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Gordon's reputation as the authority on the Soudan, and the prophetic
character of many of his statements became clear when events confirmed

After a stay at Southampton and in London of a few weeks, Gordon
was at last induced to give himself a short holiday, and, strangely enough,
he selected Ireland as his recreation ground. I have been told that

230 The Life of Goi'don.

Gordon had a strain of Irish blood in him, but I have failed to discover
it genealogically, nor was there any trace of its influence on his character.
He was not fortunate in the season of the year he selected, nor in the
particular part of the country he chose for his visit. There is scenery
in the south-west division of Ireland, quite apart from the admitted
beauty of the Killarney district, that will vie with better known and
more highly lauded places in Scotland and Switzerland, but no one
would recommend a stranger to visit that quarter of Ireland at the
end of November, and the absence of cultivation, seen under the
depressing conditions of Nature, would strike a visitor with all the
effect of absolute sterility. Gordon was so impressed, and it seemed
to him that the Irish peasants of a whole province were existing
in a state of wretchedness exceeding anything he had seen in
either China or the Soudan. If he had seen the same places six
months earlier, he would have formed a less extreme view of their
situation. It was just the condition of things that appealed to his
sympathy, and with characteristic promptitude he put his views on
paper, making one definite offer on his own part, and sent them to a
^riend, the present General James Donnelly, a distinguished engineer
officer and old comrade, and moreover a member of a well-known Irish
family. Considering the contents of the letter, and the form in which
Gordon threw out his suggestions, it is not very surprising that General
Donnelly sent it to The Times, in which it was published on 3rd
December 18S0; but Gordon himself was annoyed at this step being
taken, because he realised that he had written somewhat hastily on a
subject with which he could scarcely be deemed thoroughly acquainted.
The following is its text : —

" You are aware how interested I am in the welfare of this country, and,
having known you for twenty-six years, I am sure I may say the same of

" I have lately been over to the south-west of Ireland in the hope of
discovering how some settlement could be made of the Irish question, which,
like a fretting cancer, eats away our vitals as a nation.

'' I have come to the conclusion that —

" I. A gulf of antipathy exists between the landlords and tenants of the
north-west, west, and south-west of Ireland. It is a gulf which is not caused
alone by the question of rent ; there is a complete lack of sympathy between
these two classes. It is useless to inquire how such a state of things has
come to pass. I call your attention to the pamphlets, letters, and speeches
of the landlord class, as a proof of how little sympathy or kindness there
exists among them for the tenantry, and I am sure that the tenantry feel in
the same way towards the landlords.

" 2. No half-measured Acts which left the landlords with any say to the
tenantry of these portions of Ireland will be of any use. They would be
rendered— as past Land Acts in Ireland have been — quite abortive, for the
landlords will insert clauses to do away with their force. Any half-measures

The Mauri this, the Cape, and the Congo. 231

will only place the Government face to face with the people of Ireland as
the champions of the landlord interest. The Government would be bound to
enforce their decision, and with a result which none can foresee, but which
certainly would be disastrous to the common weal.

" 3. My idea is that, seeing — through this cause or that, it is immaterial
to examine — a deadlock has occurred between the present landlords and
tenants, the Government should purchase up the rights of the landlords over
the whole or the greater part of Longford, Westmeath, Clare, Cork, Keiry,
Limerick, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Cavan, and Donegal. The yearly rental of
these districts is some four millions ; if the Government give the landlords
twenty years' purchase, it would cost eighty millions, which at three and a
half per cent, would give a yearly interest of ;^2,8oo,ooo, of which ^2,500,000
could be recovered ; the lands would be Crown lands ; they would be
administered by a Land Commission, who would be supplemented by an
Emigration Commission, which might for a short time need ^100,000. This
would not injure the landlords, and, so far as it is an interference with pro-
prietary rights, it is as just as is the law which forces Lord A. to allow a
railway through his park for the public benefit. I would restrain the land-
lords from any power or control in these Crown land districts. Poor-law,
roads, schools, etc., should be under the Land Commission.

