Valentine Baker (1827–1887)
Younger brother of the famous explorer Sir Samuel Baker, Valentine Baker was considered to be Britain’s leading cavalry officer before his disgrace. Both before and after this event (see below) Baker’s career was adventurously colourful. Educated in Gloucester and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), he began his military career at 21 as an ensign in the Ceylon Rifles in 1848. He saw action in 1852–53 with the 12th Lancers in the eighth of the Cape Frontier Wars (also known as the Xhosa Wars or the Kaffir Wars, 1779–1879) in South Africa.
He was present in the Crimean War (1853–56) at the battle of Chernaya River (Traktir) and at the fall of Sebastopol. He was promoted to major in the 10th Hussars three years later, and became the regiment’s commander in the following year (1860), which position he held for the next 13 years. In this period he became noted for his extensive military writings, reinforced by being a spectator on the German side of the Austrian war of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71).
With tensions between British and Russian interests in central Asia on the increase, Baker set off in 1873 to travel through Khorasan (parts of modern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). He returned in the following year with invaluable geo-political information and military intelligence on Russian intentions and movements. Less than a year later, Colonel Baker’s British military career came to a sudden end with a dishonourable discharge following his arrest and conviction for the indecent assault of a woman in a railway carriage. If – as some authorities maintain – there were extenuating circumstances, Baker kept his mouth shut.
Released from prison after a year, Baker fled England and entered service with the Ottoman Turkish army. He commanded an infantry division during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 under the incompetent chief commander Suleiman Pasha. As the Turks suffered a series of setbacks in the face of Russian advances through Bulgaria under the Russian commander Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko, Baker’s division fought a tremendous rearguard action at the battle of Tashkessen (Sarantsi, Bulgaria) on 28 December 1877 which resulted in heavy Russian casualties, and for which feat he was promoted to the rank of ferik (lieutenant-general).
Baker held an administrative post in Turkish Armenia until 1882, when the ruler of Egypt, the Khedive Muhammad Tawfiq, offered him command of the newly formed Egyptian army. He was dismayed to find on his arrival in Cairo that the offer had been withdrawn. The khedive may have been under pressure from either Sir Garnet Wolseley or General Sir Gerald Graham. Wolseley had just crushed the rebel Urabi Pasha and restored Tawfiq to his khedivate, but in return for Britain’s effective control of the nominally Turkish possession, including the new Egyptian army, to be officered by respectable British gentlemen. Baker didn’t fit the bill – his disgrace had not been forgotten. Instead his consolation prize was to be the command of the Egyptian police.
Within the police ranks, Baker realised that the quasi-military gendarmerie were effectively an army reserve, so he devoted most of his time to their training. When the uprising of the desert tribes in the Sudan at the command of the Mahdi began only months later, Baker set out with 3,500 of the gendarmerie to the relief of the Egyptian garrison at Tokar.
Unfortunately – and probably behind Baker’s back – the men had been given undertakings that they would only be employed within the boundaries of Egypt itself (effectively only north
of Aswan). Disaffected by their move to the Sudan, still unused to strict formation discipline, when they encountered about 1,000 of the enemy under Osman Digna at El Teb on
4 February 1883, they panicked and were overwhelmed at the first rush in spite of the odds being 3.5 in their favour. The slaughter was almost complete, Baker cutting his way out with a few officers and barely 700 men.
Baker accompanied the British force under General Sir Gerald Graham, which arrived at Suakin three and a half weeks later, where he was shot through the jaw at the desperately-fought second battle of El Teb. In spite of his wound, he continued fighting and despite his failure at the first battle of El Teb, Baker Pasha retained command of the Egyptian police until his death.
© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England