Sahib, p.23
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       Sahib, p.23

           Richard Holmes

  I had the misfortune to lose my worthy father, & shortly after the Fife Bank went down, by which my mother suffered a severe loss to her income, the interest however I am easily keeping up. It will keep me several more years in this country.24

  He later noted that ‘the more active appointments, such as Brigade Majors, are not in the gift of the Governor, they belong to the patronage of the Commander-in-Chief’.

  Having duly hooked a plum political appointment for himself as Resident at Lucknow, Low immediately engaged his own patronage for his nephew, observing that:

  Alec Deas is at a station about 80 miles from here, & I have applied to my friends in Calcutta to get him appointed to command my escort, which will enable him to save a little of his pay, & I hope do him good in many ways.25

  Not only were two of Low’s oldest friends, Lieutenant Colonel Vans Agnew and Sir John Lushington, directors of the East India Company, but Dalhousie, the Governor-General himself, assured him ‘for God’s sake, my dear friend, don’t speak & don’t feel as if it were undue familiarity to call yourself my personal friend’.26 He became military member of council, and died, a general and a knight, a month short of his ninetieth birthday.

  As long as Madras and Bombay retained their own commanders in chief, they maintained staffs with the same structure as that of the Commander in Chief, India, although the relevant ranks were usually one step lower. A proper general staff was not created in India until 1903, with a lieutenant general as its chief. It dealt with overall military policy, training, deployment, intelligence and the conduct of military operations. But it did not begin to have any real impact until after the First World War.

  Prominent for much of the period because of their positions on the expanding frontier of India were the two frontier forces. The Sind Frontier Force – responsible to the Commander in Chief, Bombay – was raised in 1846 to protect the frontier of this recently annexed province. It initially consisted of a single regiment of Scinde Irregular Horse, but a second was soon added and a third followed in 1858. Two battalions of Jacob’s Rifles were raised in 1858. The men of Jacob’s Rifles initially provided the gunners for the Jacobabad light artillery, which was transferred to the artillery in 1876.

  The Punjab Irregular Frontier Force was formed in 1849 to protect the north-west fringes of the newly acquired Punjab from raids by tribesmen in the broad and inhospitable area between the new frontier of British India and the border of Afghanistan. Five cavalry regiments and five infantry battalions were raised, and the force incorporated four Sikh battalions which had been formed in 1846–47 to guard the frontier. It also included the Corps of Guides, which incorporated a cavalry regiment and an infantry battalion, and had its own mountain artillery. The Scinde Camel Corps was transferred from the Bombay establishment to become part of the Punjab Frontier Force as 6th Punjab Infantry in 1849, although it retained the title Scinde Rifles.27

  The Punjab Irregular Frontier Force was controlled by the Governor of the Punjab, who was responsible for its operations to the Government of India’s Foreign Department, not to the Commander in Chief, India. The great Henry Lawrence ran the Frontier Force like a private fiefdom. In the spring of 1849 the enterprising Lieutenant Henry Daly was delighted to receive a note which read:

  My dear Sir – You are nominated to the command of the 1st Cavalry Regiment, to be raised at Peshawar.

  Yours truly,

  H. M. Lawrence

  Simla, 24th May.

  Daly soon recruited 588 men, mainly Yusufzai Pushtuns, and had three other British officers, one a surgeon, to help him. There was: ‘A lieutenant, Bombay Army, commandant; a captain, Madras army, 2nd in command, and a cornet of Bengal cavalry, adjutant.’28 His method of recruiting mirrored that of many of these irregular units:

  Here a native of good birth and character was to command a troop, in which, of course, a number of his own followers and dependants would be. He is allowed to mount a certain number of his friends and followers on his horses, otherwise the horse must be the property of the rider, who draws pay from the government for the service and support of himself and horse. These men arm, dress and mount themselves under the orders and responsibility of their commandants. Government provide nothing but pay and ammunition.29

  Soldiering in irregular units had a strong attraction for some British officers. In 1857, Ensign Charles MacGregor’s own regiment, 57th BNI, had mutinied, and he determined to seek appointment to the irregular cavalry.

