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 39 of 40)
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strange position.

On the 1 8th January the march, rendered slower by the conveyance
of the wounded, was resumed, but no fighting took place on that day,
although it was clear that the enemy had not been dispersed. On the
19th, when the force had reached the last wells at Abou Kru or Gubat,
it became clear that another battle was to be fought. One of the first
shots seriously wounded Sir Herbert Stewart, and during the whole of the
affair many of our men were carried off by the heavy rifle fire of the enemy.

Khartoum. 329

Notwithstanding that our force fought under many disadvantages and was
not skilfully handled, the Mahdists were driven off with terrible loss, while
our force had thirty-six killed and one hundred and seven wounded.
Notwithstanding these two defeats, the enemy were not cowed, and held
on to Metemmah, in which no doubt those who had taken part in the
battles were assisted by a force from Berber. The 20th January was
wasted in inaction, caused by the large number of wounded, and when
on 2ist January Metemmah was attacked, the Mahdists showed so bold
a front that Sir Charles Wilson, who succeeded to the command on
Sir Herbert Stewart being incapacitated by his, as it proved, mortal
wound, drew off his force. This was the more disappointing, because
Gordon's four steamers arrived during the action and took a gallant
part in the attack. It was a pity for the effect produced that that
attack should have been distinctly unsuccessful. The information the
captain of these steamers, the gallant Cassim el Mousse, gave about
Gordon's position was alarming. He stated that Gordon had sent
him a message informing him that if aid did not come in ten days
from the 14th December his position would be desperate, and the
volumes of his journal which he handed over to Sir Charles Wilson
amply corroborated this statement — the very last entry under that date
being these memorable words : " Now, mark this, if the Expeditionary
Force — and I ask for no more than 200 men — does not come in ten
days, the town may fall, and I have done my best for the honour of
our country. Good-bye."

The other letters handed over by Cassim el Mousse amply bore out
the view that a month before the British soldiers reached the last
stretch of the Nile to Khartoum Gordon's position was desperate. In
one to his sister he concluded, " I am quite happy, thank God, and,
like Lawrence, have tried to do my duty," and in another to his friend
Colonel Watson : " I think the game is up, and send Mrs Watson, your-
self, and Graham my adieux. We may expect a catastrophe in the town
in or after ten days. This would not have happened (if it does happen)
if our people had taken better precautions as to informing us of their
movements, but this is 'spilt milk.'" In face of these documents,
•which were in the hands of Sir Charles Wilson on 21st January, it is
impossible to agree with his conclusion in his book " Korti to Khar-
toum," that " the delay in the arrival of the steamers at Khartoum was
unimportant " as affecting the result. Every hour, every minute, had
become of vital importance. If the whole Jakdul column had been
destroyed in the effort, it was justifiable to do so as the price of
reinforcing Gordon, so that he could hold out until the main body
under Lord Wolseley could arrive. I am not one of those who

330 The Life of Goi'don.

think that Sir Charles Wilson, who only came on the scene at the last
moment, should be made the scapegoat for the mistakes of others in
the earlier stages of the expedition, and I hold now, as strongly as when
I wrote the words, the opinion that, " in the face of what he did, any
suggestion that he might have done more would seem both ungenerous
and untrue." Still the fact remains that on 21st January there was left
a sufiicient margin of time to avert what actually occurred at daybreak
on the 26th, for the theory that the Madhi could have entered the town
one hour before he did was never a serious argument, while the evidence
of Slatin Pasha strengthens the view that Gordon was at the last
moment only overcome by the Khalifa's resorting to a surprise. On
one point of fact Sir Charles Wilson seems also to have been in error.
He fixes the fall of Omdurman at 6th January, whereas Slatin, whose
information on the point ought to be unimpeachable, states that it did
not occur until the 15 th of that month.

When Sir Herbert Stewart had fought and won the battle of Abou
Klea, it was his intention on reaching the Nile, as he expected to da
the next day, to put Sir Charles Uilson on board one of Gordon's own
steamers and send him off at once to Khartoum. The second battle
and Sir Herbert Stewart's fatal wound destroyed that project. But this
plan might have been adhered to so far as the altered circumstances
would allow. Sir Charles Wilson had succeeded to the command, and
many matters affecting the position of the force had to be settled before
he was free to devote himself to the main object of the dash forward,
viz. the establishment of communications with Gordon and Khartoum.
As the consequence of that change in his own position, it would have
been natural that he should have delegated the task to someone else,
and in Lord Charles Beresford, as brave a sailor as ever led a cutting-
out party, there was the very man for the occasion. Unfortunately, Sir
Charles Wilson did not take this step for, as I believe, the sole reason
that he was the bearer of an important official letter to General Gordon,
which he did not think could be entrusted to any other hands. But
for that circumstance it is permissible to say that one steamer — there
was more than enough wood on the other three steamers to fit one
out for the journey to Khartoum — would have sailed on the
morning of the 22nd, the day after the force sheered off from
Metemmah, and, at the latest, it would have reached Khartoum
on Sunday, the 25th, just in time to avert the catastrophe.

But as it was done, the whole of the 22nd and 23rd were taken up
in preparing two steamers for the voyage, and in collecting scarlet
coats for the troops, so that the effect of real British soldiers coming
up the Nile might be made more considerable. At S a.m. on Satur-

Khartouin. 331

day, the 24th, Sir Charles "Wilson at last sailed with the two steamers,
Bordeen and Talataween, and it was then quite impossible for the
steamers to cover the ninety-five miles to Khartoum in time. Moreover,
the Nile had, by this time, sunk to such a point of shallowness that
navigation was specially slow and even dangerous. The Shabloka
cataract was passed at 3 p.m. on the afternoon of Sunday ; then the Bor-
deen ran on a rock, and was not got clear till 9 p.m. on the fatal 26th.
On the 27th, Halfiyeh, eight miles from Khartoum, was reached, and the
Arabs along the banks shouted out that Gordon was killed and Khartoum
had fallen. Still Sir Charles Wilson went on past Tuti Island, until he
made sure that Khartoum had fallen and was in the hands of the dervishes.
Ihen he ordered full steam down stream under as hot a fire as he ever
wished to experience, Gordon's black gunners working like demons
at their guns. On the 29th the Talataweeti ran on a rock and sank, its
crew being taken on board the Bordeen. Two days later the Bordeeji
shared the same fate, but the whole party was finally saved on the 4th
February by a third steamer, brought up by Lord Charles Beresford.
But these matters, and the subsequent progress of the Expedition which
had so ignominiously failed, have no interest for the reader of Gordon's
life. It failed to accomphsh the object which alone justified its being
sent, and, it must be allowed, that it accepted its failure in a very tame
and spiritless manner. Even at the moment of the British troops
turning their backs on the goal which they had not won, the fate of
Gordon himself was unknown, although there could be no doubt as to
the main fact that the protracted siege of Khartoum had terminated in its
capture by the cruel and savage foe, whom it, or rather Gordon, had so
long defied.

I have referred to the official letter addressed to General Gordon,
of which Sir Charles Wilson was the bearer. That letter has never been
published, and it is perhaps well for its authors that it has not been,
for, however softened down its language was by Lord Wolseley's inter-
cession, it was an order to General Gordon to resign the command at
Khartoum, and to leave that place without a moment's delay. Had it
been delivered and obeyed (as it might have been, because Gordon's
strength would probably have collapsed at the sight of English soldiers
after his long incarceration), the next official step would have been to
censure him for having remained at Khartoum against orders. Thus
would the primary, and, indeed, sole object of the Expedition have
been attained without regard for the national honour, and without the
discovery of that policy, the want of which was the only cause of the
calamities associated with the Soudan.

After the 14th of December there is no trustworthy, or at least,

2,;^2 The Life of Gordon.

complete evidence, as to what took place in Khartoum. A copy of one
of the defiant messages Gordon used to circulate for the special purpose
of letting them fall mto the hands of the Mahdi was dated 29th of that
month, and ran to the effect, " Can hold Khartoum for years." There
was also the final message to the Sovereigns of the Powers, undated,
and probably written, if at all, by Gordon, during the final agony of the
last few weeks, perhaps when Omdurman had fallen. It was worded
as follows : —

"After salutations, I would at once, calling to mind what I have gone
through, inform their Majesties, the Sovereigns, of the action of Great
Britain and the Ottoman Empire, who appointed me as Governor-General
of the Soudan for the purpose of appeasing the rebellion in that country.

" During the twelve months that I have been here, these two Powers,
the one remarkable for her wealth, and the other for her military force,
have remained unaffected by my situation — perhaps relying too much on
the news sent by Hussein Pasha Khalifa, who surrendered of his own

" Although I, personally, am too insignificant to be taken into account,
the Powers were bound, nevertheless, to fulfil the engagement upon which
my appointment was based, so as to shield the honour of the Govern-

"What I have gone through I cannot describe. The Almighty God will
help me."

Although this copy was not in Gordon's own writing, it was brought
down by one of his clerks, who escaped from Khartoum, and he de-
clared that the original had been sent in a cartridge case to Dongola.
The style is certainly the style of Gordon, and there was no one in the
Soudan who could imitate it. It seems safe, as Sir Henry Gordon did,
to accept it as the farewell message of his brother.

Until fresh evidence comes to light, that of Slatin Pasha, then a
chained captive in the Mahdi's camp, is alone entitled to the slightest
credence, and it is extremely graphic. We can well believe that up
to the last moment Gordon continued to send out messages — false, to
deceive the Mahdi, and true to impress Lord Wolseley. The note of
29th December was one of the former; the little French note on half
a cigarette paper, brought by Abdullah Khalifa to Slatin to translate
early in January, may have been one of the latter. It said : — " Can
hold Khartoum at the outside till the end of January." Slatin then
describes the fall of Omdurman on 15th January, with Gordon's
acquiescence, which entirely disposes of the assertion that Ferratch, the
gallant defender of that place during two months, was a traitor, and of
how, on its surrender, Gordon's fire from the western wall of Khartoum
prevented the Mahdists occupying it. He also comments on the alarm
caused by the first advance of the British force into the Bayuda desert,

Khartotim. 333

and of the despatch of thousands of the Mahdi's best warriors to oppose
it. Those forces quitted the camp at Onidurman between loth and
15th January, and this step entirely disposes of the theory that the
Mahdi held Khartoum in the hollow of his hand, and could at any
moment take it. As late as the 15th of January, Gordon's fire was so
vigorous and successful that the !Mahdi was unable to retain possession
of the fort which he had just captured.

The story had best be continued in the words used by the witness.
Six days after the fall of Omdurman loud weeping and wailing filled the
Mahdi's camp. As the Mahdi forbade the display of sorrow and grief
it was clear that something most unusual had taken place. Then it
came out that the British troops had met and utterly defeated the tribes,
with a loss to the Mahdists of several thousands. Within the next two or
three days came news of the other defeat at Abou Kru, and the loud lamen-
tations of the women and children could not be checked. The Mahdi
and his chief emirs, the present Khalifa Abdullah prominent among
them, then held a consultation, and it was decided, sooner than lose all
the fruits of the hitherto unchecked triumph of their cause, to risk an
assault on Khartoum. At night on the 24th, and again on the 25th, the
bulk of the rebel force was conveyed across the river to the right bank of
the White Nile ; the Mahdi preached them a sermon, promising them
victory^ and they were enjoined to receive his remarks in silence, so that
no noise was heard in the beleaguered city. By this time their terror of
the mines laid in front of the south wall had become much diminished,
because the mines had been placed too low in the earth, and they also
knew that Gordon and his diminished force were in the last stages
of exhaustion. Finally, the Mahdi or his energetic lieutenant decided
on one more arrangement, which was probably the true cause of their
success. The Mahdists had always delivered their attack half an hour
after sunrise; on this occasion they decided to attack half an hour
before dawn, when the whole scene was covered in darkness. Slatin
knew all these plans, and as he listened anxiously in his place of confine-
ment he was startled, when just dropping off to sleep, by " the deafening
discharge of thousands of rifles and guns ; this lasted for a few minutes,
then only occasional rifle shots were heard, and now all was quiet again.
Could this possibly be the great attack on Khartoum ? A wild discharge
of firearms and cannon, and in a few minutes complete silence ! " He
was not left long in doubt. Some hours afterwards three black soldiers
approached, carrying in a bloody cloth the head of General Gordon,
which he identified. It is unnecessary to add the gruesome details
which Slatin picked up as to his manner of death from the gossip of the
camp. In this terrible tragedy ended that noble defence of Khartoum,

334 ' '^^^^ ^^f^ of Gordon.

which, Avherever considered or discussed, and for all time, will excite
the pity and admiration of the world.

