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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Fun & Stylish Global Domination

How to do it without much of an army.

It’s hard to describe exactly how wonderful the world’s most horrible places can actually be with the right attitude. Not “extreme tourism” where desperate people mistake general discomfort for something that’s truly interesting. Not that you have to risk a mouth full of blood to make something interesting – you just can’t let it stop you.

Winston Churchill got himself attached to an expedition on the hairy North-west frontier of Afghanistan in 1897 and famously wrote, “There is nothing in life more exhilarating than being shot at without result.” He’s not wrong, but he was 22 at the time. Young Winston, however, didn’t quite know how to write like Churchill, that great eccentric statemen of the 20thcentury. He was trying to sound like his one of his heroes: Big Fred Burnaby.

Frederick Gustavus Burnaby came into the world on 3 March 1842, the son of a clergyman, but it really wasn’t so humble as all of that. His cousin was the great-great grandmother of the current Queen Elizabeth, so he knew people. He went into the army at the age of 17 and got himself assigned to the elite Royal Horse Guards – the “Blues” – and there he was one of the chaps. He enjoyed army life – all 6’4” and 15 stone of him – because life in an elite regiment was really was something else: Regimental dinners in ridiculous uniforms watered with buckets of champagne and claret, all while bucking to get sent someplace where you might get shot at without result and pick up a few medals.

Not that all this over-the-top pageantry cost the famously skin-flint British Crown a lot of money – the officer corps was not paid well. The regimental pay rate – set in 1806 and still in place at the outbreak of World War I – was £95 for a subaltern and rising to £365 for a lieutenant-colonel. This was about half what was paid a clerk in the War Office. They lived large because they all had trust funds. It was reckoned that infantry officers needed a private income of £150 to survive; and in the cavalry, a chap needed an extra £700 to make the math work in style. Calvary officers had to by their own horses (and polo ponies; not the same thing). A regiment was considered unfashionable if word got out that the officers had the bad form to live within their salary. No style, you understand.

And they were elite even if, from a military perspective, for all the wrong reasons: They were rich and there weren’t very many of them. For that matter, there weren’t many enlisted men of NCOs either. When asked what he’d do if the British army landed in Germany, Otto von Bismark famously said that he’d “call the police and have it arrested.”


Fred Burnaby was a jovial, witty guy who always had a smile lit up under a great whacking moustache. No modern, brooding action hero, Burnaby proved Hollywood wrong before there was a Hollywood to prove wrong – because the ladies loved him. He was a top shelf boxer and swordsman (think of the reach!) and his party tricks included vaulting himself over billiard tables and twisting fire pokers with his bare hands. Once, when his fellow officers put two ponies in his room (at Windsor Castle, whatever that tells you) as a joke, he picked them up – one under each arm – and carried them back down stairs. It was amid these frat-tastic shenanigans of the officer corps that the British managed to subject one in four earthlings – whether they knew it or not.

It wasn’t all empire building. Officers, in addition to getting paid squat, were also given five months leave per annum. Most of his fellow officers caroused around London to hang around clubland and ballrooms to be admired by young ladies who were doing even less with their lives. Burnaby, for his part, could never square himself with just being simply a gigantic upper-class twit. He spoke seven languages, was restless and lived in interesting times.

These days we call it the “Great Power Competition” in a multi-polar world – and they aren’t wrong. For our old mutual adversary, the Russians, the game is largely over and they don’t like it. The price of admission has gotten too rich for the old British Empire. We’re left with a competition largely between an ambitious, self-loathing United States and the ambitious, grim-minded Chinese. After a generation of hating our position as the global leader, we’re are sliding from the perch. We like ourselves even less for the loss. It is hard to remember a time when being top dog was actually fun.

In Burnaby’s day, this same situation was called “The Great Game” which carries with it an entirely different vibe. France was a great power, but they were making themselves obvious in Africa and the Far East. It was Great Britain and Russia then, and they were having it out in Central Asia. Granted the Russians aren’t known for their sense of humor, but that’s what the vodka is for.

Burnaby saw the need for combat experience, to get mentioned in dispatches and rack up a chest full of medals if he was to get ahead in life. Frustrated with the lack of action, when one of those five-month leaves came around, in the summer of 1874, Burnaby got himself attached to the Carlist forces in Spain, not as a soldier but as a war correspondent for the Times.

And war, for the correspondent, can be fun. Before the conflict was over, however, the Times transferred him over to the Sudan to report on Gordon’s expedition to reign in a Muslim warlord calling himself the Mahdi, wreaking havoc in the Sudan and British dominated Egypt. Today we’d call these people jihadists – in fact if you really scrub the chatter, you’ll find a brace or two of modern Mahdis running around the farm league militias of the Islamist world. And so it was in a café in Khartoum reading an outdated newspaper that Fred Burnaby saw the article that would set in motion a series of events that would make him the most interesting man in the empire.

