General Buller's statue in Exeter stay or go?

The Statue of General Redvers Buller one Hele Road, Exeter

The Statue of General Redvers Buller one Hele Road, Exeter - Credit: Google Maps

Should Exeter take down its statue of the Victorian military legend, General Redvers Buller?

The survival of the statue has become a hot topic throughout Devon. People supporting the statue have maintained that it is a vital feature of the city’s heritage. They have argued people who want to remove it are seeking to rewrite history, demolishing anything deemed offensive to 21st century sensibilities.

On the other hand, those against the statue staying argue that it is an unfortunate reminder of some of the less savoury aspects of Britain’s imperial legacy. They point to Bristol, where a statue of slave trader, Edward Colston was removed by force during a Black Lives Matter protest last year.

The statue itself was created by Adrian Jones and stands on the junction of New North Road and Hele Road en route to Buller’s old stomping ground in Crediton. It is almost the first thing many people arriving in the city at St David’s station see as they travel by foot, bike or by car towards the city centre. It was unveiled in 1905, three years before Buller’s own death. It is unusual in this sense as most statues like this were usually produced after the subject’s death. Buller was lucky to get to see it for himself before he died.

Buller’s reputation rests on two things. As a young lieutenant serving in the Zulu Wars on March 28, 1879, Buller rescued five men as he and many others bid a hasty retreat from an advancing army of Zulus at Inhlobana. Like many people today, I’m now a little uncomfortable about many aspects of Britain’s imperial legacy particularly its role in conflicts like the Zulu Wars. Despite this, I’m satisfied that Buller himself displayed considerable bravery on the day in question.

I’m quite conscious, however, that the statue commemorates Buller in his later years as a general during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). And here the record suggests that there is much less to celebrate. Buller had severe doubts about being recalled to command for the war in South Africa. These doubts seem to have been well-founded as he subsequently oversaw disastrous British defeats at Colenso, Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz yielding heavy casualties in the process. At one point, the general who was cruelly dubbed “Reverse Buller” was relieved of his command.

I am aware Buller was a generally popular figure by 1905. I am also aware that attitudes to the upper classes and generals were to be revolutionised by the slaughter of the First World War. While the Victorians and Edwardians were only too keen to celebrate the lives of generals like Buller. This soon went out of fashion.

As it is, if the statue did not already exist nobody today in 2021 would even think of proposing a statue in honour of General Buller. Nobody in 1921 would have dreamed of commissioning one either.

Rewriting history?
There is, in fact, nothing wrong in principle with dismantling statues which celebrate the lives of unworthy figures from the past, by lawful means. History is always being rewritten and reassessed anyway. That is the nature of history. It is nothing new. People are still free to learn about figures like Colston and Buller without feeling their lives should have to be celebrated with statues.

As it is, I don’t think General Buller’s statue is currently causing enough offence to justify demolishing it. If this ever changes in the future, we should reconsider its status. In February 2021, plans to relocate the statue were rejected by Exeter City Council following comments made by minister, Robert Jenrick.

As a final point, however, I would like to propose a statue in honour of General Buller’s daughter, Dame Georgina Buller (1883-1953). As a champion of the disabled and as the founder of the first school dedicated to occupational therapy in the UK, she is surely much more deserving of a statue than her father ever was.

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