Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
We only remained three months at 'Ooty,' for on the 8th July a telegram arrived from Lord Dufferin announcing the Queen's approval of my being appointed to succeed Sir Donald Stewart as Commander-in-Chief in India, and granting me leave to visit England before taking up the appointment.
At the end of a fortnight all our preparations for departure had been made, and on the 18th August we left Bombay, in the teeth of the monsoon.
Our boy, whose holidays had just commenced, met us at Venice, and we loitered in Italy and Switzerland on our way home. I spent but six weeks in England, returning to the East at the end of November, to join my new command. I met Lord Dufferin at Agra, and accompanied him to Gwalior, whither his Excellency went for the purpose of formally restoring to the Maharaja Sindhia the much coveted fortress of Gwalior, which had been occupied by us since 1858—an act of sound policy, enabling us to withdraw a brigade which could be far more usefully employed elsewhere.
The Burma Expedition At Gwalior we received the news of the capture of Mandalay, and I sent a telegram to Lieutenant-General Prendergast,1 to congratulate[Page 508] him on the successful conduct of the Burma Expedition.
Affairs in Burma had been going from bad to worse from the time King Thebaw came to the throne in 1878. Wholesale murders were of constant occurrence within the precincts of the palace; dacoity was rife throughout the country, and British officers were insulted to such an extent that the Resident had to be withdrawn. In 1883 a special Mission was sent by the King of Burma to Paris, with a view to making such a treaty with the French Government as would enable him to appeal to France for assistance, in the event of his being involved in difficulties with England. The Mission remained eighteen months in Paris, and succeeded in ratifying what the French called a 'Commercial Convention,' under the terms of which a French Consul was located at Mandalay, who soon gained sufficient ascendancy over King Thebaw to enable him to arrange for the construction of a railway between Mandalay and Tonghu, and the establishment of a French bank at Mandalay, by means of which France would speedily have gained full control over the principal sources of Burmese revenue, and power to exclude British trade from the valley of the Irrawaddy. In furtherance of these designs, the King picked a quarrel with a British trading company, threatened to cancel their leases for cutting timber, and demanded a fine of ten lakhs of rupees.
The Chief Commissioner proposed arbitration, but this was declined, and the King refusing to modify his action with regard to the trading company, the Viceroy proposed to the Secretary of State for India that an ultimatum2 should be sent to King Thebaw.
In approving of the ultimatum, Lord Randolph Churchill expressed his opinion that its despatch should be concurrent with the movement of troops and ships to Rangoon, that an answer should be demanded within a specified time, and that if the ultimatum were rejected, an immediate advance on Mandalay should be made.
A force3 of nearly 10,000 men and 77 guns, under the command of Lieutenant-General Prendergast, was accordingly ordered to be in readiness at Thyetmyo by the 14th November, and as the reply of the Burmese Government was tantamount to a refusal, Prendergast was[Page 509] instructed to advance on Mandalay, with the result which it was my pleasant duty to congratulate him upon in my capacity of Commander-in-Chief of the Army in India.
The Camp of Exercise at Delhi From Gwalior I went to Delhi to prepare for a Camp of Exercise on a much larger scale than had ever before been held. Many weak points in the Commissariat and Transport Department having become only too apparent when the mobilization of the two Army Corps had been imminent the previous spring, it was considered necessary to test our readiness for war, and orders for the strength and composition of the force to be manœuvred had been issued before Sir Donald Stewart left India.
The troops were divided into two Army Corps. The northern assembled at Umballa, and the southern at Gurgaon, 25 miles from Delhi, the points of concentration being 150 miles apart.
1886 After a fortnight passed in brigade and divisional movements, the opposing forces advanced, and on the 7th January they came into contact on the historic battlefield of Panipat.4
Lord Dufferin, whose interest in the efficiency of the army induced him to come all the way from Calcutta to witness the last two days' manœuvres, was present—with the twelve 'foreign officers'5 from the principal armies of Europe and America, who had been invited to attend the camp—at a march-past of the whole force of 35,000 men on the 18th. It was a fine sight, though marred by a heavy thunderstorm and a perfect deluge of rain, and was really a greater test of what the troops could do than if we had had the perfect weather we had hoped for. The 'foreign officers' were, apparently, somewhat surprised at the fine physique and efficiency of our Native soldiers, but they all remarked on the paucity of British officers with the Indian regiments, which I could not but acknowledge was, as it still is, a weak point in our military organization.
