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The Khartoum Campaign

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The Khartoum Campaign
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Author(s): Bennet Burleigh
Date Published: 2008/08
Page Count: 268
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-527-7
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-528-4

The campaign to overthrow Mahdism as witnessed by a British journalist

The rise of Mahdism entered British consciousness as the fanatical followers of the man and his faith swept into Khartoum in 1885, slaughtering the Egyptian garrison and—of more importance to the Imperial public—their charismatic English commander General 'Chinese' Gordon. A relief force had been fighting its way to relieve Khartoum, but all now knew it would never achieve its objective. It would be 13 years before another British expedition would be launched down the Nile to exact punishment for the outrage. The Mahdi was long dead ,but his creed still flourished among the fierce tribes of the region. It was now 1898 and also the age of the great special correspondents reporting colonial wars everywhere the Union flag flew. One of the most famous was Bennett Burleigh of the Daily Telegraph and it was his task to accompany Kitchener's British/Egyptian army to the Upper Nile. He has provided a well written and intimate account of his experiences throughout the campaign, through skirmishes and battles to the final confrontation at Omdurman. This volume includes several photographs of the campaign including insightful images of British cavalry and infantry on the battlefield.

From the north to the south end along the river the camp was about one
mile in length, and its greatest width about 1200 yards. There were a
few mud-huts within the space enclosed by mimosa and the double line
of shallow shelter-trenches. The cut bushes were piled in front of the
British troops, who were facing Omdurman and the south; the trenches
covered the approach from the west and north where the Khedivial
troops stood on guard. Neither extremity of the lines of defence,
zereba or trench, quite extended to the river. Openings of about
thirty to fifty yards were left. Besides these there were other small
passage-ways left open during daylight, but closed at night. Near the
river facing south the ground was rough, and there were several huts,
so that the security of the camp was not imperilled by the failure to
carry the hedge or trenches to the Nile's brink. Lyttelton's brigade
were placed upon the left south front. Wauchope's men continued the
line to the right. In the south gap were three companies of the 2nd
Battalion Rifle Brigade, their left resting on the river. On their
immediate right were three batteries--the 32nd Field Battery of
English 15-pounders, under Major Williams; two Maxim-Nordenfeldt
mountain batteries, 12½-pounders, respectively under Captains Stewart
and de Rougemont; and six Maxims under Captain Smeaton. Later on these
guns and Maxims during the first stage of the battle--for the action
resolved itself into a double event ere the combat ceased--were
wheeled out until they were firing almost at right angles to the
zereba line. On the right of the guns, in succession, were the
remainder of the Rifles, the Lancashire Fusiliers, the Northumberland
Fusiliers, and the Grenadier Guards. In the interval between General
Lyttelton's brigade and General Wauchope's, which stood next to it,
were two Maxims. Then came the Warwicks, Camerons, Seaforths, and
Lincolns. To the Lincolns' right, where the trenches began and the
line faced nearly west, was Colonel Maxwell's brigade. Between
Wauchope's and Maxwell's brigades were two Maxims, and, I think, for a
time during the first attack made by the dervishes, the two-gun mule
battery of six-centimetre Krupp guns. To complete the tale of the guns
placed for defending the camp, there was Major Lawrie's battery of
Maxim-Nordenfeldts on the right of Maxwell's brigade next Macdonald's,
and on the north side, near the right of the position facing west,
Major Peake's battery of Maxim-Nordenfeldts. These guns had done so
well at the Atbara, that the Sirdar promptly increased his artillery
by adding three batteries of that class. Maxwell's brigade was
composed of three Soudanese and one Egyptian battalion, viz., 8th
Egyptian, and 12th, 13th, and 14th Soudanese. Farther north, to the
right of Colonel Maxwell's men, was Lewis Bey's brigade of Egyptian
troops--the 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 15th Battalions. The 15th Battalion was
a fine lot, mostly reservists. Upon the farthest west and northern
face of the protected camp was. Colonel Macdonald's oft-tried and
famous fighting brigade, made up of the 9th, 10th, and 11th Soudanese,
with the true-as-steel 2nd Egyptians. Within the wall of hedge,
trenches, and armed infantry, in reserve, was another brigade, the 4th
Khedivial, commanded by Major Collinson. It was made up of the 1st,
5th, 17th, and 18th Egyptian battalions. The two last-named were
relatively newly-raised regiments, but were composed of fine
soldierly-looking fellaheen. <br>
The troops were ranged two deep in front with a partial second double
line or supports placed twenty yards or so behind them. These assisted
in the fight to pass ammunition to the firing line and carry back the
dead and wounded. Somewhat removed from the zereba and trenches, and
nearer the Nile were the hospitals, the transport, the stores, nearly
3000 camels, and about 500 mules. The Egyptian cavalry and camelry
were picketed at the north of the camp, and the 21st Lancers at the
south end, both being within the lines. All along the river's bank
beside the camp were moored the gunboats, steamers and barges, with a
fleet of a hundred or more native sailing boats, at once a means of
defence and a supply column. The gunboat "Melik" was moored a few
hundred yards south of where the Rifles were posted. Occasionally the
flotilla flashed their search-lights upon Jebel Surgham, and swept the
scrub and desert in front of the troops. The enemy's scouts, however,
were never disclosed in the radii of the electric beams. In fact, the
first notice we had that the dervishes were about to inspect our
environment was the impetuous incoming of our friendlies from Jebel
Surgham and the cracking of snipers' guns in the bush mingled with the
buzzing of bullets overhead. A battalion rose quietly from the ground,
for the troops slept clear of the hedge, and went forward a few paces
to man the zereba. On learning what was actually taking place they
returned to their blankets and to sleep.<br>
For all the row the dervish spies, snipers and others made, the army
was not really disturbed. Once more we had to thank fortune that the
enemy made no vigorous attempt to assail the camp during the night.
True, earlier in the evening a few badly-directed rifle-shots had come
whistling across the zereba. Prowling dervish scouts had even
occasionally crept close enough to draw upon themselves the attention
of our double sentries and alert patrols. A small section volley at
one period of the night was fired at a knot of the enemy's would-be
bush-whackers. The unusual rattle of musketry caused an incipient
alarm in one of the battalions. Tommy, however, behaved well,
collectively, never stirring, but waiting "for orders." The peace of
the night hours was, I repeat, never seriously broken, the
Anglo-Egyptian army enjoying their needed sleep. After midnight things
quieted down and from the dervish camp no sound was carried to us by
the soft south wind. All was absolutely still in that direction. The
noggara or war-drum was a dead thing, beating not to quarters, as we
had heard it during the day when out with the cavalry. Nor was the
deep-bayed booming of the ombeyas, or elephant horns, re-echoing to
rally the tribesmen under their leaders' banners.<br>
It was 3.40 a.m. on 2nd September when the bugles called the 22,000
men of the Sirdar's army from slumber. Quickly the troops were astir,
and the camp full of bustling preparation. It was given out that we
were not to move forward quite as early as usual. But circumstances
alter cases, and very soon loads and saddles were adjusted with extra
care. Everything was made as trim as possible, and belts were buckled
tightly for action. There was a sense and expectancy of coming battle
abroad, and an eager desire permeating all ranks to have it out with
the dervishes then or never. It had come at length to be generally
accepted that the enemy would not bolt nor slip through our fingers,
but would accept the gage of battle which the Sirdar meant shortly to
give him. We were going to march out, attack, and storm the Khalifa
and his great army in their chosen lines and trenches. In a way we
felt half-heartedly grateful to our sportsmanlike enemy for not having
harassed our marches or bivouacs. We were, within the next hour or so,
to have yet more to thank the dervishes and their Khalifa for. Truly
Abdullah was amazingly ignorant of war tactics, or astoundingly
confident in the prowess of his arms. From the reckless, magnificent
manner in which the dervishes comported themselves in the earlier
stages of the fight that ensued, I incline to the belief that the
Khalifa and his men, true to their crass, credulous notions, were
overweeningly confident in themselves. A fatal fault, they underrated
their opponents. His Emirs, Jehadieh, and Baggara had so often proved
themselves invincible in their combats against natives of the Soudan,
that they had come to hold that none would face their battle shock.
