HL Deb 13 February 1880 vol 250 cc579-82

My Lords, your Lordships are aware that certain charges have been made against General Sir Frederick Roberts of cruelties at Cabul. We have received at the India Office to-day a letter which, with the permission of your Lordships, I will read. It is in these terms— I am extremely grateful to you for so kindly writing to me with regard to attacks being made on me in certain quarters respecting ill-treatment of prisoners and wounded at the battle of Char-Asiab, and also for forwarding to me a copy of the article inThe Fortnightly Reviewfor December, headed 'Martial Law in Cabul.' I think that a short explanation of what has really occurred since we entered Afghanistan last September will enable you to satisfy all those who may refer to the subject in Parliament that wounded Afghans have not been ill-treated, and that there is no foundation for the remarks made by Mr. Harrison inThe Fortnightly Review.With regard to the burning of Afghan bodies at the battle of Char-Asiab, I would beg to say that I first heard of the circumstances from the newspapers, and that I at once directed a Court of Inquiry to investigate the matter, the proceedings of which have some time since been forwarded for the information of the Commander-in-Chief and Government of India. It would appear that the act was committed in the rear of the troops engaged by two or three Goorkhas who were by themselves, and by the evidence given life must have been as good as extinct at the time the clothes were set on fire. I need not assure you that no blame for the act in question can be attached to any officer of the force under my command, and that with this exception every consideration has been shown to the wounded and the dead, inasmuch as they have been treated as if they were our own soldiers, and after Char-Asiab some of the wounded Afghans were taken into hospital and placed alongside of our own wounded men. This fact, I think, speaks for itself as regards the general treatment of the Afghans who fought against us. With reference to martial law having been proclaimed within a radius of 10 miles round Cabul, I can safely affirm that for many reasons it was absolutely necessary to do so, the chief one being to prevent the inhabitants carrying firearms and other weapons which might render it possible for them to make sudden attacks on soldiers and other individuals belonging to this force. Had this precaution not been taken, I venture to say that, living as we are among a nation of fanatics, murders would have been of frequent occurrence. I am not at all in favour of martial law, and shall be glad to see it discontinued, as soon as some other form of government can be decided upon. As to the Proclamation published relative to the treatment of soldiers and others concerned in the attack on the Embassy and of those who had apparently shown themselves to be rebels against the Ameer by fighting against us, I would mention that at the time the Proclamation was issued Yakoob Khan was outwardly our friend, and repeatedly spoke to me of the people who fought against us at Char-Asiab as rebels to his rule; and on that account they were referred to in the terms of the Proclamation. As to men being hanged for the simple fact of their having fought against us, such was not the case. Rewards were certainly offered for their capture; but this was done with a view of arresting those who, directly or indirectly, had taken part in the massacre of the several members of the British Embassy. All convicted of such a crime would, I believe, have been sentenced to death in any country, whether civil or martial law had been in force. The Kotwal (chief magistrate of the city) was found guilty of having incited the troops to the massacre, of having taken an active part in dishonouring the dead bodies, and of having subsequently instigated the troops and people of Cabul to resist our advance. On these accounts he was hanged. As to prisoners taken in fight being shot, such is totally devoid of truth, further than in one or two instances summary punishment has been inflicted on individuals who have been found mutilating our wounded soldiers; indeed, all the wounded that have fallen into the enemy's hands at different times have been treated in the most cruel manner and horribly mutilated. With regard to the men who were not implicated in the attack on the Embassy, some short time after Yakoob Khan had been made a prisoner an amnesty was proclaimed, and the people of every district visited by our troops have invariably been informed that those soldiers have nothing to fear from us; but, on the other hand, if they came in and gave up their rifles or guns they would receive the amount authorized for the same. This was fully understood, and a considerable number of arms have from time to time been brought in. Recently, quite irrespective of any action taken by us, the Mollahs have been preaching a 'jehad,' or religious war, and have by these means got together by coercion, practical as well as religious, a gigantic collection of people. On reaching Cabul this mass was joined by all the riff-raff of the city and neighbouring villages; but the Kazilbashis, merchants, and respectable inhabitants, so far from throwing in their lot with our opponents, held aloof, and from time to time gave us valuable information. The greater portion also of the Sirdars of Cabul remained during the disturbances in our camp. As soon as I was aware that the enemy had been completely dispersed I published a general amnesty, feeling that the people generally were not to blame for what had occurred, and the quickest way of restoring order was to invite the people to Cabul and to let them see that they could trust implicitly to our forbearance and generosity. At the same time the Civil Dispensary was re-established, and notice was sent through the city and to all the neighbouring villages inviting the wounded to hospital and assuring them that they had nothing to fear. Many wounded have been brought in and are being taken every care of. Afghans are naturally very suspicious and require time to be re-assured; but so many Maliks and other headmen had responded to the Amnesty Proclamation that yesterday I was enabled to hold a Durbar at which nearly 200 of the principal men who had fought against us were present. Others will doubtless follow their example, and I hope in time the country will quiet down. Referring to the administration of affairs in the city and surroundings of Cabul, I can conscientiously say that our rule from the first has been extraordinarily mild and lenient. No harsh measure of any kind have been adopted. On the contrary, I have since had reason to regret that, from a desire not to do anything that could possibly set the people against us, I abstained, on our first occupation of Sherpur, from levelling the forts and enclosures by which it is surrounded on all sides, and which during the late siege, by affording shelter to the enemy, were the causes of much annoyance and some loss to us. Two proofs which to my mind are fairly conclusive as to the feelings of security and trust which the people of Cabul city and adjoining villages reposed in us are the rapid manner in which the city filled immediately the enemy dispersed, and the fact that since our arrival there had not been a single complaint against a European soldier, and only a few of a trivial nature against one or two men belonging to the Native regiments. The strictest discipline has been maintained, and there has not been an instance of violence against the people, notwithstanding that our soldiers have witnessed the cruel treatment of their comrades on every occasion of their falling into the enemy's hands. There is one point mentioned by Mr. Harrison inThe Fortnightly Review—namely, that civilian special correspondents have been prevented from accompanying the force under my command—in answer to which I would like to say a few words. I certainly never received any orders prohibiting civilian correspondents accompanying the force, and from the first one has been in my camp. He had considerable difficulty in reaching Ali-khel before the force marched, as our movements were very rapid after the order for an advance on Cabul was received. This may have prevented other correspondents joining me at the time. Had any come they would have received every assistance. Some correspondents have arrived since we reached this. No restrictions whatever are placed on them, and they are allowed to send any telegrams they please, even when the information contained in them is incorrect, always excepting such information as by nature of its inaccuracy is calculated to produce an evil effect.