Why has this bizarre tale never been filmed?
There was a time when every British school boy and girl studying history learned about the Fashoda Incident.
A small town in the north-east of South Sudan (and now known as Kodok), Fashoda was founded in 1855 as base from which to tackle the Arab slave trade. Located on the banks of the White Nile at one of the few places where a boat could unload, by the mid-1870s Fashoda was a bustling market town. One its first European visitors was a Russian named Wilhelm Junker, who described it as “the last outpost of civilization, where travellers plunging into or returning from the wilds of equatorial Africa could procure a few indispensable European wares from the local Greek traders.”
The Fashoda Incident followed years of colonial territorial disputes between France and Great Britain, which included gaining control of the French-built Suez Canal in 1882. The crisis at Fashoda in 1898 became a matter of national honour, with both sides trying to outmanoeuvre the other. The French led by sending Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand, a veteran of the French conquest of the Sudan, to recruit a force of African troops from Senegal. They took ship for Libreville, Gabon, before setting off eastward on foot. In The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, Margaret MacMillan describes what happened next:
“For a year and a half Marchand and seven other French officers, along with 120 Sengalese soldiers, struggled across Africa. Accompanied by porters, often pressed into service along the way, the expedition carried an enormous quantity of supplies including 10 tons of rice, 5 tons of corned beef, 1 ton of coffee, and 1,300 liters of red wine as well as champagne to celebrate its anticipated success. It also brought along quantities of ammunition, a small river steamer (which the porters had to carry in pieces at one point through 120 miles of bush), as well as presents for the locals – who generally fled at the approach of the strangers – such as 16 tons of colored beads and 70,000 meters of colored cloth. In addition there was a mechanical piano, a French flag and vegetable seeds.”
While Marchand and his men were wading through marshes and fending off crocodiles and mosquitoes, a British force led by the formidable Major-General Kitchener was working its way by steamboat up the White Nile. They reached Omdurman, north of Khartoum, in September 1898 where they defeated the Mahdist Sudanese army. Kitchener was then ordered to continue upstream to defend Fashoda.
Kitchener found that the French had reached the town first and had even convinced a local leader to sign a “treaty of protection”. Undeterred, Kitchener persuaded Captain Marchand that, discretion being the better part of valour, he should accept a British offer to sail back to Cairo where he could contact his government. On the way, orders arrived instructing Marchand to evacuate Fashoda without putting up a fight.
The Fashoda Incident was a damp squib in the annals of military history. For defeating the Mahdi and relieving Fashoda, Kitchener became Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, but Marchand simply returned to his military career in France. Both men lived to fight another day, although Kitchener, having summoned young men to fight in the First World War (“Your Country Needs You!”) was on board a ship blown up by a mine near the Orkney Islands in 1916 (his body was never found). Marchand served his country as a general on the Somme and at Verdun, receiving the Grand-Croix de la Légion d’Honneur in 1921 and surviving until 1934.