Battle of Omdurman

The massacre of the army of Sudanese Dervishes on a plain near Omdurman on September 2nd, 1898, was an occasion that a new military technology by Britain in battle. 

The massacre of the army of Sudanese Dervishes on a plain near Omdurman in the Sudan was an occasion that a new military technology was tested – to devastating effect – by Britain in battle. It proved a major factor in Kitchener’s victory, in his efforts to re-conquer Sudan from the Madhists who had killed General Gordon in 1885, as well as to safeguard the Suez Canal and ensure the region against the threat of French occupation.

The key to Britain's presence in Egypt and the Sudan (Egypt's backdoor and the source of the Nile) was the Suez Canal, opened in 1869. The new quick route to India had to be safeguarded.

As ‘Sirdar’ or commander-in-chief of the Anglo-Egyptian army, Major-General Herbert Kitchener, an engineer and veteran of the Indian army, had spent over two years  training his troops and building up extensive railway and steamship supply lines with a view to attacking the Mahdist state to the south.

The Khalifa Abdullahi, leader of the Sudanese and religious successor to the Mahdi, aware of Kitchener’s intentions, had assembled a large army near Omdurman, since 1885 the Mahdist capital, across the Nile from Khartoum.

Kitchener’s  army of 17,600 Egyptian and Sudanese troops and 8,200 British regulars, was  heavily outnumbered, but had at its disposal fifty pieces of artillery, ten gunboats and five auxiliary steamers on the Nile. It also possessed forty single-barrelled, water-cooled Maxim machine-guns, each capable of firing six hundred rounds a minute. The British infantry was equipped with Lee Metford rifles, or its successor, the .303 Lee Enfield.   They both had a range of 2,800 yards, and a skilled rifleman could fire up to ten rounds a minute.

The Khalifa’s army consisted of about 60,000 tribesmen, mainly ansars or servants of Allah, referred to as Dervishes by the British. According to the young war correspondent, Winston Churchill, it resembled nothings so much as a ‘twelfth-century Crusader army’ armed with spears, swords, and with hundreds of banners embroided with Koranic texts.

In terms of weaponry, however, the Khalifa’s army was not quite as primitive as it looked. The Dervishes possessed some 15,000 captured shoulder arms, even though they were poorly maintained. Their riflemen were dispersed among the spearmen and swordbearers in the hopes of giving the latter a better opportunity of getting to  grips with the enemy. They also possessed some captured pieces of artillery and machine guns but hardly any appropriate ammunition.

The Anglo-Egyptian front line had been hastily constructed. The soldiers had their backs to the Nile, behind a zeriba – some mimosa scrub – near the village of Egaiga.  Not a single Dervish,  however, got within 300 yards of it.

The shelling of Omdurman by the British occupied the first day of the attack. In the process of testing a new explosive called Lyddite, the Mahdi’s tomb was targetted and destroyed. 

The Dervishes’ frontal assault on the British position the following day, September 2nd, was catastrophic – with thousands of men mown down by the British rifles and machine-guns. It was, though, not quite as suicidal as it seemed, or as subsequent accounts have described it. The Khalifa planned to entice Kitchener away from the zeriba towards reserve divisions hidden behind the Jebel Surgham heights. The plan might have succeeded, though their assault on Kitchener as he marched triumphantly to Omdurman was unco-ordinated and another force arrived too late. Even so MacDonald’s Sudanese Brigade had to stand firm against 3,000 Dervishes attacking from three directions, and for the 21st Lancers to charge their lines. This was a rare moment in the battle when the odds were reversed, seventy-one Lancers were killed or wounded in a few minutes, but again superior fire power proved decisive.

The battle lasted a little more than five hours. As many as 11,000 Dervishes were massacred and 16,000 wounded. The Anglo-Egyptian losses numbered only 500 (dead and wounded).

Perhaps to avenge Gordon’s death at the hands of the Mahdists, Kitchener left the wounded enemy to die on the plain and later, after triumphantly entering Khartoum, he looted the city and murdered many of the Khalifa’s leading followers. He also had the Mahdi’s bones exhumed and thrown into the Nile (rumour has it that he had the Mahdi’s skull made into a drinking cup).

The victory at Omdurman sealed the political future of the Sudan and the control of the Nile by Britain and her ally, Egypt, forcing the French to abandon their own ambitions for further colonisation. It also proved decisively the killing power of the West’s new weaponry.

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