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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Charles George Gordon

Charles George Gordon was born on January 28, 1833 in Woolwich, London. He was the fourth son of Major-General Henry William Gordon (1786–1865) and Elizabeth (Enderby) Gordon (1792–1873).

Charles was educated at Fullands School in Taunton, Somerset and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, London.

At the Royal Military Academy, Charles and his fellow cadets, took pride in bathing outdoors in the winter. He passed out with high marks for map-making and surveying but little else. Charles was known as a hot tempered and rude student.


Gordon was commissioned in 1852 as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, completing his training at Chatham, Kent. He was promoted to full lieutenant in 1854.

Gordon fought in the Crimean War where his foolhardy bravery was thought of as very gallant. The journalist William Russell wrote in 1892:  "I can see Gordon now, fighting in the trenches at Sevastopol. There was a sortie and the Russians got into our parallel. The trench guards were encouraged to drive them out by Gordon who stood on the parapet in imminent danger of his life, prepared to meet his death with nothing save the stick in his hand."

Gordon spent five years with the British army between 1860-65 in China. He was present at the occupation of Peking in October 1860 and personally directed the burning of the Chinese emperor's summer palace.

In 1863 Gordon was placed in command of the "Ever-Victorious Army" -  a 3,500 strong European officered rabble raised by the Shanghai merchants to defend the city against the Taiping rebels. He transformed the rabble into an effective force and by careful planning Gordon was able to lead the Ever Victorious Army to victory of the rebels.

Gordon habitually reviewed his troops in a frock coat and led his men into battle carrying only a small cane and a cheroot.

After putting down the Taiping rebellion the grateful Chinese emperor conferred on Gordon the yellow jacket and the peacock feather of a mandarin. From that time he was known as "Chinese Gordon."

The British Army promoted Gordon to Lieutenant Colonel after his success in putting down the Taiping rebellion and he was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath.

Gordon was appointed Commandant of Engineers at Gravesend in 1865 where he had the job of repairing the forts guarding the Thames at Gravesend and Tilbury.

In 1873 General Gordon took up the position of Governor of Equatoria, a region in the south of present-day South Sudan After a short stay in Cairo, Gordon proceeded to Khartoum via Suakin and Berber. He made the 250 mile journey from Suakin to Berber on a camel in three days, less than the fastest caravan, breaking the previous record for the fastest time. It was his first time on a camel.

General Gordon in Egyptian uniform

General Gordon was asked to take the position of Governor-General of the entire Sudan in 1877, which he accepted. He resigned his Sudan appointment three years later, exhausted by years of incessant work.

He returned to Sudan in 1884 to deal with Mohammed Ahmed (the Mahdi's) revolt.

Gordon gave the very first British journalistic interview when he was interviewed in 1884 by WJ Stead for the Pall Mall Gazette about the British imperial policy in Sudan.


Gordon converted to Evangelical Christianity in 1854 during his time with the Royal Engineers. The young soldier shunned the parties and dances his contemporaries participated in and became friendly with a Christian captain with whom he drove about in a horse and gig discussing religious matters.

During his time in China, Gordon developed  a very individual theology, which was is a mixture of New Testament Christianity, Gnosticism, Mysticism and Evangelicalism.

Whilst at Gravesend Gordon spent much time to Bible study and meditation. He believed in a literal interpretation of God's Word and corresponded on biblical themes with his devout sister.

Gordon regularly distributed religious tracts which he either bought or wrote. He scattered them wherever he went, pressing them on strangers or throwing them out of train windows.

Gordon was horrified by the number of poor people he saw in Gravesend, especially the elderly and children. He felt it was his duty to God to help provide food, clothes and education for these outcast people. Gordon spent about 90% of his army pay on the poor.

Gordon hardly spent anything on himself and he often wore shabby clothes. The general  left China in his gunboat towing his new suit in the water to make it look old and crumpled to go with his bashed-in bowler hat.

He took a simple meal when alone, consisting of bread and milk or for variety bread soaked in a slop bowl of strong tea.

In 1882 General Gordon decided to go to Palestine, a region he had long desired to visit. He remained there for a year. After his visit, Gordon suggested in his book Reflections in Palestine a different location for Golgotha, the site of Christ's crucifixion.


In 1885 the British Prime Minister William Gladstone ordered the Egyptians to abandon the Sudan, and General Gordon was charged with supervising the evacuation and setting up a government. He succeeded in evacuating about 2500 women and children from Khartoum as well as the sick and wounded, before the Mahdi's forces surrounded the city.

Gladstone kept dilly-dallying about the best route for the relief force to get to Khartoum. Gordon and his men held out for nearly a year but lack of food made them weak. The enemy eventually broke in, went on the rampage and Gordon was speared to death by Mahdi's men on January 26, 1885. His severed head was carried through the town on the end of a pike and his body was desecrated and thrown down a well.  In the hours following Gordon's death an estimated 10,000 civilians and members of the garrison were killed.

Wolseley's relieving force arrived two days later. They read this entry in Gordon's diary: "Now mark this. If the expeditionary force (and I shall ask for no more than 200 men) does not come in 10 days, the town may fall: and I have done my best for the honor of my country. Goodbye."

Queen Victoria was outraged and sent a telegram to Gladstone speaking of "the stain left upon England." A day of national mourning was declared.

After the reconquest of the Sudan, in 1898, several attempts were made to locate Gordon's remains, but in vain.. His recumbent effigy lies in St Paul;s Cathedral.

In Trafalgar Square there is a monument to the man "who at all times and everywhere gave his strength to the weak, his substance to the poor, his sympathy to the suffering, his heart to God."

Sources Encarta Encyclopedia, Comptons Encyclopedia

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