Effect of the Berlin Treaty at Kabul --Sher Ali decides against England--A meeting of portentous moment --Preparations for war--Letter from Sher Ali
In 1877 Russia declared war with Turkey; for more than a year fighting had been going on between the two countries, and as it seemed possible to the British Government that England might in the end be drawn into the contest, it was deemed expedient to obtain help from India, and a force of about 5,000 Native soldiers was despatched from Bombay to Malta in response to the demand from home.
Russia answered this move on our part by increased activity in Central Asia; and in June, 1878, it was reported by Major Cavagnari, Deputy-Commissioner of Peshawar, that a Russian Envoy of the same rank as the Governor-General of Tashkent was about to visit Kabul, and that General Kauffmann had written to the Amir that the Envoy must be received as an Ambassador deputed by the Czar himself. A few days later further reports were received of Russian troops being mobilized, and of the intention of Russia to establish cantonments on the ferries of Kilif and Kerki on the Oxus.
The Amir, it was said, summoned a council of the leading Chiefs, to discuss the question whether it would be most advantageous for Afghanistan at this juncture to side with Russia or with England; it was decided apparently in favour of the former, for from the moment General Stolietoff's Mission set foot on Afghan territory it met with an enthusiastic reception. Five miles from the capital Stolietoff and his companions were welcomed by the Foreign Secretary. They were then mounted on richly-caparisoned elephants, and escorted by a large body of troops to the Bala Hissar, where the following morning they were received in state by Sher Ali, and the nobles of highest degree in his kingdom.
On the eve of the day that the Mission entered Kabul, Stolietoff received a despatch from General Kauffmann giving him the heads of the Berlin Treaty, with the following commentary in the handwriting of the Governor-General himself: 'If the news be true, it is indeed melancholy;' adding, however, that the Congress had finished its sittings, and that, therefore, the Envoy in his negotiations with the Amir had better refrain from arranging any distinct measures, or making any positive promises, and 'not go generally as far as would have been advisable if war with England had been threatened.' Evidently these instructions greatly modified the basis of Stolietoff's negotiations with Sher Ali; for, although the Russians deny that an offensive and defensive alliance with the Afghan Ruler was contemplated, it seems probable, from the tone of Kauffmann's despatch, that the Envoy's instructions were elastic enough to admit of such an arrangement had the circumstances of the case made it desirable--e.g., had the Berlin Congress failed to establish peace in Europe.
In telegraphing to the Secretary of State an account of these proceedings at Kabul, the Viceroy requested explicit instructions from Her Majesty's Government as to whether this conduct on the part of Russia and Afghanistan was to be left to the Government of India to deal with as a matter between it and the Amir, or whether, having regard to Russia's formal promises, it would be treated as an Imperial question. 'In the former case,' he concluded, 'I shall propose, with your approval, to insist on an immediate suitable reception of a British Mission.'
Lord Lytton's proposition was approved of by Her Majesty's Ministers, and a letter was at once written by the Viceroy to the Amir, announcing that a Mission would shortly be despatched to Kabul with General Sir Neville Chamberlain, at that time Commander-in-Chief in Madras, as its responsible head.
Major Cavagnari was at the same time directed to inform the authorities at Kabul that the object of the Mission was altogether friendly, and that a refusal to grant it a free passage and safe conduct, such as had been accorded to the Russian Envoy, would be considered as an act of open hostility. Intimation of the Viceroy's intentions reached Kabul on the 17th August, the day on which the Amir's favourite son, Abdulla Jan, died. This untoward event was taken advantage of to delay answering the Viceroy's letter, but it was not allowed in any way to interfere with the progress of the negotiations with Russia. When these were completed, Stolietoff inquired from Sher Ali whether he meant to receive the English Mission, whereupon the Amir asked for the General's advice in the matter. Stolietoff, while replying somewhat evasively, gave Sher Ali to understand that the simultaneous presence of Embassies from two countries in almost hostile relations with each other would not be quite convenient, upon which His Highness decided not to allow the British Mission to enter Afghanistan. This decision, however, was not communicated to the Viceroy, and on the 21st September the Mission marched out of Peshawar and encamped at Jamrud, three miles short of the Kyber Pass.
In consequence of the extremely hostile attitude of the Amir, and the very unsatisfactory reply received from General Faiz Mahomed Khan, commanding the Afghan troops in the Kyber Pass, to a letter he had written a few days before, Sir Neville Chamberlain suspected that the advance of the Mission would be opposed, and, in order 'to reduce to a minimum any indignity that might be offered to our Government,' he deputed Major Cavagnari to ride on with a few sowars to Ali Masjid, a fort ten miles beyond the mouth of the Pass, and demand leave for the Mission to proceed.
When within a mile of the fort, Cavagnari was met by a body of Afridis, who warned him that the road ahead was blocked by Afghans, and that if he ventured further he would be fired upon. On this Cavagnari halted, and while in the act of writing a letter to Faiz Mahomed, complaining of the treatment he had met with, and informing him that he and his companions intended to proceed until fired upon, an act the responsibility for which would rest with the Amir's representatives, a message was brought him from Faiz Mahomed to the effect that he was coming to meet him, and would hear anything he had to communicate.
The interview took place near a water-mill on the right bank of the stream which flows under Ali Masjid. I have several times since ridden past the spot and pictured to myself the meeting between the British political officer and the Afghan General. It was a meeting of most portentous moment, for its result would mean peace or war.
Faiz Mahomed's bearing was perfectly courteous, but he made it clear that he did not intend to permit the Mission to pass, explaining that he was only acting as a sentry under instructions from Kabul, and that he was bound to resist the entrance of the Mission into Afghan territory with all the force at his disposal. He spoke with considerable warmth, and told Cavagnari that but for their personal friendship he would, in obedience to the Amir's orders, have shot down him and his escort.
Faiz Mahomed's followers were not so respectful in their bearing as their Chief, and their manner warned Cavagnari that it was unadvisable to prolong the conversation; he, therefore, took leave of the Afghan General, and returned to Jamrud. The Mission was dissolved, our Agent at Kabul was ordered to return to India, and Cavagnari was instructed to remain at Peshawar and arrange for alienating the Afridis in the Khyber from the Amir's interests.
In reporting these circumstances to the Secretary of State, the Government of India expressed their regret that this final endeavour on their part to arrive at some definite understanding with the Amir of Kabul should have been thus met with repudiation and affront, and concluded their despatch in the following words: 'The repulse of Sir Neville Chamberlain by Sher Ali at his frontier while the Russian emissaries are still at his capital has proved the inutility of diplomatic expedients, and has deprived the Amir of all claim upon our further forbearance.'
It had been arranged that, if it were unfortunately found to be necessary to support political efforts by military measures, two columns should be mobilized, one at Sukkur on the Indus, for an advance in the direction of Kandahar, the other at Kohat for operations in the Kuram valley, and that I was to have command of the latter. As soon, therefore, as the tidings of Sir Neville's repulse was received, I started from Simla to be on the spot in case the proposal to employ force should be sanctioned by the authorities in England.
Between the time of my leaving Simla and my arrival at Kohat on the 9th October, it was decided to employ a third column to make a demonstration in the direction of the Khyber for the purpose of clearing the Amir's troops out of the pass.
The formation of this column was no doubt a wise move, as the Afghans were holding Ali Masjid, the spot on which the insult had been offered to our Envoy, and the presence of a force on this line would tend to relieve the pressure against my column; but looked at from my point of view, this third column was not quite so desirable, as it involved the withdrawal of three of my most efficient regiments, and the transfer of a large number of my transport animals to the Khyber for its use. There was some consolation, however, in the fact that my old friend Major-General Sir Samuel Browne, who had been named for the command in the Khyber, was to be the gainer by my loss.
Major-General Donald Stewart, who was in England, was telegraphed for to command the Kandahar column, the advanced portion of which, it was intended, should push on under Major-General Biddulph to strengthen Quetta.
The long-expected reply from the Amir to the Viceroy's letter of the 14th August was received at Simla on the 19th October. Its tone was considered extremely discourteous; it contained no apology for the public affront offered to the British Government, and indicated no desire for improved relations.
The reply was at once communicated to the Secretary of State, who was further informed that the Government of India proposed the following measures:--
The immediate issue of a manifesto which should define the cause of offence, declare a friendly disposition towards the Afghan people and reluctance to interfere in their internal affairs, and should fix the whole responsibility of what might happen upon the Amir.
An advance into the Kuram valley as soon as the force at Kohat was ready to move.
The expulsion of the Afghan troops holding the Khyber Pass.
An advance from Quetta into Pishin, or, if necessary, to Kandahar.
