H. B. (Henry Bathurst) Hanna.

The second Afghan war, 1878-79-80 : its causes, its conduct and its consequences (Volume 2) online

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Public Opinion in England


The indifference which prevailed in the United Kingdom during the
weeks of grace accorded by Lord Beaconfield's Government to Shere
Ali, contrasts strongly with the excitement pervading all classes of
society before the late South African war ; but the reason for the
difference is not far to seek. In 1899, military preparations were
carried on under the eyes of the people of these islands, whose hearts
were daily thrilled, or wrung, by the sight of their sons, husbands,
brothers, friends, starting forth to meet unknown dangers. In 1878,
there were no martial scenes in the streets to arouse popular passion,
no public partings to touch the springs of deeper feeling, and to the
great mass of Englishmen the prospect of a conflict with Afghanistan
brought no fear of personal loss. India has never filled a large place
in the mind of the British public, and \\dth trade stagnant, manufac-
tures crippled, agriculture — despite a good wheat-harvest — depressed
by unseasonable weather and disastrous floods, home troubles would
have left little time for weighing Lord Lytton's conduct to Shere Ali
against Shere All's attitude towards the British Government, even
had men been in possession of the facts essential to the forming of
an independent judgment on either point. And no one had any
knowledge of those facts ; even the Indian experts who fought against
the coming war in the columns of the daily press, even Lord Lawrence
and Lord Northbrook, had only their own former experience to go
on in arguing that Shere Ali was no enemy of the British Empire, and


that if lie had come to look like one, it was because Lord Lytton had
forced him to assume a character which he had no desire to wear.
It was a year and a half since British relations with Afghanistan had
been last discussed in Parliament, and dismissed by Lord Sahsbury
with the assurance that Great Britain was still on good terms with
that country and its ruler, and since then, beyond the bare fact that
a Russian Mission had visited Kabul, and a British Mission been
refused a passage through the Khyber, not a crumb of information
to account for the imminence of hostilities with a government so
recently friendly, had been vouchsafed to the British people or its
representatives ; not even the withdrawal of the Vakil from Kabul,
having been allowed to transpire.

This lack of data from which to reason, coupled with the pre-
vaiHng behef that war, if it came, would be short, bloodless, and
cheap, deprived those who sought to avert it, of the advantage which
the absence of popular excitement miglit otherwise have given
them. It is ill standing for principles, when the case to which they
have to be applied, is shrouded in obscurity ; yet, there were men
who did not shrink from the task. Dean Plumptre, preaching in
St. Paul's Cathedral on the 17th of November, from the text, " Shall
we smite with the sword ? " reminded his hearers that they who
sowed the wind of aggressive ambition, must look to reap the whirl-
wind of disastrous failure ; and Dr. Eraser, the Bishop of Manchester,
in a pastoral letter, bade Englishmen ask themselves whether the
rectification of a frontier, or the desire to avenge an insult to an
envoy— if insult had been oiiered, of which there was no proof— was
a sufficient reason, in the sight of God, for plunging into the unspeak-
able horrors and incalculable consequences of war. There were other
ministers of the Church of England who appealed earnestly to their
congregations to use their influence to induce the Government to
delay hostilities until the Amir's reply to the ultimatum had been
received and made public ; but, as a body, the clergy of the National


Church remained passive and mute, leaving it to the pastors of the
dissenting churches to take anything Uke united action in vindication
of the fundamental principles of the Christian religion, those of the
Midland Counties lodging a strong protest against the war, whilst, all
over the country, individuals like Paxton Hood and Baldwin Brown,
boldly denounced it from their pulpits.^

On the 21st November, when the war had already begun, the Govern-
ment broke its long silence by the pubhcation, in the Times and other
leading journals, of the very latest document relating to Afghan
affairs— a secret Despatch, but three days old, addressed by Lord
Cranbrook, Secretary of State for India, to Lord Lytton. This docu-
ment, which professed to be a true summary of the events that had
led to the rupture with the Amir, was merely the echo of Lord Salis-
bury's Despatches to Lord Northbrook, of his letter of instructions to
Lord Lytton, and of that Viceroy's letter of instructions to Sir Lewis
Pelly, and it was marked by the same misstatement or concealment
of facts at variance with the impression it desired to convey, the same
skill in drawing false conclusions from those it could not omit or

1 In a speech delivered by Sir William Harcourt at Oxford, on January the
17th, 1879, he commented severely on the attitude taken up by the Bishops regard-
ing the war : —

" The Viceroy " (he said) " declared at the outset that we had no quarrel
with the people of Afghanistan, but only with Shore Ali. Shore Alt is gone, and
we are now waging hostilities against a people with whom we had no quarrel . . .
whose homes we have invaded and whose territory we have annexed ; and when
they resist — not, perhaps, an unnatural thing— we find it necessary to cut their
throats and exterminate their villages. To my conscience, this sort of thing,
though it may be very scientific, is not altogether comfortable or pleasant ; but
I suppose I am wrong, for I find the Bishops approve and vote for it (laughter).
One of them, I think, has said it is the best way of propagating the Gospel
(laughter). I don't mean all the Bishops, for I am glad to think there was one
Bishop, who, at this Christmas time, voted for "peace on earth and goodwill
to men " ,- and I am proud to remember that prelate was the Bishop of Oxford "
(cheers). (The Times report.)

Unfortunately, the Bishop of Manchester was too ill to record his vote against
the war.


distort, which distinguished those docimients. It emphasized the
Treaty of 1855, where all the obligations were imposed on the Amir,
and ignored the Treaty of 1857 by which the British Government
bound itself to send none but a Native Envoy to Kabul, although the
subsequent attempt to escape from that pledge, lay at the root of the
misunderstanding that had now culminated in war. It repeated the
assertion that the Simla Conference owed its origin to Shere All's
anxiety to obtain from Lord Northbrook a distinct promise of assistance
against Russia, though Nur Mahomed had had no difficulty in showing
at Peshawar that it was Lord Northbrook, not the Amir, who had
desired to draw closer to Afghanistan, and taken steps to bring the
two Governments into direct communication. It dwelt on Lord
Lytton's eagerness to assure Shere Ali of the British Government's
friendly feehng towards him, and omitted all mention of the threats
in which that eagerness manifested itself. It re-asserted the accusation
of ambiguous conduct on the part of the Amir prior to the Peshawar
Conference, and branded his subsequent attitude as openly inimical,
and it had not a word to say about the numerous unfriendly acts
which had robbed him of his faith in the value of the British alliance.
It reproached him with having received the Russian Mission with
hospitality, and made no mention of the displeasure with which he
had viewed its approach, or of his attempts to delay its arrival in his
capital. In a word, from the first paragraph to the last, it repre-
sented the British Government as a benefactor, seeking to confer
favours on a valued ally, and Shere Ali as a treacherous ingrate,
plotting to rid himself of his obligations towards a generous friend,
though its author had before him official proof that, for years, British
benefits had only taken the form of pious wishes for his prosperity.
It may seem strange that Lord Cranbrook should have ventured
to pubhsh such a travesty of British relations with the ruler of Afghan-
istan, when the means of testing its value would soon be within the
reach of all who cared to compare it with the documents which it


distorted. It must be remembered, however, that Lord Cranbrook
could reckon on an enormous disproportion in his favour between
the readers of a Parliamentary Blue Book, and the readers of a docu-
ment published in the public Press ; and that the latter had on its
side, the immense advantage of being the first in the field. Eight days
later, when the first batch of Afghan papers was issued, the tale of
Shere iUi's duplicity and ingratitude had already sunk deep into the
public mind; and he himself had to pass away and the objects for
which his ruin had been compassed, to fade out of men's recollection,
before it could give place to a truer picture of his character and

The Afghan papers appeared on the 29th of November, and on the
5th of December, Parliament met to receive from Ministers an announce-
ment of the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and Afghanis-
tan, and to record its judgment on the policy which had brought about
so unexpected a state of things. On the opening day of the Session,
Lord Grey moved an amendment to the Address, censuring the Govern-
ment for entering upon hostilities, without affording Parliament the
opportunity of expressing an opinion on their expediency. On the
9th, Lord Halifax met Lord Cranbrook's resolution asking the Peers
to consent to the debiting of the Indian revenues with the expense
of the Expedition against Afghanistan, by an amendment which
declared that the House of Lords, whilst ready to consent to provide
means to carry on the war to an honourable conclusion, regretted that
the conduct of the Government had involved the country in an
unnecessary conflict. Lord Grey's amendment was negatived without
a division ; that of Lord Halifax, after a two days' debate, in whicli
every man of special experience in Indian affairs on both sides had
taken part — by a majority of one hundred and thirty-six — the figures
being two hundred and one, against sixty-five. The first sitting of
the House of Commons was marked by a sharp discussion, in the course
of which the Government was vigorously attacked by Mr. Fawcett,


Lord Hartington, Mr. Gladstone/ and Sir C. Dilke, and equally
vigorously defended by Mr. Stanhope, the Under Secretary for India ;
but no direct vote of censure was proposed till four days later, when,
on the Report stage of the Address, Mr. Whitbread moved a Resolution
disapproving of the conduct of her Majesty's Government in bringing
about war with Afghanistan. After a discussion lasting four days,
this Resolution was defeated by three hundred and twenty- eight
votes to two hundred and twenty-seven, and an amendment, moved
by Mr. Fawcett to Mr. Stanhope's proposal to saddle the revenues of
India with the cost of the war, shared the same fate ; though Govern-
ment met its supporters so far as to promise that, in case the war
should assume larger dimensions and last longer than was then
anticipated, the question of transferring some portion of its expense
to the British Exchequer, should be favourably considered. The
original Resolution was then agreed to, and the Government being
now free to prosecute the war to any end, and at any cost which the
course of events might make desirable or necessary. Parliament

The first impression made on the mind of the student of history
who goes back to these debates, is one of astonishment at the large
part plaj'ed in the discussions of both Houses by questions of fact.
The conflicting principles underlying the old and the new Afghan
policies, were indeed more or less clearly in the mind of every speaker,
and some, notably Lord Lawrence and Lord Beaconsfield, defined
and defended them with precision and force ; but more time and more

1 Mr. Gladstone strongly condemned the Government's policy in Afghanistan
and its treatment of her ruler, and the House on both sides cheered long and
warmly the noble peroration which concluded his speech : — " Those members
of this House " — he said in deep and solemn tones — " those members of this
House who oppose your course will believe that they have performed a solemn
duty incmnbent on men who believe that truth and justice are tlie only sure
foundations of international relations, and that there is no possession so precious,
either for peoples or men, as a just and honourable name."


passion were spent on wrangling over whether the Government had,
or had not, deceived Parhament with regard to Afghan affairs ; whether
attempts had, or had not, been made to coerce Shere Ali into receiving
British Officers ; whether that Prince had been ill-disposed towards
the British alliance since the days of the Duke of Argyll and Lord
Mayo, or only since those of Lord Sahsbury and Lord Lytton ;
whether he had welcomed a Russian Mission, or received it under the
stress of circumstances beyond his control. It would seem as if, when
both parties had access to the same sources of information, there
ought to have been agreement as to the facts to be found in them ;
but the speeches show that the speakers on the Opposition side based
their attack on the enclosures contained in the Despatches, and the
speakers on the Government side, on the Despatches themselves ;
between enclosures and Despatches, however, as has been previously
pointed out, there exists a divergence amounting, at times, to contra-
diction. It was natural that Ministerialists should have stuck to the
brief so carefully prepared for them by Lord Lytton and two successive
Secretaries of State for India, and no one wiU feel surprise that Lord
Salisbury and Lord Cranbrook should, in a general way, have repeated
their former statements and arguments with unshaken faith in their
truth and validity. Yet, there was one point on which change might
have been looked for : in the Despatch which led to the resignation
of Lord Northbrook, Lord Salisbury had declined to believe that the
Amir's disinchnation to allow the establishment of a British Agency
in his capital, was more than a passing sentiment, and in his Letter of
Instructions to Lord Lytton he had spoken of the " apparent reluc-
tance " of Shere Ali to receive British Officers ; now, with the record
of Nur Mahomed's long struggle against the " essential preliminary "
in his hands ; after a rupture with Afghanistan which had for its
immediate cause and excuse the attempt to send a British Mission to
Kabul — he was still found asserting that it was "pure imagination"
to say that the Amir had any real aversion to a British Resident ; a


