War in a Wilderness
Part 2The Campaign of the Cataracts
By Farwell Forrest
A Note to the Reader
We've all heard it said that history repeats itself. It doesn't, of
course. Life's too complicated for that. But it does come close
from time to time. Today, as American planes bomb Osama bin Laden's
allies in Afghanistan, we can look back on another "war in a wilderness,"
a war which brought Orkney boatmen and French-Canadian voyageurs
face to face with the army of an earlier warrior-prophet. The story of
that war began last month with "The
Siege of Khartoum." Now it continues.
November 13, 2001
In the summer of 1884, two men faced each
other across the waters of the Nile. One man was besieged within the
walls of the ancient city of Khartoum. The other commanded the besieging
army. Each was deeply religious. Each was a man of honor. And neither
would give way.
The first manthe man besieged in Khartoumwas General
Charles Gordon. The commander of the army which encircled him was
Muhammad Ahmad, better known as the Mahdi: the One Who is Guided by God,
the Long-Expected One. Theirs was more than a minor confrontation in a
desert wilderness. It was a focal point in a global collision of two
great empires. One of these, the British Empire, was an empire of
commerce, fast approaching the high-water mark of its influence and
extent. The other was an empire of faith, and that faith was Islam. Once
enormously powerful, Islam was everywhere in retreat in the late
nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire succumbed to relentless Western
pressure and internal strife. The Mahdi was himself fighting to free the
people of southern Sudan from the domination of an Egyptian military
governor, a governor who had been appointed by the Ottoman sultan.
Ironically, at this critical moment in history, Britain found itself
yoked in an uneasy alliance with its former rival, the Ottoman Empire.
Anxious to protect its interests in the recently completed Suez canal,
Britain was compelled to prop up the tottering Egyptian government.
Indeed, Gordon had been sent to the Sudan to supervise the evacuation of
Egyptian forces from Khartoum. Now, however, he was a prisoner in the
city. Finding himself helpless to assist either the garrison or the
inhabitants, he resolved to share their fate.
The British government, reluctant to commit large numbers of troops to
a war in a distant land, delayed as long as it could. As the Mahdi's
siege continued, however, and as Gordon refused repeated suggestions that
he abandon Khartoum, a Gordon Relief Expedition finally got under way.
At the head of the expedition was General Lord Garnet Wolseley. Months
earlier, in London, he had seen Gordon off on his mission to the Sudan.
It had been an inauspicious setting out. Gordon had arrived in London
with almost no money in hand. (He said he'd forgotten to go to the bank.)
It was evening, and the banks were closed. But a gentleman couldn't be
expected to travel one-third of the way around the world with nothing in
his wallet, could he? Wolseley patted his pockets. He found some money,
but it wasn't enough. So the bemused peer then ran from one London club
to another, begging loose change from startled members "for General
Now Wolseley had the job of assembling an expeditionary force to
rescue Gordon and relieve the siege of Khartoum. He reached Cairo on the
9th of September. The first batch of whale-boatsdouble-ended,
rudderless craft that could be rowed, sailed or trackedarrived at
Wadi Halfa on the 14th of October. The River Column of the Gordon Relief
Expedition was about to get underway.
Happily, Wolseley was no stranger to river operations. He'd put down
the Red River rebellion in Canada in 1870, crossing the 600 miles of
wilderness waterways from Lake Superior to Fort Garry (now Winnipeg)
without losing a man. To a British government eager to avoid a bloody
war, this was a very good omen indeed. Better yet, among the officers
under Wolseley's command was a man who had accompanied him to Fort Garry,
Colonel William Francis Butler. Not only was Butler an enterprising
soldier and an imposing figurehe was later described as standing
[and] physically head and shoulders above the
majority of his comrades"but he was also a skilled canoeist and
boatman, as well as an acclaimed author whose two accounts of his
Canadian adventures were Victorian best sellers.
The Nile bore little resemblance to the Winnipeg River, of course, but
Butler did his best. And his best was very good. Fortunately, the
whale-boats he took up through the Nile cataracts were not unlike the
York boats he remembered from his days with the Red River expedition.
Slower than the Northwest Company's Montreal Canoes (canots de
maître) on the rivers, and more difficult to portage, York boats
had nevertheless proved far better sailers on the big Canadian lakes.
They were also much more efficient. The largest York boats could carry a
load of 12,000 pounds with a crew of no more than ten. The biggest canoes
could manage only half that load, and they required just as large a crew.
To the Hudson's Bay Company's directors and their accountants, there was
no contest. After all, inland factors had been complaining about the
shortcomings of canoes since 1745, when Joseph Isbister wrote plaintively
in his journal that "theres no eand to building Cannoes." He therefore
resolved "to make triell to build a boat to Drawe as letle watter as a
Canno and Carie more goods." Isbister's spelling may have been erratic,
but his commercial instincts couldn't be faulted, and shortly thereafter
the York boat was born. By 1779 they had replaced canoes on the Albany
River. After 1821, they were the mainstay of the Company's entire
transportation network, a position they held until, in the words of
Richard Glover, the voyageur turned "grease-monkey" and the "racket of
gasoline motors" intruded on the silence of the wilderness.
That day lay many years in the future when Butler took charge of his
boat brigade on the banks of the Nile, however. On the 25th of October,
1884, the first whale-boats were tracked up through the second cataract.
The struggle continued for many weeks, as Orkney boatmen and
French-Canadian voyageurs worked to turn British infantrymen into
seasoned hands. It wasn't an easy task, though one
early-twentieth-century writer insists the troops "bore the privations of
their unaccustomed conditions with admirable cheerfulness." Former
infantrymen will, I suspect, doubt the truth of this inspiring portrait,
but the fact remains that Butler kept his troops hard at it. By Christmas
day, 800 men had been rowed (and hauled) upriver to Korti. This was only
the beginning of their difficulties, though. The Nile between Korti and
Abu Hamed was a blank space on the map, and its cataracts and canyons
were all but unknown.
Nonetheless, the River Column pushed on toward Khartoum. "Great
difficulties of navigation were encountered," wrote historian George
Sydenham Clarke, with quintessential British understatement. And the
first month of the new year ended with the column still struggling
against the current. Nor was the Nile the only enemy. On the 10th of
February the River Column was attacked. Ten men were killed, including
Major-General Earle, the column's overall commander. The government's
hope of a bloodless war died with him.
Still, the River Column continued to advance. On the 24th of February,
the column drew near the end of the blank space on its maps. An end to
the "campaign of the cataracts" was in sight, as well. Old soldiers, all
veterans of many colonial conflicts, their hands now hardened to the
oars, stopped grumbling. The road to Khartoum lay open before them.
Gordon would soon be relievedor so it seemed. Then, 26 miles below
Abu Hamed, the column heard the news that had already plunged all England
into mourning. Gordon was dead. He had been killed on the 25th of
January. Khartoum had fallen to the Mahdi.
The River Column was ordered to return immediately to Korti, and so it
did, running back down the river which it had surmounted at such great
cost. Soon the voyageurs and Orkneymen were headed home to Canada,
while the British soldiers, their oars discarded for more familiar packs,
trooped off to "dispel a cloud
on the frontiers of Afghanistan." And
the Mahdi? What of the Mahdi? He had won the day, but he had little time
to enjoy his victory. He died of typhus in June, at a river town called
Omdurman. Thirteen years later, a British expeditionary force under
General Horatio Herbert Kitchener won a great victory near the same
place, killing eleven thousand of the Mahdi's surviving followers. "It
was a sight never to be forgotten," one of Kitchener's officers later
wrote, his words simultaneously invoking pride, pity, and awe. "The
endless columns of warriors
with countless banners fluttering in the
. They were simply mown down."
Kitchener then capped this triumph by digging up the Mahdi's bones and
throwing them into the Nile. From that day forward the man whom Winston
Churchill was later to call "the foremost of the heroes of his race" had
the world's greatest river for his monument.
In the same year that brought victory to Kitchener at Omdurman, when
the River Column and the campaign of the cataracts were only fading
memories, William Francis Butler was appointed Commander-in-Chief of
British forces in South Africa, where war between the British and the
Boers was all but inevitable. Butler, however, did the unexpected: he
declared that such a conflict would be "the greatest calamity that had
ever befallen South Africa." And then he did the unthinkable. He tried to
block the rush to war. To no one's surprise, he was immediately forced to
resign his command. Also to no one's surprise, war followed shortly
When the shooting stopped four years later, in 1902, more than 22,000
British soldiers were dead. The Boers had lost another 5,000 fighters,
while 26,000 Boer women and children had died of starvation and disease.
Nor was this all. The British treasury was poorer by £200 million,
as well. Still, the English language was enriched by several new words
and expressions: casualty (a tidy euphemism that replaced
"butcher's bill," "killed," and "crippled" in military reports and
newspaper accounts), commando, and concentration camp. All
were to prove very useful in the new century.
Meanwhile, the Nile flowed north unceasingly, washing the bones of the
Mahdi with every flood.
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights