Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Omdurman 1898

Mahdist War

2 September 1898

Ansar under Abdullah al-Taashi approx. 52,000, 5 guns
Anglo-Egyptians under Sir Herbert Kitchener, 25,544, 115 guns

Weather: Clear, hot

Location: 15° 46’ 12” N, 32° 32’ 48” E, the site of the battlefield, now largely covered by the town of Al Jarafa and an airfield on the left bank of the Nile River, is about 7 miles north of the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman in Sudan.

First Light:  06:15   Sunrise: 06:37   Sunset: 19:02  End of Twilight: 19:23
Moon Phase: 95%  Full  Moonrise: 20:23

(calculated for the location and date from U.S. Naval Observatory)

Omdurman and the whole history of the Mahdist war from 1881 to 1899 is, to me, evidence that the current chaos brought on by Muslim extremist movements like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS in the Middle East, and Al Shabaab and Boko Haram in Africa, is not a new thing. In fact, if you read  history, you'll see the current wars as part of a broader, recurring pattern in Islamic history, which is punctuated by fundamentalist movements. These are frequently initially sparked by religious revival but given momentum by anti-imperial, anti-infidel, or sectarian anger--to the detriment of ordinary people, sadly, mostly to ordinary Muslim people. Of course, to be fair, this is also a pattern in Christian history and probably the histories of other religions. So I don't want to beat up on Islam. But religious wars are a factor in human history. This particular battle, however, was lop-sided, both in terms of the cause of each side (one religious, the other imperialist) and in terms of technology (one swords and spears, the other machine guns and high-explosive artillery).

Map of initial positions of the Anglo-Egyptian Army and the opening attacks by the Ansar just before dawn. Narrative continues below the map.

A little background first.

Mohammed Ahmed  "The Mahdi"
The origins of the Mahdist War in particular started with an insurrection in 1881 when Mohammed Ahmed, a local boat builder's apprentice in the Sudan, noticed he had the same first name as the Prophet (what are the odds of that?) and so came to the conclusion that he must be the Mahdi, the military leader who had been predicted by Sunni tradition to come and lead the Islamic world in ridding itself of evil and impurity. The particular impurity that Ahmed was concerned with was the corrupt and (to fundamentalist Dervish eyes) apostate rule by the Egyptian government over the Sudan. While Egypt was technically part of the Ottoman Empire, it was, for practical purposes, a client state of the British Empire, who had financial and strategic interests in the Suez Canal and East Africa, both linking it to its empire in the Indian Ocean littoral (India, Burma, Australia, Malaysia). But the British had been, up to then, only lightly involved in the government of Egypt. The incompetence and oppression that the Sudanese had been experiencing was all the Khedive of Egypt's responsibility.

Of course, the religious fundamentalism that fueled the Sudanese revolt was only part of the general discontent with the maladministration of the corrupt and incompetent Egyptian government. But Ahmed and "end-times" religious fervor he preached gave focus to the movement. From 1881-1885 this revolt led to a largely successful military campaign by the Dervish Ansar (an Arabic word meaning "helpers") that ended with the fall of the Sudanese provincial capital at Khartoum and establishment of a "caliphate" in Sudan. 

Prime Minister Gladstone's government in London, at first reluctant to get involved in internal troubles in Egypt, was then forced to in order to protect its vital strategic interest in the continuing operation of the Suez Canal, which British banks had been the primary investors in. It first had to send an army to put down a coup d-etat by the Egyptian Army over the Ottoman colonial regime (Battle of Tel-El-Kebir, 1882), then reorganize the Egyptian government, and finally reform the same Egyptian Army it had defeated. From that point on, British diplomats and officers took on Ottoman titles and assumed the executive and administrative roles in the Egyptian government and armed forces, a role that was to continue for the next 70 years, until another Army revolt in 1952.

While Britain was busy imposing its imperial will on Cairo, the Mahdist revolt in the Sudan was taking advantage of the chaos up north and sweeping across Sudan. In 1883 the new puppet government in Egypt sent a hastily-trained, ill-equipped, dispirited force of conscripts (mostly former mutineers and some Sudanese irregulars) under a few British officers south to deal with the disturbances. This force was predictably massacred by the Ansar in the desert at El Obeid in late 1883. After this embarrassment, Gladstone, under pressure at home, reluctantly sent local hero Colonel Charles George Gordon down the Nile to Khartoum in early 1884 with express orders to evacuate the Europeans and Egyptians there. That was all he was licensed to do. Instead, Gordon, who had had prior experience in the Sudan in a campaign to wipe out slavery in the province, thought he could count on the loyalty of the grateful Sudanese tribes to whip the Mahdi. So, in violation of direct orders from Her Majesty's Government, he fortified the city. After a long siege and ineffectual rescue expedition, Khartoum fell to the Mahdi's forces in January 1885. And with it, Gladtone's limp government.

But Gordon became a martyr in the cause of British Imperialism, to be later played by the scenery-chewing Charlton Heston in the 1966 MGM blockbuster, Khartoum.
Sudanese veteran in the "patched"  jibbah
of a Dervish jihadi. The design of this
uniform was to supposed to symbolize the
vow of poverty that the devout Dervish

The shame and outrage generated by his brave stand and martyrdom was to influence the direction of British policy in the Sudan from then on. But they were, at the moment, not in a position to conduct any expeditions, at least until they'd reorganized the Egyptian government and retrained the Egyptian Army.

For the next thirteen years the Mahdists, also known as Dervishes, consolidated their theocracy in Sudan. They ruled over the Sudanese with brutal severity, comparable to the severe regime of the Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq today. It was also shortly after the conquest of Khartoum that Mohammed Ahmed was called to paradise by Allah (1885) and his lieutenant, Abdulla al-Taashi,  assumed the office of Khalifa as his successor.

During this period, the Khalifa did not do very much in the way of building an effective government in the Sudan to replace the ousted Egyptians. For the most part he spent the decade putting down rebellious tribes in Darfur and Kordofan, fighting off an Abyssinian (modern day Ethiopia) invasion, and remotely attempting a half-hearted foray into southern Egypt. Mohammed Ahmed's original goal had been to lead a jihad across the world. But that conquering sweep lost momentum with his death. The Khalifa wasn't a leading type. Instead. he decided to prepare for what he calculated would inevitably come, an attempt at reconquest by the Egyptians and British. And that finally started in 1896.

The campaign to retake Sudan finally gets going.

Beginning in 1896 the new Tory government in Britain under Lord Salisbury felt it had the political mandate and economic wherewithal to methodically take back the Sudan, and once-and-for-all end the threat of the Dervish jihad sweeping up into Egypt or down into its colonies in East Africa. It was also feeling pressure from other European colonial powers, like the Italians, the French, and the Belgians, who were making inroads into Sub-Saharan Africa. Salisbury's aim was to make the entire Nile British, from Alexandria to Uganda and Kenya. By this time, too, the British felt that their retrained Egyptian Army was ready to take on the Ansar.

Giving the overall command of the campaign to Sir Herbert Kitchener, a rising hot-shot in the Army who had been given the office of Sirdar (Commander-in-Chief) of the Egyptian Army, the British allowed him more-or-less free reign in his strategy.  Rather than attempting an overland invasion of Sudan from Suakin on the Red Sea coast, which faced the problem of water, Kitchener decided to move up the Nile in a series of stages. This would not only allow him to insure sufficient water for his army (always the most strategic consideration in desert warfare), but would allow him to use the Egyptian Navy's gunboats to support his operations.

In early 1896, with his regular British troops still on their way, Kitchener began to attack the Dervish forces in north Sudan with only his Egyptian and Sudanese regulars. These proved to be more than equal to the task, overwhelming the strong, entrenched Dervish garrison at Firket (see strategic map above) on 7 June and winning another hot battle at Dongola on 23 September, securing the Nile up to and including the 3rd Cataract.

These native troops were to prove to be Kitchener's strongest asset. And the repeated victories they won--particularly the Sudanese regiments--reinforced their morale. These were not the timorous troops that had let themselves be slaughtered by the Mahdi's jihadis thirteen years before. In fact, after each early victory in this campaign, captured Sudanese from the Ansar enthusiastically enlisted in Kitchener's victorious regiments, with their smart uniforms, modern weapons, plentiful food, and regular pay. Word had got around who the winning side was going to be.

Kitchener spent the remainder of 1896 building up his forces and stocking his magazines. At the beginning of the next year he started a railroad from Wadi-Hafa directly across the desert to Abu Hamed, above the 4th Cataract of the Nile. At first, the Dervish forces defending Abu Hamed raided the construction crews, but the main force, moving up the north bank of the river, physically hauling the gunboats with them, sent out another commando of trusty Sudanese, who took Abu Hamed and slaughtered or recruited the enemy there. By October, the railroad was up and running all the way to Berber, just a couple of hundred miles north of Omdurman. He had also managed to bring nine gunboats past the 4th cataract, each armed with new fast firing modern guns (12 pdrs and 5" howitzers) and the new Maxim machine guns, making them powerful floating support batteries as the army marched close to the river.

The Khalifa, alarmed at the inexorable advance of Kitchener, early in the next year sent two of his most aggressive emirs, Mahmud Ahmed and Osman Digna, with 15,000 men up to the Atbara River to stop the Anglo-Egyptians. Actually, this move had been Mahmud's idea, which he'd been pressing on the Khalifa for months.

But as Mahmud marched north he veered farther to the east to attempt to outflank Kitchener at Berber. Losing his nerve, he eventually took up a position on the north bank of the mostly dry Atbara River at the hamlet of Nakheila, digging in to await the Anglo-Egyptian attack. A big mistake.

Emir Mahmud after Atbara with his captors, soldiers of the
either the 9th or 10th Sudanese Regiment..
In April, Kitchener, reinforced by the British division under Gatacre (Cameron and Seaforth Highlanders, Linconshire and Warwickshire regiments), as well as his now veteran Sudanese and Egyptian regiments under Hunter--12,000 men all told--moved down from Berber to attack Mahmud, who passively waited on the Atbara behind his zariba (thorn bush barricades). The resulting battle was one-sided and quick, lasting about 45 minutes. Mahmud himself was captured by the 9th and 10th Sudanese and paraded like a Roman captive behind Kitchener's horse through Berber. More than 2,000 Dervishes were killed and thousands more wounded and captured, with several of those again opting to join the victorious Sudanese regiments. The total Anglo-Egyptian casualties amounted to 559, including 80 killed. Osman Digna managed to escape with about 4,000 of his Baggara (Arab) cavalry back to Omdurman.

Final march to Omdurman

Kitchener, after sitting out the hottest part of the summer sipping gin and tonics in Berber, awaiting resupply and the arrival of the rest of his British troops (Grenadier Guards, 2nd Rifle Regiment, Northumberland and Lancashires, as well as the 21st Lancers and the rest of his artillery), set out on the west bank of the Nile on 23 August for the final push toward Omdurman.

The troops mostly marched at night to avoid the heat. On their left, they were supported by the river fleet, nine of the latest gunboats, each armed with the new quick-firing 12 pounders and howitzers and Maxim machine guns. On their right, the useful Camel Corps and the cavalry covered the desert flank. All of the brigades assumed a formation which allowed them to quickly form square in the event of a Mahdist attack. MacDonald's Sudanese brigade marched ahead, setting up a zariba-protected camp for the army at the end of each march. Along the east bank, a growing force of irregular locals tribes, each with a grudge against the Mahdists, and led by a courageous Major Whortley (courageous because the tribes' loyalty could flip again at any second), made their way down toward Khartoum.

Ansari jibbah with its emblematic patches. These would
have been a wide variety of colors.
During the weeklong advance, however, the Khalifa made no effort to attack or even hinder the infidel army. So Kitchener's security precautions, while prudent, were untested. Evidently Abdullah was like a deer in the headlights as the Anglo-Egyptians came on. Every attempt to stop them, from Firket two years before to the disastrous massacre at Atbara that spring had failed. So until now he holed up with his main army of 60,000 men inside Omdurman (reduced by about eight thousand deserters who had sneaked away  by the time of the battle).

On 1 September, Kitchener's army had arrived at the village of El Egeiga, about five miles from Omdurman and within site of the domed Mahdi's tomb there. There they set up their usual semi-circular camp. However, the scrub was not as dense around the camp and there were only enough thorn bushes to slap together a zariba on the south side, where the British brigades held the line. On the north side the Sudanese and Egyptian regiments dug shallow trenches instead, which, it would turn out, were far better protection.

Kitchener wanted the Khalifa to come out and attack him, where he was confident his superior firepower would annihilate the Ansar. What he didn't want was a prolonged siege of Omdurman, with costly house-to-house fighting. While he was well supplied and confident of victory, he wanted it over with after two years.

To provoke Abdullah to come out, he sent his gunboat fleet upstream to bombard Omdurman, like kicking over an ant's nest to bring out the swarm. The navy did a thorough job of this; first knocking out all five of the forts that protected the approach to Omdurman along the Nile, then breaching the wall of the city in several places, and finally demolishing the sacred dome of the Mahdi's tomb. This sacrilege was designed to enrage the Dervishes and make them come out onto open ground. It was not a nice thing to do.

Mahdi's Tomb, after the bombardment on the 1st.

Meanwhile, over on the eastern shore, Whortley's irregulars overwhelmed the Dervish positions opposite Omdurman and the ruins of Khartoum at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. They were not nice in the way they did it, either. Because of this the navy was also able to land a battery of howitzers on the right bank to bombard the city and persuade the Khalifa that it would not protect him. What defensive artillery the Ansar had was not very effective since it was manned by captured Egyptians from the fall of Khartoum thirteen years before who, according to Winston Churchill's report, had been chained to their guns so they wouldn't run away. So their hearts couldn't have been in it. These were all quickly put out of action by accurate naval gunfire.

But the Khalifa was not in Omdurman after all. Persuaded by his emirs that a defensive position had not worked in any battles of this war so far, he concluded that an all-out attack by his entire army was the best course. This aggressiveness had been what had brought the Mahdist victories against the Egyptians, Gordon,  the Italians, and the Abyssinians. With God's help and with the Mahdi's inspiration he would present the unbelievers with another massacre on the scale of El Obeid and Khartoum years before.

Cavalry had been sent out from the Anglo-Egyptian army to look for the enemy and alert Kitchener when they came out of Omdurman. Patrols from the 21st Lancers (with Churchill tagging along as a freelance journalist) and Broadwood's Egyptian cavalry discovered that the open country beyond the Jebel Surgham and the Kerreri Hills was already seething with tens of thousands of Dervishes, all marching north (see map at top). The Khalifa's entire army was coming.

The cavalry patrols watched the Ansar all night, ready to alert of a night attack. The moon was nearly full and on the desert it was a bright night. The British fully expected that the Khalifa would take advantage of this to neutralize the firepower advantage of the Anglo-Egyptians. But the Khalifa did not order a night attack. Electric searchlights from the gunboats, which had returned from their bombardment expedition at Omdurman, continuously panned across the Mahdist positions, looking for any sign of movement. This new bit of Western technology may have unnerved the emirs enough to think that it was not worth the risk of confusion a night assault would bring. As it turned out, Adbullah's plan for the attack was complex enough without having to try and pull it off in the dark, even under a full moon. He probably felt that his greatest chance of success was to launch an all-out attack at dawn after a restless and sleepless night for the terrified (he assumed) infidels.

Comes the dawn.

As the eastern horizon began to grow purple, the 52,000 men of the Dervish force began to more. Sunrise wasn't until 06:37 but at 05:50 it was light enough for the thousands of men to make their prayers, gather around their banners, and start their assault. The British, Egyptian and Sudanese regiments had been up since 04:30 and were in position behind their zariba and in their trenches with full ammo pouches and bayonets clicked in. Broadwood's Egyptian cavalry and Camel Corps were dismounted and in position among the rocks of the Kerreri hills to the northwest of the main camp, watching for a move from that direction. They also had with them four 6 cm Krupp guns of the Egyptian horse artillery.

As I said, the Khalifa's battle plan was complex. It was to happen in two phases. The first attack was to be in the center. Osman Sheikh ed-Din's 27,000 men were to race headlong across the plain into the center and right of the infidel camp. It was to be a run of about 3000 yards. The sheer fury of the charge was to make the ground rumble and so demoralize the enemy that they'd flee in the face of it. This tactic had always worked before against the Egyptians.

Meanwhile, a smaller force of 5,000 under the emir Ali wad Helu, which had made its way during the night to the northwest behind the Kerreri Hills was to make a surprise attack from that direction.

The Khalifa and his bodyguard, with a second army under his brother Yaqub, about 17,000, would be in position behind the Surgham Hill ready to support ed-Din's main attack if it succeeded and make a second charge if it was checked.

I don't know about you, but this sight certainly scares the willies out of me.
To the south, hidden in a wadi (a dry streambed also known locally as a khor) a force of about 3,700 Dervish under the trusty Osman Digna were ready to launch a surprise attack from that flank. It was to be an envelopment from three sides, trapping the hapless Egyptians and their British allies against the Nile with nowhere to run. Everyone was expecting it to be the same sort of massacre that had destroyed the Egyptian army under another British general (William Hicks) at El Obeid fifteen years before. And these warriors were the same veterans who had done that and captured Khartoum from Gordon. Frenzied and terrifying charges inspired by God were their secret weapon.

Battles never go as you plan them.

A sweeping still from the 1939 Zoltan Korda movie "The Four Feathers" of the Battle of Omdurman, filmed at the actual site in the Sudan. The Jebel Surgham hill can be seen on the horizon in the upper right.
As Osman ed-Din's 27,000 men started their pre-dawn movement they immediately started to feel the fire of the Anglo-Egyptian artillery. The 52 quick firing guns and howitzers on the gunboats and batteries around the enemy's camp had already been pre-sited and began lobbing high-explosive lyddite shells right into the dense masses of the Ansar at around 3,000 yards. To counter these, the Ansar only had three, old, captured pieces manned by Egyptian POWs (chained, as mentioned before, to their guns to prevent escape). Not only were the Dervish guns ill-served, but their ammunition had been sabotaged by the Egyptian and European POW labor forced to manufacture it. So the artillery duel was asymmetrical in the extreme.

12th Sudanese in their trench at Omdurman. The Kerreri Hills,
can be seen on the horizon,  from where Osman Sheikh al-Din's
attack would swarm.
As the Dervish force closed the range over the open ground, the rising sun in their eyes, the allied infantry opened up with their modern rifles (Lee-Enfields with the British regiments and older Martini-Henrys with the Egyptians) and their 48 Maxim machine guns (14 with the infantry and 34 on the gunboats). All of these weapons were sited out to between 1,700 and 3,000 yards and capable of unprecedented rates of fire. Indeed, with the exception of the Martini_Henrys, they were pretty much the same armament with which the British went into World War I with sixteen years later. About a third of the Ansar were also armed with rifles, but these were largely old Remingtons captured from the Khartoum arsenal thirteen years before. As with the artillery ammunition, too, the ammunition for the Dervish rifles had been sabotaged by the impressed POW manufacturers in Omdurman. So again, it was an uneven match.

To his left, Osman ed-Din noticed that the black rocks of the Kerreri hills were covered in Egyptian troops and artillery (Broadwood's cavalry and Camel Corps). His men were already taking  fire from the flank. He knew he couldn't leave his flank and rear open to Egyptian cavalry. So he split his force in two, taking some 15,000 men north to take care of this force. He left 12,000 under the fire-eating Osman Azraq to continue the frontal charge against the infidel zariba.

Another regiment of Sudanese infantry awaiting the Ansari attack in their shallow trench.

Unfortunately, after less than half-an-hour, Azraq's force, including himself, had been all but annihilated by the withering fire.  No man got closer than  800 yards on the British side and 500 yards on the Egyptian/Sudanese side of the zariba. Hundreds of colored  flags, covered with Koranic text, had fallen, been picked up again, fallen again for good. Thousands lay dead or quivering on the sand. And the survivors found shallow cover in the many khors that crossed the plain, content to take potshots at the enemy. Nobody ran. Those that retreated did so haughtily and slowly, walking upright to the rear. Several on the British side testified to the undeniable bravery of the "Fuzzy-Wuzzies" as they derisively called them (on account of some of their hairdos).

Broadwood makes himself the bait.