truly amazing example of the power of opinion to blind men to the
most patent truth — truth that, in this instance, went deeper than the
mere personal feeling of a single ruler since, in opposing the intrusion
of British Agents into his country, Shere Ali was the embodiment of
that jealous dread of the foreigner which had possessed his people long
before he came to the throne, and was to lose none of its force under
his successors.

But if the first thing to strike the reader of these debates, is the want
of agreement as to the facts upon which they turn, what remains
with him when he has finished studying them, is a strong impression
of the lack of insight and foresight displayed by all the speakers on
the Ministerial side. Not a man among them seems to have been able
to catch so much as a glimpse of the Afghan view of the policy which
had brought about the war ; and inability to understand the
feelings and aims of one party to the strife, rendered them incapable
of looking beyond the temporary successes of the moment achieved
over the Armies of the Amir, to the inevitable failure in store for
Great Britain, when her forces should find themselves confronted by
a nation in arms. And if they were blind to the issue of their policy,
they were ludicrously wrong in their assumption of its importance.
Prophecies of danger to India and the Empire which the presence of
a British Agent at Herat alone could dissipate ; solemn assurances
that it was no longer possible to maintain satisfactory relations with
Afghanistan unless a British Resident were permanently established
in Kabul — read in the light of subsequent events, would provoke a
smile, did not the recollection of the price paid for opening men's eyes
to their futility, check any inclination to mirth. Twenty-five years
have passed since, trusting to those prophecies and assurances, the
two Houses of Parliament gave to Lord Beaconsfield and his colleagues
the moral support which they claimed for their Afglian policy, and the
material means to enable them to enforce it ; and yet though, from
that day to this, there has never been a British Agent in Herat, and,


only for the shortest interval, a British Resident in Kabul — India's
security has not been imperilled, and, in the eyes of her inhabitants,
the British Empire has suffered no loss of prestige.

There were fair grounds for disagreement between speakers on
the Ministerialist and speakers on the Opposition side, as to whether
Ministers had, or had not, exceeded their powers in going to war
without having first obtained the sanction of Parhament, for the
" Act of 1858," transferring the Government of India from the
Company to the Crown, on which both relied, contradicts itself
on the point 1 ; but there could be no question as to the
illegality of the treatment which the Indian Council had suffered
at the hands of Lord Cranbrook. That Council, created by the
above named Act, consists of fifteen men whose long and intimate
acquaintance with India fits them, above all others, to assist in-
experienced Secretaries of State in the task of ruling the greatest
dependency for which any modern State has ever been responsible.
Its functions, except in the province of finance, are purely advisory,
and even in that province, though by Article 41 " no grant or appro-
priation of any part of the revenues of India . . , can be made without
the concurrence of a majority of votes at a meeting of the Council,"
its control over its Chief is really illusory, since, by simply transferring

1 Article 65 of that Act by which the Government of India was transferred
from the Company to the Crown directs that " except for preventing or repelling
actual invasion of Her Majesty's Indian possessions, or under other sudden and
urgent necessity, the revenues of India shall not, without the consent of both
Houses of Parliament, be applicable to defray the expenses of any military
operation carried on beyond the external frontiers of such possessions by Her
Majesty's Forces charged upon such revenues" ; whilst Article 54 declares that
" when any order is sent to India directing the actual commencement of hostili-
ties by Her Majesty's Forces in India, the fact of such order having been sent
shall be communicated to both Houses of Parliament within three months of
the sending of such order if Parliament is sitting, unless such order shall have
been in the meantime revoked or suspended ; and if Parliament be not sitting
at the end of such tliree months, then within one month of the next meeting of


