Gordon -- and this is just my take on the situation -- loved every minute of his slo-mo last stand. He could have left Khartoum any time and headed downriver to Egypt in total safety, but to a guy like him, the choice between going home alive or running a do-it-yourself opera was easy.
London took its revenge bureaucracy-style, by making real sure there was plenty of red tape before a relief expedition set off south to Khartoum. There was no hurry, because every player in the game wanted Gordon to die a martyr, not get saved: the suits in London; the Mahdi's men, who wanted (and got) his head on a spike; and last but not least, Gordon himself.
Nobody actually knows exactly how or when Gordon died, but that didn't stop a Brit painter from doing a famous picture of Gordon standing at the top of the stairs looking down at a black Mahdi spearman like a grumpy Best Western motel guest waking up to find some black dude's ride parked across his spot and pumping out the hip hop: "ExCUSE me, sir, but you seem to have parked your pimpmobile in spot number 26, which is clearly designated for my Volvo!"
The painting was supposed to show the wog hordes awed by Gordon's steely look, but well, I guess they got over it because the Mahdi had Gordon's head put on a spike after his forces took Khartoum at the end of January, 1885. For the Brit public Gordon's long slow death was like Custer's last stand and 9/11 rolled into one. The papers were howling for a revenge expedition but as usual, the brass were in no hurry. It wasn't until 1898 that the Brits were ready to show Allah's boys what an Anglican can do when he's had a little time to rehearse.
Brit colonial military expeditions usually consisted of a core force of reliable white troops, and a bigger force of native auxiliaries. That was the way they did it in 1898, sending 8,000 regulars and 18,000 Egyptian/Sudanese down the Nile. The force would be outnumbered; the Mahdists could field at least 60,000 men. But the real core of the British plan was what was heading down the railway: some serious iron. They sent 44 field guns, 36 long-range guns, and the deadliest of all, 24 Maxim guns.
Those Maxims look pretty lame now, like two of those old high-wheel bicycles welded together with a gun barrel in the middle. But they worked; in fact, against the sort of massed infantry charge they were about to face, they were awesome weapons, firing 500 rounds a minute by using the energy of each blast to expel the cartridge and drop another into place. Leroy Brown was about to learn a lesson about messin' with the troops of a technological societyand one commanded by Horatio Kitcheneryep -- THAT Kitchener of WW I meatgrinder fame. If you know about Kitchener's role in the Great War, you won't be surprised that Kitchener put his trust in iron and money; he was the opposite of Gordon's one-man improv show. He assembled all the guns and set to work blasting Khartoum into bloody mud.
The Mahdists hadn't sat around waiting to see what'd happen; they'd ringed the town with 17 forts, tried to mine the river, generally done the best they could. But they had no idea what Kitchener's new guns could do, leveling the town and its forts from three miles away. All their little plans were made for the sort of force they'd faced against Gordon in 1885, and they finally had to resort to the only strengths they'd always trusted: numbers and good ol' fanaticism. In other words, a massed attack.
So on September 2, 1898, my office-mates' wet dream came true: 60,000 Islamists amassed all in one place, facing automatic weapons and massed artillery. Worst of all, the Mahdists were short of cavalry -- only 3,000 horsemen. Counting their Arab auxiliaries, the Brits actually had more cavalry on the field. Of the remaining 55,000-odd Jihadis on the field, maybe half had firearms, mostly old flintlocks mixed with what they'd looted from Gordon's men. The rest were carrying spears.