Ig­nore ad­vice and pay the price of pride

Gor­don of Khartoum was his own worst en­emy, writes Adrian Mur­doch

The Herald Business - - Lessons From History -

THE NAMES Charles “Chi­nese” Gor­don and Khartoum are so res­o­nant of em­pire, the play­ing fields of Eton, one hesitates to men­tion them in po­lite so­ci­ety. Even though the ori­gins of the Mahdist War are all a bit vague, the story of Gor­don and his flawed at­tempt to main­tain Bri­tish con­trol over the Su­dan are fas­ci­nat­ing for the way that they dis­play the fail­ures of large or­gan­i­sa­tions and how a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual can bring it down.

1) Tech­ni­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity does not guar­an­tee a vic­tory

What prompted Gor­don’s ap­point­ment in Fe­bru­ary 1884 was the bat­tle of El Obeid at the start of Novem­ber 1883. At the hands of the Mahdi and his fol­low­ers, who were try­ing to rid the Su­dan of im­pe­rial oc­cu­pa­tion, the An­glo-Egyp­tian army re­ceived the kind of drub­bing nor­mally re­served for the Scot­tish rugby squad.But de­spite se­ri­ous mil­i­tary hard­ware (ten moun­tain guns, six ma­chine guns and four Krupp field gun) and a strong de­fen­sive po­si­tion, the Bri­tish-led forces were com­pletely wiped out.

2) You can get any job you want if you schmooze the right peo­ple

He may not have been pop­u­lar in Down­ing Street, but Gor­don was well-con­nected. Even though prime min­is­ter William Gladstone and the war sec­re­tary both thought him com­pletely un­hinged (he was fond of God, brandy and young boys in roughly equal mea­sure), they found them­selves over­ruled. Gor­don was Queen Vic­to­ria’s favourite gen­eral and had cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion, thanks to a PR cam­paign of qui­etly brief­ing jour­nal­ists that would make Max Clifford blush. So when a new man in Egypt was needed, Gor­don found him­self on the next boat for Cairo.

3) Ad­vice can lis­ten­ing to


be worth

The his­tory of busi­ness is told by those who ig­nored con­ven­tional wis­dom and are now richer than Croe­sus. It is also lit­tered with those who did the same … and are now back where they started, with huge debts and no jobs. Gor­don was sent to the Su­dan with or­ders to evac­u­ate all al­lied gar­risons. In­stead, he de­cided that the Mahdi should be de­feated and started to de­fend Khartoum. By March 1884 the city was cut off. By July a re­lief force had been sent, though it did not get its act to­gether un­til the fol­low­ing Jan­uary. It was too late. On the evening of Jan­uary 25, Gor­don was cut down along with the rest of the gar­ri­son as well as 4,000 lo­cals still in the town.

4) Never un­der­es­ti­mate the op­po­si­tion

Su­dan had never wanted to be in­vaded by An­glo-Egyp­tians. By the 1870s, a Mus­lim cleric de­cided that enough was enough. Muham­mad Ah­mad pro­claimed him­self Mahdi, the prophet, and set about or­gan­is­ing re­volt. Prob­a­bly best to think of it in terms of the pro­test­ers who keep block­ing the en­croach­ment of Tesco su­per­mar­kets … only with spears. The suc­cesses at El Obeid and Khartoum drew a tem­po­rary line un­der im­pe­rial pre­ten­sions in the Su­dan and the Mahdists found them­selves in charge. Big su­per­mar­kets take note.

5) If you are man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, you carry the can

Even though Gladstone had dis­liked Gor­don, had tried to block his ap­point­ment, in­deed had a great deal of sym­pa­thy with the Mahdi rebels, he found him­self blamed by the Bri­tish press for the fail­ure in Khartoum. On the streets, the prime min­is­ter’s nick­name GOM, for Grand Old Man, be­came MOG, mur­derer of Gor­don. Rather in the same way that John Pro­fumo’s in­fa­mous pec­ca­dillo brought down Harold Macmil­lan’s gov­ern­ment in the 1960s, so too Gladstone found him­self forced to re­sign.

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