Part 3 out of 6
or Berber. As these did not arrive, General Egerton sent in a proposed
scheme to the Sirdar, in which he undertook to hold all the advanced posts
up to the Kokreb range, if he were supplied with 1,000 camels for
transport. A characteristic answer was returned, to the effect that it was
not intended to use the Indian contingent as a mobile force. They had come
as a garrison for Suakin, and a garrison for Suakin they should remain.
This information was not, however, communicated to the troops, who
continued to hope for orders to advance until the fall of Dongola.
The heat when the contingent arrived was not great, but as the months
wore on the temperature rose steadily, until in August and September the
thermometer rarely fell below 103° during the night, and often rose to 115°
by day. Dust storms were frequent. A veritable plague of flies tormented
the unhappy soldiers. The unhealthy climate, the depressing inactivity,
and the scantiness of fresh meat or the use of condensed water, provoked
an outbreak of scurvy. At one time nearly all the followers and 50 per cent
of the troops were affected. Several large drafts were invalided to India.
The symptoms were painful and disgusting--open wounds, loosening of the
teeth, curious fungoid growths on the gums and legs. The cavalry horses
and transport animals suffered from bursati, and even a pinprick expanded
into a large open sore. It is doubtful whether the brigade could have been
considered fit for active service after September. All the Europeans
suffered acutely from prickly heat. Malarial fever was common. There were
numerous cases of abscess on the liver. Twenty-five per cent of the British
officers were invalided to England or India, and only six escaped a stay in
hospital. The experiences of the battalion holding Tokar Fort were even
worse than those of the troops in Suakin. At length the longed-for time of
departure arrived. With feelings of relief and delight the Indian
contingent shook the dust of Suakin off their feet and returned to India.
It is a satisfaction to pass from the dismal narrative of events in the
Eastern Soudan to the successful campaign on the Nile.
By the middle of April the concentration on the frontier was completed.
The communications were cleared of their human freight, and occupied only
by supplies and railway material, which continued to pour south at the
utmost capacity of the transport. Eleven thousand troops had been massed
at and beyond Wady Halfa. But no serious operations could take place until
a strong reserve of stores had been accumulated at the front. Meanwhile the
army waited, and the railway grew steadily. The battalions were distributed
in three principal fortified camps--Halfa, Sarras, and Akasha--and
detachments held the chain of small posts which linked them together.
Including the North Staffordshire Regiment, the garrison of Wady Halfa
numbered about 3,000 men. The town and cantonment, nowhere more than 400
yards in width, straggle along the river-bank, squeezed in between
the water and the desert, for nearly three miles. The houses, offices,
and barracks are all built of mud, and the aspect of the place is brown
and squalid. A few buildings, however, attain to the dignity of two
storeys. At the northern end of the town a group of fairly well-built
houses occupy the river-front, and a distant view of the clusters of
palm-trees, of the white walls, and the minaret of the mosque refreshes
the weary traveller from Korosko or Shellal with the hopes of civilised
entertainment. The whole town is protected towards the deserts by a ditch
and mud wall; and heavy Krupp field-pieces are mounted on little bastions
where the ends of the rampart rest upon the river. Five small detached
forts strengthen the land front, and the futility of an Arab attack at
this time was evident. Halfa had now become the terminus of a railway,
which was rapidly extending; and the continual arrival and despatch of
tons of material, the building of sheds, workshops, and storehouses lent
the African slum the bustle and activity of a civilised city.
Sarras Fort is an extensive building, perched on a crag of black rock
rising on the banks of the Nile about thirty miles south of Halfa. During
the long years of preparation it had been Egypt's most advanced outpost
and the southern terminus of the military railway. The beginning of the
expedition swelled it into an entrenched camp, holding nearly 6,000 men.
From each end of the black rock on which the fort stood a strong stone wall
and wire entanglement ran back to the river. The space thus enclosed was
crowded with rows of tents and lines of animals and horses; and in the fort
Colonel Hunter, commanding the district known as 'Sarras and the South,'
had his headquarters.
From Sarras the army seemed to have chosen a double line of advance.
The railway reconstruction followed the old track which had been prepared
through the desert in 1885. The convoy route wound along by the river.
Both were protected from attack. The 7th Egyptians guarded Railhead,
while the chain of small posts secured the road by the Nile to Akasha.
The advanced base grew during the months of April and May into a strong
position. Only once did the Arabs venture to approach within artillery
range. A small body of horse and camel men made a sort of haphazard
reconnaissance, and, being seen from the outpost line, were fired on at a
great distance by a field-gun. They fell back immediately, but it was
believed that the range was too great for the projectile to have harmed
them; and it was not until two days later that the discovery on the spot
of a swollen, blistering corpse, clad in bright jibba, apprised the
delighted gunners of the effect of their fire. Warned by this lucky shot
the Dervishes came no more, or came unseen.
The Sirdar, accompanied by Colonel Bundle, his Chief of Staff, had left
Cairo on the 22nd of March, and after a short stay at Assuan reached Wady
Halfa on the 29th. Here he remained during the month of April,
superintending and pressing the extension of the railroad and the
accumulation of supplies. On the 1st of May he arrived at Akasha, with a
squadron of cavalry, under Major Burn-Murdoch, as his escort. It happened
that a convoy had come in the previous day, so that there were two extra
cavalry squadrons at the advanced post. Almost at the same moment that
Sir H. Kitchener entered the camp, a party of friendly Arabs came in with
the news that they had been surprised some four miles to the eastward by
a score of Dervish camel-men, and had only succeeded in escaping with the
loss of two of their number. In the belief that the enemy in the immediate
vicinity were not in force, the Sirdar ordered the three squadrons of
Egyptian cavalry, supported by the XIth Soudanese, to go out and
reconnoitre towards Firket and endeavour to cut off any hostile patrols
that might be found.
At ten o'clock Major Burn-Murdoch started with four British officers
and 240 lances. After moving for seven or eight miles among the hills which
surround Akasha, the cavalry passed through a long, sandy defile, flanked
on either side by rocky peaks and impracticable ravines. As the head of the
column was about to debouch from this, the advanced scouts reported that
there was a body of Dervishes in the open ground in front of the defile.
The cavalry commander rode forward to look at them, and found himself
confronted, not, as he had expected, by a score of camel-men, but by a
strong force of Dervishes, numbering at least 1,500 foot and 250 horse.
The cavalry, by trotting, had left the supporting infantry some distance
behind them. The appearance of the enemy was threatening. The horsemen,
who were drawn up scarcely 300 yards away, were already advancing to the
attack, their right flank protected by a small force of camelry;
and behind was the solid array of the spearmen.
Major Burn-Murdoch determined to fall back on his infantry support
and escape from the bad ground. He gave the order, and the squadrons
wheeled about by troops and began to retire. Forthwith the Dervish horse
charged, and, galloping furiously into the defile, attacked the cavalry
in rear. Both sides were crowded in the narrow space. The wildest
confusion followed, and the dust raised by the horses' hoofs hung over all
like a yellow London fog, amid which the bewildered combatants discharged
their pistols and thrust at random. The Egyptian cavalry, thus highly
tried, showed at first no disposition to turn to meet the attack.
The tumult drowned all words of command. A disaster appeared imminent.
But the British officers, who had naturally been at the head of the column
during its advance, were now at the rear and nearest the enemy. Collecting
a score of troopers, they made such resistance with their swords and
revolvers that they actually held the defile and beat back the Dervish
horse, who retired on their infantry, leaving a dozen dead upon the ground.
Two of the Egyptian squadrons continued to retreat until clear of the
defile, a distance of 700 yards; but the third and rearmost was compelled
by the British officers to face about, and, galloping with this force down
the ravine, Major Burn-Murdoch drove the Arabs pell-mell out of it.
The other two squadrons had now returned, and the whole force dismounted,
and, taking up a position among the sandhills near the mouth of the defile,
opened fire with their carbines. The repulse of their cavalry seemed to
have disheartened the Dervishes, for they made no attempt to attack the
dismounted troopers, and contented themselves with maintaining a desultory
fire, which was so ill-aimed that but little loss was caused. The heat of
the weather was terrific, and both men and horses suffered acutely from
thirst. The squadron which had escorted the Sirdar had performed a long
march before the reconnaissance and was exhausted. The cavalry, however,
held their position among the sandhills and easily defeated a feeble
attempt to turn their right. At a quarter past twelve the Dervishes began
to retire slowly and deliberately, and by one o'clock, when the XIth
Soudanese arrived, eager and agog, the last Arab had disappeared. The force
then returned to camp, bearing many spears and leading six captured horses
as trophies of victory. The intensity of the heat may be gauged by the fact
that one of the Soudanese soldiers--that is to say, an African negro--
died of sunstroke. Such was the affair of the 1st of May, and it is
pleasing to relate that in this fierce fight the loss was not severe.
One British officer, Captain Fitton, was slightly wounded. One native
soldier was killed; one was mortally and eight severely wounded.
During May the preparations for the advance on the Dervish position
at Firket continued, and towards the end of the month it became evident
that they were nearly complete. The steady accumulation of stores at Akasha
had turned that post into a convenient base from which the force might
operate for a month without drawing supplies of any kind from the north.
The railway, which had progressed at the rate of about half a mile a day,
had reached and was working to Ambigole Wells, where a four-gun fort and
entrenchment had been built. The distance over which convoys must plod
was reduced by half, and the business of supply was doubly accelerated.
By degrees the battalions and squadrons began to move forward towards
Akasha. Sarras, deprived of its short-lived glory, became again the
solitary fort on a crag. Wady Halfa was also deserted, and, except for the
British battalion in garrison, could scarcely boast a soldier. Both the
Egyptian battalions from Suakin had arrived on the Nile. The Xth Soudanese
were on their way. The country beyond Akasha had been thoroughly
reconnoitred and mapped to within three miles of the Dervish position.
Everything was ready.
The actual concentration may be said to have begun on the 1st of June,
when the Sirdar started for the front from Halfa, whither he had returned
after the cavalry skirmish. Construction work on the railway came to a
full stop. The railway battalions, dropping their picks and shovels,
shouldered their Remington rifles and became the garrisons of the posts
on the line of communications. On the 2nd of June the correspondents
were permitted to proceed to Akasha. On the 3rd the Xth Soudanese passed
through Ambigole and marched south. The Horse battery from Halfa followed.
The Egyptian battalions and squadrons which had been camped along the river
at convenient spots from Ambigole to Akasha marched to a point opposite
Okma. Between this place and the advanced post an extensive camp,
stretching three miles along the Nile bank, arose with magic swiftness.
On the 4th the 7th Egyptians moved from Railhead, and with these the last
battalion reached the front. Nine thousand men, with ample supplies, were
collected within striking distance of the enemy.
All this time the Dervishes at Firket watched in senseless apathy
the deliberate, machine-like preparations for their destruction.
They should have had good information, for although the Egyptian cavalry
patrolled ceaselessly, and the outpost line was impassable to scouts, their
spies, as camel-drivers, water-carriers, and the like, were in the camp.
They may not, perhaps, have known the exact moment of the intended blow,
for the utmost secrecy was observed. But though they must have realised
that it was imminent, they did nothing. There was, indeed, no course open
to them but retreat. Once the army was concentrated with sufficient
supplies at Akasha, their position was utterly untenable.
The Emir-in-Chief, Hammuda, then had scarcely 3,000 men around his flag.
Their rifles and ammunition were bad; their supplies scanty. Nor could the
valour of fifty-seven notable Emirs sustain the odds against them.
There was still time to fall back on Kosheh, or even on Suarda--anywhere
outside the sweep of their terrible enemy's sword. They would not budge.
Obstinate and fatuous to the last, they dallied and paltered on the fatal
ground, until sudden, blinding, inevitable catastrophe fell upon them from
all sides at once, and swept them out of existence as a military force.
CHAPTER VI: FIRKET
June 7, 1896
Since the end of 1895 the Dervish force in Firket had been
under the command of the Emir Hammuda, and it was through the indolence
and neglect of this dissipated Arab that the Egyptian army had been able
to make good its position at Akasha without any fighting. Week after week
the convoys had straggled unmolested through the difficult country between
Sarras and the advanced base. No attack had been made upon the brigade at
Akasha. No enterprise was directed against its communications. This fatal
inactivity did not pass unnoticed by Wad Bishara, the Governor of Dongola;
but although he was nominally in supreme command of all the Dervish forces
in the province he had hardly any means of enforcing his authority.
His rebukes and exhortations, however, gradually roused Hammuda, and during
May two or three minor raids were planned and executed, and the Egyptian
position at Akasha was several times reconnoitred.
Bishara remained unsatisfied, and at length, despairing of infusing energy
into Hammuda, he ordered his subordinate Osman Azrak to supersede him.
Osman was a Dervish of very different type. He was a fanatical and devoted
believer in the Mahdi and a loyal follower of the Khalifa. For many years
he had served on the northern frontier of the Dervish Empire, and his name
was well known to the Egyptian Government as the contriver of the most
daring and the most brutal raids. His cruelty to the wretched inhabitants
of the border villages had excluded him from all hope of mercy should he
ever fall into the hands of the enemy. His crafty skill, however,
protected him, and among the Emirs gathered at Firket there was none whose
death would have given greater satisfaction to the military authorities
than the man who was now to replace Hammuda.
Whether Osman Azrak had actually assumed command on the 6th of June
is uncertain. It seems more likely that Hammuda declined to admit his
right, and that the matter still stood in dispute. But in any case Osman
was determined to justify his appointment by his activity, and about
midday he started from the camp at Firket, and, accompanied by a strong
patrol of camel-men, set out to reconnoitre Akasha. Moving cautiously,
he arrived unperceived within sight of the position at about three o'clock
in the afternoon. The columns which were to storm Firket at dawn were then
actually parading. But the clouds of dust which the high wind drove across
or whirled about the camp obscured the view, and the Dervish could
distinguish nothing unusual. He therefore made the customary pentagonal
mark on the sand to ensure good luck, and so returned to Firket to renew
his dispute with Hammuda, bearing the reassuring news that 'the Turks
The force which the Sirdar had concentrated for the capture of Firket
amounted to about nine thousand men, and was organised as follows:--
Commander-in-Chief: THE SIRDAR
The Infantry Division: COLONEL HUNTER Commanding
1st Brigade 2nd Brigade 3rd Brigade
Major LEWIS MAJOR MACDONALD MAJOR MAXWELL
3rd Egyptians IXth Soudanese 2nd Egyptians
4th " XIth " 7th "
Xth Soudanese XIIth " 8th "
Mounted Forces: MAJOR BURN-MURDOCH
Egyptian Cavalry . . . . 7 squadrons
Camel Corps . . . . . 8 companies
Horse Artillery . . . . 1 battery
Field Artillery . . . . 2 batteries
Maxim Guns . . . . . 1 battery
Two roads led from Akasha to Firket--one by the bank of the river,
the other inland and along the projected railway line. The Sirdar
determined to avail himself of both. The force was therefore divided into
two columns. The main column, under command of the Sirdar, was to move by
the river road, and consisted of the infantry division, the Field
Artillery, and the Maxim guns. The Desert Column, under command of Major
Burn-Murdoch, consisted of the mounted forces, the Horse Artillery, and
one battalion of infantry (the XIIth Soudanese) drawn from MacDonald's
brigade and mounted upon camels: in all about two thousand men.
Very precise orders were given to the smaller column, and Burn-Murdoch
was instructed to occupy the hills to the south-east of the centre of
Firket village by 4.30 A.M.; to dispose his force facing west, with the
cavalry on the left, the Camel Corps in the centre, and the XIIth
Soudanese on the right. The only point left to his discretion was the
position to be occupied by the Horse battery. He was especially warned
not to come under the fire of the main infantry force. As soon as the
enemy should be routed, the XIIth Soudanese were to return to the Sirdar.
The cavalry, camelry, and Horse Artillery were to pursue--the objective
being, firstly, Koyeka, and, secondly, Suarda.
The infantry column began to march out of Akasha at 3.30 in the afternoon
of the 6th, and trailed southwards along the track by the river in the
following order: Lewis's brigade, with the Xth Soudanese leading;
two Maxim guns and the artillery; MacDonald's brigade; Maxwell's brigade;
and, lastly, the field hospitals and a half-battalion forming rearguard.
The Sirdar marched behind the artillery. The rear of the long column was
clear of the camp by 4.30, and about two hours later the mounted force
started by the desert road. The River Column made good progress till dark,
but thereafter the advance was slow and tedious. The track led through
broken rocky ground, and was so narrow that it nowhere allowed a larger
front to be formed than of four men abreast. In some places the sharp rocks
and crumbling heaps of stone almost stopped the gun-mules altogether,
while the infantry tripped and stumbled painfully. The moon had not risen,
and the darkness was intense. Still the long procession of men, winding
like a whiplash between the jagged hills, toiled onward through the night,
with no sound except the tramping of feet and the rattle of accoutrements.
At half-past ten the head of Lewis's brigade debouched into a smooth sandy
plain about a mile to the north of Sarkamatto village. This was the spot--
scarcely three miles from the enemy's position--where the Sirdar had
decided to halt and bivouac. The bank and foreshore of the river were
convenient for watering; all bottles and skins were filled, and soldiers
and animals drank. A little food was eaten, and then, battalion by
battalion, as the force arrived at the halting-place, they lay down
to rest. The tail of Maxwell's brigade reached the bivouac about midnight,
and the whole column was then concentrated.
Meanwhile the mounted force were also on their way.
Like the River Column, they were disordered by the broken ground,
and the XIIth Soudanese, who were unused to camel riding and mounted only
on transport saddles, were soon wearied. After one o'clock many men,
both in the Camel Corps and in the battalion, fell asleep on their camels,
and the officers had great difficulty in keeping them awake. However, the
force reached their point of concentration--about three miles to the
south-east of Firket--at a quarter to three. Here the XIIth Soudanese
dismounted from their camels and became again a fighting unit. Leaving the
extra camels under a guard, Major Burn-Murdoch then advanced towards his
appointed position on the hills overlooking Firket.
The Sirdar moved on again with the infantry at 2.30. The moon had risen
over the rocks to the left of the line of march, but it was only a thin
crescent and did not give much light. The very worst part of the whole
track was encountered immediately the bivouac was left, and the column of
nearly six thousand men had to trickle through one narrow place in single
file. There were already signs of the approach of dawn; the Dervish camp
was near; the Sirdar and his Staff began to look anxious. He sent many
messages to the leading battalions to hurry; and the soldiers, although
now very weary, ran and scrambled through the difficult passage like sheep
crowding through a gate. By four o'clock the leading brigade had cleared
the obstacle, and the most critical moment seemed to have passed.
Suddenly, a mile to the southward, rose the sound of the beating of drums.
Everyone held his breath. The Dervishes were prepared. Perhaps they would
attack the column before it could deploy. Then the sound died away, and
but for the clatter of the marching columns all was again silent. It was
no alarm, but only the call to the morning prayer; and the Dervishes, still
ignorant that their enemies approached and that swift destruction was upon
them, trooped from their huts to obey the pious summons.
The great mass of Firket mountain, still dark in the half-light,
now rose up on the left of the line of march. Between it and the river
stretched a narrow strip of scrub-covered ground; and here, though
obstructed by the long grass, bushes, palm-trees, and holes, the leading
brigade was ordered to deploy. There was, however, as yet only room for the
Xth Soudanese to form line, and the 3rd and 4th Egyptians contented
themselves with widening to column of companies--the 3rd in rear of the
right of the Xth, the 4th in rear of the centre. The force now began to
emerge from the narrow space between the hills and the river, and debouch
into open country. As the space widened No. 1 field battery came into line
on the left, and No. 2 On the right of the Xth Soudanese. A swell of ground
hid Firket village, though it was known to be within a mile, and it was now
daylight. Still there was no sign that the Dervishes were prepared.
It seemed scarcely possible to believe that the advance had not yet been
discovered. The silence seemed to forbode some unexpected attack.
The leading brigade and guns halted for a few minutes to allow MacDonald
to form his battalions from 'fours' into column of companies. Then at five
o'clock the advance was resumed, and at this moment from the shoulder of
Firket mountain there rang out a solitary shot. The Dervish outposts
had at last learned their danger. Several other shots followed in quick
succession, and were answered by a volley from the Xth, and then from far
away to the south-east came the report of a field-gun. The Horse Artillery
battery had come into action. The operation of the two columns
was simultaneous: the surpise of the enemy was complete.
The great object was now to push on and deploy as fast as possible.
The popping of musketry broke out from many points, and the repeated
explosions of the Horse battery added to the eager excitement of
the troops. For what is more thrilling than the sudden and swift
development of an attack at dawn? The Xth Soudanese had now reached
the top of the rise which had hidden Firket, and the whole scene came
into view. To the right front the village of Firket stretched by the side
of the river--a confusion of mud houses nearly a mile in length and
perhaps 300 yards broad. On the landward side the tents and straw shelters
of the Dervish force showed white and yellow. A system of mud walls and
loop-holed houses strengthened the northern end of the village. Behind it
as a background stood lines and clusters of palm-trees, through which the
broad river and the masts of the Arab boats might be seen. In front of the
troops, but a little to their left, rose a low rocky ridge surmounted
with flags and defended by a stone breastwork running along its base.
Across the open space between the village and the hill hundreds of
Dervishes on horse and on foot were hurrying to man their defences,
and others scrambled up the rocks to see for themselves the numbers of
the enemy. Scores of little puffs of smoke already speckled the black
rocks of the ridge and the brown houses of the village.
The attack developed very rapidly. The narrow passage between the mountain
and the river poured forth its brigades and battalions, and the
firing-line stretched away to the right and left with extraordinary speed.
The Xth Soudanese opened fire on the village as soon as they topped
the rise. The 3rd and 4th Egyptians deployed on the right and left of the
leading regiment, two companies of the 4th extending down on to the
foreshore below the steep river-bank. Peake's battery (No. 1) and the Maxim
guns, coming into action from a spur of Firket mountain, began to fire over
the heads of the advancing infantry.
The whole of Lewis's brigade now swung to the right and attacked
the village; MacDonald's, coming up at the double in line of battalion
columns, deployed to the left, inland, round the shoulder of the mountain,
and, bearing away still more to the left, advanced swiftly upon the rocky
ridge. The ground in MacDonald's front was much broken by boulders and
scrub, and a deep khor delayed the advance. The enemy, though taken at
obvious disadvantage, maintained an irregular fire; but the Soudanese,
greatly excited, pressed on eagerly towards the breastworks. When the
brigade was still 200 yards from the ridge, about fifty Dervish horsemen
dashed out from among the rocks and charged the left flank. All were
immediately shot down by a wild but heavy independent fire. With joyful
yells the blacks broke into a run and carried the breastworks at the
bayonet. The Dervishes did not await the shock. As soon as they saw their
horsemen--among whom was the Emir Hammuda himself and Yusef Angar, Emir of
the Jehadia--swept away, they abandoned the first ridge and fell back on
another which lay behind. The Soudanese followed closely, and pursued the
outnumbered enemy up one and down the other side of the rocky hills,
up again and down again, continually shouldering and bringing round the
left of the brigade; until at last the hills were cleared of all except
the dead, and the fugitives were running towards the river-bank. Then the
scattered battalions re-formed facing west, and the panting soldiers
looked about them.
While MacDonald's brigade was storming the hills, Lewis's had advanced
on the village and the Dervish camp. The Arabs from their loopholed houses
made a stubborn resistance, and the 4th battalion by the river-bank were
sharply engaged, their commanding officer, Captain Sparkes, having his
horse shot in four places. Encouraged by their enormous superiority in
number and weapons, the Egyptians showed considerable zeal in the attack,
and their conduct on this occasion was regarded as a very happy augury
for the war, of which this was the first general engagement.
As Lewis's brigade had swung to its right, and MacDonald's had borne away
to the left, a wide gap had opened in the centre of the attack. This was
immediately filled by Maxwell's brigade, so that the whole force was now
formed in one line, which curved and wheeled continually to the right
until, by the time the rocky hills had been taken, all three brigades
practically faced west and were advancing together towards the Nile.
The Dervishes--penned between the river and the enemy, and unable to
prevent the remorseless advance, which every moment restricted them to
narrower limits--now thought only of flight, and they could be seen
galloping hither and thither seeking for some means of escape.
The position of the Desert Column would have enabled the XIIth Soudanese,
by moving down to the river, to cut off this line of retreat; but the
foreshore of the river at the southern end of Firket is concealed from
a landward view by the steep bank, and by this sandy path the greater
number of the fugitives found safety.
The cavalry and the Camel Corps, instead of cutting at the flank,
contented themselves with making a direct pursuit after the enemy had
crossed their front, and in consequence several hundred Arabs made good
their escape to the south. Others swam the river and fled by the west bank.
The wicked Osman Azrak, his authority now no longer disputed, for his rival
was a corpse, galloped from the field and reached Suarda. The rest of the
Dervish force held to the houses, and variously prepared to fight to
the death or surrender to their conquerors.
The three brigades now closed upon the village and, clearing it
step by step, advanced to the water's edge. MacDonald's brigade did not
indeed stop until they had crossed the swampy isthmus and occupied
the island. The Arabs, many of whom refused quarter, resisted desperately,
though without much effect, and more than eighty corpses were afterwards
found in one group of buildings. By 7.20 o'clock all firing had ceased;
the entire Dervish camp was in the hands of the Egyptian troops,
and the engagement of Firket was over.
The Sirdar now busied himself with the pursuit, and proceeded with
the mounted troops as far as Mograka, five miles south of Firket.
The whole cavalry force, with the Camel Corps and Horse Artillery,
pressed the retreat vigorously to Suarda. Osman Azrak, however, succeeded
in transporting the women and children and some stores, with a sufficient
escort, to the west bank before the arrival of the troops. On the approach
of the cavalry he retired along the east bank, with a small mounted force,
without fighting. The Emir in charge of the escort on the other side
delayed, and was in consequence shelled at long range by the Horse battery.
The local inhabitants, tired of the ceaseless war which had desolated the
frontier province for so long, welcomed their new masters with an
appearance of enthusiasm. The main pursuit stopped at Suarda, but a week
later two squadrons and sixteen men of the Camel Corps, under Captain
Mahon, were pushed out twenty miles further south, and an Arab store
of grain was captured.
The Dervish loss in the action was severe. More than 800 dead were
left on the field, and there were besides 500 wounded and 600 prisoners.
The casualties in the Egyptian army were 1 British officer--Captain
Legge--wounded, 20 native soldiers killed and 83 wounded.
Firket is officially classed as a general action: special despatches
were written, and a special clasp struck. The reader will have formed
his own estimate of the magnitude and severity of the fight. The whole
operation was well and carefully planned, and its success in execution
was complete. The long and difficult night march, the accurate arrival
and combination of the two columns, the swift deployment, the enveloping
movement, proved alike the discipline and training of the troops and the
skill of their officers. The only point on which criticism may be made
is the failure of the Desert Column to intercept the flying Dervishes.
But it should be remembered they had marched far, and it was not at that
time certain what the powers of the mounted troops were. The brilliant
aspect of the affair caused great satisfaction in England, and the
further prosecution of the campaign was looked for with
CHAPTER VII: THE RECOVERY OF THE DONGOLA PROVINCE
Countless and inestimable are the chances of war. Those who read
the story, and still more those who share the dangers, of a campaign
feel that every incident is surrounded with a host of possibilities,
any one of which, had it become real, would have changed the whole course
of events. The influence of Fortune is powerfully and continually exerted.
In the flickering light of conflict the outlines of solid fact throw
on every side the vague shadows of possibility. We live in a world
of 'ifs.' 'What happened,' is singular; 'what might have happened,' legion.
But to try to gauge the influence of this uncertain force were utterly
futile, and it is perhaps wise, and indisputably convenient, to assume that
the favourable and adverse chances equate, and then eliminate them both
from the calculation.
The 'Sirdar's luck' became almost proverbial in the Soudan. As the account
progresses numerous instances will suggest themselves. It was lucky that
the Dervishes did not harass the communications, or assail Akasha before it
was fortified. It was lucky that they fought at Firket; that they retired
from Berber; that Mahmud did not advance in January; that he advanced
in March; that he did not retire before the battle of the Atbara; that the
Khalifa did not hold the Shabluka; that he did not attack on the night
before Omdurman, and that he did attack at dawn.
But after Firket all things were contrary. One unexpected misfortune
succeeded another. Difficulties were replaced by others as soon as they had
been overcome. The autumn of 1896 was marked by delay and disappointment.
The state of the Nile, the storms, the floods, the cholera, and many minor
obstacles, vexed but did not weary the commander. The victory at Firket was
succeeded by a long pause in the operations. The army had made one spring
forward; it must now gather energy for another. The preparations, however,
proceeded rapidly. A strong camp was formed at Firket. MacDonald's brigade
occupied Suarda two days after the fight, and this place now became the
advanced post, just as Akasha had been in the first phase of the campaign.
The accumluation of stores at Firket and Suarda began forthwith. Owing to
the arrangements which had been made before the engagement it was possible
to collect within one week of the action two months' supplies at Suarda
for the garrison of 2,000 men, and one month's at Firket for the 7,000
troops encamped there. Thereafter, however, the necessity of hurrying the
railway construction and the considerable daily demands of 9,000 men only
allowed this margin to be increased very gradually.
The army had now passed beyond the scope of a camel, or other pack-animal,
system of supply, except for very short distances, and it was obvious that
they could only advance in future along either the railway or a navigable
reach of the river, and preferably along both. From the Dal Cataract
near Kosheh there is a clear waterway at high Nile to Merawi. To Kosheh,
therefore, the railway must be extended before active operations could
recommence. A third condition had also to be observed. For the expulsion
of the Dervishes from Kerma and Dongola it was desirable that a flotilla
of gunboats should co-operate with the land forces. Four of these vessels
--the Tamai, El Teb, the Metemma, and the Abu Klea; and three steamers--
the Kaibar, Dal, and Akasha, which it was proposed to arm--had, since 1885,
patrolled the river from Assuan to Wady Halfa, and assisted in protecting
the frontier from Dervish raids. All seven were now collected at the foot
of the Second Cataract, and awaited the rise of the river to attempt the
passage. To strengthen the flotilla three new and very powerful gunboats
had been ordered in England. These were to be brought in sections over the
railway to a point above the Second Cataract, and be fitted together there.
It was thus necessary to wait, firstly, for the railway to reach Kosheh;
secondly, for the Nile to rise; thirdly, for the old gunboats to ascend
the Cataract; fourthly, for the new gunboats to be launched on the clear
waterway; and, fifthly, for the accumulation of supplies. With all of these
matters the Sirdar now busied himself.
The reconstruction of the railway to Akasha and its extension beyond
this place towards Kosheh was pressed forward. By the 26th of June Akasha
was reached. Thenceforward the engineers no longer followed an existing
track, but were obliged to survey, and to make the formation for
themselves. Strong fatigue parties from the Egyptian and Soudanese
battalions were, however, employed on the embankments, and the line grew
daily longer. On the 24th of July the first train ran across the
battlefield of Firket; and on the 4th of August the railway was working
Kosheh is six miles south of Firket, and consists, like most places in the
'Military Soudan,' of little more than a name and a few ruined mud-huts
which were once a village. On the 5th of July the whole camp was moved
thither from the scene of the action. The reasons were clear and apparent.
Kosheh is a point on the river above the Dal Cataract whence a clear
waterway runs at high Nile to beyond Dongola. The camp at Firket had become
foul and insanitary. The bodies of the dead, swelling and decaying in their
shallow graves, assailed, as if in revenge, the bodies of the living.
The dysentery which had broken out was probably due to the 'green' water of
the Nile; for during the early period of the flood what is known as
'the false rise' washes the filth and sewage off the foreshore all along
the river, and brings down the green and rotting vegetation from the spongy
swamps of Equatoria. The water is then dangerous and impure. There was
nothing else for the army to drink; but it was undesirable to aggravate
the evil by keeping the troops in a dirty camp.
