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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter XV - The Hurnai Railway: (i) 1882-3


FOR the Egyptian campaign Browne was twice mentioned in dispatches, and received the C.B. and other honours He used to contrast sarcastically the numerous decorations given for this business with the solitary clasp which represented the far more real and arduous fighting of the Umbeyla struggle. Certainly this campaign gave no indication of the severities and difficulties of the subsequent African wars, which would have suited his bent more thoroughly—the Soudan, Suakim, Khartoum, South Africa On returning to India he rejoined the Military Works Office at Simla, .and then found that he had been selected and had forthwith to prepare for a stupendous engineering task, the construction of the Humai Railway from the plains of Beloochistan to the Pesheen Plateau on the borders of Afghanistan. But for this nearly a year of preparation was necessary. Meanwhile Russia, with her customary astute diplomacy, was now (1883) taking advantage of England’s difficulties in Africa to press her own interests in Asia and to advance towards Merv; while in Africa matters were in a state of severe tension— Hicks’s force was annihilated, the Mahdi had seized Bara and El Obeid, and Sinkat was separated from Suakim. At the same time, on the other hand, our relations with Afghanistan itself were improved; and the chief danger seemed, to experts, to lie in a tendency to conform in India to the Gladstonian sentiments that had characterised the Majuba policy.

Before, however, concluding this chapter of the closing features of the Egyptian war, one incident of Browne’s stay at Simla may be mentioned. He was taking all the rest and amusement he could get, while setting to work at the preparations for his new task in the Military Office at Simla; and this lay, as usual with him, not in quiet repose, but in vigorous social amusements and in music. There was a very musical society at that time at Simla; concerts and oratorios were the rage, and there used to be weekly afternoon performances. Browne joined in the oratorios, but could not afford the time for practice or preparation; so that on one of these occasions he prolonged the chorus of “Stone him to death” in the oratorio of St. Paul by an additional solo, somewhat disturbing the gravity of the meeting, and leading to a bandsman’s remark that the event of the concert had been “Colonel Browne’s Brickbat Chorus.” Then, at the ensuing weekly concert, when Browne entered the room he was greeted with “Stone him to death” from a dark corner of the room, and on going there to find out the delinquent, who should it prove to be but his old friend and leader, Sir Donald Stewart, the Commander-in-chief.

Selected as he had now been for the Hurnai task, his career, thenceforward, was never disconnected with the Russo-Afghan question, in one or more of its branches or bearings. During the Egyptian war, and for a few months later, the difficulties in the political world continued. In India itself the situation had become very unpleasant. The Viceroy, Lord Ripon, one of the wisest and most far-seeing men that ever held that post, had been misled, and by his premature proposals for the Ilbert Bill, and the share to be assigned by it to educated natives in the administration and courts of the country, had seriously damaged his aim and greatly delayed the politic end he had in view; though he was still studiously carrying out some very valuable measures. No ruler ever left India so beloved, respected, and honoured by the native community of all ranks as did Lord Ripon. But in some points of practical administration, such as that of the frontier especially, he had occasionally allowed matters to slide, and to fall into untrained and unsuitable hands; and this, as it turned out, greatly affected the operations on which Browne was to be engaged before the year was over.

This chapter deals with the start of Browne’s greatest feat in engineering, but the following introductory and preliminary remarks are meant to throw light not so much on the task itself as on the state of affairs in the Hurnai neighbourhood during the four years which had elapsed since Browne had last been there. There had been little change at first, or until the Afghan war came to an end. Then came our retirement, when the cessation of the war was characterised by exceptional scenes and episodes which will be shown presently, culminating in the destruction, sale, or removal of nearly all the arrangements and plant which had been organised or constructed for our connection with the Quetta and other hill districts.

