To Meet the Ameer (5)

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 8 April 1885


Sussex Scrapbooks, 28/1 p. 825. Diary 6 April 1885.

The tenth article of the series. The review it describes was later the basis for “Her Majesty’s Servants”. in The Jungle Book. [T.P.]

The Article

(From our Special Correspondent)
Rawalpindi, April 6

At last we seem to have started work in earnest and the gloomy forecasts of yesterday have been but partially fulfilled. To be sure the sky is as black as ink all round the horizon, but the clear patch of blue in the centre, and the restless winds, promise April showers at the utmost, and not the steady wet to which we dwellers in tents have become so painfully accustomed. In an hour or so, the grand Review of troops in camp will begin. Meantime, carriages and riders are already beginning to assemble by the three huge sheep pens which mark the spots whence the Viceroy, the Punjab Chiefs and the common folk, are to view the ceremony. Of decoration, beyond the naked pole of the saluting base, there is no sign — the army here gathered together is to march by with no scenic accessories, beyond those of gloomy skies, wind-shaken woods in the back ground and the shrill whistle of the iron horse in front. The King’s Dragoon Guards’ parade ground lies to the right of the Jhelum road and to the left of the Rawal Pindi Fort, but looking in the same direction. It is situated, in the language of the guide books, on a slight eminence, overlooking a fold of low hills below the fort. The Jhelum road and the Punjab Northern Railway, bounds it on the left, and the fort on the right. As nearly as I can judge, the wooden sheep pens face due south, commanding a most un-Indian landscape. But for the white turbans and puggris studding the railway bridge, it might be a view at the foot of the Sussex Downs, anywhere a dozen miles inland from Lewes. The Review is to be merely a March Past, without manceuverings of any kind, and Abdur Rahman is to sit still by the Viceroy’s side, and watch the living tide roll by. He should be weary of watching before the work is over. Pindi Fort is the better part of a mile away from here, and already the slope below the bastions is sown with little red specks, which shuffle and agglomerate themselves, until they finally assume the shape of two red bars, and moving on, are lost to view behind the trees on the Jhelum road. This is the first regiment getting ready for the March Past, and at least half a score of field glasses proclaim that it was the 33rd.

The company, in every sort of vehicle, from the lordly ‘fitton’ to rattling ticca gharri, is assembling as fast as may be;
and whenever there is a lull in the rolling of wheels, the air becomes alive with the music of unseen bands of regiments moving into position along Jhelum road. Already half a dozen worthy gentlemen of mature years, mounted on fiery untamed steeds, and thickly covered with gold lace and red cloth, are caracoling from one end of the ground to another, and shouting multitudinous directions, apparently about nothing at all. Certainly, the Police who have been told to keep the crowd in order, pay not the least attention to their blandishments; certainly the regimental bands, which have taken up their position in front of the saluting base, are beyond their jurisdiction, and as yet no regiments have appeared. But their exercise appears to afford the wandering knights errant considerable satisfaction, and they are riding as if for life. First a hasty gallop from left to right of the parade ground, and a peremptory mandate, so it seems, to the rolling clouds in that direction. Then a tug at the curb, a flourish of horse tail and human spurs, and a fourteen-anna burst in the opposite direction. And so de capo ad lib (from the beginning, freely), and with as much martial expression thrown into the business as a pulling horse and an insecure helmet will allow. These vagaries always foretell a good review — as much as the flight of the returning swallows heralds spring in England. Carriages and horses are arriving in shoals as I write, and the sombre skies greet, with a sharp shower of rain, an assemblage which includes half the best known men in India, and a fair sprinkling of the great ones of the earth. But the Viceroy and Ameer have not yet put in an appearance, and we have yet the excitement of the Viceregal salute to undergo. When three or four hundred vehicles are all jammed together in a space a few hundred yards long, the consequences of thirty-one guns just behind the horses are likely to be interesting.
11 o’clock or there abouts: The guns have fired, the horses have protested, and His Excellency, Earl Dufferin, Viceroy and Governor-General of India, and His Highness, Abdur Rahman Khan, ruler of Afghanistan and its dependencies, are riding side by side to the saluting point. The Viceroy is in plain clothes, with a star on his breast. The Ameer, like Alice Fell, is clad in duffel grey, with a gold embroidered black belt, long boots, and the tartar cap of grey Astrakhan fur. He is riding a small bay pony, and looks burlier and more thick set, than ever. With these two, ride a miscellaneous escort of English and Afghan officers, all well-mounted, and ablaze with gold and silver trappings. They take up position to the right and left of the saluting point, and the show begins.

First the Commander-in-Chief and his staff, and Sir Michael Biddulph and his Staff, ride past to their post, opposite the Viceroy’s, and draw up in line with the bands. Then, without a word or warning, the railway bridge to the left becomes alive with the glitter of steel, and the bevey of red coats, as the 33rd, the head of the first division, debouches into the open, at the double. And here I may point out the one disadvantage of the ground chosen. To get down from the Jhelum road to the open ground below, the troops have to walk down an embankment — which naturally threw them out of their step — dress and close up as best they can, and go straight on past the Viceroy. They have about three hundred yards wherein to recover themselves, and except to some ultra military eye, seem to go past perfectly. After the 33rd, come the Royal Irish — a strong regiment in every respect, and now we are fairly settled down to business. The bands in front of the saluting point play the men through as they go. The unattached officers have ceased from galloping, and there is a great quiet over us all.

The 14th Sikhs, the 21st Punjab Native Infantry, the Rifle Brigade, the 4th and 5th Goorkhas, little men taking long strides, the Royal Irish, the 21st Punjab Native Infantry, the 1st Goorkhas and the Volunteers, have passed by. Red, khaki, green, buff, maroon, coats and facings — an infinity of booted feet coming down and taking up, with the exactness of a machine — thousands of pipe-clayed pouches swinging all in the same direction, and all with the same impetus, dazzle the eyes, and produce on the mind, the impression of some interminable nightmare. Finally, one loses all idea that the living waves in front are composed of men. It has no will, no individuality — nothing, it seems, save the power of moving forward in a mathematically straight line to the end of time. It was a positive relief to cast one’s eyes to the end of the parade ground, and watch the columns, ragged and extended, in their scramble down the side of the road. The procession still continues, and the Scotch regiments are appearing on the scene. The Highland Light Infantry, the 78th, followed by the Guides, the 19th Punjab Native Infantry, the Cheshire, with their riddled colours and the wreath atop, the 1st Punjab Native Infantry, the 3rd
Sikhs, the 2nd Manchester, the 24th and 25th Punjab Native Infantry, and then, thank goodness, a pause for the Cavalry. The Jhelum road, as far as the horizon, is covered with returning troops, outlining the curves of the road, in red and dun colour. Abdur Rahman Khan is not to be lightly spoken to, so that it is impossible to say for certain what he thinks; but his hands are dropped on his ponie’s withers, and with head slightly bent forward, he is watching the incoming and outgoing line. Even an Englishman, accustomed as he is to talk of the degeneracy of our armed forces in these days, has, for once, to let such idle cavilling be, and content himself with wonder, pure and simple, at the harvest of the dragon’s teeth, which we garner within our borders. Dublin and the Deccan, Paisley and the Punjab, Nepal and Lancashire, one might continue the antitheses indefinitely, have all contributed to the crop of armed men ready for war, and it may be that the grey clad figure in the fur cap, is reading, marking and inwardly digesting the lesson. But no muscle on his face shows any signs of emotion, and the arrival of the Cavalry bands forces me to relinquish gush, in order to gaze on the next scene of the pageant. This has at least more life and movement than the former, seeing that no regulations on earth will keep horses’ heads from nodding up and down in irregular time, and there was something terrible in the utter immobility of the foot soldiers. The 9th Lancers open the ball, and of these it can only be said, as of all the others, that they are fine men on fine horses — albeit the latter look a trifle drawn and tuckered up, from marching and exposure to the rain. After the 9th come the 14th and 19th Bengal Lancers, the King’s Dragoon Guards, the 3rd Bengal Cavalry, the 15th Bengal Cavalry, the Carabiniers, the Guides and the 15th Bengal Cavalry [sic], in Squadrons, shaking the earth as they pass. Are there any words to describe adequately the appearance of well-mounted, well-drilled cavalry? The military world here contents itself with saying, that such and such a regiment went by better than such another; that one squadron kept its distance, whereas another did not, and so on; but the absolute symmetry of the whole; the wonder of it all, are taken as matters of course, grown familiar by long usage.

Abdur Rahman Khan made no sign throughout this last revelation — for this it must be to him. But when the artillery makes its appearance there is certainly something very like surprise
visible on his countenance. Three batteries of Royal Horse Artillery, four field batteries, the European screw gun batteries, and three native mountain batteries file by, all as neat as new pins. The Field and Horse batteries go past as one gun. A little thickened and blurred in the outlines, as if seen through a mist, but nevertheless one gun. How it’s done, the civilian’s mind cannot tell. To all appearance, the driver of the near wheeler lays the stock of his whip lightly on the withers of the off wheeler — and there you are, with about six inches between axle and axle, as level as though all six guns had been planed across the muzzles, jammed into a gauge and left there. This too, after guns and limber had to plunge down the embankment, recover themselves, and reform in about three hundred yards. It may be said: — ‘But this is only what we pay for, and all you have described, are but the incidents of an ordinary march past.’ When twenty thousand men march past in a straight line for two hours, in the presence of the men who will have to make the history of the next four years, the occasion is of anything but ordinary importance; and it is only fair, therefore, to record how superbly the whole function went off. The one touch of the ludicrous, to relieve the almost oppressive gravity of the proceedings, comes in appropriately enough at the end, in the shape of the elephant battery. Left to himself, my Lord, the elephant, is an imposing beast; but there is something very comic in his appearance when he is harnessed, ‘random’ fashion, to a siege gun. The weighty piece of ordnance bundles after him like a child’s toy, and all the ropes and chains and pads, wherewith his massive form is begirt, look like so many pieces of pack-thread. The Campbellpore behemoths bring up the rear of the Indian Army, at a sober and dignified pace; while behind them come the battery bullocks, and our old friend the Punjabi bylewalla (ox-driver), thinly disguised in a uniform, prodding them with a stick. So we drop from all the pomp and circumstance of glorious war, from patriotic enthusiasm and much gush, to the things of every day life again. But for a little while only.

The Ameer has yet to see what manner of troops our feudatories could bring into the field, should occasion arise. Pattialia, Nabha, Jhind, Faridkot, Kapurthalla, Bahawalpore, have all contingents to show — and the sight must shock the Ameer exceedingly. When he was driving from the station on his arrival in Pindi, he asked several questions regarding the native contingents, and expressed the utmost surprise that the British Government dare to allow the dragon’s teeth to be sown anywhere but in her own borders. But they took part in the last Afghan war, said the officer with him. ‘Ah! and were killed off that way,’ was the Ameer’s reply. ‘No, they kept our lines of communication open in the Kurram Valley.’ ‘Did they? I should have sent them where they might be thinned a little.’ Evidently His Highness does not approve of armies within armies, and the close of the review must shock him exceedingly. Here are contingents of well-drilled, well-armed men in a conquered country, playing their bands, giving their words of command, and above all dragging their artillery, the deadly guns of the English, under the very noses of their rulers. And truly the native contingents are magnificent troops to look at. A little ragged in their dressing here and there, and below comparison with English batteries, as regards their artillery, but still magnificent men. I am unable to say which are which, for field glasses are of no avail here; a catholic taste in buttons preventing accuracy of observation.
They were all good, and would have been better as regards the cavalry, if so many of the horses had not been the pink nosed, mottled squealers that one is accustomed to associate with circuses, all the world over. About three thousand in all have gone by, and the guns are making ready to salute. Viceroy, Ameer and escort have swept round to the road, and are making haste to begone, as a sharp thunderstorm is doing its worst among us just now. But the abominable weather of the past week seems to have broken for good, and this is merely an April shower. The road to Khana plain is still full of troops, and the elephant battery is shuffling home hastily to tiffin. The great review of the Pindi Conference is over; and could scarcely have taken place under more favourable circumstances. There was no sun, which in April is distinctly a blessing; there was no dust, and the turf holds no mud, so that the troops have gone by speckless; and, so far as can be, after having been in review order for some four hours or so, untired. From beginning to end of the performance, there has not been one single hitch of any kind. Abdur Rahman has seen for himself the harvest of dragon’s teeth as we grow it in this country, and doubtless has drawn his own conclusions. The sword is mightier than the pen by far to an Afghan; and each bayonet and field piece will carry more weight with our guest, than the courteous preambles of the Conference proper.