Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
We spent a very quiet year at Simla. My wife was far from strong, and we had another great sorrow in the death of a baby boy three weeks after his birth.
That winter I was left in charge of the Quartermaster-General's office, and we moved into 'Ellerslie,' a larger and warmer house than[Page 309] that in which we had lived during the summer.
Winter at Simla Simla in the winter, after a fresh fall of snow, is particularly beautiful. Range after range of hills clothed in their spotless garments stretch away as far as the eye can reach, relieved in the foreground by masses of reddish-brown perpendicular cliffs and dark-green ilex and deodar trees, each bearing its pure white burden, and decked with glistening fringes of icicles. Towards evening the scene changes, and the snow takes the most gorgeous colouring from the descending rays of the brilliant eastern sun—brilliant even in mid-winter—turning opal, pink, scarlet, and crimson; gradually, as the light wanes, fading into delicate lilacs and grays, which slowly mount upwards, till at last even the highest pinnacle loses the life-giving tints, and the whole snowy range itself turns cold and white and dead against a background of deepest sapphire blue. The spectator shivers, folds himself more closely in his wraps, and retreats indoors, glad to be greeted by a blazing log-fire and a hot cup of tea.
1870 In the spring of the next year (1870) Sir William Mansfield's term of command came to an end, and he was succeeded by Lord Napier of Magdāla. The selection of this distinguished officer for the highest military position in India was greatly appreciated by the Indian army, as no officer of that army had held it since the days of Lord Clive.
In September a daughter was born, and that winter we again remained at Simla. I amused myself by going through a course of electric telegraphy, which may seem rather like a work of supererogation; but during the Umbeyla campaign, when the telegraph office had to be closed in consequence of all the clerks being laid up with fever, and we could neither read nor send messages, I determined that I would on the first opportunity learn electric signalling, in order that I might be able to decipher and send telegrams should I ever again find myself in a similar position.
In May my wife and I went for a march across the hills to Chakrata, and thence to Mussoorie and back by way of Dehra Dun and the plains. The object of this trip was to settle the boundary of Chakrata, and my wife took the opportunity of my being ordered on this duty to get away from Simla, as we had now been there for more than two years, and were consequently rather longing for a change. Our route lay through most beautiful scenery, and notwithstanding that the trip was a little hurried, and that some of the marches were therefore rather long, we enjoyed it immensely. When passing along the ridge of a very high hill one afternoon, we witnessed rather a curious sight—a violent thunderstorm was going on in the valley below us, while we ourselves remained in the mildest, most serene atmosphere, enjoying bright sunshine and a blue sky. Dense black clouds filled up the valley a thousand feet beneath us, the thunder roared, the lightning flashed, and soon we could hear the rush of waters in the streams[Page 310] below from the torrents of rain which the clouds were discharging; but it was not until we had crossed over the mountain, and descended to a low level on the other side, that we fully realized the effects of the heavy storm.
On our return to Simla we had the pleasure of a visit from Major-General Donald Stewart, who had come up to receive Lord Mayo's instructions before taking over his appointment as Superintendent of the Andaman Islands. In September he and I travelled together to Calcutta, to which place I was directed to proceed in order to make arrangements for a military expedition into the country of the Lushais, having been appointed senior staff officer to the force.
The Lushais Lushai, situated between south-eastern Bengal and Burma, was a terra incognita to me, and I had only heard of it in connexion with the raids made by its inhabitants upon the tea-gardens in its vicinity, which had now spread too far away from Cachar for the garrison of that small military station to afford them protection. From time to time the Lushais had done the planters much damage, and carried off several prisoners, and various attempts had been made in the shape of small military expeditions to punish the tribesmen and rescue the captives; but from want of proper organization, and from not choosing the right time of the year, these attempts had hitherto been unsuccessful, and our failures had the inevitable result of making the Lushais bolder. Raids became more frequent and more destructive; until at last a little European girl, named Mary Winchester, was carried off, and kept by them as a prisoner; on this the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal declared that a punitive expedition was 'absolutely necessary for the future security of the British subjects residing on the Cachar and Chittagong frontiers.'
