Chinese Gordon – Part II

(Continued from last week)

In March 1880, a worn out and frustrated Colonel Gordon realized that his efforts had come to naught.  He resigned his position and returned to England.  He returned home a broken man and if not suffering from a nervous breakdown, he was close to it.  During his return trip to England, one fellow traveler remarked of Gordon, “The man is off his head.”

In May 1880, Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General of Customs in China invited Gordon to return to China, as his services were urgently needed.  China and Russia were on the verge of open warfare and someone was needed who could help sort this problem out.  The British War Office learned that Gordon was contemplating a return to China and ordered him, instead, to return to England immediately.  Gordon ignored the War Office and sailed on the first ship to China.  The Duke of Cambridge was not at all pleased, but the fact of Gordon’s insubordination increased his prestige in China.

By this time, it was clear to his inner circle that Chinese Gordon had become a bit unhinged.  Sir Robert Hart noted that at best, Gordon was “very eccentric,” and wrote, “ … as much as I like and respect him, I must say that he is ‘not all there’.  Whether it is religion or vanity, or the softening of the brain—I don’t know, but he seems to be alternatively arrogant and slavish, vain and humble, in his senses, and out of them.  It is a great pity.”

The British Foreign Office soon ordered Gordon to return home.  London was not comfortable with a serving officer leading a Chinese Army against Russia (noting that the Czar of Russia and Queen Victoria were blood relatives).  In any case, the United Kingdom did not want an Anglo-Russian War.  In October 1880, Gordon returned to London and spent the winter of 1880-81 socializing with his family and close friends.

In April 1881, Brigadier Gordon assumed command of the Royal Engineers in Mauritius, remaining there until March 1882.  Gordon was bored and irritated with British policy he regarded as idiotic.  In his view, building forts to protect Mauritius from a Russian naval attack was pointless.  He was also opposed to the over-reliance on the Suez Canal.  The Russians, he argued, need only sink one ship in the canal to make it irrelevant.  Instead, he proposed that the British government devise a series of coaling stations in Africa and the Indian Ocean, which would improve the Cape route to India.

Gordon was promoted to Major General on 23 March 1882 and dispatched to resolve the Civil War in Basutoland, in South Africa.  The issues were satisfactorily resolved (in the long-term interests of the people —allowing them to avoid apartheid in the twentieth century), Gordon returned to England and was once more unemployed.  From 1882-83, General Gordon traveled to Palestine.  The deeply religious Gordon wrote a book titled Reflections in Palestine.  In it, he proposed that the site of Golgotha (the site of Christ’s crucifixion) was incorrect.  Today this area is known as the Garden Tomb and alternatively, Gordon’s Garden.

In Egypt, popular dissatisfaction with Ismai’il Pasha and Europe’s intrusion into Egyptian affairs led to the rise of a nationalist movement in 1879, with Ahmad Urabi a prominent figure [Note 1].  In 1882, Urabi became the leader of a nationalist-dominated ministry committed to democratic reforms, including parliamentary control of the budget.  With concerns about their loss of control over the affairs of Egypt, the United Kingdom and France intervened, bombarding Alexandria, and crushing the Egyptian Army at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir.  The British and French re-installed Ismai’il’s son Twefik as a figurehead of a de facto British protectorate, which lasted until 1953.

In late 1883, Gordon was contemplating the acceptance of an administrative post in the Congo Free State, working for King Leopold II of Belgium.  Aware of Leopold’s offer, the British War Office requested that Gordon accept a commission to Egypt instead; they needed him to resolve a rebellion in Sudan.

The revolt was led by a self-proclaimed Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed.  According to Islamic tradition, the Mahdi is a messianic figure who appears at the dawn of every new (Islamic) century to strike down the enemies of Islam.  1881 was Islamic year 1298, and Ahmed announced that he was the Mahdi and promptly proclaimed jihad against the Egyptian State.  Ismai’il’s long exploitation of the Sudanese people led many to rally to the Mahdi’s black banner.  Ahmed promised to expel the Egyptians, whom he proclaimed apostate, and establish a fundamentalist Islamic State as practiced in the days of the Prophet Mohammed [Note 2].  

William Hicks PashaIn September 1883, an Egyptian army force under Colonel William Hicks [Note 3] set out to destroy the Mahdi.  Hicks’ command was mostly composed of conscripts who had no interest in serving as soldiers much less in the Sudanese desert.  Morale was poor, training was nil, and the only way that Hicks could keep these men from deserting was to chain them together.  Hicks was well aware that his force was inadequate to its stated purpose, and made that argument to his superiors.  However, the Egyptian ministry did not believe that the Mahdi was a force strong enough to defeat Hicks and sent him on his way on 9 September.  Hicks commanded 7,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 2,000 camp followers—including 13 European mercenaries.  On 5 November, the ragtag army, thirsting to death in the oppressive desert, was ambushed by forces loyal to the Mahdi.  All but 300 of the expedition were killed, including Hicks.  According to Hicks’ cook, who was spared, Colonel Hicks went down fighting with a pistol in one hand, and a sword in the other.  Hicks was decapitated and his head taken to the Mahdi.

In the United Kingdom, particularly in London, there were three political forces: the liberal party, the conservative party (imperialists), and public opinion.  Liberals had won the general election on a platform of imperial retrenchment, or withdrawal from overseas locations.  Prime Minister William Gladstone withdrew the British Army from the Transvaal and Afghanistan in 1881.  But the British War Office contained a few “ultra-imperialists” who continually argued against withdrawing from long-held British territories.  One of these was Field Marshal Garnet J. Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley, who was a close friend and ally of Major General Gordon.

Initially following the massacre of the Hicks expedition, Gladstone opined that the Sudan was not worth the trouble of retaining it under Egyptian (British) control and he made the decision to abandon Sudan.  This decision was promptly communicated to Egypt, but the order failed to take into account that thousands of soldiers, civilians, and families would have to be evacuated.

At the beginning of 1884, General Gordon had no interest in the Sudan.  While staying with his sister in Southampton, Gordon received William Stead, the editor of Pall Mall Gazette, with whom Gordon reluctantly agreed to do an interview.  Gordon wanted to talk about the Congo, but Stead pressed him to discuss the situation in the Sudan.  Gordon finally unleashed his opinions, which attacked Gladstone’s policies, and instead advocated a military response designed to crush the Mahdi.  The prescient Gordon also cautioned that in allowing this Mahdi to succeed in rebellion, Gladstone would open the entire British Empire to religious or nationalist rebellion.  Stead published his interview with the heading CHINESE GORDON FOR THE SUDAN.  The interview caused a media sensation and led to popular demands that Gladstone send Gordon to crush the Mahdi. 

Garnet Wolseley
Lord Wolseley

The man behind the curtain was Lord Wolseley, whom history remembers as a skilled media manipulator.  In the face of public demands, Gladstone relented and ordered Gordon to the Sudan —albeit with a limited mandate.  He was to observe and report on the situation, and provide advice on the best means of evacuating military and civilian personnel.  Gladstone, who at the time was ill, retired to his estate for recuperation, leaving the matter of Gordon’s instructions the cabinet.  Gladstone believed that his plan was clever: public opinion would be satisfied by sending Gordon to the Sudan, and Gordon’s limited (hand-typing) mandate would allow Gladstone to achieve British withdrawal from Khartoum.  Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Grenville, disagreed.  He believed that Gladstone had just opened the door to a folly of far-reaching consequences.

With Lieutenant Colonel J. D. H. Steward as his aide, Gordon started for Cairo in January 1884.  Upon Gordon’s arrival, he received additional instructions from Sir Evelyn Baring, which essentially reinforced the mandate issued to him in London —but he also received the Viceroy’s appointment as Governor-General (with executive powers), and an official edict ordering him to establish a provincial government in the Sudan.  The appointment as Governor-General caused Gordon to disregard everything Gladstone and Baring had told him [Note 4].

Although a very religious man, General Gordon was an intellectual.  Still, as a man, he was not immune to errors in judgment.  One of these was in revealing his secret instructions to tribal leaders.  He told them that his mission was to arrange for the withdrawal of British/Egyptian military and civilian administrators from Khartoum.  The effect of this revelation, realizing that the British/Egyptians intended to wash their hands of Khartoum, was that nearly every Arab tribe of Northern Sudan abandoned Egypt and declared their loyalty to the Mahdi.  Whether intentional or a mistake, Gordon had thus sealed his own fate.

The siege of Khartoum began on 18 March 1884.  The British had made up their mind to abandon the Sudan, but Gordon had other plans [Note 5].  Back home in England, the British public demanded that Gladstone send an expedition to rescue Gordon.  Gladstone resisted.

For his part, Gordon could have safely withdrawn at any time between March and May 1884 —had he the inclination.  Some writers of the day, the armchair psychologists, suggested that Gordon wanted martyrdom more than life.  In any case, on 24 July, the British cabinet, over the objections of Gladstone, voted to send a relief expedition to Khartoum.  The House of Commons approved the force on 5 August.  The relief force commander was Field Marshal Wolseley, but the expedition would not be formed until November.  By this time, the garrison and population of Khartoum were starving to death; there were no horses, mules, donkeys, cats, or dogs inside the city —the people had eaten them all.  Gordon himself was in a state of mental exhaustion and incoherence.

Wolseley’s reconnaissance units arrived at Khartoum on 28 January 1885.  They found the city had been captured two days earlier and Gordon killed and decapitated.  With him, 10,000 civilians and members of the garrison had also been killed.  In London, William Gladstone was politically destroyed; Queen Victoria sent him a personal rebuke via telegram, the contents of which found its way into the press.  Gladstone’s liberal government was voted out of office in the elections of 1885.  Despite popular calls to avenge Gordon, no such undertaking was even considered by the new conservative government. 

Post Script

  1. Muhammad AhmadMuhammed Ahmad bin Abd Allah (1844-1885) was a Nubian religious leader of the Samaniyya order who combined orthodox Islam with mysticism.  His popularity came as the result of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Turco-Egyptian rulers.  While the “Mahdi” succeeded in capturing Khartoum and killing Gordon, he himself died within six months from typhus, a bacteriological disease caused by body lice, chiggers, and fleas.  Today, 40% of individuals contracting typhus will die from it.
  2. Despite the relatively recent pronouncements of American and British governments, there is no American or British “national interest” in the Middle East (or Africa) that in any way justifies squandering national resources (money, men, material) trying to sort out Islamic nations or societies.  We only need to look to history to see that western involvement in Islamic affairs has always been a lost cause, save one: defense.  If Islamic leaders understand that there will be horrific consequences to attacking or destroying Anglo-American personnel or property, and if these two nations will act on this principle, there will be no more assaults on Western civilizations from the Middle East.  The latest invasion of European countries by Islamic “refugees” and issues with homegrown extremists are a completely different issue.  

Sources:

  1. Cleveland, W. And Martin Bunton.  A History of the Middle East.  Boulder: Westview Press, 2009
  2. Karsh, E.  Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  3. Marlowe, J.  Mission to Khartoum: Apotheosis of General Gordon.  Littlehampton Press, 1968

Endnotes:

  1. Brigadier General Stone (1824-1887) was a career army officer, engineer, and a surveyor.  He fought with distinction in the Mexican-American War.  After the war, he resigned and surveyed for the Mexican government, but returned to the US Army to fight in the Civil War.  At the conclusion of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, a Union defeat, Stone was placed under arrest and imprisoned for six months.  He never received a trial, which causes one to conclude that his arrest was for political reasons.  After the war, Stone served as a general officer in the Egyptian army.  He is also noted for his role in constructing the foundation upon which the Statue of Liberty now stands.
  2. Reinforcing the fact that proponents of Islam are stuck on stupid.
  3. Hicks (1830-1883) was an experienced British officer with years of experience in India, retiring in 1880 as a Colonel.  In 1880, Hicks accepted the position of Pasha (generally equivalent to general) within the Egyptian Army.  In 1883, Hicks served in Khartoum as chief of staff of the army there, serving Suliman Niazi Pasha.  Hicks duty was to recruit an army from the disbanded troops of Arabi, who were sent to him in chains.  After a month of training, Hicks led 5,000 of these men against an equal force of Dervishes, whom he defeated, and then undertook to clear the country of rebels.  Aware that Suliman Niazi Pasha was intriguing against him, Hick resigned in July 1883.  Alarmed, Twefik fired Suliman and appointed Hicks as commander-in-chief of an expeditionary force with orders to crush the Mahdi.
  4. In Baring’s report to London, he emphasized that it was a mistake sending Gordon to the Sudan: “A man who habitually consults with the Prophet Isaiah when he is in difficulty is not apt to obey the orders of anyone.”  Gordon confirmed Baring’s fears when he almost immediately began issuing press statements attacking the rebels, referring to them as “stinking Dervishes,” and demanding that he be allowed to “smash the Mahdi.”
  5. By his obstinance, Charles Gordon consigned to death ten-thousand men, women, and children who did not share his vision of the afterlife.

 

Chinese Gordon – Part I

Gordon 001
MajGen Charles G. Gordon

All the Gordon’s sons were army officers —descendants of military officers who devoted themselves to the idea that their children would inherit this tradition.  And so they did.  Major General and Mrs. Henry William Gordon were the parents of Charles George Gordon, Major General, British Army, Commander of the Bath (1833-1885).  Owing to his father’s duty stations, Charles grew up in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Ionia.  Charles’ education included the Fullande School in Taunton, the Taunton School, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.

While still a young lad, Charles’ younger sister succumbed to consumption; her passing devastated him and for several months he withdrew from the family.  An older sister named Augusta, a particularly religious young woman, embraced Charles and she influenced him for the rest of his life.  It was because of Augusta, for example, that Charles grew up to become a staunchly religious person.  Despite his religious beliefs, Charles was a spirited and highly intelligent young man, one who developed the (then) deplorable habit of ignoring authority whenever he believed that its rules were foolish or unjust.  This was a trait that held him back for two years at the military academy,.  At the same time, Gordon had marvelous talents.  He developed into an accomplished cartographer and engineer.  He received his commission to Second Lieutenant of Royal Engineers in June 1852, completed his training at Chatham, and advanced to First Lieutenant in February 1854.  Although trained as a sapper [Note 1], he became adept at reconnaissance, leading storming parties, demolitions, and providing rearguard actions.

His inclination to question or disregard orders aside, Charles Gordon evolved into a fine military officer.  He had charisma, a superior leadership ability, and an unparalleled devotion to his assigned task or mission.  His only problem was that in refusing to obey what he considered an unlawful or poorly conceived orders, many senior officers regarded him as rogue.  Yet it was this very same trait that caused his men to love him.

Over time, Gordon became even more devoted to his religious principles.  He was no zealot by any measure, at least not initially, but someone who maintained the strength of his convictions —and was steadfast in living his life according to those beliefs.  In many ways, Gordon was a fatalist; believing in the after-life, he was not afraid of death and some say, in time, he began to pursue it.

During the Crimean War, Gordon performed his duties at the siege of Sevastopol, took part in the assault of the Redans as a sapper, and mapped the strongpoints of the city’s fortifications.  What made this a particularly dangerous duty was that it subjected him to direct enemy fire from the fortress and he was wounded during one such sortie.  During this war Gordon made several friends who remained so for the rest of his life; friends that would later defend him.

In 1855, the British and French initiated a final assault on Sevastopol.  Following a massive bombardment, sappers assaulted the fortress at Malakoff Hill.  The engagement was a massacre of British and French soldiers and none of the operation’s planned objectives were achieved.  As a participant, Gordon distinguished himself by his courage under fire and his tenacity as a combat leader.

Following the end of hostilities in the Crimea, Gordon served the international commission charged with marking a new border between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire in Bessarabia.  He later performed similar services on the frontier between Ottoman Armenia and Russian Armenia.  It was during this time that Gordon became fascinated with a new American invention and took it up as a hobby: the camera.

Seeking adventure, Gordon volunteered to serve in China during the Second Opium War (1860).  By the time he arrived in Hong Kong, however, the fighting was over.  He had heard of the Taiping Rebellion [Note 2] but didn’t understand it.  En route to China, he read all he could about the Taiping and initially found sympathy for the movement.  Gordon was a young man, reading one individual’s opinion, and allowed himself to be influenced by it, but what made his empathy a bit odd was that the leader of the Taiping —a man named Hong Xiuquan— believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

After disembarking in Shanghai, Gordon made a tour of the Chinese countryside.  The atrocities he witnessed committed by the Taiping against local peasants appalled him and he began to see the Taiping for what they were: cold-blooded killers.  

During the early period of his tour in China, Gordon served under General Charles William Dunbar Staveley [Note 3], who occupied northern China until April 1862.  During the war, Taiping armies came close enough to Shanghai to alarm European residents.  European and Asian legations raised a militia to defend Shanghai.  Legates detailed Frederick Townsend Ward [Note 4] to command this militia.  Apparently, the British arrived in the nick of time.  General Staveley decided to clear the rebels within 30 miles of Shanghai.  He planned these operations in cooperation with Ward and a small force of French soldiers.  At the time, Gordon served on Staveley’s staff as an engineer.

Henry Andres BurgevineAfter Ward’s death, command of his Asian army passed to another American, Henry A. Burgevine (shown right).  It was an unhappy choice because Burgevine was ill-suited to the task of commanding a multi-ethnic mercenary force: he was inexperienced in leading a large body of men, lacked the necessary self-confidence of command, and consumed copious amounts of alcohol, making him unreliable.  The Taiping rebellion was a civil war, of course, but unlike any other in the history of the world and Henry Burgevine was no Frederick Ward.  He was much detested by the Chinese —so much, in fact, that the governor of Jiang-su Province asked General Staveley to appoint a British officer to command this largely mercenary force.  The officer Staveley selected was Brevet Major Gordon.  The British government approved Gordon’s appointment in December 1862.  Gordon, it seems, was exactly the kind of man Governor Li Hong-Zhang was looking for: a man of good temper, clean of hands, and a steady economist.

Major Gordon, unlike many (if not most) Chinese officers, was honest and incorruptible.  He did not steal the money that was earmarked to pay his men, and he insisted on paying the men on time and in full.  Of course, the Chinese bureaucrats did not understand why Gordon insisted on paying his men.  In their view, he should have allowed his men to loot and plunder the countryside for their pay —this was the way of things in China.  Gordon would not have any of that sort behavior among his men.  To instill a sense of pride in his men, Gordon designed their uniforms.  He dressed his regulars in green, while designating blue uniforms for his personal guard.

Major Gordon assumed command of his army in March 1863 and led them at once to relieve the town of Chansu some forty miles northwest of Shanghai.  Gordon quickly accomplished this first test, which was securing the respect and loyalty of his troops.  As a means of encouraging the Taiping to either desert or surrender, he treated all prisoners of war with dignity and respect.

As an engineer, it occurred to Major Gordon that the network of canals and rivers that flowed through the Chinese countryside would be useful for moving his troops and establishing an expedient supply line.  In matters of training and rehearsing his army, Gordon’s ideas were innovative and efficient.  He was vocally critical of the methods Chinese generals used in war fighting.  In contrast, Gordon was sought to avoid unnecessary casualties or large battle losses.  By maneuvering his forces to deny enemy retreat, he found that enemy troops would quickly withdraw from the battlefield [Note 5].  Gordon believed that frontal assaults produced unacceptably high numbers of casualties (which is true).  As his subordinate commanders were Chinese, they did not object to unnecessary carnage, but Gordon insisted on attacking the enemy’s flank whenever possible.  Gordon’s innovative thinking, such as his creation of a riverine force, caused the Taiping army to avoid Gordon’s army on several occasions.  Of some value to Gordon, once the peasants realized that Gordon’s strategy had a telling effect on the Taiping, they were more disposed to coming to his aid, which did occur on several occasions.   The peasants, tired of Taiping terrorism, attacked the retreating Taiping and hacked them to death with simple farming implements.  Among Gordon’s peers, he was“thoughtful and fearless in the face of grave danger.”

Because Gordon’s force was mercenary, their only loyalty was to money and the men willing to pay them.  It was only Gordon’s stern disciplinary policies that kept his force from plundering the peasants, whom they were supposed to protect.  At one point, Gordon ordered the execution of one of his Chinese officers who conspired to take his unit over to the Taiping.  It was a distasteful duty and one that would never survive the modern evening news, but in China, it was a necessary and prudent step to avoid mass desertion.  The fact is that Gordon’s mercenary force consisted of some of the worst elements of Chinese, British, and American society.  Prior to Gordon’s assignment in command, it was commonplace for these mercenaries to enter a town or district, steal everything they could get their hands on, rape the women, and indiscriminately murder local citizens.  It was only Gordon’s harsh discipline that changed this behavior.  Any of his men who were accused of crimes against the people would very likely face a firing squad —from which there was no appeal.

When Gordon defeated Burgevine’s new mercenary force, which had aligned themselves with the Taiping, he had Burgevine arrested and deported.  Burgevine, however made his way back to China, was promptly arrested by the Qing secret service, and was “shot while trying to escape.”  Burgevine was many things but exceedingly bright wasn’t one of them.

Major Gordon was appalled by the poverty and suffering of the Chinese people.  It was this hardship that strengthened his faith because, as he would frequently argue, there had to be a just and loving God who would one day redeem humanity from wretchedness and misery [Note 6].  Nevertheless, it was Gordon’s humanity that brought him the respect and friendship of those who opposed him politically.  He led his mercenary army from the front, never personally armed with anything more than a rattan cane.  His coolness in battle led many Chinese to believe that he possessed supernatural powers; it was only that Gordon was a fatalist and predestinate.  

Imperial troops joined Gordon’s force in capturing Suzhou.  He had let it be known that any Taiping soldier who surrendered would be humanely treated.  After pacifying surrounding towns and villages, Gordon himself entered Suzhou but, given the tendency of his men to loot, he denied them entry into the confines of the city.  Only the Imperial forces [Note 7] would be allowed to enter the city, and when they did, much to Gordon’s anguish, they promptly executed every Taiping who had surrendered.  Angry, he wrote, “If faith had been kept, there would have been no more fighting, as every town in China would have given in.”  Of course, what Major Gordon did not understand was that while it is possible to take a Chinese man out of China; it is impossible to take China out of the Chinese man.  Even today, most Chinese are devoid of a sense of humanity.

As a measure of the man and his integrity, the Emperor of China, in recognition of Gordon’s achievements, subsequently awarded Gordon ten-thousand gold coins, laudatory flags, fine silk clothing, and a title equivalent to Field Marshal.  All of these things Gordon refused —and all because the Imperial troops, in executing the Taiping prisoners, had made Gordon out to be a liar.   Rebuffing the Chinese emperor did nothing to solidify their relationship, but it was consistent with Gordon’s sense of self.  It was after his service in China that the press and his peers began to refer to him as “Chinese Gordon”.  The nickname stayed with him to the end of his days.  Gordon’s father did not approve of his son working in the service of the Chinese government and it was an estrangement that had not been settled before his father’s death.  Charles, of course, felt guilty about his failure to reconcile with his father and deeply regretted it for the rest of his life.

After Gordon’s return to England, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the Royal Engineers near Gravesend, Kent, and tasked to prepare fortifications in defense of the River Thames.  By then, Chinese Gordon has become a press celebrity —except that Gordon wanted nothing to do with it.  He promptly informed the press to leave him alone.  In Gravesend, Gordon volunteered to teach at a local school, called the Ragged School [Note 8].

Tasked with constructing forts, Colonel Gordon disapproved of the notion that they were in any way necessary.  He regarded them as expensive and useless.  The Duke of Cambridge [Note 9], in his role as Commander in Chief of the Forces (head of the British Army) visited one of the construction sites and praised Gordon for his excellent work.  Gordon answered, “I had nothing to do with it, sir.  It was built regardless of my opinion, and, in fact, I entirely disapprove of its arrangement and position.”  Gordon didn’t mince his words, regardless of who he was talking to.  And, of course, Gordon was entirely correct.  It was a waste of limited resources.

Gordon was advanced to Colonel on 16 February 1872.  Afterward detailed to inspect British military cemeteries in the Crimea, and when transiting through Constantinople, he made his manners to the Prime Minister of Egypt, Raghib Pasha.  Pasha opened negotiations with Gordon to serve under the Khedive (Viceroy) Ismai’il Pasha.  French educated, Isma’il admired Europe as a model of excellence, but favored most France and Italy.  He was a devout Moslem who enjoyed Italian wine and French champaign.  The language of Ismai’il’s court was French and Turkish, not Arabic.  It was the Viceroy’s dream to make Turkey culturally part of Europe and he spent enormous sums of money in the modernization and Westernization of Egypt.  The doing of this sent Egypt deeply into debt —even after the American Civil War had transformed Egyptian cotton into “white gold,” Ismai’il’s spending increased Egyptian debt to more than 93-million pounds sterling.

Ismai’il’s love affair with western culture alienated the more conservative members of Egyptian Islamic society.  Ismai’il’s grandfather, Muhammad Ali (The Great) attempted to depose the ruling Ottoman family in favor of his own, but failed due to the interference of Russia and Britain.  With this knowledge, Ismai’il turned his attention south with the notion of building an Egyptian empire in Africa.  Toward this end, Ismai’il hired westerners to work in his government, including Colonel Gordon, both in Egypt and the Sudan.  His chief of general staff was the American brigadier general Charles P. Stone [Note 10].  He, and a number of other American Civil War veterans commanded Egyptian troops.  In the opinion of some, American officers in the employ of Egypt were mostly composed of misfits in their own land.  As harsh as this criticism sounds, it may be based on fact.  Valentine Baker was a British officer who was dishonorably discharged after his conviction of rape.  After Baker was released from prison, Ismai’il Pasha hired him to work in the Sudan.  In any case, Colonel Gordon, with the consent of the British government, began working for Ismai’il Pasha in 1873—his first assignment was as governor of Equatoria Province (present-day Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda).  His mission included extending Equatoria into Southern Uganda with the goal of absorbing the entire Great Lakes region of East Africa.

Gordon 002jpg
Gordon Pasha

While serving in Sudan, Colonel Gordon undertook efforts to suppress the slave trade, and doing this while struggling against a corrupt and inefficient Egyptian bureaucracy—and one with no interest in suppressing the slave trade.  Gordon was later distressed to learn that his immediate superior was heavily engaged in slaving and actively countermanded many of Gordon’s efforts.  Despite his lofty position in the Egyptian government, Gordon believed that the Egypt was inherently oppressive and cruel and he was soon in direct conflict with the system he was supposed to lead.  What Gordon did achieve was close rapport with the African people, who had long suffered from the activities of Arab slave traders.  These same people were being converted from animists to Christians by European and American missionaries, and this gave Gordon some encouragement.  What made the effort a struggle was the fact that the basis of Sudan’s economy was slavery.  Gordon did manage to shepherd a number of reforms that materially improved the lives of the common man, such as in abolishing torture and public floggings.

(Continued next week)

Sources:

  1. Cleveland, W. And Martin Bunton.  A History of the Middle East.  Boulder: Westview Press, 2009
  2. Karsh, E.  Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  3. Marlowe, J.  Mission to Khartoum: Apotheosis of General Gordon.  Littlehampton Press, 1968

Endnotes:

  1. A sapper is a soldier responsible for the construction of roads and bridges and laying and clearing mine fields.  They are combat engineers (sometimes called pioneers) who remove enemy obstacles in order to keep the attack in progress.
  2. The Taiping Rebellion was one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history.  It lasted from 1850 to 1864 with estimated dead numbering in excess of 40-million people.
  3. General Staveley’s sister was married to Gordon’s brother.
  4. Ward was born in Massachusetts in 1831.  Because of his rebellious nature, his father consigned him to work aboard a clipper ship commanded by a friend.  The ship made frequent voyages to China.  While in China, Ward became a filibuster.  He was killed while commanding the “Ever Victorious Army” at the Battle of Cixi on 21 September 1862.
  5. The problem with allowing the enemy to withdraw is that they live to fight another day, perhaps under conditions or on terrain of their choosing. 
  6. It is true that there was much wretchedness in the world in Gordon’s day; to find it, he might have looked closer to home —in London, for example.
  7. Gordon referred to the Imperial army as “Imps.”
  8. Prior to 1870, there was no universal school system in the United Kingdom.  The so-called Ragged Schools were a network of privately funded schools that offered free education to children whose parents were too poor to afford the fees associated with available schools.  Unhappily, as with a few other senior British officers, 21st Century writers have used such examples of humanity to suggest, in Gordon’s and William Slim’s cases, that their compassion was likely motivated by their attraction to young boys.  The claims are ludicrous, of course, but this is what revisionists do to in their attempt to destroy the reputations of men (after their death) who occupied prominent footnotes in history.
  9. George William Frederick Charles, also known as Prince George of the House of Hanover, was a professional army officer with the rank of field marshal.  He served as commander in chief for 39 years, a period of time when the British Army became a moribund and stagnant institution.   I am quite sure he had something to say in response to Gordon’s caustic remark.
  10. ‘Urabi was a serving Egyptian officer who participated in the 1879 mutiny that developed into a general revolt against the Anglo-French dominated administration of Khedive Tewfik.  He was promoted to a place in Twefik’s cabinet and began reforms of Egypt’s military and civil administrations, but demonstrations in Alexandria in 1882 prompted a British naval bombardment and invasion.  ‘Urabi was deposed and the British occupied Egypt.

The Pork & Beans War

I’m always amused when historians label a particular incident “a war,” particularly when in spite of displays of hostility, not a single shot was fired in anger.  The Pork and Beans War [1] (also known as the Aroostook War) was more on the order of a diplomatic kerfuffle, an undeclared confrontation.  So —no war.  Sorry.

UK-US FlagsThe relationship between the United States and Great Britain between 1812 and 1850 was one of continual disagreement and some of these had significant consequences.  In 1838-39, the United States and Great Britain had one of several disagreements over the international boundary between British North America (Canada) and the US state of Maine.  The dispute was eventually resolved but going down that road both sides began ruffling their feathers and squawking about going to war.  The rattling of swords did little more than upset people who lived in the area of contention.

High tensions and heated rhetoric in Maine and New Brunswick led both sides to raise a militia, arm them, and march them to the disputed territories.  President Martin Van Buren quickly sent Brigadier General Winfield Scott and Daniel Webster to work out a compromise —which they did.  It was called the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, establishing an agreed-to boundary between Canada and the United States.  Most of the disputed area went to Maine and the British were accorded a vital connection between the Canadian provinces.

The Treaty of Paris (1783) ended the Revolutionary War, but it failed to clarify the British Canadian/US border.  Thereafter, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began issuing land grants in its (then) district of Maine —including areas that the British claimed were theirs. During the War of 1812, Great Britain occupied most of eastern Maine, including the counties of Washington, Hancock, and portions of Penobscot.  The British occupation lasted eight months.  While it was Britain’s intent to permanently annex the region to Canada when the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, the initial understanding from the Treaty of Paris left intact.

Both the Americans and British made a collaborative effort to survey and mark the source of the St. Croix River, which was the primary geographical feature identified in the earlier treaty.  The eastern boundary of the United States ran north to the highland, where it met the northwest angle of Nova Scotia.  A marker was placed where the waters passed through the Chiputicook Lakes.

When Maine broke away from Massachusetts in 1820 as a separate state, the status and location of the border emerged as a chief concern to the new state government.  Massachusetts asserted a continual interest in the matter, as it retained half of the public lands in Maine, including a large part of the disputed territory as its sole property.

As late as September 1825, land agents in both Maine and Massachusetts were issuing deeds, timber permits, collected census data, recorded births, deaths, and marriages within the contested area of the St. John River valley and its tributaries.  Massachusetts Land Agent George Coffin, exercising his duty, recorded that a thunderstorm had ignited a forest fire.  The Miramichi Fire destroyed thousands of acres of prime New Brunswick timber, killed hundreds of settlers, left thousands more homeless, and destroyed several thriving communities. The journal entries of the newly appointed Governor of New Brunswick also recorded this destruction with comments indicating that the economic survival of New Brunswick depended on the vast forests in the disputed area.

A mixed population inhabited this region, mostly early Acadians (descendants of the original French colonists) that settled in Saint John and the Madawaska River basins. Some Americans later settled in the Aroostook River Valley.  Between 1826-1830, provincial timber interests also settled the west bank of the Saint John River and its tributaries; British families made their homes in Woodstock, Tobique, and Grand Falls, in New Brunswick.

The French-speaking population of Madawaska were nominally British subjects —who considered themselves otherwise.  They belonged to the unofficial “République du Madawaska.“  They professed no allegiance to the United States or to British Canada. The population of the area increased with migratory lumberjacks, which caused some anxiety in the governments of Maine and Massachusetts.  After all, in their view, the states were responsible for the protection of natural resources within their borders and were entitled to the revenues of their respective states.  Some itinerant lumbermen eventually settled year-round in the Saint John valley.  The remoteness of the land and the penchant the states had for taxing settlers caused them to ignore making land claims.  Various groups maneuvered for control over the forested areas caused disputes.

Then, on 4 July 1827, patriotic John Baker raised a homemade American flag above his homestead; he was arrested by British authorities and fined £25.  To ensure the flag wasn’t raised again a second time, the British held Baker in jail until he paid the fine.

In preparation for the US census of 1830, the Maine Legislature sent John Deane and Edward James to northern Maine (also regarded as northwestern New Brunswick) to document the numbers of inhabitants and to assess the extent of British trespass. Their point of view was hardly subjective, however.  Later in that summer, several residents of the west bank of the Saint John River at Madawaska filed requests for incorporation into Maine. Acting on the advice of Penobscot County officials, a meeting was called to select representatives preparatory to incorporating Madawaska township.  A local resident from the east bank of the Saint John river alerted local representatives of the New Brunswick militia, who entered the meeting hall and threatened to arrest any resident attempting to organize.  Reflecting the stubbornness of local culture, these citizens continued their meeting.  The militia called for reinforcements and New Brunswick authorities ended up arresting some residents while others fled into the nearby wood.  Local Americans notified Maine authorities of the incident, and they also sent letters to the United States Government in the city of Washington, which prompted the US Secretary of State to contact his British counterpart.

The Acadian majority was ambivalent about joining either the United States or British Canada but they identified more with French-speaking Quebec and supported its territorial claims in Madawaska.

In 1830, someone even went so far as to petition King William I of the Netherlands to arbitrate the border dispute.  King William thought the best solution was a compromise between the squabbling parties. He suggested a border very close to the eventual settlement.  Surprisingly, the British accepted King William’s solution.  Not surprisingly, the State of Maine rejected it, arguing that King William exceeded his authority.  More to the point, the king represented an unwarranted (and unwanted) foreign influence upon the prerogatives of the United States.  Beyond this, King William’s proposal would surrender territory to Britain that US citizens and residents of Maine and Massachusetts had already surveyed, sold, and settled.  Neither Maine nor Massachusetts was interested in surrendering a territory held by them since 1800.

President Andrew Jackson was inclined to accept King William’s proposal, if for no other reason than to avoid diverting attention away from his Indian removal policy, and particularly with regard to the emerging Republic of Texas.  Moreover, the United States Constitution forbade the federal government from altering state ownership of properties without the consent of the state government, which Maine and Massachusetts would not grant.

US Senator Peleg Sprague of Maine was outspoken in his opposition to Jackson’s Indian policy and of the president’s interference in the internal affairs of the government of Mexico.  Sprague led the US Senate to reject King William’s proposal.

Great Britain and the United States agreed to a provisional settlement in 1831-32 —the band-aid approach.  Both government’s agreed that the territory already in the exclusive jurisdiction and authority of the respective state and provincial authorities would remain as such and that neither would be permitted to extend jurisdictional authority over areas still in dispute.

