Demetrius Charles de Kavanagh Boulger.

The life of Gordon, major-general, R. E. C. B.; Turkish field-marshal, Grand cordon Medjidieh, and pasha; Chinese titv (field-marshal) yellow jacket order online

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Gordon had kept a journal, which he sent home ; but subsequently,
en finding that it was being circulated, he destroyed it. Of this fact
there is no doubt, and it is of course impossible to say whether it
contained more than the manuscript history of the Taeping war, which
he lent me in 1S81 as "a trustworthy narrative" for the purposes of
my " History of China," and which was published many years later as
a separate volume. The authorship of that history is a matter of

124 The Life of Gordon.

speculation, but there seems little or no doubt that it was at least
compiled under Gordon's own direction, from the reports of his
lieutenants in China, and completed during his residence at Gravesend.

Of the true personal journal Gordon wrote in 1864: "I do not
want the same published, as I think, if my proceedings sink into
oblivion, it would be better for every one ; and my reason for this is
that it is a very contested point whether we ought to have interfered
or not, on which point I am perfectly satisfied that it was the proper
and humane course to pursue, but I still do not expect people who
do not know much about it to concur in the same. ... I never want
anything published. I am sure it does no good, and makes people
chary of writing."

The same feeling came out in his last letter to his mother from
China, 17th November 1864: "The individual is coming home, but
does not wish it known, for it would be a signal for the disbanded to
come to Southampton, and although the waits at Christmas are bad,
these others are worse." Such a wish as this was impossible of
gratification. The public press could not be silenced by the modesty
of this retiring commander whose deeds had been so heroic and devoid
of selfish purpose. The papers became so filled with accounts of his
achievements that he gave up reading them, but The Times had at least
crystallised the opinion of the day into a single sentence: "Never did
soldier of fortune deport himself with a nicer sense of military honour,
with more gallantry against the resisting, and with more mercy towards
the vanquished, with more disinterested neglect of opportunities of
personal advantage, or with more entire devotion to the objects and
desires of his own Government, than this officer who, after all his
victories, has just laid down his sword."

The more calmly and critically the deeds of the Ever Victorious
Army and Gordon's conduct during the campaign against the Taepings
are considered, the greater will be the credit awarded to the hio-h-
minded, brave, and unselfish man who then gained the sobriquet of
" Chinese " Gordon. Among all the deeds of his varied and remarkable
career he never succeeded in cjuite the same degree in winning fame
and in commanding success. At Khartoum the eyes of the world
were on him, but the Mahdi was allowed to remain victorious, and the
Soudan still awaits fresh conquest. But during the two Taepin^^
campaigns he was completely successful, and closed his work with an
unqualified triumph. It was also the only occasion when he led an
army in the field, and proved his claims to be considered a great
commander. Of serious warfare it may be said to have been his last
experience, for his own Government was very careful to give him no

The Ever Victorioiis Army. 125

active military employment — garrison, and even consular duties being
deemed more suitable for this victorious leader than the conduct of any
of those little expeditions commencing with the Red River and Ashanti
for which he was pre-eminently qualified — and under the Khedive he
controlled an army without finding a real foe. Gordon's title to rank
among skilful military commanders rests on his conduct at the head
of the Ever Victorious Army during the Taeping war. It has earned
the praise of many competent military authorities as well as the general
admiration of the public, and Lord Wolseley must have had it in his
mind when, in vindicating his sanity, he exclaimed that he " wished
other English generals had been bitten with his madness."

