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The Army Officer

The Army Officer  

Sir Redvers Buller was a professional army officer who became one of the military heroes of late-Victorian Britain. His career was, however, broken by the South African War and ultimately he was sacked for speaking in public about his role in it.

A typical mid-Victorian soldier, Buller bought his commission in 1858 as an ensign in the King's Royal Rifle Corps. He had a distinguished career in Britain's wars against the Zulus in 1879 (during which he was awarded the Victoria Cross for rescuing two officers and a trooper) and against the Boers in 1881, as well as in Egypt where he was promoted to Major-General in 1884.

General Sir Redvers Buller - link to an enlarged version

In October 1899, Buller was sent to South Africa with 70,000 men - the largest army Britain had ever sent abroad - in order to crush the Boers. However, he was defeated at Colenso in December 1899. His suggestion that the garrison commander of the besieged Ladysmith should consider surrendering proved politically unacceptable and he was nicknamed 'Reverse' Buller. When an attempt to relieve Ladysmith was disastrously repulsed by the Boers at Spion Kop in January 1900, Buller was held partly responsible. He was replaced as military commander in South Africa by his rival, Lord Roberts, and, on his return to England, posted to army training at Aldershot. In his book The Boer War, the historian Thomas Pakenham has argued that it was Buller who 'successfully hammered out the new tactics needed when a nineteenth-century army had to fight a twentieth-century war', and that casting him as 'the symbol of all that was most fatuous in the late-Victorian British army' is unfair.

  Pro-Buller publicity leaflet  - link to an enlarged version

In October 1901, an anonymous letter, written by one of Roberts' supporters, was published in The Times criticising Buller's 'surrender telegram' to Ladysmith. Buller was refused permission to publish the actual text of what he had said but announced it at an official lunch. Roberts threatened to resign if Buller was not sacked for indiscipline, and so he was dismissed.

Unfortunately Buller's main service record appears to have been destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. However, some of his personal correspondence, including his own account of the South African War, was presented to The National Archives by his daughter and can be found in record series WO 132.


Follow this link for more on tracing army officers who left the army before 1914.

Follow this link for more on tracing First World War army officers.

Follow this link for more on tracing gallantry medals.

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