The Bloody First Phase
About 50 yards from the zareba, two shells exploded, the bursts gouging holes in the gravel and red sand. The shells were from Mahdist artillery, but the guns were so poorly served that they fell short. The Anglo-Egyptian artillery replied, but with a far more deadly accuracy. On the right, Ibrahim al-Khalil and his men pressed forward, spilling over the ridge that marked Jebel Sergham’s eastern boundary. Guns from the 32nd Field Battery opened up at 2,800 yards, a rain of shells that produced terrible carnage. As many as 20 shells hit the advancing black mass in the first minute, throwing up dirty blossoms of flame and red dust with each detonation.
Men were decapitated, eviscerated, torn limb from limb; yet others came forward with incredible courage and resolution. Al-Khalil was blown from the saddle, tumbling in the dirt when his horse’s head was nearly severed by a shell fragment. Mounting a fresh horse, he led his men forward—but by this time they were within range of the Maxim machine guns and the Lee-Medford rifles. The machine guns opened up, chattering a steady hail of death, and the Grenadier Guards stood up and poured a steady fire on the enemy’s shredded ranks. Ibrahim al-Khalil was shot in the head and chest, and the bloodied survivors reluctantly fell back.
Sheikh Osman al-Din’s attack in the center was equally disastrous. British shells tore bloody gaps in the ranks and tossed men like rag dolls into the air, yet the Dervishes refused to give up the fight. A carpet of spent cartridge shells gathered around each British soldier, and rifles grew so hot that they had to be replaced by weapons from the reserve.
The Dervishes fared no better on the left. The Sudanese regiments had little love for their Mahdist countrymen, and some probably wanted revenge for the khalifa’s depredations. The Sudanese opened up at 800 yards, great gouts of smoke, flame, and lead spouting from their Martini-Henrys. Dervish leaders pressed forward, but human flesh and blood could not stand against this hurricane of lead and metal.
The Last Formal Cavalry Charge in British History
The first phase of the Battle of Omdurman was over. The plain between the Keriri Hills and Jebel Surgham was carpeted with thousands of Mahdist bodies. The wounded crawled among the dead, many of them leaving a bloody trail of missing arms, legs, or feet. “Cease fire!” Kitchener shouted, then ordered the army to turn south and head straight for Omdurman. The general was afraid the khalifa might make a stand in the city, and the thought of house-to-house fighting was daunting.
As a first step, Kitchener ordered Colonel Rowland Martin and his 21st Lancers to reconnoiter the city and cut off the retreat of any fleeing Dervishes. Martin was happy to comply; the regiment was itching for action. The lancers advanced at a walk, then spied a line of Dervishes about a half mile away. The Dervishes—only about a 100 or so skirmishers—started to fire on the British horsemen. Martin ordered a “right wheel into line,” which a bugler spat out in musical notes. The 320 troopers turned about smartly, readying themselves for the regiment’s first full-blown charge and the last formal cavalry charge in British history.
The lancers charged with fine style, lances leveled and swords drawn. But when they reached their objective they were shocked to find that the ground fell away five feet to expose a khor—a dry watercourse—filled with 3,000 warriors 10 to 12 ranks deep. The 21st was committed—there was nothing left to do but increase the pace and hope for the best. The subsequent impact was terrible, as horses plunged headlong into the enemy mass. Around 30 troopers were unhorsed as they crashed into the packed ranks, and perhaps as many as 200 Dervishes were laid low, trampled and stunned. But the Mahdists recovered quickly—this was the kind of warfare they understood.
Each lancer found himself engulfed in a sea of enemies who thrust spears and slashed swords with wild abandon. Troopers were pulled from their mounts, surrounded and hacked to pieces. Bridles were cut, stirrup leather slashed, and horses were hamstrung in an attempt to bring them down. Churchill was one of the lucky ones, partly because he was on the far right, where the mass of Dervishes was thinner, and also because he was wielding a pistol. Even so, he barely escaped with his life. Finding himself closely surrounded by several dozen Dervishes, Churchill emptied his Mauser as they pressed closer to finish him. One assailant, swinging a curved sword, got so near the pistol he bumped into it. Churchill wheeled away at the last moment and galloped to safety.
The surviving lancers managed to get out of the khor and paused to re-form. The melee had lasted only two minutes, but in that short span of time 22 men had been killed and another 50 wounded. Some 119 horses had been slaughtered. The 21st Lancers had covered themselves in glory, but at a high price in blood. Once he recovered from the euphoria of battle, Churchill noted “horses spouting blood, men bleeding from terrible wounds, fish-hook spears stuck right through them, men gasping, crying, expiring.” One nearby lieutenant had been wounded in the shoulder and leg, his hand almost severed by a sword strike, and a sergeant’s face “was cut to pieces … the whole of his nose, cheeks and lips flapped red bubbles.”
The battle was not yet over. Kitchener mistakenly believed the Mahdist army was broken. The Dervishes had suffered grievously, but most of the Khalifa’s black flag division and Ali Wad Helu’s corps were still intact. Colonel Hector MacDonald’s 1st Egyptian Brigade, a rear guard composed of Sudanese and Egyptians, was dangerously exposed. If the khalifa could pounce on MacDonald, he might annihilate the Scotsman before other units could come to his aid. Kitchener’s whole army could be taken in flank and rear while still on the march and rolled up.
Unaware of the danger, Kitchener was irritated. “Can’t he see we’re marching on Omdurman?” the general complained. “Tell him to follow on.” Obeying, General Hunter relayed a message to MacDonald to withdraw. But just about the time he received the message, MacDonald became aware of the danger. “I’ll nae do it,” he said firmly in his Scots brogue. If he withdrew, his men would be slaughtered. When the khalifa’s black flag division came forward at the run, they were met by disciplined volleys from the British troops. As before, modern firepower trumped medieval courage, and the attack faltered and broke off.
Just then, Ali Wad Helu’s warriors swept in from the north, threatening to hit MacDonald’s troops in flank. The Scotsman coolly appraised the situation and swung the 11th Sudanese Battalion to meet the new threat. MacDonald’s brigade was now in an L shape, firing so rapidly that many men didn’t even aim. The Dervish horde, wilting under heavy fire, started to lap around the 11th’s flank, seeking to exploit a space they saw between the 11th and 9th Battalions. The 2nd Egyptian Battalion plugged the gap on the run, firing into their opponents at point-blank range. The attack failed. Watching in the rear, the khalifa accepted defeat and fled to distant Kordofan, leaving behind his great black flag as a trophy for the victors.
The skill and bravery of the Sudanese and Egyptian troops had saved Kitchener from disaster. Well-deserved praise was also lavished on MacDonald’s men. MacDonald himself gained the affectionate sobriquet, “Fighting Mac.” Winston Churchill added another notch to his budding legend.
Rarely had a major victory been won at such a small cost. The Anglo-Egyptian army’s casualties were 47 dead and 340 wounded. By contrast, the Mahdist army lost almost 10,000 killed, 13,000 wounded, and 5,000 captured. The khalifa was eventually tracked down a year later and killed in battle. However indirectly, Gordon had been avenged.
This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons