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In a word, the Nile expedition was sanctioned too late, and the reason why it was sanctioned too late was that Mr. Gladstone would not accept simple evidence of a plain fact, which was patent to much less powerful intellects than his own. Posterity has yet to decide on the services which Mr. Gladstone, during his long and brilliant career, rendered in other directions to the British nation, but it is improbable that the verdict of his contemporaries in respect to his conduct of the affairs of the Soudan will ever be reversed. That verdict has been distinctly unfavourable. “Les fautes de l'homme puissant,” said an eminent Frenchman, “sont des malheurs publics.” Mr. Gladstone's error of judgment in delaying too long the despatch of the Nile expedition left a stain on the reputation of England which it will be beyond the power of either the impartial historian or the partial apologist to efface.
THE EVACUATION OF THE SOUDAN
JANUARY 26, 1885–DECEMBER 30, 1886
Lord Wolseley urges the necessity of an autumn campaign - The Government hesitate
And then agree
- Sir Redvers Buller retreats to Korti-Battle of Kirbekan—The movement on Berber arrested -Operations at Suakin-Action at Hashin-And at Tofrik -Suspension of the Suakin operations—The autumn campaign abandoned—Question of holding Dongola-Change of Government in England-Evacuation of Dongola-Death of the Mahdi-Battle of Ginniss—Review of British policy.
WHEN Lord Wolseley heard of the battle of Abu Klea and of Sir Herbert Stewart having been wounded, he decided to send Sir Redvers Buller to take command of the desert column, and to reinforce it by two battalions. Shortly afterwards, news arrived of the fall of Khartoum. General Earle was ordered to arrest the forward movement of the river column on Abu Hamed. Pending the receipt of instructions from London as to the policy which was now to be pursued, a discretionary power was left to Sir Redvers Buller to act according to local circumstances. General Earle accordingly halted at Berti, about midway between Kortiand Ăbu Hamed. Sir Redvers Buller arrived at Gubat on February 11. He found that there were only about twelve days' supplies at Gubat, and another twelve days' supplies at Abu Klea, whilst the camels were in a weak and emaciated condition. News had been
received that a Dervish force of about 4000 men and six guns was on its way from Khartoum to Gubat. Sir Redvers Buller, therefore, wisely decided to fall back on Jakdul. The retreat began on February 14. Jakdul was reached on the 26th.
In the meanwhile, the British Government were in a position of great difficulty. The sole object of the expedition had been to bring General Gordon and Colonel Stewart away from Khartoum. This object had not been attained. Obviously, unless the policy of the Government was to undergo a complete change, the most logical course to have pursued would have been to desist from any further interference in the Soudan, to withdraw the British troops to some good strategical position in the valley of the Nile, and there to await the attack of the Mahdist forces. This was what was eventually done, and, judged by the light of after events it can scarcely be doubted that it would have been better if the Government had at once decided to take up a defensive attitude. It can, however, be no matter for surprise that, in the first instance, the Government decided otherwise. British public opinion was greatly excited. Both the nation and the army were smarting under a sense of failure. The soldiers were burning to avenge their comrades, and to show the Dervishes that they were no match for British troops. It was certain that the fall of Khartoum would increase the influence and prestige of the Mahdi ; neither was it easy to foresee what might be the effect of his success in Egypt," and amongst Mohammedans in other parts of the world.
1 Directly the news of the fall of Khartoum reached Cairo on February 6, I telegraphed to Lord Granville as follows : “ It is too early to express any opinion worth having as to the effect which the fall of Khartoum will produce in Egypt proper. Moreover, much will no doubt depend on the course which Her Majesty's Government now decide to pursue in the Soudan. But I may say that, so far as I can
General Gordon's fame was then at its zenith. His Journal, which had been received, and was immediately published, gave a clear indication of his views. He strongly advocated a policy of “smashing up
the Mahdi. The weight of Lord Wolseley's authority was thrown into the same scale. He deprecated the adoption of a defensive policy. “It must never be forgotten,” he said, “that the question of whether this war shall or shall not go on does not rest with us, unless we are prepared to give up Egypt to the False Prophet. We shall not bring about a quiet state of affairs by adopting a defensive policy. The Mahdi has repeatedly declared it to be his full and settled intention to possess himself of Egypt, and his followers look upon themselves as engaged in a war the object of which is not to rest contented with the capture of Berber, but to drive the infidels into the sea.” Lord Wolseley thought that the final struggle with Mahdiism might perhaps be staved off for a few years, but these years, he said, “ will be years of trouble and disturbance for Egypt, of burdens and strains to our military resources, and the contest that will come in the end will be no less than that which is in front of
This is all we shall gain by a defensive policy." There could, he thought, be little difference of opinion as to the line of action which was
most befitting our national dignity and honour." The Mahdi must be crushed. That, Lord Wolseley thought, was the only policy, “worthy of the English nation."
These views were shared by others on the spot. The Government had, therefore, to face a strong at present judge, I do not anticipate any disturbance so far as the Egyptian population is concerned. The effect produced upon the Bedouins on the frontier is more difficult to forecast, and it would be as well to be prepared to send at short notice another battalion to Assouan, as proposed some little while ago by Lord Wolseley."
body of local opinion favourable to offensive action. At first, the Ministers hesitated, and they might well do so, for they were asked to embark on a crusade against Mohammedan fanaticism, to adopt an adventurous policy of which no one could foresee the end, and to wage a costly war in a remote country under conditions of exceptional difficulty imposed by the climate, by the scantiness of local supplies, and by the absence of facilities for transport and locomotion. Lord Wolseley had warned them that “the strength and composition of his little army was calculated for the relief, not for the siege and capture of Khartoum, the two operations being entirely different in character and magnitude.
Khartoum in the hands of the enemy could not be retaken until the force under his command had been largely augmented in numbers and in artillery."
Lord Wolseley's first instructions, which were issued on February 6, were “ to check the advance of the Mahdi in districts now undisturbed.” “Whether," it was added, “it will be ultimately necessary to advance on Khartoum or not, cannot now be decided.” I was at the same time told to give the Khedive general assurances of support, and to inform Lord Wolseley that it was the desire of the Cabinet “that if the Mahdi should make any proposals he should transmit them immediately to Her Majesty's Government for their consideration.” The Mahdi never made any proposals, neither was there at this or any other time the smallest likelihood of his doing so. Lord Wolseley replied that Lord Hartington's telegram gave him “no information as to the policy with reference to the Soudan which Her Majesty's Government meant to pursue.”
Thus pressed, the Government yielded. On February 9, Lord Hartington telegraphed to Lord Wolseley : “ Your