Sahib, p.22Richard Holmes
Coote promptly returned home, but when he went out to India again at the end of 1778 there was general agreement that he was indeed Commander in Chief, in direct control of the Bengal army, but also something rather more than primus inter pares in Madras and Bombay too. He did not normally correspond directly with the Commanders in Chief of Madras and Bombay, who were responsible to the governors of their own presidencies. But these governors were themselves subordinate to the Governor-General, who was advised on military matters by the Commander in Chief, India. It would be hard to think of a more British way of achieving a nice constitutional balance which combined theoretical autonomy with practical control. The arrangement survived until 1895, when both Bombay and Madras lost their commanders in chief. Thereafter, India was divided into a number of military districts, first and second class, and in 1904 Lord Kitchener, then Commander in Chief, India, superimposed a system of divisions and brigades on this.
Until 1858, Coote’s successors were appointed by the directors of the East India Company on the advice of the Crown, and afterwards by the Secretary of State for India. They usually had the rank of general or lieutenant general, held their appointment for five years (Fred Roberts did an unprecedented seven and a half), and enjoyed an annual salary of a lakh of rupees and the title of ‘Your Excellency’. Most came from the British army: between 1822 and 1922 only seven out of twenty-six were from the Indian service.4 It was certainly no mere titular appointment. Sir Colin Campbell was the last of them to command in the field, during the Mutiny, and amongst his predecessors Lord Lake had a horse killed under him at Laswaree, and Hugh Gough, never one to spare himself, helped his men at Mudki in a wholly characteristic way:
I dashed forward with my gallant ADC [the Hon C. R. Sackville West] to draw a portion of the artillery fire away from our hard pressed infantry. We, thank God, succeeded, and saved many unhurt, my gallant horse being a conspicuous mark – unheeding of the Sikh shot (both round and grape) ploughing up the earth around him.5
Some were popular. Captain Innes Munro, who fought under him, described Eyre Coote as:
The soldier’s friend, most dear to the soldiers he commanded for his personal bravery, his great likeability, and his affectionate regard for their honour and interests. Other generals have been approved, but Sir Eyre Coote was beloved of the British Army in India.6
John Shipp, just commissioned from the ranks, proudly declared that, ‘Lord Lake was my friend, as he was of every soldier in the army’, and that benevolent officer at once confirmed the fact by giving him a tent, two camels and a horse.7 Some were less popular. General Lord Combermere (1825–30) was not the brightest star in the military firmament, and kept a poor table to boot: one officer dining with him on campaign complained that ‘the beef is white, the mutton lean, and everything sour but the vinegar’.8
Others were controversial. Scots loved their countryman, Sir Colin Campbell, and he in turn loved his Highlanders above all things. He addressed them intimately – ‘Ninety-third, you are my own lads’ – and there was always a hirsute warrior ready to reply from within the kilted ranks: ‘Aye, Sir Colin, you ken us and we ken you.’ Whereas Scots appreciated his warmth, others felt rather left out. Richard Barter, himself adjutant of a Scots battalion, thought that: ‘Without a spark of noble generosity he did not hesitate to let other regiments do the work, and then shove in “The Heeland Bonnets” to reap the honour … ’.9 Gunner Richard Hardcastle of the Royal Horse Artillery was also unimpressed. ‘But it is no use saying anything about Highlanders,’ he wrote. ‘The Commander in Chief belongs to the 93rd and he has tried to put them in every place where they could gain distinction. Other Regiments have no chance against them.’10
Hugh Gough (1843–49) was widely admired for his courage but as much mistrusted for his unsubtle tactics. ‘I regret to say,’ wrote Lord Dalhousie, ‘that every man in the army – generals of division – officers, Europeans and sepoys – have totally lost confidence in their leader – loudly proclaim it themselves, and report it in their letters to their friends.’11 But it was hard not to admire Gough’s frank simplicity. Henry Daly was busy before the walls of Multan when:
An old gent in a white jacket, with a plain staff-surgeon look, came up … and the old gent addressed some queries to me, which deeming irrelevant I answered curtly … Gordon, who was behind and listening to me, said to me, ‘You treat the General coolly!’ Lord! Lord! I thought he was either an old sapper sergeant or a deputy surgeon – the General.12
The life of Lieutenant General the Hon. Sir Henry Fane (1835–39) was complicated by his inability to divorce his wife and marry ‘Lady Fane’, but he was certainly a hero to their daughter. Isabella Fane confided to a friend in 1836:
you cannot think how popular my father is as Commander-in-Chief. It is said of him that he has the interests of the army thoroughly at heart and that ere long it will begin to recover the great injuries done it by that plague spot of India, Lord William Bentinck.13
Perhaps the greatest British general to serve in India never actually became Commander in Chief. Sir James Outram had Havelock’s courage without his chilliness, Campbell’s skill laced with Nicholson’s dash, and the most open of human faces. What general could wish for a more supportive witness than Lieutenant Edward Vibart:
Perhaps it may not be uninteresting to state, in this place, as an illustration of General Outram’s genial disposition, that one day, on duty with a company of my regiment in one of the batteries near the iron bridge [at Lucknow], we were visited by the General, who, after chatting with us in a friendly way for a few minutes, pulled out his cigar-case, and, lighting one himself, distributed the rest amongst the officers present. No commander, I believe, was ever more beloved by those who were fortunate enough to serve under him, than was this illustrious Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche.