Those who have thought that Gordon won his victories in China by
sheer personal gallantry, and nothing else, have taken a very shallow
view of the case, and not condescended to study the details. In his
general conception of the best way to overcome the Taepings he was
necessarily hampered by the views, wishes, jealousies, and self-seeking
purposes of his Chinese colleagues. But for them, his strategy would
have been of a very different character, as he himself often said. He
had to adjust his means to the best attainable end, and it must be
allowed that he did this with remarkable tact and patience — the very
qualities in which he was naturally most deficient. If we consider his
strategy as being thus fettered by the Chinese officials Li Hung Chang
and General Ching, whose first object was not so much the overthrow
of the Taeping Government as the expulsion of the Taepings from the
province for which they were responsible, it will be admitted that
nothing could be better than his conception of what had to be done,
and how it was to be effected. The campaign resolved itself into the
cutting off of all their sources of supply from the sea and Treaty ports,
and the shutting up of their principal force within the walls of Soochow.
How well and successfully that was accomplished has been narrated,
but a vainglorious commander could not have been held back after
the fall of Chanchufu from leading his victorious force to achieve a
crowning triumph at Nanking, which Gordon could easily have carried
by assault before the order in council withdrawing his services came
into effect.

More frequent opportunity was afforded for Gordon to reveal his
tactical skill than his strategical insight, and in this respect the only
trammels he experienced were from the military value and efficiency
of his force, which had its own limitations. But still it would
be unjust to form too poor an estimate of the fighting efficiency and
courage of either Gordon's force or his Taeping opponents from the
miserable exhibition the Chinese recently made of themselves during

126 The Life of Goi'don.

the war with Japan. The heavy losses incurred, the several re[)ulses
Gordon himselfexperienced, would alone tell a different tale, if there were
not the obstinate resistance offered to General Staveley and the French
by the Taepings to show that they were not altogether contemptible
adversaries. Gordon himself thought that his force could fight very
well, and that his officers, if somewhat lacking in polish, were not to be
surpassed in dash and devilry. For the Taepings, especially behind
walls, and when it was impossible to out-manoeuvre them, he had also
the highest opinion, and his first object on every occasion was to
discover a weak point in their position, and his patience and perspicuity
were generally rewarded. The very first step he took on approaching
any place that he had to attack was to reconnoitre it himself, either on
foot or in one of his steamers, and he wrote a powerful despatch pointing
out the general neg'ect of this precaution in the conduct of our Eastern
cami)aigns, with its inevitable heavy attendant loss of precious lives.
As he truly said, a careful reconnaissance generally revealed points of
Aveakness in the enemy's position, and the Taepings, like all Asiatics,
were easily demoralised when their line of retreat was threatened, or
when attacked at some point where their preparations had not been
perfected. Among his own personal qualifications, his untiring energy
and his exceptional promptitude in coming to a decision were the most
remarkable. No exertion relaxed his effort or diminished his ardour,
and in face of fresh perils and disappointments he was always ready
with a new plan, or prepared with some scheme for converting defeat
into victory. One of his chief characteristics was his quickness in
seeing an alternative course of action when his original plan had either
failed or been thwarted by others. Of his personal courage and daring
sufficient instances have been given to justify the assertion that in
those qualities he was unsurpassable ; and if he had never done any-
thing else than lead the Ever Victorious Army, it would be sufficient
to secure him a place among the most remarkable of English soldiers.
In China he will be remembered for his rare self-abnegation, for his
noble disdain of money, and for the spirit of tolerance with which he
reconciled the incompatible parts of " a British officer and a Chinese



After the exciting and eventful ten years which began in the Crimea
and ended in China, the most tranquil period in Gordon's career
follows, until he was once again launched on the stormy sea of public
affairs in Africa. He used to speak of the six years following his return
from the Far East as the happiest of his life, and by a fortunate although
unusual coincidence the details of his existence during the tranquil and
uneventful period have been preserved with great amplitude and
fidelity by several witnesses associated with him in his beneficent as
well as his official work. It would be easy to fill a small volume with these
particulars, which have been already given to the world, but here
it will suffice to furnish a summary sufficient to bring out the philan-
thropic side of his character, and to explain how and why it came to
be thought that Gordon was the man to solve that ever-pressing but
ever-put-off problem of diminishing the pressure of excessive population
and poverty in the eastern districts of Eondon.