"4. For the rest of Ireland, I would pass an Act allowing free sale ot
leases, fair rents, and a Government valuation.

" In conclusion, I must say, from all accounts and my own observation,
that the state of our fellow-countrymen in the parts I have named is worse
than that of any people in the world, let alone Europe. I believe that these
people are made as we are, that they are patient beyond belief, loyal, but, at
the same time, broken-spirited and desperate, living on the verge of starva-
tion in places in which we would not keep our cattle.

"The Bulgarians, Anatolians, Chinese, and Indians are better off than
many of them are. The priests alone have any sympathy with their suffer-
ings, and naturally alone have a hold over them. In these days, in common
justice, if we endow a Protestant University, why should we not endow a
Catholic University in a Catholic country? Is it not as difficult to get a ^5

note from a Protestant as from a Catholic or Jew? Read the letters of

and of , and tell me if you see in them any particle of kind feeling towards

the tenantry ; and if you have any doubts about this, investigate the manner
in which the Relief Fund was administered, and in which the sums of money
for improvements of estates by landlords were expended.

" In 1833 England gave freedom to the West Indian slaves at a cost of
twenty millions — worth now thirty millions. This money left the country.
England got nothing for it. Ey an expenditure of eighty millions she may
free her own people. She would have the hold over the land, and she would

cure a cancer. I am not well off, but I would offer or his agent ;^iooo,

if either of them would live one week in one of these poor devil's places, and
feed as these people do. Our comic prints do an infinity of harm by their
caricatures — firstly, the caricatures are not true, for the crime in Ireland is
not greater than that in England ; and, secondly, they exasperate the people
on both sides of the Channel, and they do no good.

" It is ill to laugh and scoff at a question which affects our existence."

This heroic mode of dealing with an old and very complicated
difficulty scarcely came within the range of practical achievement. The
Irish question is not to be solved by any such simple cut-and-dried pro-
cedure. It will take time, sympathy, and good-will. When the English

232 The Life of Gordon.

people have eradicated their opinion that the Irish are an inferior race,
and when the Irish reahse that the old prejudice has vanished, the
root-difficulty will be removed. At least Gordon deserves the credit of
having seen that much from his brief observation on the spot, and his
plea for them as "patient beyond belief and loyal," may eventually
carry conviction to the hearts of the more powerful and prosperous

The Irish question was not the only one on which he recorded
a written opinion. The question of retaining Candahar was very much
discussed during the winter of 1880-S1, and as the Liberal Govern-
ment was very much put to it to get high military opinion to support
their proposal of abandonment, they were very glad when Gordon wrote
to The Times expressing a strong opinion on their side. I think the
writing ot that letter w^as mainly due to a sense of obligation to Lord
Ripon, although the argument used as to the necessity of Candahar
being held by any single ruler of Afghanistan was, and is always,
unanswerable. But the question at that time was this : Could any
such single ruler be found, and was Abdurrahman, recognised in the
August of 1880 as Ameer of Cabul, the man?

On 27th July 1880, less than eight weeks after Gordon's resigna-
tion of his Indian appointment, occurred the disastrous battle of
Maiwand, when Yakoob's younger brother, Ayoob, gained a decisive
victory over a British force. That disaster was retrieved six weeks
later by Lord Roberts, but Ayoob remained in possession of Herat
and the whole of the country west of the Helmund. It was well known
that the rivalry between him and his cousin Abdurrahman did not
admit of being patched up, and that it could only be settled by the
sword. At the moment there was more reason to believe in the
military talent of Ayoob than of the present Ameer, and it was certain
that the instant we left Candahar the two opponents would engage
in a struggle for its possession. The policy of precipitate evacuation
left everything to the chapter of accidents, and if Ayoob had proved
the victor, or even able to hold his ground, the situation in Afghanistan
would have been eminently favourable for that foreign intervention
which only the extraordinary skill and still more extraordinary success
of the Ameer Abdurrahman has averted. In giving the actual text of
Gordon's letter, it is only right, while frankly admitting that the course
pursued has proved most successful and beneficial, to record that it
might well have been otherwise, and that as a mere matter of argu-
ment the probability was quite the other way. Neither Gordon nor
any other supporter of the evacuation policy ventured to predict that
Abdurrahman, who was then not a young man, and whose early career

The Matiriti7is, the Cape, and the Congo. 233

had been one of failure, was going to prove himself the ablest adminis-
trator and most astute statesman in Afghan history.

"Those who advocate the retention of Candahar do so generally on the
ground that its retention would render more difficult the advance of Russia
on, and would prevent her fomenting rebellion in, India, and that our prestige
in India would suffer by its evacuation.

" I think that this retention would throw Afghanistan, in the hope of
regaining Candahar, into alliance with Russia, and that thereby Russia
would be given a temptation to offer which she otherwise would not have.
Supposing that temptation did not exist, what other inducement could
Russia offer for this alliance ? The plunder of India. If, then, Russia did
advance, she would bring her au.xiliary tribes, who, with their natural
predatory habits, would soon come to loggerheads with their natural
enemies, the Afghans, and that the sooner when these latter were aided
by us. Would the Afghans in such a case be likely to be tempted by the
small share they would get of the plunder of India to give up their secure,
independent position and our alliance for that plunder, and to put their
country at the mercy of Russia, whom they hate as cordially as they do us ?
If we evacuate Candahar, Afghanistan can only have this small inducement
of the plunder of India for Russia to offer her. Some say that the people
of Candahar desire our rule. I cannot think that any people like being
governed by aliens in race or religion. They prefer their own bad native
governments to a stiff, civilized government, in spite of the increased worldly
prosperity the latter may give.

" We may be sure that at Candahar the spirit which induced children to
kill, or to attempt to kill our soldiers in 1879, etc., still exists, though it may
be cowed. We have trouble enough with the fanatics of India ; why should
we go out of our way to add to then' numbers ?

" From a military point of view, by the retention we should increase
the line we have to defend by twice the distance of Candahar to the present
frontier, and place an objective point to be attacked. Naturally we should
make good roads to Candahar, which on the loss of a battle there — and such
things must be always calculated as within possibility — would aid the
advance of the enemy to the Indus. The dcboiiche oi the defiles, with good
lateral communications between them, is the proper line ot defence for India,
not the entry into those defiles, which cannot have secure lateral communi-
cations. If the entries of the defiles are held, good roads are made through
them ; and these aid the enemy, if you lose the entries or have them turned.
This does not prevent the passage of the defiles being disputed.

"The retention of Candahar would tend to foment rebellion in India,
and not prevent it ; for thereby we should obtain an additional number of
fanatical malcontents, who as British subjects would have the greatest
facility of passing to and fro in India, which they would not have if we did
not hold it.

"That our prestige would suffer in India by the evacuation I doubt ; it
certainly would suft'er if we kept it and forsook our word — i.e. that we made
war against Shere Ali, and not against his people. The native peoples
of India would willingly part with any amount of prestige if they obtained
less taxation.

" India should be able, by a proper defence of her present frontier and by
the proper government of her peoples, to look after herself. If the latter is
wanting, no advance of frontier will aid her.

" I am not anxious about Russia ; but, were I so, I would care much
more to see precautions taken for the defence of our Eastern colonies, now

2 34 The Life of Gordon.

that Russia has moved her Black Sea naval establishment to the China Sea,
than to push forward an outstretched arm to Candahar. The interests of
the Empire claim as much attention as India, and one cannot help seeing
that they are much more imperilled by this last move of Russia than by any-
thing she can do in Central Asia.

"Politically, militarily, and morally, Candahar ought not to be retained.
It would oblige us to keep up an interference with the internal affairs of
Afghanistan, would increase the expenditure of impoverished India, and
expose us chronically to the reception of those painfully sensational telegrams
of which we have had a surfeit of late."

