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Chapter 37: 1868-1869

Sir Robert Napier to command--Defective transport --King Theodore commits suicide--First A.Q.M.G

It will, perhaps, be as well to recall to the reader's mind that the object of the expedition in which we were taking part was to rescue some sixty Europeans, who, from one cause or another, had found their way to Abyssinia, and been made prisoners by the King of that country. Amongst these were four English officials, Mr. Rassam, and Captain Cameron, who had at different times been the bearers of letters from Queen Victoria to King Theodore, and Lieutenant Prideaux and Dr. Blanc of the Bombay Army; the rest were chiefly French and German missionaries, and artisans, with their wives and children. The prisoners were confined in a fort built on the Magd[=a]la plateau, 9,150 feet above sea-level, and 379 miles inland from Annesley Bay.

The repeated demands of the British Government for the restoration of the prisoners having been treated with contemptuous silence by the King, Colonel Merewether, the Political Agent at Aden, who in July, 1867, had been directed to proceed to Massowa and endeavour to obtain the release of the captives, and to make inquiries and collect information in case of an expedition having to be sent, reported to the Secretary of State that he had failed to communicate with the King, and urged the advisability of immediate measures being taken to prepare a force in India for the punishment of Theodore and the rescue of the prisoners. Colonel Merewether added that in Abyssinia the opinion had become very general that England knew herself to be too weak to resent insult, and that amongst the peoples of the neighbouring countries, even so far as Aden, there was a feeling of contemptuous surprise at the continued long-suffering endurance of the British Government.

On receipt of this communication, Her Majesty's Government, having exhausted all their resources for the preservation of peace, decided to send an expedition from India under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Napier, the Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army. After carefully considering the distance along which operations would have to be prosecuted, and the necessity for holding a number of detached posts, Napier gave it as his opinion that the force should consist of not less than 12,000 men.[1]

Profiting by the experience of the Crimean War, the Government was determined that the mobility of the force should not be hampered by want of food and clothing. Stores of all descriptions were despatched in unstinted quantities from England, and three of the steamers in which they were conveyed were fitted up as hospital ships. But food, clothing, and stores, however liberally supplied, would not take the army to Magd[=a]la without transport.

The question as to the most suitable organization for the Land Transport Corps occupied a good deal of Sir Robert Napier's attention while the expedition was being fitted out, and caused a considerable amount of correspondence between him and the Bombay Government. The Commissary-General wished to keep the corps under his own orders, and objected to its being given an entirely military organization. Sir Robert Napier preferred to establish the corps on an independent basis, but was at first overruled by the Bombay Government. While acting in accordance with their orders, the Commander-in-Chief wrote: 'I believe that the success of systems depends more on the men who work them than on the systems themselves; but I cannot accept without protest a decision to throw such a body of men as the drivers of our transport animals will be (if we get them) on an expedition in a foreign country without a very complete organization to secure order and discipline.' Eventually Sir Robert got his own way, but much valuable time had been lost, and the corps was organized on too small a scale;[2] the officers and non-commissioned officers were not sent to Zula in sufficient time or in sufficient numbers to take charge of the transport animals as they arrived.

A compact, properly-supervised train of 2,600 mules, with serviceable, well-fitting pack-saddles, was sent from the Punjab; and from Bombay came 1,400 mules and ponies and 5,600 bullocks, but these numbers proving altogether inadequate to the needs of the expedition, they were supplemented by animals purchased in Persia, Egypt, and on the shores of the Mediterranean. The men to look after them were supplied from the same sources, but their number, even if they had been efficient, was insufficient, and they were a most unruly and unmanageable lot. They demanded double the pay for which they had enlisted, and struck work in a body because their demand was not at once complied with. They refused to take charge of the five mules each man was hired to look after, and when that number was reduced to three, they insisted that one should be used as a mount for the driver. But the worst part of the whole organization, or, rather, want of organization, was that there had been no attempt to fit the animals with pack-saddles, some of which were sent from England, some from India, and had to be adjusted to the mules after they had been landed in Abyssinia, where there was not an establishment to make the necessary alterations. The consequence was that the wretched animals became cruelly galled, and in a few weeks a large percentage were unfit for work, and had to be sent to the sick depot.

Other results of having no properly arranged transport train, and no supervision or discipline, were that mules were lost or stolen, starved for want of food, or famished from want of water. The condition of the unfortunate animals was such that, though they had been but a few weeks in the country, when they were required to proceed to Senafe, only sixty-seven miles distant, a very small proportion were able to accomplish the march; hundreds died on the way, and their carcases, quickly decomposing in the hot sun, became a fruitful source of dangerous disease to the force.

On arrival at Zula, we were told that Sir Robert Napier was at Senafe, the first station in the Hills, and the advanced depot for supplies. We of the Bengal brigade were somewhat disconcerted at the orders which awaited us, from which we learned that our brigade was to be broken up; the troops were to proceed to the front; while Stewart was to take command at Senafe, and I myself was to remain at Zula, as senior staff officer. The disappointment was great, but, being the last-comer, I had no unfairness to complain of, and I had plenty to do. I spent the greater part of each day amongst the shipping, superintending the embarkation and disembarkation of men, animals, and stores.

Zula was not an attractive place of residence. The heat was intense--117° in the daytime in my tent. The allowance of fresh water was extremely limited,[3] while the number of scorpions was quite the reverse, and the food, at the best, was not appetizing. Few who remained there as long as I did escaped scurvy and horrible boils or sores. I was fortunate, however, in finding in charge of the transport arrangements afloat, my old friend and Eton schoolfellow, George Tryon,[4] to whom I owed many a good dinner, and, what I appreciated even more, many a refreshing bath on board the Euphrates, a transport belonging to the British India Steam Navigation Company which had been fitted up for Captain Tryon and his staff. Indeed, all the officers of the Royal Navy were most helpful and kind, and I have a very pleasant recollection of the hospitality I received from Commodore Heath[5] and those serving under him.

During the four months I remained at Zula, Tryon and I were constantly together, and I had plenty of opportunity for observing the masterly manner in which he could grasp a situation, his intimate knowledge of detail, and the strong hold he had over all those working with him, not only the officers of the Royal Navy, but also the commanders of the merchant vessels taken up as transports, and lying in Annesley Bay.

On the 17th April news reached us that four days before Sir Robert Napier had successfully attacked Magd[=a]la and released the prisoners, having experienced but very slight opposition; and that King Theodore, deserted by his army, which had apparently become tired of his brutalities, had committed suicide.[6] A few days later Major-General Russell, who had come from Aden to take over the command at Zula, received orders to prepare for the embarkation of the force. Arrangements were accordingly made to enable regiments and batteries to be embarked on board the transports told off for them directly they arrived from the front--a matter of the utmost importance, both on account of the fearful heat at Zula, and the absence of a sufficient water-supply.

On the 2nd June the Commander-in-Chief returned to Zula, and on the 10th he embarked on board the old Indian marine steamer Feroze for Suez. Sir Robert was good enough to ask me to accompany him, as he wished to make me the bearer of his final despatches. My work was ended, the troops had all left, and as I was pretty well knocked up, I felt extremely grateful for the offer, and very proud of the great honour the Chief proposed to confer upon me.

We reached Alexandria on the 20th June, and the next day I started in the mail-steamer for Brindisi, arriving in London on the evening of Sunday, the 28th. I received a note at my club from Edwin Johnson (who was at that time Assistant Military Secretary to H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge), directing me to take the despatches without delay to the Secretary of State for India. I found Sir Stafford and Lady Northcote at dinner; Sir Stafford looked through the despatches, and when he had finished reading them, he asked me to take them without delay to the Commander-in-Chief, as he knew the Duke was most anxious to see them. There was a dinner-party, however, that night at Gloucester House, and the servant told me it was quite impossible to disturb His Royal Highness; so, placing my card on the top of the despatches, I told the man to deliver them at once, and went back to my club. I had scarcely reached it when the Duke's Aide-de-camp made his appearance and told me that he had been ordered to find me and take me back with him. The Commander-in-Chief received me very kindly, expressing regret that I had been sent away in the first instance; and Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales, who were present, were most gracious, and asked many questions about the Abyssinian Expedition.

The next day I joined my wife, who was staying with my people at Clifton, and on the 14th August, when the rewards for the Abyssinian Expedition were published, my name appeared for a brevet Lieutenant-Colonelcy.

I was now anxious to ascertain in what manner I was to be employed. My five years as A.Q.M.G. were about to expire, and I thought I should like to go back to my regiment for a time. I therefore applied for the command of a battery of Horse Artillery. I was told, in answer to my application, that it was not the custom to appoint an officer who had been in staff employment for some time to the mounted branch, but that, in consideration of my services, the Duke of Cambridge was pleased to make an exception in my favour. I was posted to a battery at Meerut, and warned to be ready to start in an early troopship. Before the time for our departure arrived, however, I received a letter from Lumsden, who had now become Quartermaster-General, informing me that the Commander-in-Chief had recommended, and the Government had approved of, the formation of a fresh grade--that of First A.Q.M.G.--and that he was directed by Sir William Mansfield to offer the new appointment to me--an offer which I gratefully accepted; for though the command of a Horse Artillery battery would have been most congenial, this unexpected chance of five years' further staff employ was too good to be refused.

On the 4th January, 1869, having said good-bye to those dear to us, two of whom I was never to see again, my wife and I, with a baby girl who was born the previous July, embarked at Portsmouth on board the s.s. Helvetia, which had been taken up for the conveyance of troops to Bombay, the vessel of the Royal Navy in which we were to have sailed having suddenly broken down. The Helvetia proved most unsuitable as a transport, and uncomfortable to the last degree for passengers, besides which it blew a gale the whole way to Alexandria. We were all horribly ill, and our child caught a fatal cold. We thoroughly appreciated a change at Suez to the Indian trooper, the Malabar, where everything possible was done for our comfort by our kind captain (Rich, R.N.), and, indeed, by everyone on board; but, alas! our beautiful little girl never recovered the cruel experience of the Helvetia, and we had the terrible grief of losing her soon after we passed Aden. She was buried at sea.

It was a very sad journey after that. There were several nice, kind people amongst our fellow-passengers; but life on board ship at such a time, surrounded by absolute strangers, was a terrible trial to us both, and, what with the effects of the voyage and the anxiety and sorrow she had gone through, my wife was thoroughly ill when we arrived at Simla towards the end of February.

[Footnote 1: The numbers actually despatched from India were 13,548, of whom 3,786 were Europeans. In addition, a company of Royal Engineers was sent from England.]

[Footnote 2: At first it was thought that 10,000 mules, with a coolie corps 3,000 strong, would suffice, but before the expedition was over, it was found necessary to purchase 18,000 mules, 1,500 ponies, 1,800 donkeys, 12,000 camels, and 8,400 bullocks.]

[Footnote 3: Fresh water was obtained by condensing the sea-water; there were few condensors, and no means of aerating the water.]

[Footnote 4: The late Admiral Sir George Tryon, K.C.B.]

[Footnote 5: Now Admiral Sir Leonid Heath, K.C.B.]

[Footnote 6: He is said to have killed in one month, or burnt alive, more than 3,000 people. He pillaged and burnt the churches at Gondur, and had many priests and young girls cast alive into the flames.]