The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 6 No 6 - December 1985

The Political Martyr: General Gordon and the Fall of Kartum

by S Monick

Britain inherited the problems of the Sudan when she effectively seized control of Egypt in 1882. European influence, (especially that of Britain and France), had been steadily increasing since the late 1860s, when the extravagance of the Khedive Ismail (who was deposed in 1879 in favour of his son Tewfik) in attempting to modernize Egypt had incurred enormous debts to European stockholders. British and French influence was embodied in the dual control by France and Britain over the chaotic Egyptian finances; a control which was augured by the British purchase of the majority of shares in the Suez Canal in 1875. This escalating European influence had provoked a rebellion, led by Arabi Pasha, the Egyptian Minister of War, who had adopted a strongly anti-European stance. The nationalist ministry of which Arabi was a member completely dominated the Khedive Tewfik. The rebellion led to the bombardment, by the Royal Navy, of the city of Alexandria on 11 July 1882. (Immediately prior to this bombardment the French fleet had withdrawn, thereby effectively silencing all French claims to influence in Egypt, which France had pursued for the previous 50 years). The bombardment was followed by the occupation of Alexandria which, in turn, led to a British Expeditionary Force, under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley, landing in Egypt on 15 August 1882. Naval brigades seized control of the key points controlling the Suez Canal - Port Said and Ismailia - whilst Wolseley marched on Arabi Pasha’s forces at Tel-el-Kebir, situated on the Sweetwater (or Freshwater) Canal. After a night march across the desert, Wolseley’s force (comprising 17 401 troops) decisively defeated the nationalist forces (13 September 1882). Shortly afterwards Cairo was occupied and Arabi Pasha captured and exiled to Ceylon. The decisive British victory of Tel-el-Kebir, after a brief two month campaign, completed the British conquest of Lower Egypt (i.e. Egypt proper). The fiction was maintained that Egypt remained an independent state, under its own Viceroy (or Khedive), with nominal authority residing in the Sultan, of whose Empire Egypt theoretically formed part. In actual fact, however, Egypt was a ‘veiled protectorate’, effectively a colony within the British Empire, administered by Sir Evelyn Baring (later Lord Cramer), the Consul General.

In the July of 1881 there occurred an uprising in the Sudan, which had suffered for many years from Egyptian misrule and corrupt government. The insurrection was led by Sheik Mahomed of Dongola, who proclaimed himself the Mahdi (‘Messiah’) and whose charismatic powers of leadership soon secured a huge following. Alan Moorhead, in his book, The White Nile, writes of the Mahdi:
‘Certainly he was not an adventurer in the ordinary sense. Even if it is assumed that he was not sincere, that his religious protestations were simply a bogus cover for his personal ambition, it still has to be admitted that his followers worshipped him; they never, now or later, questioned his authority, they thought him semi-divine, and from the most powerful Emir to the humblest water-carrier they were ready to die for him.’(1)

The Mahdi

The revolt was initiated in the province of Kordofan where in August 1882 (the very same month that the British Expeditionary Force landed in Egypt) the Mahdist forces laid siege to El Obeid, a town of some 10 000 people, protected by a strong Egyptian garrison. Although the Mahdist forces were poorly armed with spears, sticks and obsolescent firearms only (despite which they had earlier routed an Egyptian column sent against them), the town of El Obeid was captured after a six months siege (the defenders being forced to capitulate through hunger). In January 1883 the town fell, and when the ensuing massacre had subsided it was discovered that a large store of arms and a sum of money equal to approximately £100 000 had fallen into the Mahdist hands. From this point onwards the revolution gained tremendous momentum. At the centre stood the Mahdi, the new reincarnation of the prophet, and he was attended by his inner ring of disciples; the three Khalifas, who were his principal lieutenants. Beneath these were the Emirs, the Mukkudums and the leader of the tribes. Finally there was the wild horde of tribesmen themselves (a racial mixture of Arabs and the indigenous black inhabitants), with their camp followers and hordes of domestic animals. They possessed their own uniform - a ‘jibbeh’, with square patches sewn on it as a mark of virtuous poverty, and a turban. Their emblems consisted of the flags of the Emirs inscribed with texts from the Koran and the green flag of the Mahdi himself.

A full year elapsed before Egypt bestirred itself regarding the grave threat which had emerged in the valley of the Upper Nile. It had been hoped for many months that the Governor General of the Sudan, based at Khartum, would be able to control the situation with the troops under his command. But with the fall of Kordofan, the richest of the Sudanese provinces, it had become manifestly plain that a military expedition would have to be sent from Cairo if the revolution were to be suppressed. The British Government refused to be involved. The Prime Minister, William Gladstone, certainly did not intend the victory at Tel-el-Kebir to become a precedent for further British conquests in Africa. It thus remained for the Egyptian Government to find the resources to cope with the uprising. Command of the Egyptian force devolved upon an English adventurer, Col William Hicks, formerly of the Indian Army, who had joined the Egyptian service. He had with him a staff of over a dozen Europeans, including a correspondent of The Times and another of the London Graphic; the expeditionary force was to be their last assignment. When Hicks’ force was finally assembled and despatched up the Nile to Khartum it numbered some 7 000 infantry, 1 000 cavalry and the usual horde of camp followers. More than 5 000 camels were required to transport supplies across the desert, and the equipment included both mountain and machine guns and a million rounds of ammunition.

After a series of preliminary skirmishes the force ascended the Nile as far as El-Dueim, approximately 160 kilometres south of Khartum, and then marched westwards across the dry plains towards El Obeid. The guides - either deliberately or through carelessness - lost their way; the Commissariat was hopelessly inefficient; the soldiers dispirited and unwilling (many were men who were serving terms of imprisonment for their involvement in the Arabi Pasha revolt, and were actually sent on the expedition in chains); and the supply of water virtually non-existent. It was an incredibly obsolescent cavalcade. Despite the terrible heat some of the wretched soldiers were wearing chain mail and antique helmets, reminiscent of the Crusades. Long before the inevitable end there occurred a despairing note in the despatches which Hicks sent back to Khartum: the water had failed; in increasing numbers both his men and camels were dying daily; the Mahdi’s horsemen had cut off his communications to the Nile; he was lost.

The final clash occurred on Saturday 3 November 1883, when the expedition was wandering in the depths of a dry forest some 48 kilometres to the south of El Obeid. Some 50 000 Dervish warriors burst upon Hicks’ force. The final diary entry of one of Hicks’ officers (Major Herlth) graphically captures the temper of the battle. The entry is dated Sunday 4 November 1883:

‘These are bad times; we are in a forest, and everyone very depressed. The General orders the band to play, hoping the music will enliven us a little; but the bands soon stop, for the bullets are flying from all directions. and camels, mules and men keep dropping down; we are all cramped together, so the bullets cannot fail to strike. We are faint and weary, and have no idea what to do. The General gives an order to halt and make a zeriba. It is Sunday, and my dear brother’s birthday. Would to God that I could sit down and talk to him for an hour! The bullets are falling thicker.’(2)

(At this point the diary suddenly breaks off. Herlth was never heard of again). The tragic end occurred on Monday 5 November 1883 and was actually witnessed by a deserter, Gustav Klootz, who had been captured by the Dervish forces and later brought to witness the final destruction of Hicks’ force. The day ended with the complete annihilation of the Egyptian force, the bodies being scattered in three large groups extending over some three kilometres. The largest heap was in the grove of Shekan, where the Europeans and a handful of the remaining soldiers were overwhelmed by an avalanche of Dervish spearman. Approximately 100 survivors took refuge under wagons and in thorn bushes. These were prodded out and later dragged naked with ropes around their necks into El Obeid as part of a triumphal procession led by the Mahdi on a magnificent white camel. Klootz witnessed the horribly mutilated body of Hicks; none of his European staff appear to have survived.

Two weeks elapsed before news of the disaster filtered through to Khartum and the outside world, and several months were to pass before its full implications were realized. In the Sudan it was as though a dam had burst. In a tremendous wave the cult of Mahdism engulfed the country. In Khartum, predictably, the immediate result of El Obeid was a panic, and many of the wealthier families fled down the Nile to Egypt. In the province of Darfur its governor, an Austrian named Rudolf von Slatin, was completely cut off and, after a series of hopeless battles against the Dervishes, surrendered to the Mahdi. In the province of Bahr-el-Ghuzal its English governor, Frank Lupton, resisted desperately until the new year, when his province was completely overrun. (Lupton was to die in captivity). The governor of the province of Equatoria, Emin, retreated up the Nile. In the distant east of the Sudan a Turkish-Sudanese slave trader named Osman Dinga rose for the Mahdi on the Red Sea coast. A few isolated Egyptian garrisons (such as those at Sennar and Kassala) remained as islands above the tide of Mahdist conquest; but they were islands of sand rather than of rock. Indeed, it was even feared that the Mahdist tide would overrun Lower Egypt. (It was not until 1889 when, at the battle of Toski some 76 kilometres within the Egyptian border, the Dervishes were decisively defeated by British forces, that the Mahdist threat to Egypt finally evaporated).

On 4 February 1884 the Dervishes, commanded by Osman Dinga, inflicted a terrible defeat on Egyptian forces, commanded by Valentine Baker Pasha, at El Teb. Following upon this defeat the port of Suakin, on the Red Sea coast, was placed in a state of siege. Fortunately, it was relieved by the prompt action of Admiral Hewett, who landed a naval brigade consisting of 150 seamen and Marines.

There can be little doubt that, at the time of the news of Hicks’ defeat, Gladstone was reconciled to the loss of the Sudan and was determined to do nothing to retrieve the situation. He stated (in a manner reminiscent of Churchill’s comments regarding Singapore in 1942) that Khartum could expect no help and that the Egyptian forces marooned in the Sudanese garrisons must fend for themselves. However there were other voices in England which believed that all that had happened in the Sudan to date was merely the prelude to a more intensive struggle for the Upper Nile valley. This school of thought believed that, having penetrated so far in Africa, Britain could not simply retreat, and they began in the British winter of 1883 to seek a man who would force a reluctant government into action. They found him in General Gordon.


No other Victorian personality has suffered such a dramatic decline in prestige as General Charles George Gordon. At the time of his death, and for several decades afterwards, he was more revered than any other Victorian hero, not even excepting David Livingstone. There can seldom have been, at any one time, such a widely read book as his posthumously published Khartoum Journals. They were known to every literate adult in England, and established a legend which appeared to his contemporaries to be as noble as the classic heroism of St George; it was comparable in its appeal to Captain Scott’s diary of his final tragic Antarctic expedition of 1912. However, Lytton Strachey, in the chapter entitled ‘The end of General Gordon’, which appeared in his book Eminent Victoriana (published in 1918) did much to ‘de-mythologize’ Gordon. In his book Gordon appears subject to continuous fits of profound melancholy and a heavy drinker; it is strongly hinted also that he was a homosexual. Gordon’s courage, and quixotic generosity and kindness, are never questioned, but he is definitely portrayed as an unbalanced personality. In a far more cynical world which has almost totally repudiated Victorian social mores, it is Strachey’s portrayal of Gordon which has remained fixed in the popular imagination. Indeed, some commentators have even averred that Gordon’s stubborn refusal to escape from Khartum was based - not on devotion to the troops under his command - but on a death wish emanating from a manic depressive personality.

Major General Charles George Gordon, CB

Born in 1833, he was commissioned in the Royal Engineers and in 1860, as a 27 year old captain, was sent to China. In China he acquired his popular nickname of ‘Chinese’ Gordon when he led a private army of Chinese troops against the soldiers of the Tai Ping, a powerful movement (in some respects the ancestor of the Chinese Communist Party) which had rebelled against the Manchu ruling house. The image of Gordon leading his ‘Ever Victorious Army’, armed only with a swagger cane, indelibly imprinted itself upon the public imagination, and he was considered (not with total justice) to have been instrumental in the final defeat of the Tai Ping in 1863. Gordon was certainly no stranger to the Sudan. In 1873 he was appointed as Governor of the Sudanese province of Equatoria, where he had proved extremely active in the suppression of the slave trade. In 1877 he was formally installed as Governor General of the Sudan, a post which he held until his resignation in 1879 (prompted by the deposition of the Khedive Ismail). In 1882 Gordon accepted the position of Commandant General of the Cape forces, an ostensibly military role which disguised his political function, centred upon resolving the difficulties relating to Basutoland. Gordon produced a draft convention, in which he proposed internal independence for Basutoland; a concept which was not favourably received by the Cape Government. At considerable risk to his life Gordon visited Masupha, who had rebelled against the Basuto paramount chief, Letsie, in Masupha’s kraal. However, Gordon could make no impact upon the situation in Basutoland, and resigned his position on 27 September 1882, leaving South African shortly afterwards. In 1883 Gordon was an unemployed major general in the British Army, about to embark upon service under King Leopold of the Belgians in the Congo.

