"But for all the odds agin' you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.” - The Battle of Abu Klea

17 January 1885, 100 miles north of the besieged city of Khartoum, the Battle of Abu Klea was fought between the British relief force and a Madhist Army.

“We took our chanst among the Khyber 'ills, / The Boers knocked us silly at a mile, / The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills, / An' a Zulu impi dished us up in style: / But all we ever got from such as they / Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller; / We 'eld our bloomin' own, the papers say, / But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us 'oller. / Then 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an' the missis and the kid; / Our orders was to break you, an' of course we went an' did. / We sloshed you with Martinis, an' it wasn't 'ardly fair; / But for all the odds agin' you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.” (Rudyard Kipling, “Fuzzy-Wuzzy (Soudan Expeditionary Force)“)

William Barnes Wollen (1857-1936):“The Battle of Abu Klea” (1896)

When Gladstone, with public opinion against him and threatened by a vote of no confidence, finally decided to approve of a expeditionary force to relief the popular hero Charles “Chinese” Gordon Pasha in Summer 1884, Khartoum was already under siege since March of the year by forces of Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, and things looked bleak. Gordon, charged with the evacuation of British civilians and his refusal to quit the place with the rest of the Europeans in February, since he was “in honour bound to the people”, had left the Prime Minister in hot water, since it was originally planned to abandon the Sudan, nominally part of the British Protectorate in Egypt established 1882, but right in the middle of a Fundamentalist revolt, led by the Mahdi, against the Egyptians. Gordon was governor in service of the Egyptian Khedive between 1877 -1880 and feared not only a massacre among the population but a spread into Egypt and the Near East as well. The Nile Expedition, 8.000 men under General Garnet Wolseley finally marched South in October 1884, in two columns, the larger one down the river and the “Desert Column”, 1.800 men under Sir Herbert Stewart, cross country and mostly mounted on camels.

Hadendoa warriors around 1900

A Mahdist force of more than 10,000 brought the Desert Column to bay on January 16th near the wells of Abu Klea but both sides hesitated to charge until the next day, then Sir Herbert ordered his men to form a square, with a few 2.5’ mountain guns and a Gardner machine gun providing covering fire, and evade the Madhist’s camp. They rushed out and charged, overran the jammed Gardner gun and broke the square indeed, even though the Dervishs and Hadendoa warriors, the Fuzzy-Wuzzys, could gain no ground and were finally killed, along with more than 1.000 others of the Mahdi’s army. 76 British soldiers were dead, nine of them officers, and 85 wounded. The battle was over after 15 minutes of hard hand-to-hand-fighting and the Madhists fled, but 10% of the “Desert Column” was lost and the Battle of Abu Klea is counted among the most hard-won British victories of the 19th century. Abu Klea and another engagement at El Gubat two days later were enough to delay the advance on Khartoum. The city fell on January 26th, the Egyptian garrison was massacred to a man, along with the suffering population who was either slaughtered or sold into slavery, as Gordon had feared. The “River Column” arrived on January 27th and the “Desert Column” on the 28th when all help was too late and the British withdrew back to Egypt. Sudan became an Islamic state afterwards, governed by Sharia law, until the British under Kitchener returned in 1895.

And more on: