You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Major-General Sir Sebastian Roberts, honorary Colonel of Irish Guards loved by brother officers for his irrepressible bonhomie – obituary

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 16/03/2023 Telegraph Obituaries
Major General Sebastian Roberts (riding the grey horse) during a Household Cavalry pageant rehearsal in Hyde Park, 2007 - Ian Jones © Ian Jones Major General Sebastian Roberts (riding the grey horse) during a Household Cavalry pageant rehearsal in Hyde Park, 2007 - Ian Jones

Major-General Sir Sebastian Roberts, who has died aged 69, was a soldier of unusual intellect and panache who rose to command London District and the Household Division and to serve as honorary Colonel of his regiment, the Irish Guards.

Standing 6 ft 7 in tall, Roberts cut an elegantly imposing figure in the ceremonial duties – including the late Queen’s Birthday Parades – that were integral to his senior roles. Fate and the vicissitudes of military life dictated that he was never a battlefield commander, but he rose high on the strength of a distinctive skill set: erudition, eloquence, excellence in staff work, planning, and relations with Whitehall and the media – and genuine concern for the welfare of the soldier.

He was loved by brother officers for his irrepressible bonhomie; other ranks found him affable, approachable and interested in their lives. He was also a deep thinker whose thesis on the “military covenant” stands as a seminal redefinition of the morality of modern warfare.

But for a heart problem which prevented him taking front-line roles in his later career, he might have gone on to the most senior level of the Army.

Sebastian John Lechmere Roberts was born in Aldershot on January 7 1954, the eldest of 10 children of Brigadier John Roberts of the Welsh Guards, and his wife Nicola, née Macaskie. Three of Sebastian’s six brothers, one brother-in-law and his own two sons would also serve as footguards officers.

Sebastian was educated at Ampleforth and Balliol College, Oxford, where he read History under the medievalist Maurice Keen while also presiding over the Arnold and Brackenbury debating forum, helping to revive the Annandale dining society and in due course joining the university’s riotous Bullingdon Club.

Roberts, when Army commander for the London district, presenting Gulf War Medals - JOHNNY GREEN/Empics Sports Photo Agency © Provided by The Telegraph Roberts, when Army commander for the London district, presenting Gulf War Medals - JOHNNY GREEN/Empics Sports Photo Agency

A gifted caricaturist, he devoted much of the term before his finals – for which he declared that “revision would be cheating” – to drawing a “Bullingdon War Mag” featuring fellow club members in a Colditz-like escapade, which he later proudly listed among his publications in Who’s Who.

Commissioned into the Irish Guards in 1977, he was a rendezvous point commander in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during Operation Agila in 1979-80; he oversaw a camp to which Patriotic Front guerrillas went to lay down their arms following ceasefire with Rhodesian security forces. Promoted major, he was chief of staff, 4 Armoured Brigade, at Münster in Germany and a company commander in Belize and Berlin.

In 1991 Lt Col Roberts became military assistant to the Chief of General Staff, General Sir Peter (later Field Marshal Lord) Inge, a chief with a fearsome reputation for whom Roberts acted as diplomatic wingman and smoother of surrounding tensions. By now marked out as an officer of exceptional ability, he went on to command 1st Battalion Irish Guards in East Tyrone – the first time the regiment had been deployed to Northern Ireland – and to complete the army’s higher command and staff course with flying colours.

From 1996 to 1999, he held the post of Colonel Land Warfare 2 (Doctrine) at Upavon in Wiltshire, where he wrote Soldiering: The Military Covenant. Its essence, as he noted elsewhere, was that “military effectiveness cannot be based on functional output alone, and unless it is focused on higher external ethics, an army risks the moral bankruptcy of the Waffen SS. Soldiers must know that what they do is right, and that they have the support of their nation, their society, and their government.”

The Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) outside the Foreign Office shaking the hand of Chinese leader Wen Jiabao as Roberts watches on - alamy © Provided by The Telegraph The Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) outside the Foreign Office shaking the hand of Chinese leader Wen Jiabao as Roberts watches on - alamy

In 1999, as a brigadier, he became the Army’s director of public relations in the Ministry of Defence, building positive relations with Fleet Street at a time of multiple deployments to Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and elsewhere, and issues such as the rescinding in 2000 of the ban on openly gay service personnel. “We were front- page news every day,” he recalled.

In 2001 he was chosen to go to Sierra Leone as chief of staff of the UN peacekeeping mission there, a post which would have given him vital operational experience for further promotion. But the pre-departure medical revealed a heart weakness (associated with Marfan Syndrome, a genetic condition of which tallness and long limbs can be an indication) which required major surgery.

He was nevertheless sufficiently fit again by 2003 to take up promotion to General Officer Commanding London District and Officer Commanding Household Division, occupying the Duke of Wellington’s office overlooking Horse Guards. Among the dramatic events of his tenure was a helicopter dash from Wiltshire to London on July 7 2005, the day of terrorist bombings across the capital, to provide security support to the civil powers dealing with the immediate horrors of the situation and its aftermath.

He oversaw the sale in 2007 of the 13-acre Chelsea Barracks site. It was expected to go for around £250 million but was eventually sold to Qatari and other interests for £959 million, reportedly the highest price ever paid for a plot of land in Britain.

He was credited with securing the independent survival of the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards during one of many infantry reorganisations. Though it was rumoured that senior members of the Royal family held strong opinions in favour of preserving their Household regiments, it took Roberts’s silken powers of persuasion to bring MoD bureaucrats alongside.

His last active posting, from 2007 to 2010, was as senior Army member and Chief of Staff at the Royal College of Defence Studies, where he wrote the College’s strategy handbook and led study tours to past and present conflict zones around the world.

Roberts was Regimental Lt-Col of the Irish Guards from 1999 to 2008, when he succeeded the 5th Duke of Abercorn as Colonel of the regiment – and (though too tall to be a natural horseman) took his place with the mounted Royal Colonels of other Household regiments at the Birthday Parade.

The current Prince of Wales followed him as Colonel of the Irish Guards in 2011. Roberts remained devoted to the Irish Guards’ regimental family and in later years was in demand as a broadcast commentator on grand ceremonial occasions, including the Queen’s funeral.

He was also honorary colonel of the London Irish Rifles and 256 (City of London) Field Hospital (Volunteers); the Queen’s Representative as a trustee of the Royal Armouries; president of the Army Art Society and chairman of the Society for Army Historical Research.

He was chairman from 2014 of the Military Mutual, an insurance business founded to meet the particular needs of the armed forces and their families – spurred, he told an interviewer, by the fact that “my brother and my son were injured on active duty… both tried to claim for personal effects destroyed … and both were denied due to small print.”

He also chaired the governors of St Mary’s School, Shaftesbury, from 2010 to 2017 and was Master of the Girdlers’ Company from 2020 to 2022. He was appointed OBE in 1993 and KCVO in 2007.

Painting, drawing, reading, travelling, conversation and prayer filled such spare time as his commitments allowed. Sustained by an intense Roman Catholic faith inherited from his mother Nicola – at whose funeral at the London Oratory in February 2023 he delivered a memorable eulogy – he was the benign head of a clan descended from his parents numbering, with their spouses, more than 50.

Asked to name his greatest achievement, Sebastian Roberts invariably cited his marriage, in 1979, to Elizabeth Muir – who survives him with their two daughters and two sons.

Major-General Sir Sebastian Roberts, born January 7 1954, died March 9 2023

Sign up to the Front Page newsletter for free: Your essential guide to the day's agenda from The Telegraph - direct to your inbox seven days a week.


More from The Telegraph

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon