The Death of Gordon page 2
The besieged defenders of Lucknow waited no more eagerly for Havelock than did the medley of coloured inhabitants of Khartoum wait for the arrival of Gordon. The "deliverer" did not arrive until Feb. 18, 1884, and when he came he came alone! But what did that matter. Gordon had a habit of doing by himself things which often took many troops to achieve. What about that day when he walked into the rebels' camp and made them obey his orders?
Indescribable enthusiasm greeted his arrival. Every one in Khartoum seemed to have turned out to greet him. The men, the women and the children jubilated round him as though he were already the conqueror. Gordon struggled to avoid the press but this was beyond his powers. More than once he was thrown down by the demonstrators. Wom^n, throwing themselves on the ground, struggled to kiss his feet. So immense was his reputation that even the Mahdi, whom he was expected to destroy, sent him a formal salaam or message of respect.
Gordon's reply was to offer the Mahdi the Governorship of Kordoan, the province which he had already captured. The Mahdi, wondering why Gordon had offered him what he already possessed, replied by inviting the Governor-General to surrender Khartoum and embrace the faith of Islam.
There had been considerable pother in England before Gordon was allowed to come to Khartoum. Gladstone had only agreed that he should come out to Egypt to make a report, but Gladstone's colleagues in the Cabinet seem to have misled him; for Gordon was sent to Khartoum, not so much to defend it, but to evacuate the troops, the sick and the infirm, for the Khedive had decided to abandon the Sudan to the Mahdi.
Gordon, before leaving England, told W. T. Stead that it was impossible to evacuate the city. " You must cither surrender to the Mahdi absolutely, or defend the city," he had said. But Gordon was then reckoning without himself. Now that he was in Khartoum he intended to defend it until he had evacuated all those to whom his government owed responsibility. But he knew that he must leave behind him a strong man who would take charge, and for this he had chosen one of his former enemies, a slave-dealer named Zebehr, then a prisoner in Cairo, but a competent commander. Zebehr, however, was no friend of Gordon and showed it when they met in Cairo. He hated the White Pasha for having slain his son for an act of rebellion. Lord Cromer, pleading that it would be unsafe to allow Zebehr to accompany him through the desert, because Gordon would probably be knifed one dark night, forbade the proposal. "Has it come to this?" demanded Gladstone when he heard that Gordon, desperate for some one to take over the capital, had asked for a slave-dealer. Yet Gladstone, hating war, declined to send Gordon the help he needed until Lord Hartington, his War Minister and future Duke of Devonshire, threatened to resign unless a relief expedition was despatched. Then he moved the resolution which provided for the expedition. Gladstone saved his Government at that time, but when the news came that Gordon was dead, he said that though the circumstances were sad and trying, one of the least points about them was that they might throw out his Government.
Back in Khartoum, Gordon found himself among a racial hotch-potch of about 50,000 souls. His palace overlooked the blue waters of the two rivers which swept to their confluence between palms, thorns, tawny grass and level sands. His favourite walk during the next ten months was on the flat roof of that palace from which, with his telescope, he could view the surrounding country, the ever-increasing camp of the enemy, and his own sentries at their duty. Many a time did that relentless telescope focus on a sleeping guard and the vacant place of a native officer who should have been at his post.
His first official act as defender was to light a bonfire in the centre of the city and cast on its flames the kourbashes, hippopotamus-hide whips, and other instruments by which the taxes had been extorted from the people. Far into the night the official residences and the native quarters were lit by this burning demonstration of the new reign of justice. Gordon, like the wily Mahdi, who was drawing his net ever closer, knew how to achieve his effects upon the populace.