The earliest freight which the railway carried to Kosheh was the first of
the new stern-wheel gunboats. Train after train arrived with its load of
steel and iron, or with the cumbrous sections of the hull, and a warship
in pieces--engines, armaments, fittings and stores--soon lay stacked by
the side of the river. An improvised dockyard, equipped with powerful
twenty-ton shears and other appliances, was established, and the work--
complicated as a Chinese puzzle--of fitting and riveting together the
hundreds of various parts proceeded swiftly. Gradually the strange heaps
of parts began to evolve a mighty engine of war. The new gunboats were in
every way remarkable. The old vessels had been 90 feet long. These were
140 feet. Their breadth was 24 feet. They steamed twelve miles an hour.
They had a command of 30 feet. Their decks were all protected by steel
plates, and prepared by loopholed shields for musketry. Their armament was
formidable. Each carried one twelve-pounder quick-firing gun forward,
two six-pounder quick-firing guns in the central battery, and four Maxim
guns. Every modern improvement--such as ammunition hoists, telegraphs,
search-lights, and steam-winches--was added. Yet with all this they drew
only thirty-nine inches of water.
The contract specified that these vessels should be delivered at Alexandria
by the 5th of September, but, by exertions, the first boat, the Zafir,
reached Egypt on the 23rd of July, having been made in eight weeks, and in
time to have assisted in the advance on Dongola. The vessels and machinery
had been constructed and erected in the works in London; they were then
marked, numbered, and taken to pieces, and after being shipped to
Alexandria and transported to the front were finally put together at
Kosheh. Although in a journey of 4,000 miles they were seven times
transhipped, not a single important piece was lost.
The convenience of Kosheh on the clear waterway, and the dirty condition
of Firket, were in themselves sufficient reasons for the change of camp;
but another and graver cause lay behind. During the month of June an
epidemic of cholera began to creep up the Nile from Cairo. On the 29th
there were some cases at Assuan. On the 30th it reached Wady Halfa.
In consequence of this the North Staffordshire Regiment marched into camp
at Gemai. Their three months' occupation of the town had not improved
their health or their spirits. During the sixteen-mile march along the
railway track to Gemai the first fatal case occurred, and thereafter the
sickness clung to the regiment until the middle of August, causing
The cholera spread steadily southward up the river, claiming successive
victims in each camp. In the second week of July it reached the new camp
at Kosheh, whence all possible precautions to exclude it had proved vain.
The epidemic was at first of a virulent form. As is usual, when it had
expended its destructive energy, the recoveries became more frequent.
But of the first thousand cases between Assuan and Suarda nearly eight
hundred proved fatal. Nor were the lives thus lost to be altogether
measured by the number. [The attacks and deaths from cholera in the
Dongola Expeditionary Force were as follow: British troops - 24 attacks,
19 deaths; Native troops - 406 attacks, 260 deaths; Followers - 788
attacks, 640 deaths.] To all, the time was one of trial, almost of terror.
The violence of the battle may be cheaply braved, but the insidious attacks
of disease appal the boldest. Death moved continually about the ranks of
the army--not the death they had been trained to meet unflinchingly,
the death in high enthusiasm and the pride of life, with all the world to
weep or cheer; but a silent, unnoticed, almost ignominious summons,
scarcely less sudden and far more painful than the bullet or the sword-cut.
The Egyptians, in spite of their fatalistic creed, manifested profound
depression. The English soldiers were moody and ill-tempered. Even the
light-hearted Soudanese lost their spirits; their merry grins were seen no
longer; their laughter and their drums were stilled. Only the British
officers preserved a stony cheerfulness, and ceaselessly endeavoured by
energy and example to sustain the courage of their men. Yet they suffered
most of all. Their education had developed their imaginations; and
imagination, elsewhere a priceless gift, is amid such circumstances a
It was, indeed, a time of sore trouble. To find the servant dead in
the camp kitchen; to catch a hurried glimpse of blanketed shapes hustled
quickly to the desert on a stretcher; to hold the lantern over the grave
into which a friend or comrade--alive and well six hours before--was
hastily lowered, even though it was still night; and through it all
to work incessantly at pressure in the solid, roaring heat, with a mind
ever on the watch for the earliest of the fatal symptoms and a thirst that
could only be quenched by drinking of the deadly and contaminated Nile:
all these things combined to produce an experience which those who endured
are unwilling to remember, but unlikely to forget. One by one some of the
best of the field army and the communication Staff were stricken down.
Gallant Fenwick, of whom they used to say that he was 'twice a V.C. without
a gazette'; Polwhele, the railway subaltern, whose strange knowledge of the
Egyptian soldiers had won their stranger love; Trask, an heroic doctor,
indifferent alike to pestilence or bullets; Mr. Vallom, the chief
superintendent of engines at Halfa; Farmer, a young officer already on his
fourth campaign; Mr. Nicholson, the London engineer; long, quaint,
kind-hearted 'Roddy' Owen--all filled graves in Halfa cemetery or at the
foot of Firket mountain. At length the epidemic was stamped out, and by
the middle of August it had practically ceased to be a serious danger.
But the necessity of enforcing quarantine and other precautions had
hampered movement up and down the line of communications, and so delayed
the progress of the preparations for an advance.
Other unexpected hindrances arose. Sir H. Kitchener had clearly recognised
that the railway, equipped as it then was, would be at the best a doubtful
means for the continual supply of a large force many miles ahead of it.
He therefore organised an auxiliary boat service and passed gyassas and
nuggurs [native sailing craft] freely up the Second Cataract. During the
summer months, in the Soudan, a strong north wind prevails, which not only
drives the sailing-boats up against the stream--sometimes at the rate of
twenty miles a day--but also gratefully cools the air. This year,
for forty consecutive days, at the critical period of the campaign,
the wind blew hot and adverse from the south. The whole auxiliary boat
service was thus practically arrested. But in spite of these aggravating
obstacles the preparations for the advance were forced onwards, and it
soon became necessary for the gunboats and steamers to be brought on to
the upper reach of the river.
The Second Cataract has a total descent of sixty feet, and is about
nine miles long. For this distance the Nile flows down a rugged stairway
formed by successive ledges of black granite. The flood river deeply
submerges these steps, and rushes along above them with tremendous force,
but with a smooth though swirling surface. As the Nile subsides, the steps
begin to show, until the river tumbles violently from ledge to ledge,
its whole surface for miles churned to the white foam of broken water,
and thickly studded with black rocks. At the Second Cataract, moreover,
the only deep channel of the Nile is choked between narrow limits,
and the stream struggles furiously between stern walls of rock. These dark
gorges present many perils to the navigator. The most formidable, the
Bab-el-Kebir, is only thirty-five feet wide. The river here takes a plunge
of ten feet in seventy yards, and drops five feet at a single bound.
An extensive pool above, formed by the junction of two arms of the river,
increases the volume of the water and the force of the stream, so that the
'Gate' constitutes an obstacle of difficulty and danger which might well
have been considered insurmountable.
It had been expected that in the beginning of July enough water would
be passing down the Second Cataract to enable the gunboats and steamers
waiting below to make the passage. Everything depended upon the rise of the
river, and in the perversity of circumstances the river this year rose much
later and slower than usual. By the middle of August, however, the attempt
appeared possible. On the 14th the first gunboat, the Metemma, approached
the Cataract. The North Staffordshire Regiment from Gemai, and the 6th and
7th Egyptian Battalions from Kosheh, marched to the 'Gate' to draw the
vessel bodily up in spite of the current. The best native pilots had been
procured. Colonel Hunter and the naval officers under Commander Colville
directed the work. The boat had been carefully prepared for the ordeal.
To reduce, by raising the free-board, the risk of swamping, the bows were
heightened and strengthened, and stout wooden bulwarks were built running
from bow to stern. Guns and ammunition were then removed, and the vessel
lightened by every possible means. A strop of wire rope was passed
completely round the hull, and to this strong belt the five cables were
fastened--two on each side and one at the bow. So steep was the slope of
the water that it was found necessary to draw all the fires, and the
steamer was thus dependent entirely upon external force. It was luckily
possible to obtain a direct pull, for a crag of black rock rose above the
surface of the pool opposite the 'Gate.' On this a steel block was fixed,
and the hawser was led away at right angles until it reached the east bank,
where a smooth stretch of sand afforded a convenient place for the hauling
parties. Two thousand men were then set to pull at the cables, yet such was
the extraordinary force of the current that, although the actual distance
in which these great efforts were necessary was scarcely one hundred yards,
the passage of each steamer occupied an hour and a half, and required the
most strenuous exertions of the soldiers. No accident, however, occurred,
and the six other vessels accomplished the ascent on successive days.
In a week the whole flotilla steamed safely in the open water
of the upper reach.
And now for a moment it seemed that the luck of the expedition
had returned. The cholera was practically extinct. The new gunboat Zafir
was nearly ready at Kosheh, and her imposing appearance delighted and
impressed the army. On the 23rd of August all the seven steamers which had
passed the Cataract arrived in a stately procession opposite the camp.
Almost at the same time the wind changed to the north, and a cool and
delicious breeze refreshed the weary men and bore southward to Suarda
a whole fleet of sailing boats laden with supplies, which had been lying
weather-bound during the previous six weeks at the head of the rapids.
The preparatory orders for the advance tinkled along the telegraph.
The North Staffordshire Regiment were, to the intense relief of officers
and men, warned to hold themselves in readiness for an immediate move.
The mounted troops had already returned to the front from the camps
in which they had been distributed. At last the miserable delay was over.
From Kosheh to Kerma, the first Dervish position, the distance by river
is 127 miles. A study of the map shows that by land marches this can be
shortened by nearly forty-one miles; thirty miles being saved by cutting
across the great loop of the Nile from Kosheh to Sadin Fanti, and eleven
miles by avoiding the angle from Fereig to Abu Fatmeh. From Kerma to
Dongola, which latter town was the objective of the expedition, a further
distance of thirty-five miles must be traversed, making a total of 120
miles by land or 161 by river. The long desert march from Kosheh to Sadin
Fanti was the only natural difficulty by land. Although the river from
Kosheh to Kerma is broken by continual rapids, it is, with one interval,
freely navigable at half Nile. The Amara Cataract, ten miles beyond Kosheh,
is easily ascended by sailing boats with a fair wind, and by steamers
without assistance. From Amara to the Kaibar Cataract stretches a reach
of sixty-five miles of open water. The Kaibar Cataract is, during the
flood, scarcely any hindrance to navigation; but at Hannek, about thirty
miles further on, the three miles of islands, rocks, rapids, and
broken water which are called the Third Cataract are, except at high Nile,
a formidable barrier, Once this is passed, there is open water for more
than 200 miles at all seasons to Merawi. The banks of the river, except
near Sadin Fanti, where the hills close in, are flat and low. The Eastern
bank is lined with a fringe of palm-trees and a thin strip of cultivation,
which constitutes what is called 'the fertile province of Dongola.'
On the other side the desert reaches the water's edge. Along the right bank
of this part of the river the army was now to move.
