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Butler, William Francis (DNB12)

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BUTLER, Sir WILLIAM FRANCIS (1838–1910), lieut.-general and author, born on 31 Oct. 1838 at Suirville, co. Tipperary, was the seventh child of Richard and Ellen Butler of Suirville. He was of the stock of Thomas Butler, tenth earl of Ormonde [q. v.]. Among the recollections of his childhood were the great famine, the evictions, and Daniel O'Connell; while as a Roman catholic he heard much of the penal laws and English misrule. These things made a lasting impression on him. In 1847 he was sent to a Jesuit school at Tullabeg, in King's County, and afterwards to Dr. James Quinn's school in Dublin.

He obtained a commission as ensign in the 69th foot on 17 Sept. 1858, and after serving nearly two years at the depot at Fermoy he joined the headquarters of the regiment at Tonghoo in Burmah. In the spring of 1862 the regiment was moved to Madras, and in 1863 Butler spent two months' leave in a visit to the western coast, from Calicut to Cape Comorin. He also went to Vellore, and by his efforts a monument was erected there to the men of the 69th who were killed there in 1806. He was promoted lieutenant on 17 Nov. 1863. The regiment went home in the spring of 1864, and on the voyage Butler spent two days at St. Helena days 'steeped in thoughts of glory and of grief,' for he worshipped Napoleon. At first stationed at Gosport, Butler removed with the regiment to Aldershot early in 1865, and there began 'A Narrative of the Historical Events connected with the 69th Regiment,' which was published in 1870. In the summer of 1866 the regiment went to the Channel Islands, where Butler saw much of Victor Hugo, who recognised him as an enfant terrible. After five months' sojourn at the Curragh, the regiment embarked in August 1867 for Canada on account of threatened Fenian raids. It was stationed at Brantford, north of lake Erie. Butler got three months' leave in September, went off to Nebraska, and made his first acquaintance with buffalo and 'the glorious prairies.'

In the spring of 1868 he succeeded lieutenant Redvers Buller [q. v. Suppl. II] as look-out officer on the frontier, and had to travel 1500 miles a month to visit the posts placed to intercept deserters. In September 1869 he went home on leave, in the hope of finding some way of escape from being purchased over in his regiment, but he was disappointed. His father died in March 1870, and was buried at Killardrigh; his mother had died in 1849. He returned to Canada; but before he left Ireland he learnt that Colonel Wolseley, whom he had met two years before, was organising an expedition to the Red River. He telegraphed 'Remember Butler 69th regiment.' There were no vacant berths on the staff, when he reached Toronto, but he was sent independently on a special mission to the Red River settlement, to find out what was the state of affairs there, and what the rising of the half-breeds really meant. He set out on 8 June. Travelling through the United States, he descended the Red River to Winnipeg, had an interview with Louis Riel [q. v.], and met the expedition on 4 August about halfway on its route. He accompanied it to Fort Garry, from which Riel had fled; and he remained there when the expedition went back.

On 24 Oct. he set out on a new mission, to investigate the situation in Saskatchewan and report on the need for troops, the Indians, and the fur trade. Striking the north Saskatchewan at Carlton, he followed it up to the base of the Rocky Mountains, and then descended it, reaching Fort Garry on 20 Feb. 1871, after a winter journey of 2700 miles. He told the story of this journey and of his earlier mission in 'The Great Lone Land,' which was published in 1872 and reached a fourth edition in 1873. His report to the lieut.-governor of Manitoba was printed as an appendix to that book, and was a most able paper. There was in fact a rare combination in Butler of the qualities needed for such work. Tall, strong, and active, he was quick of observation and full of resource; genial, yet with much force of character, he was a ready writer, and had the gift of style. He was also a good draughtsman. Lord Wolseley has said that he was pre-eminent in imagination, 'that quality so much above the other gifts required for excellence in military leaders ' (Wolseley, ii. 202).

His work brought him praise but no more substantial recognition, and it was not till 13 April 1872 that he succeeded in obtaining an unattached company. A lucky land-venture had given him the means to travel, and returning to Canada he went to lake Athabasca, where he had 'movement, sport, travel, and adventure sufficient to satisfy the longings of anybody,' and found material for another book, 'The Wild North Land,' 1873 (new edit. 1904). He was back at Ottawa at the end of August 1873, and learning that Sir Garnet Wolseley was leading an expedition to Ashanti, he hurried to England, sending a telegram ahead of him. On his arrival he found instructions that he should follow Wolseley to West Africa, and he reached Cape Coast Castle on 22 October.

He was sent to Accra to make his way inland to Western Akim, muster its fighting men, and intercept the Ashanti army as it retreated across the Prah. This proved impossible; with the utmost difficulty he persuaded the Akims to move forward towards Coomassie eastward of the main line of advance. By the end of January 1874 he was within 20 miles of it with 1400 men; then they took alarm and hurried home. But Butler had done his work. As Wolseley reported: 'He has effected a most important diversion in favour of the main body, and has detained before him all the forces of one of the most powerful Ashanti chiefs' (Lond. Gaz. 7 March 1874). He had been struck down several times with fever, and was in Netley Hospital for two months on his return to England. He was promoted major, and received the C.B. and the medal with clasp. He described his share of the campaign in 'Akim-Foo: the History of a Failure,' published in 1875.

While he was engaged on this book, and was regaining health in Ireland, he was called upon for special service in Natal. In Feb. 1875 Sir Garnet Wolseley went there as temporary governor, to put things straight. Butler accompanied him, and was made protector of Indian immigrants, with a seat in the council and assembly. He was sent on a mission to the Orange Free State, to Kimberley, and to Basutoland, and made many acquaintances, British and Boer. He returned to England in Oct., and on 30 Nov. he was placed on the headquarters staff as deputy assistant quartermaster-general. He remained on it till the end of Feb. 1879, when he went back to South Africa for the Zulu war.

He remained there till the end of the year, with plenty of hard work but no fighting, for he was in charge of the base at Durban. He was mentioned in despatches, and was made brevet lieut.-colonel on 21 April 1880.

He was chief staff officer at Devonport from 1 July 1880 till the end of August 1884, with the exception of three months (Aug. Oct. 1882), when he was serving on Sir Garnet Wolseley's staff in Egypt. He was present at Tel-el-Kebir, was mentioned in despatches (Lond. Gaz. 2 Nov. 1882), and received the medal with clasp, the bronze star, and the Medjidieh (3rd class). He was made aide-de-camp to the Queen, with the rank of colonel, on 18 Nov. 1882.

In 1884, when the relief of Gordon became a practical question, Butler was consulted by Lord Wolseley, and threw himself heartily into the plan of ascending the Nile in boats, such as had been used in the Red River expedition. He had met Gordon some years before, and had been deeply impressed by him. He regarded the relief expedition as 'the very first war during the Victorian era in which the object was entirely noble and worthy.' On 12 August he was charged with the provision of 400 boats, and in a month they were ready and some of them on their way. Butler went to Egypt in September, and during the next three months he worked superhumanly to get boats and troops up the cataracts. This having been accomplished, he joined headquarters at Korti, and was sent on with the river column under General Earle. The victory at Kirbekan on 10 Feb. 1885 was largely due to him; for he had examined the ground on which the Mahdists were posted, and persuaded Earle to turn their position instead of attacking it in front. When the expedition returned down the Nile, Butler was put in command of the small force left behind at Meroe. In June he brought this force to Dongola, and went home. His services were mentioned in despatches (Lond. Gaz. 10 April and 25 Aug. 1885) and he received two clasps.

In September he was back at Wady Haifa. He had been given command of the troops on the new frontier of Egypt, after the abandonment of the Sudan, with the local rank of brigadier-general on 1 July 1885. In December the Mahdists advanced in force from Dongola, and attacked him near Kosheh. He had four battalions, two of them British, and some cavalry and mounted infantry, and he had built some forts. The Mahdists tore up the railway, but could effect nothing more; and at the end of the month, when reinforcements had come up from Cairo, they were decisively beaten at Giniss. Butler commanded one of the two brigades of General Stephenson's force in this action, and was mentioned in despatches (Lond. Gaz. 6 Feb. 1886). Four British battalions were left at Wady Haifa under his command, but they suffered greatly from the heat; they were replaced by Egyptian troops in May, and Butler himself was invalided at the end of June.

