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"The Forward Policy--in other words, the policy of endeavouring to extend our influence over, and establish law and order on, that part of the [Indian] Border, where anarchy, murder, and robbery up to the present time have reigned supreme, a policy which has been attended with the happiest results in Baluchistan and on the Gilgit frontier -- is necessitated by the incontrovertible fact that a great Military Power is now within striking distance of our Indian possessions, and in immediate contact with a State for the integrity of which we have made ourselves responsible."
LORD ROBERTS: Speech in the House of Lords, March 7, 1898.

The Russian Threat to India

In the 19th Century, and for some time afterwards, the finger of evil prophecy was pointed at Russia as the Power which had designs upon India. There were not wanting active pens which continually suggested danger. The dominating thought in the minds of those responsible for the defence of India was the possibility of menace from Russia. Whether these fears were well grounded or were merely the product of over-active and over-nervous political imaginations, the fact remains that British relations were by no means friendly.

In India the rivalry of Asiatic Russia, or the fear of it, directly or indirectly connected itself with nearly all the little wars which were waged there since the middle of the 19th Century. As in Great Britain itself, the first duty was to consolidate the power of the British rulers. The Afghan, Belooch, and Sikh wars, the various annexations, the measures taken after the Sepoy Mutiny, the Burmese, and the later frontier wars, each contributed to the building up of a united and self-supporting empire, which might be dangerous to any Power which should venture to attack it.

In the early 19th century Russia was keen to wrest India from British control. It was only the assassination of Russian Emperor Paul I that stymied the plan. In February 1801, more than 22,000 Cossacks led by Ataman Matvey Platov set off from the Don steppes on an unprecedented campaign through Central Asia and Afghanistan to India. But thanks to the subsequent efforts of Alexander I to blacken the name of his father, the thwarted Indian campaign has gone down in history as a utopian escapade concocted by the mentally unbalanced Paul.

Emperor Paul I became increasingly convinced that the confrontation with the French was yielding no benefit for Russia at all. While the tsar’s troops were spilling blood and guts, the British and Austrians remained in the shadows, lapping up the spoils of Russia’s hard-fought victories. The last straw was Britain’s seizure of Malta in 1800. Having dislodged the French garrison from the island, not only did the British not return it to the order of the Knights of Malta, but set about turning it into a colony and naval base. Paul, who happened to be Grand Master of the order, took this as a personal insult.

France and Russia agreed to team up against Britain, which they believed to be the source of all trouble and unrest in Europe. Napoleon came up with a plan for a joint strike against the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown, India, which he had dreamed of conquering since the days of his Egyptian campaign. Under the plan, a French contingent of 35,000 soldiers, accompanied by light artillery, would march to Astrakhan, where they were to be joined by the 35th Russian army (15,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry, and 10,000 Cossacks).

After crushing the East India Company, the arrangement was that the French would consolidate the southern part of the peninsula, while the Russians would set up shop in the north. On March 23 [O.S. March 11], 1801, Paul I was murdered as a result of court intrigue, in which Britain played an active role. One of the first decrees of the new emperor, Alexander I, was to order Platov’s Cossacks to return home.

Sir Bartle Frere wrote in 1873 that " ... Russia will go on, whether her Government wish it or not, till something stops her, and what will stop her? Nothing that I can see except an impassable barrier, such as the Himalayas, or a political barrier, such as finding herself on a frontier which she cannot pass without fighting an equally powerful nation on the other side, and when that powerful nation is civilized and able and willing to give her honest hearing and reasonable redress with regard to frontier discussions and to require equal justice from her."

Viscount Cranbrook noted in the Lords on 12 May 1885 that "In 1838, Prince Nesselrode, in his correspondence with Lord Palmerston, expressed very much the same view as was subsequently expressed by Prince Gortchakoff—namely, that there was no intention on the part of Russia to extend her Dominions, or to interfere in any way with the Indian Dominions of Great Britain; that Russia, on the contrary, desired that these Dominions should remain in a tranquil and happy condition.... The Russian advance has been like that of the tide, and has now reached a point where we must build up a sea wall, so to speak, to prevent further encroachment."

The Duke of Argyll argued in the Lords on 12 May 1885 that Russian action since 186d has been entirely based on the principles expounded by Prince Gortchakoff in the circular despatch addressed by Prince Gortchakow to Russian Representatives abroad, dated 21st November 1864, namely "... that all half-civilized States were to be swallowed up within her frontiers, and that she would only contemplate diplomatic and peaceful relations with those States whose populations were settled in agriculture and commerce, and leaving it entirely in the mind of Russia how she would look upon any particular State, and whether she would place it in the one category or in the other. That is the principle on which she is proceeding; that is the principle which has now brought her direct from the Caspian to the borders of Afghanistan...."

