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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in an important despatch, dated 2Sth February, that the British Govern-
ment should withdraw altogether from the matter, and "give full
liberty of action to General Gordon and the Khedive's Government
to do what seems best to them."

Well would it have been for Gordon and everyone whose reputation
was concerned if this step had been taken, for the Egyptian Govern-
ment, the Khedive, his ministers Nubar and Cherif, were opposed to
all surrender, and desired to hold on to Khartoum and the Souakim-
Berber route. But without the courage and resolution to discharge it,
the Government saw the obligation that lay on them to provide for the
security and good government of Egypt, and that if they shirked
responsibility in the Soudan, the independence of Egypt might be
accomplished by its own effort and success. They perceived the
objections to giving Egypt a free hand, but they none the less abstained
from taking the other course of definite and decisive action on their
own initiative. As Gordon quickly saw and tersely expressed: "You
will not let Egypt keep the Soudan, you will not take it yourself, and
you will not permit any other country to occupy it."

As if to give emphasis to General Gordon's successive requests —
Zebehr, 200 men to Wady Haifa, opening of route from Souakim to
Berber, presence of English officers at Dongola, and of Indian cavalry
at Berber — telegraphic communication with Khartoum was interrupted
early in March, less than a fortnight after Gordon's arrival in the town.
There was consequently no possible excuse for anyone ignoring the
dangerous position in which General Gordon was placed. He had
gone to face incalculable dangers, but now the success of Osman
Digma and the rising of the riparian tribes threatened him with that
complete isolation which no one had quite expected at so early a stage
after his arrival. It ought, and one would have expected it, to have
produced an instantaneous effect, to have braced the Government to
the task of deciding what its policy should be when challenged by its
own representative to declare it. Gordon himself soon realised his
own position, for he wrote : " I shall be caught in Khartoum ; and even
if I was mean enough to escape I have not the power to do so." After
a month's interruption he succeeded in getting the following message,
dated 8th April, through, which is significant as showing that he had
abandoned all hope of being supported by his own Government : —

" I have telegraphed to Sir Samuel Baker to make an appeal to
British and American millionaires to give me ;^3oo,ooo to engage
3000 Turkish troops from the Sultan and send them here. This
would settle the Soudan and Mahdi for ever. For my part, I think

304 The Life of Gordon.

you (Baring) will agree with me. I do not see the fun of being
caught here to walk about the streets for years as a dervish with
sandalled feet. Not that (Z>. V.) I will ever be taken alive. It would
be the climax of meanness after I had borrowed money from the
people here, had called on them to sell their grain at a low price, etc.,
to go and abandon them without using every effort to relieve them,
whether those efforts are diplomatically correct or not ; and I feel sure,
whatever you may feel diplomatically, I have your support, and that
of every man professing himself a gentleman, in private."

Eight days later he succeeded in getting another message through,
to the following effect : —

" As far as I can understand, the situation is this. You state your
intention of not sending any relief up here or to Berber, and you
refuse me Zebehr. I consider myself free to act according to circum-
stances. I shall hold on here as long as I can, and if I can suppress the
rebellion I shall do so. If I cannot, I shall retire to the Equator and
leave you the indelible disgrace of abandoning the garrisons of Senaar,
Kassala, Berber, and Dongola, with the certainty that you will eventually
be forced to smash up the Mahdi under greater difhculties if you wish
to maintain peace in, and, indeed, to retain Egypt."

Before a silence of five and a half months fell over Khartoum,
Gordon had been able to make three things clear, and of these only
one could be described as having a personal signification, and that was
that the Government, by rejecting all his propositions, had practically
abandoned him to his fate. The two others were that any settlement
would be a work of time, and that no permanent tranquillity could be
attained without overcoming the Mahdi.