The first act of the advance was the occupation of Absarat,
and on the 23rd of August MacDonald's brigade marched thither from Suarda,
cutting across the desert to Sadin Fanti, and then following the bank of
the Nile. The occupation of Absarat covered the next movement. On the 26th
Lewis's brigade was ordered to march across the loop from Kosheh to Sadin
Fanti, and reinforce the brigade at Absarat. The distance of thirty-seven
miles was far too great to be accomplished without a system of
watering-places. This the Sirdar rapidly organised. Water-depots were
formed by carrying tanks and water-skins on camels to two points in the
desert, and replenishing them by daily convoys. But now a heavy calamity
descended on the arrangements of the General and the hopes of the troops.
During the afternoon of the 25th the wind veered suddenly to the south,
and thereupon a terrific storm of sand and rain, accompanied by thunder
and lightning, burst over the whole of the Nubian desert, and swept along
the line of communications from Suarda to Halfa. On the next day a second
deluge delayed the march of Lewis's brigade. But late on the 27th they
started, with disastrous results. Before they had reached the first
watering-place a third tempest, preceded by its choking sandstorm, overtook
them. Nearly 300 men fell out during the early part of the night, and
crawled and staggered back to Kosheh. Before the column reached Sadin Fanti
1,700 more sank exhausted to the ground. Out of one battalion 700 strong,
only sixty men marched in. Nine deaths and eighty serious cases of
prostration occurred, and the movement of the brigade from Kosheh to
Absarat was grimly called 'The Death March.'
The 'Death March' was the least of the misfortunes caused by the storms.
The violent rains produced floods such as had not been seen in the Soudan
for fifty years. The water, pouring down the broad valleys, formed furious
torrents in the narrower gorges. More than twelve miles of the railway was
washed away. The rails were twisted and bent; the formation entirely
destroyed. The telegraph wires were broken. The work of weeks was lost in
a few hours. The advance was stopped as soon as it had been begun.
At the moment when every military reason demanded speed and suddenness,
a hideous delay became inevitable.
In this time of crisis the success of the whole campaign hung
in the balance. Sir Herbert Kitchener did not then possess that measure of
the confidence and affection of his officers which his military successes
have since compelled. Public opinion was still undecided on the general
question of the war. The initial bad luck had frightened many. All the
croakers were ready. 'A Jingo Government'--'An incapable general'--
'Another disaster in the Soudan'--such were the whispers. A check would be
the signal for an outcry. The accounts of 'The Death March' had not yet
reached England; but the correspondents, irritated at being 'chained to
headquarters,' were going to see about that. And, besides all this, there
were the army to feed and the Dervishes to fight. In this serious
emergency, which threatened to wreck his schemes, the Sirdar's organising
talents shone more brilliantly than at any other moment in this account.
Travelling swiftly to Moghrat, he possessed himself of the telephone,
which luckily still worked. He knew the exact position or every soldier,
coolie, camel, or donkey at his disposal. In a few hours, in spite of his
crippled transport, he concentrated 5,000 men on the damaged sections of
the line, and thereafter fed them until the work was finished. In seven
days traffic was resumed. The advance had been delayed, but it was
On the 5th of September the 1st (Lewis) and 2nd (MacDonald) Brigades
moved to Dulgo, and at the same time the remainder of the army began
to march across the loop from Kosheh by Sadin Fanti to Absarat.
Every available soldier had been collected for the final operation
of the campaign.
The Expeditionary Force was organised as follows:
Commander-in-Chief: The SIRDAR
The Infantry Division: COLONEL HUNTER Commanding
1st Brigade 2nd Brigade 3rd Brigade 4th Brigade
MAJOR LEWIS MAJOR MACDONALD MAJOR MAXWELL MAJOR DAVID
3rd Egyptians XIth Soudanese 2nd Egyptians 1st Egyptians
4th " XIIth " 7th " 5th "
IXth Soudanese XIIIth " 8th " 15th "
Cavalry Brigade and Mounted Forces: MAJOR BURN-MURDOCH
Cavalry . . . . . 8 squadrons
Camel Corps . . . . 6 companies
Horse Artillery . . . 1 battery
Artillery: MAJOR PARSONS
Field Artillery . . . 2 batteries
Maxims . . . . 1 battery (British)
Divisional Troops: MAJOR CURRIE
North Staffordshire Regiment . . . . 1st Battalion
The Flotilla: COMMANDER COLVILLE
Gunboats . . . Zafir, Tamai, Abu Klea, Metemma, El Teb
Armed Steamers . . . Kaibar, Dal, Akasha
Total: 15,000 men, 8 war-vessels, and 36 guns
Thus thirteen of the sixteen battalions of the Egyptian Army were
employed at the front. Two others, the 6th and XIVth, were disposed along
the line of communication, holding the various fortified posts. The 16th
Battalion of reservists remained at Suakin. The whole native army was
engaged in the war, and the preservation of domestic order in the capital
and throughout the Khedive's dominions was left entirely to the police and
to the British Army of Occupation. By the 9th all four brigades had reached
the rendezvous at Dulgo; on the 10th the British regiment, which it was
determined to send up in the steamers, was moved to Kosheh by rail from
Sarras and Gemai. The Sirdar prepared to start with the flotilla
on the 12th.
But a culminating disappointment remained. By tremendous exertions
the Zafir had been finished in time to take part in the operations.
Throughout the army it was expected that the Zafir would be the feature
of the campaign. At length the work was finished, and the Zafir floated,
powerful and majestic, on the waters of the Nile. On the afternoon of
the 11th of September many officers and men came to witness her trial trip.
The bank was lined with spectators. Colville took command. The Sirdar and
his Staff embarked. Flags were hoisted and amid general cheering the
moorings were cast off. But the stern paddle had hardly revolved twice when
there was a loud report, like that of a heavy gun, clouds of steam rushed
up from the boilers, and the engines stopped. Sir H. Kitchener and
Commander Colville were on the upper deck. The latter rushed below to learn
what had happened, and found that she had burst her low-pressure cylinder,
a misfortune impossible to repair until a new one could be obtained from
Halfa and fitted.
In spite of this, however, the advance was not delayed. On the 13th
the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Brigades occupied Kaderma. Here the flotilla
overtook them, and henceforward the boats on the river kept pace with
the army on the bank. Fareig was reached on the 14th, and as the numerous
palms by the water afforded a pleasant shade a halt of two days was
ordered. On the 16th the 4th Brigade arrived, and the concentration of
the force was then complete.
After the annihilation of his strong advanced post at Firket,
the Dervish Emir, Wad Bishara, concentrated his remaining forces
in Dongola. Here during the summer he had awaited, and in the middle of
August some small reinforcements under one Emir of low rank reached him
from Omdurman. The Khalifa, indeed, promised that many more should follow,
but his promises long remained unfulfilled, and the greatest strength that
Bishara could muster was 900 Jehadia, 800 Baggara Arabs, 2,800 spearmen,
450 camelmen, 650 cavalry--in all 5,600 men, with six small brass cannon
and one mitrailleuse gun. To augment in numbers, if not in strength,
this small force of regular soldiers, he impressed a large number of the
local tribesmen; but as these were, for the most part, anxious to join the
Government troops at the first opportunity, their effect in the conflict
The first sign that the forces were drawing closer was the cutting of the
telegraph-wire by a Dervish patrol on the 6th of September. On the 10th
the Sirdar heard that Kerma was strongly held. On the 15th of September
the Egyptian cavalry first established contact with the Dervish scouts,
and a slight skirmish took place. On the 18th the whole force advanced to
Sardek, and as Bishara still held his position at Kerma it looked as if an
action was imminent. It was resolved to attack the Dervish position at
Kerma at dawn. Although it seemed that only four miles separated the
combatants, the night passed quietly. With the first light the army began
to move, and when the sun rose the spectacle of the moving masses of men
and artillery, with the gunboats on the right, was inspiring. The soldiers
braced themselves for the expected action. But no sooner were the village
and fort of Kerma visible than the report passed along the ranks that they
were deserted. Rumour was soon merged in certainty, for on reaching Kerma
it was found that the Dervishes had evacuated the place, and only the
strong, well-built mud fort attested the recent presence of Bishara.
Whither had he gone? The question was not left unanswered.
Half a mile to the southward, on the opposite bank of the river,
among the groves of palm-trees ran a long and continuous line of shelter
trenches and loopholed walls. The flanks of this new position rested on the
deep morasses which extend from the river both on the north and south sides
of Hafir. A small steamer, a fleet of large gyassas and other sailing
vessels moored to the further shore explained what had happened. Conscious
of his weakness, the prudent Emir had adroitly transported himself across
the river, and had thus placed that broad flood between his troops and
Meanwhile the three gunboats--all that now remained of the armed flotilla,
for the Teb had run on a rock in the Hannek Cataract--were steaming
gradually nearer the enemy, and the army swung to the right, and, forming
along the river bank, became spectators of a scene of fascinating interest.
At half-past six the Horse battery unlimbered at the water's edge,
and began to fire obliquely up and across the river. As soon as the first
few shells had reached the Arab entrenchment the whole line of shelter
trenches was edged with smoke, and the Dervishes replied with a heavy
rifle fire. The distance was, however, too great for their bad rifles and
inferior ammunition, and their bullets, although they occasionally struck
the ground on which the infantry were drawn up, did not during the day
cause any loss to the watching army.
The Dervish position was about half a mile in length. As the gunboats
approached the northern end they opened fire with their guns, striking the
mud entrenchments at every shot, and driving clouds of dust and splinters
into the air. The Maxim guns began to search the parapets, and two
companies of the Staffordshire Regiment on board the unarmoured steamers
Dal and Akasha fired long-range volleys. Now, as on other occasions
throughout the war, the Dervishes by their military behaviour excited the
admiration of their enemies. Encouraged by the arrival in the morning of a
reinforcement from Omdurman of 1,000 Black Jehadia and 500 spearmen under
Abdel Baki, the Dervish gunners stood to their guns and the riflemen to
their trenches, and, although suffering severely, maintained
a formidable fire.
The gunboats continued to advance, beating up slowly against the strong
current. As they came opposite Hafir, where the channel narrows to about
600 yards, they were received by a very heavy fire from guns placed in
cleverly screened batteries, and from the riflemen sheltered in deep pits
by the water's edge or concealed amid the foliage of the tops of the
palm-trees. These aerial skirmishers commanded the decks of the vessels,
and the shields of the guns were thus rendered of little protection.
All the water round the gunboats was torn into foam by the projectiles.
