ROBERTS, Fredrick Sleigh, Earl Roberts (1832–1914)
Plaque erected in 1922 by London County Council at 47 Portland Place, Marylebone, London, W1B 1JH, City of Westminster
EARL ROBERTS (1832-1914) FIELD-MARSHAL LIVED HERE
Field-Marshal Frederick Roberts, later Earl Roberts, is mostly remembered for his military leadership in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80) and the South African (Boer) Wars.
Early Life and Career
Born in Cawnpore, India, Frederick Sleigh Roberts – whose family origins were Anglo-Irish – followed his father into the service of the East India Company and spent most of his career in India.
After his education at Eton, Sandhurst, and the East India Company’s college at Addiscombe, near Croydon, Roberts was commissioned into the Bengal artillery in 1851, rising to become Commander-in-Chief of Madras (1881–5) and then of all India (1885–93).
Roberts won a Victoria Cross for bravery during the Indian Rebellion (Mutiny) of 1857–9, but came to public prominence during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80). He commanded the forces that occupied Kabul and – most famously – marched on Kandahar and relieved its garrison.
Roberts was promoted to general in 1890 and was made Baron Roberts of Kandahar and Waterford two years later. Organisationally, he changed the composition of the Indian army so that it was largely composed of personnel drawn from what he described – in language characteristic of thinking at the time – as the ‘martial races’ from the north of the sub-continent.
South Africa and Army Command
Roberts returned to England in 1893 and was promoted to field marshal in 1895. Four years later, he was sent with Lord Kitchener to South Africa, where the British Army had suffered a series of humiliating defeats by the Boers (settlers of Dutch origin). Despite losing his only son in action before his arrival, Roberts mounted a strong campaign and within ten months had gained possession of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.
The ‘scorched earth’ policy of burning Boer farms as a tit-for-tat started under Roberts, but was greatly escalated by Kitchener, who succeeded to the command in November 1900. Roberts returned to England to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army (1900–4) – succeeding his great rival, Garnet Wolseley. He was also made an earl at this time.
On retiring – the post was abolished – Roberts threw his energy into the National Service League’s campaign to introduce conscription, believing Britain was unprepared for a war with Germany. For this he has been credited by some historians for his prescience. Roberts was also strongly supportive of Ulster Unionism – that is, keeping Ulster out of Dublin-based home rule for Ireland.
Death and Reputation
Roberts died on a supportive visit to troops in France in November 1914. He was given a funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral and his body lay in state, an honour rarely bestowed on anyone outside the royal family.
Roberts was much venerated in the army ranks and by a wider public too. Kipling wrote a cod-cockney poem about him, ‘Bobs’ (1893), in which he was portrayed as a simple, honest soldier, with his lack of height equated to his down-to-earth nature. His Oxford DNB entry describes him as:
perhaps the ablest field commander since Wellington – quick to grasp a situation, bold and decisive in his solutions, and calm and confident in the face of difficulties … [but] prone to underestimate his opponents and to take risks.
Roberts’ personal charm was widely attested, but not everyone let themselves be charmed. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, an opponent of the Boer war, thought he was ‘a good soldier … but … an arrant jobber, and intriguer, and self-advertiser.’ During his time in India, he and his wife Nora were nicknamed ‘Sir Bobs and Lady Jobs’, owing to her influence on him, and what Queen Victoria called ‘her notorious favouritism’.
A statue of Roberts was erected in Horse Guards Parade in 1923, the year after his blue plaque, underlining that, at the time, he was widely regarded as a hero of the British Empire. A subjugation of other peoples was inherent in what he did, and this was not then generally seen as a negative. Attitudes have shifted since.
From 1902 to 1906, while he was commander-in-chief, Roberts lived with Nora at 47 Portland Place, on the corner of Weymouth Street – the only house in London he ever owned.
The proposal to commemorate Roberts with a plaque was made the year after his death and was strongly backed by Winston Churchill and HH Asquith. Seven years later the LCC put up a rectangular Hopton Wood stone tablet with lettering picked out in lead. This unusual design, which omits the council’s initials, was presumably thought more appropriate than a roundel for the boldly rusticated façade of the house.
B Robson, ‘Roberts, Frederick Sleigh, first Earl Roberts’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2011) (subscription required: accessed 1 March 2021)
‘Frederick Roberts: Bobs’, National Army Museum (accessed 1 March 2021)
R Kipling, ‘Bobs’, Kipling Society (accessed 1 March 2021)