Letters from Egypt. — VII. Some Impressions at Halfa

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Letters from Egypt. — VII. Some Impressions at Halfa is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Westminster Gazette on 4 may 1896.

Arthur Conan Doyle accompanied the special force as a correspondent for the Gazette. This is the 7th article of a series for The Westminster Gazette.


Letters from Egypt

The Westminster Gazette (4 may 1896, p. 1)
The Westminster Gazette (4 may 1896, p. 2)

VII. Some Impressions at Halfa


Our good friend the Commandant of Korosko — the walnut-faced Turk who struck us as being so much more virile than his Egyptian subordinates — kindly promised us to send us on by the first steamer to Halfa. A telegram from Assouan informed us, however, that no steamer were at present upon their way, so beds were pitched on the verandah, and five weary men settled down to a comfortable night's rest. Hardly was the last lantern extinguished, however, before the hooting of a whistle from down the river informed us that the telegram was wrong, and that a steamer was close to the landing stage. We had five minutes in which to pack our beds and luggage, find our servants, dress, and reach the boat. Then might have been seen the sight of three great dailies and two penny evenings clawing madly for boots in the darkness, and shrieking for Hassan, Abdul, and Mansoor, while every fresh whistle of the steamer sounded nearer and louder while her yellow lights were seen rounding the point beneath us. The lighting of a lantern hardly improved the matter, for it served to reveal a very frisky little scorpion which was gambolling about among the stockinged feet. However, the scorpion was killed, the luggage packed, the servants found, and at the critical moment our Turkish friend saved the situation by appearing in person with a fatigue party of stalwart soldiers who made short work of our luggage, and so within a few minutes of having settled comfortably down into our beds we were on board of a little buck-jumping stern-wheeler upon our way to Halfa. The river was low, the boat heavily laden with fodder, and the son thud and jar of the sand bank became a very familiar sensation; but with patience and luck we came through all right, and at day-break yesterday we found ourselves lying opposite to the little scattered mud-coloured frontier town.

Our first task was to see Major Wingate, the head of the Intelligence Department, and to learn how the situation lay. In a large bare room, with a couple of tables littered with maps and letters, was sitting the man who knows probably more about the true inwardness of the Soudan and its movements than anyone alive. Looking at his genial face one might be surprised to learn that Wingate Bay was a name of terror amongst the Arabs, who ascribe the magic the results which he obtains from his systematic and highly-organised corps of secret agents. Beside him was seated Slatin Pasha, whose presence was in itself a visible sign of the length of Wingate's arm in the Soudan.

From them it was that we learned the welcome news of the relief of Kassala, which means that the Expedition, before it has lost a man, has accomplished one of the two purposes for which it was organised. The ever lively Osman Digna had, as we learned, hurried on to the Suakim neighbourhood with a force of a couple of thousand men, but had met with a cold reception from the Hadendowas and Amarar. Omar Tito, one of our own old antagonists, had headed the opposition against him, and some of his cavalry had been cut off and killed, so that it really looked as if the tribesmen were true to their salt, and as if Fuzzy-wuzzy, with his shovel-headed spear, might at last be found fighting for the Government in whose side he has so long been a thorn.

The railway is advancing very slowly from Sarras — only three miles have been completed — but the Engineers hope to come upon better ground soon, and so get along more rapidly. As the river is steadily falling, however, and as the camels are coming to the front in insufficient numbers, it is no easy matter to organise an efficient transport. Eastern troops, with flour and lentils for their staple diet, do not need a very elaborate commissariat, and the good wholesome Nile takes the place of the beer-barrel or brandy-cask. In the meantime, until the transport is stronger the Expedition can only employ itself in strengthening its position and line of communications.

These are now in a fairly satisfactory state, although there can be no doubt that there was a time when the force at Akasheh was exposed to the danger which any sudden advance of sixty miles into a hilly enemy's country must entail. The Dervishes missed their chance then, and they are likely to find now that it has gone for ever. The system is an ingenious one, consisting of a line of small garrisons along the river, with outposts stationed on the old railway-road, which runs several miles inland from the Nile. At Sarras are two battalions. One follows the railway. One defends Mograt. Two others hold posts on the way to Akasheh, and then finally at Akasheh itself there are three black battalions who, behind entrenchments, may be counted upon to hold their own against any number who could possibly attack them. Besides these, there is the highly efficient camel corps of 600 men (400 blacks, 200 Egyptians), and the cavalry which are always busy convoying camel-trains to the front.

On the other hand, there are signs that the Dervishes are going to take the opening of the campaign into their own hands. Some of their Souarda force have advanced to Koshe, whith brings them within twenty miles of the Egyptian outposts. They have 3,000 men at the front and 10,000 more at Dongola, or on the way between Dongola and Souarda. These are all upon the Arabian bank of the river. The Libyan side of the Nile, opposite to Akasheh, is held by an irregular force of friendly Arabs, Kabbabish, Ababdeh, and Bishareen for the most part more useful perhaps as scouts than as fighting men. From all hands one hears that the Dongolese will eagerly welcome the Egyptian advance, which will free them from the tyranny of the Baggara. It is certain, however, that they will not and cannot declare themselves until the Khalifa's men are on the run; but once on the run they will, as I heard the Sirdar say yesterday, find plenty to throw stones at them.

With the rise of the river it is intended to place upon the reach above the second cataract two new gunboats of a much more powerful kind than any hitherto constructed. They will carry one 12-pounder, two 6-pounders, and two Maxims. The Khalifa has fifteen steamers in different stages of disrepair at Omdurman, but some of them are quite fit for use, and they have Egyptian engineers to work them. It is possible, therefore, that a naval action may be among the surprises which the coming campaign will furnish.

Everybody here in Halfa seems full of zeal and of confidence. The Sirdar, as tall and strong as a young oak, carries himself in a fashion that reacts upon every man in the force. Such impressions are of enormous importance with Orientals. "Their tails are up until they tickle the backs of their heads," said an Egyptian officer, describing the spirit of his men, and that is the impression which is conveyed by their smiling faces and alert bearing. And as to work, I should think there are so men to beat them. Never again can I believe in Eastern apathy. Give them a definite task, and they will put Westerners to shame. To see a fatigue party empty a steamer of its doora bags is a sight to remember. Day by day my confidence in the Egyptian soldier increases, and I believe that he will wipe away some ugly memories by his conduct in the coming campaign.

One of the difficulties which the headquarters staff has to encounter is a curious one. From all the broad British Empire men come flying towards the war, as moths to a candle, begging and imploring for employment. From the uttermost ends of the earth they come posting; neither letter nor telegram will stop them, and nothing short of a Corporal's guard can put a check to their determination to force themselves upon the army in which it is most difficult to find places for them. A number of Anglo-Indians were on their way, I believe, within a few hours of the news reaching them, and have you been detained at Cairo or Assouan. At Korosko we met one of these gallant adventurers, a gentle mannered, languid, delicately-featured man of a noble Scottish family, who was panting for a command of Egyptian horse. Alas! there came a short, stern telegram from the Sirdar, and our brave Scot flitted away into the darkness, too downhearted to bid us farewell. I learn to-day, however, that his perseverance has had its reward, and that a place has at last been found for him.

At present no civilians are allowed beyond this point, and it is possible — since I must presently be on my way back to Cairo — that we have reached the end of our journey. I shall linger on to the last day, however, in the hope that some relaxation of the rules may be permitted, and that we may yet have a chance of reaching the furthest point occupied by our advance.

April 13.