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The Trans-Caspian Railway

The Railroad as Conqueror


The Trans-Caspian Railway


THE railway preaches the gospel of war as well as the gospel of peace. In Europe, England, India, and the Colonies, its message has been mainly the peaceful one of commercial expansion. In the United States the laying of the rails incidentally included a number of fights with the Indians, yet the purpose uppermost in the constructors’ minds was the linking up of East and West for the sake of increased trade and political union.

The strategic line proper we shall find in Russian Asia; where, in spite of anything said to the contrary, the railway is regarded as the most modern track for the God of War. The great Trans-Siberian Railway, its inception, construction, character, and cost, have been so often described that no detailed account is needed here.

We will therefore turn our attention to the great stretch of intermingled sand and oasis, extending from the Caspian on the west to the mountain ranges of Central Asia on the east. Across it flows from south-east to north-west the mighty Oxus, the world’s most historic stream, to the Aral Sea, separating the southern Kara-Kum Desert from the Kiz’il-Kum sands in the north.

During the second half of the nineteenth century the Russians were busy in Central Asia. At first they advanced from the north upon what is now Russian Turkestan, hurling their legions time after time against the fanatical tribes of the steppes. In 1854 they seized Tashkend, the present capital; held it for a short time; were driven out; and captured it again and for good in 1865; having in the meantime made great advances in the neighbouring countries. The Russian Colossus now had one leg planted firmly in Central Asia. Where should the other be placed? Between the Oxus and the Caspian lies Turkomania, once the free home of fierce tribes, none braver or more ready for the fight than the Tekke Turkomans of Geok Tepe, a fortified town thirty miles north of the Russian frontier. When these came into conflict with the Russians they were at first victorious, defeating General Lomatkin severely in more than one engagement. This happened in 1877.

Several years previously the Russians had felt the need of rapid communication with their Asian possessions, and when the Amu and Syr Darias, which penetrate the heart of the country, proved too difficult for navigation by a fleet that it was originally intended to establish in the Aral Sea, the Government proposed a line from Orenburg, on what is now the main Trans-Siberian route, to Tashkend and Samarkand. M. Ferdinand de Lesseps was invited to draw up plans; and this imaginative engineer very soon had on paper a scheme for connecting Calais with Calcutta, by means of the European systems to Orenburg, thence by a Russian-built line to Samarkand, and on to India by a track that the English should construct from Samarkand to Peshawar. The Russians, on their side, were ready enough to supply their link in the chain; but the English held back, viewing a rail connection with their chief rival in the East as only less objectionable than the Channel tunnel. So the whole scheme was pigeonholed, and M. de Lesseps took himself off to the Panama Canal work in Central America.

By the Caspian, however, things could not be thus left alone. The Turkomans meant to make as good a fight of it as their Eastern brethren, if not a better. So the Russian Government in 1881 entrusted their reduction to Skobeleff, the “White General”, who had won fame in the Russo-Turkish war of 1878, as well as in previous campaigns against the northern Turkomans. He was given carte blanche as regarded the methods of conducting a campaign against the Akkal Teppe tribes.

Opposite Baku - the famous petroleum city - on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea, is Krosnovodsk, now a growing town. Thirty miles south-east lies Uzun-Ada, which became the base of warlike operations. Here thousands of camels and an army of 7000 men were collected, and Skobeleff advanced into the desert against his stubborn foe. With the sack of Geok Teppe, 300 miles away in the desert, and the terrible pursuit in which 20,000 of the enemy were slain by the ruthless Russians, we have not here to deal; our attention being rather directed to the railway built from the Caspian Sea to aid the transportation of men and materials to the “front”.

Sand is the greatest enemy of the engineer in Egypt, Texas, and the Trans-Caspian provinces of RussiaIt was determined to build with the greatest possible speed a railroad from Uzun-Ada to the oasis of Kizil Arvat, a distance of 145 miles. As in the case of the Trans-Siberian, an American came forward with an offer to lay the whole line and work it for an annual guarantee. But the Russians preferred to do their own road-making, and entrusted the direction of affairs to General Annenkoff, formerly military attache at Paris, and, as he proved himself, a brilliant engineer. He had played a part in the movement of troops during the Turkish War, and called to the Commander-in-Chief’s notice the fact that 100 miles of steel rails, bought for use in Turkey, had since then been lying idle in store. These were speedily shipped across the Caspian, together with 66 miles of narrow-gauge rails and small locomotives and waggons. Skobeleff did not mean to wait till the line was well forward, and started off with his army, promising that he would have the Turkomans wiped out or crushed long before the first engine steamed into Kizil Arvat. As a matter of fact, he proved as good as his word, but the railway, even in its first stages, was so useful that the General became quite alive to its importance and afterwards took great interest in its extension.

DRIFTING SAND ACROSS RAILWAY TRACK. Sand is the greatest enemy of the engineer in Egypt, Texas, and the Trans-Caspian provinces of Russia. In some places it has to be kept at bay by contrivances similar to those used for the checking of snowdrifts.

Annenkoff had before him a task rendered difficult, not by any such physical obstacles as were encountered on the Baku-Batoum line across the mountains, but by the sandy and shifting nature of the country through which the rails would run, and by the almost complete absence of water along the route.

The line is of the 5-foot standard gauge of Russia, and single throughout. The rails and sleepers all came from Russia, as the authorities wished to encourage home industry as far as possible; though for the navvy work they employed Turkomans, Bokhariots, and Persians, the last very sturdy fellows, but sad cowards. The 20,000 navvies were overlooked, helped, and instructed by a railway battalion of 1000 to 1500 men, all Russians, who supplied the skilled labour and brain power. Wages ruled very low, according to English ideas, the native workman receiving but 4d. to 8d. a day, and an engineer only £1 to £2-10-0d. a week. So that on this head the Government were in a good position. And as for gradients, they very seldom troubled the engineers at all,the most severe being 1 in 150.

Before proceeding to details of construction we will cast a glance at the Transcaspian Railway of to-day. It starts at the solidly built station of Krasnovodsk, and runs twenty-five miles along the sea-shore to Uzun-Ada (Long Island), the original terminus. This stretch, and indeed the whole 706 miles to the Oxus, is through the famous Kara Kum or Black Sand Desert, “a wide and doleful plain, wholly destitute, or all but destitute, of vegetation, and sweeping with unbroken uniformity to a blurred horizon. ... In its worst parts, and they are at first more frequent, it consists of a perfectly level expanse, plastered over with marl, which is cracked and blistered by the sun, and is covered with a thin top dressing of saline crystallisation. So hard is the surface that a camel will barely leave the impression of its footmark.” (1) The desert is broken at intervals by oases of varying fertility, Akhal, Stek, Tejend, Merv, where the presence of a river or wells reclaims the surrounding country from the sandy waste. The most important stations to the Oxus are Kizil Arvat, 208 miles from Krasnovodsk; Askabad, 343 miles; Merv, 556 miles; Charjui (Oxus), 706 miles. The line crosses the river on a bridge 1¾ miles long - the longest in the world - built of wooden piles, over 3000 in number; though very shortly it will be diverted to a new iron bridge now reaching completion a short distance to the north. For the convenience of the river navigation a section in the middle of the wooden bridge was constructed to open and permit the passage of boats. Shortly after it had been finished it had to be cut in two to pass a steamboat put together just below the bridge to carry a Russian general on a trip of inspection up the river. As the boat in question was meant for above-bridge traffic only, the assembling of the sections - brought from St. Petersburg - at the spot selected showed a strange want of common sense or accuracy on the part of those responsible for the blunder. The cutting of the bridge, none too solid to start with, impaired its stability so seriously that Mr. Henry Norman, MP, thus describes his sensations (2) while passing over it. “Without exaggeration, I should not have been surprised if the whole thing had collapsed in an instant, and I was glad to see the solid ground underneath once more. The authorities,” he adds, “seem to share this fear, for our speed was the slowest at which the engine could move at all.”

From the Oxus to Bokhara, the capital of a semi-independent Khanate, is 72 miles, through fairly fertile country; then comes more desert, and at a point 934 miles from the Caspian the rails enter Samarkand, situated in another oasis. At Chernayevo (1057 miles) the track forks, one branch running northwards to Tashkend (1153 miles), a military centre of Central Asia; and another eastwards to Kokand, Margelan, and Andijan (1261 miles), through the well-watered cotton land of the Zarafshan Valley.

