The Railroad as Conqueror
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-
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-
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-
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-
Opposite Baku -
It was determined to build with the greatest possible speed a railroad from Uzun-
DRIFTING SAND ACROSS RAILWAY TRACK. Sand is the greatest enemy of the engineer in Egypt, Texas, and the Trans-
Annenkoff had before him a task rendered difficult, not by any such physical obstacles as were encountered on the Baku-
The line is of the 5-
Before proceeding to details of construction we will cast a glance at the Transcaspian Railway of to-
From the Oxus to Bokhara, the capital of a semi-
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.
BAKU RAILWAY STATION
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-
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 -
To combat the ever-
In 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-
A TRAIN OF OIL-
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-
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-
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
Bokhara of to-
May, 1888, was a brilliant month in the history of Samarkand -
From Tashkend a line has been built 1000 miles across barren and thinly populated country to Orenburg on the Trans-
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-
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-
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-
“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 -
TURKOMANS EXAMINING THE TRAIN IN TRANS-
From the Bosphorus -
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-
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 subject has been well handled by the author of “Russia in Central Asia” -
The strength of the British forces in India was (in 1886) 70,000 British and 148,000 native troops. Of these one-
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 -
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-
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-
(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
(5) For a fuller account of this episode see All the Russias, chapter xx.
[From The Romance of Modern Locomotion by Archibald Williams, c1920]