Immediately on arriving at Khartoum he perceived that the evacua-
tion of the Soudan, with safety to the garrison and oiificials, as well as
the preservation of the honour of England and Egypt, would necessarily
be a work of time, and only feasible if certain measures were taken
in his support, which, considerable as they may have appeared at the
moment, were small and costless in comparison with those that had
subsequently to be sanctioned. Six weeks sufficed to show Gordon
that he would get no material help from the Government, and he then
began to look elsewhere for support, and to propound schemes for
pacifying the Soudan and crushing the jNIahdi in which England and
the Government would have had no part. Hence his proposal to
appeal to wealthy philanthropists to employ Turkish troops, and in
the last resort to force his way to the Equator and the Congo. Even
that avenue of safety was closed to him by the illusory prospect of

Kharto2im. 305

rescue held out to him by the Government at the eleventh hour, when
success was hardly attainable.

For the sake of clearness it will be well to give here a brief
summary of the siege during the six months that followed the arrival
of General Gordon and the departure of Colonel Stewart on loth
Septem.ber. The full and detailed narrative is contained in Colonel
Stewart's Journal, which was captured on board his steamer. This
interesting diary was taken to the Mahdi at Omdurman, and is said
to be carefully preserved in the Treasury. The statement rests on
no very sure foundation, but if true the work may yet thrill the
audience of the English-speaking world. But even without its aid
the main facts of the siege of Khartoum, down at all events to the
14th December, when Gordon's own diary stops, are sufficiently well
known for all the purposes of history.

At a very early stage of the siege General Gordon determined to
try the metal of his troops, and the experiment succeeded to such a
perfect extent that there was never any necessity to repeat it. On
16th March, when only irregular levies and detached bodies of tribes-
men were in the vicinity of Khartoum, he sent out a force of nearly
1000 men, chiefly Bashi-Bazouks, but also some regulars, with a field-
piece and supported by two steamers. The force started at eight in
the morning, under the command of Colonel Stewart, and landed at
Halfiyeh, some miles down the stream on the right bank of the Nile.
Here the rebels had established a sort of fortified position, which it
was desirable to destroy, if it could be done without too much loss.
The troops were accordingly drawn up for the attack, and the gun
and infantry fire commenced to cover the advance. At this moment
about sixty rebel horsemen came out from behind the stockade and
charged the Bashi-Bazouks, who fired one volley and fled. The horse-
men then charged the infantry drawn up in square, which they broke,
and the retreat to the river began at a run. Discouraging as this was
for a force of all arms to retire before a few horsemen one-twentieth
its number, the disaster was rendered worse and more disheartening
by the conduct of the men, who absolutely refused to fight, marching
along with shouldered arms without firing a shot, while the horsemen
picked off all who straggled from the column. The gun, a considerable
quantity of ammunition, and about sixty men represented the loss of
Gordon's force ; the rebels are not supposed to have lost a single man.
" Nothing could be more dismal than seeing these horsemen, and
some men even on camels, pursuing close to troops who with
shouldered arms plodded their way back." Thus wrote Gordon of
the men to whom he had to trust for a successful defence of Khartoum.



06 The Life of Gordon.

His most recent experience confirmed his old opinion, that the
Egyptian and Arab troops were useless even when fighting to save
their own lives, and he could only rely on the very small body left of
black Soudanese, who fought as gallantly for him as any trooops
could, and whose loyalty and devotion to him surpassed all praise.
Treachery, it was assumed, had something to do with the easy over-
throw of this force, and two Pashas were shot for misconduct on
return to Khartoum.

Having no confidence in the bulk of his force, it is not surprising
that Gordon resorted to every artifice within engineering science to
compensate for the shortcomings of his army. He surrounded Khar-
toum — which on one side was adequately defended by the Nile and his
steamers — on the remaining three sides with a triple line of land mines
connected by wires. Often during the siege the Mahdists attempted to
break through this ring, but only to meet with repulse, accompanied
by heavy loss ; and to the very last day of the siege they never
succeeded in getting behind the third of these lines. Their efficacy
roused Gordon's professional enthusiasm, and in one passage he
exclaims that these will be the general form of defence in the future.
During the first months of the siege, which began rather in the form
of a loose investment, the Nile was too low to allow of his using the
nine steamers he possessed, but he employed the time in making two
new ones, and in strengthening them all with bulwarks of iron plates
and soft wood, which were certainly bullet-proof. Each of these
steamers he valued as the equivalent of 2000 men. When it is seen
how he employed them the value will not be deemed excessive, and
certainly without them he could not have held Khartoum and baffled
all the assaults of the Mahdi for the greater part of a year.

