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Britannia's Gamble: The Dawlish Chronicles March 1884 – February 1885 Kindle Edition
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If that isn’t enough, Dawlish and his men must rescue themselves before and after reaching Khartoum more than once. In fact, a lot more than once, or twice, or even three times. And not just from the enemy forces of the Mahdi. In this page turning well researched and written yarn. white water steamboat travel on the Nile River can be just as dangerous as an enemy army.
The longer review is, ahh, longer. The background to the story involves British involvement in the Sudan, which at the time (1880s) essentially a province of Egypt. A mass revolution, fomented by an Islamic extremist known as the Mahdi, had wrested control of the region from its Anglo-Egyptian governors and were looking towards being an independent nation. In the days of Empire, this did not sit well with the powers that be in London, but under Prime Minister William Gladstone the British eventually decided that the Sudan was not worth the fight, and ordered all British and Egyptians out of the area. Easier said than done, and Major General Charles Gordon was ordered to Khartoum to expedite the removal of both military and civilians from the Sudan.
The Mahdi had other ideas and laid siege to Khartoum. Gordon was trapped, and organized a very strong defense of the city. Gladstone dithered over public demands that a rescue expedition be mounted, but eventually gave in. What followed was a case of underestimating the amount of time necessary to cross a large body of troops over almost 2000 miles of extremely barren territory in order to break the siege, and rescue Gordon.
At which point Dawlish enters the scene. Vanner devises a small rescue mission, lead by Dawlish, to do an end-around both the British Expeditionary Force, and the Mahdi, and extract Gordon and a very few others, from Khartoum. Dawlish, after all, has some experience in riverine warfare (see Britannia's Reach) and could apply that experience to the Nile and assorted tributaries. But before reaching water, Dawlish and company have endure one of those long, bitterly hard, treks overland that Vanner writes so well (see Britannia's Wolf, and to a slightly lesser extent, Britannia's Spartan).
After a grueling series of mishaps and adventures, Dawlish arrives at Khartoum, and locates Gordon. Who promptly refuses to be rescued. The forces of the Mahdi very shortly thereafter bring the siege of Khartoum to its inevitable, and bloody, conclusion. Dawlish escapes, but in the process creates a situation that simultaneously horrifies him, and yet creates an opportunity for redemption. After another harrowing escape, this time waterborne on the Nile, Dawlish is reunited with his wife, Florence, and the possibility of happiness.
This volume of the chronicles delves rather deeper into Dawlish's feelings than previous volumes. The man is not without self doubts, and is aware of some of the moral ambiguity of some of his actions. It makes him a more rounded human being than the man of action that predominated in previous volumes.
Vanner intertwines Dawlish's story with a great many of the actual events and characters of the ill fated relief expedition. Gordon, of course. And, of interest to readers interested in naval history, Lord Charles Beresford, future antagonist of Jacky Fisher.
I can't help but think that some future Dawlish Chronicle will return to the Sudan, as the British did in 1895 with a cast of colorful characters that included Horatio Herbert Kitchener, David Beatty, and a young officer of the 21st Lancers named Winston Churchill.
But you don't have to do it that way. I think you could actually start with this novel, and read it in smaller bites, approaching each battle and emergency challenge as a sort of short story in a series. Then you'll want to go back to the first novel, or even the prequel short story, Britannia's Fist.
In this novel the ulterior motives of those who proposed the scheme are semi-transparent, and they are risking their necks alongside Dawlish. The wild card is a naval rival who has advanced rapidly like Dawlish, but due to influence rather than success on risky secret missions. What would normally considered a useless gesture by a government, or a forlorn hope by a military campaign, becomes a desperate gamble once Dawlish is drafted into command. His various previous experiences in desperately fighting his way back to friendly lines in Turkey, river warfare in Paraguay, covert operations in Cuba, a personal connection made in China, shipyard work in England, all come in handy here. He is able to request particular people he's commanded before to improve his odds of survival and success, but by risking their lives it adds weight to his shoulders when things go sideways.
I'll be re-reading the entire series as I await the next novel, whether it features Dawlish or his wife Florence.