Sunday, 5 July 2015

Flashman In The Sudan 1885


What follows is from a further part of the Flashman Papers brought to our attention by their current holder and researcher Prof B I G Phibbs, Crispin College Cambridge. It plunges into the account without proper introduction, so clearly some of the previous pages are missing, perhaps lost. The headings are added to break up the narrative.

The relevant Who’s Who entries are 1882 Egypt (Kassassin, Tel-el-Kebir), 1883 personal bodyguard to HIM Franz-Joseph, Emperor of Austria, 1884-5 Sudan (Khartoum).

We also know that Flashman has a medal stamped "Khedive Sudan 96," which matches with Kitchener's campaign, and he referred to a substantial acquaintance with Gordon. In that part of the Flashman Papers published as ‘Flashman and the Mountain of Light’, page 218 he says ‘I have clasps for a score of engagements…"Khedive Sudan 96."’ The latter may refer to a period spent in the war against the Mahdist state of the Sudan, although not during Gordon's campaigns. Then from Flashman and the Mountain of Light, page 206: ‘I can look back now on my military career and count four exceptions who always gave (Tommy) Atkins a damned good run for his money. Three of them were Zulu, John Gurkha, and Fuzzy-wuzzy.’


In The 21st Lancers

At the beginning of this memoir I gave you my first Law of Economics; if I have one for Adversity it is once your essentials are properly trapped in the mangle there’s nothing for it but to holler with good grace and wait until they roll you out again. Not that hollering does any good, but it relieves the feelings…

And so here I was in the land of the heathen once again, and on the trail of a mad man I’d met and whose company I preferred to stay away from, ‘Chinese Gordon’[1]. And to make matters worse once again I was incognito for reasons that will, from what I have already said, be painfully obvious.[2]

It's a remarkable thing (and I've traded on it all my life) that a single redeeming quality in a black sheep wins greater esteem than all the virtues in honest men—especially if the quality is courage. I'm lucky, because while I don't have it, I look as though I do, and worthy souls never suspect that I'm running around with my bowels squirting, ready to decamp, squeal, or betray as occasion demands.

So it was that I found myself in the Sudan in this invidious position of pretending to be a trooper in the 21st Lancers[3] and now out on patrol horribly exposed to thirst and sun and even worse, the blasted Fuzzies. But there I was, riding along as parched and saddle sore as a man can be.
At the head of the column rode Capt Herbert[4], a martinet of, to my thinking, the very worst cut, that of a true gentleman who cared for his men, his Queen, his country and his God. I saw him as an insufferable prig, his men loved him and would have followed him to hell-and on this occasion very nearly did. He’d seen through me immediately, and cut me down to size in his tent when I joined the troop.

‘I know you have a reputation Flashman for being something of a hero but I have other reports from sound sources which convince me otherwise. I must allow you to carry out your secret mission, of course, but believe me if you give me an opportunity to have you cashiered I will do it. Dismissed. Oh, and if you have any spirituous liquors I suggest you dispose of them immediately-I will have no drunkenness in my troop.’

I didn’t of course. Dispose of the booze, that is. I filled my canteen with it and ditched the empty bottle by slipping it into one of the other trooper’s kit hoping it would be found and he’d get a rocket. 

Chap by the name of Bell, well that was the one he was using then he was clearly a cut above the rest of the troopers, and I soon found out he was an ex officer now serving as a ranker as punishment for some past misdemeanour. Poor sod, probably nothing as bad as I’d done and got away with. Felt no sympathy, of course, because if one sins, the only real crime is being caught.

Bell had spotted me as not what I seemed pretty quick too, and tried to be friendly, which suited me right enough, as I needed all the help I could get in this little pickle. He helped me pick up my gear and made sure it was all Sir Garnet[5]. The last thing issued to me by the QM[6] was a nasty looking bamboo pole with a point at either end.

‘And a lance, of course," says he, "you'll feel naked without that." He little knew that I could feel naked in a suit of armour in the bowels of a Dreadnought being attacked by an angry bum-boat-woman.

