Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron of Chelmsford

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About Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron of Chelmsford

Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, GCB, GCVO (31 May 1827 – 9 April 1905) was a British imperial general who came to prominence during the Anglo-Zulu War, when an expeditionary force under his command suffered one of the severest defeats in battle by native tribesmen in the history of the British Empire at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879. He went on to defeat the Zulu Kingdom at the subsequent Battle of Ulundi.

Early life

Frederic Augustus Thesiger was born 31 May 1827, the eldest child of Frederic Thesiger, a lawyer who later became Lord Chancellor and was created Baron Chelmsford. Thesiger was educated at Eton College.

Military career

He wished to pursue a military career. In 1844, after unsuccessfully trying to obtain a place in the Grenadier Guards, he purchased a commission in the Rifle Brigade. He served in 1845 with the Rifles in Halifax, Nova Scotia before purchasing an exchange in November 1845 into the Grenadiers as an ensign and lieutenant. He was promoted lieutenant and captain in 1850, and became aide-de-camp in 1852 to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Eglinton, and then to the Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, Sir Edward Blakeney, from 1853 to 1854.

Crimean War

In May 1855, he left for the Crimean War, in which he served firstly with his battalion, then as aide-de-camp from July 1855 to the commander of the 2nd Division, Lieutenant-General Edwin Markham, and finally as deputy assistant quartermaster general from November 1855 on the staff at Headquarters, being promoted brevet major. He was mentioned in dispatches and received the fifth class of the Turkish Order of the Medjidie and the British, Turkish and Sardinian Crimean medals.

Indian Rebellion of 1857

In 1857, he was promoted captain and lieutenant colonel, and transferred (1858), as a lieutenant colonel, to the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment of Foot, serving with that regiment at the end of the Indian Rebellion, for which he was again mentioned in dispatches. He served as deputy adjutant general to the forces in Bombay from 1861 to 1862, and was promoted brevet colonel in 1863. There, he befriended the then governor of Bombay, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, and this relationship would be important later when serving in South Africa. He served, again as deputy adjutant general, in the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia, for which he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath and made an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria in 1868. He was Adjutant-General, India from 1869 to 1874.

Thesiger returned to England in 1874 as colonel on the staff, commanding the forces at Shorncliffe Army Camp, and was appointed to command a brigade at Aldershot, with the temporary rank of brigadier general, in 1877. He had however requested a posting overseas in order to benefit from the cheaper cost of living.

Anglo-Zulu Wars

Defeat at Isandlwana

Thesiger was promoted to major general in March 1877, appointed to command the forces in South Africa with the local rank of lieutenant general in February 1878, and in October succeeded his father as 2nd Baron Chelmsford. He brought the Ninth Cape Frontier War to its completion in July 1878, and was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in November 1878. His experiences fighting against the Xhosa created a low opinion of the fighting capabilities of native African tribesmen, which would later lead to a disastrous consequence.

In January 1879, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, a personal friend of Chelmsford, engineered a war against Cetshwayo, King of the Zulus, who at that time were an allied power by treaty with the British Crown. An expeditionary British imperial military force under Chelmsford's command subsequently entered the Zulu Kingdom uninvited, and was in consequence attacked on 22 January 1879 by a large Zulu army at Isandlwana, during which the Zulus overran and destroyed the central column of Chelmsford's separated forces. The engagement was an unexpected victory for the Zulus and one of the worst defeats of the British Army by native tribesmen in the history of the British Empire.

Afterwards, the British Government, anxious to avoid the Zulus threatening Natal, issued orders for the hasty relief of Chelmsford of his command and for him to be replaced with Sir Garnet Wolseley. However, this order could not be implemented until the arrival of Wolseley, and in the meantime Chelmsford ignored diplomatic peace overtures from King Cetshwayo and planned an attack upon the Zulus at Ulundi, aimed at defeating them decisively and salvaging his reputation before Wolseley's arrival. The Battle of Ulundi took place on 4 July 1879, being the last major battle of the Anglo-Zulu War. After a half hour bombardment by the Royal Artillery, Chelmsford attacked a Zulu army massed at Ulundi, making full use of concentrated small arms fire from Gatling guns and rifles, leading to the destruction of the Zulu force. The British Army's casualties after the sharp but brief engagement was only ten killed and eighty-seven wounded, in exchange for nearly six times that number of Zulu dead, Hall 1978 quotes the London Standard reporting 473 counted dead and another 1000 or more wounded. Chelmsford ordered the Royal Kraal of Ulundi, the Zulu Kingdom's capital, to be destroyed with fire. Chelmsford handed over command to Wolseley on 15 July at the fort at St. Paul's, leaving South Africa by ship for England two days later. The defeat of the Zulus at Ulundi allowed Chelmsford to partially recover his military prestige after the disaster at Isandlwana, and he was honoured as a Knight Grand Cross of Bath. However, he was severely criticised by a subsequent enquiry launched by the British Army into the events that had led to the Isandlwana debacle, and would not serve in the field again.

Later career

Lord Chelmsford became lieutenant general in 1882, Lieutenant of the Tower of London (1884 until 1889), colonel of the 4th (West London) Rifle Volunteer Corps (1887), full general (1888), and colonel of the Derbyshire Regiment (1889). He exchanged the colonelcy of the Derbyshires for that of the 2nd Life Guards (1900), and was made Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (1902). He was the inaugural Governor and Commandant of the Church Lads' Brigade, a post he retained until his death.

Personal life

His sister, Julia (1833–1904) was married to Sir John Eardley Wilmot Inglis (1814–1862) who commanded the British forces during the Siege of Lucknow in 1857. She later wrote of her experiences during the siege including extracts from her diary.

He left four sons, the eldest of whom succeeded as 3rd Baron Chelmsford and later became Viceroy of India and first Viscount Chelmsford. Another son was Lieutenant Colonel Eric Thesiger who served in the First World War and was also a Page of Honour for Queen Victoria. The diplomat Wilfred Gilbert Thesiger, who served in Addis Ababa in 1916, was another son, and father of the author and explorer Wilfred Thesiger. He was the uncle of the actor Ernest Thesiger.


Chelmsford had a seizure and expired whilst playing billiards at the United Service Club in London on 9 April 1905. His body was buried in Brompton Cemetery in London.

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Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron of Chelmsford's Timeline

May 31, 1837
August 12, 1868
August 12, 1868
7 Eaton Square, Belgravia, Westminster, Middlesex, England
November 7, 1869
November 7, 1869
Simla, Bengal, England UK
March 25, 1871
Simla-Calcutta, West Bengal,, India
February 17, 1874
St. George Hanover Square RD, London, Middlesex, England UK
April 9, 1905
Age 67