Soldier of Monarchy: Field Marshal Robert, First Baron Napier of Magdala
One of the most accomplished soldiers Britain has ever produced, Robert Napier had a colorful career that spanned the globe in the service of the British Empire. Born in Ceylon on December 6, 1810, the son of a British officer, he was educated at the Addiscombe Military Seminary before being given a commission in the Bengal Engineers in 1826.
further education he was posted to India in 1828 and did a great deal of
good with the Royal Engineers there in improving the infrastructure for
farming. He earned promotion to captain before being sent to England
due to poor health but he was soon back again to participate in the
First Anglo-Sikh War. Napier saw action at the Battles of Mudki,
Ferozeshah (where he was badly wounded the first of many times) and
Sobraon from 1845 to 1846. He received further promotion and was chief
engineer at the siege of Kote Kangra in the Punjab. When, not long
after, the Second Anglo-Sikh War broke out, he directed the siege of
Multan in 1848 and was again wounded but still had enough fight in him
to be on hand for the storming of the place and the fall of Chiniot. For
his service at the Battle of Gujrat and the final surrender of the Sikh
forces he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Having proven himself on the battlefields of India, his next assignment would see him win further victories in East Asia. After the First Opium War, Chinese attacks on the British and other westerners continued as well as the drive for the further opening of trade. This resulted in the Second Opium War or Arrow War which saw Great Britain and the France of Napoleon III teaming up to take on the Great Qing Empire. In January of 1860 Napier was given a divisional command with the main British expeditionary force in China and that summer fought with distinction at the Battle of the Taku Forts. This opened the way to Peking and the Chinese forts along the Pearl River fell like dominos in the aftermath. The following month Napier and his men fought their way into Peking itself and in response to continued resistance demolished the “Old” Summer Palace in October. Napier was raised to the brevet rank of major-general and shortly thereafter the permanent rank of colonel. (FYI: a “brevet” rank essentially means that one has the authority of a higher rank than you actually hold but not the salary!) Having further distinguished himself in China, Napier was soon back in India where he was given command of the Bombay Army and received further promotion to lieutenant-general. He even served as Viceroy of India for a short time after the death of Lord Elgin until his replacement arrived.
Napier had at his command about 13,000 British and Indian troops, quite an expedition for the time, causing some to refer to the episode as the most expensive ‘affair of honor’ in British history. With a huge population to draw upon, Tewodros should have been able to swamp the Anglo-Indian force with numbers but this was not to be as, although he has achieved hero status today (God knoweth why), he was disliked if not reviled by a great many of his countrymen (even his wife couldn’t stand him). As a result, the Anglo-Indian force probably had more trouble simply with the rugged, wild terrain than they did with the Ethiopian army, many of whom fled from the ranks of the vicious and erratic emperor rather than confront the invaders. Napier also established friendly contact with numerous local chiefs, even enlisting some of them to help supply his army as Tewodros was extremely unpopular amongst most of the local potentates, most of whom viewed him as illegitimate and most of whom also wanted his job. When Napier informed him that the British Empire had no desire to add Abyssinia to their list of colonial holdings but were merely out to rescue the hostages and teach the upstart emperor a lesson, most were only too happy to cooperate with their invaders.
Civilian honors came his way as well and in 1870 Lord Napier was appointed Commander-in-Chief, India with the rank of full general. In 1876 he was made Governor of Gibraltar and, when stepping down from that post in 1883, was promoted to the rank of field marshal. Lord Napier had achieved fame in India, China and Africa, becoming one of the greatest military heroes of the Victorian age and a symbol of the military success of the British Empire around the world. In his old age he was made honorary colonel of the Third London Rifle Volunteer Corps, commandant of the Royal Engineers and was made Constable of the Tower of London in 1887. After a colorful life and very successful military career, Lord Napier passed away from influenza in London on January 14, 1890 and was buried, like a military hero, with all due honors in St Paul’s Cathedral.