Butler, William Francis (1838–1910), soldier and author, was born 31 October 1838 in a farmhouse at Ballyslateen, Golden, Co. Tipperary, youngest child among four sons and three daughters of Richard Butler (1792–1870), a modest landowner and large tenant farmer of Suirville, Co. Tipperary, and Ellen Butler (née Dillon; d. 1849) of Donnybrook, Co. Dublin. Richard Butler was a Ballycarron Butler, a catholic descendant of the Lords Dunboyne, a cadet branch of the Butlers of Ormond, and Ellen had been governess to his brother's children. Because of his mother's illness, at the age of four William went to live with relatives at Artane, near Dublin; an early childhood memory was of being taken to Richmond prison in June 1844 to see Daniel O'Connell (qv), who lifted him up in his arms and shouted ‘Hurrah for Tipperary!’ He returned to Tipperary in March 1846 and was deeply affected by the sufferings he saw during the famine, especially by the callous brutality of an eviction he witnessed in 1850. Educated (1847–9) by the Jesuits at Tullabeg, King's Co., and in the early 1850s at the school of Dr James Quinn (qv) in Harcourt St., Dublin, he was commissioned ensign in the 69th Foot 17 September 1858. Based initially in Fermoy, he served in Burma and India (1860–64) and purchased his lieutenancy in November 1863. On the return to Britain his ship put in at St Helena (15–16 April 1864), where Butler visited Napoleon's tomb. Napoleon was his great hero, and he always took the opportunity to visit sites associated with him. Stationed at Guernsey (summer 1866–March 1867), he met the exiled Victor Hugo on several occasions; Hugo told him of his love for Ireland and asked Butler to act as his guide on a future visit.
In August 1867 his regiment was sent to Canada to forestall a threatened Fenian invasion. He returned to Ireland in September 1869, but his imagination had been fired by Canada's great rivers, immense prairies, and vast forests, and after his father's death (March 1870) he returned there and cabled Col. Garnet Wolseley (qv) to ask for useful employment. The two men had admired each other since their first meeting in 1868, and Wolseley gave him a roving mission to investigate Louis Riel's rising and report on Fenian movements near the border. Butler met Riel, and considered him brave, but ignorant and vain. He reported back to Wolseley in August 1870 and joined the expedition that occupied Riel's headquarters at Fort Garry. He then received a special commission to report on the state of law and order in Saskatchewan and embarked on an exploratory trek of 2,700 miles (4,345 km) from Quebec to the Rockies and back (October 1870–March 1871). His most important recommendation was that a permanent mobile police force should be created and this led to the formation in May 1873 of the North-West Mounted Police (the Mounties). Lacking money and influence he remained a lieutenant after twelve years' service, and he returned to London in April 1871 to try for promotion. His Canadian travels secured his election as a fellow of the RGS in May 1871 and in April 1872 he was promoted captain.
He then returned to Canada and undertook another journey across North America by foot, dog sled, horseback and canoe (February–June 1873), reaching the Pacific coast. Sceptical of the benefits of nineteenth-century progress, he loved these long solitary treks in the unspoilt wilderness in which he hunted, fished, and slept in the open. He published two accounts of his travels in Canada, the classic The great lone land (1872) and The wild north land (1873). He greatly admired the courage and independence of the native American peoples he met and was appalled at their devastation, first by smallpox and then by white commerce, themes evident from his Red Cloud: the solitary Sioux (1882). A classic adventure story for boys, it became a school text in Ireland in the 1930s, and was translated into Irish as Néall dearg (1935).
In September 1873 he joined Wolseley in his expedition against the Ashanti in West Africa, becoming a member of the ‘Wolseley ring’ of ambitious and talented young officers. Butler commanded a detachment of native levies in an undistinguished disease-ridden campaign (recorded in his Akim-Foo: the history of a failure (1875)), and he himself succumbed to a near fatal fever. He spent two months at Netley hospital, Hampshire (March–May 1874) and was visited by Queen Victoria, promoted major, and made CB (1874). Wolseley made him protector of Indian immigrants in Natal in February 1875, and the following November he was appointed deputy assistant quartermaster-general in England, but he soon became disillusioned by military bureaucracy and the corruption and waste of the contract system. He returned to South Africa for the Zulu war (February 1879) and was promoted lieutenant-colonel for his service in Natal (April 1880). Appointed to Wolseley's staff in the Egyptian campaign of 1882, he was present at the crushing of the Egyptians at Tel-el-Kebir (13 September 1882). He was mentioned in despatches, and made colonel and ADC to Queen Victoria in November 1882. When Gen. Charles Gordon (whom Butler greatly admired) was besieged at Khartoum in 1884, Butler helped prepare an expedition to relieve him in what he regarded as the first honourable war of the Victorian era. Commanding a detachment of boats which sailed down the Nile, he chafed bitterly at the delays caused by official bungling and military in-fighting. He finally sighted Khartoum on 28 January 1885, two days after the Mahdists had taken the city and killed Gordon. He distinguished himself in the victories over the Mahdists at Kirbekan (10 February 1885) and Ginniss (30 December 1885), and wrote of these events in The campaign of the cataracts (1887). Returning to England he found that his frequent complaints about the conditions of his troops had made him unpopular at the war office and he was placed on half-pay. Frustrated with the slow pace of military reform, he had earlier written The invasion of England (1882), foretelling a successful German invasion. Many in Whitehall regarded him as a troublemaker (and an Irish catholic to boot), and he owed his advancement largely to Wolseley.
In 1886 he was named as one of four co-respondents in the celebrated Campbell divorce case. He admitted paying some social visits to Lady Colin Campbell but denied any impropriety. Although the evidence against him was slight, he refused to appear in court to deny the charges under oath, for which he was strongly criticised in the press and by the judge and jury. His wife stood solidly by him during the trial. He spent the next two years as an unemployed half-pay brigadier with his family in Brittany and moved in spring 1888 to Delgany, Co. Wicklow. In August 1888 he went snipe shooting with Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), whom he admired as the greatest political leader of his day. Much to the annoyance of his military superiors, in 1886 he had written a letter to the Liberal government in support of home rule for Ireland. In December 1888 he completed an inquiry into the army ordnance department, but his report was so critical that all copies were destroyed. He returned to Egypt to command the garrison of Alexandria (1890–93), a quiet posting which allowed him to read, write, and visit places of historic interest. Among his many writings were biographies of Gen. Gordon (1889), Sir Charles Napier (1890), and Sir George Pomeroy Colley (qv) (1899).
Promoted major-general (1892), in October 1898 he was appointed commander-in-chief in South Africa, and was acting governor and high commissioner during Alfred Milner's three-month absence. Anxious to prevent war with the Dutch republics, he regarded the Boers as sober and peaceable yeomen farmers, but dismissed many of the Transvaal uitlanders as drifters and blackguards. He believed his army was ill-equipped to fight a modern war and that the sturdy Boers would be a formidable enemy; and he refused to move his troops to the borders of the Dutch republics where they could easily be isolated. Many in government regarded him as pro-Boer, and Milner pressed for his replacement. His military superiors regarded him as intelligent, but impulsive and outspoken, traits that were often attributed to his Irish blood: even Wolseley observed that ‘at heart he is an Irish rebel’ (cited in Ryan, 186). Feeling himself caught between an aggressive colonial office intent on war and a penny-pinching war office that refused to fund adequate military preparations, Butler resigned as commander-in-chief on 18 August and returned to England. When war finally broke out (12 October 1899) many early British reverses were blamed on his failure to prepare adequately and he was vilified in the press (his conduct however was vindicated by the royal commission on the South African war (1903)). In November 1899 his offer to return to South Africa to help stem the Boer advance was rejected. Promoted lieutenant-general (1902), he was appointed chairman of a committee to investigate corruption in supplying the army in South Africa; his damning report was later published as An imperial thieves' kitchen (1905). He retired from the army 31 October 1905 and was made GCB (1906).
Butler was a complex and often contradictory man. He believed that ‘war is the sum of all human wrongdoing’ (Autobiography, 295), but still relished its dangers and excitements. Although he fought for the British empire, he regarded its protestations of benevolence and civilisation as a sham, and saw its aim as the ruthless exploitation of native peoples. He believed that most of its wars had been fomented by the forces of international capitalism. His politics were a mixture of humanitarian liberalism and nostalgia for a gentler, Arcadian past. Musing on liberty, equality, and fraternity, he noted ‘the greatest of these is fraternity; and perhaps if people practised it more frequently they need not have troubled themselves so much about the other two’ (Autobiography, 82).
A keen student of the history, literature, and antiquities of Ireland, he was particularly interested in education, and became a senator of the NUI and a commissioner of the Irish national board of education. A popular speaker at historical and literary meetings, he often criticised the Irish passion for drink and sport and lectured his audience on the virtues of self-help and temperance. He became friendly with several nationalist MP
In London he married (11 June 1877) Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler (qv)), a famous painter; they had three sons and two daughters, among them Lieut.-col. Patrick Richard Butler (1880–1967) a distinguished soldier; Richard Urban Butler (1882–1961), a Benedictine priest (1911) and military chaplain; and Eileen Butler (1883–1964), who edited her father's autobiography and married (1911) Jenico Preston, 15th Viscount Gormanston.