Transport of Troops to India (August 13, 1858)

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 13 August 1858

Source: New York Daily Tribune, August 13, 1858;
Collection(s): New York Tribune

London, July 27, 1858

At the beginning of the Anglo-Indian war, two curious questions were mooted — the one relating to the respective superiority of steamers or sailing vessels, the other as to the use of the overland route for the transport of troops. The British Government having decided in favor of sailing vessels against steamers, and for the voyage round the Cape of Good Hope against the overland route, the House of Commons, on the motion of Sir De Lacy Evans, ordered, on the 4th of February, 1858, a Committee to be appointed, under the chairmanship of the veteran General, which was to inquire “concerning the measures resorted to.” The formation of this Committee was completely altered by the intervening change of Ministry, consequent upon which three Palmerstonians were substituted for Lord Stanley and Sir John Pakington. The report of the Committee proving, on the whole, favorable to the late Administration, Gen. Sir De Lacy Evans had a protest printed and circulated, in which he asserts the conclusion arrived at to be at titter variance with the premises from which it pretended to be drawn, and quite inconsistent with the facts and evidence laid before them. An examination of the evidence itself must oblige all impartial persons to fully concur in this view of the case.

The decisive importance of a short line of communication between an army in the field and its base of communication needs no demonstration. During the American War of Independence the principal obstacle England had to grapple with was a sea line of 3,000 miles over which she had to convey her troops, stores and re-enforcements. From Great Britain to the mouths of the Indus and Ganges, to Calcutta, Madras, Kurrachee and Bombay, the distance, according to past arrangements, may be reckoned at about 14,000 miles; but the use of steam offered the means of shortening it considerably. Hitherto on all occasions it had been the practice to effect the relief of regiments in India, by this long sea voyage in sailing vessels. This was considered a sufficient reason on the part of the late British Administration, for declaring at the beginning of the Indian troubles, that sailing vessels would still be preferred to steamers for the conveyance of troops. Up to the 10th of July, 1857, of 31 vessels taken up, nearly the whole were sailing ships. Meanwhile, public censure in England and unfavorable news from India effected so much that in the interval from the 10th of July to the 1st of December, among the 59 ships taken up for troops, 29 screw steamers were admitted. Thus a rough test was afforded of the relative qualities of steamers and sailing vessels in accomplishing the transit. According to the return furnished by the Marine Department of the East India Company, giving names of transports and length of passages to the four principal ports of India, the following may be considered the average results as between steamers and sailing vessels.

From England to Calcutta.
From August 6 to October 21, 1857, average of steamers, omitting fractions82
Average of 22 sailing vessels, from June 10 to August 27, 1857116
Difference in favor of steamers34
To Madras.
Average of 2 steamers90
Average of 2 sailing ships131
Difference in favor of steamers41
To Bombay.
Average of 5 steamers76
Average of 9 sailing ships118
Difference in favor of steamers42
To Kurrachee.
Average of 3 steamers91
Average of 10 ships128
Difference in favor of steamers37
Average of the whole of the 19 passages by steamers to the four ports of India83
Average passage of 43 sailing ships120
Difference between averages of steam and sailing vessels37

The same official return, dated Feb. 27, 1858, gives the following details:

To Calcutta were conveyed by steamers6,798
By sailing ships9,489
Total to Calcutta16,287
To Madras, by steamers2,089
By sailing ships985
Total to Madras3,074
To Bombay, by steamers3,906
By sailing ships3,439
Total to Bombay7,345
To Kurrachee, by steamers1,351
By sailing ships2,321
Total to Kurrachee3,672

It appears, then, from the above that 27 steamers carried to the four ports of disembarkation in India 14,144 men, averaging, therefore, 548 men in each ship; that in 55 sailing ships were conveyed 16,234 men, averaging 289 men in each. Now, by the same official statement of averages, it appears that the 14,144 men conveyed in steamers arrived at their respective places of destination on an average of 37 days sooner than the 16,234 men embarked on sailing ships. On the part of the British Admiralty and the other ministerial departments no arguments were adduced in favor of the traditionary transport but precedent and routine, both dating from an epoch when steam navigation was utterly unknown. Lord Palmerston’s principal plea, however, for the delay was expense, the cost of steamers in most of the above cases amounting to perhaps treble that of sailing ships. Apart from the fact that this great enhancement of charge for steamers must have gradually diminished after the first unusual demand, and that in so vital an emergency expense ought not to be admitted as an element of calculation, it is evident that the increased cost of transport would have been more than compensated for by the lessened chances of the insurrection.

Still more important than the question of superiority as between steamers and sailing vessels, seems the controversy respecting the voyage round the Cape on the one hand and the overland route on the other; Lord Palmerston affirming the general impracticability of the latter route. A controversy in regard to it between his Board of Control and the East India Directors, appears to have commenced contemporaneously with the first information of the Indian revolt reaching England. The question had, in fact, been solved as long ago as the beginning of this century. In the year 1801, when there were no steam navigation company’s agents to aid the military arrangements, and when no railway existed, a large force under Sir David Baird proceeded from India and landed at Kosseir in May and June; crossed in nine days the desert of Kherie, on the Nile; proceeded down that river, garrisoned Alexandria, and in the following year, 1802, several regiments returned to India by Suez and the Red Sea, in the month of June. That force, amounting to 5,000 men, consisted of a troop of horse-artillery, six guns and small arms, ammunition, camp equipage, baggage, and 126 chests of treasure. The troops generally were very healthy. The march across the Suez Desert, from the lake of St. Pilgrims, near Grand Cairo to Suez, was performed in four days with the greatest ease, marching by night and encamping during the day. In June the ships proceeded to India, the wind at that season blowing down the Red Sea. They made a very quick passage. Again, during the late Russian war, in the summer of 1854, the 10th and 11th regiments of Dragoons (1,400 horses, 1,600 men) arrived in Egypt from India, and were forwarded thence to the Crimea. These corps, though their transfer took place during the hot months, or monsoon, and though they had to remain some time in Egypt, are known to have been remarkably healthy and efficient, and to have continued so throughout their Crimean service. In the last instance there is the experience of the actual Indian war. After the waste of nearly four months, some thousand troops were dispatched by Egypt with extraordinary advantage as to economy of time, and with perfect preservation of health. The first regiment that was conveyed by this line passed from Plymouth to Bombay in thirty-seven days. Of the first regiment sent from Malta, the first wing arrived at Bombay in sixteen and the second wing in eighteen days. An overwhelming mass of evidence, from numerous trustworthy witnesses, attest the peculiar facilities, especially in periods of emergency, afforded by the overland route transport. Col. Poeklington, Deputy Quartermaster-General, appointed in October, 1857, to direct and superintend the transit of the troops, and who, expressly prepared by order of the War Department a report for the Committee of Inquiry, states:

“The advantages of the overland route are very considerable, and the trajet is most simple. A thousand men per week can be conveyed across the isthmus by the Transit administration of Egypt without interference with the ordinary passenger traffic. Between 300 and 400 men can move at a time, and perform the distance from ship to ship in 26 hours. The transit by rail is completed to within almost twenty miles of Suez. This last portion of the journey is performed by the soldiers on donkeys in about six hours. There can be no doubt as to the experiment having succeeded.”

The time occupied by troops from England to India is, by the overland route, from 33 to 46 days. From Malta to India, from 16 to 18 or 20 days. Compare these periods with the 83 by steamers, or the 120 by sailing ships, on the long sea route, and the difference will appear striking. Again, during the longer route, Great Britain will have from 15,000 to 20,000 troops, in effect hors de combat, and beyond counter orders for a period annually, of from 3 to 4 months, while, with the shorter line, it will be but for the brief period of some 14 days, during the transit from Suez to India, that the troops will be beyond reach of recall, for any unexpected European contingency.

In resorting to the overland route only 4 months after the outbreak of the Indian war, and then only for a mere handful of troops, Palmerston set at naught the general anticipation of India and Europe. The Governor-General in India assumed that the Home Government would dispatch troops by the way of Egypt. The following is a passage from the Governor-General in Council’s letter to the Home Government, dated Aug. 7, 1857:

“We are also in communication with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company for the conveyance from Suez of the troops that may possibly have been dispatched to India by that route.”

On the very day of the arrival at Constantinople of the news of the revolt, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe telegraphed to London to know whether he should apply to the Turkish Government to allow the British troops to pass through Egypt, on their way to India. The Sultan a having meanwhile offered and transmitted a firman to that effect on the 2d of July, Palmerston replied by telegraph, that it was not his intention to send troops by that route. It being in France likewise assumed, as a matter of course, that the acceleration of the military re-enforcements must at that moment form the paramount object of British policy, Bonaparte spontaneously tendered permission for the passage over France of British troops, to enable their being embarked, if deemed desirable, at Marseilles, for Egypt. The Pasha of Egypt lastly, when, at length, Mr. Holton, the Superintendent of the Peninsular and Oriental Company in Egypt, was authorized to reply on the subject, answered immediately,

“It would be a satisfaction to him to give facility to the passage of not only 200 men, as in the present instance, but to that of 20,000, if necessary, and not en bourgeois but in uniform, and with their arms, if required.”

Such were the facilities recklessly thrown away, the proper use of which might have prevented the Indian war from assuming its formidable dimensions. The motives by which Lord Palmerston was prompted in preferring sailing vessels to steamers, and a line of communication extending over 14,000 miles to one limited to 4,000 miles, belong to the mysteries of contemporaneous history.