All through the darkness of the night, a British infantryman waits nervously by the banks of the Nile. The Mahdists, infamously bloodthirsty savages, are just seven miles away, in the fortified city of Omdurman. They outnumber the poor infantryman and his comrades two to one and hold a superior position on the high ground. If the Mahdists attack at night, then the British won’t even have the advantage of their better-ranged guns.
Bayonet fixed, rifle clutched tightly in his hands, the infantryman waits to find out if he will see the dawn.
Return to Sudan
British policy towards Sudan in the 1890s was callous at best, determined not by the desires of locals but by European power politics. The fall of Khartoum and death of General Gordon in 1885 had weakened British influence in north-east Africa. A decade later, Lord Salisbury’s government authorised a return to Sudan, to protect British interests in Egypt and prevent the French from expanding in the region. France was still Britain’s leading opponent on the international stage, with relations between the two at times coming close to a cold war. Sudan became a proxy in their conflict.
The army sent to Sudan in 1898 was led by Major-General Horatio Herbert Kitchener. The British controlled Egypt, and so it was an Anglo-Egyptian force – 8,200 of the men were British, 17,600 were Egyptian and Sudanese. They had at their disposal some of the most advanced firepower of the age, including 20 Maxim guns – the earliest design of machine gun – and 44 artillery pieces on land, as well as a further 24 Maxim guns and 36 artillery pieces mounted on gunboats on the Nile. Even the infantry had cutting edge guns with magazine feeds full of expanding ammunition.
These troops were not all raw recruits or men whose only experience had been in peaceful outposts. As recently as 8th of April 1898, some of them had defeated Sudanese troops at the Battle of Atbara.
By constructing the 385-mile long Sudan Military Railway, Kitchener was able, by the end of August 1898, to bring these forces within striking distance of the Khalifa in his fortress at Omdurman.
Preparing for Battle
Kitchener prepared to face the Khalifa, sending out mounted patrols to scout the area around Omdurman. Artillery bombarded Omdurman, aiming to weaken the defences, including Sudanese gun positions.
Approaching the city, the patrols saw the Khalifa’s army, estimated at 52,000 men, emerging to meet them. They quickly withdrew.
On 1 September, Kitchener set up camp on the west bank of the Nile, mere miles from Omdurman. Forming up his troops in a semi-circle, he set spotlights from the gunboats to probing the darkness around them, fearful of a night-time attack. This was when the British were at their most vulnerable, unable to see distant targets and so take full advantage of their superior weaponry. An attack now could ruin them.
But the Khalifa didn’t recognise this as the moment to strike, and so he too waited, with his troops gathered on high ground to the south-west.
Let Battle Commence
At last, dawn came, and with it the showdown. The Khalifa advanced his forces downhill and swept across the front of the Anglo-Egyptian position. Wheeling around, his troops launched into a massive full frontal assault upon the invaders.
Artillery, Maxim machine guns, rifles – the invaders opened up in a blaze of firepower. Mahdists fell in their thousands, blood soaking the ground. Most never even came within 300 yards of their enemies.
By waiting for dawn, the Khalifa had left it too late. His attack was shattered.
Charge of the Lancers
With the Mahdists in retreat, Kitchener ordered the 21st Lancers to pursue the fleeing remnants, preventing them from retreating to Omdurman. Led by Colonel R. H. Martin, the lancers pressed their spurs to their horses’ flanks and rushed to the pursuit.
But the Mahdists still had tricks up their sleeves. Martin charged a thin line of Dervishes, only to find a larger Sudanese force waiting in ambush behind them. Martin’s spectacular charge was followed by several minutes of brutal close quarters fighting. Forty percent of British casualties in the entire battle were suffered in that one brief melee. Though three men were awarded Victoria Crosses for courage in the action, and it was praised in the press, in reality it was a needless waste of lives.
The Seven Mile March
By 9am, the Mahdists had been in retreat for an hour and Kitchener’s men had had time to rest and reload. Now he ordered them to advance.
As the Anglo-Egyptian force marched the seven miles to Omdurman they lost cohesion. It was hard to keep 25,000 men in fighting order on the move, and soon gaps appeared in their lines.
The Mahdists took this opportunity to launch two counter-attacks, hoping to break the British offensive.
But just like the Mahdists, the British were able to improvise and overcome setbacks. Most notable was Brigadier-General Hector MacDonald. His brigade first repulsed an attack from the south. Then seeing more Mahdists coming in from the north, MacDonald rotated his entire formation, including eight machine guns and eighteen artillery pieces, through ninety degrees before fighting off the second attack.
Thanks to MacDonald’s actions, Kitchener obliterated the retreating Mahdists and seized Omdurman.
Results and Responses – the Turning of the Tide?
Omdurman was an overwhelming triumph for the British. Only 48 of their men were killed while the Mahdists lost nearly 11,000. Omdurman fell. General Gordon was avenged. Though the praise in the press focused on this victory over the native peoples, for those in the British corridors of power it was also a successful manoeuvre against their European competitors.
While many newspapers raved about the triumph, others were more critical. The Westminster Gazette attacked the merciless bayoneting of fallen Mahdists. The tomb of the Mahdi, who had inspired Sudanese resistance, was desecrated by the British, an act which appalled Queen Victoria.
Omdurman was the height of British imperial success, but it also showed a shifting of attitudes. The British public was gaining a distaste for the grim measures sometimes taken to uphold colonialism, and in the decades that followed, the withdrawal from empire would begin.