"It was not a battle but an execution" - the Battle of Omdurman in 1898

2 September 1898, Sir Herbert Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian army decisively defeated the successor of the Mahdi Khalifa Abdullah Ibn-Mohammed’s forces at the Battle of Omdurman, virtually ending the Mahdist War in Sudan and marking the transition from 19th to 20th century warfare.

“They could never get near and they refused to hold back. ... It was not a battle but an execution. ... The bodies were not in heaps—bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres. Some lay very composedly with their slippers placed under their heads for a last pillow; some knelt, cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces …“ (Eyewitness of the battle, quoted in John Ellis “The Social History of the Machine Gun”)

William Barnes Wollen (1857-1936): Charge of the 21th lancers at Omdurman, 1899

Few of the colonial adventures of the 19th century had worse consequences than the Egyptian occupation of their southern neighbours up the river Nile, chiefly in the vast region that is now Sudan. In fact, the Khedives’ exploits almost rival the infamies of Leopold II of Belgium’s personal colony in the Congo, with rampant slavery and slave trade, conducted both by the usual local suspects as well as the colonial government, squeezing the country for every dollar available and a rampant neglect combined with wholeheartedly corrupt colonial agents. Along with the traditionally somewhat lax interpretation of Islam by Ottoman-coined Egyptian authorities that radically collided with the prevailing local fundamentalist persuasion, a radicalisation along the lines of the Wahhabists on the Arabian Peninsula was foreseeable. It happened when the local factions found a leader, Muhammad Ahmad from Dongola in Northern Sudan, who claimed to be the Mahdi, a prophesied end time figure of Islam who is suppose to redeem the faith and rid the world of all evil. In the particular case of Muhammad Ahmad, “all evil” particularly meant the Egyptians, who were in 1881 up to their own ears in national bankruptcy and the ‘Urabi Revolt that ended with a British intervention, disbandment of the Egyptian army and the country coming under de facto British control. However, the British government under Gladstone rather didn’t feel like cleaning up after the Khedive in Sudan and supress the Mahdi Uprising. In fact, Gladstone declared in the House of Commons: ”Yes, those people are struggling to be free, and they are rightly struggling to be free”. And since the Sudan was considered an Egyptian domestic matter and the British would not interfere with these, Tewfik Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt, could take care of the Mahdi all by himself and thank you very much. Gladstone’s opinion was not unopposed at all, though, and the more Empire-minded pointed out that Muhammad Ahmad’s expressed wish was not only to pray in the mosque at Khartoum but in Cairo and at Mecca, and at Baghdad and in the mosque at Constantinople and that the revolt would soon enough splash over to Egypt and, anyway, better the Sudan was part of the British Empire than the French or the Italians got it. The Scramble for Africa had begun. Finally, Tewfik Pasha persuaded the colourful and immensely popular “Chinese” Charles George Gordon to evacuate at least the garrisons in Sudan in Egyptian service. Foreseeably, Gordon Pasha tried to defend rather than evacuate Sudan and end the rebellion. He soon had Muhammad Ahmad with a huge force at his throat, ignored British orders to pull out and finally, Gladstone was forced by public opinion to send a relief expedition to evacuate Gordon. It arrived two days too late. Khartoum fell on 26 January 1884 and Gordon was killed. Kipling wrote: “Too late! Too late to save him, In vain, in vain they tried. His life was England's glory, his death was England's pride.“ Muhammad Ahmad died a year later and his successors established the Caliphate of Omdurman, not quite what was the Mahdi might have imagined, but still the place was under Sharia law, even though pre-occupation mystic religious practices were tolerated and the leaders were said to be almost as worldly as the Egyptians were. However, it was the first national government Sudan ever had and while the other colonial powers along with the Ethiopians snapped at the Caliphate’s heels, the British were out for revenge. For Khartoum, Gordon Pasha and the glory of the Empire. In 1898, the new Sirdar, the commander of the Anglo-Egyptian army, Herbert Kitchener received his marching orders for a conquest of Sudan in the name of Egypt.

Muhammad Ahmad and Gordon Pasha

The 21st Lancers’ charge at the Battle of Omdurman was certainly the most memorable event of the whole campaign. The engagement began in the early morning and the regiment, 400 men, was supposed to clear the plain before the Caliphate’s capital from a few hundred dervishes. They attacked with couched lances and sabres pointed straight ahead, young Winston Churchill among them, the last major cavalry charge in history, and promptly ran into 2,500 Mahdist spearmen hidden in a depression of the field. The Lancers finally routed them in fierce hand-to-hand combat, the regiment suffered the highest casualties among the allied troops with 70 dead or wounded and won three Victoria Crosses in an avoidable engagement that received high public acclaim but would have been less costly if the dervishes were dispersed by infantry rifle fire. It draws level, though, with the Khalifa Abdullah Ibn-Mohammed’s battle array that was later compared by Churchill with a medieval spectacle and despite undisputed bravery of the Mahdists was no match for Kitchener’s modern weaponry from machine guns to heavy artillery and fire support from the gunboats on the Nile. And despite a few critical moments when the numerical superiority of the Mahdists began to tell and the allied army was in danger to get engulfed at the flanks, this time Fuzzy-Wuzzy did not break the square. Four hours after the battle had begun 10,000 of the Khalifa’s men were dead, 13,000 men wounded and 5,000 killed, the Sirdar’s army marched towards Omdurman with losses of 70 dead and 382 wounded and the Mahdi Uprising was virtually over. Industrial warfare had arrived in the Sudan and the Khalifa was simply overwhelmed.

General Kitchener and the Anglo-Egyptian Nile Campaign, 1898 General Kitchener, Sirdar (Commander) of the Egyptian Army (centre right) in discussion with the Commander of the British Brigade on the Nile, Major General Sir William Gatacre. Also with the group are General Gatacre's orderly, Lieutenant Ronald Brooke, 7th Hussars, and ADC Captain James Watson, Kings Royal Rifles, at the start of the campaign. (Quoted from Wikipedia)

Kitchener was described as “soulless” even by his own men and ordering the wounded Mahdists killed in the aftermath of the battle was a heavily criticised shape of things to come, in terms of atrocities as well as the industrialised killing in 20th century’s warfare. The Khalifa, though, and his last followers were rounded up a year later and mowed down under the fire of the Maxims in the region of Darfur. Kitchener ordered Khartoum, destroyed by the Mahdi back in 1884, to be rebuilt, Muhammad Ahmad’s mausoleum, a popular place of pilgrimage during the Caliphate was torn down and his remains disposed of in the river while Sudan became an Anglo-Egyptian condominium until 1956 while the Mahdi was credited in hindsight to have led Africa’s first successful revolt against colonialism and is revered by many as Abu l'Istiklal, Father of Independence. However desirable a Sharia-law governed substitute might be. By a hair’s breadth, the European powers were plunged into a premature conflict between Great Britain and France when two weeks after the battle, Kitchener tripped over Major Marchand’s small French force about to establish a dominion on the Upper Nile around a place called Fashoda. The resulting Fashoda crisis was settled peacefully since both nations did not want to go to war over a place at the back of beyond, Scramble for Africa or not, and the conflict did not only show how close and probable a thorough European conflict was, but became a germ for the Entente cordiale of 1904 that scheduled the frontlines of the Great War.

Jean-Baptiste Marchand (centre, seated) and his officers

And more about the Battle of Omdurman on: