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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter XVII - The Political Situation: 1884-9


THE urgency of the work described in the two preceding chapters has been strongly and repeatedly expressed, but it may be useful to state more explicitly the causes of the anxiety. They were twofold: first, the actually threatening movements and the false and treacherous statements of the Russians in the neighbourhood of Merv; and second, the weak attitude of Lord Granville and the British Government The more recent measures and the position of the Russians in Turkestan must be first described. Hitherto they had already been present in some force on the Tejend oasis. But now their engineer, Lessar, had been reconnoitring ahead, to examine into the alleged difficulty or obstacle in the farther progress of the Russians, said to lie in an extensive rocky range, an alleged “ Parapomisus." He had found that this was a myth and that there was no physical obstacle of any gravity existing to the onward move of the Russian force. So now the Russians took possession of Merv and followed up the step by reconnaissances farther ahead.

All this was in clear violation of the existing agreement and understanding between Russia and England, which in three successive stages had definitely drawn the limit of the Russian advance at a line from Khoja Saleh to Sarakhs, and had affirmed the deserts beyond it to be Turkoman territory, and outside their own zone. But now comes in the Russian practice of a Government composed of apparently disconnected and independent, but at the same time thoroughly autocratic, sections of administration or authority. The diplomats said one thing and used their own maps, the commanders in the front had theirs—quite different—while the Russian staff at headquarters had still another set, which, in spite of M. de Giers’ statements to Lord Granville, laid down the boundary of the zone far south of Sarakhs, on the banks of the Murghab, where they were able to begin tampering with the Salik Turkomans of Penjdeh. All this aggressive action led, as usual, to Lord Granville giving up point after point, and then in April, 1884, when Browne was at the end of his first half-year’s experience of the work of the Hurnai, arranging for a formal meeting at the disputed site, to settle the matter, in the following October.

General Lumsden, with a suitable escort and staff, was to be in charge of the English party for the work of delimitation, and the point or area from which most anxiety was felt was said to be between the rivers Hurirud and Murghab. But the Russians pressed for the first steps being at Khoja Saleh; and though Lumsden and his party and the Afghan representatives were all ready by the appointed time, the Russian local authorities, General Zelenoi, Dondou-koff, and Korsakoff, put off the matter time after time, on the score of illness and other pretexts, so as to postpone it till after the winter of 1884-5. The object of this was revealed in due course. It was in order to give time for the arrival in the immediate neighbourhood of large reinforcements, so as to bring superior military strength to bear on the question of the position of the boundary that was to be laid down; and the first sign of this definite intention was shown in the seizure of the position of Pul-i-Khatun, and the advance to Penjdeh, which was Afghan territory. A glance at the map will show how this position stands in relation to Sarakhs, the avowed limit of the Russian advance.

Then during all January, 1885, the Russian, the Afghan, and the British detachments continued to occupy the positions they were holding at the end of 1884 preparatory to the start of the demarcation of the Russo-Afghan boundary, for which they had been gathered. But in February a party of Cossacks of the Russian force, eluding the Afghan detachments, crossed the prescribed boundary, advanced three miles beyond it, and held the point thus attained. Then additional Cossack detachments occupied some other neighbouring posts in advance, and were followed on March 16th by a body of Russians. In spite of these glaring insults and breaches of agreement, Mr. Gladstone accepted the position; the natural result being further treacherous movements of the Russians, leading, on March 30th, to the conflict at Penjdeh between the Russians and the Afghans, the Russians being under the command of General Komaroff.

This outrage exceeded the limits of even Mr. Gladstone’s complaisance; the question was acknowledged to be one not of debatable frontiers, but of national honour, and the declaration of war seemed imminent. The Czar declined to allow any investigation into Komarof's conduct, but proposed the arbitration of a friendly sovereign. This was accepted, and the result - was an adjournment, to which the Ameer heartily agreed. But even after this the Russians on the spot continued aggressive, and it is quite uncertain how the matter might have ended; but fortunately the Gladstone Ministry resigned and Lord Salisbury accepted office. His firm tone and his resolute character entirely changed the attitude of the Czar and his satellites, and his dictum sufficed. Russia dropped the game of brag, Lord Salisbury’s ruling and alignment were accepted, and all differences ended in the demarcation being forthwith begun and carried out, partly in that year, 1885, and partly afterwards. Hitches, of course, occurred at various points from time to time, but the Russian attitude was changed, and all was eventually settled amicably, successive difficulties as they arose being smoothed away by the good temper and shrewdness of the Ameer and by his personal presence on the spot.

Meanwhile the Penjdeh incident of March 30th, 1885, by which time Browne had been hard at work on the Hurnai for eighteen months, had roused Lord Dufferin, Sir Donald Stewart, and the Indian Government into prompt and vigorous action. Preparations were made for the movement of large forces to the assistance of Afghanistan, both by the Khyber and by Candahar. Lord Roberts was summoned for this purpose from his command at Madras; the Cutchee Plain and the roads to Quetta and onward were filled with troops and transport; and both the road and the railroad through the Bolan were pressed vigorously, and a permanent addition of 20,000 men to the British army in India was also arranged for.

The attitude of the country was now very different from what it had been in Lord Lytton’s time. The present movement was in support of a native power and not an attack on it; and the real sense of the situation, as felt by the Government, was evinced by their free admission of Russian officers, then travelling in India, to the army manoeuvres at Delhi early in 1886.

Before this, while Browne had been carrying on his work on the Humai, and the events that have been described had been taking place, Lord Ripon had left India, and his successor, Lord Dufferin, supported by Sir Donald Stewart, had been working in full concert with the Ameer at the preparations for such immediate and prompt action as might be necessary for opposition to Russian aggression. They had been joined by Lord Roberts from the Madras command; and, while a sharp outlook was being kept up at Peshawur, and the Humai line was being carried on with desperate energy, troops were being gathered and all the necessary preparations were being made about Quetta for an advance thence to Candahar. The Quetta railway Engineers were vigorously at work, and an ordinary road, with the bridges needed for the numerous crossings and vagaries of the Bolan River, was being rapidly pushed by the energetic Engineer of Quetta, Colonel Tomkins. And while all this was going on we were again at loggerheads with that very unsatisfactory monarch, the King of Burma. Browne’s old commander in Egypt, Sir Herbert Macpherson, had at first the charge of the operations against him, but died before they were completed. They were, however, speedily carried out with thorough success by his successor, Sir Harry Prendergast, RE.

By the time that Browne had finished the Humai most of the troubles noted were at an end; but the movements of Russia, however much they had been affected by Lord Salisbury’s vigour, had not only created a state of matters that required a thorough settlement, but had laid bare, in an unmistakable manner, the weaknesses of the British India position, and led to the unavoidable conclusion, even to a Gladstonian Cabinet, of the need of a thoroughly sound and effective system of material defences and military preparations, as well as measures of policy, on the north-west frontiers of India

The last chapter mentioned Browne's appointment to the post of Quartermaster-General when the end of his furlough was approaching, and also how greatly he was occupied during the whole time he was in England with important subjects connected with India. Among those with whom he was brought into close contact, at one time or another, were Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-chief in India, and Sir George Chesney, his colleague as military member of the Council. And both of them were anxious that he should become Quartermaster-General of the army when General Chapman, who at that time held the post, vacated it in ordinary course.

Such an appointment would, it may be observed, be an entire innovation, upsetting all traditional usages under which the post had lain in what may be styled the closest of close boroughs, and had been obtained only by rising, as Lord Roberts had himself done, through the several successive grades of the department till the highest post in it was reached. But Browne’s career had marked him out as an exceptional character, more especially during the last few years.

These particular antecedents may be noted. Towards the end of 1887 many inquiries and schemes that had been incubating for some years came to a dose or to a decisive stage. One of these was the work of the Defence Committee of India, and another the special question of the defence of the Quetta frontier towards Candahar. Browne had been closely connected with both these inquiries; and latterly, while still on the Hurnai, he had been specially consulted in regard to the problem of the Quetta frontier. The ground involved was the field in which he had been engaged in Biddulph’s and Sir Donald Stewart’s advance to Candahar, including as it did the two passes—the Khojak and the Gwaja—through what was known as the Khwaja Amran range. Sir G. Chesney and Browne had visited the spot together and seen the progress of the tunnel that had been started on the Khojak; and now, when they were both in London, they had tackled the subject again, but from other points of view. Lord Roberts had already consulted Browne, as above noted, while he was still at the Hurnai, and had elicited from him the following opinions.

His theory was clear. He fully recognised the absolute necessity of fortifying some position which an invading enemy could not avoid, and which could be made an obstacle of such strength and such expansion that it could neither be captured nor turned. He agreed with the positions proposed; but in regard to the general scheme he objected to the use of huge forts or extensive fortifications, preferring a system of extemporised works, taking advantage of natural obstacles, defensive lines, and the interlacing of roads and railroads for facility of communication. So that an enemy should find on its path extemporised Plevnas, when least expected.

“Study the country,” he added, "I have your positions selected, and the moment it is necessary, run up extemporised entrenchments.” With rocky ground, such as abounded there, he would prepare galleries in the rocks ready to be turned into embrasures of batteries, invisible until wanted and brought into use. Nor, he thought, need this be costly; for his experience of tunnel work gave him a much truer knowledge of the expense of such preparations than could be possessed by mere theorists. Forts, he held, placed at other than absolutely obligatory points, had merely to be avoided or circumvented. They simply told an enemy “what not to do and where not to go.”

Advantage also was taken at the same time of his intimate local knowledge to discuss and settle many points respecting routes and passes, such as the Khojak, the Machai, and others.

Besides the measures for the Khojak, Browne had also very strong views on the necessity of making Nushki an obligatory point on the railway to Candahar, if only to enable a concentration of troops and munitions to be made there in the event of any flank movements from the elbow of the Helmund, as its great bend is called.

The Nushki position and the ridge of the Khwaja Amran range would be readily fortified, with posts to command the passes, with good military roads connecting the several points and the railways, in rear, and concentrating all the resources of India in support An enemy, on the other hand, would have to traverse a barren plain, about eighty miles in width, wholly destitute of forage or the means of supporting a large number of troops—and in which any large movements of troops could be discerned from the range at the distance of about twelve miles; the range would be impregnable.

The importance of Nushki he held to be the paramount feature of the scheme; as without some such complete measures as those advocated there would be grave possibilities of an enemy’s approach, when very serious consequences might ensue. But with such arrangements carried out, as above proposed, the facilities for further measures, and the fidelity of Beloochistan, would be ensured. The local proverb is that “ the Helmund district is the waist of Beloochistan,” and nothing could be imagined to clasp it more strongly than a railway girdle from Nushki, with an entrenched camp in advance.

In support of these views Browne said in another document that, while recognising the importance of the Khojak Tunnel, he held the Nushki line to be of equal, in fact of paramount necessity. He pointed out further, in support of this, that the speed of the construction of the Nushki line could be counted on with much greater confidence than that of the Khojak Tunnel, and he adduced other reasons in support, which need not be mentioned here. Hearty unison with the Beloochees and the securing of their entire confidence was one of the strongest bases of his views. It could act and be sufficient of itself, but would also tend to facilitate similar good-will from the Afghans.

The importance and correctness of these views became evident in later days, when, as a fact, the details of the frontier position beyond the farther end of the Khojak Tunnel caused much unpleasantness with the Ameer—an unfortunate matter, as raising doubts on the propriety of our action. For the Ameer had not been a touchy or over-sensitive ally when the aspect of our relations with Russia had been very threatening.

In all these discussions and arguments Browne enunciated his own views, whether they did or did not agree with the report of the Defence Committee; and it may be reasonably assumed that his views had much to do with his selection for the post he was now to hold.

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