Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar

If there's a direct Chailey link to Lord Roberts, I've yet to find it. Nevertheless, I'm going to exercise a little artistic licence here and devote this entry to Lord Roberts; a man for whom I have much admiration having just read his account of his 41 years in India.

There's a good brief Wikepedia biography of Lord Roberts and here isn't the place to repeat all that information. I have to confess, that I knew nothing about him other than he'd died in November 1914 whilst in France; but he appears to have been a very capable and much loved soldier and you get the sense, when reading his Indian account, that he was both thoughtful and even-handed at the same time. He certainly travelled a lot and must have notched up several hundred thousands of miles criss-crossing not only the Indian Empire (to say nothing of Burma and Nepal) but also large chunks of Afghanistan.

In 1880, Lord Roberts headed the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force and was ultimately successful in relieving Kandahar. The logistics though, were staggering. The force comprised approximately 10,000 soldiers (of whom nearly two thirds were Indians) and 8,500 "followers" to look after the animals, carry dhoolies, prepare food etc.

Roberts goes into some detail about the amount of food required to feed his army each day. This included 4000 lbs of meat, 4000 lbs of vegetables, 25,600 lbs of atta (used by the Indian soldiers to make their breads) and 80 gallons of rum. (Remember, this is the daily allowance). Transporting all of this - and I've mentioned just a fraction of the requirements - were nearly eight and a half thousand cattle, mules, ponies, donkeys and camels. Little wonder then, as Roberts mentions earlier in his narrative, and referring to a different campaign that, "the column was about twelve miles in length so that the head had almost reached the end of the march before the rear could start." (My italics). When Roberts left Kandahar and returned to India, he was able to find his way back simply by following the trail of animals that had died on the outward journey.

The book is full of fascinating anecdotes and for me, reading it now, nearly four years into my own stint in India, and with another Anglo-Aghan conflict raging; there are very clear parallels. But I'll close with two typically British idiosyncracies which belong as much to the stiff upper lip of British Victorian militarism as they do to Carry on up the Khyber.

Asked for a progress report on the hordes of Afghans threatening a British position, Roberts is told, "large masses were steadily advancing from north, south and west, and that their numbers were momentarily becoming greater, to which a young officer in charge of the signalling staion added, 'the crowds of Afghans in the Chardeh valley remind me of Epsom on the Derby day.'" Albeit presumably lacking the formalities of dress.

The second incident, the absurdity of which, Lord Roberts notes, occurred shortly afterwards when, "just at the time when the fight was hottest, and I was receiving reports every few seconds from the officers commanding the several posts, Eli Bux [an elderly Mahomedan servant] whispered in my ear that my bath was ready. He was quite unmoved by the din and shots, and was carrying on his normal duties as if nothing at all unusual was occurring."

I see from Wikipedia that Forty-one years in India can be downloaded at Project Gutenberg although I picked up my copy in a local Bangalore bookshop courtesy of Asian Educational Services who have re-published a lot of forgotten treasures.

Roberts, who won the VC during the Indian Mutiny, was a highly decorated soldier whose love of India shines through his account. Indeed, he died of pneumonia after visiting Indian troops in France. He also had his own share of personal tragedy, his first three children dying in infancy and his son, who won the VC during the Boer War, dying in that conflict.

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