Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend – pt 2

Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend

Part 2 – 1896 to 1914

Part 1 of this account of the military career of CVFT was posted on this site on 29th December, 2015 and this post follows on directly from that research. Many thanks as ever to our researcher for helping to tell the story of the oft overlooked Mesopotamian campaign and those who took part.


By means of repeated telegrams to the Government of India, and applications to the India Office and the pulling of strings by Sir Redvers Buller* among others, Brevet Major Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend C.B. obtained release from the Indian Staff Corps.

(*Sir Redvers Buller, who had been awarded a Victoria Cross in 1879 during the Zulu War, and had been with Sir Garnet Wolseley in the Sudan in 1884-5, was also a cousin by marriage to CVFT – Buller had married the daughter of the 4th Marquess Townshend.)

February 21, 1896 : Cairo

I am 34 to-day. Reported myself to General Sir Herbert Kitchener, commanding Egyptian Army. … General Kitchener informed me I was to be given command of the 12th Sudanese Regiment, now at the outpost of Sarras, 35 miles south of Wady Halfa – the most advanced outpost towards the enemy in the Sudan. General Kitchener congratulated me on getting the command of about the best regiment in the Egyptian Army, and he said he wanted me to go up the Nile and join as soon as I could, as there was a rumour that the Dervishes were going to attack us at Halfa.

On February 24, 1896, he lunched with Sir Evelyn Baring, Viscount Cromer, another Norfolk man, later to be created Earl of Cromer, the town in which he was born. Lord Cromer was the British Consul-General in Cairo, and was the hand upon the tiller of Egyptian affairs. In the afternoon he met the Khedive, Abbas Hilmi II, the great great grandson of Muhammad Ali Pasha, often regarded as the founder of Modern Egypt.

Muhammad Ali Pasha, Wali of Egypt, 1840  (commons:wikimedia) Isma'il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, c1865  (commons:wikimedia) Abbas Hilmi II, Khedive of Egypt, c1898  (public domain) Sir Evelyn Baring, Viscount Cromer, 1898  (© National Portrait Gallery, London) Sir Herbert Kitchener, Sirdar of Egypt, c1897  (© Imperial War Museum Q 56659)

Muhammad Ali Pasha, Wali of Egypt, 1840 (commons:wikimedia)
Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, c1865 (commons:wikimedia)
Abbas Hilmi II, Khedive of Egypt, c1898 (public domain)
Sir Evelyn Baring, Viscount Cromer, 1898 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)
Sir Herbert Kitchener, Sirdar of Egypt, c1897 (© Imperial War Museum Q 56659)

February 21, 1896 : Cairo

Lunched at Lord Cromer’s. … In the afternoon I was presented to the Khedive at the Abdin Palace. He is a young chap of about 21 or 22, enormously stout, and talks English very well. He was very nice to me, and said he hoped I should remain in his army a long time. A dance at the Continental Hotel to-night. Crowded with people. Very well done. Lots of pretty women: and the red and blue uniforms of the British officers gave it a colouring. Major Macdonald of the Egyptian Army dined with me to-night. He goes with me on Friday night as Second-in-Command of the frontier force at Halfa.

Some explanation of the situation in the Sudan in 1896 is required at this point. The cartoon (below) from the satirical magazine, Punch, depicts the ‘shade’ or ghost of General Charles George Gordon appearing before John Bull, the patriotic  personification of Britain, who has returned to the desert of the Sudan. Gordon declares, “Remember!”. But, remember what?

In The Desert Punch, March 28, 1896

In The Desert
Punch, March 28, 1896

Gordon had died at Khartoum on January 26th, 1885, two days before the Nile steamers of the advanced relief column reached the city. His plight, besieged with a garrison of Egyptian troops and Sudanese, Egyptian, and European civilians, had caught the popular imagination in England. His death, it was widely held, was due to the procrastination of Gladstone’s Liberal government before committing to a relief expedition. The Doulton pottery company produced a ‘Betrayal’ Jug at its works in Lambeth. The inscription reads: BETRAYED . JAN. 26 . 1885

Doulton's General Gordon 'Betrayal' Jug

Doulton’s General Gordon ‘Betrayal’ Jug

Gordon’s Bible, bequeathed to his sister, Augusta, was presented to Queen Victoria, who placed it inside an ornate rock crystal reliquary at Windsor Castle, where it remains.

General Gordon's Bible opened at the Book of Exekiel Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

General Gordon’s Bible opened at the Book of Exekiel
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

Gordon found Chapter xxix verse 13 prophetic: I will make the land of Egypt utterly waste and desolate, from the tower of Syene even unto the border of Ethiopia. In his journal he writes: it is certainly the Soudan which is meant.

As the epilogue of the 1966 film, Khartoum, has it:

The relief came two days late, and for fifteen years the Sudanese paid the price with pestilence and famine, the British with shame and war.

Gordon rests in his beloved Sudan… We cannot tell how long his memory will live. But there is this: a world with no room for the Gordons is a world that will return to the sands.

Gordon would have probably disapproved of all these sentiments: but nonetheless, public pressure, particularly in response to the resurgent Arab slave trade from central Africa down the Nile to Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, eventually meant that Britain would re-establish an Anglo-Egyptian presence in the Sudan.

The Khartoum Slave Market in 1892 The Graphic, January 16, 1892 'The slaves are mostly girls of from ten to sixteen years of age'

The Khartoum Slave Market in 1892
The Graphic, January 16, 1892
‘The slaves are mostly girls of from ten to sixteen years of age’

The reasons for Britain’s involvement with the affairs of Egypt date to Napoleon’s invasion in 1798, which was viewed by the British as a French attempt to become masters of the Levant and thereby threaten Britain’s communications with India. In spite of being defeated at the Battle of the Nile (Aboukir Bay) by Norfolk’s most famous son, Horatio Nelson, the French presence in Egypt destabilized the country and opened it up to the competing European powers.

Neither the detail of Anglo-French competition in Egypt, nor the exploration to discover the source of the Nile, nor the exposure of the Arab slave trade down the Nile or through island of Zanzibar may be treated in this blog. However,  there can be no better recommendation that to read The White Nile (1960), and The Blue Nile (1962) by Alan Moorehead, a gifted Australian writer of well-researched, informative and enjoyably readable narrative history. They are available from Norfolk libraries, and second-hand copies abound. Although departing from historical chronology, it is suggested that The White Nile be read first, with an atlas, or at second-best, Google Earth, to hand. There has been much scholarly research in the half-century and more since their publication, but these two books remain a valid introduction to the the affairs of the Nile Valley and central Africa until the First World War.

Following the the murder of General Gordon by the forces of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi (The Mahdi), the British retreated to Egypt and the Sudan was left to its own devices. Egyptian rule of the Sudan, always tenuous, was now non-existent, except for garrisons at Suakin on the Red Sea and at Wadi Halfa. The Mahdi died in Khartoum not many months after Gordon, and was succeeded as leader of the Mahdist forces by Abdullah Ibn-Mohammed Al-Khalifa (The Khalifa). In accordance with Islamic custom, there is no reliable likeness of The Khalifa.

February 27, 1896 : Cairo

Tried on my uniform this morning. The uniform for British officers in the Sudan is very smart: a dark blue tunic (full dress with plastron), and black mohair cords looping across the tunic horizontally. Black shoulder cords, but gold shoulder cords for review order. Gold laced overalls.The undress jacket is dark blue serge, overalls with a broad red stripe being worn with this. The tarboosh worn on all occasions with this.

Met Slatin Pasha* this morning. … Slatin was very glad to see me. I told him I had read his book, “Fire and Sword in the Sudan,” with great interest. He is now in the Intelligence Department of the War Office under Major Wingate.

* Rudolf Carl von Slatin had been a provincial governor in the Sudan when General Gordon was Governor General. He had been captured by the Mahdists and spent eleven years a prisoner of the Khalifa. His knowledge of the Sudan in the period following the fall of Khartoum was invaluable.

CVFT now commenced his journey up the Nile to Wadi Halfa, Dongola, and the battles of Atbara and Omdurman.

The River Nile between the Mediterranean Sea and Khartoum from a map of drawn by Edward Weller, FRGS for the Weekly Dispatch, 1858

The River Nile between the Mediterranean Sea and Khartoum
from a map of drawn by Edward Weller, FRGS for the Weekly Dispatch, 1858

February 27, 1896 : The Nile

En route for Assiout on a post boat crowded with excursionists going up to Assouan., and had to put up with a dirty little cabin in the steerage.

On March 1st, 1896, the Italians, competing in the European ‘Scramble for Africa’, were defeated by the Ethiopian Empire at the Battle of Adowa. The defeat of a colonial power had the effect of reinvigorating the Khalifa’s forces in the Sudan and hastened the British push up the Nile.

March 5, 1896 : Korosko

March 7, 1896 : Sarras

After being introduced to the native officers, I went round with McKerrill to inspect the post as regards defensive arrangements. I inspected the two companies who go to Wady Halfa by the train to-day – both of 100 men in marching order. I am very pleased with the physique of the men. They are fine strapping blacks, mostly tall. I felt quite small inspecting them. … I felt I had a stroke of luck in getting command of this regiment.

March 26, 1896 : Akasheh (Akasha)

I furnished the advance guard this day with my Battalion. Marched at 6.10 a.m. Following up came 160 camels, them my other half battalion under Hopkinson; then another 160 camels, and then the rear guard, supplied by 11th Battalion. We had to reach Akasheh in one march and it was a most severe one. I halted five minutes every hour. At about 10.30 a.m. we left the Nile and entered a broad defile in the hills which opened up into a broad plain of soft sand with hills in the distance. The heat from the rocks was terrible and tried the men very highly. They were dead beat when we reached the river again at Okmeh, 6 or 7 miles from Akasheh. A two hours’ halt and then on again.

CVFT’s attitude to native troops is puzzling: like most officers of the day he assumed a natural British superiority over other races, but in Hunza, the Sudan, Burma, India, and later in Mesopotamia he was proud of his men and took good care of them, yet when the opportunity for advancement presented itself he abandoned them without a second thought. Erroll Sherson quotes this incident from CVFT’s diary in Townshend of Chitral and Kut, 1928:

I awarded seven day’s C.B. to Private Kasamallah Hasan this morning. He had been into hot water a lot last year, but has been doing much better lately. His crime was trying to sell a pair of boots to an Egyptian cavalry soldier, and being drunk at the same time. This man had been a prisoner of war, but had enlisted in the 12th regiment, being a keen young black, so instead of trying him by court martial as I should have done, I cancelled the crime of “Making away with Govt. property” and called it “improper conduct,” and told him to turn over a new leaf and he would find a friend in me. So I let him off with “seven days” confinement to the lines, His excuse was that he was hard up and wanted money (poor devil!). I sent him privately 5/6*

* Five shillings and sixpence – represents a purchasing power of about £30 today.

Another entry on April 9th :

Crossed the river with 300 men in boats, and built a strong sangar on west bank. Built it in less than 3 hours, which was quick work, and garrisoned it with 25 rifles of my own regiment. I always take off my coat and work with the men on fatigue at this kind of job. I notice it makes a difference in the manner the men go to work. They buckle to directly when they see a British officer working also.

Akasha had been captured on 20th March. Preparations were put in hand to reconstruct a railway for the transportation of supplies brought up by long camel caravans making their way over the rocky passes and through the sandy ravines to where the regiments were dug in between Sarras and Akasha. The battalion was engaged in route marching, building blockhouses, reconnoitring and training for the first major engagement of the Sudan War, the Battle of Ferkeh (Firket). In the meantime, CVFT was to learn at first-hand of the ignorance of local conditions which pertained in London.

April 14, 1896 : Akasheh

The new rifles we have taken over are so full of sand that in many cases it is impossible to ease the springs. … I call it criminal folly that no one should have had the common sense to have cloths put round the breech blocks to keep the sand out. … Now I have ordered that the whole Battalion be set on cleaning rifles.

On May 1st, General Kitchener, Sirdar of the Egyptian Army, arrived at Akasha.

Sir Herbert Kitchener wearing the insignia of Earl Kitchener of Khartoum public domain image

Sir Herbert Kitchener wearing the insignia of Earl Kitchener of Khartoum
public domain image

May 1, 1896 : Akasheh

Kitchener arrived today… They went round the defences, and curiously enough the day brought the first serious brush with the Dervishes.

A month later on Saturday, June 5th, a determined attack, planned and executed by Kitchener, was made on Firket (Ferkeh). The topography precluded an attack on the village from the river, and the desert approach was protected by a rocky ridge and 3,000 picked Mahdist fighters including men of The Khalifa’s own Baggara tribe. One Anglo-Egyptian column with CVFT as second-in-command was to march south of the village and concentrate in the hills overlooking the Nile and Firkhet, the remainder of the force under the Sirdar himself would attack from the north.

CVFT and his force set off from Akasheh about 6 p.m. for a march into the desert. The column concentrated at 2.30 a.m., and after a further march of three miles they reached their position.

June 5, 1896 : Firkhet

I could, from this ridge, see the plain below, with the village of Firkhet quite close, about 80 yards away. … It was about 5.30 a.m. when we heard the main body of the troops under the Sirdar attacking Firkhet from the north, the attack being announced by a tremendous fire, a ceaseless hailstorm of independent firing. I never heard such a tremendous fire, and the Dervishes in Firkhet must have found it hellish. About 7,000 men were fring into it! The Dervishes were very soon running on all sides, and we could see them being bundled over, lying like dead pigeons in their white clothes.

Suddenly Burn-Murdoch sent his galloper to me to say that numbers of Dervishes were about to break out on our right, where the guns had gone, and ordered me to proceed there and head them back. I took two companies with me at the double… When we topped the rise I deployed on the move, moving on in line, and could then see the Dervishes in white groups coming out of a nullah in the rocks in front, but evidently wavering. I poured a hot fire into them, and they fled right and left. The show was over. …

Storming Firkhet public domain image

Storming Firkhet
public domain image

The Sirdar rode up about 9 a.m. He was very pleased and chatted for some time. … Our casulaties amounted to 100 killed and wounded, and the Dervishes to about 1,200. Making a rough calculation, there were about 2,500 Dervishes in Firkhet, and we were at least 9,000 men with good guns and ammunition and Maxims. …

We moved off at 5 p.m. for Amara. the Battalion looked very imposing on camels, and must have been a strange sight. I rode at the head on my horse with my orderly, Bindas, carrying my yellow standard with “12” on it.

The Ceremonial Drum of the 12th Sudanese Regiment It bears the flags of Egypt and the Regiment's battle honours including 'Firket' public domain image

The Ceremonial Drum of the 12th Sudanese Regiment
It bears the flags of Egypt and the Regiment’s battle honours including ‘Firket’
public domain image

June 14, 1896

Dined with the Sirdar. he is in great spirits. Has received congratulatory telegrams from the Queen, Khedive, Lord Salisbury [the Prime Minister], and Lord Wolseley [the Commander-in-Chief of British forces]. A Dervish this morning reports Dongola* deserted and everyone bolting.

* This is New Dongola on maps of the time (now simply Dongola), not to be confused with Old Dongola, the deserted capital of the former Christian Kingdom of Nubia.

CVFT did not have an easy relationship with his brigade commander, Major (acting Brigadier-General) Hector MacDonald, known as ‘Fighting Mac’.

July 22, 1896

Macdonald wrote officially to me yesterday to stop my Battalion holding “zikers” at night. These “zikers” are religious ceremonial laments for the wives dead at Halfa. About 30 women of this Battalion have up to date died at Halfa. I wrote back to Macdonald to the effect that the custom in Sudanese regiments was to allow the men to hold a “ziker” up to ten at night, and naturally I did not care to interfere with the religious customs of the natives. However, in accordance with his wishes I had ordered that there should be no “zikers”or any noise whatever after “Lights Out” at 9 p.m. I think Macdonald is very mistaken to interfere in any way in matters of this kind. Natives talk of these things and resent interference…

The advance on Dongola was further delayed as the rise of the Nile was slower that year than usual. The time lapse permitted the Khalifa to assemble his forces, but he was nonetheless a long way distant from his base.

By the third week in August the Nile was beginning to rise and become navigable for the troop transports and Kitchener began his advance south. Macdonald irrationally ordered his brigade to march north to Wadi Halfa whence they had come. The march was a nightmare and is testimony to CVFT’s leadership that he got his battalion through it.

The Anglo-Egyptian column advancing through the Sudan from 'The Four Feathers' by Alexander Korda, 1939

The Anglo-Egyptian column advancing through the Sudan
from ‘The Four Feathers’ by Alexander Korda, 1939

August 22, 1896

Macdonald informed us that we would march to Wady Halfa on the river about 18 miles, according to the map. … Each battalion had 35 camels for transport and they would have to carry kits of officers and companies, greatcoats, blankets, cooking pots and rations. Macdonald told us we must carry all our rations, that is to say, to the end of the month, on these camels. It was perfectly impossible…

August 23, 1896

Men employed on fatigue all the morning. A good preparation for a desert march of 18 miles in front of them and absolutely no water being carried for them! All the water the men had was in their water bottles. The hospital consisted of ten camels, mostly taken up by hospital baggage! So that if men fell out in any numbers they would have to be left in the desert. … As it turned out, lots of men would have died, had it not been for the Camel Corps coming across the river picking up many of our men.

August 24, 1896

We reached Wadi Halfa about 3.15 a.m., but found there were still two more miles to go to reach the river. The men now began falling out in threes and fours at a time. … We bivouacked for the day on the river bank, but received orders to march at 1.30 p.m. The heat was the worst I have ever known. … To march at midday was simple madness, on top of an exhausting march of 18 miles in the desert.

August 25, 1896

About 400 transport camels under Major Kitchener arrived from Kosheh. The men had to drop their loads in the desert a few miles out, mount the camels and make for the river at Absarat as hard as they could! Macdonald ordered me to send 180 men on fatigue to store sacks for the Commissariat. I felt very indignant and wrote the S.O. saying I could not help, that it was very rough on the men and that I had hoped for at least one day’s rest. But 30 of them had to make hut for Macdonald and his staff. I would not have any hut made for myself till the men’s were made…

Payne told me the scenes in the desert were awful, men falling down and lying there, and others trying to struggle on with their mouths open, reeling like drunken men. Seven died in the desert. Seven more died in the hospital here. I never saw anything like the scenes in the hospital. Some were lying naked having water poured over them, their bodies twitching about, their eyeballs staring out and foaming at the mouth… What I personally cannot understand is, “Why march in the day?” … The whole thing is most unfortunate and must have a bad effect upon the men who put it all down to the British officers.

