Key Point: The lancers charged with fine style, lances leveled and swords drawn.
On the morning of September 1, 1898, Lieutenant Winston Churchill of the Queen’s 4th Hussars rode out with four squadrons of the 21st Lancers to scout the approaches to Omdurman, a Sudanese village on the west bank of the Nile opposite Khartoum, epicenter of a revolt that had rocked the very foundations of the British Empire. An Anglo-Egyptian army under Maj. Gen. Sir Herbert Kitchener was a few miles behind the cavalry screen. Kitchener’s object was to reconquer the Sudan, restore order, and forestall any encroachments from opportunistic European rivals.
The British horsemen cautiously advanced over the sun-baked plain, the eye-numbing sandy desolation relieved by a few thorn bushes, scrub, and patches of grass. Churchill and the lancers ascended a low ridge to scan the horizon. Officers raised their field glasses and were rewarded with a sweeping panorama. Omdurman itself was in sight, and Churchill recalled later that “to the left the river, steel gray in the morning light, forked into two channels, and on a tongue of land between them the gleam of a white building showed among the trees.”
The white building was part of Khartoum, capital of the Sudan, where the Blue Nile and White Nile converge to form Africa’s greatest river. Nearby, there seemed to be a long, dark smear that the British assumed was a zareba, a thorn bush barrier that commonly served as a prickly fortification in the treeless land. Some of the enemy, whom the British called Dervishes, could be seen lurking behind the barrier, confirming the officers’ first assumption.
The lancers advanced, supported by Egyptian cavalry, the Camel Corps, and some horse artillery. Dervish horsemen came forward to meet them but were sent packing by dismounted troopers firing Lee-Medford carbines at 800 yards. The lancers halted and waited for the enemy to make the next move.
About 11 am, the distant zareba suddenly sprang into malevolent life. It was made of men, not thorns—thousands of them, so thick that they made an undulating black wave. Churchill was awed by the sight. The roiling mass, he said, was “four miles from end to end and, as it seemed, in five great divisions, this mighty army advanced swiftly. Above them waved hundreds of banners, and the sun, glinting on many thousands of hostile spear points, spread a sparkling cloud.”
The young lieutenant rushed back to alert Kitchener to the enemy’s latest moves. Filled with a growing sense of urgency, Churchill galloped up the hillside to get his bearings. Once on the crest he could plainly see the Dervish army’s dark masses in stark relief against the brown, sandy plain. Turning around, he could also view the Anglo-Egyptian army, some 24,000 men, drawn up with their backs to the Nile. The two armies, separated by the hill’s looming slopes, could not yet see each other, but an enormous clash seemed inevitable. Churchill drank in the mesmerizing spectacle—an irresistible wall of Dervishes about to collide with an immovable force of British and Egyptian soldiers.
His sense of duty breaking the spell, Churchill pulled the reins of his horse and galloped down the hill in search of Kitchener. He briefly dismounted, in part to collect his thoughts and calm his rising excitement. The lieutenant had seen action before, in India, but this was going to be a major battle, and his pulse quickened at the idea. The action shaping up at Omdurman might well decide the fate of a continent and the destiny of a people.
The Mahdist War
In the late 19th century, Egypt was a nominal province of the decaying Turkish Ottoman Empire. Because of Egypt’s growing debts, the ruling Khedive Ismail was forced to sell his shares of the Suez Canal to Great Britain in 1876. The Suez was Britain’s lifeline to India and its empire in the Far East. Once Great Britain had a foothold on the Nile, it became unavoidably involved in the Sudan.
Egyptian rule in the Sudan was characterized by brutality and corruption. Taxes were so high that parents were regularly forced to sell their children into slavery, and government officials ruled by the whip. The Sudan was ripe for revolt. All it needed was a charismatic leader to galvanize the people and channel their hatred and resentment into political action.
In late June 1881, such a leader arose when a mystic named Muhammad Ahmad announced that he was the Mahdi, or the “Expected One,” a kind of Islamic messiah. The Egyptians were more than just oppressors, he said; they were also heretics whose railroads, telegraphs, and other modern inventions were leading Muslims away from the true path. The Mahdi’s vision was a medieval one in which the Turks, Egyptians, and infidel Europeans would all be irresistibly swept away, enabling the Sudan to return to its former glories.
