The River War
Winston S. Churchill
Part 2 out of 6
inscribed above the hole. For those who served him faithfully he struck
medals and presented them with pomp and circumstance. Others less
laudable he shot. And by all these means and expedients the defence of
the city was prolonged through the summer, autumn, and winter of 1884
and on into the year 1885.
All this time the public anxiety in England had been steadily growing.
If Gordon was abandoned, he was by no means forgotten. As his mission had
been followed with intense interest throughout the whole country, so its
failure had caused general despondency. Disappointment soon gave place
to alarm. The subject of the personal safety of the distinguished envoy
was first raised in the House of Commons on the 16th of March by Lord
Randolph Churchill. Availing himself of the opportunities provided by
Supply, he criticised the vacillating policy of the Government, their
purposeless slaughter in the Eastern Soudan, and their failure
to establish the Suakin-Berber route. He proceeded to draw attention to
the perilous position of General Gordon at Khartoum.
'Colonel Coetlogon has stated that Khartoum may be easily captured;
we know that General Gordon is surrounded by hostile tribes and cut off
from communications with Cairo and London; and under these circumstances
the House has a right to ask her Majesty's Government whether they are
going to do anything to relieve him. Are they going to remain indifferent
to the fate of the one man on whom they have counted to extricate them
from their dilemmas, to leave him to shift for himself, and not make a
single effort on his behalf?' [HANSARD'S PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES,
March 16, 1884.]
The Government remained impassive. Lord E. Fitzmaurice made some sort
of reply, and there were Ministerial cheers. But the subject, Once raised,
was not allowed to drop. Inspired and animated by the earnest energy of
a young man, the Opposition were continually growing stronger. The conduct
of Egyptian affairs afforded ample opportunity for criticism and attack.
All through the summer months and almost every night Ministers were
invited to declare whether they would rescue their envoy or leave him to
his fate. Mr. Gladstone returned evasive answers. The Conservative Press
took the cue. The agitation became intense. Even among the supporters of
the Government there was dissatisfaction. But the Prime Minister was
obdurate and unflinching. At length, at the end of the Session, the whole
matter was brought forward in the gravest and most formal way by the
moving of a vote of censure. The debate that followed Sir Michael Hicks
Beach's motion was long and acrimonious. Mr. Gladstone's speech only
increased the disquietude of his followers and the fury of the Opposition.
Mr. Forster openly declared his disagreement with his leader; and although
Lord Hartington in winding up the debate threw out some hopes of an
expedition in the autumn, the Government majority fell on the division to
twenty-eight. And after the prorogation the controversy was carried on
with undiminished vigour outside the walls of Parliament, and the clamour
in the country grew louder and louder.
It is usual to look upon Mr. Gladstone's conduct in the matter of the
relief of Gordon as dictated by benevolent weakness. History may take
another view. Strong and stubborn as was the character of the General,
that of the Minister was its equal. If Gordon was the better man,
Gladstone was incomparably the greater. It was easy for the First
Minister of the Crown to despatch an expedition against savages. He was
accustomed to the exercise of power. Compared with the resources of the
Empire, the enterprise was insignificant. Few men have feared
responsibility less than Gladstone. On the other hand, the expressed
desire of the nation was a force to which he had always bowed--to which,
indeed, he owed his political existence. Yet, in spite of the growing
agitation throughout the land, he remained stern and silent. Most men do
what is right, or what they persuade themselves is right; nor is it
difficult to believe that Mr. Gladstone did not feel justified in
involving the nation in operations in the heart of the Soudan for the
purpose, not of saving the life of the envoy--for Gordon had but to embark
on his steamers and come home--but simply in order to vindicate the
personal honour of a man. And it is possible that a feeling of resentment
against the officer whose intractable nature was bringing such odium upon
the Government may have coloured his resolution with a darker tinge.
But for all his power and influence he was forced to give way.
The Government which had long ignored the call of honour abroad,
was driven to the Soudan by the cries of shame at home. Lord Hartington,
at that time Secretary of State for War, must be dissociated from the
general censure which his principal colleagues have incurred. He was the
first to recognise the obligation which lay upon the Cabinet, and through
the Cabinet upon the nation, and it was to his influence that the despatch
of the relieving expedition was mainly due. The Commander-in-Chief and the
Adjutant-General, who were fully alive to the critical position at
Khartoum, added their recommendations. But even at the last moment
Mr. Gladstone was induced to sanction the advance only by the belief that
the scale of the operations would be small, and that only a single brigade
would be necessary. The decision was taken forthwith by the Ministry and
announced to the nation. The Adjutant-General, however, asked for a very
different force from what the Government had anticipated, and the single
brigade was expanded into an expedition of ten thousand men, selected from
the whole army.
To reverse the decision was now, however, impossible, and the 'Gordon
Relief Expedition' began. The commander to whom the conduct of the
operations had been entrusted reviewed the situation. He saw himself
confronted with a task which was easy and safe if it were undertaken at
leisure, and which was doubtful and perilous if begun in haste. All the
fruits of a long and successful career were staked on the result, and it
is scarcely wonderful that he declined to be swift and reckless. Shrewdly
estimating the military difficulties, he made his plans for a methodical
and deliberate advance which would leave nothing to luck, and which
resembles in character that afterwards carried out by Sir H. Kitchener.
He excluded the idea of a wild glorious rush which might result
in astonishing success or terrible disaster.
Troops and stores were steadily collected at Wady Halfa and along the Nile.
The new Camel Corps, consisting of four regiments, practised their drills
and evolutions. To pilot the boats up the Cataracts voyageurs were brought
from Canada. At length, when all preparations were complete, the expedition
started. The plan was simple. A strong column of infantry in boats was to
work up the river. In case that should not arrive in time, the Camel Corps
was to strike across the Bayuda Desert from Korti to Metemma. Having
arrived there, a small detachment was to be thrown into Khartoum by
Gordon's steamers to sustain the defence until the arrival of the main body
in March or even April of 1885, when the town could be regularly relieved.
The dramatic character of the enterprise and its picturesque and original
features fascinated the nation, and the advance was watched with
breathless interest. The fortunes of the River Column have been
graphically described by one who played no small part in their attempt.
'The Campaign of the Cataracts' [By Sir William Butler] is a record of
hard and unceasing toil. Day after day the long lines of soldiers hauled
on the tow-ropes or pulled at the oars of the broad-bottomed boats.
Night after night they camped on the banks amid the grim desolation of
the Monassir Desert. Yet their monotonous labours were encouraged by the
knowledge that as soon as the bend of the river at Abu Hamed was reached
the strong north wind would carry them swiftly to Khartoum. And it seemed
a strange and bitter irony that the order to turn back and the news that
all had been in vain was announced to the troops on the very day when
they had cleared the cataracts and were moving forward at five times
their former speed.
The Desert Column started from Korti on the 30th of December.
Their strength did not exceed 1,100 officers and men, but they were
the flower of the army. Dropping their communications, they set forth
along the caravan route towards Metemma. The knowledge which we have
since gained of the resources of the Mahdists enables the peril of
their desperate venture to be fully appreciated. Although the Dervishes
were neither so well armed nor trained as at a later date, they were
nearly as numerous and equally devoid of fear. Their tactics were more
in accordance with modern conditions: their fanaticism was at its height.
The British force, on the other hand, was equipped with weapons scarcely
comparable with those employed in the concluding campaigns. Instead of
the powerful Lee-Metford rifle, with its smokeless powder, its magazine
action, and its absence of recoil, they were armed with the Martini-Henry,
which possessed none of these advantages. In place of the deadly Maxim
there was the Gardner gun--the very gun that jammed at Tamai, and that
jammed again at Abu Klea. The artillery was also in every respect inferior
to that now in general use. Besides all this, the principles of
fire-discipline and of scientific musketry were new, little understood,
and hardly admitted. Nevertheless, the Camel Corps went boldly forward,
and engaged an enemy whose destruction ultimately required the strength
of a better-armed and better-instructed army twelve times as strong.
On the 3rd of January they reached Gakdul Wells. A hundred miles
of their march was accomplished. But they were now delayed by the
necessity of escorting a second column of supplies to Gakdul, and after
that until the arrival of reinforcements which raised their strength to
1,800 of all ranks. The interval was employed in building two small forts
and establishing an advanced depot; nor was it until the 13th that the
march was resumed. The number of camels was not sufficient for the
necessities of the transport. The food of the camels was too poor for the
work they had to perform. By the 16th, however, they had made fifty miles,
and approached the wells of Abu Klea. Here their further advance was
disputed by the enemy.
The news of the advance of the Desert Column had been duly reported
to the Mahdi and his Arab generals. A small party of English, it was said,
with camels and some cavalry, were coming swiftly to the rescue of the
accursed city. Their numbers were few, scarce 2,000 men. How should they
hope to prevail against 'the expected Mahdi' and the conquering Ansar
who had destroyed Hicks? They were mad; yet they should die; not one
should escape. The delay in the advance offered ample opportunity. A great
force of Arabs was concentrated. Slatin relates how several thousand men
under important Emirs were detached from the army before Khartoum
and marched northward eager for the slaughter of 'the enemies of God.'
At Metemma the main strength of the Jaalin tribe was collected.
With the reinforcements from Omdurman the total force of the Arabs
actually at hand was not less than 10,000, and behind were many thousands
more. They permitted the little column to advance until their retreat,
if defeated, was impossible, and then, confident of victory, offered
battle near the wells of Abu Klea.
The Camel Corps remained halted during the morning of the 16th,
and built a small fort, in which they placed their reserve of stores,
and made some arrangement for the reception of wounded. At one o'clock
they moved leisurely forward, passed through the rocky defile which led
into the valley of Abu Klea and bivouacked. Early the next morning
the force moved out in square formation and advanced upon the enemy.
The most savage and bloody action ever fought in the Soudan by British
troops followed. Notwithstanding the numbers and the valour of the Arabs,
that they penetrated the square, and that they inflicted on the troops
a loss of nine officers and sixty-five men killed and nine officers
and eighty-five men wounded--10 percent of the entire force--they were
driven from the field with great slaughter, and the Desert Column
camped at the wells.
On the morning of the 18th they rested, placed their wounded in the
small fort they had built, and buried their dead. In the afternoon they
continued their advance, marched all through the night, and, having
covered twenty-three miles, halted exhausted, almost within sight of
the river, at daylight on the 19th. Meanwhile the enemy had again
collected in great strength, and an effective rifle fire was opened on
the column. Sir Herbert Stewart received the wound of which a few weeks
later he died. The command devolved upon Sir Charles Wilson. The position
was desperate. Water was running short. The Nile was only four miles away;
but the column were impeded by their wounded and stores, and between the
river and the thirsty men lay the Dervish army, infuriated by their losses
and fully aware of the sore straits to which their astonishing enemy
was now reduced.
It now became necessary to divide the small force. Some must remain
to guard the baggage and the wounded; the others must fight their way to
the water. At three o'clock in the afternoon of the 19th, 900 men left the
hastily made zeriba and marched towards the river. Without their camels
or those of the transport they appeared insignificant, a mere speck on
the broad plain of Metemma. The Dervishes hastened to clinch the matter.
The square advances slowly and painfully over the stony ground,
with frequent jerky halts to preserve order and to pick up the wounded.
Little puffs of white smoke dot the distant sandhills. Here and there
a gaudy flag waves defiantly. In front the green tops of the palm-trees
by the Nile tantalise but stimulate the soldiers. On the left the great
mud labyrinth of Metemma stretches indefinitely. Suddenly the firing
stops. The low scrub in front is alive with the swarming figures of
the enemy. All the flags dance forward together. Ragged white figures
spring up in hundreds. Emirs on horses appear as if by magic. Everywhere
are men running swiftly forward, waving their spears and calling upon the
Prophet of God to speed their enterprise. The square halts. The weary men
begin to fire with thoughtful care, The Dervishes drop thickly. On then,
children of the desert! you are so many, they are so few. They are worn
with fatigue and their throats are parched. You have drunk deeply of
the Nile. One rush will trample the accursed under the feet of the
faithful. The charge continues. A bugle sounds in the waiting square.
The firing stops. What is this? They lose heart. Their ammunition is
exhausted. On, then, and make an end. Again the smoke ripples along the
line of bayonets and fire is re-opened, this time at closer range and
with far greater effect. The stubborn grandeur of the British soldier
is displayed by desperate circumstances. The men shoot to hit. The attack
crumples. The Emirs--horse and man--collapse. The others turn and walk--
for they will not run--sullenly back towards the town. The square starts
forward. The road to the river is open. With dusk the water is reached,
and never have victors gained a more longed-for prize. The Nile is won.
Sir Charles Wilson, having collected his force, remained three days
by the bank of the Nile before attempting any further advance on Khartoum.
