army held up by dithering politicians, and Egypt, was taken into British ‘protective custody’ but then the British cannot withdraw as Egypt has to have a serviceable army to stop Islamist extremists invading from the south (Afghanistan anybody?). Buller complains about the press coverage and liberal armchair generals who do no know what it is like to be a real soldier. It seems some lessons are never learnt.
So is this book a good read? It is not an easy, casual read, only for a committed reader with an interest in Redvers Buller or Victorian generals. The biography is good, but is let down by the lack of coverage of the last few (but important) years of his life.
Verdict: A hard read, informative but somewhat incomplete.