Childhood & Early Life
Robert Stephenson Smyth Powel was born on February 22, 1857, in Paddington locality in central London. He was named after his godfather Robert Stephenson, a well known railway engineer and was popularly referred as Stephe.
His father, Baden Powel, was a famed mathematician, a priest and a prominent theologian. His mother, Henrietta Grace Baden Powel nee Smyth, was Baden Powel’s third wife. The couple had ten children, out of which Robert was the eighth. Baden Powel also had four children from his second wife.
Baden Powel died when Stephe was only three years old. To distinguish his children from their step siblings and to make sure that they inherit their father’s legacy, Henrietta changed their surname to Baden Powel. Henceforth, Stephe began to be known as Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden Powel.
Young Stephe was a sensitive child and often liked to play with dolls. His mother took him out for long walks, introducing him to the plant and animal world around him. Thus, the nature had always been a part of his upbringing.
Stephe started his education at Dame’s School in Kensington. In 1868, he joined Rose Hill School at Tunbridge Well in Kent. Two years later he went to Charterhouse School in Surrey and passed out from there. Here too he often sneaked into the forest nearby bypassing his teachers’ eyes.
On passing out from school, he was denied admission to Balliol College. So, he decided to sit for the Army Commission examination, which was open to all. He wrestled the second position in the cavalry and the fourth position in infantry. He opted for cavalry.
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Baden Powel joined the 13th Hussar as a lieutenant on December 6, 1876. The regiment was then stationed in India. He worked hard and within six years became a captain. However, he did not have to face any major conflict during his stint in India.
The 13th Hussar returned to England in 1884. During his stay in England, Baden Powel was required to travel to Germany, Austria and Russia to gather intelligence inputs and learn about their military development. He also published a book called ‘Reconnaissance and Scouting’ during this period.
In 1887, his maternal uncle General Henry Smyth was appointed as the Governor and Commander in Chief in South Africa. Baden Powel was deputed to serve under him. Here he was engaged in some non combating missions with the Zulus. Very soon he became a Brevet Major and was mentioned in the Dispatches.
In 1889, General Smyth became the Governor of Malta and Baden Powel served as his Military Secretary and Aide-de-camp for three years. During this period, he also served as an intelligence officer for the Director of Military Intelligence.
It is said that he traveled to different places in the guise of a butterfly collector. He then incorporated the information in the sketches of the butterflies he purportedly went to collect. Powel resigned from the post mainly because the position was noncombatant. He then went back to his regiment.
In 1896, Baden Powel was assigned to Matabeleland as Chief of Staff to Gen. Carrington. Here he got a chance to command reconnaissance missions into the enemy territories. Later he wrote down his experiences in a book call ‘The Matabele Campaign’.
He also met Frederick Russell Burnham, the famous American scout, during this campaign. Burnham introduced Baden Powel to the art of woodcraft. While organizing the boys scout movement in later years, Baden Powel drew on these experiences.
However, his experiences in this campaign had not been all that rosy. He was accused of illegally executing Matabele chief Uwini, but was later cleared by a military enquiry. It was also said that he allowed native soldiers under him to massacre the enemy, but nothing substantial was found against him.
In 1897, Baden Powel took part in the Fourth Ashanti War in the Gold Coast as the commander of his troop. He was only 29 years old then. Pemphre, the King of Ashanti had broken a treaty with the British. He resolved the issue without bloodshed, in recognition of which he was made a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel.
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Baden Powel was next given the command of the 5th Dragoon Guards, then stationed in India. His ‘Aid to Scouting’ is based on the lectures he gave on the subject of military scouting during this period. It later became a best-seller and was used extensively by teachers and youth organizations while organizing outdoor camps.
In 1899, he was sent back to Africa to take part in the impending war between the English and the Boers over mineral rights. The war, known as the Second Boer War, was one of the most significant events in the life of Baden Powel.
As the war set in, Baden Powel was sent to Mafeking, a railway junction on the border of Transvaal. He was told to maintain a mobile force at the Boer border and to create a diversion in case something goes wrong in the south, where the fighting was going on.
To assist the regular army, Baden Powel raised local troops consisting of 1200 men. When the Boers came to know about this, they attacked the town. When the British Army repelled the attack, they decided to put on seize and starve the enemy out.
The Siege of Mafeking, which started on 13th October 1899, lasted for 217 days. The number of men surrounding the town at times exceeded 8000. It was mainly due to Baden Powel’s well thought of strategies that helped them to hold out till the reinforcements arrived.
The Siege of Mafeking was finally lifted on 19th May, 1900. In recognition of his unparalleled services, he was promoted to the post of Major General. He also became a national hero.
In October 1901, Baden Powel went back to England. There he was invited by King Edward VII, who was at that time residing at the Balmoral Castle. There, Baden Powel was invested with the Companion of the Order of the Bath, which is a British order of chivalry.
Baden Powel next returned to South Africa and organized the South African Constabulary. It was a paramilitary force raised during the war. He was the first Inspector General of the force.
In 1903, he returned to England to take up the post of inspector General of Cavalry and brought about important improvement in the reconnaissance training of the force. At the same time, he started taking interest in Boys Brigade. In 1907, Baden Powel became the Commander of the Northumbrian Division of the Territorial Force. This was his last military posting. He retired from the army in 1910 to promote the Boys Scout Movement.
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Although Baden Powel fought many wars he is best remembered for organizing the Boys Scout and the Girl Guide movements. He started taking active interest in them even while he was in the military service.
In 1907, he organized his first scout camp on Brownsea Island with only twenty boys. Quickly, the movement spread across the country. Children began to organize scout troops on their own.
In 1909, he first held a scout rally in the Crystal Palace in London. There he found many of the participants were actually girls. The next year he, along with his sister Agnes Baden Powel, organized the Girl Guide Movement. Today, these two movements have millions of members from all over the world.
His two books on scouting, ‘Aids to Scouting’ and ‘Scouting for Boys’ remained on the best sellers’ list for many years. Other than these two, Baden Powel found time to write around thirty other books on different subjects.