Threats Internal and External

The Nile Expedition, 1884-85

The ability of the Canadian armed forces to function outside their national territory was tested in 1884, when Major-General C.G. Gordon was under siege in Khartoum on the Upper Nile in Sudan.

Britain organized a relief expedition under General Garnet Wolseley. In 1881 and 1882, as army chief of staff, he had fiercely opposed the old plan to build a tunnel under the English Channel that was being strongly revived by French and British businessmen. This position did nothing to tarnish his reputation as the conqueror of Ter-el-Kebir or his title of Lord Wolseley of Cairo. In Canada, Wolseley had led the Red River campaign, and he had positive memories of the Canadians who enabled the British troops to take on supplies during that 1870 march and conflict.

From its beginnings and for the year following, the Sudan affair had reverberations in Canada, where colonels declared their readiness to raise their militia regiments to fight in the distant Upper Nile. Cautiously, the British government took the Canadian pulse regarding the willingness of the volunteers, but then advised that the territory of New South Wales in southern Australia had offered a contingent. Thus Prime Minister John A. Macdonald could easily resist the few enthusiasts eager to go to Khartoum, even if he thereby disappointed the British and offended some of his countrymen. In 1884, however, Macdonald agreed that the British could recruit a few hundred Canadian "voyageurs" to help with the logistics of the combatants going up the Nile. In other words, Wolseley, who had been favourably impressed by his Canadians, intended to have them play a role similar to the one they played in 1870, though on a foreign stage, in an alien climate and for a cause that had nothing whatsoever to do with them.

Nearly 400 Canadians, a great many of whom knew nothing whatsoever of what awaited them, would sign six-month contracts: The age of the voyageur was almost past. The volunteers going to Africa would wear no uniforms, bear no arms and take no part in the rare skirmishes engaged in by Wolseley. Gordon and his troops would be wiped out even before their rescuers reached them.

These volunteers included several notable personalities. One of these was Lieutenant-Colonel Fred C. Denison, Wolseley's aidede-camp in 1869-70. The Denison family has participated in Canadian military activities since the mid-19th century, with some members still in the Reserves today. Another was Captain A. Bouchard, a Catholic chaplain who had been in Khartoum as a missionary and was prepared to return as an interpreter and to watch over the souls of the Canadian soldiers. Hospital sergeant Gaston P Labat, who would be on board Saskatchewan a year later with a brother of Fred C. Denison, accompanied Major T.L.H. Neilson, surgeon-major of B Battery and also a Red River veteran.

The 386 Canadians left Halifax on 14 September 1884. Fifteen days later they landed at Gibraltar. One of the men had succumbed to sickness at sea. The group reached Alexandria on 7 October and then, travelling by train and steamer, passed Luxor and Aswan, to finally reach the first cataract. By November 1884 they were at work. On 1 December the expedition was halfway between Khartoum and Alexandria. At each of the 14 cataracts, which extend over 15 kilometres and form 40-metre drops, the Canadian voyageurs awaited the arrival of British troops to help them over these obstacles. The Iroquois Louis Capitaine and a few others would lose their lives in these tests of courage and endurance.

The voyageurs were offered a new six-month engagement beginning on 6 March 1885, but only 86 men, commanded by Denison, accepted. For the others, the mission ended before it had really begun. On 10 January, shortly after their contracts expired, most of the Canadians began the journey home. They headed for Alexandria, where in February they would begin the embarkation.

This experience enabled the Canadian volunteers to observe what other participants in British wars would also notice: The British treated their officers and men very differently. Like the British privates, the Canadian privates were less well-fed than the officers. Reacting to this injustice, one Canadian dared to open a tin of cheese, for which he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment. However, the Canadian claimed that a British soldier committing the same offence could have been handed down five years' hard labour. 35

Writing to the Governor General of Canada in April 1885, Wolseley congratulated the Canadians. In August the British Commons and House of Lords passed a vote of thanks for their services. All the volunteers would receive the special British medal commemorating this expedition. Those who renewed their contracts would add the bar for the battle of Kirbekan, even though they had not participated in the fighting.