Lord Cranbrook (who had succeeded the Marquis of Salisbury as Secretary of State for India) replied that he did not consider matters to be at present ripe for taking the extreme measures recommended by the Government of India, and that, before crossing the frontiers of Afghanistan, a letter should be addressed to the Amir demanding, in temperate language, an apology, and the acceptance of a permanent Mission within Afghan limits; that sufficient time should be given for the receipt of a reply to this letter (the text of which was to be telegraphed to Lord Cranbrook for approval before despatch), and that meanwhile the massing of troops should be continued, and adequate forces assembled at the various points where the frontier would be crossed if war were declared. The Secretary of State went on to say: 'There must be no mistake as to our show of power to enforce what we require; this locus penitentiæ should be allowed before hostile acts are committed against the Amir.'
These instructions were carried out, and on the 30th October the ultimatum was despatched to Sher Ali, informing him that, unless his acceptance of the conditions were received by the Viceroy not later than the 20th November, he would be treated by the British Government as a declared enemy.
[Footnote 1: On the 13th June, the day on which the Berlin Congress held its first sitting, the news of the approach of General Stolietoff's Mission reached Kabul. The Russians hoped that the Mission might influence the decision of the Berlin Congress, and although its despatch was repudiated by the Imperial Government at St. Petersburg, it was subsequently ascertained on excellent authority that the project of sending a Mission to Kabul was discussed three times at the Council of Ministers, and, according to a statement in the Journal de St. Petersbourg, orders were sent in April, 1878, to General Kauffmann regarding its despatch. About the same time, the Russian Minister of War proposed that the Army of the Caucasus should be transferred bodily across the Caspian to Astrabad, whence the troops would march in two columns on Herat; while three columns, amounting in the aggregate to 14,000 men, were to move direct upon the Oxus from Turkestan. The main part of this scheme was never carried into effect, probably from its being found too great an undertaking at a time when Russia had scarcely obtained a footing beyond the Caspian, but the minor movement was partially carried out. The largest of the three columns, under Kauffmann's own command, moved from Tashkent, through Samarkand, to Jam, the most southern point of the Russian possessions at that time, and within ten marches of Kilif, the main ferry over the Oxus. There it remained for some weeks, when it returned to Tashkent, the Afghan expedition being abandoned in consequence of the Treaty of Berlin having been signed.]
'SIMLA, '14th August, 1878.
'The authentic intelligence which I have lately received of the course of recent events at Kabul and in the countries bordering on Afghanistan has rendered it necessary that I should communicate fully and without reserve with your Highness upon matters of importance which concern the interests of India and of Afghanistan. For this reason, I have considered it expedient to depute a special and confidential British Envoy of high rank, who is known to your Highness--his Excellency General Sir Neville Bowles Chamberlain, Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Knight Grand Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India, Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army--to visit your Highness immediately at Kabul, in order that he may converse personally with your Highness regarding these urgent affairs. It appears certain that they can best be arranged for the welfare and tranquillity of both States, and for the preservation of friendship between the two Governments, by a full and frank statement of the present position. This letter is therefore sent in advance to your Highness by the hand of Nawab Gholam Hussein Khan, C.S.I., a faithful and honoured Sirdar of my Government, who will explain all necessary details as to the time and manner of the Envoy's visit. It is asked that your Highness may be pleased to issue commands to your Sirdars, and to all other authorities in Afghanistan, upon the route between Peshawar and Kabul, that they shall make, without any delay, whatever arrangements are necessary and proper for effectively securing to my Envoy, the representative of a friendly Power, due safe conduct and suitable accommodation according to his dignity, while passing with his retinue through the dominions of your Highness.
'I beg to express the high consideration I entertain for your Highness, and to subscribe myself.']
[Footnote 3: The Mission was composed of General Sir Neville Chamberlain, G.C.B., G.C.S.I.; Major Cavagnari, C.S.I.; Surgeon-Major Bellew, C.S.I.; Major O. St. John, R.E.; Captain St. V. Hammick, 43rd Foot; Captain F. Onslow, Madras Cavalry; Lieutenant Neville Chamberlain, Central India Horse; Maharaj Pertap Sing of Jodhpur; and Sirdar Obed Ulla Khan, of Tonk. Lieutenant-Colonel F. Jenkins and Captain W. Battye were with the escort.]
'15th September, 1878.
(After compliments.) 'I write to inform you that, by command of His Excellency the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, a friendly Mission of British officers, with a suitable escort, is about to proceed to Kabul through the Khyber Pass, and intimation of the despatch of this Mission has been duly communicated to His Highness the Amir by the hand of the Nawab Ghulam Hussein Khan.