He has explained why this delay was necessary, to the satisfaction of most
military critics. Nor is it easy to believe that men who had made such
splendid efforts would have willingly lost a single moment. On the fourth
day he embarked on two of Gordon's steamers, which awaited the relieving
column, and taking with him twenty British soldiers and a few blue-jackets
set forth towards the Shabluka Gorge and the town that lay beyond. On the
27th of January the rescuers came in sight of Khartoum and under the fire
of the enemy. Many of their perilous adventures seem to belong to romance
rather than to reality: the tiny gimcrack boats struggling with the strong
stream of the cataract, running the gauntlet of the Arab guns, dropping
disconsolately down the river with their terrible news, or wrecked and
stranded on the sandbank; Stuart-Wortley rowing to the camp before Metemma
for help; Beresford starting in the remaining steamer; the bursting of the
boiler by a Dervish shell; Benbow mending it in a single day; Wilson's
rescue and the return to the entrenchment at Gubat. But the scene that
appeals to the imagination above all the others is that where with both
banks ablaze with musketry and artillery, the black smoke pouring through
the shot-holes in the funnels, the water rising in spurts from the bullets,
the men who had come so far and braved so much stared at the palace roof
and, seeing no flag flying, knew that all was over and that they had come
The news of the Dervish defeats at Abu Klea and Abu Kru impelled the Mahdi
to a desperate venture. The English were but 120 miles away. They were few,
but victorious. It was difficult to say what force could stop such men.
In spite of the wrath of the true God and the valour of Islam they might
prevail. The Mahdi depended on success for existence. The tremendous forces
of fanaticism are exerted only in a forward direction. Retreat meant ruin.
All must be staked on an immediate assault. And, besides, the moment
was ripe. Thus the Arab chiefs reasoned, and wisely resolved to be reckless.
Thus the night of the 25th of January arrived.
The band played as usual in the evening. Gradually the shadows fell
and it became dark. The hungry inhabitants betook themselves to bed. The
anxious but indomitable commander knew that the crisis impended, and knew
also that he was powerless to avert it. Perhaps he slept, satisfied that
he had done his duty; and in the silence of the night the savage enemy
crawled stealthily towards the town. The weary and disheartened sentinels,
weakened by famine and tired of war, maintained a doubtful vigilance along
the ramparts. The subsiding waters of the river had left a bare gap
between the White Nile and the wall. Perhaps there was treachery besides.
On a sudden the loud explosion of musketry broke the stillness of the
night and the slumbers of the people; and with a continual shouting
thousands of Dervishes swarmed through the unprotected space
and entered Khartoum.
One mob of assailants made their way to the palace. Gordon came out
to meet them. The whole courtyard was filled with wild, harlequin figures
and sharp, glittering blades. He attempted a parley. 'Where is your
master, the Mahdi?' He knew his influence over native races. Perhaps he
hoped to save the lives of some of the inhabitants. Perhaps in that
supreme moment imagination flashed another picture before his eyes;
and he saw himself confronted with the false prophet of a false religion,
confronted with the European prisoners who had 'denied their Lord,'
offered the choice of death or the Koran; saw himself facing that savage
circle with a fanaticism equal to, and a courage greater than, their own;
marching in all the pride of faith 'and with retorted scorn'
to a martyr's death.
It was not to be. Mad with the joy of victory and religious frenzy,
they rushed upon him and, while he disdained even to fire his revolver,
stabbed him in many places. The body fell down the steps and lay--
a twisted heap--at the foot. There it was decapitated. The head was
carried to the Mahdi. The trunk was stabbed again and again by the
infuriated creatures, till nothing but a shapeless bundle of torn flesh
and bloody rags remained of what had been a great and famous man and the
envoy of her Britannic Majesty. The blood soaked into the ground,
and left a dark stain which was not immediately effaced. Slatin mentions
that the Arabs used often to visit the place. Ohrwalder went himself,
and more than six weeks after the capture of the town, saw 'black spots'
upon the steps. But they have all since been obliterated.
Such, briefly, is the story of the fall of Khartoum and of the death
of Gordon. The fact that the two steamers arrived only two days after the
capture of the town has given colour to the belief that, but for the three
days' delay at Metemma, the catastrophe might have been averted. This view
appears incorrect. The Arabs had long held Khartoum at their mercy. They
hoped, indeed, to compel its surrender by famine and to avoid an assault,
which after their experience at El Obeid they knew must cost them dear.
Gordon has stated in his Journals that the town became defenceless by the
middle of December. The arrival of twenty British soldiers and a few
officers could not have materially affected the situation--could only,
in fact, have increased the loss. Yet nearly everyone who reads the tale
will wish--in spite of reason--that some help, however little,
had reached the lonely man; that before the darkness fell he had grasped
an English hand, and learned that his countrymen had not abandoned him,
had not forgotten--would never forget.
It may not be possible as yet to fix the exact place which Charles Gordon
will occupy in English history. It is certainly a high one. Whether he
will rank as a commander with Peterborough, Wolfe, and Olive, those who
come after us must decide. We may, however, assert that he was a man of
stainless honour and enduring courage, who in varied capacities displayed
a fertile and abundant genius. He was careless alike of the honours
and comforts of the world, and looked forward with firm faith to the
rewards of a future state. The severity of his religion did not impair
the amiability of his character. The uncertainty of his moods may have
frequently affected the soundness of his opinions, but not often the
justice of his actions. Gordon's statue, set up in the indignant grief
of the nation in the space which is appropriated to the monuments of
Great Captains by sea and land, claims the attention of the passer-by,
not only because it is comparatively new. The figure, its pose, and its
story are familiar even to the poorest citizens of London and to people
from all parts of the United Kingdom. Serene amid the noise of
the traffic, as formerly in that of the battle, the famous General
seems still, with bowed head and thoughtful countenance, to revolve
the problems of the dark Soudan and, inattentive to the clamour of men,
inquires what is acceptable to God.
With the capture of the city and the death of the envoy
the reason for the expedition disappeared. It remained only to withdraw
the troops. The stores which had been brought across the desert at a
terrible cost were thrown hastily into the Nile. The battered steamers
which had waited so long at Metemma were hurriedly dismantled. The Camel
Corps, their extraordinary efforts futile and their camels killed,
marched back on foot to Korti. Their retreat was pressed by the exultant
enemy. The River Column, whose boats after months of labour had just
cleared the Cataracts, and who had gained a success at Kirbekan, were
carried back swiftly by the strong current against which they had
hopefully struggled. The whole Expeditionary Force--Guards, Highlanders,
sailors, Hussars, Indian soldiers, Canadian voyageurs, mules, camels, and
artillery--trooped back forlornly over the desert sands, and behind them
the rising tide of barbarism followed swiftly, until the whole vast region
was submerged. For several months the garrison of Kassala under a gallant
Egyptian maintained a desperate resistance, but at last famine forced them
to surrender, and they shared the fate of the garrisons of El Obeid,
Darfur, Sobat, Tokar, Sinkat, Sennar, and Khartoum. The evacuation
of the Soudan was thus completed.
CHAPTER III: THE DERVISH EMPIRE
It might seem at first a great advantage that the peoples of the Soudan,
instead of being a multitude of wild, discordant tribes, should unite of
their own accord into one strong community, actuated by a common spirit,
living under fixed laws, and ruled by a single sovereign. But there is one
form of centralised government which is almost entirely unprogressive
and beyond all other forms costly and tyrannical--the rule of an army.
Such a combination depends, not on the good faith and good will of its
constituents, but on their discipline and almost mechanical obedience.
Mutual fear, not mutual trust, promotes the co-operation of its individual
members. History records many such dominations, ancient and modern,
civilised or barbaric; and though education and culture may modify,
they cannot change their predominant characteristics--a continual
subordination of justice to expediency, an indifference to suffering,
a disdain of ethical principles, a laxity of morals, and a complete
ignorance of economics. The evil qualities of military hierarchies are
always the same. The results of their rule are universally unfortunate.
The degree may vary with time and place, but the political supremacy of
an army always leads to the formation of a great centralised capital,
to the consequent impoverishment of the provinces, to the degradation
of the peaceful inhabitants through oppression and want, to the ruin of
commerce, the decay of learning, and the ultimate demoralisation even of
the military order through overbearing pride and sensual indulgence.
Of the military dominations which history records, the Dervish Empire
was probably the worst. All others have displayed compensating virtues.
A high sense of personal honour has counterbalanced a low standard of
public justice. An ennobling patriotism may partly repair economic
follies. The miseries of the people are often concealed by the
magnificence of the army. The laxity of morals is in some degree excused
by the elegance of manners. But the Dervish Empire developed no virtue
except courage, a quality more admirable than rare. The poverty of the
land prevented magnificence. The ignorance of its inhabitants excluded
refinement. The Dervish dominion was born of war, existed by war, and
fell by war. It began on the night of the sack of Khartoum. It ended
abruptly thirteen years later in the battle of Omdurman. Like a subsidiary
volcano, it was flung up by one convulsion, blazed during the period of
disturbance, and was destroyed by the still more violent shock that ended
After the fall of Khartoum and the retreat of the British armies
the Mahdi became the absolute master of the Soudan. Whatever pleasures he
desired he could command, and, following the example of the founder of the
Mohammedan faith, he indulged in what would seem to Western minds gross
excesses. He established an extensive harem for his own peculiar use,
and immured therein the fairest captives of the war. The conduct of the
ruler was imitated by his subjects. The presence of women increased the
vanity of the warriors: and it was not very long before the patched smock
which had vaunted the holy poverty of the rebels developed into the gaudy
jibba of the conquerors. Since the unhealthy situation of Khartoum amid
swamps and marshes did not commend itself to the now luxurious Arabs,
the Mahdi began to build on the western bank of the White Nile a new
capital, which, from the detached fort which had stood there in Egyptian
days, was called Omdurman. Among the first buildings which he set his
subjects to construct were a mosque for the services of religion,
an arsenal for the storage of military material, and a house for himself.
But while he was thus entering at once upon the enjoyments of supreme
power and unbridled lust, the God whom he had served, not unfaithfully,
and who had given him whatever he had asked, required of Mohammed Ahmed
his soul; and so all that he had won by his brains and bravery became of
no more account to him.
In the middle of the month of June, scarcely five months after the
completion of his victorious campaigns, the Mahdi fell sick. For a few
days he did not appear at the mosque. The people were filled with alarm.
They were reassured by remembering the prophecy that their liberator
should not perish till he had conquered the earth. Mohammed, however, grew
worse. Presently those who attended him could doubt no longer that he was
attacked by typhus fever. The Khalifa Abdullah watched by his couch
continually. On the sixth day the inhabitants and the soldiers were
informed of the serious nature of their ruler's illness, and public
prayers were offered by all classes for his recovery. On the seventh day
it was evident that he was dying. All those who had shared his fortunes--
the Khalifas he had appointed, the chief priests of the religion he had
reformed, the leaders of the armies who had followed him to victory,
and his own family whom he had hallowed--crowded the small room. For some
hours he lay unconscious or in delirium, but as the end approached he
rallied a little, and, collecting his faculties by a great effort,
declared his faithful follower and friend the Khalifa Abdullah his
successor, and adjured the rest to show him honour. 'He is of me,
and I am of him; as you have obeyed me, so you should deal with him.
May God have mercy upon me!' [Slatin, FIRE AND SWORD.]
Then he immediately expired.
Grief and dismay filled the city. In spite of the emphatic prohibition
by law of all loud lamentations, the sound of 'weeping and wailing arose
from almost every house.' The whole people, deprived at once of their
acknowledged sovereign and spiritual guide, were shocked and affrighted.
Only the Mahdi's wives, if we may credit Slatin, 'rejoiced secretly in
their hearts at the death of their husband and master,' and, since they
were henceforth to be doomed to an enforced and inviolable chastity,
the cause of their satisfaction is as obscure as its manifestation was
unnatural. The body of the Mahdi, wrapped in linen, was reverently
interred in a deep grave dug in the floor of the room in which he had died,
nor was it disturbed until after the capture of Omdurman by the British
forces in 1898, when by the orders of Sir H. Kitchener the sepulchre was
opened and the corpse exhumed.
The Khalifa Abdullah had been declared by the Mahdi's latest breath
his successor. He determined to have the choice ratified once for all
by the popular vote. Hurrying to the pulpit in the courtyard of the mosque,
he addressed the assembled multitude in a voice which trembled with
intense excitement and emotion. His oratory, his reputation as a warrior,
and the Mahdi's expressed desire aroused the enthusiasm of his hearers,
and the oath of allegiance was at once sworn by thousands. The ceremony
continued long after it was dark. With an amazing endurance he harangued
till past midnight, and when the exhausted Slatin, who hard attended him
throughout the crisis, lay down upon the ground to sleep, he knew that his
master's succession was assured; for, says he, 'I heard the passers-by
loud in their praises of the late Mahdi, and assuring each other of their
firm resolve to support his successor.'
The sovereignty that Abdullah had obtained must be held, as it had
been won, by the sword. The passionate agitation which the Mahdi had
excited survived him. The whole of the Soudan was in a ferment. The
success which had crowned rebellion encouraged rebels. All the turbulent
and fanatical elements were aroused. As the various provinces had been
cleared of the Egyptians, the new Executive had appointed military
governors by whom the country was ruled and taxed, subject to the pleasure
of Mohammed Ahmed. His death was the signal for a long series of revolts
of all kinds--military, political, and religious. Garrisons mutinied;
Emirs plotted; prophets preached. Nor was the land torn only by internal
struggles. Its frontiers were threatened. On the east the tremendous power
of Abyssinia loomed terrible and menacing. There was war in the north
with Egypt and around Suakin with England. The Italians must be confronted
from the direction of Massowa. Far to the south Emin Pasha still
maintained a troublesome resistance. Yet the Khalifa triumphed over nearly
all his enemies; and the greatest spectacle which the Soudan presented
from 1885 to 1898 was of this strong, capable ruler bearing up against
all reverses, meeting each danger, overcoming each difficulty, and
offering a firm front to every foe.
It is unlikely that any complete history of these events will ever be
written in a form and style which will interest a later generation.
The complications of extraordinary names and the imperfection of the
records might alone deter the chronicler. The universal squalor of the
scenes and the ignorance of the actors add discouragements. Nor, upon
the other hand, are there great incentives. The tale is one of war of
the cruellest, bloodiest, and most confused type. One savage army
slaughters another. One fierce general cuts his rival's throat. The same
features are repeated with wearying monotony. When one battle is
understood, all may be imagined. Above the tumult the figure of the
Khalifa rises stern and solitary, the only object which may attract the
interest of a happier world. Yet even the Khalifa's methods were
oppressively monotonous. For although the nature or courage of the
revolts might differ with the occasion, the results were invariable;
and the heads of all his chief enemies, of many of his generals,
of most of his councillors, met in the capacious pit which yawned
During the thirteen years of his reign Abdullah tried nearly every device
by which Oriental rulers have sought to fortify their perilous sovereignty.
He shrank from nothing. Self-preservation was the guiding principle of his
policy, his first object and his only excuse. Among many wicked and
ingenious expedients three main methods are remarkable. First, he removed
or rendered innocuous all real or potential rivals. Secondly, he pursued
what Sir Alfred Milner has called 'a well-considered policy of military
concentration.' Thirdly, he maintained among the desert and riverain
people a balance of power on the side of his own tribe. All these three
methods merit some attention or illustration.
The general massacre of all possible claimants usually follows the
accession of a usurper to an Oriental throne. The Khalifa was able to
avoid this extreme measure. Nevertheless he took precautions. Availing
himself of the grief and terror that had followed Mohammed Ahmed's death,
he had extorted the oath of allegiance from the two other Khalifas
and from the 'Ashraf' or relations of the Prophet. [The Madhi had
superseded the original Mohammed as 'the Prophet.' His relations
consequently became 'Ashraf.'] But these complaisant men soon repented
of their submission. Each Khalifa boasted his independence. Each marched
attended by a numerous retinue. Each asserted his right to beat his own
great copper drum. Both the unsuccessful Khalifas combined against
Abdullah. But while they had been busy with the beating of war-drums and
the preparation of pageants, that sagacious ruler had secured the loyalty
of the Baggara tribe, to a section of which he belonged, and of a
considerable force of black riflemen. At length matters reached climax.
Both parties prepared for war. Abdullah drew up his array without the city,
and challenged his rivals to the utmost proof. The combined forces of the
ousted Khalifas were the more numerous. But the fierce Baggara waved their
swords, and the Soudanese riflemen were famous for their valour. For some
hours a bloody struggle appeared imminent. Then the confederacy broke up.
The Khalifa Ali-Wad-Helu, a prudent man, talked of compromise and amity.
The Khalif Sherif, thus seriously weakened, hastened to make peace while
time remained. Eventually both bowed to the superior force of the ruler
and the superior courage of his followers. Once they had submitted,
their power was gone. Abdullah reduced their forces to a personal escort
of fifty men each, deprived them of their flags and their war-drums--
the emblems of royalty--and they became for the future the useful
supporters of a Government they were unable to subvert.
To other less powerful and more stubborn enemies he showed a greater
severity. The Mahdi's two uncles, named respectively Abdel Kerim and
Abdel Kader, were thrown chained into prison, their houses were destroyed,
and their wives and other property confiscated. The numerous persons who
claimed to be of the 'Ashraf' found the saintly honour a burden upon earth;
for, in order to keep them out of mischief, the Khalifa enjoined them
to attend five times every day at the prayers in the mosque. Eighteen
months of these devotions, declares the Christian chronicler, were
considered 'the highest punishment.' [Ohrwalder, TEN YEARS' CAPTIVITY.]
Still more barbarous was the treatment meted out to the unfortunate Emir
who had charge of the Treasury. Ahmed Wad Suliman had been accustomed under
the Mahdi's mild rule to keep no public accounts, and consequently he had
amassed a large fortune. He was actively hostile to Abdullah, and
proclaimed his sympathy with the Ashraf. Whereupon the Khalifa invited him
to give an account of his stewardship. This he was, of course, unable
to do. He was then dismissed from his appointment. His private property was
taken to fill the deficiencies of the State, and the brutal population of
Omdurman applauded his punishment as 'an act of justice.' [Slatin, FIRE
Although the Khalifa might establish his authority by such atrocities,
its maintenance depended on the military policy which he consistently
pursued. The terrible power of a standing army may usually be exerted by
whoever can control its leaders, as a mighty engine is set in motion by
the turning of a handle. Yet to turn the handle some muscular force is
necessary. Abdullah knew that to rule the Soudan he must have a great army.
To make the great army obedient he must have another separate force;
for the influences which keep European armies in subjection were not
present among the Dervishes. For some years, indeed, he was compelled to
leave much to chance or the loyalty of his officers. But latterly,
when he had perfected his organisation, he became quite independent and
had no need to trust anyone. By degrees and with astonishing ability
he carried out his schemes.
He invited his own tribe, the Taaisha section of the Baggara Arabs,
to come and live in Omdurman. 'Come,' he wrote in numerous letters to them,
'and take possession of the lands which the Lord your God has given you.'
Allured by the hopes of wealth and wives and the promise of power, the
savage herdsmen came to the number of 7,000 warriors. Their path was made
smooth and easy. Granaries were erected along the route. Steamers and
sailing-vessels waited on the Nile. Arrived at the capital, all were newly
clothed at the expense of the State. An entire district of the city was
forcibly cleared of its inhabitants for the accommodation of the strangers.
What the generosity of the Khalifa forgot or refused, the predatory habits
of his clansmen procured; and they robbed, plundered, and swindled with all
the arrogance and impunity of royal favourites. The populace of the city
returned a bitter hatred for these injuries; and the Khalifa's object was
attained. He had created a class in Omdurman who were indissolubly attached
to him. Like him, they were detested by the local tribes. Like him, they
were foreigners in the land. But, like him, they were fierce and brave and
strong. His dangers, his enemies, his interests were their own. Their lives
depended on their loyalty.
Here was the motor muscle which animated the rest. The Taaisha Baggara
controlled the black Jehadia, once the irregular troops of the Egyptians,
now become the regulars of the Khalifa. The black Jehadia overawed the Arab
army in the capital. The army in the capital dominated the forces in the
provinces. The forces in the provinces subdued the inhabitants. The
centralisation of power was assured by the concentration of military
material. Cannon, rifles, stores of ammunition, all the necessities of war
were accumulated in the arsenal. Only the armies on the frontiers,
the Taaisha tribe, and the khalifa's personal bodyguard habitually carried
firearms and cartridges. The enormous population of Omdurman was forced
to be content with spears and swords. Rifles were issued to the Soudanese
whenever safe and necessary; cartridges only when they were about to be
used. Thus several millions of warlike and savage people, owning scarcely
any law but that of might, and scattered about a vast roadless territory,
were brought into the firm grip of a single man.
The third principle of government which the Khalifa was compelled,
or inclined, to adopt was to keep the relative power of the various tribes
and classes conveniently proportioned. If an Emir rose to great influence
and wealth, he became a possible rival, and suffered forthwith death,
imprisonment, or spoliation. If a tribe threatened the supremacy of the
Taaisha it was struck down while its menace was yet a menace. The
regulation of classes and tribes was a far more complicated affair than
the adjustment of individuals. Yet for thirteen years the Khalifa held
the balance, and held it exact until the very end. Such was the
statecraft of a savage from Kordofan.
His greatest triumph was the Abyssinian war. It is not likely that
two great barbaric kingdoms living side by side, but differing in race
and religion, will long continue at peace; nor was it difficult to
discover a cause of the quarrel between the Dervishes and the Abyssinians.
For some time a harassing and desultory warfare disturbed the border.
At length in 1885 a Dervish--half-trader, half brigand--sacked an
Abyssinian church. Bas Adal, the Governor of the Amhara province, demanded
that this sacrilegious robber should be surrendered to justice. The Arabs
haughtily refused. The response was swift. Collecting an army which may
have amounted to 30,000 men, the Abyssinians invaded the district of
Gallabat and marched on the town. Against this host the Emir Wad Arbab
could muster no more than 6,000 soldiers. But, encouraged by the victories
of the previous four years, the Dervishes accepted battle, in spite of the
disparity of numbers. Neither valour nor discipline could withstand such
odds. The Moslems, broken by the fierce onset and surrounded by the
overwhelming numbers of their enemies, were destroyed, together with their
intrepid leader. Scarcely any escaped. The Abyssinians indulged in all the
triumphs of savagery. The wounded were massacred: the slain were mutilated:
the town of Gallabat was sacked and burnt. The Women were carried into
captivity. All these tidings came to Omdurman. Under this heavy and
unexpected blow the Khalifa acted with prudence. He opened negotiations
with King John of Abyssinia, for the ransom of the captured wives and
children, and at the same time he sent the Emir Yunes with a large force
to Gallabat. The immediate necessities having thus been dealt with,
Abdullah prepared for revenge.
Of all the Arab leaders which fifteen years of continual war and tumult
throughout the Soudan produced, none displayed higher ability, none
obtained greater successes, and none were more honourable, though several
were more famous, than the man whom the Khalifa selected to avenge the
destruction of the Gallabat army. Abu Anga had been a slave in Abdullah's
family long before the Mahdi had preached at Abba island and while Egypt
yet oppressed the country. After the revolt had broken out, his
adventurous master summoned him from the distant Kordofan home to attend
him in the war, and Abu Anga came with that ready obedience and strange
devotion for which he was always distinguished. Nominally as a slave,
really as a comrade, he fought by Abdullah's side in all the earlier
battles of the rebellion. Nor was it until after the capture of El Obeid
that he rose suddenly to power and place. The Khalifa was a judge of men.
He saw very clearly that the black Soudanese troops, who had surrendered
and were surrendering as town after town was taken, might be welded into
a powerful weapon. And in Abu Anga he knew a man who could not only
fashion the blade, but would hold it ever loyally at his master's disposal.
The former slave threw himself into the duties of his command with
extraordinary energy. His humble origin pleased the hardy blacks,
who recognised in their leader their equal in birth, their superior in
prowess. More than any other Emir, Abu Anga contributed to the destruction
of Hicks's army. The Jehadia, as his soldiers were called--because they had
joined in the Jehad, or Holy War--were armed with Remington rifles,
and their harassing fire inflicted heavy losses on the struggling column
until it was finally brought to a standstill, and the moment for the
spearmen to charge arrived. Henceforward the troops of Abu Anga became
famous throughout the land for their weapons, their courage, and their
cruelty. Their numbers at first did not exceed 5,000; but as more towns
were taken and more slaves were turned into soldiers they increased,
until at one time they reached the formidable total of 15,000 men.
During the siege of Khartoum the black riflemen distinguished themselves
by the capture of Omdurman fort, but their violent natures and predatory
instincts made them an undesirable garrison even for the Dervish capital,
and they were despatched under their general to Kordofan, where they
increased their reputation by a series of bloody fights with the Nubas,
an aboriginal mountain people who cared for nothing but their independence.
At the end of June Abu Anga reached Omdurman with an army variously
estimated at from 22,000 to 31,000 men, of whom at least 10,000 were armed
with Remington rifles. The Khalifa received him with the utmost honour.
After a private interview, which lasted for several hours, a formal entry
into the town was arranged. At daybreak on the following morning the whole
force marched into the city and camped along the northern suburbs,
applauded and welcomed alike by the population and their ruler. A few days
after this a great review was held under the Kerreri hills, on the very
ground where the Dervish Empire was doomed to be shattered. But the fateful
place oppressed the Khalifa with no forebodings. He exulted in his power:
and well he might, for after the cannon had thundered indefinite salutes,
no fewer than 100,000 armed men defiled to the music of the war-drums
and the ombyas before the famous Black Flag. The spectacle of the enormous
numbers provoked their enthusiasm. The triumphant Khalifa was cheered by
his mighty host, who pressed upon him in their exuberant loyalty until he
was almost crushed. It was indeed a stirring scene. The whole plain was
filled with the throng. Banners of every hue and shape waved gaily in the
breeze, and the sunlight glinted from innumerable spear-points. The
swarming Dervishes displayed their bright parti-coloured jibbas. The wild
Baggara cavalry circled on the flanks of the array. The brown dome of the
Mahdi's tomb, rising above the city, seemed to assure the warriors of
supernatural aid. Abdullah was at the summit of his power. The movement
initiated by the priest of Abba island had attained its climax. Behind,
in the plain, the frowning rocks of Surgham Hill rose ragged and gloomy,
as if their silence guarded the secrets of the future.
After the feast of Bairam had been celebrated on a gigantic scale,
Abu Anga was despatched to Gallabat with his army and considerable
reinforcements from the troops in Omdurman, and it became evident that war
with Abyssinia was imminent. The great leader relieved the Emir Yunes,
much to the latter's disgust, of the chief command, and, since the strong
Gallabat garrison was added to his own force, Abu Anga was able to take
the field at the head of 15,000 riflemen and 45,000 spearmen. The Khalifa
had embarked on a great venture in planning the invasion of Abyssinia.
The vast strength of the Negus was known to the Dervishes, and has since
been proved to the world. The Mahdi had forbidden such a war.
An ill-omened prophecy further declared that the King of Abyssinia
would tether his horse to a solitary tree by Khartoum, while his cavalry
should ride through the city fetlock deep in blood. But Abdullah feared
neither God nor man. He reviewed the political situation, and determined
at all risks to maintain his frontiers inviolate. His Emir Wad Arbab
had been killed. Blood must settle the matter.
The Abyssinians had not watched the extensive hostile preparations
apathetically. Ras Adal had collected an army which in numbers actually
exceeded that of the Dervishes. But the latter were far superior in rifles,
and the black infantry were of invincible valour. Nevertheless, confident
in his strength and relying on his powerful cavalry, the Abyssinian general
allowed the Arabs to toil through all the mountainous country, to traverse
the Mintik Pass, and to debouch unmolested on to the plain of Debra Sin.
Abu Anga neglected no precaution. He knew that since he must fight in the
heart of Abyssinia, with the mountains behind him, a defeat would involve
annihilation. He drew up his army swiftly and with skill. Then the
Abyssinians attacked. The rifle fire of the Soudanese repulsed them.
The onset was renewed with desperate gallantry. It was resisted with
equal valour and superior weapons. After frightful losses the Abyssinians
wavered, and the wise Arab seized the moment for a counterstroke.
In spite of the devotion of his cavalry Ras Adal was driven from the
field. Great numbers of his army were drowned in the river in front of
which he had recklessly elected to fight. His camp was captured, and
a valuable spoil rewarded the victors, who also gratified their passions
with a wholesale slaughter of the wounded--a practice commonly followed
by savages. The effect of the victory was great. The whole of the Amhara
province submitted to the invaders, and in the spring of 1887 Abu Anga
was able to advance without further fighting to the capture and sack
of Gondar, the ancient capital of Abyssinia.
Meanwhile the Khalifa had been anxiously expecting tidings of his army.
The long silence of thirty days which followed their plunge into the
mountains filled him with fear, and Ohrwalder relates that he 'aged
visibly' during that period. But his judgment was proved by the event,
and the arrival of a selected assortment of heads turned doubt to triumph.
The Dervishes did not long remain in Abyssinia, as they suffered from the
climate. In December the army returned to Gallabat, which they commenced
to fortify, and their victorious general followed his grisly but
convincing despatch to Omdurman, where he received the usual welcome
accorded by warlike peoples to military heroes. But the famous and faithful
slave may have been more gratified by the tears of joy which his master and
sovereign shed on beholding him again safe and successful.
The greater struggle was still to come. The whole of Abyssinia was
convulsed with fury, and King John in person prepared to take the field
and settle the quarrel for ever. He assembled a mighty host, which is said
to have amounted to 130,000 foot and 20,000 horsemen. The rumours of this
formidable concentration reached Gallabat and Omdurman, and in spite of
the recent victory caused deep alarm. The Khalifa saw his frontiers--even
his existence--menaced, for King John had declared that he would sweep the
Dervishes from off the face of the earth: and in the hour of need the
general on whom so much depended died of some poisonous medicine with
which he had endeavoured to cure himself of indigestion. Abu Anga was
buried in his red-brick house at Gallabat amid the lamentations of his
brave black soldiers, and gloom pervaded the whole army. But, since the
enemy were approaching, the danger had to be faced. The Khalifa appointed
Zeki Tummal, one of Anga's lieutenants, to the command of the forces at
Gallabat, which by strenuous exertions he brought up to a total of 85,000
men. King John sent word that he was coming, lest any should say that he
had come secretly as a thief. The Dervishes resolved to remain on the
defensive, and, fortifying themselves in an enormous zeriba around
the town, awaited the onslaught.
At dawn on the 9th of March, 1889, the Abyssinians came within sight
of their enemies, and early the next morning the battle began.
Great clouds of dust obscured the scene, and all intelligible sounds
were lost in the appalling din. The Abyssinians, undaunted by the rifle
fire of the Soudanese, succeeded in setting the zeriba alight. Then,
concentrating all their force on one part of the defence, they burst
into the enclosure and town. The division of Wad Ali, a fourth part of
the entire Dervish army, which bore the brunt of this attack, was almost
completely destroyed. The interior of the zeriba was crowded with women
and children, who were ruthlessly butchered by the exultant Abyssinians.
The assailants scattered in all directions in search of plunder,
and they even had time to begin to disinter the body of Abu Anga,
which they were eager to insult in revenge for Gondar. The Dervishes
already wavered; their ammunition began to fail, when suddenly a rumour
spread about among the Abyssinians that the King was killed. Seizing what
booty they could snatch, the victorious army began a general retreat,
and the zeriba was soon cleared. The Arabs were too exhausted to pursue,
but when on the following day the attack was not renewed they learned,
to their surprise, that they were the victors and that their enemy was
falling back towards the Atbara river. Zeki Tummal resolved to pursue,
and his army were further incited to the chase by the fact that the
Abyssinians had carried off with them a large number of Dervish women,
including the harem of the late beloved Abu Anga. Two days after the
battle the Dervishes overtook the enemy's rearguard and, surprising their
camp, inflicted severe loss and captured much booty. The temporary Negus
who had been appointed to fill the vacancy caused by the death of King
John was among the killed. The body of that courageous monarch fell into
the hands of the Dervishes, who struck off the head and sent it--
a tangible proof of victory--to Omdurman. The Abyssinians, still
formidable, made good their retreat; nor did Zeki Tummal venture to follow
into the mountains. Internal difficulties within his dominions prevented
the new Negus from resuming the offensive, and thus the Dervish-Abyssinian
war dwindled down to, as it had arisen out of, frontier raids.
The arrival in Omdurman of King John's head intoxicated the Khalifa
with joy. Abyssinia was regarded throughout the Soudan as a far greater
power than Egypt, and here was its mighty ruler slain and decapitated.
But the victory had been dearly purchased. The two great battles had been
fought with indescribable ferocity by both sides, and the slaughter was
appalling. No reliable statistics are avaliable, but it may be reasonably
asserted that neither side sustained a loss in killed during the war of
fewer than 15,000 fighting men. The flower of the Dervish army, the heroic
blacks of Abu Anga, were almost destroyed. The Khalifa had won a Pyrrhic
triumph. Never again was he able to put so great a force in the field,
and, although the army which was shattered at Omdurman was better armed
and better drilled, it was less formidable than that which broke the might
During the progress of the struggle with Abyssinia the war against Egypt
languished. The Mahdi, counting upon the support of the population, had
always declared that he would free the Delta from 'the Turks,' and was
already planning its invasion when he and his schemes were interrupted
by death. His successor inherited all the quarrel, but not all the power.
Much of Mohammed Ahmed's influence died with him. Alive, he might conquer
the Moslem world; dead, he was only a saint. All fanatical feeling in
Egypt soon subsided. Nevertheless the Khalifa persisted in the enterprise.
The success of the Abyssinian war encouraged and enabled him to resume the
offensive on his northern frontier, and he immediately ordered
Wad-el-Nejumi, who commanded in Dongola, to march with his scanty force to
the invasion of Egypt. The mad enterprise ended, as might have been
foreseen, in the destruction of both Emir and army at Toski. The Khalifa
received the news with apparent grief, but it is difficult to avoid
suspecting him of dark schemes. He was far too clever to believe that
Egypt could be conquered by five thousand men. He knew that besides the
Egyptians there was a strange white tribe of men, the same that had so
nearly saved Khartoum. 'But for the English,' he exclaimed on several
occasions, 'I would have conquered Egypt.' Yet, knowing of the British
occupation, he deliberately sent an army to its inevitable ruin. It is
difficult to reconcile such conduct with the character for sagacity and
intelligence which Abdullah has deserved. There is no doubt that he wanted
to conquer Egypt. Possibly by some extraordinary chance Wad-el-Nejumi
might succeed, even with his small force. If so, then the glory of God
and the power of the Khalifa would advance together. If not--and herein
lies the true reason for the venture--the riverain tribes would have
received a crippling blow.
The terrible slaughter of the Abyssinian war had fallen mainly on
the Jehadia and the eastern Arabs. The jealous tribes in the north had
not suffered. The balance of power was in need of re-adjustment.
The Jaalin and Barabra were fast becoming dangerous. Nejumi's army was
recruited almost entirely from these sources. The reinforcements sent from
Omdurman consisted of men selected from the flag of the Khalifa Sherif,
who was growing too powerful, and of the Batahin tribe, who had shown a
mutinous spirit [Ohrwalder, TEN YEARS' CAPTIVITY.] The success of such
an army in Egypt would be glorious. Its destruction anywhere would be
convenient. Whatever Abdullah's motives may have been, his advantage was
certain. But the life of the empire thus compelled to prey upon itself
must necessarily be short.
Other forces were soon added to the work of exhaustion. The year
following the end of the Abyssinian war was marked by a fearful famine.
Slatin and Ohrwalder vie with each other in relating its horrors--men
eating the raw entrails of donkeys; mothers devouring their babies;
scores dying in the streets, all the more ghastly in the bright sunlight;
hundreds of corpses floating down the Nile--these are among the hideous
features, The depopulation caused by the scarcity was even greater than
that produced by the fighting. The famine area extended over the whole
Soudan and ran along the banks of the river as far as Lower Egypt.
The effects of the famine were everywhere appalling. Entire districts
between Omdurman and Berber became wholly depopulated. In the salt regions
near Shendi almost all the inhabitants died of hunger. The camel-breeding
tribes ate their she-camels. The riverain peoples devoured their seed-corn.
The population of Gallabat, Gedaref, and Kassala was reduced by
nine-tenths, and these once considerable towns shrank to the size
of hamlets. Everywhere the deserted mud houses crumbled back into the
plain. The frightful mortality, general throughout the whole country,
may be gauged by the fact that Zeki Tummal's army, which before the
famine numbered not fewer than 87,000, could scarcely muster 10,000 men
in the spring of 1890.
The new harvest came only in time to save the inhabitants of the Soudan
from becoming extinct. The remnant were preserved for further misfortunes.
War, scarcity, and oppression there had always been. But strange and
mysterious troubles began to afflict the tortured tribes. The face of
heaven was pitiless or averted. In 1890 innumerable swarms of locusts
descended on the impoverished soil. The multitude of their red or yellow
bodies veiled the sun and darkened the air, and although their flesh,
tasting when roasted like fried shrimps, might afford a delicate meal to
the natives, they took so heavy a toll of the crops that the famine was
prolonged and scarcity became constant. Since their first appearance the
locusts are said to have returned annually [Ohrwalder, TEN YEARS'
CAPTIVITY.] Their destructive efforts were aided by millions of little
red mice, who destroyed the seeds before they could grow. So vast and
immeasurable was the number of these tiny pests that after a heavy rain
the whole country was strewn with, and almost tinted by, the
squirrel-coloured corpses of the drowned.
Yet, in spite of all the strokes of fate, the Khalifa maintained his
authority unshaken. The centralisation which always occurs in military
States was accelerated by the famine. The provincial towns dwindled;
thousands and tens of thousands perished; but Omdurman continually grew,
and its ruler still directed the energies of a powerful army. Thus for
the present we might leave the Dervish Empire. Yet the gloomy city of
blood, mud, and filth that arose by the confluence of the Niles deserves
a final glance while still in the pride of independent barbarism.
It is early morning, and the sun, lifting above the horizon, throws the
shadows of the Khartoum ruins on the brimful waters of the Nile. The old
capital is solitary and deserted. No sound of man breaks the silence of
its streets. Only memory broods in the garden where the Pashas used
to walk, and the courtyard where the Imperial envoy fell. Across the river
miles of mud houses, lining the banks as far as Khor Shambat, and
stretching back into the desert and towards the dark hills, display the
extent of the Arab metropolis. As the sun rises, the city begins to live.
Along the road from Kerreri a score of camels pad to market with village
produce. The north wind is driving a dozen sailing-boats, laden to the
water's edge with merchandise, to the wharves. One of Gordon's old
steamers lies moored by the bank. Another, worked by the crew that manned
it in Egyptian days, is threshing up the Blue Nile, sent by the Khalifa to
Sennar on some errand of State. Far away to the southward the dust of a
Darfur caravan breaks the clear-cut skyline with a misty blur.
The prolonged beating of war-drums and loud booming notes of horns
chase away the silence of the night. It is Friday, and after the hour of
prayer all grown men must attend the review on the plain without the city.
Already the streets are crowded with devout and obedient warriors.
soon the great square of the mosque--for no roof could shelter so many
thousand worshippers--is filled with armed men, kneeling in humble
supplication to the stern God of Islam and his most holy Mahdi.
It is finished. They rise and hurry to the parade. The Emirs plant their
flags, and all form in the ranks. Woe to the laggard; and let the speedy
see that he wear his newest jibba, and carry a sharp sword and at least
three spears. Presently the array is complete.
A salute of seven guns is fired. Mounted on a fine camel, which is led
by a gigantic Nubian, and attended by perhaps two hundred horsemen in
chain armour, the Khalifa rides on to the ground and along the ranks.
It is a good muster. Few have dared absent themselves. Yet his brow is
clouded. What has happened? Is there another revolt in the west? Do the
Abyssinians threaten Gallabat? Have the black troops mutinied; or is it
only some harem quarrel?
The parade is over. The troops march back to the arsenal. The rifles
are collected, and the warriors disperse to their homes. Many hurry to
the market-place to make purchases, to hear the latest rumour, or to
watch the executions--for there are usually executions. Others stroll to
the Suk-er-Rekik and criticise the points of the slave girls as the
dealers offer them for sale. But the Khalifa has returned to his house,
and his council have been summoned. The room is small, and the ruler sits
cross-legged upon his couch. Before him squat the Emirs and Kadis. Yakub
is there, with Ali-Wad-Helu and the Khalifa Sherif. Only the Sheikh-ed-Din
is absent, for he is a dissolute youth and much given to drinking.
Abdullah is grave and anxious. A messenger has come from the north.
The Turks are on the move. Advancing beyond their frontier, they have
established themselves at Akasha. Wad Bishara fears lest they may attack
the faithful who hold Firket. In itself this is but a small matter,
for all these years there has been frontier fighting. But what follows
is full of menacing significance. The 'enemies of God' have begun to
repair the railway--have repaired it, so that the train already runs
beyond Sarras. Even now they push their iron road out into the desert
towards their position at Akasha and to the south. What is the object of
their toil? Are they coming again? Will they bring those terrible white
soldiers who broke the hearts of the Hadendoa and almost destroyed the
Degheim and Kenana? What should draw them up the Nile? Is it for plunder,
or in sheer love of war; or is it a blood feud that brings them?
True, they are now far off. Perchance they will return, as they returned
before. Yet the iron road is not built in a day, nor for a day, and of a
surety there are war-clouds in the north.
CHAPTER IV: THE YEARS OF PREPARATION
In the summer of 1886, when all the troops had retreated to Wady Halfa
and all the Soudan garrisons had been massacred, the British people
averted their eyes in shame and vexation from the valley of the Nile.
A long succession of disasters had reached their disgraceful culmination.
The dramatic features added much to the bitterness and nothing to the
grandeur of the tragedy. The cost was heavy. Besides the pain produced by
the death of General Gordon, the heavy losses in officers and men, and the
serious expenditure of public money, the nation smarted under failure and
disappointment, and were, moreover, deeply sensible that they had been
humiliated before the whole world. The situation in Egypt was scarcely
more pleasing. The reforms initiated by the British Administrators had as
yet only caused unpopularity. Baring's interference galled the Khedive
and his Ministers. Vincent's parsimony excited contempt. Moncrieff's
energy had convulsed the Irrigation Department. Wood's army was the
laughing-stock of Europe. Among and beneath the rotten weeds and garbage
of old systems and abuses the new seed was being sown. But England saw
no signs of the crop; saw only the stubborn husbandmen begrimed with the
dust and dirt, and herself hopelessly involved in the Egyptian muddle:
and so in utter weariness and disgust, stopping her ears to the gibes
and cat-calls of the Powers, she turned towards other lands
and other matters.
When the attention of the nation was again directed to Egypt
the scene was transformed. It was as though at the touch of an angel
the dark morasses of the Slough of Despond had been changed to the breezy
slopes of the Delectable Mountains. The Khedive and his Ministers lay
quiet and docile in the firm grasp of the Consul-General. The bankrupt
State was spending surpluses upon internal improvement. The disturbed
Irrigation Department was vivifying the land. The derided army held the
frontier against all comers. Astonishment gave place to satisfaction,
and satisfaction grew into delight. The haunting nightmare of Egyptian
politics ended. Another dream began--a bright if vague vision of Imperial
power, of trans-continental railways, of African Viceroys, of conquest
and commerce. The interest of the British people in the work of
regeneration grew continually. Each new reform was hailed with applause.
Each annual Budget was scrutinised with pride. England exulted in the
triumph of failure turned into success. There was a general wish to know
more about Egypt and the men who had done these great things. In 1893 this
desire was satisfied, and yet stimulated by the publication of Sir Alfred
Milner's 'England in Egypt.' His skilful pen displayed what had been
overcome, no less than what was accomplished. By explaining the
difficulties he enhanced the achievement. He showed how, while Great
Britain was occupied elsewhere, her brilliant, persevering sons had
repeated on a lesser scale in Egypt the marvellous evolution which is
working out in India. Smaller systems circulate more rapidly. The
administrators were guided by experience. The movement had been far
swifter, and the results were more surprising. Such was the wonderful
story, and it was told in a happy moment. The audience were eager and
sympathetic. The subject was enthralling. The story-teller had a wit and
a style that might have brightened the dullest theme. In these propitious
circumstances the book was more than a book. The words rang like the
trumpet-call which rallies the soldiers after the parapets are stormed,
and summons them to complete the victory.
The regeneration of Egypt is not a theme which would fall within the
limits of this account, even if it had not been fully dealt with by Sir
Alfred Milner. But the reorganisation of the Egyptian army, the forging of
the weapon of reconquest, is an essential feature. On the 20th of December,
1882, the old Egyptian army--or, rather, such parts as had escaped
destruction--was disbanded by a single sentence of a British decree,
and it was evident that some military body must replace that which had
been swept away. All sorts of schemes for the employment of foreign legions
or Turkish janissaries were devised. But Lord Dufferin adhered firmly to
the principle of entrusting the defence of a country to its inhabitants,
and it was determined to form a new Egyptian army. The poverty of the
government, no less than the apparent folly of the experiment, demanded
that the new army should be small. The force was intended only for the
preservation of internal order and the defence of the southern and western
frontiers of Egypt against the Bedouin Arabs. The Soudan still slumbered
out its long nightmare. Six thousand men was the number originally drawn
by conscription--for there are no volunteers in Egypt--from a population
of more than 6,000,000. Twenty-six British officers--either poor men
attracted by the high rates of pay, or ambitious allured by the increased
authority--and a score of excellent drill-sergeants undertook the duty of
teaching the recruits to fight. Sir Evelyn Wood directed the enterprise,
and became the first British Sirdar of the Egyptian army. The work began
and immediately prospered. Within three months of its formation the army
had its first review. The whole 6,000 paraded in their battalions and
marched past the Khedive and their country's flag. Their bearing and their
drill extorted the half-contemptuous praise of the indifferent spectators.
Experienced soldiers noticed other points. Indeed, the new army differed
greatly from the old. In the first place, it was paid. The recruits were
treated with justice. Their rations were not stolen by the officers.
The men were given leave to go to their villages from time to time. When
they fell sick, they were sent to hospital instead of being flogged.
In short, the European system was substituted for the Oriental.
It was hardly possible that the fertile soil and enervating climate of
the Delta would have evolved a warrior race. Ages of oppression and
poverty rarely produce proud and warlike spirits. Patriotism does not grow
under the 'Kourbash.' The fellah soldier lacks the desire to kill. Even the
Mohammedan religion has failed to excite his ferocity. He may be cruel.
He is never fierce. Yet he is not without courage--a courage which bears
pain and hardship in patience, which confronts ill-fortune with
indifference, and which looks on death with apathetic composure. It is the
courage of down-trodden peoples, and one which stronger breeds may often
envy, though they can scarcely be expected to admire. He has other military
virtues. He is obedient, honest, sober, well-behaved, quick to learn, and,
above all, physically strong. Generations of toiling ancestors, though they
could not brace his nerves, have braced his muscles. Under the pressure of
local circumstances there has been developed a creature who can work with
little food, with little incentive, very hard for long hours under a
merciless sun. Throughout the river campaigns, if the intellect of the
army, if the spirit of the troops, have come from without, Egypt herself
has provided the sinews of war.
Such was the material out of which the British officers have formed
the new Egyptian army. At first, indeed, their task was embittered by the
ridicule of their comrades in the British and Indian Services; but as the
drill and bearing of the force improved, the thoughtless scorn would have
been diverted from the Englishmen to fall only upon the Egyptian soldiers.
But this was not allowed. The British officers identified themselves with
their men. Those who abused the fellah soldier were reminded that they
insulted English gentlemen. Thus a strange bond of union was established
between the officers and soldiers of the Egyptian Service; and although
material forces may have accomplished much, without this moral factor the
extraordinary results would never have been achieved.
It was not long before the new military organisation was exposed to
the stern test of war. The army that was raised to preserve internal order
was soon called upon to guard the frontier. The revolt in the Soudan,
which in its earlier stages seemed the least of the Egyptian difficulties,
speedily dwarfed all the rest. The value of the new force was soon
recognised. In June 1883 we find General Hicks, then preparing for his
fatal march, writing to Sir Evelyn Wood: 'Send me four battalions of your
new army, and I shall be content.' But fortune protected the infant
organisation from such a disastrous beginning. The 'new army' remained
for a space in Cairo; and although during the Nile expedition of 1884-85
the Egyptians were employed guarding the lines of communication, it was
not until the British troops had been withdrawn from Dongola that they
received at Ginniss their baptism of fire. Henceforth their place was on
the frontier, and from 1886 onward the Egyptian troops proved equal to the
task of resisting the northward pressure of the Dervishes.
The numbers of the army grew with its responsibilities. Up to the end
of 1883 the infantry still consisted of eight fellahin battalions. In 1884
the first Soudanese battalion was raised. The black soldier was of a very
different type from the fellahin. The Egyptian was strong, patient,
healthy, and docile. The negro was in all these respects his inferior.
His delicate lungs, slim legs, and loosely knit figure contrasted
unfavourably with the massive frame and iron constitution of the peasant
of the Delta. Always excitable and often insubordinate, he required the
strictest discipline. At once slovenly and uxorious, he detested his
drills and loved his wives with equal earnestness; and altogether
'Sambo'--for such is the Soudanese equivalent of 'Tommy'--was a lazy,
fierce, disreputable child. But he possessed two tremendous military
virtues. To the faithful loyalty of a dog he added the heart of a lion.
He loved his officer, and feared nothing in the world. With the
introduction of this element the Egyptian army became a formidable
military machine. Chance or design has placed the blacks ever in the
forefront of the battle, and in Lord Kitchener's campaigns on the Nile the
losses in the six Soudanese battalions have exceeded the aggregate of the
whole of the rest of the army.
It was well that the Egyptian troops were strengthened by these valiant
auxiliaries, for years of weary war lay before them. Sir Reginald Wingate,
in his exhaustive account of the struggle of Egypt with the Mahdist power,
[MAHDISM AND THE EGYPTIAN SOUDAN, Sir Reginald Wingate] has described the
successive actions which accompanied the defence of the Wady Halfa
frontier and of Suakin.
The ten years that elapsed between Ginniss and the first movements of
the expedition of re-conquest were the dreary years of the Egyptian army.
The service was hard and continual. Though the operations were petty, an
untiring vigilance was imperative. The public eye was averted. A pitiless
economy was everywhere enforced. The British officer was deprived of his
leave and the Egyptian private of his rations, that a few pounds might be
saved to the Egyptian Treasury. The clothing of the battalions wore thin
and threadbare, and sometimes their boots were so bad that the soldiers'
feet bled from the cutting edges of the rocks, and the convoy escorts left
their trails behind them. But preparation was ever going forward. The army
improved in efficiency, and the constant warfare began to produce,
even among the fellahin infantry, experienced soldiers. The officers,
sweltering at weary Wady Halfa and Suakin, looked at the gathering
resources of Egypt and out into the deserts of the declining Dervish
Empire and knew that some day their turn would come. The sword of
re-conquest which Evelyn Wood had forged, and Grenfell had tested,
was gradually sharpened; and when the process was almost complete,
the man who was to wield it presented himself.
Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the eldest son of a lieutenant-colonel,
was born in 1850, and, after being privately educated, entered in 1869
the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich as a cadet of the Royal Engineers.
In the spring of 1871 he obtained his commission, and for the first ten
years of his military service remained an obscure officer, performing
his duties with regularity, but giving no promise of the talents and
character which he was afterwards to display. One powerful weapon, however,
he acquired in this time of waiting. In 1874 accident or instinct led him
to seek employment in the surveys that were being made of Cyprus and
Palestine, and in the latter country he learned Arabic. For six years the
advantage of knowing a language with which few British officers were
familiar brought him no profit. For procuring military preferment Arabic
was in 1874 as valueless as Patagonian. All this was swiftly changed by
the unexpected course of events. The year 1882 brought the British fleet
to Alexandria, and the connection between England and Egypt began to be
apparent. Kitchener did not neglect his opportunity. Securing leave of
absence, he hurried to the scene of crisis. Alexandria was bombarded.
Detachments from the fleet were landed to restore order. The British
Government decided to send an army to Egypt. British officers and soldiers
were badly wanted at the seat of war; an officer who could speak Arabic
Thus Kitchener came to Egypt and set his feet firmly on the high road
to fortune. He came to Egypt when she was plunged in misery and shame,
when hopeless ruin seemed already the only outcome of the public disasters,
and when even greater misfortunes impended. He remained to see her
prosperous and powerful; to restore empire to her people, peace to her
empire, honour to her army; and among those clear-minded men of action by
whom the marvellous work of regeneration has been accomplished, Herbert
Kitchener will certainly occupy the second place. Lord Wolseley on his
arrival soon found employment for the active officer who could speak
Arabic. He served through the campaign of 1882 as a major. He joined the
new army which was formed at the conclusion of the war, as one of the
original twenty-six officers. In the Nile expedition of 1885 Arabic again
led him to the front, and in the service of the Intelligence Department
he found ample opportunity for his daring and energy. His efforts to
communicate with Gordon in Khartoum did not, however, meet with much
success, and the Journals bristle with so many sarcastic comments that
their editor has been at pains to explain in his preface that there was
really no cause for complaint. Major Kitchener, however, gave satisfaction
to his superiors in Cairo, if not to the exacting General at Khartoum,
and in 1886 he was appointed Governor of Suakin. This post, always one of
responsibility and danger, did not satisfy Kitchener, whose ambition was
now taking definite form. Eager for more responsibility and more danger,
he harried and raided the surrounding tribes; he restricted and almost
destroyed the slender trade which was again springing up, and in
consequence of his measures the neighbourhood of Suakin was soon in even
greater ferment than usual. This culminated at the end of 1887 in the
re-appearance and advance of Osman Digna. The movements of the Dervishes
were, however, uncertain. The defences of the town had been greatly
strengthened and improved by the skill and activity of its new Governor.
[See dispatch from Major-General Dormer to War Office, Cairo, April 22,
1888: 'With regard to the military works and defenses of the town, I was
much struck with the great improvement that has been effected by Colonel
Kitchener since my last visit to Suakin in the autumn of 1884.] Osman
Digna retreated. The 'friendlies' were incited to follow, and Kitchener,
although he had been instructed not to employ British officers or Egyptian
regulars in offensive operations, went out in support. At Handub on the
morning of the 17th of January, 1888, the friendlies attacked the camp of
Osman Digna. They were at first successful; but while they dispersed to
plunder the enemy rallied and, returning, drove them back with loss.
Kitchener arrived on the field with the support, to find a defeat instead
of a victory awaiting him. He bravely endeavoured to cover the retreat of
the friendlies, and in so doing was severely--as it first seemed
dangerously--wounded in the jaw. The loss among the friendlies and the
support amounted to twenty men killed and two British officers and
twenty-eight men wounded. The Governor returned in great pain and some
discomfiture to Suakin. In spite of his wound and his reverse he was
impatient to renew the conflict, but this was definitely forbidden by the
British Government. Colonel Kitchener's military conduct was praised,
but his policy was prevented. 'The policy which it is desirable to follow
. . . in the Eastern Soudan,' wrote Sir Evelyn Baring on the 17th of March,
in measured rebuke, 'should consist in standing purely on the defensive
against any hostile movement or combination of the Arab tribes, in avoiding
any course of action which might involve the ultimate necessity of
offensive action, and in encouraging legitimate trade by every means
in our power.' [Sir E. Baring to Consul Cameron, March 14, 1888.]
The Governor could scarcely be expected to carry out a policy so much
at variance with his views and inclinations, and in the summer of 1888 he
was transferred to a purely military appointment and became
Adjutant-General of the Egyptian army. For the next four years he worked
busily in the War Office at Cairo, effecting many useful reforms and hard
economies, and revealing powers of organisation which, although not yet
appreciated by his comrades in the Egyptian service, were noticed by one
vigilant eye. In 1892 Sir F. Grenfell resigned the post of Sirdar, and the
chief command of the Egyptian army was vacant. Two men stood out
prominently as candidates--Colonel Wodehouse, who held the command of the
Halfa Field Force, and the Adjutant-General. Colonel Wodehouse had
undoubtedly the greater claims. He had been for several years in command
of a large force in continual contact with the enemy. He had won the
action of Argin, and was known throughout the Soudan as 'the conqueror of
Wad-el-Nejumi.' He had conducted the civil administration of the frontier
province with conspicuous success, and he was popular with all ranks of
the Egyptian army. Kitchener had little to set against this. He had shown
himself a brave and active soldier. He was known to be a good official.
But he had not been in accord with the Government in his civil
administration, and was, moreover, little known to his brother officers.
Sir Evelyn Baring's influence, however, turned the scale. Somewhat,
therefore, to the astonishment of the Egyptian army, Kitchener was
promoted Sirdar. Lord Cromer had found the military officer whom he
considered capable of re-conquering the Soudan when the opportunity
The years of preparation, wasted by no one in Egypt, were employed
by no department better than by the Intelligence Branch. The greatest
disadvantage from which Lord Wolseley had suffered was the general
ignorance of the Soudan and its peoples. The British soldiers had
had to learn the details of Dervish fighting by bitter experience.
But the experience, once gained, was carefully preserved. The Intelligence
Branch of the Egyptian army rose under the direction of Colonel (now Sir
Reginald) Wingate to an extraordinary efficiency. For ten years the
history, climate, geography, and inhabitants of the Soudan were the
objects of a ceaseless scrutiny. The sharp line between civilisation
and savagery was drawn at Wady Halfa; but beyond that line, up the great
river, within the great wall of Omdurman, into the arsenal, into the
treasury, into the mosque, into the Khalifa's house itself, the spies and
secret agents of the Government--disguised as traders, as warriors,
or as women--worked their stealthy way. Sometimes the road by the
Nile was blocked, and the messengers must toil across the deserts to
Darfur, and so by a tremendous journey creep into Omdurman. At others a
trader might work his way from Suakin or from the Italian settlements.
But by whatever route it came, information--whispered at Halfa, catalogued
at Cairo--steadily accumulated, and the diaries of the Intelligence
Department grew in weight and number, until at last every important Emir
was watched and located, every garrison estimated, and even the endless
intrigues and brawls in Omdurman were carefully recorded.
The reports of the spies were at length confirmed and amplified
by two most important witnesses. At the end of 1891 Father Ohrwalder made
his escape from Omdurman and reached the Egyptian territory. Besides giving
the Intelligence Department much valuable information, he published a
thrilling account of his captivity [TEN YEARS' CAPTIVITY, Father
Ohrwalder], which created a wide and profound impression in England.
In 1895 a still more welcome fugitive reached Assuan. Early on the 16th
of March a weary, travel-stained Arab, in a tattered jibba and mounted on
a lame and emaciated camel, presented himself to the Commandant. He was
received with delighted wonder, and forthwith conducted to the best
bath-room available. Two hours later a little Austrian gentleman stepped
forth, and the telegraph hastened to tell the news that Slatin, sometime
Governor of Darfur, had escaped from the Khalifa's clutches. Here at last
was a man who knew everything that concerned the Dervish Empire--Slatin,
the Khalifa's trusted and confidential servant, almost his friend,
who had lived with him, who was even permitted to dine with him alone,
who had heard all his counsels, who knew all his Emirs, and moreover
Slatin, the soldier and administrator, who could appreciate all he had
learned, was added with the rank of Pasha to the Staff of the Intelligence
Department. While his accurate knowledge confirmed the belief of the
Egyptian authorities that the Dervish power was declining, his tale of
'Fire and Sword in the Soudan' increased the horror and anger of thoughtful
people in England at the cruelties of the Khalifa. Public opinion began to
veer towards the policy of re-conquest.
The year 1895 brought in a Conservative and Unionist Administration.
A Government came into office supported by a majority which was so strong
that there seemed little reason to expect a transference of power for five
or six years. Ministers were likely to be able to carry to a definite
conclusion any projects they might devise. They belonged chiefly to that
party in the State which had consistently assailed Mr. Gladstone's Egyptian
policy. Here was an opportunity of repairing the damage done by their
opponents. The comparisons that would follow such an accomplishment were
self-evident and agreeable even to anticipate. The idea of re-conquering
the Soudan presented itself indefinitely, but not unpleasingly, alike to
the Government and the people of Great Britain. The unforeseen course
of events crystallised the idea into a policy.
On the 1st of March, 1896, the battle of Adowa was fought, and Italy
at the hands of Abyssinia sustained a crushing defeat. Two results
followed which affected other nations. First, a great blow had been struck
at European prestige in North Africa. It seemed probable that the
Abyssinian success would encourage the Dervishes to attack the Italians at
Kassala. It was possible that they might also attack the Egyptians at
Suakin or on the Wady Halfa frontier. Secondly, the value of Italy as a
factor in European politics was depreciated. The fact that her defeat had
been assisted by the arms and munitions of war which had been supplied to
the Abyssinians from French and Russian sources complicated the situation.
The Triple Alliance was concerned. The third partner had been weakened.
The balance might be restored if Great Britain would make some open
sign of sympathy.
Moreover, the expectations of the Egyptian military authorities were
soon fulfilled. The Dervishes threatened Kassala as soon as the news of
Adowa reached them, and indeed there were signs of increased activity in
Omdurman itself. In these circumstances the British Government determined
to assist Italy by making a demonstration on the Wady Halfa frontier.
They turned to Egypt. It had always been recognised that the recovery of
the lost provinces was a natural and legitimate aspiration. 'The doubtful
point was to decide the time when the military and financial resources of
the country were sufficiently developed to justify an assumption of the
offensive.' [LORD CROMER'S REPORTS: EGYPT, No. 2, 1896.] From a purely
Egyptian point of view the best possible moment had not yet arrived.
A few more years of recuperation were needed. The country would fight the
Soudan campaigns more easily if first refreshed by the great reservoirs
which were projected. For more than two years both projects had been
pressed upon the Government of his Highness the Khedive--or, to write
definitely, upon Lord Cromer. At regular intervals Sir Herbert Kitchener
and Sir William Garstin would successively visit the British Agency
(it would be treason to call it 'Government House')--the one to urge
the case for a war, the other to plead for a reservoir. The reservoir
had won. Only a few weeks before the advance to Dongola was ordered
Garstin met Kitchener returning from the Agency. The engineer inquired
the result of the General's interview. 'I'm beaten,' said Kitchener
abruptly; 'you've got your dam'--and Garstin went on his way rejoicing.
The decision of the British Government came therefore as a complete
surprise to the Cairene authorities. The season of the year was
unfavourable to military operations. The hot weather was at hand. The Nile
was low. Lord Cromer's report, which had been published in the early days
of March, had in no way foreshadowed the event. The frontier was tranquil.
With the exception of a small raid on a village in the Wady Halfa district
and an insignificant incursion into the Tokar Delta the Dervish forces had
during the year maintained 'a strictly defensive attitude.' [EGYPT, No. 1,
1896.] Lord Cromer, however, realised that while the case for the
reservoirs would always claim attention, the re-conquest of the Soudan
might not receive the support of a Liberal Government. The increasing
possibility of French intrigues upon the Upper Nile had also to be
considered. All politics are series of compromises and bargains, and while
the historian may easily mark what would have been the best possible
moment for any great undertaking, a good moment must content the
administrator. Those who guarded the interests of Egypt could hardly
consent to an empty demonstration on the Wady Halfa frontier at her
expense, and the original intention of the British Government was at once
extended to the re-conquest of the Dongola province--a definite and
justifiable enterprise which must in any case be the first step towards
the recovery of the Soudan.
* * * * * *
It will be convenient, before embarking upon the actual chronicle
of the military operations, to explain how the money was obtained to pay
for the war. I desire to avoid the intricate though fascinating tangles
of Egyptian finance. Yet even when the subject is treated in the most
general way the difficulties which harass and impede the British
administrators and insult the sovereign power of Egypt--the mischievous
interference of a vindictive nation, the galling and almost intolerable
financial fetters in which a prosperous country is bound--may arouse in
the sympathetic reader a flush of annoyance, or at any rate a smile
of pitying wonder.
About half the revenue of Egypt is devoted to the development and
government of the country, and the other half to the payment of the
interest on the debt and other external charges; and, with a view
to preventing in the future the extravagance of the past, the London
Convention in 1885 prescribed that the annual expenditure of Egypt
shall not exceed a certain sum. When the expenditure exceeds this amount,
for every pound that is spent on the government or development of Egypt
another pound must be paid to the Commissioners of the Debt; so that,
after the limit is reached, for every pound that is required to promote
Egyptian interests two pounds must be raised by taxation from an already
heavily taxed community. But the working of this law was found to be so
severe that, like all laws which exceed the human conception of justice,
it has been somewhat modified. By an arrangement which was effected
in 1888, the Caisse de la Dette are empowered, instead of devoting their
surplus pound to the sinking fund, to pay it into a general reserve fund,
from which the Commissioners may make grants to meet 'extraordinary
expenses'; those expenses, that is to say, which may be considered
'once for all'(capital) expenditure and not ordinary annual charges.
The Dongola expedition was begun, as has been said, without reference
to the immediate internal condition of Egypt. The moment was a good one,
but not the best. It was obviously impossible for Egypt to provide for the
extraordinary expenses of the military operations out of revenue. The
Ministry of Finance therefore appealed to the Caisse de la Dette for a
grant from the general reserve fund. Here was an obvious case of
'extraordinary expenses.' The Egyptian Government asked for £E500,000.
The Caisse met in council. Six Commissioners--representing England,
France, Russia, Germany, Austria, and Italy--duly discussed the
application. Four Commissioners considered that the grant should be made.
Two Commissioners, those representing France and Russia, voted against it.
The majority decided. The grant was made. The money was handed to the
Egyptian Government and devoted to the prosecution of the war.
Egypt as a sovereign power had already humbly begged to be allowed
to devote part of the surplus of her own revenues to her own objects.
A greater humiliation remained. The Commissioners of France and Russia,
who had been out-voted, brought an action against their colleagues on the
grounds that the grant was ultra vires; and against the Egyptian
Government for the return of the money thus wrongly obtained.
Other actions were brought at French instigation by various people
purporting to represent the bondholders, who declared that their interests
were threatened. The case was tried before the Mixed Tribunals, an
institution which exists in Egypt superior to and independent of the
sovereign rights of that country.
On the part of the Egyptian Government and the four Commissioners it
was contended that the Mixed Tribunals had no competency to try the case;
that the attacking parties had no right of action; that the Egyptian
Government had, in applying, done all that the law of liquidation required;
and that the act of sovereignty was complete as soon as the Caisse,
which was the legal representative of the bondholding interest,
had pronounced its decision.
