‘On 15 December 1899 at the Battle of Colenso, South Africa, Lieutenant Roberts, with several others, tried to save the guns of the 14th and 66th Batteries, Royal Field Artillery, when the detachments serving the guns had all become casualties or been driven from their guns. Some of the horses and drivers were sheltering in a donga about 500 yards behind the guns and the intervening space was swept with shell and rifle fire. Lieutenant Roberts with two other officers (Walter Norris Congreve and Harry Norton Schofield) helped to hook a team into a limber and then to limber up a gun. While doing so, he fell badly wounded and later died of his wounds.’
The Battle of Colenso was a disaster of the British and shows Redvars Bullers at his incompetent best. It is tempting to suggest that the awarding of VCs after this battle was a tried and tested method of deflecting press interest from poor general ship (see Rorke’s Drift). However, I want to look at another aspect.
Frederick Hugh Sherston Roberts, son of the commander Field Marshall, died two days after the battle from his wounds. Technically, this left him ineligible to receive the Victoria Cross.
The idea of posthumously awarding the VC had been resisted from it’s inception. In 1856, Lord Panmure (Secretary of State for War) had ruled that the medal was ‘an order for the living.’
The Indian Mutiny presents a number of cases in which soldiers awarded the VC, later died before the medal was presented. Though importantly, these men were alive at the time of confirmation. There is also the award for Cornet Banks, who was included in a list of VC recipients in 1858, despite being dead. However, it appears that was a genuine oversight, with the War Office being unaware of his death.
It was not uncommon for the memorandums to be issued that stated that had the person in question survived, they would have been awarded the VC. The most famous of these being Coghil and Melvill’s exploits in the Zulu War.
This brings us back to Frederick Roberts. If you apply the strict wording of the warrant, as it existed at the time. Roberts is ineligible for the VC. Though he survived the incident (just), he was dead by the time the board considered the award. Therefore he should not have been considered.
So why was he awarded the medal, breaking over forty years of tradition?
Unfortunately, no official papers have been located relating to the decision. However, it is difficult to ignore the influential position of his high ranking father, who, on being questioned about the VC suggested that:
‘the WO [War Office] might have desired to stretch a point in this instance.’
The issue is further clouded by the actions of Queen Victoria, who requested the medal be forwarded directly to her for presentation to Roberts’ father. This was most unusual, since in all other cases the medal had been sent by letter to the next of kin.
Another political VC?