When his comrades were, at last, able to recover his body; they found him with a smile on his face. Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby was a living legend. Soldier, adventurer and aspirant politician, he was the embodiment of the Victorian action man. Outnumbered, he had waded into a storm tide of the Mahdi’s zealots and they had stabbed and hacked him down. He stood well over six feet tall and weighed just shy of 280lb, he was 19 stone in Imperial measurement. The author of this superb book describes him as a “man mountain”. In all things he was a giant in every sense.
Henry Newbolt’s much paraphrased line of poetry “Play up! Play up and play the game!” is like a mantra for the officer class elite of that era, anchored to imperial might and the self assurance of their caste. It is a line I have seen inscribed on the grave stones of officers killed in both world wars and while it has a somewhat hackneyed image in these post Blackadder years it actually used to stand for something real. But Newbolt’s classic poem, Vitai Lampada had much more to it and the second verse almost out-Kiplings Rudyard in it’s unabashed evocation of the power of British heart and stiff upper lip.
The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke.
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
The colonel is Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards and he died in the Sudan on the ill-fated mission to relieve Khartoum and rescue that great Victorian hero General Charles Gordon. The general was one of those giants handed down to my generation and we knew him. He wasn’t just Charlton Heston in a movie. But he is pretty much lost to the modern world and you will have to read about him on Wikiwotsit or wherever you get your handy facts from.
The square was broken at the battle of Abu Klea in January, 1885. The Gatling was actually a Gardner, but it did jam and so did a number of Martini-Henry rifles. The British square was advancing to contact with an enemy vastly superior in number. The Mahdi’s men were hyped up to a fever pitch of bloodlust to destroy the infidel. There was a bit of a mix up and Fred Burnaby made a fatal error of judgement allowing a phalanx of the Mahdi’s most formidable ansar to smash into the square at one of its ill-balanced points. There was slaughter, but the line held and the Tommies fought back as hard as anyone ever did. They pushed the ansar out with the bayonet and carved themselves a place in history. Medals, however, were thin on the ground.
A few days later an even smaller square had to do it all again, but this time they had the room to fire at the volley and did dreadful work on a decimated Mahdist force. The British reached the Nile and pretty soon set out to relieve Khartoum with a woefully small force travelling by steamers whose adventures are the stuff of Boy’s Own comics. That they were forty eight hours too late is the lore of many an accepted account. That they were actually weeks if not months late is the truth disseminated in this wonderful book by Mike Snook. Gordon had died fighting and was hacked to pieces.
This is a long and intensely detailed story which the author clearly felt needed telling with the fullest analysis as can be given well over a century after events. We see the tortuous speed of politicians in London approving a relief force to sail and, even worse, the Jurassic pace of the force commander’s decision making and practical action. That man was Garnet Wolseley, another giant of the Victorian age. He was a professional soldier with one eye firmly planted on cementing a golden page to finish his career. He surrounded himself with a combination of vigorous and indifferent officers to both maintain his reputation and cement a power base he enjoyed within the army establishment. Wolseley based himself a four day ride behind his field army but exerted power through the issue of immensely restrictive orders only a control freak can dream up. At no point does this make any sense, but the Mahdi, intent on conquering his way beyond Cairo and Mecca to Rome itself, was a force it was not easy to reckon with. His ambitions may not have got him anywhere near those cities, but his methods and his adherents were not to be underestimated. They gave the British a serious fright and finished off Egypt as a colonial power in that part of Africa. The British were in and would stay for over a century.
Wolseley was typical of his type, cajoling and bullying to get his way. His notorious Ring were a bit like a sceptical person’s image of the Masons. They got things done their way and promoted friends to spread their tentacles into many corners of the army. On the abject failure of his badly conceived plan Garnet Wolseley did what just about everyone does in those situations, he found a scapegoat. He had many willing helpers. Colonel Charles Wilson was a Royal Engineers surveyor and intelligence officer thrust into senior command when his superior, Brigadier-General Herbert Stewart, was mortally wounded. Wilson recognised immediately that he did not have the combat experience to lead with confidence, so he used amply skilled subordinates to ensure things worked. These were professional soldiers after all. He threw himself into the highly dangerous scheme to get to Khartoum by steamer and, as said, the adventures of that mission are a book in itself. But Wilson took the hit for Wolseley’s failure and it hung on him for the rest of his life. The ditherer who failed to save General Gordon. Wolseley somehow got away with it. But he doesn’t in posterity thanks to Mike Snook.
The author is a serving soldier and had the dubious but nonetheless rewarding pleasure of conducting a battlefield tour of key points in the Sudan at a time when it was as dangerous to be an infidel British soldier as it had been a hundred and thirty odd years before. His experience shows in the at times forensic way he breaks down the decision making, the battles and the immense logistical operation needed to get several thousand British soldiers across hundreds of miles of desert. We are left realising how real those Victorian heroes were. The British Tommy is seen at his best. A small number of officers are seen for their mediocre worst.
Those days of the High Victorian Army may only be the stuff of Zulu on the telly to most of us, but they were an amazing bunch of people. Then, as now, the host had multifarious reasons for seeking a commission or taking the shilling, but that army was genuinely magnificent. Books like this show us why. The impression of the thin red line mowing down thousands of flimsily armed tribesmen is an easy assumption belied by the facts in most cases. The Mahdi’s army were stupendous. They were genuinely heroic, unwavering in their faith and mind bogglingly terrifying to confront. Their valour may have been scorned in the Victorian age where social and Christian pedigree was vital to maintaining imperial strength. But today we can and must be more honest. At the end of this book you come away marvelling at both sides of the conflict.
This is a proper history book. There are over five hundred pages of careful reading to negotiate. The text is gripping but I occasionally felt overawed by the scale of it. You can’t rush this book. You should not want to. I’ve read a few older gems through my half century and Donald R Morris’s The Washing of the Spears springs to mind in an attempt to match scale and depth. You should read it and also find a copy of Evan S Connell’s classic saga of Custer’s demise, Son of the Morning Star. They all have their place and illustrate what a dramatic and not so one dimensional world the Victorian era of warfare appears to be from this distance. Whatever Mike Snook decides to write about next will be well worth close on a month of my reading time if he writes as big a book again.
By Mark Barnes for War History Online
BEYOND THE REACH OF EMPIRE
Wolseley’s Failed Campaign to Save Gordon and Khartoum
By Colonel Mike Snooks
ISBN: 9781 84832 601 9