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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Cairo and the rebellion in the Soudan, which began under the auspices
of the so-called Mahdi. At the very least it may be asserted that the
spectacle of successful insubordination in the Delta — for it was
completely successful, and would have continued so but for the
intervention of British arms — was calculated to encourage those who

262 The Life of Gordon.

entertained a desire to upset the Khedive's authority in the uppet
regions of the Nile. That Gordon held that the authors of the Arabi
rising and of the Mahdist movement were the same in sympathy, if not
in person, cannot be doubted, and in February 1882, when the Mahdi
had scarcely begun his career, he wrote : " If they send the Black
regiment to the Soudan to quell the revolt, they will inoculate all the
troops up there, and the Soudan will revolt against Cairo, whom they all
hate." It will be noted that that letter was written more than twenty
months before the destruction of the Hicks Expedition made the
Mahdi master of the Soudan.

It was in the year 1880 that the movements of a Mahommedan
dervish, named Mahomed Ahmed, first began to attract the attention
of the Egyptian officials. He had quarrelled with and repudiated the
authority of the head of his religious order, because he tolerated such
frivolous practices as dancing and singing. His boldness in this matter,
and his originality in others, showed that he was pursuing a course of
his own, and to provide for his personal security, as well as for con-
venience in keeping up his communications with Khartoum and other
places, he fixed his residence on an islet in the White Nile near Kawa.
Mahomed Ahmed was a native of the lower province of Dongola, and
as such was looked upon with a certain amount of contempt by the
other races of the Soudan. When he quarrelled with his religious
leader he was given the opprobrious name of " a wretched Dongolawi,"
but the courage with which he defied and exposed an arch-priest for not
rigidly abiding by the tenets of the Koran, redounded so much to his
credit that the people began to talk of this wonderful dervish quite
as much as of the Khedive's Governor-General. Many earnest and
energetic Mahommedans flocked to him, and among these was the
present Khalifa Abdullah, whose life had been spared by Zebehr, and
who in return had wished to proclaim that leader of the slave-hunters
Mahdi. To his instigation was probably due not merely the assump-
tion of that title by Mahomed Ahmed, but the addition of a worldly
policy to what was to have been a strictly religious propaganda.

Little as he deemed there was to fear from this ascetic, the Egyptian
Governor-General Raouf, Gordon's successor, and stigmatised by him
as the Tyrant of Harrar, became curious about him, and sent some-
one to interview and report upon this new religious teacher. The
report brought back was that he was " a madman," and it was at once
considered safe to treat him with indifference. Such was the position
in the year 1880, and the official view was only modified a year later
by the receipt of inform.ation that the gathering on the island of Abba
had considerably increased, and that Mahomed Ahmed was attended

The Last N'ile Mission. 26


by an armed escort, who stood in his presence with drawn swords. It
was at this time too that he be2;an to declare that he had a divine
mission, and took unto himself the style of Mahdi — the long-expected
messenger who was to raise up Islam — at first secretly among his chosen
friends, but not so secretly that news of his bold step did not reach the
ears of Raouf. The assumption of such a title, which placed its holder
above and beyond the reach of such ordinary commands as are con-
veyed in the edicts of a Khedive or a Sultan, convinced Raouf that the
time had come to put an end to these pretensions. That conviction
was not diminished when Mahomed Ahmed made a tour through
Kordofan, spreading a knowledge of his name and intentions, and un-
doubtedly winning over many adherents to his cause. On his return to
Abba he found a summons from the Governor-General to come to
Khartoum. That summons was followed by the arrival of a steamer,
the captain of which had orders to capture the False Mahdi alive or

Mahomed Ahmed received warning from his friends and sym-
pathisers that if he went to Khartoum he might consider himself a dead
man. He probably never had the least intention of going there, and
what he had seen of the state of feeling in the Soudan, where the
authority of the Khedive was neither popular nor firmly established,
rendered him more inclined to defy the Egyptians. When the delegate
of Raouf Pasha therefore appeared before him, Mahomed Ahmed was
surrounded by such an armed force as precluded the possibility of a
violent seizure of his person, and when he resorted to argument to
induce him to come to Khartoum, Mahomed Ahmed, throwing off the
mask, and standing forth in the self-imposed character of Mahdi,
exclaimed : " By the grace of God and His Prophet I am the master of
this country, and never shall I go to Khartoum to justify myself."

After this picturesque defiance it only remained for him and the
Egyptians to prove which was the stronger.

It must be admitted that Raouf at once recognised the gravity of
the affair, and without delay he sent a small force on Gordon's old
steamer, the Ismailia, to bring Mahomed Ahmed to reason. This was
in August 1 88 1. By its numbers and the superior armament of the
troops this expedition should have proved a complete success, and a
competent commander would have strangled the Mahdist phenomenon
at its birth. Unfortunately the Egyptian ofificers were grossly incom-
petent, and divided among themselves. They attempted a night attack,
and as they were quite ignorant of the locality, it is not surprising that
they fell into the very trap they thought to set for their opponents.

In the confusion the divided Egyptian forces fired upon each other,

264 The Life of Gordon.

and the Mahdists with their swords and short stabbing spears com-
pleted the rest. Of two whole companies of troops only a handful
escaped by swimming to the steamer, which returned to Khartoum
with the news of this defeat. Even this reverse was very far from
ensuring the triumph of Mahomed Ahmed, or the downfall of the
Egyptian power ; and, indeed, the possession of steamers and the
consequent command of the Nile navigation rendered it extremely
doubtful whether he could long hold his own on the island of Abba.
He thought so himself, and, gathering his forces together, marched to
the western districts of Kordofan, where, at Jebel Gedir, he established
his headquarters. A special reason made him select that place, for
it is believed by Mahommedans that the INIahdi will first appear at
Jebel INIasa in North Africa, and Mahomed Ahmed had no scruple
in declaring that the two places were the same. To complete the
resemblance he changed with autocratic pleasure the name Jebel Gedir
into Jebel Masa.

During this march several attempts were made to capture him by
the local garrisons, but they were all undertaken in such a half-
hearted manner, and so badly carried out, that the Mahdi was never
in any danger, and his reputation was raised by the failure of the

Once established at Jebel Gedir the Mahdi began to organise his
forces on a larger scale, and to formulate a policy that would be likely
to bring all the tribes of the Soudan to his side. ^Vhile thus employed
Rashed Bey, Governor of Fashoda, resolved to attack him. Rashed
is entitled to the credit of seeing that the time demanded a signal, and
if possible, a decisive blow, but he is to be censured for the careless-
ness and over-confidence he displayed in carrying out his scheme.
Although he had a strong force he should have known that the ]\Iahdi's
followers were now numbered by the thousand, and that he was an
active and enterprising foe. But he neglected the most simple pre-
cautions, and showed that he had no military skill. The IMahdi fell
upon him during his march, killed him, his chief officers, and 1400
men, and the small body that escaped bore testimony to the formidable
character of the victor's fighting power. This battle was fought on 9th
December 1881, and the end of that year therefore beheld the firm
establishment of the Mahdi's power in a considerable part of the
Soudan ; but even then the superiority of the Egyptian resources was
so marked and incontestable that, properly handled, they should have
sufficed to speedily overwhelm him.

At this juncture Raouf was succeeded as Governor-General by
Abd-el-Kader Pasha, who had held the same post before Gordon, and

The Last Nile Mission. 265

who had gained something of a reputation from the conquest of Darfour,
in conjunction with Zebehr. At least he ought to have known the
Soudan, but the dangers which had been clear to the eye of Gordon
were concealed from him and his colleagues. Still, the first task he set
himself — and indeed it was the justification of his re-appointment — was
to retrieve the disaster to Rashed, and to destroy the Mahdi's power.
He therefore collected a force of not less than 4000 men, chiefly trained
infantry, and he entrusted the command to Yusuf Pasha, a brave officer,
who had distinguished himself under Gessi in the war with Suleiman.
This force left Khartoum in March 1882, but it did not begin its inland
march from the Nile until the end of May, when it had been increased
by at least 2000 irregular levies raised in Kordofan. Unfortunately,
Yusuf was just as over-confident as Rashed had been. He neglected
all precautions, and derided the counsel of those who warned him that
the Mahdi's followers might prove a match for his well-armed and well-
drilled troops. After a ten days' march he reached the neighbourhood
of the Mahdi's position, and he was already counting on a great victory,
when, at dawn of day on 7th June, he was himself surprised by his
opponent in a camp that he had ostentatiously refused to fortify in the
smallest degree. The Egyptian force was annihilated. Some of the
local irregulars escaped, but of the regular troops and their commanders
not one. This decisive victory not merely confirmed the reputation of
the Mahdi, and made most people in the Soudan believe that he was
really a heaven-sent champion, but it also exposed the inferiority of the
Government troops and the Khedive's commanders.