  I confess that I have not got an eye for the minutiae which delights some men. I think it is quite enough if a man’s arms and accoutrements are clean and in serviceable order; but having every buckle so that you can see your face in it can’t make him fight more valiantly or more intelligently for these reasons.30

  A brother officer said of MacGregor that: ‘He was the only man I ever met in the service that I really believe loved fighting,’ and he soon established a strong bond with his wild troopers.

  Brigadier General John Jacob, the first commander of the Sind Frontier Force and political superintendent of the Upper Sind Frontier (and after whom the town of Jacobabad was named), was firmly of the conviction that the success enjoyed in his area reflected a sense of moral superiority. In 1854 he affirmed that:

  The highest moral ground is always taken in all dealings with predatory tribes, treating them always as of an inferior nature so long as they persist in their misdeeds: as mere vulgar criminal and disreputable persons with whom it is a disgrace for any respectable persons to have any feelings, and whom all good men must, as a matter of course, look on as objects of pity not of dread, with hatred possibly, but never with fear … The feeling instilled in every soldier employed being, that he was always of a superior nature to the robber – a good man against a criminal; the plunderers being considered not as enemies, but as malefactors.31

  The spirit Jacob inspired amongst his men was remarkable. One of his native officers, Durga Singh, chased a party of Baluch raiders with fifteen horsemen. After a hard ride of thirty miles he had only two troopers and a Baluch guide left with him. The raiders, perhaps forty strong, now rounded on them, and the guide pressed Durga Singh to turn back. But he would not: declaring that ‘he should be ashamed to show his face to Major Jacob if after coming in sight of the robbers he should retire without killing some of them’, he charged with his two troopers. The three of them were cut to pieces, but not before they had killed or disabled fifteen of their enemies. The survivors of the robber band looped a red thread around Durga Singh’s wrist in recognition of his bravery.

  Things were never quite the same on the Punjab frontier. Its inhabitants – mainly tribesmen whom contemporary British officers called Pathans but are more correctly termed Pushtuns – were, and to a very great extent remain, a law unto themselves. They formed tribes, such as the Afridis, Mahsuds, Mohmands and Wazirs, which were themselves subdivided into khels, or clans. Their clan leaders, maliks, enjoyed as much power as they could enforce by the strength of their sword arm, and the tribal gathering, or jirga, was the tribe’s parliament, court and governing council. They spoke Pushtu, and lived by their own law, Pukhtunwali, which emphasised the duty of badal, revenge for an injury, real or imagined, balanced against melmastia, the hospitality that a Pushtun must accord even to an enemy. Most disputes stemmed from ‘zar, zan and zamin’ – gold, women and land. Winston Churchill, who fought on the frontier in 1897, thought that ‘every man [was] a warrior, a politician and a theologian’ and ‘a code of honour not less punctilious than that of old Spain, is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica’.32

  In 1914, when Fred Roberts was a field marshal and a peer (and, though he did not know it, only days away from death from pneumonia), he visited Indian troops in France. Aboard a hospital ship, in a cabin marked ‘Pathans, No 1’ he spoke to a soldier ‘with strongly Semitic features and bearded like the pard’. ‘Whence come you?’ said the Field Marshal.

  From Tirah, Sahib.

  Ah! W
e have had some little trouble with you folk at Tirah.

  But all that is now past. Serve the Emperor faithfully and it

  shall be well with you.

  Ah! Sahib, but I am sorely troubled in my mind.

  And wherefore?

  My aged father writes that a pig of a thief hath taken our cattle and abducted our women-folk. I would fain have leave to go on furlough, and lie in a nullah at Tirah with my rifle and wait for him. Then I can return to France.33

  Many British officers who served on the frontier formed a particular bond with these deadly men. In 1862, Roberts, then a major, was with a small party escorting Colonel Reynell Taylor, commissioner for Bannu, which was surrounded by hostile tribesmen who debated whether to kill them. They were saved by Bunerwal tribesmen who had undertaken to furnish them with safe passage.

  The most influential of the tribe, a grey-bearded warrior who had lost an eye and an arm in some tribal contest, forced his way through the rapidly increasing crowd to Taylor’s side and, raising his arm to enjoin silence, delivered himself as follows: ‘You are debating whether to allow these English to remain unmolested. You can, of course, murder them and their escort; but if you do, you must kill us Bunerwals first, for we have sworn to protect them, and we will do so with our lives.’34

  Writing much later, the distinguished administrator Sir Olaf Caroe described how when a man crossed the great bridge over the Indus at Attock ‘there was a lifting of the heart and a knowledge that, however hard the task and beset with danger, here was a people who looked him in the face and made him feel at home’.35 And Philip Woodruff, another Indian civil servant, admitted that even after the First World War:

  Life on the Frontier still had an immense appeal … There were no long hours at an office desk, and although there was always the chance of a bullet and often a good deal of discomfort, it was a life that everyone on the frontier enjoyed. Everyone liked the Pathan, his courage and his sense of humour … And it was all still oddly personal; allegiance was given, if at all, not to a Government but to a man.36

  The frontier was in an endemic state of minor war, with frequent raids and punitive expeditions, and the small change of warfare was counted out so often that it was said that the Government of India would only grant a campaign medal if artillery was engaged: mere small-arms fire did not count. When Lieutenant Colonel James Kelly’s tiny column was on its way from Gilgit to Chitral in 1895, it fought its first action at Chakalwat on 9 April. There were two guns of the Kashmir Mountain Battery with the force, and when their first round was fired (it ‘pitched over the river and burst over a sangar. It was as pretty a sight as one could wish for … ’) the Irish gunner subaltern shook the gun’s commander by the hand, and told him that he had earned them all a medal.37 Even when things were apparently peaceful, a watchful enemy might pounce on an idle sentry, ambush a complacent patrol, or snipe at a lamp glowing through canvas. It was a harsh landscape which bred hard men, and was the most obdurate school of soldiering.

  Irregular units were good at frontier warfare and, into the bargain, were far cheaper than regular troops. But the danger of a large-scale rising, coupled with the threat of a Russian invasion, meant that numerous units of the Bengal army were also stationed in frontier districts. Their chain of command was wholly different, however, and in 1856 Sir Charles Napier, Commander in Chief, India, complained that while he controlled the regulars he could not move a single sentry of the Punjab Irregular Force. In 1886 the Punjab Frontier Force became part of the Bombay army, and as such came under the Commander in Chief, India, but it retained its separate character until 1903. Even after this, some units still included ‘Frontier Force’ as part of their titles, and the nickname ‘Piffers’ lasted longer than British India. Today one can still, very occasionally, see the Frontier Force tie, its stripes capturing the colour of the chikor, or Himalayan partridge, making off for a restoring pink gin at London’s Oriental Club.


  SERVICE ON THE FRONTIER often blurred distinctions between military and civil authority. Some British officers in India held appointments on the staff, while others commanded British or native troops. But one distinctive characteristic of India was that military officers were used to fill a number of administrative, judicial and diplomatic posts. They were the ‘politicals’, military officers by title and early training, but serving in what were essentially civilian appointments. Some emerged as proconsuls of a very high order, like Henry Lawrence in the Punjab, Arthur Phayre in Burma (‘to speak of Burma was to speak of Sir Arthur Phayre’) and Henry Ramsay in Kumaon. Others had a lasting impact on everyday life in their areas: Major General Sir William Sleeman was largely responsible for the suppression of the murderous practice of thuggee in 1839–42.

  Even if they did not rise to these heights, the politicals were often very striking characters. In 1857, J. W. Sherer found himself in the little state of Rewah.

  When the party I was with reached the staging house at Rewah we were received by a young English officer – looking indeed younger than he really was – well dressed, jaunty and amusing, who gave no sort of impression of being in any responsible position, and did the honours of the bungalow as if the poaching of eggs and the currying of fowls were on the whole as important duties as life presented. But this airy and wholly wonderful person was Lieutenant Willoughby Osborne, a young political, who was performing the astounding feat of keeping Rewah quiet, entirely by himself. A solitary European without a comrade – a soldier, you may say, without a regiment – was by sheer force of character overawing the authorities of Rewah.

  When a villager ‘who seemed to be a man of authority’ called him what may be translated as ‘blackguard Feringhee’, or ‘Frank’, Osborne tied the fellow behind his cart and took him for a long run, letting him loose some way from home ‘with the recommendation to be more circumspect in his language for the future’.38

  A young political officer might find himself running a large and unstable area entirely on his own. Captain Neville Chamberlain, left in charge of Hazara on the North-West Frontier in 1850, when his master, the redoubtable Major James Abbot, went off on tour, listed his duties:

  I am Magistrate, which means I have to seize and try all offenders for every offence which human beings can be guilty of; also control the police.

  As Collector, to manage and look after the revenue in all its branches, and to decide all civil suits, as likewise those cases which in Europe would be tried in ecclesiastical courts.

  As Superintendent I receive appeals from myself to myself, both in criminal and civil cases; and I have to submit my opinion on heavy cases, such as murder etc., for the confirmation of the board at Lahore.

  The charge of the jail.

  Charge of the treasury, and responsible for all accounts.

  Physician and Surgeon-General to the troops and population, and keeper of Medical Stores.

  Executive Engineer and Superintendent of all public works.


  Superintendent of mule train and bullocks.

  Commissionary of Ordnance.

  Commanding 1 regiment of infantry, 2 troops of cavalry, 1 Company of artillery, with mountain guns and falconets attached, 1 Company of pioneers (irregulars), 1 Company of the Utzai tribe, 1 Company of the Mathwazi tribe, 1 Company of messengers, guides, and spies.39

  The best-known politicals were the towering figures of the 1840s and 1850s, for some of whom the term ‘band of brothers’ might very well have been invented. The widow of one of them, Herbert Edwardes, wrote that her husband and another of the band, John Nicholson, ‘became more than brothers in the tenderness of their whole lives henceforth’.40 Of the older generation, the brothers George, Henry and John Lawrence had been educated in the most robust, God-fearing tradition at Foyle College in Londonderry. George and Henry went into the Bengal army, and John into the Indian Civil Service. George was a political assistant in the Army of the Indus, served as military secretary to S
ir William Macnaghten, and was captured by the Afghans. Henry was a political agent in the Army of Retribution, served as Resident in Nepal and, after the Sikh Wars, Resident at Lahore and effectively ruler of the Punjab. He sent his elder brother George to be political agent in Peshawar, and appointed his younger brother John as his deputy and commissioner of the territory between the Sutlej and Beas rivers. Henry kept a small notebook in which he recorded the names of officers who might do well in the political department, and in August 1849 he asked Neville Chamberlain, then a Bengal infantry officer,

  What pay would satisfy you to enter the Civil Department, and would you be prepared to serve as an assistant perhaps under a young civilian, or an officer junior to yourself? After a year or two’s training under a man of civil experience, I should be glad to see you in charge of one of our frontier stations – Hazara, Dera Ishmael Khan, Ghaznee-Khan or Peshawar …

  Chamberlain rose to the fly, and was appointed assistant commissioner in Rawalpindi.41

  The Lawrence brothers were very different by temperament, and Henry and John disagreed about the way ahead in the Punjab: Henry favoured ruling with the support of the jagirdars, while John sought to reduce their powers and do more to improve the lot of the peasantry. Eventually the Governor-General backed John, who became Chief Commissioner of the Punjab, where he became so well loved that the personal loyalty he inspired did much to ensure Sikh loyalty during the Mutiny. Henry was shunted off to be the Governor-General’s agent in Rajputana, where George soon joined him. In 1857, Henry went on to be Chief Commissioner of Oudh, and it was thanks to his foresight that the Residency at Lucknow was able to stand siege. He was mortally wounded by a shell which burst squarely in his room, and the inscription on his tombstone fittingly read: ‘Here lies Henry Lawrence who tried to do his duty.’ There was universal regret at his death. A grief-stricken Henry Daly wrote: ‘Though public calamity overpowers the thought of private and personal bereavement, I do indeed feel that I have lost a prop in the world. He was a rare specimen of God’s handiwork.’42

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