The Battle of Omdurman

11 May 2014
The Battle of Omdurman

SPEAKER: David Hall-Green

The country which we know today as Sudan is the biggest on the African continent. It would virtually swallow up most of Western Europe without so much as a hearty belch.

The ancient Egyptians called it Nubia, and it was the source of slaves and other commodities for thousands of years. By the 6th century AD it had been evangelised by Coptic Christian missionaries from Egypt, and the Greek language prevailed.

Muslim invaders conquered Egypt in 640 AD, making contact with the mother Coptic church in the North very difficult, and the Nubians were virtually isolated from the main part of the Christian world for many centuries. Meanwhile the influence of Islam continued in the region.

We now don our seven league boots and jump ahead to 1820, when a British-backed Egyptian/Ottoman force, known as the Turkiyah, conquered the northern part of the region – but was never able to dominate the area south of Latitude 13 degrees. This invisible line still remains a political barrier today.

In 1881 a Muslim religious leader calling himself the Mahdi, or “guided one”, began a war to unify the tribes of central Sudan. His devotees took the name of “Ansars” – literally “followers”, who were popularly known as “Dervishes”.

In 1885 the Mahdi led a revolt against the British/Egyptian/Northern Sudanese administration, and, in the process put to death the British Governer-General Charles Gordon and some fifty thousand inhabitants of Khartoum.

Meanwhile an Anglo-Egyptian army had been despatched to relieve General Gordon, but it arrived forty eight hours too late. The advance guard saw the smoking ruins of Gordon’s palace surmounted by the Mahdist flag, and immediately made an about turn and headed downstream back towards Egypt. England withdrew from the Sudan, to leave the empire to make what it could of the vast hinterland. With the doubtful wisdom of hindsight, it was perhaps inevitable that the British would eventually seek to reconquer the Sudan and avenge their slaughtered martyr. In a fine flurry of indignation, Queen and country turned on Prime Minister William Gladstone, for his very definite failure to act more swiftly and resolutely – and to have prevented the murder of General Gordon. But, having made their point, the great British public put the matter from their minds. Gladstone was forced to somewhat reluctantly proclaim that the Mahdi must be crushed, and that Egypt would be the springboard for the launching of the expedition. The Mahdi, however, died just six months after the murder of Gordon. He was succeded by the Khalifa Abdullahi, who was even more fanatical and determined to invade Egypt.

Egypt was in fact little more than a colony, and its ruler the Khedive ruled little beyond his palace walls.

But to the south of this ornament to the imperial crown stalked fearful anarchy. Egypt could never be safe while the Mahdist forces under the new leader threatened her frontiers. Worse still, behind the scenes lurked the arch enemy the French, threatening to carve a link between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and so isolate Britain from her possessions to the south.

It goes almost without saying that the Sudan under British rule would be more prosperous and secure than under the Mahdi, but whether this provides sufficient justification for its annexation or not, is a question to which each generation will return a different answer.

What in fact eventually induced the British government in 1896 to undertake an expedition into the region was neither benevolent imperialism nor a belated (fourteen years belated) lust to avenge Gordon’s murder, but rather the needs of European politics – to maintain good relations with other role players in the region, such as Italy and Germany. Nevertheless, the Egyptian army was out to avenge Gordon, and the most logical place to do it was the Khalifa’s new capital of Omdurman.

And this was a completely transformed army, under the leadership of the British commanders of the Khedive’s Egyptian and Sudanese forces – recently covered with glory after significantly repelling an attempted Mahdist invasion of Egypt in 1889.

Three years later the Sirdar, or commander in chief of the Egyptian army, Sir Francis Grenfell, resigned, and was succeded by Herbert Kitchener. The reaction to this appointment, of a man regarded by many as a vulgar upstart was one of dismay and disgust. Kitchener was an Engineer first and foremost and made no claim to mastery of the battlefield. With hindsight it was nevertheless fortunate that such a man took the helm of a campaign which culminated in the battle of Omdurman and all that it entailed – mostly engineering based.