As a consequence of President Jackson’s closing the Second Bank of the United States in 1837, Maine decided to issue a refund to all its residents who paid taxes.  The state also created a special census to determine the identity of eligible recipients.  Penobscot County’s Census Representative thus began work in the upper Aroostook River territory.  Word of an official from Maine offering money to settlers quickly reached New Brunswick authorities.  The newly appointed governor of New Brunswick, Sir John Harvey, ordered the arrest of the Census Representative.  Additionally, New Brunswick accused the Governor of Maine of bribery and threatened military action if Maine continued to exercise jurisdiction in the basins of the Aroostook river and its tributaries. Maine Governor Robert Dunlap issued a general alert announcing that a foreign power had invaded Maine.

According to the legislature of Maine, both American and New Brunswick lumbermen were cutting timber in the disputed territory during the winter of 1838-39.  On 24 January 1839, the Maine Legislature authorized the newly elected Governor John Fairfield to send the Maine State Land Agent, Rufus McIntire, the Penobscot County Sheriff, and a posse of volunteer militia to the upper Aroostook to pursue and arrest the squatters from New Brunswick.  The posse left Bangor, Maine, on 8 February 1839 and established an encampment at the junction of the Saint Croix River and the Aroostook River.  They confiscated New Brunswick lumbering equipment and arrested foreign lumbermen. After learning of these activities, a group of New Brunswick lumbermen broke into the Woodstock arsenal.  Now armed, they formed their own posse and arrested the Maine Land Agent and his assistants in the middle of the night. Both men were transported in chains to answer charges in Woodstock.

Describing these two officials as political prisoners, Sir John Harvey notified the US government in Washington that since he lacked the authority to act on the arrests both men would remain in custody until he received instructions from the British government.  Meanwhile, he intended to exercise his authority over the Aroostook.  He also demanded the removal of Maine officials from the contested region.  To back up his demand, he dispatched a militia to confront Maine officials and order them to depart Brunswick territory.

Maine officials refused to leave the area and to underscore this point, arrested the senior Brunswick militia commander.  On 15 February 1839, the Maine Legislature authorized Major General Isaac Hodsdon to lead 1,000 volunteers to augment the posse on the upper Aroostook River.  Sir John Harvey warned that the British government had ordered in regular army reinforcements from the West Indies.  Beyond this, the Mohawk nation offered their allegiance and services to Quebec.

The Governor of Maine ordered the conscription of citizens to augment the State Militia.  Infantry and dragoon companies mustered in Bangor and on 26 February 1839, began moving toward Fort Fairfield along the Upper Aroostook.

Back in Washington, Representative Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith briefed the House of Representatives on these events.  Smith emphasized that it was the federal government’s responsibility to protect and defend American territory and its citizens but declared that Maine would defend its territory alone if the government chose to not fulfill its obligations.  It was at this point that President Van Buren directed General Winfield Scott, who was then involved with Cherokee relocation, to attend the area of the border dispute.  He arrived in Boston in early March 1839.

In May 1839, the US Congress appropriated $10-million and authorized a military force of 50,000 men, placed at the disposal of the President in the event foreign military troops crossed into United States territory.  Maine committed an additional 10,000 militia —one of these was a young lieutenant by the name of James Henry Carleton.

During the War of 1812, Sir John Harvey had supervised (then) Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott during the time he spent as a prisoner of war.  President Van Buren and his advisers saw this relationship as one of mutual respect.  Pursuant to the terms of the truce for administration within the disputed area, and with the advice of General Scott, Maine recalled its militia, substituting instead a civil posse of armed men.  Deputy Land Agent William Parrott and Captain Stover Rines supervised the posse. Meanwhile, the US Army began construction of permanent structures at Fort Fairfield and Fort Kent.  Major R. M. Kirby commanded the military barracks at Hancock near Houlton, Maine; his forces included an artillery regiment.

Representing Canada were four companies of the British 11th Regiment from Quebec; they began to construct a barracks across the St. Johns River.  New Brunswick authorities provided regular and militia forces and stationed them at every tributary of the Saint John River that flowed from the Aroostook Territory.

In 1840, Maine created Aroostook County to administer the civilian authority of the area. However, reports of collusion resulted in the Maine Executive Council assigning Alphus Lyons to investigate County Sheriff Packard and County District Attorney Horace Tabor.  As Brunswick and Maine continued to squabble, American and British diplomats agreed to refer the dispute to a boundary commission.

Daniel Webster and Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton settled the boundary dispute in 1842.  Included in the agreement was not only a resolution to the Maine/Canada border issue but also the boundary between Canada and New Hampshire, Michigan and Minnesota.  The treaty awarded 7,015 square miles to the United States and 5,012 square miles to Great Britain.  The British retained the northern area of the disputed territory, including the Halifax Road with its year-round overland military communications between Quebec and Nova Scotia. The U.S. federal government agreed to pay the states of Maine and Massachusetts $150,000 each for the loss of the lands of their states while the United States reimbursed them for newly acquired territory in the Northwest Territories and for expenses incurred during the time Maine’s armed civil posse administered the truce period.

Webster used a map that Jared Sparks, an American citizen, discovered in the Paris Archives (and which Benjamin Franklin supposedly marked with a red line in Paris in 1782) to persuade Maine and Massachusetts to accept the agreement. The map showed that the disputed region belonged to the British and so helped convince the representatives of those states to accept the compromise, lest the truth should reach British ears and convince the British to refuse.

Later historians have varying points of view with regard to this map.  Some claim that the Americans hid their knowledge of the Franklin map.  Others say that Britain apparently used a map supposedly favorable to the United States claims but never revealed its reliance on this map.  Some even claim that Britain faked the Franklin map to pressure the American negotiators.  Available evidence today, however, suggests that the British map did place the entire disputed area on the American side of the border.

The only real losers to this dispute were native Indians in the region.  Moreover, the Aroostook War, though devoid of actual combat, did not lack casualties.  Private Hiram T. Smith from Maine died of unknown causes in 1828.  Additional Maine militiamen died from illness or injury while engaged on the Aroostook expedition and several more went out on patrol and were never seen again.

Endnotes:

[1] I would like to see what a Pork and Beans Campaign Medal looks like …

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift

It was the greatest stand in British military history.

Frederic Augustus Thesiger, Second Baron Chelmsford, was promoted to major general in March 1877, and appointed to command British forces in South Africa with the temporary rank of lieutenant general in February 1878. In January of 1889, Henry Bartle Frere [1], a personal friend of Thesiger, engineered a war against the Zulu nation, then led by King Cetshwayo, previously a associate of the British Empire by treaty.  Consequently, Lord Chelmsford initiated a military expedition against the Zulu nation. On 22 January 1879, a large Zulu army attacked Chelmsford’s force at Isandlwana, overwhelming the British and destroying Chelmsford’s central (albeit separated) military column.  The attack was unexpected and the worst defeat of the British Army by native forces in the entire history of the British Empire.

On 11 January 1879, Company B, 2ndBattalion, 24th(2ndWarwickshire) Regiment of foot, under the command of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead was detailed to garrison a post along the Buffalo River abutting the Zulu borderland.  The post had been turned into a supply depot and hospital under the overall command of Brevet Major Henry Spalding of the 104thFoot, a member of Chelmsford’s staff.

