Brother Andy writes home about his deeds with the relief expedition, leading charges for Wolseley and frightening the Mahdi. Newspapers and government despatches tell a different story, but "we won't believe a word against brave Andy McElroe."
Sources: Re author--Oldpoetry site. Re historical references--_The River War_ by Winston S Churchill, ch. 1-3, and "The Mahdist Jihad 1881-1885" at the OnWar site. - BS
Charles George "Chinese" Gordon (1833-1885) actually began his military career in the Crimea, but went to China in 1860, where he was instrumental in suppressing the Taiping rebellion. This gained him a high military reputation, though it's not clear how well he earned it; his one clear skill was in military engineering.
Gordon went to Egypt in 1873, working there at surveying and establishing control of the Nile until 1880. He performed various jobs over the next four years, spending part of the time rebuilding his health. Then came the Sudan Rebellion.
The Sudan, at that time, was theoretically a province of Egypt, which meant that it was part of a British client-state -- though the British pretended they didn't run Egypt, and Egypt had never really managed the Sudan, except for a few spots along the Nile. The British made no real efforts to control the Sudan, simply sending William Hicks (1830-1883) to try to control problems.
Mohammed Ahmed (1840?-1885), El Mahdi (the local name for the Messiah) had meanwhile started a rebellion (1882). Hicks set out to suppress him, but his troops -- many of them convicts and with few trained officers -- were annihilated by the dervishes in 1883.
El Mahdi now had control of almost the entire Sudan; even those who did not consider him the Messiah could hardly oppose him.
The British gathered another local army, under Valentine Baker; it was slaughtered at El Tib on February 6, 1884. Soon after, the fortified post of Sinkat was captured. Britain finally was forced to send European troops. Gerald Graham brought 3000 soldiers, and though he was too late to save the garrison of Tokar, he did win an easy victory at El Tib. He then won a much harder battle against the "Fuzzy-wuzzies" (so named for their frizzy hair. And, yes, this is the battle about which Kipling wrote his poem; the regiment whose square they broke was none other than the Black Watch, but Graham was able to retrieve the situation -- barely).
There was, however, no coordination between this force and the rest. Graham had a limited mission, fulfilled it as best he could, and then was forced to sit tight near the coast. The government meanwhile decided to evacuate central Sudan, and chosen Gordon, not Graham, to do it.
Unfortunately, Gordon didn't understand the Mahdi cult, and thought he could put it down. Instead, he ended up besieged in Khartoum. He might still have escaped -- a path out via Berber was still open. But on May 28, 1884, that post fell, and Gordon was well and truly trapped. And Britain had a problem. It had wanted out. Instead, it had more troops in harm's way than before the campaign began, and one of them a hero.
Unfortunately, the British public was divided. Gladstone opposed a relief expedition; the Conservatives and seemingly the people favored it. It took months to reach a decision; General Wolseley, Britain's best colonial general, didn't get his orders until September 19.
And Khartoum was 1200 miles from the mouth of the Nile, and the river itself was the only source of water for almost all that length. And the cataracts meant that boats couldn't just sail up and down the river. And communications were terrible. It's hard to fault anything Wolseley did in particular, but he didn't manage to get troops to Khartoum until January 28, 1885 -- and the city had fallen a mere two days before.
After that, the British withdrew for real. Gordon was dead, Wolseley never again given an important command. Even though the Mahdi died in 1885, it was not until 1898, after a three-year campaign, that Lord Kitchener regained control of Sudan for the British by winning the battle of Omdurman.
There is at least one broadside specifically about the death of Gordon: NLScotland, L.C.Fol.70(100b), "Death of Gen. Gordon" ("Across the vast Soudan was borne"), unknown, n.d. - RBW