Born at Suirville, Co. Tipperary, Ireland, 31 October, 1838; died 7 June, 1910, was the son of Richard and Ellen Butler. His family had been settled on their estates in Tipperary since Thomas Butler, tenth Earl of Ormonde, had received grants of land from Queen Elizabeth after the suppression of the Desmond rebellion in 1584. The great famine of 1847 and scenes of suffering and eviction were amongst his earliest recollections. He was educated chiefly by the Jesuits at Tullabeg College, King's Co. In 1858 he received a commission in the 69th Regiment, which he joined at the depot at Fermoy, and after two years he was sent to Madras. The regiment returned to England in 1864, and on the way Butler visited the Island of St. Helena, led thither by his profound veneration for Napoleon. In 1867 he visited Canada for the first time, and went back there again after a brief visit to Ireland, with a mission from Colonel Wolseley to find out the true state of feeling in the Red River settlement. In October, 1870, he was intrusted with a fresh mission to report on the need of troops, the fur trade, the Indians etc., in Saskatchewan, following the course of the Saskatchewan River from Carlton to the Rocky Mountains. The story of this winter journey and his share in the Red River expedition is told in "The Great Lone Land", first published in 1872.
Sir Garnet Wolseley made his famous expedition to Ashanti in West Africa in 1873. To Butler he entrusted the task of intercepting the Ashanti Army whilst retreating across the River Prah. This proved impossible, for though he induced 1400 Akims to move forward with him to within 20 miles of Coomassie they took alarm at the last moment and went home. The full story of his share in the Ashanti War is given in "Akim-foo, the History of a Failure" (London, 1875). Wolseley reported of him: "He has effected a most important diversion in favour of the main body and has detained before him all the forces of one of the most powerful Ashanti chiefs." He was now promoted major and made a Companion of the Bath. The opening months of 1875 saw him start for Natal on the staff of Sir Garnet Wolseley, who had been sent out as governor and high commissioner. Butler was named protector of Indian immigrants and had to report on the land system then existing in the colony. To the insight then gained into South African problems he attributes, to a great extent, the accuracy of certain warnings of his a quarter of a century later before the outbreak of the Boer War.
At the close of 1875 he joined the staff of the War Office, and in 1877 he married Miss Elizabeth Thompson, the painter of the "Roll Call", "Quatre Bras", and other famous battle scenes. After the disaster of Isandula in the Zulu War, he was sent again to Natal, but through ill luck was kept at the base and saw no fighting. Promotion to lieutenant-colonel followed on his return to England, for services in Natal, and the Marquis of Ripon, Viceroy of India, proposed him for his private secretary, but Gladstone refused his sanction on the score of Butler's being a Catholic. In the Egyptian campaign of 1882 he saw much hard service, and was present at the engagements of El Magfar, Tel-e-Mahouta, Kassassin, and the night attack on the Egyptian lines at Tel-el-Kebir.
After the campaign he returned to England and started once again for "the great prairies and the pine forests" of Canada. He visited many of the scenes of his earlier travels, but within a few months was back in London, and was discussing with Lord Wolseley the various routes by which the garrisons at Khartoum might be reached, and General Gordon saved. To Butler were entrusted, when at last the relief expedition was a certainty, the procuring of 400 boats, and the getting of these boats, with their troops and provisions, up the cataracts of the Nile. This was effected by almost superhuman efforts against time and the unfavourable state of the Nile, then rapidly falling. His task accomplished, he was sent on under General Earle, who led the river column of advance upon Khartoum. He took part in the heavy fighting at Kirbekam, and indeed the success of that action has always been attributed to his foresight. After the fall of Khartoum, he was left in command at Meroe, and brought the troops stationed there in safety to Dongola. In September, 1885, he was in command at Wady Halfa, and successfully kept the forces of the Mahdi at bay till re-enforcements arrived from England. He commanded the division of Gen. Stephenson's army engaged in the action at Ginniss and was mentioned in the highest terms in despatches. Finding no appointment open to him in England on his return, he betook himself to Brittany with his family, where he wrote "The Campaign of the Cataracts" (1887) and "The Life of General Gordon" (1889), and subsequently to Ireland, where he made the acquaintance of Parnell. During his stay in Brittany he was made K.C.B. (Knight Commander of the Bath ) for his services in Egypt and the Sudan. In 1890 he returned to Egypt to take command at Alexandria, and was promoted major-general in 1892. During the intervals of leave from his duties at Alexandria he travelled a great deal, visiting, amongst other places, the sacred sites of Palestine, which had always had a deep interest and attraction for him. From 1893 to 1896 he commanded a brigade at Aldershot, being transferred in the latter year to the command of the South-Eastern district of England. In the autumn of 1898 he went to South Africa as commander-in-chief and high commissioner during the absence of Sir Alfred Milner. In the latter capacity he strove to avert a war which he saw was bound to result in calamity both for England and South Africa, and as commander-in-chief he tried to show the Government the inadequacy of their preparations and what a war with the Transvaal would really mean. His attitude did not find favour at home and he was severely criticised for having stated in his capacity as high commissioner that he considered South Africa in need of "no surgical operation".
In September, 1899, he resigned his command and came home. He saw no active service during the war, remaining in command of the Western District of England. He also commanded at Aldershot and in the Southern District. In 1903 he headed the commission of enquiry into the scandals connected with stores and supplies during the war, and in October, 1905, having reached the age limit of sixty-seven, he was placed on the retired list. The few years of life which remained to him he spent in Ireland, devoted chiefly to the cause of education. He was a frequent lecturer both in Dublin and the provinces on historical, social, and economic questions. He was a member of the senate of the National University of Ireland, and a commissioner of the Board of National Education. In June, 1906, he was appointed Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, and in 1909 he was made a member of the Irish Privy Council. He died fortified by the rites of the Church, and was buried with full military honours at Killardrich, Co. Tipperary. Besides the books already mentioned, Sir William Butler was the author of several important works, chief among which are the military biographies of Sir Charles Napier (1890) and Sir George Colley (1899). The latter appeared a few months before the outbreak of the Boer War. He was working at the last chapters of his autobiography at the time of his death.
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