Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Weak Boy with the Strong Will

When one is picking out soldiers, one usually chooses big men. You see a strapping fellow going by in regimentals, and you say, "My, what a dandy soldier!"

Well, there have been some big men in stature who have been big soldiers—such as Washington—but it is interesting to note that many of our great generals have been undersized. Such were Grant, Wellington, and Napoleon. Such was Lord Roberts who became Earl and Marshal, and was one of the best-loved leaders that England has produced. He was associated with two great campaigns to extend the British Empire—in India and South Africa—and passed away in the midst of the great World War, within a few months of Kitchener.

And yet, as a boy, no one would have picked him shut as destined to become a famous soldier. One recent biographer (Wheeler) calls him "a weak boy with a strong will," and we cannot do better than repeat this as giving some sort of key to his career. Roberts himself has left an entertaining story of his life in "Forty-One Years in India," which shows that a soldier's life is not tinsel and parade, but is made up of infinite hardship. The weak boy must indeed have to have a strong will in order to pull through.

Frederick Roberts was born in India at a time when his father, Abraham Roberts, was lieutenant colonel of infantry at Cawnpore. This fine old soldier gave a life-time of service to the crown, and was active in the border raids in India. His son lived to complete the task which he began, of helping to open India to the civilized world. For his services, Abraham Roberts became a general and was knighted. The son, who was destined to win still higher honors, began his career, September 30, 1832.

Although the boy was born amid the smell of gunpowder, he must have been a disappointment to his soldier father. He was puny and sickly, and for a time it did not seem likely that he would live at all. So when he was only a few months old, he was taken from the uncongenial air of India and brought by his parents to England. Here he spent his boyhood, away from the father and mother who were forced by official duties to return to the East.

His home was a charming country house at Clifton near Bristol, where for the first years he had private tutors. One interesting experience was in a small school at Carrickmacross in Ireland; then, at eleven, he attended public school at Hampton. But almost nothing is set down in detail as to these early years, which would show that besides being a weakling, he was in no sense remarkable. He was merely another of those small, backward urchins that one may see at any recess, on any public school playground.

Still his father was set upon his receiving a military education. "It will do no harm, anyway, and may straighten his shoulders a bit," he doubtless said. And so at thirteen, young Roberts was entered at Eton, that training ground of so many of England's soldiers. He made his first mark in this famous school by winning a prize in mathematics. The obscure lad was beginning to assert himself.

To the end of his days, Roberts held a warm regard for Eton. Once when at the end of a great campaign, he was presented with a sword of honor, on this boyhood's drill ground, he said to a younger generation then assembled: "To you boys who intend to enter the army, the studies and sports of this place are your best training. England's greatest general, himself an Etonian, is reported to have said that the battle of Waterloo was won in the Eton playing-fields. In thus expressing himself, the Duke (Wellington) meant that bodily vigor, power of endurance, courage, and rapidity of decision are produced by the manly games which are fostered here."

Undoubtedly there was a personal touch to these remarks, as Roberts recalled how he himself had begun to gain these sterling qualities on the cricket field and gridiron.

When fifteen, he entered the Military College at Sandhurst, but remained there only two terms. By nature he was a studious chap, doing especially well in German and mathematics. So easily did he solve problems in algebra and geometry, that his mates promptly nicknamed him "Deductions."

Leaving Sandhurst, he put in a few months at a preparatory military school at Wimbledon, but his father's return to England, in 1849, marked the first definite step in his plans. Colonel Roberts, after several years away from his son, was delighted to see that the thin chest was indeed filling out, and the shoulders throwing back.

"Do you think you can stand India, now, my lad?" he asked.

"Why not, sir?" replied the boy briefly. "Then I think that the East India Company's service is the place for you."

Colonel Roberts himself had been connected with this great company, which was the fore runner of the Government in India—and he was right in thinking that its service offered many chances of advancement.

Accordingly the boy was entered in the Company's own military school, at Addiscombe; and in less than two years had become a second lieutenant in the Bengal Artillery—a military company maintained as part of this huge commercial enterprise.

In 1852, in his twentieth year, he received his first marching orders. They were to report for duty. He set sail by way of Suez, but there was no canal in those days to make possible an all-water journey. Instead, at Alexandria he changed to a small inland steamer going by canal and river to Cairo. Thence a hot dusty trek across the desert was necessary, in order to reach Suez.

Once in Calcutta, the young subaltern lost no time in proving that he was not a mollycoddle. He began by riding every horse in the battery, or "troop," as it was called in those days.

"Thus," he tells us, "I learned to understand the amount of nerve, patience and skill necessary to the making of a good Horse Artillery driver, with the additional advantage that I was brought into constant contact with the men."

Roberts was early learning the secret of more than one great general's success—to know his men. In later life he could call many a man by name, and knew just what each could do. While they responded with a close affection and the nickname by which he will be known to history—"Bobs."

It is said that Napoleon expected his officers to know the names and personal histories of every man in their command. As another result of Roberts' fellowship with the rank and file he became a crack shot and expert horseman. During the fighting in the mutiny of Indian sepoys, he proved himself a good swordsman as well; and even when he became Commander-in-chief, he would ride with a tent-pegging team of his own staff.

It was a long and thorough service that he was destined to receive. He joined the Quartermaster-General's office before the mutiny broke out, and remained in it for more than twenty years. During this period he gradually worked his way up from one post of responsibility to another, doing it so gradually that even he himself hardly noticed the advance. On one occasion, for example, he superintended all the arrangements for embarking the Bengal Division, which sailed from Calcutta to take part in an expedition against Abyssinia.

But how he must have chafed at the long delay in getting into the field. He asked his father more than once to get him transferred to Burma, where war had broken out and there was a chance for active service. The transfer was not granted.

The only thing that came to break up the humdrum of those first years was a cyclone. It was actually welcomed; anything for a change! Roberts gives a detailed account of it in his autobiography. He and a native servant were caught out in the open, when the storm descended with little warning.

"I shouted to him (the servant) as loudly as I could," he relates, "but the uproar was so terrific that he could not hear a word, and there was nothing for it but to try and make my own way home. The darkness was profound. As I was walking carefully along, I suddenly came in contact with an object, which a timely flash of lightning showed me was a column, standing in exactly the opposite direction from my own house. I could now locate myself correctly, and the lightning becoming every moment more vivid, I was enabled to grope my way by slow degrees to the mess, where I expected to find some one to show me my way home; but the servants, who knew from experience the probable effects of a cyclone, had already closed the outside venetian shutters and barred all the doors. In vain I banged at the door and called at the top of my voice—they heard nothing."

In desperation he had to make his way as best he could back to his own bungalow, about half a mile away, only to find that also barred against him. "I had to continue hammering for a long time before they heard and admitted me, thankful to be comparatively safe inside a house."

Another disappointment to Roberts lay in the fact that he was still away from his father, who seemed destined all his life to remain a stranger to him. The junior officer was stationed at Dum Dum, famous as the birthplace of the soft-nosed bullets, now proscribed in civilized warfare. His father had been appointed to the command of the troops at Peshawar, and now wrote him a welcome note bidding him come to join him.

This was easier said than done, but was finally accomplished after three months of toilsome and dangerous travel. He used every sort of native conveyance—barge, post-chaise, palanquin, pony, and "shank's mares"—but it was interesting and full of novelty to the barracks-bound soldier. He went by way of Benares, Allahabad, Cawnpore, and Meerut—places destined to win unpleasant fame in the Mutiny.

Peshawar, his destination, proved no less fascinating than the way stations. It commanded the caravan route between India and Afghanistan, and guarded the entrance to Khyber Pass. Lord Dalhousie described it as "the outpost of the Indian Empire"—a very accurate title.

