Baden-Powell was born Robert Stephenson Smyth Powell in London on 22nd February 1857.
In 1876 Baden-Powell joined the 13th Hussars in India with the rank of lieutenant. He enhanced and honed his military scouting skills amidst the Zulu in the early 1880s in the Natal Province of South Africa, where his regiment had been posted, and where he was Mentioned in Despatches. Baden-Powell’s skills impressed his superiors and he was brevetted Major as Military Secretary and senior Aide-de-camp of the Commander-in-Chief and Governor of Malta where he was posted in Malta for three years. Whilst there he also worked as intelligence officer for the Mediterranean for the Director of Military Intelligence.
He frequently travelled around the area disguised as a butterfly collector, incorporating plans of military installations into his drawings of butterfly wings. In 1884 he published Reconnaissance and Scouting.
Baden-Powell returned to Africa in 1896 and served in the Second Matabele War in the expedition to relieve British South Africa Company personnel under siege in Bulawayo. This proved a formative experience for him, not only because he commanded reconnaissance missions into enemy territory in the Motopos Hills, but because many of his later Boy Scout ideas took hold here. It was during this campaign that he first met and befriended the American scout Frederick Russell Burnham, who introduced Baden-Powell to stories of the American Old West and woodcraft (i.e. scoutcraft), and here that he wore his signature Stetson campaign hat and neckerchief for the first time.
After Rhodesia, Baden-Powell served in the 4th Ashanti War in Gold Coast. In 1897, at the age of 40, he was brevetted Colonel (the youngest Colonel in the British Army) and given command of the 5th Dragoon Guards in India.
A few years later he wrote a small manual, entitled Aids to Scouting, a summary of lectures he had given on the subject of military scouting, much of it a written explanation of the lessons he had learned from Burnham, to help train recruits. Using this and other methods he was able to train them to think independently, use their initiative, and survive in the wilderness.
Baden-Powell returned to South Africa before the 2nd Boer War and was engaged in further military actions against the Zulus. Although instructed to maintain a mobile mounted force on the frontier with the Boer Republics, Baden-Powell amassed stores and a garrison at Mafeking. While engaged in this, he and much of his intended mobile force was at Mafeking when it was surrounded by a Boer army, at times in excess of 8,000 men.
Baden-Powell was the garrison commander during the subsequent siege, which lasted 217 days. Although Baden-Powell could have destroyed his stores and had sufficient forces to break out throughout much of the siege, especially since the Boers lacked adequate artillery to shell the town or its forces, he remained in the town to the point of his intended mounted soldiers eating their horses.
The siege received attention from both the Boers and international media. The garrison held out until relieved, in part thanks to cunning deceptions, many devised by Baden-Powell. Fake minefields were planted and his soldiers pretended to avoid non-existent barbed wire while moving between trenches. Baden-Powell did much reconnaissance work himself. In one instance, noting that the Boers had not removed the rail line, Baden-Powell loaded an armoured locomotive with sharpshooters and sent it down the rails into the heart of the Boer encampment and back again in a successful attack.
During the siege, the Mafeking Cadet Corps of white boys below fighting age stood guard, carried messages, assisted in hospitals, and so on, freeing grown men to fight. Baden-Powell did not form the Cadet Corps himself, and there is no evidence that he took much notice of them during the Siege, but he was sufficiently impressed with both their courage and the equanimity with which they performed their tasks to use them later as an object lesson in the first chapter of Scouting for Boys.
The siege was lifted on 16 May 1900. Baden-Powell was promoted to Major General, and became a national hero. However, the British military commanders were more critical of his performance and even less impressed with his subsequent choices to again allow himself be besieged. Ultimately, his failure to properly scout the situation and abandonment of the soldiers, mostly Australian and Rhodesian, at the Battle of Elands River led to his being removed from action.
Baden-Powell was side-lined from active command and given the role of organising the South African Constabulary, a colonial police force. He returned to England to take up a post as Inspector General of Cavalry in 1903. While holding this position, Baden-Powell was instrumental in reforming reconnaissance training in British cavalry, giving the force an important advantage in scouting ability over continental rivals. In 1907 he was promoted to Lt. General but left on the inactive list.
Without a military role, he spent the next few years involved with others in establishing the Scouting Movement.
In 1910, after being rebuked for a series of publicity gaffes, one suggesting invasion by Germany, Baden-Powell retired from the Army. Baden-Powell apparently later claimed that he was advised by King Edward VII that he could better serve his country by promoting Scouting.
On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, at the age of fifty-seven, Baden-Powell put himself at the disposal of the War Office. No command was given to him. It has been claimed that Lord kitchener said: “he could lay his hand on several competent divisional generals but could find no one who could carry on the invaluable work of the Boy Scouts.”
His military career finally over, Baden Powell channelled his considerable energies into the development of the Scouting movement, an activity to which he devoted the rest of his life.