There was pride of countless triumphs, and the long enjoyment of
despotic lordship that hardened their wills and thews to win victory
or perish. I failed later to see the old fanaticism that once made
them, though pierced through and through with bayonet or sword, fight
till the last heart-throb ceased. Let me not be misunderstood. Despite
their possible doubts about the Khalifa's divine mission, the dervish
army fought with courage and dash until they were absolutely broken.
Their personal hardihood bravely compared with the days of Tamai and
Abu Klea. It was when the fight was nearly over that there were
evidences of that of which there was so little in the old days, viz.,
that a large remnant would accept life at our hands. Again, as the
sequel showed, the Sirdar's star was in the ascendant.<br>
Everything was in readiness in our camp by 5 a.m. Camels, horses,
mules, and donkeys had been watered and fed, and the men had disposed
of an early breakfast of cocoa or tea, coarse biscuit, and tinned
meat. Infantry and artillery had made sure of their full supply of
ammunition, and the reserve was handy to draw more from. Tommy Atkins
carried 100 rounds of the new hollow-nosed Lee-Metford cartridges.
Behind him were mules loaded with a further twenty rounds for him. The
Khedivial soldiers had 120 rounds of Martini-Henry cartridges. To hark
back: at 4.30 a.m., ere dawn had tinged the east, the Sirdar bade
Colonel Broadwood, commanding the Egyptian cavalry, send out two
squadrons to ascertain what the enemy was about. Thereupon one
squadron rode off to the hills on the west--known locally as South
Kerreri jebels, but marked on most maps as Um Mutragan. Besides being
misnamed, they are plotted in out of place and as if the range trended
east and west. It runs nearly north and south. Kerreri hills were low
and black, like most of the jebels thereabout. They stand fully two
miles west of the Nile. Another squadron, under Captain Hon. E.
Baring, proceeded south to Jebel Surgham, the low hill, about one mile
in front of the British division. I have written about it before.
Surgham was used for heliograph and flag signalling on the 1st, the
previous day, and is the last of the detached hills or ranges lying
near the river on the north towards Omdurman. The squadron going west
soon reached South Kerreri hill, and reported that the enemy were
still in camp. It was early, and not clear daylight, and the distance
to the Khalifa's encampment was greater from South Kerreri hill than
that from Jebel Surgham to where the dervishes lay in the bush and
hollows around Wady Shamba. Captain Baring's party, on the other hand,
met with small patrols of the enemy near Jebel Surgham. Turning the
hill at a few minutes past five o'clock, in the yet slanting daylight,
he at once detected that the Khalifa's army, which had apparently been
largely reinforced during the night, was marching forward to attack
us. Gallopers and orderlies came riding back furiously with the news
for the Sirdar. Sir Herbert Kitchener, Major-General Rundle, and the
whole headquarters staff were already mounted. Colonel Broadwood was
despatched to verify the startling report, and to bring in further
particulars. Meantime the preparations on our side for an advance
were suspended, and guns, Maxims, and infantry moved up and wheeled
into positions upon the firing line. Ominous was that silent march of
six paces to their front made by the British infantry to get close to
the zereba and the clearing for action of Maxims and cannon, and the
examining of the breeches of the Lee-Metfords. For the first time the
magazines were to be used. The Khedivial soldiers swarmed into their
trenches. Anon, the Tommy Atkinses were ordered to lie down behind
their hedge of cut mimosa to rest and wait. From a little distance, no
doubt, our camp looked silent, deserted, and as void of danger as any
other part of the plain. Standing a few yards behind each command were
placed in reserve sometimes two, sometimes three companies, which had
been withdrawn from the battalion on their immediate front. These
reserves were to fill gaps or stiffen the firing line, should it be
too closely pressed. With the companies in reserve were the stretchers
and bearers. A little farther back was the British divisional field
hospital, planted in a congeries of native dirt-huts. The scattered
mud-huts within the lines afforded excellent cover to the sick and
wounded, as well as a degree of protection for the camels, horses,
mules, and donkeys picketed near the middle ground of the camp.