The argument was a strong one; but had it been ten times as strong,
the result would have been the same. The Mixed Tribunals, an international
institution, delivered its judgment on strictly political grounds,
the judges taking their orders from the different countries they
represented. It was solemnly pronounced that war expenses were not
'extraordinary expenses.' The proximate destruction of the Khalifa's power
was treated quite as a matter of everyday occurrence. A state of war was
apparently regarded as usual in Egypt. On this wise and sensible ground
the Egyptian Government were condemned to pay back £E500,000, together
with interest and costs. After a momentary hesitation as to whether the
hour had not come to join issue on the whole subject of the financial
restrictions of Egypt, it was decided to bow to this iniquitous decision.
The money had now to be refunded. It had already been spent. More than
that, other sums were needed for the carrying on of the war. The army was
by then occupying Dongola, and was in actual expectation of a Dervish
counter-attack, and it was evident that the military operations could not
be suspended or arrested. It was impossible to stop; yet without money
it seemed impossible to go on; and, besides, it appeared that Egypt
would be unable to repay the £E500,000 which she had been granted,
and of which she was now deprived.
Such was the painful and difficult situation which a friendly nation,
in the utmost exercise of her wit and the extreme compass of her legal
rights, had succeeded in producing in a country for whose welfare she had
always professed an exaggerated regard. Such was the effect of French
diplomacy. But there is a Nemesis that waits on international malpractices,
however cunning. Now, as before and since, the very astuteness of the
French Ministers and agents was to strike a terrible blow at French
interests and French influence in Egypt. At this period France still
exercised a considerable force on Egyptian politics. One Egyptian party,
the weaker, but still by no means insignificant, looked towards her for
support. The news of the French success cheered their hearts and raised
their spirits. Orientals appreciate results. The result was a distinct
reverse to the British. The conclusion to the native mind was obvious.
Great Britain had been weighed in the European balances and found wanting.
In all Eastern countries a large proportion of the population fluctuates
uncertainly, eager only to be on the winning side. All this volume of
agitation and opinion began to glide and flow towards the stronger Power,
and when the Egyptian Government found their appeal from the decision of
the Court of First Instance of the Mixed Tribunals to the International
Court of Appeal at Alexandria quashed, and the original decision confirmed,
the defeat of the British was no less complete than the triumph
of the French.
But meanwhile the Consul-General acted. On the 2nd of December
he telegraphed to Lord Salisbury, reporting the judgment of the Court of
Appeal and asking that he might be 'authorised to state directly that her
Majesty's Government will be prepared to advance the money on conditions
to be hereafter arranged.' The reply was prompt, though guarded. 'You are
authorised,' said Lord Salisbury, 'by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to
state that though of course the primary liability for the payment of the
£E500,000 rests with the Egyptian Government, her Majesty's Government will
hold themselves prepared to advance, on conditions to be decided hereafter,
such a sum as they feel satisfied that the Egyptian Treasury is powerless
to provide.' [The original £500,000 was afterwards increased to £800,000;
which sum was paid by the British Exchequer to the Egyptian Government,
at first as a loan, and later as a gift.] This obvious development does not
seem to have been foreseen by the French diplomatists, and when, on the 3rd
of December, it was rumoured in Cairo that Great Britain was prepared to
pay the money, a great feeling of astonishment and of uncertainty was
created. But the chances of the French interference proving effective
still seemed good. It was believed that the English Government would not
be in a position to make an advance to the Egyptian Government until funds
had been voted by Parliament for the purpose. It was also thought that
Egypt would be utterly unable to find the money immediately. In the
meantime the position was humiliating. France conceived herself mistress
of the situation. A complete disillusionment, however, awaited the French
Government. The taxes in Egypt, as in other countries, are not collected
evenly over the whole year. During some months there is a large cash
balance in the Exchequer. In others the money drains in slowly. It happened
at this period of the year, after the cotton crop had been gathered, that a
considerable balance had accumulated in the Treasury, and on the guarantee
of the English Government being received, to the effect that they would
ultimately assist Egypt with regard to the expenses of the expedition,
Lord Cromer determined to repay the money at once.
The event was foreshadowed. On the 5th of December the Egyptian Council
of Ministers, presided over by the Khedive in person, decided on their own
initiative to despatch an official letter expressing in warm terms their
gratitude for the financial help offered them by her Majesty's Government.
'I am desired,' said Boutros Pasha, 'to beg your lordship to be good enough
to convey to his lordship the Marquess of Salisbury the expression of the
lively gratitude of the Khedive and the Egyptian Government for the great
kindness which her Majesty's Government has shown to them
on this occasion.' [EGYPT, No. 1, 1897.]
On the 6th of December £E500,000, together with £E15,600 interest
and costs, in gold, was conveyed in boxes in a cart from the Egyptian
Treasury to the offices of the Caisse de la Dette. The effect was
tremendous. All Cairo knew of the difficulty. All Cairo witnessed the
manner in which it had been overcome. The lesson was too plain to be lost
on the native mind. The reverse of the French diplomacy was far greater
even than its success had appeared. For many years French influence in
Egypt had not received so heavy a blow; yet even in the short space of
time which this story covers it was to receive a still more
CHAPTER V: THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR
Shortly before midnight on the 12th of March, 1896, the Sirdar received
instructions from Lord Cromer authorising an expedition into the Dongola
province and directing him to occupy Akasha. The next morning the news
was published in the Times, ostensibly as coming from its correspondent
in Cairo: and the Egyptian Cabinet was convened to give a formal assent
by voting the decree. On the 14th the reserves were called out. On the
15th the Khedive reviewed the Cairo garrison; and at the termination of
the parade Sir H. Kitchener informed him that the earliest battalions
would start for the front that night.
The Egyptian frontier force had always been kept in a condition of
immediate readiness by the restless activity of the enemy. The beginning
of the long-expected advance was hailed with delight by the British
officers sweltering at Wady Halfa and Sarras. On Sunday, the 15th
of March, three days after the Sirdar had received his orders, and before
the first reinforcements had started from Cairo, Colonel Hunter, who
commanded on the frontier, formed a small column of all arms to seize and
hold Akasha. At dawn on the 18th the column started, and the actual
invasion of the territory which for ten years had been abandoned to the
Dervishes began. The route lay through a wild and rocky country--the
debatable ground, desolated by years of war--and the troops straggled into
a long procession, and had several times for more than an hour to move in
single file over passes and through narrow defiles strewn with the
innumerable boulders from which the 'Belly of Stones' has derived its name.
The right of their line of march was protected by the Nile, and although
it was occasionally necessary to leave the bank, to avoid difficult ground,
the column camped each night by the river. The cavalry and the Camel Corps
searched the country to the south and east; for it was expected that the
Dervishes would resist the advance. Creeping along the bank, and prepared
at a moment's notice to stand at bay at the water's edge, the small force
proceeded on its way. Wady Atira was reached on the 18th, Tanjore on the
19th, and on the 20th the column marched into Akasha.
The huts of the mud village were crumbling back into the desert sand.
The old British fort and a number of storehouses--relics of the Gordon
Relief Expedition--were in ruins. The railway from Sarras had been pulled
to pieces. Most of the sleepers had disappeared, but the rails lay
scattered along the track. All was deserted: yet one grim object
proclaimed the Dervish occupation. Beyond the old station and near the
river a single rail had been fixed nearly upright in the ground. From one
of the holes for the fishplate bolts there dangled a rotten cord, and on
the sand beneath this improvised yet apparently effective gallows lay a
human skull and bones, quite white and beautifully polished by the action
of sun and wind. Half-a-dozen friendly Arabs, who had taken refuge on the
island below the cataract, were the only inhabitants of the district.
The troops began to place themselves in a defensive position without delay.
On the 22nd the cavalry and Camel Corps returned with the empty convoy to
Sarras to escort to the front a second and larger column, under the command
of Major MacDonald, and consisting of the XIth and XIIth Soudanese, one
company of the 3rd Egyptians (dropped as a garrison at Ambigole Wells),
and a heavy convoy of stores numbering six hundred camels. Starting from
Sarras on the 24th, the column, after four days' marching, arrived
without accident or attack, and MacDonald assumed command of
the whole advanced force.
Akasha was now converted into a strong entrenched camp, in which
an advanced base was formed. Its garrison of three battalions, a battery,
and the mounted troops, drew their supplies by camel transport from Sarras.
The country to the south and east was continually patrolled, to guard
against a turning movement, and the communications were further
strengthened by the establishment of fortified posts at Semna, Wady Atira,
and Tanjore. The friendly Arab tribes--Bedouin, Kabbabish, and
Foggara--ranged still more widely in the deserts and occupied the scattered
wells. All this time the Dervishes watched supinely from their position
at Fuket, and although they were within a single march of Akasha they
remained inactive and made no attempt to disturb the operations.
Meanwhile the concentration of the Egyptian army on the frontier
was proceeding. The reservists obeyed the summons to the colours of their
own free will and with gratifying promptness, instead of being tardily
dragged from their homes in chains as in the days of Ismail. All the
battalions of the army were brought up to war strength. Two new battalions
of reservists were formed, the 15th and 16th. The 15th was placed at Assuan
and Korosko on the line of communications. The 16th was despatched to
Suakin to release the two battalions in garrison there for service on
the Nile. The 1st Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment was moved
up the river from Cairo to take the place of the Wady Halfa garrison of six
battalions, which had moved on to Sarras and Akasha. A Maxim battery of
four guns was formed from the machine-gun sections of the Staffordshires
and Connaught Rangers and hurried south. The 2nd, 4th, 5th, and
6th Egyptian Battalions from Cairo were passed in a continual succession
along the railway and river to the front. In all this busy and complicated
movement of troops the Egyptian War Office worked smoothly, and clearly
showed the ability with which it was organised.
The line of communications from Cairo, the permanent base, to the advanced
post at Akasha was 825 miles in length. But of this distance only the
section lying south of Assuan could be considered as within the theatre
of war. The ordinary broad-gauge railway ran from Cairo to Balliana, where
a river base was established. From Balliana to Assuan reinforcements and
supplies were forwarded by Messrs. Cook's fleet of steamers, by barges
towed by small tugs, and by a number of native sailing craft. A stretch of
seven miles of railway avoids the First Cataract, and joins Assuan and
Shellal. Above Shellal a second flotilla of gunboats, steamers, barges,
and Nile boats was collected to ply between Shellal and Halfa. The military
railway ran from Halfa to Sarras. South of Sarras supplies were forwarded
by camels. To meet the increased demands of transport, 4,500 camels were
purchased in Egypt and forwarded in boats to Assuan, whence they marched
via Korosko to the front. The British Government had authorised the
construction of the military railway to Akasha, and a special railway
battalion was collected at Assuan, through which place sleepers and other
material at once began to pass to Sarras. The strategic railway
construction will, however, form the subject of a later chapter,
which I shall not anticipate.
By the 1st of April, less than three weeks from the commencement
of the advance, the whole line of communications had been organised
and was working efficiently, although still crowded with the
As soon as the 16th Battalion of reservists arrived at Suakin,
the IXth Soudanese were conveyed by transports to Kossier, and marched
thence across the desert to Kena. The distance was 120 miles, and the fact
that in spite of two heavy thunderstorms--rare phenomena in Egypt--it was
covered in four days is a notable example of the marching powers of the
black soldiers. It had been determined that the Xth Soudanese should follow
at once, but circumstances occurred which detained them on the Red Sea
littoral and must draw the attention of the reader thither.
The aspect and history of the town and port of Suakin might afford
a useful instance to a cynical politician. Most of the houses stand on a
small barren island which is connected with the mainland by a narrow
causeway. At a distance the tall buildings of white coral, often five
storeys high, present an imposing appearance, and the prominent
chimneys of the condensing machinery--for there is scarcely any fresh
water--seem to suggest manufacturing activity. But a nearer view reveals
the melancholy squalor of the scene. A large part of the town is deserted.
The narrow streets wind among tumbled-down and neglected houses.
The quaintly carved projecting windows of the facades are boarded up.
The soil exhales an odour of stagnation and decay. The atmosphere is rank
with memories of waste and failure. The scenes that meet the eye intensify
these impressions. The traveller who lands on Quarantine Island is first
confronted with the debris of the projected Suakin-Berber Railway. Two or
three locomotives that have neither felt the pressure of steam nor tasted
oil for a decade lie rusting in the ruined workshops. Huge piles of
railway material rot, unguarded and neglected, on the shore. Rolling stock
of all kinds--carriages, trucks, vans, and ballast waggons--are strewn or
heaped near the sheds. The Christian cemetery alone shows a decided
progress, and the long lines of white crosses which mark the graves of
British soldiers and sailors who lost their lives in action or by disease
during the various campaigns, no less than the large and newly enclosed
areas to meet future demands, increase the depression of the visitor.
The numerous graves of Greek traders--a study of whose epitaphs may
conveniently refresh a classical education--protest that the climate of
the island is pestilential. The high loopholed walls declare that the
desolate scrub of the mainland is inhabited only by fierce and valiant
savages who love their liberty.
For eleven years all trade had been practically stopped, and the only
merchants remaining were those who carried on an illicit traffic with the
Arabs or, with Eastern apathy, were content to wait for better days.
Being utterly unproductive, Suakin had been wisely starved by the Egyptian
Government, and the gloom of the situation was matched by the poverty
of its inhabitants.
The island on which the town stands is joined to the mainland by
a causeway, at the further end of which is an arched gateway of curious
design called 'the Gate of the Soudan.' Upon the mainland stands the
crescent-shaped suburb of El Kaff. It comprises a few mean coral-built
houses, a large area covered with mud huts inhabited by Arabs and
fishermen, and all the barracks and military buildings. The whole is
surrounded by a strong wall a mile and a half long, fifteen feet high,
six feet thick, with a parapet pierced for musketry and strengthened at
intervals by bastions armed with Krupp guns.
