Martin Ryan, William Francis Butler - A Life 1838-1910 (Lilliput): The Gordon Relief Expedition
Gordon was a man viewed with some caution by his colleagues. He had great ability, courage, imagination, and a keen sense of justice, but he was also unpredictable and rashly single-minded. For his Sudanese venture, he was assigned as his assistant a Colonel J. D. Stewart, a level-headed veteran who had been about to leave England for Canada. Some days later in Devonport, Butler had received a cable to attend the War Office, coming up to London, he was certain that it would be something to so with the Sudan. Instead, to his great disappointment, he was asked to go to Ottawa in Stewarts place on ‘a confidential civil mission. Butlers transatlantic journeys were by now something of a joke among his colleagues: Wolseley, when he occasionally mentions Butler in his extensive private correspondence with his wife, refers to him as ‘Acrass the Atlantic, an impish take-off of Butlers pronounced Irish accent. Cork-born Louisa Wolseleys private view of Butler was that he was ‘an imperfect gentleman – if you can call him one at all.
Butlers short visit to the War Office convinced him that something other than an evacuation of the Sudanese garrisons by Gordon might be in the offing. From Queenstown, where his ship stopped briefly before the Atlantic voyage, he wrote to Wolseley on 8 February 1884: ‘I leave in a couple of hours for New York. The last phase of the Egyptian game of pull-Baker pull-Mahdi is not one such as one cares to be away from on the Western Continent. I hope that if anything should arise you will not forget that the cable can find me at Ottawa in a couple of hours.
Gordon reached Khartoum on 18 February 1884 and shortly afterwards cabled that he was not going to evacuate the city but hold it. ‘Mahdi must be smashed was one of the typical phrases he kept telegraphing to Cairo before the copper wire was cut just below the city on 12 March.
In London, Queen Victoria intervened with Gladstones government on Gordons behalf. He could not be abandoned. Britains honour was at stake. Gladstone resisted: an expedition would be ‘a war of conquest against a people struggling to be free. But the pressures against this stance began to mount. Contingency plans for a rescue expedition were discussed and Wolseley lobbied to lead it. Against the advice of Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stephenson, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in Egypt, who favoured a shorter overland route via the Suez Canal, Wolseley argued that an expedition to relieve Khartoum should follow the course of the Nile. The Nile was well-established as a route to Khartoum; for almost 1300 miles, as far Dongola, it was defended by a string of small Egyptian military posts; masses of troops could be transported by water to Dongola, where a mere parade of strength would be enough to intimidate the Mahdi and allow the orderly evacuation of Khartoum 300 miles further south.
In anticipation of approval of the expedition, Wolseley began his preparations. He would re-run his Red River campaign but on a much grander scale, with several thousand troops moving up the Nile in a great flotilla. The Nile had only a small number of paddle-steamers but hundreds of native boats or muggas, each of which could carry forty men. However, the muggas draught was deep; it was easily impeded by shallows and could navigate rapids only at high water. Wolseley turned to the Ring for recommendations. Butler, who had come back from Ottawa in April, was among those consulted. He had not gone beyond Memphis during he 1882 campaign, but his view was that ‘water is water and rock is rock whether they be in America or Africa.
Everything now hung on Gladstones government which on 5 August 1884 cautiously voted 300,000 pounds for the relief of Gordon. Wolseley summoned Butler from Devonport and gave him responsibility for securing sufficient boats in England to be shipped out to Alexandria. Four hundred were needed. On 7 August Butler and a Colonel Alleyn of the Royal Engineers were in Portsmouth inspecting standard ships boats which they found unsuitable. Instead, the two men designed a thirty-foot ‘Nile whaler, to be fitted with a lug sail and twelve oars, and which would carry ten soldiers and two crew, plus 1000 lbs of stores and ammunition. Butler then engaged forty-seven boat building firms and in four weeks, a month earlier than official estimates had allowed, 400 boats, carried on eleven steamers, were on their way to Alexandria. The expeditionary force would comprise 7000 men. Public debate over the best route continued. There were peppery letters to the leading newspapers about the foolishness of trying to ascend the Nile at a time of year when the river level would be falling; June and July – not October – were the six months of highest water level. It was pointed out that the expedition was six times as large as that on the Red River; and that logistical problems would be magnified accordingly.
The number of whalers ordered now doubled. Engrossed in preparations, Butler had his own views about the boats, endorsed from an unexpected quarter when he was visited by Henry Morton Stanley:
One day I was at work as usual over the details of the expeditions when there entered my room a man second to none in the roll of discoverers and explorers of this century. We had not met for years. ‘You are very busy I know and I wont stay long. I only looked in to shake hands and tell you I have seen all those letters against the boats you are building. I have also read a description of the boats themselves and in my opinion they are not only the right craft for the work you have to do but they are the only means by which you can do that work. I have tried boats like that on the Congo and found them all right.
One aspect of the boats had originally presented Wolseley with an unexpected problem: the matter of crews. He pursued his parallel with the Red River to a extraordinary degree when he asked Ottawa to engage 400 voyageurs ( at $40 per man per month). The men hurriedly recruited were a motley group which included Metis and Iroquois, as well as British immigrants who knew little about river navigation. They sailed from Quebec for Alexandria on 5 September to play their part in what some were now calling the Circus on the Nile. Butler arrived in Cairo on 25 September. Wolseley was already there. The ring was back in Egypt. Buller was Chief of Staff, Brackenbury Deputy Adjutant and Quartermaster. Herbert Stewart was to command the land forces that would move to Dongola, while Evelyn Wood was charted with keeping communication lines open. Butler was assigned the river column, the most physically arduous of the posts held by the old guard and the post that involved least contact with Wolseley.
Wolseley had already upset the regular forces in Egypt by being appointed, however temporarily, to the senior military post in the country. The Ring itself caused further anger among the lower-ranking officer on the expedition, who were conscious of being kept firmly outside it. The future General Sir Ian Hamilton, with experience in India, found that ‘nothing could have been more inhospitable or forbidding than the response from the special preserve of the Wolseleyites.. any attempt to cut in from any benighted country like India would be summarily dealt with.. I was an intruder, I was alone in a hostile camp.
But if the Ring was closed to outsiders, it had its own dissensions. Its members were no longer young and eager solely for fame and glory, but were middle-aged men, conscious of status and career prospects, and watchful of each others preferment. By this time Brackenbury, Buller, Stewart and Wood all had knighthoods. On the Gordon Relief expedition, Wolseley had the conferring of the local rank within his gift. Butler had expectations that were not met. He was given the temporary rank of full colonel, while others received greater preferment. Buller, for example, was given the local rank of major-general and Brackenbury of full general.
Wolseleys decision to move his forces to Dongola by two routes, river and land, was to split the Ring. The land column, mounted infantry and cavalry – a ‘camelry in Wolseleys phrase – made a leisured and lighthearted progress up to the Sudan border, its senior officers had personal baggage trains of up to forty camels. In contrast, the river column was to have little opportunity for leisure. As he left Cairo, Wolseley was still loudly confident that there was little need to rush. The expedition would proceed to Dongola where the situation would be reviewed.
For Butler and the river column, the itinerary was simple on paper. Whalers and troops would be towed by coal burning paddle-steamers up to Aswan, below the first of the Nile cataract. Wadi Halfa, which became known to the troops as Bloody Halfway, was at the Sudan frontier. There was a length of railway from Wadi Halfa around the obstacle of the second cataract, beyond which would be 270 unobstructed miles to the third cataract at Abu Fame, Once through this, it would be plain sailing, or rowing, to Dongola, 300 miles from the besieged Gordon.
In theory the cataracts were navigable by light boats, but safe passage depended on the water level, which by late October would be sinking by six inches a day. On smooth stretches of the river, shoals and sandbanks would appear overnight, throwing navigation plans into complete disarray.
By 19 October Butler was at Wadi Halfa, where the immensity of his task became clear to him. The rapids of the second cataract, which extended for over twenty miles, held Bab-el-Kebir, the Belly of Stone, a ravine fifty yards long and some thirty feet wide, down which the Nile raged in a precipitous torrent. The thirty miles of railway which skirted the cataract had no rolling stock capable of transporting troops and whalers. The whalers either had to be hauled through the rapids or carried round them In either case, it meant the removal and portage of each boats supplies. Meantime a shortage of coal for the transport steamers was delaying troops and whalers downriver. The responsibility for this lay with Buller, of whom Butler was openly critical. By the time sufficient coal had been shipped to Egypt, several weeks had been lost.
Among those held up were the voyageurs. It was the end of October before they were deposited below the second cataract. At Gemai, above the worst reaches of the cataract, the river column had set up a supply base and its major boat repair yard. Here, on 4 November, Butler, busy in the dockyard, looked out to see something that added its own exotic quota to the Nile expedition:
..across the river a strange object caught my sight – strange only in this Nile land for in other lands it had been a well known friend. There hugging the back eddy of the muddy Nile a small American birchbark canoe, driven by those quick downstrokes that seem to be the birthright of the Indian voyageur alone, was moving up the further shore: when this strange craft had got well abreast of our dockyard it steered across the swift river and was soon underneath my tent. Out of the canoe with all the slow gravity of his race stepped a well remembered figure - William Prince Chief of Swampy Indians from Lake Winnipeg. After him came seven other Indians and halfbreed voyageurs all from the same distant land.
In 1870 Prince had been the best of Butlers crewmen as he ascended the Winnipeg River. The reunion between eh two men was all the warmer for its unexpectedness. Prince became senior crewman on Butlers own whaler until sickness overtook him.
While Butler toiled at Gemai, Wolseley had gone up ahead of his main land force at Dongola where established his headquarters. There, intelligence reports told him that Gordons position was becoming perilous. The slow pace of the expeditions advance started to fret Wolseley. It was already mid November and his ‘camelry were now struggling to reach Dongola. Wilting under the desert sun, they made their increasingly painful way through the huge serrated rock platforms that flanked the Nile. Sickness was now beginning to take a toll of the expedition. Isolated cases of cholera, scurvy and typhoid had to be monitored as the numbers reached Dongola increased.
Wolseley was under increasing strain and he had no confidants to ease it. Publicly he tried to sustain the pose of the assured commander, calm in the face of delay and uncertainty. In his private journal he fumed at the government in London, at the Cairo bureaucracy and most of all at Gladstone, the procrastinator. It needed only a spark for Wolseley to explode. The impetuous Butler was to provide it.
Butler had got the flotilla moving steadily. Almost half the boats, laden with men and supplies, were now progressing slowly upriver. On 16 November he pushed off from Gemai in number 387, his floating home. He reconnoitered the river as far as the third cataract, two hundred miles south. Travelling through a landscape ever harsher and bleaker, under an increasingly powerful sun, the direct force of which was magnified by its reflected glare from the water, Butler and his crew wore goggles for much of the day. Number 387 used windpower when it could, and when the wind failed, the crew rowed. Towards dark they would come ashore, usually on an island, to throw up bivouacs and light a small fire from driftwood. Night was special; Butler immersed himself in the ambience of the cloudless skies, the brilliance of the stars, and the sweep of the great river from the continents core.
Number 387 was the first whaler through the third cataract at Haffir. Above it, at Abu Fatmeh, Butler found orders to sit by the telegraph station and wait for a message from Wolseley. Butler telegraphed his arrival to Wolseley, waited overnight and, with no reply, decided to go upriver to headquarters at Dongola, He cabled ahead to announce what he was doing. His cable threw Wolseley into a fury. The delays, the enormity of the task he had brought on himself; the probable fall of Khartoum and the possible death of Gordon, all these were concentrated into a stinging written rebuke to Butler. Wolseley dispatched a steam pinnace downstream to intercept him and tell him to get back to his post: his duty was the expeditious processing of the boats between the second and third cataracts.
Butler was stopped and turned back within sight of Dongola, ‘the cruellest check of all my life. He dashed off a short memo of remonstrance which the pinnace delivered to Wolseley, and later that evening wrote a lengthy letter to his chief in which he made specific suggestions for speeding up the progress of the boats. But he did not leave matters at that. He told Wolseley that by having been made turn back, he had been given ‘a slap in the face. And he continued:
I freely admit that the orthodox English staff officer would have stopped at Haffir today, tomorrow and the day after eyeglass in eye and cigarette in mouth; but on the other hand he would have taken sixteen to eighteen days to ascend the river from Sarras to Haffir, and when acting on your orders to have gone back on the seventeenth or nineteenth day to try and galvanise the slow moving mass of boats into quicker work, his words would have had about as much effect upon Tommy Atkins as his cigarette smoke would have had upon dulling the Egyptian sky. Unfortunately perhaps for me, there were not my methods of work; and I fear they never will be.
He went on to complain that his mentor was treating his unfairly vis-à-vis other senior officers in the Ring, all of whom were with the land column. This missive did nothing to placate Wolseley, who recorded in his diary:
I dont like its tone but it is quite Butlerian: he is in his own opinion the only wise man out there and anything that has gone wrong has been occasioned because I did not consult him more, take him more into my confidence and follow his advice … The fact is Butlers talent is erratic it can neither work in any ordinary groove nor work in harmony, with the talents of other men in a team. This fact reduces his usefulness by one half. He is one of those men who imagine they have been and who are convinced that they are always in the right. He is an impulsive talented Irishman wanting in method and who will never rise to the position in the army he aspires to and which, had he had more ballast and more businesslike habits, might be within his reach. All my old companions, men whom I brought on, Wood, Redvers Buller, Butler etc. are now reaching that age and standing in the service when it is difficult to place them in a small army in the field, and when there, each and all are so jealous of the other that the team is a difficult one to drive. I have suspected a little captiousness more than once in my followers since I came to Egypt. Butler is the first upon whom my wrath has fallen and I hope he may be the last.
It was sometime during these weeks that Butler was hit by a second blow that severely tested his resilience. The irregular mail delivery to Gemai brought him a solicitors letter from London. Lord Colin Campbell had just taken a civil action for divorce against his wife on the grounds of adultery. Three co-respondents were named: George Spencer Churchill, heir to the Duke of Marlborough; Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, Superintendent of the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade; and Colonel William F. Butler, assistant Adjutant Western Command. Butler reportedly reacted to this letter by flinging it into the Nile and emphatically saying he would have nothing to do with it. The matter would tick away for two years as the law took its cumbersome course.
Butler spent and arduous month up and down the river, rankling at Wolseleys rebuff. ‘I am to be the Moses of the expedition, not to enter the promised land, he noted in his diary. By now the whalers were a sizeable flotilla, ‘pitched, patched and tin-plated, and the ferrying of troops and supplies upriver was steady. Butler and Alleyn, his colleague from the Royal Engineers, chivvied and cajoled, urging more speed and effort, something that did not impress the visiting Daily Telegraph correspondent, who sourly remarked of the two men that ‘the celerity with which they are able to move about on the Nile has often been cited, It may be safely set down to two things. They travel with picked crews and in boats not loaded down with 100 days provisions.
Butlers disappointment at his exclusion from Wolseleys entourage became acute as Christmas approached and he was still confined to the river, while others went by land or water to headquarters, which had now been moved further south to Korti. He was particularly envious when he heard that Wolseley had given Herbert Stewart, his protégé from the Zulu War, the local rank of brigadier-general with responsibility for the advance guard of the expedition. ‘I am out in the cold with a vengeance now, was one of his diary entries for Christmas Eve.
Most of the expedition had by now reached Korti, and for the new year Butler got the perfect present: a cable from Wolseley instructing him to come up to join him. As he wrote home to Elizabeth, ‘I came like the wind. He arrived at Korti on 4 January 1885. There he found that everyone acknowledged the worth of the boats. Not only had they transported the men and stores of the river column, they had carried supplies for the camel corps for the push to Khartoum.
The expedition had already entered its final phase. Two advance columns, one on land and one on water, had gone forward towards Khartoum. Wolseley had no authority to proceed personally beyond Korti, but he had full discretion to deploy troops as he considered fit. It was the first occasion in his role as a commander-in-chief that he was not leading the field operation and this was exposing weaknesses in him. Intelligence from his spies had convinced him that Gordons plight was indeed desperate, yet he was unsure what to do.
At Korti the expedition was 280 miles from Khartoum by the direct desert route. But at Korti the Nile bends, first to the north, then to the east before turning south again, describing a gigantic question-mark some 250 miles long. If the expedition continued to follow the river, it would be moving away from Khartoum for weeks before it again headed south. On the other hand, if the expedition struck directly across the desert to Khartoum, it would do so with huge shortages of baggage animals. It would also move into the type of terrain where the army of Hicks Pasha had been so recently destroyed.
Wolseley decided to send an advance column of the camel corps into the Bayuda desert on a trek of 180 miles to the Nile at Metemma. From there a dash could be made from Khartoum, only 100 miles upriver. Five days before Butlers arrival at Korti, Herbert Stewart had led the advance column out of the camp on what was to become known as the March of the Forlorn Hope. Two days earlier, on 28 December, Major General William Earle, one of the few senior officers imposed on Wolseley by London, had launched the river column from Korti: 2900 men with supplies for 100 days, transported in 217 whalers. Earle was accompanied on land by a force of hussars and Egyptian cavalry. Brackenbury had gone with Earle as his second in command.
Butler was at Korti for twelve days. He lost no opportunity to let Wolseley know how badly he felt he had been treated. A letter he wrote home to Elizabeth at this time shows something of his frustration:
I sent you a few words of cheer at Christmas by wire, but my letters have been getting fewer. I really had not the heart to write bad news. I had suffered so much from what I must always regard as unjust treatment at the hands of my ‘best friends that I could only go on day after day working and lying down each night with the hope, which work well done gives, that all would come right in the end… I have indeed had ample recompense for the thought and labour given to these boats and to this expedition by the unspoken approval of the officers and men. The latter know well enough who works for them.. [My] pay and allowances for the last three months, only 160 pounds or thereabouts. It is less pay all counted than I got at Devonport, and I have a lower position on the staff here than I had there. So much for what you thought my ‘sincere friends would do for me by way of local rank. Still, I say to myself that it is ‘all right. War is the sum of all human wrongdoing and it also holds every possible injustice in it. Never mind, ‘cheer up.
Wolseley could not deny that Butler had done a good job with the boats. That job was completed and Butler was near desperation for a chance at the front. Wolseley gave it to him. On 16 January 1885 Butler left for Korti in number 387 to catch up with the river column. The expedition was entering its critical phase. Beyond Korti the power of the Mahdi was palpable.
As Butler and his crew raced to meet up with Earle, the 1500 men of the camel corps were facing 8000 Mahdists in the Bayuda at Abu Klea. There, on 17 January 1885, in what Winston Churchill was later to describe as ‘the most savage and bloody action fought in the Sudan by British troops, the camel corps defeated the Mahdists, at a cost of 380 casualties. The Mahdists were armed mainly with swords or javelins, their fire-power was Remington rifles captured from Egyptian troops. In theory the camel corps should not have suffered the losses it did, but the Martini-Henry rifles with which it was armed jammed, while the bayonets, made of inferior metal, buckled on impact.
Two days after Abu Klea, as the advance column straggled on, Stewart was fatally wounded in the groin by a snipers bullet. The column reached the Nile demoralised, exhausted and unsure how to proceed.
The news of Abu Klea eventually reached the river column, putting it into a state of constant alert. Butler was assigned ‘to command the advance guard both by land and water. He operated on the left bank of the river with forty British hussars mounted on Arab ponies, and a patrol of twenty Egyptians on camels. He inspected each days section if river in advance, found suitable campsites for the boat-borne troops and oversaw the construction of simple fortifications. In tandem with this, he scouted the land ahead and to his flank. His nights were spend bivouacked several miles ahead of the main column. There was little sign of the enemy.
