Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
On the 15th October I handed over my command to Major-General Phayre, and started for England, making, by the desire of the Viceroy, a diversion to Simla, where Lord Ripon received me most kindly, and, to my great pride and pleasure, delivered to me a letter from the Queen-Empress, written by Her Majesty's own hand, which conveyed in the most gracious terms the Queen's satisfaction at the manner in which the service entrusted to me had been performed, thanks to 'the brave officers and men under my command,' sorrow 'for those of her gallant soldiers who fell for Queen and country,' and anxiety for the wounded. Her Majesty also wrote of 'the thrill of horror' with which the news of the fate of Lieutenant Maclaine had been received, and concluded with words of hope that my own health and that of the troops would remain good, and that success might attend us 'till the blessings of peace are restored.'
A gracious letter, truly! And to me a deeply appreciated reward for what I had been able to do.
Reception in England I landed at Dover on the 17th November. The reception I met with from my countrymen was as enthusiastic as it was unexpected and gratifying. After an absence of twelve years there must almost always be more or less of sadness mingled with the pleasure of the home-coming, and two vacant places in my family circle—those of my father and sister—cast a deep shadow upon what would otherwise have been a most joyous return, for my mother was alive to welcome me, and I found my children flourishing and my wife well, notwithstanding all the anxiety she had undergone.
I was fêted and feasted to almost an alarming extent, considering that for nearly two years I had been restricted to campaigning diet; but it surprised me very much to find that the kind people, by whom I was so greatly honoured, invariably appeared to think the march from Kabul to Kandahar was a much greater performance than the advance on Kabul the previous autumn, while, to my mind, the latter operation was in every particular more difficult, more dangerous, and placed upon me as the Commander infinitely more responsibility. The force with which I started from Kuram to avenge the massacre of our[Page 496] fellow-countrymen was little more than half the strength of that with which I marched to Kandahar. Immediately on crossing the Shutargardan I found myself in the midst of a hostile and warlike people, entirely dependent on the country for supplies, heavily handicapped by want of transport, and practically as completely cut off from communication with India as I was a year later on the march to Kandahar. The Afghans' fanatical hatred of Europeans had been augmented by their defeats the year before, and by the occurrences at Kabul, and they looked upon my small column as a certain prey delivered into their hands by a sympathizing and all-powerful Allah.
Before me was Kabul, with its large and well-equipped arsenal, defended by an army better organized and more highly trained than that possessed by any former Ruler of Afghanistan. On all sides of me were tribesmen hurrying up to defend the approaches to their capital, and had there been on our part the smallest hesitation or delay, we should have found ourselves opposed by as formidable a combination as we had to deal with two months later at Sherpur. Nothing could then have saved the force, not one man of which I firmly believe would have ever returned to tell the tale in India. Worse than all, I had in my own camp a traitor, in the form of the Amir, posing as a friend to the British Government and a refugee seeking our protection, while he was at heart our bitterest enemy, and was doing everything in his power to make my task more difficult and ensure our defeat.
The march to Kandahar was certainly much longer, the country was equally unfriendly, and the feeding of so large a number of men and animals was a continual source of anxiety. But I had a force capable of holding its own against any Afghan army that could possibly be opposed to it, and good and sufficient transport to admit of its being kept together, with the definite object in view of rescuing our besieged countrymen and defeating Ayub Khan; instead of, as at Kabul, having to begin to unravel a difficult political problem after accomplishing the defeat of the tribesmen and the Afghan army.
I could only account to myself for the greater amount of interest displayed in the march to Kandahar, and the larger amount of credit given to me for that undertaking, by the glamour of romance thrown around an army of 10,000 men lost to view, as it were, for nearly a month, about the fate of which uninformed speculation was rife and pessimistic rumours were spread, until the tension became extreme, and the corresponding relief proportionably great when that army reappeared to dispose at once of Ayub and his hitherto victorious troops.
In August I spent three very enjoyable and instructive weeks as the guest of His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Germany, while the manœuvres at Hanover and Schleswig-Holstein were taking place.
Shortly before leaving England for Madras, I was asked by Mr. Childers, the then Secretary of State for War, whether I would accept the appointment of Quartermaster-General at the Horse Guards, in succession to Sir Garnet Wolseley. The offer, in some ways, was rather a temptation to me, for I had a great wish to take part in the administration of our army; and had it been made sooner, before my arrangements for going to Madras had been completed, I think I should have accepted it at once; as it was, I begged to be allowed to join my new command, and leave the question of the Quartermaster-Generalship in abeyance until it was about to become vacant. This was agreed to, and I started for Madras, taking my wife and two little daughters with me, the boy being left at school in England.
Andaman Isles and Burma On arriving in Madras, on the 27th November, I had the pleasure to find myself associated as a colleague in Council with Mr. Grant-Duff,1 who had recently been appointed Governor of the Presidency. We spent a few pleasant days with him and Mrs. Grant-Duff at Government House, before proceeding to deposit our children at Ootacamund, that Queen of Indian Hill-stations, which was to be our home for four years. We spent Christmas there, and then went to Burma, visiting the Andaman Islands on the way. We had on board our ship some prisoners destined for that convict settlement, amongst whom cholera unfortunately broke out a few hours after we left Madras. They were accommodated just outside my wife's cabin, and their cries and groans were most distressing. Very little could be done for them on board, for the Native Doctor accompanying us possessed no remedy but castor oil! and as the disease was spreading rapidly, I took upon myself to have the party landed at Vizagapatam.
The cholera patients were put into tents on the sea-shore, under the[Page 498] charge of a medical officer, and every arrangement possible for their comfort and relief was made before we proceeded on our journey.
1882 During our stay at Port Blair, the Head-Quarters of the Andaman Administration, we were the guests of the hospitable Superintendent, Lieutenant-Colonel Protheroe, who had been one of the political officers on my staff in Afghanistan. The group of islands forming the settlement are extremely beautiful, but it is tropical beauty, and one pays the penalty for the luxuriant vegetation in the climate, which is very much like a Turkish bath, hot and damp. While going through the prisons, I came across some of the sepoys of the 29th Punjab Infantry who deserted during the advance on the Peiwar Kotal. I was told that they were behaving well, and might in time be allowed some remission of their sentences.
A voyage of thirty-six hours brought us to Rangoon, where we had the pleasure of meeting and being entertained by our old friends, Mr. Bernard,2 the Chief Commissioner of Burma, and his wife.
In 1882 Thyetmyo and Tonghu were the two frontier stations of Burma, and I had been asked to consider the question of the defence of the proposed railway termini at these places. I accordingly visited them both, and as I thought I foresaw that the lines of railway could not end as then contemplated, I recommended that the absolutely necessary works only should be attempted, and that these should be as inexpensive as possible. Ere many years had passed, the line, as I anticipated, was completed to Mandalay.
The defences of Rangoon had also to be arranged for. An examination of the approaches, however, satisfied me that no elaborate system of fortification was necessary, and that Rangoon's best security lay in her winding, dangerous river; so I gave it as my opinion that, with two small batteries at Monkey Point and King's Point, and a couple of torpedo-boats, Rangoon would be reasonably safe against attack.
Before leaving Burma I received letters from H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge and Mr. Childers, in which were repeated the offer of the Quartermaster-Generalship at the Horse Guards. But I had by this time begun to like my new work, and had no desire to leave Madras; I therefore definitely declined the appointment.
From Burma we returned to Ootacamund, viâ Calcutta, where we spent a few days with Lord and Lady Ripon and Sir Donald and Lady Stewart.
Life at 'Ooty' was very pleasant; such peace and repose I had never before experienced; I thoroughly enjoyed the rest after the turmoil of the preceding years, and I quite recovered my health, which had been somewhat shattered. Unlike other hill-stations, Ootacamund rests on an undulating tableland, 7,400 feet above the[Page 499] sea, with plenty of room in the neighbourhood for riding, driving, and hunting; and, although the scenery is nothing like as grand as in the Himalayas, there are exquisite views to be had, and it is more restful and homelike. We made many warm friends and agreeable acquaintances, who when our time in Madras came to an end presented my wife with a very beautiful clock 'as a token of esteem and affection'; we were very sorry to bid farewell to our friends and to our Nilgiri home.
The Madras Army Each cold season I made long tours in order to acquaint myself with the needs and capabilities of the men of the Madras Army. I tried hard to discover in them those fighting qualities which had distinguished their forefathers during the wars of the last and the beginning of the present century. But long years of peace, and the security and prosperity attending it, had evidently had upon them, as they always seem to have on Asiatics, a softening and deteriorating effect; and I was forced to the conclusion that the ancient military spirit had died in them, as it had died in the ordinary Hindustani of Bengal and the Mahratta of Bombay, and that they could no longer with safety be pitted against warlike races, or employed outside the limits of southern India.
It was with extreme reluctance that I formed this opinion with regard to the successors of the old Coast Army, for which I had always entertained a great admiration. For the sake of the British officers belonging to the Madras Army, too, I was very loath to be convinced of its inferiority, for many of them were devoted to their regiments, and were justly proud of their traditions.
However, there was the army, and it was my business as its Commander-in-Chief to do all that I possibly could towards rendering it an efficient part of the war establishment of India.
Measures for improving the Madras Army Madrassies, as a rule, are more intelligent and better educated than the fighting races of northern India, and I therefore thought it could not be difficult to teach them the value of musketry, and make them excel in it. To this end, I encouraged rifle meetings and endeavoured to get General Officers to take an interest in musketry inspections, and to make those inspections instructive and entertaining to the men. I took to rifle-shooting myself, as did the officers on my personal staff,3 who were all good shots, and our team held its own in many exciting matches at the different rifle meetings.
At that time the importance of musketry training was not so generally recognized as it is now, especially by the senior officers, who had all entered the service in the days of 'Brown Bess.' Some of[Page 500] them had failed to note the remarkable alteration which the change from the musket to the rifle necessitated in the system of musketry instruction, or to study the very different conditions under which we could hope to win battles in the present day, compared with those under which some of our most celebrated victories had been won. It required time and patience to inspire officers with a belief in the wonderful shooting power of the Martini-Henry rifle, and it was even more difficult to make them realize that the better the weapon, the greater the necessity for its being intelligently used.
I had great faith in the value of Camps of Exercise, and notwithstanding the difficulty of obtaining an annual grant to defray their cost, I managed each year, by taking advantage of the movement of troops in course of relief, to form small camps at the more important stations, and on one occasion was able to collect 9,000 men together in the neighbourhood of Bangalore, where the Commanders-in-Chief in India and of Bombay (Sir Donald Stewart and the Hon. Arthur Hardinge) were present—the first and last time that the 'three Chiefs' in India met together at a Camp of Exercise. The Sappers and Miners were a brilliant exception to the rest of the Madras Army, being indeed a most useful, efficient body of men, but as no increase to that branch was considered necessary, I obtained permission to convert two Infantry regiments into Pioneers on the model of the Pioneer Corps of the Bengal Army, which had always proved themselves so useful on service. Promotion amongst the British officers was accelerated, recruits were not allowed to marry, or, if married, to have their wives with them, and many other minor changes were made which did much towards improving the efficiency of the Native portion of the Madras Army; and I hope I was able to increase the comfort and well-being of the British portion also by relaxing irksome and useless restrictions, and by impressing upon commanding officers the advisability of not punishing young soldiers with the extreme severity which had hitherto been considered necessary.
I had been unpleasantly struck by the frequent Courts-Martial on the younger soldiers, and by the disproportionate number of these lads to be met with in the military prisons. Even when the prisoners happened to be of some length of service, I usually found that they had undergone previous imprisonments, and had been severely punished within a short time of their enlistment. I urged that, in the first two or three years of a soldier's service, every allowance should be made for youth and inexperience, and that during that time faults should, whenever practicable, be dealt with summarily, and not visited with the heavier punishment which a Court-Martial sentence necessarily carries with it, and I pointed out that this procedure might receive a wider application, and become a guiding principle in the treatment of soldiers generally. I suggested that all men in possession[Page 501] of a good-conduct badge, or who had had no entry in their company defaulter sheets for one year, should be granted certain privileges, such as receiving the fullest indulgence in the grant of passes, consistent with the requirements of health, duty, and discipline, and being excused attendance at all roll-calls (including meals), except perhaps at tattoo. I had often remarked that those corps in which indulgences were most freely given contained the largest number of well-behaved men, and I had been assured that such indulgences were seldom abused, and that, while they were greatly appreciated by those who received them, they acted as an incentive to less well conducted men to try and redeem their characters.
1884 The reports of commanding officers, on the results of these small ameliorations, after a six months' trial, were so favourable that I was able to authorize still further concessions as a premium on good behaviour.
Memories of Madras The Madras Presidency abounds in places of interest connected with our earlier struggles in India, and it was possible to combine pleasure with duty in a very delightful manner while travelling about the country. My wife frequently accompanied me in my tours, and enjoyed as much as I did our visits to many famous and beautiful places. Madras itself recalled the struggles for supremacy between the English and French in the middle of the eighteenth century. Arcot reminded one that it was in the brilliant capture and still more brilliant defence of the fort at that place that Clive's soldierly genius first became conspicuous. Trichinopoly and Wandewash made one think of Stringer Lawrence's and Eyre Coote's splendid services, and while standing on the breach at Seringapatam, one was reminded of Wellington's early life in India, and marvelled how heavily-armed men could have ventured to cross the single plank which alone spanned the deep, broad ditch of the inner defences.
I should like to dwell on the architectural wonders of Tanjore and the Caves of Ellora; the magnificent entertainments and Princely hospitality accorded to us by the Nizam of Hyderabad, the late Maharajas of Mysore and Travancore, the Maharaja of Vizianagram, the Raja of Cochin, and many other Rulers of Native States; the delights of a trip along the west coast by the beautiful 'back-water,' and the return journey through the glorious forests of Cannara and Mysore; the pleasure of visiting the lovely 'White Lady'4 and the wonderful Kaveri falls; but to give my readers any idea of their marvels would be to put too great a strain upon their patience, which I fear has already been severely taxed.
The late Maharaja of Travancore was an unusually enlightened Native. He spoke and wrote English fluently; his appearance was[Page 502] distinguished, and his manners those of a well-bred, courteous English gentleman of the old school. His speech on proposing the Queen's health was a model of fine feeling and fine expression, and yet this man was steeped in superstition. His Highness sat, slightly retired from the table, between my wife and myself while dinner was going on; he partook of no food or wine, but his close contact with us (he led my wife in to dinner and took her out on his arm) necessitated his undergoing a severe course of purification at the hands of the Brahmins as soon as the entertainment was over; he dared not do anything without the sanction of the priests, and he spent enormous sums in propitiating them.
Notwithstanding the high civilization, luxury, and refinement to be found in these Native States, my visits to them strengthened my opinion that, however capable and enlightened the Ruler, he could have no chance of holding his country if deprived of the guiding hand of the British Government as embodied in the Resident. It is just that control, so light in ordinary times as to be hardly perceptible, but firm enough when occasion demands, which saves the State from being rent by factions and internal intrigue, or swallowed up by a more powerful neighbour, for, owing to the influence of the Brahmins and the practical seclusion which caste prejudices entail, involving ignorance of what is taking place immediately outside their own palaces, the Native Princes of the less warlike peoples would have no chance amidst the anarchy and confusion that would follow the withdrawal of British influence.
An allegory A remark made to me by the late Sir Madhava Rao, ex-Minister of the Baroda State, which exemplifies my meaning, comes back to me at this moment. Sir Madhava was one of the most astute Hindu gentlemen in India, and when discussing with him the excitement produced by the 'Ilbert Bill,' he said: 'Why do you English raise these unnecessary questions? It is your doing, not ours. We have heard of the cry, "India for the Indians," which some of your philanthropists have raised in England; but you have only to go to the Zoological Gardens and open the doors of the cages, and you will very soon see what would be the result of putting that theory into practice. There would be a terrific fight amongst the animals, which would end in the tiger walking proudly over the dead bodies of the rest.' 'Whom,' I inquired, 'do you consider to be the tiger?' 'The Mahomedan from the North,' was his reply.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER LXIII
[Footnote 1: Now Sir Mount-Stuart Grant-Duff, G.C.S.I.]
[Footnote 2: Now Sir Charles Bernard, K.C.S.I.]
[Footnote 3: Lieutenant-Colonel G.T. Pretyman, R.A., was Assistant Military Secretary until 1884, when he was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel R. Pole-Carew, Coldstream Guards. Lieutenant Neville Chamberlain, Central India Horse, and Captain Ian Hamilton, the Gordon Highlanders, were Aides-de-camp.]
[Footnote 4: The finest of the Gassapa falls.]