The Death of Gordon page 3
Sir Herbert Stewart, victor of Abu Klea, lay dying in the camp, and Sir Charles Wilson who took over from him, had not the nerve to drive the spear-head of the expedition into Khartoum in time. Gordon had said in his letter written on Dec. 14, that another ten days would see the extreme limit of time in which he could hold out. More than a month had passed since then and yet Wilson hesitated for three days. Though his troops were not fit after their forced march and heavy engagements, the real reason of the delay seems to have been Lord Charles Beresford's desire to be included in the advance steamer. Beresford, who had come along with a naval contingent to work the boats, was down with severe boils. On Beresford';; advice two and a half days were spent - wasted is the word - in reconnaisances. Burnaby, had he lived, would have been in Khartoum by that time.
Meanwhile Gordon's ill-luck had continued to pursue him in the ill-fated city. For some time now the food situation had been desperate. During the past fortnight there had been no proper food ration. The pith of date-trees and gum were served out as food. Rats, dogs, and very lean donkeys, helped to eke out the food ration. The gum and the water caused the soldiers' stomachs to distend; dysentery was rife; and the troops became almost too weak to stand. Khalifa Abdullah, future successor to the Mahdi, sent a taunting message across the river saying that they knew Gordon was at the end of his provisions. Soon they would starve him into submission.
Incessant firing raged between the investing army and Gordon's defenders. Some days 50,000 rounds were fired from Khartoum. Gordon gave a few of his troops, who were useless to him, permission to desert to the enemy. He continued to scan the northern horizon for the steamers that never came.
But one day, when his telescope came to rest on the Mahdi's camp, he saw signs of great distress, and he correctly interpreted the meaning of it. Somewhere the advancing British expedition had dealt the Mahdi a victorious blow. That, or another such one, might raise the siege, even if the steamers were still delayed. Presently one of Gordon's spies wormed through the lines with the enheartening news of Abu Klea.
That news had brought consternation to the Mahdi's camp. Orders were given that no visible sign of lamentation must be made. But even the orders of the new Prophet could not prevent the women from weeping and gesticulating their despair.
Despite their vaunted courage, their claim to a call from Allah to sweep away the Infidel, the Mahdi and his men were afraid. The sword of the Prophet, they now said, was no match for the sword of the Infidel.
To enhearten his men and to hide the truth, the Mahdi ordered a victory salute of 101 guns to be fired. But he called a council of his emirs and asked them whether he should raise the siege and retreat to his headquarters at El Obeid. All but one argued in favour of retreat. They reasoned that if one Englishman in Khartoum had kept them at bay for a year how much more would these thousands of Englishmen, who had defeated their bravest at Abu Klea, be able to crush them?
It was Abd-el-Kerim who this time slew Gordon's luck. That shrewd emir advised the Mahdi to attack at once, and if they failed, they could still fall back in time. While they hesitated, more disconcerting news came to the Mahdi's camp. Many more of their men had been killed while attacking the British on the Nile bank.
If only Wilson had struck when the enemy were so discouraged! But he waited and courage returned to the Dervish camp. When, on January 24th, news came that the British were now advancing, the Mahdi had concluded that the Infidels were in doubt and fear, for if they had been victorious they would have wasted no time. Their boats had 100 miles to go and there was still time to attack the city and escape.
On Sunday night a hungry feebly hoping city retired to rest, unaware that its doom was coming swift and terrible. The surrender of the Fort at Omdurman, the falling river, and the opportune arrival of a spy from Gordon's ranks had provided the Mahdi with the key of entrance to the city.
That Fort at Omdurman had been well defended. More than two months back it had been isolated but its commander, a negro whom Gordon had promoted, held gallantly on. Gordon made almost superhuman efforts with his river steamers to help the fort. But the situation became hopeless and he gave the negro commander permission to yield. Then, when the Dervishes occupied Omdurman, Gordon promptly shelled them out of it, proving that the place was untenable.
But the falling river had left a gap in the defences and the Mahdi determined to force an entrance by it. Gordon realised that the great attack was preparing, for all through Sunday, Jan. 25, there were movements of Arabs towards the east bank of the White Nile. Twilight came and from the western shore a boat rowed off. In it were four dusky figures, three khalifas and the Mahdi himself. The commander of the storm troops received them on the opposite shore and the Mahdi issued his orders: in the name of Allah and the Prophet they would attack Khartoum in the darkness of the night. None must show fear for those who fell would go straight to Paradise. Then the Mahdi and his emirs returned silently to safety.
It was planned to attack in two storming parties, one would make through the gap which the falling river had left, and which was free from mines and redoubts, and the other would assault the gate on the east. Should the second division be held up they would then join the others at the river. Skirmishers would go ahead and they would be followed by the main force with spears and swords, with the riflemen and cavalry in reserve. They were even to carry bedsteads and bundles of straw for protection and to fill in obstructing trenches.
More than once Gordon had weighed the question of what he should do if his opponents were victorious, and he decided against the idea of blowing up the city and himself with it. That was too much like suicide. But he was afraid of what would happen to the men, women and children in the city, especially the women and children. He knew only too well how savages behaved when they sacked a city. But he trusted in God and spent much of his time in communion with Him. He thought of the future life and said that no perfect state could be one of praise only. There must be scope for work and achievement even in Paradise.
Word had come that the enemy would attack soon, and he had made what preparations he could. By ordering a display of fireworks and coloured rockets he had endeavoured to encourage his followers as they watched the Dervishes crossing the river. The firework display over, the inhabitants retired; the defences inspected once more, Gordon sat alone in his Palace, waiting, thinking, certainly praying.