Gordon's second act was also successful - much to his regret. Like Cromwell, testing his Ironsides, he decided to test his defending troops to discover how they would behave in battle. While Gordon paced the Palace roof, watching the work of evacuation which was speeding apace, and also keeping his eye on the outworks of defence, a thousand of his native troops, together with a few regulars, native officers and a field-piece, under the command of Col. Stewart, were landed some miles down the river where the rebels were beginning to cast up fortifications. Their job was to destroy these without loss to themselves. Their chief concern seemed to be with the latter part of the order. While some of the infantry waited the rest of the troops went forward to the attack. As they did so a handful of Dervishes, no more than about sixty, charged wildly from behind a stockade. Firing one despairing volley, Gordon's native troops turned and fled for their lives. The sixty horsemen thereupon turned their attention to the infantry who also fled without firing a shot. So Gordon had clearly proved the quality of a thousand of his troops in face of less than one-tenth of their number. He declared that nothing could be more dismal than the sight of his men, with shouldered arms, plodding their way back, pursued by a tiny force of men on camels and horses, and refusing even to turn and fire to save their own lives. Concluding that two of his native officers were partly to blame for the display of cowardice, he had them shot as an example to the rest, although afterwards he expressed contrition for his severity. This experience convinced him that the Egyptians and the Arabs were no good as fighters; so he trained the negro slaves for the purpose, proving them to be courageous and amazingly loyal.
But the Governor-General had other means of defence. He placed three rings of land-mines round the city, and the Mahdi's followers were soon made aware of their existence and deadly power. Whenever they attempted to break through these land mines would be exploded causing heavy losses. Not until the final assault did the Dervishes succeed in getting behind the last ring. In fact, the enemy held these landmines in such respect that Gordon declared that they would be in general use in future warfare.
But Khartoum had yet another and stronger line of defences - the "penny steamers" of which Gordon was so proud. When he arrived there were nine of them and he built another two. He declared that each steamer was worth 2,000 men, and he was probably right, for they did remarkably good service.
Although beleagured for ten months he could, whenever necessary, break through the inner cordon by water. Steamers could not shoot cataracts and so get down to Cairo, but they could and did go long distances while their crew scoured the river-banks for provisions. Gordon's warning to their commanders was terse but wise: "Do not anchor near a bank. Do not collect wood at isolated spots. Trust nobody!" Had that order to trust nobody been obeyed by men who ought to have known its wisdom, and the folly of disobedience, Khartoum would never have fallen, and Gordon might have died in a bed in his native Woolwich.
On Sept. 9, 1884, Gordon sent Col. Stewart and Frank Power, The Times correspondent, down the Nile on the steamer Abbas with confidential messages and diaries and a cypher key describing the hard-pressed condition of the capital, and how he could not hope to hold out much longer. After passing successfully through many danger spots, the steamer ran on a rock. Some Arabs appeared on the bank and made friendly overtures.
"Trust nobody," Gordon had said. But in their distress these two trusted the Arabs who beckoned them ashore and then invited them into a house. But inside that house were assassins who murdered them and secured their confidential despatches for the Mahdi.
At this time that worthy had been sending another of his invitations to surrender to Gordon who had replied by saying that he could hold out for a dozen years. His bravado did not deceive the Mahdi who ordered Slatin Pasha to write and inform him about his capture. But how could the Mahdi convince Gordon of the truth of his claim to have captured Stewart? Slatin advised the sending of Stewart's military report. He did so and Gordon was convinced. The outlook for Khartoum was more ominous than ever.
Had those urgent documents reached Cairo they would have provided the information needed, for Wolseley had just arrived and he was endeavouring to ascertain the true position at Khartoum. As yet no one realised how desperate it was. England knew Gordon and that he had said he could hold out for months; she believed him capable of holding out for ever.
This news from the enemy that his friends had been taken and his despatches deciphered was extremely galling to Gordon. It was more galling to be again invited to embrace the true faith. His reply, not to the Mahdi but to one of his subordinates, was now characterised by a fierceness which came strangely from Gordon. He bade the enemy understand that: "whether he has captured 20,000 steamers like the lost Abbas or 20,000 officers like Stewart, or not - it is all one to me. I am here like iron and hope to see the newly arrived English.... It is impossible for me to have any more words with Mohammed - only lead."