The Duke of Argyll stated that "The real truth of the matter is this — and it is a very formidable one — we have lost in Asia our hitherto insular position. We hardly realize in this country how completely hitherto our position has been insular, not only in England, but all over the world. In England, of course, as Tennyson says, we are "compassed by the inviolate sea." In India, hitherto, we have been compassed on one of its sides by the inviolate mountains; and it is a curious fact that most of our Colonies have been hitherto purely insular. ... Well, my Lords, we are now no longer insular, we are now in the position of having lost our insularity in India. We are there now in the geographical position of a Continental Power, and what I want to point out is this—that being there so, we must now submit to all the burdens and all the necessities which fall upon other Continental Powers. After all, it is the position in which all the other States of Europe have long been — France, Belgium, Holland, and even Italy, although she has a natural frontier in the great barrier of the Alps. All other Powers, including Russia herself, are compelled to look after their own frontiers, and to contemplate the possibility of war and invasion, and we must do the same thing in India. We ought not, of course, to depend upon the promises of Russia; we ought not to depend upon the Treaties made with Russia, because, in the event of war, Treaties are of little worth; but we ought to depend upon our own resources, and upon the foresight with which we can make our preparations as a great Military Power. Now, the question naturally arises—where is our frontier to be? "

By the end of the 19th Century the Orenburg-Tashkent Railway was approaching completion, and seemed likely profoundly to modify the military situation in Central Asia. It was pushed forward without cessation even after Russia found herself at death-grips with Japan, and it enabled troops entrained at Moscow to alight within ten days, and without changing carriages, at a point only eighty miles north of Herat. That the Government of India were deeply exercised about the Tashkent Railway, and the simultaneous reports of Russian activity on the line of the Upper Oxus, was well known at the time. That Lord Kitchener shared these apprehensions to the full was no secret.

In this matter there is fortunately no need to depend upon mere assertion. Mr. Brodrick put the situation in a very pointed way in a despatch dated 02 December 1904, in which he said: "The danger of complications on the north-west frontier has been rendered greater by the completion of an additional strategic railway from Central Asia to the northern boundary of Afghanistan." On May 11, 1905, Mr. Balfour, then Prime Minister, in a memorable speech in the House of Commons upon Imperial Defence, took occasion to discuss the extent of Indian military resources in the event of war with Russia. He said he did not regard the Indian problem (of defence) as otherwise than grave, and he declared that Great Britain would not tolerate the slow absorption by Russia of Afghanistan.

"The invasion of India has been the dream of many military dreamers in the past, and the bugbear of successive Governments in this country. Napoleon certainly thought it could be accomplished, and I believe he thought it could be accomplished even after his abortive expedition to Egypt. The Emperor Paul had a plan for accomplishing it; and there is no doubt the development of Russia towards India has caused great alarm from time to time in this country; and we have endeavoured, quite in vain, by diplomatic arrangement to prevent that expansion, which I will neither justify nor criticise, but which we have to take as an accomplished fact, and accept, whether we like it or do not. I think the anxieties of our predecessors were in one sense most unreasonable, and in another sense had real foundation in truth and fact. They were unreasonable because the idea of invading India from the Caspian, or any place close 79 to it, in the absence of railways and means of transport for any large force is, I believe, totally illusory; and therefore, much of these previous terrors were, I think, ill-founded.

"But it is true, and unfortunately it remains true, that the steady progress of Russia towards the borders of Afghanistan, and still more the construction of railways abutting or closely adjoining the Afghan frontier, which we can only regard as strategic railways, place the whole military situation in the East on a totally different footing, and we have in all seriousness to consider what can and cannot be done by our great military neighbour in the Middle East. Here, again, I may say, although the invasion of India is a topic much debated among Russian officers, it is not, I believe, any part of the scheme of the Russian Government.

" ... making a railway through the plain of Afghanistan up to Kabul is a most tremendous operation, and that there are no less than 200 miles of mountain where rock-cutting and other immensely difficult and laborious processes would have to be undertaken by the invading army. I may observe that the Afghans are not likely to welcome these railway makers in their fastnesses.

