British adventurer — Butler reprimanded for leaving voyageurs and boats of the River Column

by Bruce Cherney (part 4)

Colonel Willian Francis Butler felt the telegram reprimand he received from General Sir Garnet Wolseley, the British commander of the Sudan campaign, for not awaiting orders, was “a slap in the face.”

Prior to receiving Wolseley’s reprimand, Butler left his column of boats and made his way to the Third Cataract, 320 kilometres south from Gemai. A telegram from Wolseley  told him to stop and await instructions. Butler waited overnight, but when he didn’t receive further orders, proceeded up the Nile.

Butler later wrote Wolseley explaining his actions, but this did nothing to placate the commander.

Wolseley’s upbraiding of Butler was apparently the result of being frustrated by the bureaucrats in Cairo, whom he felt were keeping him from quickening the pace to rescue British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon and the Egyptian garrison beseiged by the Mahdi’s army at Khartoum.

Wolseley wrote in his diary that Butler felt “he (was the) only wise man out there and anything that has gone wrong has been occasioned because I did not consult him more, take him more in my confidence and follow his advice ... The fact is Butler’s talent is erratic it can neither work in any ordinary groove nor work in harmony.”

After being rebuffed by Wolseley, Butler wrote in his own diary, “I am to be the Moses of the expedition, not to enter the promised land.”

Meanwhile, on December 27, 1884, Wolseley ordered that a camel-mounted force commanded by Brigadier-General Sir Herbert Stewart  be sent overland. The cross-country route avoided a great bend in the Nile, shaving off nearly 400-kilometres from the distance to Khartoum. Wolseley made it clear the troops taking the overland route were to be secondary to the troops proceeding by boat to rescue Gordon. 

With the splitting of the forces, the overland mission became known as the Desert Column, while the boats with its small body of troops following along the bank of the Nile became known as the River Column under the command of Major-General William Earle. Lieutenant-Colonel J. Alleyne was placed in charge of the boats in the column.

The river expedition was accompanied on land by a force of Hussars and Egyptian cavalry. Butler, with a contingent of 40 British Hussars and 20 Egyptians on camels, inspected each section of the river before the boats advanced. 

On February 5, Butler received a confidential message from Earle that Khartoum had fallen. 

The next day, Earle met Butler whose troops were facing a section of the Mahdi’s army. A flanking manoeuvre caught the Mahdi’s men by surprise and cut off a portion of this army which was forced to retreat. The successful action helped to bring Butler back into Wolseley’s favour. 

Earle was killed on February 10 at the Battle of Kirbekan, the one major skirmish fought by the River Column. While Colonel Frederick Denison, the commander of the Canadian contingent hailing from Ontario, did not take part in the action, he was a witness as were a number of voyageurs. Denison described the fight in detail in a letter to his brother George. The British lost a dozen officers and men as well as incurring over 40 wounded, but claimed the battlefield after the engagement.

Among the baggage of the fallen Muslims was a message in Arabic: “I inform you that Khartoum was taken 9 Rabi (January 26, 1885). The Mahdi prayed his dervishes and his troops to advance against the fortifications and enter Khartoum in a quarter hour. They killed the traitor Gordon and captured the (gun-mounted) steamers and boats (Gordon had been using to defend the city).”

Besides Gordon, 4,000 civilians had been killed in Khartoum, which represented one-10th of the population. A Times report said British soldiers first became aware of the city’s fall when they saw bodies floating down the Nile.

Wolseley telegraphed the War Office in London announcing the fall of Khartoum, saying Colonel Sir Charles Wilson arrived at  the city with a party of 240 soldiers aboard steamers on January 28, “and was greatly surprised to find that the enemy was in possession of the place.”

Under heavy fire, Wilson turned back down the Nile. His steamers were wrecked, “but he and his party managed to reach an island in safety.” Later, a British steamer rescued the stranded men and delivered them to an army camp near Metemneh.

Wolseley sent a telegram to London saying that “events” — the fall of Khartoum — had made his original order to relieve the city “out of the question. My instructions are at an end, and the responsibility is wholly yours. I’m at your disposal.”

While Wolseley recalled the Nile boat expedition to Wadi Halfa to await instructions, a debate raged in England as to what course to pursue.

It was Prime Minister Gladstone’s opinion that there was no point in conquering the Sudan — “That dreadful country.” And it was his opinion which would eventually win the day, although it would take weeks before a final decision was reached to abort the campaign.

Peter G. de Gagne, a veteran of the Canadian expedition, in a May 30, 1942, column by Colonel G.C. Porter published in the Winnipeg Tribune, recalled “the tremor that went through the ranks when the word came by runners from the scene that the brave garrison (at Khartoum) had been overwhelmed.

“We rested for several days while a decision was being made by our officers as to the next move. I think all my companions were as much disappointed as I when we were informed that we were not to have a go at those desert tribes.”

De Gagne told Porter that the men accompanying the Canadians had friends and relatives in Khartoum, “and those especially were disappointed at not being able to get into action against the religious-crazed natives in control of the Soudan (sic).”

When the boat expedition was recalled on February 24, the voyageurs had progressed past the Fourth Cataract, within  16 kilometres of Abu Hamel, according to William Nassau Kennedy’s April 9, 1885, letter to  Senator Dr. John Christian Schultz in Ottawa. 

The skill of the voyageurs again came into play when the boats ran rapids downriver to Korti — it took 30 days to ascend one section of the river against the current, but just nine to descend. Another section was traversed in only 11 hours, but took 13 days to cover going upstream. At the time, the Nile was again in flood, with large trees and logs making the return journey quite hazardous, according to de Gagne.

“Some of our smaller boats were saved only by the expert voyageurs responsible for our safety,” said de Gagne. 

The Pall Mall Gazette  of February 6, 1885, blamed the fall of Khartoum and Gordon’s death on the politicians “who refused to allow the Nile expeditions to start in spite of warnings and entreaties until too late.” The Times also took a similar position.

The Gazette outlined that the British Parliament only approved £300,000 (by March 1885 the cost of the campaign rose to £3.7 million to the horror of Prime Minister Gladstone) to relieve Gordon on August 9, while the expedition was only sanctioned on August 12. “That period of hesitation sacrificed Khartoum,” editorialized the newspaper.

“We have failed to save Gordon; we have failed to save Stewart.”

In England, the fall of Khartoum was regarded as an humiliation at the hands of a “fanatical horde,” and a blow to British prestige abroad. Newspapers and the public condemned Gladstone, the British government and the War Office for their handling of the campaign. In fact, Gladstone was called the “murderer of Gordon.”

It was well-known that Gladstone was a less than enthusiastic imperialist, who described the Sudanese as “a people struggling to be free (from the Ottoman Turks) and they are struggling rightly to be free.” Gladstone saw the British Empire as a voluntary association of people under British stewardship — reminiscent of today’s British Commonwealth of Nations.

Furthermore, he dreaded the cost and risks involving a British military campaign in the region. It was only under intense public pressure, Queen Victoria’s demand that Gordon be rescued as well as lobbying by his own caucus, that Gladstone agreed to the expedition. 

“May, June, July and almost half-way through August before an undecided Executive above,” wrote Butler in his Life of Charles George Gordon, “and congested clerkship, rival theories, and varying ambitions below, can shape themselves into any fixed plan of action.”

Butler said the dithering on a plan was “time wasted.”

Even Wolseley blamed Gladstone for the failure of the Sudan campaign, which was to be expected under the circumstances of Khartoum’s capture by the Mahdi. Writing in his journal on February 17, Wolseley said, “He is responsible for Gordon’s death and all the bloodshed and horror attendant upon the fall of Khartoum.”

Opposition to the Gladstone government was so intense that votes of censure arose in the House of Lords and the Commons. The government lost the vote in the House of Lords, but won in the Commons, allowing Gladstone to retain political power in Britain.

With the failure to rescue Gordon, critics of Wolseley’s tactics began to emerge. Sir Samuel Baker, the noted Nile explorer, wrote in the Gazette that he had advised Wolseley against the Nile route, telling him to land his troops at Suakin on the Red Sea and then advance overland to Berber then to Khartoum. He and General Sir Frederick Stephenson, the commander of the British occupying force in Egypt, told Wolseley that even if he took the Nile route, the troops would have to undertake a cross-country trek to Khartoum, which eventually turned out to be the case. 

(Next week: part 5)