Skip to comments.The Battle of Omdurman-Sudan 1898
Posted on 11/21/2002 3:10:36 PM PST by Sparta
In 1898 Kitchener led a force of 8,200 British troops, 17,600 Sudanese and Egyptians up the Nile to capture a city in the Sudan called Omdurman, the Dervish capital across the river from Khartoum. The army camp formed an arc with it's back to the Nile river, in which there were several armed gunboats anchored. Macdonald's brigade was posted in the center of the arc.
It was feared the Dervishes would launch a night attack on the camp from the surrounding hills, so the troops slept with their rifles. In the morning the men in the camp could see the Dervishes advancing, the 1st battle began with a charge from the Dervish army. With the British army pounding the oncoming force with howitzers and machine guns, the attack was short lived and after the battle 2,000 Dervishes lay dead in front of the British lines.
Kitchener assuming the battle was over ordered the troops to advance on Omdurman. Hector Macdonald's brigade was in reserve about a mile or two north of the main body of Kitchener's force, Macdonald commanded a force of 3,000 Sudanese and Egyptians and most unlikely would not be used. Later a Camel Corps' officer arrived at Macdonald's line and informed Macdonald that a sizable force of about 20,000 Dervishes was advancing towards Macdonald's line.
Macdonald's 3,000 troops were all that stood between the main force and the oncoming Dervishes. Kitchener was unaware of the danger and had his troops marching in columns with their rear flank to the attacking Dervishes, and ordered Macdonald to break camp and join the rest of the army. Macdonald had gotten the order from Kitchener, Macdonald replied: "I no do it. I'll see them damned first. We maun just fight!" Macdonald called his commanders to order and quickly mapped out in the sand a plan of defense. Macdonald wheeled his troops into a half circle and had the task of meeting the attacking Dervishes from two directions. If Macdonald's line was to fail, it could result in the destruction of the army. Dervishes attacked in wave after wave, the attack was so heavy that one of the lines of Macdonald's Sudanese battalions broke, and had to resort to hand to hand fighting.
"The valiant blacks prepared themselves with delight to meet the shock, notwithstanding the overwhelming numbers of the enemy"- Winston Churchill
Meanwhile Kitchener was now aware of the grave danger the army was in and ran about desperately shouting orders and trying to reverse his army, and put them back into fighting formations. Macdonald's brigade met the attacking Dervishes with heavy fire, Macdonald kept his troops well organized and disciplined, he continually maneuvered the lines to meet the ongoing threat of the attacking Dervishes.
"Amid the roar of the firing and the dust, smoke and confusion of the charge of front, the general [Macdonald] found time to summon the officers of IX Sudanese around him, rebuked them for having wheeled into line in anticipation of his order, and requested them to drill more steadily in brigade."- Winston Churchill
Before long other regiments began to arrive and backup Macdonald's lines, the firing upon the Dervishes was so intense that they began to retreat, fleeing into the desert. At the battles end 10,000 Dervishes lay dead, 16,000 wounded, and 5,000 prisoners. The battle was over the British army saved, the army lost 48 men and 382 wounded. At the end of the day, when the ammunition from Macdonald's brigades was counted, there were two rounds per man. The British army won the battle and avenged the death of General Gordon of Khartoum. Macdonald was the hero of the day and truly saved the British army.
"The charging Devishes succeeded everywhere in coming to within a hundred or two hundred yards of the troops, and the rear brigade of Sudanese, attacked from two directions, was only saved from destruction by the skill and firmness of its commander, General Hector Macdonald."
"Macdonald had handled his troops with masterly skill, and had snatched victory from the jaws of peril."
Story based on sources:
Death Before Dishonour 1982 Toll of The Brave 1963 Hector Macdonald: His Rise Through The Ranks And His Contributions To The British Empire 1980 My Early Life: W.S.Churchill 1930
... "The valiant blacks prepared themselves with delight to meet the shock, notwithstanding the overwhelming numbers of the enemy"- Winston Churchill ...Churchill, in his book The River War, also praises the defenders of Obdurman for their bravery and strategy in the field. Their only mistake, writes Churchill, is that they underestimated the range and power and accuracy of the more modern weapons the British carried with them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and can heartily recommend it.
His description of his own part in this particular battle is very well written, and has stuck in my mind. He was involved in a cavalry charge, and was not at all bashful about describing his own confusion in this fight.
Just a short note of another part of this book that I recall. Shortly after this battle, he was on a ship home, or maybe to another posting. He wrote a section about how he had to donate portion of skin from his forearm to help an injured comrade. His description made it sound excruciating.
Naturally, the best painting of this battle was the near massacre of the 17th Lancers---something about the Brits, they always save their best art for the defeats (Balaclava, Isandlwana).
BTW, how did the British get gunboats up the Nile? What about the cataracts?
Dragged through rapids, portaged around the cataracts. There's a good book on the topic, Omdurman, Philip Ziegler, Dorset Press.
Kitchener would have hesitated to venture even so far unless he had complete command of the river. The fact that he enjoyed this advantage was due, above all, to his fleet of gunboats. These lumbering, armour-plated Leviathans, slow in movement, inelegant in lines, still carried an amoury capable of demolishing any Arab fort which they might encounter along the banks of the Nile. Kitchener started with four of them, antiquated by the standards of what was to come, but still quite formidable enough to have maintained Gordon indefinitely in Khartoum if he had had the good luck to include them in his armoury. [But Gordon had been murdered in 1885. -- VR] Then came a new and yet more fearsome model, designed especially for the campaign, crated in a myriad of containers and carried laboriously by train, camel and steamer up the Nile to the assembly point. One hundred and forty feet long and 24 feet wide, these boats could steam at twelve miles an hour and draw only 39 inches of water. Each carried a twelve-pounder quick-firing gun, two six-pounders, a howitzer, four Maxim guns and, what was to prove as useful as anything, a battery of searchlights. They provided the most formidable concentration of firepower in the Sudan.Fat-fingered in from Ziegler's book. Typos mine, British-isms his.
Well, not Just the Brits. There must be at least a dozen artistic impressions of Lt. Danjou and the French Foreign legion battle at Camerone in Mexico, and there are many U.S. versions of the Last Stand at the Alamo and of Custer's last fight. But several of the renditions of the 17th Lancers interesting bad day at Omdurman are quite good.