He was repatriated, largely because of his ill-health, in August, 1879 –and his achievements in the Kaffir and Zulu wars were immediately recognised by his appointment as aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria, promotion to full colonel and by being made CMG, a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George.
Queen Victoria & Buller
Queen Victoria and Buller seem to have taken to each other straight away – undoubtedly this briefing (noted in her diary) from Lord Chelmsford his CO in the Zulu War a week before the VC presentation ceremony helped :
Chelmford says that Buller is ‘one of the finest soldiers of the century’, so modest and reticent –that it was difficult to say for what individual deed he had got the Victoria Cross as he had been doing acts worthy of it all along the line……
After their first meeting Buller wrote to his sister:
I could talk to her for ever , and as if I had known her all my life.
They always had a very easy relationship. Victoria wrote after presenting him with the VC:
Col Buller is reserved and shy, with rather a dry, gruff manner. He also, though naturally averse to talking, told me much that was very interesting. He is very downright when he does speak and gives a very direct answer…..Col Buller is very modest about himself, saying he had got far too much praise.
For the next twenty years she increasingly came to rely on his judgement –his assessments of situations and of people many examples of this can be found in their correspondence and in the diaries of both monarch and soldier. She was fully aware of Buller’s radical sympathies (he was to be invited –but refuse –to stand as Liberal candidate for North Devon in the general election of April, 1880), but an indicator of the early trust placed in him by her and that his opinions mattered in higher government, can be seen from this letter he received from Disraeli:
The Queen wishes me to see you, but it is not merely in obedience to Her Majesty’s command, but for mine own honour and gratification, that I venture to say I should be happy to see you here on the 25th inst.
Buller was not liked or trusted by later Conservative prime ministers, but the Queen stoutly defended him:
I do not share your distrust of Sir R Buller, who is most honest and straightforward I believe him to be a thorough gentleman, with considerable independence of Character and he had held aloof from the press, which perhaps others have not.
Although he could communicate readily with his sovereign, from very early in his career he showed an almost complete inability to do so with the press –answering any questions from them rudely, if at all. Probably caused by his inherent shyness, this was certainly an important reason for their subsequent antipathy towards him.
In April 1880 he was sent to Scotland as Assistant Adjutant and Quarter-Master-General, moving to Aldershot after a couple of months. Early in 1881 he was sent back to South Africa –where the first Boer War was under way. During an armistice in this war (there was no serious fighting after Buller’s arrival), he met Kruger and other senior Boers. They developed mutual respect and Buller’s sympathy for the Boer case was reinforced. He left Africa in December, 1881 –and during his long repatriation leave gave Downes some of the attention it had been lacking over the years.
In August 1882, at the age of 42, Buller married Lady Audrey Howard a widow 5 years younger than him in St Margaret’s, Westminster. She had had four children by her first husband, who were treated by Buller as his own for the rest of his life.
Egypt & the Sudan
Redvers and Audrey Buller were just a week into their honeymoon when he received a letter from the now Lieutenant-General Wolseley telling him that a British invasion of Egypt was imminent and that he wanted him to be part of it. On arrival in Alexandria he was put in charge of intelligence and succeeded in putting together briefing material which ensured the overwhelming British success at the Battle of Tel el Kabir. The war (it is described as ‘The Egyptian Intervention’ in regimental records) was over within ten days of this rout –and Buller returned to Britain in early October, 1882 after just six weeks absence.
Buller received a series of rewards for this brief spell in Egypt. A knighthood (he became KCMG –a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George –the badge of the order is featured to the left of top layer of the Buller memorial), a long leave –until July, 1883 –which was spent at Downes and an staff appointment as Assistant Adjutant General at the War Office. During the leave his only child, Georgiana, was born.
In February 1884 he was sent to the Sudan where the Mahdi had risen against the Egyptian (Egypt was a British protectorate) occupiers. Buller fought brilliantly in both offensive and defensive actions as chief-of-staff to the commander, Major-General Gerald Graham and on his return to Britain (in April) was promoted Major-General at the very early age of 44. He returned to the Sudan in August of the same year as part of the force which attempted –unsuccessfully –to rescue Gordon from Khartoum. In the next part of the campaign Buller showed enormous skill in the organisation of a retreat from Gubat to Gaktal and won a battle at Abu Klea, but the British were eventually forced to withdraw altogether from the Sudan in 1885 and the war was considered lost, Buller subsequently returning to the War Office (being appointed a KCB Knight Commander of the Bath –shown on the right of the top layer of the memorial –for his service in the campaign).
During the two stages of the Sudan war, and in every earlier overseas campaign in which he was involved, there is abundant evidence in writing (diaries and letters etc) of Buller’s liberal instincts and his great sympathy for native and oppressed people and every other sort of underdog.
Confirmation of Buller’s considerable organisational abilities (and possibly his intelligence gathering qualities) was given by his being considered by the Liberal Home Secretary early in 1886 as “the best available candidate for Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police,” but later that year he was sent by the Marquess of Salisbury’s new Conservative government (he was reluctant to go –but considered it a duty to do so) to Ireland –where his natural sympathies were with the Irish tenants and peasants rather than their English landlords. He was appointed as a Special Commissioner to investigate ‘moonlighting’ by Irish police personnel, quickly winning the confidence of many Irish Nationalists and setting in hand policies which had some success in reducing the problem. As a result of this he was appointed, very unusually for a soldier, Permanent Under Secretary for Ireland (which was normally a civilian post).
In October, 1886 the Army considered that Buller had ‘done his stint’ in Ireland (his forcefully expressed liberal ideas were anyway becoming increasingly disliked by ministers) and he was returned to the War Office to begin almost ten years of duty there. He was made an Irish Privy Councillor as a reward for his service to the island. At his death in 1908 a Kerry priest, an ardent Nationalist, sent a telegram of condolence to Lady Buller testifying to the respect in which he was held by the Irish peasants and he was remembered by them in 1922 when Ireland finally gained home rule. He was always most forthright in giving his ideas on the causes of problems and suggesting solutions to them to very senior politicians. As an early biographer, writing just after his death said:
His views probably differed a great deal from those of the Government which he was serving and it is possible that his independence of view was remembered to his disadvantage in later days.
It almost certainly was.
The War Office
He was appointed War Office Quarter-Master-General in October, 1887 within five weeks he had put forward a plan for major army re-organisation. His suggested reforms reforms united army supply and transport in peace and war and just over a year later the Army Service Corps –initially housed in Buller Barracks (in early days recruits were known as ‘Buller’s Babes’) – still there –in Aldershot came into being. This survived –as the RASC –until 1965 and eventually became the Royal Logistics Corps in 1993). Importantly, both provisioning and transport were put completely under army control –each had previously been civilian-run Buller’s reputation as a fighting soldier was instrumental in the smooth creation of the corps which was achieved without any increase in costs. It can be fairly said that without the flexibility and control provided by the system evolved by Buller, the British Army would have been completely unable to mount the British Expeditionary Force in 1914.
From 1890 to 1897 he was Adjutant General (becoming a lieutenant-general in 1895). In his first years in the post his energy and ability inspired the belief that he was fitted for the highest command and in 1895 he was offered the post of Commander-in-Chief of the British Army by the Liberal government as successor to the Duke of Cambridge (in the early 1890’s he had been considered the next most powerful man in the army to him) –but it didn’t come to pass as a Conservative government was elected in August, 1895 and Wolseley was given the job.
An opinion of his abilities as Adjutant General was given by these views of a War Office Clerk:
I have served under five Adjutant Generals at the War Office……but there was only one real Adjutant General amongst them, and he was Sir Redvers Buller. The rest did what was expected of them, but General Buller’s idea of duty was different from theirs, and he would not ‘let things slide’ and ‘hush things up’ and he stirred up the whole place. He thereby incurred great unpopularity with a certain clique in the Army, and you will find trouble comes from them.
Buller’s organisational ability seems to have been coming to its peak in these years. This, and other qualities were described in the mid-1890’s by a fellow member of an important parliamentary committee on which he served:
He struck me as a born leader of men, to be obeyed and followed without hesitation, and as being furthermore endowed with a penetrating and shrewd judgement……In the transaction of business he was admirable clear-sighted, firm and reasonable he knew exactly what he wanted, though he was prepared to take less if the House of Commons was not disposed to legislate to the full extent of his views.