" ... if we are to sleep in peace over the Indian problem, it can only be on condition that we maintain un-diminished the existing difficulties which a hostile force would have to meet. As transport is the great difficulty of an invading army, we must not allow anything to be done which would facilitate transport. It ought, in my opinion, to be considered as an act of direct aggression upon this country that any attempt should be made to build a railway in connection with the Russian strategic railways within the territory of Afghanistan. I have not the smallest ground for believing that the Russian Government intend now, or, I hope, at any time, to make such a railway. But I say that if the attempt were made, remote as it might at first seem from our interests, I think it would be the heaviest blow directed at the very heart of our Indian Empire that we could conceive.

"If, however, by laxity, by blindness, by cowardice, we permit the slow absorption of the Afghan kingdom in the way that we have necessarily permitted the absorption of the various Khanates in Central Asia, if Russian strategic railways are allowed to creep closer and closer to the frontier which we are bound to defend, then this country will inevitably pay for its supineness by having to keep on foot a much larger Army than anything which any of us can contemplate with equanimity. Foresight and courage will obviate these dangers. Without foresight and without courage they may come upon us; and if they do come upon us, we shall be throwing upon our children, if not upon ourselves, the greatest military problem that has probably ever confronted the Government of this country."

But skeptics such as Sir Charles Dilke noted that "the only route by which a railway could be constructed and by which a formidable invasion could ever be made was the circuitous route by the Persian frontier, the Herat-Girishk-Kandahar route, a route of 360 miles, past our great station of Quetta and our double line of railway, a railway of a very different carrying power from that on which the Russians would be obliged to rely."

Such a warning, uttered at such a moment, had only one meaning. It showed that the Imperial authorities, in common with the Government of India, regarded with anxiety the reports of Russian military activity in Central Asia. Those reports had meanwhile become extremely explicit. It was said that, despite the struggle in Manchuria, Russia had sent reinforcements to Central Asia which more than doubled her existing garrison; and it was alleged that she had under arms beyond the Caspian a force of 200,000 men.

The report of these Russian reinforcements was fully credited at Simla, and for a time in London also. Russia was at that moment gravely troubled by internal disturbances, due to dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war in the Far East; and the explanation offered was that she proposed to distract public attention by creating a diversion in Afghanistan, which was considered by her statesmen to be a popular move.

The motive ascribed to Russia was unfounded. The report of the reinforcements in Central Asia was largely untrue, though it had some foundation. While Lord Kitchener and his colleagues were anxious about the doings of the Russians in Central Asia, the Russians themselves were very anxious about Lord Kitchener. They learned through their own sources — the Russian intelligence branch in India was in some respects peculiarly efficient at that time — that the Commander-in-Chief had been riding up and down the frontier, and had examined every pass from the Gomal to the Pamirs. They read in the papers that he was designing new cantonments, and meant to concentrate the bulk of the Indian Army on the frontier. They fancied he had come to India with warlike intentions, and credited him — quite erroneously — with a strong antipathy to Russia. At last they grew thoroughly alarmed, for it seemed to them that their defeats in Manchuria gave him the opportunity he appeared to be seeking. They were never quite convinced that Great Britain would try to strike at Russia in Central Asia, but the Japanese Alliance had made them deeply suspicious of British motives, and they thought it best to be prepared.

That was the reason why work on the Orenburg-Tashkent Railway was never stopped for a moment, although Russia was engaged in deadly conflict elsewhere. The authorities in Central Asia took a further step, sending a despatch to St. Petersburg, reviewing the supposed preparations of Lord Kitchener, pointing out their inability to resist a British advance, and urgently demanding copious reinforcements. The views thus expressed found complete credence in the Russian capital, and though more troops were required in Manchuria, it was decided to reinforce the Central Asian garrisons by large additions.

Had the decision been carried out, the Russian forces near and beyond the Caspian would eventually have reached a total of 200,000 men. The movement of troops actually commenced, and a small proportion of the desired reinforcements arrived in Central Asia; but before the scheme could be completed the situation in Manchuria grew so desperate that the remainder of the troops designated were sent to the Far East.

A veil had been drawn over Central Asia: no foreigner was allowed to travel by the Tashkent Railway; it was difficult to find out what was going on; and when emissaries who had become aware of an order declared that it had been carried into effect, there was no means of disproving their statements. The Russian Government promptly issued a denial, but hardly any one then believed them. One of the few exceptions was Sir Charles Dilke, who for years afterwards used to denounce the story in the House of Commons, though he did not seem to be aware that it was not entirely imaginary.

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Page last modified: 01-04-2019 17:00:59 ZULU