There is no need to dwell further on the terrible end of one of the
purest heroes our country has ever produced, whose loss was national,
but most deeply felt as an irreparable shock, and as a void that can
never be filled up by that small circle of men and women who might
call themselves his friends. Ten years elapsed after the eventful morning
when Slatin pronounced over his remains the appropriate epitaph, " A
brave soldier who fell at his post ; happy is he to have fallen ; his suffer-
ings are over ! " before the exact manner of Gordon's death was known,
and some even clung to the chance that after all he might have escaped to
the Equator, and indeed it was not till long after the expedition had re-
turned that the remarkable details of his single-handed defence of Khar-
toum became known. Had all these particulars come out at the moment
when the public learnt that Khartoum had fallen, and that the expedition
was to return without accomplishing anything, it is possible that there
would have been a demand that no Minister could have resisted to
avenge his fate ; but it was not till the publication of the journals that
the exact character of his magnificent defence and of the manner in
which he was treated by those who sent him came to be understood
and appreciated by the nation.

The lapse of time has been sufficient to allow of a calm judgment
being passed on the whole transaction, and the considerations which I
have put forward with regard to it in the chronicle of events have been
dictated by the desire to treat all involved in the matter with impar-
tiality. If they approximate to the truth, they warrant the following
conclusions. The Government sent General Gordon to the Soudan on
an absolutely hopeless mission for any one or two men to accomplish
without that support in reinforcements on which General Gordon thought
he could count. General Gordon went to the Soudan, and accepted
that mission in the enthusiastic belief that he could arrest the Mahdi's
l^rogress, and treating as a certainty which did not require formal
expression the personal opinion that the Government, for the national
honour, would comply with whatever demands he made upon it. As a
simple matter of fact, every one of those demands, some against and
some with Sir Evelyn Baring's authority, were rejected. No incident
could show more clearly the imperative need of definite arrangements
being made even with Governments ; and in this case the precipitance
with which General Gordon was sent off did not admit of him or the
Government knowing exactly what was in the other's mind. Ostensibly
of one mind, their views on the matter in hand were really as far as the
poles asunder.

Khartoum. 335

There then comes the second phase of the question — the alleged
abandonment of General Gordon by the Government which enlisted his
services in face of an extraordinary, and indeed unexampled danger
and difficulty. The evidence, while it proves conclusively and beyond
dispute that Mr Gladstone's Government never had a policy with
regard to the Soudan, and that even Gordon's heroism, inspiration,
and success failed to induce them to throw aside their lethargy and
take the course that, however much it may be postponed, is inevit-
able, does not justify the charge that it abandoned Gordon to his
fate. It rejected the simplest and most sensible of his propositions,
and by rejecting them incurred an immense expenditure of British
treasure and an incalculable amount of bloodshed ; but when the
personal danger to its envoy became acute, it did not abandon
him, but sanctioned the cost of the expedition pronounced necessary
to effect his rescue. This decision, too late as it was to assist in the
formation of a new administration for the Soudan, or to bring back the
garrisons, was taken in ample time to ensure the personal safety and
rescue of General Gordon. In the literal sense of the charge, history
will therefore acquit Mr Gladstone and his colleagues of the abandon-
ment of General Gordon personally.

With regard to the third phase of the question — viz. the failure of
the attempt to rescue General Gordon, which was essentially a military,
and not a political question — the responsibility passes from the Prime
Minister to the military authorities who decided the scope of the
campaign, and the commander who carried it out. In this case, the
individual responsible was the same. Lord Wolseley not only had his
own way in the route to be followed by the expedition, and the size and
importance attached to it, but he was also entrusted with its personal
direction. There is consequently no question of the sub-division of the
responsibility for its failure, just as there could have been none of the
credit for its success. Lord ^Volseley decided that the route should be
the long one by the Nile Valley, not the short one from Souakim to
Berber. Lord Wolseley decreed that there should be no Indian troops,
and that the force, instead of being an ordinary one, should be a picked
special corps from the elite of the British army ; and finally Lord
Wolseley insisted that there should be no dash to the rescue of Gordon
by a small part of his force, but a slow, impressive, and overpoweringly
scientific advance of the whole body. The extremity of Gordon's
distress necessitated a slight modification of his plan, when, with
qualified instructions, which practically tied his hands, Sir Herbert
Stewart made his first appearance at Jakdul.

It was then known to Lord Wolseley that Gordon was in ex-

336 The Life of Goi'don.

tremities, yet when a fighting force of 1100 English troops, of special
physique and spirit, was moved forward -with sufficient transport to
enable it to reach the Nile and Gordon's steamers, the commander's
instructions were such as confined him to inaction, unless he disobeyed
his orders, which only Nelsons and Gordons can do with impunity.
It is impossible to explain this extraordinary timidity. Sir Herbert
Stewart reached Jakdul on 3rd January with a Ibrce small in numbers,
but in every other respect of remarkable efficiency, and with the camels
sufficiently fresh to have reached the Nile on 7th or 8th January had it
pressed on. The more urgent news that reached Lord Wolseley after
its departure would have justified the despatch of a messenger to urge it
to press on at all costs to Metemmah. In such a manner would a
Ha\ clock or Outram have acted, yet the garrison of the Lucknow
Residency was in no more desperate case than Gordon at Khartoum.

It does not need to be a professor of a military academy to declare
that, unless something is risked in war, and especially wars such as
England has had to wage against superior numbers in the East, there
will never be any successml rescues of distressed garrisons. Lord
Wolseley would risk nothing in the advance from Korti to Metemmah,
whence his advance guard did not reach the latter place till the 20th,
instead of the 7th of January. His lieutenant and representative. Sir
Charles Wilson, would not risk anything on the 21st January, whence
none of the steamers appeared at Khartoum until late on the 2 7thy
when all was over. Each of these statements cannot be impeached, and
if so, the conclusion seems inevitable that in the first and highest degree
Lord ^Volseley was alone responsible for the failure to reach Khartoum
m time, and that in a very minor degree Sir Charles Wilson might be
considered blameworthy for not having sent off one of the steamers with
a small reinforcement to Khartoum on the 21st January, before even he
allowed Cassim el Mousse to take any part in the attack on Metemmah.
He could not have done this himself, but he would have had no difficulty
in finding a substitute. When, however, there were others far more
blameworthy, it seems almost unjust to a gallant officer to say that by a
desperate effort he might at the very last moment have snatched the
chestnuts out of the fire, and converted the most ignominious failure la
the military annals of this country into a creditable success.

The tragic end at Khartoum was not an inappropriate conclusion
for the career of Charles Gordon, whose life had been far removed
from the ordinary experiences of mankind. No man who ever lived was
called upon to deal with a greater number of difficult military and

Khartoum. ^iZl

administrative problems, and to find the solution for them with such
inadequate means and inferior troops and subordinates. In the
Crimea he showed as a very young man the spirit, discernment,
energy, and regard for detail which were his characteristics through Hfe.
Those qualities enabled him to achieve in China military exploits which
in their way have never been surpassed. The marvellous skill, con-
fidence, and vigilance with which he supplied the shortcomings of his
troops, and provided for the wants of a large population at Khartoum
for the better part of a year, showed that, as a military leader, he was
still the same gifted captain who had crushed the Taeping rebellion
twenty years before. What he did for the Soudan and its people
during six years' residence, at a personal sacrifice that never can be
appreciated, has been told at length ; but pages of rhetoric would not
give as perfect a picture, as the spontaneous cry of the blacks : " If we
only had a governor like Gordon Pasha, then the country would indeed
be contented."

" Such examples are fruitful in the future," said Mr Gladstone in
the House of Commons ; and it is as a perfect model of all that was
good, brave, and true that Gordon will be enshrined in the memory of
the great English nation which he really died for, and whose honour

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 39 of 40)