At the end of August the river had risen sufficiently for the Sirdar to march on Dongola. But, having seen the advancing force, the Dervishes evacuated the town which was occupied without opposition on 23rd September.

With the occupation of Dongola the Sirdar had fulfilled his orders and he was in no hurry to advance on Khartoum. For the remainder of the year 1896 and for the whole of 1897, CVFT was engaged in training his regiment, the 12th Sudanese.

The Four Feathers - Alexander Korda, 1939

The Four Feathers – Alexander Korda, 1939

A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 adventure novel, The Four Feathers, is set at the time of the advance of Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian force up the Nile. The novel was made into a celebrated film by Alexander Korda in 1939 (and again, somewhat tortuously, in 2002) and leaves a powerful visual impression of the campaign which led ultimately to the battle of Omdurman.

However, CVFT was never personally idle, and laid out a course of study for himself. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday: two hours before midday for private correspondence, and three hours to French exercises and French reading; and on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday he followed the same course, substituting Arabic for French. Sundays he devoted to private correspondence and the reading of military history.

On November 18th, he learned that he had been made a Brevet* Lieutenant-Colonel.

* Brevet rank was usually conferred for gallantry or meritorious conduct in the field. It was a rank that did not carry with it either precedence or pay.

CVFT obtained a short leave to go to Cairo, and left Debbeh on February 15th, 1897 arriving in Cairo on February 26th. On the journey north he stopped at Luxor, where he was introduced to the Comtesse Cahen d’Anvers and her daughter, Alice. He notes in his diary: “Both of them charming and we all sit together for meals on the boat.” During his leave in Cairo, he became great friends with the Comtesse and her daughter, riding together out into the desert. But, on March 28th he was requied to return to his regiment, and the d’Anvers returned to France. Correspondence with the Comtesse continued and their friendship deepened:

June 22, 1897

The letter of the Comtesse D’Anvers* is the sweetest I have ever had in my life. She writes as a mother to me. Never have I been touched like this. She and her daughter Alice are the best friends I have, and I look forward only to the time when I can get home and see them again.

*Louise de Morpurgo had married the wealthy banker, Louis Cahen d’Anvers, and produced three daughters: the two eldest, Alice 1876-1965 (who was to later marry CVFT) and Elisabeth, were portrayed in childhood by no less an artist than Pierre-August Renoir in study know as ‘Pink and Blue’.

Pierre-August Renoir, Pink and Blue, 1881 : Alice is in pink on the left public domain image

Pierre-August Renoir, Pink and Blue, 1881 : Alice is in pink on the left
public domain image

Rumours of the advance of Khartoum continued to abound, and on September 7th, news reached the camp that Berber had been taken without resistance.

Map of Kitchener's Advance on Khartoum from G.A. Henty, With Kitchener in the Soudan, 1903

Map of Kitchener’s Advance on Khartoum
from G.A. Henty, With Kitchener in the Soudan, 1903

September 10, 1897

This evening I gave an entertainment for the Battalion. This is a big sort of show called by the Sudanese a “Darluka.” Much “boosa” or Sudanese beer is given out, and everyone turned up at the 12th Sudanese quarters at 6.30.  Colonel Lewis and I paid them a visit after mess. All the tribes danced to the music of tom-toms and the accompaniment of singing in perfect time. … In the end they all got very drunk [men and women] and abandoned themselves to fiercer orgies. I was discreet and left the scene early. … Poor devils, why should they not amuse themselves in their own fashion? and, after all, as Sir Richard Burton* said, morality is largely a question of geography.

* Richard Burton was unorthodox and contradictory figure, one ill at ease in Victorian England. He was a fine swordsman, a noted linguist, and an intrepid explorer. He was fluent in more than twenty languages and translated the Kama Sutra and most famously The Arabian Nights; he discovered Lake Tanganyika, and risked death in 1853 by making the Hajj to Mecca in disguise. Most British officers of CVFT’s generation would have regarded Burton with some reservation, but perhaps he was more acceptable to the ‘theatricals’ and bohemian London figures with whom CVFT kept up a continuous correspondence even from the Sudan. In any event, CVFT was experienced and sensitive enough to allow his Sudanese troops their traditional relaxations.

Richard Burton, KCMG, FRGS by Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton 1872-75 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Richard Burton, KCMG, FRGS
by Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton 1872-75
© National Portrait Gallery, London

On December 20th, CVFT received orders to embark the 12th Sudanese aboard the river steamer, Abu Klea, anticipating a move up the Nile to Berber. In fact, they travelled north, down the Nile past Dongola and Handak to Wadi Halfa, where the troops would take to the newly constructed railway which now ran beyond Abu Hamed towards Berber (and ultimately to Atbara).

The new stern-wheeler, Abu Klea  with thanks: Donald Featherstone, Omdurman 1898, Opsrey Publishing

The new stern-wheeler, Abu Klea
with thanks: Donald Featherstone, Omdurman 1898, Opsrey Publishing

CVFT would depend upon similar shallow draught paddle steamers on the River Tigris during the Mesopotamian Campaign

Kitchener was biding his time, ensuring that his railway was running efficiently, that there was sufficient water in the Nile to navigate the cataracts, that his lines of communication were secure, and that victory was assured. Years later, in Mesopotamia, CVFT would have been grateful for similar care and efficiency on the part of his commanding officer.

Notwithstanding his appreciation of the Comtesse d’Anvers and her daughter…

December 25, 1897 : Abu Hamed

Am staying in a large house that used to belong to the Dervish Emirs and have a room in the old harem quarters, calculated to give me troublous dreams of a voluptuous and dusky-skinned Fatima in twinkling anklets and an oriental figure.

On January 7th, 1898 CVFT marched his 12th Sudanese into Berber, unopposed, almost thirteen years since Gordon had been murdered. This was the beginning of the campaign to retake Khartoum. The troops marked time for three months, but on April 8th, Good Friday, the battle of Atbara was fought.

April 7, 1898 : Umdabeah Camp

This day it was known in the morning that we were to march the same evening to attack the Dervishes in their entrenched position at Nakheila. … We marched on at one o’clock in the morning, moon up, hard sand, good going and a cool breeze. We were making now a good sweep to the eastward, so as to come down opposite Mahmoud’s camp.

The Anglo-Egyptian army was better armed, better organized, and better disciplined than the Dervish army, which comprised an assorted group of Arabs, and Africans from the south of the Sudan. The British regiments had modern rifles with bayonets and two Maxim guns, the Egyptian regiments had older rifles with bayonets, and the Sirdar could call upon 500 cavalry and 4 batteries of artillery. The Dervishes were armed with swords and spears and some older rifles taken from the British in earlier campaigns. In the heart of Mahmoud’s force were 5,000 mounted Baggara cavalry.

The Emir Mahmoud, commander of the Dervish army, had ordered his troops to build a zariba of thorn fences, trenches and rifle pits on the east bank of the river, where he awaited the arrival of the Anglo-Egyptian army.

The action commenced with a British artillery bombardment of the Dervish position.

Plan of the Battle of Atbara from G.A. Henty, With Kitchener in the Soudan, 1903

Plan of the Battle of Atbara
from G.A. Henty, With Kitchener in the Soudan, 1903

(A detailed account of the battle is beyond the scope of this post.but we recommend:

April 8, 1898 : Battle of Atbara

At noon we were opposite the Dervish position and we forced it in battle order. The British Brigade on the left, the first brigade; and the second (ours) on the right. We could see the Dervish position, the trenches and the zareeba and thick woods behind, stretching to the river. I could hear the beating of the “noggaras” calling the Dervishes to arms.

Battle of Atbara : The British Advance on the Dervish Zariba Note the new British uniform of Khaki and Solar Topee

Battle of Atbara : The British Advance on the Dervish Zariba
Note the new British uniform of Khaki and Solar Topee

We advanced with bayonets fixed, drums beating and colours flying: it was a grand sight. Then the Dervish riflemen opened a biting fire from the trenches. The ground was perfectly open and descended in a gentle slope towards the Dervish position, putting us up against the skyline, as it were. I soon opened fire in return, using independent fire instead of volleys, as I do not believe in volleys at short range. After a short fire I advanced again, myself leading the centre, Lieutenant Harley* leading the right wing… I knew that when we rushed the zareeba the confusion would be very bad.

Alternately firing and rushing forward, I rapidly approached the Dervish position. The men were dropping fairly fast. … I led each rush myself, sounding the “cease fire” on my whistle, which the men obeyed very well. Then I dashed through the ranks, leading the Battalion about thirty yards ahead, the men following excellently. … A lot of men were firing as I called on the 12th to charge, waving them on. They broke into a rush with cheers we swept into the zareeba. How I wasn’t hit I don’t know.

The disorder was great when we got through the zareeba, a bickering fire was being kept up on us from the interior trenches. … It was a splendid charge. We were the first in by a long way. The day before I had determined in my own mind to be the first in and to show to everyone that the 12th were second to none. I had the chance (as I had had at Chitral) and I took advantage of it. … I now collected a crowd and rushed the second line of trenches, after keeping up a short hot fire on them. Two or three mines exploded on us: one of our men had the top of his head blown off: which make me think that they must have been a sort of fougasse loaded with stones. We kept on surging though the crowds, carrying two or three lines of trenches by rushes and arrived on the river bank. The men were drunk with excitement and fight. … I had lost my voice. The men crowded round shaking and kissing my hand and said I should be a Pasha, and now lead them to Omdurman!