The Lushai Expedition The despatch of a force was therefore decided upon; it was to consist of two small columns1—one having its base at Cachar, the other at Chittagong—commanded respectively by Brigadier-Generals Bourchier, C.B., and C. Brownlow, C.B., supreme political power being also vested in these two officers. Long experience had taught Lord Napier the wisdom of having only one head in time of war, and he impressed upon the Government his opinion that the civil officers, while acting as advisers and as the channels of communication with the tribes, should be subordinate to the control of the two Commanders, who, after having been put in possession of the views and wishes of the Government, should be held responsible for carrying them out loyally[Page 311] so far as circumstances and the safety of the force would permit.
As the existence of the tea industry was at stake, the Lushais having established a perfect terror on all the estates within their reach, it was essential that they should be given a severe lesson, and this could only be done by their principal villages, which lay at some considerable distance from the base of operations, being visited in force. The difficult country and the paucity of transport necessitated the columns being lightly equipped; no tents were to be allowed, and baggage and followers were to be reduced to a minimum. My instructions were to fit out and despatch the two columns, and then join Brigadier-General Bourchier at Cachar.
I was kept in Calcutta all October—not a pleasant month, the climate then being very muggy and unhealthy. Everyone who could get away had gone to the Hills or out to sea; and the offices being closed for the Hindu holidays of the Durga Puja, it was extremely difficult to get work done. Everything for the Chittagong column had to be sent by sea. The shipping of the elephants was rather interesting: they clung desperately to the ground, trying hard to prevent themselves being lifted from it; and when at last, in spite of all their struggles, they were hoisted into the air, the helpless appearance of the huge animals and their despairing little cries and whines were quite pathetic. I found it trying work being on the river all day; my eyes suffered from the glare, and I became so reduced that before I left Calcutta I weighed scarcely over eight stone—rather too fine a condition in which to enter on a campaign in a mountainous country, so thickly covered with jungle as to make riding out of the question.
By the 3rd November the equipment and stores for both columns had been despatched, and on the 16th I joined General Bourchier at the house of that most hospitable of hosts, Mr. Edgar,2 Deputy-Commissioner of Cachar, who accompanied the left column as civil officer.
1871 We left Cachar on the 23rd, and from the outset we had to make our own roads, a labour which never ceased until the end of January, by which date 110 miles had been completed. There was not the vestige of a track to direct us; but I got hold of some people of the country, with whom I made friends, and induced them to act as guides. Many a long and weary reconnaissance had to be executed, however, before the line of advance could be decided upon. The troops worked with a will, and, notwithstanding the vapour-bath-like atmosphere of the valleys and the difficult nature of the country, which was a succession of hill-ranges covered with jungle forests, made almost impenetrable from the huge creepers, and intersected by rivers and watercourses, a good road, from six to eight feet wide, was constructed,[Page 312] with a sufficiently easy gradient for laden elephants to travel over. Cutting one's way day after day through these dense, gloomy forests, through which hardly a ray of light penetrates, was most stifling and depressing. One could hardly breathe, and was quite unable to enjoy the beauty of the magnificent trees, the graceful bamboos and canes, and the wonderful creepers, which abounded, and under other circumstances would have been a source of pleasure; the difficulties we encountered, and the consequent delay in our progress, quite prevented me from being in a frame of mind to appreciate my picturesque surroundings.
Defective transport again It became evident from the first that our onward movements would be greatly impeded by want of transport. Notwithstanding the experience which ought to have been gained in many small mountain wars, the Government had not been taught that a properly organized transport corps was an absolute necessity, and that it was a mere waste of money to collect a number of men and animals without providing trained supervision. Fourteen hundred of our coolies were attached to the Commissariat Department without anyone to look after them, consequently officers and non-commissioned officers, who could ill be spared from their regimental duties, had to be told off to organize and work them.
To add to our troubles, cholera broke out amongst some Nepalese coolies on their way to join us; out of 840, 251 died in a few days, and a number deserted panic-stricken, while the rest were so weakened and shaken that, notwithstanding the care bestowed upon them by their able and energetic Commandant, Major H. Moore, only 387 joined the column. We were not much better off in the matter of elephants, which had been so carelessly selected that only 33 out of the 157 sent with our column were of any use. All this resulted in our being obliged to still further reduce our already small kits. Officers were allowed only forty pounds of baggage, and soldiers twenty-four pounds, limits within which it was rather difficult to keep. A couple of blankets were essential, as we should have to operate over mountains five and six thousand feet high; so was a waterproof sheet, for even if we should be lucky enough to escape rain, the dew is so heavy in those parts that it wets one just as thoroughly as a shower of rain. These three items with my cloak and cork mattress—which is also a very necessary adjunct in such a damp climate—amounted to thirty-one pounds, leaving only nine pounds for a change of clothes, plate, knife, fork, etc.—not too much for a four months' campaign. However, 'needs must,' and it is surprising how many things one considers absolute necessities under ordinary circumstances turn out to have been luxuries when we are obliged to dispense with them.
Practice Versus Theory The advance portion of the column did not arrive at Tipai Mukh, only eighty-four miles from Cachar, until the 9th December, which will[Page 313] give an idea of the enforced slowness of our progress. Tipai Mukh proved a very suitable place for our depot: it was situated at the junction of two rivers, the Tipai and the Barak; thickly-wooded hills rose precipitously on all sides, but on the right bank of the Barak there was sufficient level space for all our requirements. With the help of local coolies, the little Gurkhas were not long in running up hospitals and storesheds; bamboo, the one material used in Lushailand for every conceivable purpose, whether it be a house, a drinking vessel, a bridge, a woman's ear-ring, or a musical instrument, grew in profusion on the hillside. A trestle bridge was thrown across the Tipai in a few hours, and about that bridge I have rather an amusing story to relate. On my telling the young Engineer officer in charge of the Sapper company that a bridge was required to be constructed with the least possible delay, he replied that it should be done, but that it was necessary to calculate the force of the current, the weight to be borne, and the consequent strength of the timber required. Off he went, urged by me to be as quick as he could. Some hours elapsed, and nothing was seen of the Engineer, so I sent for him and asked him when the bridge was to be begun. He answered that his plans were nearly completed, and that he would soon be able to commence work. In the meantime, however, and while these scientific calculations were being made, the headman of the local coolies had come to me and said, if the order were given, he would throw a good bridge over the river in no time. I agreed, knowing how clever Natives often are at this kind of work, and thinking I might just as well have two strings to this particular bow. Immediately, numbers of men were to be seen felling the bamboos on the hillside a short distance above the stream: these were thrown into the river, and as they came floating down they were caught by men standing up to their necks in water, who cut them to the required length, stuck the uprights into the river-bed, and attached them to each other by pieces laid laterally and longitudinally; the flooring was then formed also of bamboo, the whole structure was firmly bound together by strips of cane, and the bridge was pronounced ready. Having tested its strength by marching a large number of men across it, I sent for my Engineer friend. His astonishment on seeing a bridge finished ready for use was great, and became still greater when he found how admirably the practical woodmen had done their work; from that time, being assured of their ability to assist him, he wisely availed himself when difficulties arose of their useful, if unscientific, method of engineering.
By the 14th December matters had so far progressed as to warrant an advance. As our route now lay away from the river, scarcity of water entailed greater care being taken in the selection of encamping grounds, so on arriving at our halting-place each day I had to reconnoitre ahead for a suitable site for our next resting-ground, a considerable[Page 314] addition to the day's work. Road-making for the passage of the elephants became more difficult, and transport was so deficient that the troops could only be brought up very gradually. Thus, it was the 22nd of the month before we reached the Tuibum river, only twenty miles from Tipai Mukh. On our way we were met by some scouts from the villages ahead of us, who implored of us to advance no further, saying, if we would only halt, their headmen would come in and submit to whatever terms we chose to make. The villagers were informed in reply that our quarrel was not with them, and so long as we remained unmolested, not the slightest injury should be done to them, their villages, or their crops; but that we were determined to reach the country of Lalbura, the Chief who had been the ringleader in the raids upon the tea-gardens.