When the camp was broken up, I accompanied the Viceroy to Burma, where we arrived early in February, 1886. Lord Dufferin must, I think, have been pleased at the reception he met with at Rangoon. The people generally tried in every possible way to show their gratitude to the Viceroy, under whose auspices the annexation of[Page 510] Upper Burma had been carried out, and each nationality had erected a triumphal arch in its own particular quarter of the town.
From Rangoon we went to Mandalay, where Lord Dufferin formally announced the annexation by England of all that part of Upper Burma over which King Thebaw had held sway. We then proceeded to Madras, where I parted from the Viceregal party and travelled to Bombay to meet my wife. Leaving her at Simla to arrange our house, which had been considerably altered and added to, I proceeded to the North-West Frontier, for the question of its defence was one which interested me very deeply, and I hoped that, from the position I now held as a member of the Government of India, I should be able to get my ideas on this, to India, all-important subject listened to, if not altogether carried out.
Defence of the North-West Frontier The defence of the frontier had been considered under the orders of my predecessor by a Committee, the members of which had recorded their several opinions as to the means which should be adopted to make India secure. But Sir Donald Stewart relinquished his command before anything could be done to give effect to the measures they advised.
The matter had therefore to be taken up afresh by me, and I carefully studied the recommendations of the 'Defence Committee' before visiting the frontier to refresh my memory by personal inspection as to the points to be defended.
It seemed to me that none of the members, with the exception of Sir Charles Macgregor and the secretary, Major W.G. Nicholson, at all appreciated the great change which had taken place in our position since the near approach of Russia, and our consequent promise to the Amir to preserve the integrity of his kingdom, had widened the limit of our responsibilities from the southern to the northern boundary of Afghanistan.
Less than a year before we had been on the point of declaring war with Russia because of her active interference with 'the authority of a sovereign—our protected ally—who had committed no offence6;' and even now it was not certain that peace could be preserved, by reason of the outrageous demands made by the Russian members of the Boundary Commission as to the direction which the line of delimitation between Russian and Afghan territory should take.
It was this widening of our responsibilities which prevented me from agreeing with the recommendations of the Defence Committee, for the majority of the members laid greater stress on the necessity for constructing numerous fortifications, than upon lines of communication, which I conceived to be of infinitely greater importance, as affording the means of bringing all the strategical points on the[Page 511] frontier into direct communication with the railway system of India, and enabling us to mass our troops rapidly, should we be called upon to aid Afghanistan in repelling attack from a foreign Power.
Fortifications, of the nature of entrenched positions, were no doubt, to some extent, necessary, not to guard against our immediate neighbours, for experience had taught us that without outside assistance they are incapable of a combined movement, but for the protection of such depots and storehouses as would have to be constructed, and as a support to the army in the field.
The line chosen at that time for an advance was by Quetta and Kandahar. In the first instance, therefore, I wended my way to Baluchistan, where I met and consulted with the Governor-General's Agent, Sir Robert Sandeman, and the Chief Engineer of the Sind-Pishin Railway, Brigadier-General Browne.7
We together inspected the Kwaja-Amran range, through which the Kohjak tunnel now runs, and I decided that the best position for an entrenched camp was to the rear of that range, in the space between the Takatu and Mashalik mountains. This open ground was less than four miles broad; nature had made its flanks perfectly secure, and in front was a network of ravines capable of being made quite impassable by simply flooding them. It was unfortunate that the railway had been marked out in front instead of in rear of the Takatu range, and that its construction was too far advanced before the question of defence came to be considered to admit of its being altered, otherwise this position would have been a complete protection for the line of rail also.