The scene in the trenches was awful: dead and dying Dervishes, all black riflemen, like our own men. No quarter was given, and they did not ask it. They fought heroically, but they could not stand against our splendid Sudanese. … The losses of the Dervishes were computed at 3,000 killed and many crawled away to die in the bush. General Hunter warmly congratulated me on the 12th Sudanese, and on the way in which I had led them. After forming up the Battalion I took them back through the position to the ground whence we had started. … On reaching the high ground, the Sirdar with his staff rode up and said: “Townshend, I congratulate you.” He addressed the battalion, telling them that he was proud of them. He called for the Sergeant-Major and promoted him to be Second-Lieutenant on the spot. I have never had a prouder day, nor felt more elated in my life. It had been a proud day for me when the Queen pinned on my C.B. at Osborne. To-day was prouder, for I had been congratulated by the Commander-in-Chief on the field of battle.

* This was the same Lieutenant Harley who, together with CVFT, had found fame at the siege of Chitral, and was awarded the DSO for gallantry.

The Anglo-Egyptian force suffered 572 killed and wounded, CVFT was mentioned in despatches for a fifth time, the Baggara horsemen under Osman Digna fled the field, and Emir Mahmoud was wounded in the leg and captured. He was described as a well built and good looking young man of about twenty seven years who remained proud and defiant in captivity.

Emir Mahmud wearing Mahdist patched jibba, bloodstained from a wound in the left leg, escorted by a British officer and men of the 10th Sudanese Regiment © Imperial War Museum  IWM (HU 93852)

Emir Mahmud wearing Mahdist patched jibba, bloodstained from a wound in the left leg, escorted by a British officer and men of the 10th Sudanese Regiment
© Imperial War Museum IWM (HU 93852)

The battle of Atbara is not counted as a great British battle, but a step towards the final showdown at Omdurman and the retaking of Khartoum. There was a lull in the fighting as Kitchener continued his painstaking preparations. The railway to Atbara was completed by June, and now freed from carrying loads of railway material, Kitchener was able to bring up stores and supplies to depots at Aswan, Wadi Halfa and Fort Atbara. By mid-August the Nile was open upstream to just north of the sixth cataract, where a camp was established at Shabluka, permitting British gunboats to move upriver in support of the Ango-Egyptian troops.

The Shabluka Rapids at the Sixth Cataract of the Nile by H. Rider Haggard - Wikimedia Commons

The Shabluka Rapids at the Sixth Cataract of the Nile
by H. Rider Haggard – Wikimedia Commons

During the lull CVFT arranged a six-week leave and headed for the Hotel Imperiale in Paris.

May 8, 1898 : Paris – the home of Comte Cahen d’Anvers in the Rue de Bassano

At last we were together. I had long loved Alice Cahen D’Anvers and she loves me. Before luncheon, while we stood looking at the log fire in the library, I told her that whether I left the Sudan directly after Khartoum depended on her. If she would marry me I would leave it directly we had taken Khartoum. Then she said: “If it depends on me you will not stay in the Sudan very long.” I drew her to me and kissed her, putting my arms around her dear neck. It was worth waiting for, and all I had suffered last year, to be rewarded like this.

June 5, 1898 : The Chateau de Champs-sur-Marne – the country home of Count Cahen d’Anvers

To-day passed as a dream. I have settled all our plans, and we are to be married a month after I get home from Khartoum. Louise is so happy that I am really going to be her son. She showed me Madame de Pompadour’s room where she stayed with the King [Louis XV]. … my own adored Alice, I love her with such a passionate love. … Alice has given me such beautiful gold sleeve links with her name on them.

June 13, 1898 : Paris – Rue de Bassano

After dinner Alice whispered to me that she “had made up her mind,” and that it was all right. I found her father in the smoking room and told him that I had a confession to make to him, and that he must know what it was. He shook my hand warmly and said he quite approved of Alice’s choice and added: “You have won my favourite daughter.” I was quite touched and said: “You may trust her to me; I will be a good husband to her!” … I have given Alice an emerald and diamond ring, and she has given me a locket with the date “June 5th, 1898.”

Alice Cahen d'Anvers and CVFT at about the time of their Engagement

Alice Cahen d’Anvers and CVFT at about the time of their Engagement

CVFT returned to the Sudan preparatory to the assault on Omdurman, opposite Khartoum.

July 10, 1898

Jackson’s band do nothing but bray away from morning to night, and it is a damnable nuisance for me, as the barracks where they practice are next to mine, and I am continually having to listen to “Sally In Our Alley,” “The Bay Of Biscay Oh,” and other prehistoric tunes, generally finishing with “Abide With Me,” right through down to the “Amen.” It was most humorous to hear a black Sudanese band playing English hymn tunes such as poor old Phayre, the parson at Raynham, used to bombard us with years ago… This evening dined with Shackleton at the mess of the 14th Sudanese. I managed to keep the conversation on things at home. Theatres, hansom cabs, scarlet women. etc., for the eternal Sudan gossip is too awful.

July 27, 1898

I have the greatest admiration of the Sirdar as an organiser, the first of his day, at any rate as regards Egypt. He has repainted the map from Halfa to Khartoum, and has thrown open wide the gate to the mysteries of Central Africa and the Lakes*. … With all this, I do not think he is the man to lead an army in the field; he is not a leader of men, like Sir Redvers Buller, for instance.

* The geographical controversy surrounding the sources of the White Nile in the lakes of central Africa had been a consuming passion in Britain during the 1850’s and 1860’s. Victoria Nyanza had been established as the great reservoir of the river by John Hanning Speke in 1862, but the debate rolled on for a further thirteen years.

For purposes of navigation upstream from Egypt, it is the Blue Nile which is most significant, contributing 87% of the total flow below Khartoum, but dependent upon the timing of the seasonal rains in the Ethiopian Highlands.

Uganda postage stamp commemorating the Centenary of the Discovery of the Source of the White Nile.  The scene depics the Ripon Falls, where the Nile disgorges from the northern end of Lake Victoria (so named by Speke).

Uganda postage stamp commemorating the Centenary of the Discovery of the Source of the White Nile.
The scene depics the Ripon Falls, where the Nile disgorges from the northern end of Lake Victoria (so named by Speke).

The scene depicts the Ripon Falls, where the Nile disgorges from the northern end of Lake Victoria (so named by Speke).

August 24, 1898 : Wady Hamed

Everyone in the know at home seems to have come on the stage to take part in the final scene of the taking of Khartoum. Lord Roberts’ son is on his way to be extra orderly officer to the Sirdar. Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein is “Staff Officer of gunboats”: Frank Rhodes, Repington, Prince Francis of Teck and the son of Sir Evelyn Wood!

August 30, 1898 : Wady Hamed

The famous Winston Churchill, attached to the 21st Lancers, effected to-day the capture of a Dervish, and, exercising great control, did not shoot him. This Dervish turned ot to be one of Wingate’s most trusty villains! [i.e. a spy] Wingate was awfully annoyed.

By the beginning of September, Kitchener had brought up reserves from Suakin and had a force of 23,000 ready to take on the Khalifa’s army. On the river were six gunboats and ten steamers.

(Again a detailed account of the battle is beyond the scope of this post. We suggest: or Donald Featherstone, Omdurman 1898, Opsrey Publishing.)

Plan of the Battle of Omdurman from G.A. Henty, With Kitchener in the Soudan, 1903

Plan of the Battle of Omdurman
from G.A. Henty, With Kitchener in the Soudan, 1903

September 1, 1896 : Kerreri

It rained heavily last night. It was a night of misery. Wet and stiff, one fell in at 5.30 a.m. Marched at 5.45 a.m. Cavalry scouting in front. Topped Kerreri Hill about 10.15 a.m. and had first view of Omdurman. It was very interesting to see it in the distance, and the gunboats apparently very close to Omdurman, going along Halfiyeh Island in single fire and firing at the forts. We marched on about 3½ miles from Kerreri, and encamped in a small village on the river bank. … There was no zareeba to cut, so we entrenched ourselves. A good deep trench I made, and I am glad I did, or our losses would have been very heavy from the enemy’s fire as it afterwards proved. … In about 3 p.m. it was known that the Dervish army, which had come out of Omdurman had halted in a big plain, hidden from us by a ridge. All reports agreed it was an enormous army, about 30,000 men.

Omdurman : The 12th Sudanese Entrenched and Awaiting the Dervish Attack © National Army Museum - NAM. 1993-11-30-2

Omdurman : The 12th Sudanese Entrenched and Awaiting the Dervish Attack
© National Army Museum – NAM. 1993-11-30-2

September 1, 1896 : Battle of Omdurman

We stood to our arms at dawn, about 4 a.m. The bombardment of Omdurman by the gunboats began at 5.45. The cavalry had come out at dawn and had begun to fall back, for the whole of the Dervishes were coming on. After about an hour, the Dervish army came into sight, and a most imposing sight it was. There were masses of men in white, and masses of white turbaned heads, dense columns marching due north as if to cut off our line of retreat., a vast number of red, green and white standards, cavalry and Emirs on horseback. … They were all singing as they moved slowly across our front about 2,500 yards off, and one could see the Emirs riding up and down the columns.

Our guns then got to work, and a lively shell fire was kept up on these columns… But they never broke; they kept steadily on.

At the same time clouds of men appeared over the high ridge and hill to the south-west, and opened a heavy musketry fusillade on us. … I got the men to lie close down in the trench with which I had strengthened our front, and felt glad that we had done so.

…I turned my glasses to the mass of the enemy coming straight down on my front. On they came, running now and firing from the hip as they came. I was walking up and down the regiment, the men all lay in their trench, the rifles all ready to fire, only waiting for my order, but I was determined that not a trigger should be pulled until they were 400 yards from us.

The masses of the enemy began rushing and cheering, the Emirs leading them with flags just as one sees with the Pathans on the North-West Frontier of India. I now beagn to think that it would not do to wait until this mass got much closer, so I sang out for sights to be put at 600 yards, and then opened with heavy independent fire, and in a short while our line was all smoke and a ceaseless rattle of Martini rifles. The enemy came on till they reached 400 yards, and they seemed to enter a rain of bullets. Struck by a leaden tempest, they bundled over in heaps, and soon they stood huddled over in groups under the retaining power of the Martini Henry. I saw a brave man leading them with a large flag ( I have his flag), I have never seen a braver. Alone he came on and on, until about 150 yards from us, and then he and his flag fell like a piece of crumpled white paper on the ground, and lay motionless.

The Dervishes were now retiring, not running, but skulking away. Some of them walked off as if they were the victors. Our men were cheering now, and I got them up in the trench and we kept up our close and searching fire. No troops in the world could have lived under that fire; no Europeans would have faced it. The valour of those poor half-starved Dervishes in their patched jibbas would have graced Thermopylae…

Battle of Omdurman: The Khalifa's Army Attacking the Sirdar's Forces at Kerreri, 6.30 A.M., September 2, 1898 Illustrated London News, September 24, 1898

Battle of Omdurman: The Khalifa’s Army Attacking the Sirdar’s Forces at Kerreri, 6.30 A.M., September 2, 1898
Illustrated London News, September 24, 1898

Key to the illustration above, which is viewed from the north:

  • 1 Ruins of Gordon’s Palace in Khartoum
  • 2 Mahdi’s Tomb
  • 3 Khalifa’s Flag and Staff
  • 4 Egyptian Cavalry Coming In

I thought the battle was over, so did everyone, but we were mistaken. A large force now appeared to the north streaming over Kerreri Hill and cutting off our line of retreat. … Our guns were soon busy on the north front of our position, one of our new class gunboats went down stream at full speed, and soon the shells were searching Kerreri Hill, and the mass of Dervishes broke up and fairly fled off the hill down on to the desert side. … This force was apparently defeated, as the others had been, and we again thought the battle was over, but again we were mistaken.

Kitchener was anxious to march on Omdurman and occupy the town before the Khalifa’s forces could withdraw there. The 21st Lancers were sent ahead to clear the plain for the advancing columns. Unexpectedly they faced 2,500 Dervish infantry concealed in a depression. The Lancers drove them back in a fierce encounter and the now famous cavalry charge, in which Lieutenant Winston Churchill took part.

In the meantime, the Khalifa was able to regroup and still had about 30,000 troops in the field. He attacked from both the west and the north-west. Kitchener’s rear was protected by 3,000 Sudanese troops of Hector MacDonald’s brigade. MacDonald swung his men by companies in an arc as the Dervishes charged and by skillful manoeuvring held his ground until Kitchener could redeploy his brigades.

Orders came to march on Omdurman, and the British brigades started, our brigade being on their right, and the British next to the water. Macdonald’s and Lewis’ brigades followed, and also Collinson’s, but Macdonald and Lewis were some way out in the desert. I have since heard that these two brigades saw the new large force of the Dervishes advancing upon them, and that Macdonald, after sending messages off to the Sirdar who was with us, and the British, changed front and waited their onslaught. …very soon these two brigades were very heavily engaged with an enormous force of Dervishes with whom was the great black flag of the Khalifa. The Khalifa was not with it, however…

In the meantime we were hurrying across to the assistance of Macdonald and Lewis, who were very seriously pressed, and it looked at one time as if the Dervishes would have succeeded in getting hand to hand, in which case their numbers would have swept our people over. … Maxwell’s brigade hastily changed direction from south to west to relieve the pressure on Macdonald’s and Lewis’ brigades. … As we drew near them the fight was practically over, and the Dervishes were beginning to stream off under a fierce fire from Macdonald and Lewis. They had charged our people and came on in crowds to within 50 yards of Macdonald’s Sudanese, only to fall in heaps under our withering fire. A crowd of fanatics surrounded the large black flag of the Khalifa; and as each standard bearer was killed, another sprang to the flag. At last the flag lay on the ground, and as the brigades advanced it was picked up and taken to the Sirdar.

The plain was covered with Dervishes, keeping a long way out, and all in disorderly flight. The cavalry did not dare molest them, but the field batteries fired at them, as they moved along parallel to us.

In Khor Shumbat the whole force halted, and as there was water in the Khor we refilled. It was about one o’clock, the heat was awful and the men quite done.

Maxwell’s brigade and a British field battery were told they would have the honour of first entering the citadel of Omdurman, and accordingly we marched on, the heat very bad. Rumours reached us that the Khalifa had gone to the “sur” (the great wall forming the reduit or citadel of Omdurman), that he was praying in the mosque, and that 1,000 of his blacks were with him, and that all meant to die together.

The three regiments,12th (mine), 13th and 14th Sudanese, kept well spread out on as broad a front as possible. But as the houses began to grow closer together, and regular streets formed, we had to march in fours.

In last we reached the outside of the “sur”, or great wall. It is about 14 feet high and about 3 feet thick. However, in my opinion, the Khalifa was never there at all, and that is what the natives tell me in Omdurman now. They say that he rode straight back from the battle, drank at his house, and started off at once on fresh camels with his favourite women for the south, en route to Kordofan. Two men came running up the street from the “sur” towards us, waving a white flag, and I thought they must be messengers from the Khalifa to surrender. I advanced to meet them, taking two soldiers with me. They proved to be two Egyptians who had been in captivity since they had been taken in Hicks’ massacre in the Kordofan in ’83, and were overjoyed. …

We camped outside Omdurman to the west of the Great Mosque, at the Khalifa’s house… It is a very large house – my quarters now, and I am writing there. …

I think Gordon has been avenged now.

Khartoum! Punch, September 17, 1898

Punch, September 17, 1898

The next morning the force marched back to Khor Shumbat to encamp, the smells and  filth of Omdurman being unendurable, but order had to be restored in the city.

September 3, 1898 : Omdurman

I have been sick off my horse with the smells. Words fail one to describe them. Dead donkeys and horses and dead Dervishes!

 I am collecting rifles and guns and ammunition and storing everything in the arsenal or “Beitel Amana.” We have found ivory also, worth, I should say, about £4,000, a large quantity of armour and helmets and arms, but up to the present the Khalifa’s treasure has escaped us. …

The Mahdi’s tomb was very interesting to see. The great dome, which can be seen miles off, was knocked about by shells from the gunboats, half one side being knocked away; the same shell had wrecked the inside, while the tomb itself had suffered greatly. The green iron railing round the tomb used to be in Gordon’s garden at Khartoum.

Omdurman: The Mahdi's Tomb after the Bombardment contemporary postcard

Omdurman: The Mahdi’s Tomb after the Bombardment
contemporary postcard

On September 12th, CVFT resigned his commission in the Egyptian Army, and the British officers of the 12th Sudanese gave him a farewell dinner.

I felt very touched [by a fond farewell speech]. I have found throughout the Egyptian Army a deal of jealousy. The Sirdar had made me a Bey, and had given me command of a Sudanese regiment immediately I was appointed to the Egyptian Army, and there must have been a lot of jealousy and bad feeling about it among the older men who had been passed over for me. Naturally, I never went out of my way to please any one, and I have kept myself very much to myself. And I leave the Egyptian Army without any regrets, except admiration for the Sirdar and General Hunter, who is a gallant fellow and a leader of men. The British officers who have served under me, like me, and are, I know, my friends. I am very sad at leaving my blacks, the old 12th Sudanese. They know me: they know that I am strict in all matters of discipline, and slack on all points concerning their beloved women! And lenient on little petty faults. They like this: and they know that I lead them in a fight, that I say, “Come on,” not “Go on,” and in that lies the whole secret of of making, not only native, but European troops fight.

CVFT was to learn how it feels to be passed over himself, in Mesopotamia, some seventeen years later.

He sailed from Omdurman on September 21st, 1898 and reached Paris on October 9th, where he was met at the Gare de Lyons by the Comtesse and his fiancée. He was given three months leave. Charlie and Alice were married at the Chateau de Champs-sur-Marne on November 22nd according to the rites of the Church of England, in spite of Alice’s Jewish parentage. On December 1st, having returned to England with his new wife, he received the D.S.O. personally from Queen Victoria.

He was also working for a transfer to the line. It must be confessed that he was one of the most restless individuals in the whole of the Army. As soon as he obtained one appointment by the incessant wire pulling among his influential friends, he thirsted for a change. If he had not been also one of the luckiest young soldiers of the day (witness his chances at Hunza Nagar, at Fort Gupis, at Chitral, and again having command of a Sudanese regiment in the Omdurman campaign) he might never have emerged from the ordinary groove of alternate service in India and at home. More than once he nearly spoiled his chances by an ineradicable habit of grumbling, added to a perhaps pardonable vanity. Erroll Sherson, Townshend of Chitral and Kut, 1923

He could also be remarkably indiscreet in criticizing senior officers. Winston Churchill asked him to read the manuscript of The River War, an account of the Sudan campaign. In a letter to Churchill, far his junior in age and army rank, he was disloyal to his superiors in the Sudan: the Sirdar, who had been his personal supporter,  Major-General Sir Archibald Hunter, Kitchener’s second-in-command, ‘a gallant fellow and a leader of men’, and Major-General Hector MacDonald, suggesting that they had ‘got a reputation – perhaps greater than they can uphold.’

He was snubbed by Lord Wolseley (Commander-in-Chief of the Forces) when seeking a transfer to a line regiment, and so considered an appointment at Army Headquarters Staff at Simla. But, at the age of thirty eight he was too old too complete staff college and obtain the prestigious psc (passed staff college). Instead, he applied for and was granted a further six months leave with pay and postponed his departure for India.

At this time the affairs of the Townshend family were in a sorry state. There were two principal properties, Balls Park, Hertford, which was let to Sir G. Faudel Phillips, and Raynham Hall, Norfolk, which was heavily mortgaged. CVFT was keen to save Raynham Hall, which had been in the Townshend Family since the reign of Edward III, but he was less interested in Balls Park. He consulted his father-in-law, but although nothing was concluded at the time, in the end Sir G. Faudel Phillips bought Balls Park. The affairs of Raynham Hall were left for a future date.

Balls Park, Hertford  (now converted into residential apartments) Creative Commons image

Balls Park, Hertford
(now converted into residential apartments)
Creative Commons image

In mid-April 1899, he brought his wife over from Paris and they settled in London at Park Place, St. James’s.

Unrest was growing in South Africa, and CVFT once again saw an opportunity of being close to the action, should active operations be commenced against the Boers. He wrote to Sir Redvers Buller, a relation, married to Audrey, daughter of the 4th Marquess Townshend. Buller was soon to be appointed commander of the Natal Field Force. But these overtures were overtaken by events when, on July 13th, he received a telegram in the name of the Commander-in-Chief, India offering him the post of Deputy Assistant-Adjutant-General, Punjabi Army. He accepted this prestigious staff appointment without awaiting a response from Redvers Buller.

July 13, 1899 : Park Place

I go out to India in October from Marseilles in P.&O. ‘Egypt’. This going to the Staff will suit me very well. I can work to effect my exchange to a Line regiment and join the next regiment at the expiration of my Staff appointment.

August 1st, 1899 : Park Place

Sir Redvers Buller told Lord St. Levan [a relation, married to Elizabeth Clementina, another daughter of the 4th Marquess Townshend] that he was glad I had been given this staff appointment. I put my foot in the stirrup, and I had now a big career in front of me.

October 5, 1899 : Paris

Alice and I came up from Champs to Rue de Bassano, having arranged to dine together and say good-bye, as I am leaving Marseilles the same night. I went to the Rue Tocqueville to say good-bye also to Lord Townshend [the 5th Marquess], and I was glad to get away. He broke down at our interview and cried. He told me that he had been very ill and from what the doctors told him he might go off at any time.

On board the P&O Egypt he had the company of his former brigade commander in the Sudan, Hector Macdonald, with whom he discussed the situation in South Africa. On his arrival in Bombay he was greeted with a telegram from the Military Secretary to the Commander-in-Chief, stating, “Sorry vacancy could not be kept open longer. You should rejoin your regiment. Your claims will however not be overlooked when opportunities offer”. Not to be stymied by a mere military secretary to a commander-in-chief, CVFT came to Simla to make his case to his old acquaintance, Lord Curzon, now Viceroy.

He was quite glad to see me , and Lady Curzon was also very nice to me. We had a long chat and much laughter, the Viceroy referring to the famous supper I stood him at the Savoy in ’95 when he was on one side of Arthur Roberts and Kitchener on the other.

He told Curzon that his Punjab appointment had been filled whilst he was at home, without being told, and that in consequence he had lost the opportunity of going to the Cape with Buller.

…he showed me a wire to the Military Secretary to the Commander-in Chief, which said I had seen the Viceroy, and that his Excellency hoped the matter would be put right for me.

However, upon arrival in Simla he received news that the 5th Marquess Townshend had died three weeks earlier, by which he became heir presumptive to the title and the Townshend estates. As the estates where in some disorder, he applied for leave to return to England, and after much understandable difficulty in obtaining further leave, he returned to London via Paris and a visit to his wife. On January 21st, 1900, his first and only child, Audrey Dorothy Alice Louise, was born in Bromley, Kent.

Audrey Townshend from A.J. Barker, Townshend of Kut, 1967

Audrey Townshend
from A.J. Barker, Townshend of Kut, 1967

With the opportunity of action and possible advancement in the Cape, CVFT went to the India Office in London to request a transfer to ‘special service ‘ in South Africa. The response from India was uncompromising: Major and Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Townshend may not go to South Africa. By Indian Army Regulations, Volume XXIV, paragraph 743, an officer of the Indian Army may NOT volunteer for service outside India. Eventually, by much string pulling and an intervention once again by Lord Curzon, CVFT received a cable from India sanctioning his application for ‘special service’ in South Africa. On February 8th, 1900, he sailed from Southampton for Cape Town aboard the troopship, Armenian. He took with him an official letter from General Sir Evelyn Wood (Adjutant-General to the Forces) recommending his appointment as an Assistant-Adjutant-General in the rank of full Colonel in the South African Field Force. He was now thirty-nine years old.

Charles Townshend, who had not earned a penny of his pay since November 1898, had travelled around the world at public expense, had claimed extra leave for unfulfilled family business, had dallied in France and manipulated the system entirely to his advantage and satisfaction, was for the moment – but only briefly – content.   N.S. Nash, Chitral Charlie, 2010

The journey to Cape Town took over a month, and when the Armenian dropped anchor in Table Bay on March 1st, 1900, CVFT encountered an air of celebration, following a series of reversals at the hands of the Boers:

We passed the ‘Majestic’ at anchor. She was about a quarter of a mile away and crowded with troops. They flag-wagged from the bridge as we were passing: “Ladysmith relieved! Cronje and 4,000 Boers taken prisoners!” Tremendous cheering broke from our soldiers when they knew. Table Bay was studded with ships. I never saw so many ships together. Huge liners and dirty-looking ocean tramps and large sailing ships laden with coal lay side by side at anchor.

Table Mountain shown from across Table Bay, Cape Town Second Boer War 1899-1902  © Imperial War Museum (Q 71989)

Table Mountain shown from across Table Bay, Cape Town
Second Boer War 1899-1902
© Imperial War Museum (Q 71989)

CVFT’s cousin by marriage, General Sir Redvers Buller, had been replaced as Commander-in-Chief by Field Marshall Lord Roberts in January, 1900, but Kitchener was Roberts’ Chief-of-Staff, and Kitchener was a Townshend supporter. CVFT also came with Sir Evelyn Wood’s letter of recommendation which he duly forwarded to Kitchener.

He was ordered to proceed direct to the Orange River, but on arrival there were no further orders awaiting him. So, eager as ever, he bypassed official channels and telegraphed to Lord Methuen, whom he had known in London, and was instructed to proceed to Kimberley.

Southern  Africa during the Second Boer War, 1899-1902 Courtesy of the Autralian War Memorial:

Southern Africa during the Second Boer War, 1899-1902
Courtesy of the Autralian War Memorial:

CVFT’s miltary career in South Africa was a short one. At Kimberley he was welcomed by Lord Methuen who was preparing for the relief of Mafeking and would have welcomed an experienced soldier like CVFT. However, there was no appointment for him there, and Headquarters even questioned CVFT’s very presence in South Africa. He was then directed to Bloemfontein to act as Assistant-Adjutant-General to Major-General George Pretyman, the Military Governor. He arrived in Bloemfontein on March 16th, to take up his first staff appointment. This involved long periods of office work for which he was ill-suited.

March 19, 1900 : Bloemfontein

I have been quill-driving from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with one hour for lunch. General Pretyman took me into his office and discussed the work to be done, and it is a very big job indeed. [Bloemfontein had only just fallen to the British, on 13th March, and was a strategically important centre on the railway line to Cape Town] The General told me that all the troops will be in my command, also the civil part of the Government of the country, [the Orange Free State] customs, schools, trade, etc. … I am afraid I shall not see any fighting, but the work will be the most important I have ever done and give me a great responsibility.

March 21, 1900 : Bloemfontein

Went round all the public buildings in Bloemfontein with the Military Governor, including barracks, powder magazines, schools and a museum.

April 3, 1900 : Bloemfontein

I find this office work very wearisome, I am at it all day. Not a moment even to write a private letter: and it is very difficult to get through any real work as the office is crowded all day with people wanting to see me on all sorts of subjects.

As April 1900 progressed he became ever more disgruntled.

Townshend’s restlessness overtook him once more at the time when the more optimistic among the soldiers though that the war was drawing to a close, though it had yet a year to run. In spite of his hopes for a transfer to the Line with the possibility of a command of some kind in England, we now find him writing to Lord Chermside to beg his remembrance of him, in case of his getting the administration of the Transvaal after the war. So that at one and the same moment he is asking for a command at home and for a billet in South Africa!   Erroll Sherson, Towshend of Chitral and Kut, 1928

On May 29th, his wife, Alice, and her mother arrived at Cape Town. At about the same time he received intelligence that his transfer to the Bedfordshire Regiment had been sanctioned. He thereupon wrote to Lord Landsdowne, the Secretary of State for War, and requested a transfer to the Irish Guards in preference to the slightly down-market Bedfordshires. Incredibly, Lord landsdowne found the time to reply to what would for most soldiers have been a most impertinent request. However, the Irish Guards was a request too far: instead he accepted a major’s appointment in the Royal Fusiliers. On August 19th, he received orders to join the 2nd Battalion of his new regiment, and he left South Africa and the tedious life of a staff officer less than seven months after his arrival.

The Kildonan Castle, with the Townshends aboard, arrived in Southampton on October 5th, 1900. After reporting at the War Office and an interview with Sir Evelyn Wood he paid a short visit to Dover to meet his new colonel and officers of the Royal Fusiliers.

October 22, 1900 : Dover

My new uniform finished this morning by Johns and Pegg of 2 Clifford Street, and I got down to Dover in time to dress for mess, finding myself in a red coat again which I had not worn since I left the Marines for the India Staff Corps in January, 1886.

Four days after he rejoined his new regiment he asked for leave to go to Paris to see the end of the Paris Exhibition, and was refused. Notwithstanding his brevet rank he now returned to the status and duties of a major. Instead of being at the centre of a theatre of war in South Africa, he now found himself undertaking the routine soldiering of a home regiment. He notes in his diary:

I am now finding out what damned nonsense soldiering at home is. … My work consists of inspecting the kits of recruits, in fact keeping them clean, and listening to the tirades of a terrible C.O. of Infantry in the Orderly Room. One lives on Courts Martial and on Boards; and I never saw such a place as Dover for rain.

He did not get along with his new C.O., Lieutenant-Colonel Annesley, and matters were not improved when Annesley turned-down CVFT’s request to command the guard of honour provided by the Royal Fusiliers in Queen Victoria’s funeral procession.

He tried pulling strings to get back to South Africa or into the Egyptian Army, but to no avail. Lord Landsdowne advised him not to move just yet, and he received a snub from the Military Secretary to the Commander-in-Chief in which he was informed that: it is not desirable for officers to urge their own advancement in the manner in which you have continued to do for some time past in private letters to the Military Secretary, and … such claims should be put forward by an officer on full pay through the usual channels of communication.

February 20 : 1901

The Colonel I find is trying to “twist my tail”… He has given me the regimental workshops accounts as well as the company accounts, and I am given no subaltern!

In the middle of April CVFT was transferred to Hounslow, to command the Royal Fusiliers Depot. He took up residence in Hounslow Barracks, which was not normal practice for a commanding officer. He found time to attend to Townshend family affairs: he hoped for financial support from his father-in-law, the Comte Cahen d’Anvers, but eventually Balls Park was sold to the sitting tenant and Stiffkey Hall was let.

On June 12th, 1902 he sailed for Canada having gained two months leave to make a survey of the routes which the United States would take were it to invade – a seemingly unlikely occurrence. In fact, he spent a good deal of time in Quebec researching Major-General James Wolfe’s campaign to defeat the French in Canada in 1759, and the military career of an illustrious forbear. Later that year John Murray published his book, Military Life Of Field-Marshal George First Marquess Townshend, 1724-1807.

He did not return to duties with the Royal Fusiliers until January 1903, spending the intervening period on leave in France.

December 25, 1902 : Champs-sur-Marne

…great Christmas tree and day of toys for the children. Little Audrey is the prettiest little fairy ever seen, and all envy me on her account. …

On January 7th, 1903, he learned that he was to be transferred to the 1st Battalion, then serving in Burma. CVFT was pleased to be returning to India, and he and his wife, Alice, sailed for Rangoon aboard the Assaye on March 6th. Before departing England he had made soundings for another staff appointment in preference to continued regimental duties. However, on reached Aden he discovered that there was no such appointment available.

April 6, 1903 : on the Irrawaddy River, Rangoon

We were at anchor in the stream at Rangoon at 9 a.m., and after two hours of monkey tricks and chinoiserie about plague inspections by the port doctor, the steamer was allowed to go in alongside the quay. … Alice of course dragged me out to see the great Pagoda of Shive Dagon and other pagodas; and the Burmese, Chinese, Indian and Portuguese bazaars and quarters of the city. I like the look of the Burmans, pretty well-built girls, many of them decidedly handsome and beautifully made, with glossy black hair.

Colonel Cooper, commanding the 1st Battalion, gave CVFT command of a detachment of 200 men at Thayetmyo, south of Mandalay.

June 1, 1903 : Thatetmyo

Arrived at Thayetmyo and assumed command. Very good barracks for the men.

… my men are of fine physique, and look very serviceable in field dress, with putties and khaki trousers cut short so as to show bare knees

On the Irrawaddy River

On the Irrawaddy River

The routine of life in Thayetmyo was broken by hunting trips in the jungle, and by occasional visitors arriving by boat, when CVFT entertained his guests on the banjo.

Early in November the Royal Fusiliers were moved from Burma to Bengal. His wife went on ahead of him, and on his arrival in Calcutta he was made the President of the Defence Committee. He was tasked with drawing up a plan to protect the city in the event of civil disturbance or rebellion, an indication that the events of 1857 were still alive in the minds of the Indian government. He completed the task in one month, not the three he was allocated. There can be no doubt of CVFT’s capacity for hard work.

In January, 1904 he was made a brevet-colonel. This was followed by an interview with Lord Kitchener (now Commander-in-Chief, India) – he had had a earlier meeting with Kitchener in Paris on October 19th, 1902.

January 7, 1904 : Calcutta

…he [Kitchener] was very cheery, and asked me to sit down, saying that he was very glad to see me. …. I told him that I had heard from Colonel Haldane about my Brevet-Colonelcy. He congratulated me and said I was on his list for an AAG*, which would come shortly. I told him I would sooner have the command of a regiment than be on the staff, and he promised to help me to the utmost of his power…


Kitchener was a capable man and a shrewd judge of character. He recognised that the younger man was a competent, gallant and resourceful leader, and that those soldierly characteristics went to balance his disagreeable and unattractive ambition.   N.S. Nash, Chitral Charlie, 2010

Events moved quickly and on 30th January, 1904 he took over as acting AAG in Calcutta. Once again he found the routine work tedious. On February 14th, he was sent to Lucknow to act as AAG for the Oudh District. Lucknow had been one of the centres of rebellion during the Indian Mutiny (Sepoy Rebellion / Indian Uprising) in 1857, and here he carried out similar tasks to those he had undertaken in Calcutta.

March 8, 1904

Visited the Residency. Spent a most interesting time. The old residency, in ruins, stands silently among its trees and lawns much pitted and riddled with shells… In the cemetery adjacent to the Residency buildings the dead lie thick. All the officers with the well-known names one has read of so often lie there, including the gallant Brigadier Neill with 300 officers, N.C.O.’s and men of his regiment (Madras Fusiliers), who were killed in action relieving Lucknow. Sir Henry Lawrence’s tomb is marked: “Here lies Sir Henry Lawrence who tried to do his duty. May the Lord have mercy on his soul. Also many names of ladies.

The ruined Residency at Lucknow

The ruined Residency at Lucknow

On reaching home, he found a telegram from his father-in-law, Count Cahen d’Anvers, saying that he had bought many pictures at the sale of the Raynham heirlooms, including the best, thereby saving them for the Townshend family.

CVFT had another meeting with Kitchener in November 1904 during which he pressed his case for command of a regiment. However, this time Kitchener was less accommodating than previously, being wearied with CVFT’s persistent letter writing to advance his career.

The routine work in Lucknow continued for the rest of 1904, but in December the Royal Fusiliers were ordered to England. They arrived back on January 18th, 1905, and while Alice joined her family in Paris CVFT returned briefly to the theatres and night life of London. He rejoined his regiment at Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight. Then, with the prospect of the Hounslow Depot in view once again, he had a stroke of good fortune; the newly appointed British Military Attaché to Paris had gone sick. Through frantic use of his many connections he obtained the appointment. He commented: ‘It would be more interesting than commanding at Hounslow!’

He arrived in Paris to take up his post on July 1st, 1905. It was desk work, but his wife and daughter were close to her parents; the theatre was on offer every evening; and the social life of a Military Attaché was glittering.

News reached him that his cousin, the 6th Marquess Towshend, had married for the first time on August 9th, at the age of thirty-eight. CVFT remained heir presumptive, but any issue to the marriage would deny him the title.

CVFT’s term as Military Attaché ended on October 1st, 1905. He obtained two months leave on the understanding that he would then rejoin the Royal Fusiliers on the Isle of Wight. In the meantime, the 6th Marquess had begun selling more of the family heirlooms: he was declared unfit to manage his own affairs and Raynham was put into the management of a committee of trustees for the benefit of future generations.

He was released from the command of his company on the Isle of Wight when, on February 23rd, 1906 he was posted to be second-in-command of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry at Fyzabad in India. He joined his new regiment on April 16th. He visited Kitchener at Simla who advised him to stick to the regiment for the present. In July he was appointed Acting Brigadier of the Allahabad Brigade, returning to the Shropshires in October. In July, 1907, he had the good fortune to be appointed AAG, 9th Division, at Secunderabad, under the highly regarded General James Wolfe Murray. With Murray’s support, on February 4th, 1908, CVFT was gazetted substantive colonel: a rank which could only be removed through death or dishonour. However, at the age of forty-seven, in spite of his ambition, he was not distinguishable from many of his army peers. His opportunity for advancement came in February, 1909, when he was offered command of the Orange River Colony District with the rank of brigadier-general, providing that he took up immediate appointment.

CVFT took up his command on May 14th, 1909. He found himself living in the same residence in Bloemfontein formerly occupied by General Pretyman, with whom he had not seen eye-to-eye in 1900.

Bloemfontein, Orange River Colony, in 1906

Bloemfontein, Orange River Colony, in 1906

At Bloemfontein itself the garrison consisted of a regiment of cavalry, two battalions of infantry, a brigade of field artillery, and a company of Royal Engineers. At Harrismith, artillery, mounted infantry and Army Service Corps; and at Pietermaritzburg, in the heart of Natal, the 3rd Battalion of his old regiment, the Royal Fusiliers. Additionally, he was required to administer the district which his brigade garrisoned.

Townshend was politically aware and he went to pains to be amicable to the Boers who, although defeated some seven years before, still nursed deep wounds. Between 1909 and 1911 the Townshends went about the King’s business in Bloemfontein with style. Alice added grace and charm and Audrey was growing into an attractive and confident young woman. Professionally the job was not demanding and there were only three significant events. The first of these was the death of King Edward VII on 6 May, 1910.

This was a matter of international significance and a memorial service was held on 20 May. Townshend sent an embarrasingly obsequious telegram to Lord Crewe, Secretary of State for the Colonies.

It is difficult to describe the deep loyalty and devotion manifested by all classes of the Orange River Colony population, represented by the great crowds at Bloemfontein, together with all the troops in garrison, for the strikingly impressive memorial service to our late King today.

N.S. Nash, Chitral Charlie, 1910

Orange River Colony, postage stamp of King Edward VII

Orange River Colony, postage stamp of King Edward VII

On May 31st, 1910, the Union of South Africa came into being, created from the former British colonies of Cape Colony, Natal Colony, Transvaal Colony, and Orange River Colony, and CVFT’s role as an administrator came to an end. However, there were still military manoeuvres planned for August to be watched by Lord Methuen, Commander-in-Chief, South Africa, and the ceremonial opening of the new Union Parliament in Cape Town by the Duke and Duchess of Connaught in October. CVFT’s own review in Bloemfontein was a great success and the Duchess remembered him from a meeting in India twenty years previously. He was awarded the Union Medal, and reported the opinion of Lord Methuen that he would be promoted very soon, that he would be very sorry to lose him, as would everyone, as no one could be more popular with the troops.

Postage Stamp commemorating the Union of South Africa, 1910

Postage Stamp commemorating the Union of South Africa, 1910

He went on leave to France where he met Commandant Mardacq, whose book on military strategy CVFT had translated into English. CVFT was by now becoming an authority on military history and strategy himself. Mardacq introduced him to General Foch, who was at this time Commandant of the Ecole de Guerre.

May 4, 1911 : Paris

General Foch asked me if I knew how many army corps the Germans will put into line. … Did England contemplate the annexation of Belgium and the sea-board with equanimity? It was a case where England, france and Belgium must fight together for existence. he said, “we do not want to conquer: we want to live and it is time everyone understood this”.

CVFT had hoped his promotion would come through and obviate the necessity of returning to South Africa, but it did not and he was back in Bloemfontein on June 23rd. However, on July 21st, 1911, he was promoted to Major-General. On September 20th, he and Alice left South Africa for the last time.

They reached England on October 7th, and shortly afterwards received an offer from the War Office of the command of the Home Counties Division of the Territorial Force. What he really wanted was command of a regular division. However, he was prevailed upon to accept the appointment because other candidates for promotion had been passed over for him. He did not have to take up his new command until April, 1912, and in the meantime he went to France.

On September 23rd, he was transferred to the Command of the East Anglian Division, and was delighted to be able to base himself in Norfolk. He took the opportunity to buy Vere Lodge, a comfortable early nineteenth-century house close to Raynham Hall. It was to become his permanent home following the First World War. During this time he maintained regular contact with Mardacq and Foch.

His plans for training schemes for the Territorials came up against unforseen difficulties:

The members of the Territorial Force themselves are principally to blame. Their one idea seems to be to train on the esplanade of some seaside resort. I could have trained them at Thetford, but am given to understand that the want of amusement (cinemas, theatres, etc.) in that locality caused it to be so unpopular with the Territorials when General Byng trained them there before, that it lessened the number of recruits. Lots of them would leave. Everyone, in short, seemed to be in collusion to arrange for a “good time” when out for training.

NB The 54th (East Anglian) Division landed at Suvla on August 10th in the Gallipoli Campaign, as a part of IX Corps under Lieutenant-General Stopford. It was moved to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under General Murray in late 1916 and garrisoned the southern part of the Suez Canal.

Perhaps, a general who had trained warrior Dogras, Gurkhas, Sikhs, and Sudanese, was not the man best suited to English part-timers out for a good time.

To escape the Territorials he accepted another command in India. On June 30th, 1913, he took over an infantry brigade consisting of a battalion of the Berkshire Regiment and two Indian regiments based at Jhansi. He set about a programme of training:

Although certain periods are set apart for squadron, battery and company work, I propose to hold occasionally a tactical exercise of the three armies in the field in order to supplement the training of field officers imparted in tactical exercises on the map.

Recognizing their increasing importance in leading forward young soldiers under gun and rifle fire, he also issued orders for N.C.O.’s to attend the evening conferences of officers at the camp of exercise. He also thought that N.C.O’s should occasionally be entrusted with the command of a company. He wrote a stream of brigade training directives which were considered in some quarters to be unorthodox, and for which he was rebuked by General Sir Percy Lake, Chief-of-General Staff, India. In 1916, in Mesopotamia, the destinies of these two men would become inextricable intertwined.

However, his methods found praise elsewhere, notably from General Sir John Nixon, G.O.C. India’s Southern Army, and Sir Beauchamp Duff, Commander-in-Chief, India. These two men were to become prominent figures in the Mesopotamian Campaign, men upon whom CVFT and the officers and men of the 2nd Norfolk Battalion would have to depend.

Early in April, 1914 he took command of the Rawalpindi Brigade, back in the Punjab where he had seen action as a young officer.

…The country here is well wooded, pretty and green. The Murree Hills and the snow-capped Himalayas look wonderfully close.What reminiscences they bring back to me! My return from Chitral through Kashmir and Murree, and to Pindi on my way home nineteen years ago! But how long it seems!…

The Murree Hills above Rawalpindi

The Murree Hills above Rawalpindi

As war approached, CVFT wanted, as always, to be close to the action. He telegraphed Sir John French requesting him to find a command for him in France when the seemingly inevitable happened. He asked his wife to use her contacts to advance his claim to a wartime command. After war was declared on August 4th, 1914, he petitioned Lord Kitchener directly, but felt that he was being kept at arms length in India. A letter from Alice Townshend to CVFT makes clear her understanding of his impatience:

Brown’s Hotel, London

My darling Boy,

I am worrying myself to death about you in particular and the war news in general. I was so desperate I came up here the day before yesterday to see if I could do anything more for you. They all tell me you are bound to come home in time. Lord K,’s speech is the proof that he considers it will last a very long time, and he is determined to give an army to England. Of course that is your chance. … No news at all from my brothers and they are all at the front. Every precaution is being taken along the East Coast. Norwich is full of soldiers and so is Holt and Felixstowe. …

Heaps and heaps of love and how I wish for these lines not to reach you! …

There is no doubt that, whilst CVFT had an eye for a pretty lady, his marriage to Alice was a sincere love match, and they were as devoted to each other as they were to their daughter, Audrey.

There is little question that CVFT was being kept in India for a purpose. He was an experienced soldier who knew the North-West Frontier. The defeats inflicted on the Allies was the talk of the bazaars, and the Government of India feared that disaffected tribes along the Afghan border would take the opportunity to rebel. In Rawalpindi there was genuine fear of an organized rising and talk of a second mutiny among the Sikhs. CVFT approached the matter calmly and directly: when the 35th Sikhs were suspected, he addressed the Sikh officers calmly and directly, speaking of his own time with the 14th Sikhs at Chitral. He showed his faith in them by having a guard of 35th Sikhs placed over his own quarters. In fact, he never trusted them one little bit, but by putting his life in their hands he bluffed them.

To keep up the spirits of the British in Pindi he entertained a good deal and gave parties. At times of danger he made light of the situation but took the most stringent precautions. He never lost his head or let the Indians think that he distrusted them.

On March 19th, 1915, Sir John Nixon was appointed to command an expedition to the Persian Gulf for advance through Mesopotamia and he asked for CVFT as a special service officer. In last, on  April 12th, 1915, he received a telegram from the Commander-in-Chief at Simla: I have selected you to command of one of the Divisions now in force. Order will follow. Two days later he received the order to join the 6th Division in Mesopotamia leaving by boat from Karachi on April 17th.

His final act at Pindi was to to issue an order to the troops in garrison in which he thanked them “for their fine soldierly conduct and discipline in a most trying time.” He loved his men and was grateful for their support, and they loved him too as few commanders have been loved.   Erroll Sherson, Townshend of Chitral and Kut, 1928


Part 3 of Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, from 1914 till 1924, will follow in the autumn of 2016.


One thought on “Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend – pt 2

  1. Pingback: The internet is a wonderful place… – Norfolk in World War One

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