This was suddenly checked by the aspect of affairs from the Russian quarter, and the consequent volte-face of our Government, stopping the withdrawals which had been begun, and restoring and increasing the facilities for a renewal of our recent occupation of those districts—and that in a more permanent fashion than before. The Bolan route for light traffic, under Colonel Lindsay, was one of the measures then taken in hand; while the Hurnai route, for heavy traffic, a much graver undertaking, was to be entrusted to Browne. His local experience and influence with the frontier men, and his exceptional and paramount power with the Ghilzyes in particular, besides his repute for mastering difficulties, had led to his selection for the task. Another point that carried weight towards this decision was that troubles with the Russians were again brooding—this time with reference to the delimitation of the boundary of Afghanistan; and an able and resolute soldier was needed to meet any special difficulties that might arise either locally or generally in the conduct of the important charge which the work was felt to be.

It has been mentioned that the line had been already reconnoitred and decided on. The circumstances under which this had been done were as follows. In Lord Lytton’s usual fashion of selecting some special person, however unprofessional, for any extraordinary task, he had, in 1879, desired Sir Richard Temple, the Governor of Bombay, to proceed to Beloochistan, go to the Bolan Pass, see to the needs of the transport towards Candahar, cause a railway to be constructed across the Cutchee Plain to Sibi—a railway, that is, of a more permanent character than the temporary lines which had been, till then, carrying the needful war transport; and, further, to investigate the question of the route for a railway for heavy traffic from the plains to Quetta.

Sir Richard’s preliminary discussions with Colonel Sandeman, who, it will be remembered, was the ruler of Beloochistan before and during the Afghan war, had led him to concur fully in his view that the proposed railway could not be made through the steep passes of the Bolan; and therefore, at his suggestion and that of Colonel Lindsay, the local chief Engineer, he now examined, on horseback, the routes through the Humai passes. Starting from Sibi, to the west of which the Bolan lay, and trending first to the east and then circling round, he soon reached and went onwards by passes nearly parallel to the Bolan route, till eventually he reached the Pesheen Plateau. It may be incidentally noted that the wildness of the local tribes, and of the country defiles, made the journey one of serious danger, and demanded great care and watchfulness as well as boldness and resolution.

To reach the Pesheen Plateau, after traversing the Humai defiles, he had explored thence by side routes to the foot of the pass which led to it, and had then ascended upwards through the pass till he attained to the plateau itself. In so doing he detected the cross rifts between the parallel valleys, and it was this feature—the existence of the rifts—that seems to have guided Sir Richard to the plan or route which he proposed; but, as will be eventually seen, the task of negotiating those rifts in the course of the eventual work proved a stupendous one. Still it obviously gave an opening for a through line, at a reasonable slope—the essential desideratum for which his proposals were to provide, and for which no alternative route could then be heard of or has ever since been suggested.

In due course he submitted his scheme or sketch proposals; and in the interval between that date and 1883 more detailed, but still only preliminary, surveys and proposals for the route and the work were sent to Government. But, as will be seen, and as was unavoidable under the circumstances, they were quite worthless and misleading as to the difficulties to be overcome, the gravity of the work to be carried out, and the cost that would be involved. Such was the stage of the engineering information when Browne was proposed for the charge of the undertaking.

Before leaving the subject of Sir Richard Temple’s report, two points may be mentioned, not affecting that report, but bearing on the lines he dealt with. One is that when the war with Afghanistan broke out, in 1878, the nearest point of railway communication to Afghanistan was at Sukkur, where the railway from Lahore to Kurrachee crosses the Indus, and that its trains were taken then, and for some time afterwards, across that great river on steam ferries, there being no bridge there till many years afterwards. The other point is that, in continuation of the work done by Browne in 1876 in facilitating the crossing of the Cutchee Plain, Colonel Lindsay had carried his temporary railway to completion, and with great rapidity. But at the date which the story of Browne’s career has now reached—i.e. when he was back at Simla and under orders to prepare for the Hurnai work—confusion had long been prevailing in those border districts ever since the close of the Afghan war. This unhappy circumstance was consequent on the change of ministry in England and of the viceroyalty in India, accompanied by the exaggerated sentiments, the bitter spirit, and the drastic action that ensued on and characterised the change. The attitude seemed to imply a desire not for construction, but for destruction, for the sweeping away, as it were, of some disgraceful episode. The railways and tramways were torn up and all existing transport arrangements were set aside. In fact, while Lord Roberts was being glorified in England, the results of his and Stewart’s successes in India were being treated as if sheer oblivion was the only future they merited. Rails and plant, invaluable for the task that Browne would soon have to undertake, were being sold off for a song, and had in a few months to be replaced at fabulous prices under the emergency that had then arisen.

Browne had of course become aware very early of the policy and characteristics of Lord Ripon’s rule, and of the instructions with which he had undertaken his high office—the policy of hasty withdrawal, and the orders that Candahar and Quetta were to be given up, and with them the incomplete or temporary railways. As a fact, Candahar was absolutely abandoned, but happily the logic of facts and his own good sense were stronger with Lord Ripon than even his sense of allegiance to Mr. Gladstone’s policy; and hence the withdrawal of the British troops stopped short at Quetta, which was after all retained as the capital of the frontier province and the basis of the frontier defence.

Such, as have now been described, were the antecedents of the Hurnai project when Browne returned from Egypt to Simla early in 1883, and was warned that he would have the charge of the undertaking. At first the aspect of affairs did not seem to lead to any more serious idea than that the task would be a very heavy and difficult one, and while he was still at work on the Defence Committee, his special preparations for the Hurnai fitted in very conveniently with the duties of his actual post

Soon, however, the aspect changed, quite apart from the confusion in the Cutchee itself. The Russians’ advance from their more westerly position towards Merv had been going on in a somewhat treacherous manner, and with false avowals of their real intentions; till towards the end of 1883 it began to be clearly seen that the Russian general, apparently a Mahomedan adventurer named Alikhanoif, was coercing the people of Merv and its neighbourhood, so as to form a basis or starting-point for more advanced operations, and to come within striking distance of the positions that intervened between Merv and Herat. On this now becoming obvious, the preparations for starting the Hurnai work were hastened on; and one of the points arranged was that the work, though an Engineer operation, should be under the Military, and not the Public Works Department of the Government, and should be conducted under the guidance of the Commander-in-chief, Sir Donald Stewart.

But Browne’s preparations had to be more and more expedited, and expanded so as to include measures not previously contemplated, and all these were carried on in full concert with Sir Donald Stewart and, in many matters, at his suggestion. The essential features of the arrangements for Browne’s conduct of the work were these: his one imperative aim, to which all else was to be subordinated, was to drive on the work with the greatest speed possible, so as to complete the task by the earliest date in his power; he was not to be hampered with the customary official work, including the claims of estimates; he was to have at least one brigade of troops for the protection of the work, and to command it with the rank and the customary authority of a brigadier; he was to have a considerable body of Sappers and Miners and of Pioneers as part of his brigade; and he was to be wholly uncontrolled and untrammelled in his conduct of the work, and to have an absolutely free hand. These were great, unusually great, powers; but they were necessary for even the happiest conditions under which the task could be carried on.

But, as will be seen, wholly unforeseen and portentous difficulties arose, amounting to catastrophes, which rendered the work one of quite extraordinary difficulty.

Browne, on preparing to start, was, as has been mentioned, to be free from all the customary routine of Public Works business, owing to the emergency of the case. He was in the position of a chief Engineer as regards work and responsibility, but he was never provided either at first or afterwards with the customary establishment office and officers for a chief Engineer’s charge, owing obviously at first to the understanding that he was not to be hampered with the customary office duties of the post. It was to be essentially an urgent piece of war engineering to be carried through as rapidly as possible.

It must be very clearly and explicitly understood that when the task was assigned to Browne, and when he left Simla to start the work, the matter was entirely a military undertaking, and lay in the hands of the military members of the Viceroys Council, and still more of Sir Donald Stewart, from whom both officially and personally he received full instructions and advice on all points. It was a work of military urgency, and, as already noted, estimates for it were not to be an essential matter any more than for the expenses of war; speed! speed! again speed! was the essential desideratum.