During these few months Gordon wrote on several other subjects —
the Abyssinian question, in connection with which he curiously enough
styled " the Abyssinians the best of mountaineers," a fact not appre-
ciated until their success over the Italians many years later, the
registration of slaves in Egypt, and the best way of carrying on
irregular warfare in difficult country and against brave and active races.
His remarks on the last subject were called forth by our experiences
in the field against the Zulus in the first place, and the Boers in
the second, and quite exceptional force was given to them by the
occurrence of the defeat at Majuba Hill one day after they appeared in
the Army and Navy Gazette. For this reason I quote the article in its
entirety : —

" The individual man of any country in which active outdoor life, abstin-
ence, hunting of wild game, and exposure to all weathers are the habits of
life, is more than a match for the private soldier of a regular army, who
is taken from t^e plough or from cities, and this is the case doubly as much
when the field of operations is a difficult country, and when the former is,
and the latter is not, acclimatised. On the one hand, the former is accus-
tomed to the climate, knows the country, and is trained to long marches
and difficulties of all sorts inseparable from his daily life ; the latter is
unacclimatised, knows nothing of the country, and, accustomed to have his
every want supplied, is at a loss when any extraordinary hardships or
difficulties are encountered ; he has only his skill in his arms and discipline
in his favour, and sometimes that skill may be also possessed by his foe.
The native of the country has to contend with a difficulty in maintaining
a long contest, owing to want of means and want of discipline, being un-
accustomed to any yoke interfering with individual freedom. The resources
of a regular army, in comparison to those of the natives of the country, are
infinite, but it is accustomed to discipline. In a difficult country, when the
numbers are eciual, and when the natives are of the description above stated,
the regular forces are certainly at a very great disadvantage, until, by bitter
experience in the field, they are taught to fight in the same irregular way as
their foes, and this lesson may be learnt at a great cost. I therefore think
that when regular forces enter into a campaign under these conditions, the
former ought to avoid any unnecessary haste, for time does not press with
them, while every day increases the burden on a country without resources
and unaccustomed to discipline, and as the forces of the country, unprovided
with artillery, never ought to be able to attack fortified posts, any advance
should be made by the establishment of such posts. All engagements in the
field ought, if possible, to be avoided, except by corps raised from people

The Mauritms, the Cape, and the Congo. 235

who in their habits resemble those in arms, or else by irregular corps raised
for the purpose, apart from the routine and red-tape inseparable from
regular armies. The regular forces will act as the back-bone of the expedi-
tion, but the rock and cover fighting will be done better by levies of such
specially raised irregulars. For war with native countries, I think that,
except lor the defence of posts, artillery is a great incumbrance, far beyond
its value. It is a continual source of anxiety. Its transport regulates the
speed of the march, and it forms a target for the enemy, while its eft'ects on
the scattered enemy is almost nil. An advance of regular troops, as at
present organised, is just the sort of march that suits an active native foe.
The regulars' column must be heaped together, covering its transport and
artillery. The enemy knows the probable point of its destination on a
particular day, and then, knowing that the regulars cannot halt definitely
where it may be chosen to attack, it hovers round the column like wasps.
The regulars cannot, from not being accustomed to the work, go clambering
over rocks, or beating covers after their foes. Therefore I conclude that
in these wars * regular troops should only act as a reserve ; that the real
fighting should be done either by native allies or by special irregular corps,
commanded by special men, who would be untrammelled by regulations ;
that, except for the defence of posts, artillery should be abandoned. It may
seem egotistical, but I may state that I should never have succeeded against
native foes had I not had flanks, and front, and rear covered by irregular
forces. Whenever either the flanks, or rear, or front auxiliaries were barred
in their advance, we turned the regular forces on that point, and thus
strengthening the hindered auxiliaries, drove back the enemy. We owed
defeats, when they occurred, to the absence of these auxiliaries, and on two
occasions to having cannon with the troops, which lost us 1600 men. The
Abyssinians, who are the best of mountaineers, though they have them,
utterly despise cannon, as they hinder their movements. I could give
instance after instance where, in native wars, regular troops could not hold
their own against an active guerilla, and where, in some cases, the disasters
of the regulars were brought about by being hampered by cannon. No one
can deny artillery may be most efficient in the contention of two regular
armies, but it is quite the reverse in guerilla warfare. The inordinate haste
which exists to finish off these wars throws away many valuable aids which
would inevitably accrue to the regular army if time was taken to do the
work, and far greater expense is caused by this hurry than otherwise would
be necessary. All is done on the^Fefzi, vidi, vicV principle. It may be
very fine, but it is bloody and expensive, and not scientific. I am sure it
will occur to many, the times we have advanced, without proper breaches,
bridges, etc., and with what loss, assaulted. It would seem that military
science should be entirely thrown away when combating native tribes. I
think I am correct in saying that the Romans always fought with large
auxiliary forces of the invaded country or its neighbours, and I know it was
the rule of the Russians in Circassia."

