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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter XIII - Two Years on Furlough: 1879-81


WHEN Browne now proceeded on furlough, towards the end of 1879, the prospects of peace with Afghanistan seemed assured, and Lord Lytton was not only pressing forward his coercion of Afghanistan, but was proceeding on the lines of a new policy respecting it—viz. its partition into two provinces: the northern to continue the country of Afghanistan with its own ruler, but with a British representative as Resident at its capital, Cabul; the southern, Candahar, to be placed under a separate ruler, as an outlying province of British India, stretching up to Herat, and so cutting off the communications of Cabul by the old roundabout route to Persia and Turkestan. Negotiations were conducted with Yakoob Khan as the new Ameer, and ended in the treaty of Gundamuck on May 26th, followed by Sir Louis Cavagnari’s assumption of the post of Resident at Cabul. Sir Donald Stewart, however, with his own force and the new Bombay division, remained in the neighbourhood of Candahar, with the ultimate object of placing it under the rule not of the Ameer, but of Wali Shere Ali Khan, whom he had already appointed as the proposed temporary governor.

Meanwhile Browne’s plans for his furlough involved that he should at first reside in France for about a year, and after that in England. His first object was the study of Russian, and it was to this task that he devoted his year of residence in France. The efficacy of the knowledge he in the end acquired may be gathered from the practical use he made of it on one occasion. There had been resident in India for some years past a Russian lady who had been in the habit of posing as a spiritualist or mystic; and her name and with it the stories that were current about her now cropped up at a gathering in Paris where Browne was present “But,” says one Russian officer to another, in their own language, “who and what is she really?" “Oh, don’t you know—she is one of the X department,” mentioning the bureau to which, as was well known to Indian officials, appertained the task- of political watch and agitation and the spread of sedition against the British Government! Such strong confirmation of the current rumours was not long, it soon appeared, in reaching the proper quarters.

It might have been thought that Browne would be glad to have some rest after the anxious and arduous work at which he had been engaged during the last few years, but he was so much on the strain, mentally, that a touch of really idle rest was impossible, and change of work sufficed. And, after all, so exceptional was his linguistic aptitude that even such a study as that of Russian—carried out too in his own jocund and exceptional fashion—was no strain to him whatever. As yet few other people had gone in for the study of that language, but with the example he now set many officers began soon to follow suit. Browne himself felt assured that new and wider channels of employment and advancement would soon be opening out, and that Russia was looming clearly in the near distance. So he went in briskly and energetically for the task.

His mode of studying Russian may be described, and the rollicking mode of life he led in Paris, so thoroughly conversant as he was from his earliest days with the language and ways of his French neighbours. He set out by securing the services of two teachers of the Russian language—one, I believe, specially scholastic, and the other specially linguistic. With these two he studied on alternate .days—and then, during his leisure hours after the lessons, he used to take long walks into the country, book in hand, learning the language by heart, and declaiming aloud what he was thus learning.

He was much amused by the suspicion with which the police watched him; ending as it did in his being arrested, and, when soon recognised as an English officer, favoured with a hearty apology for the blunder from the famous old soldier before whom he had been summoned, followed by his friendship. The police view was that, after all, and whatever else he might be, he was nothing more than a harmless English lunatic.

While he was engaged in this study, he lightened it by occasional excursions into the country and to places of interest. In one of these tours he arrived at one of those numerous towns where there was some affectation of mystery or secrecy, some spot which it was difendu to visit, and so forth—precisely the case to excite his desire for some fun. So he donned what he could manage approximating best to the comic stage equipment of the stereotyped English countryman on his travels—uncouth hat on the back of his head, huge umbrella under his arm, and the rest—and proceeded to stroll about, gazing open-mouthed as if stupid and bored at everything. At length he reached the forbidden ground, and with barefaced impudence, and an air of stolid ignorance, invaded it, sauntering about as if to kill time.

