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Author(s): Demetrius Charles Boulger
Date Published: 2009/05
Page Count: 384
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-677-9
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-678-6

A great British soldier

This is the biography of one of the most famous soldiers of the Victorian age—Major-General Charles Gordon. Certainly he is now known as Gordon of Khartoum, but highly regarded in his own life time, he was to many also Chinese Gordon and Gordon Pasha. Commissioned as a Royal Engineer, Gordon first saw action during the Crimean War taking part in the siege of Sebastopol, the assault on the Redan and the expedition to Kinburn. In 1860 the Second Opium War broke out in China and it was here and during the Taiping Rebellion that Gordon earned his reputation and the recognition that set him towards high military rank. But it was Africa where he achieved his greatest fame. Gordon was engaged in much vital and interesting service before he found himself behind the walls of Khartoum in an unequal struggle against the religious fervour of the Mahdist forces. This is a thorough account of the man and his times which will be of great interest to those who wish to learn more about Gordon than just his martyrdom in the Sudan.

On his return to Sungkiang, Major Gordon devoted himself to the thorough reorganisation of his force. He began by abolishing the system of rewards for the capture of towns, and he forbade plundering on pain of death. These were strong steps to take with a force such as that he had under him, but he succeeded in making them acceptable by increasing the pay of the men, and by substituting on his staff English officers—the services of a few being lent him by the commanding officer at Shanghai—for the adventurers who had followed Ward and Burgevine. The total strength of the force was fixed at 4000 men, and his artillery consisted of four siege and two field batteries. The men were paid regularly by a Chinese official appointed by Li Hung Chang, and the cost to the Chinese Government averaged £20,000 a month. At the same time, Gordon collected a pontoon train and practised his men in all the work of attacking fortified places before he ventured to assume the offensive. He also organised a flotilla of small steamers and Chinese gunboats capable of navigating the canals and creeks which traversed the province of Kiangsu in all directions. Of these the principal was the steamer Hyson—a paddle-wheel vessel drawing 3-1/2 feet of water, armed with a 32-pounder in her bow, and a 12-pounder at her stern, and possessing the faculty of moving over the bed of a creek on her wheels—and it took a very active and prominent part in the subsequent operations. <br>
The strategy on which Major Gordon at once decided, and from which he never deviated, was to cut off the Taeping communications with the sea and the river Yangtsekiang, whence they were able to obtain supplies of ammunition and arms from little-scrupulous foreign traders. The expulsion of the Taepings from the Shanghai district and from Ningpo had done something towards the success of this project, but they still held Hangchow and the line of the Yangtsekiang to within ten miles of the entrance of the Woosung River on which Shanghai stands. The loss of Fushan and Chanzu had made an indent in this territory, and in order to complete this breach in the Taeping position, Gordon had decided and made all his plans to attack Quinsan, when he was compelled to defer it in consequence of the following incident.<br>
The rude repulse at Taitsan had been, it will be recollected, the culminating misfortune of the force before Gordon's assumption of the command, but a Chinese army under Li Hung Chang's brother, San Tajin, continued to remain in the neighbourhood of the place. The Taeping commander laid a trap for him, into which he fell in what was, for a Chinese officer fully acquainted with the fact that treachery formed part of the usages of war in China, a very credulous manner. He expressed a desire to come over, presents and vows were exchanged, and at a certain hour he was to surrender one of the gates. The Imperial troops went to take possession, and were even admitted within the walls, when they were suddenly attacked on both flanks by the treacherous Taepings. Fifteen hundred of San Tajin's men were killed or captured, and he himself was severely wounded. In consequence of this reverse, the main Chinese army, under General Ching, a brave but inexperienced officer, could not co-operate with Gordon against Quinsan, and it was then decided that Gordon himself should proceed against Taitsan, and read the triumphant foe at that place a lesson. It was computed that its garrison numbered 10,000 men, and that it had several European deserters and renegades among its leaders, while the total force under Gordon did not exceed 3000 men. Their recent successes had also inspired the Taepings with confidence, and, judging by the previous encounters, there seemed little reason to anticipate a satisfactory, or at least a speedy issue of the affair for the Imperialists. That the result was more favourable was entirely due to Gordon's military capacity and genius.<br>
Major Gordon acted with remarkable and characteristic promptitude. He only heard of the catastrophe to San Tajin on 27th April; on 29th April, after two forced marches across country, he appeared before Taitsan, and captured a stockade in front of one of its gates. Bad weather prevented operations the next day, but on 1st May, Gordon having satisfied himself by personal examination that the western gate offered the best point of attack, began the bombardment soon after daybreak. Two stone stockades in front of the gate had first to be carried, and these, after twenty minutes' firing, were evacuated on part of Gordon's force threatening the retreat of their garrison back to the town. The capture of these stockades began and ended the operations on that day. The next morning Gordon stationed one regiment in front of the north gate to cut off the retreat of the garrison in that direction, and then resumed his main attack on the west gate. By this time he had been joined by some of his gunboats, and their fire, aided by the artillery he had with him, gradually made a good impression on the wall, especially after the guns had been drawn as near as 200 yards to it. The breach was then deemed sufficiently practicable; the gunboats went up the creek as near the walls as possible, and the two regiments advanced to the assault. The Taepings fought desperately in the breach itself, and no progress was made. It is probable that a reverse would have followed had not the howitzers continued to throw shells over the wall, thus inflicting heavy losses on the Taepings, who swarmed in their thousands behind. At that critical moment Gordon directed another regiment to escalade the wall at a point which the Taepings had left unguarded, and the appearance of these fresh troops on their flank at once decided the day, and induced the Taeping leaders to order a retreat. The Taepings lost heavily, but the loss of the Ever Victorious Army was in proportion equally great. The latter had twenty men killed and 142 wounded, one European officer killed and six wounded. But the capture of Taitsan under all the circumstances was an exceptionally brilliant and decisive affair. With it may be said to have begun the military reputation of the young commander, whose admirable dispositions had retrieved a great disaster and inflicted a rude blow on the confidence of a daring enemy.<br>
From Taitsan he marched to Quinsan; but his force was not yet thoroughly in hand, and wished to return to Sungkiang, in accordance with their practice under Ward of spending their pay and prize-money after any successful affair before attempting another. Gordon yielded on this occasion the more easily because he was impressed by the strength of Quinsan, and also because his ammunition had run short. But his trouble with his men was not yet over, and he had to face a serious mutiny on the part of his officers. For improved economy and efficiency Gordon appointed an English commissariat officer, named Cookesley, to control all the stores, and he gave him the rank of lieutenant-colonel. This gave umbrage to the majors in command of regiments, who presented a request that they should be allowed the higher rank and pay of lieutenant-colonel; and when this was refused they sent in their resignations, which were accepted. The affair was nearly taking a serious turn, as the troops refused to march; but Gordon's firmness overcame the difficulty. Two of the majors were reinstated, and the others dismissed, but this incident finally decided Gordon to change his headquarters from Sungkiang to some place where the bad traditions of Ward and Burgevine were not in force.
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