Monday, January 28, 2013

Imagine my feelings!

The legendary Gordon of Khartoum was born 180 years ago today. Though popular with the British public for his exploits in China and Sudan, he died as a result of his own stubbornness in defending Khartoum against Muslim rebels - the British government had wanted him to retreat. In his diary, first published the year of his death, Gordon provides much detail about the year-long siege of Khartoum, but also, and perhaps unusually for a soldier, comments on his own emotions, as in ‘I am on tenterhooks’, ‘what a six hours of anxiety’, and ‘imagine my feelings!’.

Gordon was born on 28 January 1833 in Woolwich, the son of a Royal Artillery officer, and entered the Royal Military Academy as a gentleman cadet when only 15. He had intended to follow his father into the artillery, but eventually graduated in 1852 as a second lieutenant in the Corp of Royal Engineers. After working on Pembroke Dock in Wales he sought, and achieved, a posting to Crimea. There he built huts for the troops in winter, and helped map the Russian trenches. He was present at the siege of Sevastopol, and was decorated for bravery by the French.

In 1860, Gordon volunteered for the Arrow war against the Chinese, and, in 1862, his corps of engineers was assigned to strengthen the European trading centre of Shanghai, which was threatened by the insurgents of the Taiping Rebellion. For the best part of two years, he also commanded a large peasant force which helped defend the city. In 1865, he returned to England a hero, and was nicknamed Chinese Gordon. In 1873 he was appointed governor of the province of Equatoria in Sudan, and subsequently governor-general.

During his time in Africa, Gordon mapped the upper Nile and established a line of stations along the river as far south as present day Uganda; and he also crushed rebellions and helped suppress the slave trade. Ill health forced him back to England in 1880, but he returned to Sudan in 1884 to evacuate Egyptian forces from Khartoum, threatened by Sudanese rebels. The besieged city was eventually over-run, and, in January 1885, Gordon was captured and beheaded. In Britain, where his death had caused a public outcry, he was re-nicknamed Gordon of Khartoum. Although there was strong criticism of the way Prime Minister Gladstone had handled the Sudan situation, historians now believe Gordon was at fault for defying orders by not evacuating Khartoum when it was still possible. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the BBC, or The Victorian Web.

Only months after his death, publishers, keen to take advantage of Gordon’s popularity, brought out books of diaries he had kept during his life, notably one about his exploits in China and another about the last of his ventures, at Khartoum: General Gordon’s Private Diary of his Exploits in China; amplified by Samuel Mossman, published in 1855 by Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington; and From Korti to Khartum - A journal of the desert march from Korti to Gubat, and of the ascent of the Nile in General Gordon’s steamers by Sir Charles W. Wilson published by William Blackwood. Both these titles are freely available at Internet Archive.

Here are some extracts from the final month of the siege of Khartoum, including Gordon’s last diary extract to survive (an oke is a unit of weight, slightly more than a kilogram).

11 November 1884
‘This morning, 6 a.m., 200 Arabs came to north of Omdurman Fort, and fired vollies towards the village of Tuti and the Fort; the Fort answered, and the footmen of the Arabs retreated; then the Arab horsemen made the footmen go back again, and so on, four or five times; at last they retired. We had three soldiers and one woman wounded; only one wound was at all serious. Arabs must have fired five thousand rounds; evidently they do not wish much to fight. Nineteen Arabs came along the right bank of the White Nile from Halfeyeh to Goba, and captured a donkey; this even the Shaggyeh could not stand, and so I suppose one hundred sallied out and some fifteen horsemen; then came a running fight across the plain, but it was evident the horsemen would not head the Arabs; however, from the roof, it was evident four or five Arabs were killed, and the pursuit is still going on. You may imagine the Arabs have a good deal of confidence, for their nineteen men were distant at least ten miles of desert from their camp and were at a. They were going along b b when they were discovered with the captured donkey. Five at least of these Arabs got away. The Arabs are sure to come down to avenge this.

Arabs coming down from their camp, Ismailia getting steam up. North Fort reports (?) “Captures, 3 Remingtons! 3 spears! 3 swords! and the killing of 20? 5 got away?” The Arabs are halted on the sand hills. Five soldiers and one woman came in from yjr Arabs at Omdurman, report, “Arab rocket-tube broken; carriage of gun broken; the Arabs deserting; rumoured advance of the Expedition; quarrels going on; Slatin in chains.” The Shaggyeh say they killed twenty Arabs, but they only say they captured nine arms so eleven must have been unarmed!!!

