Going to the front: The troop's «peshi» for Peshawar

W.C. Horsley's 1878 painting of soldiers embarking for Peshawar by train, to the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War.

Going To The Front (1878) by Walter Charles HorsleyVictoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata

Starting from its origins in 1853, railway building in India picked up momentum after the Revolt of 1857, which had demonstrated to the British the strategic importance of the railways in military operations.

From a total track mileage of 878 in 1860, railway expansion shot up to 4771 miles of track in 1870 and 9162 by 1880, by which time Calcutta was already linked via Allahabad and Jabalpur with Bombay, and the later with Madras.

After The Great Famine of 1876-1878, the Famine Commission urged the necessity for rapid expansion of railway system in the country. The Afghan wars were another motivating force for the expansion of railway lines in India.

This 1878 painting by Walter Charles Horsley in all probability depicts soldiers boarding a train to Peshawar, on their way to Afghanistan across the Khyber Pass.

By the early 1870s, it was possible to travel from Delhi via Amritsar, Lahore and Multan to Karachi through a combination of passenger trains run by the Delhi Railway, Punjab Railway, and Scinde Railway, and passenger steamships run by the Indus Steam Flotilla.

The North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan were considered strategically important regions because of their access to Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass and Bolan Pass, respectively.

Accordingly, the Punjab Northern State Railway was created in 1870-71 to construct and operate the railway between Lahore and Peshawar, and the first section of the line was opened in 1876.

Efforts to link Quetta in Balochistan by rail began in 1879 and the link was completed in 1887.

Walter Charles Horsley (1855-1934) was born in Kensington, U.K., in 1855, the son of the historical painter John Callcott Horsley.

Among seven children, it was only he who inherited his artist father’s power of observation and, aided by his training, got admitted in the prestigious Royal Academy Schools.

Horsley made his debut exhibition in the Royal Academy in 1875.

Shortly after the debut, he was commissioned by a periodical as an illustrator to record the visit to India of Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. This trip was followed by others to India as well as several painting expeditions to Egypt, Morocco and Turkey.

Horsley is widely regarded as among the great late nineteenth and early twentieth century British painters.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80) was the second in a series of three Anglo-Afghan military conflicts (1839-42, 1878-80, and 1919). Great Britain, from its base in India, sought to extend its control over neighbouring Afghanistan and to oppose the influence in that region of an ambitious and expanding Russia.

The war ended after the British emerged victorious against various Afghan forces, and the Afghans agreed to let the British attain all of their geopolitical objectives from the Treaty of Gandamak.

Most of the British and Indian soldiers withdrew from Afghanistan. The Afghan tribes were permitted to maintain internal rule and local customs but they had to cede control of the area's foreign relations to the British, who, in turn, guaranteed the area's freedom from foreign military domination, as a buffer between the British Raj and the Russian Empire.

Credits: Story

Text: Dr. Jayanta Sengupta, Secretary and Curator, Victoria Memorial Hall
Online curation: Digital Museums team, Victoria Memorial Hall

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