At Merv, to retrace our steps 600 miles, a branch creeps southwards for 150 miles towards the Afghan frontier, terminating at Kushinski Post. Of this section more will be said presently.



Now to return to the actual building of the line. The Russian portion of the workers lived on travelling construction trains; made up of two-storied sleeping and dining cars, with special vehicles attached to act as travelling kitchens, smithies, and telegraph offices. The men worked in six-hour shifts, and were supplied with necessaries and material by trains that ran twice daily from the base. Natives made the embankments and cuttings; Russians laid the sleepers and spiked down the rails. Under favourable circumstances railhead advanced at the rate of four miles a day, a speed that will compare well with that of the Canadian Pacific platelayers, working simultaneously on an even greater task in the New World. When wind and rain obstructed, the average would fall to half a mile per diem; so that we may assume the daily mean of progress on the whole line to be in the neighbourhood of one mile and a half.

Water, or rather the lack of it, was, as already noted, a very formidable obstacle. For the first no miles from the Caspian there is no fresh water at all, and it became necessary to distil the Caspian brine and send the potable portion along the line in large vats, each carried on a flat truck. Artesian wells proved a failure; but in the vicinity of mountains it was easy to lead pipes down from the streams to the railway.

The workmen had two more foes to contend with, disease - taking the form of a malignant fever - and an over-abundance of sand. The last, for 200 miles at least, proved as troublesome as the snow of winter in the open steppes of the north. “The sand, of the most brilliant yellow hue, is piled in loose hillocks and mobile dunes, and is swept hither and thither by powerful winds. It has all the appearance of a sea of troubled waves, billow succeeding billow in melancholy succession, with the sand driving like spray from their summits, and great smooth-swept troughs lying between, on which the winds leave the imprints of their figures in wavy indentations, just like an ebb-tide on the sea-shore.” (3)

To combat the ever-encroaching drifts several devices were employed. Near the Caspian, sea water was poured on the sand to solidify it. Or clay was dug up in large quantities and spread abroad to form a solid blanket on the top. Where clay and water failed, the sand hills flanking the line were planted thickly with such vegetation as will grow in the desert - tamarisks, wild oats, and the deep-rooted saxaul, the last being also cut and bound up into fascines to take the place of the clay dressing. The engineers also erected fences of wood along the summits of the dunes, to catch and arrest the driving sand in the same manner as snowdrifts are held in check by palisades and plantations on the south Russian lines. But man’s utmost art cannot entirely curb nature, and were the line not constantly cleared, the metals would soon be buried deep below the minute particles borne along on every breeze.

A TRAIN OF OIL-TANKS ON THE BAKU-BATOUM RAILWAYIn the matter of fuel the engineers were fortunate; for though of wood and coal there is little or none in these regions, one of earth’s richest oil-fields exists in the broad neck of land between the Black and Caspian Seas. In and around Baku the country is dotted by great pyramidal structures, called derricks, beneath which the oil-finder sinks his well by means of huge drills suspended from a rope. A steam-engine raises and lowers the drill many times a minute, the rope being twisted a little every stroke. After months of labour, and the expenditure of several thousand pounds, the engineer “strikes oil”, 1500 to 2000 feet below the surface. It sometimes makes a dramatic appearance, by driving the drill up the steel-lined bore like a shell from a cannon, first wrecking the derrick and then deluging the surroundings with an evil-smelling shower. A good “spouter” will yield its happy owner as much as four million gallons a day, and save him all the trouble of lifting it to the surface, for some weeks at least. Then it subsides and must be baled out by a long tube carrying a valve at its lower end.

A TRAIN OF OIL-TANKS ON THE BAKU-BATOUM RAILWAY. In this manner millions of gallons of petroleum are transported from the Caspian to the Black Sea.

At present the Baku district yields 52 million barrels a year; and as each barrel means 40 gallons, oil is pretty cheap in those parts. Tank steamers carry all that the Transcaspian Railway requires across to Krasnovodsk, where it is stored in large tanks for transport over the line. (4) The locomotives are constructed with special oil-burning apparatus, which creates an intense heat in the fire-box, and can be more economically regulated than any coal furnace. But for this providential supply of oil the Transcaspian locomotives would be troublesome creatures to feed.

In 1881 the railway reached Kizil Arvat. There the engineers rested for four years, as their immediate purpose had been fulfilled. But in 1885 there was trouble on the Afghan frontier, and a much larger design unfolded itself, nothing less than the extension of the rails to the Ameer’s boundary, and far into the heart of Turkestan, to serve military ends in the first place, with commercial traffic as a second string to the Governmental bow. The Afghans must be taught by the sight of a locomotive that Russian power meant something more than an isolated outpost or two scattered along the confines of the Czar’s newly acquired territories.

So the engineers got to work again with their native diggers and delvers; while the English pushed their rails up through the Bolan Pass into Baluchistan. On December 11th, 1885, the holy Moslem city of Askabad, whither 100,000 pilgrims flock yearly to worship at the shrine of the iman Reza, was reached. As a religious centre it yields place only to Mecca itself and Kerbela; and politically it has importance as the military centre of Turkomania, and the terminus of a road that passes southwards for 200 miles through Meshed into the heart of Persia.

The Russians had quietly pocketed Merv in 1884; and the way thither therefore lay open. July, 1886, saw the first train steam into the “Queen of the World”, fever-stricken, but surrounded by some of the most fertile land in Asia, watered by the Murghab. Here the Russians halted a few weeks to recruit, and then drove ahead for the Oxus en route for Turkestan, while some of their engineers prospected the now open line running south from Merv to Kushk, only 80 miles from Herat, the so-called “Key of India”. Over this branch no foreigner may travel, lest he should steal some useful secrets, in addition to the malaria that rages along the track.

In 1886 the Oxus once more gave drink to an invading host. Alexander’s army had passed that way, and the barbarous Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane; and now came the host that would leave a deeper mark on the country than had any of the conquerors of old times. Even the 3000 yards of swirling water could not keep at bay the busy engineer, who beat his long piles down through the thick mud, built trestles, and topped them with longitudinal beams, and brought rails for the “Devil’s Chariot”, which the Asiatic viewed at first with dismayed astonishment.

Bokhara still belonged to its Ameer and its fanatical citizens, whom the Russians did not wish to provoke by the presence of the rails. They therefore gave the city a wide berth, and joined it later to the main line by a branch.

Englishmen who know the story of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly will not hear the mention of Bokhara with any feeling of pleasure. A quarter of a century ago travel in the Khanates was perilous work, which any imprudence might easily bring to a disastrous close. In 1840 these officers were sent to the Ameer by the British Government on political business. The elder man behaved indiscreetly, and both soon found themselves in a dungeon, where they lingered for three years, the prey of loathsome vermin, which, so reports said, had been trained to eat human flesh. As the price of liberty they must embrace Islam. Stoddart, in despair, renounced the Christian faith; but Conolly stood firm; and both were led out to execution in the bazaar, Stoddart, like Cranmer before him, at the supreme moment expressing repentance for his apostasy. The only bright spot in the story is the heroism of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, a clergyman of the Church of England, who took his life in his hands and went to Bokhara to get news of his old friends.

He too was imprisoned, and would have shared their fate but for the intervention of the Shah of Persia, who demanded his release. “For five days,” he afterwards wrote, “poor Colonel Williams was engaged in pulling the vermin off my body.” (5) The English Government did nothing to avenge the death of their two brave servants.

GEOK TEPE. The old ramparts and the new railway

GEOK TEPE. The old ramparts and the new railway

Bokhara of to-day is quite a different place in its attitude towards foreigners, though below the surface Mohammedan hatred of the infidel runs deep. The Bokhariot is a keen trader, and it grieves him to see the men of Samarkand and Merv flourishing more and more every year, while his own Ameer squeezes the uttermost farthing out of his pockets. The coming of the railway has brought in fresh ideas from other lands along with the devil’s chariot; the Bokhariot is beginning to wriggle under his yoke, and to wonder whether, so far as this world is concerned, an Islamite Ameer is a better person to serve than a Christian dog of a Russian. Meanwhile the “dog” is slowly but surely closing his grip on the old city, and regretting that in the first instance the line did not pass right under the city walls instead of eight miles away from its gates.

May, 1888, was a brilliant month in the history of Samarkand - the old capital of Central Asia and the Athens of the East in the brave days of Tamerlane - for it witnessed the arrival of the first train, beflagged and loaded with soldiers, that panted, amid the boom of cannon and the crash of music, into the city that still holds the ashes of the great conqueror under the dome of the magnificent tomb erected to his memory. This important place terminated the line for some years, until the expansion of Russian military schemes carried on the metals to Tashkend, now a flourishing centre of Muscovite influence and the largest city in Asiatic Russia. The streets are wide, but muddy, and like certain Siberian towns it has excellent schools, organised on the German model, where the sons of Russian residents and of the better class natives are instructed in many practical subjects, including English.

From Tashkend a line has been built 1000 miles across barren and thinly populated country to Orenburg on the Trans-Siberian system, via Kasalinsk on the Syr Daria. It is somewhat difficult to understand why preference was not given to a route from the more southern parts of Russia, say from Saratof on the Volga, round the north of the Caspian, south of the Aral Sea, and so through Khiva to join the present line at the Oxus station. This would save over 700 miles between Moscow and Merv. Very possibly, as the country is opened up to commerce, more than one railway will cross the Kara Kum Desert, marking by a green ribbon of fertility its path through the now sterile sands.

Tashkend being joined up to Orenburg, a traveller is able to take a ticket direct from Calais to the very heart of Asia, right into the shadows of the great Pamirs.

At Chernayevo junction the most commercial stretch of line begins, to Andijan, the chief emporium of the cotton-growing industry of Central Asia. Cotton is the staple product of Western Turkestan. When the plantations are in full working order Russia hopes to become independent of American crops; for in spite of the militarism underlying her actions, she keeps a keen eye open for any means of winning commercial independence. With raw cotton coming in large quantities from her own Asian territories to large mills at Moscow or Baku, she will soon enter the lists as a formidable opponent of Britain, Germany, and America in the cotton industry.

The Transcaspian Railway has had a very decided effect upon English commerce, by driving it out of Turkestan. Our trade, once flourishing, with Bokhara is practically dead and buried as a result of the heavy imports levied at the frontier on all goods coming via India or Persia. Over the latter country Russia is able to tighten her grip, thanks to the menace of an army that can speedily be collected, if needs be, at Merv and hurried southwards over the mountains into the heart of the Shah’s dominions. Russia certainly regards Persia as her prey, and the British as interlopers who obstruct her way to warm water on the Persian Gulf. Her eyes are on Bender Abbas near the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb. From that port it is proposed to run a railway due north to Kerman to join there lines passing eastwards to Seistan on the Baluchistan frontier, and westwards to Yezd, Isfahan, and Tabriz, the last-named place being linked to the existing rail that skirts the Caspian on the western shore from Baku to Petrovsk, crosses north of the Caucasus to Rostov on the Sea of Azov, and at that point merges into the South Russian systems. The major part of the scheme is, of course, mere paper work, but it lies close to the heart of the Czar’s strategists, as its military and commercial value would be enormous. In the first place Bender Abbas, fed by rail and converted into a naval station, would practically command the Persian Gulf like another Rock of Gibraltar - if Britain ever allowed it to be fortified. At any rate the arrival of a Russian railway on the Gulf would be a serious blow to the already diminished prestige of England in Persia. Then again, considering the line from a commercial point of view, it would open a much more expeditious route to India than is at present possible even by the “Overland” as far as Brindisi, and boat through the Suez Canal. Trade follows the path of quickest transit, and the Russians therefore assume that they would cut the ground from under the feet of many British shippers as soon as “through” trucks could be despatched from Moscow or St. Petersburg for South Persia direct.

Deep anxiety has been raised in Muscovite breasts by a rival scheme which seems to be much nearer a practical issue than their own. This is the much-talked-of Bagdad railway.

“Berlin to Bagdad” is one of those catchy phrases which tickles German ears as effectively as “the Cape to Cairo” English.

The Armenian massacres, quite recent history, but somewhat overshadowed by more important events happening in other parts of the world, aroused the indignation of Europe a few years ago. It will be remembered that Germany refused to take a hand in coercing the Sultan to maintain order in his dominions, and to call the Mahommedan population of Asia Minor off their Christian brethren. The reason for this attitude is not hard to discover. In 1899, shortly after the outbreak of the Boer War, which kept England so busy, a concession was granted by the Sultan to a German syndicate of the right to build a railway across Asia Minor to Bagdad, whence, as a matter of course, it would follow the Tigris down to the Persian Gulf at Koweit. The Germans are good business men. They stipulated that the Turkish Government should guarantee them £1000 per mile per annum, or about a quarter of a million sterling, for the new work to be done. Germany had already built and got into good working order a line 400 miles long from the Bosphorus to Konia on the northern slope of the Taurus mountains, with a branch to Smyrna. From Konia an extension was to be made through the Taurus to Europus on the Euphrates, passing on the way old Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul, and Haran, the home of Abraham. Ancient Bible history and the locomotive seem as far apart as the poles, and the idea of the region that once fed the patriarchs becoming thus modernised strikes the imagination almost like a blow. As Terah moved north from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran, so the rails will run south over almost the same track near the ruins of Nineveh to Bagdad, the scene of the delightful “Arabian Nights”. A southern stretch of 40 miles brings the rails once more to the Euphrates and past the site of Babylon. How these names awake the echoes of history! And yet another 300 miles to Busra. Nor must they stop there, for the Gulf itself - the great objective - is calling, and our Teutonic cousins place their finger on Koweit as the place where a naval and coaling station shall be built, four days’ steaming from Bombay!



From the Bosphorus - to be crossed by a huge bridge - to Koweit is 1800 miles, and the estimated cost of the 1400 still only on paper is put at 18,000,000 pounds sterling. This expenditure being too heavy for the shoulders of the German syndicate, they invited other nations to take shares in the concern, each contributing a proportion of the capital on the following scale: Germany 25%, France 25%, England 25%, Switzerland 10%, Austria 5%, The Anatolian Railway (Bosphorus to Konia) 10%.

When the subject came up for discussion in 1903 the British Government, after a long consideration of the pros and cons, decided that it was not sufficiently represented, as Germany could count on the Swiss, Austrian, and Anatolian votes, and accordingly refused its co-operation. The remaining parties began work in a small way, and railhead is now at Eregli, to the north of the Taurus. The crossing of this range offers considerable engineering difficulties, which will not be faced until the finance of the line stands on a firmer basis - and to effect that Great Britain may perhaps be again approached, with the chance of securing more advantageous terms.

The Russian Bear naturally has a sore head to rub when it thinks of what the completion of Bagdad railway would mean to her own scheme. Which of the European countries outside Russia will care to send goods to the Gulf via the Caucasus and North Persia in event of a more southerly and shorter route running direct from the heart of Europe to the seaboard? If the German line is ever opened we shall be able to reach India in about ten days from London, which is much quicker travelling than the Russian engineers can promise.

From speculations of future railroad extension in Armenia and Persia, we may return to the present facts and possibilities of the line already in existence from the Caspian to the Afghan frontier and the heart of Western Turkestan.

What is its strategical value for an attack upon India - the great event which Russian generals believe will come sooner or later?

The subject has been well handled by the author of “Russia in Central Asia” - now Lord Curzon of Kedleston and Viceroy of India. The book in which he expressed his opinions on this point is now fifteen years old, but it was written by a man peculiarly fitted to form an unbiassed and sound judgment, however much this may now appear discounted by the subsequent trend of events in Russian and British politics.

The strength of the British forces in India was (in 1886) 70,000 British and 148,000 native troops. Of these one-half could be distributed in a short time along the most vulnerable points of the Indian frontier to meet the advancing Russians. Skobeleff laid it down that no general should think of attacking India with less than 150,000 men, the larger part of which must be reserved for the defence of the lines of communication. We may assume, however, that the native tribes have been too thoroughly crushed to meditate an attack upon the railway, and that 90,000 are left free to fight.

