My Life Story (Ch 4)


In the intervals of work in the plains of India I used to go to the hills where the Survey officers were and the maps were fair drawn for publication, and with leave for a month or so I was able to tramp off into the Himalayas and do a little shooting. In this way I visited Kashmir and many of the remoter valleys where the big rivers of India take their rise, and saw some of the most magnificent mountain scenery to be found in the world.

I reached the source of the Jumna on one occasion, and crossed the intervening range to the source of the Ganges. Both are marked by groups of magnificent snow-covered peaks. I ascended the peak above the Jumna source (called Jamnotri or Brandarpunch) to a height of about 20,000 feet, but I found that to be about the limit of my climbing powers. Moreover, the clouds wrapped themselves thickly over the peak at that height so that nothing was to be seen, so I descended on my own tracks for fear of losing myself.

Between Jamnotri and Badrinath (above the Ganges source) the ranges were more or less under snow (it was early June), but masses of rhododendrons (purple and white) were in full bloom in spite of the snow, and where the snowy mantle was gradually melting away under the sun’s rays the hillsides were clothed with flowers (primulas chiefly) so densely as to give the appearance of a huge Persian carpet. It was very lovely, but I got nothing in the way of shooting except a few pheasants.

Lower down in the pine forests there were bears, not the same sort as the bears of Central India (which are sloth bears), but big black fellows who were always ready for a fight. Indeed I have never met a bear either in the vast grass plains of Assam, or in the Jungles of Central India, or on the slopes of the Himalayan foothills, who was not ready for a fight.

Once I followed one too closely. We were on a hillside that was so steep that I had to crawl up on all fours. Suddenly from above me the old bear charged down (a she-bear with two cubs). It was impossible to move either to the right or left, and she came straight on my head with her mouth open. She couldn’t have been more than a few feet off when I fired, and apparently the bullet went into her mouth and blew out the back of her head. Anyhow, there was no stopping, so we all rolled down the hill together in a bunch. When I crawled out of the melee at the earliest moment I could get free, I found that my hand was badly scratched, and that was all the damage. The old bear was stone dead; but after that I took care not to get quite close on to the heels of a retreating bear.

It was all great fun, and I think I enjoyed my scrambles about the Himalayas as much as any good time I had in India, but I never could get far enough, or high enough, for the biggest game of all — the big deer, or the markhor (the biggest goat in the world, with twisted horns), or snow leopards.

In those days shooting, and shikar generally, was free to everybody, and there was lots of it. Nowadays it is difficult to find country that has not already been harried by sportsmen. Neither in the hills or the plains is any good sport obtainable without taking a good deal of preliminary trouble about it. When the cold weather set in at the end of the rains and the Himalayan air grew clear and crisp; when the skies were blue from the first rosy tints of sunrise on the snowy peaks to the last grey shadow which fell over them like a pall (nothing gives one such a deadly chill as that), it was time to get back to the plains and the frontier.


It was in the autumn of 1883 that I at last persuaded the Indian Government to let me ascend the highest peak on the N.W. Frontier (the Takht, or throne, of Solomon) to get some much wanted observations with the theodolite.

The people who held that mountain were always defiant, always giving trouble with their raids into the plains and owing to their occupation of what they believed to be inaccessible heights they were especially truculent, even for frontier tribes people. So we had to teach them that their mountain fastnesses were not inaccessible, and that we could lift the veil (as they put it) from their most secret retreats. Besides, those theodolite observations were badly needed.

So a military expedition was fitted out; not a very large one — about half a brigade –to capture that mountain and put the fear of the British Government into the hearts of those robbers. It was a badly equipped expedition, because it was well known that it would be impossible to approach the throne of Solomon from the side of India. It would be necessary to struggle through the frontier hills, so as to get behind and at the back of it and that struggle would involve almost impossible ways, formed chiefly by the beds of mountain torrents through deep gorges and gullies, and over the roughest of mountain paths where it might very well be necessary to blast a way through the rocks before the transport animals could get through. And yet there were no Engineers, nor pioneers, with the force, and not an ounce of blasting powder or gun cotton.

However, we wriggled our way upward, although all the loads had to be taken off the mules and camels to get them through the narrow gorges and finally (a day or two late) we reached the Back of that extraordinary mountain. This is what we saw. A long, flattish line of mountain steeply scarped by cliffs along its whole length, hundreds of feet high, with only one narrow approach which was a mere cleft in the solid wall up which only one man could possibly go at a time. In the distance we could see the peak that we meant to reach.

The enemy were all clustered where they were evidently very busy preparing defences and collecting rocks to drop on to the men who (one at a time) had to climb up. It was clear that we should never get up that way. But, whilst surveying some distance off, I had once again observed with my useful theodolite telescope that there might be a way of getting up if we could manage it by surprise. Also I had seen the enemy dancing their war dances and flashing their knives and swords in the sun at intervals along the top of the cliff. That proved that there must be some sort of a path along the top.

So that same night we stole off in the dark, and guided partly by stars, and partly by distant landmarks that I had observed, we made our difficult way to the foot of the cliffs. It was a long, weary night’s work, and I sometimes thought that I must have missed the way, but it ended at last, and when dawn broke we were climbing for all we were worth up to the top and over it.

During the night the enemy had withdrawn all the pickets that had been posted along the top and they had all joined in a great feast and much rejoicing, thinking we were placed in an impossible position. They looked down at the little force collected at the foot of the cliff and jeered at them. But they knew nothing about us. We went cautiously and silently along the rough path that I knew must be there, and suddenly arrived above the busy swarm. There was a break in the cliffs and we were right above them.

Just as we arrived the first shell was fired up from a small mountain gun below, and went curling and exploding over their heads. They yelled wildly and shouted with laughter, until all at once a volley from us on the top caught them in the back. Then indeed there was a scattering and running, and the sudden disappearance of the whole lot was one of those mysteries of the mountains that I never could unravel. The disappearance was magical. Yet some few remained to fight. Their leader was killed and about 30 or 40 men, which made a big hole in a small tribe.

Then followed three or four days on that mountain top, reaching the highest peak, where I got my observations all right, and where no European has ever set his foot before or since. It was a great success and we came out of it very tired, very dirty (we had slept on the ground by the fires all night and had no water to wash in) and very thirsty, but that little tribe (the Sheranis) learnt their lesson and gave no more trouble.


After a year of strenuous Survey work on the frontier about Kohat and the northern provinces beyond the Indus (work which was always interesting in the wild hill districts where there was a chance of a skirmish with the fanatical Mohammedan people at any time), I was appointed for duty as Surveyor to the historical Boundary Commission which was to settle the boundary between Russia and Afghanistan in Central Asia.

For years the Russians had been pushing their way southwards in Asia; they had taken an important city called Merv and were spreading south over the Turkestan country towards Herat, which is the chief city of Western Afghanistan. All this brought them nearer to India, and it became clear that India was ultimately what they were reaching out for. But to reach India they had to cross Afghanistan. So they collected an Army on the Afghan borders north of Herat, and thought that England was so much afraid of them that no one would venture to stop them.

This was in the days when Gladstone was Prime Minister. However, after much talk and shilly-shally on the part of politicians on both sides, they agreed at last to have a definite boundary fixed beyond which Russia was not to come. There is a great river in Central Asia, the Oxus, which seemed to answer the purpose of a boundary very well from its source in the Himalayas to a certain point somewhere between the horse-drawn ferry at Kilif and Kerki. From about that point on the river Oxus the boundary had to be laid out by setting up pillars or markstones across the Turkestan country (mostly desert) to the Persian frontier north of Herat.

This was the job I was sent on, with Captains Gore and Talbot, R.E., to help me, and it took two good years to do it. I had great difficulty in getting on the Commission in the first place. The Surveyor General was not especially fond of me because I laughed at some of his silly theories on scientific matters, and he was positively determined that I should not go, but that another officer, who had no experience whatever in rough frontier work should be appointed.

This officer was quite unfit, and before he had left the British frontier (at Quetta) even, he had gone clean off his head. He fully believed that the whole party would be murdered before they had crossed Afghanistan. So also (I think) did some of the political officers attached to the Commission, but it didn’t put them off going.

However, the doctor (Dr. Owen) attached to the Commission happened to be an old friend of mine, and he telegraphed to me to be ready to take the other man’s place, should I be appointed to succeed him. And so it came about that when the Surveyor General again declined (with strong language) to send me, and nominated yet another surveyor, the Viceroy, Lord Ripon, stepped in, and said that as he had made one failure, he wasn’t going to have the chance of making another. Lord Ripon befriended me because he was something of an artist. He liked my paintings, and brought one or two for the Vice regal Lodge, and he knew my work on the frontier.

So for two years I had the time of my life. It was splendid work. Far and wide I stretched out my little survey party (as far, that is, as I dared), whilst night after night, when the day’s march was over and the day’s work was done, we three Survey officers observed the stars and computed astronomical observations to check the progress of the actual topographical surveying as we went along.

First of all we crossed 60 miles of desert (without water) from Quetta in Baluchistan to the Helmund river, then followed up that river till we had passed the great hamuns or lagoons into which it flows, and marched straight north for Herat. That march was great, both in point of speed and endurance. We had an escort of about 500 men, cavalry and infantry, and although we marched at twice the ordinary army pace, not a single man ever fell out.

We passed Herat. We were not allowed to visit the city for fear of disturbance, as the Afghans of Western Afghanistan are a very fanatical lot, — worse than the tribes about Kabul. Whenever a Mahommedan fanatic, scorning death, rushed at an officer with the purpose of killing him and the hope of gaining Paradise thereby, it was almost always found that this ghazi was a man of the Western tribes. The Amir of Afghanistan did not want to have any English officers killed by his fanatical subjects, for that would have involved him in trouble with the Indian Government. So we just looked at Herat from a neighbouring hill and wondered at its long, straight, flat walls and towers, which was all we could see in the distance.

Beyond Herat we still marched northwards over the hills towards where we knew the Russians were, and as we approached them we expected that they too would approach us and that we should be able to start the demarcation of the boundary at once.

This was not the Russian view, however. They knew we had a weak Government in England (under Gladstone as Prime Minister) and before settling any boundary they meant to grab what they could by force of arms. They had about 40,000 men (so they said), and as we had only 500 and the Afghan troops were not to be depended on, the game was in the hands of the Russians. Accordingly they attacked the Afghans, beat them severely, took possession of their camp, and spread themselves well over the boundary line.

What we expected after that fight at Penjdeh was that the Russians would attack us next, and that the Afghans, who were enraged because we did not help them, would turn on us also. Of course as we were not at war with Russia, but only a peaceful Boundary Commission, we could do nothing but clear out of the way as quickly as possible.

This we did, and we retreated over the border into Persian territory. It was difficult, as we had to cross a river in full flood with the bridge washed away, and we expected every hour to see the Cossacks’ spears in the distance. Nothing happened, however, and we just waited about through the winter (during which time my Surveying party were exceedingly busy), camped on an ice-bound river (the Murghab) at the foot of the mountains between us and Herat, where we had great sport after ibex in the snow. This was the only time that I ever knew of ibex being hunted on horseback, but it was a fact that they came down so low to look for food that it was possible, in those easy sloping hills, to ride after them. The pheasant shooting too was splendid. The pheasants there are like English birds, but they are bigger and the plumage is finer.

On the whole I enjoyed that winter, though the cold was so intense sometimes that the air would be full of frozen moisture and sparkled like champagne. We kept ourselves warm by lining our tents with felt and keeping a supply of red-hot charcoal in braziers. The tracks about the plains were so sheeted with ice that it was often impossible to ride over them, and the thermometer was often twenty degrees below zero.

The great game of the nomadic people who were about us was to make their huge hairy two-humped camels fight each other. The colder the weather, the more they enjoyed the sport, both camels and men.

As spring came on the weather was glorious, and the whole face of the country broke out in a carpet of flowers. And yet every now and then there would come a blizzard from the wide frozen steppes of the North West that the natives called the shamshir or scimitar, from its frightful cutting force and danger. To be caught out in the open plains was almost certain death. Once I was caught when with Yate (now Sir Charles) looking for suitable points for the boundary pillars. It was in April; and we had spent a morning deep amongst the grasses and wild flowers around us, complaining of the heat. By evening there were two feet of snow and not a blade of grass to be seen. Birds flew into our tents for shelter. Some of the horses were frozen dead, and we were held up for two or three days before we could see a way out.

Another time we were caught on the march crossing a low line of hills. Within an hour the paths were impossible. Mules sank into the mud and stuck, their drivers were frozen beside them. We lost about 30 mules and a dozen men on that unlucky day, and we very nearly lost Yate. He went to help others and got frozen himself. A search party found him gibbering and nearly insensible and brought him into camp.

All that winter we kept on shifting camp so as to get a comprehensive map of all the boundary country in case the Russians caved in after all. They did cave in. This was due to the fact that the miserably weak Government of Gladstone went out of office and a stronger one under Lord Salisbury came in. Salisbury stood no nonsense. He said in effect to Russia: Either settle that boundary as you have engaged to do, or prepare for war. And he sent us an urgent wire to the effect that as war was imminently certain, we were to go into Herat and make the best defence we could till assistance reached us from India. But the Russians were only bluffing all the while. They were not at all prepared for war, and as we found out afterwards, they had not men or material enough for a siege of Herat. So they caved in, but not before I, with two other officers, had gone into Herat to lay out stronger defences on proper scientific lines.

This was a great experience. No European officer had entered Herat since the days of the last siege by the Persians in 1839, when Herat was defended by Pottinger. The old lines of defence were still visible but they were of course no use to us. We had to clear sufficient space round the walls for the guns (which were sent up from India) to range over, and to arrange for the flooding of an immense area beyond this open space to prevent approach to the walls.

In making these preparations for a siege which never came off, many acres covered by graveyards and villages had to be ploughed up and smoothed down, and it was a matter of great surprise to me that the Afghans cared nothing whatever for their Muhammedan cemeteries. They collected country ploughs (wooden) and oxen by the hundred, and they scattered the bones of past races of Moslems with a light hearted energy that amazed me. In ordinary times one would have certainly been cut to pieces for disturbing a cemetery by digging up bones.

What was worse, we had to destroy a beautiful mosque and mosulla (or college) that was faced with some of the most lovely Persian tile work that I have ever seen. But we left the minarets standing, as they could not afford much cover to an enemy.

Meanwhile the guns arrived. Such guns! They were old 68 and 32 pounders that the Indian Government was only too pleased to get rid of. About as much use against Russian artillery as pea-shooters. Luckily the Afghans knew nothing about modern guns in those days (they know better now) and so our guns were immensely admired and installed in their emplacements on the walls with much ceremony. But, as I have said, the Russians came to their senses and decided after all that they would assist us in demarcating the boundary. So there was no siege, and the guns were never wanted –luckily.

Then followed a year of hard work, which fell almost entirely upon the Surveyors. It was all very well to say in a treaty that a boundary was to run from one point to another in a totally unknown country, but we had to find these points, and as often as not they did not exist. And so there were endless disputes and wrangles with the Russians about that boundary to the Oxus from the Persian frontier, which did not, however, interfere with a good deal of amusing interchange of hospitality between the two camps.

There were Russians of all sorts, from Princes of the Imperial family to rough Caucasian Cossack officers who could talk no language that anybody understood and these latter stood most on their dignity. Their surveyors were a mixed lot (in fact, they were all surveyors except the escort), and some of them were very good and efficient men, but they complained that our Indian surveyors were always on the ground before them and had the earliest information.

We worked all through the winter. It was intensely cold, of course, but nobody minded. The afternoon amusements at the Headquarter camp consisted of camel fights chiefly, and interchange of visits. In the cold, clear frosty starlight I have seen a gallant officer escorted home supported on either side by sturdy Cossacks, with a third Cossack in front carrying a table on his head with its legs in the air. At every 100 yards or so, down came the table on its legs, a bottle of vodka (sort of whiskey, but much nicer) was produced, and some tumblers. The health of the Czar (the little father, as his soldiers called him) was drunk, and then The Queen, with musical honours. After which the table was picked up and the procession wended its slow way towards camp. We had some rough times, but nobody was the worse.

When the last pillar was set up (which was not on the Oxus banks after all — that had to be done later) and the two camps, English and Russian, finally parted, we took an old, old caravan route southwards across Afghan Turkestan, through a weird and wonderful country, full of the relics of departed cities and of Buddhism, to the Hindu Kush. This great range we crossed by half a dozen passes at least (so as to know all about all of them) and descended through a most entrancingly beautiful valley to the plains of Kabul.

There the Amir met us and treated us with honour, but nothing like the honour and enthusiasm with which we were greeted when we finally reached Peshawur, on the Indian frontier. We were a somewhat ragged lot as we rode in through lines of soldiers flanking the roads, bands playing and flags flying, and finally said goodbye to Afghanistan for the second time. The first time of course being at the end of the Afghan war.

We had worked for two years in the country, and though in those days our Governors and administrators thought very little of geography and seemed to believe that foreign politics could be run very well without it, yet they did to a certain extent appreciate the enormous area of map-making which had accumulated under our hands. Whereas the Russian Government had made up her boundary Commission with officers and civilians who were all surveyors, with a small military escort, the Indian Government had sent up a crown of politicals who often had nothing to do, and only three survey officers and a few natives to do the whole job. However, it was done. For this I got a second brevet (Lieut. Colonel) and C.B.

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