Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
Early in the New Year (1864) Sir Hugh Rose, with the Head-Quarters camp, marched into Peshawar, where we remained until the middle of February. The time was chiefly spent in inspections, parades, and field-days, varied by an occasional run with the hounds. The hunting about Peshawar was very fair, and we all, the Chief included, got a great deal of fun out of our small pack.
On the 25th January a full-dress parade was held to announce to the garrison that Sir John Lawrence had been appointed Viceroy of India, and soon afterwards we left Peshawar and began our return march to Simla.
We changed our house this year and took one close to the Stewarts, an arrangement for which I was very thankful later, when my wife had a great sorrow in the death of her sister, Mrs. Sladen, at Peshawar. It was everything for her at such a time to have a kind and sympathizing friend close at hand, when I was engaged with my work and could be very little with her during the day. At this time, as at all others, Sir Hugh Rose was a most considerate friend to us; he placed his house at Mashobra at my wife's disposal, thus providing her with a quiet resort which she frequently made use of and which she learned to love so much that, when I returned to Simla as Commander-in-Chief, her first thought was to secure this lovely 'Retreat' as a refuge from the (sometimes) slightly trying gaiety of Simla.
The Commander-in-Chief was good enough to send in my name for a brevet for the Umbeyla expedition, but the Viceroy refused to forward the recommendation, for the reason that I was 'too junior to be made a Lieutenant-Colonel.' I was then thirty-two!
A Voyage Round the Cape Throughout the whole of 1864 I was more or less ill; the office work (which never suited me quite as well as more active employment)[Page 294] was excessive, for, in addition to the ordinary routine, I had undertaken to revise the 'Bengal Route-Book,' which had become quite obsolete, having been compiled in 1837, when Kurnal was our frontier station. A voyage round the Cape was still considered the panacea for all Indian ailments, and the doctors strongly advised my taking leave to England, and travelling by that route.
We left Simla towards the end of October, and, after spending the next three months in Calcutta, where I was chiefly employed in taking up transports and superintending the embarkation of troops returning to England, I was given the command of a batch of 300 time-expired men on board the Renown, one of Green's frigate-built ships which was chartered for their conveyance. Two hundred of the men belonged to the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Rifle Brigade, the remainder to the Artillery and various other corps; they had all been twelve years in the army, and most of them were decorated for service in the Crimea and Indian Mutiny.
1865 At the inspection parade before we embarked, a certain number of men were brought up for punishment for various offences committed on the way down country; none of the misdemeanours appeared to me very serious, so I determined to let the culprits off. I told the men that we had now met for the first time and I was unwilling to commence our acquaintance by awarding punishments; we had to spend three or four months together, and I hoped they would show, by their good behaviour while under my command, that I had not made a mistake in condoning their transgressions. The officers seemed somewhat surprised at my action in this matter, but I think it was proved by the men's subsequent conduct that I had not judged them incorrectly, for they all behaved in quite an exemplary manner throughout the voyage.
We had been on board more than six weeks, when one of the crew was attacked by small pox—an untoward circumstance in a crowded ship. The sailor was placed in a boat which was hung over the ship's side, and a cabin-boy, the marks on whose face plainly showed that he had already suffered badly from the disease, was told off to look after him. The man recovered, and there was no other case. Shortly before we reached St. Helena, scurvy appeared amongst the troops, necessitating lime-juice being given in larger quantities, but what proved a more effectual remedy was water-cress, many sacks of which were laid in before we left the island.
On the 29th May, 1865, we sighted the 'Lizard,' and took a pilot on board, who brought with him a few newspapers, which confirmed the tidings signalled to us by an American ship that the war between the Federals and Confederates was at an end. How eagerly we scanned the journals, after having heard nothing from home for four months, but the only piece of news we found of personal interest to ourselves[Page 295] was that my father had been made a K.C.B.
On the 30th May we reached Portsmouth, and landed between two showers of snow! I had a final parade of the men before leaving the ship, and I was quite sorry to say good-bye to them; some of the poor fellows were already beginning to be anxious about their future, and to regret that their time with the colours was over.
My father, mother, and sister came up to London to meet us, very little changed since I had left them six years before. I remained in England till March, 1866, when I returned to India, leaving my wife1866 behind to follow in the autumn.
Cholera Camps While I was at home, Sir Hugh Rose's term of the chief command in India came to an end, and his place had been taken by Sir William Mansfield. On my arrival in Calcutta, I received orders to join the Allahabad division, and thither I proceeded. In October I went to Calcutta to meet my wife and take her to Allahabad, where we remained for nearly a year, her first experience of a hot season in the plains, and a very bad one it was. Cholera was rife; the troops had to be sent away into camps, more or less distant from the station, all of which had to be visited once, if not twice, daily; this kept me pretty well on the move from morning till night. It was a sad time for everyone. People we had seen alive and well one day were dead and buried the next; and in the midst of all this sorrow and tragedy the most irksome—because such an incongruous—part of our experience was that we had constantly to get up entertainments, penny readings, and the like, to amuse the men and keep their minds occupied, for if once soldiers begin to think of the terrors of cholera they are seized with panic, and many get the disease from pure fright.
My wife usually accompanied me to the cholera camps, preferring to do this rather than be left alone at home. On one occasion, I had just got into our carriage after going round the hospital, when a young officer ran after us to tell me a corporal in whom I had been much interested was dead. The poor fellow's face was blue; the cholera panic had evidently seized him, and I said to my wife, 'He will be the next.' I had no sooner reached home than I received a report of his having been seized.
We were fortunate in having at Allahabad as Chaplain the present Bishop of Lahore, who, with his wife, had only lately come to India; they never wearied in doing all that was possible for the soldiers. Bishop Matthew is still one of our closest friends; his good, charming and accomplished wife, alas! died some years ago.
The Abyssinian Expedition We remained at Allahabad until August, 1867, when we heard that a brigade from Bengal was likely to be required to take part in an expedition which would probably be sent from Bombay to Abyssinia for the relief of some Europeans whom the King, Theodore, had imprisoned, and that the Mountain battery, on the strength of which[Page 296] my name was still borne, would in such case be employed. I therefore thought I had better go to Simla, see the authorities, and arrange for rejoining my battery, if the rumour turned out to be true. The cholera had now disappeared, so I was at liberty to take leave, and we both looked forward to a cooler climate and a change to brighter scenes after the wretched experience we had been through. On my arrival at Simla I called upon the Commander-in-Chief and told him that, if my battery was sent on service, I wished to join it and was quite ready to resign my staff appointment.
Sir William Mansfield was particularly kind in his reception of me, from which I augured well; but I could learn nothing definite, and it was not until quite the end of September that it was announced that Colonel Donald Stewart was to have command of the Bengal Brigade with the Abyssinian Force, and that I was to be his Assistant-Quartermaster-General. We at once hastened back to Allahabad, where we only remained long enough to pack up what we wanted to take with us, and arrange for the disposal of our property; thence we proceeded to Calcutta, where, for the next two months, I had a busy time taking up transports and superintending the equipment of the force.
