Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
After crossing a stream called the Ghiri, below Fagu, the road passes through beautiful forest and cliff scenery, and for the most part was fairly easy, until the foot of the mountain was reached about six miles from the top, when it became very precipitous and difficult.[Page 324] We were the whole day doing this march, breakfasting in one place and lunching in another higher up. There was a good deal of snow in the shady spots. A few days before we had noticed that the top of the mountain was white, but the sun was still too strong in the daytime for the snow to lie long in exposed parts. The way being too steep for my wife to ride or go in a dandy, we all three walked, or rather climbed, up to the shoulder where our tents were pitched, about a mile from the summit.
The forest through which we passed was very beautiful, commencing with dark-green ilex, glistening holly, and sombre brown oak, interspersed with groups of the dainty, graceful, white-stemmed birch, and wreathed with festoons of the scarlet Himalayan vine. As we mounted higher, trees became fewer and the foliage less luxuriant, till at length only oaks were to be seen, their branches twisted into all sorts of weird, fantastic shapes from the strength of the south-west monsoon. Huge rocks became more frequent, covered with lichens and mosses of every shade, from dark-green to brilliant crimson. At length trees and shrubs were left behind, except the red-berried juniper, which grows at a higher elevation here than any other bush, and flourishes in the clefts of the rocks, where nothing else will exist. We got up in time to see the most glorious sunset; the colours were more wonderful than anything I had ever seen before, even in India. My wife urged Baigrie to make a rough sketch, and note the tints, that he might paint a picture of it later. He made the sketch, saying: 'If I attempted to represent truly what we see before us, the painting would be rejected by the good people at home as absurdly unreal, or as the work of a hopeless lunatic.' There was such a high wind that our small tents had a narrow escape of being blown away. That night the water was frozen in our jugs, and it was quite impossible to keep warm.
We were up betimes the next morning, and climbed to the highest peak, where we found breakfast awaiting us and a magnificent view of the Himalayan ranges, right down to the plains on one side and up to the perpetual snows on the other. We descended to the foot of the mountain in the afternoon, and then returned, march by march, to Simla.
Towards the end of the month Lord Napier began his winter tour, visiting the hill stations first. At Chakrata I made the acquaintance of the 92nd Highlanders, that distinguished corps which stood me in such good stead a few years later in Afghanistan. At the end of November we found ourselves at Lucknow, in time to take part in Lord Northbrook's state entry, and be present at a fête given to the Viceroy in the Wingfield Park by Sir George Cooper, the Chief Commissioner.
From Lucknow we went for a brief visit to a small Camp of Exercise[Page 325] near Rurki, where Lord Napier left the Adjutant-General, Thesiger,1 in command, while he himself proceeded to visit some of the stations in the Madras Presidency, and I returned for a short time to Simla.
While riding up the hill from Kalka, I had a novel experience. One of those tremendous thunder-storms which are not uncommon in the Himalayas came on; the rain was blinding and incessant, and the peals of thunder were simultaneous with the lightning. At last there was a tremendous crash; a flash, more vivid than the rest, passed right in front of my horse's head, accompanied by a whizzing noise and a sulphurous smell, completely blinding me for a second. Two Natives travelling a few yards ahead of me fell flat on their faces, and I thought they were killed, but it turned out they were only knocked over and very much frightened.
1874 Early in January, 1874, we received by telegram the infinitely sad news of my father's death. We ought, I suppose, to have been prepared for such an event, seeing that he was within a few months of his ninetieth birthday; but he was so well and active, and took such a keen interest in all that was going on, especially anything connected with India, that we hardly realized his great age, and always hoped we might see him once more. He had received the G.C.B. from Her Majesty's hands at Windsor on the 8th December, and two days afterwards he wrote me an account of the ceremony, and expressed himself much pleased and gratified at the Queen's gracious manner to him. He said nothing about his health, but we heard later that he had taken cold in the train on his way home, and never recovered from the effects; he died on the 30th of December. His love for India had not been weakened by his twenty years' absence from the country, and he never wearied of being told of the wonderful changes which had taken place since his day—changes which, for the most part, dated from the Mutiny, for up till 1857 life in India was much the same as when my father first landed in the beginning of the century.
The Famine in Behar A continued drought in Behar was at this time causing grave fears of a famine, such as from time to time had desolated various parts of India. Nine years before such a drought, and the absence of means of communication, which prevented grain being thrown into the famine-stricken districts in sufficient quantities, resulted in one-fourth of the population of Orissa being carried off by starvation, or disease consequent on starvation. So on this occasion Lord Northbrook was determined, at all costs, to ward off such a calamity. He sent Sir Richard Temple to Behar in the confident hope that his unbounded resource and energy would enable him to cope with the difficulties of the situation, a hope that was fully realized. Relief works were at once commenced; a transport train was quickly improvised, worked[Page 326] chiefly by military and police officers; and one million tons of rice were distributed amongst the people. Not a life was lost, but the cost to the State was enormous—six millions and a half sterling.
In the beginning of February I was ordered by Government to proceed to the famine districts to help Temple. I started at once; but I had not been long in Behar before I was required to join the Commander-in-Chief in Calcutta, His Excellency having determined to nominate me Quartermaster-General, in succession to Johnson, who was about to become Adjutant-General. Being only a Lieutenant-Colonel in the army, I could not, according to the rules, be put at once permanently into the appointment, which carried with it the rank of Major-General. The difficulty was overcome, however, by my being allowed to officiate till the following January, when, in the ordinary course of promotion, I should become a Colonel.