Meanwhile, as Osman ed-Din charged northeast after the Egyptian cavalry and Camel Corps on the Kerreri Hills, their commander, Broadwood, realized his 1,700 men could neither stop this tidal wave nor use their mounted mobility to out-maneuver them. The rocky slopes were not great for mounted action and were even worse on camel feet. He had received a heliographed order from Kitchener to withdraw back into the zariba, but he decided on a more strategic ploy. Realizing his Camel Corps could not outpace the onrushing Dervishes on foot in the rocks, he ordered them to mount up and make for the northeast corner of the zariba by the Nile as fast as their cranky beasts could carry them. He then ordered his nine Egyptian cavalry squadrons to mount up and make a fighting withdrawal to the north, drawing off the Dervishes from the main army. This they did in a series of bounds; riding a few hundred yards, dismounting to fire some volleys, and remounting to ride on, repeating this a number of times. Ed-Din took the bait and led his men in a wild chase after the elusive cavalry. Some of them went after the Camel Corps, picking their way down hill toward the zariba, trying to cut them off.

Two of the gunboat commanders in the fleet (gunboats Melik and Abu Klea), able to see what was happening to the north, took it upon themselves to steam downstream and take up firing positions close to the shore of the northeast corner of the zariba. Here they unleashed hell on the pursuing Dervishes, covering the safe withdrawal of the camelmen into the safety of the allied redoubt. The jihadis, seeing they would be cut down to a man by the massed firepower of the gunboats' artillery and machine guns, as well as those of Lewis's brigade behind the northernmost line, halted their pursuit and took up sniper positions in the rocks on the Kerreri ridge.

The bulk of ed-Din's force, however kept trying to catch Broadwood, who led them miles north of the battlefield at a critical time. After a couple of hours Broadwood looped around and led his regiment along the banks of the Nile back into the zariba. Many of the Dervishes tried to cut them off but in turn were cut down and driven back by the protective pair of gunboats.

A Glorious Charge

After this initial charge by the Khalifa's Ansar had been halted, and ed-Din's force seemed to have gone far off in pursuit of Broadwood, Kitchener ordered his men to take time to refresh themselves, restock with ammunition and clean their rifles. He was concerned that the surviving Ansar would attempt to retreat back into Omdurman to fortify it. So he ordered Col. Martin and his 21st Lancers south to reconnoitre and cut off any disorganized Dervishes from getting into the city.

Twenty-four-year-old Winston Churchill
in his brand new khaki kit
The 21st had been in existence for forty years and was the only cavalry regiment in the British Army that had never been in combat. So they were anxious to get bloodied and add some battle honors to their virgin flag. With them as an unofficial war correspondent was a young Winston Churchill, on leave from the 4th Hussars. Anxious to get in on the action in this latest war, he had his mother, Lady Randolf Churchill, pull strings with the Prince of Wales (her lover and future Edward VII)  to get him assigned to Kitchener's staff. The Sirdar and his staff didn't much like young Churchill and, since he was a cavalry officer, pawned him off of Col. Martin, who grudgingly let him ride along. The vivid account of this campaign and in particular the 21st Lancers we owe to Churchill's eyewitness and direct participation.

Making their way south towards Omdurman, the four squadrons of the 21st noticed about a hundred Dervishes shooting at them from the cover of a khor (a gully, remember). They formed up in line of three squadrons abreast (one in reserve) and made ready to charge. In textbook fashion they increased their pace from a walk to a trot to a canter and finally to a gallop. As they neared the edge of the khor, however, the officers in advance saw that it was filled not with a hundred snipers, but thousands of tightly packed warriors, all armed with very sharp pokey things.

Unknown to the British, the khor was early occupied by about a thousand Haddendoa's of Osman Digna's east Sudan tribe. As the initial attack on the Anglo-Egyptian center collapsed, the Khalifa dispatched another 2,500 men under Osman al Sharif (called the Kara Army) to reinforce Digna. So by the time the 400 troopers of the 21st discovered them there were over 3,500 fanatical Dervishes packed 12 deep awaiting them. But it was too late to stop the charge, which was now at full gallop with lances leveled.

It is rare in military history that we see an ordered and tightly packed body of cavalry crash headlong into an ordered and tightly packed body of infantry. Either the cavalry swerve to the side or the infantry run in panic to be run down by the cavalry--usually. But where there is a head-on collision between two hundred tons of horseflesh and two-hundred-fifty tons of manflesh (as is often erroneous depicted in movies) it is very rare. But it happened here. The 21st crashed right into and through the Dervishes, skewering, shooting, and hacking down hundreds. And, as they galloped through, the Muslim soldiers hacked, shot, and pulled down scores of English cavalrymen off of their horses. Three British troopers earned Victoria Crosses by stopping to help their dismounted and wounded comrades up onto riderless horses. The charge careered on, right out the far side of the Kara Army's rear and came to a halt about two hundred yards beyond it to reform. The Dervishes also started to reform their ranks. Both sides were stunned with what had just happened.
The Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman by William Barnes Wollen, 1899

The 21st, in this their debut of combat in war, lost 70 men and 119 horses killed and wounded, out of their original 400. Churchill estimated that the Arabs had suffered about 200 casualties, though I'm sure he didn't go back to ask. But he was there in the thick of it, so we can't discount his estimate.

Instead of charging back through, which would have been suicidal, Col. Martin prudently had his regiment turn by fours to the right and trot over about two hundred yards to the eastern flank of the Dervish force in the khor and there dismount to begin pouring an enfilade fire into its flank. At this point the Kara Army and the Haddendoah had had enough and retreated back up the gully toward the Jebel Surgham.

Not to be outdone, Caton Woodville's salon painting portrays the chauvinism of imperialist sang-froid. The cringing Dervish
warrior in the lower right foreground is a particular Kiplingesque touch, as is the cool British officer on the right pointing the
way forward, pistol safely in its holster, of course. No sense getting carried away. I'm surprised he's not pointing with an

Where do you think you're going? The battle is far from over.

As I have pointed out, Kitchener was anxious that the fleeing Ansar not retreat into Omdurman. He did not want this battle to end in a costly house-to-house fight. So besides dispatching the 21st to cut them off, he also ordered his entire line out into the plain to the south and west to interpose his army between what was left of the Mahdist army and Omdurman. This meant that the army was supposed to form up in echelon south. He also ordered Collinson's Egyptian brigade, which had been held in reserve that morning, to make a route march along the river bank to follow the 21st into the city (see map below). As we'll soon see, this was kind of a reckless move on the Sirdar's part, exposing, as it did, his individual units' flanks as they spread out.

But the Khalifa was not retreating back into Omdurman. As you'll recall, he had a Plan B should his initial attack fail. And he was executing it now. Seeing that the enemy had left the shelter of their trenches and zariba and had spread out on the plain, he rubbed his hands together and concluded that the time was right for his nasty surprise; a second massive attack with a completely fresh army. Supporting this attack he sent a few thousand of his own rifle-armed Sudanese up onto the rocks of Jebel Surgham to pick off the exposed British. And he also sent frantic messengers up to find Ali wad Helu and Osman Sheikh ed-Din beyond the Kerreri Hills to join this last all-of-nothing charge from the north.

