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

. (page 37 of 40)
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 37 of 40)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

protected on the land side by a wall, in front of which was the triple
line of mines, and on the water side by the river and the steamers. On
the right bank of the Blue Nile was the small North Fort. Between the
two stretched the island of Tuti, and at each end of the wall, on the
White Nile as well as the Blue, Gordon had stationed a saiital or heavy-
armed barge, carrying a gun. Unfortunately, a large part of the western
end of the Khartoum wall had been washed away by an inundation of
the Nile, but the mines supplied a substitute, and so long as Omdur-
man Fort was held this weakness in the defences of Khartoum did not
greatly signify. That fort itself lay on the left bank of the White Nile.

312 The Life of Gordon.

It was well built and fairly strong, but the position was fault}'. It lay
in a hollow, and the trench of the extensive camp formed for Hicks's
force furnished the enemy with cover. It was also 1200 yards from the
river bank, and when the enemy became more enterprising it was im-
possible to keep up communication with it. In Omdurman Fort was a
specially selected garrison of 240 men, commanded by a gallant black
officer, Ferratch or Faragalla Pasha, who had been raised from a
subordinate capacity to the principal command under liim by Gordon.
Gordon's point of observation was the flat roof of the Palace, whence he
could see everything with his telescope, and where he placed his best
shots to bear on any point that might seem hard pressed. Still more
useful was it for the purpose of detecting the remissness of his own troops
and officers, and often his telescope showed him sentries asleep at their
posts, and officers absent from the points they were supposed to guard.
From the end of March until the close of the siege scarcely a day
passed without the exchange of artillery and rifle fire on one side or
the other of the beleaguered town. On special occasions the Khedive's
garrison would fire as many as forty or even fifty thousand rounds of
Remington cartridges, and the Arab fire was sometimes heavier. This
incessant fire, as the heroic defender wrote in his journal, murdered
sleep, and at last he became so accustomed to it that he could tell by
the sound where the firing was taking place. The most distant points
of the defence, such as the sanfal on the White Nile and Fort Om-
durman, were two miles from the Palace ; and although telegraphic
communication existed with them during the greater part of the siege,
the oral evidence as to the point of attack was often found the most
rapid means of obtaining information. This was still more advantageous
after the 12th of November, for on that day communications were cut
between Khartoum and Omdurman, and it was found impossible to
restore them. The only communications possible after that date were
by bugle and flag. At the time of this severance Gordon estimated
that the garrison of Omdurman had enough water and biscuit for six
weeks, and that there were 250,000 cartridges in the arsenal. Gordon
did everything in his power to aid Ferratch in the defence, and his
remaining steamer, the Ismai'lia, after the grounding of the Husseinyeh
on the very day Omdurman was cut off, was engaged in almost daily
encounters with the Mahdists for that purpose. Owing to Gordon's
incessant efforts, and the gallantry of the garrison led by Ferratch,
Omdurman held out more than two months. It was not until 15th
January that Ferratch, with Gordon's leave, surrendered, and then when
the Mahdists occupied the place, General Gordon had the satisfaction
of shelling them out of it, and showing that it was untenable.

Kha7'to7im. 3 1 3

The severance of Omdurman from Khartoum was the prchide to
fiercer fighting than had taken place at any time during the earHer stages
of the siege, and although particulars are not obtainable for the last
month of the period, there is no doubt that the struggle was incessant,
and that the fighting was renewed from day to day. It was then that
Gordon missed the ships lying idle at Shendy. If he had had them
Omdurman would not have fallen, nor would it have been so easy for
the Mahdi to transport the bulk of his force from the left to the right
bank of the White Nile, as he did for the final assault on the fatal
26th January.

At the end of October the Mahdi, accompanied by a far more
numerous force than Gordon thought he could raise, described by Slatin
as countless, pitched his camp a few miles south of Omdurman. On
8th November his arrival was celebrated by a direct attack on the lines
south of Khartoum. The rebels in their fear of the hidden mines, which
was far greater than it need have been, as it was found they had been
buried too deep, resorted to the artifice of driving forward cows, and by
throwing rockets among them Gordon had the satisfaction of spreading
confusion in their ranks, repulsing the attack, and capturing twenty
of the animals. Four days later the rebels made the desperate attack
on Omdurman, when, as stated, communications were cut, and the
Husseinyeh ran aground. In attempting to carry her off and to check
the further progress of the rebels the Ismailia was badly hit, and the
incident was one of those only too frequent at all stages of the siege,
when Gordon wrote : " Every time I hear the gun fire I have a twitch of
the heart of gnawing anxiety for my penny steamers." At the very
moment that these fights were in progress he wrote, loth November :
" To-day is the day I expected we should have had some one of the
Expedition here ; " and he also recorded that we " have enough biscuit
for a month or so " — meaning at the outside six weeks. Thoughout the
whole of November rumours of a coming British Expedition were pre-
valent, but they were of the vaguest and most contradictory character.
On 25th November Gordon learnt that it was still at Ambukol, 185
miles further away from Khartoum than he had expected, and his only
comment under this acute disappointment was, "This is lively ! "

Up to the arrival of the Mahdi daily desertions of his Arab and
other soldiers to Gordon took place, and by these and levies among the
townspeople all gaps in the garrison were more than filled up. Such
was the confidence in Gordon that it more than neutralised all the in-
trigues of the Mahdi's agents in the besieged town, and scarcely a man
during the first seven months of the siege deserted him ; but after the
arrival of the Mahdi there was a complete change in this respect. In

314 The Life of Gordon.


the first place there were no more desertions to Gordon, and then men
began to leave him, partly, no doubt, from fear of the IMahdi, or awak-
ened fanaticism, but chiefly through the non -arrival of the British
Expedition, which had been so much talked about, yet which never
came. Still to all the enemy's invitations to surrender on the most
honourable terms Gordon gave defiant answers. "I am here like iron,
and I hope to see the newly-arrived English ;" and when the situation
had become little short of desperate, at the end of the year, he still,
with bitter agony at his heart, proudly rejected all overtures, and sent
the haughty message : " Can hold Khartoum for twelve years." Un-
fortunately the Mahdi knew better. He had read the truth in all the
papers captured on Stewart's steamer, and he knew that Gordon's
resources were nearly spent. Even some of the messages Gordon
sent out by spies for Lord Wolseley's information fell into his hands,
and on one of these Slatin says it was written : " Can hold Khartoum at
the outside till the end of January." Although Gordon may be con-
sidered to have more than held his own against all the power of the
Mahdi down to the capture of Omdurman Fort on 15th January, the
Mahdi knew that his straits must be desperate, and that unless the
expedition arrived he could not hold out much longer. The first
advance of the English troops on 3rd January across the desert towards
the Nile probably warned the enemy that now was the time to renew
the attack with greater vigour, but it does not seem that there is any
justification for the entirely hypothetical view that at any point the
Mahdi could have seized the unhappy town. Omdurman P"ort itself
fell, not to the desperate onset of his Ghazis, but from the want of food
and ammunition, and with Gordon's expressed permission to the com-
mandant to surrender. Unfortunately the details of the most tragic
part of the siege are missing, but Gordon himself well summed up
what he had done up to the end of October when his position was
secure, and aid, as he thought, was close at hand : —

"The news of Hicks's defeat was known in Cairo three weeks after the
ev'ent occurred ; since that date up to this (29th October 1884) nine people
have come up as reinforcements — myself, Stewart, Herbin, Hussein, Tongi,
Ruckdi, and three servants, and not one penny of money. Of those who
came up two, Stewart and Herbin, have gone down, Hussein is dead ; so six
alone remain, while we must have sent down over 1 500 and 700 soldiers, total
2200, including the two Pashas, Coetlogon, etc. The regulars, who were in
arrears of pay for three months when I came, are now only owed half a
month, while the Bashi-Bazouks are owed only a quarter month, and we
have some ^500 in the Treasury. It is quite a miracle. We have lost two
battles, suftering severe losses in these actions of men and arms, and may
have said to have scrambled through, for I cannot say we can lay claim to
any great success during the whole time. 1 believe we have more ammuni-

Khartoum. 315

tion (Remington) and more soldiers now than -when I came up. We have
^40,000 in Treasury in paper and ^^500. When 1 came up there was ;^5ooo
in Treasury. We have ;i^i 5,000 out in the town in paper money."

