Serendipity – The Corporal of Abu Klea

While most material uncovered by family historians is the result of painstaking research, once in a while the odd gem comes to light purely fortuitously. This happened to me a few months ago when I was in the Public Record Office examining Lin(d)field military records. I was idly browsing among the military reference books while awaiting the arrival of some documents when I spotted a small thin volume entitled The Abu Klea Medal Roll. This immediately caught my interest, because although territorial recruitment was still in its infancy in 1885 (the year of the battle), I knew that a significant proportion of the British force involved in it was made up of the Royal Sussex Regiment, and it was therefore just possible that a Lin(d)field could appear on the roll. I was therefore highly gratified (and excited) to be rewarded with the mention of a Corporal H J Lindfield, not as it turned out a member of the Royal Sussex but of the Medical Service Corps, (a forerunner of the RAMC), so presumably a medical orderly. Why my excitement? Most people today have never heard of this battle and its significance has been long forgotten, so some explanation is necessary.

Abu Klea was an archetypal thin red line battle, a real Boy’s Own Paper affair in which a force of just over two thousand British troops defeated an army of some ten thousand “fuzzy-wuzzies” in the searing heat of the Egyptian desert. The small size of the British force meant that relatively few commemorative medals were awarded, making them rare collector’s items; in fact, the medal roll I came across was a private publication produced primarily for numismatists. To have found that a Lin(d)field was present at this battle and was awarded this rare medal was thus something in itself, but my excitement was heightened by its historical context – for the troops that fought at Abu Klea were nothing less than the advance party of the expedition sent to relieve General Gordon, their mission being to dash to Khartoum ahead of the main force, effect the relief of Gordon and his beleaguered garrison and hold the position until the arrival of reinforcements.

Following Arabi’s abortive military coup a few years previously, the British as the controlling power in Egypt effected an overhaul of the Egyptian army which entailed the secondment to it of a number of senior British officers. General Gordon was one such officer, and was posted to the Egyptian garrison at Khartoum in the Sudan, then an Egyptian possession which technically did not come under the caretaker control of the British. A movement for Sudanese independence arose led by the Mahdi – a charismatic leader claiming to be a reincarnation of the Prophet. The British Liberal government, recognising that Sudanese affairs were really none of their business, and sympathetic to what they regarded as a legitimate aspiration for self-determination, ordered Gordon to effect an orderly evacuation of the Khartoum garrison. Gordon as the man on the spot had recognised the Mahdi and his followers for the bloodthirsty fanatics that they were and refused, urging the Government to send reinforcements instead. This was an embarrassment to the Government, which vacillated for several months over how to respond to such flagrant disobedience, and it was only the force of public opinion (helped by pressure from Queen Victoria herself) that finally prompted it to act. After assembling in Egypt, the relief force set out for Khartoum by following the course of the River Nile. But at one point the river describes a huge bend, adding several hundred miles to the journey. An advance party was therefore detached and sent ahead on camels, taking a short cut across the desert before rejoining the Nile further upstream, at a point where Gordon had positioned steamers to take the troops the remaining distance to Khartoum. It was during this journey that the British force encountered the Mahdi’s hordes at the wells of Abu Klea, and a pitched battle ensued. Twice the Sudanese broke in through the ranks of the famous British Square although, as one Highland veteran laconically commented, “they didn’a get oot again”.

As a medical orderly, Corporal Lindfield would no doubt have been kept very busy tending the considerable casualties of fierce hand-to-hand fighting. These included Major-General Stewart, the commander of the party, who died of his wounds shortly after the battle. In a valiant triumph against vastly superior odds the British eventually succeeded in putting the Mahdi’s warriors to flight. Shortly afterwards they reached the Nile, but a delay of several days occurred before the steamers departed. Even allowing for the preparation of the steamers (they had been standing there for some months), and the licking of wounds and general regrouping which was necessary following the battle, (a situation not helped by Stewart’s death), this delay has never really been satisfactorily explained.

It was to prove fatal, for when the steamers reached Khartoum, having run the gauntlet of enemy fire from both banks, it transpired that the garrison had fallen into the Mahdi’s hands a day or two earlier. General Gordon has always been presumed to have died in the fighting, although evidence which came to light recently has led to speculation that he may have been taken alive and subsequently died in captivity. But who was our Corporal? Tantalisingly, the trail seems to have gone cold. Unfortunately not all military records of this era have survived, and so far I have been unable to trace anything further on him in the PRO. This means that we would not have known about him at all if I had not chanced on the medal roll and taken it down! One possibility is that he was Harry Lindfield, the older brother of my great-grandfather John Linfield, whose military career was the subject of an earlier article in LONGSHOT, and whose descent is believed to be as follows:

1. John LINFIELD #1950 born before 1785, married 26 Aug 1804, Mary BRISTOW #1951. John was living in 1804 in Billingshurst, Sussex. Possibly the same as #1071/1083/1373/1590/2140/3408/3409?

i James LINFIELD #540 born 1804, Billingshurst, baptised 25 Nov 1804, died 1805, buried: 24 Jan 1805. Previously shown as son of #533.
ii Eliza LINFIELD #541 born about 1805, Billingshurst.
2. iii Ephraim LINDFIELD #471 born 1806.


Next Generation

2. Ephraim LINDFIELD #471 born 1806, Billingshurst, baptised 9 Feb 1806, occupation Labourer, married 1832, Eliza HOLDEN #472. Ephraim died 25 Jan 1892, Billingshurst, buried: 25 Jan 1892, Wisborough Green, living: 1822, Billingshurst, Sussex. Living at Rudgwick 1842. Previously shown as son of #533. Possibly the Epraim Linfield (sic) shown as boarded out 1822 Billingshurst to a Mr Farhall, master.1 Death reference 2b334 Petworth; age 86.

i Jane LINFIELD #1972 born 1754, bp 4 Jun 1754, Nuthurst.
ii Mary LINFIELD #190 born 1759, Nuthurst, bp 5 Jan 1759, Nuthurst, died 1779, Nuthurst, buried: 20 Nov 1779, Nuthurst.


3. William LINFIELD #195 born 1727, Nuthurst, bp 29 Feb 1727, Nuthurst, married 20 Jan 1756, in Nuthurst, Sarah PENFOLD #197, died 1779, Nuthurst, buried: 22 Feb 1779, Nuthurst.

i Ellen LINFIELD #1952 born 1832, baptised 11 Nov 1832, living: 1851?, Storrington. An Ellen LINFIELD is listed in CR51 Storrington, aged 29 born Billingshurst; 2 Possibly a misprint in the age? If 19 then possibly this Ellen.
ii Charlotte LINFIELD #1953 born 1837, bp. 5 Feb 1837.
iii Harry LINDFIELD #1711 born 1839, Billingshurst, bp. 1839, married 1 Jul 1894, in Billingshurst, Alice WALDER #1712, born Billingshurst. Possibly same as #487. No Harry in births index.
iv Emma LINFIELD #1955 born fourth quarter 1841, Petworth, Sussex, bp. 1842, ref: opcs/b vii388.
3. v John LINFIELD #4581 born second quarter 1845.
vi Fanny LINFIELD #1957 born 1847, bp. 4 Jul 1847, died 1848, buried: 21 May 1848, Billingshurst.


Next Generation

3. John LINFIELD #4581 born Q2 1845, Billingshurst {Reg: Thakeham}, ref: opcs/b vii461, occupation army sergeant, married 17 Apr 1882, Honoria McGRATH #4582, born, Limerick, Ireland. John died Brighton, Sussex. Possibly the same as #1008. Possibly the brother of Harry or George born Billingshurst.

4. i Harry LINFIELD #4577 born 4 Jan 1883.
5. ii Michael John LINFIELD #4583 born 1887.
2. iii Mimi LINFIELD #4584 born c19, India, died abt 1947, Hove, Sussex.


Next Generation

4. Harry LINFIELD #4577 born 4 Jan 1883, Malta, married bef 1912, May LAWRENCE #4578, born abt 1883. Harry died abt 1945. Poss marr ref Q3 1911 Henry, opcs/m 3a760 Hendon

i Eric Lawrence LINFIELD #2943 born 1 Aug 1912. Father of Alan Michael Linfield.


5. Michael John LINFIELD #4583 born 1887, Cable Hill Barracks, Aberdeen, Scotland, married —– HEARNE #16131.

i John Gordon LINFIELD #4700 born q2—1921.


In 1885 Harry would have been about the right age to have reached the rank of Corporal at a time when promotion in most regiments was rather slow. Also, we note that he married relatively late in life, something rather out of the ordinary which might be explained if he had spent most of his earlier years in the unsettled life of the army. When John Linfield’s first son (my grandfather) was born, he was also named Harry, presumably after his uncle, which may indicate that the two brothers were very close to each other. Had John joined the army to follow in the footsteps of an admired older brother? All this is of course highly speculative, based as it is on scant circumstantial evidence, so unless harder evidence comes to light this Corporal will remain something of an enigma. Does anyone recall a half-remembered story about him (‘your great-uncle Harry went to rescue General Gordon’)? And I’d love to know what became of that medal…


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