DESCRIPTION: Brother Andy writes home about his deeds with the relief expedition, leading charges for Wolseley and frightening the Mahdi. Newspapers and government despatches tell a different story, but "we won't believe a word against brave Andy McElroe."
AUTHOR: William Percy Finch (1854-1920)
EARLIEST DATE: 1901 (O'Conor)
KEYWORDS: bragging army war Africa humorous soldier
1885 - The Relief Expedition under General Garnet Joseph Wolseley fails to rescue Chinese Gordon from the siege of Khartoum (Mar 13, 1884-Jan 26, 1885) by the Dervishes led by the Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed.
FOUND IN: Ireland
REFERENCES (1 citation):
O'Conor, p. 85, "Andy M'Elroe" (1 text)
NOTES: Sources: Re author--Oldpoetry site. Re historical references--The River War by Winston S Churchill, ch. 1-3, and "The Mahdist Jihad 1881-1885" at the OnWar site. - BS
Charles George "Chinese" Gordon (1833-1885) actually began his military career in the Crimea, but went to China in 1860, where he was instrumental in suppressing the Taiping rebellion. This gained him a high military reputation, though it's not clear how well he earned it; his one clear skill was in military engineering.
Gordon went to Egypt in 1873, working there at surveying and establishing control of the Nile until 1880. He performed various jobs over the next four years, spending part of the time rebuilding his health. (Stokesbury, p. 264, acidly remarks that he was "one of those legendary Englishmen who, like mad dogs, went out in the noonday sun," adding that "he had spent most of his career on leave of absence.") OxfordCompanion, p. 427, says he had "great talents as a military engineer and as a commander of irregular troops," and notes that he helped put down slavery in Egypt. But then came the Sudan Rebellion.
The Sudan, at that time, was theoretically a province of Egypt, which meant that it was part of a British client-state -- though the British pretended they didn't run Egypt, and Egypt had never really managed the Sudan, except for a few spots along the Nile. As Farwell puts in on p. 271, "Britain's politicians tried hard to avoid any responsibilty for the problems of the Sudan, but they found it impossible. They compromised by doing as little as they could and this proved too little in the end and only magnified the problem." Instead of really addressing the situation, they picked one of their many excess officers almost at random and lent him out.
Their choice for this role was William Hicks (1830-1883), who, according to Farwell, p. 271, had had an undistinguished career in India and was retiring as a colonel when the army's Practical Jokes department decided he as a good fit for Sudan.
Mohammed Ahmed (1840?-1885), El Mahdi (the local name for the Messiah -- properly pronounced with a fricative, i.e. Makhdi) had meanwhile started a rebellion (1882). Hicks -- who by now was being called "Hicks Pasha" (Stokesburg, p. 264), set out to suppress him, but his troops -- many of them convicts and with few trained officers -- were annihilated by the dervishes in 1883 (Farwell, p. 272).
El Mahdi now had control of almost the entire Sudan; even those who did not consider him the Messiah could hardly oppose him.
The British gathered another local army, under Valentine Baker, who had ruined his own career by assault on a young woman; Farwell, p. 273. He had been cashiered -- which of course made him highly available for service in Sudan. But he wanted to rebuild his reputation. Instead of defending the port of Suakin, which was his job (Farwell, p. 274), he took another of those ill-managed colonial armies out into the field. it was slaughtered at El Tib on February 6, 1884 (Farwell, p. 274). Soon after, the fortified post of Sinkat was captured (Farwell, p. 276).
Britain finally was forced to send European troops. Gerald Graham brought 3000 soldiers (Farwell, p. 276), and though he was too late to save the garrison of Tokar (Farwell, p. 277), he did win an easy victory at El Tib. He then won a much harder battle against the "Fuzzy-wuzzies" (so named for their frizzy hair. And, yes, according to Farwell, p. 277, this is the battle about which Kipling wrote his poem; the regiment whose square they broke was none other than the Black Watch (Farwell, pp. 277-278), but Graham was able to retrieve the situation -- barely. (I should note that Haswell, p. 108, seems to refer Kipling's poem to a Sudanese fight at Abu Klea.)
There was, however, no coordination between this force and the rest. Graham had a limited mission, fulfilled it as best he could, and then was forced to sit tight near the coast. The Gladstone government meanwhile decided to evacuate central Sudan (Stokesbury, p. 265), and chosen Gordon, not Graham, to do it (Farwell, p. 278)..
It was a poor choice. Stokesbury, pp. 264-265, points out, "He was deeply religious and more than a little eccentric, he certainly had a martyr fixation, and he was the worst possible choice for a mission involving, in effect, capitulation.
Gordon didn't understand the Mahdi cult, and in his ignorance thought he could put it down. Instead, he ended up besieged in Khartoum (Farwell, p. 279).. He might still have escaped -- a path out via Berber was still open. But Haswell, p. 108, says that Gordon "afflicted with a death wish, had never really tried to escape." On May 28, 1884, Berber fell, and Gordon was well and truly trapped. And Britain had a problem. It had wanted out. Instead, it had more troops in harm's way than before the campaign began, and one of them a hero.
Unfortunately, the British public was divided. Gladstone opposed a relief expedition; the Conservatives and seemingly the people favored it. It took months to reach a decision (Farwell, pp. 279-280); General Wolseley (1833-1913), Britain's best colonial general (OxfordCompanion, p. 998), didn't get his orders until September 19.
And Khartoum was 1200 miles from the mouth of the Nile (Farwell, p. 282), and the river itself was the only source of water for almost all that length. And the cataracts meant that boats couldn't just sail up and down the river. And communications were terrible. It's hard to fault anything Wolseley did in particular, but he didn't manage to get troops to Khartoum until January 28, 1885 -- and the city had fallen a mere two days before.
After that, the British withdrew for real. Gordon was dead, and Wolseley was never again given a field command (Chandler/Beckett, pp. 191. 193). Even though the Mahdi died in 1885 (and Lord Kitchener later despoiled his tomb; Chandler/Beckett, p. 208), it was not until 1898, after a three-year campaign, that Kitchener regained control of Sudan for the British by winning the battle of Omdurman (Chandler/Beckett, p. 206).
(In that regard, it's interesting to note that the British are long gone from Sudan. But, as of 2009, the great-great-grandchildren of the Mahdi are still significant in Sudanese politics.)
The official report on Khartoum probably should have read something like "Army slaughtered by official stupidity." But the memory the British people kept was rather different. As Morris puts it on p. 310, "[I]n England the Spirit of Empire was perhaps most popularly symbolized by the visin of General Gordon, that Galahad or Gabriel of the later Victorians, standing tuileless, unarmed, fresh-faced, almost radiant, at the head of the stairs in his palace at Khartoum, while the ferocious Madists in the hall below, brandishing their assegais, prepared to murder him. (There was, as a matter of fact, another version of the scene, which had Gordon on the landing blazing away with a revolver at the advancing savages: but it was the image of martyred British innocence that most people preferred.)"
There is at least one broadside specifically about the death of Gordon: NLScotland, L.C.Fol.70(100b), "Death of Gen. Gordon" ("Across the vast Soudan was borne"), unknown, n.d. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Chandler/Beckett: David Chandler, general editor; Ian Beckett, associate editor, The Oxford History of the British Army, 1994 (I use the 1996 Oxford paperback edition)
- Farwell: Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria's Little Wars (1972; I used the 1985 Norton edition)
- OxfordCompanion: John Cannon, editor, The Oxford Companion to British History, Oxford, 1997
- Haswell: Jock Haswell, The British Army: A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, 1975
- Morris: James Morris, Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire, 1968 (I use the 1980 Harcourt Brace/Harvest paperback)
- Stokesbury: James L. Stokesbury, Navy & Empire, Morrow, 1983
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2017 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.