British adventurer — the Nile expedition ends in failure and “Manitoba Boys” return home

by Bruce Cherney (part 5 of 5)

An important detail General Sir Frederick Stephenson failed to mention  when promoting the overland Suakin-Berber route to relieve the siege of Khartoum, Sudan, was the lack of camels and water in the region for such an enterprise. 

When General Sir Garnet Wolseley, the commander of the Sudan campaign, eventually approved an overland mission using mounted troops, the search for sufficient camels further delayed the rescue of General Charles “Chinese” Gordon in Khartoum.  

In a later article for the Pall Mall  Gazette in London, the famous British explorer of Africa, Sir Samuel Baker, said Wolseley’s choice of the Nile route may have been forced upon him by the War Office in England. Acting in favour of the Nile route, according to Baker’s assessment of officials in England, was the ability to independently supply the advancing British Army without enemy interference.

Baker conceded landing troops at Suakin, proceeding overland to Berber and then by steamboat to Khartoum — a much shorter route than mounting a  mission up the Nile — may have also been abandoned due to the presence of the Mahdi’s troops in the region, the hardships of the mountain and desert terrain, and the difficulty of bringing supplies and water overland due to a lack of camels and other transportation. 

Actually, the route suggested by Baker was a moot point, as the Mahdi’s forces had captured Berber on May 23, 1884. Even Gordon had warned Wolseley that it was essential to recapture Berber before advancing on Khartoum. Failing to occupy the city would have resulted in the threat of a large enemy force to the rear of Wolseley’s desert and river columns. As it turned out, the Nile boatmen and the Desert Column were recalled well before they reached Berber.

While his supporters may have attempted to deflect blame for the failure from Wolseley, it was he who first lobbied the government to accept the Nile route. During the so-called “Battle of the Routes” preceding the campaign, General William Francis Butler, a participant in the Red River Expedition of 1870, wrote in his book, The Campaign of the Cataracts, that the river expedition using Canadian voyageurs was the pet project of Wolseley. According to Butler, who supported Wolseley’s call to enlist voyageurs, including Chief William Prince and Ojibways from the St. Peter’s Settlement in Manitoba, for the Nile campaign, the British commander dismissed the Suakin-Berber route as too difficult to supply as the last 160 kilometres were devoid of water and highly vulnerable to attack.

As early as April 1884, Butler said Wolseley was proposing the Nile route to the government, but was rebuffed. At first, the Suakin-Berber route was high on the government’s agenda, and £1.5 million was allocated for the construction of a railway, but after the Mahdi’s army captured Berber, the Nile route was the only viable option remaining for the British government to relieve Khartoum. 

It was only in August 1884 that Wolseley's proposal “to send all the dismounted portion of the force up the Nile to Khartoum in boats, as we sent the little expeditionary force from Lake Superior to Fort Garry on the Red River in 1870” was accepted. By default, the government appointed Wolseley the expedition’s commander. Stephenson, who was already in Egypt as commander of the British occupying force, was passed over due to his lack of enthusiasm for the Nile route into the Sudan. 

After the fall of Khartoum, Wolseley was told he had permission to capture Berber if he felt up to it. Wolseley sent General Sir Herbert Stewart and the Desert Column to capture Berber, but it failed. Stewart was fatally wounded at the Battle of Abu Klea — a British victory,  but insufficient to ensue the eventual British defeat of the Mahdi’s army in the Sudan. General Redvers Buller, who also participated in the Red River Expedition of 1870, organized the successful retreat of the Desert Column northward into Egypt.

As early as March, English newspaper correspondents sensed the campaign was winding down and began returning to London. On May 14, 1885, the government agreed to the withdrawal of British and colonial troops from Australia and India in Suakin, ending the British commitment to the Sudan.

The failure to rescue Gordon is probably best summarized by Colonel H.E. Colville, the official historian of the Sudan campaign, who wrote: “The Nile Expedition was a campaign less against man than against nature and time. Had British soldiers and Egyptian camels been able to subsist on sand and occasional water, or had the desert produced beef and biscuit, the army might, in spite of the late start, have reached Khartoum in November (1884).”

While some criticism was leveled at Wolseley, he emerged from the debacle relatively unscathed. In fact, shortly thereafter he was made a viscount.

Eventually, a border incident in Afghanistan involving Russia raised the possibility of a new military entanglement, distracting politicians and the public from the Sudan. Scant months after the fall of Khartoum, the Mahdi’s rebellion in Africa was mostly forgotten.

In Canada, the Sudan campaign had drawn significant newspaper attention in its early stages — especially the voyageurs’ contribution — but as 1885 progressed, the North-West Rebellion led by Louis Riel was the public and federal government’s main concern, and the Nile expedition quickly became an afterthought.

Members of the Canadian contingent, who had signed on only for six months service, began leaving Egypt days before the fall of Khartoum.

All had been offered $20 to re-enlist, but most refused. Eighty-nine voyageurs, over 40 from Manitoba, did re-enlist and remained at Korti awaiting further orders for service in the Sudan. Of the Canadian officers offering to extend their term in Africa, the British only accepted the services of Denison, Kennedy and Neilson.

Captain William Robinson sent a letter in mid-February 1885 to his employer, C.S. Drummond of the Northwest Navigation Company in Winnipeg, saying he expected to remain in Egypt for another month. Robinson, one of four steamboat captains from the Red River region recruited by the British (two were former Winnipeggers employed in the United States), wrote that “the three men who came with me from Manitoba have gained credit in everything we touched. And some of the English officers would swear by us in the matter of river navigation ... the chief officer in command has requested us to stay as long as we can beyond the time we engaged for.”

Robinson said he would stay in Egypt “unless you cable me to the contrary.”

The Sun reported on March 10 that 21 of the Manitobans had returned home “from Africa’s burning sands to Manitoba’s snowy plains.”

“The voyageurs, most of whom were from St. Peter’s, were all looking extremely well after their long trip, and carried evidence of their sojourn in a foreign land about them in the shape of fez caps and other Egyptian articles of attire.”

Other reports said the contingent was a somewhat motley crew, sporting turbans and pith helmets, and carrying spears, shields and other souvenirs.

When asked what he thought about Egypt, George Johnson of St. Peter’s said “it is about the meanest in creation; and as for the people, they are as bad.”

On their way home to Canada, the last of the voyageurs still in Africa  were given an all-expenses-paid sightseeing trip by carriage through Cairo on April 13, 1885, that ended with a lunch in the shadows of the Pyramids, as a reward from the British government for their contribution to the Sudan campaign.

“The Pyramids looked down on a meeting of the two worlds that afternoon,” wrote C. P. Stacy in his book, The Nile Voyageurs, “and no doubt the English officers’ wives (apparently all 50 of them residing in Cairo) and the rough boatmen from Chaughawaga and Three Rivers regarded one another with interest as the brilliant cavalcade rode along the line of carriages with Captain (Egerton) Denison doing the honours. Before the Canadians went on their way they received a gift of pipes and tobacco.”

The day after visiting the Pyramids and Sphinx, the men were transported by train to the Suez Canal where they boarded HMS Serapis for Malta. William Nassau Kennedy of Winnipeg was the ranking officer accompanying the voyageurs on their return journey to Canada, as contingent commander Colonel Frederick Denison remained in Egypt recovering from an illness. From the Mediterranean island, the men proceeded to Portsmouth and then London before returning to Canada. The British government feted them in London, paying all expenses for sightseeing tours and providing theatre tickets.

The men all said they didn't regret the trip, but were glad to be home.

W.R. Nourse was the first of those who enlisted for a second term of service on the Nile to return to Winnipeg. Nourse had received the Albert Medal for saving the life of three British officers and seven soldiers, who were cast into the Nile when their boat capsized. Nourse left his clothes on the riverbank before he jumped into the water to rescue them. Since none of the men could swim, if not for Nourse’s bravery, they would have all drowned. 

Unfortunately for Nourse, when he returned to retrieve his belongings, he found that all his clothes had been stolen by local residents. For the better part of an evening and day, he was forced to walk 18 kilometres without a stitch of clothing covering his body. His only protection from the relentless sun was a helmet. When Nourse eventually showed up at the camp hospital, he was given the clothing of a man who had earlier died.

By June, all the men had returned and Canada’s first overseas military mission came to an end.

In a March 1885 interview with the St. Paul Globe en route to Winnipeg, A.P. Russell said the two Canadian and two American (Seger and Jerry Webber) “Red River” steamboat captains were assigned to two steel steamers upon arrival in Egypt.

“After reaching Alexandria we took charge of the Water Lily, (Russell as captain and Webber as pilot) one of the government boats, and proceeded up the Nile, the entire distance traveled being 900 miles. This boat was then used to carry mail between Assouan (today’s Aswan) and Wady Halfa (today’s Wadi Halfa), the first and second cataracts, a distance of 225 miles.” Decades after Russell plied this length of the Nile, the Aswan Dam was built, creating Lake Nasser between the first and second cataracts.

Russell was later assigned to the steamer Dongola with Segers, and operated as far as the Fourth Cataract. The Winnipeg steamboat captain said the cataracts of the Nile were “very dangerous and peculiar.”

Unlike the voyageurs from St. Peter’s, Russell was more kind when talking about Egypt. He called Cairo “a beautiful city,” and praised the gardens of Alexandria. He even said the “climate of Egypt in the winter season is the most delightful in the world.”

