In November 1914, the nation mourned a collective loss. One of the nation’s most famous soldiers had died and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral: Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC, known to many simply “Bobs”.
Roberts was born in India in 1832 and, after growing up in the UK, he first made his name there in 1858 when he was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry during the Indian Mutiny (as it was known by the British) when he saved the life of a sepoy (Indian private soldier) loyal to the British, and captured the flag of a rebelling unit. He was also present at the arrival of British troops at Lucknow in March that year.
His lasting fame came after his actions in Afghanistan in 1880 in the UK’s second war in that country, when he launched a 300-mile march from Kabul to Kandahar to relieve a British garrison there. The march made him a household name. In 1885 he became the commander-in-chief of army in India. He was appointed as commander in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1899 and further advanced his national reputation when the British eventually won that war.
After three years as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces (i.e. head of the Army) he retired in 1904. The next decade saw him campaigning for national service – conscription – and preparation for war against Germany. In 1906, he helped William Le Queux to prepare his book The Invasion of 1910, a bestseller that was serialized in the Daily Mail. He was president of the National Service League from 1905.
When war was declared in 1914, he was made colonel-in-chief of the empire forces (i.e. the non-British part of the Empire’s forces). While visiting Indian troops at St Omer, he died of pneumonia on 14 November 1914. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes him as “Roberts was perhaps the ablest field commander since Wellington”. Gaumont’s contemporary compilation film about Roberts can be viewed on the IWM website.
On 19 November, he was laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral after his body had travelled in a flag-draped coffin on a gun limber through Ascot (where his estate was), on a flag-draped train to London, and through the hushed streets of the capital.
Arnold Bennett gives an extended description of the service in his wartime novel The Pretty Lady (1918: quotation here from the Project Gutenberg transcription)
The great dim place was full, but crowding had not been permitted. With a few exceptions in the outlying parts, everybody had a seat. G.J. [the book’s central character] was favourably placed for seeing the whole length of the interior. Accustomed to the restaurants of fashionable hotels, auction-rooms, theatrical first-nights, the haunts of sport, clubs, and courts of justice, he soon perceived, from the numerous samples which he himself was able to identify, that all the London worlds were fully represented in the multitude—the official world, the political, the clerical, the legal, the municipal, the military, the artistic, the literary, the dilettante, the financial, the sporting, and the world whose sole object in life apparently is to be observed and recorded at all gatherings to which admittance is gained by privilege and influence alone. […]
The music began. It was the Dead March in Saul. The long-rolling drums suddenly rent the soul, and destroyed every base and petty thought that was there. Clergy, headed by a bishop, were walking down the cathedral. At the huge doors, nearly lost in the heavy twilight of November noon, they stopped, turned and came back. The coffin swayed into view, covered with the sacred symbolic bunting, and borne on the shoulders of eight sergeants of the old regiments of the dead man. Then followed the pall-bearers—five field-marshals, five full generals, and two admirals; aged men, and some of them had reached the highest dignity without giving a single gesture that had impressed itself on the national mind; nonentities, apotheosised by seniority; and some showed traces of the bitter rain that was falling in the fog outside. Then the Primate. Then the King, who had supervened from nowhere, the magic production of chamberlains and comptrollers. The procession, headed by the clergy, moved slowly, amid the vistas ending in the dull burning of stained glass, through the congregation in mourning and in khaki, through the lines of yellow-glowing candelabra, towards the crowd of scarlet under the dome; the summit of the dome was hidden in soft mist. The music became insupportable in its sublimity.
G.J. was afraid, and he did not immediately know why he was afraid. The procession came nearer. It was upon him…. He knew why he was afraid, and he averted sharply his gaze from the coffin. He was afraid for his composure. If he had continued to watch the coffin he would have burst into loud sobs. Only by an extraordinary effort did he master himself. Many other people lowered their faces in self-defence. The searchers after new and violent sensations were having the time of their lives.
The Dead March with its intolerable genius had ceased. The coffin, guarded by flickering candles, lay on the lofty catafalque; the eight sergeants were pretending that their strength had not been in the least degree taxed. Princes, the illustrious, the champions of Allied might, dark Indians, adventurers, even Germans, surrounded the catafalque in the gloom. G.J. sympathised with the man in the coffin, the simple little man whose non-political mission had in spite of him grown political. He regretted horribly that once he, G.J., who protested that he belonged to no party, had said of the dead man: “Roberts! Well-meaning of course, but senile!” … Yet a trifle! What did it matter? And how he loathed to think that the name of the dead man was now befouled by the calculating and impure praise of schemers. Another trifle!
As the service proceeded G.J. was overwhelmed and lost in the grandeur and terror of existence. There he sat, grizzled, dignified, with the great world, looking as though he belonged to the great world; and he felt like a boy, like a child, like a helpless infant before the enormities of destiny. He wanted help, because of his futility. He could do nothing, or so little. It was as if he had been training himself for twenty years in order to be futile at a crisis requiring crude action. And he could not undo twenty years. The war loomed about him, co-extensive with existence itself. He thought of the sergeant who, as recounted that morning in the papers, had led a victorious storming party, been decorated—and died of wounds. And similar deeds were being done at that moment. And the simple little man in the coffin was being tilted downwards from the catafalque into the grave close by. G.J. wanted surcease, were it but for an hour. He longed acutely, unbearably, to be for an hour with Christine in her warm, stuffy, exciting, languorous, enervating room hermetically sealed against the war. Then he remembered the tones of her voice as she had told her Belgian adventures…. Was it love? Was it tenderness? Was it sensuality? The difference was indiscernible; it had no importance. Against the stark background of infinite existence all human beings were alike and all their passions were alike.
The gaunt, ruthless autocrat of the War Office and the frail crowned descendant of kings fronted each other across the open grave, and the coffin sank between them and was gone. From the choir there came the chanted and soothing words:
“Steals on the ear the distant triumph-song.”
G.J. just caught them clear among much that was incomprehensible. An intense patriotism filled him. He could do nothing; but he could keep his head, keep his balance, practise magnanimity, uphold the truth amid prejudice and superstition, and be kind. Such at that moment seemed to be his mission…. He looked round, and pitied, instead of hating, the searchers after sensations.
A being called the Garter King of Arms stepped forward and in a loud voice recited the earthly titles and honours of the simple little dead man; and, although few qualities are commoner than physical courage, the whole catalogue seemed ridiculous and tawdry until the being came to the two words, “Victoria Cross”. The being, having lived his glorious moments, withdrew. The Funeral March of Chopin tramped with its excruciating dragging tread across the ruins of the soul. And finally the cathedral was startled by the sudden trumpets of the Last Post, and the ceremony ended.
Real-life Londoner F.S. Oliver attended the funeral. He wrote to his brother on 20 November that:
Lord Roberts’s funeral yesterday was a very impressive event – I’m not sure that it wasn’t the most impressive I have ever seen. The cold showery, sleety day – the scratch lot of troops, representative in spite of their scratchness – the great dark Cathedral – the slow march and reversed weapons – khaki uniforms – no colour – and solemn Chopin March (which hits one somehow so much more than Handel) – it seemed to explain itself.– If you had known nothing about what has been happening, you would still have guessed what it was – the funeral of a great soldier at a time of grave national anxiety.
Roberts’s funeral was one of the big events of the first months of the Great War in London, between the rush to the colours and the Zeppelin raids. One gets the sense that Roberts’s death was in some way emblematic of the deaths of the much younger men dying every day at the Front, whose bodies were not brought back from burial in Britain (with the exception of the Unknown Warrior almost exactly six years later).
- Dictionary of National Biography
- F.S. Oliver, Anvil of War
- Arnold Bennett, The Pretty Lady