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The walls of Britain’s Cathedrals and churches are festooned with memorials to young men who died in remote colonial skirmishes. The places and circumstances are long forgotten, and most of the regiments have long since been disbanded. Kipling refers to this waste of talent and prospects in “Arithmetic on the Frontier,” which mentions
A scrimmage in a Border Station —
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail. [Note. A Jezail is a locally manufactured Afghan rifle.]
William Gordon Cameron
The memorial to Lieutenant William Cameron. The memorial in Christchurch Priory, Dorset, is perhaps unusual for the particularly fine representation of the Cameron Highlanders’ feather bonnet, the sword and scabbard and the regimental crest below.
William was born in Poona [modern Pune] India in 1865, the son of a military officer who would become a General. He had 6 sisters and 3 brothers. One brother Neville would command a Brigade in the Great War and another, Napier, would die in the first few weeks of that conflict. An article in the Daily Mirror in 2012 showed that 8 generations of the family had served in the army.
For the circumstances of Cameron’s death I have turned to 79th’ (Cameron Highlanders) regimental history (pp. 183-190). The regiment had been in Egypt for some years and had travelled south as part of the expedition to save General Gordon who was trapped in Khartoum. But
on the 28th of January  the sad news of the fall of Khartoum and the death of the heroic General Gordon was communicated ...by Lord Wolseley. The splendid efforts of the desert and river columns had been in vain.......It had now been definitely decided to withdraw the Nile expedition, and accordingly a frontier field force, consisting of the 20th Hussars, West Kent, Stafford, and Yorkshire regiments, and the Cameron Highlanders, was formed ...to hold the Soudan frontier.
The regiment was then sent south past the temple of Abu Simbel (now a World Heritage Site) to the northern Sudanese town of Wadi Halfa (much of which disappeared under water when the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s). At the time the ‘new’ railway south of Wadi Halfa across the desert (begun in the 1890s and shown on the 1914 map) had not been built. Instead there was a small single track railway started in 1874 which ran close to the Nile and was extended as far as Akasha in 1884.
Left: The Nile from Wadi Halfa to Dongola showing Kosha (indicated by red triangle) where Cameron died. Right: 1914 map of the Sudan. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Kosheh [Kosha on the map] was a small brick fort 113 miles to the south of Wadi Halfa, and was the most advanced British post in the Soudan. The garrison of Kosheh now consisted of 1 troop of the 20th Hussars, 1 troop of Mounted Infantry, a few British and Egyptian Artillerymen, the Cameron Highlanders, and 100 men of the 9th Soudan battalion... 150 [men] from the same battalion... occupied the zeriba [improvised stockade] on the west bank. Mograkeh was held by the 3rd battalion of the Egyptian army...and some of the Egyptian Camel Corps. The armed steamers Lotus and Shaban patrolled the river. [Lotus and Shaban were stern wheel paddle steamers].
On the 1st of December information was received that a force of the enemy had moved round to the rear, had torn up a mile of the railway between Ambigole and Akasheh [Akasha], and had attacked the fortified post at Ambigole Wells. On the 3rd of December the Arabs made a reconnaissance to within 700 yards of the fort, but the garrison did not open fire, hoping that they would commit themselves to an attack.
On the 5th of December the enemy advanced on both banks of the river and occupied a ridge of sandhills on the west bank and the village of Absari, which was about 800 yards from Kosheh fort on the east bank. From this date the dervishes kept up an almost ceaseless fire of artillery and musketry upon the fort and zeriba, occasioning many casualties in the garrison. When it became evident that they did not mean to attack in earnest, but to harass and annoy the garrison with their fire, internal defences, traverses, magazines, and covered ways were constructed to protect the men as far as possible. The garrison was also divided into three watches, so that one-third was always available, night and day, to repel any sudden attack and to return the enemy's incessant fire.
On the 16th of December "F" and "H" companies, under Lieutenant-Colonel Everett, were sent out at 6 a.m. to make a demonstration against the enemy occupying the village of Absari. As the companies approached the dervishes opened a heavy fire from the loopholed houses, which was vigorously replied to. Lieutenant Riach, with Lance-Sergeant Murray, Corporal Macrae, and Privates Gray and King, moving by the bank of the river, attacked a party of the enemy concealed behind some black rocks in the nullah [dry river bed] between Kosheh and Absari, and killed fourteen of them. In doing this, Lieutenant Riach had a very narrow escape, as a bullet, fired by a dervish from the top of the rocks, passed through his helmet, removing some of his hair. Corporal Macrae was wounded in the hand. Having advanced close to the village the companies retired again under cover of the guns in the fort. In this reconnaissance the Cameron Highlanders had Major Chalmers (severely), Lieutenant W. G. Cameron (fatally), and four rank and file wounded. Major Archibald Hunter, 9th battalion Egyptian army, was also very dangerously wounded.
To the great regret of all ranks Lieutenant W. G. Cameron died of his wounds on the 19th, and the following regimental order was published referring to his death: " The Officer Commanding feels sure that all ranks will share his deep sorrow at the deaths of Lieutenant Cameron, Private McKenzie, and Private Farrington, of wounds; and will sympathise with their bereaved relatives. In Lieutenant Cameron, the Cameron Highlanders have lost a most promising and gallant young officer, whose zeal and readiness to perform any duty, however difficult or dangerous, will long be remembered by all who have served with him."
The Cameron Highlanders and 9th Soudan battalion of the Egyptian army, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Everett, took the village of Absari at the point of the bayonet, and afterwards occupied and burnt the village of Giniss. All the enemy's standards, five guns, and his ammunition and nuggars [Nile boats] fell into the hands of the British and Egyptians.
On the 7th [January 1886], all intention of re-occupying Dongola having been abandoned, the army returned to Kosheh, and on the 8th the Cameron Highlanders, having handed over the fort and works to the 106th Durham Light Infantry, resumed their march towards Akasheh. [By May 1886 the regiment was back in Cairo.]
Cameron Highlander, George Edward Wade. 1893. Station Square, Inverness, Scotland.
Cameron’s letters to his parents are held in the National Army Museum in London. They provide some valuable family and personal detail. In 1884 William is in Cairo bemoaning the poor chances of action in the Sudan. He has financial problems and is obliged to sell his pony. In November 1884 he received his orders to go to the front. He sails down the Nile on the Thomas Cook ship Hera. [In 1869 Thomas Cook had started offering cruises on the Nile and in 1885 began acquiring his own fleet of Nile steamers] and spends the summer of 1885 with his regiment at Korosko in Southern Egypt. It is fearfully hot, boring and unhealthy. By 29th November he has reached Kosheh and is busy preparing the defences of the fort. The final letter is from Major Archibald Hunter [himself badly wounded] describing William’s death. Finally there is an undated card with the printed lines “Not gone from memory nor from love, but gone to our father's home above".
William was only 20 when he died. He was buried outside the walls of Kosheh fort. His name is also engraved on the memorial at Inverness to 79th; Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.
Cameron, WG. Letters. London; National Army Museum. 8311/14/157-238.
Kipling, Rudyard. Departmental Ditties and other verses.London; 188.6
Maps of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. London; War Office, General Staff 1914.
Mackenzie, Captain T A. Historical Records of the 79th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.London; Hamilton Adams, 1887.The Library of Congress is providing access to these maps for educational and research purposes and is not aware of any U.S. copyright protection (see Title 17 of the United States Code) or any other restrictions in the Map Collection materials.
Last modified 26 March 2016