On 5 February he reached Kerbekan, a 400-foot ridge dominating a foaming stretch of rapids. From the top of the ridge, eating a lunch of mouldy cheese and stale biscuit, he surveyed the surrounding landscape, ‘a tossed and tumbled region of black and lighter coloured rocks. The ridge ran directly from the river and at right angles to it. Two miles upriver, narrow and menacing lay the Shikook Pass, reputedly held by the Mahdists.
When Butler returned to his bivouac later that night, there was a confidential message from Earle: the desert column had managed to get two steamers of troops from Metemma to within sight of Khartoum, only to find that the city had fallen. The steamers had returned downriver without risking entry to the city. Gordons fate was unconfirmed. The next morning Earle came up to join Butler. Their orders from Korti were unchanged – press on.
As the main body of the river column moved towards the Kerbekan ridge, the Mahdists came down from the Shikook Pass and by 9 February the two forces were facing each other: several thousand Mahdists on the ridge; the river column, numbering 1200, encamped on the rocky ground below it and about 1300 yards from its base. Earle had no option but to fight. He favoured a frontal attack on the ridge. Butler disagreed: the casualties would be too high. Instead, he proposed a flanking movement by the west of the ridge which would allow the Mahdist position to be attacked from the rear. Earle was doubtful. It would mean that his force would have to expose its own flank to the enemy as it marched towards, around, and parallel to the rear of the ridge before it would be in position to attack. That night Butler went out with a mounted patrol to reconnoitre, and returned with his mind unchanged. Earle and Brackenbury then accepted his plan. In an army career that had already lasted twenty-seven years, this was Butlers first opportunity to lead men into battle.
By sunrise on 10 February the column was on the move. The manoeuvre took the Mahdists by surprise. The western edge of the ridge was quickly turned and the column advanced parallel to it and towards the Nile before the commands to left-face and attack the ridge were given. While the main thrust of the attack was a direct assault, in which the kilted troops of the Royal Highlanders were piped into battle, Butler led a squadron of eighty hussars in a flanking movement to highly successful effect. He cut off the Mahdists on the ridge from the main body of their forces encamped below it. These forces retreated, defiantly but in some disarray, towards the safety of the Shikook Pass, hotly pursued by Butler and his mounted force. The rocky terrain was used to maximum effect by both sides and Butler almost lost his life:
I had got to the top of a cluster of high rocks to have a better survey of the masses of rocks surrounding our little party, and I was leaning against a big one for a steadier sweep with the glass of the hills around when a bullet, fired from across the gorge within a hundred yards range flattened itself on the rock six inches above my head. The man was so near that the hit was simultaneous with the smoke and the report of the rifle. I was down from my perch in a jiffy, and got three men from below; then we went up again to the rocks. I had marked the exact spot on the opposite rock from which my friend had fired; the three carbines were laid upon it; I put my helmet where I had first stood; my friend fired again, and at the same instant three shots went off from our side. He fired no more.
Butler was lucky. Not so Earle, After the ridge had been captured and the battle was over, Earle had the troops drawn up close to a small stone-walled hut. A sudden shot from the hut hit a soldier. Earle ordered the grass roof of the hut to be set alight to smoke out the sniper and a man ran from the fumes on to a waiting bayonet. Earle then walked up towards the but was shot in the head by a sniper still inside. He died instantly.
The Mahdists on the ridge had fought on to the death. While the river column counted eleven of their own dead and forty-four wounded or missing Mahdist casualties were estimated variously at between 500 and 2000. Next day, as the column moved up towards the Shikook Pass, the bodies lay everywhere.
Dead men, they say, tell no tales; but on a battlefield no more eloquent spokesman can call to him who will listen. Here the enemys unburied dead told the story of their revolt – these old greybeard veterans, these mere boys, these strong men in the flower of their age, as they lay in every attitude of painful death. They had found to the last cartridge for their homeland. Their ‘punishment at our hands had been severe. The rocks glistened with the leaden splashes of our bullets, where continuous volleys had searched every nook and crevice.
