Kitchener decided to build a railway straight across the arid Nubian Desert, a shortcut that would eliminate 900 miles of the river’s curve between Wadi Halfa and Abu Hamad, north of Berber. The railroad would be 400 miles in length, including a stretch of pre-existing line that hugged the Nile. The real challenge would be the 230-mile shortcut through the desert, a desiccated region infamous for not having water of any kind.
Most experts considered the desert portion of the railway impossible to build. But Royal Engineer Edouard Girouard, an experienced Canadian railway builder, was more than willing to try. It was a gargantuan task, made worse by a harsh climate and lazy, incompetent, and dishonest subordinates. Despite an outbreak of cholera and a bad case of sunstroke suffered by Girouard himself, work continued throughout the summer, with temperatures reaching 116 degrees in the shade. When a massive rainstorm washed away 12 miles of track, 5,000 men worked day and night for a week to repair the break.
By the time Abu Hamad had been captured on August 7, 1897, the Sudan Military Railway was roughly halfway though the Nubian Desert. The ever-impatient Kitchener wanted the remaining 120 miles to Abu Hamad completed quickly, and Girouard pressed on. Up to three miles of track was laid each day. While the railroad was being built, Kitchener marched south by stages. There were several small-scale battles with the Mahdists, all resulting in defeat for the khalifa’s forces. The months dragged on, but slowly the Anglo-Egyptian army closed in on Khartoum. The railway shortcut was finally completed when it reached Atbara on July 3, 1898. Girouard had achieved the impossible. By August 31, Kitchener was only 18 miles from Khartoum.
Making a Stand at Omdurman
The general had little time to savor his progress—the khalifa still had to be defeated. It was feared that the khalifa would retreat into the desert vastness, away from the railroad and the vital Nile supply line. On reflection, however, Kitchener was sure that the Mahdists would make a stand at Omdurman. To Europeans, Omdurman was a primitive collection of shoddy mud huts clinging to the western banks of the Nile, but to the Dervishes it was almost a second Mecca. Omdurman was the khalifa’s capital and the site of the Mahdi’s elaborate tomb. If the khalifa gave it up without a fight, he would lose face, and his position as God’s chosen deputy would be severely compromised.
Now, as Churchill galloped up to his commander in chief, the stage was set for a final reckoning at Omdurman. Saluting, Churchill announced that he was a messenger from the 21st Lancers. He reported that the Dervish forces were on the move, marching rapidly in Kitchener’s direction. “How long do you think I have?” Kitchener asked. “You have got at least an hour,” Churchill replied, “probably an hour and a half, sir, even if they come at their present rate.”
Kitchener’s gunboats were drawing closer to Omdurman, pushing their way past the khalifa’s riverside forts. Once past the forts, the gunboats opened fire with their 40-pounder cannons. They were accompanied by British howitzers that had been placed on the eastern bank. The shells rained down on Omdurman, each explosion marked by gouts of flame that rose through great clouds of dust and flying fragments of stone. The Mahdi’s tomb was hit several times, leaving great gaping holes in the white dome. Inexplicably, the khalifa halted his forces for the night.
Deciding When to Attack
As the sun sank beneath the horizon, the Anglo-Egyptian army retired to its camp along the Nile. Sudanese scouts were sent out to give early warning of a night attack. That evening, the khalifa presided over an acrimonious council of war. His son Osman Sheikh al-Din wanted to attack at daybreak, immediately after morning prayers. He counseled, “Let us not be like mice or foxes sneaking into our holes by day and peeping out at night.” Ibrahim al-Khalil favored a stealthy night assault—the very thing Kitchener feared the most. If the zareba was breached at night, rifles and artillery would be useless in the pitch-black darkness. Perhaps British discipline would still triumph, but Kitchener’s army was sure to suffer heavy casualties in the confused and bloody melee.
The khalifa decided to attack in broad daylight. From the Sudanese point of view, it was a decision of almost criminal stupidity. Kitchener’s fortified camp was well positioned to meet a Dervish attack. It was semicircular in shape, about 1,200 yards wide at its widest point. The south end of the perimeter was protected by a line of mimosa thorn bushes, and the northern end featured a double line of trenches.
Major General William Gatacre’s British division occupied the zareba portion of the defenses, comprising such famed regiments as the Grenadier Guards, the Rifles, Lincolns, Warwicks, and Cameron Highlanders. Gatacre was known as a hard-driving general whose men had nicknamed him “Back-Acher.” The Egyptian troops under Maj. Gen. Sir Archibald Hunter occupied the trenches facing west and north. Hunter was a veteran of the failed Gordon relief expedition and knew his Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers well. Colonel Hector MacDonald, one of Hunter’s subordinates, had come up from the ranks and personally trained his brigade to a peak of efficiency.
Kitchener’s army had 46 artillery pieces and a battery of Maxim machine guns. The disciplined fire of British troops was almost as good as an artillery barrage. Each British Tommy was armed with an eight-shot Lee-Medford rifle and 100 rounds of hollow-point “dum-dum” ammunition, bullets that caused massive internal injuries wherever they struck.
The Battle of Omdurman Begins
Buglers sounded reveille at 3:40 am on September 2. British troops gathered behind the zareba and were told to lie down until the battle started. Friendly Sudanese and Egyptian troops swarmed into the trenches, making sure their single-shot Martini-Henry rifles were in working order. A few native huts in the rear served as protection for the sick and wounded, and the army’s menagerie of camels, horses, mules, and donkeys were picketed close by.
The 21st Lancers, on point, moved out of the zareba at about 5 am and headed toward the looming mass of the mountain, Jebel Surgham. Churchill accompanied them, mounted on a sturdy gray pony. He had a bad shoulder, so he decided that wielding a saber was out of the question. Instead, he would rely on a Mauser pistol he had purchased in London. The young officer loved the 10-shot weapon, which he called a “ripper.”
Perched on the slopes of Jebel Surgham, Churchill and the lancers had a ringside seat to the Battle of Omdurman’s opening moves. The Dervish army began to slowly climb the slopes, their advance described by one embedded reporter as “a moving, undulating plain of men.” The khalifa’s 52,000-man army stretched for some five miles, a frightening yet mesmerizing pageant of motion, color, and sound. Most followers of the khalifa wore the rough jibba, a woolen tunic that sported black patches as signs of humility before Allah. Human nature being what it is, many Dervishes had gotten their wives to sew on additional swatches of yellow, blue, and red.
There were several major divisions within the Mahdist army. Osman Azrak and Osman Sheikh al-Din would lead the attack under the latter’s dark-green battle flag. Sheikh al-Din, the khalifa’s son, had the most riflemen in his division, warriors using captured Remington and Martini-Henry rifles. Sheikh al-Din would be supported on the right by Ibrahim Al-Khalil’s elite troops under a white banner covered with quotes from the Koran. Under a red flag, Khalifa Sherif—not to be confused with the Mahdist leader—and his 2,000 Danagla tribesmen were positioned on the right.
The khalifa himself stayed in the rear with a large reserve of around 20,000 men, sheltering behind Jebel Surgham’s rocky mass. Surrounded by a bodyguard, the Dervish leader had a great black flag carried before him. The sable banner was huge, about two yards square, and covered with texts from the Koran and the Mahdi’s sayings. It was attached to a large bamboo pole about 20 feet long, and wherever it went it was acclaimed as a talisman of victory.
The Dervish plan was simple: The first waves would crash against the infidels’ zareba. The khalifa’s black flag division would be held in reserve, together with Ali Wad Helu’s 5,000 Degheim and Kenana tribesmen. If the first waves were successful, the reserves would come forward to complete the victory. If not, the khalifa would have enough intact forces to attempt a second round of attacks.
Thousands of spear points twinkled and gleamed in the sun, swords were brandished with fervor, and war drums beat a throbbing tattoo. Mounted warriors sported helmets and chain-mail armor that seemed a throwback to medieval times. Shouts in Arabic of “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Messenger!” and “Mahdi!” sounded from thousands of throats, a swelling chorus that seemed to cause the very earth to tremble. The shouts grew louder when the tribesmen saw the infidels’ zareba in the distance. The Dervishes started forward at the run, banners flying, while emirs on horseback urged them on.