(Author's note: This is a slightly longer piece than usual. I have been interested in the British reconquest of Sudan since stumbling upon it while reading William Manchester's The Last Lion years ago. Once I finally got around to researching and writing about it, I found it hard to stop.)
At the Edge of Empire
Riding at the head of his scouting party, Winston Churchill was likely the first British officer to catch a glimpse of Khartoum. What he saw was less a city than a skeleton, having being abandoned after the violent expulsion of the British from Sudan 13 years earlier. At the city’s edge rose a new settlement, Omdurman, comprised of mud huts and centered on the domed tomb of the Mahdi—the Islamic uprising’s prophetic leader. It was 9am and the heat on the desert plain was already intense. Vultures circling overhead lent the landscape an eerie stillness. Missing from the landscape, to the relief of many in the scouting party, if not Churchill, was the great army of the Mahdi. All they could see for miles around the city were a line of low brush, the mighty Nile, and the unforgiving desert.
As Churchill began to imagine that the cities would fall without resistance, the line of brush moved against the horizon. What he had believed to be vegetation was in fact an army of 60,000 extending miles into the desert. The fanatic defenders of Omdurman unfurled banners of Quranic scripture while the metal of their swords and spears glimmered across the horizon with the rising sun. Churchill, who would be no stranger to grand armies, would write of his view across the desert plain that morning as, “perhaps the impression of a lifetime.” It was September 1st, 1898 and within 24 hours Churchill would be on horseback surrounded by 3,000 screaming warriors and locked in the sights of two enemy rifles. He would be at the heart of the last great cavalry charge of the British Empire and lucky to escape with his life.
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