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  Inside Out - South West of England: Monday February 2, 2004

FOR VALOUR

General Redvers Henry Buller VC
The VC General of the Boer War

General Redvers Buller was decorated with the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions in the Zulu War. But his distinguished career came to an abrupt end after military failings.
Inside Out looks at his story and the Victoria Cross.

In Exeter, a statute dominates one end of Queen Street.

General Sir Redvers Buller VC, resplendent on horseback, cuts a dash whist hundreds may daily pass him totally oblivious to his courage.

Note the letters VC after his name.

The Victoria Cross
The VC - 'For Valour'

He was one of only 1,345 courageous servicemen to have received the award and although a controversial figure, his military actions were heroic.

The Victoria Cross (VC) is a military award "For Valour", and is only awarded for actions "in the presence of the enemy".

It was the General's actions "in the face of the enemy" that led to his citation.

Valorous actions

On March 28, 1879, in the South African Zulu War, the, then, Lieutenant Colonel Buller was being hotly pursued by ferocious Zulus during the retreat from lnhlobana.

With little thought for his own safety, he rescued a young Captain of the Cape Frontier Light Horse and carried him on his own horse until he overtook the rearguard to safety.

And, on the same day, under the same circumstances, he executed another emergency evacuation when he carried a lieutenant, whose horse had been killed under him, to a place of safety.

Battle of Spion Kop
The Battle of Spion Kop was a bloody affair

Undaunted in the same action, his valorous deeds went on - he saved a trooper whose horse was exhausted, and who would otherwise have been killed by the Zulus who were within yards of him.

Who could argue with the award of the VC for such courage?

Chinese legacy

The VC was instituted in 1856 by Royal Warrant of Queen Victoria but was also awarded retrospectively to the autumn of 1854 to span the period of the Crimean War.

Queen Victoria made the first presentations in Hyde Park herself in June, 1857, decorating 62 officers and men for their heroic actions in that war.

Each coveted decoration is made by a small and not too conspicuous jewellers in Burlington Gardens in London - Messrs Hancocks & Co.

VCs in Figures

Up to 1914 - 522

World War I - 633

US unknown solider - 1

Between World Wars - 5

World War II - 182

Since World War II - 9

Total - 1352

They fashion them from cuttings from the bronze of a Chinese cannon captured from the Russians at the siege of Sebastopol (1854 - 55).

The last time metal was needed for a batch of VC medals, in 1959, an amount of bronze weighing in at 50 ounces was supplied to the jewellers.

Each time a VC medal is required, the metal is hewn from the cannon's cascabel - a large knob at the rear of the cannon that held ropes used when the cannon was being man-handled. The two cannons, minus their cascabels, are currently outside the Officers' Mess in Woolwich.

Battling Boers

The Boers taught the British troops a tactical lesson
The British troops suffered huge losses at the hands of the Boers

But, even with the decoration of his VC, General Sir Redvers Buller, was not without his critics.

Twenty years on, in 1899, General Buller was put in charge of some 50,000 troops sent to quell the Boers' uprising in South Africa.

Despite being reluctant at the age of 60, he did not refuse the order. His reluctance was founded on his knowledge of the formidable Boers.

Whatever his private doubts, Buller set off for South Africa, but the Boers were ready - well armed with modern German Mauser rifles, and well dug in with elaborate defences - determined to stop Buller.

The plans of one battle, at Coleno, went so desperately wrong for the British forces, and despite them being beaten by the tenacious Boers, they won a further seven VCs while retrieving their naval field guns to try and sustain their positions.

In a later action at Spion Kop, further delays and confusion resulted in another disaster.

Officers observing the war
The British troops were taught a tactical lesson by the Boers

The aftermath was horrendous - 243 British dead, many lying in make shift trenches. They had not taken enough shovels to dig proper trenches.

Buller unbeaten

Buller's well-organised withdrawal was captured by the some of the first moving picture cameras of war. But the reputation of the British command had been badly damaged and Buller knew that he had to accept responsibility.

The War itself continued for a further two years leaving over 22,000 British dead. After Buller departed, the Boers continued with a campaign of guerrilla fighting.

In Britain, the establishment was looking for someone to blame, and following an after dinner speech in which the General was more than forthright with his views, he was requested to resign.

He refused - but that request was followed through.

The General returned to his beloved Downes House, Crediton - bloodied but most definitely unbowed.

The unveiling of the Buller statue
General Buller was alive to witness the unveiling of his own statue

The public rallied to his support, and in 1905 a statue was erected in Exeter to mark his exploits - a rare honour for a still living man.

The engraving on the base reads: "He saved Natal" - and despite the delays and setbacks - that is true.

Historians may be divided - some believe he was not fit to command a large force in battle - others maintain he became the scapegoat for failures throughout the British military command.

It has been estimated that the chance of surviving a Victoria Cross act is 1 in 10 - and General Buller flouted the laws of averages many times - his winning the VC is testament to that.

See also ...

Inside Out: South West
More great stories

On bbc.co.uk
BBC: The Boer Wars

On the rest of the web
The Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross Society
General Sir Redvers Henry Buller
The diary of Alfred Lewis Collett - Spion Kop
The Imperial War Museum London
The Public Record Office

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Anton Muller
I was shocked at the lack of sensitivity and moral sense displayed by this story. The context of this war is completely ignored. Twenty seven thousand women and children died in British concentration camps during this war, mostly of malnourishment, yet a British general is portrayed as a hero!

I'm quite sure no Nazi general would be portrayed as a hero, whatever his military achievements, and this is no different.



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