At Peshawar at last Frederick Roberts became acquainted with his father, who proved a good comrade. The junior officer served as aide-de-camp on the general's staff, and went with him on several expeditions, outwardly peaceful, but inwardly full of danger. India then was a seething caldron of trouble.

Nevertheless, this period with his father is described by Frederick Roberts as "one of the brightest and happiest of my early life." Unfortunately the senior officer's health showed signs of breaking—and again father and son had to part. General Roberts resigned his command and returned to England, at the end of the year 1853.

Peshawar was a notoriously unhealthy station, and young Roberts also soon began to feel the effects of the climate. He was still far from robust, and traded continually on his will and nerve. The native fever sapped his energy, and he was sent to recuperate, to Kashmir. He was enthusiastic about the scenery here, and his tramping and shooting trips in the bracing climate soon gave back his strength and vim.

It was about this time that he realized his pet ambition of joining the Horse Artillery. He also set himself with a will to the study of Hindustani, as he realized that his usefulness in the Quartermaster-General's office would be vastly increased if he could deal directly with the natives.

This was a turning point in Roberts' career. It was to be his first stepping stone upward, and it illustrates the point that even though Opportunity may knock at the door—one must be ready for her. That Roberts finally won his larger success was due not so much to his genius as to his industry. Edison says that genius is made up of two per cent inspiration and ninety-eight percent perspiration.

The great Mutiny, in which Roberts and many another British soldier was to be plunged, had its immediate cause in a strange thing—greased cartridges! How so insignificant a thing could have started so great a trouble is one of the strange, true stories of history. There were, of course, other contributory factors, but this was the match that touched off the magazine.

At this time England employed a great many native troops. To be exact, there were about 257,000; while the British regulars numbered only 36,000. The latter were outnumbered seven to one.

The Ordnance Department adopted a new rifle, the Enfield, at this juncture, and sent a consignment to India. The cartridges for the rifle were greased, for easy loading, and were to be bitten by the soldiers. This last act at once set the sepoy soldiers in an uproar. It was against their religious scruples to touch meat of any kind, and they heard it stated that the objectionable cartridges were greased with pig's and cow's fat.

As soon as the commanding officers saw the trouble, they ordered that the cartridges be withdrawn—but the mischief was done.

The Mutiny which flared up here among the native soldiers spread quickly from city to city. Runners went from camp to camp, urging that they throw off the hated British yoke. In some places no written or verbal message was exchanged. A basket of unleavened cakes was brought in and broken, by way of prearranged signal.

After the first outbreaks, councils of war were hurriedly held on the part of the British officers, and field expeditions organized. One of the officers, Colonel Neville Chamberlain, was assigned to the command of what was called the "Movable Column," or chief army of pursuit.

Roberts was made one of his staff officers—"the most wonderful piece of good fortune that could come to me," he says. Shortly afterward, Chamberlain was made Adjutant General to the Army before Delhi, and then came orders for all the artillery officers to join in this attack. Roberts was to see active service at last.

He found himself under fire at Delhi for the first time on June 30, 1857. While it was only a skirmish it was a lively one while it lasted.

With some 1,100 men and a dozen guns, Major Coke went on an expedition against a troublesome group of rebels, and Roberts accompanied him as a staff officer. When the enemy appeared the only way to reach them in time was by crossing a swamp. Another troop of rebels unexpectedly appeared in force, but were put to rout.

A few days later, a similar skirmish occurred, which for a time looked more serious. Roberts was posted across a road with a squad of men and two guns. The enemy attacked them with a cross-fire. How he and his band escaped is a mystery.

During their enforced retreat, Roberts felt a stinging sensation in his back, but managed to keep going. It was found afterwards that his life had been saved by the slipping of his knapsack down from his shoulders. This had been penetrated by a bullet, which had entered his body close to his spine. Its force had been broken, but the wound was still so severe as to lay him up for several weeks.

The almost superhuman difficulties which lay in the path of this handful of Englishmen scattered throughout India, are summed up in a letter by another officer, Hodson, as follows:

"The whole country is a steaming bog. I keep my health wonderfully, thank God! in spite of heat, hard work and exposure; and the men bear up like Britons. We all feel that the Government ought to allow every officer and man before Delhi to count every month spent here as a year of service in India. There is much that is disappointing and disgusting to a man who feels that more might have been done, but I comfort myself with the thought that history will do justice to the constancy and fortitude of the handful of Englishmen who have for so many weeks—months, I may say—of desperate weather, amid the greatest toil and hardship, resisted and finally defeated the worst and most strenuous exertions of an entire army and a whole nation in arms—an army trained by ourselves, and supplied with all but exhaustless munitions of war, laid up by ourselves for the maintenance of the Empire. I venture to aver that no other nation in the world would have remained here, or have avoided defeat had they attempted to do so.

The story of the rise and fall of the Indian Mutiny is the story of the life of Roberts—in so far as the rise is concerned. His was an inconspicuous but well played part. Acting as staff officer and lieutenant of a gunners' company by turns, he was always in the thick of it. If it were the command of guns at a difficult salient before Delhi, it was "Send Roberts." If it were an urgent message for more ammunition, at Agra, "Send Roberts." If it were an escort for the rescued women and children at the historic relief of Lucknow, "Send Roberts."

This slender, undersized officer, in spite of his physique, seemed indefatigable. He had several narrow escapes from death, in hand-to-hand encounters with sepoys. Once, a mutineer fired point-blank at him at twelve yards away, but for some providential reason Roberts' horse reared just at the moment of firing and received the bullet in his own head.

At another time, a fanatic danced out in front of his horse waving a turban to frighten it, and at the same time whirling a wicked looking scimitar around his head. Roberts drew his pistol but the weapon missed fire. The fanatic sprang forward, and it is probable that the career of a future Field Marshal would have ended then and there, had not a lancer spurred his horse in between and run the fellow down.

On still another occasion, his presence of mind saved the flag from capture and brought him the first of his many honors, the Victoria Cross. An assault had been made on the village of Khudaganj, and the pursuit was being followed up in brave style, when some of the rebels suddenly faced around and took steady aim at those who were charging them. Roberts was of the party and had gone to the rescue of a man who was on the verge of being run through by a bayonet, when he saw two sepoys running off with the Union Jack. He spurred his horse in pursuit, and, leaning over, wrenched the standard out of the hands of one of the men, at the same time sabering him. The other sepoy took advantage of the opportunity to take steady aim at Roberts, point-blank, but the weapon missed fire. Roberts returned with the flag, and for reward of his gallant action was given the V. C., that most coveted of British decorations.

Another officer in writing of the event says: "Roberts is one of those rare men who, to uncommon daring and bravery in the field, and unflinching, hard-working discharge of duty in the camp, adds the charm of cheery and unaffected kindness and hospitality in the tent, and his acquaintance and friendship are high prizes to those who obtain them."

With the end of the Mutiny, Roberts was sent to England on sick leave for a much-needed rest. In April, 1858, exactly six years after his arrival at Calcutta, he turned over his duties of Deputy-Assistant Quartermaster-General to his successor—though much against his will. He felt that again he was in danger of being put upon the shelf, and his intensely active nature longed for still further field service.

In a little over a year, however, he was recalled to India, and there given a unique task. The first Viceroy to India, Canning, determined to impress the natives by a pomp and display dear to their own hearts, and show the majesty of England, by holding a series of Durbars, or triumphal processions. These extended right across India, from city to city, for a thousand miles. To Roberts was assigned the important task of arranging all the details of the tour, and he did it with characteristic thoroughness. It was like moving a mammoth circus, what with elephants, tents, supplies of all kinds, and gorgeous trappings to be handled.

These Durbars lasted for six months, and the Viceroy not only complimented Roberts for his work, but gazetted him for the rank of Brevet Major.