Jebel Surgam
The second attack, consisting of the 16,000 warriors of Yaqub's Army and the Khalifa's bodyguard commenced at about 9:40, while the five Anglo-Egyptian brigades were spread out. At first, the two British brigades, facing south, were not immediately threatened; the brunt of the attack falling on the widely separated brigades of Lewis and McDonald. Kitchener quickly pulled Wauchope's brigade (Lincolnshires, Camerons, Seaforths and Warwickshires) out of the line and sent them north at the double to shore up the hole between MacDonald and Lewis. Lyttleton's brigade (Grenadier Guards, Northumberlands, Lancashires and the 2nd Rifles) and Maxwell's brigade (8th Egyptian, 12th, 13th and 14th Sudanese) were sent straight up Jebel Surgham to sweep away the Dervish riflemen and bring enfilade fire down on the Khalifa's attack.

Newspaper illustration of the firing line at Omdurman (either Seaforth or
Cameron Highlanders) demonstrating how the reserve companies would
replace  ammunition and over-heated rifles for the six forward companies.
Lewis's Egyptian brigade was holding its own, pumping round after round from their old Martini-Henrys, chewing up the oncoming swarm. Kitchener had also ordered up his artillery and more machine guns to support them. At one point, the Egyptian infantry began to waiver in the center and Lewis, quickly thinking, deployed the reserve 15th Egyptian with fixed bayonets behind them to stiffen their resolve.

To their right and isolated by several hundred yards, MacDonald's brigade (the elite 9th, 10th, and 11th Sudanese and the 2nd Egyptian) held their own against the attack from the west. After about twenty minutes, this attack seemed to be losing its momentum. But at the worst possible moment, a new army of Dervishes began to swarm from the north over the Kerreri Hills. It was the 5,000 of Ali wad Helu and the wayward 15,000 of Osman Sheikh ed-Din.  Attacked on two sides by a total of 36,000, MacDonald's 3,600 Sudanese and Egyptians nearly emptied their cartridge pouches. As the attack from the west seemed to be waning and the one from the north came closer, MacDonald deftly shifted his left-hand battalions to the right, forming an "L". It was getting desperate. Then, just as his men were down to their last two or three cartridges and the brave Sudanese (and the 2nd Egyptian) fixed their bayonets to counter-charge the mass of Dervishes rushing toward them, Wauchope's Highlanders finally showed up and began to deploy to the right of MacDonald's brigade.  More gun batteries and Maxims also came up and unlimbered, pouring it into the Dervishes. Collinson's Egyptian brigade, recalled from its march south, and Broadwood's Egyptian cavalry and the Camel Corps also showed up on MacDonald's right to help beat back ed-Din's attack. And within about ten more minutes, the Dervishes had come to a halt (either dead or retreating) less than 100 yards from MacDonald's line. But it was a close thing.

The Khalifa's second surprise attack had also failed. Now he had no reserves left. And since his double envelopment plan was delivered out of sync, the Anglo-Egypto-Sudanese, exhausted though they all were, were able to stop it cold.

Now it was over. Kitchener's brigadiers rallied their battalions and the whole army resumed its march south to capture the capital. Broadwood's cavalry and the 21st Lancers were sent to the west to interpose themselves between the fleeing Dervishes and the city, and prevent them from rallying. For the most part, however, these Mahdists were no longer Mahdists. They were spent and were more interested in getting themselves and their families back to their home villages. They'd had enough of the caliphate and war.

They welcomed us as liberators.

The Khalifa first made it to the illusory safety of his palace with what was left of his bodyguard, intending to defend it to the last. However, Sudanese and British troops began to make their way into the city through the breaches in the walls made by the gunboats the day before. So Abdullah took his followers and bolted out of the southern gate, planning to recruit a new army of believers and renew the holy war. The Egyptian cavalry were ordered to pursue and capture him.

There were a few last-standers in the mud houses of Omdurman and two lone martyrs defending the ruin of the Mahdi's Tomb, but these were quickly killed or captured. The mood of the civilians of the city was fairly jubilant at being liberated from Mahdist tyranny by their countrymen, the heroic Sudanese regiments. Kitchener was politically astute in leading these regiments first into the Sudanese capital. But hundreds of civilians, including women and children, had died horribly in the naval bombardment the previous day and their bodies were decomposing rapidly in the heat.A number of correspondents remarked on sickening smell.

Kitchener also had the pleasure of personally liberating some 30 shackled European prisoners from the Khalifa's prison. There was much weeping since most of these had been there for well over a decade. But I'm sure they smelled in their own way, too.

Then, on the 4th, taking an escort of his trusty Sudanese infantry on a gunboat across the Nile, the Sirdar also visited the ruins of the governor's palace in Khartoum where Gordon had been killed thirteen years before and presided under the raising the Union Jack and the Turkish...I mean Egyptian...flag.

The raising of the Turkish (okay, Egyptian) flag and the
Union Jack over the ruins of Gordon's palace in
It was during this aftermath, though, that lurid stories were being filed by some of the attached correspondents of atrocities by the British and Egyptian victors. Reportedly Kitchener had ordered (or condoned) the murder of thousands of Dervish wounded on the battlefield. At best he may have just forbidden medical attention to them, leaving them to a painful, slow, and awful death, many being fed on by vultures as they still lived. Kitchener also reportedly had the body of the Mahdi taken from its tomb, dismembered, and thrown into the Nile. One report said he'd had the skull set aside to bring back to England as a grisly trophy. Even Churchill, in his first edition of his book about the Sudan campaign, The River War, published the following year, corroborated these atrocities and sacrilege. However, such was the jubilation back in London over the successful outcome to the two year war, and the new hero worship of Kitchener, that these reports were vehemently attacked back home as libel. And Churchill himself, mindful of his own political ambitions and of English libel laws, edited them out of his second edition in 1902. The Kipling-reading British public, enamored of its patriotic image as the scions of genteel Victorian civilization, could not stomach a contrary view; that their heroes were also capable of barbaric savagery. This was the era of Downton Abbey after all.

The body count of Omdurman was equally lopsided. One rough estimate is that the Mahdists lost 28,000 killed, wounded, or captured. There were undoubtedly many thousand dead on the vulture-peppered battlefield. Of the allied casualties, the official toll was 291 KWM, including 45 dead (Featherstone) or, according to Barthorp, 482 total casualties. At any rate, it was comparatively light considering the force had been attacked by an army of 52,000. Of all of these, 71 casualties were from the 21st Lancers alone, due to their heroic but foolish charge into the beehive of the Kara Army hiding in ambush. There were four Victoria Crosses awarded for Omdurman, three in the 21st Lancers alone. Not bad for their first battle.

  • For Churchill, his lucky participation in this charge brought him tremendous political capital back home, allowing him to start his fast rise to power. It uncannily matched Teddy Roosevelt's charge with the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill exactly two months before. Both men used their heroic military feats in cavalry charges (albeit on foot for TR) to great political advantage.
  •  And as another side note, thirty years later, Churchill's American mother, Lady Randolph, who had got him the gig with the 21st Lancers (using, ahem, influence on the Prince of Wales, her lover), died as an eventual result of a freak fashion accident while trying to negotiate the stairs in her stately home with a new pair of high heels. She fell and twisted her ankle, which became infected and gangrenous to the point that her leg had to be amputated. The bad luck (and, I would maintain, medical malpractice) continued; in spite of her wealth and influence, she never recovered from this surgery. She died in great pain a few weeks later. Though I'm reasonably certain she wasn't eaten by vultures.  A cautionary safety lesson about wearing high heels in stately homes.

Where were we?

Oh yes, the Khalifa, meanwhile (wearing much safer flats) made his way south to his homeland in Kordofan with what was left of his loyal followers. Kitchener sent a force of Sudanese infantry after him and he was run to earth  at Um Dibaykarat in the southern Sudan in November 1899. Apparently
The bodies of the Khalifa and his bodyguard at Um Dibaykarat.
Sudanese soldiers, who ran him to earth, are in the background.
Abdullah died bravely with what was left of his emirs riddled by bullets as they made their last prayers (except Osman Digna, who was captured later and lived until 1926 to the comfortable age of 86, a favorite of traveling correspondents).

Almost right after the battle, having done with his British troops, Kitchener sent them home to parades and honors, leaving the mopping up of hold-out Mahdist forces in Sudan to his Egyptian and Sudanese troops. All of this was finished by the end of the century (i.e. New Years 1900). Having had enough of Africa himself for the moment, Kitchener went home before all of this was done to receive his lordship from a grateful Queen Victoria, a cash prize of £30,000 (worth about Ten Billion Bucks today...actually $45 million as of today's exchange rate), lots of wining and dining all over Britain. He was the hero of the century. Or at least of the year.

An Assessment

In retrospect, what mistakes were made at Omdurman? Granted, the military power of the contestants was pretty lopsided. The Mahdists had a two-to-one advantage in numbers, but they were completely out-gunned and out-organized in every other conceivable category of military power. You can't get more asymmetrical than the Omdurman campaign. However, it was not a foregone conclusion. The Khalifa might have won. And Kitchener could very well have suffered the fate of Gordon.


Firepower was clearly in the allied camp. The Anglo-Egyptian army was equipped with the latest in artillery, small arms, and ammunition. Some historians have armed the British infantry in the Sudan with the Lee-Metford magazine-fed, bolt-action rifle. While this was still a black-powder weapon (meaning it would have enshrouded a firing line in choking smoke), it had a max range of 1,800 yards, a ten round magazine, adjustable sites and was capable of laying down an incredible amount of fire on a distant mass target like 17,000 Dervishes. My own research has indicated that most of the crack infantry (in which I'd count the regiments present at Omdurman, like the Grenadier Guards) were already being given the smokeless-powder version of this rifle, the Lee-Enfield, which was to become the standard British infantry weapon until the 1950s.

The Egyptian and Sudanese troops were armed with the older Martini-Henry (the infamous rifle of Isandhalwana legend), a single shot breechloader using black powder ammunition (which would have obscured the target from a firing line after just a few rounds). However, by 1898 the Martini was a rugged, reliable weapon with a max range comparable to the Lee-Metford and a rate of fire of 12 rpm. While the Dervishes were able to get closer to the Egyptians and Sudanese regiments than they were to the British, they were still stopped dead at several hundred yards. One lone, old man carrying a flag was said to have staggered to within potato-chucking distance of MacDonald's brigade, only to have been shot down clutching his flag, bless his heart.

Then we have to consider the dozens of Maxim machine guns on the allied side. The Maxim was a breakthrough in machine gun design, which had, from the Gatling to the mitrailleuse, been prone to jamming at the worst possible time, and whose barrels tended to quickly overheat. But the Maxim, water-cooled and belt-fed with a single barrel, was far more reliable. It put out a rate of fire of 550 rpm, so that a couple of men manning one could be worth a whole company in terms of firepower. These guns, and other water-cooled versions based on its original design, would also be widely used during the First World War by all sides, and were still in wide use during the Second World War. They were responsible for the slaughter of the equally suicidal infantry attacks across the no-mans-land of Flanders Fields in 1914-18. The Dervishes were probably the first to suffer this mechanized murder at Omdurman.
Battery of Maxim machine guns in the Sudan. Note how they were originally mounted on conventional artillery carriages with twin ammunition boxes attached to the armored front plates. Later these guns would have been mounted on swiveling tripods, lower to the ground.

The allies also enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in artillery. The 52 guns in the army and on the gunboats were quick-firing, extremely accurate out to over 3,000 yards, and lobbed a high-explosive lyddite shell that had more destructive force than anything seen in prior wars. These guns were also a staple of the wars of the early and mid-twentieth century. So what we have in the allied force that faced the Ansar at Omdurman was essentially a fully modern army, armed with everything the armies had in WWI except airplanes and tanks (well..no gas weapons, either, but I'm sure if Kitchener had had those he would not have hesitated to use them on the Fuzzy-Wuzzies).

Maxim gun with two man crew, note the ammunition
belt coming out of the left side. The cylinder around
the barrel was the cooling water tank.
On the Mahdist side, the armament was positively medieval. About a third of the Ansar was armed with old, Remington rifles captured years before from the Egyptians they had overrun during their heyday of conquest. But, lacking parts, they were not well kept. Moreover, while the Dervishes had captured huge stores of ammunition and gunpowder when they overran Khartoum in 1885, they had largely used those up in their wars against the Egyptians, the Italians, and the Abyssinians. They had attempted to start an ammunition factory by impressing some of their European captives, but, as I've said, these chained slaves did everything they could to subtly sabotage the product. The Khalifa also had some captured artillery, but these were mostly older Krupps and and a single Gatling gun, all equally degraded by years of neglect and inexperience. Chaining captive Egyptian artillerymen to the guns was not bound to get the most out of your artillery either.

The most common weapons available to the Mahdists were edged weapons; spears and swords. While effective in close quarter combat (as they were against the Abyssinians), the men had to actually get close enough to use them. And in the face of modern artillery, magazine-fed rifles, and machine guns, this was problematic.


If the Ansar had any chance of winning Omdurman, it was in leadership. The Khalifa himself was not exactly a military genius, but he had several brilliant commanders under him; namely Osman Digna, Osman Azraq, Ali wad Helu, and others. They were capable of astute tactical decisions, strategic thinking, and inspiring leadership. What they didn't have was effective communication system on the battlefield, and had the timing of Osman Sheikh ed-Din's return from his wild-goose chase above the Kerreri Hills coincided with Yaqub's attack from the west, it is very likely that the battle would have been a massacre for Kitchener.

