The British soldier and filed marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts of Kandahar, Pretoria, and Waterford (1832-1914), made his reputation in India and South Africa and then became the last commander in chief of the British army.
Frederick Roberts was born in Cawnpore, India, on Sept. 30, 1832, the son of Gen. Sir Abraham Roberts, a British soldier in Indian service. His family was Anglo-Irish, long settled in Waterford. Roberts was sent to Eton in 1845, entered Sandhurst in 1847, and then attended the East India Company's college at Addiscombe. In 1851 Roberts joined the Bengal Artillery.
Roberts began by serving with his father, who was experienced in the affairs of the North-West Frontier. During the Indian mutiny, Roberts was at the siege of Delhi and at the second relief of Lucknow and won the Victoria Cross at Khudaganj in January 1858. During the years that followed, he rose steadily in rank, and he was involved in the 1860s and 1870s with the affairs of the North-West Frontier, although in 1868 he accompanied Sir Robert Napier on the British expedition to Ethiopia. During this time Roberts became an advocate of a "forward policy" toward Afghanistan, arguing for control of that country in order to check a supposed Russian threat to India.
In 1876 Lord Lytton became viceroy of India, and Roberts's influence increased. In 1878 he took command of the Punjab Frontier Force and in autumn headed one of the columns that invaded Afghanistan following the Emir's rejection of a British envoy while welcoming a Russian one. The Emir was deposed in 1878, and his successor signed a treaty with the British in 1879. In the previous year Roberts had been promoted to major general and knighted. In September 1879 Sir Louis Cavagnari was murdered while on a mission to Kabul, and this led to the dispatch of Roberts and another British invasion of Afghanistan. Kabul was taken, and another Emir was installed on the throne. But the Afghans continued to resist, and in July 1880 they wiped out half a British brigade at Maiwand. Roberts force-marched his troops from Kabul and defeated the Afghans definitively at Kandahar in September, a victory that made him a popular hero in England, where he was feted after being given a baronetcy and made commander in chief of the Madras army (1881). Roberts tried unsuccessfully to persuade the government of William Gladstone to annex Kandahar.
In 1885 Roberts was named commander in chief in India. For the next 8 years he occupied himself with reorganizing military transport, increasing the training of troops, and developing obsessions about the Russian peril in the North-West Frontier. In 1892 he was created baron. From 1893 to 1895 Roberts held no official post, and he spent his time writing. In May 1895 he was given the rank of field marshal and appointed commander in chief in Ireland, where he served for the next 4 years.
In October 1899 the Boer War began, and the British soon suffered a series of disastrous defeats. Moreover, Roberts's son was killed at Colenso. In December, Roberts was appointed to command the British armies in the Boer War. He arrived in South Africa in January 1900 and immediately began reorganizing the poor transport, increasing the mounted troops, and planning a full-scale invasion of both Boer republics once reinforcements arrived. Roberts resisted pressures to scatter his troops in the relief of beleaguered garrisons, and the British advance began in February. Almost everywhere that the Boers stood to fight they were defeated, and by mid-March Bloemfontein had fallen. On May 31 Roberts's forces entered Johannesburg, and Pretoria fell on June 5. By September the British had occupied most of the towns in the northern Transvaal, and in October President Paul Kruger fled to Europe. The war seemed won, and Roberts returned to a hero's welcome as the man who had quickly reversed the tide and won the war. His reputation was enormous. Queen Victoria gave him an earldom in one of her last acts, and he was made commander in chief of the British army.
In this post, which he held until 1904, Roberts's reputation began to dim. It soon appeared that the Boer War was far from won, and Gen. Kitchener had to face 2 years of guerrilla warfare led by Christian De Wet and Louis Botha. Roberts was then criticized for having concentrated on capturing Boer towns rather than on destroying the Boer armies in the field. At the War Office, Roberts—with his experience drawn entirely from India and his brief stay in South Africa—was put in charge of the organization of the British army. The Esher Commission on the organization of the War Office recommended the abolition of the post of commander in chief in 1903, and Roberts left the post in 1904.
Roberts then devoted his activity to the championing of conscription for home defense, becoming president of the National Service League in 1905. When World War I broke out in 1914, Roberts, then 82 years old, was appointed to command the Indian troops fighting in France. He did not live to reach the Western front, dying of a chill at Saint-Omer on Nov. 14, 1914. He was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, as a national hero.
Among Roberts's own writings, the most important are his Forty-one Years in India (2 vols., 1897) and Speeches and Letters on Imperial Defence (1906). The best biography, based on Roberts's official and private correspondence, is David James, Lord Roberts (1954).