Journal Volume 6 2010

Sir William F. Butler (continued/2)


In July 1860 Butler embarked on an 800 ton ship, ‘The Coldstream’ at Queenstown with a draft of three officers and one hundred and twenty men bound for Madras. There were also three officers and sixty men of the Royal Irish Regiment on this tiny ship. The voyage lasted until November. They trained at Madras for three months before embarking for Rangoon. Butler was delighted by the tropical environment, the animals, the birds, the trees and the exotic local people. From Madras the detachment sailed again to Rangoon and thence marching and by riverboat to Toungoo on the Sittang River where the main body of the 69th Regiment was quartered.

Butler enjoyed his time in Burma  Toungoo was a difficult station, deep in the rain forest, and during the monsoon it was only possible to travel by elephant in the deep mud. Nevertheless Butler enjoyed the experience. He hunted on an elephant, and got to know the Burmese people whom he admired, describing them as smiling, kind and gentle. He always loved socialising in the mess listening to the yarns of the old soldiers of whom a few then still serving had fought at Waterloo. He developed a lifelong hero worship for Napoleon which led him in his later travels to seek out locations associated with the Emperor.

The main body of the regiment had served 3 years in Tounghoo and the men were in poor condition due to the difficult climate. In 1862 they were to be moved back to the drier climate of India. The regiment was split into two detachments for the march to Rangoon and the colonel, with a keen eye for leadership, selected Butler, who was still only an ensign, to command the second unit, 450 strong. He relished his first staff job and delivered his charges safely to the port. The convoy across the Bay of Bengal consisted of a steamer towing a battered hulk of an old sailing ship. Butler’s group of soldiers, families and camp followers were loaded on to the hulk. Halfway across the bay a ferocious storm blew up, the towline was cut and the steamer disappeared into the weather. Somehow the hulk remained afloat and a week later they limped into Madras where they had already been given up for dead.

For the next two years Butler served in India. He spent his leaves travelling all over the subcontinent. His autobiography records with boundless enthusiasm all the experiences of his thousands of miles of travel in India.

In 1864 the regiment was ordered back to England by sailing ship a voyage of 12,000 – 14,000 miles depending on the winds. There was a port of call at St Helena where Butler was able to visit the last abode of his hero Napoleon at Longwood.

Aldershot and Guernsey

He spent the next year at Aldershot which he detested. The only redeeming feature was an excellent library which he exploited to the full. He also made a hiking trip to the battlefields of Northern France in the footsteps of Napoleon and lodging with peasant families whose courtesy and generosity to the traveller echoed for him the people of his own childhood.

The regiment was moved to Guernsey in 1866 and Butler had the immense good fortune to win the friendship of Victor Hugo who was in exile following the republican uprising of 1851 in Paris. Butler learned enough French to be able to follow the great man’s conversation and spent many evenings in his company. He clearly impressed the old man who said on one occasion:

I have studied your face and if I were to be put on trial, I would wish for you as my judge.

At the age of 29 Butler was still only a lieutenant because having entered the army by direct commission rather than by purchase his promotions were always to lag behind other officers regardless of merit. This situation infuriated Butler who saw vacancies in his regiment filled by younger men over his head whose only claim was based on the ability to pay for promotion.

Canada 1867

The 69th was ordered to Canada in late 1867 where there was a threat from a Fenian band of ex-civil war soldiers to invade from the U.S.A. In the event the threat fizzled out due to dissensions in the leadership and drunkenness and indiscipline amongst the rank and file. Butler obtained three months leave of absence which he spent travelling with a brother officer, Lieutenant Mansfield, in America west to Nebraska. This was still Indian country and Butler loved the company of the frontiersman and soldiers he encountered on his travels. He loved the open country and delighted in the friendliness of the Americans. He admired their self-reliance, their patriotism and the commitment to progress on merit and ability which differed so much from his own experience. He was hugely impressed by the professionalism of the American officers and noted in his autobiography that the United States need never fear a foreign enemy as long as West Point survived.

He was sorely tempted to resign from the army but having spent ten hard years he decided to hold on a little longer to see whether any better prospect might arise.

He was given an opportunity to invest in an oil prospect in Ontario but lacked the £400.00 needed to buy a stake. He returned home to Ireland where he successfully canvassed family and neighbours to support the venture. It was a sad visit because his father Richard was failing. Butler loved and respected his father whom he described as ‘a king among men’. Richard died in the spring of 1870 and was buried in the family plot at Killardrigh at the foot of the Galtee Mountains where Butler himself was one day to lie.


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