Quetta and Peshawar Having come to a definite conclusion as to the measures to be taken for meeting the offensive and defensive requirements of Quetta and the Bolan Pass, I turned my attention to Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, which were infinitely more difficult to deal with, because of the political considerations involved.
Over the whole of Baluchistan we had entire control, so that in the event of an army moving in that direction we could depend upon the resources of the country being at our disposal, and the people remaining, at least, neutral. But on the Peshawar side the circumstances were altogether different: the tribes were hostile to a degree, and no European's life was safe across the frontier. Except in the Khyber itself (where the policy of establishing friendly relations with the Afridis, and utilizing them to keep open the pass, had been most successfully practised by the political officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Warburton), we could not depend on the tribesmen remaining passive, much less helping us if we advanced into Afghanistan. While, should[Page 512] an army attempt to invade India from that direction, we should to a certainty have every man of the 200,000 warlike people who inhabit the mountainous district from Chitral to Baluchistan combining against us, and pouring into India from every outlet.
For these reasons I recorded a strong opinion in opposition to the proposals of the Defence Committee, which were in favour of the construction of a large magazine at Peshawar and extensive entrenched works at the mouth of the Khyber. I pointed out the extreme danger of a position communication with which could be cut off, and which could be more or less easily turned, for it was clear to me that until we had succeeded in inducing the border tribes to be on friendly terms with us, and to believe that their interests were identical with ours, the Peshawar valley would become untenable should any general disturbance take place; and that, instead of entrenchments close to the Khyber Pass, we required a position upon which the garrisons of Peshawar and Nowshera could fall back and await the arrival of reinforcements.
For this position I selected a spot on the right bank of the Kabul river, between Khairabad and the Indus; it commanded the passage of the latter river, and could easily be strengthened by defensive works outside the old fort of Attock.
It will be readily understood by those of my readers who have any knowledge of our North-West Frontier, or are interested in the question of the defence of India, that other routes exist between the Bolan and the Khyber Passes which might be made use of either by an army invading India, or by a force sent from India to the assistance of Afghanistan; and by such it will probably be asked, as was the case when my recommendations were being discussed, why I did not advise these lines to be similarly guarded. My reply was, and is, that there are no arsenals or depots near these passes to be protected, as at Quetta and Rawul Pindi; that we should not be likely to use them for an army moving into Afghanistan; that, although small parties of the enemy might come by them, the main body of a force operating towards India is bound to advance by the Khyber, for the reason that it would debouch directly on highly cultivated country and good roads leading to all the great cities of the Punjab; and finally that, even if our finances would admit of the construction of such a long line of forts, it would be impossible for our limited army to supply the garrisons for them.
Communications versus fortifications Having completed my inspection of the frontier, I returned to Simla and drew up a memorandum declaring the conviction I had arrived at after careful deliberation, that the improvement of our communications was of far greater importance than the immediate construction of forts and entrenchments, and that, while I would not spare money in strengthening well-defined positions, the strategical value of which was[Page 513] unmistakable, I would not trouble about those places the primary importance of fortifying which was open to argument, and which might never be required to be defended; these, I contended, might be left alone, except so far as to make a careful study of their localities and determine how they could best be taken advantage of should occasion require. My note ended with the following words: 'Meanwhile I would push on our communications with all possible speed; we must have roads, and we must have railways; they cannot be made on short notice, and every rupee spent upon them now will repay us tenfold hereafter. Nothing will tend to secure the safety of the frontier so much as the power of rapidly concentrating troops on any threatened point, and nothing will strengthen our military position more than to open out the country and improve our relations with the frontier tribes. There are no better civilizers than roads and railways; and although some of those recommended to be made may never be required for military purposes, they will be of the greatest assistance to the civil power in the administration of the country.'
Accompanying this paper was a statement of the defensive works which, in my opinion, should be taken in hand without delay; also of the positions which required careful study, and the roads and railways which should be constructed, to make the scheme of defence complete.
Seven years later, when I gave up my command of the Army in India, I had the supreme satisfaction of knowing that I left our North-West Frontier secure, so far as it was possible to make it so, hampered as we were by want of money. The necessary fortifications had been completed, schemes for the defence of the various less important positions had been prepared, and the roads and railways, in my estimation of such vast importance, had either been finished or were well advanced.
Moreover, our position with regard to the border tribes had gradually come to be better understood, and it had been realized that they would be a powerful support to whichever side might be able to count upon their aid; the policy of keeping them at arm's length had been abandoned, and the advantages of reciprocal communication were becoming more appreciated by them and by us.
It was not to be expected that these results could be achieved without a considerable amount of opposition, owing partly to the majority of our countrymen (even amongst those who had spent the greater part of their lives in India) failing to recognize the change that had taken place in the relative positions of Great Britain and Russia in Asia, and to their disbelief in the steady advance of Russia towards Afghanistan being in any way connected with India, or in Russia's wish or power to threaten our Eastern Empire.8 The idea was very common, too,[Page 514] amongst people who had not deeply considered the subject, that all proposals for gaining control over our troublesome neighbours on the border, or for facilitating the massing of troops, meant an aggressive policy, and were made with the idea of annexing more territory, instead of for the purpose of securing the safety of India, and enabling us to fulfil our engagements.
Sir George Chesney Happily, the Viceroys who governed India while I was Commander-in-Chief were not amongst those who held these opinions; and while they had no expectation of India being invaded in the near future, they realized that we could not unconcernedly look on while a great Power was, step by step, creeping closer to our possessions. It was a fortunate circumstance, too, that, for the first five years I was at the head of the Army in India, I had as my military colleague in Council the late General Sir George Chesney, a man of unquestionable talent and sound judgment, to whose cordial support, not only in frontier affairs, but in all my efforts to promote the efficiency and welfare of the soldier, I was very greatly indebted.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER LXV
[Footnote 1: Now General Sir Harry Prendergast, V.C., K.C.B.]
[Footnote 2: The ultimatum informed King Thebaw that the British Government insisted upon an Envoy being received at Mandalay, with free access to the King, without having to submit to any humiliating ceremony; that proceedings against the trading company would not be permitted; that a British Agent, with a suitable guard of honour and steamer for his personal protection, must be permanently stationed at the Burmese capital; that the Burmese Government must regulate their external relations in accordance with British advice; and that proper facilities must be granted for the opening up of British trade with China viâ Bhamo.]
[Footnote 3: The force consisted of 364 seamen and 69 Marines formed into a Naval Brigade, with 49 guns, including 27 machine guns, and 3,029 British and 6,005 Native soldiers, with 28 guns.]
[Footnote 4: Panipat is famous for three great battles fought in its immediate neighbourhood: one in 1526, by the Emperor Baber against Sultan Ibrahim, which resulted in the establishment of the Mogul dynasty; the second in 1556, when the Emperor Akbar beat the Hindu General of the Afghan usurper, and re-established the Moguls in power; and the third in 1761, when Ahmed Shah Durani defeated the Mahrattas.]
[Footnote 5: I was much gratified at receiving subsequently from His Imperial Majesty the Emperor William I. and from the Crown Princess of Prussia autograph letters of acknowledgment of, and thanks for, the reception accorded and the attention paid to Majors von Huene and von Hagenau, the two representatives of the German army who attended these manœuvres.]
[Footnote 6: Words used by Mr. Gladstone when asking for a vote of credit for £6,500,000 for special preparations in connection with the Afghan difficulty.]
[Footnote 7: The late Major-General Sir James Browne, K.C.S.I., C.B., who, like Sir Robert Sandeman, died while holding the important and responsible position of Governor-General's Agent in Baluchistan.]
[Footnote 8: A Statesman of high reputation in England was so strong in his disbelief of the necessity for making any preparations in India, that he publicly stated that if the only barrier between Russia in Asia and Britain in Asia were a mountain ridge, or a stream, or a fence, there would be no difficulty in preserving peace between Russia and the United Kingdom.—Speech delivered by the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., at Birmingham on the 16th April, 1879.]