But owing, it may be assumed, to some special exigencies of the state, Browne had no sooner left Simla than an entire revolution in the arrangements took place; another member was added to the Council of the Viceroy and put in control of the Public Works Department, to which, too, the Hurnai Railway was suddenly transferred from the Military Department, under which it had heretofore been fully arranged that it should be carried out. Hence Browne, on reaching Sibi, whence the railway was to start, found that he was not to be under Sir D. Stewart or the Military Department, but under the new special member for Public Works; and that the arrangements, conditions, and understandings settled with Sir Donald and the Military Secretariat were to be ignored, especially in respect of Browne’s own latitude and freedom from control in details. This entirely altered Browne’s position, doing away with the powers which had been promised and were requisite, without, on the other hand, lessening his responsibility for the results.

It may be assumed that public exigencies, arising chiefly from the Russian storm cloud, had made it necessary to have this additional member and to place Browne’s charge under him; but it was a pity that the exceptional position of that charge was not explicitly recorded by Government. This omission, however, was only one symptom of the general confusion that prevailed.

Browne had of course been aware that this muddling had been prevalent, but he had hoped that his position under the Military Department would have saved him from being affected by it; and he now raised no decided objection to the change, trusting, of course, that the great feature of the arrangement, freedom from interference, would be adhered to; but, unfortunately, this was not to be. His new chief, zealous and energetic, and with the enthusiasm of an amateur, began interfering from the very start in details respecting chiefly the business arrangements; and Browne, trusting to an improvement on these points in the course of time, and relying on the support of those by whom he had heretofore been guided, drove on the actual work as hard as he could. This was the essential need—other matters he left to time; but he could not help the delay or the extra outlay entailed by the new arrangements, to which he had at once objected, in the conduct of the enterprise. It is to be understood that when Browne joined at Sibi he learnt at once that he was to be under—not Stewart— but the new member of Council. But it was only by degrees that he learnt or found what this meant— viz. that the free hand, the basis of his position, was to be first of all ignored, next discountenanced, thirdly paralysed, and lastly upset. Hence Browne, acting on the principle of the superior claims of the urgency of the needs of the state, while endeavouring to carry out the orders he received from time to time, steadily and undeviatingly carried on his work at the utmost speed, so as to complete it at the earliest possible date, in despite of all difficulties and obstructions.

When, however, he was transferred from military control to that of the Public Works Department, it may be at once said that he looked forthwith at such estimates as already existed, and found them wholly unreliable and useless, as the works that were now found to be absolutely necessary exceeded, to a degree that cannot be adequately described, what had been provided for in those preliminary estimates.

It may be mentioned here, as a matter personally affecting Browne, that with this new task—the Humai Railway—he was being advanced from the executive duties and grades of the service to the highest class of responsible functions under the Government, of which he was to hold three in succession. The first was this one, the charge of the construction of the Humai Railway, which was of itself to involve four functions of grave responsibility—Engineer, Military, Administrative, and Diplomatic, or Political, as it is called in India. The next of the three posts was that of Quartermaster-General of the army, directly under the Commander-in-chief; and the third was the Government of Beloochistan, which involved a still wider range of duties and responsibilities than even the Hurnai Railway, and which ended with his death, after a short and sudden illness.

As Browne was now about to start the operations, the position must be clearly and explicitly stated. Without any idea of an impending change in the supervising department, he had, when asked if he would undertake the task, expressed his willingness to do so on conditions, which had been fully and heartily agreed to—viz. that his funds were to be unlimited, that he was not to be cramped by estimates nor by sanctioned designs, and that the speedy execution of the work was the one essential desideratum. A particular feature of the case that—in truth—made these conditions an absolute necessity was the wholly unknown character and nature of the work that would have to be carried out in that part of the undertaking which had to pierce the rift section of the projected route and to tunnel through that deep barrier of limestone rock While Browne was to carry out the broad gauge line for heavy traffic through the Hurnai passes, Colonel Lindsay, it may be mentioned, was to construct at the same time the light Bolan line. Both were to start from Sibi at the foot of the mountains, diverging there to re-unite at Quetta, the two lines forming an oval, with the stations of Sibi and Bostan at the opposite ends; the length of the Hurnai line, which was never to exceed a fixed maximum gradient, being about double that of the Bolan, which was to have steeper gradients and carry only light traffic. The limit of the gradients of the Hurnai was fixed at 1 in 45 and the minimum radius for curves was 600 feet. Browne’s own sketch of Lindsay’s line will be found in the next chapter.

