News & Blog

Freedom fighter

Posted on Fri, 29 January 2021 by Phil Mussell - Medal News

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SPEAKING UP EVERY now and then a medal related story pops up here in Exeter, on this occasion though it doesn’t involve our local regiment (formerly the Devons, then the Devon & Dorsets now the 1st Battalion, the Rifles) but rather it focuses on the “appropriateness” of a statue here in the City, a statue of one General Sir Redvers Buller VC, a native of nearby Crediton. The bronze statue of the good General on his horse, Biffen, has been a focal point for student pranks over the years, with a traffic cone frequently appearing atop his be-plumed cocked hat. Rather tragically one 18 year old died a couple of years ago when he fell from the statue after being “dared” to climb it to place his own cone there one Saturday night. This story is not regarding the safety aspects of Sir Redvers’ statue though, instead we now have a debate on the suitability of the statue and whether or not the General has any place in a modern city centre. On January 12, 2021 the City Council voted to start exploring the practicalities and possibilities of moving Sir General Buller’s statue away from its current location, probably to his ancestral home of Downes, a few miles away. The decision hasn’t been made yet, the council is simply looking at options but the will seems to be there to make it happen with one of the reasons cited was that the plinth carries the names of the campaigns Buller took part in (these being India, China, Canada, Ashanti, Egypt, Soudan, and South Africa) and a discussion was, apparently, held on the issue that “the advancement of the British Empire was founded on the premise that other nations and peoples were inferior, and British colonisation and rule would only be of benefit to them, and this statue and others like it cause pain to people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds as they serve as a constant reminder of the trauma that colonised countries experienced which gets passed down generations.” Whether or not the Buller statue gets moved remains to be seen. The council have promised a full public consultation and judging by the local news website most people seems horrified at the idea of the move. Buller was always popular here in Exeter, indeed his statue was erected following a drive for donations and on the day it was unveiled, September 6, 1905, thousands flocked to see it! He wasn’t necessarily that popular everywhere else though, particularly amongst the establishment, and indeed had been sacked as the Commander of the Natal Field Force after the early defeats in the Second Boer War, most notably at Colenso, eventually being replaced by Lord “Bob” Roberts. He stayed on as Second in Command however, and did see success at Tugela Heights and was victorious at Biggarsberg, Laing’s Nek and Lydenburg as well as in the last battle of the war at Bergendal. Unfortunately he continued to antagonise the powers that be and in October 1901 was dismissed from the Army on half pay—that didn’t affect his popularity amongst the people though, with whom he remained a favourite. This was partly down to his role in the Boer War but also because, in 1879 as a Colonel in the Frontier Light Horse during the retreat following the defeat at Hlobane, he had saved not one but two officers and a trooper from being killed by the pursuing Zulus; actions for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Today though such bravery counts for little, what matters is that Buller was involved in colonial campaigns and, as such, should not be honoured quite as publicly as he is. Indeed there are those who believe that he, and others like him shouldn’t just “not be honoured” but rather should be expunged from history altogether. Fortunately even our council isn’t quite that mad but is does seem as if Sir Redvers’ days are numbered, it’s time to “move on” apparently. Personally I cannot agree. The Buller statue stands because it is honouring a brave man, a popular man and the people of Exeter wanted it here, in public, so that his memory could be preserved. It isn’t there “honouring” the practice of colonisation, makes no attempt to glorify war or belittle those against whom Buller fought, it is there solely as a tribute to a man’s bravery in action and lists historical information about where he served. Admittedly it does include the words “He saved Natal” but again that’s not exactly glorifying anything and refers not to “saving it” from the indigenous peoples but other white settlers…! The problem I have with any move to get rid of Buller from the city is that I’m not sure it will end there. OK so there are lots of people unhappy with the British Empire and what it took to build it, I understand that, but to try to remove all reference to it is folly. You cannot change history and if you start to try where do you stop? Are we next to see war memorials coming down because people don’t agree with the reasons behind World War I? Are we to see our own hobby dragged through the mud because people don’t think it right that we should, in any way, be remembering those who fought for and helped build the Empire? You may scoff, but it’s a fine line. You start removing statues of VC winners today then it isn’t a huge step before the VCs themselves are removed from display, and after the VCs what’s next? We all have our views on the British Empire and few of us would suggest erecting a statue now to someone overtly connected with it, but to start pulling down those already there is dangerous and, when the public consultation on moving the Buller statue comes up, I’ll be sure to voice my objections. If we don’t speak out now we just don’t know where this might lead.