The most daunting challenge of mounting such an expedition was the logistical nightmare of moving tens of thousands of men and vast quantities of equipment hundreds of miles into the heart of the Khalifa’s empire. (It is appropriate to mention here that up to this time all movement of British military expeditions on the Nile had been in the capable hands of the travel firm of Thomas Cook ! Believe it or not !) But, Thomas Cook had up till this time only operated up to the first cataract. Something else was needed if transport for the army was to be guaranteed.

And so was born the Sudan Military Railway. In subsequent years it was said that the battle of Omdurman was won in the Railway workshops of Wadi Halfa – what turned out to be one of the great engineering enterprises of modern times. But not just the railway. Kitchener’s engineering genius led to another campaign-winning development – the shallow draft river gunboat.

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Transported in knocked-down prefabricated form, these ugly armour plated paddle wheel powered leviathans were transported up the Nile by train, camel and barge – to be assembled in a makeshift dockyard at Kosheh. Kitchener, with his engineering background, fancied himself as a handyman, and at every opportunity was to be found in the shipyard trying his hand at riveting the prefabricated gunboat sections together. Needless to say, a specially appointed officer was instructed to follow at a discreet distance, and to mark with chalk all the rivets that the Sirdar had inserted. These were then redone as soon as Kitchener had departed. The gunboats were140 feet long and were armed with a 12 pounder and two 6 pounder guns, as well Maxim and Gatling guns and a battery of searchlights – which were to prove invaluable in action. These lethal weapons were commanded by very young naval officers – including Lt David Beatty, who went down in history as the heroic Admiral at the battle of Jutland in the First World War.

But all of this preparation depended on the approval of the British government, and there was a deafening silence from Whitehall. That isuntil what many regarded as highly suspicious timing – when out of the blue it was announced that intelligence had been received that the Khalifa was about to sally forth with an army of more than 100 000 men. The Anglo-Egyptian army could not hope to resist such a host, and in a dramatic and rapid development , it was announced from London that a brigade should immediately be sent up the Nile from Cairo, and reinforcements were to be despatched post haste from England. The penultimate phase of the River War was about to begin.

By the end of January 1898 the first battalions of the Warwickshire and Lincolnshire regiments and Cameron Highlanders had arrived in Sudan. The first British Brigade was under the command of General Sir William Gatacre, a feisty control freak of a man, who constantly interfered at every level of the campaign – earning him the common soldiers’ nickname of “General Back-acher” – perhaps the Victorian equivalent of “pain in the rear end”.

The British troop build-up did not go unchallenged however, and there were actions at both Berber and Atbara above the fifth cataract. British casualties in these engagements were relatively light, and were regarded as unavoidable minor setbacks. And so the campaign progressed – albeit very slowly. It had taken Kitchener twenty three months to reach Atbara from the Sudanese border, at a pace entirely dictated by the construction of the railway – running parallel to the Nile. Granted, the terrain was almost as flat as a billiard table, but the logistics of transporting necessary materials made the whole exercise nothing short of nightmarish. Track was eventually laid on what were known as “peapods” – metal sleepers, because of the total lack of timber, and enormous quantities of water had to be brought in to sustain the huge workforce slaving under a blazing sun. With each mile of advance to the north, the train was able to carry less and less construction material. But the completion of the railway line to just short of Khartoum was one of the great feats of engineering of all time.

Nature inevitably called a halt at this stage. The Nile would not be navigable up as far south as Khartoum until July, and so the expeditionary force went into summer quarters at Atbara. A large area next to the river was known as the Nuzl, where stores and equipment were stockpiled. Kitchener, ever the “hands-on” commander in chief was generally found “nuzzling” among the stores – ever determined to be in complete control.

As the level of the river rose, the last wave of reinforcements were brought in – Grenadier Guards from Gibraltar, Fusiliers from Cairo, and the Rifle Brigade from Malta. Cavalry arrived in the form of the 21st Lancers from Cairo – a regiment which included a very junior 2nd Lieutenant by the name of Winston Churchill.