Kerkeban was a critical step in Butlers career progression. At Tel-El-Kebir, as a member of Wolseleys personal staff, he had not taken part in the assault on the Egyptian positions. At Kerkeban he acquitted himself very well. His intelligence-gathering had been excellent and his assault plan successful. During the battle he was decisive in command and courageous in pursuit.
With Earles death, Brackenbury took command of the river column. He and Butler puzzled over what could have prompted the Mahdists out of their securely held pass to engage in battle on less advantageous ground. They were to find a partial explanation. One of the soldiers engaged in getting the whalers past Kerbekan spotted a saddlebag among the rocks on the shore. In it were papers in Arabic. Literally translated, their message ran:
‘I inform you that Khartoum was taken on 9 Rabi [26 January 1885]. The Mahdi prayed his dervishes and his troops to advance against the fortifications and entered Khartoum in a ¼ of an hour. They killed the traitor Gordon and captured the steamers and boats.
With no countermanding orders, the column kept on. By 24 February it was close to Abu Hamed, at the tip of the great Nile bend, where there was a despatch waiting from Wolseley. The desert column, which had been taken over by Buller after the fall of Khartoum, had collapsed; any further advance up the Nile would be futile, The river column was ordered back towards Korti. The Gordon Relief Expedition was effectively over. Charles Gordon transmogrified into Gordon of Khartoum, the supreme exemplar of heroic virtue for Victorian Britain. Butler, who was among Gordons biographers, described him as ‘the mirror and measure of true knighthood, representing the majority contemporary view of Gordon as a man who combined the Christian ideals of charity and brotherhood with extraordinary courage. The altruism of the rescue, contrasted with military ventures such as the 1882 invasion of Egypt, had caught the public imagination. The professed objects of the expedition, to ‘rescue and retire, in a phrase of the time, made its failure doubly hard to bear. Britain went into official mourning.
Meanwhile the river column was retiring. Brackenbury stayed with the boats as they turned downriver, giving Butler responsibility for the land forces – artillery, and British and Egyptian cavalry. Back at Korti, Wolseley, rundown with overwork and worry, surveyed a campaign which except for the modest success of the river column, was close to a shambles. The leaders of both advance columns, Earle and Stewart, were dead; Khartoum had fallen to the Mahdi, and 4000 citizens, a tenth of the population, had been slaughtered, Wolseley, at fifty-one years of age, had received the first critical setback of his career and he found it impossible to come to terms with it. He held the second highest rank in the British army and saw himself as the heir to the Duke of Wellington. For someone who described himself in private as ‘the jingo of the jingos, the only possible solution to the situation he was in after the fall of Khartoum was to smash the Mahdi. ‘If I can only kill him it will be a very happy finale to our expedition up the Nile, he wrote to this twelve-year-old daughter Frances.
For some weeks Wolseleys view actually got strong support at Westminster. Public opinion, outraged at the failure to rescue Gordon, was reflected in demands at the highest levels of government to avenge Khartoum. On the strength of reports from England, Wolseley lobbied to be made Governor General of the Sudan: he would go downriver to Dongola and spend the coming months building up a new army to take on the Mahdi in September when the Nile was high and the heat a little more bearable.
Halfway back from Kerbekan to Korti, the rive column reached the small fortification of Merowe at the village of Abu Doum. It was an attractive spot, sheltered by wild palms. Orders from Wolseley were waiting there. Brackenbury was to continue downriver with the bulk of the column. Butler was to command at Merowe, the extreme British outpost, over the summer. Butter was pleased at this recognition of his marital abilities. He at once prepared for ‘six months of blinding heat, glad to be able ‘to take off my boots at night, get clean things, and lie down on something besides sand. It was at Merowe over the next few weeks that he began a first draft of The Campaign of the Cataracts. The book put centre stage the endlessly repetitive role of the boats and boatmen on the middle reaches of the Nile. It would be published, with illustrations by Elizabeth in 1887.