I had often read and heard of the difficulties and delays experienced by troops landing in a foreign country, in consequence of their requirements not being all shipped in the same vessels with themselves—men in one ship, camp equipage in another, transport and field hospital in a third, or perhaps the mules in one and their pack-saddles in another; and I determined to try and prevent these mistakes upon this occasion. With Stewart's approval, I arranged that each detachment should embark complete in every detail, which resulted in the troops being landed and marched off without the least delay as each vessel reached its destination.1
We were living with the Stewarts in the Commander-in-Chief's[Page 297] quarters in Fort William, which His Excellency had placed at our disposal for the time being. On the 1st November Calcutta was visited by the second cyclone within my experience. We had arranged to go to the opera that evening, but when it was time to start the wind was so high that there seemed every chance of the carriage being blown over before we could get there, so we decided not to attempt it. It was well we did, for the few adventurous spirits who struggled through the storm had the greatest difficulty in getting back to their homes. The opera-house was unroofed before the performance was half over, and very little of the building remained standing the next day. At bedtime we still thought it was only a bad storm, but towards midnight the wind increased to an alarming extent, and my wife awoke me, and begged me to get up, as the windows were being burst open and deluges of rain coming in. Stewart and I tried to reclose the windows, but the thick iron bars had been bent in two and forced out of their sockets; a heavy oak plate-chest and boxes, which we with much difficulty dragged across the windows, were blown into the middle of the dining-room, like so much cardboard, and the whole place was gradually flooded. We were driven out of each room in turn, till at length we all took refuge in a small box room, about ten feet wide, right in the middle of the house, where we remained the rest of the night and 'hoped for the day.'
Towards morning the wind abated, but what a scene of desolation was that upon which we emerged! The rooms looked as if they could never be made habitable again, and much of our property was floating about in a foot of water.
My first thought was for the shipping, and I hurried down to the river to see how my transports had fared. Things were much better than I expected to find them—only two had been damaged. Most fortunately the cyclone, having come from a different direction, was not accompanied by a storm-wave such as that which worked so much mischief amongst the shipping on a former occasion, but the destruction on land was even greater: all the finest trees were torn up by the roots, a great part of the Native bazaar was levelled, and lay from two to three feet deep in water, while many houses were wholly or partly demolished. We came across most curious sights when driving round Calcutta in the evening; some of the houses were divided clean down the centre, one half crumbled into a heap of ruins, the other half still standing and displaying, as in a doll's house, the furniture in the different stories.
The work of filling up and loading the vessels was greatly retarded, owing to a large number of cargo boats having been sunk, consequently it was the 5th December before the first transport got off; from that date the others started in quick succession, and on the 9th January, 1868, Stewart and his staff left Calcutta in the P. and O. 1868[Page 298] steamer Golconda. The officers and men of the Mountain battery were also on board, Captain Bogle in command, my friend Jemmy Hills in my place as second Captain, and Collen2 and Disney as subalterns. Mrs. Stewart and my wife accompanied us as far as Aden, where they were left to the kind care of Major-General Russell,3 commanding there at the time, until the arrival of the mail-steamer in which they were to proceed to England.
Landed at Zula On the 3rd February we anchored in Annesley Bay and landed at Zula.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER XXXVI
[Footnote 1: The average strength of the regiments was as follows: 10th and 12th Bengal Cavalry, each 9 British officers, 13 Native officers, 450 non-commissioned officers and men, 3 Native doctors, 489 horses, 322 mules, 590 followers. 21st and 23rd Punjab Infantry, each 9 British officers, 16 Native officers, 736 non-commissioned officers and men, 3 Native doctors, 10 horses, 350 mules, 400 followers. I found that six ships were required for the conveyance of a Cavalry and four for that of an Infantry regiment; for the Mountain battery three ships were necessary, and for the coolie corps (1,550 strong) four; in all twenty-seven ships, besides nine tugs. In selecting ships, care was taken to secure those intended for Artillery or Cavalry as high 'tween-decks as possible; a sufficient number of these were procurable at Calcutta, either iron clippers from Liverpool or large North American built traders, with decks varying from 7 feet 6 inches to 8 feet 2 inches high. I gave the preference to wooden ships, as being cooler and more easily ventilated. The vessels taken up were each from 1,000 to 1,400 tons, averaging in length from 150 to 200 feet, with a beam varying from 30 to 35 feet, and usually they had a clear upper deck, where from forty to fifty animals were accommodated.]
[Footnote 2: Now Major-General Sir Edwin Collen, K.C.I.E., Military Member of the Governor-General's Council.]
[Footnote 3: Now General Sir Edward Lechmere Russell, K.C.S.I.]