It appears 93,000 okes + 166,000 okes = 259,000 okes of biscuit have been stolen in the last year, only found out now; however, we have now quarter of a million okes, which will see us only for a month or so. It appears that more than thirty of the principal merchants are engaged in the above robbery of biscuit. The process is not finished. One of the greatest problems will be what to do with those Shaggyeh, those Cairo Bashi Bazouks and fellaheen soldiers, whose courage is about equal, perhaps the palm is due to the Shaggyeh. The twenty cows I mentioned as captured by the men of Omdurman Fort (making up forty-one captured cows) were driven in by five soldiers escaping from the Arabs and were not captured. They do not stick at a lie (and, in this, resemble some people in high places I know). 259,000 okes of biscuit was a good haul, nearly two and half million pounds: worth £26,000 now, or £9,000 in ordinary times.’

12 November 1884
‘Last night three slaves came into Omdurman. At 11 p.m. they reported Arabs meant to attack to-day at dawn. It was reported to me, but the telegraph clerk did not choose to tell me till 7 a.m. to-day. We had been called up at 5.30 a.m. by a violent fusillade at Omdurman. The Arabs came out in considerable force, and, as I had not been warned, the steamers had not steam up. From 5.30 a.m. to 8.30 Arabs came on and went back continually. All the cavalry were out; the expenditure of ammunition was immense. The Arabs had a gun or guns on the bank. Details further on, as the firing is still going on.

10:20 a.m.
For half-an-hour firing lulled, but then recommenced, and is still going on. The Ismailia was struck with a shell, but I hear is not seriously damaged. The Husseinyeh is aground (I feel much the want of my other steamers at Metemma).

11:15 a.m.
Firing has lulled; it was very heavy for the last three-quarters of an hour from Ismailia and Arabs; it is now desultory, and is dying away. Husseinyeh is still aground. The Ismailia is at anchor. What a six hours of anxiety for me, when I saw the shells strike the water near the steamers from the Arabs; imagine my feelings! We have £831 in specie and £42,800 in paper; and there is £14,600 in paper out in the town! I call this state of finance not bad, after more than eight months’ blockade. The troops are owed half a mouth’s pay, and even that can be scarcely called owed them, for I have given them stores, and beyond the regulations.

The firing has ceased, I am glad to say. I have lived years in these last hours. Had I lost the Ismailia, I should have lost the Husseinyeh (aground), and then Omdurman, and the North Fort! And then the Town!

1 p.m.
The Arabs are firing on the steamers with their two guns. The Husseinyeh still aground; that is the reason of it. Firing, 1.30 p.m., now has ceased. The Ismailia, struck by three shells, had one man killed, fifteen wounded on board of her; she did really well. I boxed the telegraph clerk’s ears for not giviing me the telegram last night (after repeated orders that no consideration was to prevent his coming to me); and then, as my conscience pricked me, I gave him $5. He said he did not mind if I killed him - I was his father (a chocolate-coloured youth of twenty). I know all this is brutal - abrutissant, as Hansall calls it — but what is one to do? If you cut their pay, you hurt their families. I am an advocate for summary and quick punishment, which hurts only the defaulter. Had this clerk warned me, of course at daybreak, the steamers would have had their steam up, and been ready.’

14 December 1884
‘Arabs fired two shells at the Palace this morning; 546 ardebs dhoora! in store; also 83,525 okes of biscuit!

10:30 a.m.
The steamers are down at Omdurman, engaging the Arabs, consequently I am on tenterhooks

11:30 a.m.
Steamers returned; the Bordeen was struck by a shell in her battery; we had only one man wounded. We are going to send down the Bordeen tomorrow with this Journal. If I was in command of the two hundred men of the Expeditionary Force, which are all that are necessary for the movement, I should stop just below Halfeyeh, and attack the Arabs at that place before I came on here to Kartoum. I should then communicate with the North Fort, and act according to circumstances. Now MARK THIS, if the Expeditionary Force, and I ask for 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 our country. Good bye.’

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