Letters from Egypt. — IV. The Scene at Assouan

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Letters from Egypt. — IV. The Scene at Assouan is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Westminster Gazette on 13 april 1896.

Arthur Conan Doyle accompanied the special force as a correspondent for the Gazette. This is the 4th article of a series for The Westminster Gazette.


Letters from Egypt

The Westminster Gazette (13 april 1896, p. 1)
The Westminster Gazette (13 april 1896, p. 2)

IV. The Scene at Assouan


What an epic it has been, this whole history of the rise of a fanatical Mohammedan state upon the upper waters of the Nile! When its story comes finally to be written the historian will find the most picturesque material that ever a man could wish to work in. From the day that the British subaltern, disappointed of Tel-el-Kebir, cried out exultantly that "a jolly old false prophet" had arisen in the Soudan, up to this turning-point of the reconquest of Dongola, what a panorama of striking scenes! Baker's defeat, Hicks' annihilation, the first Suakim campaign, the wonderfully dramatic Gordon campaign, the second Suakim business with Tamai, and McNeil's zareba, the Australian contingent, the attempts upon Egypt, Ginnes, Arguin, Toski, the incessant frontier fighting, and now the turn of the tide. If all this came from a local outbreak of fanatical feeling among some mattered desert tribes we can form some opinion of the fury of that original outbreak which extended from the south of Spain to the frontiers of China. Be the cause what it may, there is no religion which fills its devotees so completely with the conviction of truth at does the creed of Mohammed. They are eager to give their lives for it to war, and, what is more difficult, they are scrupulous in times of peace to fulfil its exacting and most inconvenient ritual. A creed which can induce its devotees to absolutely fast from food and drink from sunrise to sunset for a month on end in every year must be a very real one to those who profess it. As to the vices of Mohammedanism, it is interesting to consider how far lust and cruelty are matters of climate rather than of creed. A religion which produces cities which contain neither drunkards nor harlots is certainly worthy of graver consideration than is usually given to it.

There will be one peculiarity about the campaign of Dongola. I do not suppose that since the French revolutionary armies there has been any war where the leaders have been so young as those of the Anglo-Egyptian expedition. Kitchener, Hunter, Wingate, Rundle, Burn-Murdoch, Maxwell, they are all young for the positions which they hold. Some of them would hardly have had their companies in the ordinary routine of the British service. But they are experienced in warfare, particularly in desert warfare, and I shall be surprised if they do not give an object lesson, as those Frenchmen did before them, of the value of the dash and fire of youth

The little town of Assouan is full of the stir and bustle of war-like preparation. The falling river has increased the difficulty of the transport, and all stores have to be unloaded some distance down, where they are entrained, and shipped once more to Shellal, above the Cataract. Captain Morgan, of the Army Service Corps, with his fatigue parties of Egyptian infantry and his chain-gangs of convict, is doing all that a man can to pass the stuff through. Nothing is more remarkable than the enthusiasm and energy with which everyone has thrown himself into the work of the expedition. I saw the 7th Egyptian, after a tiring journey, working furiously at the getting out of stores until they were so dead beat that it took four of them to lift a 60-pound biscuit box. I have, I think, already mentioned that the 9th Soudanese came over 120 miles of desert in four days in their anxiety to get to the front. Everywhere one notices the same thing. Yesterday, as one of the keenest young officers in the force was hurrying to the front he received a telegram from headquarters ordering him down to Keneh to buy camels. Here was a drop for a man who was all on fire for action. "It is quite right," said he, when I condoled with him; "the force must have the camels. I am the best man to buy them. We are all working for the good of the expedition." It was an incident that made one realise that there is a quality of soldiering which is not to be attained by the mere fire-eater.

The Egyptian cavalry force of some 600 men is encamped just outside the town, and marches up to-morrow along the Arabian bank of the river. They will probably be in Halfa before you get this. Horses and men are in splendid condition; many of the latter fine upstanding fellows, with aquiline faces, which recall the bas-reliefs of their ancestors upon the temple walls. The more I see of the Egyptian troops of all arms the more confident I feel that they will surprise the world by their behaviour. To judge by their faces and bearing, they are going forward in the best of spirits. The Staffordshires, too, turned up yesterday, looking as though their week on the water had done them no harm, and in spite of being out of condition they did the hot and dusty little desert march to Shellal in excellent form. Those red granite gorges through which they passed have been threaded by soldiers of many nations — Cambyses Persians, the Roman legions, the Ottoman conquerors, Buonaparte's flying column — and now, by the whimsical turn of fate, here are 900 of our own homely Midland boys passing under the chisel-marked cliffs, and looking up at the four-thousand-year-old hieroglyphics upon the rocks; Persians, Romans, Arabs, French, British — who next? Not the Mahdi's men, I hope. And yet, who knows?

Red and orange are the prevailing tints at that point — red fantastic rock and orange sand. The sand winds like a river through the jagged islands of rock. You must stand on one of these islands to see the Staffordshires pass. The dust smokes up from them, and the gilt spikes and white helmets, with the gleam as the sun strikes rifle or side-arm, are all that catch the eye. Then as they pass you catch a glimpse of dust-covered faces, the further one of the four hardly to be seen through the smother. The short ranks swing past with a low dull thud of feet upon sand. Some of the men have blue glasses to keep out the grit. Many have pipes. The perspiration plays strange tricks upon their dusty faces. One stumbles and pulls himself up and stumbles again. He has turned white under the dirt. The long-legged subaltern takes his Lee-Metford from him. "Smith, you're a hideous objec'," says a voice, and a dry titter runs down the column. "Right, left; right, left!" cries the captain of the rear company, and once more you are looking at the white cloud with the gold spikes twinkling out of it, and the two huge black gold-topped candles which mark the junior subalterns with their precious burden.

Of the campaign you at home probably knew more than we who are at the edge of it. Even rumours have ceased to circulate, and there is an absolute dearth of any kind of news. Some days ago we heard that Hunter has now 3,000 blacks at Akasheh, and that the line between there and Sarras was securely held. The leisurely way in which the cavalry is being brought up shows that no immediate advance into the open country is intended. There is no misconception here about Dongola being surrendered without a battle. The Dervishes never surrender anything without a battle. Their best leaders, too, are at the seat of action. The present Emir of Dongola is their most valiant general. With him is Osman Azarack the raider, "a real good sportsman," as an officer of the frontier field force assured me. Some of the fanatic is fighting force may have gone out of Mahdism, but there will most certainly be a stiff battle before Kitchener can gain possession of the fertile province of Dongola. It may be in May or possibly in June, but can hardly be earlier, as far as present appearances go.

There are interesting glimpses to be seen even in this little Assouan hotel. Look at these two men with their coffee and cigarettes, and the lamp light shining on their faces. The one is thin and anxious, yellow-faced and dark-eyed, with the red fez of the Egyptian official. The other is as black as ebony, bull-necked, curly-bearded, with dark oily eyes. He is physically a giant, but the other bears himself as if the power were at his back. The big black man laughs nervously; the yellow man is serious. The black man makes gestures; the yellow man has an inexorable calm. The black man watches the other's face with little sidelong glances; the yellow man looks steadily out into the darkness. It is a dramatic interview this, over the coffee and cigarette, and the issue is nothing less than the black man's head. It is Shakoor Bey, of the Egyptian Intelligence Department, informing Bushire, the chief of the Bishareens, that there must be no more shilly-shally, that the Government know of his double-dealing, and that he must go straight, or that a new chief must be found in the place of Schiek Bushire, suddenly deceased. They rise and pass out together into the courtyard. As the Egyptian turns a sudden change comes into the black oily eyes of the Arab. But the sinister gleam is cut off in an instant, and the two men pace slowly out with rounded backs and heads inclined to together.