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Chapter 64: 1885

Disturbing action of Russia--Abdur Rahman Khan--The Rawal Pindi Durbar --Unmistakable loyalty of the Natives

In March, 1885, we again visited Calcutta. The Marquis of Ripon had departed, and the Earl of Dufferin reigned in his stead.

Affairs on our north-west and south-east frontiers were at this time in a very unsettled state. Indeed, the political outlook altogether had assumed rather a gloomy aspect. Our relations with the French had become somewhat strained in consequence of their interference with Upper Burma and our occupation of Egypt; while Russia's activity in the valley of the Oxus necessitated our looking after our interests in Afghanistan. These considerations rendered it advisable to increase the army in India by 11,000 British and 12,000 Native troops, bringing the strength of the former up to nearly 70,000, with 414 guns, and that of the latter to 128,636.

Russia's movements could not be regarded with indifference, for, while we had retreated from our dominating position at Kandahar, she had approached considerably nearer to Afghanistan, and in a direction infinitely more advantageous than before for a further onward move. Up to 1881 a Russian army advancing on Afghanistan would have had to solve the difficult problem of the formidable Hindu Kush barrier, or if it took the Herat line it must have faced the deserts of Khiva and Bokhara. But all this was changed by Skobeloff's victories over the Tekke Turkomans, which gave Merv and Sarakhs to Russia, and enabled her to transfer her base from Orenburg to the Caspian--by far the most important step ever made by Russia in her advance towards India. I had some years before pointed out to the Government of India how immeasurably Russia would gain, if by the conquest of Merv--a conquest which I then looked upon as certain to be accomplished in the near future--she should be able to make this transfer. My words were unheeded or ridiculed at the time, and I, like others who thought as I did, was supposed to be suffering from a disease diagnosed by a distinguished politician as 'Mervousness.' But a little later those words were verified. Merv had become a Russian possession, and Turkestan was in direct communication by rail and steamer with St. Petersburg. And can it be denied that this fact, which would have enabled the army in the Caucasus to be rapidly transported to the scene of operations, made it possible for General Komaroff practically to dictate terms to the Boundary Commission which was sent to define the northern limits of Afghanistan, and to forcibly eject an Afghan garrison from Panjdeh under the eyes of British officers?

Lord Dufferin took up the reins of the Government of India at a time when things had come to such a pass that a personal conference with the Amir was considered necessary to arrange for the defence and demarcation of His Highness's frontier, the strengthening of Herat, the extension of the Sakkur-Sibi railway to Quetta, and the discussion of the general situation. Abdur Rahman was therefore invited to meet the Viceroy at Rawal Pindi, where a large standing camp was prepared, and my wife and I were bidden amongst a numerous company, including Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, the Ruling Punjab Chiefs, and the high officers of Government from various parts of India, to be the guests of His Excellency and Lady Dufferin on the interesting occasion.

The meeting was fixed for the end of March, and as there was scarcely time for us to return to Madras and get back again before then, we proceeded leisurely up country, visiting different places and one or two old friends on the way.

At Multan I received a cipher telegram from Sir Donald Stewart informing me that it had been decided to mobilize two Army Corps, and that I was to have command of the first. This was exciting news, and we lost no time in making our way to Rawal Pindi, where we should be in direct communication with Head-Quarters, and hoped to hear what had taken place since we left Calcutta to make it necessary to prepare for war.

I soon found out that this action on the part of the Government was forced on them by the representatives of Russia on the Boundary Commission, who were persistent in their attempts to encroach on Afghan territory, in order that they might be in a position to control the approaches to Herat, a Russian occupation of which fortress we could not permit.

Abdur Rahman arrived at Rawal Pindi on the last day of March; he was about forty-five years of age, and although he required a stick to walk with, being a martyr to rheumatism, and very stout, his appearance was decidedly dignified and imposing. He had a manly, clever, and rather handsome face, marred only by the cruel expression of the mouth, and his manner was sufficiently courteous though somewhat abrupt.

Several semi-private meetings took place between the Viceroy and the Amir, at the first of which His Highness, after expressing his appreciation of the flattering and cordial reception he had met with, reminded Lord Dufferin that he had consistently warned the British Government of the approach of the Russians towards Afghanistan and of the unsettling effect their advance was producing on the minds of his countrymen; and he advocated the necessity for timely action. No attention, he said, had been paid to his warnings, owing, probably, to the strife of parties in England, and to the excessive caution of the British Government.

Lord Dufferin, in reply, pointed out that the Amir had been advised to strengthen northern Afghanistan, and that the services of Engineer officers had been offered to him for the purpose of putting Herat into a satisfactory state of defence. His Excellency declared that England was resolved that a Russian advance on Herat should be met by a declaration of war; that preparations were then being made to give effect to that resolve; and that it was now absolutely necessary for His Highness to make up his mind which of his two powerful neighbours he would elect to choose as his ally.

Abdur Rahman thanked the Viceroy for his offer of help, but showed plainly that he had no intention of availing himself of the services of our Engineers. He vowed that his own personal wishes were entirely in favour of a close and practical alliance with the British, but that his subjects did not share his feelings towards us. They were 'rude, uneducated, and suspicious.' He hoped that in time they might become more disposed to be friendly, but at present he could not pretend to rely upon them. He then disclosed the real reason for his ready response to the Viceroy's invitation by saying that he would gratefully receive the assistance of the British Government in the shape of money, arms, and munitions of war.

At a later visit the conversation turned upon the difficulty of the position in which the British members of the Boundary Commission were placed, and the impossibility of the Afghan posts being able to hold their own in the face of a Russian advance was explained to the Amir. A map was produced, on which the country to the north of Herat was carefully examined, and Russia's claims were made known to him. Abdur Rahman's ideas of topography were not very accurate, but he displayed considerable intelligence in his questions and perception of the meaning of the answers, and eventually expressed his willingness to leave the question of the delimitation of his northern frontier in the hands of the British Government.

On the 6th April there was a parade of the troops, 17,000 in number, and that evening the Amir was present at a state banquet, at which, after the usual loyal toasts, the Viceroy proposed the Amir's health. His Highness, in reply, expressed a fervent hope that the prosperity of the British Empire might long endure, as with it the welfare of Afghanistan was bound up. He had watched, he said, the progress of India under British rule, and he hoped that Afghanistan might flourish in like manner; and he ended with a prayer that the Almighty would preserve Her Majesty's troops in safety, honour, and efficiency.

Two days later the Amir was publicly received in durbar by the Viceroy, on whose right hand he was placed, while the Duke of Connaught occupied the seat on his left. After a few words had been exchanged, Abdur Rahman rose, and spoke as follows: 'I am deeply sensible of the kindness which I have received from His Excellency the Viceroy, and of the favour shown me by Her Majesty the Queen-Empress. In return for this kindness and favour, I am ready with my army and people to render any services that may be required of me or of the Afghan nation. As the British Government has declared that it will assist me in repelling any foreign enemy, so it is right and proper that Afghanistan should unite in the firmest manner, and side by side by the British Government.'

On being presented, amongst other gifts, with a sword of honour, he said in a loud and determined voice: 'With this sword I hope to smite any enemy of the British Government.'

That same evening the Viceroy received news of the Russian attack on Panjdeh, and communicated it to the Amir, who heard it with extraordinary equanimity, not appearing to attach any great importance to the matter, and attributing the defeat of his troops to the inferiority of their weapons. He observed that the excuse given by the Russians, that the Afghans intended to attack them, was a frivolous pretext, and declared all that his men had done was very properly to make preparations to defend themselves.

Abdur Rahman had expressed a desire for a British decoration, so shortly before his departure from India he was invested, informally, with the G.C.S.I. As the train was moving off, he said to the British officers assembled on the platform: 'I wish you all farewell, and commend you to the care of God. May your Government endure and your honour increase. I have been greatly pleased and gratified by the sight of the British Army. I hope and am certain that the friendship now existing between us will last for ever.'

Abdur Rahman had, indeed, every reason to be satisfied with the result of his visit, for not only was Lord Ripon's promise that England would defend his kingdom against foreign aggression ratified by Lord Dufferin, but the Amir was given, in addition to the large sums of money and the considerable amount of munitions of war already received by him, ten lakhs of rupees, 20,000 breech-loading rifles, a Heavy battery of four guns and two howitzers, a Mountain battery, and a liberal supply of ammunition for both guns and rifles.

On the Amir's departure the great camp was broken up, and the troops returned to their respective stations, all prepared to move towards the Quetta frontier at a moment's notice. The Native Chiefs, in taking their leave of the Viceroy, were profuse in their offers and promises of help should a recourse to arms be found necessary; and Lord and Lady Dufferin's numerous guests, who, like my wife and myself, had for more than a fortnight been recipients of the most profuse hospitality, wished their generous host and hostess a hearty good-bye.

Interesting as the whole proceeding had been, by far the most gratifying result of the gathering was the unmistakable loyalty displayed by the Native Rulers who were present, as well as by those in distant parts of India, on hearing of the unprovoked attack made by the Russians on the Afghan troops at Panjdeh, and our consequent preparations for war. The greatest enthusiasm prevailed, and the various military camps at Rawal Pindi were crowded with men desirous of joining the ranks of our army. I was literally besieged by old soldiers, begging that they might be allowed to return to the colours and fight once more for the Sirkar; and one Native officer, who had been with me in Afghanistan, came to me and said: 'I am afraid, sahib, I am too old and infirm to do more work myself; but you must take my two sons with you--they are ready to die for the Angrese.'[1]

We hastened back to Madras, and reached Ootacamund after seven consecutive nights in the train, with a thermometer at 104° in the daytime, the only pause in our journey being at Poona, where we spent a few hours with our friend General Sir John Ross.

I left my horses at Lahore, and for some weeks lived in daily expectation of being ordered back to the Punjab to take command of the 1st Army Corps. A change of Government, however, took place just in time to prevent the war. Lord Salisbury's determined attitude convinced Russia that no further encroachments on the Afghan frontier would be permitted; she ceased the 'game of brag' she had been allowed to play, and the Boundary Commission were enabled to proceed with the work of delimitation.

[Footnote 1: A Native corruption of the word 'English.']