General Gordon arrived in England early in 1865, and proceeded to
join his family at Rockstone Place, Southampton, where he was then
doubly welcomed, as his father was in declining health, and died soon
afterwards. Here Gordon passed a quiet six months, refusing all
invitations with extreme modesty, and in every way baffling the attempts
of relations, friends, and admirers to make a lion of him. He would
not permit anyone to say that his suppression of the Taeping rebellion
was a marvellous feat, and he evaded and resented ail the attempts
made by those in power to bring him into prominence as a national
hero. Modesty is becoming as an abstract principle of human conduct,
but Gordon carried it to an excess that made it difficult not so much
for his fellow-men to understand him, as for them to hold ordinary
workaday relations with him. This was due mainly to two causes — a
habitual shyness, and his own perception that he could not restrain his
tongue from uttering unpalatable and unconventional truths. He was
so unworldly and self-sacrificing in his own actions that he could not
let himself become even in a passive sense subservient to the very

r28 The Life of Gordon.

worldly means by which all men more or less advance in public and
private life. The desire of Ministers and War Ofifice authorities to
bring him forward, to eulogise his Chinese exploits, and in the end
to give him worthy employment, was regarded by him as that secret
favouritism that he abhorred. He retired ^nto his shell at every effort
made to bring him into prominence. He tore up his diary sooner
than that it should be the means of giving him notoriety. He even
refused special employment and promotion, because it would put him
over the heads of his old comrades at the Woolwich Academy. The
inevitable result followed. Those in power came to regard him as
eccentric, and when occasions arose that would have provided him with
congenial and much-desired employment on active service for his own
country, his name was passed over, and the best soldier in England
was left in inglorious and uncongenial inactivity. This was regret-
table, but natural. The most heroic cannot pose as being too elevated
above their fellows, or they will be left like Achilles sulking in his tent.
There were moments, we have been told, when in the bosom of the
family circle he threw off the reserve in which he habitually wrapped
himself, and narrated in stirring if simple language the course of his
campaigns in China. These outbursts were few and far between.
They became still less frequent when he found that the effect of his
description was to increase the admiration his relatives never concealed
from him. His mother, whose feelings towards him were of a specially
tender nature, and whose solicitude for his personal safety had been
more than once evinced, took the greatest pride in his achievements, and
a special pleasure at their recital. But even her admiration caused
Charles Gordon as much pain as pleasure, and it is recorded that while
she was exhibiting to a circle of friends a map drawn by him during
his old term days at the Academy, he came into the room, and seeing
that it was being made a subject of admiration, took it from his mother,
tore it in half, and threw it into the fire grate. Some little time after he
repented of this act of rudeness, collected the fragments, pasted them
together, and begged his mother's forgiveness. This damaged plan or
map is still in existence. His extraordinary diffidence and shrinking
from all forms of praise or exaltation was thus revealed at a com-
paratively early stage of his career, and in connection with the
first deeds that made him famous. The incident just described shows
that his way of asserting his individuality was not always unattended
with unkindness to those who were nearest and dearest to him. His
distrust of his own temper, and of his capacity to speak and act con-
ventionally, urged him towards a solitary life ; and when his fate took
him into places and forms of employment where solitude was the

Gravese7id and Galatz. 129

essential condition ot" the service, it is not surprising that his natural
shyness and humihty, as well as that habit of speaking his own mind,
not only without fear or favour, but also, it must be admitted, with con-
siderable disregard for the feelings of others, became intensified, and
the most noticeable of his superficial characteristics.

But although Gordon was averse to praise and any special pro-
motion, he was most anxious to resume the work of his profession, in
which he took a peculiar pride, and for which he felt himself so
thoroughly well suited. His temperament was naturally energetic and
impulsive. The independent command he had exercised in China had
strengthened these tendencies, and made a dull routine doubly irksome
to one whose eager spirit sought action in any form that offered. The
quiet domestic life of the family circle at Southampton soon became
intolerable to his restless spirit, and although he was entitled to two
years' leave after his long foreign service, he took steps to return to
active service as an engineer officer within a very few months of his
return to England.

On I St September 1865 he was appointed Commanding Royal
Engineer officer at Gravesend, to superintend the erection of the new
forts to be constructed in that locality for the defence of the Thames.
For such a post his active military service, as well as his technical
training, eminently suited him ; and although there was little promise of
excitement about it, the work was distinctly congenial, and offered him
a field for showing practical judgment and skill as an engineer. He
threw himself into his task with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm.
But how far the latter was damped by his prompt discovery that the
whole project of the Thames defences was faulty and unsound it is
impossible to say, but his attention to his work in all its details certainly
showed no diminution or falling off. There were five forts in all to be
constructed — three on the south or Kent side of the river, viz. New
Tavern, Shornmead, and CUffe ; and two, Coalhouse and Tilbury, on
the north or Essex side. An immense sum had been voted by Parlia-
ment for their construction, and Gordon was as loud as an officer dare
be in his denunciation of this extravagant waste of money as soon as
he discovered by personal examination that the three southern forts
could be turned into islands, and severed from all communication
by an enemy cutting the river bank at Cooling ; and also that the
northern forts were not merely unprotected in the rear, like those of the
Chinese, but completely commanded from the Essex range of hills.
Notwithstanding this important discovery, made at the very beginning,
the original scheme was prosecuted to the end, with enormous outlay
and useless result, for an entirely new system of river defences had to


130 *rfi^ Life of Gordon.

be formed and carried out at a later period. But for these errors
Gordon was in no sense responsible, and they would not have been
committed if his advice and representations had been heeded.

I\Ir Arthur Stannard, who was assistant to the manager of the
firm which had been intrusted with the contract for the building of
these forts, gave in the Ni7ieteenth Century for April 1885 the best
account we possess of the manner in which Colonel Gordon discharged
his official duties at Gravesend.

Colonel Gordon's headquarters were at a quaint-looking, old-
fashioned house with a good -sized garden, close to the site on
which the New Tavern fort was to be erected. He considered him-
self to be on official duty from eight o'clock in the morning until two
o'clock in the afternoon ; and during these six hours he not only
worked himself without intermission, but expected all those under him
to work in the same untiring spirit. He was a severe and unsparing
taskmaster, and allowed no shirking. No other officer could have got
half the work out of his men that he did. He used to keep them up
to the mark by exclaiming, whenever he saw them flag : " Another five
minutes gone, and this not done yet, my men ! We shall never have
them again."

Another instance of his unflagging energy and extreme activity was fur-
nished in connection with the boat in which he had to visit the different
parts of the defences. A two-oared, slow-moving boat was provided for the
purpose, but Gordon soon grew tired of this slow means of locomotion,
and he started a four-oared gig. He trained these men according to
his own ideas, and expected them to row with all their might and main,
and to lose not a minute in casting off their boat on his arrival. So
fond was he of rapid motion, or so impressed with the value of time,
that he would continue to urge them on, whenever any signs of slacken-
ing appeared, with exclamations : "A little faster, boys, a little faster!"
and Mr Stannard states that he has seen the boatmen laiid after such
a row as this in as limp a condition as four strong men could be. All
his own movements were carried on at the run, and his activity was
such that few younger and taller men were able to keep up with him.
I well recollect myself my first interview with General Gordon in 1881,
when he roused me up by a surprise morning visit at eight o'clock — I
had not returned from a newspaper office till four o'clock — and
carried me off, walking in a light, springy way which was half a
run up to the top of Campden Hill, to interview the late Sir Harry

While many incidents and the general tenor of his conduct show
the natural gentleness of Gordon and his softness of heart, he was a

Gravesend and Galatz. 131

strict disciplinarian, and even a martinet in some of his ways. As has
been said, he came on duty at eight every morning punctually, but he
would not allow himself to be intruded upon before that hour. Mr
'Stannard tells one story that furnishes striking evidence to this effect.
Early in the morning the men were brought to a standstill in their
work until Colonel Gordon arrived to decide some doubtful or disputed
matter. It was noticed that his bedroom window was wide open, and
the contractor's manager was induced to go up and knock at his door
for instructions. Gordon opened his door a little way, and exclaimed
in a testy and irritable tone, " Presently, presently." He made his
regular appearance at eight o'clock, and no one ventured to again disturb
him before the regulation hour.

With regard to his meals he was most abstemious, and at the same
time irregular. His brother describes an arrangement by which he was
able to take, at all events, his midday meal, and at the same time to
carry on his official work, especially in the matter of receiving visitors.
He had a deep drawer in his table, in which the food was deposited.
When anyone came to see him, the drawer was closed, and all signs of a
meal were concealed. At all periods of his career he was a small and
frugal eater, partly because he deprecated extravagance in living, and
partly because he considered that the a7-igina pectoris from which he
thought he suffered could be best coped with by abstention from a
sumptuous or heavy diet. Some days he would almost starve himself,
and then in the night Nature would assert herself, and he would have to
come downstairs and take whatever he found in the larder. It is
recorded that on one occasion he sucked ten or a dozen raw eggs. But
if he denied himself the luxuries and even the necessaries of a decent
table, he possessed the true spirit of hospitality, and never expected his
guests to follow any different practice than their own. For them he was
always at pains to provide dainty fare and good wine. Nor must undue
stress be laid on the isolated cases cited of his indifference to his
personal comfort. Gordon was always attentive to his dress and appear-
ance, never forgetting that he was a gentleman and an English officer.

While quartered at Gravesend he received a visit from Sir William
Gordon, who had just been appointed to the command of the troops in
Scotland. Sir William was no relation, only a member of the same
great clan, and he had served with Gordon in the trenches of the
Crimea. He had a great admiration and affection for the younger officer,
and begged him to accept the post of his aide-de-camp in the North.
The idea was not a pleasant one to our Gordon, but his good-nature
led him to yield to the pressing invitations of his friend ; and after he
had given his assent, he was ill with nervousness and regret at having

132 The Life of Goj^don.

tied himself down to an uncongenial post. In some way or other Sir
A\'illiani heard of his distress, and promptly released him from his
j^romise, only exacting from him the condition that he should pay him
a visit at his home in Scotland. Soon afterwards Sir William Gordon
became seriously ill, and Charles Gordon hastened to the North, where
he remained some time employed in cheering up his friend, who was
suffering from hypochondria. Some time afterwards Sir William died
under sad circumstances. He had wished to benefit General Gordon
by his will, but the latter absolutely refused to have anything except a
silver tea service, which he had promised Sir William, while alive, to
accept, because " it would pay for his funeral," and save any one being
put to expense over that inevitable ceremony. The fate of this tea
service, valued at f^To, cannot be traced. It had disappeared long
before Gordon's departure for Khartoum, and was probably sold for
some beneficent work.

The Sir William Gordon incident was not the only external affair
that distracted his attention from the monotonous routine work of
building forts on a set, but faulty and mistaken, plan. Glad as he was of
any work, in preference to the dull existence of a prolonged holiday in the
domestic circle, Gravesend was not, after all, the ideal of active service to
a man who had found the excitement of warfare so very congenial to his
own temperament. When, in the course of 1867 it became evident that
an expedition would have to be sent to Abyssinia to release the prisoners,
and to bring the Negus Theodore to his senses, Gordon solicited the
Horse Guards to include him in any force despatched with this object.
There is no reason to think that his wish would not have been complied
with if the expedition had been fitted out from England, but it was very
wisely decided that the task should be entrusted to the Anglo-Indian
Army. The late Lord Napier of Magdala, then Commander-in-Chief of
the Bombay Army, was appointed to the command. The officers of his
staff, as well as the troops under him, were all drawn from the Bombay
Army, and although his connection by marriage. Sir Charles Staveley,
held a command under Napier, and would willingly have assisted to-
wards the gratification of his wish, an exception in Gordon's case could
not be made without that favouritism which he most deprecated. Still,

Online LibraryDemetrius Charles de Kavanagh BoulgerThe life of Gordon, major-general, R. E. C. B.; Turkish field-marshal, Grand cordon Medjidieh, and pasha; Chinese titv (field-marshal) yellow jacket order → online text (page 15 of 40)