The Nile Expedition: Canada’s First Overseas War

Cantley 1889 Articles

<em>Echo</em> Cantley <em>Echo</em>

The following article first appeared in The Echo of Cantley Volume 33 no 5, November 2021. This article is made available for the enjoyment of others with the express permission of the Echo of Cantley.

To commemorate Remembrance Day, November 11, 2021

The Nile Expedition: Canada’s First Overseas War

By Mary Holmes

On September 14, 1884, a force of almost 400 voyageurs and others left Montreal for Egypt to take part in the Nile Expedition sometimes referred to as the Gordon Relief Expedition in the Sudan, Canada’s first participation in an overseas war. In depth information can be found on-line.1

Most members of the Canadian contingent were very experienced voyageurs, river men, loggers and boat pilots, drawn from the Indigenous and settler populations from near Selkirk, Manitoba, the Ottawa Valley and Quebec (Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières, Akwesasne, Kahnawake). Even though they did not have military status, they played an integral part in the military mission to rescue Major-General C.G. Gordon from Khartoum.

Anthony Milks with his wife, Frances Burke, at their Cantley home - the 1868 McGoey-Milks House.

Gordon had been sent to the Sudan by the British Government to assist in the evacuation of the Egyptian soldiers and civilians during an uprising led by Muhammad Ahmad, self-proclaimed Mahdi (a messianic figure). Gordon arrived in Khartoum in February 1884 but by March 1884, Khartoum was besieged by the Mahdi’s army. At this point, the call for rescue was made. The British forces were able to hold out until just two days before the “Expedition” forces arrived. Tragically, Gordon and approximately 10,000 soldiers and civilians were massacred.

In his book, Major-General Henry Brackenbury referenced the Canadian Contingent: “Without them, the ascent of the river, if not impossible, would have been far slower, and attended with far greater loss of lives. Without them, the descent of the river would have been impossible. ...The life of the men has been one of incessant toil from the fi rst to the last day of the expedition. In ragged clothing, scarred and blistered by the sun and rough work, they have worked with constant cheerfulness and unceasing energy. Their discipline has been beyond reproach; and I do not hesitate to say that no fi ner, more gallant, or more trustworthy body of men ever served the Queen than those I have had the honour to command in the River Column.”2

The Cantley connection: When the announcement of recruitment was made in late August 1884, Cantley-born, 25-year-old carpenter Anthony Milks signed up. During his tour of duty, Anthony received special praise, “To a Canadian, Mr. Milks, also is due the successful passing up of Her Majesty’s ship Lotus through Dal Cataract. The pilots on board had abandoned all ideas of passing her up without hauling, but this man, from his knowledge of the water, piloted her through under steam without accident.”3

The Ottawa group assembled on September 13, 1884 in front of the Parliament Buildings on Wellington Street. After a rousing send-off by the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guard, the volunteers fell in and marched to the Union Depot in LeBreton Flats. Here, a large crowd had gathered to see them off on a special CPR train to Montreal. The next day they met up with the other contingents and set sail on the steamer, Ocean King, for Alexandria, Egypt, arriving in early October. They made their way to the main British base at Wadi Halfa. There, the Canadian voyageurs were divided up and assigned among the battalions and corps in boats. They provided support enabling the military to travel up the Nile. They navigated the cataracts from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum using special skills for their river ascent and different skills for their return descent.

Most of the voyageurs returned to Halifax aboard the steamer, Hanoverian, in early March 1885. On March 7, the “Ottawa contingent” arrived by train to be greeted by a huge crowd of well-wishers, followed by a celebratory luncheon.

This great adventure set the stage for future Canadian participation in wars around the world.

1 Internet searching will provide a great deal of interesting reading on this Expedition.
2 The River Column, p 288, 290, 291, a first-hand account,, accessed October 11, 2021
3 From General Grenfell, Records of the Nile Voyageurs, C.P. Stacey, ed.,

Voyageurs on the Nile - Canada's History (
Illustration of whale boats being hauled through the Second Cataract from Gordon and the Mahdi (1885). British Library. The Nile Expedition 1884-1885 -, accessed October 9, 2021.

The Ottawa Contingent of the Canadian Voyageurs in front of the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, 1884. Library and Archives Canada, Mikan No. 363770.
The South African War / Nile Expedition Book of Remembrance, pays tribute to Canadians who died in the South African War between 1899 and 1902 and the Nile Expedition, page 48.


Return to list...