Thousands of disaffected Sudanese flocked to the Mahdi’s banner, and soon the Sudan was in full revolt. The Mahdists managed to defeat several Egyptian forces that were sent against them. A 7,000-man Egyptian army under a British Army colonel named William Hicks was massacred almost to the last man in late 1883. With each defeat, the Mahdi gained prestige, followers, and modern captured rifles.
The British Withdrawal From Sudan
The Mahdi threatened Egypt itself, but British Prime Minister William Gladstone refused to be drawn into the spreading conflict. Instead, Khartoum and the remaining Egyptian garrisons were to be evacuated, abandoning all of the Sudan to the Mahdist rebels. General Charles George Gordon, an Army engineer, was sent to the Sudan to supervise the evacuation. In retrospect, Gordon was a poor choice for such a delicate mission. Eccentric and charismatic, he was a devout Christian who felt that he was an instrument of God. Once in Khartoum, he decided to disobey orders and stay in the Sudan. He hoped by doing so to pressure the British government to send more troops, but Gladstone refused to play into the general’s hands. In April 1884, Gordon and his remaining forces were besieged inside Khartoum. The siege dragged on for nine months.
After a public outcry, Gladstone relented. But when the advance party of a British relief expedition finally reached Khartoum in January 1885, they found that the city had fallen two days earlier. The city had been sacked, its men ruthlessly butchered, the women raped and sold into slavery. Gordon had been fatally speared and his severed head presented to the Mahdi as a trophy.
Gordon’s death produced a predictable uproar in Great Britain. Overnight, the eccentric engineer became a national martyr, seemingly sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Queen Victoria herself was appalled, noting firmly in her diary that “the government alone is to blame.” Unshaken by the torrent of public protest, Gladstone withdrew all British troops from the Sudan.
“Cape to Cairo”
The Mahdi did not live long to celebrate his triumph, dying of typhus three months after taking Khartoum. Just before he died, the Mahdi chose Abdullah al-Taaishi, a member of the warrior Baggara tribe, as his hand-picked successor. Abdullah was now the khalifa, or deputy of Allah. The khalifa continued the Mahdi’s hard-fisted religious totalitarianism. The few tribes that resisted were ruthlessly exterminated. Villages were depopulated and famine stalked the land. Many Sudanese believed that they had exchanged Egyptian tyranny for another kind of oppression, one even more ruthless because it was clothed in the sanctity of religion.
In the meantime, Egypt became a British colony in all but name. Sir Evelyn Baring was appointed the khedive’s chief adviser on economic, military, and political affairs. The Egyptian Army was re-formed and trained under the supervision of British officers. The memory of Gordon’s demise remained fresh in the minds of the British public. In 1896, the new prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, decided that the time was ripe to return to the Sudan. In this, he was motivated more by international politics and imperialism than by any thoughts of personal revenge.
The French were in equatorial Africa, pushing east. If the British dreamed of a “Cape to Cairo” domain that stretched the length of the continent from north to south, the French envisioned a similar west-to-east “Atlantic to Red Sea” empire. Success of the French vision would mean control of the sources of the Nile—and whoever controlled the Nile controlled Egypt. The Sudan had to be reconquered to forestall Gallic territorial ambitions.
Kitchener’s Sudan Military Railway
General Herbert Horatio Kitchener was appointed sirdar, or commander, of the joint Anglo-Egyptian forces. Standing over six feet tall, with a bristling handlebar mustache, Kitchener seemed the very embodiment of John Bull. He was cold, methodical, and seemingly emotionless, a man who used the army as an instrument of his will. As a soldier, he was far from brilliant, but he excelled in logistical planning—always a must in Africa‘s inhospitable countryside.
As Kitchener pored over his maps, a plan began to form in his mind. The Nile was his lifeline, yet shipping supplies upriver was a laborious, time-consuming process. The river was punctuated by six cataracts, stretches of rocky rapids that were difficult to cross. The Nile also added mileage as it curved west, its meandering ribbon of water impossible to fortify at all twists and turns.