The next few years were much of a piece—a routine of office and field work which, if it brought nothing sensational to the conscientious young officer, still kept his feet in the path of glory. It was not until the year 1875, that he reached the goal for which he had long striven Quartermaster-General of the Army in India, which carried with it the rank of Major General.

With this title his larger work in India may be said to have fairly begun. For nearly twenty years longer his military career was to be continued there, and in the neighboring country of Afghanistan. It is all recounted in his "Forty-One Years in India"—a recital of constant adventure and interest. For his services, he was made a peer of England, receiving the title of Baron Roberts of Kandahar. An address presented to him by the native and English residents, on his leaving India, is worth repeating.

"The history of the British Empire in India has not, at least in the last thirty years, produced a hero like Your Lordship, whose soldier-like qualities are fully known to the world. The country which has been the cradle of Indian invasions came to realize the extent of your power and recognized your generalship. . . . The occupation of Kabul and the glorious battle of Kandahar are amongst the brightest jewels in the diadem of Your Lordship's Baronage . . . Terrible in war and merciful in peace, Your Excellency's name has become a dread to the enemies of England and lovely to your friends."

That last phrase, "lovely to your friends," is a true though Oriental summing-up of one great secret of Roberts' renown. He has been called the "best-loved soldier of England." And he possessed in, an especial degree the power of attracting and holding the love and respect of the East Indians. They felt that he would always deal fairly by them.

When he went to Mandalay, in 1886, he saw that if he wished to win the confidence of the people of Upper Burmah, he must win over the Buddhist priests. This he did, and even persuaded his Government to pension the three head priests.

"They showed their gratitude," he says, "by doing all they could to help me, and when I was leaving the country, the old Thathana bain accompanied me as far as Rangoon. We corresponded till his death, and I still hear occasionally from one or other of my Phoonghi friends."

As for his own soldiers, they came fairly to worship him. To them he was not a Lord, or General, or Field Marshal, but just "Bobs" and "Our Bobs." Wellington commanded the respect of his men, but Roberts their love.

"Lord Roberts! Well, he's just a father," is the testimony of one gunner in the South African War. "Often goes around hospital in Bloemfontein, and it's 'Well, my lad, how are you today? Anything I can do for you? Anything you want?'—and never forgets to see that the man has what he asks for. Goes to the hospital train—Are you comfortable? Are you sure  you're comfortable?' Then it's 'Buck up! Buck up!' to those who need it. But when he sees a man dying, it's 'Can I pray with you, my lad?' I've seen him many a time praying, with not a dry eye near—tears in his eyes and ours. He is a lord!"

A favorite story about him relates to an audience with Queen Victoria. The famous veteran was then sixty-eight and for several years had been living in retirement. Now his sovereign asked him to buckle on his sword again, and go to retrieve the fallen British fortunes in South Africa.

"You do not think that you are too old for this arduous task?" asked the Queen. "You are not afraid of your health breaking down?"

"I have kept myself fit," replied the old soldier, "for the past twenty years, in the hope that I might command in such a campaign as this."

The remark, "I have kept myself fit," is a keynote of his life. The puny boy of the long ago was to survive this campaign with flying colors, and to lend his counsel in the Great War of our own time. It was a long life and full of service. In an address to a children's school, when a man of eighty, he summed up his creed by saying:

"In the first place, don't be slack in anything that you are doing. Whether it be work or play, do it with all your might. You will find that this great Empire can only be maintained by the exercise of self-denial, by training, by discipline, and by courage."

Important Dates in Roberts's Life

1832. September 30. Frederick Roberts born.
1845. Entered Eton School.
1847. Entered military college at Sandhurst.
1852. Went as second-lieutenant of Bengal Artillery to India.
1857. Fought in the Mutiny, and won Victoria Cross.
1858. Returned to England on leave.
1859. Sent back to India, major.
1875. Quartermaster-general of Army of India.
1885. Commander-in-chief in India.
1891. Created a peer.
1895. Created field marshal.
1900. South African campaign.
1901. Commander-in-chief of British army.
1914. November 14. Died in France.