Beyond the Reach of Empire

By Paul Robinson 21 Mar 2014 0

This is a book of Epic proportions; somewhat like the campaign it gives an account of; the Wolseley expedition to rescue General Gordon from the Sudanese town of Khartoum. However unlike that campaign the book is a roaring success! The author Colonel Mike Snook is ex British army (Royal Regiment of Wales) and used his position of J3 operations staff for the UN in Khartoum to study the relevant battlefields and terrain. And as anyone who has walked the ground of old battlefields is aware this gives a insight that one can never find in the written word no matter how well read you may think you are.  Also the author is somewhat of a specialist in nineteenth century British colonial warfare having previously written works on Islandlwana, Rorke?s Drift and a broader work on the Mahdist uprising.

The book itself is of a substantial nature (represented in the current hardback price). There are sixteen chapters, eight appendices, twelve maps, sixteen plates showing some of main participants, modern photos of the battlefields and a number of high Victorian heroic battle scenes that many readers will be familiar with. Add to that substantial chapter notes, a lengthy Bibliography, Preface, Chronology of the campaign, a Glossary and Prologue then you will understand why I describe the book as Epic!

The first substantial part of the book is the Glossary and this will help those unfamiliar with this campaign or the British Victorian army enormously.  So having established your Baggara from your Zariba and the difference between a Nordenfelt and a Martini Henry the author launches into the book?s Preface, so the why and hows of writing the book.

The author makes the point early on that this book, as I have already mentioned, isn?t just based on research through dusty old archives or the reading of stirring memoirs but is soundly ?underpinned by an extensive programme of fieldwork designed to achieve the best possible understanding of what soldiers refer to as ?ground??. However for anybody thinking of literally following in Wolseley?s or indeed Colonel Snook?s footsteps the latter cautions ?nobody should lightly attempt to undertake battlefield tours in the region?. These are not the tame historical battlefields of Western Europe or North America either politically or climatically!

The author goes on to explain what the book is about; this is an important part of the book and this review as the former isn?t a straight forward historical narrative. The book concentrates on a particular part of the campaign. It is an in-depth study of Sir Herbert Stewart?s ?Desert Column?, the sharp end of the spear (more properly, the bayonet?)in the attempt to relieve Gordon. Interestingly while of course the Desert Column is a key part of any account of the Wolseley expedition is has never had a book concentrating solely on its activities!  But the book is more than a detailed account it is also an attempt to rescue the reputation (or at least show he was not someone who should have been blamed) of one officer who has been maligned ever since ? Colonel Sir Charles Wilson RE. He took over the Desert Column when its commander (Stewart) was mortally wounded and was used as a scapegoat by Wolseley (his own commander in chief!) for the failure of the campaign. Further Colonel Snook explains why from a certain point in time (the date at which the British Government gave the go ahead to rescue Gordon) Wolseley?s plan was never going to get him to Khartoum in time, no matter how hard individual officers and soldiers pressed! I think Colonel Snook?s conclusions in both cases are on the money. And he is honest enough from the start of the book to say that he intends to act as the ?prosecutor against Lord Wolseley?. 

We then move on to the Prologue in which the careers of the main protagonists are contrasted and more importantly for the purposes of the book?s aims the ?war of words? that followed the campaign is examined-this was carried out through memoirs and articles and letters in the papers of the day. And as the author tells us ?to get to the truth of the matter we must journey back to 1884 and travel upriver, initially in the train of 10,000 British servicemen, until at length, in January 1885, there are only twenty eight of them still with us and Khartoum is in sight?. Those who are familiar with this period in British colonial warfare will understand what the enigmatic reference to the ?twenty eight? means, for those who don?t Colonel Snook will take you on a journey to enlightenment! And thus the book only now moves to the first chapter proper.

Clearly it is not possible to give a chapter by chapter review of a book over 500 pages in length and one so densely detailed. However there are a few key points worth bringing up.  Firstly the author has done extensive research into the numbers of men in the Desert Column and the numbers within each unit. As well as being a windfall for other researchers and wargamers this is vital in his forensic examination of the two main battles of the Desert Column (Abu Klea where famously a British square was broken) and Abu Kru. This is because the unit sizes and their position in the square formations used by the British dictate the length of each side of the squares and therefore how much firepower the British could bring to bear. 

How the various battles were fought, the tactics used, decisions made, position of British units in relation to the terrain etc are where the author really comes into his own; his military mind and historian skills combining to give a clear and precise picture of what happened and why (or as clear as one can get so far removed time wise from the actual events). He also gives credit to the Mahdist commanders for their tactical acumen

As well as the ?exciting? battlefield stuff the author covers the whole issue of the logistics of the Column in some detail (without, I must stress, this ever becoming a dull exposition on logistics per se); in particular the British problems with managing camels and how a shortage due to this poor management hobbled the whole enterprise. Also there is an interesting sub section on the Martini-Henry rifle and how it performed at the time. The jamming of rifles being blamed in some quarters for the success of the Mahdists. The author I think successfully puts this myth to bed; yes there were some issues with some older rifles but what let the Mahdists break the square at Abu Klea wasn?t the jamming of the main British weapon but a combination of factors (as any sensible person might expect).

And into this web of detail the author weaves the campaign narrative and pursues his quest to rescue to the good name of Sir Charles Wilson. I can only admire his skill in doing this and that he does it in a manner that turns the book into that cliché of book reviewers ?a real page turner?!

The book will appeal to a wide variety of readers-those who study nineteenth century colonial warfare; wargamers wishing to re-enact the campaign (there is so much detail here for such a project); students of warfare looking to see how the success or failure in a campaign starts long before bullets fly or swords slash and any one in public life who wishes to see how history can condemn or congratulate, fairly or unfairly!

Great book, great read! 

?Beyond the Reach of Empire? is available now in hardback from Pen & Sword Books, normal price £35.00 (ISBN 97811848326019)




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