In October, 1883, Browne started his operations for the construction of the railway. The urgency of the work and of the position has been already dwelt on, but it may be further explained that this urgency was based less on the danger from any hostile features in the movements that had already occurred on the part of the Russians than on that of the strategical position which the Russian advance had reached and of the facilities it afforded for further and rapid aggression. They had not yet reached Merv, though they were approaching it. But they had coerced Persia on the west, and would not allow either her or Afghanistan on the east and south to occupy any longer some of the sites they had always previously held, and General Komaroff was now planted in the Tejend oasis with a brigade. The Simla Government judged correctly of the military significance of the position, and of the probability of a very sudden advance by the Russians in force, with the customary accompaniment of claims to the sovereignty of the tracts reached in the advance. Hence the need for the summary stoppage of that destruction, which had been going on, of the facilities for transport; for fresh construction instead, for the strengthening of the frontier; and for vigorous progress with the Hurnai.

Browne, on reaching Sibi, naturally looked forthwith into the existing state of matters and the proposals that had been already made for the work to be done; and took a rapid trip over the route. During the few months of that cold weather the actual construction work that could be started—in which he was much hampered by official interference—had to be confined to the lower sections of the line, but equally important business work could be carried on for the whole line in respect of the collection of workmen and staff, of the designs for the bridges, and of arrangements or the supply of the ironwork from England. As the promised Pioneer and other regiments joined him, and he began to post them to their duties, there was at first, somewhat naturally, a tendency to minimise his military control; but his tact, common sense, thorough military instincts, and old experiences, at once put matters on a sound footing. So that not only did no hitch ever occur in the employment of the troops from first to last, but it was recognised before long that their physique, discipline, and health had benefited, and their spirit was excellent The strength of these troops, small at first, was shortly raised to that of a full brigade, and this proved to be no empty arrangement, from a military point, as some had at first expected; for their presence did, in fact, actually avert and prevent any single instance of molestation from the wild Kakur and other marauding tribes of the neighbourhood.

We have noted above the state of affairs in regard to the Russian advance on the north-east of Afghanistan during 1883, at the start and in the first year of Browne’s work on the Humai; but latterly the anxiety in regard thereto had begun to diminish in consequence of the arrangements now in progress for the formal settlement and alignment of the boundaries near Penjdeh. So, leaving that subject, we may turn to Browne’s own work and describe the duties which he had to carry out in the course of the task before him.

Its engineering features and its special difficulties may be first dealt with. The work and the climate were so exceptional that he could not assign to his officers any permanent charges and spheres of work; for, instead of being constant, these had to change with the season. In the winter they were assigned work in the lower sections of the route; in the summer they were transferred to the higher and cooler level, while Browne, himself seeming impervious to climatic difficulties, moved about or halted according as the exigencies of the work and the calls of his officers demanded. So serious were the difficulties, so great the breakdown in health, as will be shown in greater detail, so wild the country and so unfit for large bodies of labourers or employees, so overwhelming the catastrophes that occurred, that the pluck and determination which carried it all through must seem beyond all praise.

To turn now to the engineering task before Browne. It may be thus described. The height above the sea level at the base, Sibi, is about 300 feet; at the summit level near Kach, 120 miles from Sibi the height is 6,500 feet The construction of a broad gauge line over so great a height in so short a distance was a task hitherto unknown in any part of the world, except in Peru, and there were, in the case of this particular line, certain circumstances which offered peculiar difficulties. The line had to traverse no such lovely scenery as is found in Switzerland, where the railway passes from one scene of Alpine peacefulness to another, where the inhabitants are industrious and law-abiding, and where the climate is fairly temperate and at least bearable and salubrious. The country from Sibi to Garkhai is a rugged wilderness of rocks and stone, with hardly a blade of grass the whole way, excepting some small patches near Hurnai and Sharigh, where cultivation in 1883 extended round a few watch-towers as far as the range of the watchman’s matchlock. There the people were continually engaged in plunder and intertribal warfare—every man’s hand was against that of his neighbour. As regards the climate, the intense heat of the rocky gorges, on the lowest parts of the line, during the summer months, was only a little less endurable than the bitter cold of the upper passes in winter. The temperate zone of the line, near Hurnai and Sharigh, though enjoying a more equable climate, was shunned and dreaded on account of the malaria and pestilence which seemed to be always infesting it.

The engineering difficulties might be divided into four groups: (1) The Nari Gorge; (2) the Gundakinduf Defile; (3) the Chuppur Rift; (4) the summit portion, including the Mud Gorge.

(1) The Nari Gorge extended from the place where the Nari River debouches on the plains for some fourteen miles. The whole of this wild gorge is formed by the tortuous channel of the Nari River, a stream some 300 yards wide in flood, with a depth of about 10 feet and a velocity of some 5 feet a second. It is particularly subject to violent floods at irregular intervals. The railway crosses the Nari five times in the course of these fourteen miles, and at other places pursues a tortuous course round the bends of the gorge.

(2) The Gundakinduf Defile is only some eight miles long, but involves two tunnels through most treacherous material, and four large bridges.

(3) The Chuppur Rift is in the higher region of the line. It is a chasm some two and a half miles long joining two parallel valleys. Down this chasm, which in some parts is only a few yards wide and 300 feet high, a small stream flows over a boulder-strewn bed, with a longitudinal slope of 1 in 20. As the ruling gradient of the railway is 1 in 45, the entrance at the lower end had to be arranged for at a great height above the bed of the stream, so as to enable the line to issue at a proper level at the upper end. This work involved a crowd of tunnels (aggregating over a mile in length), and one large bridge 290 feet above the stream below.

(4) The summit portion, some twenty-five miles in length, had in it the most difficult part of the line— viz. a length of five miles along “ Mud Gorge,” where a narrow valley between precipitous mountains, and with a fairly steep longitudinal fslope, was filled with soil of an exceedingly treacherous nature, and of most irregular contour. Beyond this the rugged character of the mountain necessitated many heavy works, and a most careful examination of all possible routes, so as to cross the summit with the least work.

Browne decided that during the cold weather season, from October to April, attention should be specially directed to the works in the Nari Gorge and Gundakinduf Defile, while in the summer months the difficult portions in the higher parts of the line would be negotiated. It thus came to pass that certain of his officers were in charge of two distinct parts of the line, work on which (though never absolutely at a standstill) was carried on at the period of the year when the weather was most favourable for progress.

During the summer of 1884 attention was chiefly directed to the survey and tunnel work in the Chuppur Rift, the alignment of the summit portion and much of the earthwork there, and the survey of the last thirty-three miles into Quetta. There was a good deal of sickness, fever, and scurvy among the workmen and troops, but on the whole the work had gone on without much hindrance.

With the autumn months and the beginning of the campaign new difficulties cropped up in the lower part of the line. Fresh troops had now come to aid in the work—three full battalions of Pioneers—but hardly had they entered on the scene when cholera made its dire appearance. The result was a most serious stoppage of the works at a time when the weather was lovely and most favourable for pushing everything on. The Afghan workmen made a regular stampede, followed by many skilled artisans from various parts of India. To replace these losses Captain Moncrieff was sent to collect labour in the Eastern Punjab, and returned on the scene with some two or three hundred masons and bricklayers, but not until grievous delays had been caused and-much precious time wasted. Then sickness broke out among many of the Engineers.

Two army corps were now warned in India for mobilisation at the front, near Quetta, and the railway works under Brigadier-General Browne were ordered to be pushed on with the utmost dispatch. All the three Pioneer regiments under his command were to assemble in the Pesheen Valley and await further orders.

While in the midst of this intense pressure, Nature seemed to join with other forces to present difficulties in the progress of the works. Floods, the most violent and unexpected, suddenly burst upon them at the beginning of April, sweeping away bridges and miles of temporary roads, interrupting communication for days, rendering camping-grounds unfit for use, and making the supply of food most difficult. Yet the work went on. The Pioneer brigade assembled at its rendezvous with only some twenty sick out of 2,000, all equipped and ready for anything.

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