Presently up comes a gendarme and informs him, with much gesticulation, that it was forbidden for any one to walk there. It is hardly necessary to say, remembering Browne’s turn for language and his early years in France, that he not only spoke and understood ordinary French well, but was also an adept at its slang and argot. But instead of replying or arguing, he just looked at the gendarme dully, and said, with an atrocious English accent, “Anglais,” and walked on. After trying all he could, short of force, and getting nothing but “Anglais” out of Browne, he called another gendarme who also got nothing out of Browne but “Anglais,” and failed to stop him. The men then summoned their sergeant, who succeeded no better—and Browne still walked quietly on. The men then walked behind him and talked him over. One man said, “ He calls himself English, but he looks more like a German or Italian. I don’t like his look—it is not English.” The other answered, “Oh, but see what a stupid fool he looks! That shows he is English. All English are stupid pigs.” Then they asked the sergeant what he thought of him.

The sergeant, in a voice of conviction that quite settled the question, replied, “He is English; I know he is English; I can prove he is English. You think he is English because he looks stupid. That is true— all English are stupid fools—but there is a stronger mark of the Englishman. Look at his umbrella—see how tight he holds it under his arm. Now an Englishman will leave his country, he will leave his home, he will leave his children, he will leave his wife, but he will never leave his umbrella. I know he is English!"

Browne of course understood perfectly all the flattering things they said about English people in general and himself in particular; but, he said, when it came to the climax of the umbrella, he nearly gave himself away by the inclination to burst out laughing. He controlled himself, however, and with the three men behind him, cutting jokes at his expense, he walked on till he was clear of the forbidden ground.

It was while he was still in Paris and partly during his residence in England that the further events and episodes of the Afghan war occurred. First Cavagnari and his party were attacked and killed; then Roberts’s column, being the nearest to Cabul, advanced against it and took it after some sharp actions on the way; and trials and retributions for the murders followed. After this the country was for a few months nominally settled and quiescent. Then, as in the older Afghan war, came the inevitable risings; and Roberts’s forces, which were dispersed, were in the first instance defeated, and had to concentrate in the Sherpore entrenchment; but after a few days they attacked and dispersed the Afghan army.

Meanwhile Stewart’s position at Candahar had been greatly strengthened by the arrival of the Bombay troops. But now he heard of Roberts’s difficulties, and was ordered to leave the Bombay force to hold Candahar, and to march with his own division to Ghuznee and Cabul. On the way he had a sharp fight and won a decisive victory.

But, with the several movements that have been mentioned, serious changes in the strength of the military positions had been occurring. When Stewart had first come to Candahar, he had two divisions there—and these were being reinforced by troops from Bombay; then he sent off Biddulph to India by the Thul Chotiali route, and with him one of his two divisions, which left at Candahar Stewart’s one division and the Bombay force. And during all this time Ayub Khan had been holding Herat, and had not been meddled with, nor had he attempted any forward movement while there were two British divisions present at Candahar. But when Stewart departed from Candahar with his own division for Cabul, as above described, Ayub Khan took advantage of the consequent weakening of the force at Candahar to march on it from Herat by Girishk, the site of Biddulph’s operations. The result of this bold advance of Ayub Khan was that, in consequence of the mismanagement of the British commanders left in charge, their force was defeated at Maiwand and fled ignominiously into Candahar, which then came under a state of siege.

These were the events that had been occurring in India in 1881 during Browne’s stay in Paris and later on in London, whence he had again tried to be allowed to join the army in India, but again without success, and where therefore he busied himself still more strenuously in all that was being done in connection with the operations in India.

The second year of Browne’s furlough now saw him established in London, and chiefly occupied in the study of the political situation and the aspect of coming events—both of them very serious—so serious as to demand some description, in two directions at least, India and Africa. To take the latter first: Colley, who was now the British representative, had come to loggerheads with the Boer fraternity, and began operations against them by seizing and occupying the Majuba Hill, which overlooked and commanded the Boer camp. The results are but too well known—his defeat and death, and the prolonged strife ending in the South African war.

In India, Ayub Khan had advanced from Herat and invaded the Candahar territory, thus giving Sir Frederick Roberts the much desired opportunity of recovering, in the eyes of the public, his recent signal repute, which had, without doubt, been shaken by the Sherpore business, however skilfully and quickly he had turned the tables on the enemy. He had a true and more than loyal friend in Sir Donald Stewart, with whose support he led southwards a picked force of 10,000 men to the recovery of the position at Candahar. His march and battle are too well known to need description. The result was, of course, a certainty; but the conduct of the march—a model feat—the thoroughness of Ayub Khan's defeat, and the promptitude of the recovery of the frontier at Candahar, with the clearance of the gloom which had been caused by previous occurrences, led to an exuberance of satisfaction and rejoicing with the British public, and to Roberts’s advancement to the peerage.