Other late arrivals were the large number of British journalists from the leading newspapers of the day. Kitchener had no time for them, and immediately set out to do them every mischief in his power. The dislike was mutual.

On August 21st the entire expeditionary force was mustered for inspection, prior to the final march on Omdurman. It consisted of 8 200 British troops; 17 600 Egyptian and Sudanese; 44 field guns and Maxims on land; 36 guns and 24 Maxims on the gunboats; 2 470 horses; 5 250 camels. All poised for action, 1 260 miles from Cairo, with only fifty to go to the final showdown.

 

The Battle

The vast army settled down as best they could for the night, only to be rudely awakened at about 10:00 pm by a howling wind, followed by several hours of torrential rain which blew away tents and ground sheets, soaking the unhappy men to the skin.

Dawn brought little relief, but by 9:00 the final advance was under way under a large cloud of steam, as the temperature rose and sodden uniforms and equipment dried out.

As the advance of the land forces continued through the morning, the gunboats were approaching to within range of Omdurman, and the prominent landmark and aiming point of the Mahdi’s tomb. At 11:00 while out of range of the Khalifa’s somewhat antique artillery, the first gunboat FATTHA opened fire. Apart from Lt Beatty, already mentioned, the second young officer on board was a Lt Hood. As an Admiral of the Fleet in the first world war he went down with his ship at the Battle of Jutland.

The forts on Tuti Island fought back with great gallantry, even scoring several direct hits on the heavily armoured gunboats, causing minor casualties. But within half an hour the island forts were silenced as deadly Maxim fire was brought to bear.

By midday the bulk of the land forces had arrived at the ruined mud huts of El Egeiga, the small village on the western bank between the Kerreri hills and the Nile. They immediately set to work constructing a zariba – a curved perimeter of rough timber and thorn bushed. This was largely a symbolic line than anything else – it certainly offered very little protection to those behind it.

omdurman2The various units were deployed, with their backs to the river and the gunboats – facing to the west and the Kerreri and Jebel Surgham hills around which the Khalifa’s forces were gathering in their tens of thousands (the final count of his army was 52 000). Towards 2 o’clock there was a clearly audible rustling sound as this vast host of white robed men sank to the ground. The tension was palpable. Was this only a short rest, and would they continue their advance within minutes ? The smoke from hundreds of cooking fires soon answered the question – they were settling down for the night.

Throughout the remainder of the day the regiments busied themselves with scraping out rudimentary trenches and pacing out distances to place range-finders for accurate adjustment of their rifle sights. One officer of the Northumberland Fusiliers even dragged out an old bedstead from a hut, and placed it at 500 yards for his appreciative men.

As darkness descended the rumours started. The Khalfa’s men were going to march around the Kerreri hills and attack the allied position from the rear – etc. etc. As a precaution Kitchener ordered that the gunboats powerful searchlights should be kept on  all  night, regularly sweeping the Khalifa’s lines. Whether or not this was the deciding factor is not known, but not a shot was fired during the whole night.

As dawn broke the Khalifa learned that 6,000 of his force had deserted during the night, but he proclaimed that the prophecy of victory would be fulfilled if only five people stood with him. With a great roar, the multitude lurched forward and was on the move. Their front extended almost five miles across the desert, with the Khalifa’s giant black standard at the centre – a huge banner two yards square, covered in sacred texts from the Koran.

The army facing this veritable Armada was barely half the size. The scouts who first sighted the Dervishes from their forward positions must have paled at the sight.

At first light the cavalry and the camel corps had ranged out from the zariba towards the north west and were watching developments from the vantage point of the Kerreri hills, including the young Winston Churchill – who wrote later that he never expected ever to see such a sight again in his life.

As the Khalifa’s force surged nearer it began to come into focus, both visually and audibly. What had up till then been a blurred mass and a distant mindless roar, now became discernable as individuals and a ceaseless chant – “There is but one God and Huhammad is his messenger”. At exactly 6:25 am the field batteries opened up, followed shortly afterwards by heavy fire from the gunboats behind. From just behind the Dervish army a gun responded, throwing a shell over 2 500 yards to land just short of the zariba. Battle had been truly joined. As the Khalifa’s forces closed the range, it was time for the infantry to join in repelling the attack.

Most battles since the invention of gunpowder have been totally shrouded in dense smoke, but on 2nd September 1898 there was a curious clarity – the strong prevailing wind across the lines of fire blew most of it away.

By 7:30 am the Dervish onslaught began to waver under a withering fire. For more than an hour they had bravely advanced against the uninterrupted fire of 10 000 rifles and the full weight of the allied artillery. Overheated rifles were being handed back in exchange for others from the support troops behind. Maxim guns

 bucked and jumped like crazy horses as the water in their cooling jackets boiled. And yet the Dervishes came on , rank upon rank crumpling in the face of the murderous fire – their successors striding over the bodies of their comrades to carry the standards a few painful yards closer to the infidels, before they joined them in paradise. First to fall were always the Emirs, some of them dressed in chain mail and armour, wielding swords that had been captured from Christians 600 years before during the Crusades.

The Dervish warriors gained 20 000 admirers that day for their unbelievable bravery in the face of vastly superior weaponry. During the course of the battle there was not one report of a Dervish fleeing from the field of battle – on the contrary, many reports of fatally wounded men relentlessly marching forward towards certain death, still carrying their battle flags

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By 8:30 the first phase of the battle was concluded. Out in the Kerreri hills the 21st lancers were still on standby looking for a job of work to do. Orders soon came from Colonel Broadwood that they were to head off the retreating main force of the Dervishes and prevent them from re-entering Omdurman and impairing the capture of the citadel. They could see to the south a group of about 700, drawn up and facing towards the British horsemen. Little did the lancers know that they were  about  to  be  taken  in by one of the oldest tricks in the Arab repertoire – because behind this apparently small force a further 2 000 were concealed in a dry watercourse. The order “Right wheel, into line, gallop and charge” was given, and the 400 lancers rapidly accelerated across the 400 yard intervening ground. With less than a hundred yards to go, the trap was sprung. From apparently out of the ground, a sea of men rose before them, twelve deep and spread across the entire front of the charge. Even if they had wanted to, the lancers could not have checked their charge. The irresistible momentum and speed simply carried them through, literally over the sea of bodies beneath them. Dervish casualties were high, but the lancers paid dearly – 21 dead, 65 wounded and a quarter of the horses killed. Churchill, in typically jingoistic vein, wrote to his mother : :We should have charged back at once – another 50 0r 60 casualties would have been nothing compared with the glory which we would have gained”. (It is interesting that this was the first and only time that the 21st had been in battle. It was the last great cavalry charge in history.

Shortly after the lancers had left on their ill fated mission, the army left the confines of the zariba on what was to be its final march. Thetwo British brigades advanced towards the ridge which ran between the Jebel Surgham and the river at the southern end of the zariba. At this stage of the battle there was a great deal of confusion and rivalry between the various brigades, and certainly very little intelligence regarding the whereabouts and remaining strength of the Khalifa’s army. Kitchener and his staff officers, advancing behind Colonel Maxwell’s brigade, appeared not to be fully aware of the developing situation with regard to what transpired to be a Dervish force behind the Jebel Surgham , fully equal in size to that which had been dealt with in the first three hours of the battle. When confronted with requests for orders to deal with the still-hidden threat behind the hill, he somewhat vaguely told the messengers to continue the advance on Omdurman – only to suddenly do an about face , and to instruct Colonels Lyttleton, Lewis and Maxwell to change direction to head off the Khalifa’s northerly advance to reinforce the heavy attack on Col Hector Macdonald’s brigade of Sudanese and the Camel corps. This critical development can be seen if we look at the situations at 9:40 and 10:15. This was a major turning point in the battle, and in a matter of minutes Yakub and the Khalifa’s threat was neutralised – causing them to head westward out into the open desert and away from Omdurman.

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The Seaforth Highlanders were the first regiment to resume the final march on Omdurman, and their route took tham directly past the spot where the Khalifa’s great banner was still planted in the sand. As Kitchener and his staff came up in the wake of the Seaforths, the Sirdar ordered the banner to be taken up and carried in triumph before him. It was a vainglorious act which he was to regret before the day was out.

And so started the race to be the first unit to enter  the  town, with regiments jostling each

other and the situation almost getting out of hand. The glory of leading the final lap was given to the Sudanese, no doubt in recognition of the massacres that had been perpetrated against them under the Mahdi. The band of the Grenadier Guards struck up their regimental march, and the whole affair became somewhat bizarre in view of the fact that there were still some of the Khalifa’s men in the town, and Kitchener presented a very empting target in his white uniform. Quite unexpectedly a group of white bearded old men appeared and approached Kitchener – turning out to be the senior Emir of the town, come to surrender.

Inevitably the triumphal entry into the fabled city was an anti-climax. Here were no great palaces or mysterious temples of legend – just a rather sad and ruined heap of rubble, dominated by what was left of the Mahdi’s tomb. As the occupying forces approached the inner citadel no one knew what kind of reception to expect. From the odd burst of sporadic small arms fire it was clear that the area of the Treasury, the tomb and the Khalifa’s palace was still occupied – but by what sort of numbers was not known.

Unbeknown to the allies, the Khalifa and his small force of body guards had left the field of battle some four hours earlier and had entered the town ahead of the invaders. He had gone directly to the Mahdi’s tomb to pray, and had then despatched his wives and family away to the south in preparation for the last-ditch stand he anticipated against his enemies. Most of his followers had deserted him, and the remaining few openly jeered him as they hastily departed.

Although initially determined to obey the Arab code of honour which dictated that he should die, at the last minute his courage left him, and, after disguising himself, he fled in the direction of his fleeing armies.

As the allies entered the palace courtyard they were confronted by a considerable group of armed men amid the ruins. Some shots were exchanged, but eventually common sense prevailed, and the Khalfa’s men surrenderd – to be almost immediately conscripted into the Sudanese infantry.

Now followed a bizarre incident, which soured the victory and cost a considerable number of lives. As Kitchener and his group rode into the palace courtyard – he still carrying the Khalifa’s enormous banner on its long pole, it was spotted by the 32nd battery of field artillery. They had been posted outside the walls with strict instructions to open fire if they caught any glimpse of the Khalifa.

Several shells exploded in the courtyard before a bugler was hastily ordered to sound the ceasefire.

What followed is still today regarded by many as a barbaric act in a long drawn out campaign of revenge. The shattered Mahdi’s tomb was entered and his embalmed remains were removed and thrown into the Nile – except for his skull, which after a great deal of debate as to what to do with it, was finally buried in the cemetery at Wadi Halfa. It is on record that Queen Victoria was “Not Amused” when she learned of the desecration of the Mahdi’s remains and issued a severe reprimand of Kitchener.

The final act in this bizarre drama was played out on Sunday 3rd September 1898 in front of what little was left of General Charles Gordon’s palace. An interdenominational memorial service was held amid the rubble, with all the pomp and ceremony which the Victorians did so well. What a strange spectacle it must have presented. Under the flags flying from the shattered ramparts a strange miscellany of nationalities and uniforms – wailing bagpipe dirges and a twenty one gun salute from the gunboats, using live ammunition - the shells screaming over the heads of the assembled company, to land where ?

Omdurman today is not a place of pilgrimage. Who would the pilgrims be ? No one cherishes the memory of defeat, and the descendants of the so-called victors have little to celebrate with hindsight.

“Time hath an art to make dust of all things, as much of a man’s reputation as of his body – of the things that he did, and of the reasons for which he did them”.

Who knows or cares today why some 80,000 men fought to the death for this stretch of desert sand, all those years ago?

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