The End of Khartoum

General Gordon did not imagine that such extraordinary digressions from the military essentials of a campaign journal would ever be published. Indeed, each of his original volumes contains many sections, some as long as eleven pages of manuscript, struck through in pen or pencil as an indication that they were to be ‘pruned out’. But he did expect at least parts of the journal to be made public as some form of official document.

Indeed, it was with an eye to the eventual inclusion of his journal’s salient parts in a government dossier that he included a specific advisory note to Wolseley about the different treatment of public and private material when he despatched Volume 6 by steamer to Metemma. ‘Since departure 10 Sept of Lt. Col. Stewart CMG,’ he wrote, ‘I have kept a daily journal of all events at Kartoum, which contains also my private opinions on certain facts, which perhaps it is just as well you should know confidentially. You can, of course, make extracts of all official matter, and will naturally leave my private opinions out in the case of publication.’

This assumption that the diary’s most controversial elements would be deemed of value by senior officers and, possibly, a wider readership, demonstrated considerable vanity on the part of a man who professed to have little interest in material reward or celebrity. Yet the journals represented Gordon’s best chance to win vindication for his own philosophical and military arguments. On a personal basis, those arguments centred on a moral opposition to Gladstone’s own unshakeable determination on foreign non-interference. It was Gordon’s position that personal morality and national honour should preclude the possibility of abandoning allies, let alone subordinates, in the face of enemy attack.

More practically relevant in the imperial context, Gordon also argued that the withdrawal policy would not only drive all Sudanese into the arms of the Mahdī, but also embolden like-minded Muslims to mount similar uprisings in Egypt, the Ottoman possessions and even in British India. ‘It cannot be too strongly impressed on the public,’ he argued on 17 September, ‘that it is not the Mahdi’s forces which are to be feared, but the rising of the populations by his emissaries.’ Few overtly contradicted this argument, although Sir Alfred Lyall, then Chief Commissioner of Oudh in British India, had earlier written: ‘The Mahdi’s fortunes do not interest India. The talk in some of the papers about the necessity of smashing him, in order to avert the risk of some general Mahomedan uprising, is futile and imaginative.’

This, therefore, obligated a middle path between Gladstone’s stubborn policy of ‘minimum engagement, zero responsibility’ on the one hand and aggressive, Conservative-style imperial expansion on the other. Gordon’s solution was that the least interventionist solution was to use Turkey as a counter to the Mahdī. On this point, Gordon revealed a profound lack of empathy with the Sudanese and a continuing failure to comprehend the nature of either the Mahdī or the uprising he led, just as he had in his pre-mission analysis of the situation in Sudan and in his absurd proposal to buy off the Mahdī with the offer of the Sultanate of Kordofan.

The widespread cross-community support for the Mahdī’s rebellion had its roots in decades of hatred for the Ottoman/Egyptian occupation, derided collectively by Sudanese as al-Turkīa, the ‘Era of the Turks’. Gordon failed to see any irony in proposing to combat a rebellion against those ‘Turks’ by sending in & the Turks! But the opportunity to address military and civilian supporters through the journals prompted endlessly reworked justifications for Gordon’s proposal of an indigenous administration under al-Zubeir Raḥma Manṣūr. Subsidising al-Zubeir with Turkish military backing, he argued, would be far cheaper than a full-scale British military mission. In fact, Gordon had written to Sultan Abdülhamit II in April, asking for 3,000 Turkish troops to head off the spreading menace posed by the Mahdī:

Your Majesty as head of the Mussulmin [sic] Faith must know far better than I do, that the False Prophet threatens Your Majesty’s spiritual authority, and that if he is allowed to capture Kartoum and the other towns which now hold out, he will by his emissaries, raise the Hedjaz, Syria, Palestine and Damascus& . If the beleaguered towns [in Sudan] fall, Your Majesty may be sure that all the Hedjaz will rise, for the False Prophet’s prestige will be then immense. We can hold out for five months, and I believe if Your Majesty sends these men these men will not have to fire a shot, the rebels will dissolve as ice before fire.

Similar letters were dashed off to the Emperors of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia, the King of Italy and to Pope Leo XIII. To these dignitaries, Gordon presented a variation on his fund-raising scheme: ‘Is it possible for Your Majesties to relax your laws,’ he wrote, ‘and let your subjects volunteer to come to our succour, and could not Your Majesties allow volunteer subscription to cover the expenses. The questions is one of civilization agst the worse form of ascetic fanaticism, headed by an impious adventurer, who is condemned by the very religion, he claims to belong to.’

As for Wolseley’s relief force, Gordon’s running commentary on its function serves not least to draw attention to its dismally slow progress. Confirmation that such an expedition was at least underway came to Khartoum only on 18 September 1884, when spies from Shendi reported ‘the arrival of troops at Dongola, and their advance towards Berber’.28 Gordon was categorical in refusing to accept that its primary function was to rescue him.

I altogether decline the imputation that the projected expedition has come to relieve me. It has come to SAVE OUR NATIONAL HONOUR, in extricating the garrisons, &c., from a position our action in Egypt has placed these garrisons: I was a relief expedition No 1, 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 the 1st Relief expedition was to bolt, & the steamers fell into hands of the Mahdi, the 2nd Relief Expedition (for the honour of England, engaged in extricating garrisons) would be somewhat hampered. We the 1st and 2nd Expeditions are equally engaged for honour of England. This is fair logic. I came up to extricate garrisons, and failed. [Wolseley] comes up to extricate garrisons & (I hope) succeeds. [Wolseley] does not come up to extricate me. The extrication of the garrisons was supposed to affect our national honour& . I am not the “rescued lamb”, and I will not be.

Cross-referring Gordon’s journal entries, each written in an increasingly fraught atmosphere of isolation, deprivation and violence, with those in Wolseley’s own campaign diary makes for a riveting juxtaposition of desperation and complacency. The day Gordon assumed responsibility for the Khartoum log, the first batch of special boats for Wolseley’s relief expedition had left Britain. Wolseley himself had only arrived in Cairo the previous day. By 18 September, when Gordon first heard about the Relief Expedition, its commander was still in Cairo, enjoying dinner with the Khedive and a firework show after-wards. Wolseley did not head south until the evening of 27 September, travelling by rail to Assyūt.

On 4 October, Gordon notched up another day of siege in his journal: ‘Today is the 206th day, we have been more or less shut up. Delightful life!’ Wolseley, meanwhile, had made it only as far as Korosko, a point from which a desert crossing direct to Abū-Ḥamad and thence to Berber was still an option and where he found Kitchener’s small detachment of roving scouts. Seventeen days later Gordon embarked on the fifth volume of his journal, scribbling grimly on the flimsy unlined paper that the Mahdī had at last reached Omdurman. The British expeditionary force, meanwhile, was stuck at Wādī-Ḥalfāʾ, ‘struggling with difficulties of transport, lack of coal, and administrative hitches’. Despite his refusal to be ‘the rescued lamb’, Gordon’s journal is peppered with obsessive calculations as to the likely arrival date of the rescue force:

I calculate that the advance force of troops arrived at Wadi Halfa on 22 Sept, that they took 20 days from there to Debba, so that on 12 Oct, they were at Debba (Stewart (D.V.) arrived Debba on the 28th Sept.) and I calculate they could not be at Metemma – Shendy, before 10 Novr which will give them 29 days for 150 Miles, thence it is 5 days here for a steamer so that 15 Novr ought to see them, or their advance guard.

These estimates, possibly based on Gordon’s own hectic pace of travel through inhospitable terrain, were far too optimistic. That very day, Wolseley was still at the 2nd Cataract, known locally as the Bāb al-Kabīr or ‘great gate’, arguing with the Royal Navy over its ‘management of our boats’ and with Thomas Cook & Son over coal supplies, while Butler struggled to manhandle the whalers over the immense black boulders of the rapids.38 Wolseley would not reach Dongola until 3 November, Ambukol on 12 December, al-Dabba on 15 December and Kūrti – still 285 miles from Khartoum by the Nile route – ‘in the evening of the 16th December 1884’, two days after Gordon’s final surviving diary entry.

Decr 14. Arabs fired 2 shells at Palace this morning. 546 ardebs [2736 bushels] Dhoora! in store, also 83525 okes [233,670 lb.] of Biscuit! 10.30 A.M. The steamers are down at Omdaraman, engaging the Arabs, consequently I am on tenter hooks! 11.20 A.M. Steamers returned, the “Bordeen” was struck by a shell, in her battery, we had only one man wounded. [Remainder of line deleted]

We are going to send down “Bordeen” tomorrow, with this journal. If I was in command of the 200 men of Expeditionary Force, which are all that are necessary for movement, I should stop just below Halfyeh & attack Arabs at that place before I came on here to Kartoum. I should then communicate with North Fort, and act according to circumstances. NOW MARK THIS, if Expeditionary Force, and I ask for no more than 200 men does not come in 10 days, the town may fall, and I have done my best for the honour of our country. Good bye. C. G. Gordon.

Could Khartoum could have been relieved had Wolseley been removed from command and a more direct route taken? On 3 October 1884, The Times reported in an editorial ‘a statement so startling that, notwithstanding the unimpeachable source from which it proceeds, we give it with considerable reserve. The statement of our Correspondent is that LORD WOLSELEY has been summoned to return to London before the end of the present month, and that the command of the Nile expedition will be assumed, on LORD WOLSELEY’s departure, by GENERAL STEPHENSON& . But the recall of LORD WOLSELEY would clearly mean a material change of policy, and the step, however it may be explained, would therefore be regarded by the country with very grave anxiety.’

The report was picked up in later editions the same day by almost every newspaper in Britain and Ireland. Word travelled fast and on 4 October, Wolseley, by now at Korosko, wrote to his wife to describe how he had received ‘a telegram from the Central News saying the Times states I have been recalled, and asking if it be true. What a curious rumour!’ That same day, an official denial was issued by the military command in Cairo. Parliament was not in session at the time but by 30 October, a week after the House of Commons resumed business, Gladstone was able to express his government’s ‘perfect confidence in his [Wolseley’s] ability and skill’.

Still, even if the politicians had not wavered, the Queen was deeply dissatisfied with the general’s progress and did not hesitate to tell him so. Wolseley’s subsequent letter to his wife Louise reveals not just his anger at the monarch’s intervention, but his still complacent attitude to the mission in hand.

I am brimfull [sic] of wrath at a letter from the Q which I enclose. She could scarcely have written a General in the field a nastier letter: so ungracious, so ungenerous& . As she is the Queen, I cannot argue with her, so I mean to stop writing to her. She owes me a great deal, I owe her nothing. Every reward I have received has been drawn from Her at the point of the bayonet. I expect Sir C. Wilson with two steamers & about 100 soldiers & 50 of the Rl. Navy to reach Khartoum next Tuesday the 20th instant, and that Wilson will get back to Matammeh or before on evening of 27th or morning of 28th. On the news he brings will depend all my future movements.

Wolseley’s survival may have prompted Gladstone’s opponents to look for a more radical policy reversal in the shape of a reassertion of British military strength in eastern Sudan. The rationale here was twofold: a flanking manoeuvre to draw away the Mahdī’s forces, who might otherwise be massed to resist Wolseley’s advance; and the provision of a shorter exit route to Sawākīn. As always, The Times was swift to comment scathingly on the Gladstonian record in foreign affairs. On 5 January 1885, with Wolseley still labouring upriver, an editorial called on Gladstone to resign, as ‘our interests, not in Egypt alone, but throughout the whole of the Imperial system, are suffering from a dangerous paralysis of will. If MR. GLADSTONE and LORD GRANVILLE & are fatally crippled, for decision and action, by personal engagements, at a crisis so vital, they must be prepared – hard though the saying may be – to make way for others who are not similarly incapacitated.’

Hamilton, who knew the way things worked, noted the unfairness of Granville being made the scapegoat: ‘The policy is Mr. G.’s; and he would be the last to palm off the responsibility for it on a colleague. The prevalent idea is that Mr. G. won’t trouble himself about foreign matters like Egypt; whereas it is Egypt, and nothing but Egypt, which occupies his thoughts.’ But Gladstone was frequently absent and when the cabinet met on 7 January 1885 to debate intensifying British military involvement through a new push from Sawākīn, ‘it was,’ as Kimberley noted, ‘left to Hartington to exercise his discretion after consulting Wolseley’.

Gladstone, at home at Hawarden Hall, was horrified. ‘We have already performed once, of course with loss, & with frightful slaughter of most gallant Arabs in two bloody battles, this operation of ‘pacifying’ the Eastern Soudan, & I am very loath to have another such pacification, & quite unable to see how it is to be better or more effective& . what I think we ought to know is whether Wolseley upon his own responsibility deems a new expedition through Suakim against Osman Digna requisite for the efficiency & success of his own expedition against Khartoum.’ On the specific point of retaining possession of Sawākīn itself indefinitely, Gladstone categorically restated standing policy: any British deployment ‘will be sent as in no way to fetter the Cabinet with reference to ulterior occu-pation’. It was another brief policy wobble, but Gladstone had reasserted control and with his explicit disapproval the initiative died on the vine.

It was Augustus Wylde, writing in Sawākīn in 1887, who observed that ‘no pen or brush will ever be able to relate or depict the last horrors at Khartoum’.51 Without Gordon’s final volume of journal, describing forty-two miserable days between 15 December 1884 and 25 January 1885, Wylde’s is an accurate summary of the information gap in English. Arabic sources, however, are available. Bordeini Bey, a grain merchant in Khartoum, produced a vivid account, in which he described the surrender on 5 January 1885 of the small garrison under Farajallah Rāghib at Fort Omdurman, the desperate scouring of Khartoum’s warehouses for any remaining grain, the collection of all available ammunition and powder in the stone-built Catholic church near the Governor-General’s mansion and Gordon’s preparation of a small steamer, the Muḥammad ʿAlī, as an escape vessel for the city’s leading officials (though not for himself).

Bordeini’s account culminated in the ‘heavy despair’ of what was to be for many residents their last day alive: ‘It was a gloomy day, that last day in Khartoum; hundreds lay dead and dying in the streets from starvation, and there were none to bury them’. Kitchener, too, was privy to intelligence from Arabic-speaking sources who revealed that famine in the city had prompted Gordon to send more than half the civilian population out of Khartoum during the first week of January 1885, there to await the Mahdī’s mercy:

The state of the garrison was then desperate from want of food; all the donkeys, dogs, cats, rats, &c., had been eaten; a small ration of grain was issued daily to the troops, and a sort of bread was made from pounded palm tree fibres& . Gordon continually visited the posts, and personally encouraged the soldiers to stand firm; it was said during this period that he never slept.

After so many months of determined resistance, Gordon launched his last desperate military sortie on 18 January 1884. With his troops hugely outnumbered, short of ammunition and incapacitated by hunger, failure was inevitable and triggered a bitter row five days later between Gordon and his senior Egyptian staff officers, General Faraj al-Zeini, Colonel Ḥassan al-Bahnasāwī and Bakhīt Butraki, the latter commanding the still–loyal Shaiqīa militiamen known as ‘Bashi-bazouks’. That same day, 23 January, the civilian City Council met to discuss surrender. It must have been the power of Gordon’s personality, coupled with a glimmer of hope that the British rescue force might yet arrive in time, that persuaded the fearful and starving dignitaries of Khartoum to agree to hold out further. Gordon’s spies had alerted him three days earlier to the steady advance of the Relief Expedition. But few could have doubted that the end was near.

When the end did come, during the night of 25-26 January, Gordon himself was ‘slightly ill’ and his famished troops had either abandoned their posts on the broken walls to search for food in town or, weakened by malnutrition, maintained position on the fortifications but in no condition to resist the advance of the Mahdī’s army under cover of the early morning darkness. One anomalous but interesting account current in Omdurman in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Khartoum, relayed by a Hausa pilgrim from West Africa named only as Abūbakar, claims that Gordon was captured alive but grievously wounded and describes the Mahdī’s anger at the general’s subsequent murder.

The Pasha, he said he would not run away till he was captured. He was struck with a gun; he was pierced with a sword and a spear; he was struck with a stone. The Mahdi had said, ‘He must not be killed, he must be brought before me; men do not kill a king in war’. When the Pasha said he would not go to the place of the Mahdi, all the Mahdi’s men struck him. The Mahdi, when he heard it, said, ‘Let his head be brought’. It was cut off, his body was thrown into the river. When his head was brought to the Mahdi he said, ‘Close his eyes’. He said, ‘You have done a wicked thing; why did you kill him?’ He was angry; he rose up, he returned to his camp in the evening.

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