"Only lead." From Gordon. He must have been a desperate man to have written that. Indeed his anxieties had been ever-increasing. He had a feeling that he had been abandoned by the British Government. Not only had he the cares of the defence but those of a civil population of nearly 40,000 people. They said of him at this time that any other man would have surely gone mad. Yet he kept his head and usually his temper. He wrote his journals, he paced his palace roof with his telescope by day, and he inspected the defences by night. Often he did not sleep. Daily now his telescope could be seen directed towards the northern horizon looking, always vainly, for the help that never came.
"The steamers," he would repeat, "where are they? Never the steamers!" But to his people he would present a smiling confident face and tell them to trust in the future for the British would come to relieve them. Towards the end they lost confidence even in him. Once the despairing phrase was wrung from him: "They do not believe me! I can do no more!"
Those leisurely Victorians. If only they could have been trained in a school of swift action. They meant well but they carried out their well-meaning with the leisureliness of a charitable society. A fortnight was wasted while the military wrangled over the choice of route to be taken by the relief expedition. Much time was lost in the journey up the Nile, for Khartoum is almost as far from Cairo as America is from Europe.
At last Gordon receives news that the relief expedition is on the way. He sends his steamers down to meet them. If only he can get one of those steamers back with a few redcoats showing above the bulwarks he is certain that they will produce such an impression on the Mahdi's army of 200,000 Dervishes, that they will raise the siege and disappear under the stars of the desert. And Gordon is right.
Three months had been lost by a procrastinating government, and since then other procrastinators had lost further precious time. Yet the advance boats of the expedition arrived at Khartoum just two days too late. They saw the Hag-pole on Gordon's Palace but the flag no longer fluttered at its head. Gordon had said, "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.... I am not the rescued lamb and never will be." He was right. The lamb had not been rescued; the lion had been slain!
Sir Herbert Stewart, who led the advance column, had broken away from the main party at Korti and taken 1,600 men of the Camel Corps 150 miles across the desert to Mentemma thereby cutting off a long bend of the river.
With them was Colonel Fred Burnaby, hero of the Ride to Khiva, kindest and perhaps the strongest man in the British army, who was to have led the first dash with provisions into Khartoum.
The 1600 men of the Camel Corps reach the summit of a ridge and sec below them a force of 10,000 Dervishes encamped, awaiting their arrival. Their business is not to light desert battles but to push forward to the Nile. They advance - the renowned British Square on the march. How will this unit of 1,600 acquit itself in the face of a horde of Dervishes, when 10,000 men from Khartoum have been annihilated?
The square marches on. Suddenly, at a place called Abu Klea, a cavalcade of 5,000 mounted warriors charge the square. They surge forward flashing their bright spears and long swords, an immense wave of white-slashed yelling black fanatics. They begin what proves to be a soldiers' battle.
So tremendous is the force of their impact that one side of the square gives way and the attackers rush inside, right up to the centre where the camels are at rest. The order is given and the other three sides of the square turn inwards. At last the Dervishes have met an enemy who would rather fight than run. The British, using the old Gardner gun and Martini-Henry rifle, find that both of them repeatedly jam. It is true that the Dervishes have less difficulty with their own ammunition. But it is also true that not one of that howling, bloodthirsty mob escaped alive from that British square! The rest fled.
Gordon knew what a handful of British "Tommies" could do if only they could be sent. Yet their losses had been severe, about 150. The severest single loss was that of Col. Fred Burnaby, who was to have shaken hands with the Defender on the steps of the Palace at Khartoum. Was ever a great soldier dogged with such a series of misfortunes?
The square pushed on to the river where another engagement was won. Gordon had promised to have steamboats waiting for their arrival. If they were not there the little square would have an unpleasant task in keeping at bay an army of ten or twenty or a hundred thousand Dervishes, should the Mahdi decide to send them along. England had at last promised to relieve Gordon. Gordon had promised the expedition the help of his steamers. They hardly expected him to keep his word, but when they reached the Nile - there were the steamers! And with them was another urgent message imploring them to hasten. But again Gordon's luck was out.
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