The two Victorian campaign medals shown here were among my most prized artefacts while I was writing Pharaoh, and appear as illustrations in several editions of the novel. My 19th century protagonist is a Royal Engineers officer in the 1884 campaign to relieve General Gordon in Khartoum, and I was thrilled to discover a medal named to an actual R.E. sapper who took part in the campaign. These two medals were awarded to all British soldiers and sailors who saw active service in Egypt and Sudan from 1882 to 1889, and were dated accordingly. The date of this example of the Khedive’s Star, 1884-6, is consistent with the first medal, but because the star was issued unnamed the recipient can never be known for certain. The first medal, the Egypt Medal – one of the most beautiful of all British campaign medals – is more informative, not only bearing the clasp ‘The Nile 1884-5’ but also the recipient’s name around the rim: 17818 Sapper M. Knight, 8 Company R.E., one of the sapper units present throughout the doomed attempt to reach Gordon, and then in the months of fighting and eventual withdrawal from the Sudan that followed.
I managed to find a copy of Mark Knight’s service record in the National Archives in London and to match it to the official history of the Royal Engineers in the Nile campaign, allowing a fascinating glimpse into his experiences. He was a bricklayer, aged 19 on his enlistment in 1883, and signed up for the statutory twelve years. It’s possible that he answered a call specifically for men with the right skills to join the company, a new formation requiring ‘mechanics of all sorts’; during training they were attached to civil railway works in Britain before being sent abroad. His service papers confirm the award of the medals, and show that he was present in the Sudan throughout the period covered in my novel. The company arrived in Wadi Halfa from England in early October 1884, the start of an eighteen-month deployment that saw them involved in the advance towards Khartoum, the retreat from Sudan after the fall of Khartoum and then consolidation work along the southern Egyptian border. On arrival they were set to work immediately repairing the existing railway south along the Nile to Saras, and then extending it further across the desert to Ambigol Wells and beyond. The official history reveals the prodigious work involved: ‘the repair and maintenance of 33 and a half miles of existing railway, the construction of nearly 54 miles of line through barren country, the transport of 9,000 troops round the worst part of the Second Cataract in ascending the Nile and round almost the whole of it in descending that river, and the carriage of 40,000 tons of stores and munitions.’
The work was not without danger: one of the company officers, Captain J.A. Ferrier, R.E., a veteran of the 1878-81 Afghan War, had the distinction of commanding the fort at Ambigol Wells in early December 1885 during one of the final actions of the campaign, when a force of some 700 dervishes cut the railway line to north and south and surrounded the oasis, reputedly shouting to Ferrier and his little garrison, ‘railway finish, telegraph finish, you finish.’ In a version of Rorke’s Drift in the 1879 Zulu War – an action also commanded by a Royal Engineer – Ferrier and his men defended their post against fierce attacks until a relief column arrived, the first of several actions over the final weeks of the campaign for which he was awarded the newly-created Distinguished Service Order. Reading his citation, I realised that this was the same Ferrier whose translation of a German book on the Franco-Prussian war is in my library – there because its editor was my great-great grandfather, Captain W.A. Gale, R.E., a colleague of Ferrier’s in the early 1890s when both were at the Royal Engineers Institute at Chatham.
Whether or not Mark Knight was present at Ambigol Wells is unknown, as his service record doesn’t give that level of detail; but it seems likely that with his company he would have seen persistent skirmishing with the Mahdist forces over those final months as they toiled deep into the desert to the final station at Akasha, 87 miles from Wadi Halfa and well within Mahdist territory. His record shows that he returned from Egypt by way of Malta in June 1886, and then finished the remainder of his five years' full-time service before going into the reserve, finally being discharged in 1895 after having completed his twelve-year enlistment. He re-enlisted into the Royal Engineers for a year in 1900, when former soldiers were re-employed for home service to replace regulars who had gone to the war in South Africa. His papers show that he had returned to bricklaying after his first enlistment, and probably he did so again after his second; there’s no record of his subsequent life. As war in Europe loomed his medals must have seemed a memento of a distant Victorian adventure, yet it was one whose consequences - in fomenting fundamentalism in the Sudan and elsewhere, and renewing calls for jihad - were to play out bitterly into the future.