Titan of the Thames

By Sandy Nairne and Peter Williams

The first biography of Lord Desborough, a towering figure of early 20th century public life.

Tuesday, 6 September 2022

Willy goes to War: the Suakin Interlude

Dear supporters of Titan of the Thames

We have been much encouraged by your interest in our life of Lord Desborough, so we wanted to offer another excerpt and an update on progress. We have chosen - below - an adventure from early in Lord Desborough's life: in this case his time as a special correspondent in Sudan working for the Daily Telegraph, portraying a world somewhat different to our own.

We have been busy with the book itself, and have more or less completed drafts of all the chapters and decided on the black and white images that will run through the text – this biography will be copiously illustrated. We are tidying up the text with last minute additions and taking specialist advice from experts in certain areas, while making our final visits to archives and the British Library.

After we submit the text to Unbound at the end of October, there will be editing, design and lay-out work to do, plus of course proofing, and then printing, binding and distribution. So, we hope that copies will be ready for everyone in the autumn of 2023 (... and might provide a Christmas present or two...).

We're excited to be nearing the end of a project we began in 2015 and which has brought together so much previously neglected material. Desborough’s ‘Soudan diary’ is a case in point – a verbatim account of part of the campaign which includes his own field notes.

Willy goes to War: the Suakin Interlude

Willy Grenfell was new to politics in the early 1880s and it was surprising that someone who had, as a young politician in Salisbury, espoused a desire for a long-term career in Parliament should decide, in early 1885, to become a special correspondent for the Daily Telegraph covering the war in the Soudan (today’s Sudan). While this might have enhanced his profile, it seems more likely to have satisfied his thirst for adventure.

The war was a high-profile event after Muḥammad Aḥmad, who claimed to be the Mahdi – a messianic Islamic leader - declared an outright rebellion against the Egyptian authorities (backed by the British). General Gordon was sent to Khartoum in early 1884 to help evacuate the city but then resolved to defend it.  This strategy was against the British government’s wishes and as the siege of the city continued so public pressure grew to send a relief force. This was despatched in late 1884 arriving in Khartoum two days after Gordon had been killed on 26 January 1885.

The outpouring of public dismay that followed put the government under immediate pressure to punish the Mahdi. In both 1884 and 1885 General Sir Gerald Graham VC led troops aimed at removing Mahdist forces from around Suakin, a port in North Eastern Soudan (thus protecting the Red Sea route to India – the Suez Canal having opened in 1869). The second expedition of the Suakin Field Force left Aldershot in mid-February 1885 arriving in March with the purpose of clearing Madhist forces from the region as well as protecting the construction of the Suakin to Berber Railway.

Having tried and failed to travel with the mounted infantry, Grenfell joined the force as one of a number of special correspondents for the Daily Telegraph (where he knew the proprietor). They were able to report very openly on plans and actions (there was no Official Secrets Act) and with great frequency – cabling reports back to London more than once a day. Bennet Burleigh was probably their best known but all wrote under the same by-line so we can’t identify any specific reports by Grenfell.

From his diary it seems Grenfell travelled by train to Brindisi and then by boat onto Alexandria taking around a week. He then travelled south on a steamer leaving the ship at Jeddah (which he notes to revisit) on the East of the Red Sea, before crossing to Suakin, and then inland with the British troops to engage with the enemy. The first action was on Wednesday 20 March at Hasheen, a week after their arrival.

Grenfell witnessed the Berkshire regiment taking a hill – an action he describes as unnecessary. The military actions were chaotic skirmishes with their Arab opponents, and he describes the action at Hasheen as follows, ‘…all that was gained … was the possession of two small hills which we secured without firing a shot, and before the fighting began (and without taking possession of the nearby waterhole).’

The force moved on a few miles and on Sunday 22nd the Battle of Tofrek (or as Grenfell refers to it in an interview with the Maidenhead Advertiser the ‘affair of McNeill’s Zareba’) took place between 3,000 British and Indian troops and around 2,000 dervishes (as their Arab opponents were sometimes termed). The latter made a surprise attack on the British who were in the process of building a zareba – a fortress using native bush, stones and sand to create a barricade - inside which an encampment could be created. Aside from the troops there were large numbers of camels and mules, and their drivers, who had brought all the equipment up in a convoy. These were now being readied for return to Suakin and Grenfell was planning to go back with them. As the convoy assembled ‘with fiendish yells the enemy were upon them – there was no square and two sides of the zareba were not finished – many of the men had their arms piled up and were cutting bushes in their shirt sleeves… Every mule and camel driver and all the camels stampeded.’

Grenfell’s diagram of the battle of McNeill’s zareba (courtesy Grenfell family archive and Buckinghamshire County Archive)

In the chaos, in which it ‘was hard to distinguish friend from foe’, Grenfell became isolated from the zareba and it proved impossible for him to get back to safety. He came under fire from the British troops inside the zareba, his horse went head over heels and he lost it in the bush. He was totally unarmed and ‘had to trust his legs which fortunately served me in good stead’. He came under fire (three shots) from an Arab behind him, but fortunately he missed. Grenfell continued and ‘after going some little way I had the luck to catch a horse and so get along to Suakin.’ Subsequently he told correspondents he only had an umbrella in the event of a hand-to-hand fight, and was knocked down six times in the crush of camels, carts, camp followers and rushing Arabs, though this embellishment is not mentioned in his Soudan diary.

Charles Edwin Fripp, McNeill’s Zareba, Tofrek, 22 March 1885 (courtesy The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum, Salisbury) Fripp was a ‘special artist’ for The Daily Graphic.

In an unsourced clipping in the Buckinghamshire archives on the Battle of Tofrek, another special correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, Phil Robinson, commented:

I may perhaps mention that the riderless horse that galloped past me in Sunday’s affair, and that I caught by heading it off, oddly enough was that of Mr.W.H.Grenfell upon whom I afterwards came in the bush, he having mounted another runaway. We were astonished at meeting one another, for each thought the other had been overtaken by the enemy.

Grenfell often recounted that he saw ‘active service’, not least in the sudden onslaught on that Sunday morning. Although the battle was won, the losses were considerable. Along with 723 camels being lost, there were 300 British and Indian dead or wounded as well as 200 drivers killed. 450 of the enemy were killed. The considerable risks being taken by the special correspondents is highlighted by the memorial plaque in the crypt of St Paul’s with the names of the correspondents who died.

Detail of the memorial for the seven special correspondents killed in Sudan between 1883 and 1885, St Paul’s Cathedral

Grenfell left Suakin on the 8th April returning to England in late April just in time to attend a meeting of the Maidenhead, Cookham and Bray Angling Association at Skindles hotel in Taplow. He arrived after dinner had commenced and ‘being met with an enthusiastic welcome from the members’.

He was unimpressed with the leadership of the campaign, highlighting poor tactics and contradictory orders. Indeed, within two months the Gladstone government abandoned both the railway and its military campaign, and General Graham and his Suakin Field Force were evacuated from Suakin on 17 May 1885.

This 'interlude' probably enhanced Grenfell’s ‘action man’ image and before the end of the year a General Election allowed Grenfell to win back the now single seat constituency of Salisbury.


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Camilla Cazalet
 Camilla Cazalet says:

Incredibly interesting - so look forward to the rest

posted 7th September 2022

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