We pushed on as fast as the dense undergrowth would permit until within about a mile of the river, where we found the road blocked by a curious erection in the form of a gallows, from which hung two grotesque figures, made of bamboo. A little further on it was a felled tree which stopped us; this tree was studded all over with knife-like pieces of bamboo, and from the incisions into which these were stuck exuded a red juice, exactly the colour of blood. This was the Lushai mode of warning us what would be our fate if we ventured further. We, however, proceeded on our way, bivouacked for the night, and early the next morning started off in the direction of some villages which we understood lay in the road to our destination.
A severe march For the first thousand feet the ascent was very steep, and the path so narrow that we could only march in single file. Suddenly we entered upon a piece of ground cleared for cultivation, and as we emerged from the forest we were received by a volley from a position about sixty yards off. A young police orderly, who was acting as our guide, was knocked over by my side, and a second volley wounded one of the sepoys, on which we charged and the enemy retired up the hill. We came across a large number of these jooms (clearings), and at each there was a like effort to oppose us, always with the same result. After advancing in this way for the greater part of the day, alternately through dense jungle and open spaces, and occasionally passing by scattered cottages, we sighted a good-sized village, where it was decided we should remain for the night. The day's march had been very severe, the village being 4,000 feet above the river; and the troops were so worn out with their exertions that it was with difficulty the piquets could be got to construct proper shelter for themselves out of the plentiful supply of trees and underwood ready at hand. Throughout the night the enemy's sharpshooters kept up an annoying fire under cover of the forest which surrounded the village, and so as soon as day dawned a party moved out to clear the ground all round.
Lushais foiled by Gurkhas It was most aggravating to find from the view we got of the country[Page 315] from this elevated position that the previous day's harassing march had been an absolutely useless performance and an unnecessary waste of time and strength. We could now distinctly see that this village did not lead to Lalbura's country, as we had been led to believe it would, and that there was no alternative but to retrace our steps as far as the river. The men and animals were too tired to march that day, and the next being Christmas, we made another halt, and commenced our retirement on the 26th. This was an extremely nasty business, and had to be carried out with very great caution. The ground, as I said before, necessitated our proceeding in single file, and with only 250 fighting men (all that our deficient transport admitted of being brought on to this point) it was difficult to guard the long line of sick, wounded, and coolies. As soon as we began to draw in our piquets, the Lushais, who had never ceased their fire, perceiving we were about to retire, came down in force, and entered one end of the village, yelling and screaming like demons, before we had got out at the other. The whole way down the hill they pressed us hard, endeavouring to get amongst the baggage, but were invariably baffled by the Gurkhas, who, extending rapidly whenever the ground was favourable, retired through their supports in admirable order, and did not once give the enemy the chance of passing them. We had 3 men killed and 8 wounded during the march, but the Lushais confessed afterwards to a loss of between 50 and 60.
As we were given to understand that our short retrograde movement had been interpreted into a defeat by the Lushais, the General wisely determined to pay the village of Kholel another visit. Our doing so had the best possible effect. A slight resistance was offered at the first clearance, but by the time the ridge was reached the Chief, having become convinced of the uselessness of further opposition, submitted, and engaged to give hostages and keep open communication with our depot at Tipai Mukh, a promise which he most faithfully performed.
1872 1872 opened auspiciously for me. On New Year's Day I was agreeably surprised by a communication from the Quartermaster-General informing me that, a vacancy having unexpectedly occurred, Lord Napier had appointed me Deputy-Quartermaster-General. This was an important step in my department, and I was proportionately elated.
A few days later I received the good news of the birth of a son at Umballa on the 8th.