Gordon’s restless and exotic career clearly embodies certain central traits in his character, viz. that he was a mystic and an eccentric dreamer (but by no means an impractical or inefficient administrator). What is clearly apparent, however, is that his character was certainly not one to blindly obey the orders of officialdom to the letter, as Baring clearly perceived.

What were the forces which manipulated Gordon's mission to Khartum as the instrument of their own policy? The Hicks disaster, Gladstone was painfully discovering, was not an event that could be conveniently forgotten, nor was it really possible to abandon Khartum and leave the Egyptian garrisons to their fate. His own cabinet was divided on the issue. Both Lord Hartington, the Minister for War, and Lord Granville, the Foreign Secretary, favoured some form of aggressive intervention, as did Samuel Baker, the famous explorer of the Nile. On 1 January 1884 Baker, who was widely acknowledged as an authority on the Nile, had written a strongly worded letter to The Times suggesting that British or Indian troops should be sent to the Sudan to fight the Mahdi and that they should be commanded by Gordon. The Times supported this proposal in a leading article and a few days later the Pall Mall Gazette (which had hitherto favoured total evacuation) advocated a far stronger stance in the Sudan. The Pall Mall Gazette was edited by William Thomas Stead, who was the most vigorous political journalist of his day. He himself had introduced the concept of the ‘interview’ to British journalism. Stead interviewed Gordon, who was at that time resident in England, and widely canvassed the latter’s views through his journal. Gordon's views regarding the Sudan endorsed the views of the ‘imperialist’ school. Gordon soon after wrote a letter to Sir Samuel Baker, further elaborating the opinions on the Sudan which he (Gordon) had already expressed in the interview with Stead; the letter was clearly intended for publication, and was duly published in The Times of 14 January 1884.

William Thomas Stead

Stead argued that Gordon should be sent to Khartum with full powers to assume absolute control of the territory, to relieve the garrisons and whatever could be done to salvage the wreck of the Sudan. Stead, together with his journalistic colleagues of like persuasion, thus generated a climate of opinion which led, with a fatefully irresistible force, to Gordon’s mission to the Sudan as a gesture that would, at least, assuage the humiliation of Hicks’ defeat. Gladstone could no longer resist this (largely manufactured) climate of thought which enjoyed the support of members of his own cabinet (Granville and Hartington) as well as Wolseley (then Adjutant-General at the War Office). On 15 January Wolseley interviewed Gordon at the War Office and the latter stated that he could travel to the Sudan immediately. The die was cast. Gordon has left an account of his first and final meeting with the Cabinet on 18 January 1884. (Gladstone was not present):
‘At noon he, Wolseley, came to me and took me to the Minister, and came back and said: "Her Majesty’s Government wants you to understand this. Government are determined to evacuate the Sudan, for they will not guarantee future government. You will go and do it?" I said "Yes". He said "Go in." I went in and saw them. They said: "Did Wolseley tell you our ideas?" I said "Yes, he said 'You will not guarantee future government of the Sudan', and you wish me to go and evacuate it." They said "Yes" and it was over ...'(4)

Baring, the Consul-General in Egypt, who had the prescience to attempt to block Gordon's appointment, was finally compelled by political pressure to give his assent.

The British Government's despatch of Gordon to the Sudan represents a situation in which official instructions were directly at variation with official and public hopes (including those of Queen Victoria). As Byron Farwell writes in his book, Prisoners of the Mahdi:
‘The original concept of Gordon's mission was simply to report on the situation in the Sudan and to recommend measures for the evacuation of Egyptians, foreigners and loyal Sudanese from Khartum. Such was the government's original view; Gordon appeared to understand his orders; this was what the British public was told to expect. But so great was the enthusiasm, so wild were the hopes, so firm was the faith in the soldier-saint that this understanding of the work to be done became blurred and coloured by what the people wanted and soon came to expect: that Gordon would save the Sudan; that he would avenge the defeat of Hicks Pasha and the Anglo-Egyptian humiliations; that he would punish the rebels, quell the rebellion and restore order. All this was to be done without troops, without financial aid, simply by the magnetism of his personality. What the British public expected came to be what the Government at least hoped for, although this was never officially admitted, and what Gordon himself thought he could do. Of course, no one had any real conception of the true situation in the Sudan. Baring knew more than most, but not enough to argue convincingly against Gordon’s appointment. Even had he known the full extent of the Mahdi’s influence and the deterioration of the Egyptian government in the Sudan, it is doubtful if he could have persuaded his superiors in London or the British public to recall the man they now regarded as the British saviour of the Sudan.’

Gladstone and his Cabinet. On his right, Lord Granville.
On Granville’s right the Marquis of Hartington

Thus, in many quarters Gordon emerged as a virtual messiah, the counterweight to his messianic adversary in the Sudan.

The cynical manipulation of Gordon’s mission to further political ends is vividly illustrated by Lytton Strachey: ‘There was a section of the Government which had never become quite reconciled to the policy of withdrawing from the Sudan. To this section - we may call it the imperialist section - which was led, inside the Cabinet, by Lord Hartington, and outside by Lord Wolseley, the policy which really commended itself was the very policy which had been outlined by General Gordon in his interview with Mr Stead and his letter to Sir Samuel Baker. They saw that it might be necessary to abandon some of the outlying parts of the Sudan to the Mahdi; but the prospect of leaving the whole province in his hands was highly distasteful to them; above all, they dreaded the loss of Khartoum. Now, supposing that General Gordon, in response to a popular agitation in the Press, were sent to Khartoum, what would follow? Was it not at least possible that, once there, with his views and his character he would, for some reason or other, refrain from carrying out a policy of pacific retreat? Was it not possible that in that case he might so involve the English Government that it would find itself obliged, almost imperceptibly perhaps, to substitute for its policy of withdrawal a policy of advance? Was it not possible that General Gordon might get into difficulties, that he might be surrounded and cut off from Egypt? If that were to happen, how could the English Government avoid the necessity of sending an Expedition to rescue him? In short, would not the dispatch of General Gordon to Khartoum involve, almost inevitably, the conquest of the Sudan by British troops, followed by a British occupation? And, behind all these questions, a still larger question loomed. The position of the English in Egypt was still ambiguous; the future was obscure; how long, in reality, would an English Army remain in Egypt? Was not one thing, at least, obvious - that if the English were to conquer and occupy the Sudan, their evacuation of Egypt would become impossible.’(6)

Viewed in this light, Gordon’s fateful mission to Khartum was the instrument of a rebellion, within Gladstone’s own party, against the anti-imperialist ‘Little England’ views of their leader.

Gordon arrived in Khartum on 18 February 1884. A force commanded by Maj Gen G Graham was despatched to the eastern Sudan by Wolseley, as the latter thought (erroneously as it proved) that such limited operations would relieve Gordon’s position in Khartum. However, Graham’s two victories at El Teb (29 February 1884) (the very site of Baker’s earlier disastrous defeat) and Tamai (13 March 1884) did not have this effect. The tribes north of Khartum rose in support of the Mahdi and blocked both the Egyptian traffic on the Nile and the Suakin-Berber route (see map 1). Egyptian influence was thus reduced to a tenuously held area in the vicinity of Khartum. The telegraph was silenced. Khartum was cut off.

Map 1

Gordon’s plight in Khartum was not desperate in the early part of 1884. The population of the town comprised some 34 000 inhabitants, of whom 8 000 were armed soldiers. Gordon had access to twelve pieces of ordnance and nine armed paddle boats, which could maintain a running fight along the river. Two million rounds of ammunition had been stored in the town prior to its being isolated, whilst the arsenal was capable of producing a further 40 000 rounds per week. In March Gordon estimated that he had sufficient food for six months, whilst, with the Nile flowing by, there was no problem of water.

Nor was Khartum by any means an impossible situation to defend (see map 2). To the north it was protected by the Blue Nile and to the west by The White Nile; the latter of which, even at low water, was approximately two-thirds of a kilometre in width. By keeping to the centre of the stream the paddle steamers with their light armour plating were in no great danger from the Mahdi’s riflemen on the bank. A strong Egyptian garrison was posted at Omdurman fort on the west bank of the White Nile, whilst the surrounding country was controlled by the Shaiquiya tribe, which was hostile to the Mahdi. The weak point in Khartum’s defences lay in the south, where the town was exposed to the open desert. Here, however, a deep semi-circular trench some five kilometres wide had been dug extending from the White Nile to the Blue. From the outset Gordon concentrated his attention upon this southern flank. Primitive landmines were sewn in the sand, together with thousands of crows feet and broken bottles - the Sudanese had bare feet - and dyed cotton was employed to imitate earthworks whilst new trenches and fortifications were being constructed in the rear. After March 1884 some 30 000 Mahdists laid siege to Khartum but the majority of the Mahdi’s forces remained scattered throughout the Sudan, and through the hot Summer months no serious attempt was made to break through the defences. The Dervishes were content merely to maintain a desultory rifle fire, and the raiding parties that Gordon sent out were often able to return with cattle and maize. His steamers sailed as far north as Berber, and messengers were constantly passing through the lines.

Map 2

(A significant feature of the channel of communications between Khartum and the outside world was the role of Horatio Herbert Kitchener. At this time Kitchener was a major, serving on Wolseley’s intelligence staff. He had proceeded in advance of the desert column and, in August 1884, had established himself at Debbs, on the loop of the Nile, barely 320 kilometres distant from Khartum. From this outpost Kitchener was able to send runners into Khartum with news of the expedition’s approach, and to receive the messages that Gordon sent out. Kitchener maintained this correspondence at considerable risk to his life. He ventured far into the enemy’s territory, sometimes in Arab disguise, and carrying with him a bottle of poison, so that he could commit suicide should he be captured. When, in November 1884, his exploits were revealed to the press, an aura of romantic glamour attached itself to Kitchener; he acquired the reputation that was later to affix itself to Lawrence of Arabia. Gordon later entertained the idea of appointing Kitchener as his successor, and actually sent a letter to Kitchener himself suggesting the latter’s appointment as Governor General. This represents an extraordinary prophetic intuition on Gordon’s part, especially in view of Kitchener’s comparatively junior rank at that time. (Kitchener was appointed Governor General of the Sudan in 1899)).

Gordon, of course, was under no delusion that this state of affairs would endure indefinitely. Two major factors would, with the passage of the ensuing months, inevitably lead to the capture of Khartum unless it was first reached by a relief force. First, food supplies would be exhausted. Second, the Nile, which falls towards the end of the year, would seriously impede any relief force endeavouring to reach Gordon and would also result in a stretch of muddy ground on either, or both, sides of the defences that faced the White and Blue Niles, thus breaking Gordon’s defensive perimeter to the south of Khartum.

The important point to bear in mind is that Gordon was able to escape even as late as September, or possibly even afterwards. Had he availed himself of the opportunity during this six month period, there would have been no relief expedition. For any expeditionary force would be directed towards the sole purpose of saving Gordon and his second-in-command, Col J H D Stewart (who subsequently perished, together with virtually all the remaining Europeans stationed at Khartum, when the steamer Abbas, which left Khartum on 10 September 1884, failed to make its escape). Gordon was fully aware of this fact and of its inescapable corollary; that, had he thus escaped, the Egyptian garrisons at Khartum and other locations in the Sudan would, inevitably, be doomed. Gordon resolutely refused to leave these garrisons to their fate. Unfortunately, this was the very point that the Government of Britain would not accept; it was lack of comprehension of Gordon’s character which was the fundamental source of the tragedy. Gladstone was adamant on the issue. He declared that he would not send a military expedition, and rejected a proposal from Baring that a dash across to Berber should be made by the British forces stationed on the Red Sea coast. Gladstone, totally ignorant of Gordon's character, was under the illusion that Gordon would escape, thus obviating the necessity for a relief expedition. By July 1884, however, Gladstone could no longer resist the growing feeling of public indignation. It was Lord Hartington who precipitated the crisis by informing Gladstone, at the end of July, that he would resign unless an expedition was sent to Khartum. Hartington’s resignation was sufficient to ensure the collapse of the Liberal Government, and Gladstone finally capitulated. On 8 August it was announced that an expeditionary force would be sent to the Sudan, and Parliament voted the sum of £300 000 to defray the costs. Lord Wolseley, the victor of Tel-el-Kebir, was appointed to the command. Gordon’s fears concerning the relief expedition’s objective were amply confirmed in Wolseley’s orders, which had been drafted in Cairo and read as follows:
‘The primary object of the expedition up the valley of the Nile is to bring away General Gordon and Colonel Stewart from Khartoum. When that objective has been secured, no further offensive operations of any kind are to be undertaken.’

His response to Wolseley’s brief is clearly revealed in his journal. He avidly read a copy of the London Standard, dated 15 September 1884, in which Kitchener had wrapped a batch of letters addressed to Gordon. One report in the newspaper evoked the following furious response in his journal:
‘Lord Wolseley seen off at Victoria station, for the Gordon relief expedition?!! NO! for the relief of the Sudanese garrisons ... I declare positively, and once and for all, that I will not leave the Sudan until every one who wants to go down is given the chance to do so, unless a government is established which relieves me of the charge; therefore if any emissary or letter comes here ordering me to come down, ‘I will not obey it but will stay here and fall with town, and run all risks.’

As the Suakin-Berber route was closed, for Graham’s forces to relieve Khartum would involve his force fighting its way across the desert to Berber. Wolseley favoured an all-river route. This involved a journey from Cairo to Khartum of some 2 650 kilometres up a river full of cataracts and, except in time of flood unnavigable by any but small craft. Wolseley’s experience in the Red River Expedition (1870) in Canada had led him to believe that rapid progress could be achieved by means of specially built whaleboats where steamers could not be employed. The alternative was to reach Khartum by Suakin. This necessitated a desert march of approximately 400 kilometres, of which one section of some 80 kilometres was totally waterless; followed by a voyage or further march of some 336 kilometres up the Nile from Berber. Although the military authorities in Berber favoured the latter route, Wolseley’s approach was the one which was finally adopted.

It had become painfully clear that, if Gordon was to be relieved, he must be saved quickly. It was, therefore, decided at Korti to divide the relief force into two columns. One, the desert column under Col Sir H Stewart, was to march overland to Metemmeh, a few miles above Shendi, and there to collect the steamers which Gordon had promised to send from Khartum. The second part of the divided force (the river column) under Maj Gen Earle, was to continue the movement up the Nile Valley, and ultimately to join with Stewart’s forces at Metemmeh. Stewart’s force numbered 1 581 men, 90 horses, 2 880 camels, 340 drivers and four guns. His column consisted of the following units:
The Heavy Camel Regiment (drawn from the 1st and 2nd Life Guards; the Royal Horse Guards; 2nd, 4th and 5th Dragoon Guards; 1st and 2nd Dragoons; 5th and 16th Lancers),
The Guards Camel Regiment (drawn from the Coldstream, Grenadier and Scots Guards, in addition to a detachment of the Royal Marine Light Infantry (RMLI)).
A Mounted Infantry Camel Regiment, comprising a number of small detachments from infantry regiments (including the 3rd King’s Royal Rifle Corps, Connaught Rangers and Gordon Highlanders) and the Royal Scots Greys.
Three troops of the 19th Hussars,
Commissariat and Transport Corps.
Detachments of the Royal Artillery.
Detachments of the Royal Engineers.
A detachment of the naval brigade, commanded by Capt Lord Charles Beresford, who will feature extensively in the following story.
Earle, accompanied by a small naval brigade, started from Korti on 28 December 1884, and Stewart’s main force commenced its advance on 14 January 1885.

Abu Klea, 17 January 1885

On the evening of 16 January 1885 the enemy was first sighted, scouts reporting the Dervishes to be positioned in considerable strength some 2.5 kilometres ahead, posed to intercept communications with the wells of Abu Klea. As the enemy did not attack on the following day, but confined himself to sniping, Col Stewart decided to fight his way to the wells, leaving meanwhile a guard over the baggage in the zeriba (i.e. a fortified position defended by thorn thickets). He formed a square in a clear space some 360 metres in advance of the zeriba. Approximately 100 camels, laden with food, water, ammunition and other supplies were taken. The presence of the camels made the square bulge ominously in various directions, but particularly in the rear. The square contained some 1 200 men (see fig. 1).

Soon after 09h00 on 17 January the square began its advance, continually harrassed by enemy fire. After advancing about a kilometre, a low hill having been cleared, a line of flags was seen planted along the edge of some high grass, not more than 360 metres from one of the flanks of the square. Almost instantly a V-shaped mass of Dervishes, estimated to number 6 000, sprang from their concealed positions preceded by some 40 horsemen. The Dervishes had chosen one of the many moments when the square was in a state of confusion. The right front corner was on a slight rise and a halt had been made to permit the rear face to close up. At the left hand rear corner of the square a gap was yawning as the men of the Heavy Camel Regiment broke ranks to admit the camels and wounded lying at the foot of the slope. Beresford re-positioned his machine gun to a more advantageous position; only to find that, as the square re-dressed its lines, he and the gun crew were left outside it. When the enemy were only some 180 metres from the machine gun, the Gardner jammed. Beresford graphically recounts the situation in his Memoirs, (published in 1914):
‘The captain of the gun (Rhodes, Chief Boatswain’s Mate) and myself unscrewed the plate to clear the barrel, or take the lock of the jammed barrel out, when the enemy were upon us. Rhodes was killed with a spear. Walter Miller, armourer, I also saw killed with a spear at the same moment on my left. I was knocked down in the rear of the gun but uninjured, except for a small spear scratch on the left hand. The crowd and crush of the enemy was very great at this point, and, as I struggled up, I was carried against the face of the square, which was literally pushed back by sheer weight of numbers about twelve paces from the position of the gun. The crush was so great that for the moment few on either side were killed; but, fortunately, this flank of the square had been forced up a very steep little mound, which enabled the rear rank to open a tremendous fire over the heads of the front rank men. This relieved the pressure, and enabled the front rank to bayonet or shoot those of the enemy nearest them. The bullets whizzed close by my head; and one passed through my helmet. The Arabs fell in heaps.’

The Dervishes failed to penetrate the square at this point (the left rear corner) and the Gardner and Beresford (the sole surviving member of the gun crew) were soon within the square. However, perceiving that this particular point of the square was now impregnable, the enemy surged around the left rear corner, passed along the rear for a short distance, and then burst in. The irruption was brief (not a single intruder surviving). (The entire engagement, commencing from the charge, consumed no more time than 10 minutes). The Dervishes withdrew slowly under the British fire until they were screened by a nullah and hillock. Total British casualties were nine officers and 65 men killed, and a further nine officers and 85 men wounded (many severely). Enemy casualties were estimated to be 2 000. It is with justice that Winston Churchill, writing in 1899 (The River War) described the battle at Abu Klea as ‘the most savage and bloody action ever fought in the Sudan by British troops.’

Abu Kru, 18 January 1885
The Nile was sighted on 18 January 1885, and Metemmeh on the left front. Unfortunately, Col Stewart sighted the river at a point where he could be observed by a large Sudanese garrison, which proceeded to pour a heavy fire upon the column. In this fire Col Stewart was mortally wounded. The attempt to capture Metemmeh was abandoned on 21 January, upon the column receiving news that a large enemy force was about to attack the relief column. This information was conveyed by the crews of Gordon’s treasured steamers, the Bordein, Safieh, Tewfikieh and Telahawiyeh, which had travelled down the Nile from Khartum. (The Bordein, which left Khartum, under heavy fire, on 15 December 1884, contained the very last message which Gordon communicated to the outside world. It read:

‘Now mark this, if the Expeditionary Force, and I ask no more than two hundred men, does not come in ten days, the town may fall; and I have done my best for the honour of my country. Good-bye.
You send me no information, though you have lots of money. CGG.’

The Bordein also contained documents invaluable for posterity; viz. Gen Gordon’s journal, sewed up in a cloth. Upon the wrapper Gordon wrote: ‘Events at Khartoum. General Gordon’s Journal. No secrets as far as I am concerned. To be pruned down if published. C.G. Gordon.’)

Wilson’s relief force and the fall of Khartum
Despite abandoning the attempt to capture Metemmeh, Sir Charles Wilson (who had assumed command on Stewart’s death), started for Khartum on 24 January 1885, with the Bordein and Telahawiyeh, 20 British soldiers and 260 Sudanese. Predictably, this force encountered delay, and, ultimately, disaster. On 25 January the Bordein grounded, to be grounded again on the following day. Twenty four invaluable hours were thus lost. At llh00 on 28 January Khartum was at length sighted only to reveal the green flag of the Mahdi flying above it. It had fallen on 26 January, Gordon having been killed.

By mid-January 1885 the situation at Khartum had become desperate, starvation having become a daily spectre; hundreds lay dead and dying in the streets, there being nobody to bury them. On 5 January Gordon had been compelled to agree to the surrender of the fort at Omdurman. The falling Nile had, predictably, left a stretch of muddy ground to the side of the defences that faced the White Nile. Along this strip of land, unprotected by wall or ditch, the Dervish army passed just before dawn on 26 January 1885, pouring into Khartum. Some 50 000 Dervishes burst into the town. Barely four kilometres separated the palace from the point where the defences had been breached. According to Bordeini Bey, a prominent merchant and one of Gordon’s principal supporters, who survived the sack of Khartum, Gordon was waken by the sound of gunfire and, after the tribesmen had broken into the palace, he went to his room and changed into his white uniform, arming himself with a revolver and sword. He then went to the head of the stairs, ‘standing in a calm and dignified manner, his left hand resting on the hilt of his sword.’ Within seconds he was speared to death. Later his head was cut off and taken away in a handkerchief to Omdurman to be displayed before the Mahdi. (The General’s death proved to be a disappointment to the Mahdi, for he had hoped to make a prisoner of Gordon and to chain him until he proclaimed his conversion to Islam, as was the case with Slatin). The ensuing massacre endured for some four hours, at the end of which approximately 4 000 inhabitants had been massacred and many others enslaved.

It is, perhaps, one of the great unresolved ‘ifs’ of histony to pose the question: had the relief force reached Khartum before 26 January 1885, would Gordon have agreed to escape and leave the majority of the city’s inhabitants to their fate? The writer contends that Gordon would have refused to save himself in such circumstances. The entire tenor of his journal entries is clear evidence of this. Such a course of action would have been a total antithesis of his personality. This view is confirmed by the fact that the steamer Ismailia was situated only 275 metres from the palace gate at the time that the Dervishes burst into Gordon’s residence. The captain got up steam and waited for as long as he dared for Gordon to come. Even at this critical moment, therefore, the means for Gordon’s escape were available, but not used. (The captain of the steamer was offered a pardon by the Mahdi and returned to his home, only to find his wife and son murdered).

However, had the relief expedition reached Khartum before the Dervish capture of the city, it is highly improbable that Gordon would have been faced with such a choice. For the arrival of the relief expedition, despite its paucity of numbers, would undoubtedly have lifted the siege. Even during the final few weeks of Khartum’s defence, when the position of the defenders had become desperate in the extreme, the Mahdi was still most reluctant to attack the town. He had an extreme fear of British soldiers and Father Ohrwalder, who was at that time a prisoner of the Mahdi, asserts that the mere appearance of 20 British soldiers at Khartum would have entirely undermined his resolution. Indeed, when the news of the Dervish defeat at Abu Klea reached Omdurman (which had been captured by Mahdist forces on 5 January 1885), a mood approaching panic pervaded the Mahdist camp and, Ohrwalder states, the Mahdi himself was in favour of retreating at once to Kordofan.

In the event, Wilson’s force was two days late. The steamers reconnoitred a little further up the river (as far as the island of Tuti (see map 2)), at the junction the Blue and White Niles); and then, turning around, began their return voyage under heavy fire. The loyalty of the Sudanese troops at this juncture was, to be charitable, questionable. On 29 January the Telahiweyah was wrecked, and her crew, guns and ammunition had to be transferred to a nuggar (a large flat bottomed barge). On 31 January the Bordein was also wrecked off the island of Mernat, some 48 kilometres south of Gubat and a short distance above Wad-Habeshni; everything in her had to be landed and the island made as defensible as possible.

Rescue of Wilson’s relief force
With small detachments from the naval brigade and with 20 marksmen from the mounted infantry, Beresford began his advance up the river on the steamer Safieh, to rescue Wilson’s party. His armament consisted of two Gardner machine guns and two 4-pounder brass mountain guns. The Safieh could steam at the rate of some 2,5 knots per hour[sic] only; so, even if navigation had been unimpeded, progress would have been extremely slow. Early on 3 February the Safieh sighted the 3-gun Dervish fort at Wad Habeshni, which put a shot into the steamer’s boiler. Between 19h00 and 20h00 the Gardner silenced the only Dervish gun that could bring fire upon the steamer after she had anchored on the bank opposite the fort, some 450 metres distant from it. Undoubtedly, this silencing of the fort’s guns saved the steamer from destruction.

Wilson’s party slipped past the fort in the darkness, the sick and wounded being transported in a nuggar (which, although fired on, suffered little damage) and the remainder marching along the opposite bank. The enemy were deceived into believing that both the Safieh and the nugger had been abandoned; the result being that the enemy fire ceased for the night. The damaged boiler had cooled by llh00 and was eventually repaired, amidst great difficulties, by Chief Engineer Henry Benbow, who went to work on it as soon as it could be touched. (Beresford later stated that he would have recommended Benbow for the Victoria Cross but was under the impression that the latter’s service was not of the type that would have qualified for the award. Benbow was later promoted to be Inspector of Machinery). At 05h00 on 4 February the fires of the boiler were re-lit; every precaution having been taken, however, to raise steam as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. At 05h50, when day was about to break and all was ready, the Dervishes realized that the Safieh had not been deserted and brought the guns to bear upon the steamer; but, before they could open fire, Beresford weighed anchor and proceeded up the river, as if steaming for Khartum. He only travelled for some half a kilometre until, finding a place in which he could turn in safety, put about and steamed past the fort at the highest speed possible, using his rifles and machine guns with maximum effect. Below the fort he found the nuggar aground, with the sick and wounded still in her and within range of the Dervish guns. At length both steamer and nuggar were able to move down to the area where Wilson, with his party, were awaiting them. All were taken on board, and at 17h45 the camp at Gubat - the main base of the relief force at this time - was reached.

This episode of the rescue of Wilson’s relief force has been discussed in some detail not because it provides an illustration of the best tradition of heroic British improvisation counteracting a tragic climax, but mainly because it involved a decisive psychological victory against the Mahdi’s forces at a critical juncture in the fortunes of the desert column. It should be borne in mind that the capture of Khartum had cemented the Mahdi’s control over the entire region. In point of fact, he had despatched an army of some 30 000 men against Gubat. However, the rescue of Wilson’s ill-starred expedition restored British prestige in the eyes of the Dervishes to such an extent that the commander of the latter restrained his forces until the British had quit the neighbourhood of the river. The fact that the extremely vulnerable force at Gubat was not attacked is an index of the extent of Beresford’s psychological victory.

Beresford ended his career as Admiral Lord Beresford of Metemmeh and Curraghmore, GCB, GCVO. He was made a Companion of the Bath (CB) for his service in this Campaign.

The command of the desert column devolved upon Maj Gen (as he then was) Sir Redvers Buller, who left Korti on 29 January 1885 and reached Gubat on 11 February, together with six companies of the Royal Irish Regiment. Buller decided upon withdrawal in order to avert even greater disaster, and the column retreated to Korti via the Jakdul Wells. Maj Gen Earle’s river column which, to reiterate, left Korti on 28 December 1884, encountered great difficulties in its progress up the Nile. On 10 February 1885 it defeated some 800 tribesmen at Kirkeban; but, among the 60 British killed in the action was Earle himself. His successor, Col H Brackenbury, received orders to retire and, accordingly, withdrew to Korti on 8 March 1885. In May 1885 British forces totally evacuated the Sudan save for the small Red Sea enclave of Suakin, which was henceforth left to the protection of a small Anglo-Indian garrison and the men-of-war in the harbour. The remaining Egyptian garrisons in the Sudan soon capitulated, Kassala surrendering to Osman Dinga in August 1885.

Gordon’s death also led to the fall of Gladstone’s Liberal Government. Gladstone’s epithet - GOM (Grand Old Man) - was changed to MOG (Murderer of Gordon). He was hissed when he went to the theatre and for three weeks crowds in Downing Street hooted at and jeered him. A music hall song predicted that when he died, ‘he would sit in state on a red hot plate between Pilate and Judas Iscariot’. Soon afterwards some of his closest colleagues turned against him on the issue of reducing armaments, and the Government fell.

The failure of the Gordon relief expedition does much to rectify the false impression - which enjoys a wide currency of belief - that Victorian military campaigns consisted of an unbroken chain of successes with little loss in blood to British troops and their allies. The First South African War of Independence of 1880-1881 is generally considered to be the outstanding exception to this rule, but the ill-fated expedition to relieve Gordon was a far more protracted failure, if one considers the duration of the campaign to have commenced with the battle of El Teb (29 February 1884) and to have ended in April 1885. Moreover, the casualties in the upper echelons of command were particularly heavy. It will be recalled that the commanders of both the desert and river columns (Stewart and Earle respectively), were killed in action. Moreover, several senior officers were killed, including Col Burnaby of the ‘Blues’ (Royal Horse Guards) and Cdr Piggott, both killed at Abu Klea. (The colourful Col F G Burnaby had, among other exploits, crossed the English Channel alone in a balloon less than three years before. Burnaby had requested permission to join the relief expedition, but the request had been refused. Burnaby presented himself nevertheless, and Wolseley regarded him as a valuable addition. It had been agreed that, should Stewart become a casualty, Burnaby would assume command of the desert column). Further Sir Charles Wilson, Stewart’s successor, and Beresford, came close to being killed in the rescue of Wilson’s relief expedition; whilst Beresford only narrowly escaped death at Abu Klea.

The vulnerability of the traditional British square, which was clearly apparent in this Campaign, crystallizes this startling exception to traditional Victorian military campaigns. The square which had proved so invulnerable at Gingindlovu (1879), Ulundi (1879) and El Teb (1884), was broken upon several occasions in the Sudanese campaign (i.e. at Tamai at Abu Klea and also at Tofrik (22 March 1885)). There is a natural tendency to find the square comic, an emblem of the obsolescent character of British military tactics. This is very far from being true within the context of the ‘little wars’ that characterize 19th Century British military history. In these campaigns, in which the British were greatly inferior in numbers but vastly superior in discipline and fire power, the square was an excellent tactical instrument. A formation which presented a front on all four sides possessed obvious advantages; provided that the enemy had no artillery and were prepared to obligingly charge the square in mass - as, indeed, invariably proved to be the case during this period. With effective artillery, small arms and machine gun fire the square, in which men were drawn up shoulder to shoulder, was a dangerous target to attack. However, the efficacy of the square suffered when it was used in an offensive, as opposed to a defensive, role; as when Stewart was forced into the far more difficult operation of employing his square for attack purposes at Abu Klea. A square advancing forward had to maintain the same pace on all sides if great gaps were not to appear, making one side straggle or bulge; and the normal method of keeping the square intact was to regulate the speed of the front face at regular intervals, in order that the following ranks could catch up with it. This operation was never easy; at Abu Klea it was made even more difficult by the Guards’ violation of one of the most fundamental principles underlying square formation viz, that the square must never on any account break ranks.

The problems of logistics and supply confronting many Victorian military commanders are highlighted in this Campaign. Water was obviously a fundamental problem confronting and continually besetting the Gordon relief force. The shorter land route to Khartum from Suakin was ultimately judged to be impractical due to the problems of water whilst the difficulties of pursuing a purely river route led to the division of the relief force into two columns. When for example, the desert column encamped at Gubat, some of the horses had had no water for two, and most of the camels no water for five, days.

The subsequent re-conquest of the Sudan (1896-1898) under Kitchener occurred within the context of a far more sophisticated military technology. With regard to the weapons involved, the Maxim machine gun and bolt-action Lee Metford rifle were greatly superior to the crank handle operated Gardner and Gatlings, and the falling block single shot Martini-Henrys. With regard to weapons, it is of interest to note the poor performance of the naval brigade’s Gardner guns in the course of the Campaign, jamming at both Abu Klea and Tamai. These guns were theoretically capable of firing 120 rounds per minute from each of their five barrels; but were not as reliable as the older Gatlings and were eventually replaced by Nordenfeldts. Further, the camel borne baggage trains encumbering the desert columns in 1885 were largely replaced by the railway system developed by Kitchener in the course of his Campaign a decade later. (Indeed, the Sudan Campaign of 1896-1898 has often been termed as ‘the war the railway won’).

Ultimately, the reason for the failure of the Gordon relief expedition must lie in the political dimension; i.e. with Gladstone’s faulty judgement. As soon as it was apparent that Khartum was isolated, Gladstone should have despatched an expeditionary force, without the fateful delay of almost four months. He should have realized that, once Gordon was in no position to retreat down the Nile, the Governor General’s personality was such that he would not escape and abandon the garrison under his command. An expeditionary force, in view of the public clamour that had initially prompted Gordon’s mission, became inevitable from that point onwards. Indeed, although even informed opinion in England was ignorant concerning the true situation in the Sudan, Gladstone could easily have pre-empted the entire situation from arising by deciding clearly upon one of two alternatives. Either Gordon should not have been sent or, if he were sent, he should have been accompanied by a powerful expeditionary force. It is extremely doubtful as to whether such an expeditionary force could have re-conquered the Sudan, in view of the logistical problems that would confront such a force at that period of time (although Gordon would no doubt have attempted to implement this objective). However, there is every reason to believe that such an expeditionary force could have secured Khartum and its environs and maintained communications with Lower Egypt via the Nile. The awe in which British soldiers were held by the Mahdi and his forces, referred to above, strongly substantiates such a view.

However, by refusing to face the only possible alternatives in this issue, and yielding to a campaign engineered by covert rebels within his own party, allied to powerful sections of the press, Gladstone created a scenario from which he could not withdraw after March 1884; that he attempted to do so was the ultimate source of Gordon’s death and the fall of Khartum. The delay incurred by his faltering policy is all the more poignant when one considers that Wilson’s relief force reached Khartum only two days late.

It is indeed curious that Wolseley was one of the leading protagonists of Gordon’s mission; in so far as he found himself in Gordon’s position - an envoy of the British Government with no military power whatsoever - in Ashanti Land in 1873, and fully realized the dangers attendant upon such a situation. (Fortunately, on that occasion, Wolseley had the immediate assistance of naval brigades, and an expeditionary force was despatched shortly afterwards).

It is often overlooked that, some 80 years before the ‘winds of change’ in a climate of expansive European imperialism, the Sudan completely and successfully ejected its European rulers, the first African country ever to do so. Since the 1850s the White and Blue Niles had been made increasingly accessible to European explorers and, by an inevitable corollary, to Christian settlement. The Mahdist revolt represents the first major Moslem reaction to that Europeanizing process. Admittedly, the Mahdi died (of natural causes) in 1885, and the newly found independence of the Sudan only endured for a further 13 years, until Omdurman was recaptured by Kitchener. However, it was, perhaps, the Mahdi rather than the subsequent Christian conqueror of the Sudan, who was more attuned to the future. Churchill, in his work, The River War revealed great historical acumen when he discerned in the Mahdi one of the great ancestors of 20th Century nationalism.

Sources referred to in the text
1. Moorhead, Alan. The White Nile. rev ed. Harmondsworth (Middx), Penguin, 1973, p 218.
2. Quoted by Johnson, Peter. Front Line Artists. London, Cassell, 1978, p. 4.
3. Gordon, Gen C.G. The Journals of Maj-Gen. C.G. Gordon, GB, at Khartoum. London, Kegan Paul, 1885.
4. Quoted by Moorhead, Alan. op cit item 1. above, p. 22
5. Farwell, Byron, Prisoners of the Mahdi. London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1967, p. 81.
6. Strachey, Lytton, Eminent Victorians. London, Glasgow, Collins, 1970 (first published 1918), p 239-240.

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