Wolseley came up to inspect Merowe on 18 March, the day after the feast of St. Patrick. He had a most convivial reception from his subordinate, and wrote to his wife that Butler was in very good form:
He is quite happy having created a station, and being in command has restored his equanimity. He is doing it very well. Of course there is the usual didnt I tell you so. No prophetic almanac editor ever professed such powers of prediction as to future events as Butler does. Butler however never gives anyone the benefit of his predictions until after the events have occurred.. He really is a good fellow with all his inaccuracy of statement and other failings for which Irishmen are well known but with all the quick vivid imagination and all those pleasant sympathies with his fellowman, all the quickness and wit and other qualities for which Paddy is celebrated. He has Paddys faults in an ordinary degree but he has all his good qualities, talents and virtues to overflowing: in fact he is gifted far above ordinary Irishmen and that means that the English and Scotsmen are stupid and uninteresting when placed beside him. He makes me very angry at times but I always like him.
The reference to ‘Paddy in this private letter from a Dubliner to his Cork-born wife vividly illustrates a major divide which ran through Irish society. In the language of the time, this was seen as a racial divide between, on the one hand, Hiberno-Norman and Gael, and on the other the Anglo-Irish. Given Wolseleys distaste for the country of his birth, it is ironic that, among the English upper classes who shaped the higher echelons of the army, ‘Paddy was in colloquial use as a generic term to describe officers from Ireland, irrespective of their backgrounds.
While he prepared to move his headquarters back to Dongola, Wolseley was woken from his dream of smashing the Mahdi. There was no advantage to Britain in attempting to conquer the Sudan – ‘that dreadful country, in Gladstones words. Gordon was dead, the Khartoum garrison massacred. Britains military responsibility for Egypt stopped with the defence of the Egyptian frontier. A bitterly disappointed and angry Wolseley had to abandon the Sudan. Butler was ordered to evacuate Merowe by 26 May. Unlike Wolseley, Butler was realistic: the Sudan was not a priority and ‘we cant keep half the army and all the staff up in this wilderness.
As the commander of the highest Nile station, Butler had to ensure that every post he passed through on his way downriver to Dongola was cleared of men and supplies. Nothing was to be left for the Mahdists. His own small fort at Merowe was to be razed. He was sorry to leave Abu Doum, ‘the Father of Palm Trees ... a place of real Nile beauty. And he had like the local people, as he recorded in his diary:
You cannot live much with the Arabs without learning to like them. They are quick, courteous, very brave, good looking. As to their deceit, etc., of which we hear so much, I dont think they are a bit worse than the average acquaintance, I might even say ‘friend one finds in clubs and professions in the daily intercourse of life in England.
Butler did not have sufficient boats to get his entire force downriver. Instead, his 200-mile journey from Merowe to Dongola was an overland one, ‘the hottest work that had ever fallen to my lot.
From Dongola, Butler came down to Egypt in his old boat, number 387, savouring the breeze and the current working in his favour. At Wadi Halfa there was a cable waiting from him from Wolseley, who was already back in England, asking if he would be interested in the command of the Egyptian frontier on the expiry of his home leave. It was more than adequate evidence of the value of his contribution to the expedition.
By the end of June 1885 Butler was home after a ten-month absence. There was no addition to the family, a third son, Martin, who had been born in March. Elizabeth came up to London from Plymouth for Butlers arrival back in England and, when, she had caught her breath, wrote to her mother:
My dearest Mama, Will returned on two months leave on the 30th. of June. I went to town to meet him having but a few hours notice from Brindisi of his blessed coming. I secured nice rooms at the Army and Navy Hotel Westminster and decorated the rooms with roses from Mrs. Colliers. You may be sure I was wide awake at 7 a.m. next morning when he arrived. The sun was shining in through the open window and the air was fresh with flowers. Will is thoo greyer, looking splendid and is nicely slim and sunburnt. Of how thankful I am for his good health and safety. He is to be a brigadier-general and is to command at Wadi Halfa.