Meanwhile Sir Donald Stewart had arranged with Abdurrahman that he should become the new Ameer, and had withdrawn the British force from Cabul into British territory. But, as if political and military troubles were not sufficient subjects for worry, poor Lord Lytton was now, before the end came, to become the victim of a financial blundering— blundering so great, so obvious, and so grotesque that it seems inconceivable that it should have passed undetected by the able body of councillors by whom he was surrounded. Being called on to state the cost of the war, they had deliberately answered five millions, whereas it had really amounted to some eighteen millions. The fault was thought to lie with the financial officers in their quoting the amount of the booked outlay instead of the whole outlay, with explanations of any recoveries or drawbacks that might be counted on. But the palpable blunder roused widespread ridicule and irritation.

An early change of the ministry in England followed promptly, with the recall of Lord Lytton and the appointment of Lord Ripon as his successor.

One immediate result of the termination of the war and the change of ministry was a great discussion and dispute regarding the disposal of Candahar. Apparently all the fine points of Lord Lytton’s policy were set aside, and, quite irrespective of the new Ameer’s position and voice in the matter, the question that arose was whether or not we should retain Candahar. The grounds that were raised, pro and con, covered a very wide range; but Browne, as he had been there or thereabouts for so long a period, eventually had a public meeting called by his friends, and gave a lecture in London on the subject.

He had, first of all, been in direct communication with Lord Lytton on the subject, and had addressed to him a memorandum advocating withdrawal; and this paper Lord Lytton had sent toThe Times with a memorandum of his own views dissenting from Browne. Correspondence and interviews with leading statesmen had then followed—resulting, in England, in controversies in which the several divergent views generally followed English party politics, while Browne’s were based on the military and frontier aspects of the case.

At length, at the end of the year, he gave the lecture referred to on the subject, at the East India Association,1 when his former chief, Sir Alexander Taylor, presided, and nearly every gentleman of repute in Indian affairs was present. He there strongly, clearly, and with obvious success advocated on the one hand the restoration of Candahar to Afghanistan, and on the other the occupation and the formation of a strong position on the Khwaja Amran range (by which Stewart’s force had marched to Candahar) and at Pesheen itself. He further urged strongly the necessity for rail and road communication by Biddulph’s route from the Derajat into the Thul Chotiali districts, and reiterated the objections he had laid before Lord Lytton to the arrangements, as a permanency, of the suggested communications between Sukkur and the passes about Quetta. The discussions that ensued covered all the points of interest that were involved, and were very valuable from the interest they evoked.

During this stay in London Browne was, in fact, making most admirable use of his time in acquiring information and coming in touch with the leading men of the country. Not only was he thus making valuable use of his holiday, but he had plunged into authorship, and in quite a different line of thought. His strong religious feeling and his deep convictions have been referred to in previous chapters; and now, in consequence of much controversy that was going on in England, he took up the cudgels against the scepticism that was more or less rampant, by writing and publishing a small brochure on the subject, on a purely mathematical basis. Its technicality and extremely condensed or compressed style entirely prevented its reaching the public or attracting attention, but it found its way to America, where it excited interest and was well noticed. A professional lecturer there used to quote largely from it, and spoke of it as “the most crushing reply he had ever come across to would-be scientists and materialists, and the subtlest attack on scepticism he had ever had experience of.” It later on received attention and approval from Sir George Stokes, of Cambridge, one of the most eminent mathematicians of the day.

It was while Browne had not yet returned to India that he heard of the death of his brother-in-law and brother officer—his school friend, and lifelong comrade, W. H. Pierson. Though the Afghan war had come to an end, the frontier troubles had continued, and Browne’s old foes of i860, the Mahsood Wuzeerees, had to be coerced. Pierson had been ordered there in March, 1881; but the very trying climate and exposure had led to an attack of dysentery which ended fatally in the following September. He had won the gold medal of the British Association at the age of seventeen and came out in the Bengal Engineers, head of Addiscombe, in three instead of the customary four terms, winning the Pollock Medal. He was a superb musician, a high-class chess player, and an enthusiastic boating man, pulling bow in many a winning race. He used to take first spears in hog-hunting, had seen much military service, and had been three times mentioned in dispatches. Till ordered on the Wuzeeree expedition, he had been for some time the Secretary of the Defence Committe of India, which had been hard at work during all Lord Lytton’s regime. But before that he had been mainly employed on the telegraph line through Persia, and passed through many interesting episodes in contests with the predatory bands by which the survey parties used to be attacked. His death was felt to be a great loss to his corps and to the state.

But, before quitting the subject of Lord Lytton’s rule, a few words may be said of the impressions left upon such a man as Browne by the methods and results of brilliant genius when regardless and, it may be said, contemptuous of matured practical experience. Lord Lytton set aside all men of note and leant on newly discovered geniuses—Colley, Cavagnari, Roberts, Pelly, Griffin, and the like; but it came in the end to Sir Donald Stewart being seen to be the mainstay of the empire, shrewd and wise, a man who would not put out his arm too far and was ever careful to feel his way. Lytton would not believe the Ameer, while the Ameer, like Dost Mahomed, was correct and sound in his knowledge of the people, and of the proper policy, which has held good ever since to the present day. He would force his embassy on the Ameer, and had to face the ignominy of its rejection. He would send Cavagnari to Cabul, and was stultified and punished by his murder. He would send the youngest of his generals to the chief post at Cabul, with the result of Sherpore. He would weaken the strategical position of Candahar, with the result of Maiwand and the necessity for the return march from Cabul to Candahar. He wished further to plant our own representatives at Cabul and Candahar, though at neither capital was one eventually established.

But Lord Lytton did, on the other hand, carry out many very valuable measures. He may be fairly credited with a vigorous advance towards the present efficiency in dealing with famines, though his predecessor, Lord Northbrook, was the first to organise any thorough treatment of such visitations; and he started the system of coast, frontier, and internal defences which have now been carried out, or are still being constructed. These are two measures of primary or imperial importance with which his name will ever be associated, though, as felt by Browne and contemporaries, he was inclined to rely on a few selected men of his own choice, and to ignore the vast field of able, zealous, and effective officers, of matured experience, whom he had at his disposal. To use one of Browne’s phrases, the methods and measures were all “jumpy.”

The result naturally was that, after his rule was at an end, the “jumpiness” was continued by the almost wanton destruction of the road and railway system which he had inaugurated in the Cutchee, in aid of the Quetta and Candahar operations; which could with ease have been utilised for the arrangements and measures eventually adopted.

One of Lord Lytton’s views, for which it is but just to give him the fullest credit, was the necessity for adopting for the wilder frontier districts, as had been done in the older days of the annexation of the Punjab, a perfectly different system of rule and administration from that in force in the more civilised territories. The old names for the contrasted systems were the “regulation” and the “non-regulation," and it had been Lord Lytton’s original intention, delayed from stress of other work, to constitute the whole of the tracts lying on the right of the Indus as one or more non-regulation provinces. This change has been fully carried out since, and it was, in fact, partly put in force by Lord Lytton himself when he constituted Sandeman his agent for the rule of Beloochistan. The necessity and merits of the change are dealt with in a later chapter, and to no one was it more a matter of thought and of interest than to Browne, who succeeded Sandeman in those duties, but whose rule was, as will be seen, much affected and hampered by the tendency of Government to modify the methods into more “regulation” channels.

It may be observed here that the Afghan war was the practical outcome of the Russo-Turkish war, and that there would have been the further outcome of England and Russia joining in the strife but for the Berlin treaties. And, further, though England and Russia had made a treaty which put a stop to the idea of a war between them, still it cannot but strike one as unsatisfactory that the methods described so clearly by Lord Palmerston should be allowed to continue in force. No steps seemed ever to be taken to exclude from the customary treatment and rights of the agents of civilised countries those who violate the procedure and |menities due to other states. The Russian agents who remained at Cabul to stir up strife long after England and Russia had formed their treaty might, one would suppose, be held liable to treatment as outside the pale of civilised law. The same remark applies to those who were the aggressors in later days in what is known as the Penjdeh incident.