At the point (14th December) when the authentic history of the
protracted siege and gallant defence of Khartoum stops, a pause may
be made to turn back and describe what the Government and country
which sent General Gordon on his most perilous mission, and made use
of his extraordinary devotion to the call of duty to extricate themselves
from a responsibility they had not the courage to face, had been doing
not merely to support their envoy, but to vindicate their own honour.
The several messages which General Gordon had succeeded in getting
through had shown how necessary some reinforcement and support were
at the very commencement of the siege. The lapse of time, rendered
the more expressive by the long period of silence that fell over what
was taking place in the besieged town, showed, beyond need of demon-
stration, the gravity of the case and the desperate nature of the situation.
But a very little of the knowledge at the command of the Government
from a number of competent sources would have enabled it to foresee
what was certain to happen, and to have provided some remedy for the
peril long before the following despairing message from Gordon showed
that the hour when any aid would be useful had almost expired. This
was the passage, dated 13th December, in the last (sixth) volume of the
Journal, but the substance of which reached Lord Wolseley by one of
Gordon's messengers at Korti on 31st December: —

" We are going to send down the Bordeen the day after to-morrow,
and with her I shall send this Journal. If some effort is not made before
ten days^ time the town will fall. It is inexplicable this delay. If the
Expeditionary forces have reached the river and met my steamers, one
hundred men are all that we require just to show themselves. . . .
Even if the town falls under the nose of the Expeditionary forces it will
not in my opinion justify the abandonment of Senaar and Kassala, or of
the Equatorial Province by H.M.'s Government. All that is absolutely
necessary is for fifty of the Expeditionary force to get on board a
steamer and come up to Halfiyeh, and thus let their presence be felt.
This is not asking much, but it must happen at once, or it will (as usual)
be too late."

The motives which induced Mr Gladstone's Government to send
General Gordon to the Soudan in January 1S84 were, as has been
clearly shown, the selfish desire to appease public opinion, and to shirk
in the easiest possible manner a great responsibility. They had no
policy at all, but they had one supreme wish, viz. to cut off the Soudan
from Egypt ; and if the Mahdi had only known their wishes and pressed


1 6 The Life of Gordon.

on, and treated the Khartoum force as he had treated that under Hicks,
there would liave been no garrisons to rescue, and that British Govern-
ment would have done nothing. It recked nothing of the grave dangers
that would have accrued from the complete triumph of the Mahdi, or of
the outbreak that must have followed in Lower Egypt if his tide of
success had not been checked as it was single-handed by General
Gordon, through the twelve months' defence of Khartoum. Still it
could not quite stoop to the dishonour of abandoning these garrisons,
and of making itself an accomplice to the Mahdi's butcheries, nor
could it altogether turn a deaf ear to the representations and remon-
strances of even such a puppet prince as the Khedive Tewfik. England
was then far more mistress of the situation at Cairo than she is now,
but a helpless refusal to discharge her duty might have provoked Europe
into action at the Porte that would have proved inconvenient and
damaging to her position and reputation. Therefore the Government
fell back on General Gordon, and the hope was even indulged that,
under his exceptional reputation, the evacuation of the Soudan might
not only be successfully carried out, but that his success might induce
the public and the world to accept that abnegation of policy as the
acme of wisdom. In all this they were destined to a complete awaken-
ing, and the only matter of surprise is that they should have sent so well-
known a character as General Gordon, whose independence and con-
tempt for ofhcial etiquette and restraint were no secrets at the Foreign
and War Offices, on a mission in which they required him not only
to be as indifferent to the national honour as they were, but also to be
tied and restrained by the shifts and requirements of an embarrassed

At a very early stage of the mission the Government obtained
evidence that Gordon's views on the subject were widely different from
theirs. They had evidently persuaded themselves that their policy was
Gordon's policy ; and before he was in Khartoum a week he not merely
points out that the evacuation policy is not his but theirs, and that
although he thinks its execution is still possible, the true policy is, "if
Egypt is to be quiet, that the IMahdi must be smashed up." The hopes
that had been based on Gordon's supposed complaisance in the post of
representative on the Nile of the Government policy were thus dis-
pelled, and it became evident that Gordon, instead of being a tool, was
resolved to be master^ so far as the mode of carrying out the evacuation
policy with full regard for the dictates of honour was to be decided.
Nor was this all, or the worst of the revelations made to the Government
in the first few weeks after his arrival at Khartoum. While expressing
his willingness and intention to discharge the chief part of his task, viz.

Khartoinn. 3 1 7

the withdrawal of the garrisons, which was all the Government cared
about, he also descanted on the moral duty and the inevitable necessity
of setting up a provisional government that should avert anarchy
and impose some barrier to the INIahdi's progress. All this was trying
to those who only wished to be rid of the whole matter, but Gordon
did not spare their feelings, and phrase by phrase he revealed what his
own policy would be and what his inner wishes, however repressed his
charge might keep them, really were.

Having told them that " the Madhi must be smashed up," he went
on to say that " we cannot hurry over this affair " (the future of the
Soudan) "if we do we shall incur disaster," and again that, although "it
is a miserable country it is joined to Egypt, and it would be difficult to
divorce the two." Within a very few weeks, therefore, the Government
learnt that its own agent was the most forcible and damaging critic of
the policy of evacuation, and that the worries of the Soudan question
for an administration not resolute enough to solve the difficulty in a
thorough manner were increased and not diminished by Gordon's
mission. At that point the proposition was made and supported by
several members of the Cabinet that Gordon should be recalled.
There is no doubt that this step would have been taken but for the
fear that it would aggravate the difficulties of the English expedition
sent to Souakim under the command of General Gerald Graham to
retrieve the defeat of Baker Pasha. Failing the adoption of that
extreme measure, which would at least have been straightforward and
honest, and ignoring what candour seemed to demand if a decision had
been come to to render Gordon no support, and to bid him shift for
himself, the Government resorted to the third and least justifiable course
of all, viz. of showing indifference to the legitimate requests of
their emissary, and of putting off defmite action until the very last

We have seen that Gordon made several specific demands in the
first six weeks of his stay at Khartoum — that is, in the short period before
communication was cut off. He wanted Zebehr, 200 troops at Berber,
or even at Wady Haifa, and the opening of the route from Souakim to
the Nile. To these requests not one favourable answer was given,
and the not wholly unnatural rejection of the first rendered it more
than ever necessary to comply with the others. They were such
as ought to have been granted, and in anticipation they had been
suggested and discussed before Gordon felt bound to urge them as
necessary for the security of his position at Khartoum. Even Sir
Evelyn Baring had recommended in February the despatch of
200 men to Assouan for the moral effect, and that was the very


iS The Life of Gordon.

reason why Gordon asked, in the first place, for the despatch of a
small British force to at least Wady Haifa. It is possible that one
of the chief reasons for the Government rejecting all these suggestions,
and also, it must be remembered, doing nothing in their place
towards the relief and support of their representative, may have been
the hope that this treatment would have led him to resign and
throw up his mission. They would then have been able to declare
that, as the task was beyond the powers of General Gordon, they were
only coming to the prudent and logical conclusion in saying that nothing
could be done, and that the garrisons had better come to terms with
the Mahdi. Unfortunately for those who favoured the evasion of trouble
as the easiest and best way out of the difficulty, Gordon had high
notions as to what duty required. No difficulty had terrors for him,
and while left at the post of power and responsibility he would
endeavour to show himself equal to the charge.