After this experience Gordon would risk no more combats on land,
and on 25th March he dismissed 250 of the Bashi-Bazouks who had
behaved so badly. Absolutely trustworthy statistics are not available
as to the exact number of troops in Khartoum or as to the propor-
tion the Black Soudanese bore to the Egyptians, but it approximates
to the truth to say that there were about 1000 of the former to
3000 of the latter, and with other levies during the siege he doubled
this total. For these and a civilian population of nearly 40,000 Gordon
computed that he had provisions for five months from March, and that
for at least two months he would be as safe as in Cairo. By carefully
husbanding the corn and biscuit he was able to make the supply last
much longer, and even to the very end he succeeded in partially
replenishing the depleted granaries of the town. There is no necessity
to repeat the details of the siege during the summer of 1884. They

Khartoiim. 307

are made up of almost daily interchanges of artillery fire from the town,
and of rifle fire in reply from the Arab lines. That this was not merely
child's play may be gathered from two of Gordon's protected ships
showing nearly a thousand bullet-marks apiece. "Whenever the rebels
attempted to force their way through the lines they were repulsed by
the mines ; and the steamers not only inflicted loss on their fighting
men, but often succeeded in picking up useful supplies of food and
grain. No further reverses were reported, because Gordon was most
careful to avoid all risk, and the only misfortunes occurred in Gordon's
rear, when first Berber, through the treachery of the Greek Cuzzi, and
then Shendy passed into the hands of the Mahdists, thus, as Gordon
said, "completely hemming him in." In April a detached force up the
Blue Nile went over to the Mahdi, taking with them a small steamer,
but this loss was of no great importance, as the men were of what
Gordon called " the Arabi hen or hero type," and the steamer could
not force its way past Khartoum and its powerful flotilla. In the
four months from i6th March to 30th July Gordon stated that the total
loss of the garrison was only thirty killed and fifty or sixty wounded,
while half a million cartridges had been fired against the enemy. The
conduct of both the people and garrison had been excellent, and this
was the more creditable, because Gordon was obliged from the very
beginning, owing to the capture of the bullion sent him at Berber, to
make all payments in paper money bearing his signature and seal.
During that period the total reinforcement to the garrison numbered
seven men, including Gordon himself, while over 2600 persons had been
sent out of it in safety as far as Berber.

The reader will be interested in the following extracts from a letter
written by Colonel Duncan, R.A., M.P., showing the remarkable way in
which General Gordon organised the despatch of these refugees from
Khartoum. The letter is dated 29th November 1886, and addressed to
Miss Gordon : —

" When your brother, on reaching Khartoum, found that he could
commence sending refugees to Egypt, I was sent on the 3rd March
1884 to Assouan and Korosko to receive those whom he sent down. As
an instance of your brother's thoughtfulness, I may mention that he
requested that, if possible, some motherly European woman might also be
sent, as many of the refugees whom he had to send had never been out
of the Soudan before, and might feel strange on reaching Egypt. A
German, Giegler Pasha, who had been in Khartoum with your brother
before, and who had a German wife, was accordingly placed at my
disposal, and I stationed them at Korosko, where almost all the refugees
arrived. I may mention that 1 saw and spoke to every one of the

3o8 The Life of Gordon.


refugees who came down, and to many of the women and children.
Their references to your brother were invariably couched in language of
affection and gratitude, and the adjective most frequently applied to him
was 'just.' In sending away the people from Khartoum, he sent away
the Governor and some of the other leading Egyptian officials first. I
think he suspected they would intrigue ; he always had more confidence
in the people than in the ruling Turks or Egyptians. The oldest soldiers,
the very infirm, the wounded (from Hicks's battles) were sent next, and
a ghastly crew they were. But the precautions he took for their comfort
were very complete, and although immediately before reaching me they
had to cross a very bad part of the desert beween Abou Hamed and
Korosko, they reached me in wonderful spirits. It was touching to see
the perfect confidence they had that the promises of Gordon Pasha
would be fulfilled. After the fall of Khartoum, and your brother's
death, a good many of the Egyptian officers who had been with your
brother managed to escape, and to come down the river disguised in
many cases as beggars. I had an opportunity of talking to most of
them, and there was no collusion, for they arrived at different times and
by different roads. I remember having a talk with one, and when we
alluded to your brother's death he burst out crying like a child, and
said that thousrh he had lost his wives and children when Khartoum was
taken, he felt it as nothing to the loss of ' that just man.' "

The letters written at the end of July at Khartoum reached Cairo
at the end of September, and their substance was at once telegraphed to
England. They showed that, while his success had made him think
that after all there might be some satisfactory issue of the siege, he
foresaw that the real ordeal was yet to come. "In four months (that is
end of November) river begins to fall ; before that time you must settle
the Soudan question." So wrote the heroic defender of Khartoum in
words that could not be misunderstood, and those words were in the
hands of the British Ministers when half the period had expired. At
the same time Mr Power wrote : " \\^e can at best hold out but two
months longer." Gordon at least never doubted what their effect would
be, for after what seemed to him a reasonable time had elapsed to
enable this message to reach its destination, he took the necessary steps
to recover Berber, and to send his steamers half-way to meet and assist
the advance of the reinforcement on which he thought from the begin-
ning he might surely rely.

On loth September all his plans were completed, and Colonel
Stewart, accompanied by a strong force of Bashi-Bazouks and some
black soldiers, with Mr Power and M. Herbin, the French consul, sailed
northwards on five steamers. The first task of this expedition was if

Kharto7tm. 309

possible, to retake Berber, or, failing that, to escort the Abhas past the
point of greatest danger ; the second, to convey the most recent news
about Khartoum affairs to Lower Egypt ; and the third was to lend a
helping hand to any force that might be coming up the Nile or across
the desert from the Red Sea. Five days after its departure Gordon
knew through a spy that Stewart's flotilla had passed Shendy in safety,
and had captured a valuable Arab convoy. It was not till November
that the truth was known how the ships bombarded Berber, and passed
that place not only in safety, but after causing the rebels much loss and
greater alarm, and then how Stewart and his European companions
went on in the small steamer Abbas to bear the tale of the wonderful
defence of Khartoum to the outer world — a defence which, wonderful
as it was, really only reached the stage of the miraculous after they
had gone and had no further part in it. So far as Gordon's military
skill and prevision could arrange for their safety, he did so, and with
success. When the warships had to return he gave them the best
advice against treachery or ambuscade : — " Do not anchor near the
bank, do not collect wood at isolated spots, trust nobody." What
more could Gordon say? If they had paid strict heed to his advice,
there would have been no catastrophe at Dar Djumna. These reflec-
tions invest with much force Gordon's own view of the matter : — " If
Abbas was captured by treachery, then I am not to blame ; neither am I
to blame if she struck a rock, for she drew under two feet of water ; if
they were attacked and overpowered, then I am to blame " So perfect
were his arrangements that only treachery, aided by Stewart's over-
confidence, baffled them.

With regard to the wisdom of the course pursued in thus sending
away all his European colleagues — the Austrian consul Hensall alone
refusing to quit Gordon and his place of duty — opinions will differ to
the end of time, but one is almost inclined to say that they could not
have been of much service to Gordon once their uppermost thought
became to quit Khartoum. The whole story is told very graphically in
a passage of Gordon's own diary : —

" I determined to send the Abbas down with an Arab captain.
Herbin asked to be allowed to go. I jumped at his offer. Tb.en
Stewart said he would go if I would exonerate him from deserting me.
I said, ' You do not desert me. I cannot go ; but if you go- you do
great service.' I then wrote him an official ; he wanted me to write him
an order. I said ' No ; for, though I fear not responsibility, I will not
l)ut you in any danger in which I am not myself.' I wrote them a letter
couched thus : — ' Abbas is going down ; you say you are willing to go
in her if I think you can do so in honour. You can go in honour, for


lo The Life of Gordon.

you can do nothing here ; and if you go you do me service in tele-
graphing my views.' "