'I hear that an official from Kabul has recently visited you at Ali Masjid, and he has doubtless instructed you in accordance with His Highness the Amir's commands. As, however, information has now been received that you have summoned from Peshawar the Khyber headmen with whom we were making arrangements for the safe conduct of the British Mission through the Khyber Pass, I therefore write to inquire from you whether, in accordance with the instructions you have received, you are prepared to guarantee the safety of the British Mission to Daka or not; and I request that a clear reply to this inquiry may be speedily communicated by the hand of the bearer of this letter, as I cannot delay my departure from Peshawar. It is well known that the Khyber tribes are in receipt of allowances from the Kabul Government, and also, like other independent tribes on this frontier, have relations with the British Government. It may be well to let you know that when the present negotiations were opened with the Khyber tribes, it was solely with the object of arranging with them for the safe conduct of the British Mission through the Khyber Pass, in the same manner as was done in regard to the despatch of our Agent, the Nawab Ghulam Hussein Khan; and the tribes were given clearly to understand that these negotiations were in no way intended to prejudice their relations with His Highness the Amir, as it was well known that the object of the British Mission was altogether of a friendly character to His Highness the Amir and the people of Afghanistan.
'I trust that, in accordance with the instructions you have received from His Highness the Amir, your reply to this letter will be satisfactory, and that it will contain the required assurances that the Mission will be safely conducted to Daka. I shall expect to receive your reply to this letter not later than the 18th instant, so please understand that the matter is most urgent.
'But at the same time, it is my duty to inform you, in a frank and friendly manner, that if your answer is not what I trust it will be, or if you delay to send an early reply, I shall have no alternative but to make whatever arrangements may seem to me best for carrying out the instructions I have received from my own Government.']
[Footnote 5: In a letter to Lord Lytton reporting the rebuff the Mission had encountered, General Chamberlain wrote: 'No man was ever more anxious than I to preserve peace and secure friendly solution, and it was only when I plainly saw the Amir's fixed intention to drive us into a corner that I told you we must either sink into a position of merely obeying his behests on all points or stand on our rights and risk rupture. Nothing could have been more distinct, nothing more humiliating to the dignity of the British Crown and nation; and I believe that but for the decision and tact of Cavagnari at one period of the interview, the lives of the British officers and the Native following were in considerable danger.']
[Footnote 6: The approximate strength of the three columns was as follows:
|I.||The Kandahar Field Force||265||12,599||78|
|II.||The Kuram Field Force||116||6,549||18|
|III.||The Peshawar Valley Field Force||325||15,854||48|
'KABUL, '6th October, 1878.
(After compliments.) 'Your Excellency's despatch regarding the sending of a friendly Mission has been received through Nawab Gholam Hussein Khan; I understand its purport, but the Nawab had not yet an audience, nor had your Excellency's letters been seen by me when a communication was received to the address of my servant, Mirza Habibulla Khan, from the Commissioner of Peshawar, and was read. I am astonished and dismayed by this letter, written threateningly to a well-intentioned friend, replete with contentions, and yet nominally regarding a friendly Mission. Coming thus by force, what result, or profit, or fruit, could come of it? Following this, three other letters from above-mentioned source, in the very same strain, addressed to my officials, have been perused by me. Thus, during a period of a few days several letters from that quarter have all been before me, and none of them have been free from harsh expressions and hard words, repugnant to courtesy and politeness, and in tone contrary to the ways of friendship and intercourse. Looking to the fact that I am at this time assaulted by affliction and grief at the hand of fate, and that great trouble has possessed my soul, in the officials of the British Government patience and silence would have been specially becoming. Let your Excellency take into consideration this harsh and breathless haste with which the desired object and place of conference have been seized upon, and how the officials of the Government have been led into discussion and subjection to reproach. There is some difference between this and the pure road of friendship and goodwill. In alluding to those writings of the officials of the opposite Government which have emanated from them, and are at this time in the possession of my own officials, the latter have in no respect desired to show enmity or opposition towards the British Government, nor, indeed, do they with any other Power desire enmity or strife; but when any other Power, without cause or reason, shows animosity towards this Government, the matter is left in the hands of God, and to His will. The esteemed Nawab Gholam Hussein Khan, the bearer of this despatch, has, in accordance with written instructions received from the British Government, asked for permission to retire, and it has been granted.']
[Footnote 8: 25th October.]