On 20 January, Chelmsford’s central (Number 3) column marched six miles further east, leaving Company B in charge of the garrison at Rorke’s Drift (in the local language, known as Jim’s land), a Christian mission station and the trading post of James Rorke, an Irish merchant. A company of the 2ndNatal Native Contingent (NCC) under Captain William Stevenson was detailed to remain at the post to reinforce Company B.  The NCC company numbered about 100 locally recruited militia. Later that evening, a contingent of Number 2 Colum under Brevet Colonel Anthony Dumford (Royal Engineers) arrived and camped along the river bank, where it remained through the next day.

Late in the evening of the next day (21 January), Dumford was ordered to Isandlwana, along with a small detachment of British Engineers under the command of Lieutenant John Chard.  Chard’s mission was to repair the pontoon bridge over the Buffalo River.  Chard rode ahead of his detachment to Isandlwana to clarify his orders, but was sent back to Rorke’s Drift with only a wagon and its driver to construct a defense for the expected reinforcement of a company of infantry.  En route, he passed Dumford’s column going in the opposite direction.

Sometime around noon on 22 January, Major Spalding departed the station for Helpmekaar to ascertain the whereabouts of Company G, which was overdue in its arrival.  He left Chard in command.  Not long after, two members of the NCC arrived at Rorke’s Drift with news of the defeat at Isandlwana.  Chard and Bromhead were informed that a large force of Zulu warriors was not far behind. Together with Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton, Chard and Bromhead decided that given their few wagons and the number of hospital patients at the mission, it would be best to stand and defend rather than to attempt a cross country withdrawal.

Rorkes Drift 002
Defense of Rorke’s Drift Station taken from the public domain

Chard, as senior officer with Bromhead serving as second in command, ordered preparations to defend the station.  Working quickly, a defensive perimeter was constructed out of sacks of maize and wooden biscuit boxes.  The perimeter included the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone cattle enclosure. The buildings were fortified with firing holes; external doors were barricaded with furniture.  Around 1530 on 22 January, a mixed troops of Natal Native Horse (NNH) arrived under Lieutenant Alfred Henderson, having withdrawn from Isandlwana in good order.  Henderson volunteered to picket the far side of Rorke’s Drift, a large hill that overlooked the station and from the expected avenue of approach of Zulu forces.  Chard was now in charge of around 400 men: Bromhead’s 104-man company, Stevenson’s NNC, and Henderson’s NNH troop, with a mixed bag of others (most of whom were hospitalized patients but regarded as walking-wounded).  A trooper of horse was sent to warn the garrison at Helpmekaar.

Chard believing that his force was sufficient to defend Rorke’s Drift, posted British soldiers around the perimeter, adding among them, hospitalized casuals and available civilians.  The NCC, armed mostly with spears, were posted outside the perimeter but within the stone-walled corral.  When the Zulu finally appeared, Chard must have been aghast at their numbers: between 4 to 6,000 men, none of whom had been involved in the assault at Isandlwana. It was a reserve force commanded by King Cetshwayo’s brother, Prince Dabulamanzl kaMpande.  By the time Dabulamanzl reached Rorke’s Drift, at around 1630, they had quick-marched some 20 miles in eight hours.

The Zulu were armed with a short spear and shield made from cowhide. As a force, they were tactically proficient and strategically efficient.  Some of the Zulus had antiquated muskets, but they were ill-trained in the use of this weapon and the quality and supply of powder and shot was inadequate.  Most warriors preferred the spear, since the use of firearms was regarded as cowardly. Nevertheless, Dabulamanzl was a rash and overly aggressive commander.  He disregarded Cetshwayo’s directive to act “in defense of Zululand” against the British. He was specifically told not to carry the war across the border of Zululand, which would have included Rorke’s Drift on the opposite side of the Buffalo River.

The follow sequence of events then transpired, this according to author Jonathon Mayo [2].

  • The Zulu were formidable, well-disciplined, and adept in hand to hand fighting. Their main weapon is the short spear, called “Iklwa” because that’s the sound it makes when pulled from an opponent’s body.  As the first Zulu arrive at the Buffalo River, they are fired on by British pickets serving under Lieutenant Henderson.  Henderson’s force, intimidated by the large force, make a rapid withdrawal.  Henderson shouts his apologies to Chard.  When the remaining NNC soldiers at the mission observe their fellows retreating, they leap over the barricades and join them.  The men of Company B fire upon the cowards, killing a British corporal.
  • Zulu scouts report that the station is weakly defended and full of stores of weapons and food. Dabulamanzl believes that such rich stores will be easy for the taking.
  • Chard realizes that the well-prepared perimeter was designed for a force of around 200 men; 100 of these have just ran away, leaving him with a force of only one-hundred. He orders Company B to construct a new barricade behind the previous structure; this will allow him a secondary position, if needed.  Private Fred Hitch is sent to the roof of the storehouse as a lookout.  At 1630, Hitch announces the arrival of the Zulu force.  Lieutenant Chard asks, “How many.”  Hitch’s answer, “Between 4,000 and 6,000 sar.”  Lieutenant Bromhead answers, “Is that all?  We can manage that.”
  • 28-year-old Private Henry Hook observes the Zulu speed of approach. It is as if they expect little resistance.  He announces their approach to the hospitalized men.  Although sick or injured, some of these men ask for weapons so that they can defend themselves.  Hook and five casuals are assigned to defend areas so small that “…you could hardly swing a rifle within them.”  When the enemy is within 500 yards, Hook and others begin to fire their rifles.  The Zulus continue the speed of march (a running trot).  They remain completely silent.  Within 300 yards, the Zulu force takes shelter behind large boulders on the rise across the Buffalo.
  • By 1700, Zulus mass in front and behind the Mission Station. They begin their assault by leaping over a garden wall and charging British positions. Dozens of Zulus in front of the perimeter are killed but are quickly replaced by second and tertiary ranks.  The attack continues; Zulus continue to fall, either killed or mortally wounded.  Private James Dunbar shoots one of the Zulu leader’s dead; Prince Dabulamanzl takes cover behind a tree only one-hundred yards from the perimeter and directs the ongoing attack from this near-in position.
  • By 1715, wave after wave of Zulu were hurtling themselves at the barricades. The length of the British bayonetted rifles provides them with a distinct advantage. Private Hicks descended from the roof of the storehouse to join the fray.
  • At 1730, rifled Zulus took up positions to fire upon the British; their weapons were inaccurate at that range and there were no casualties. Commissary James Dalton begins pacing behind the front rank offering calm-voiced encouragement to his men.  A Zulu warrior rushed the front rank; Dalton directed fire at the fellow and he was killed. Second later, Dalton was wounded in his shoulder.  Calmly handing his rifle to Lieutenant Chard, Dalton is led to the rear for medical attention before Chard is even aware that he’d been injured.  Within moments, however, Dalton is back at his post —his calm voice giving confidence to the riflemen.  Private Hook later wrote of Dalton, “…the bravest man I ever knew.”
  • Rorkes Drift 001
    Artist unknown, discovered via internet search engine

    By 1800, two British soldiers had been killed with four others wounded. Still, Company B was in grave danger of being overwhelmed by the onslaught of Zulu warriors. Lieutenant Chard ordered his men to take up their secondary positions as the Zulu surround the hospital. At 1820, Privates Hook and Thomas Cole were defending a corner room in the hospital. Hook described the ordeal as being like “trapped rats in a hole.”  One of the patients begs hook to remove the bandages from his hands so he can use a rifle.  Cole, who is claustrophobic, forces open a door and is immediately killed. The Zulu begin throwing torches on the thatched roof.  Hook, with no wish to be burned alive, slips through a door into the next room.  His situation has not improved.

  • At 1830, chaos reigns within the hospital as the Zulu break down the barricaded doors. Private Joseph Williams and four patients are killed.  In the next room, Hook is fighting like a cornered tiger, bayoneting and shooting any Zulu he sees.  Private John Williams soon joined Hook, bringing with him a pickaxe. Williams begins to punch a hole in the wall furthest from the attackers.  The last patient left alive is Sergeant John Connolly, a large man who suffered a broken leg.  Hook crawls through the small hole made by Williams, grabbed Williams by his coat, and pulled him through the small opening.  Connolly’s leg is re-broken in the process, but he’s alive.  As Hook and Connolly exited the room, Zulus broke into the room and in a fit of rage, attempt to spear Hook through the opening. Hook kills as many as show their faces in the aperture.  Again, Williams begins to axe his way through the furthest wall.
  • By 1915, Hook, Williams, and the rest of the survivors have reached a room at the far end of the hospital building, closest to their fellows defending the storehouse. The room has a window barely big enough to get a man through.  The flames atop the building allow the men to see that they are fifty yards from the storehouse, but the yard is being raked by British and Zulu rifles.  The first man out of the window is Private Hunter, promptly killed by a Zulu spear. Lieutenant Chard called for two volunteers to help rescue the Hook party.  Private Fred Hitch and Corporal William Allen leap over the barrier and rush to the aid of their comrades; British soldiers provide covering fire. One by one, Hitch and Allen pull the men through the window as Private Hook remained inside killing Zulus with their bayonets.  They have run out of ammunition.
  • By 2000, all remaining redcoats have escaped from the hospital building and joined their fellows behind the barricades.Zulus butcher what remain of the hospital patients who didn’t get away.
  • By 2030, Prince Dabulamanzl’s force is assured of victory. He orders an assault of the storehouse, which is furthest away from the burning building, allowing his men to fight under the cover of darkness.  Lieutenant Chard realizes that his position is getting worse by the minute.  Company B will not be able to survive if the storehouse falls.  He orders his troopers to construct an 8-foot high redoubt from available sacks of maize.  The redoubt is constructed within ten minutes and the wounded are carried inside.  Now the British soldiers form a protective circle within the redoubt and they begin to deliver accurate fire over the heads of the soldiers firing from the barricade.
  • At 2100, the Zulu attack comes to a halt as a force of British appear in the distance from Natal. Reinforcements never arrive, however.  The British force can see the burning buildings and, assuming that Company B has been destroyed, retreat back to Natal.
  • At midnight on 23 January, the British have been without water for more than eight hours. To relieve their suffering, Chard orders a small detail to retrieve the water cart situated halfway between the ruins of the hospital and the storehouse. Private Henry Block and two others attack the Zulu who remain inside the yard and pull the wagon toward the redoubt and the men are promptly watered.
  • By 0100, both sides are exhausted. Zulu attacks are becoming less ferocious—they have had nothing to eat or drink for over 17 hours.  Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead have no idea what is going on outside the barricades.  It is pitch black.  The din of battle has subsided.  In turn, the officers climb to the highest part of the redoubt to watch and listen. Chard later reported, “It was an anxious watch.”
  • By 0330, excepting an occasional gunshot and a cry from the suffering, the battle area is completely quiet.
  • Sunrise came at 0520. As the sun lights the surrounding area, Chard and Bromhead observe that the Zulu have gone.  All that remained were pools of blood, dead bodies, broken spears, spent cartridges, and damaged shields.  A cloud of smoke hangs over Rorke’s Drift.
  • At 0600, Private Hook approached a sentry who stood near the barricade looking across the river. Hook asked, “What are you looking at?”  The soldier didn’t respond, so Hook tilted his helmet back. The man has been shot through the head and died at his post.
  • At 0700, Chard set his men back to work repairing barricades. Suddenly, a thousand Zulus appear from the southwest and perch themselves on the grass hill overlooking Rorke’s Drift.  Chard and Bromhead call their men back behind the barrier, but they are aware that ammunition is perilously short.  Another attack will be fatal to Company B.
  • 0800 arrived and there had been no activity among the Zulu. After an intense hour, the Zulu arise and begin walking away.  Chard and Bromhead are baffled until they observe a column of men approaching in the distance.  Private Hook wondered aloud: “Are they friends to relieve us, or more Zulus to destroy us?”  They were British mounted rifles.  Surgeon Reynolds surmised that the weary Zulu had no desire to clash with fresh troops.

It had been a long day.  Lieutenant Chard was refreshing himself with the water from the Buffalo River when Lord Chelmsford [3] approached him.  The general was emotional in thanking Company B for their heroic service under insufferable circumstances.  The biscuit boxes that saved Company B were opened and the men finally fed.  A barrel of rum is shared among the men.  Private Hook, who doesn’t drink … changed his mind on this one occasion.

The Zulu situation was equally dire: they had been on the move for six days; had not eaten for two.  Within their ranks were hundreds of wounded and they were several days away from any supply.  Of killed in action were 351 confirmed deaths, but this number may have increased to 500.  The British relief force did not spare the wounded Zulu; additional deaths may have resulted from among the wounded carried away by the main body of Zulu warriors.

British losses were 17 killed, 15 wounded.

Victoria CrossThe Victoria Cross (VC) is the most prestigious award in the British honors system.  Created on 29 January 1856, its recipients are cited for gallantry in the presence of the enemy.  Since established, only 1,358 brave men have received this award.  Eleven of these men distinguished themselves in this one battle.

The names of these men are:

Lieutenant John Rouse Merriott Chard, 5thField Company, Royal Engineers

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Corporal William Wilson Allen, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Private Frederick Hitch, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Private Alfred Henry Hook, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Private Robert Jones, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Private William Jones, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Private John Williams, Company B, 2nd/24thFoot

Surgeon Major James Henry Reynolds, Army Medical Department

Acting Assistant Commissary James Langley Dalton, Commissariat and Transport Department

Corporal Christian Ferdinand Schiess, 2ndNatal Native Contingent

Endnotes:

[1] 1815-1884, British colonial administrator, who enjoyed a successful career in India, became the governor of Bombay.  As high commissioner for Southern Africa, Frere, he implemented a policy which attempted to impose a British confederation in the region that led to a series of regional wars, culminating in the invasion of Zululand and the First Boar War (1879-1881).  British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone recalled Frere to London to face charges of misconduct.  He was eventually censured for his reckless behavior while in the service of Queen Victoria.

[2] Author of Titanic Minute by Minute, this section obtained from the Daily Mail, 15 January 2019.

[3] The British Government was not happy with Chelmsford’s performance as a field commander. The foreign office issued orders for his relief but the delay in securing his replacement left him in command, which in turn led to the Zulu War.  Chelmsford finally handed over command to Wolseley on 15 July at the fort at St. Paul’s, leaving South Africa by ship for England two days later.  Despite of his incompetence, Chelmsford was honored as a Knight Grand Cross of Bath —even though he was severely criticized by a subsequent inquiry initiated by the British Army into the events that had led to the Isandlwana debacle.  Lord Chelmsford would not again serve in the field.