Suppose that the two nations come to grips, and that the opening engagements are but drawn battles, with no advantage to either side. Reinforcements will be needed. India itself could not supply 50,000 men to fill the gaps and wastage of war; she would therefore have to look to England for help. But it is a three weeks’ journey at least from the British Isles to Bombay, even if the Suez Canal route be used - a route that could be blocked by the sinking of a single hulk in the Canal. The troopships might find this road closed to them, and then it would be necessary to double the Cape or cross the Canadian Pacific Railway. Over either of these routes troops could not be landed in India within five or six weeks, and even after reaching a port there would still remain the long land journey to the front - a matter of several days.

Russia, on the other hand, could put troops in Afghanistan within three weeks from their mobilisation in Russia, and as many of them as the railway could transport and feed. Her reserves may be counted by hundreds where England can produce but tens, and their route is not exposed to the perils of a long sea voyage with hostile destroyers on the warpath. Lord Curzon therefore concludes that the Russians have a great advantage in so far as regards speed of transport, entirely on account of her strategic railway.

The English, fortunately, have a good ally in the mountains that rise like a wall along their frontier. True, this wall has breaches in it, but with stout hearts to hold them the Man in Possession should be able to prove that the story of Thermopylae may be retold, with a happier ending for the smaller force. There have been many schemes for the invasion of India. In 1791 the Empress Catherine planned how an army should advance down the Syr Daria to Cabul. Nine years later Napoleon and the Emperor Paul were putting their heads together over a joint invasion by French and Russians. Napoleon’s

forces were to join the Czar’s in the Sea of Azov, travel by river and sea to Astrabad, and thence march overland to Herat and Kandahar. Napoleon backed out of the enterprise, but the Czar held to his purpose, and despatched General Orloff with a large force from Orenburg. The Russians had advanced 450 miles when the Czar’s death terminated their march, probably fortunately for them, as they might easily have found in the desert and the untamed Turcomans as deadly foes as the French afterwards met in the snows of Russia and the fierce Cossack bands.

In 1807 Napoleon revived the old cry that, in the name of humanity, Russia and France must release India from the barbarous yoke placed on her neck by tyrannical England. Again, in 1832, 1855, 1872, and 1878 Russian strategists are at work, conciliating Persia and Afghanistan that they may serve as stepping-stones for the great advance upon India. And to-day we are aware that further plans exist, modified to suit the new possibilities opened by the railway to the quick forwarding of troops. It is no longer the fashion in England to sneer at the invasion of India as a “chimera”. We know too well what a railroad means, and how tenaciously the Russians hold to a purpose. Without wishing in any way to provoke our Muscovite neighbours we strengthen our frontier forts and garrisons, improve the railways of the Punjab, and keep a watchful eye upon the politics of the Afghan Ameer’s court.

To our descendants of a few generations hence it will perhaps seem a strange thing that English rails ended for so many years at Kandahar, but a few hundred miles from other rails that would put India in direct communication with Europe. Perhaps too they will marvel at the “policy of splendid isolation” that again and again has vetoed the Channel Tunnel, not understanding the deep mistrust that nations now entertain for one another. We too, on our part, can hardly conceive that the time will not come when the strategic line of Trans-caspia will be a busy route for Indian commerce and the highroad for travellers hurrying East or West. “Some day, surely,” says Mr. Henry Norman, “though it may be long, long hence, and only when tens of thousands of Russian and British soldier-ghosts are wandering through the shades of Walhalla, the traveller from London will hear on this very platform (Merv) the cry, “Change here for Calcutta!”

(1) G. N. Curzon Russia in Central Asia, p.67

(2) H. Norman All the Russias, p.245

(3) Russia in Central Asia, p.56

(4) Oil-fields have been discovered on the eastern shore of the Caspian, and now supply much oil for the line

(5) For a fuller account of this episode see All the Russias, chapter xx.


[From The Romance of Modern Locomotion by Archibald Williams, c1920]

You can read more on “The Railway in War”,  “Russia and Siberia”, “The Taurus Express” and “The Trans-Siberian Express” on this website.