During the latter part of Browne’s furlough, though the Afghan war had come to an end, public matters remained everywhere unsettled, and there was much turmoil in three several continents, all affecting England, engaging Browne’s attention, and influencing his career. And this heat in the political atmosphere continued to increase rapidly, till it developed into the rebellion of Arabi and the consequent war in Egypt.

In Europe the excitement lay between England on the one hand and Russia and France on the other. Russia was, as ever, intriguing keenly in connection with the Turkish question, and the French were more or less at issue regarding Egypt, while the English had acquired Cyprus as a valuable basis for watch and operation.

In Asia the Russians, after conquering Geok Tepe and settling boundary arrangements with Persia, were stirring in Turkestan and advancing towards Merv, under the guidance of the famed Lessar as their surveyor. The utmost confusion and turmoil still prevailed in our districts about Quetta and the Cutchee, and generally over India, owing to the change in the viceroyalty from Lytton to Ripon, and the cessation of the Forward Policy.

Towards the end of 1881, when his furlough had come to an end, Browne returned to India, and on reaching Bombay found himself appointed to the special task of surveying, examining, and reporting on the extension of railway systems in the Central Provinces of India—i.e. Nagpore and the adjacent districts. This involved exploration on elephant-back of districts covered with dense jungle, and the use of the same class of instruments as when he had examined the Cutchee. The work suited him thoroughly, and he finished the job in a few weeks, making his report long before the Government had expected it. He received their warm acknowledgments, and was forthwith posted to Simla to the office of the military department in which he was appointed to the preparation of the designs suggested by the Defence Committee, to which reference has been already made. This was for him an entirely new line of work, and a novel experience; but he turned to it with zest and soon took a keen interest in it, being brought into fresh association with Nicholson, his brother officer and comrade of Thul Chotiali days.

The Defence Committee, it may be observed, had been now at work for some time, and the working up of these conclusions and the preparation of the designs for the schemes they had advocated proved to be the particular duty on which Browne was now engaged. Owing to his independent habits of thought and very varied experience, he was of special use in this new post, in which he had to deal with the defences of India internal as well as external; and to himself the work was of much advantage, as, while utilising his old experiences at Attock and Peshawur and the frontier, he was led to broader views and grave practical questions of higher military and strategical consideration.

But, after only a few months of this occupation, a fresh change was to take place in his career. Such stir as there was on the Afghan frontier or in the direction of Russia will be presently described; but the fanatical feeling in Egypt, which had come to a crisis, must be now dealt with, and the war which consequently ensued. Arabi Pasha was for a while master of the situation. The British fleet had bombarded the defences of Alexandria, and war had been declared. At first it was uncertain what steps would be taken in which India should bear a part; but at length it was decided that General Herbert Macpherson should lead a contingent to Egypt And to that contingent Browne was appointed Commanding Royal Engineer, with Nicholson as one of his officers.

Of course, some short time elapsed before this decision was arrived at, and in that interval Browne’s special attention was more directly turned to sea-coast defences, not only for the ports of India, but those that he might have to deal with in the coming campaign. Till the definite decisions were arrived at and the orders received, Browne increased his knowledge and laboured as strenuously as ever at these harbour defences, and also at railway designs and arrangements in connection with the defences and for strategical purposes generally; but when once the orders were received, he was indefatigable in his preparations and inquiries. In these matters he was much helped by his friend Mr. (afterwards Sir) Guilford Molesworth, with suggestions for the work that probably lay before him, and with practical assistance in getting the engineer and railway equipment he would certainly need. It will be seen later on how valuable was this practical help, not only to Browne himself, but to the whole ensuing war, as his very complete equipment led to his railway branch being employed to an exceptional degree.

While Browne is preparing for the Egyptian campaign, we must turn to other complications that he had been watching. The Russians had conquered Geok Tepe, and were now stirring in Turkestan and advancing on Merv, giving rise to much anxiety, the Mervousness sneered at by His Grace of Argyll. They had settled their boundary arrangements with Persia, and Lessar was in charge of the Merv surveys and explorations. Needless to say, the keenest watch was felt to be necessary and was being kept up in that direction. At the same time, the settlement of our own measures in regard to Afghanistan had advanced so far that it had been decided that Candahar was to be given up, while Quetta had been already formally acquired and incorporated into British Indian territory, and Abdur Rahman was busy in organising his new rule of Afghanistan.

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