Roberts, Frederick Sleigh (1832–1914), 1st Earl Roberts , field-marshal, was born 30 September 1832 at Cawnpore, India, youngest son of Gen. Sir Abraham Roberts, East India Company (EIC) army, and his second wife, Isabella, widow of Maj. Hamilton Maxwell and daughter of Abraham Bunbury of Kilfeacle, Co. Tipperary. His father was descended from John Roberts (qv), architect, of Waterford city. Frederick lived in Waterford during his childhood before moving to England, where he attended Eton. In 1847 he entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst but decided to follow his father's example and serve in the EIC army. He transferred to the EIC military training college at Addiscombe and was commissioned into the Bengal Artillery in December 1851.
He arrived in India (April 1852) and was posted to Peshawar, where he served as a battery officer and his father's ADC. In 1856 he was attached to the quartermaster-general's staff, and in 1857 was promoted to lieutenant in the Bengal Horse Artillery. He served with much distinction during the mutiny of 1857–8, campaigning with the Delhi Field Force, and was present at the capture of Delhi and the battles of Bulandshahr, Alighar, Agra, Kanauj, and Bantharra. He took part in the relief of Lucknow and the battle of Cawnpore; during a cavalry action at Khodagunge (January 1858) he saved the life of a sowar and then captured one of the mutineers' standards. For this action he was awarded the VC in December 1858.
In the meantime his health had broken down and he returned to Ireland for a period of convalescent leave, during which he married. He returned to India and was promoted to captain and brevet major in November 1860. An appointment as assistant quartermaster-general for Bengal province followed in 1863, and he took part in the campaign against the so-called Sitana fanatics on the North-West Frontier (NWF) and was present at the capture of Umbeyla. After the murder of consular officials in Abyssinia in 1867, he joined Sir Robert Napier's punitive expedition and was mentioned in dispatches and promoted to brevet lieutenant-colonel (August 1868). He was appointed as first assistant quartermaster-general for India and took part in the Looshai expedition on the NWF (1871–2). In January 1875 he was promoted to colonel and appointed as Indian quartermaster-general. By this time he had established a reputation as an expert in logistical planning and was also a recognised authority on conducting campaigns in the difficult terrain of the NWF.
He was promoted to brevet major-general and during the second Afghan war (1878–80) commanded the Kuram field force, decisively defeating the forces of Sher Ali at Peiwar Kotal on 2 December 1878. After the assassination of the British resident at Kabul, Maj. Cavagnari, he led a punitive expedition to the city, defeating an Afghan army at Charasia on 6 October 1879. His force was then besieged at the cantonments at Sherpur but he managed to break out and scatter the besieging Afghans, whose army was estimated around 100,000 strong. On hearing of the British defeat at Maiwand on 27 July 1880, he led his force to Kandahar, where he defeated the army of Ayub Khan. By the end of the campaign he was one of the most famous officers in the British army, nicknamed ‘Bobs’ by troops and public alike, and was awarded a KCB (1879) and GCB (1880). In June 1881 he was created a baronet.
He returned to India, where he was appointed to command the Madras army in 1880. After the disastrous British defeat at Majuba Hill (1881) during the first Boer war, he was rushed to South Africa in the hope that he could retrieve the situation but arrived after a truce had been finalised. He was promoted to lieutenant-general (July 1883) and was appointed commander-in-chief in India (November 1885). As such he was responsible for the organisation of Gen. Prendergast's expedition up the Irrawaddy during the Burma war of 1885–7. He became immensely popular with his men, despite the fact that he was renowned as a ‘temperance officer’ and would refuse troops access to a ‘wet-canteen’ while on campaign. At his summer residence at Simla (a villa named Snowdon), he was famous for his hospitality. From c.1886 he was frequently visited by Rudyard Kipling, who would later refer to him in many of his short stories. He was promoted to full general in November 1890, and in 1892 was raised to the peerage as Baron Roberts of Kandahar and Waterford, being promoted to field-marshal in May 1895. He was appointed commander-in-chief in Ireland in 1895, an appointment he held until 1899. During this time he devoted himself to writing his memoirs, entitle Forty-one years in India (2 vols, 1897). This was an immediate success and by 1905 had run to thirty-five editions.
After a series of British defeats at Stromberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso in 1899, he was again sent to South Africa in the hope that he could turn the tide against the Boers. He travelled with the knowledge that his only son, Lt Frederick Hugh Roberts (1872–99), had been mortally wounded at Colenso (receiving a posthumous VC). During this campaign, Roberts was ably seconded by Gen. H. H. Kitchener (qv), who served as his chief of staff, and together they rapidly reorganised the army. He raised a large force of mounted infantry and used the Imperial Yeomanry more effectively. The transport corps became a focus of his attention; he also forbade commanders to engage in costly frontal attacks. He transformed the army into an effective fighting force and went on to have a number of successes against the Boers, sending Maj.-gen. John French (qv) to raise the siege of Kimberly and reversing the initial setback at the battle of Paardeberg in February 1900. In February 1900 he accepted the surrender of Gen. Cronje's army of some 4,000 men. The siege of Ladysmith was raised in February 1900 and during the following spring and summer he captured the Boer towns of Bloemfontein, Kronstad, Pretoria, and Vlakfontein.
He left South Africa to become C-in-C of the British army (1900–04), succeeding his great rival, Lord Wolseley (qv), and was the last to hold this appointment before it was abolished by Lord Esher's army reform commission in 1904. He was also made an earl, adding the name of the Boer town Pretoria to his title. As C-in-C, Roberts was surprisingly ineffective. His relations with his subordinates were difficult and he found it impossible to establish a coherent general staff. By this time he had become a national institution; but, while he was respected by both military leaders and politicians, his opinions were rarely listened to. He resigned as C-in-C in 1904 but remained as a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Convinced that a major European war was looming, he strongly advocated the introduction of compulsory national service, and quarrelled on this issue with Arthur Balfour (qv). He resigned from the committee in 1905, later becoming president of the National Service League. He was a staunch opponent of home rule, recommending potential officers for the UVF, and was a signatory of Viscount Milner's British covenant in January 1914. At the outbreak of the first world war he was appointed to the war council and then sailed for France to inspect the newly arrived Indian Army divisions. He caught a chill, which developed into pneumonia, and died at St Omer on 14 November 1914. He was buried in St Paul's cathedral, London.
During the course of a long career he had been awarded numerous domestic and foreign orders including the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle, the Paullownia Order of Japan, and the Order of St John of Jerusalem. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Oxford (1881), Dublin (1881), Durham (1903), and Toronto (1908) and was also elected to the freedom of numerous towns and cities including London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Waterford, and Windsor. He held the colonelcies of several regiments including the Irish Guards and the 5th Gurkha Rifles. His other publications include The rise of Wellington (1895), Speeches and letters on imperial defence (1906), Fallacies and facts (1911), and Nation in arms (1907). His Indian mutiny letters were published after his death (1924). A portrait by Ambrose McEvoy was placed in the Belfast Municipal Gallery. There were several other portraits in his family's possession and one in the National Portrait Gallery, London. There are statues in Calcutta, Glasgow, and Horse Guards Parade, London. A memorial bust by John Tweed was placed in St Paul's cathedral. His VC is in the National Army Museum, Chelsea. In Dublin there is an unusual relic of Roberts's term as C-in-C in Ireland: a memorial to his horse Vonolel, which was buried in the garden at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham.
He married (17 May 1859), in Waterford, Nora Henrietta Bews; they had six children, three of whom died in infancy. His eldest surviving daughter, Lady Aileen Mary Roberts, inherited his title by special remainder. There are collections of his papers in the National Archives, Kew, the National Army Museum, London, and the BL.