THE DERVISHES BREAK INTO THE BRITISH SQUARE AT ABU KLEA

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ln 1881, in the Sudan, a leader emerged from out of the sands of the desert. He was a man of the desert; a mystic and a man of God. His name was Muhammad Ahmad and claimed to be the “Expected One”, the true “Mahdi”. He soon gathered a force of followers from the desert tribes, and declared jihad. The Mahdi’s army grew and his revolt TheMahdi1spread. The Dervishes (as they came to be known) captured towns and defeated small Egyptian forces sent to destroy them.

Then, in 1883, the Turkish governor of Egypt hired William “Billy” Hicks, a retired British Colonel and several British subordinates to lead a modern army into the Sudan and crush the Mahdi. Hicks Pasha had at his disposal 10,000 regular infantry armed with modern rifles, 1,000 irregular cavalry, 14 field pieces and 6 Nordenfelt  multiple barrel machine guns. On paper it was an imposing force. But the infantry had been recruited from pardoned rebels and the cavalry were undisciplined bashibazouks. In the words of Winston Churchill, it was “perhaps the worst army that has ever marched to war” – unpaid, untrained, undisciplined, its soldiers having more in common with their enemies than with their officers.

The Mahdi’s awaited them, with 40,000 spear or sword-armed tribesmen. They had few rifles and no field guns; but they had something perhaps even greater. The Mahdi promised them a miracle, and they had faith that he would deliver. They also knew the desert.

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Dervish weapons, shields and armor

The Mahdi retreated, and Hicks pursed. Further and further the Mahdi drew his enemy, and Hicks followed; slowed by an immense train of 5,000 camels. The Egyptians withered in the blistering desert heat, their water supplies dwindling. Day after day, they marched on, the Dervishes always just beyond their reach. Finally, his army spent, Hicks ordered a retreat back to El Obied. It was then the Mahdi stopped retreating, and turned on his enemy. The Egyptians were soon surrounded. For two days their square held, until it collapsed. Hicks and all of the European officers perished; and only 500 survivors returned to Egypt. They left in the Mahdi’s hands all of their equipment. If formidable with spear and sword, how dangerous would the Dervishes now be with modern weapons?

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The harsh, forbidding terrain of the Sudanese desert

The loss of Hick’s army was a deep embarrassment to both Egypt and British government. While technically a part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was effectively under the protection of the British Empire. Its army was trained and led by British officers. Pride aside, of more concern was the loss of more than 8,000 rifles and the 14 pieces of modern artillery. The government of Prime Minister William Gladstone was forced by an outraged public to take action.

In contrast to his arch political rival, Disraeli, Gladstone was a staunch anti-imperialist; and was loath to commit British forces to a war in the Sudan. However, to ease British public opinion, Gladstone appointed a retired national hero, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, as Governor-General of the Sudan. While most famous for having led the Chinese Imperial government’s “Ever Victorious Army” to final victory in the Taiping Rebellion; Gordon had served as Governor of the Sudan in the 1870s, where he had suppressed the slave trade. It was a popular appointment both in Britain and in the Sudan.

GordonCharles “Chinese” Gordon (right), and Charlton Heston, who portrayed Chinese Gordon in the film “Khartoum” (1966)

But Gordon was not sent to the Sudan to fight the Mahdi. He had no troops at his disposal, and none were promised should he get himself into trouble. He was sent in hopes that his name alone would rally support to the government and against the Mahdi; and failing that, to organize the evacuation of all European personnel from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Gordon arrived in Khartoum in February, 1884. However, Gladstone had overestimated both the dampening effect Gordon’s arrival in the Sudan would have on the Mahdist revolt; and Gordon’s willingness to obey orders. Once ensconced in the Governor’s palace in Khartoum, Gordon began calling for Gladstone to send troops to help his beloved Sudanese in resisting the Dervishes. Meanwhile, he spent the year preparing Khartoum to stand siege till relief arrived.

As the Mahdist revolt spread, Gordon and Khartoum were increasingly isolated. A loose Dervish blockade of the city began on March 18, 1884, with the telegraph line to Cairo being cut and river traffic interdicted. Fearful for their hero’s life, the British press and public called for a relief expedition. A stubborn and incensed Gladstone resisted as long as was politically possible. Then, in August 1884 he ordered a British relief force to Gordon’s rescue.

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Called the Khartoum Relief Expedition (or, more popularly in the press, the Gordon Relief Expedition), a force of 4,500 crack British regulars were placed under the command of Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley, Britain’s most eminent general. Steaming from England to Alexandria, the expedition then set out from Egypt and up the Nile in two columns. The largest was led by Wolseley himself, and traveled south down the Nile by riverboats. The other, the elite Camel Corps, was commanded by Sir Herbert Stewart. These took the direct route from Wadi Halfa across the desert.

Stewart’s force, 1,400 strong, was composed of some of the best units in the British army:
1. The Heavy Camel Corps, comprised of the Household Cavalry, Dragoon Guards, Dragoons and Lancers.
2. The Guards Camel Corps, comprising Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards and Royal Marine Light Infantry.
3. The Mounted Infantry Camel Corps, drawn from the 1st Battalion the Sussex Regiment.
4. Four light field pieces and a small Naval Brigade manning a Gardner machine gun completed the force.

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The actual men of the Camel Corps, posing for a photo, 1885

Unlike what is commonly portrayed, the men of Stewarts command did not wear the traditional redcoat. Instead, they wore grey tunics, cord breeches and pith helmets stained brown. The infantry of the Sussex Regiment wore khaki tunics. The British troops were all armed with the Martini-Henry breach-loading rifle, equipped with a 22 inch sword-bayonet. Both infantry and cavalry units were mounted on camels, except for the 19th Hussars. These retained their horses; and carried carbines and swords instead of rifles.

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As Stewart’s column neared the oasis of Abu Klea on January 16, 1885,  pickets of the 19th Hussars encountered parties of Dervishes. It could be seen that a large force was waiting at the wells and ready to give battle. The British had left the last water some 43 miles before and were in need of replenishment. Nevertheless it was apparent that Abu Klea could only be taken by assault. Stewart halted two miles short of Abu Klea and camped.

The following morning, January 17 the British waited a Dervish attack behind a zereba (hedge) of thorn brush they had erected around their camp. Mounted parties were sent out to skirmish with the Dervishes, in hope of stinging them into a costly assault on the well-defended British camp. When the Mahdist failed to take the bait, Stewart broke camp. Forming up his command into a large, hollow square with the camels in the center, Stewart’s dismounted force advanced on the wells of Abu Klea.

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The 13,000 strong Dervish force waiting for Stewart was chiefly comprised of the Mahdi’s fiercest warriors: the 389523_3060053817279_1363678321_nHadendoa. Noted for their bushy, “Afro” style hair, they were nicknamed the “Fuzzy Wuzzies”. In battle they wielded a long broadsword (called a “kaskara”, right) and broad-bladed spears, and for defense a round hippo-hide shield. Making good use of terrain and cover to come to close quarters, they were feared for their ferocious charges. In these years of conflict they earned an unenviable reputation for their hideous mutilations of the dead on the battlefields.

The British “Tommy” learned a healthy respect for the Hadendoa warriors as opponents. Rudyard Kipling, the poet-laureate of Queen Victoria’s army, immortalized them in his famous poem, “Fuzzy Wuzzy”:

We’ve fought with many men acrost the seas,
An’ some of ’em was brave an’ some was not:
The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o’ the lot.

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Hadendoa warriors of the Dervish army rush to the attack

For Herbert Stewart and the British, the Battle of Abu Klea began with inauspiciously with mishap. At around 9:30am, as the British square wheeled to the right to move onto higher ground, the Dervishes emerged from the concealment of a nearby gully and charged the square. At this critical juncture, the British fire was hampered by the presence of their own skirmishers between them and the enemy. These had to be permitted to regain the square before volley fire could commence. The rapidly approaching “Fuzzies” followed close on the retreating skirmishers, consequently coming to within 200 yards or less of the square before the first volleys could be delivered; depriving the British of long-range fire.

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The Martini-Henry rifle with bayonet types

Near disaster loomed when, at this most inopportune moment, a potentially fatal gap opened in a corner of the square. This was partially due to the uneven nature of the ground, and to the inexperience of the Naval Brigade and the dismounted cavalry contingents, who were attempting to fight as infantry. The Dervish charge was delivered at the section of the square held by the Mounted Infantry Regiment of the Camel Corps. Captain Lord Beresford of the Naval Brigade brought his Gardner gun from its position at the rear of the square and took it out through the Mounted Infantry line and opened fire on the charging warriors. But after firing just some 70 rounds, the Gardner gun jammed. Before it could be cleared the Dervish spearmen swarmed over and overwhelmed the detachment; slaughtering all but Lord Beresford, who fell under the gun, along with one of the junior men.

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Despite this reverse, the heavy volley firing from the Mounted Infantry and shrapnel from the 3 guns in their front repulsed the Hadendoa charge; which coursed around the left face of the square to fall on the gap in the square, where the Heavy Cavalry Camel regiment was posted.

The troopers of this Regiment were defending themselves with the long infantry rifle, a weapon they were unfamiliar with. The cavalry officers had no experience in defending an infantry square.

Swarming forward, the Dervishes penetrated through the gap and  into the square!

At this moment Colonel Frederick Burnaby of the Horse Guards rushed forward to stem the tide. A large man who famously loved a good fight, Burnaby waded into the oncoming horde. Fighting with sword from horseback, Burnaby fenced with onrushing Hadendoa warriors; till a thrusting spearman, coming from his flank, caught him in the throat, mortally wounding him.

burnaby at abu kleaRushing on into the interior of the square, the Dervishes were balked by the mass of camels packed into the interior; preventing the “Fuzzies” from smashing into the exposed rear ranks of the British troops on the opposing faces of the square. As the camels scampered out of the way, the rear rank of the Mounted Infantry in the front face and the Foot Guards and Royal Marines of the Guards regiment in the right face turned about and opened a devastating fire on the Mahdists. Their attack was soon broken, and thrown back.

The battle was only ten, frantic minutes long. It resulted in 76 dead and 82 wounded British soldiers. The bold Fuzzy Wuzzies took approximately 1,500 casualties. By 4pm, the British had taken the wells and the Dervish force was in retreat.

Two days later, Stewart was mortally wounded by a stray bullet in a skirmish. The advance continued unabated. Concerned with Wolseley’s column approaching as well along the river, the Mahdi  decided to order an assault on Khartoum, before the relief columns could arrive to break the siege. Despite his careful preparations, Gordon’s defenses crumbled and the city fell. Gordon died on the steps of his palace to a Dervish spear.

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The Death of Gordon

The Gordon Relief Expedition arrived at Khartoum two days later. Gordon and the European nationals dead, the British withdrew; and the Mahdi took complete control of the Sudan.

Expedition failes

Six months later, the Mahdi died of Typhus. But the Dervish state continued on for another 14 years; till Britain sent a second army under Sir Herbert Kitchener to finish what Wolseley and Stewart had begun.

Fierce fuzzies

Photo taken of Hadendoa warrior (“Fuzzie Wuzzie”)
Scene from the 1966 film, Khartoum, depicting (inaccurately) the Battle of Abu Klea. Note the lack of “Fuzzie Wuzzies” attacking on foot, among other flaws.

Kipling’s poem, Fuzzy Wuzzy, in its entirety:

Fuzzy-Wuzzy

By Rudyard Kipling

(Soudan Expeditionary Force)

We’ve fought with many men acrost the seas,
An’ some of ’em was brave an’ some was not:
The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o’ the lot.
We never got a ha’porth’s change of ‘im:
‘E squatted in the scrub an’ ‘ocked our ‘orses,
‘E cut our sentries up at Suakim,
An’ ‘e played the cat an’ banjo with our forces.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
We gives you your certificate, an’ if you want it signed
We’ll come an’ ‘ave a romp with you whenever you’re inclined.

We took our chanst among the Khyber ‘ills,
The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills,
An’ a Zulu impi dished us up in style:
But all we ever got from such as they
Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller;
We ‘eld our bloomin’ own, the papers say,
But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us ‘oller.
Then ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.

‘E ‘asn’t got no papers of ‘is own,
‘E ‘asn’t got no medals nor rewards,
So we must certify the skill ‘e’s shown
In usin’ of ‘is long two-‘anded swords:
When ‘e’s ‘oppin’ in an’ out among the bush
With ‘is coffin-‘eaded shield an’ shovel-spear,
An ‘appy day with Fuzzy on the rush
Will last an ‘ealthy Tommy for a year.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ your friends which are no more,
If we ‘adn’t lost some messmates we would ‘elp you to deplore;
But give an’ take’s the gospel, an’ we’ll call the bargain fair,
For if you ‘ave lost more than us, you crumpled up the square!

‘E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
An’, before we know, ‘e’s ‘ackin’ at our ‘ead;
‘E’s all ‘ot sand an’ ginger when alive,
An’ ‘e’s generally shammin’ when ‘e’s dead.
‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
‘E’s the on’y thing that doesn’t give a damn
For a Regiment o’ British Infantree!
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
An’ ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air —
You big black boundin’ beggar — for you broke a British square!

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14 Responses to THE DERVISHES BREAK INTO THE BRITISH SQUARE AT ABU KLEA

  1. It’s a fascinating history, one I knew little about before reading your post. It’s funny how dated Kipling’s work is nowadays.

  2. That’s where my grandparents 7 people

    Thank You greetings

    Rudyard Kipling

  3. Mohammed says:

    Those were my great antecedents the sons of the the king Kuch and Piya,
    u did a great effort & a very nice job… thank you so much !

  4. Great post and great read all around!

  5. Pingback: Fire & Fury in the Sudan | adventuresinminiature

  6. Maurice Thornton says:

    You didn’t mention Corperal Jones exploits.

  7. bill says:

    The main Mahdist attack on the left flank of the square at Abu Klea was by tribesmen from Kordofan, not Hadendoa: Kipling’s “Fuzzy-Wuzzies” broke a square ( quickly reformed) at Tamai in March 1884.

  8. bokhara says:

    Agree with Bill above. The Hadendoa were not present in any strength at Abu Klea. Kipling is writing about the battle of Tamai, where the Hadendoa of the Eastern Sudan under Osman ‘digna briefly got inside the square. At Abu Klea the main dervish attack on the left side of the square was made by Baggara and Hamr tribesmen from Kordofan.

  9. Arthur McClench says:

    Corporal Jones served with Kitchener in the second Sudan campaign in 1898, when the British and Egyptians defeated the Mahdists at Omdurman and recaptured Khartoum. Allegedly.

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