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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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 38 of 40)
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with which Gordon had to deal at Khartoum where he had only the
inadequate and untrustworthy garrison described by Colonel de Coet-
logon. During the summer of 1884 there was therefore a growing fear,
not only that the worst news might come at any moment, but that in the
most favourable event any news would reveal the desperate situation to
which Gordon had been reduced, and with that conviction came the
thought, not whether he had exactly carried out what Ministers had
expected him to do, but solely of his extraordinary courage and devotion
to his country, which had led him to take up a thankless task without
the least regard for his comfort or advantage, and without counting the
odds. There was at least one Minister in the Cabinet who was struck
by that single-minded conduct; and as early as April, when his col-
leagues were askmg the formal question why Gordon did not leave
Khartoum, the Marquis of Hartington, then Minister of War, and now
Duke of Devonshire, began to inquire as to the steps necessary to rescue
the emissary, while still adhering to the policy of the Administration of
which he formed part. During the whole of that summer the present
Duke of Devonshire advocated the special claim of General Gordon on
the Government, whose mandate he had so readily accepted, and urged
the necessity of special measures being taken at the earliest moment to
save the gallant envoy from what seemed the too probable penalty of his
own temerity and devotion. But for his energetic and consistent re-
presentations the steps that were taken — all too late as they proved —
never would have been taken at all, or deferred to such a date as to let
the i)ublic see by the event that there was no use in throwing away money
and precious lives on a lost cause.

If the first place among those in power — for of my own and other
journalists' efforts in the Press to arouse public opinion and to urge the

Khartoum. 321

Government to timely action it is unnecessary to speak — is due to the
Duke of Devonshire, the second may reasonably be claimed by Lord
Wolseley. Th.s recognition is the more called for here, because the
most careful consideration of the facts has led me to the conclusion,
which I would gladly avoid the necessity of expressing if it were possible,
that Lord Wolseley was responsible for the failure of the relief expedition.
This stage of responsibility has not yet been reached, and it must be
duly set forth that on 24th July Lord Wolseley, then Adjutant-General,
wrote a noble letter, stating that, as he " did not wish to share the
responsibility of leaving Charley Gordon to his fate," he recommended
"immediate action, "and "the despatch of a small brigade of between three
and four thousand British soldiers to Dongola, so that they might reach
that place about 15th October." But even that date was later than it
ought to have been, especially when the necessity of getting the English
troops back as early in the New Year as possible was considered, and
in the subsequent recriminations that ensued, the blame for being late
from the start was sought to be thrown on the badness of the Nile flood
that year. General Gordon himself cruelly disposed of that theory or
excuse when he wrote, " It was not a bad Nile ; quite an average one.
You were too late, that was all." Still, Lord Wolseley must not be
robbed of the credit of having said on 24th July that an expedition was
necessary to save Gordon, " his old friend and Crimean comrade," to-
wards whom Wolseley himself had contracted a special moral obligation
for his prominent share in inducing him to accept the very mission that
had already proved so full of peril. In short, if the plain truth must be
told, Lord Wolseley was far more responsible for the despatch of General
Gordon to Khartoum than Mr Gladstone.

The result of the early representations of the Duke of Devonshire,
and the definite suggestion of Lord Wolseley, was that the Government
gave in when the public anxiety became so great at the continued
silence of Khartoum, and acquiesced in the despatch of an expedition to
relieve General Gordon. Having once made the concession, it must be
allowed that they showed no niggard spirit in sanctioning the expedition
and the proposals of the military authorities. The sum of ten millions
was devoted to the work of rescuing Gordon by the very persons who had
rejected his demands for the hundredth part of that total. Ten thousand
men selected from the elite of the British army were assigned to the task
for which he had begged two hundred men in vain. It is impossible
here to enter closely into the causes which led to the expansion of the
three or four thousand British infantry into a special corps often thousand
fighting men, picked from the crack regiments of the army, and composed
of every arm of the service compelled to fight under unaccustomed


32 2 The Life of Gordon.

conditions. The local authorities — in particular Major Kitchener, now
the Sirdar of the Egyptian army, who is slowly recovering from the Mahdi
the provinces which should never have been left in his possession — pro-
tested that the expedition should be a small one, and if their advice had
been taken the cost would have been about one-fourth that incurred, and
the force would have reached Khartoum by that nth November on
which Gordon expected to see the first man of it. But Major Kitchener,
although, as Gordon wrote, " one of the few really first-class officers in
the British army," was only an individual, and his word did not possess
a feather's weight before the influence of the Pall Mall band of warriors
who have farmed out our little wars — India, of course, excepted — of
the last thirty years for their own glorification. So great a chance of
fame as " the rescue of Gordon " was not to be left to some unknown
brigadiers, or to the few line regiments, the proximity of whose stations
entitled them to the task. That would be neglecting the favours of
Providence. For so noble a task the control of the most experienced
commander in the British army would alone suffice, and when he took
the field his staff had to be on the extensive scale that suited his
dignity and position. As there would be some reasonable excuse
for the dispensation of orders and crosses from a campaign against a
religious leader who had not yet known defeat, any friend might justly
complain if he was left behind. To justify so brilliant a staff, no ordinary
British force would suffice. Therefore our household brigade, our heavy
cavalry, and our light cavalry were requisitioned for their best men,
and these splendid troops were drafted and amalgamated into special
corps — heavy and light camelry — for work that would have been done
far better and more efficiently by two regiments of Bengal Lancers. If
all this effort and expenditure had resulted in success, it would be possible
to keep silent and shrug one's shoulders ; but when the mode of under-
taking this expedition can be clearly shown to have been the direct
cause of its failure, silence would be a crime. When Lord Wolseley
told the soldiers at Korti on their return from Metemmah, " It was not
jw/r fault that Gordon has perished and Khartoum fallen," the positive-
ness of his assurance may have been derived from the inner conviction
of his own stupendous error.

The expedition was finally sanctioned in August, and the news of
its coming was known to General Gordon in September, before, indeed,
his own despatches of 31st July were received in London, and broke the
suspense of nearly half a year. He thought that only a small force was
coming, under the command of Major-General Earle, and he at once, as
already described, sent his steamers back to Shendy, there to await the
troops and convey them to Khartoum. He seems to have calculated that

KhaTtotim. 323

three months from the date of the message informing him of the expedi-
tion would suffice for the conveyance of the troops as far as Berber or
Metemmah, and at that rate General Earle would have arrived where
his steamers awaited him early in November. Gordon's views as to the
object of the expedition, which somebody called the Gordon Relief
Expedition, were thus clearly expressed : —

" I altog-ether decline the imputation that the projected expedition has
■come to relieve me. It has come to save our National honour in extricating
the garrisons, etc., from a position in which our action in Egypt has placed
these garrisons. I was Relief Expedition No. I ; they are Relief Expedition
No. 2. As for myself, I could make good my retreat at any moment, if I
•wished. Now realise what would happen if this first relief e.xpedition was to
bolt, and the steamers fell into the hands of the Mahdi. This second relief
-expedition (for the honour of England engaged in extricating garrisons)
would be somewhat hampered. We, the first and second expeditions, are
■equally engaged for the honour of England. This is fair logic. I came up
to extricate the garrison, and failed. Earle comes up to extricate garrisons,
and I hope succeeds. Earle does not come to extricate me. The extrication
of the garrisons was supposed to affect our " National honour." If Earle
succeeds, the " National honour " thanks him, and I hope recommends him,
but it is altogether independent of me, who, for failing, incurs its blame.
I am not the rescued lamb, and I will not be."

Lord Wolseley, still possessed with the idea that, now that an
■expedition had been sanctioned, the question of time was not of
supreme importance, and that the relieving expedition might be carried
out in a deliberate manner, which would be both more effective and
less exposed to risk, did not reach Cairo till September, and had only
arrived at Wady Haifa on 8th October, when his final instructions
reached him in the following form : — "The primary object of your
-expedition is to bring away General Gordon and Colonel Stewart, and
you are not to advance further south than necessary to attain that
object, and when it has been secured, no further offensive operations
•of any kind are to be undertaken." These instructions were simple
and clear enough. The Government had not discovered a policy.
It had, however, determined to leave the garrisons to their fate, despite
the National honour being involved, at the very moment that it sanc-
tioned an enormous expenditure to try and save the lives of its long-
neglected representatives, Gordon and Colonel Stewart. With extra-
ordinary shrewdness, Gordon detected the hollowness of its purpose,
and wrote : — " I very much doubt what is really going to be the policy
■of our Government, even now that the Expedition is at Dongola," and
if they intend ratting out, "the troops had better not come beyond
Berber till the question of what will be done is settled."

The receipt of Gordon's and Power's despatches of July showed

3^4 The Life of Gordon.

that there were, at the time of their being written, suppUes for four
months, which would have carried the garrison on till the end of
November. As the greater part of that period had expired when these
documents reached Lord Wolseley's hands, it was quite impossible to -
doubt that time had become the most important factor of all in the
situation. The chance of being too late would even then have pre-
sented itself to a prudent commander, and, above all, to a friend
hastening to the rescue of a friend. The news that Colonel Stewart
and some other Europeans had been entrapped and murdered
near Merowe, which reached the English commander from different
sources before Gordon confirmed it in his letters, was also calculated'
to stimulate, by showing that Gordon was alone, and had single-handed
to conduct the defence of a populous city. Hard on the heels of that
intelligence came Gordon's letter of 4th November to Lord Wolseley,
who received it at Dongola on 14th of the same month. The letter was-
a long one, but only two passages need be quoted : — "At Metemmah,
waiting your orders, are five steamers with nine guns." Did it not
occur to anyone how greatly, at the worst stage of the siege, Gordon
had thus weakened himself to assist the relieving expedition ? Even
for that reason there was not a day or an hour to be lost.

But the letter contained a worse and more alarming passage : — " We-
can hold out forty days with ease ; after that it will be difficult" Forty
days would have meant till 14th December, one month ahead of the
day Lord Wolseley received the news, but the message was really more
alarming than the form in which it was published, for there is no doubt
that the word " difficult " is the official rendering of Gordon's, a little
indistinctly written, word " desperate." In face of that alarming mes-
sage, which only stated facts that ought to have been surmised, if not
known, it was no longer possible to pursue the leisurely promenade up-
the Nile, which was timed so as to bring the whole force to Khartoum
in the first week of March. Rescue by the most prominent general
and swell troops of England at Easter would hardly gratify the com-
mandant and garrison starved into surrender the previous Christmas,
and that was the exact relationship between Wolseley's plans and'
Gordon's necessities.

The date at which Gordon's supplies would be exhausted varied not
from any miscalculation, but because on two successive occasions he dis-
covered large stores of grain and biscuits, which had been stolen from
the public granaries before his arrival. The supplies that wculd all
have disappeared in November were thus eked out, first till the middle
of December, and then finally till the end of January, but there is no-
doubt that they would not have lasted as long as they did if in the last


1 '^


Tnonth of the siege he had not given the civil population permission to
leave the doomed town. From any and from every point of view,
there was not the shadow of an excuse for a moment's delay after the
receipt of that letter on 14th November.

With the British Exchequer at a commander's back, it is easy to
-organise an expedition on an elaborate scale, and to carry it out with
the nicety of perfection, but for the realisation of these ponderous
plans there is one thing more necessary, and that is time. I have
no doubt if Gordon's letter had said " granaries full, can hold out till
Easter," that Lord Wolseley's deliberate march — Cairo, September 27 ;
Wady Haifa, October 8 ; Dongola, November 14 ; Korti, December 30 ;
Metemmah any day in February, and Khartoum, March 3, and those
were the approximate dates of his grand plan of campaign — would have
been fully successful, and held up for admiration as a model of skill.
Unfortunately, it would not do for the occasion, as Gordon was on
the verge of starvation and in desperate straits when the rescuing force
reached Dongola. It is not easy to alter the plan of any campaign, nor
to adapt a heavy moving machine to the work suitable for a light one.
'To feed 10,000 British soldiers on the middle Nile was alone a feat of
organisation such as no other country could have attempted, but the
■effort was exhausting, and left no reserve energy to despatch that quick-
moving battalion which could have reached Gordon's steamers early in
December, and would have reinforced the Khartoum garrison, just as
"Havelock and Outram did the Lucknow Residency.

Dongola is only 100 miles below Debbeh, where the intelligence
■ofificers and a small force were on that 14th November ; Ambukol,
■specially recommended by Gordon as the best starting-point, is less
than fifty miles, and Korti, the point selected by Lord Wolseley, is
•exactly that distance above Debbeh. The Bayuda desert route by
the Jakdul Wells to Metemmah is 170 miles. At Metemmah were
the five steamers with nine guns to convoy the desperately needed
•succour to Khartoum. The energy expended on the despatch of
10,000 men up 150 miles of river, if concentrated on 1000 men, must
liave given a speedier result, but, as the affair was managed, the last
•day of the year 1884 was reached before there was even that small
force ready to make a dash across the desert for Metemmah.

The excuses made for this, as the result proved, fatal delay of
taking six weeks to do what — the forward movement from Dongola
to Korti, not of the main force, but of 1000 men — ought to have been
done in one week, were the dearth of camels, the imperfect drill of
the camel corps, and, it must be added, the exaggerated fear of the
Mahdi's power. When it was attempted to quicken the slow forward

326 The Life of Goi^don.

rnovement of the unwieldy force confusion ensued, and no greater
progress was effected than if things had been left undisturbed. The
erratic policy in procuring camels caused them at the critical moment
to be not forthcoming in anything approaching the required numbers,
and this difficulty was undoubtedly increased by the treachery of
IMahmoud Khalifa, who was the chief contractor we employed. Even
when the camels were procured, they had to be broken in for regular-
work, and the men accustomed to the strange drill and mode of loco-
motion. The last reason perhaps had the most weight of all, for-
although the Mahdi with all his hordes had been kept at bay by
Gordon single-handed. Lord Wolseley would risk nothing in the field.
Probably the determining reason for that decision was that the success
of a small force would have revealed how absolutely unnecessary his
large and costly expedition was. Yet events were to show beyond
possibility of contraversion that this was the case, for not less than
two-thirds of the force were never in any shape or form actively
employed, and, as far as the fate of Gordon went, might just as well
have been left at home. They had, however, to be fed and provided
for at the end of a line of communication of over 1200 miles.

Still, notwithstanding all these delays and disadvantages, a well-
equipped force of 1000 men was ready on 30th December to leave Korti
to cross the 170 m.iles of the Bayuda desert. That route was well
known and well watered. There were wells at, at least, five places, and
the best of these was at Jakdul, about half-way across. The officer
entrusted with the command was Major-General Sir Herbert Stewart, an
officer of a gallant disposition, who was above all others impressed with
the necessity of making an immediate advance, with the view of throw-
ing some help into Khartoum. Unfortunately he was trammelled by
his instructions, which were to this effect — he was to establish a fort at
Jakdul ; but if he found an insufficiency of water there he was at liberty
to press on to Metemmah. His action was to be determined by the
measure of his own necessities, not of Gordon's, and so Lord Wolseley
arranged throughout. He reached that place with his iioo fighting
men, but on examining the wells and finding them full, he felt bound
to obey the orders of his commander, viz. to establish the fort, and then
return to Korti for a reinforcement. It was a case when Nelson's
blind eye might have been called into requisition, but even the most
gallant officers are not Nelsons.

The first advance of General Stewart to Jakdul, reached on 3rd'
January 1885, was in every respect a success. It was achieved without
loss, unopposed, and was quite of the nature of a surprise. The British
relieving force was at last, after many months' report, proved to be at

Kha7'toiim. 327

reality, and although late, it was not too late. If General Stewart had not
been tied by his instructions, but left a free hand, he would undoubtedly
have pressed on, and a reinforcement of British troops would have
entered Khartoum even before the fall of Omdurman. But it must be
recorded also that Sir Herbert Stewart was not inspired by the required
flash of genius. He paid more deference to the orders of Lord Wolseley
than to the grave peril of General Gordon.