He came home embittered. He had had no reward for his exertions, his warnings and remonstrances had given offence, and there was no immediate employment for him. On 25 Nov. he was made K.C.B. He spent the next two years in Brittany and in Ireland. He wrote 'The Campaign of the Cataracts,' published in 1887, and he became intimate with Charles Stewart Parnell [q. v.], being himself a strong home-ruler. In the autumn of 1888 he was associated with Colonel Macgregor in an inquiry into the ordnance store department. Their report, which he drafted, gave so much offence to the civil side of the war office that it was suppressed. During 1889 he was employed in negotiations for the purchase of sites for defensible storehouses on the south and east sides of London. He returned to Egypt in February 1890, to command the garrison of Alexandria. In 1877 he had married Elizabeth Southerden, daughter of T. J. Thompson, and already distinguished as the painter of 'The Roll Call.' He and his wife now paid a visit to Palestine, which had for him a twofold interest, religious and Napoleonic. He was promoted major-general on 7 Dec. 1892, and on 11 Nov. 1893 he was appointed to the command of a brigade at Aldershot. He was transferred to the command of the S.E. district on 24 Feb. 1896. He had received a reward for distinguished service on 12 Dec. 1894.

In October 1898 he was offered and accepted the command of the troops in South Africa, vacant by the death of General Goodenough. It was not a happy choice at such a time, for he was predisposed to sympathise with people who came in collision with England. He landed at Cape Town on 30 Nov., and in the absence of Sir Alfred Milner he was sworn in as high commissioner. He found himself in 'the central stormspot of the world,' having received no directions to guide him on leaving England. The ill-treatment of 'outlanders' in the Transvaal was exciting indignation, but in the clamour that arose he saw only the action of 'a colossal syndicate for the spread of systematic misrepresentation,' with the object of embittering the relations between the races. He refused to forward the petition of the outlanders asking for British intervention. He had already declared in a speech at Grahamstown on 17 Dec. that South Africa did not need a surgical operation.

Sir Alfred Milner returned from England in February 1899, and Butler was relieved of civil administration. He had been called upon to prepare a scheme of defence for Cape Colony and Natal in case of a sudden outbreak of hostilities. He paid a visit to Natal and formed his plans, but believing that they would not find favour at the war office, he kept them to himself, till there was a peremptory call for them in June. His relations with the high commissioner became strained owing to their widely different views of the situation. Butler could only see in it 'a plot to force war on the Transvaal,' which he did his best to balk. At length a reproof from the war office led him to tender his resignation on 4 July. It was accepted, and he handed over the command on 23 Aug. He returned to England, and on 8 Sept. assumed command of the western district.

He held this command for six years, with the exception of four months spent at Aldershot at the end of 1900. On 9 Oct. in that year he was promoted lieut.-general. In February 1903 he gave evidence before the royal commission on the war in South Africa. In the spring of 1905 he presided over a committee on the disposal of the war stores in South Africa. His report (dated 22 May) led to the appointment of a royal commission with Sir George Farwel as president, which toned down his strictures to some extent. On 31 Oct. 1905 he was placed on the retired list, having reached the age of 67. He received the G.C.B in June 1906, and was called to the privy council (Ireland) in 1909. He was made a governor of the Royal Hibernian Military School, a member of the senate of the National University of Ireland, and a commissioner of the board of national education in Ireland. He took keen interest in educational questions, sympathised with the Gaelic League, and gave many striking addresses on aspects of Irish life and character. He died on 7 June 1910 at Bansha Castle, co. Tipperary where he had lived since his retirement, He was buried with military honours at Killardrigh, the resting-place of his fore-fathers.

His wife survived him. They had issue three sons and two daughters. The younger laughter, Eileen, married Viscount Gormanton in 1912.

A portrait of him as a general officer on horseback, painted by Lady Butler in 1899, is at Bansha Castle.

Besides the works already mentioned describing his own experiences, Butler wrote:

  1. 'Far out: Rovings retold,' 1880.
  2. 'Red Cloud, the Solitary Sioux,' 1882.
  3. 'Charles George Gordon,' 1889, and
  4. 'Sir Charles Napier,' 1890, both in the 'Men of Action' series.
  5. 'Sir George Pomeroy Colley,' 1899.
  6. 'From Naboth's Vineyard: being Impressions formed during a Fourth Visit to South Africa,' 1907.
  7. ' The Light of the West, with some other Wayside Thoughts,' 1909.

His autobiography, which he began in March 1909 and worked on till his death, was edited by his elder daughter, and published in 1911. He also wrote much which is unpublished on Napoleon and the St. Helena captivity.

[Sir William Butler: an autobiography, 1911, with reproduction of Lady Butler's portrait; Report of the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa (pp. 201-7) and Evidence, ii. 72-92, 1904; The Times, 8 June 1910; Lord Wolseley, Story of a Soldier's Life, 1903; H. E. Colville, History of the Sudan Campaign, 1889.]

E. M. L.