Canada’s Forgotten (foreign entanglement loosely defineable as) War: the Nile Expedition of 1885

I recently wrote up this piece as a précis to the noteworthy political cartoonist and up-and-coming TV pundit J.J. McCullough on this subject, and I’m so pleased with the outcome I’ve decided to share it. Enjoy.

Many sources (trivia mavens Mark Kearney and Randy Ray, in The Great Canadian Trivia Book, for instance) cite Canada’s first foreign war as the Second Boer War of 1899-1902, and they’d be right if you define it as being a war effort in which the Canadian government took an active interest in organizing. If, however, you chose to consider a foreign entanglement including a significant number of Canadians to fit the bill, then Canada’s first foreign war was the Nile Expedition to the Relief of Khartoum in 1885, a mission to save British forces under General Charles “Chinese” Gordon.

Charles George Gordon had been an officer in the British Army since 1852 (Corps of Royal Engineers) but earned his reputation as a military leader outside of the Army in 1861, when he led the Chang Sheng Chun, or “Ever-Victorious Army”.  A mercenary army of Chinese soldiers with white officers, they fought alongside the Imperial Chinese army to put down the Taiping Rebellion, a disciplined uprising with a pseudo-Christian leadership which sought to unseat the Emperor shortly after China lost the Second Opium War in 1860. It was here that Charles got the nickname “Chinese” Gordon.

In 1873 Gordon came under the service of Ismail Pasha, the eagerly pro-European Khedive of Egypt and Sudan. He was technically a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, but a war with Ethiopia and costly Westernization schemes (it was he who commissioned Verdi to compose the Egyptian-themed opera Aida in 1871) forced him into such immense debt that both he and Egypt became puppets of Britain, a position cemented when Benjamin Disraeli approved Britain’s purchase of the controlling share in the Suez Canal in 1875 and culminating in Ismail’s overthrow by British forces in favour of his son Tewfik in 1879.

Gordon stayed in Egypt and established a number of way stations along the Nile in what is now South Sudan until 1876, when repeated clashes with the governor of Sudan prompted him to leave for London, returning that year when Ismail Pasha made him Governor-General of Sudan. There he suppressed the slave trade and dealt with war with Abyssinia and insurrection in Darfur. Exhausted, Gordon resigned his commission with the Egyptian army in early 1880 and left for Switzerland to recuperate for several weeks.

The next few years of his life involved a nearly preposterous amount of globe-hopping. By May of 1880 he accepted a position as the private secretary to the Marquess of Ripon, the new Viceroy of India, but resigned soon after arriving in India. No sooner had he quit than he was off to China at the behest of inspector of customs for China, Sir Robert Hart, Bt. By July Gordon was in Beijing, using his influence on the Imperial court to dissuade it from war with Russia. He then left for London and rented a house a few blocks from Hyde Park before leaving again in April 1881 as the Commanding Royal Engineer of Mauritius, where he was promoted to Major-General. He left Mauritius in March 1882 and spent some time in South Africa on his way back to iron out some troubles in Basutoland (now Lesotho). He then took some personal time and spent a year in the Holy Land (Gordon was an evangelical Christian) and wrote a book on his time there. By 1883 he had received an offer from the King of Belgium to become commander of the Belgian Congo, and was preparing to leave when Britain called upon him to return to Sudan.

A while earlier a coup against the Khedive by an Egyptian colonel named Ahmed Orabi led to the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, after which the British Army established a permanent military presence. The administration of the Sudan, however, was left to the Egyptian government. At this time a large group of rebels gathered under a radical Muslim cleric named Muhammad Ahmad, who proclaimed himself the Mahdi, or redeemer of Islam, and his followers were called Mahdists. These Mahdists crushed the Egyptian forces at El Obeid in November 1883, and overran large swaths of Sudan, capturing much territory and equipment. Neither William Gladstone nor his secretary of war the Marquess of Hartington (later 8th Duke of Devonshire) nor the British commander in Cairo Sir Evelyn Baring wanted to engage in battle with the Mahdists and convinced the Khedive to order the evacuation of the Sudanese garrisons, and they decided that Chinese Gordon was the man for the job.

Gordon accepted his orders, but felt Gladstone’s decision was wrong: Gordon wanted very much to engage and defeat the Mahdists, not only to protect Egypt from their advance but, as an evangelical Christian, he viewed the Mahdi and his evangelical Islam as a dangerous enemy. (Plus ça change…) Gordon was given a budget of £100,000 and a promise of full co-operation from the British and Egyptian governments, and left London for Egypt in January 1884.

Gordon and his assistant Col. J.D.H. Stewart arrived in Khartoum on February 18th, 1884. Instead of evacuating the city immediately as instructed, Gordon started administering the city, currying favour with the locals by cancelling unfair punishments, reimbursing unpopular taxes and reinstating slavery, controversial at home but popular locally, as the slave trade was a big part of the Sudanese economy. More unpopularity in Britain followed as Gordon requested the appointment of Al-Zubayr Rahma Mansur, a local former slave trader, as his assistant. The Anti-Slavery League protested, and his request was denied.

Gordon continued to ask for military reinforcements, first for a regiment of Turkish troops, then for a unit of Indian Muslims, then for 200 British regulars. Every time, the Gladstone cabinet, not wishing to pursue military intervention, rebuffed him. Finally, Gordon sent an angry telegram to Cairo on April 8th, 1884, denouncing the evacuation plans as an “indelible disgrace” and “the climax of meanness”. This message fell into the hands of the Conservative opposition, and Gladstone narrowly avoided incurring a vote of censure over it.

A few days thereafter tribes north of Khartoum rose in support of the Mahdi, cutting telegraph and river traffic to Egypt, although overland couriers were able to keep Gordon in contact with Cairo. Knowing the siege had begun, Gordon placed makeshift gunboats on the rivers to the north and west of Khartoum and fortified the south and east with mines and barbed wire. Khartoum only had enough food in its stores for 5 or 6 months. Over 30,000 Mahdists surrounded the city by the end of April, and as the summer wore on supplies dwindled and starvation set upon the garrison and Khartoum’s 34,000 civilians.

In Britain, the papers, the public, and even Queen Victoria clamoured for Gladstone to send relief to Gordon. Gladstone was not inclined to do so; he disliked Gordon’s insubordination, he remained opposed to military intervention in the Sudan, and even made some comments in the House of Commons sympathizing for the Sudanese struggle for freedom from Egyptian control. The pressure on him, however, eventually made him agree in July 1884 to send a relief expedition down the Nile, and put it under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley.

Wolseley had been in the army since 1852. He sustained a serious leg wound in the Second Anglo-Burmese War, lost an eye at Sebastopol, distinguished himself in the relief of Lucknow and throughout the Indian Mutiny, stormed the Taku Forts and was at the Battle of Pa-To-Cheau during the Anglo-French Expedition to China of 1860. During the US Civil War he sneaked through the Union blockade of the Potomac and met with Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. He was then made Assistant Quartermaster-General of the Forces in Canada on June 5th, 1865, promoted to Deputy Quartermaster-General on October 1st, 1867, and was knighted for commanding the Red River Expedition of 1870 to put down Louis Riel’s first rebellion and establish Canadian control over Manitoba. He returned to England in late 1870 and made Adjutant-General to the War Office in 1871. He was sent to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in late 1873 to command the British troops in the Third Anglo-Ashanti War, defeating the Ashantis at the Battle of Amoaful on January 31st, 1874, and burning their capital at Kumasi five days later. Wolseley’s careful planning won the war and brought his troops home within two months, earning him the thanks of Parliament and making him a household name. After a year as high commissioner to Cyprus and some time serving various positions in South Africa he became Quartermaster-General to the Forces on July 1st, 1880, then Adjutant-General to the Forces on April 1st, 1882. He was sent to suppress Orabi’s revolt in Cairo in 1882, and Wolseley was made a baron in 1883.

Wolseley decided the best way to get to Khartoum was by boat down the Nile, and knew from his experience in Canada that using Canadians experienced in river travel would be best to guide the vessels down the river. Wolseley sent a letter to the Governor General of Canada, the Marquess of Lansdowne, asking for rivermen, explaining that they would be what are now called defense contractors.  Sir John A. Macdonald, once satisfied the men were volunteers and would be paid, assented. 386 volunteers, including 86 Natives, set sail for Cairo on September 15th, 1884, impressive since it had only been 24 days since Lord Lansdowne received Wolseley’s letter. They were under the command of Lt.-Col. Frederick Denison, Wolseley’s old aide-de-camp in Canada. The Canadians were called the Nile Voyageurs, although most of them were lumbermen; very few of the traditional fur-trading voyageurs were still around by the 1880s.

Meanwhile, things were getting worse for Gordon. On September 16th an attempt to break through the blockade and reach nearby Sennar failed terribly with 800 of Gordon’s men killed, including Col. Stewart. By the end of September the Mahdists surrounding the city numbered more than 60,000.

The Canadians arrived at Alexandria on October 7th and proceeded down the Nile, meeting up with Wolseley and his 5400 men at Wadi Halfa on October 26th, and the voyageurs took the expedition down the river from there in modified Navy whalers, about 30 feet long, 7 feet wide and 2 feet deep. Each boat carried 12 men and supplies to last 100 days.

By mid-November the voyageurs were bringing the boats through the First Cataract of the Nile. Wolseley, realizing that time was running out, sent 2400 men overland to circumvent a bend in the river. He also sent voyageurs ahead to difficult stretches of water so they could be familiar with it by the time the boats had arrived.

The expedition was attacked by rebels twice, at Abu Klea on January 17th, 1885, and Abu Kru on the 19th. Both were repelled without serious losses. At this point, most of the voyageurs turned back to be able to get home by the end of their 6-month contract and be back in time for the fall log drive. Only 86 men, including Lt.-Col. Denison, signed up for a second 6-month contract. This didn’t hinder the expedition greatly, as most of the rough parts of the river were behind them.

Wolseley’s force reached Khartoum on January 28th, 1885. To their horror, they were too late.

Shortly before midnight on January 25th the Mahdists waded across the Nile (the river being very low at that time of year) and attacked the city walls. By 3:30 a.m. on January 26th, 50,000 Mahdists had invaded the city, killing every soldier in the garrison and 4000 civilians.

Two stories exist of Charles Gordon’s death. One says that, as the rebels broke into the governor’s palace, Gordon, in full uniform, stood against the rebels and disdained to fight, whereupon he was speared to death; another says he was spotted fleeing to the Austrian consulate and killed in the street. What is known is that he was beheaded, his body dumped in the Nile, and his head presented on a pike to the Mahdi.

Wolseley, his forces, and the remaining troops in Sudan retreated to Egypt, repelling an attack on the fleeing corps at Kirbekan on February 10th. This left Sudan to the Mahdi, who ruled it under Shariah law. The Mahdi died in June 1885, but the country, called the Mahdiyah, lived on after him. The Canadians set sail for home on April 17th, suffering the loss of 16 men.

After returning from Egypt, Lord Wolseley was made a viscount and continued on as Adjutant-General until appointed Commander-in-Chief of Ireland in 1890. He was made a field marshal in 1894 and served as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces from November 1st, 1897, to January 3rd, 1901. Lord Wolseley died on March 26th, 1913, and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Lt.-Col. Denison returned to Toronto to practice law. He was then elected in 1887 as the Conservative member of Parliament for Toronto West, which he held until his death from stomach cancer on April 15th, 1896.

In Britain, Gordon became a hero and a martyr to the Empire, much the same way General Wolfe did in 1759. Public outrage over the government’s foot-dragging in mustering Wolseley’s expedition forced Gladstone out of office that June, but after the press coverage slowed and it was revealed the whole debacle had cost taxpayers £11,500,000, the anger subsided and Gladstone returned as Prime Minister by February 1886. On March 18th, 1896, a British force under the command of Sir Herbert Kitchener, sworn to avenge Gordon, invaded the Sudan; and on September 2nd, 1898, the British trounced the Mahdist forces at the Battle of Omdurman, notable not only for being the last great cavalry battle of the 19th century but also for the participation of a young cavalry officer named Winston Churchill.


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