There are two points in this matter to which I must draw marked
attention. The suggestion for any European leaving Khartoum came
from M. Herbin, and when Gordon willingly acquiesced, Colonel
Stewart asked leave to do likewise. Mr Power, whose calculation was
that provisions would be exhausted before the end of September, then
followed suit, and not one of these three of the five Europeans in
Khartoum seem to have thought for a moment what would be the
position of Gordon left alone to cope with the danger from which they
ran away. The suggestion as to their going came in every case from
themselves. Gordon, in his thought for others, not merely threw no
obstacle in their way, but as far as he could provided for their safety as
if they were a parcel of women. But he declined all responsibility for
their fate, as they w^ent not by his order but of their own free-will. He
gave them his ships, soldiers, and best counsel. They neglected the last,
and were taken in in a manner that showed less than a child's suspicion,
and were massacred at the very moment they felt sure of safety. It was
a cruel fate, and a harsh Nemesis speedily befell them for doing perhaps
the one unworthy thing of their lives — leaving their solitary companion
to face the tenfold dangers by which he would be beset. But it cannot
be allowed any longer that the onus of this matter should rest in any way
on Gordon. They went because they wanted to go, and he, knowing
well that men with such thoughts would be of no use to him (" you can
do nothing here") let them go, and even encouraged them to do so.
Under the circumstances he preferred to be alone. Colonel Donald
Stewart was a personal friend of mine, and a man whose courage in the
ordinary sense of the word could not be aspersed, but there cannot be
two opinions that he above all the others should not have left his brother-
in-arms alone in Khartoum.

After their departure Gordon had to superintend everything himself,
and to resort to every means of husbanding the limited supply of provisions
he had left. He had also to anticipate a more vigorous attack, for the
Mahdi must quickly learn of the departure of the steamers, the bom-
bardment of Berber, and the favourable chance thus provided for the
capture of Khartoum. Nor was this the worst, for on the occurrence
of the disaster the Mahdi was promptly informed of the loss of the
Ahbas and the murder of the Europeans, and it was he himself who
sent in to Gordon the news of the catastrophe, with so complete
a list of the papers on the Abbas as left no ground for hope or
disbelief. Unfortunately, before this bad news reached Gordon, he had
again, on 30th September, sent down to Shendy three steamers — the

KJia7'tou7n. "^ i t


Ta!ata7veen, the Mansourah, and Sap/iia, with troops on board, and the
gallant Cassim-el-Mousse, there to await the arrival of the relieving
force. He somewhat later reinforced this squadron with the Bordeen ;
and although one or tvvo of these boats returned occasionally to Khar-
toum, the rest remained permanently at Shendy, and when the English
troops reached the Nile opposite that place all five were waiting them.
Without entering too closely into details, it is consequently correct to
say that during the most critical part of the siege Gordon deprived him-
self of the co-operation of these vessels, each of which he valued at 2000
men, simply and solely because he believed that reinforcements were close
at hand, and that some troops at the latest would arrive before the end of
November 1884. As Gordon himself repeatedly said, it would have
been far more just if the Government had told him in March, when he
first demanded reinforcements as a right, that he must shift for himself.
Then he would have kept these boats by him, and triumphantly fought
his way in them to the Equator. But his trust in the Government,
notwithstanding all his experience, led him to weaken his own position
in the hope of facilitating their movements, and he found their aid a
broken reed. In only one passage of his journal does Gordon give
expression to this view, although it was always present to his mind : —
" Truly the indecision of our Government has been, from a military
point of view, a very great bore, for we never could act as if indepen-
dent ; there was always the chance of their taking action, which
hampered us." But in the telegrams to Sir Evelyn Baring and Mr
Egerton, which the Government never dared to publish, and which are
still an ofificial secret, he laid great stress on this point, and on Sir
Evelyn Baring's message forbidding him to retire to the Equator, so
that, if he sought safety in that direction, he would be indictable on a
charge of desertion.

The various positions at Khartoum held by Gordon's force may be
briefly described. First, the town itself, on the left bank of the Blue
Nile, but stretching almost across to the right bank of the White Nile,

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 36 of 40)