The Sirdar, posing for his
Monty Python portrait.
For his part, while the Sirdar lucked out that the synchronization of the Khalifa's complicated plan did not happen, he was much criticized by those under his own command, as well as other military professionals in Britain, for prematurely putting his brigades in the open after the defeat of the first attack. He had not ascertained what else the Khalifa had in store for him, sending out no cavalry patrols to the west or north. The attack by Yaqub's Army, for instance, was a complete surprise to him, as was the unexpected size of the Kara Army lying in wait to the south (the ones who surprised the 21st Lancers). By 9:40 he had no idea where three-quarters of the Mahdist army was, and yet he decided on a mad dash for Omdurman across the open plain in open formations. This left his brigades (particularly MacDonald's Sudanese and Egyptians to the north) dangerously exposed.

He was blessed, however, in having a team of superior, unflappable brigadiers, who knew how to fight and how to lead. He was also fortunate in the discipline and coolness of his troops, especially the Sudanese, whose combat performance rivaled the Grenadier Guards and other British line
Lt. Bimbashi Ahmed Hussein of the 9th Sudanese
One of the tough company officers who
led this heroic unit at Omdurman and at the Battle
of Atbara the year before (when he was wounded by
an elephant gun!), where his regiment and the 10th
captured the illusive Emir Mahmud. 
         His distinctive facial scars identify him as a
member of the Shaigiya tribe, which was intensely
anti-Mahdist and some of whom had fought to the
last with Gordon at Khartoum n 1885. Hussein stayed
in the army until 1929 when he retired as a Lieutenant
Photo and informationcourtesy of his great grandson, Yahya Hussein.
regiments. And, as we've seen, the modern weapons his men possessed saved them from being overwhelmed.

On the battalion level, in fact, the professionalism of the officer corps in the Sirdar's army was some of the best in the world, both in the British regular regiments and in the Egyptian and Sudanese regiments. The Sudanese, in particular, had superior company officers and NCOs (like Lt. Hussein of the 9th Sudanese to the right) who drilled, inspired, and led their troops to remarkable victories in the face of overwhelming odds. They were these who unflappably ordered their men to fix bayonets when they ran out of ammunition and to counter-charge the final wave of Dervish attacks, driving them back. This was some leadership. I would venture to say that it was really the junior officers like Lt. Hussein who ended up saving Kitchener's hide.

Years later, when Teddy Roosevelt met Kitchener just prior to the Great War, when the Hero of Omdurman was on the verge of being appointed Minister for War, the ex-Rough Rider and former President was not impressed. He described the field marshal as a dull tool, devoid of imagination, and coasting on the laurels won by others. It was an opinion shared by many of his contemporaries. One general said he was smart enough to be the luckiest soldier in the army.

Would a night attack have made a difference?

Several of the Khalifa's emirs had urged him to launch his attack on the night of 1/2 September. They reasoned that this was the only way to overcome the advantage the Anglo-Egyptians had in firepower; to sneak up on them and surprise them in the dark. There were several factors working in favor of this argument: The plain around the allied camp was crisscrossed in khors, right up to the edge of the zariba. Osman Digna had used this infiltration tactic successfully several times against the British, the Italians and the Abyssinians before. The nature of the ground, in fact, was such that even with the vast size of the Khalifa's army, tens of thousands could have been hidden until the last minute. Indeed, even in the light of day, thousands were concealed from Kitchener.

That the moon was nearly full and the sky clear might have made this night attack more difficult without discovery by the enemy. But even under a full moon, distances are hard to judge and the eyes play tricks. Also the moonlight may have allowed the Ansar rubs to make their way forward in coordination better. And the men were highly skilled at quiet movement and infiltration tactics. They were born commandos. They could have pulled it off.

A night attack was the one thing, too, that Kitchener was most afraid of. His men were alert but jumpy, expecting one all night. So the specter of tens of thousands of sword wielding Dervishes leaping out the ground just a few yards from their positions would have unnerved even the most veteran soldiers. And they would have had only a few dozen yards in which to stop them with firepower, not 3,000.

But for some reason, the Khalifa was not confident in the ability of his army to sneak up on the enemy. He may have been unsettled by the probing searchlights of the gunboats, thinking they would have been able to see all. Indeed, they might have been able to catch fleeting movement, but even with searchlights, the tactical situation was more precarious for the Anglo-Egyptians at night.

In the end, Abdullah was swayed against a night attack by his arrogant brother, Osman Sheikh ed-Din (the same who broke off from the first attack with 15,000 men in pursuit of the 900 Egyptian cavalry at the beginning of the battle and was a half-hour late at the conclusion). Ed-Din told his brother that a victory stolen in the dark held no glory for Allah, and that they would more assured of God's help in the full light of day.

But history might have been very different if the Khalifa had told his brother to shut up. Just as King Philip VI should have ignored his impetuous and stupid brother, Alencon, about honor and God being on their side at Crecy five centuries before, Abdullah should have ignored his. Another example of the hazards of nepotism.




Of all the factors that assured the ultimate success of this two year campaign, logistics was right up at the top. If the army itself was the tip of the spear, as the tired old metaphor goes, the supply chain was the shaft. And the Anglo-Egyptian organization, planning and engineering was responsible. That they had built a railroad 220 miles across scorching desert from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hamed in just ten months, sinking wells and fighting off Dervish raids as they went is a phenomenal engineering marvel by itself. They also managed to build and haul nine warships and hundreds of supply vessels up past four cataracts of the Nile. And there were the magazines, supply dumps, and hospitals established at critical points on islands along the over 800 mile advance. The Omdurman campaign was a logistical wonder, a testament to the industrial might of the British Empire.

Ammunition, food, water, and every sort of supply and support were never a question for Kitchener's force.  At least as the campaign unfolded. Ammunition became a problem at the end of the battle as MacDonald's force, out on its own, started to run out of it.

Training and Morale

Both sides also enjoyed an amazing degree of military training and professionalism. It went without saying that the British regiments and Royal Navy performed admirably. But the Egyptian Army, in particular the Sudanese regiments, were also a far cry from the dispirited rabble of fellahin that had been overcome by the Mahdi a decade-and-a-half before. They were, it is true, trained and led at the
top by professional British officers, but the bulk of their company officers and NCOs were native Egyptians and Sudanese.
The 11th Sudanese Regiment in their trench on the right of the Anglo-Egyptian crescent. In the distance, to the southwest, is the Jebel Surgham,from which the Khalifa's sharpshooters took long range potshots at the British on the left.
Most of the campaign and earlier battles were fought almost exclusively by these. Their great success against the heretofore invincible Mahdists at Firket, Hafr, Dongola and Abu Hamed gave the Egyptians and Sudanese a renewed sense of esprit and confidence. They were regularly paid, fed, and cared for.  And their British commanders developed a strong bond of affection and admiration for them.

It was little wonder that the Sudanese regiments in particular had little trouble in recruiting captured Mahdist soldiers into their ranks after each battle; their foes saw that their African brothers were far better cared for than the Khalifa had done for them. Moreover, since most of the Sudanese were from southern tribes, who had been enslaved by Muslim Arabs for centuries, there was not a lot of loyalty among the Sudanese of the Ansar.  Even at the battles toward the end of the campaign, at the Atbara and Omdurman, when British regiments joined the expedition, the Sudanese troops especially took the main brunt of the fighting and, at Omdurman, saved Kitchener from his own blunder.

On the Dervish side, too, though they were not as well-equipped or organized as the Anglo-Egyptians, the soldiers of the Ansar displayed a remarkable level of bravery and professionalism. They responded to orders quickly. They moved silently. They were quick to change front. And they were ingenious at tactics of infiltration and maneuver. Most of the Ansar at Omdurman had enjoyed sixteen years of almost continuous victory over all of their foes. Up until 1896, they had seemed invincible. And that gave them a sense of superiority in going into battle. The earlier defeats of this latest campaign they chalked up to the fact that they had gone on the defensive, and not employed the aggressive, all-out charge that had brought them uninterrupted victories before. So on the eve of Omdurman, they were confident that the attack the next day would bring them the same success they were used to. In a way, they were in the same over-confident position that the French were in on the eve of Blenheim two hundred years before.

Wargame Considerations

At first, given the completely lopsided result of the battle and the campaign, it would seem that Omdurman is not suitable for a satisfying, even-handed wargame. Who would want to play the Khalifa's side, only to see his pieces flicked away by overwhelming firepower? However, this battle, as we've seen, was a far closer run affair than the outcome would indicate. Kitchener made some critical tactical mistakes, endangering his entire army. And the Khalifa had some options open to him he eschewed. Designing a game to take these into account could make for a very interesting afternoon.

Night Attack Scenario

One option for an Omdurman game would allow for a night attack on the part of the Mahdist player. This was the one event that Kitchener was most worried about. Rules would, obviously, involve greatly reduced ranges on fire. Given that it was nearly a full moon on a clear night, the visibility for movement of forces was not so greatly restricted as a pitch black night would have presented.

Hidden Movement

Such a game should provide for hidden movement. Even if a night attack were not a feature of the game, hidden movement would have been a relevant factor. Desert warfare has often been likened to naval war, and the critical factor in naval combat has always been reconnaissance and movement. The desert around the Omdurman battlefield was riven with shallow khors and rocky hills, providing much cover to very large formations. As we have seen, Kitchener was completely surprised by the Khalifa's second attack. Had he properly used his cavalry to see if the coast was clear, he might not have exposed his army to attack in detail. As it was, he fell right into the Khalifa's trap. When Kitchener ordered everybody to start moving south toward Omdurman, there were still some 40,000 fresh enemy troops in four large formations hidden on three sides of his widely dispersed 25,000. Had it not been for the cool courage and quick-thinking of his officers and soldiers (especially the Sudanese), he would have handed Queen Victoria a disaster to make Isandhlwana look like a stubbed toe. He was, as many of his fellow officers commented, the luckiest soldier in the army.

So hidden movement and reconnaissance rules would make an Omdurman game highly interesting, giving the Khalifa player a distinct advantage to weigh against the firepower edge of the Kitchener player.


While ammo supply would not have been such an issue for the Anglo-Egyptian troops inside the zariba, close as they were to their supply fleet on the Nile, once they started moving out onto the open plain, it did become a factor. As we've seen, MacDonald's brigade, fighting off both Yaqub's and Osman ed-Din's attacks almost alone, nearly ran out of ammunition and were saved in the nick of time by the arrival of Wauchope's brigade. So an Omdurman game should provide for limited firing rounds.

Command and Control

Thanks to the organizational structure of the British Army, Kitchener enjoyed an institutional advantage in controlling the movement of his own forces. He was, thanks to heliograph on the field, able to quickly send messages and redeploy his forces. And, even though his judgment could be questioned, he was a a brave soldier and a "lead from the front" kind of officer, riding all over the battlefield to manage it directly.

The Khalifa, on the other hand, while he enjoyed unwavering loyalty on the part of his commanders, as well as a considerable degree of initiative on their part, did not have as tight a control of the movement of his widely dispersed divisions. Operating on the exterior lines (as Lee had had to do at Gettysburg), it took much longer for him to get messages to some of his commanders. Unfortunately, his plans were too complicated for his communications and the final, uncoordinated charges were useless.

A game could use a chit system to simulate this slow transmission of orders. Or dice or some other randomizing algorithm could determine whether orders were delivered, understood or if certain units moved on command.


At Omdurman both sides were feeling very high morale. Even the previously derided Egyptian regiments had found confidence in their reformed army and professionalism, and the long string of victories they had enjoyed during the campaign. And the Dervishes were admired by the normally racist and dismissive British for their incredible courage and discipline. So give everyone the highest morale. But maybe give the British, the Sudanese, Broadwood's Egyptian Cavalry and the Mahdists just a little higher.

Big round of applause for everybody.

Orders of Battle

The following OOBs were derived from Donald Featherstone's "Omdurman 1898"  As always, the first column is color-coded in the uniform coat color of the regiment. 

The strengths for the Khalifa's Ansar are also derived from Featherstone, who accessed the British Army intelligence records registered in Cairo in 1899. The Mahdist army was loosely organized in "rubs" or "quarters", equivalent roughly to Western brigades, and so I have used modern military symbols, as if. These rubs varied considerably in size. Each was composed of both foot spearmen (also armed with medieval swords and shields); jihadiya, armed with a variety of firearms from captured Remington rifles down to ancient muskets and "elephant guns"; and mounted warriors, also armed with medieval spears and swords.


Armstong, Karen, "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence", Anchor Books, 2015, ISBN 978-0-307-94696-6

Barthorp, Michael, "War on the Nile: Britain, Egypt and the Sudan 1882-1898", Blandford Press, 1984, ISBN 0-7137-1858-7

Churchill, Winston S., "The River War", 1902, ISBN 1330407768

Featherstone, Donald, "Omdurman 1898: Kitchener's Victory in the Sudan", Osprey, 1994, ISBN 978-1-85532-368-1

Morris, Edmund, "Colonel Roosevelt", Random House, 2001, ISBN 978-0-375-75707-5  used only for its interesting observations made by Theodore Roosevelt about Kitchener's military acumen.

The Highlander: The Regimental Journal of the Highlanders (Seaforth, Gordons and Camerons)  Summer 1998,  Vol. 4 No. 1


Johnson, Doug, http://www.savageandsoldier.com/articles.html 

Schonfield,  David, "Battle of Omdurman", History Today http://www.historytoday.com/david-shonfield/battle-omdurman

Maxim Machine Gun: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxim_gun 

5 inch BL howitzer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BL_5-inch_howitzer 

12 pdr 12 cwt gun https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QF_12-pounder_12_cwt_naval_gun  

6 pdr naval gun https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QF_6_pounder_Nordenfelt

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