Perhaps Gordon was influenced by the catastrophes in South Africa
when he sent the following telegram at his own expense to the Cape
authorities on 7th April 1881 : "Gordon offers his services for two
years at £^100 per annum to assist in terminating war and administer-
ing Basutoland." To this telegram he was never accorded even the

In allusion more particularly to the Cape and China.

236 The Life of Gordon.

courtesy of a negative reply. It will be remembered that twelve
months earlier the Cape Government had offered him the command of
the forces, and that his reply had been to refuse. The incident is of
some interest as showing that his attention had been directed to the
Basuto question, and also that he was again anxious for active employ-
ment. His wish for the latter was to be realised in an unexpected

He was staying in London when, on visiting the War Office, he
casually met the late Colonel Sir Howard Elphinstone, an officer of
his own corps, who began by complaining of his hard luck in its just
having fallen to his turn to fill the post of Engineer officer in command
at the Mauritius, and such was the distastefulness of the prospect of
service in such a remote and unattractive spot, that Sir Howard went
on to say that he thought he would sooner retire from the service. In
his impulsive manner Gordon at once exclaimed : " Oh, don't worry
yourself, I will go for you ; Mauritius is as good for me as anywhere
else." The exact manner in which this exchange was brought about
has been variously described, but this is the literal version given me by
General Gordon himself, and there is no doubt that, as far as he could
regret anything that had happened, he bitterly regretted the accident
that caused him to become acquainted with the Mauritius. In a
letter to myself on the subject from Port Louis he said : " It was not
over cheerful to go out to this place, nor is it so to find a deadly sleep
over all my military friends here." In making the arrangements which
were necessary to effect the ofiicial substitution of himself for Colonel
Elphinstone, Gordon insisted on only two points : first, that Elphinstone
should himself arrange the exchange; and secondly that no payment
was to be made to him as was usual — in this case about ;^Soo — on an
exchange being effected. Sir Howard Elphinstone was thus saved by
Gordon's peculiarities a disagreeable experience and a considerable sum
of money. Some years after Gordon's death Sir Howard met with a
tragic fate, being washed overboard while taking a trip during illness to

Like everything else he undertook, Gordon determined to make his
Mauritius appointment a reality, and although he was only in the
island twelve months, and during that period took a trip to the interest-
ing group of the Seychelles, he managed to compress an immense
amount of work into that short space, and to leave on record some
valuable reports on matters of high importance. He found at Mauritius
the same dislike for posts that were outside the ken of headquarters,
and the same indifference to the dry details of professional work that
drove officers of high ability and attainments to think of resigning

The Maurititts, the Cape, and the Congo. 237

the service sooner than fill them, and, when they did take them, to pass
their period of exile away from the charms of Pall Mall in a state of
inaction that verged on suspended animation. In a passage already
quoted, he refers to the deadly sleep of his military friends, and then he
goes on to say in a sentence, which cannot be too much taken to heart
by those who have to support this mighty empire, with enemies on every
hand — "We are in a perfect Fools' Paradise about our power. We
have plenty of power if we would pay attention to our work, but the

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 27 of 40)