War in a Wilderness
Part 1The Siege of Khartoum
By Farwell Forrest
A Note to the Reader
We've all heard it said that history repeats itself. It doesn't, of
course. Life's too complicated for that. But it does come close
from time to time. Today, as American planes bomb Osama bin Laden's
forces in Afghanistan, we look back on an earlier "War in a Wilderness,"
a war which brought Orkney boatmen and French-Canadian voyageurs
face to face with the army of an earlier warrior-prophet.
October 23, 2001
A fading superpower grows weak and totters
toward collapse. In a restive province on the margins of its eroding
empire, a puppet government restores order for a time, but its subject
peoples are soon abandoned to the mercy of a succession of venal military
governors, who rob and murder with impunity. The people endure their
growing misery with great patience, but at last they rebel, rallying
behind the banner of a fanatic warrior-prophet from the desert. At the
same time, an up-and-coming superpower, its supremacy now beyond
challenge, welcomes the new world order, while failing to appreciate the
dangers it brings in its wake. Military and diplomatic reverses then
follow in quick succession, culminating in an atrocity that captures the
attention of the world. War is declared, and the atrocity is avenged. But
a new century dawns with the global balance of power forever changed, and
the prospect of many more wars to come.
No, this isn't a pessimistic summing-up of today's headlines. The
events I've just described took place in the last half of the nineteenth
century. The fading superpower was the Ottoman Empire, the second
superpowerthe ascending starwas Great Britain, and the
restive province was the region around the headwaters of the Nile known
as the Sudan. And the warrior-prophet? He was an ascetic named Muhammad
Ahmad, better known to his followers as the Mahdi: the One Who is Guided
by God, the Long-Expected One. Nor were the Mahdi's admirers to be found
only among the desperate peoples of the desert. In the words of a young
British cavalry officer and occasional newspaper correspondent, writing
in 1899, the Mahdi was "foremost among the heroes of his race." And who
was this young officer, so generous in the praise he heaped on his
country's enemy? None other than Winston Spencer Churchill.
In 1884, however, Churchill had yet to eulogize the Mahdi, and the
Expected One's followers were on a collision course with the world's
greatest superpower, then de facto colonial administrator of Egypt
and Sudan. Having just learned of a disastrous defeat in the desert at
Kashgil, in which a 1,700-man force of Egyptian troops under the command
of a former colonial officer was annihilated by the Mahdi's army, the
British government decided that the time had come to evacuate all
Egyptians from the Sudan, soldiers and civil servants alike. The man they
sent to do the job was a popular hero and a former governor-general of
the province, Charles "Chinese" Gordon.
"Chinese" Gordonhe acquired his unusual honorific in crushing
the Taiping rebellion, at the head of an international force known as the
"Ever-Victorious Army"was a brilliant eccentric, inspired and
infuriating by turns. In the eyes of many colorless bureaucrats and
cautious politicians, he was not a happy choice. He was a man who, in
Churchill's ironic words, was "sustained by that belief in personality
which all too often misleads great men." He was also the darling of the
British Foreign Office, though, and that was what mattered most.
Gordon left London in good spirits, and began the long journey to
Khartoum, the great city at the confluence of the two Nilesthe
White and the Bluethat was the seat of Egyptian power in the Sudan.
By the time he arrived, however, his high spirits had flown, their place
taken by something very near to despair. He had been charged by the
British government with the task of evacuating all Egyptian nationals
from the Sudan. To accomplish this, he needed the help of the native
garrison at Khartoum. Now, however, he found that he was regarded only as
an infidel, the despised commander of a reluctant Muslim army, arrayed
against a force of their own countrymen, who were led by a prophet of
their own faith. Gordon had been ordered to conduct an evacuation.
Instead, he was himself hopelessly ensnared, an unwilling participant in
a holy war.
Unwilling or not, however, there was no escaping the fact that the
Sudanese troops he ostensibly commanded were all but useless to him. He
immediately requested assistance from the British government, asking that
a former enemy, a well-connected slave-trader named Zubehr Pasha, be
dispatched from Cairo and authorized to negotiate with the Mahdi in his
name. The government demurred. Gordon then requested that regular
British troops be sent to reinforce the native garrison at Khartoum. None
were. Finally, he resigned his commission, but his resignation was not
accepted. Instead, he was told to save himself, abandoning Khartoum and
its inhabitants to their fate.
This Gordon would not do. "I will not leave these people," he wrote.
And that was that. If he could not evacuate the city, he could at least
buy time for its inhabitants. He began by improving the city's defenses.
He rallied his wavering army, relying on the fact that self-preservation
was a stronger goad than duty. He succeeded. But even as he worked, one
outlying garrison town after another fell to the Mahdi's army. Soon it
was Khartoum's turn. On the 15th of March, 1884, the Mahdi cut the only
telegraph wire. Gordon's link with Cairo fell silent. The siege of
Khartoum had begun in earnest.
It did not end quickly. While the British government debated and
delayed, Gordon's position became increasingly precarious, though the
risks he ran were self-imposed. Had he wished to escape at any time, all
he need do was board one of the steamers docked at Khartoum and head
downriver to Metemma, leaving the garrison to the mercy of the Mahdi. But
he refused to do this. When his government letter-of-credit was
exhausted, he paid his troops with personal checks. When their morale
flagged, he gave medals to those who served him well, and shot those who
betrayed his trust. For a while, it worked. Against the odds, Khartoum
held, and Gordon remained within the city walls. But time was passing,
and time was on the Mahdi's side. The British government was now forced
to concede that something must be done. The "Gordon Relief Expedition"
It was a difficult birth. Not only were the generals unable to agree
on the best plan of action, they couldn't even agree on how to get their
troops to Khartoum. The Suakin-Berber road was considered first, but it
led through 250 miles of desert, more than 50 miles of which were
entirely waterless. The Nile was a more attractive choice, but 1,650
miles separated Cairo from Khartoum, and much of the river was impassable
to all but small boats. Worse yet, these boats would have to be rowed (or
towed) against the current of one of the world's greatest rivers,
traversing uncharted cataracts and canyons. The generals chose sides and
refused to budge. Their squabbling, wryly christened the "battle of the
routes" by George Sydenham Clarke, continued for some months. Tempers
flared. Inconclusive reports were drafted, read, and fruitlessly debated.
In the end, the politicians put a stop to the bickering. They wanted a
popular war. A route involving "no chance of bloodshed" was
therefore demanded. Once it was suggested that the Nile was just such a
route, the result was predictable: when at last the Gordon Relief
Expedition got under way, it took the "safe" route. It followed the Nile.
Still, the generals looked long and hard at the blank spaces on their
maps, and they wondered what unexpected difficulties might delay the
boats of the Expedition's "River Column" in the great bend of the Nile
between Korti and Abu Hamed. At the last minute, they did what generals
usually do when confronted by nagging uncertainties: they hedged their
bets. The River Column was supplemented by a Desert Column.
Neither was a good place for regular soldiers, but the army did its
best. The Desert Column was the easier of the two to organize. A special
Camel Corps was created from 1,100 men, carefully selected from among
twenty-eight home regiments. Plucked from their English barracks and
transported to the desert wastes of the Sudan, these picked men were soon
drilling in sandstorms and struggling to handle their unfamiliar mounts.
The River Column posed more of a problem. Cavalry officers and
troopers could exchange their horses for camels with comparatively little
difficulty, but the British soldier was not an amphibious creature. He
knew nothing of handling small boats in rapids and strong currents. The
army needed boatmen, and it needed them fast. But where could it
In the end, the army located exactly the type of men it wanted, in a
place far distant from the Sudan. It found them in the newly-independent
Dominion of Canada, among the ranks of the Hudson's Bay Company's
French-Canadian voyageurs and Orkney boatmen. Leaving a familiar,
well-watered landscape of spruce forest and bog behind them, these
Company "servants" travelled one-third of the way round the world,
arriving at last in a dust-dry and altogether alien wilderness. The only
familiar thing was the winding river that lay before them. They were
embarking on the adventure of their lives, and it was just beginning.
To be continued
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights