General Gordon's Last Stand
by George William Joy
Who faces defeat and redeems bungling as splendidly as the Brits?
Or they used to do it splendidly, anyway.
There's the Charge of the Light Brigade, for instance, in which 600-plus British calvary soldiers charged the wrong way, which did not work out well for them--
the equivalent of scoring a goal for the other side, but a lot worse, and with horses. Let us say no more about the horses.
Wikipedia reports that French Marshal Pierre Bosquet said about it:
"C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. C'est de la folie."
("It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness.")
But Tennyson in poetry immortalized this disaster--
"Into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred..." (even Americans know this line, though we don't know why).
That was at the Battle of Balaclava, 1854, (to which we owe the ski mask), during the Crimean War.
Mad, Magnificent Gordon
Thirty years later, General Gordon achieved another highlight in the history of splendid disasters.
The British sent him to withdraw the Egyptian troops at Khartoum, Sudan, (GB had just taken control of Egypt), but Gordon decided on his own that they could hold out against the Mahdi, the religious rebel leader.
He was wrong.
I vividly remember Gordon's death. I saw it in the movie Khartoum (1966) at the drive-in movie theater, when I was five.
Charleton Heston played Gordon, and the scene where he, magnificent, is speared to death was based on this famous painting, above.
It worked for me:
In the back of our family's Opel Kadett station wagon--[pale yellow, but something like the 1968 version, right, seemingly fit to take on Sudan itself]-- I sobbed hysterically.
What Gordon Said: Horrid
American schoolchildren of my generation did not study the British Empire, much less African history, and I did not meet Gordon again until I wrote the Sudan geography book a few years ago. By then I had forgotten, if I'd ever known (doubtful) that Khartoum was in ...well, in the real world at all.
I read excerpts from Gordon's diary, and of course the reality wasn't all that splendid. It was hot and there were flies.
This is the sidebar I put in the book:
Trapped in Khartoum
General Charles Gordon of Great Britain kept a journal while he was under siege in Khartoum. During an attack of the Mahdi’s forces on November 12, 1884, Gordon recorded his feelings of dread at being awoken by the sound of the battle nearby:
“One tumbles at 3:00 A.M. into a troubled sleep; a drum beats––tup! tup! tup! It comes into a dream, but after a few moments one becomes more awake and it is revealed to the brain that one is in Khartoum…. Where is the tup, tupping going on? A hope arises it will die away. No, it goes on and increases in intensity….
“…up one must get and go on the roof of the palace; then telegrams, orders, swearing and cursing goes on till about 9:00 A.M.…
"Men may say what they like about the glories of war, but to me it is…horrid….”
--from The Journals of Major-General C. G. Gordon, at Khartoum (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885).
Two months later, the Mahdi’s forces took Khartoum, speared Gordon to death, and decapitated him. Two days later, a British relief expedition arrived in Khartoum, on January 28, 1885.
(It's been a long time since I read LOTR, but didn't Tolkein describe the Company of the Ring listening in dread to drums tup, tup, tupping? In Moria, was it?)
The Four Feathers
A modern (2002) movie worth seeing about the British in the Madhi War is The Four Feathers, starring Heath Ledger as Harry Faversham, in one of the many remakes of A. E. W. Mason's novel of 1902.
It's far more honest about how horrid war is, but it's still pretty splendid because how could it not be? Beautiful men running about in the desert...with camels!
So, this all is how I gleaned enough background finally to understand the utterly baffling Rudyard Kipling poem...
The Brits loved the splendid chap when he lost, even if he was the enemy.
I know, I know, this is dreadful imperialistic stuff--don't take my head off-- but I'm going to post a bit of Rudyard Kipling's imagined words of some poor British soldier of the Soudan Expeditionary Force saluting the Sudanese soldiers who supported the Mahdi and who "broke a British square"--that is, they broke up the supposedly impenetrable British fighting formation--pictured here, above, from The Four Feathers. (The British infantryman called the Sudanese warriors Fuzzy-Wuzzy because of their wild hairstyle.)
The British defeated them, eventually, but recognized them as worthy foes.
This happened at the Battle of Abu Klea, where Captain Frederick Burnaby [painting by Tissot in post below] met his death. I didn't know that until right now...
"Fuzzy-Wuzzy" [links to Kipling's soldier poems--scroll down]
Then 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an' the missis and the kid:
Our orders was to break you, an' of course we went an' did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an' it wasn't 'ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin' you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.
[The Martinis are machine guns, alas, not cocktails.]
Background of the poem.
The verdict is still out on Sudan, of course, 120-some years later. In fact, one of the major players is the great-grandson of the Mahdi.
Meanwhile, in South Africa
While I'm on this bizarre tour of the British Empire in popular culture, let me throw Zulu (1964) in too. It features Micheal Caine's first starring role in a movie, and it's a surprisingly good movie, says someone who doesn't really care for war movies (though you'd hardly know it, here).
It's about a small group of British soldiers fighting off a Zulu attack at Rorke's Drift, in 1879, during the Zulu Wars. (Based on real events. I gather the director worked closely with the Zulu actors and incorporated their pov.) The two groups end up in a sort of draw, in a kind of mutual-admiration warriors club.
But Zulu's not a simplistic depiction of the splendid, spotless warrior. At the end Caine, whose character had not seen battle before, says, "I feel dirty."
And American portrayals of noble defeat?
I'll have to think about that.
If you can think of any, let me know.