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By William Wright
The History PressCopyright © 2012 The History Press
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The Rise of the Mahdi
The astonishing man who was – for a short time – to humble Britain, was a boat builder's son, born on 12 August 1844 at Dongola, a dismal provincial crossroads on the Nile. Twenty-five years earlier the Egyptian ruler, Muhammad Ali Pasha, had invaded and conquered much of the Sudan in the name of his overlord, the Turkish Sultan. Egyptian rule was to be marked by sloth, corruption and oppression.
At the age of five Muhammad Ahmed's family moved to Omdurman and the boy started attending a religious school in Khartoum. He was an intensely devout scholar who studied Arabic, mathematics and astronomy as well as theology. Within a few years his piety was obvious and he grew increasingly ascetic, studying Sufi mysticism. Ahmed then moved to the island of Aba, which lies on the White Nile, 160 miles south of Khartoum, and urged his brothers to join him. Living as a hermit in a cave by the Nile, his holy reputation grew.
'Devote yourselves to God and abstain from worldly pleasures,' he preached, 'This world is for infidels'; Ahmed's 'infidels' were the corrupt Egyptian government officials and their hated soldiers. An early adherent to his teaching was a young man of the Baggara tribe called Abdullahi al-Taishi. From the start the two men got along and realised each had qualities that the other lacked. Muhammad Ahmed was 'a prophet and a preacher; a saint and a visionary; a man who could inspire and charm; one whose own fervour and conviction could make men follow wherever he led,' while Abdullahi was 'a man of action and affairs; a fighter and an administrator; one who combined a ruthless strength of will with a quick intelligence, and who had the force to translate theories into action. Where the one could inspire devotion, the other compelled obedience.' The movement thus got a saint and enforcer.
Formulating his thoughts and religious philosophy, Mohammad Ahmed gradually came to the conclusion that he was the Mahdi al-Muntazar (literally 'he who is guided aright'), the man destined to bring righteousness to an imperfect world. Soon he was starting to preach jihad, or holy war, against unbelievers. This was too much for the Sudan governor, Rauf Pasha, who sent two companies of soldiers to Aba to seize the self-styled 'Mahdi' and bring him to Khartoum in chains. The troops arrived at night and stumbled ashore where they were surprised by a yelling crowd of Muhammad Ahmed's supporters. Before they could even fire their weapons, 120 soldiers were dead and only a few got back to Khartoum alive. The great Mahdist War had begun.
For the next 20 months the Mahdists scored an almost unbroken run of successes against a bewildered, out-manoeuvred and increasingly terrified Egyptian administration. These victories were helped enormously in 1882 by the fact that Egypt itself was in ferment as the British invaded to defeat a nationalist government. On 13 September, at Tel-el-Kebir in the desert near Alexandria, the Egyptian Army under Arabi Pasha was defeated by the Anglo-Indian forces of Major-General Sir Garnet Wolseley. Britain was now stuck with what the popular Press called 'Gladstone's egg'. Meanwhile the Mahdi's followers – known as dervishes – had speedily created an efficient fighting machine and on 19 January 1883 seized the garrison town of El Obeid and its arsenal of 6000 Remington rifles.
In April the dervish army, or ansar, got its first bloody nose when 4000 of them were killed at al-Marasi, an early foretaste of Omdurman. The enemy commander – who divided his forces into land and river units, cunningly placed his artillery along the likely line of a dervish retreat and cut off another escape route by burning the dervishes' rafts – was an Indian Army colonel, with the local rank of major-general, William Hicks. With fierce eyes, a goatee beard and thick moustache, Hicks was an officer of the old school who expected his soldiers to be as disciplined as he was. Unfortunately his troops were of indifferent quality, his officers arguably worse, his chain of command unclear and he himself was impatient, indecisive, obstinate and undiplomatic. That summer he led his army into the baking hot wastes of Kordofan to the west of Khartoum, looking for the Mahdi. The whole campaign was a fiasco of mismanagement as Hicks was drawn deeper and deeper into the desert. Then, on 5 November, after prayers, the Mahdi told the ansar: 'You will kill this expedition in less than half an hour.' He was right. Exhausted, too weak to resist and dying of thirst, Hicks' 10,000-strong army was wiped out in the thorn forest of Sheikan. He died gallantly and his head was cut off and sent to the Mahdi.
Things got worse; in December a force of Egyptian gendarmerie (some in leg irons after resisting being sent to the Sudan) arrived in Suakin on the Red Sea coast. Their commander, a disgraced British officer, Valentine Baker Pasha, was ordered to 'act with the greatest prudence', but he hankered for glory and a chance to redeem his honour. Near the desert wells of El Teb on 4 February 1884 the dervishes, under a wily leader called Osman Digna (soon to become known as the best of the Mahdist generals), were waiting. Their surprise attack panicked the Egyptians who turned and ran. With ease the ansar killed 96 officers and 2225 men, capturing 4 Krupp cannon, 3000 rifles and 500,000 rounds of ammunition.
The British get Involved
Desert garrisons such as Sinkat were also attacked by the Mahdists and lost. Into this deteriorating situation came Major-General Sir Gerald Graham VC, who landed at Suakin with 3000 British troops and gave the dervishes a sharp lesson at the Second Battle of El Teb. On 14 March he slaughtered 2000 more of them at Tamai (with a loss of 221 killed and wounded), but not before, in Kipling's words, the dervishes 'bruk a British square'.
Some 24,000 Egyptian troops were left scattered in lonely Sudanese outposts. After the defeat of Hicks, the British government had agreed that the Sudan had to be abandoned. But who was to extricate the remaining troops and citizens? A journalist, W.T. Stead, thought he had the answer. In his influential journal, The Pall Mall Gazette, he ran an interview under the headline, 'Gordon for the Sudan'. It was a clever ploy because his champion was already a household name, thought by many to be a mix of modern crusader and soldier-saint – Charles George Gordon. He had seen action in the Crimean War and also led a vast army against the Taiping rebels in China armed only with a cane. His friends labelled him courageous and intelligent; his enemies said he was eccentric and highly unpredictable; the public loved him. In Cairo the British representative, Sir Evelyn Baring, the most powerful man in the country, who had met Gordon during an earlier stint in the Sudan, commented drily that he doubted if he could control a man 'who habitually consults the Prophet Isaiah when he is in difficulty.'
In Cairo the new Governor-General of the Sudan made it clear that he had his own plans for the country rather more elaborate than those of the British government. Baring tried to help but thought Gordon 'half-cracked'. Arriving in Khartoum on 18 February, Gordon burned all the tax records and told the locals, 'I come without soldiers, but with God on my side.' Gordon tried to bribe the Mahdi and sent him a beautiful robe; Muhammad Ahmed sent it back with a charming letter, and a dervish white cotton patched shirt, or jibbah. Both men realised they were equally dogmatic and incorruptible.
Gordon Relief Expedition
Gradually the Mahdists encircled Khartoum; in the city with Gordon were 25,000 civilians and 8000 soldiers. On 26 May Berber fell and the city was finally cut off. Meantime in London the government was still procrastinating about sending help; Prime Minister Gladstone objected to 'a war of conquest against a people struggling to be free'. Baring in Cairo warned that Gordon could not be left stranded, 'if, from a military point of view, it is at all possible to help him.' Finally, in August, a relief expedition was organised under Wolseley; the original 'modern major-general' of Gilbertian wit, his highly unorthodox campaign combined British infantry with skilled boatmen from Canada and West Africa, volunteer units from Australia and the hurried formation and training of four camel regiments. This Desert Column was to be assisted by a River Column in the final phase. The new Egyptian Army was given the task of guarding the lines of communication. Wolseley decided against constructing a railway line from Suakin to Berber, with a final dash across the desert towards Khartoum in favour of the longer, slower but safer Nile route.
On 28 January 1885, huddled on board the steamer Bordein as it approached the confluence of the Blue and White Niles at Khartoum, were two British army officers, Sir Charles Wilson and Captain Fred Gascoigne, with 10 noncommissioned officers and men of the Royal Sussex Regiment and 110 Sudanese soldiers. Not far behind was a sister ship, the Talahawiyeh, where a similar compliment of British troops and 80 more Sudanese also knelt behind the improvised protection of boiler plates and sandbags.
Their Nile journey had been perilous, as was their mission to rescue Gordon. 'The bullets began to fly pretty quickly, tapping like hail against the ship's sides, whilst the shells went screeching overhead or threw jets of water in the stream round us,' Wilson later recalled. From Omdurman on the opposite bank of the Nile, 'Two or more guns opened upon us ... and three or four from Khartoum ... the roll of musketry from each side was continuous; and high above that could be heard ... the loud rushing noise of the Krupp shells.' Masses of the enemy, with banners fluttering in the breeze, lined the river bank near what had been Gordon's palace. 'No flag was flying in Khartoum and not a shot was fired in our assistance,' wrote Wilson, who felt he suffered a 'crushing' blow. 'May God have mercy on me, but this is enough to drive most men mad,' wrote General Lord Wolseley. Back home, Queen Victoria, literally made ill by events, blamed Prime Minister Gladstone, '& it is I who have, as the Head of the Nation, to bear the tragic humiliation.'
The perilous river journey was all for nothing. Gordon had refused every chance of escape (he had earlier declined an offer of safe passage from the Mahdi). He used all his skills as a Royal Engineer to defend Khartoum and died bravely there during the Mahdist attack on 26 January. He had held out for 317 days. Wilson in Bordein arrived just two days late. It would have been Gordon's 52nd birthday.
The rescue force withdrew, the dervishes keeping up their attacks; at Kirbekan on 10 February 1885 they shot dead the River Column commander, having already slain the Desert Column leader, thus notching up both generals as kills (not forgetting Gordon and Hicks). Quite an impressive achievement. Back in Cairo the Desert Column's 34-year-old intelligence officer, Major Kitchener, wrote privately that 'the organisation of the Expedition has been very bad' and vowed to avenge the death of his hero and fellow Royal Engineer. He wrote to his family: 'The shock of the news was dreadful, and I can hardly realise it yet.'
