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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter XVIII - Quartermaster-General: 1889-92


IN the preceding chapter the circumstances leading to Browne’s appointment have been described, and it may again be observed that it was an innovation in more ways than one. It was the first time that Browne had ever been employed on military duties or in a military department except in actual warfare; and still more, it was the first time that any R.E., any officer of his corps, had ever been employed in the Quartermaster-General’s Department. But though the department and the army were doubtless surprised, there was no sign of any cavilling or questioning in regard to the appointment, for Browne’s merits and capacity were universally known and acknowledged. At the same time, it was at once surmised that his conduct of the duties of the post would be much more rough-and-ready than was customary, and would somewhat strain the orthodox conformity with rules and regulations heretofore so rigidly adhered to.

But, somewhat autocratic as he might be as to the interpretation of rules, he conformed to them thoroughly in spirit, especially when there was no doubt about them, and when it was a personal question and not one of work. Such a case—and a very unique one—was now involved. Ever since he appeared on the scene in India, Browne had been almost identified by his beard; but Lord Roberts required in his special staff the strictest conformity with regulations, and beards were not in order, even when worn by one of the most distinguished occupants of the post. So Browne’s beard was doffed, with this result, that the new Quartermaster-General could with difficulty be identified with the universally known “Buster.”

Another point—a very special one—may also be here noted. On his proceeding to take up this appointment, he was leaving England for the last time, never to return. He stepped at once from the post he was then joining to his final appointment at Beloochistan, the vacancy of which occurred suddenly from the unexpected death of his predecessor therein, Sir R. Sandeman.

But, to revert to the appointment itself, his thorough knowledge of railways and of our north-west frontier was certain to be of great value in dealing with Indian defence and mobilisation. His thoughts too had long been filled with projects reaching far into the future, such as strategic railway extensions, mobilisation, concerted arrangements with the colonies, and the like. The more departmental subjects dealt with by the Quartermaster-General had little attraction for him— they consisted in details which he had not dealt in. But it was as well that there should be a change to a broader view of things from the comparatively cramped range of subjects with which the department dealt in its routine work. It was, of course, a matter of moment to Browne that both the principal military officers in India, the Commander-in-chief and the Military Member of the Council, were of one mind in selecting him for the post.

Irrespective of routine work, Browne’s special functions would lie in the movements of troops, especially during war and the threatenings of war, a situation which was likely to be, and was, in fact, ceaseless; as during Lord Roberts’s command-in-chief war was always going on somewhere. This will be seen from the list of expeditions that were carried on during Browne’s three years’ tenure of this post as shown on page 282.

In regard to the special question of the Border defences in front of Quetta, it may be observed that before Browne joined the Humai work in 1883, he had been employed on the Defence Committee at Simla, and had there acquired an exceptional degree of knowledge on frontier defences generally. So now, in 1889, six years afterwards, he was thoroughly qualified to deal with the conclusions at which that committee and the chief authorities had arrived, and the decisions on the points involved, on which orders were now definitely passed. It had taken some time to thrash out the final conclusions, as every expert had eventually had his say, and the inquiry had been very thorough. Practically the final conclusions on this report formed the Bible for his departmental guidance, and now that the principles and salient points were settled, it fell on him to organise and work at giving effect to the conclusions formed. Hence, instead of remaining chiefly at the army headquarters as his predecessors had generally done, he was ceaselessly on the move, visiting the stations all over the Bengal Presidency and pressing forward and helping the executive measures to give effect to the conclusions arrived at and the orders issued, as well as to the new schemes for the mobilisation of troops.

While these arrangements and schemes were under preparation, Browne was not settled quietly at any headquarters, but was generally on the move in one part of India or another—Peshawur, Quetta, Rawal-pindee, Calcutta, Burma, Assam, and elsewhere, as well as the intermediate stations—for his multifarious tasks entailed personal inspections and investigations, with of course the subsequent reports and proposals; and the subjects involved were such practical matters as the hutting of troops, the organisation of transport, the sanitation of stations, reconnaissances and surveys for lines of communication, and the like.

In addition to such technical work, he drew up very full and suggestive papers on subjects of moment to the State, based on his personal visits and inquiries. These subjects embraced frontier defences including Quetta; frontier railways; the concert of varied communications, e.g. by railway, road, and river; sites for passages of the Indus and other rivers; the Khojak Tunnel; temporary military railways, such as for the Chitral expedition; routes, railways, and preparations generally for the defence of India on the north-west, and so on. His State papers indeed form a most valuable collection; for, in fact, during his tenure of the post of Quartermaster-General Browne was dealing with questions of exceptionally high importance, and directly subject to the scrutiny and criticism of such men as Lord Roberts and Sir George Chesney. His views and suggestions, it need hardly be said, were most of them confidential and are not available for publication, but a few that are available are dealt with when the subjects involved are discussed.

The most important subjects on which he reported are the following:

The military strength of Russia in Central Asia.
An Indo-Afghan Railway to Herat
The extension of railways beyond the Indus.
The improved feeling on the frontier.

But in addition to these were others, which could not be dealt with except very briefly or by name only. Such as:

On the meeting-point of the English and the Russian advance on the Arabian Sea.

On the Frontier Policy in 1890.

On a railway from Cabul to Candahar.

On other railways in Afghanistan, e.g. connecting Ghuznee and Khelat-i-Ghilzie with our own frontier positions.

On the terms for concert with the Ameer regarding them.

On recruiting for our army on the frontier.

On tribal levies and the like.

On railways in Zhob.

On the formation of a new Trans-Indus Province (since carried out).

On improvements in frontier administration.

On the widespread misconceptions of the condition and needs of the frontier.

On the proper basis for such administration and influence lying in interminable conversations and personal intercourse, with a minimum of paper-work and correspondence.

Many of the expeditions were serious little wars, causing much anxiety and attracting much attention at the time, and bringing to their commanders, as was due to them, high honour and repute. But on Browne and the army staff they merely entailed very hard work in the preparations and arrangements for the expeditions. At one time 30,000 men were on active service—noten masse, but in separate parties, each demanding special arrangements and preparations.

The Chitral expedition, it may be remarked, was an exceptionally severe strain because it came on quite suddenly, when Wuzeerabad was still occupied by mobilisation troops and the stores at Peshawur had just been destroyed by fire, requiring the base to be shifted from Peshawur to Nowshera. In addition he had to supervise large camps of exercise at Muridki, Khairabad, and Aligurh.

But his great and prominent task was the organisation of an entirely new scheme for the mobilisation of troops for campaign work. Under this scheme the basis was changed from mobilisation by regiments or corps, into mobilisation by stations. The smoothness of the working and the elasticity and soundness of his scheme were soon tested and proved by the Chitral campaign, the severe strain of which established its efficacy, especially in regard to the tables he drew up, as, for instance, for railway movements, for equipment, station stores, field manuals, general troop movements, obligatory garrisons, etc.—matters which all lay directly under the Quartermaster-General.

Though, doubtless, more was still open for him to advise on, Browne’s time as Quartermaster-General closed abruptly at the end of three years, when, in consequence of the sudden death of Sir Robert Sande-man, Governor-General’s Agent in Beloochistan, he was selected for the succession to that post. The letters he received, both of regret at the cessation of his recent functions and of compliment at the high and very important charge now assigned him, were very pleasant and gratifying.

It need hardly be said that while Browne was Quartermaster-General the Russians had been steadily pressing their way into Central Asia—on the passes, and the Afghan borders, but chiefly in Afghan Turkestan, among the Huzari subjects of the Ameer, and wherever, for any reason, it could be claimed that the frontiers were not defined. In Africa the Mahdi and other troubles were in full force; and Rhodes’s settlement' of Rhodesia was being effected, though to be followed quickly by the Matabele war.

While Browne was dealing chiefly and vigorously with the two great subjects to which Lord Roberts had desired his special attention—the west frontier defence and mobilisation—he had of course to take his proper part in regard to another important class of military questions, the frontier wars and expeditions; although other commanders and officers were in specific charge of their direct conduct and management They can be conveniently dealt with in two groups: those on the eastern frontiers, and those on the west or north-west.

On the east there had been during those three years some seven more or less prolonged contests— viz. with Burma, Sikkim, the Looshaies (2), the Chins, Manipur, and the Kachins.

On the north-west there had been six, though they might be held to be more numerous, as these areas were extensive, and the troops detached. There were two against the Mirunzyes and Orakzyes, and one against each of the following: Zhob, Hazara and the Black Mountain, Hunza Nuggur, Gilgit and Isazye.

In all these contests the difficulties lay in the mountainous character of the country and all the important points being held by the enemy.

The only contest that need be referred to at greater length is that of the Black Mountain expedition. The reason for this is, the personal part which Lord Roberts played in it, and the limitations of the sphere of operations, under the specific orders of the Government, to a very restricted area—a restriction which led to a much more widespread and serious and costly war four years later. The whole business was typical—typical, that is, of the blunders and evil policy of Government, interfering with the military operations, and, in a short-sighted and half-hearted manner, stopping them when the enemy were not yet vanquished or cowed, thus encouraging them to repeat the struggle at their own convenience. The enemy were contemptible, but they had their old stereotyped methods of fighting, while the restrictions imposed on Lord Roberts and his force played into their hands. The orders were so strict and peremptory that evasion of them or of their results was impossible. As in all such mountain conflicts, there was one body of determined fighters—Ghazees—and these duly sought and met their fate: otherwise the enemy were merely hiding, sniping, and skulking for opportunities.

Then the troops were withdrawn to fit in with reports that would reach England at a critical date, although, during the whole term of retirement, there were always sufficiently near well-hidden, numerous tribesmen, keeping up a persistent desultory fire on the troops. One can imagine what the chagrin and irritation of the Chief must have been at this return to the worst periods and worst modes which had been now and then allowed to mark our conduct of hill warfare.

It is difficult to imagine what valid objection there could have been to the measure that was obviously essential—the selection of a proper frontier line in advance, really and easily defensible, affording all the military and political facilities that were needed, and bringing the inhabitants under British rule. The Indus would have formed a natural boundary along a great part of such frontier line; but, although there were mounted troops with the force, it does not appear that much further information of the lie of the country was obtained. It has been suggested that the Allai Valley would have made a good boundary—in a word, the whole of the Black Mountain should have been brought into British territory.

One of the subjects in which Browne was particularly interested, and about which he corresponded with his brother officers and others, was the advance of Russia and of India towards the mouth of the Persian Gulf and where they would be likely to meet

He gathered that the Russians would be likely to move from Khorasan on the death of the Shah, and only wait the development of their newer trades and enterprises in Trans-Caspia to advance and take Herat. So we should push on to Nushki; we otherwise should meet them near Candahar or on the Helmund. There was no reason to think of a Sebastopol on the Persian Gulf: either Englishmen must be off the seas altogether or they would never let Russia settle on the “ Gulf," or get there as a naval power; and if she tried to do so it would be a very vulnerable point at which to worry and annoy her.

The Trans-Caspian Railway was likely to reach Tashkent, and vastly strengthen Russia on the Penjdeh frontier. Railway branches could then be pushed on to various points, from which to advance farther to Herat and Meshed, with branches from Bairam Ali and Charjui to Karki and Penjdeh. Browne knew that General Armenhoff and all the Russian officials in Trans-Caspia were very eager for the scheme.

He understood that Sir H. D. Wolff could get no concession for railways, but that he might get a finger in the railway pie if he consented to go shares with Russia in a railway from Rescht to Mohamrah, which, however, would be a doubtful policy. He had heard rumours of concessions in railways being granted to two Russian capitalists; lines from Rescht to Teheran and on to Koru and Ispahan, and from Koru to Kermanshah, were what he heard the Russians wanted, and also a line from Sarakhs to Meshed. It was possible that the Shah might refuse railway concessions to both English and Russians, and give them to Belgians or French, but in that case they would either be good for Russia, or no good to any one.

On the other hand Browne advocated a railway from Gwadur within Beloochee limits to Seistan, and another from Nushki which would threaten the Caspian line. There was this objection to any such scheme, that they would be far from India, and Herat would be a doubtful ally. Khorasan would probably have practically become Russian, with a nasty bit of country between Seistan and Trans-Caspia. The Caucasus, Bokhara, and the Turkomans were already subdued, and would every year become less inclined to revolt. The Tzar- would be likely to consolidate and tranquillise all his part of Central Asia Seistan ought certainly to be ours and the Nushki Railway should be pushed on, but there could be no likelihood, he held, of our establishing ourselves in Persia or on Persian territory, nor of any railway from Bandar Abbas except in the event of a game of “ catch who catch can ” being started by Russia on the death of the Shah. He had learnt that inland from Gwadur the country was rugged, mountainous, and full of gorges, very difficult for railways. On some other points he knew that Gwadur had a fair anchorage in an open bay, but was not to be compared in this respect with Bandar Abbas, which with the island of Kishm has an excellent harbour fit for a large fleet and in every way suitable for military purposes.

A British occupation of any part of Persia south of the great plateau was held to be practically impossible unless we intended to partition the empire and take all south of the line from Kermanshah, Ispahan, and Kirman. But the people bear us no love and the climate on the lower plains is too hot for Europeans. By that route we could not do more than prevent Russia getting down from Persia and Mesopotamia.

Seistan, he held, could not act as a menace to the Trans-Caspian Railway, as troops from Tashkent and the Caucasus could be massed so readily, but it might help to prevent Russia from getting to the “ Gulf" on the eastern road, i.e. by the route to the east of the Great Salt Desert, and might help in keeping Afghanistan in order. This, however, would not prevent the Russians coming down through Armenia and Mesopotamia or vid the Karun, were the latter unoccupied. But Seistan and Las Jowain would support British troops, who would there enjoy fair comfort and health.

He further thought that Persia would nominally help Russia, but would dally and delay and would never attack us unless in company with or coerced by Russian troops. And, in any case, she would bring nothing worth having in the way of troops, regular or irregular, unless her military organisation were materially changed meanwhile. Her undisciplined rabble, with no commissariat or transport of any sort, miserably equipped, would only loot and drive away the inhabitants both friendly and unfriendly, eat up supplies, and never do a day’s fighting.

The Luristan tribes would help us. They hate the Persians, but they do not love us or know us at present. It would probably be a question of money and nothing else, and as we have the longest purse they would come to us. We might prevent Russia from coming down the Karun, but to do any good we must occupy Ispahan, etc., and not stay in a barren, mountainous, uncivilised country like Luristan.

One other expedition may be mentioned—that from Quetta through the Zhob Valley debouching through the Mahsood Wuzeeree country, the site of Browne’s first experience of war. This expedition, though it had to coerce and fine some troublesome chiefs and tribes, and settle the country, met with no actual fighting; but its object was the important one of getting a thorough grip of that country with a view to the preparation for the double routes which were to be carried out thence, from the Derajat, north-west and south-west towards Ghuznee and Khelat-i-Ghilzie respectively through the passes of the Gomul and Zhob Rivers. The object was to clear and establish a strong strategical starting-ground. It was practically the same ground, then quite unknown, that Biddulph and Browne had traversed between the first and second periods of the Afghan war; but now much valuable information, through the investigation of these several parties and of Colonel Buchanan

Scott and others, had been collected and was to lead to the organisation of the through routes desired. In fact, Browne’s view was that the carrying out of the route to Khelat-i-Ghilzie would practically lead to a partition of Afghanistan being available without any further difficulty, whenever it might be desired, by an east and west line running between Ghuznee and Khelat-i-Ghilzie, while that through the Zhob country itself would connect Quetta directly with the Upper Punjab.

With regard to the expedition on the western frontiers, though the management and control of the tribes was not Browne’s present business, still his knowledge of them was so great that his views as to the methods to be pursued could not fail to have effect. It was essential to discriminate between those districts where Pathans were concerned and those connected with Beloochees; between those tribes in which there was a large body of skilled and industrious cultivators, or of clever and keen traders, and those who lived by plunder and evil deeds. Thus when Browne had been in England in 1888, there had been an effort made to open the Gomul Pass, but it had been a failure owing to the misunderstanding of the leading bad characters, especially one Umar Khan. The Mahsood Wuzeerees were a clan that especially required a careful and organised controlling policy, not only from their intrinsic qualities, but from the fact that they completely dominated both the Gomul and the Traki Passes to Khelat-i-Ghilzie and to Ghuznee respectively. It was necessary therefore not only to get a grip of the routes and passes, but to secure and develop the country, and it was with this view that, at the end of 1889, about the time of Browne’s return to India as Quartermaster-General, Lord Lansdowne had a meeting at Dera Ishmael Khan of the leading officers concerned—Lord Roberts, the Governor of the Punjab, and Colonel Sandeman—and then with them rode up the Gomul and passed a scheme for occupying Zhob and opening up the Gomul.

Before closing this part of Browne’s career it may be mentioned that it was not till he had moved into his next post that the thoroughness and value of his mobilisation work were, or indeed could be, recognised. Also, though ex officio necessarily connected with the question from the first, he was for some time only one of the members of the committee. But now Lord Roberts, at the instance, it is thought, of Sir H. Brackenbury, placed the superintendence of the whole matter in Browne’s hands. Browne had always taken an interest in it, and now he took the subject con amore, and showed himself a thorough expert in its requirements if only from his exceptional knowledge of the frontier and of railways and his aptitude for all arrangements connected with the concentration and movements of troops. It was a foregone conclusion that at any rate his measures would be thoroughly practical. They were early pronounced to be satisfactory, and in 1895 they stood the severe test of the rapid mobilisation of 16,000 troops for the relief of Chitral. This mobilisation and his frontier schemes leave an indelible stamp on the value of his work as Quartermaster-General of the army, as thus authoritatively described:

“A very startling collapse and break-up has befallen the hostile attitude so long maintained towards us along the border. The frontier tribes seem to have been impressed, almost at one and the same moment, by a sudden consciousness that the game was up; that they were now surrounded on all sides by the British power; and that the best thing to be done was to submit, and to make the best terms for themselves. This consciousness was clearly described by a Wuzeeree mallick, in reply to my auestion as to how it was that they had all so suddenly given up their old standing hostility towards us. He simply put his thumb between his teeth, and said, "What shall we do between the upper and lower jaws,’—the jaws being the Beloochistan Agency on one side, and the Punjab on the other. But notwithstanding this forcible illustration, I do not think this change of temper is entirely due to a feeling that we are too strong for them. The spirit of fanaticism is very rapidly disappearing. When passing the graves of some sixty Unazees who were killed by our troops in the Zhob expedition of 1885, I remarked to Shingul, the hereditary chief of Zhob, that they were brave men, to whom we bore no grudge, and lifted my hat to a conspicuous grave erected over the leader.

“On my arriving the same day at Khusnob, the village to which the leader and most of the killed had belonged, his father and mother, with many villagers, brought me a big pot of milk as a token 01 good-will, and of their appreciation of what they had heard from Shingul. Civilisation is asserting itself, and leavening the whole of the country between the Punjab ana Afghanistan proper.

“A vigorous effort will soon make the tribes on the Punjab frontier appreciate our rule as heartily and loyally as the Beloochee confederacy now does; and so secure them as allies.

“Just as, in the political problem, the Ameer’s alliance is the first factor, so, in the military question, will the advantage be with the Power which first gets a firm grip of the Cabul-Candahar line. Again, as the allegiance of Beloochistan and of the fringe of frontier tribes is our political reserve against tne Ameer’s siding with Russia, so the power of rapidly throwing our troops direct by a Zhob railway from the Khyber to the Khojak is our military insurance against losing the Cabul-Candahar line. Just as the military need of a direct railway link between the Khyber and the Khojak has very lately asserted itself, so the political need for measures creating a new Trans-Indus province has now come upon us, and is none the less real for being rather unexpected.

“As scarcity of fighting men is our main difficulty, we must endeavour to make soldiers for ourselves out of the magnificent material which the extension of our influence during the last six months has placed at our disposal. Whilst the Punjab would still supply the backbone of our regular native army, we should also prepare tribal levies officered by English and native gentlemen trained in a Trans-Indus school, which there is considerable danger of our losing under the existing system: which leaves, in the native army, and even in the Punjab frontier force, little scope to an officer to develop the power of rapidly organising, and properly commanding, undisciplined and turbulent, though naturally warlike, savages.

“It is a mistake to suppose that because a country is thinly peopled, barren, and unhealthy, it can get on comfortably with a small and inefficient, whilst cheap and therefore probably corrupt, administration for revenue, police, and judicial business.

“With a staff sufficient in quantity as in quality the revenues of the Trans-Indus province would increase faster than the cost of administration; and its agricultural, commercial, and mineral capabilities would, under liberal treatment, be considerably greater than is generally supposed.

“We have admittedly to complete some 666 miles of railway within Afghanistan proper; from Dacca, vid Cabul, Ghuznee, Candahar, to Chaman, and from Girdao, vid the Gomul, to Ghuznee, forming the main lines indispensable to our hold of the country. And that too before Russia absorbs Afghan Turkestan.

“It is a stock phrase that we cannot offer Afghanistan any bribe equal to that held out by Russia in the shape of the plunder of India; but with such a proposition, I disagree. Any auditor can pass, unquestioned, an outlay of five per cent, in excess of estimate. An offer to the Ameer to subsidise him to that extent, which on the scale of European railway concessions is ridiculously low, in addition to the enormous profits made by his people on the capital spent on construction, is a bribe.

“Many highly trained and educated soldiers and civilians, both in England and India, but unacquainted with frontier conditions and the technical details of railway construction, have in my experience been quite incapable of appreciating the complicated reasons which are moulding our present policy.

“We have sufficient data to know where the railway between Pesheen and Dera Ishmael Khan must run; on which, as being the administrative as well as military backbone of any Trans-Indus province, no delay should now occur. There should be a staff sufficient to carry out routine district work, independently of, and quite distinct from, the maintenance of influence over the tribes. This influence, I may remark, is mainly based on interminable conversations and personal intercourse which cannot coexist with the submission of periodic returns or paper-work of any sort, and is only obtained by men gifted with very special qualifications.”

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