Great Britain’s Never-Ending Conquest Of Asia

Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East: Concepts, Definitions, and Parameters

Geoffrey Kemp and Robert Harkavy

From Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East
© 1997 Brookings Press
Reprinted with the Permission of the Brrokings Institute Press

British Competition with Russia and Germany: The Great Game and the Role of Railways

Though Britain was able to control the maritime approaches to its far-flung empire through the power and presence of the Royal Navy, land threats were a different matter. No part of the empire was more vulnerable to land invasion than its prize possession, India. Britain’s most serious strategic challenge to India in the nineteenth century was Russia’s relentless expansion east and south from its European base, which included the building of a modern railway system to provide easy access for the army to control the newly acquired Russian Empire. British-Russian rivalry over Central Asia, especially Afghanistan, was termed the “Great Game” by famed author Rudyard Kipling. In the early twentieth century Britain was also concerned about Germany’s encroachment into the Middle East, especially the proposed Berlin-to-Baghdad railway via Constantinople. This threat was never perceived to be as dangerous as the one posed by Russia, though had the railroad been completed it could have strengthened Turkey’s strategic position in World War I and increased the threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal (see map 7). To ensure against the potential threat to its empire, Britain shored up its defenses in the Persian Gulf. 12 It is noteworthy that with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the growing conflicts among the new independent republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia, the term “Great Game” has reemerged in Western discussions about the geo-political importance of the region.

Russo-English competition in South Asia dates back to the eighteenth century and the reign of Czar Peter the Great. While the British were busy consolidating their position in India, the Russian Empire expanded in every direction under Peter, who began acquiring parts of Persia with an eye to the fabulous wealth of India, which lay further afield. Peter sent a force of 3,500 troops to conquer Khiva and find a road to India, and although the mission failed miserably, Peter’s Asiatic ambitions did not go unnoticed in London. 13

By the early nineteenth century the unexplored capitals of Persia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia began occupying the public imagination in Europe. London and Paris were abuzz with stories of the legendary wealth and splendor of Samarkand, Bokhara, Herat, and Khiva. As Russian troops fought their way southward through the Caucasus, subsequently subduing the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Turkomans, the frontier between the British and Russian empires began closing rapidly, further disturbing the British. Over the course of that century, “many officers and explorers, both British and Russian… took part in the Great Game… The ultimate prize, or so it was feared in London and Calcutta, and fervently hoped for by ambitious Russian officers serving in Asia, was British India.” 14

In 1807 British intelligence learned that Napoleon Bonaparte planned to march 50,000 French troops across Persia and Afghanistan, where they would join forces with the Cossack regiments of Czar Alexander I for the “final thrust across the Indus into India.” This threat, too, eventually dissipated as Napoleon and Alexander fell out, but British fears for the safety of India intensified as the Russians, having subdued the Caucasus, took a renewed interest in the lands further south, advancing toward the ancient Muslim khanates of the former Silk Road. Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara, and Khiva all fell to the Russians by the late nineteenth century and the gap between the two empires — some 2,000 miles at the beginning of the century — had closed to a few hundred miles and at one point — the Pamir region — to less than twenty. 15

Of greatest concern to Britain was the development of the Trans-Caspian railway, which the Russians had begun building in 1880 and continued to push on with as neighboring lands were conquered. Baku on the Caspian Sea was served by two railroads, one from Grozny in the North Caucasus and a west-east line across Transcaucasia from the Black Sea. From Baku the Caspian Sea ferry carried goods and services to the railhead at Krasnovodsk. By 1888 the line had reached Bokhara and Samarkand and was on its way to Tashkent. With its rapidly increasing capacity for transporting troops and artillery, the Trans-Caspian railway exposed the inadequacy of India’s frontier links, particularly its roads and railways, leaving the border of the British Empire barely protected from a potential Russian advance to the south. Key British army leaders began calling for a counter-move to Russia’s railway encirclement of northern India and Afghanistan, arguing that India’s defense budget would be “better spent on enabling commanders to rush troops to a threatened sector of the frontier, than on building forts and entrenchments which might never have to be defended.” Some even advocated forming an alliance with Abdur Rahman of Afghanistan, then extending the railway into that country and stationing British troops there, on the grounds that the Russians were certain to try and occupy the whole of Afghanistan when Abdur Rahmand died, taking advantage of any ensuing power struggle. 16

Despite these pressures, however, there were not more than fifty miles of British railways in India’s frontier region, and it was not until the appointment of Lord George Nathaniel Curzon as Viceroy of India that railways were recognized as a vital component of India’s defense. As a young aspiring statesman, Curzon had traveled the length of the Trans-Caspian railway during the summer of 1888, curious to gauge for himself the extent of this great Russian threat. Upon his return he wrote that the existence of the Trans-Caspian line had “dramatically altered the strategic balance in the region.” 17 When the Russians completed the final 200-mile stretch linking Samarkand and Tashkent, they were able to move as many as 100,000 troops from as far away as the Caucasus and Siberia to the Persian and Afghan frontiers as well as artillery and other heavy equipment, once a nightmare to transport across vast distances and rough terrain. The expansion of the Russian rail network was one of the key themes addressed by Halford Mackinder in his famous 1904 essay, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” which touted the growing importance of the major land powers of Eurasia.

Along with many other historians, Curzon also theorized that the Russians were not necessarily interested in the conquest of India; rather they wanted to “keep England quiet in Europe by keeping her employed in Asia,” for their real objective was not Calcutta but Constantinople. In any event the Trans-Caspian railway, according to Curzon, made the Russians “prodigiously strong” in the Central Asian game, though Britain’s policy of denying Russia rail routes in Afghanistan resulted in there being an important buffer between the rail line and the borders of the British Empire. 18