Lord Northbrook spent the summer of 1874 in Calcutta, in consequence of the famine necessities having to be met; and as the Commander-in-Chief determined to follow his example, I took a house in Calcutta, and my wife joined me in the middle of March—rather a bad time of year to come down to the plains after spending the winter amongst the snows of Simla. But she did not fancy Simla in the season as a grass-widow, and had had quite enough of being alone.
We continued in Calcutta until August, when the Head-Quarters returned to Simla, where we remained till November.
1875 We had a standing camp at Umballa during the winter of 1874-75, doing our inspections from there, and returning to the camp at intervals. There was the usual visit to Calcutta in March, towards the end of which month another daughter was born.
The Prince of Wales in India In October, 1875, I spent some time at Delhi, arranging for the Camp of Exercise to be held there in January for His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. The camp was formed in the beginning of December, and consisted of 17,000 men, in four divisions, commanded by Major-Generals Sir Charles Reid, Macdonnell, the Hon. Arthur Hardinge, and Donald Stewart.
The country round Delhi is particularly well suited for extended manœuvres, and full advantage was taken of the facilities it afforded during the two months the Camp of Exercise lasted. The Prince of Wales landed at Calcutta on the 23rd December; and Lord Napier with his staff went down to meet His Royal Highness, whose reception was loyal and hearty to a degree. As the Serapis, with the Prince on board, steamed slowly up the Hughli, salutes were fired from Fort William and three ships of the Royal Navy. All the vessels in the river were gay with flags, their yards were manned, and good hearty English cheers resounded from stem to stern of each ship as the Indian troopship, carrying the heir to England's throne, came in sight. As soon as the Serapis was moored, the Viceroy went on board to greet[Page 327] the Prince and conduct His Royal Highness to the gaily-decorated landing-stage, where the principal officials, Native Princes, and chief inhabitants of Calcutta were assembled. Troops lined the road from the river to Government House, and the maidan (the great open space in front) was thronged with a dense crowd of Natives in their most brilliant gala attire, eager to catch a glimpse of the son of the great Queen of England.
1876 That evening Lord Northbrook gave a State banquet. The next day there was a reception of the Princes and Chiefs, followed by a levée, and after dark the whole place was most beautifully illuminated. The week that followed was taken up with entertainments of various kinds—balls, races, and garden-parties, interspersed with official visits—which I am afraid the Prince could not have found amusing—and on New Year's Day, 1876, His Royal Highness held a Chapter of the Order of the Star of India, after which the Commander-in-Chief returned to Delhi to arrange to receive the Prince in that historical city on the 11th January.
His Royal Highness's camp, and that of the Commander-in-Chief, were pitched on the ground occupied by the British army during the siege. The road, five miles in length, from the station to the camp was lined with troops, and on the Ridge itself were placed six Rifle corps, three of which had taken part in the siege.2 The 2nd Gurkhas were very appropriately drawn up immediately under Hindu Rao's house, and when this point was reached, the Prince stopped and warmly complimented the men on the distinguished service the regiment had performed.
The next day there was a parade of all the troops in review order for the inspection of the Prince, who was pleased to express his complete satisfaction and approval of 'the steadiness under arms, soldier-like bearing, and precision of movement, which distinguish the corps of the three armies assembled at the camp at Delhi.'
That evening the Prince was present at a ball in the diwan-i-khas (private audience hall) in the palace, given in His Royal Highness's honour by the officers of the army.
The next few days were taken up with manœuvres, which the Prince attended, accompanied by Lumsden3 and myself. The defence was commanded by Reid, the attack by Hardinge, the latter's object being to gain possession of the Ridge, with a view to future operations against the city on the arrival of the main army from the Punjab. But the attack did not meet with the success which attended Barnard in 1857, while the Commander of the defence proved himself as skilful in protecting the Ridge against an enemy advancing from the north as[Page 328] he had been, twenty years before, in repulsing one coming from the opposite direction.
The Prince of Wales held another investiture of the Star of India on the 7th of March at Allahabad, which Lord Napier and the staff attended. At its close we took our leave of His Royal Highness, who started that night for England.
Farewell to Lord Napier In less than a fortnight our dear old Chief followed, and I saw him off from Bombay on the 10th April. I was very low at parting with him, for though in the earlier days of our acquaintance I used to think he was not very favourably disposed towards me, when I became more intimately associated with him nothing could exceed his kindness. He was universally regretted by Europeans and Natives alike. The soldiers recognized that he had carefully guarded their interests and worked for their welfare, and the Native Princes and people felt that he was in sympathy with them, and to this day they speak of Lat Napier Sahib with the deepest respect and affection.
Lord Napier was succeeded in the command by Sir Frederick Haines.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER XLI
[Footnote 1: Now General Lord Chelmsford, G.C.B.]
[Footnote 2: 60th Rifles, 2nd Gurkhas, and 1st Punjab Infantry.]
[Footnote 3: Lumsden returned to Head-Quarters as Adjutant-General on Edwin Johnson being appointed a member of the Indian Council in London.]