“At that moment my eye fell upon a paragraph in the paper,” he wrote in A Ride to Khiva. “It was to the effect that the [Russian] government at St. Petersburg had given an order that no foreigner was to be allowed to travel in Russian Asia, and that an Englishman who had recently attempted a journey in that direction had been turned back…” It’s quite likely that Burnaby hadn’t given the matter of going to Russian Central Asia much thought until someone told him it wasn’t allowed. They’re turning Englishman back at the border? Not this one they aren’t!

To be sure, Burnaby held the Russians in the same regard that Americans of a certain age are likely to hold them. Or the Chinese when Beijing starts in about Road and Belt Initiatives. Tzarist Russia was expanding to the south through the Asian steppes of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, butting up against the lawless frontiers that bordered that Jewel of the British Crown, India. Those wild and hairy regions were giving the Brits enough of a headache without the Russians buying them off with gold and repeating rifles. Without a theatrical asymmetry of weaponry – imperialism really doesn’t work that well. No fun if they can fire back with the same guns.

What’s interesting about Fred Burnaby is that despite the elite regiment, he’s not remembered for anything the army actually wanted him to do. All his exploits were strictly off-the-books. Not in a secret-service-for-your-eyes-only sort of off-the-books, but the “I’m bored, when does my leave start?” sort of off-the-books. In short, Frederick Burnaby just might be the most interesting vacation planner who ever lived. He never asked his superiors for permission, because he knew he’d never get it. To go after a “No” would be breaking orders. Better then, he decided, to simply not mention it and take his leave. The hitch in the plan was that said leave didn’t come around until November, which meant his thousand plus mile ramble through steppes of Asia had to be in the winter.

This wasn’t just adventure tourism. He had a goal in mind; to seek an audience with the Khan of Khiva, a caravan town in what is now Uzbekistan who’d been giving Russian expansionist forces hell for centuries. Over the winter of 1875-1876, he headed for St. Petersburg – which was open – then to the border town of Orenburg. From there he struck out onto the forbidden steppes with a “friendly little Tartar” as valet and a local guide. It wasn’t at all clear that the Khan of Khiva would see him, and if he did wouldn’t order his eyes gouged out – something in the Khan’s notorious modus operandi. But Burnaby was in an expansive mood. He braved frostbite, evisceration, eye-gouging and a host of other unpleasantries. In the end, he was granted an audience with the Khan who “had a pleasant, genial smile, and a merry twinkle in his eye…” Burnaby recalled, “I must say I was greatly surprised… to find him such a cheery sort of fellow.”

When word reached London of his little stunt, he was ordered home. The beauty of A Ride to Khiva is that while nearly everyone he met, including the weather, just might try to kill the man, he writes about it like he’d just came back from the afterparty of a debutant ball. It was a best seller. The novelist Henry James loved the book, and so did Queen Victoria – all of which saved his bacon from getting in too much trouble with his commanding officers.

He arrived back in England March 1876, and spent his time in the clubby world of the officer’s mess. Then, in the crucible of the Russo-Turkish war, damned if Burnaby didn’t do it again. In the savage winter of that year, he took his leave again. This time setting out of Constantinople to ride across the Turkish interior gathering on-the-ground intelligence about on the Russians as well as and get a measure of the Turk’s ability to resist an invasion. This off-the-books mission is detailed in the book, On Horseback through Asia Minor. It was another best seller, and chapped his commanding officers just like the last one. The book is a digest of the life and the mores of the Ottoman Turkey of the 1870’s, the tensions between Christianity and Islam, and because he was Burnaby, crossing rivers and skating down a glacier on horseback.

True to style, his books are travelogue and, if we’re going to be honest, very charming intelligence reports. They aren’t slick novels, there is no real story arc. They are just the ripping adventures of an interesting, fearless and funny man. The ladies, as they will, ate this boyish foolishness up. Big Fred Burnaby got married in 1879 and marriage, as it will, calmed the man down – up to a point. He became the first person to hot-air balloon across the English Channel and stood for parliament twice (each time against an unbeatable Joe Chamberlain).

While he retained his commission (you were in for life in those days, old man) and while now a colonel, the army was a little too exasperated with his antics to grant him a transfer to real fighting. So, it was - again in the capacity as a journalist rather than as a soldier - that he found himself once more in the Sudan. Being on good terms with the commanding officer on the ground, Lord Wolseley, Burnaby managed to find himself actually fighting the pesky Mahdi in January of 1885, at the Battle of Abu Klea.

It was there, after square of British soldiers broke, that the inevitable happened. The thing Burnaby spent his life, or leave, courting. Rushing out to save another wounded officer trapped outside the reformed square, he took a lance to the shoulder and another to the face. After that the Soudanese rushed in and the Colonel was dead.

News of the death of the most interesting man in the empire caused a wave of national grief in London. The poet and historian Henry Newbolt wrote a poem, Vitae Lampada – the second verse of which is a lament for the Abu Klea:

The sand of the desert is sodden red,—

Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—

The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead,

And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed his banks,

And England's far, and Honour a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:

"Play up! play up! and play the game!"


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