business to the Secret Department of his office, the Secretary of State
for India can escape from it until the time for enforcing it has gone by.
It was by the exercise of this power of transference, that Lord SaHsbury
and Lord Cranbrook had been able, without overstepping the letter
of the Act of 1858, to keep their Council for three years in ignorance
of the disquieting change which was passing over the relations of the
Indian Government to that of Afghanistan ; but when, early in
October, 1878, Lord Lytton added ninety-six men to every Native
Cavalry, and two hundred men to every Native Infantry regiment
north of the Narbudda, thereby increasing the mihtary expenditure
of India by two hundred and seventy thousand pounds,^ and Lord
Cranbrook kept to himself the telegram asking for his sanction to the
measure — the Secretary of State was guilty of an illegal act, for the
exceptional case had arisen in which he could only take a decision
in conjunction with his Council, and in accordance with the views of
a majority of its members. The result of the voting, when, on the 4:th
of December, the Council was at last consulted, affords good ground
for believing that, but for this illegality, there might have been no
war ; for its consent to the augmentation of the Indian Army was
given by a majority of one vote only ; and the Minutes in which two
of the members who voted for it — Sir Erskine Perry and Sir William
Muir — recorded their reasons for doing so, show conclusively that
had hostilities been in prospect, instead of in progress, their votes
would have been given against it. ^ Neither of them called

' This method of augmenting the Native Army had the merit of simph'city, but
it had two serious defects : it increased the disproportion between the Native
troops and the British officers, a disproportion aheady dangerously large, and
it discontented the rank and file of every affected regiment by diminishing
each man's chances of promotion.

^ Sir Barrow H. Ellis and Sir R. Montgomery, though approving of the
Goverrunent's Afghan policy, protested against placing on India any part of
the extraordinary charges connected with a war which they believed to be
duo entirely to European complications.


attention to Lord Cranbrook's unconstitutional action ; but
Sir Erskine Perry gave strong expression to the feelings of
mortification with which all the members of the Council regarded
the position assigned to them by law, and to his own personal
desire that Parliament should be made clearly to understand that
the Secretary of State had been under no obligation to consult them
in regard to his i\.fghan policy. The desire was a very natural one,
for, in the absence of an oJSicial proclamation of their impotence, it
was impossible for the general public to believe that the men who knew
most about India, were debarred from expressing any opinion on
matters in which that country's gravest interests were involved ; but,
however natural, it does not seem to have been gratified, and the
anomaly^ which hurt the dignity and shocked the common sense of
the Indian Council in 1878, remains untouched up to the present

The Last Days of Shere Ali


Whilst the friends of peace in England were pleading Shere Ali's
cause before the tribunal of public opinion in their own country, that
prince sat silent in the capital of his threatened kingdom. The ulti-
matum must have been in his hands by the 4th or 5tli of November, but
he made no attempt to answer it. Another decision had to be come
to before he could determine the nature of the reply to be given to its
demands. He himself was a broken man ; broken in health, broken
in heart, by the death of Abdullah Jan ; it behoved him to choose a
successor quickly if the sceptre of Afghanistan was not to pass away
from his family, and on whom could his choice fall save on the son who
had sirmed against him, and against whom he himself had sinned ? It
was, perhaps, bitterer to him to yield as a father than to yield as a
Prince ^ ; and the thought that, by bowing to British pressure, he
might escape the necessity of accepting Yakub Khan as his heir, must
often have crossed his mind, since, to oppose a British invasion, he
must have behind him a united people and a united Royal House ; but
the pecuniary assistance which a British Envoy would be empowered
to grant to a submissive Amir, might enable him to dispense with unity

1 It is curious that the one proof of British ill-will named in the answer to the
ultimatum, should have been Lord Northbiook's intervention in favour of " my
undutiful son, that ill-starred wretch Yakub Khan," epithets which show that the
Amir's feelings towards the rebellious prince had undergone no change. — H.B.H.



in either.i In the end, national feeling triumphed over personal pre-

Online LibraryH. B. (Henry Bathurst) HannaThe second Afghan war, 1878-79-80 : its causes, its conduct and its consequences (Volume 2) → online text (page 12 of 32)