He described the Nile as “majestic in its breadth and great sweep.” 

But Russell’s experiences in Egypt should be remembered in the context that the North American riverboat captains were relatively pampered by the British in relation to what the voyageurs experienced while toiling to manhandle whale boats up the Nile under extremely dangerous circumstances.

One poor impression the voyageurs took home about the campaign was the deeply-entrenched hierarchy dividing British officers and ordinary soldiers in terms of social standing and benefits of service. The Canadians found this unreasonable and greatly resented it when they were treated in such a manner by British officers. 

As a result of being from a more egalitarian country, Canadian officers knew it was futile to press their charges to conform to British military discipline. When such conflicts arose with British officers, Denison intervened on behalf of the Canadians.  

A member of the contingent who did not return was Kennedy. He died in London after contracting smallpox while in Egypt.

According to newspaper reports, the Canadians were unaware that Kennedy, “loved by every one of the contingent,” was gravely ill.

When he returned to Winnipeg in June, Alfred “Morrie” McKeand, a captain in the 90th Winnipeg Rifles who served in the Sudan campaign and attended Kennedy’s funeral in London, related to  newspapers that “the boys of the Manitoba contingent all mourned the colonel’s death as they would that of a father.”

“The empire has thus lost the services of a most valuable and distinguished officer, a man of influence in his own province, and respected and esteemed wherever he has served,” stated an official dispatch from the War Office in London, following Kennedy’s death on May 3, 1885, at age 46.

Kennedy’s funeral took place at Wesleyan Chapel, and he was buried with full military honours at Highgate Cemetery. The pallbearers were members of the Winnipeg party, who claimed 10,000 people witnessed the funeral.

The British authorities made the decision to hastily inter Kennedy in foreign soil as they feared his body was still contagious with smallpox.

Three other men from Manitoba — Richard Burgess (served as Henderson, according to the Book of Remembrance), George Fletcher, and Alexander M. Armstrong — died while serving on the expedition (Winnipeg Sun, March 10, 1885 ). 

Thirty-year-old Henderson of St. Peter’s fell victim on September 20, 1884, to an undisclosed illness at sea en route to Egypt, Fletcher of Kildonan drowned in the Nile on November 23, 1884, while Armstrong of Winnipeg died from enteric (typhoid) fever on January 3, 1885. 

In total, 16 Canadians died during the Nile campaign. Their names are recorded in the Book of Remembrance in the Peace Tower of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. 

Wolseley wrote Lord Lansdowne, Canada's governor general, that “the services of these voyageurs has been of the greatest possible value.” 

He said the voyageurs were “a most useful body of boatmen, under the command of Colonel Denison ... Their skill in the management of boats in difficult and dangerous waters was of the utmost use to us in our long ascent of the Nile. Men and officers showed a high military and patriotic spirit, making light of difficulties and working with that energy and determination which have always characterized Her Majesty’s Canadian forces.”

Other officers commented that it was doubtful the boats would have proceeded as far as they did without the help of the Canadians.

Queen Victoria sent a letter of congratulations, expressing her pleasure for the reports of “the energy and devotion they had shown in the arduous duties performed by them in the Nile.” The Queen originally wanted to meet the voyageurs in person, but since some were infected with smallpox, the visit was called off. 

Butler’s appointment on the field by Wolseley to the rank of major-general was only officially confirmed in 1892 when he was again stationed in Alexandria. 

In 1893, he returned to England and became the brigade commander at Aldershot.

In 1898, Butler was sent to South Africa to serve as commander-in-chief. He wanted to prevent a war with the Boers in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, but Sir Alfred Milner had political support in England and war came a year later. 

Since he couldn’t help avoid what he believed would be a disastrous war for Britain, Butler resigned and returned home.

Butler didn’t see active service during the Boer War (1899-1902) and was instead again placed in command of the brigade at Aldershot. 

In punishment for his stand on South Africa, Queen Victoria refused to allow him to be present when she reviewed troops under his command during a visit to Aldershot.

In 1905, Butler was retired from the British Army and went to live in Bansha Castle, Ireland. Despite the earlier animosity against him, Butler was made a Knight of the Grand Cross and the Order of the Bath. Three years later he was a member of the Irish Privy Council. 

Butler died in Ireland in 1910.

Butler is often described as impulsive as well as intelligent. But whatever terms are used to describe him, Butler was a remarkable man who thirsted for adventure and fell in love with the vast prairie expanses of Western Canada, which was revealed in the pages of his famous book, The Great Lone Land (1872).

“Midst the smoke and hum of cities, midst the prayer of churches, in street and salon, it needs but little cause to recall again to the wanderer the image of the immense meadows where, far away at the portal of the setting sun, lies the Great Lone Land,” he wrote.