General Stewart returned to Korti on the 7th January, bringing with
him the tired camels, and he found that during his absence still more
urgent news had been received from Gordon, to the effect that if aid did
not come within ten days from the 14th December, the place might
fall, and that under the nose of the expedition. The native who
brought this intimation arrived at Korti the day after General Stewart
left, but a messenger could easily have caught him up and given him
orders to press on at all cost. It was not realised at the time, but the
neglect to give that order, and the rigid adherence to a preconceived
plan, proved fatal to the success of the whole expedition.

The first advance of General Stewart had been in the nature of a
surprise, but it aroused the Mahdi to a sense of the position, and the
subsequent delay gave him a fortnight to complete his plans and assume
the offensive.

On 1 2th January— that is, nine days after his first arrival at Jakdul —
General Stewart reached the place a second time with the second
detachment of another 1000 men — the total fighting strength of the
column being raised to about 2300 men. For whatever errors had been
committed, and their consequences, the band of soldiers assembled at
Jakdul on that 12th of January could in no sense be held responsible.
Without making any invidious comparisons, it may be truthfully said
that such a splendid fighting force was never assembled in any other
cause, and the temper of the men was strung to a high point of enthus-
iasm by the thought that at last they had reached the final stage of the
long journey to rescue Gordon. A number of causes, principally the
fatigue of the camels from the treble journey between Korti and Jakdul,
made the advance very slow, and five days were occupied in travers-
ing the forty-five miles between Jakdul and the wells at Abou Klea,
themselves distant twenty miles from Metemmah. On the morning of
17th January it became clear that the column was in presence of an

At the time of Stewart's first arrival at Jakdul there were no hostile
forces in the Bayuda desert. At Berber was a considerable body of the
Mahdi's followers, and both Metemmah and Shendy were held in his
name. At the latter place a battery or small fort had been erected, and

328 The Life of Gordon.

in an encounter between it and Gordon's steamers one of the latter had
been sunk, thus reducing their total to four. But there were none of
the warrior tribes of Kordofan and Darfour at any of these places, or
nearer than the six camps which had been established round Khartoum.
The news of the English advance made the Mahdi bestir himself, and as
it was known that the garrison of Omdurman was reduced to the lowest
straits, and could not hold out many days, the Mahdi despatched some
of his best warriors of the Jaalin, Degheim, and Kenana tribes to oppose
the British troops in the Bayuda desert. It was these men who opposed
the further advance of Sir Herbert Stewart's column at Abou Klea. It
is unnecessary to describe the desperate assault these gallant warriors
made on the somewhat cumbrous and ill-arranged square of the British
force, or the ease and tremendous loss with which these fanatics were
beaten off, and never allowed to come to close quarters, save at one
point. The infantry soldiers, Avho formed two sides of the square,
signally repulsed the onset, not a Ghazi succeeded in getting within a
range of 300 yards ; but on another side, cavalrymen, doing infantry
soldiers' unaccustomed work, did not adhere to the strict formation
necessary, and trained for the close vielee^ and with the gaudia certaminis
firing their blood, they recklessly allowed the Ghazis to come to close
quarters, and their line of the square was impinged upon. In that close
fighting, with the Heavy Camel Corps men and the Naval Brigade, the
Blacks suffered terribly, but they also inflicted loss in return. Of a total
loss on the British side of sixty-five killed and sixty-one wounded, the
Heavy Camel Corps lost fifty-two, and the Sussex Regiment, performing
work to which it was thoroughly trained, inflicted immense loss on the
enemy at hardly any cost to itself. Among the slain was the gallant
Colonel Fred. Burnabj^ one of the noblest and gentlest, as he was
physically the strongest, officers in the British army. There is no
doubt that signal as was this success, it shook the confidence of the
force. The men were resolute to a point of ferocity, but the leaders'
confidence in themselves and their task had been rudely tried ; and
yet the breaking of the square had been clearly due to a tactical
blunder, and the inability of the cavalry to adapt themselves to a

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 38 of 40)