(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.
The Birth of an Islamic State
Before the 19th century, Sudan was not a singular state, but rather a harsh geographical expanse of desert and swamp bisected by the Nile. From the Arab conquests of the 7th century until its colonization by the Ottoman Empire in the 18th, Sudan—meaning ‘black’ in Arabic— was of little interest to the outside world. The Ottoman capital in Khartoum lay more than a thousand miles to the south of Cairo through inhospitable desert and astride a river whose cataracts—shallow lengths of rocks and rapids—rendered it unnavigable by ship. Evolving in isolation apart from their Ottoman conquerors, the Arabs of the Sudan practiced a distinct and mystic Islam and resented the oppressive rule of their ever-revolving ‘Turkish’ governors.
By the time the Ottomans ceded rule of Egypt, and unwittingly Sudan, to the British in 1882, the wheels of a messianic revolt were already in motion. Muhammad Ahmad was born to a poor family on a forgotten island in the Nile. By the time of his death, he would rule an empire and be worshiped as the Mahdi—the Islamic messiah. His religiosity was always exceptional. He memorized the Quran by nine and claimed descent from the prophet. Expelled by his religious sect due to his strict fundamentalism, the Mahdi wandered Sudan in exile building a fervent following as a preacher. Tall with a black beard and a peculiar smile, the Mahdi detested the corroding influence of the impious Ottomans and longed to upend their rule.
For several days in 1882 a comet was visible across the sky. It proved the spark the Mahdi needed. The pious Sudanese believed it to be a sign of the messiah. For the Mahdi, the celestial object was a message from god that the angel of death would lead him to conquer the world. Carrying a golden sword emblazoned with Islamic scripture, the Madhi turned his following into an army and set out to build an Islamic state. Initially written off as a common brigand, by 1883 the Mahdi couldn’t be ignored.
Calamity in the Sudan
Against the advice of diplomats weary of Sudan’s strategic value, the British fielded an army of 10,000 commanded by Colonel William Hicks to capture the Mahdi. The army was plagued from the beginning. Some local soldiers blinded themselves while others simply defected. A British officer, noting the crusader-era chain armor on one soldier, presciently felt like he was seeing ghosts passing in the night. In 1883, Hicks’ army departed Khartoum and entered the scorched desert wastes leading to the Mahdi’s stronghold in Kurdufan.
The journey broke Hicks’ army. Pools of rainwater were often their only relief from exhaustion. The Mahdi’s followers, or ‘Dervishes’, stalked the soldiers and disemboweled any caught wandering. Desperate and disoriented from the trek, Hicks’ sought refuge in a dense forest outside the town of El Obeid. On November 4th, 1883, unable to establish sentries, the army was ambushed; fallen upon in the night by 100,000 screaming dervishes. Hicks’ army was annihilated and his decapitated head was taken to the Mahdi. One scholar reflecting on the episode would write, “Probably [not] since Pharaoh’s army disappeared in the Red Sea has an army disappeared so quickly.”
The British public demanded vengeance. And for a reluctant British government, there was only one man who could stem the political furor— Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon. A slender, religious, and seasoned commander of 50, Gordon was idolized for his exploits in Shanghai during the Taiping Rebellion. With China on the verge of collapse and millions dead, Gordon had forged a band of mercenaries into a professional army and marched to victory at its vanguard. Having suppressed one rebellion, Gordon was confident he could do so again.
The Death of a Hero
British officials in Egypt counseled that a devout Christian would win few allies amidst an Islamic upheaval. They were ignored. By the time Gordon reached Khartoum in February 1884, he had already alienated many otherwise amenable to British rule. With support evaporating, dervishes seized Sudan’s north and severed British supply routes. Mere days after his arrival, Gordon’s mission had failed.
Gordon and his 8,000 soldiers were confined to Khartoum. They were too few to fight back to Egypt and barely enough to establish a perimeter. Initially invigorated by the siege, the deteriorating situation took a toll on Gordon. By the time a despondent British government organized a relief expedition in August 1884, the Mahdi had arrived outside the walls of Khartoum with 60,000 men.
The Mahdi ordered his war drums beat from dusk till dawn. In September, Gordon’s best general was killed along with 1,000 of his soldiers. In October, Gordon relayed that if the relief expedition failed to arrive in November Khartoum would fall. Writing in his journal, Gordon vowed to never return to England in defeat. He spurned any escape effort. By January 26th, 1885, the city had not fallen, but the situation was dire.
Thousands lay starving in the streets and boys manned Khartoum’s parapets. The relief expedition had driven through constant fire, lost its commander, and camped a day’s ride from Khartoum. The city had held for 317 days. It could hold no more. Just before dawn, dervishes pored through a gap in the city’s walls revealed by the receding Nile. Standing on the palace steps smoking a cigarette, Gordon turned his back in disdain before being impaled with a spear.
The first step towards the Mahdi’s vision of a triumphant holy war had been realized. It, however, would be his last victory. The Mahdi died of natural causes six months later. Before his demise the Mahdi named a successor: the Khalifa. Capable and menacing, the Khalifa would rule Sudan for the next 13 years.
An Opportunity Arises
In 1897, the French launched an expedition to garrison the Upper Nile at Fashoda in Sudan. If the British had been happy to forget Sudan, they could no longer. Controlling Fashoda meant controlling the Nile and the lifeblood of British Egypt. The provocation demanded action. However, it needed to be measured and avoid open war—retaking Khartoum proved the key. Under the auspice of avenging Gordon at Khartoum, a British army could drive deep into Africa and, without suspicion, onto Fashoda. The sensitive operation was given to the austere Herbert Kitchener, but he too would be left in the dark. Instead, Fashoda would lay hidden in a sealed envelope, only to be opened after the fall of Khartoum.
Winston Churchill was desperate to join Kitchener’s expedition. Idealistic and brash after combat on the Indian frontier, the 23-year-old was viewed with disdain by Kitchener and initially barred. Desperate, Churchill enlisted his mother to personally intervene with the Prince of Wales. The future king, and his mother’s lover, successfully secured Churchill’s attachment to the 4th Hussars cavalry regiment over the objections of the resentful Kitchener.
Before Churchill’s arrival, groundwork had to be laid. For the otherwise frugal Kitchener, time was not a commodity. Kitchener planned to retake the Sudan through cautious advances and a surplus of maxim machineguns and magazine rifles. More importantly, he would embrace engineering. Construction commenced on an audacious railway across the waterless Nubian Desert. Slowly but surely, by river and rail and camel and horse, the British advanced an army deep into the Sudan.
A contrast in arms
By September 1st, 1898, Kitchener had reached the edge of Omdurman and assembled the largest British Army in the field since the Crimean War. The force was comprised of 25,800 soldiers, 80 cannons, 44 maxim guns, 3,524 camels, 2,569 horses, and 1,121 donkeys. For Churchill, the affair was purely romantic. He wrote, “To administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave…what more beautiful ideal or more valuable reward can inspire human effort.” Rather than fear, he felt excitement as he sipped champagne on the eve of the climactic battle. He would endure one last sleepless night on the banks of the Nile to the rhythm of cannons pounding Omdurman.
The Khalifa’s call to defend Omdurman was answered by 60,000 fanatic warriors. Their radicalism was both their strength and Achilles’ heel. The Khalifa rejected requests for better armaments avowing, “Trust in god is better than 1,000 rifles.” Just a fraction of his men would carry rifles and even these were outdated. Without cannons and his best generals lost to earlier skirmishes, the Khalifa surrounded himself with a 2,000-man bodyguard and trusted in divine intervention to carry the day.
Men woke on September 2nd, 1898, to the sounds of bugles and drums. The Anglo-Egyptians formed a half-circle with their infantry flanked by gunboats on the Nile and their cavalry in the Kerreri Hills. The stage was set. Churchill rode the lines as the sun rose and enemy bullets bit the dusty plain. It was 6:20am. He would recall of the time, “On horseback, at daybreak, within shot of an advancing enemy… this is an hour to live.”
The Battle of Omdurman
The opposing forces were partially screened by the hills of the battlefield. The hills, however, would provide no refuge for the first ill-fated dervish charge. 14,000 dervishes screamed over the ridge and into the teeth of Kitchener’s machineguns. They fell by the thousand. Undeterred, men charged defiantly as dumdum bullets burst into pieces inside them. No dervish screamer reached within 500 yards of British lines. After an hour, 7,000 dervishes littered the field.
Unable to advance forward, the Khalifa ordered 700 men to advance along the flank through the Kerreri Hills. Spotting the force, a British camel corps fled across a series of dry and deep waterways and into the protective range of their gunboats. With the British in retreat, the Khalifa snatched the initiative and sent 2,000 reinforcements through the sunken paths. They would be met before reaching the Nile. On horseback in between the camel corps and the dervishes were the 21st Lancers and Winston Churchill.
Spotting what they thought were 150 dervishes, the 21st Lancers sounded their bugle and galloped into combat. The dervish lines held valiantly against the 321 charging horses. The Lancers soon knew why. Their enemy’s strength was not 150, but more than 2,000. After a stunned calm, a bullet tore over Churchill’s shoulder striking the man behind him. Surrounded, the fighting was hand-to-hand. Swords and spears tore into flesh and men were ripped from their horses. Finding himself alone and surrounded, Churchill emptied his pistol into six dervishes, killing five. In the frenzy he spotted the regrouping Lancers 200 yards away astride a ridge. By providence unharmed, he fled the field.
It had been two minutes and 21 Lancers were dead. For the British, it would be the day’s deadliest engagement. British firepower was too much for the Khalifa’s overextended forces. The dervishes fought bravely, but uselessly. With the enemy fatigued, Kitchener executed an arcing maneuver and prevented the dervishes from retreating behind the walls of Omdurman. His back now to the desert, the Khalifa sounded his drums to regroup. It was to no effect. The day was lost and the Khalifa followed the flight of his men into the desert. With an army of 60,000, he could claim fewer than 750 British casualties while losing more than 10,000 of his own. The British sacked Omdurman and reentered Khartoum. They wouldn’t leave for 58 years.
After the battle, the Mahdi’s tomb was dynamited and his skull taken by Kitchener as a souvenir. In victory, if not honor, Kitchener went on to Fashoda to expel the French from East Africa and was welcomed back to London a hero—carrying the fame, and his disdain for Churchill, to the command of British forces in the Boer War and WWI. Under British rule, the Sudan would be forged, albeit temporarily, into a singular state with the most effective civil service in the empire. A golden statue of Gordon on camelback, his eyes peering off into the desert, was placed at his resurrected palace in Khartoum. It would remain in Sudan until their independence in 1956, after which it was moved to the green field of a schoolyard in Southeast England.
Just over a year after Omdurman, Churchill would again find himself imperiled; this time imprisoned by the Boers in South Africa. In the meantime, he would publish a majestic account of the Sudan campaign entitled The River War. Catapulting to acclaim, he would ride an unprecedented wave of successes and failures to personal glory and eventually 10 Downing Street. It was there, attending a cabinet meeting more than four decades later, that he was told the last surviving son of the Mahdi had arrived to meet him. Churchill declared he should wait, “unless you think he will go off and make another revolt.” He would, but this time the revolt was democratic— the Mahdi’s son successfully campaigning for Sudan’s independence.
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