The British Empire

South Africa

In June Wolseley was appointed Inspector-General of the Auxiliary Forces and given the task of introducing Cardwell’s reforms to Britain’s auxiliary soldiers. A year later he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Natal to help achieve Carnarvon’s ideas on federation in south Africa,where he needed to persuade the colonists to change their constitution by adding eight new members to the legislature. He would do this by giving them inducements of new railways and lavishing money on entertaining them.

Having seen the bill pas through the Natal legislature Wolseley set off on a fact finding tour of Natal on which he was told that just 1000 troops would be needed to deal with the Zulus. This advice which he took back to London became the official policy with terrible consequences. He returned in August 1875  to take up a position in the India Office.

Following the catastrophe of Isandlwana, Wolseley was sent to Natal as Chelmsford’s successor abut when he arrived in Natal he heard that Chelmsford was on his way with a substantial force to Ulundi to salvage his reputation by destroying the Zulu camp. There was nothing Wolseley could do but his main mission was to bring peace to the area by capturing Cetewayo and forcing the Zulu chiefs to sign away their power in peace treaties. He achieved this quite quickly but the destruction of the Zulu gave heart to the Boers who began to question British authority. Wolseley met the Boer leaders and informed them that under no circumstances was the annexation of the Transvaal which had been effected in 1877 revocable. The Pedi were raiding north eastern Transvaal and it was Wolseley who raised a force of 12,000 to subdue them and destroy the stronghold of Sekhukhane. Having achieved this he was recalled to England in May 1880, just months before the Boers were to overturn British authority. Wolseley had hoped to become Commander-in-Chief of the Indian army but Roberts conservative approach to army reform got his the appointment. Instead Wolseley had to accept the post of Quartermaster-General making him responsible for  supplying and issuing the troops with stores and equipment, garrison movements ad the transport of stores abroad.

Egypt and Tel-el-Kebir

He was Quartermaster -General for just two years when he was promoted to Adjucant-General where he remained except for two commands in the field until 1890. Those commands were the campaign to deal with the crisis in Egypt in 1882 and the relief of General Gordon in 1884/5. As Adjucant-General, Wolseley was responsible for training, discipline, education, recruitment  as well as designing new equipment and clothing.

The campaign in Egypt arose because there was a collapse of authority in Egypt when there was a nationalist revolt against the weak rule of Khedive Tewfik and the presence of so many foreigners (90,000). The revolt was led by Colonel Ahmed Arabi and led to nationalists being given more responsibility, including Arabi becoming the Minister of War.

In June 1882 a row over a fare between an Egyptian donkey boy and a Maltese led to a riot in Alexandria in which nearly fifty foreigners were killed and their property plundered. this was reported in the London press as anarchy and panicked the London stock exchange. Prime Minister Gladstone hoped that the French would work with Britain to resolve the situation but the French assembly voted to keep out of the situation. Britain was left to do what she felt was necessary to maintain her interests in Egypt and to ensure that trade routes to Africa and the Far East were kept open. A naval force was despatched to Alexandria and landed sufficient men to take control of the city but with disorder throughout Egypt, Gladstone who himself had investments in Egypt deemed the country in need of order being established. He therefore decided to send an expeditionary force to the area to regain control of Egypt and protect British people and property. Two armies converged on Egypt and warships gained control of the canal. Wolseley was given command of a 31,000 force of men which landed on the northern coast and in a series of superb moves, including one night march took Arabi's army by surprise at Tel-el-Kebir defeated it soundly.

Following the battle, Wolsely moved on Cairo and once the situation had been brought under British control, Wolseley returned home with most of the army with  12,000 left behind to ensure compliance with the newly established British presence. It was not long though before Wolseley was back in Egypt.

Following Wolseley’s defeat of Urabi and the establishment of British advisers to the new Khedive, Britain found herself drawn into the politics of Sudan, a virtual colony of Egypt but where the rise of Islamic fundamentalism under a fanatical leader, the Mahdi, had first defeated an Egyptian force under the command of Colonel Hicks and then threatened Sudan. The British government decided to try to persuade the Egyptian government to give up Sudan.

The mission to rescue Gordon

In London at the time this debate was happening was General Gordon who had been Governor-General of Sudan just a few years previously. Gordon met with Wolseley, (they were old friends),  and Gordon and Gordon made it clear that he would be willing to go to Sudan and report on the situation. The cabinet agreed to this and in January 1884 Gordon left London for Cairo where he met Baring, British commissioner for Egyptian finances, who gave Gordon different orders. The mission now became one of preparing a native administration for power rather than just leave Sudan to descend into anarchy.

Gordon had decided in his mind that the Sudan should become independent and he even got in contact with the Mahdi with a view to making him Governor of Kardofan. Gordon arrived in Khartoum on 18 February 1884 but by April the town was surrounded by the forces of the Mahdi.

Once the news of this got back home the Cabinet began to discuss the question of sending out a relief expedition prompted by Wolseley who was sending memos to everyone. Eventually the Cabinet agreed and Wolseley left for Cairo in September. Once in Egypt Wolseley began to prepare for the expedition up the Nile and across the desert. Camels had to bought and soldiers trained in riding them whilst boats had to be built to carry the army of 11,000 down the Nile. Wadi Halfa was used as a forward supply base. The expedition was beset with problems.There were problems with the selection of offices despite most being from the Wolseley Ring, and the purchase of camels and once the troops were under  way the boats were clearly overloaded and moved very slowly.

A camel corps was to proceed  across the desert to reach Khartoum earlier than the main force but this ran into a large force at Abu Klea where 14,000 Dervishes attacked Stewart’s force of 1,500. The British line held but progress thereafter was slow and with the force now reduced to just 900,could not afford another engagement. On January 124 the force reached  the Nile to be told that Khartoum had fallen to 40,000 Dervishes and that Gordon had been killed.

When the news reached England on 5th February the nation was horrified, and particularly the Queen. At home much of the blame for the failure of the expedition fell on Gladstone and later on Wolseley  whilst Wolseley himself blamed Gladstone and Sir Charles Wilson who had taken over he desert column. Wolseley was blamed for reaching Gordon too late by taking too much time with his preparations. He returned to England in July 1885, the campaign being his last in the field.

An Assessment of an army career

The Gordon campaign was Wolseley’s first failure. It had been a largely successful career in which he had spent all his time fighting colonial wars, if you include the Crimean War as such. His achievements came at a time when reporters began travelling with armies in the field to report events. Consequently he was portrayed as a Victorian hero to the public, fighting to defend and extend the empire. He believed in the Mission to Civilise and saw himself as a Christian soldier. He regarded most native peoples as incapable of development and it was his role to bring them under British rule for their own benefit. Wolseley was always meticulous in preparing for his campaigns earning the title, ‘All Sir Garnet’. His failure in the Gordon, if failure it was, was because he spent weeks ensuring that the boats, camels, and supplies were in the right place and the men trained for the task in hand. He was the ideal imperial soldier in the mind of the public but he did not endear himself to his men. He had their respect but not their love for he was distant. He was also anti-democratic preferring a despotic rule to one of democracy. It was difficult to compare him with the likes of Wellington as he only fought colonial  wars against native armies poorly equipped.He never as a commander faced a European army with modern weapons. However when compared with the likes of General Roberts, the only other general to  rival  Wolseley for the title of the best Imperial General, he did command campaigns in a variety of places and climates from Canada, to west Africa to the deserts of Egypt. He also was used as a colonial administrator in a number of places.

 For the rest of his army career, Wolseley was based in the War Office and Ireland until he eventually was given the command he had wanted for years, Commander-in Chief of the army. It probably came too late as he was not a ell man after 1895 and he had to prepare the army for the Second Boer War  and he was blames for the deficiencies of the army despite trying to get the government to send troops to South Africa long before the government actually did. His reputation though must rest with what he achieved as commander in the field and for helping to bring the army into the modern world whilst he was based in the War Office.


The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir 1882 when Wolseley used a night march to devastating effect.

The aftermath of Tel-el-Kebir

General Gordon

Various versions were told of how Gordon was killed but this is the version told to the British public

General Garnet Wolseley cont

Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, the Mahdi (1845-1885)