The March to Kandahar: Roberts in Afghanistan
An interview with author Dr. Rodney Atwood
conducted by Garen Ewing
In November 2008 Pen & Sword published a new book on the Second Anglo-Afghan War, focusing on a central player of the conflict, General Frederick Sleigh Roberts. The following interview with the book's author was conducted in December 2008 and into January 2009. I am indebtied to Dr. Atwood for his patience, his informative and detailed replies, and for his assistance in editing the interview. You can order the book through Amazon here.
Could you give me a bit of background about yourself?
I can repeat this mostly from the book's inside back flap - born in England, brought up and educated mainly in Canada, read for my Ph.D. at Cambridge, my thesis subsequently published by Cambridge University Press as 'The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution', still in print in paperback. I served three years as a short service officer with the Royal Tank Regiment, and then was a schoolmaster and subsequently headmaster, twenty-eight years altogether before retiring in 2003, beginning to research and write. I am married. Of my three grown-up children one is with the United Nations at Kabul.
What led you to your interest in Roberts, and then to write a book about his role in the Afghan War?
The late Victorian period is fascinating, with obvious parallels with today's Britain - prosperity with the fear of recession and unemployment, threats to farming, a period of artistic and musical achievement in Britain, a strong strain of anti-militarism in the middle classes, wars against Muslim peoples in far-flung corners of the world, strict limits on Army expenditure. It was the first age in our history when politicians had to woo the press and an increasingly large electorate with volatile public opinion. Roberts' wooing of the press strikes a modern note. He also provides a link with India, its history of great interest, not least because of the increasing role of the descendants of men whom Britain once ruled in British arts of all kinds, witness films such as 'East is East' and 'Anita and me' and books like 'White Tiger'.
Years ago I read of Roberts' famous 300-mile march, but the account had little detail, and I resolved to find out more when I had time. Then a friend showed me Thomas Pakenham's 'The Boer War' with an account of Roberts in which not only he is an intriguer, a master of 'spin' (to use a modern phrase), a comprehensive bungler, but he also wins 'undeserved victories', an account totally at odds with what I had first read.
The more I looked at Roberts, the more I could see why he was much admired by his contemporaries, but why some modern historians find fault. Much the same as Richard I and Edward I, or more relevant, Kitchener, he fitted the ideals of his time rather than ours.
Lord Roberts of Kandahar, after the Afghan War and as Commander-in-Chief of the Army in India.
Where did your research take you, and what kind of documents were you looking into?
The chief source is the Roberts papers at the National Army Museum, Chelsea. Roberts was a magpie, and once he knew he was going to be famous he kept everything. This includes not only manuscript letters, journals, documents covering major events in his life and officially printed despatches, but scrap books of newspaper and magazine cuttings, which are themselves a wonderful source. In December 1911, for example, the Strand Magazine asked 'Who are the Ten Greatest Men now Alive?' and in answer placed Roberts seventh and his friend Kipling second. The inventor Edison was first. Unfortunately David James, author of a rather dull biography in 1954, destroyed private letters from Roberts to his wife, apparently on the instructions of Roberts' younger daughter, then still alive.
Second to that are the India Office Records, now held at the British Library. The British Library have produced a very useful on-line catalogue of relevant documents. All the despatches and other correspondence of the commanders are produced in large printed volumes. With so many printed documents published, it is a temptation not to look further, but private manuscript letters are invaluable. Those of Major (later Field Marshal Sir) George White to his wife and his brother are especially useful. In 1879 White served as a company officer with the 92nd, the Gordon Highlanders; in 1880 he was the Viceroy Ripon's military secretary, but Ripon let him take part in the march, reporting its details.
Less important for Afghanistan are the papers at the National Archives, Kew; but they do include details of logistics for the march.
Two other small but very important collections for looking behind the scenes are Mortimer Durand's papers held at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] (his official correspondence is in the India Office Library), and Lady Roberts' letters to Lord Melgund, the future Indian Viceroy Lord Minto, at the National LIbrary of Scotland. Durand's letters and diaries give almost a day-to-day account of Roberts' 1879 advance on Kabul and his political mistakes. Lady Roberts' letters give an insight as to how she helped her husband when some of the press were baying for his blood after the hangings and the sacking of the cavalry brigadier, Dunham Massy.
Lady Roberts c.1889.
Note the miniature Kandahar Star round her neck.
How did you go about turning that research into a readable narrative? Was there some point when you had to stop researching and start writing, or were these tasks running in parallel?
One could always continue researching, especially with the help now available from on-line catalogues and bibliographies. The flow of events made obvious the natural division of the book into chapters. I started writing in the third year of research, then found some gaps which I had to fill with further reading. These were, however, all specific points; namely, what happened at Maiwand, how was the decision made that Roberts should march from Kabul with 10,000 picked men, what was it like on the march, what happened in detail during the battle outside Kandahar.
On Maiwand, there were three good accounts I used, Colonel Leigh Maxwell's book, Brian Robson's articles in the Journal for the Society of Army Historical Research including the letters of Rev. Cane who was with the Kandahar force, and G.W. Forrest's interviews of survivors. The decision to send Roberts was made by Ripon; his papers, those of Haines, the Indian army c-in-c, and an article by Professor Ian Beckett were invaluable.
For the march there are a number of excellent sources including the letters of Lt Eaton Travers of the Gurkhas and (on logistics) Colonel Chapman's lecture to the RUSI [Royal United Services Institute]. Brian Robson's Road to Kabul describes the battle well. So too does Tony Heathcote's Afghan Wars. I looked for lively accounts as well as reliable ones.
You refer to Hanna's three-volume work on the Afghan War throughout your book, one of my favourites. Do you think Hanna's rather critical assessment of Roberts is justified?
Hanna is more balanced, and praises Roberts for, inter alia, organisation of hospital care for the Kurram column, his moral courage during the risky attack at Charasia, and his tactical skill in the final battle outside Kandahar. You would not realise he was so hostile a critic unless you read his letters to Brigadier Charles Gough and his brief work 'Lord Roberts in War'. His account is the most detailed, except the Official Indian Army History of six volumes, and he was himself a participant. He saw Roberts at Kabul and Sherpur in autumn and early winter 1879, trying unsuccessfully and heavy-handedly to solve the Afghan political crisis caused by the abdication of Yakub Khan, and over-reaching himself militarily in the fighting in the Chardeh Valley. From this he judged Roberts harshly, but that is rather like damning Wellington's whole career on the basis of his first siege of Badajoz and the horrors of San Sebastien. Not the Iron Duke's best moments.
In the introduction you mention that Trousdale's interpretation of MacGregor's diary is misleading. Would you mind elaborating a little on that?
Trousdale did well to discover and edit the missing bits of MacGregor's journal and supplemented his edition with background research. He wrote, however, under the influence of Thomas Pakenham's book on the Boer War, which paints a very unflattering picture of Roberts. I do not think he is right, and I put more confidence in the description of Roberts by the late Brian Robson in his 'Road to Kabul'. Trousdale claimed that Massy, the cavalry brigadier on Roberts' march to Kabul in 1879, was a potential rival of Roberts and deserved much of his credit. This was plainly nonsense from the accounts of the time, and is confirmed in detail by the letters of George White and Mortimer Durand who saw him in action, or rather inaction. I quote from both these sources. Soboleff's Russian staff account (I used the Indian Army Intelligence Department translation) confirms the poor performance of the cavalry under Massy. It is not difficult to see in other ways that one must take MacGregor's account of many things with a pinch of salt -- as readers of my book will appreciate. He was an intelligent but embittered man who thought his talents never received full recognition.
Roberts felt that his advance on Kabul in 1879 was a greater accomplishment than his march to Kandahar. Looking at the two side-by-side, would you agree with his assessment?
Roberts was right, this was a greater achievement. The distance was shorter, eighty miles against 300, but he was opposed constantly by the Afghans, the quality and strength of his force were less, and his transport such that he could only move half his column at a time. With Afghans hanging round his flanks and rear, this was quite an achievement. Modern historians who claim he was a careless organiser should take note. The Kabul-to-Kandahar march was undertaken with elite troops and the best transport the Kabul garrison could muster; most important, he was supported by Abdur Rahman's men and particularly by the hitherto hostile Mushk-I-Alam, the Afghan religious leader.
General Roberts surrounded by his staff for the march to Kandahar 1880.
To what extent do you think Roberts' march from Kabul to Kandahar was fuelled by personal ambition, as opposed to reacting to events on a purely tactical level?
We are all a mixture of motives, Roberts no less. Of course he wanted the British and Indians to win and realised the terrible shock registered to British prestige by the defeat at Maiwand. But he must also have seen that this could make his reputation; he was confident as a fighting general that he could beat the Afghans, especially if he had a force composed of the best troops. The key figures are Ripon, the Viceroy, and Donald Stewart, commanding at Kabul: they saw what had to be done (although Stewart was at first cautious), and sent the best fighting general. All credit to them, despite the doom-sayers. For Stewart the decision is not so strange: he and Roberts were great friends, and he knew his own task was to evacuate Kabul and ensure a handover to Abdur Rahman. Ripon had been a vociferous critic of Roberts' hangings at Kabul; he must have been told by Indian Army men - probably not the rather ineffectual c-in-c Haines - that Roberts would pluck victory from defeat. I quote one officer writing that 'the drill book was nothing to a man like Roberts'. How true that was.
If Roberts had returned to India with Stewart in August 1880, and left Kandahar for Phayre, what difference do you think the Afghan war would have made to his reputation? Was it purely the march that made him?
It was indeed, as his hangings and political mishandling of an admittedly difficult situation had undone the effect of his earier successes, and he had lost his patron, Lytton, who had resigned. It is the thesis of my book that none of his subsequent career would have been possible without the march to Kandahar.
After all your research into Lord Roberts, do you admire him? (Either on a personal level or as a military leader.)
Yes, but in the modern way, that we see all heroes have feet of clay (but also backbones of steel). We can no longer accept uncritically the picture painted, for example, by Winston Churchill's aunt Lady Harriet Wilson, heroine of Mafeking (she served Christmas dinner at the besieged South African town dressed in a Union Jack), of 'the hero of a thousand fights, the man who at an advanced age, and already crowned with so many laurels, had, in spite of a crushing bereavement [death of his son], stepped forward to help his country in an hour of need'. In Roberts pride in empire and a thirst to serve it were mingled with personal ambition and an ability to woo the press which is extraordinarily modern.