In transcribing the following passage from I have followed the Hathi Trust Digital Library’s generally accurate online version, corrected errors in the OCR, and added links to material in the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow

Decorated initial I

t is not surprising that the English force in the Soudan shared the mystification of the British public as to what the war was about. “I do not believe,” says “An Officer Who Was There," “that there was a man in the whole of this magnificent force who could have given you any intelligible reason for which we were fighting, if indeed his ingenuity enabled him to give you any reason at all.” The ingenuity of a great many persons in England could lead them no farther than to suppose that the object was to cover a Ministry, whose power and popularity were waning, with a little cheap military glory, as they expected. As to cost, the loss in camels in two days' fighting was, £17,765, and the mismanagement was so gross, and the results so worthless, that the people of England will be untrue to their own interests if they ever place sufficient power in the hands of those who were responsible, to enable them again to commit a like blunder or a like crime, whichever one may please to call it. The “Officer Who Was There,” though writing cheerfully enough about personal hardship, is constantly complaining of gross carelessness and mismanagement in the authorities. The arrangement of the camp about Suakin was such that “it appeared to us as if every one had been allowed to take his choice, and regimental camps were scattered about pretty much like plums in a cake, and with just about as much foresight on the part of the chief cook.” Three circular redoubts were thrown up in such a position that “men firing from them at all must, in spite of every precaution, have fired into some camp or other, either in front or to the right or left.” In one night attack,

how we escaped being all killed is a mystery. Suffice it to say, that we stood up there and watched the Indians fire volleys by squads clean into us, and we could count the number of men firing by the flashes, as they were not more than 500 yards off. The firing from this side must have been infectious, for we very soon afterwards found ourselves under a cross fire from the cavalry redoubts on the other. A pleasant variety of bullets was now cutting up the ground at our feet — the Indian firing with Sniders and the cavalry with Martini-Henry carbines. Our chief work was to prevent a stampede among our horses, but, I am thankful to say, the firing was at length stopped before any serious damage was done, and we came out of action with our friends with the loss of a mule only. We, on our part, put the whole thing down to General Funk's account, as we saw nothing ourselves and never fired a shot.

Then, again, when Lancer regiments were especially wanted, the 9th Bengal Cavalry, whose arms are a sword and carbine, were sent out, with lances indeed, but totally untrained, so that in action they threw away their lances and drew their swords, a weapon which is of very little use against a spear and shield. Over and over again the “Officer” congratulates the army that the transport, consisting of many hundred camels, was not attacked, as it was allowed to march without any guard, when the enemy's power of concealment and rapid movement were so notorious that it was never known where he might be next. The medical staff, on whom so much depended, suffered from similar official carelessness. The were housed in single bell tents, which are almost unbearable even in England in hot weather, and, though one of the newspaper reporters mentioned this in his telegram home, the press censor struck it out as not the case. The soldiers, on the other hand, seem to have behaved admirably. “A hundred different duties fell to his lot, cooking, branding, fatigues innumerable, digging entrenchments in the very heat of the day, pitching tents, going on guard, watching all night under a heavy fire, and many other things besides. He got through them all, though, and was always to be heard chaffing and laughing, for he is a good fellow, Tommy Atkins, though he is bound to have a grumble and a growl some times, for 'tis his rights.” Here are three portraits; no names are given, but military men will have no difficulty in identification: —

The first of these was a very tall, broad-shouldered man, with a certain shrewd look in his face, with a kindly manner and a soldierly bearing. The double line of ribbons across his jacket showed him to be a man who had seen a deal of active service, and amongst his ribbons was the most prized of all orders, though now becoming a little too common. He always seemed very grave, as if he bore on his shoulders the weight of some overpowering responsibilities, and he certainly acted on the principle that silence was golden, for he told his staff nothing, and, they say, consulted nobody. One of his personal staff once told me that they never knew an hour beforehand when a move was going to take place, and that this reserve was carried so far that they never even knew what time they were going to have their dinners. Report put him down as a man who had studied deeply, and who was well versed in the science of war. His pluck in action and his excessive coolness under fire were undeniable, but his repute as a general was somewhat slender. We all liked him because of his many attractive qualities, and above all he was a true friend and a perfect gentleman. He might have been popular, but his somewhat cold manner and habitual reserve rather repelled any advances, and there was none of that spontaneous bonhomie and happy manner with his troops which, while it sacrifices nothing to discipline, wins for a commander the love of his soldiers.

The second figure was different altogether from the first. He was of middle stature, somewhat stout, and with a round, red, good-humoured face. He too wore many ribbons, and possessed also the red one of the Victoria Cross. He had a somewhat quick, sharp way of asking questions, and a somewhat stand off manner with strangers, though when you knew him there was no pleasanter companion or kinder-hearted friend. He possessed also an attractive manner, and a cool quiet way of taking things, which made him to a certain extent popular. He looked as though he had the constitution of a giant, and as if he could stand or go through with anything. He was always perfectly self-satisfied, and even when things went against him he acted as though it was all couleur de rose and rather a good thing for him. As to any qualifications to command — these were shown in after-days. I ought to mention his right-hand man — a true soldier and energetic staff officer, unhampered by rule and the trammels of red tape, and with the inestimable quality of perfect readiness to accept responsibility and total fearlessness of the consequences. Everybody liked him, and though he had a quick temper he never lost it, and if you wanted any thing done, he did his best to help you, sinking personal considerations before all others.

As to the third, he was a short, sharp-featured individual, with a pompous and rather disagreeable manner, a loud voice, a quick temper, and a sense of his own importance which defied everything. He was not popular, and he seemed generally to be absorbed in that wonderful thought, “I am” A short answer was all you ever received from him, and one which often fell far short of ordinary courtesy.

There was one thing which these three characters had in common, though , utterly dissimilar in every other respect — one tie which bound them together as representatives of a fraternity — they were members of the same Society. [577-79]

Related material


Anon. Suakin, 1885. By An Officer Who Was There. Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. 1885. 577-79.

“History and Biography.” The Westminster Review. 68 n.s. (1885): 282-84. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 31 August 2020.

Last modified 31 August 2020