Three strong detached posts complete the defences of Suakin.
Ten miles to the northward, on the scene of Sir H. Kitchener's
unfortunate enterprise, is the fort of Handub. Tambuk is twenty-five
miles inland and among the hills. Situate upon a high rock, and
consisting only of a store, a formidable blockhouse, and a lookout tower,
this place is safe from any enemy unprovided with artillery. Both Handub
and Tambuk were at the outset of the campaign provisioned for four months.
The third post, Tokar Fort, lies fifty miles along the coast to the south.
Its function is to deprive the Arabs of a base in the fertile delta of the
Tokar river. The fort is strong, defended by artillery, and requires for
its garrison an entire battalion of infantry.
No description of Suakin would be complete without some allusion
to the man to whom it owes its fame. Osman Digna had been for many years
a most successful and enterprising Arab slave dealer. The attempted
suppression of his trade by the Egyptian Government drove him naturally
into opposition. He joined in the revolt of the Mahdi, and by his influence
roused the whole of the Hadendoa and other powerful tribes of the Red Sea
shore. The rest is upon record. Year after year, at a horrid sacrifice
of men and money, the Imperial Government and the old slaver fought like
wolves over the dry bone of Suakin. Baker's Teb, El Teb, Tamai, Tofrek,
Hashin, Handub, Gemaiza, Afafit--such were the fights of Osman Digna,
and through all he passed unscathed. Often defeated, but never crushed,
the wily Arab might justly boast to have run further and fought more
than any Emir in the Dervish armies.
It had scarcely seemed possible that the advance on Dongola could
influence the situation around Kassala, yet the course of events encouraged
the belief that the British diversion in favour of Italy had been
effective; for at the end of March--as soon, that is to say, as the news
of the occupation of Akasha reached him--Osman Digna separated himself
from the army threatening Kassala, and marched with 300 cavalry,
70 camelry, and 2,500 foot towards his old base in the Tokar Delta.
On the first rumour of his advance the orders of the Xth Soudanese to move
via Kossier and Kena to the Nile were cancelled, and they remained in
garrison at Tokar. At home the War Office, touched in a tender spot,
quivered apprehensively, and began forthwith to make plans to strengthen
the Suakin garrison with powerful forces.
The state of affairs in the Eastern Soudan has always been turbulent.
The authority of the Governor of the Red Sea Littoral was not at this time
respected beyond the extreme range of the guns of Suakin. The Hadendoa and
other tribes who lived under the walls of the town professed loyalty
to the Egyptian Government, not from any conviction that their rule was
preferable to that of Osman Digna, but simply for the sake of a quiet life.
As their distance from Suakin increased, the loyalty of the tribesmen
became even less pronounced, and at a radius of twenty miles all the
Sheikhs oscillated alternately between Osman Digna and the Egyptian
Government, and tried to avoid open hostilities with either. Omar Tita,
Sheikh of the district round about Erkowit, found himself situated on this
fringe of intriguing neutrality. Although he was known to have dealings
with Osman, it was believed that if he had the power to choose he would
side with the Egyptian Government. Early in April Omar Tita reported that
Osman Digna was in the neighbourhood of Erkowit with a small force,
and that he, the faithful ally of the Government, had on the 3rd of the
month defeated him with a loss of four camels. He also said that if the
Egyptian Government would send up a force to fight Osman, he,
the aforesaid ally, would keep him in play until it arrived.
After a few days of hesitation and telegraphic communication with
the Sirdar, Colonel Lloyd, the Governor of Suakin, who was then in very
bad health, decided that he had not enough troops to justify him in taking
the risk of going up to Erkowit to fight Osman. Around Suakin, as along
the Indian frontier, a battle was always procurable on the shortest notice.
When a raid has taken place, the Government may choose the scale of their
reprisals. If they are poor, they will arrange a counter-raid by means of
'friendlies,' and nothing more will be heard of the affair. If they are
rich, they will mobilise two or three brigades, and make an expedition or
fight a pitched battle, so that another glory may be added to the annals
of the British army. In the present instance the Egyptian Government were
poor, and as the British Government did not desire to profit by the
opportunity it was determined to have only a small-scale operation.
The Governor therefore arranged a plan for a demonstration at the foot of
the hills near Khor Wintri by means of combined movements from Suakin
and Tokar. The garrison of Suakin consisted of the 1st and half the 5th
Egyptian Battalions; the 16th Egyptian reservists, who had just replaced
the IXth Soudanese, and were as yet hardly formed into a military body;
one squadron of cavalry, one company of Camel Corps, and some detachments
of artillery. The garrison of Tokar consisted of the Xth Soudanese and a
few gunners. From these troops there was organised in the second week
in April, with all due ceremony, a 'Suakin Field Force.'
The plan of campaign was simple. Colonel Lloyd was to march out
from Suakin and effect a junction with the 'Tokar Column' at Khor Wintri,
where the Erkowit road enters the hills. It was then hoped that Osman Digna
would descend and fight a battle of the required dimensions in the open;
after which, if victorious, the force would return to Suakin and Tokar.
In order to make the Suakin Column as mobile as possible, the whole force
was mounted on camels, of which more than 1,000 were requisitioned, as well
as 60 mules and 120 donkeys. Two hundred Arabs accompanied the column to
hold these beasts when necessary. Six days' forage and rations, one day's
reserve of water, 200 rounds per man, and 100 shell per gun were carried.
At five o'clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, the 14th of April, the troops
paraded outside the walls of Suakin, and bivouacked in the open ready
to march at daylight.
The next morning the column, which numbered about 1,200 men of all arms,
started. After marching for four or five hours in the direction of Khor
Wintri the cavalry, who covered the advance, came in contact with the
Dervish scouts. The force thereupon assumed an oblong formation: the mixed
Soudanese company and the two guns in front, three Egyptian companies on
each flank, the Camel Corps company in the rear, and the transport in the
centre. The pace was slow, and, since few of the camels had ever been
saddled or ridden, progress was often interrupted by their behaviour and
by the broken and difficult nature of the country. Nevertheless at about
four o'clock in the afternoon, Teroi Wells, eight miles from Khor Wintri,
were reached; and here, having marched nineteen miles, Colonel Lloyd
determined to halt. While the infantry were making the zeriba, the cavalry
were sent on under Captain Fenwick (an infantry officer employed on
the Staff) to gain touch with the Tokar force, who were expected to have
already reached the rendezvous. Apparently under the belief that Omar Tita
and his Arabs would give timely notice of an attack, the cavalry seem to
have neglected many of the usual precautions, and in consequence at about
five o'clock, when approaching Khor Wintri, they found themselves suddenly
confronted with a force of about 200 Dervish horsemen supported by a large
body of infantry. The squadron wheeled about with promptitude, and began
to retire at a trot. The Dervish horsemen immediately pursued. The result
was that the Egyptians began a disorderly flight at a gallop through the
thick and treacherous scrub and over broken, dangerous ground. Sixteen
horses fell; their riders were instantly speared by the pursuers. Rallying
thirty-eight troopers, Captain Fenwick seized a rocky hillock, and
dismounting with the natural instinct of an infantry soldier, prepared to
defend himself to the last. The remainder of the squadron continued their
flight, and thirty-two troopers, under an Egyptian officer (whose horse
is said to have bolted), arrived at the Teroi zeriba with the news that
their comrades had been destroyed, or had perhaps 'returned to Suakin,'
and that they themselves had been closely followed by the enemy. The news
caused the gravest anxiety, which was not diminished when it was found
that the bush around the zeriba was being strongly occupied by Dervish
spearmen. Two mounted men, who volunteered for the perilous duty, were sent
to make their way through this savage cordon, and try to find either the
remainder of the cavalry or the Tokar Column. Both were hunted down and
killed. The rest of the force continued in hourly expectation of an attack.
Their suspense was aggravated towards midnight, when the Dervishes began
to approach the zeriba. In the darkness what was thought to be a body of
horsemen was seen moving along a shallow khor opposite the right face of
the defence. At the same moment a loud yell was raised by the enemy on the
other side. An uncontrolled musketry fire immediately broke out. The guns
fired blindly up the valley; the infantry wildly on all sides.
The fusillade continued furiously for some time, and when by the efforts
of the British officers the troops were restrained, it was found that the
Dervishes had retired, leaving behind them a single wounded man.
Occasional shots were fired from the scrub until the morning, but no fresh
attack was attempted by the Dervishes.
Meanwhile Captain Fenwick maintained his solitary and perilous position
on the hillock. He was soon surrounded by considerable bodies of the enemy,
and as soon as it became dark he was sharply attacked. But the Dervishes
fortunately possessed few rifles, and the officers and troopers, by firing
steady volleys, succeeded in holding their ground and repulsing them.
The sound of the guns at Teroi encouraged the Egyptians and revealed the
direction of their friends. With the daylight the Dervishes, who seem
throughout the affair to have been poor-spirited fellows, drew off, and the
detachment, remounting, made haste to rejoin the main body.
The force, again united, pursued their way to Khor Wintri, where they
found the column from Tokar already arrived. Marching early on the 15th,
Major Sidney with 250 men of the Xth Soudanese, the only really trustworthy
troops in the force, had reached Khor Wintri the same afternoon. He drove
out the small Dervish post occupying the khor, and was about to bivouac,
when he was sharply attacked by a force of Arabs said to have numbered
80 horsemen and 500 foot. The Soudanese fought with their usual courage,
and the Dervishes were repulsed, leaving thirty dead upon the ground.
The regulars had three men wounded.
Up to this point Colonel Lloyd's plan had been successfully carried out.
The columns from Suakin and Tokar had effected a junction at Khor Wintri
on the Erkowit road. It now remained to await the attack of Osman Digna,
and inflict a heavy blow upon him. It was decided, however, in view of
what had occurred, to omit this part of the scheme, and both forces
returned together without delay to Suakin, which they reached on the 18th,
having lost in the operations eighteen Egyptian soldiers killed
and three wounded.
Their arrival terminated a period of anxious doubt as to their fate.
The town, which had been almost entirely denuded of troops, was left
in charge of Captain Ford-Hutchinson. At about two o'clock in the
afternoon of the 16th a few stragglers from the Egyptian cavalry with
half-a-dozen riderless horses knocked at the gates, and vague but sinister
rumours spread on all sides. The belief that a disaster had overtaken the
Egyptian force greatly excited the Arabs living within the walls, and it
appeared that they were about to rise, plunder the town, and massacre the
Christians. Her Majesty's ship Scout was, however, by good fortune in the
harbour. Strong parties of bluejackets were landed to patrol the streets.
The guns of the warship were laid on the Arab quarter. These measures had
a tranquillising effect, and order reigned in Suakin until the return of
the Field Force, when their victory was celebrated with appropriate
It was announced that as a result of the successful operations the
Dervish enterprise against the Tokai Delta had collapsed, and that Osman
Digna's power was for ever broken. In order, however, that no unfortunate
incident should mar the triumph, the Xth Soudanese were sent back to Tokar
by sea via Trinkitat, instead of marching direct and the garrison of Suakin
confined themselves henceforward strictly to their defences. Osman Digna
remained in the neighbourhood and raided the friendly villages. On the
arrival of the Indian contingent he was supposed to be within twelve miles
of the town, but thereafter he retired to Adarama on the Atbara river,
where he remained during the Dongola campaign. The fact that no further
offensive operations were undertaken in the Eastern Soudan prevented all
fighting, for the Dervishes were, of course, unable to assail the strong
permanent fortifications behind which the Egyptians took shelter. They
nevertheless remained in actual possession of the surrounding country,
until the whole situation was altered by the successful advance of powerful
forces behind them along the Nile and by the occupation of Berber.
After the affair of Khor Wintri it was evident that it would not
be possible to leave Suakin to the defence only of the 16th Battalion of
reservists. On the other hand, Sir H. Kitchener required every soldier the
Egyptian army could muster to carry out the operations on the Nile. It was
therefore determined to send Indian troops to Suakin to garrison the town
and forts, and thus release the Xth Soudanese and the Egyptian battalions
for the Dongola Expedition. Accordingly early in the month of May the
Indian Army authorities were ordered to prepare a brigade of all arms
for service in Egypt.
The troops selected were as follow: 26th Bengal Infantry, 35th Sikhs,
1st Bombay Lancers, 5th Bombay Mountain Battery, two Maxim guns, one
section Queen's Own (Madras) Sappers and Miners--in all about 4,000 men.
The command was entrusted to Colonel Egerton, of the Corps of Guides.
On the 30th of May the dreary town of Suakin was enlivened by the arrival
of the first detachments, and during the following week the whole force
disembarked at the rotten piers and assumed the duties of the defence.
It is mournful to tell how this gallant brigade, which landed so full of
high hope and warlike enthusiasm, and which was certainly during the
summer the most efficient force in the Soudan, was reduced in seven months
to the sullen band who returned to India wasted by disease, embittered by
disappointment, and inflamed by feelings of resentment and envy.
The Indian contingent landed in the full expectation of being immediately
employed against the enemy. After a week, when all the stores had been
landed, officers and men spent their time speculating when the order to
march would come. It was true that there was no transport in Suakin, but
that difficulty was easily overcome by rumours that 5,000 camels were on
their way from the Somali coast to enable the force to move on Kassala
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