Paucity of transport and difficulty about supplies kept us stationary on the Tuibum for some time, after which we moved on as before, the Lushais retiring in front of us until the 25th, when they attacked us while we were moving along a narrow ravine, with a stream at the bottom and steep hills on either side. The first volley wounded the General in the arm and hand, and killed his orderly. The enemy's[Page 316] intention was evidently to push past the weak column along the hillside and get amongst the coolies; but this attempt was again foiled by the Gurkhas, who, flinging off their great-coats, rushed into the stream and engaged the Lushais before they could get at the baggage, pressing them up the mountain, rising 2,500 feet above us, as fast as the precipitous nature of the ascent would allow. On the crest we found the enemy occupying a good-sized village, out of which we cleared them and took possession of it ourselves. On this occasion we had only 4 killed and 8 wounded, including the General, while the enemy lost about 60. In one place we found a heap of headless bodies. The Lushais, if unable to remove their dead, invariably decapitate them to prevent their adversaries from carrying off the heads, their own mode of dealing with a slain enemy, as they believe that whoever is in possession of the head will have the man to whom it belonged as a slave in the next world.
A successful turning movement To complete the success we had gained, the General sent me the next day with a small party to burn the village of Taikum, belonging to the people who had attacked us. It was past noon before we could make a start, owing to the non-arrival of the elephants with the guns. When they did come in, the poor huge creatures were so fatigued by their climb that it was considered advisable to transfer their loads to coolies, particularly as the route we had to traverse was reported to be even more difficult than anything we had yet encountered. When we had proceeded a short distance, we perceived that our way was blocked a mile ahead by a most formidable-looking stockade, on one side of which rose perpendicular cliffs, while on the other was a rocky ravine. As the nature of the ground did not admit of my approaching near enough to discover whether the Artillery could be placed so as to cover the Infantry advance, and being anxious to avoid losing many of my small party, I settled to turn the stockade by a detour up the hillside. This manśuvre took some time, owing to the uncompromising nature of the country; but it was successful, for when we struck the track, we found ourselves about a mile on the other side of the stockade. The Lushais, on realizing what we were about, retired to Taikum, which place came into view at 5 p.m. It was situated on the summit of a hill 1,200 yards in front, and was crowded with men. The guns were brought at once into action, and while Captain Blackwood3 was preparing his fuses, I advanced towards the village with the Infantry. The first shell burst a little beyond the village, the second was lodged in its very centre, for a time completely paralyzing the Lushais. On recovering from the shock, they took to their heels and scampered off in every direction, the last man leaving the village just as we entered[Page 317] it. The houses, as usual, were made of bamboo, and after it had been ascertained that there was no living creature inside any of them, the place was set on fire, and we began our return journey. There was a bright moon, but even aided by its light we did not reach our bivouac until midnight. This ended the campaign so far as opposition was concerned, for not another shot was fired either by us or against us during the remaining six weeks we continued in the country.
Lalbura's Village Soon after this we heard that some of the captives we had come to relieve had been given up to the Chittagong column, and that Mary Winchester was safe in General Brownlow's hands—very satisfactory intelligence, showing as it did that the Lushais were beginning to understand the advisability of acceding to our demands. The work of our column, however, was not over, for although, from the information we received of his whereabouts, we had given up hope of joining hands with Brownlow, Bourchier determined that Lalbura's country must be reached; he (Lalbura) being the chief offender, it would never have done to let him think his stronghold lay beyond our power.
In order that we might be well out of Lushailand before the rains, which usually begin in that part of the world about the middle of March, and are extremely heavy, it was decided not to wait until a road could be made for elephants, but to trust to coolie-carriage alone, and to push on rapidly as soon as supplies sufficient for twelve days could be collected. Kits were still further reduced, officers and soldiers alike being only allowed a couple of blankets and one or two cooking utensils.
We resumed our march on the 12th February; the route in many places was strongly and skilfully stockaded, but the tidings of our successes had preceded us, and our advance was unopposed. In five days we reached the Chamfai valley, at the end of which, on a high hill, Lalbura's village was situated.4 Although Lalbura's father, Vonolel, had been dead some years, the people still called the place Vonolel's country. Vonolel had been a famous warrior, and they were evidently very proud of his reputation. We were shown his tomb, which, like that of all great Lushai braves, was decorated with the heads of human beings (his slaves in paradise) and those of animals, besides drinking-vessels and various kinds of utensils for his use in another life.
Lalbura had taken himself off; but his headmen submitted to us and accepted our terms. We remained at this place till the 21st, in accordance with an agreement we had made with Brownlow to send up signals on the night of the 20th in case his column should be anywhere in the neighbourhood. During the three days we stayed amongst them we mixed freely with the Lushais, who were greatly delighted[Page 318] and astonished with all we had to show them. The telescope and the burning-glass amused them greatly; our revolvers excited their envy; and for the little Mountain guns they displayed the highest veneration. But what seemed to astonish them more than anything was the whiteness of our skins, particularly when on closer inspection they discovered that our arms and bodies were even fairer than our faces and hands, which to our eyes had become from long exposure so bronzed as to make us almost unrecognizable as Europeans.
Murder of Lord Mayo We were all glad that the duty entrusted to us had been satisfactorily ended, and we were hoping that the Viceroy, who had taken a keen personal interest in our proceedings, would be satisfied with the result, when we were shocked and startled beyond measure by hearing that Lord Mayo had been murdered by a convict while visiting the Andaman Islands. The disastrous news arrived as we were in the midst of firing signal-rockets, burning blue-lights, and lighting bonfires to attract the attention of the Chittagong column. I could not help thinking of the heavy loss India had sustained, for the manly, open-hearted Governor-General had impressed the Native Chiefs in quite an exceptional manner, and he was liked as well as respected by all classes of Europeans and Natives. I felt also much for Donald Stewart, to whom, I knew, such a terrible tragedy, happening while he was Superintendent at Port Blair, would be a heavy blow.
On the 6th March we reached Tipai Mukh, where we bade farewell to our Lushai friends, numbers of whom accompanied us to get possession of the empty tins, bags, and casks which were got rid of at every stage. The hostages and those who had assisted us were liberally rewarded, and we parted on the best of terms, with promises on their part of future good behaviour—promises which were kept for nearly twenty years.
No one was sorry that the marching was at an end, and that the rest of the journey back was to be performed in boats. Constant hard work and exposure in a peculiarly malarious and relaxing climate had told upon the whole force; while our having to depend for so long on tinned meats, which were not always good, and consisted chiefly of pork, with an occasional ration of mutton and salt beef, had been very trying to the officers. One and all were 'completely worn out,' as the principal medical officer reported; two out of our small number died, and the General's condition gave cause for grave anxiety. For myself, having a perfect horror of pork, I think I should have starved outright but for the extraordinary culinary talent of Mr. Edgar, who disguised the presence of the unclean animal in such a wonderful way in soups, stews, etc., that I frequently partook of it without knowing what I was eating. My wife and some anonymous kind friend sent by post small tins of Liebig's extract, which were highly appreciated.
Cholera pursued us up to and beyond Cachar; the wretched coolies[Page 319] suffered most, and it is a disease to which Gurkhas are peculiarly susceptible, while a feast on a village pig from time to time probably helped to make matters worse for them. Many of these grand little soldiers and some of the Sikhs also fell victims to the scourge. My orderly, a very smart young Gurkha, to my great regret, was seized with it the day after I reached Cachar, and died next morning.
On my way to Simla, I spent a few days with Norman at Calcutta. The whole place was in mourning on account of the terrible catastrophe which had happened at Port Blair.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER XXXIX
[Footnote 1: The Cachar column consisted of half of the Peshawar Mountain battery, one company of Bengal Sappers and Miners, the 22nd Punjab Infantry, 42nd and 44th Assam Light Infantry. The Chittagong column consisted of the other half of the Mountain battery, the 27th Punjab Infantry, and the 2nd and 4th Gurkhas. Each regiment was 500 strong, and each column was accompanied by 100 armed police.]
[Footnote 2: Now Sir John Edgar, K.C.S.I.]
[Footnote 3: Major Blackwood, who was killed at Maiwand, in command of E Battery, R.H.A.]
[Footnote 4: Latitude 23° 26' 32", longitude (approximately) 93° 25'; within a short distance of Fort White, lately built in the Chin Hills.]