I had had the presence of mind to take my Broomhandle pistol[7] with me, and although pistols were not issued to enlisted men I stowed it away with my kit.

A few days later we were sent out on this patrol, which I hoped might be my opportunity to slip off into the desert, spend a few days camping out under the stars and then returning to report my mission accomplished. It was not to be.

We had gone far enough ahead to spot the Mahdist force and were returning when the rear man spotted a dust cloud behind us and moving closer at speed. Capt Herbert looked at it through his Zeiss and told the sergeant to order a canter. So, it was not a dust devil but no doubt some other kind of devils entirely – Dervish[8] fanatics intent on slaughtering the feringi! I was towards the back of the column of twos wishing I was further forward and eyeing the ground on either side for a bolt-hole. But really I knew there was none, my best bet for survival was to stay with the others and when necessary run like hell.

The dust cloud got closer. Ahead of us was the lip of a wadi[9], which we had noticed was dry on our way out, and just beyond it was a small village. I imagine that the Captain intended to get to the village, dismount and make a stand. Stout fellah thought I, I can get to the back, perhaps even hide in a hut till the fighting was all over, and then make my ‘escape’.

The leading files were into and out of the wadi but shouting and gesticulating to their left. As I rode down the slope to the right of Trooper Bell I realised why. The wadi was full of Mahdists[10]. I felt my bowels loosen at the sight of these madmen, wild eyes, scary hair[11], huge weapons, all bearing down on us shouting and screaming.

Bell yelled something which was lost in the noise, and then did the craziest thing I had ever seen in my life until that moment, and which so terrified me that I lost control of my horse for a moment. He pulled sharply on his reins and turned left straight into the howling murderous mob!
My panic cost me dear. The stupid equine brain, so conditioned to riding alongside another horse took my lack of control as a sign to conform to Bell’s mad charge and there I was following him to certain death.

Into The Wadi Of Death

A terrible memory came flooding back, of another charge in another valley into certain death[12]. Oh God, I’d survived that, but there was no way out of this one. I had drawn my Mauser when the dust cloud was spotted, not waiting for orders to do so, my instinct for self-preservation overriding any concern for getting a bollocking for doing so without orders.

Riding as close behind Bell as I could I started blazing away left and right at the mob around me, and spurring my mount on mercilessly. Ahead of me Bell seem both bewitched and blessed. His lance skewered first one dusky warrior and then another and then yet a third, this time the one carrying a large green banner with Arabic writing on one side.

Behind me I sensed another rider, and then all three of us were out of the crush and riding along the bed of the wadi alone to freedom. We turned a corner.

It was a dead end!

The sides were too steep to ride up. To get out we would have to return the way we came. Which was, of course, utter madness. I said as much when Bell shouted for us to come on and started riding back. There was no way I was facing that terrible horde again. The other trooper, who’s name I never knew, seemed to be in a worse state than me. He was screaming and urging his poor horse at the side of the wadi, trying to make it climb out.

‘We can surrender,’ I yelled at Bell.

 ‘No, don’t get captured-a white eunuch would be a valuable novelty in the Sudan,’ he shouted back.
I almost fell off my horse. ‘A white…I ain’t a bloody eunuch!’

‘You will be if they capture us. Did you not mark the baubles which decorated their spears? Those were the genitals of prisoners and enemies.’

It was my bladder this time, as I felt my gonads retract and warm piss trickle down the saddle.

‘No, no, I’m still not going back though that hell.’ 

There was some scrub at the end of the wadi. I leapt of my horse and scrambled into it, getting cut and lacerated by the huge sharp spikes, but minded not in the least if I could only conceal myself.

Turning I caught a glimpse of Bell riding back to his death and the other poor mad sod standing on his saddle and using a small bush to haul himself up out of the wadi. Then it was helmet off (too light coloured) and scrunching down between the wadi side hoping the scrub was concealing me enough to fool the Dervish who would come looking and started praying.

It’s a great thing, prayer. Nobody answers, but at least it stops you from thinking.

Great Deeds Rewarded

Well, obviously they didn’t find me. What happened in the wadi was nothing short of a miracle, which I do not believe in, so it was in fact shear raw courage. Not mine of course, Bell’s. 

As I afterwards learnt, incredibly he rode back through the remaining Dervish, killing more. But the story of his courage (or madness, as I see it) didn’t stop there.

The men in the tail end of the patrol had been caught by the Mahdist horsemen and were fighting for their lives. One was brought down and killed. Then Bell, like a lightning bolt, crashed into the Dervish horse and scattered them too, undoubtedly saving those left.

He and the others re-joined the Captain, Sergeant and Bugler at the edge of the village. There had been another small force of Mahdist riflemen in scrub before the village, but a charge led by Sgt Blake had dispersed them.  Capt Herbert had then formed a mounted line, rather than a dismounted firing line, and led an advance at the trot to take on any survivors but the Dervish had had enough and disappeared into the sands.

It came as no surprise to me that Bell’s magnificent exploits earned him the Victoria Cross[13], and I was glad to add my weight to the recommendation once I’d returned from my mission. His commission was restored and he served throughout the campaign, and returned with Kitchener, only to succumb to a bad dose of beriberi[14] at Suakin[15].

And me? Well, I crept out to where the bodies of the Dervish lay and exchanged clothes with one about my size, and darkened my skin with the lotion I’d brought with me and set off into the desert, intending, as I said to spend a day or so making my way back to our lines and reporting the mission completed-lying convincingly being one of my few strength.  But fate had other ideas, and as was so often the case, it was down to the looks of a woman. As I approached a Mahdist camp I saw the most beautiful girl washing clothes at the well. I was so smitten that I followed her to her family’s tent, desperately thinking how I might get her alone that night and enjoy a little dark meat.

As I stood watching, a large Mahdist warrior grabbed me and before I could think of a plan dragged me into the market square, to join a dozen or so other unfortunates. I had been press ganged[16] into the Ansar[17], the Mahdi’s army.

And it is at this point that the narrative comes to an abrupt end, as the next page, clearly out of sequence, is concerned with the trials of managing a British company. So, until the missing pages are found, there we must leave Flashman, picked up by the Fuzzy-wuzzies!

[1] Major-General Charles George Gordon, CB (28 January 1833 – 26 January 1885), aka Chinese Gordon, Gordon Pasha, and Gordon of Khartoum, British army officer and administrator. He made his military reputation in China. Gordon was sent to Khartoum with instructions to secure the evacuation of loyal soldiers and civilians, and depart with them. Besieged by the Mahdi's forces, he organized a city-wide defence lasting almost a year. A relief force arrived two days after the city had fallen and Gordon had been killed. What Flashman’s role in trying to contact Gordon is still not known from this fragment.
[2] Presumably covered in the missing pages.
[3] The 21st Lancers (Empress of India's)  raised 1858, amalgamated with 17th Lancers 1922. Perhaps its most famous engagement was the Battle of Omdurman, where Winston Churchill (then an officer 4th Hussars), rode with the unit. See Terry Brighton  & Douglas N Anderson,  The Last Charge: The 21st Lancers and the Battle of Omdurman, Crowood Press 1998.
[4] Captain The Honourable Edmund Leighton Percival Herbert, later Major General, had a distinguished army career. He was the designer of a new and improved type of picket pin, the M1899, adopted by many armies around the world and wrote a monograph, ‘Picket Pins I Have Used And The Path To A Perfect One’, which appeared in the Cavalry Review 1900.
[5] One-time British army slang term meaning that all is in order or everything’s OK, a tribute to one of the most famous soldiers of the latter 19th C, Sir Garnet Wolseley, later Viscount Wolseley. Sir Garnet had a long and successful military career, fighting in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny and leading many successful military campaigns in the 1870s in Canada, Gold Coast, southern Africa, Egypt and the Sudan. He was hailed as the master of the small war, did much to reform the army and was caricatured in 1879 by W S Gilbert in The Pirates of Penzance as the very model of a modern major-general.
[6] Quartermaster, a senior soldier who supervises stores and distributes supplies and provisions.
[7] A semi-automatic pistol with the distinctive characteristics of 10 round integral box magazine in front of the trigger, long barrel, wooden holster or carrying case that doubles as a shoulder stock and grip shaped a broom handle. With its long barrel and high-velocity cartridge, it had superior range and better penetration than most other pistols; the 7.63×25mm Mauser cartridge was the highest velocity commercially manufactured pistol cartridge until the advent of the .357 Magnum cartridge in 1935. Quiet where and how Flashman got hold of a one of these guns, which were not normally available until 1896 is not known.
[8] The term dervish was used rather loosely, linking it to, among other things, the Mahdist uprising in Sudan and other rebellions against colonial powers. ‘Dervishes’ was used as a generic (and often pejorative) term for the opposing Islamic entity and all members of its military, political and religious institutions, including persons who would not be considered dervishes in the strict sense, which is someone treading a Sufi Muslim ascetic path or ‘Tariqah’, known for their extreme poverty and austerity. See Dr D Ancer, ‘Dervish Dancing As A Means To Mental Health’, Twirlingham Press, 1887.
[9] Wad, the Arabic term traditionally referring to a valley. It may refer to a dry (ephemeral) riverbed that contains water only during times of heavy rain or simply an intermittent stream.
[10] Ansar (Sudan), followers of Muhammad Ahmad (1844–1885), Sudanese self-proclaimed Mahdi.
[11] A reference to the hairstyle of the Beja warriors supporting the Sudanese Mahdi. ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’ was the term used by British colonial soldiers and is purely of English origin and is not connected with Arabic. The Beja are not Arabic speakers: their language, Tu Bedawi, is of Cushitic origin and is related to Somali and Afar. See Irit Trip’E, ‘Big Hair-A History of Beja Tonsorial Elegance’, CUP, Cambridge, 1908.
[12] See that part of the Flashman Papers published as Flashman At The Charge, in which Flashman describes taking part in infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, where, powered by fear and flatulence, he reaches the Russian guns in front of the other surviving members of the charge and promptly surrenders.
[13] The Victoria Cross (VC), the highest military decoration awarded for valour ‘in the face of the enemy’ to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories. The VC was introduced on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Flashman was also a recipient, of course, as he tells in Flashman and the Great game,  at the end of the which receives the Victoria Cross and finds out he is to be knighted, continuing his knack for being rewarded for heroics despite his efforts to avoid doing anything dangerous.
[14] Beriberi may also be caused by shortcomings other than inadequate intake, including  alcoholism, genetic deficiencies, etc. All these causes mainly affecting the central nervous system, and provoking the development of what is known as Wernicke's disease or Wernicke's encephalopathy.
[15] The Battle of Suakin (also known as the Battle of Gemaizah) 20 December 1888 when British troops led by Francis Grenfell defeated the Mahdi forces near Suakin, a chief port of Sudan. After one and a half hours of fighting, the casualties were 12 on the side of the British and Egyptians, 1,000 on the side of the Arabs. In this battle, three 20th Hussars’ swords broke, an incident which later caused debate in the House of Commons  and a new design of cavalry sword.
[16] Flashman is using the term colloquially, "the press" or the "press gang", for the act of impressment, taking men into a navy by force and with or without notice. Navies of several nations used forced recruitment by various means.
[17] Literally ‘Helper’ and first used for the followers of Mohammed  here Ansar refers to followers of the Mahdi, followers of Muhammad Ahmad (12 August 1844 – 22 June 1885), the self-proclaimed Mahdi.


  1. What was your rule regarding use of this pistol and actions of Flashman?

  2. James - not sure I follow? One of the players 'played' Flashman - we were were all on the same side (21st Lancers) playing against the rules, which have dice rolls and actions for NPC (Non Player Characters ie Figures).

    So they adopted the Flashie persona and played him accordingly. Sometimes we would also discuss any options he might have too, and choose the most cowardly that could be somehow disguised as not-being if necessary! And of course, he got away with is time after time.

    The pistol was just a pistol in the rules, and fired as normal.

  3. we were were all on the same side (21st Lancers) playing against the rules

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