Yet there can be no doubt that those who sent him would have
rejoiced if he had formally asked to be relieved of the task he had
accepted, and Mr Gladstone stated on the 3rd April that "Gordon
was under no orders and no restraint to stay at Khartoum." A
significant answer to the fact represented in that statement was
supplied, when, ten days later, silence fell on Khartoum, and remained
unbroken for more than five months. But at the very moment that
the Prime Minister made that statement as to Gordon's liberty of
movement, the Government knew of the candid vieAvs which he had
expressed as to the proper policy for the Soudan. It should have
been apparent that, unless they and their author were promptly
repudiated, and unless the latter was stripped of his official auth-
ority, the Government would, however tardily and reluctantly, be
drawn after its representative into a policy of intervention in the
Soudan, which it, above everything else, wished to avoid. Gordon
concealed nothing. He told them " time," " reinforcements," and a
very considerable expenditure was necessary to honourably carry out
their policy of evacuation. They were not prepared to concede any of
these save the last, and even the money they sent him was lost because
they would send it by Berber instead of Kassala. But they knew
that "the order and restraint" which kept Gordon at Khartoum was
the duty he had contracted towards them when he accepted his
mission, and which was binding on a man of his principles until
they chose to relieve him of the task. The fear of public opinion had
more to do with their abstaining from the step of ordering his recall
than the hope that his splendid energy and administrative power
might yet provide some satisfactory issue from the dilemma, for at

Khartoum. 3 1 9

the very beginning it was freely given out that " General Gordon
was exceeding his instructions."

The interruption of communications with Khartoum at least
suspended Gordon's constant representations as to what he thought
the right poHcy, as well as his demands for the fulfilment by the
Government of their side of the contract. It was then that Lord
Granville seemed to pluck up heart of grace, and to challenge Gordon's
right to remain at Khartoum. On 23rd April Lord Granville asked
for explanation of "cause of detention." Unfortunately it was not
till months later that the country knew of Gordon's terse and humorous
reply, "cause of detention, these horribly plucky Arabs." Lord
Granville, thinking this despatch not clear enough, followed it up on
17th May by instructing Mr Egerton, then acting for Sir Evelyn
Baring, to send the following remonstrance to Gordon :

" As the original plan for the evacuation of the Soudan has been dropped,
and as aggressive operations cannot be undertaken with the countenance of
H.M.'s Government, General Gordon is enjoined to consider, and either to
report upon, or, if possible, to adopt at the first proper moment measures for
his own removal and for that of the Egyptians at Khartoum who have suffered
for him, or who have served him faithfully, including their wives and children,
by whatever route he may consider best, having especial regard to his own
safety and that of the other British subjects."

Then followed suggestions and authority to pay so much a head
for refugees safely escorted to Korosko. The comment Gordon made
on that, and similar despatches, to save himself and any part of
the garrison he could, was that he was not so mean as to desert those
who had nobly stood by him and committed themselves on the
strength of his word.

It is impossible to go behind the collective responsibility of the
Government and to attempt to fix any special responsibility or blame
on any individual member of that Government. The facts as I read
them show plainly that there was a complete abnegation of policy or
purpose on the part of the British Government, that Gordon was then
sent as a sort of stop-gap, and that when it was revealed that he had
strong views and clear plans, not at all in harmony with those who
sent him, it was thought, by the Ministers who had not the courage to
recall him, very inconsiderate and insubordinate of him to remain at
his post and to refuse all the hints given him, that he ought to resign
unless he would execute a sauve qui pent sort of retreat to the frontier.
Very harsh things have been said of Mr Gladstone and his Cabinet
on this point, but considering their views and declarations, it is
not so very surprising that Gordon's boldness and originality alarmed
and displeased them. Their radical fault in these early stages of the


20 The Life of Gordon.

question was not that they were indifferent to Gordon's demands, but
that they had absolutely no policy. They could not even come to
the decision, as Gordon wrote, "to abandon altogether and not care
what happens."

But all these minor points were merged in a great common national
anxiety when month after month passed during the spring and summer
of 1884, and not a single word issued from the tomb-like silence of
Khartoum. People might argue that the worst could not have hap-
pened, as the Mahdi would have been only too anxious to proclaim
his triumph far and wide if Khartoum had fallen. Anxiety may be
diminished, but is not banished, by a calculation of probabilities, and
the military spirit and capacity exhibited by the Mahdi's forces under
Osman Digma in the fighting with General Graham's well-equipped
British force at Teb and Tamanieb revealed the greatness of the peril

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 37 of 40)