Alfred Fox Cotton, the scion of a famous military family which included Lord Combermere of Bhurtpoor and Sir Willoughby Cotton among its members, was a nephey of General Sir Sydney Cotton (qv), and the son of General Sir Arthur Cotton, K.C.S.I., R.E. He was born on 11 January 1850, and was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant on 23 September 1871, having passed out of Sandhurst with ‘flying colours.’ According to his sister Lady Hope, he revealed his success at R.M.C. to the family circle with becoming modesty. ‘He arrived at Woodcot [the family home in Dorking] one Saturday afternoon as usual, for he always spent Sunday with us; and, as he came into the room, he greeted my father with the words: “What would you say if I were to tell you that I have won the first prize for fencing?” So saying, he exhibited a very handsome pair of fencing-sticks to our joy and pride. Then he added: “Look at this!” and put into his father’s hands a sword, “it is the Good Conduct Sword!” Out of eight hundred men his son had received this honour! My father’s delight and surprise were indeed very great. Soon, however, my brother had to leave to join his regiment; there were sad hearts at Woodcot, for he had always been a devoted son.’
Appointed to the 20th (Punjab) Bengal Native Infantry, and promoted to Lieutenant on 28 October 1871, Cotton served during the second campaign of the Afghan War of 1878-80 as a Transport officer with the Kurram Division, Kabul Field Force, taking part in the advance on Kabul, the action at Charasia, and in the operations around Kabul and the defence of Sherpur in December 1879. He was twice mentioned in despatches, firstly for his services at Charasia and again for the defence of Sherpur.
On 30 August 1884, a detachment of three British officers, five native officers, and two hundred and twenty-seven N.C.O.’s and men, under the command of Major Meiklejohn, left Jullundur as escort to the Afghan Boundary Commission, with Lieutenant-Colonel Ridgeway as Chief Political Officer, and proceeded to Quetta. Thence they went on camels to Bala Murghab via Nushki, crossing the Helmund on the 16th of December. At Bala Murghab they went into winter quarters, having completed a long and arduous marchof more than one thousand miles, the thermometer having varied between 103o and 11o below freezing.
From Chilik Cotton wrote to his father, Sir Arthur: ‘Our camp will be five thousand feet high, and we are going there to escape the heat, while we are waiting to hear what the Government is going to do with us. While on the move, there is not much time for anything except unavoidable work. We march at 1 a.m., to get as much of our stage as possible done before the sun gets up, so one wants a good sleep in the day, while the march takes about a third of the day, when one does twenty-one miles, as we did this morning, so, as a result, mother’s correspondence suffers. The present plan, if we can get off, is for Ridgeway with the cavalry and bulk of the mission to go by Kabul to Peshawar, while I escort Durand through Chitral, Gilgit, and Kashmir. If we do not do that pretty soon, the high passes will be snowed up, and a new programme will be necessary. It is dreary work waiting about like this, and we had a bad month of it at Karkin.’
In the spring of 1885, the Commission marched to Panjdeh, where they met the Russians and Afghans. From Panjdeh they marched to Guleran, where they halted ten days and then marched to Chishmasaz. Here they heard that the Russians and Afghans were fighting at Panjdeh, and that a great many of the latter had been massacred. From Chishmasaz they marched for Terpul, and on 4th April, when crossing the Ao Sufed Pass, a violent snow storm was encountered. Many camp followers and baggage animals succumbed, and most oft he baggage had to be abandoned. It was not until four days later that a party of the regiment under Lieutenant Rawlins succeeded in bringing it in.
In November 1885, the strength of the escort being reduced, Major Meiklejohn and Lieutenant Rawlins, with the main part of the detachment, left for India, leaving Cotton with sixty-five N.C.O.’s and men, and Subadar Arsala Khan and Jemadar Alim Khan. Cotton’s party proceeded as treasure escort towards Maimena.
He wrote to his father: ‘My party of sixty-seven men is to form Ridgeway’s escort. The cavalry escort he had from Zulficar to Marchak does not seem to have been a success. I don’t think the men will give much trouble. They are great strong fellows - very cheerful, and it is a point of honour never to admit that they feel tired, or to make an excuse to get off anything. On the other hand, they require to be kept under strict discipline. Of course, my very small command does not occupy me much, and, in addition to my military duties, I have been a member of the political staff since November. Among the people reduced was the commissariat officer, and that part of the work falls to me at present. Ridgeway, however, says he will give someone else a turn of it, after a bit. My first job was to collect the winter supplies for the mission, with very short notice, and I had to get over a good many difficulties. This place belongs to the Wali of Mamiena, who is only a tributary of the Amir. The people are Nabaks and hate the Afghans, and the present chief’s government is weak. Thus, between the local authorities fearing that the Afghans would think too much was being done for us, and theri inability to force their subjects to do enough, it is hard work to obey a sudden call. However, the work was done alright, and Ridgeway expressed his satisfaction.’
Cotton, himself, returned to England on leave at the conclusion of the Commission’s work at the end of the year when Pandjeh was handed to the Russians, in exchange for control of a strategic pass. The British Government maintained that the settlement was an example of wise diplomacu, but to many officers it looked like a humiliation. For his services he received the thanks of the Commander-in-Chief and a Gold Medal from the King of Afghanistan, the grandson of Dost Mohamed.
Cotton was promoted Brevet Major on 16 February 1887, and in 1889 was serving with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Gurkhas, as a Wing Officer. He had married whilst in England in June 1881, Marion Emma, eldest daughter of Vice-Admiral Sir Leopold Heath, and returning to England together on leave in December 1889, Cotton became gravely ill and died while still at sea.
Refs: General Sir Arthur Cotton, His Life and Work (Lady Hope); The Afghan Campaign of 1878-80 (Shadbolt); Historical Records of the 20th Infantry, Brownlow’s Punjabis.