The defeat of Yusuf may be said to have been decisive so far as the
active forces of the Khedive in the field were concerned, but the towns
held out, and El Obeid, the capital of Kordofan, in particular defied
all the Mahdi's efforts to take it. The possession of this and other strong
places furnished the supporters of the Government with a reasonable
hope that on the arrival of fresh troops the ground lost might be
recovered, and an end put to what threatened to become a formidable
rebellion. A lull consequently ensued in the struggle. Unfortunately,
it was one that the Mahdi turned to the best advantage by drilling and
arming his troops, and summoning levies from the more distant parts of
the provinces, while the Khedive's Government, engrossed in troubles
nearer home — the Arabi revolt and the intervention of England in the
internal administration — seemed paralysed in its efforts to restore its
authority over the Soudan, which at that moment would have been com-
paratively easy. The only direct result of Yusuf's defeat in June 18S2
was that two of the Black regiments were sent up to Khartoum, and as
their allegiance to the Government was already shaken, their presence,

266 The Life of Gordon.

as Gordon apprehended, was calculated to aggravate rather than to
improve the situation.

Matters remained very much in this state until the Mahdi's capture
of the important town of El Obeid. Notwithstanding the presence
within the walls of an element favourable to the Mahdi, the Commandant,
Said Pasha, made a valiant and protracted defence. He successfully
repelled all the Mahdi's attempts to take the place by storm, but he had
to succumb to famine after all the privations of a five months' siege. If
there had been other men like Said Pasha, especially at Khartoum, the
power of the Mahdi would never have risen to the height it attained.
The capture of an important place like El Obeid did more for the spread
of the Mahdi's reputation and power than the several victories he had
gained in the field. This important event took place in January 1SS3.
Abd-el-Kader was then removed from the Governor-Generalship, and a
successor found in Alla-ed-din, a man of supposed energy and resource.
More than that, an English otificer — Colonel Hicks — was given the
military command, and it was decided to despatch an expedition of
sufficient strength, as it was thought, to crush the Mahdi at one blow.

The preparations for this fresh advance against the Mahdi were made
with care, and on an extensive scale. Several regiments were sent from
Egypt, and in the spring of the year a permanent camp was established
for their accommodation at Omdurman, on the western bank of the
Nile, opposite Khartoum. Here, by the end of June 18S3, was
assembled a force officially computed to number 7000 infantry, 120
cuirassiers, 300 irregular cavalry, and not fewer than 30 pieces of artillery,
including rockets and mortars. Colonel Hicks was given the nominal
command, several English and other European officers were appointed
to serve under him, and the Khedive specially ordered the Governor-
General to accompany the expedition that was to put an end to the
Mahdi's triumph. Such was the interest, and, it may be added, confid-
ence, felt in the expedition, that two special correspondents, one of
whom was Edmond O'Donovan, who had made himself famous a few
years earlier by reaching the Turcoman stronghold of Merv, were
ordered to accompany it, and report its achievements.

The Mahdi learnt in good time of the extensive preparations being
made for this expedition, but he was not dismayed, because all the
ficjhtins; tribes of Kordofan, Bahr Gazelle, and Darfour were now at
his back, and he knew that he could count on the devotion of 100,000
fanatical warriors. Still, he and his henchman Abdullah, who supplied
the military brains to the cause, were not disposed to throw away a
chance, and the threatening appearance of the Egyptian military pre-
parations led them to conceive the really brilliant idea of stirring up

The Last Nile Mission. 267

trouble in the rear of Khartoum. For this purpose a man of extra-
ordinary energy and influence was ready to their hand in Osman Digma,
a slave-deakr of Souakim, who might truly be called the Zebehr of the
Eastern Soudan. This man hastened to Souakim as the delegate of the
Mahdi, from whom he brought special proclamations, calling on the
tribes to rise for a Holy War. Although this move subsequently aggra-
vated the Egyptian position and extended the military triumphs of the
Mahdi, it did not attain the immediate object for which it was conceived,
as the Hicks Expedition set out on its ill-omened march before Osman
had struck a blow.

The power of the Mahdi was at this moment so firmly established,
and his reputation based on the double claim of a divine mission and
military success so high that it may be doubted whether the 10,000
men, of which the Hicks force consisted when the irregulars raised by
the Governor-General had joined it at Duem, would have sufficed to
overcome him even if they had been ably led, and escaped all the un-
toward circumstances that first retarded their progress and then sealed
their fate. The plan of campaign was based on a misconception of the
Mahdi's power, and was carried out with utter disregard of prudence and
of the local difficulties to be encountered between the Nile and El Obeid.
But the radical fault of the whole enterprise was a strategical one. The
situation made it prudent and even necessary for the Government to
stand on the defensive, and to abstain from military expeditions, while
the course pursued was to undertake oflensive measures in the manner
most calculated to favour the chances of the Mahdi, and to attack
him at the very point where his superiority could be most certainly

But quite apart from any original error as to the inception of the
campaign, which may fairly be deemed a matter of opinion, there can
be no difference between any two persons who have studied the facts
that the execution of it was completely mismanaged. In the first place
the start of the expedition was delayed, so that the Mahdi got ample
warning of the coming attack. The troops were all in the camp at
Omdurman in June, but they did not reach Duem till September, and
a further delay of two months occurred there before they began their
march towards El Obeid. That interval was chiefly taken up with
disputes between Hicks and his Egyptian colleagues, and it is even
believed that there was much friction between Hicks and his European

The first radical error committed was the decision to advance
on El Obeid from Duem, because there were no wells on that route,
whereas had the northern route via Gebra and Bara been taken, a

268 The Life of Gordon.

certain supply of water could have been counted on, and still more
important, the co-operation of the powerful Kabbabish tribe, the only
one still hostile to the Mahdi, might have been secured. The second
important error was not less fatal. When the force marched it was
accompanied by 6000 camels and a large number of women. Encum-
bered in its movements by these useless impedimenta, the force never
had any prospect of success with its active enemy. As it slowly
advanced from the Nile it became with each day's march more hope-
lessly involved in its own difficulties, and the astute Mahdi expressly
forbade any premature attack to be made upon an army which he
clearly saw was marching to its doom.

On the ist November 1883, when the Egyptians were already
disheartened by the want of water, the non-arrival of reinforcements
from the garrisons near the Equator, which the Governor-General had
rashly promised to bring up, and the exhausting nature of their
march through a difficult country, the Mahdi's forces began their
attack. Concealed in the high grass, they were able to pour in a heavy
fire on the conspicuous body of the Egyptians at short range without
exposing themselves. But notwithstanding his heavy losses, Hicks
pressed on, because he knew that his only chance of safety lay in
getting out of the dense cover in which he was at such a hopeless
disadvantage. But this the IMahdi would never permit, and on 4th
November, when Hicks had reached a place called Shekan, he gave the
order to his impatient followers to go in and finish the work they had
so well begun. The Egyptian soldiers seem to have been butchered
without resistance. The Europeans and the Turkish cavalry fought
well for a short time, but in a few minutes they were overpowered by
superior numbers. Of the whole force of 10,000 men, only a few
individuals escaped by some special stroke of fortune, for nearly the
whole of the 300 prisoners taken w'ere subsequently executed. Such
was the complete and appalling character of the destruction of Hicks's
army, which seemed to shatter at a single blow the whole fabric of the
Khedive's power in the Soudan, and rivetted the attention of Europe on
that particular quarter of the Dark Continent.

The consequences of that decisive success, which became known in
London three weeks after it happened, were immediate throughout the
region wherein it occurred. Many Egyptian garrisons, which had
been holding out in the hope of succour through the force that
Hicks Pasha was bringing from Khartoum, abandoned hope after its
destruction at Shekan, and thought only of coming to terms with the
conqueror. Among these was the force at Dara in Darfour under
the command of Slatin Pasha. That able officer had held the place

Tlie Last Nile Mission. 269

for months under the greatest difficulty, and had even obtained some
shght successes in the field, but the fate of the Hicks expedition
convinced him that the situation was hopeless, and that his duty to
the brave troops under him required the acceptance of the honourable
terms which his tact and reputation enabled him to secure at the
hands of the conqueror. Slatin surrendered on 23rd December 1883;
Lupton Bey, commander in the Bahr Gazelle, about the same time,
and these successes were enhanced and extended by those achieved
by Osman Digma in the Eastern Soudan, where, early in February 1884,
while Gordon was on his way to Khartoum, that leader inflicted
on Baker Pasha at Tokar a defeat scarcely less crushing than that of

By New Year's Day, 1S84, therefore, the power of the Mahdi was
triumphantly established over the whole extent of the Soudan, from
the Equator to Souakim, with the exception of Khartoum and the
middle course of the Nile from that place to Dongola. There were
also some outlying garrisons, such as that at Kassala, but the principal
Egyptian force remaining was the body of 4000 so-called troops, the
less efficient part, we may be sure, of those available, left behind at
Khartoum, under Colonel de Coetlogon, by Hicks Pasha, when he set
out on his unfortunate expedition. If the power of the Mahdi at this
moment were merely to be measured by comparison with the collapse
of authority, courage, and confidence of the titular upholders of the
Khedive's Government, it might be pronounced formidable. It had
sufficed to defeat every hostile effort made against it, and to practically
annihilate all the armies that Egypt could bring into the field. Its
extraordinary success was no doubt due to the incompetency, over-
confidence, and deficient mihtary spirit and knowledge of the Khedive's
commanders and troops. But, while making the fullest admission on
these points, it cannot be disputed that some of the elements in the
Mahdi's power would have made it formidable, even if the cause of
the Government had been more worthily and efficiently sustained.
There is no doubt that, in the first place, he appealed to races which
thought they were overtaxed, and to classes whose only tangible
property had been assailed and diminished by the Anti-Slavery policy
of the Government. Even if it would be going too far to say that
Mahomed Ahmed, the long-looked-for Mahdi, was only a tool in the
hands of secret conspirators pledged to avenge Suleiman, to restore
Zebehr, and to bring back the good old times, when a fortune lay in the
easy acquisition of human ivory, there is no doubt that the backbone
of his power was provided by those followers of Suleiman, whom
Gordon had broken up at Shaka and driven from Dara. But the

270 The Life of Gordon.

Mahdi had supplied them in reHgious fanaticism with a more powerful
incentive than pecuniary gain, and when he showed them how easily
they might triumph over their opponents, he inspired them with a
confidence which has not yet lost its efficacy.

In 1884 all these inducements for the tribes of the Soudan to
believe in their religious leader were in their pristine strength. He had
succeeded in every thing he undertook, he had armed his countless
warriors with the weapons taken from the armies he had destroyed,
and he had placed at the disposal of his supporters an immense and
easily-acquired spoil. The later experiences of the Mahdists were to
be neither so pleasant nor so profitable, but at the end of 1883 they
were at the height of their confidence and power. It was at such a
moment and against such a powerful adversary that the fJritish Govern-
ment thought it right to take advantage of the devotion and gallantry
of a single man, to send him alone to grapple with a difficulty which
several armies had, by their own failure and destruction, rendered more
grave, at the same time that they established the formidable nature of the
rebellion in the Soudan as an unimpeachable fact instead of a disput-
able opinion. I do not think his own countrymen have yet quite
appreciated the extraordinary heroism and devotion to his country which
Gordon showed when he rushed off single-handed to oppose the ever-
victorious Mahdi at the very zenith of his power.

In unrolling the scroll of events connected with an intricate history,
it next becomes necessary to explain why Gordon voluntarily, and it
may even be admitted, enthusiastically, undertook a mission that, to any
man in his senses, must have seemed at the moment at which it was
undertaken little short of insanity. Whatever else may be said against

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 31 of 40)