The Commander in Chief, India, was neither subject to the authority of the Commander in Chief of the British army, nor to the control of the War Office. The Governor-General (later the Viceroy) in council exercised supreme authority over all troops in India, but the Commander in Chief, India, was responsible for the conduct of military operations and for the efficiency of the troops which took part in them. The Governor-General, as the Crown’s political representative, decided that a campaign should take place, but the Commander in Chief, as the Crown’s military representative, determined the form of the campaign and issued the appropriate orders. A resolute governor-general could make it very clear who was in charge. ‘I have been warned not to allow you to encroach on my authority,’ wrote Lord Dalhousie to Sir Charles Napier on his appointment in 1849, ‘and I will take damned good care that you do not.’14 Potential ambiguity was avoided when the Governor-General and Commander in Chief were the same person, which happened on four occasions: Major General Lord Clive was Governor of Bengal as well as Commander in Chief from 1765–67; Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis was Governor-General and Commander in Chief in 1805, as were General the Earl of Moira (later Marquess of Hastings) from 1813–23 and General Lord William Bentinck from 1833–35.
Relations between a viceroy and his commander in chief might be good, bad or indifferent. They worked best when the former had a clear idea of what he hoped to achieve by the use of force, and left it to the Commander in Chief to work out how that force should be applied. They deteriorated when Hardinge, a governor-general with extensive military experience, accompanied the army in the field, serving as a volunteer in his military capacity but retaining overall political control. However, the most spectacular breakdown during the whole of the period came when George Nathaniel, Baron Curzon of Kedleston, was Viceroy (1899–1904) and General Horatio Herbert, Viscount Kitchener of Khartoum, was Commander in Chief (1902–09).
Curzon was a rising star in the Conservative party and, at thirty-nine, the youngest viceroy since Dalhousie. Kitchener, a dour and monkish engineer, had led the Egyptian army to victory in the Omdurman campaign of 1898, and then served first as Roberts’s chi
By the time Kitchener arrived, Curzon had already punished two British units whose soldiers had assaulted Indian civilians, posting an infantry battalion to Aden (quite the worst garrison manned by the Government of India), and stopping all leave in the 9th Lancers for six months. He was well aware that his action was unpopular with both the army and with the majority of British civilians in India. Private Frank Richards wrote that he found that:
Lord Curzon was very much disliked by the rank and file of the Army, who all agreed that he was giving the natives too much rope. Another thing that added to his unpopularity was that his wife … was supposed to have said that the two ugliest things in India were the water-buffalo and the British private soldier … One of our chaps said that he would like to see the whole of the battalion parade stark naked in front of Lady Curzon for inspection, with Lord Curzon also naked in front of them: for comparison, like a tadpole amongst the gods.16
At the Delhi Durbar, held to celebrate the accession of Edward VII as King Emperor, the Viceroy himself described how:
The 9th Lancers rode by amidst a storm of cheering; I say nothing of the bad taste of the demonstration. On such an occasion and before such a crowd (for of course every European in India is on the side of the Army in the matter) nothing better could be expected.17
Curzon warned the British government that India would find it hard to meet its requirement to produce a field army of 20,000 men from an overall military establishment of 220,000, because most of this would be required to secure India: this and other issues weakened his political support at home.
Kitchener then arrived determined to create a single unified Indian army by doing away with the remaining vestiges of the old presidency armies and removing Bengal, Madras and Bombay from unit titles. Units would be moved around India as the demands of the service required, not simply stationed in their own areas, and the army would be restructured to form nine infantry divisions and five cavalry brigades with standard organisations.
What really caused the clash with Curzon, though, was Kitchener’s desire to abolish the Military Department and to centralise all military power in the hands of the Commander in Chief. The Military Department had grown steadily in power, profiting from the abolition of presidency commanders in chief and military departments in 1895, and, in addition, controlling all the army’s logistic services. Its head was the military member of council who, although junior to the Commander in Chief in military rank, was becoming his rival in organisational terms. After falling out with the military member, Major General Sir Edmond Elles, Kitchener recommended that the post be abolished, declaring that the existing system caused ‘enormous delay’, ‘endless discussion’, and ‘duplication of work’, and he threatened to resign unless he had his way.
A compromise decision, imposed by London, greatly reduced the power of the Military Department, whose head was to become the military supply member, emphasising the civilian character of his work by wearing plain clothes rather than uniform. When Curzon tried to impose his own man as military supply member he over-reached himself, for council appointments were made by the Crown on the advice of the Secretary of State. The latter observed that he did not think Curzon’s nominee a suitable choice, and Curzon at once resigned. His successor, Lord Minto, was a former Foot Guards officer with extensive campaign experience, who had reached the rank of major general. Edward VII advised him to ‘make the most of his General’s uniform’, and he duly did so. Kitchener welcomed him as a fellow military man, and the two got on well.
The Commander in Chief was assisted by a staff with three main branches. The adjutant general’s branch was responsible for personnel issues and the quartermaster general’s for matters of organisation and equipment. For most of the period these two officers were major generals, and until 1858 there were also two separate colonel’s posts, adjutant general and quartermaster general of British troops in India. Henry Havelock, clambering slowly up the hierarchy, found himself appointed to both jobs in succession shortly before the Mutiny. The former provided him with ‘no work [but] with nearly £3,000 a year’. And when he was given the latter, the Governor-General told Havelock’s brother-in-law: ‘You used to say in India that there were two sinecures there, a ladies’ watch and the Quartermaster-generalship of the Queen’s troops. I have just appointed your brother- in-law to the latter. There’s poetical justice for you.’18 Havelock himself was delighted, because his duties, he wrote, were: ‘literally nil. My work averages two returns and two letters per mensem; but time never hangs heavy on my hands. I ride, when it does not rain a deluge, and when it does, I am never without indoor occupation.19
The Commander in Chief’s military secretary, usually also a colonel, managed the appointment, promotion and retirement of officers, dealing with the Governor-General over senior appointments that required his approval, and with London where British army officers were concerned. He was a far more important man than his rank suggested, for his hands were on the stopcock of interest, and knowing officers took pains to secure his support. Indeed interest – that rich mixture of patronage, influence, family and regimental connection, the comradeship of campaign and arm of service, debts for past favours and sureties for future help – remained hugely influential in India long after it was being progressively restricted in Britain. The harassed Lord Curzon railed against it as ‘jobbery’ in 1902, and complained that officers ‘love a job as a German loves a shut railway carriage and a frowst’.20
Even a junior officer was entitled to ask the military secretary how his interest stood. In 1817, Richard Purvis, desperate for a captaincy, asked the military secretary what he might expect, and received the stock response that: ‘his name is noted in this office for consideration by his Excellency the Commander-in-Chief as opportunities for serving him may present themselves’.21 He then sent two letters, one ‘private’ and the other ‘public’ requesting suitable jobs, but when nothing materialised he eventually decided to go into the Church, and ended his days as vicar of St Leonard’s in the Hampshire village of Whitsbury, where at last he enjoyed significant backing, for his father owned the living. But his military interest remained so poor that when he petitioned the Company for a captain’s half-pay, it curtly replied that he had only held a brevet captaincy rather than substantive rank, and so could rub along on a lieutenant’s half-pay of 2 shillings and sixpence a day.
In contrast, John Clark Kennedy’s interest stood so high that he did not bother with the monkey but marched confidently to the organ-grinder. His father had captured a French eagle at Waterloo, and John himself had the necessary mix of well-placed contacts and personal determination. Shortly after he arrived in India in 1848 as a captain, he made an appointment to see Gough and ask to join the expedition to Multan.
I determined to strike while the iron was hot and, having arranged it with the AG, I went off to see Lord Gough and asked his permission to accompany it. He gave it to me and I had dinner with him: a family party and a very pleasant evening. That was a decided compliment when one thinks of all the usual etiquette! The old gentleman was as nice as could be.22
He later wrote of the death in action of Brigadier Robert Cureton ‘my father’s friend who was so kind to me at Simla’. When his own general was withdrawn from the campaign, another agreed to take him on as aide-de-camp. ‘I was very much pleased with this offer,’ he wrote. ‘Not so much for the pay which is attached to it
Lieutenant Neville Chamberlain, born the second son of a baronet in 1820, had created a bow wave of interest by several examples of spectacular bravery, and Lieutenant General Sir Henry Fane was a family friend. In 1847 Fane ensured that he was offered the post of military secretary to George Clark, the Governor of Bombay, who told him that if he accepted ‘I promise to let you go to the fore whenever there is more fighting among your old friends on the North-West frontier.’ When Clark had to go home unexpectedly, Chamberlain set off for the Sikh War without any official appointment, but was immediately made brigade major (chief of staff) to a cavalry brigade. He was a brigadier general at the age of thirty-six, a remarkable achievement in an era of glacial promotion (and impossibly rapid even today); he died a field marshal.
Lastly, John Low, a Madras ensign in 1804, played his interest like a lute. In 1826, by then a captain, he told the influential Sir John Malcolm that: ‘I shall not easily forget your tall figure upon your tall horse, cantering about this day eight years ago at the head of your division, amidst dust & smoke and grape shot, surrounded by your numerous staff and friends.’ Then he came to the business of the letter.
Sahib by Richard Holmes / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes