The incomparable Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1842-1885)
In 1876 Fred Burnaby returned from an epic winter-ride on horseback and by sledge to the Khanate of Khiva, in the heart of central Asia. His book, A Ride to Khiva, was an instant hit and ran to eleven editions in the space of a year. On Horseback through Asia Minor, written after a similar journey the following year, this time to Kars in north-eastern Anatolia, was equally successful. Before this he was hardly unknown, and at 6 feet 4 inches tall in his stockinged feet was one of the most striking figures on the London scene, much in demand by society hostesses. As a captain in the prestigious Royal Horse Guards, the Blues, his military duties were largely ceremonial, with months of leave available each year for the arduous journeys he loved to undertake. He was not, however, a ‘carpet knight’, the disparaging term applied to those who joined crack regiments for the social cachet, with no expectation of ever facing danger. In fact, he searched actively for opportunities to place himself in the line of fire.
After recovering from a bad bout of typhoid in 1873, his idea of convalescence was to spend three months as a war correspondent for The Times in north-west Spain, with the revolutionary forces of Don Carlos, the Duke of Madrid and Pretender to the Spanish throne. In theory a non-combatant, he nevertheless found himself in the front line at the battles of Allo, Dicastillo, Maneru and Viana. Within a few feet of him at Dicastillo, calmly facing a murderous volley from an attack by government forces, one man was shot dead, and an officer had his ear cut off by a bullet. When inspecting forward positions at Maneru with Don Carlos, also over six feet tall, the enemy artillery would happily run up a cannon, just to lob a few shells at them.
Fred had an even closer brush with death in early 1878, when he ‘happened’ to find himself in Bulgaria with his old friend Valentine Baker Pasha. Baker had been cashiered from the British Army for assault on a lady in a railway carriage, but Burnaby and other friends stuck up for him and by 1877 Baker was a senior officer in the army of the Ottoman Empire. On the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War he was given the command of a small force and instructed to protect the rear while the main army retreated. Despite overwhelming odds, Baker narrowly won a famous victory with the might of the Russian Army arrayed against him. Burnaby, having ostensibly travelled out to inspect hospitals on behalf of the Stafford House Committee, was at his side as an ‘adviser’ throughout. Armed only with a large stick and wearing a bowler hat, Fred was an obvious target, but somehow survived while people alongside whom he was standing failed to do so. Count Peter Schuvalov, whom Burnaby had met in St. Petersburg, was on the opposing side at Tashkessan and thought him ‘quite mad’. The retreat of Baker’s force across the frozen Rhodope Mountains to the Aegean coast was almost as great a military feat, and Burnaby, with his stick, kept the laggards moving in the terrible conditions. The Russians, who by this time were quite fed-up with him, issued an order that any British soldier over six feet in height was to be shot on sight.
Fred stood for parliament as a Conservative in the General Election of 1880 – many serving soldiers, particularly Guards officers, then sat as Members of Parliament. The seat he decided to contest was more unlikely, the Liberal heartland of Birmingham. Standing against a highly organised party apparatus, he never stood any real chance against the likes of Joseph Chamberlain and John Bright, but his performance was creditable and enhanced his political credentials, notwithstanding a brand of far-right Toryism that was already becoming outdated. His political hero was undoubtedly Lord Randolph Churchill, and along with Churchill, Drummond Wolff and others, he was one of the founding members of the Primrose League in 1882. Now almost forgotten, in its day the League generated massive grass-roots support for the Conservative cause amongst the recently enfranchised classes.
In 1882 the Blues were called upon to supply a detachment to the Heavy Camel Regiment that was to serve in the Egyptian Expedition sent to quell the Arabi revolt. Burnaby, by then Lieutenant-Colonel commanding his regiment and too senior to be included, was frustrated that he was not able to participate. A little under two years later he determined to take matters into his own hands when further problems arose in the nearby Sudan. His old friend Valentine Baker was by then in charge of the Egyptian gendarmerie and was called upon to put down an uprising inspired the Mahdi near the Red Sea port of Suakin. Fred arrived just in time to join Baker’s woefully undertrained force, which was thoroughly routed at the first battle of El Teb in February 1884. Burnaby and Baker were among the few European officers who survived. The British now became officially involved and Burnaby and Baker were both invited to tag along as ‘intelligence officers’ with a much stronger force a few weeks later. Both were badly injured in the second battle of El Teb, where Fred became famous, or infamous, depending on one’s perspective, for using a shotgun rather than a conventional firearm. Arriving at home with his arm in a sling, Fred was more famous than ever.
His next adventure was to be his last. Fred’s military hero was General Lord Wolseley and, despite opposition from the War Office, Fred contrived to find himself on the banks of the Nile in December 1884, where Wolseley had no hesitation in accepting his services for the Gordon Relief Exhibition. On the desert march to Khartoum, where he had visited Gordon a decade earlier, he was killed in hand-to-hand fighting at the Battle of Abu Klea. Quite what he was doing outside of the defensive square was unclear, but his sabre was no match for the long spears of the Mahdi’s forces.
When news of his death reached London, Queen Victoria took a sharp intake of breath and wrote in her diary of ‘poor, strange Burnaby’. The papers devoted not column inches, but pages to his obituaries. The music halls resounded to songs about ‘Brave Burnaby’ and Madame Tussauds featured his enormous waxwork figure. Burnaby’s exploits make some of Harry Flashman’s look tame, and he deserves to be better remembered.
© John Walter Hawkins
John Hawkins has edited and written the introduction to ‘Fred’ – The Collected Letters and Speeches of Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby Volume 1: 1842-1878. The book will be reviewed later this month and is available to buy now.