Khalifa Abdullahi Assumes Power
On 22 June 1885 the Mahdi died suddenly of a severe fever, most likely typhus (though poison and meningitis have also been suggested). He died in a spartan bed in his simple quarters, a shed made from the boards of General Hicks' stable. On his death bed he declared Abdullahi, one of his three khalifas, or chief lieutenants, as his successor. A very different kind of man, the new ruler of the Sudan moved quickly to enlarge his personal power base: influential figures who might transfer allegiance from the Mahdi to one of the two other khalifas were reduced in rank, banished or killed; the Mahdi's sons and family, known as the ashraf, were marginalised; and new powers were given to his own brother, Yaqub, and his loyal Baggara tribesmen. Just four weeks after the Mahdi's death Abdullahi flexed his muscles and ordered the entire population of Khartoum to move. Detesting the city, which he associated with 'Turks' and foreigners, Khartoum was soon a ghost town as its armouries, boatyards, factories and workshops were replicated in Omdurman.
The ansar harassed the retreating British almost to the Egyptian border; however, on 30 December they were caught off-guard in a dawn attack by troops under the command of General Sir Frederick Stephenson, C-in-C of the British Army of Occupation. The Battle of Ginnis saw some fierce close-quarter fighting; William Butler, commanding one of the brigades, thought it a 'strange sight' as the dervishes hacked with medieval-style swords. In a foretaste of the Battle of Omdurman, he was impressed how they fell, 'their faces distorted with the delirium of fanatical enthusiasm, the lips moving in prayer, the eyes rolling, their swords raised in both hands ... I could not discern any sign of rage in the expression of their faces; it seemed to me be the ecstasy of self-martyrdom.'
Rebirth of the Egyptian Army
Officially the Battle of Ginnis was fought by the new Anglo-Egyptian Frontier Field Force but it was, in reality, the last conflict of the 1884–85 war. Both sides needed time to lick their wounds. Writing on the day after the battle, Stephenson commented on the 'excellent behaviour' of the Egyptian troops who had been 'very steady under fire and fought in line side by side with English.' The four guns captured in the battle were the work of Egyptian troops. Joscelin Wodehouse, commanding the Egyptian artillery, had actually charged into the dervish camp shouting, 'Don't let the English get the flags!' as he tried to pick up enemy banners as trophies for his gunners and other Egyptian corps.
The important task of reorganising the Egyptian Army had begun as soon as the 1882 war had drawn to a close. One of Wolseley's circle, Major-General Sir Evelyn Wood VC, was tasked with training and equipping a new force of 6000 men within a budget of £200,000. This sum included the salaries of 25 British officers (on rates of pay higher than in the British Army), who were to be its core. Each officer had to have a first-class military record with proven ability in horsemanship and musketry. They also had to learn Arabic, be able to give commands in German and handle official correspondence in French. Their old British ranks were stepped up with none holding a rank lower than major. Contracts were for two years and leave, like pay, was generous. Native Egyptians were also encouraged to strive for commissions and several did.
In the summer of 1883 a severe cholera outbreak ravaged Egypt. The Egyptian Army Medical Service had barely been formed so the new officers had to act as medical orderlies. The care and attention they showed to their sick and dying soldiers helped create an association and comradeship that was, as one officer wrote, 'very remarkable'. It was the kernel of an Egyptian esprit de corps.
Despite some language difficulties at first, as well as a small mutiny, the new Egyptian Army quickly started to develop into a fighting machine. Happily the non-commissioned officers and men showed a rare fondness for drill combined with high levels of stamina and endurance. By the early 1890s an officer noted:
The present army are well fed, well paid and well clothed. They get periodical furloughs to see their friends; are allowed ... to travel by train or steamer at greatly reduced rates; are given medals for active service; and if discharged from the service on account of wounds or sickness, they are sent home with a gratuity and a complete set of clothes.
The new Egyptian Army finally had a chance to show its worth at Toski in 1889 when the Khalifa Abdullahi sent one of his rivals, the Emir Wad al-Nejumi, on what was in essence a suicide mission to invade Egypt. That June al-Nejumi had been at Sarras with 6000 fighters and 8000 followers. In July, part of his force was headed off from the river at Argin by Colonel J. Wodehouse and lost 1400 men, dead or captured. In August, in a replay of Hicks' defeat at Sheikan, but in reverse, the starved yet brave ansar were checked by a larger Egyptian force under the Sirdar (commander in chief) Sir Francis Grenfell who cleverly brought his enemy to battle on open ground where his artillery and machine guns could create most havoc. Over 1200 dervishes were killed and 4000 taken prisoner. Wad al-Nejumi and his five-year-old son were found dead side by side on the battlefield.
Excerpted from Omdurman: 1898 by William Wright. Copyright © 2012 The History Press. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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