The young moon set early in a blue-black sky. It was the signal. In the darkness 10,000 bloodthirsty Dervishes, armed to the teeth, crept silently towards the line of the famished and enfeebled defenders. Now they were at the ramparts. Immediately the silence was broken by a terrific bombardment from every Dervish gun. Howling like ravening beasts the attackers drove forward. At the river gap there were only three armed barges to hold them up. They swept over the barges and round them like a tornado. Splashing through the shallow waters they reached the cemeteries, the slaughter-houses and the powder magazines. Now the leaders were well inside the defences, and the rest were pouring after: wave on wave, skirmishers, spearmen, riflemen, cavalry: 10,000 lusty shouting Arabs swamping a few thousand weak and starving troops.
The keepers of the gate, finding their position turned, fall back before the second storming force, who leap savagely inwards, baying like hounds for lust of blood. Nothing living can hope to escape. Impossible for a few starved defenders to withstand the shock of these raging devils who, with fiery black eyes and billowing white jibbahs, have descended on the Infidel.
In an astonishingly short time the rambling city of Khartoum is overrun, and the screaming inhabitants, wakened to scenes of unutterable horror, arc slashed to pieces, wherever they run or wherever they hide. In the general massacre that now rages some 10,000 helpless civilians are fiendishly butchered. And these by a force that loses less than 100 of its own men.
But where is Gordon, the man to whom the populace have been looking for salvation from this very fate that has now descended upon them? The man who had buoyed them up with assurances of protection and safety from the coming "Tommies," and who had so recklessly flouted all invitations to surrender. Is it possible that he has vanished and left them to their fate? Has Gordon deserted them and escaped on one of his steamers?
Poor Gordon! From that whirling force of Dervishes a small company detached itself and went in search of bigger game. They raced to the Palace and cut down the sentries at the entrances. They flung into the basement and massacred Gordon's loyal negro servants, who had they been given time, would assuredly have made a stand in defence of their beloved master.
But where was he? The sound of musketry and the howls and screams that came ever nearer brought the Governor-General swiftly to the head of the staircase. He looked tired and forlorn. His white uniform was creased and soiled. He showed the appearance of a man who has paced his room for long and anxious hours. Yet never had he looked so imposing a figure as now, standing there and peering forward, as was his wont, to see what was happening below him.
He saw, at last, the scene which he had been dreading for nearly a year. He saw the terrible end of his long agony for a doomed city; and he saw his own end too. Swarming up the great staircase of the palace was a raging mob of dark faces and waving arms brandishing spears and swords, red with the blood of his people.
Gordon waited. He must have observed that there was no officer present, and he knew what that meant.
The Mahdi said afterwards that he desired to have General Gordon taken alive so that he might first convert him to Islam and then exchange him for one of his relatives held prisoner in Cairo, but he could have given no orders to capture Gordon, or they would have been carried out.
"Where is your master?" Gordon is reported to have said to the leader who rushed at him. The reply was "O cursed one, your time has come!" And that Dervish, himself to die later at Omdurman, thrust at Gordon with his spear. Gordon seems to have made no attempt to defend himself, though he wore a sword at his belt and carried a revolver. He stood there a second, contemptuous, and then fell forward, a dozen spears in his body.
Down the steps they dragged the bleeding corpse to the Palace entrance where, as is the Arab custom, they cut off his head to bear it in triumph to the Mahdi. Hundreds of fanatics crowded round blooding their spears in the wounds of Gordon. Soon all that remained of the great Defender was a heap of torn and mangled flesh. For weeks afterwards the bloodstains could be seen on the staircase and the stones at the Palace entrance, until they were removed when the residence became the abode of the wives of the Khalifa.
Had Gordon chosen he could have arranged for his escape even with the Dervishes in the city. But he was careless of his own life as he was of his own possessions. Who was he to be rescued when a city was perishing? Besides it was bad generalship to let the city see that he had his own safety in mind. How could he encourage the populace to be courageous? So he neglected to fortify the Palace and the short route to his steamer Ismailia.
She lay only 300 yards from the Palace and her captain waited anxiously for Gordon to appear. Not until he heard that Gordon was dead did he put out into midstream. But it might have been better had he stayed there instead of being deluded into landing by a promise of safety.
For at his home he found his small boy dead and his devoted wife lying over him, her body still protecting his, but pierced with many spears. All through the night and for some days the massacre of civilians went on despite an early proclamation by the Mahdi of an amnesty. Only the younger women were spared, the rest of the population were ruthlessly murdered, or tortured. After victory had become assured the invaders, one and all, turned their attention to looting the houses. The tenants were tortured to make them declare the whereabouts of their hidden treasures. A favourite horror was to suspend them from the ceiling by their thumbs, and to flog them with the kourbash which Gordon had prohibited, until ribbons of torn flesh hung from their bodies. Former slaves acted gladly as guides to the enemy in their thirst for plunder, blood and rapine. No excuse of poverty was accepted. Tortures were continued until death or unconsciousness supervened, or till the suspected treasure was found. Thus did the followers of the Mahdi, pledged to poverty and purity, honour their vows.
For weeks the victors spent their time in picking and choosing the young women who had been captured, for their households. The Mahdi - self-styled messenger of God - had brought to him a large selection of the most pleasing-looking women, and when he had made his choice of new wives he handed the others over to his next in command. And so they were passed down and down to the lowest ranks.
When the Mahdi took possession of the city and viewed the scenes of the bloody massacre of its inhabitants he made no protest against the excessive bloodshed. Instead he described the desolation as the judgment of Heaven for Gordon's refusal to accept his considerate offers. The absence of the British he ascribed to Divine intervention. Allah had worked a miracle in the desert by puncturing their water-bottles so that the relief force had died of thirst. Victory had given the Mahdi the control of the capital and now he was the undisputed ruler of the whole Sudan.
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