The bullets pattered against their sides, and, except where they were
protected by steel plates, penetrated. One shell struck the Abu Klea on
the water-line, and entered the magazine. Luckily it did not explode,
the Dervishes having forgotten to set the fuse. Three shells struck the
Metemma. On board the Tamai, which was leading, Commander Colville was
severely wounded in the wrist; Armourer-Sergeant Richardson was killed at
his Maxim gun, and on each boat some casualties occurred. So hot was the
fire that it was thought doubtful whether to proceed with the bombardment,
and the Tamai swung round, and hurried down the river with the current and
at full steam to report to the Sirdar. The other gunboats remained
in action, and continued to shell the Dervish defences. The Tamai soon
returned to the fight, and, steaming again up the river, was immediately
The sight which the army witnessed was thrilling.
Beyond the flood waters of the river, backed against a sky of staring blue
and in the blazing sunlight, the whole of the enemy's position was plainly
visible. The long row of shelter trenches was outlined by the white smoke
of musketry and dotted with the bright-coloured flags waving defiantly
in the wind and with the still brighter flashes of the guns. Behind the
entrenchments and among the mud houses and enclosures strong bodies of the
jibba-clad Arabs were arrayed. Still further back in the plain a large
force of cavalry--conspicuous by the gleams of light reflected from their
broad-bladed spears--wheeled and manoeuvred. By the Nile all the tops of
the palm-trees were crowded with daring riflemen, whose positions were
indicated by the smoke-puffs of their rifles, or when some tiny black
figure fell, like a shot rook, to the ground. In the foreground the
gunboats, panting and puffing up the river, were surrounded on all sides
by spouts and spurts of water, thrown up by the shells and bullets.
Again the flotilla drew near the narrow channel; again the watching army
held their breath; and again they saw the leading boat, the Metemma,
turn and run down stream towards safety, pursued by the wild cheers
of the Arabs. It was evident that the gunboats were not strong enough to
silence the Dervish fire. The want of the terrible Zafir was acutely felt.
The firing had lasted two hours and a half, and the enemy's resistance
was no less vigorous than at the beginning of the action. The Sirdar now
altered his plans. He saw that his flotilla could not hope to silence the
Dervishes. He therefore ordered De Rougemont--who had assumed the command
after Colville was wounded--to run past the entrenchments without trying to
crush their fire, and steam on to Dongola. To support and cover the
movement, the three batteries of artillery under Major Parsons were brought
into action from the swampy island of Artagasha, which was connected
at this season with the right bank by a shoal. At the same time three
battalions of infantry were moved along the river until opposite the Arab
position. At 9 A.M. the eighteen guns on the island opened a tremendous
bombardment at 1,200 yards range on the entrenchments, and at the same time
the infantry and a rocket detachment concentrated their fire on the tops
of the palm-trees. The artillery now succeeded in silencing three of the
five Dervish guns and in sinking the little Dervish steamer Tahra, while
the infantry by a tremendous long-range fire drove the riflemen out of the
palms. Profiting by this, the gunboats at ten o'clock moved up the river in
line, and, disregarding the fusillade which the Arabs still stubbornly
maintained, passed by the entrenchment and steamed on towards Dongola.
After this the firing on both sides became intermittent, and the fight
may be said to have ended.
Both forces remained during the day facing each other on opposite sides of
the river, and the Dervishes, who evidently did not admit a defeat,
brandished their rifles and waved their flags, and their shouts of loud
defiance floated across the water to the troops. But they had suffered very
heavily. Their brave and skilful leader was severely wounded by the
splinters of a shell. The wicked Osman Azrak had been struck by a bullet,
and more than 200 Ansar had fallen, including several Emirs. Moreover,
a long train of wounded was seen to start during the afternoon for the
south. It is doubtful, however, whether Bishara would have retreated,
if he had not feared being cut off. He seems to have believed that the
Sirdar would march along the right bank at once to Dongola, and cross there
under cover of his gunboats. Like all Moslem soldiers, he was nervous about
his line of retreat. Nor, considering the overwhelming force against him,
can we wonder. There was, besides this strategic reason for retiring,
a more concrete cause. All his supplies of grain were accumulated in the
gyassas which lay moored to the west bank. These vessels were under the
close and accurate fire of the artillery and Maxim guns on Artagasha
island. Several times during the night the hungry Dervishes attempted to
reach their store; but the moon was bright and the gunners watchful.
Each time the enemy exposed themselves, a vigorous fire was opened
and they were driven back. When morning dawned, it was found that Hafir
was evacuated, and that the enemy had retreated on Dongola.
Wad Bishara's anxiety about his line of retreat was unnecessary,
for the Sirdar could not advance on Dongola with a strong Dervish force
on his line of communications: and it was not desirable to divide the army
and mask Hafir with a covering force. But as soon as the Dervishes had
left their entrenchments the situation was simplified. At daybreak all the
Arab boats were brought over to the right bank by the villagers, who
reported that Bishara and his soldiers had abandoned the defence and were
retreating to Dongola. Thereupon the Sirdar, relieved of the necessity
of forcing the passage, transported his army peacefully to the other bank.
The operation afforded scope to his powers of organisation, and the whole
force--complete with cavalry, camels, and guns--was moved across the broad,
rushing river in less than thirty-six hours and without any
The casualties on the 19th were not numerous, and in a force of nearly
15,000 men they appear insignificant. Commander Colville was wounded.
One British sergeant and one Egyptian officer were killed. Eleven native
soldiers were wounded. The total--fourteen--amounted to less than one per
thousand of the troops engaged. Nevertheless this picturesque and bloodless
affair has been solemnly called the 'Battle of Hafir.' Special despatches
were written for it. It is officially counted in records of service as
a 'general action.' Telegrams of congratulation were received from her
Majesty and the Khedive. A special clasp was struck. Of all the instances
of cheaply bought glory which the military history of recent years affords,
Hafir is the most remarkable.
The 20th and part of the 21st were occupied by the passage of the army
across the Nile. The troops were still crossing when the gunboats returned
from Dongola. The distance of this place by water from Hafir is about
thirty-six miles, and the flotilla had arrived opposite the town during
the afternoon of the 19th. A few shells expelled the small Dervish
garrison, and a large number of sailing vessels were captured. The results
of the movement of the gunboats to Dongola must, however, be looked for
at Hafir. In consequence of the Sirdar's manoeuvre that place was
evacuated and the unopposed passage of the river secured.
Bishara continued his retreat during the 20th, and, marching all day,
reached Dongola in the evening. Wounded as he was, he re-occupied the town
and began forthwith to make preparations for the defence of its
considerable fortifications. The knowledge of his employment was not hidden
from his enemy, and during the 21st the gunboat Abu Klea, under Lieutenant
Beatty, R.N., arrived with the design of keeping him occupied. Throughout
the day a desultory duel was maintained between the entrenchments and the
steamer. At daylight on the 22nd, Beatty was reinforced by another gunboat,
and an unceasing bombardment was made on the town and its defences.
Notwithstanding that the army did not finish crossing the river until
the afternoon of the 21st, the Sirdar determined to continue his advance
without delay, and the force accordingly marched twelve miles further south
and camped opposite the middle of the large island of Argo. At daybreak the
troops started again, and before the sun had attained its greatest power
reached Zowarat. This place was scarcely six miles from Dongola, and, as it
was expected that an action would be fought the next day, the rest of
eighteen hours was welcomed by the weary soldiers. All day long the army
remained halted by the palms of the Nile bank. Looking through their
glasses up the river, the officers might watch the gunboats methodically
bombarding Dongola, and the sound of the guns was clearly heard.
At intervals during the day odd parties of Dervishes, both horse and foot,
approached the outpost line and shots were exchanged.
All these things, together with the consciousness that the culmination
of the campaign was now at hand, raised the excitement of the army to a
high pitch, and everyone lay down that night warmed by keen anticipations.
An atmosphere of unrest hung over the bivouac, and few slept soundly.
At three o'clock the troops were aroused, and at half-past four
the final advance on Dongola had begun.
It was still night. The full moon, shining with tropical brilliancy
in a cloudless sky, vaguely revealed the rolling plains of sand and the
huge moving mass of the army. As long as it was dark the battalions were
closely formed in quarter columns. But presently the warmer, yellower
light of dawn began to grow across the river and through the palms,
and gradually, as the sun rose and it became daylight, the dense
formation of the army was extended to an array more than two miles long.
On the left, nearest the river, marched Lewis's brigade--three battalions
in line and the fourth in column as a reserve. Next in order Maxwell's
three battalions prolonged the line. The artillery were in the centre,
supported by the North Staffordshire Regiment. The gunners of the Maxim
battery had donned their tunics, so that the lines and columns of yellow
and brown were relieved by a vivid flash of British red. MacDonald's
brigade was on the right. David's brigade followed in rear of the centre
as a reserve. The cavalry, the Camel Corps, and the Horse Artillery
watched the right flank; and on the left the gunboats
steamed along the river.
For two hours the army were the only living things visible
on the smooth sand, but at seven o'clock a large body of Dervish horse
appeared on the right flank. The further advance of half a mile discovered
the Arab forces. Their numbers were less than those of the Egyptians,
but their white uniforms, conspicuous on the sand, and the rows of flags
of many colours lent an imposing appearance to their array. Their
determined aspect, no less than the reputation of Bishara, encouraged
the belief that they were about to charge.
The disparity of the forces was, however, too great; and as the Egyptian
army steadily advanced, the Dervishes slowly retired. Their retreat was
cleverly covered by the Baggara horse, who, by continually threatening
the desert flank, delayed the progress of the troops. Bishara did not
attempt to re-enter the town, on which the gunboats were now concentrating
their fire, but continued to retire in excellent order towards the south
The Egyptian infantry halted in Dongola, which when they arrived
they found already in the hands of detachments from the flotilla.
The red flag with the Crescent and star waved once again from the roof
of the Mudiria. The garrison of 400 black Jehadia had capitulated, and were
already fraternising with their Soudanese captors, whose comrades in arms
they were soon to be. While the infantry occupied the town the cavalry
and Camel Corps were despatched in pursuit. The Baggara horse, however,
maintained a firm attitude, and attempted several charges to cover the
retreat of their infantry. In one of these an actual collision occurred,
and Captain Adams's squadron of Egyptian cavalry inflicted a loss of six
killed on the enemy at a cost to themselves of eight men wounded.
The cavalry and Camel corps had about twenty casualties in the pursuit.
But although the Dervishes thus withdrew in an orderly manner from the
field, the demoralising influence of retreat soon impaired their discipline
and order, and many small parties, becoming detached from the main body,
were captured by the pursuers. The line of retreat was strewn with weapons
and other effects, and so many babies were abandoned by their parents that
an artillery waggon had to be employed to collect and carry them.
Wad Bishara, Osman Azrak, and the Baggara horse, however, made good their
flight across the desert to Metemma, and, in spite of terrible sufferings
from thirst, retained sufficient discipline to detach a force to hold
Abu Klea Wells in case the retreat was followed. The Dervish infantry made
their way along the river to Abu Hamed, and were much harassed by the
gunboats until they reached the Fourth Cataract, when the pursuit
was brought to an end.
The Egyptian losses in the capture of Dongola and in the subsequent pursuit
were: British, nil. Native ranks: killed, 1; wounded, 25. Total, 26.
The occupation of Dongola terminated the campaign of 1896.
About 900 prisoners, mostly the Black Jehadia, all the six brass cannon,
large stores of grain, and a great quantity of flags, spears, and swords
fell to the victors, and the whole of the province, said to be the most
fertile in the Soudan, was restored to the Egyptian authority.
The existence of a perpetual clear waterway from the head of the Third
Cataract to Merawi enabled the gunboats at once to steam up the river
for more than 200 miles, and in the course of the following month the
greater part of the army was established in Merawi below the Fourth
Cataract, at Debba, or at Korti, drawing supplies along the railway,
and from Railhead by a boat service on the long reach of open water.
The position of a strong force at Merawi--only 120 miles along the river
bank from Abu Hamed, the northern Dervish post--was, as will be seen,
convenient to the continuance of the campaign whenever the time should
arrive. But a long delay in the advance was now inevitable, and nearly
a year was destined to pass without any collision between the forces
of the Khedive and those of the Khalifa.
The success of the operations caused great public satisfaction in England.
The first step had been taken. The Soudan was re-entered. After ten years
of defensive war the Dervishes had been attacked, and it was clear that
when they were attacked with adequate forces they were not so very terrible
after all. The croakers were silent. A general desire was manifested in the
country that the operations should continue, and although the Government
did not yet abandon their tentative policy, or resolve utterly to destroy
the Khalifa's power, it was decided that, as the road had so far been safe
and pleasant, there was at present no need to stop or turn back.
A generous gazette of honours was published. With a single exception,
which it would be invidious to specify, all the officers of the Egyptian
army were mentioned in despatches. Sir H. Kitchener, Colonel Hunter,
and Colonel Rundle were promoted Major-Generals for distinguished service
in the field; a special medal--on whose ribbon the Blue Nile is shown
flowing through the yellow desert--was struck; and both the engagement at
Firket and the affair at Hafir were commemorated by clasps. The casualties
during the campaign, including the fighting round Suakin, were 43 killed
and 139 wounded; 130 officers and men died from cholera; and there were
126 deaths from other causes. A large number of British officers
were also invalided.
CHAPTER VIII: THE DESERT RAILWAY
It often happens that in prosperous public enterprises the applause
of the nation and the rewards of the sovereign are bestowed on those whose
offices are splendid and whose duties have been dramatic. Others whose
labours were no less difficult, responsible, and vital to success are
unnoticed. If this be true of men, it is also true of things. In a tale of
war the reader's mind is filled with the fighting. The battle--with its
vivid scenes, its moving incidents, its plain and tremendous results--
excites imagination and commands attention. The eye is fixed on the
fighting brigades as they move amid the smoke; on the swarming figures of
the enemy; on the General, serene and determined, mounted in the middle of
his Staff. The long trailing line of communications is unnoticed.
The fierce glory that plays on red, triumphant bayonets dazzles the
observer; nor does he care to look behind to where, along a thousand miles
of rail, road, and river, the convoys are crawling to the front in
uninterrupted succession. Victory is the beautiful, bright-coloured flower.
Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed.
Yet even the military student, in his zeal to master the fascinating
combinations of the actual conflict, often forgets the far more intricate
complications of supply.
It cannot be denied that a battle, the climax to which all military
operations tend, is an event which is not controlled by strategy or
organisation. The scheme may be well planned, the troops well fed, the
ammunition plentiful, and the enemy entangled, famished, or numerically
inferior. The glorious uncertainties of the field can yet reverse
everything. The human element--in defiance of experience and probability--
may produce a wholly irrational result, and a starving, out-manoeuvred army
win food, safety, and honour by their bravery. But such considerations
apply with greater force to wars where both sides are equal in equipment
and discipline. In savage warfare in a flat country the power of modern
machinery is such that flesh and blood can scarcely prevail, and the
chances of battle are reduced to a minimum. Fighting the Dervishes was
primarily a matter of transport. The Khalifa was conquered on the railway.
Hitherto, as the operations have progressed, it has been convenient
to speak of the railway in a general manner as having been laid or
extended to various points, and merely to indicate the direction of the
lines of communication. The reader is now invited to take a closer view.
This chapter is concerned with boats, railways, and pack animals,
but particularly with railways.
Throughout the Dongola campaign in 1896 the Nile was the main channel
of communication between the Expeditionary Force and its base in Egypt.
All supplies were brought to the front as far as possible by water
transport. Wherever the Nile was navigable, it was used. Other means of
conveyance--by railways and pack animals--though essential, were merely
supplementary. Boats carry more and cost less than any other form of
transport. The service is not so liable to interruption; the plant needs
only simple repair; the waterway is ready-made. But the Nile is not always
available. Frequent cataracts obstruct its course for many miles.
Other long reaches are only navigable when the river is in flood.
To join the navigable reaches, and thus preserve the continuity of the
communications, a complex system of railways and caravans was necessary.
In the expedition to Dongola a line of railway was required to connect
the two navigable reaches of the Nile which extend from Assuan to Wady
Halfa, and from Kerma to Merawi. Before the capture of Dongola, however,
this distance was shortened by the fact that the river at high Nile is
navigable between the Third Cataract and Kerma. In consequence it was
at first only necessary to construct the stretch of 108 miles between
Wady Halfa and Kosheh. During the years when Wady Halfa was the
southernmost garrison of the Egyptian forces a strong post had been
maintained at Sarras. In the Nile expeditions of 1885 the railway from
Halfa had been completed through Sarras and as far as Akasha, a distance
of eighty-six miles. After the abandonment of the Soudan the Dervishes
destroyed the line as far north as Sarras. The old embankments were still
standing, but the sleepers had been burnt and the rails torn up, and in
many cases bent or twisted. The position in 1896 may, in fact, be summed
up as follows: The section of thirty-three miles from Wady Halfa to Sarras
was immediately available and in working order. The section of fifty-three
miles from Sarras to Akasha required partial reconstruction. The section of
thirty-two miles from Akasha to Kosheh must, with the exception of ten
miles of embankment completed in 1885, at once be newly made. And, finally,
the section from Kosheh to Kerma must be completed before the Nile flood
The first duty, therefore, which the Engineer officers had to perform
was the reconstruction of the line from Sarras to Akasha. No trained staff
or skilled workmen were available. The lack of men with technical knowledge
was doubtfully supplied by the enlistment of a 'Railway Battalion' 800
strong. These men were drawn from many tribes and classes. Their only
qualification was capacity and willingness for work. They presented a
motley appearance. Dervish prisoners, released but still wearing their
jibbas, assisted stalwart Egyptians in unloading rails and sleepers.
Dinkas, Shillooks, Jaalin, and Barabras shovelled contentedly together
at the embankments. One hundred civilian Soudanese--chiefly time-expired
soldiers--were also employed; and these, since they were trustworthy
and took an especial pride in their work, soon learned the arts of
spiking rails and sleepers, fishing rails together, and straightening.
To direct and control the labours of these men of varied race and language,
but of equal inexperience, some civilian foremen platelayers were obtained
at high rates of pay from Lower Egypt. These, however, with very few
exceptions were not satisfactory, and they were gradually replaced by
intelligent men of the 'Railway Battalion,' who had learned their trade
as the line progressed. The projection, direction, and execution of the
whole work were entrusted to a few subalterns of Engineers,
of whom the best-known was Edouard Girouard.
Work was begun south of Sarras at the latter end of March. At first
the efforts of so many unskilled workmen, instructed by few experienced
officers, were productive of results ridiculous rather than important.
Gradually, however, the knowledge and energy of the young director and
the intelligence and devotion of his still more youthful subordinates
began to take effect. The pace of construction increased, and the labour
was lightened by the contrivances of experience and skill.
As the line grew longer, native officers and non-commissioned officers
from the active and reserve lists of the Egyptian Army were appointed
station-masters. Intelligent non-commissioned officers and men were
converted into shunters, guards, and pointsmen. Traffic was controlled
by telephone. To work the telephone, men were discovered who could read
and write--very often who could read and write only their own names,
and even that with such difficulty that they usually preferred a seal.
They developed into clerks by a simple process of selection. To improve
their education, and to train a staff in the office work of a railway,
two schools were instituted at Halfa. In these establishments, which were
formed by the shade of two palm-trees, twenty pupils received the
beginnings of knowledge. The simplicity of the instruction was aided by
the zeal of the students, and learning grew beneath the palm-trees more
quickly perhaps than in the magnificent schools of civilisation.
The rolling stock of the Halfa-Sarras line was in good order and
sufficient quantity, but the eight locomotives were out of all repair,
and had to be patched up again and again with painful repetition.
The regularity of their break-downs prevented the regularity of the road,
and the Soudan military railway gained a doubtful reputation during the
Dongola expedition and in its early days. Nor were there wanting those
who employed their wits in scoffing at the undertaking and in pouring
thoughtless indignation on the engineers. Nevertheless the work
went on continually.
The initial difficulties of the task were aggravated by an unexpected
calamity. On the 26th of August the violent cyclonic rain-storm of which
some account has been given in the last chapter broke over
the Dongola province.
A writer on the earlier phases of the war [A. Hilliard Atteridge,
TOWARDS FREEDOM.] has forcibly explained why the consequences were
'In a country where rain is an ordinary event the engineer lays his
railway line, not in the bottom of a valley, but at a higher level on
one slope or the other. Where he passes across branching side valleys,
he takes care to leave in all his embankments large culverts to carry off
flood-water. But here, in what was thought to be the rainless Soudan,
the line south of Sarras followed for mile after mile the bottom of the
long valley of Khor Ahrusa, and no provision had been made, or had been
thought necessary, for culverts in the embankments where minor hollows
were crossed. Thus, when the flood came, it was not merely that the railway
was cut through here and there by the rushing deluge. It was covered deep
in water, the ballast was swept away, and some of the banks so destroyed
that in places rails and sleepers were left hanging in the air
across a wide gap.'
Nearly fourteen miles of track were destroyed. The camp of the construction
gangs was wrecked and flooded. Some of the rifles of the escort--for the
conditions of war were never absent--were afterwards recovered from a depth
of three feet of sand. In one place, where the embankment had partly
withstood the deluge, a great lake several miles square appeared.
By extraordinary exertions the damage was repaired in a week.
As soon as the line as far as Kosheh was completed, the advance
towards Dongola began. After the army had been victorious at Hafir
the whole province was cleared of Dervishes, and the Egyptian forces
pushed on to Merawi. Here they were dependent on river transport.
But the Nile was falling rapidly, and the army were soon in danger of
being stranded by the interruption of river traffic between the Third
Cataract and Kenna. The extension of the line from Kosheh to Kerma was
therefore of vital importance. The survey was at once undertaken,
and a suitable route was chosen through the newly acquired and unmapped
territory. Of the ninety-five miles of extended track, fifty-six were
through the desert, and the constructors here gained the experience which
was afterwards of value on the great Desert Railway from Wady Halfa to
the Atbara. Battalions of troops were distributed along the line and
ordered to begin to make the embankments. Track-laying commenced south
of Kosheh on the 9th of October, and the whole work was carried forward
with feverish energy. As it progressed, and before it was completed,
the reach of the river from the Third Cataract to Kenna ceased to be
navigable. The army were now dependent for their existence on the
partly finished railway, from the head of which supplies were conveyed
by an elaborate system of camel transport. Every week the line grew,
Railhead moved forward, and the strain upon the pack animals diminished.
But the problem of feeding the field army without interfering with the
railway construction was one of extraordinary intricacy and difficulty.
The carrying capacity of the line was strictly limited. The worn-out
engines frequently broke down. On many occasions only three were in
working order, and the other five undergoing 'heavy repairs' which might
secure them another short span of usefulness. Three times the construction
had to be suspended to allow the army to be revictualled. Every difficulty
was, however, overcome. By the beginning of May the line to Kenna was
finished, and the whole of the Railway Battalion, its subalterns and its
director, turned their attention to a greater enterprise.
In the first week in December the Sirdar returned from England with
instructions or permission to continue the advance towards Khartoum,
and the momentous question of the route to be followed arose. It may at
first seem that the plain course was to continue to work along the Nile,
connecting its navigable reaches by sections of railway. But from Merawi
to Abu Hamed the river is broken by continual cataracts, and the broken
ground of both banks made a railway nearly an impossibility. The movements
of the French expeditions towards the Upper Nile counselled speed.
The poverty of Egypt compelled economy. The Nile route, though sure,
would be slow and very expensive. A short cut must be found. Three daring
and ambitious schemes presented themselves: (1) the line followed by the
Desert Column in 1884 from Korti to Metemma; (2) the celebrated, if not
notorious, route from Suakin to Berber; (3) across the Nubian desert
from Korosko or Wady Halfa to Abu Hamed.
The question involved the whole strategy of the war. No more important
decision was ever taken by Sir Herbert Kitchener, whether in office or in
action. The request for a British division, the attack On Mahmud's zeriba,
the great left wheel towards Omdurman during that battle, the treatment
of the Marchand expedition, were matters of lesser resolve than the
selection of the line of advance. The known strength of the Khalifa made
it evident that a powerful force would be required for the destruction
of his army and the capture of his capital. The use of railway transport
to some point on the Nile whence there was a clear waterway was therefore
imperative. Berber and Metemma were known, and Abu Hamed was believed,
to fulfil this condition. But both Berber and Metemma were important
strategic points. It was improbable that the Dervishes would abandon
these keys to Khartoum and the Soudan without severe resistance.
It seemed likely, indeed, that the Khalifa would strongly reinforce both
towns, and desperately contest their possession. The deserts between
Korti and Metemma, and between Suakin and Berber, contained scattered
wells, and small raiding parties might have cut the railway and perhaps
have starved the army at its head. It was therefore too dangerous to
project the railway towards either Berber or Metemma until they were
actually in our hands. The argument is circular. The towns could not be
taken without a strong force; so strong a force could not advance until
the railway was made; and the railway could not be made till
the towns were taken.
Both the Korti-Metemma and the Suakin-Berber routes were therefore
rejected. The resolution to exclude the latter was further strengthened
by the fact that the labour of building a railway over the hills behind
Suakin would have been very great.
The route via Abu Hamed was selected by the exclusion of the alternatives.
But it had distinct and apparent advantages. Abu Hamed was within striking
distance of the army at Merawi. It was not a point essential to the
Dervish defences, and not, therefore, likely to be so strongly garrisoned
as Berber or Metemma. It might, therefore, be captured by a column marching
along the river, and sufficiently small to be equipped with only camel
transport. The deserts through which the railway to Abu Hamed would pass
contain few wells, and therefore it would be difficult for small raiding
parties to cut the line or attack the construction gangs; and before the
line got within reach of the Dervish garrison at Abu Hamed, that garrison
would be dislodged and the place seized.
The plan was perfect, and the argument in its favour conclusive.
It turned, however, on one point: Was the Desert Railway a possibility?
With this question the General was now confronted. He appealed to expert
opinion. Eminent railway engineers in England were consulted. They replied
with unanimity that, having due regard to the circumstances, and
remembering the conditions of war under which the work must be executed,
it was impossible to construct such a line. Distinguished soldiers were
approached on the subject. They replied that the scheme was not only
impossible, but absurd. Many other persons who were not consulted
volunteered the opinion that the whole idea was that of a lunatic,
and predicted ruin and disaster to the expedition. Having received this
advice, and reflected on it duly, the Sirdar ordered the railway to be
constructed without more delay.
A further question immediately arose: Should the railway to Abu Hamed
start from Korosko or from Wady Halfa? There were arguments on both sides.
The adoption of the Korosko line would reduce the river stage from Assuan
by forty-eight hours up stream. The old caravan route, by which General
Gordon had travelled to Khartoum on his last journey, had been from Korosko
via Murat Wells to Abu Hamed. On the other hand, many workshops and
appliances for construction were already existing at Wady Halfa. It was the
northern terminus of the Dongola railway. This was an enormous advantage.
Both routes were reconnoitred: that from Wady Halfa was selected.
The decision having been taken, the enterprise was at once begun.
Lieutenant Girouard, to whom everything was entrusted, was told to make
the necessary estimates. Sitting in his hut at Wady Halfa, he drew up a
comprehensive list. Nothing was forgotten. Every want was provided for;
every difficulty was foreseen; every requisite was noted. The questions
to be decided were numerous and involved. How much carrying capacity was
required? How much rolling stock? How many engines? What spare parts?
How much oil? How many lathes? How many cutters? How many punching and
shearing machines? What arrangements of signals would be necessary?
How many lamps? How many points? How many trolleys? What amount of coal
should be ordered? How much water would be wanted? How should it be
carried? To what extent would its carriage affect the hauling power and
influence all previous calculations? How much railway plant was needed?
How many miles of rail? How many thousand sleepers? Where could they be
procured at such short notice? How many fishplates were necessary?
What tools would be required? What appliances? What machinery? How much
skilled labour was wanted? How much of the class of labour available?
How were the workmen to be fed and watered? How much food would they want?
How many trains a day must be run to feed them and their escort? How many
must be run to carry plant? How did these requirements affect the estimate
for rolling stock? The answers to all these questions, and to many others
with which I will not inflict the reader, were set forth by Lieutenant
Girouard in a ponderous volume several inches thick; and such was the
comprehensive accuracy of the estimate that the working parties were
never delayed by the want even of a piece of brass wire.
In any circumstances the task would have been enormous. It was, however,
complicated by five important considerations: It had to be executed with
military precautions. There was apparently no water along the line.
The feeding of 2,000 platelayers in a barren desert was a problem in
itself. The work had to be completed before the winter. And, finally,
the money voted was not to be outrun. The Sirdar attended to
the last condition.
Girouard was sent to England to buy the plant and rolling stock.
Fifteen new engines and two hundred trucks were ordered. The necessary new
workshops were commenced at Halfa. Experienced mechanics were procured to
direct them. Fifteen hundred additional men were enlisted in the Railway
Battalion and trained. Then the water question was dealt with.
The reconnoitring surveys had reported that though the line was certainly
'good and easy' for 110 miles--and, according to Arab accounts, for the
remaining 120 miles--no drop of water was to be found, and only two likely
spots for wells were noted. Camel transport was, of course, out of the
question. Each engine must first of all haul enough water to carry it to
Railhead and back, besides a reserve against accidents. It was evident that
the quantity of water required by any locomotive would continually increase
as the work progressed and the distance grew greater, until finally the
material trains would have one-third of their carrying power absorbed in
transporting the water for their own consumption. The amount of water
necessary is largely dependent on the grades of the line. The 'flat desert'
proved to be a steady slope up to a height of 1,600 feet above Halfa,
and the calculations were further complicated. The difficulty had,
however, to be faced, and a hundred 1,500-gallon tanks were procured.
These were mounted on trucks and connected by hose; and the most striking
characteristic of the trains of the Soudan military railway was the long
succession of enormous boxes on wheels, on which the motive power of the
engine and the lives of the passengers depended.
The first spadeful of sand of the Desert Railway was turned
on the first day of 1897; but until May, when the line to Kerma was
finished, no great efforts were made, and only forty miles of track had
been laid. In the meanwhile the men of the new Railway Battalion were
being trained; the plant was steadily accumulating; engines, rolling stock,
and material of all sorts had arrived from England. From the growing
workshops at Wady Halfa the continual clatter and clang of hammers and the
black smoke of manufacture rose to the African sky. The malodorous incense
of civilisation was offered to the startled gods of Egypt. All this was
preparation; nor was it until the 8th of May that track-laying into the
desert was begun in earnest. The whole of the construction gangs and
railroad staff were brought from Kerma to Wady Halfa, and the daring
pioneers of modern war started on their long march through the wilderness,
dragging their railway behind them--safe and sure road which infantry,
cavalry, guns, and gunboats might follow with speed and convenience.
It is scarcely within the power of words to describe the savage
desolation of the regions into which the line and its constructors plunged.
A smooth ocean of bright-coloured sand spread far and wide to distant
horizons. The tropical sun beat with senseless perseverance upon the level
surface until it could scarcely be touched with a naked hand, and the filmy
air glittered and shimmered as over a furnace. Here and there huge masses
of crumbling rock rose from the plain, like islands of cinders in a sea
of fire. Alone in this vast expanse stood Railhead--a canvas town of 2,500
inhabitants, complete with station, stores, post-office, telegraph-office,
and canteen, and only connected with the living world of men and ideas
by two parallel iron streaks, three feet six inches apart, growing dim and
narrower in a long perspective until they were twisted and blurred by the
mirage and vanished in the indefinite distance.
Every morning in the remote nothingness there appeared a black speck
growing larger and clearer, until with a whistle and a welcome clatter,
amid the aching silence of ages, the 'material' train arrived, carrying
its own water and 2,500 yards of rails, sleepers, and accessories. At noon
came another speck, developing in a similar manner into a supply train,
also carrying its own water, food and water for the half-battalion of the
escort and the 2,000 artificers and platelayers, and the letters,
newspapers, sausages, jam, whisky, soda-water, and cigarettes which enable
the Briton to conquer the world without discomfort. And presently the empty
trains would depart, reversing the process of their arrival, and vanishing
gradually along a line which appeared at last to turn up into the air
and run at a tangent into an unreal world.
The life of the strange and lonely town was characterised by a
machine-like regularity, born perhaps of the iron road from which it
derived its nourishment. Daily at three o'clock in the morning the
'camp-engine' started with the 'bank parties.' With the dawn the 'material'
train arrived, the platelaying gangs swarmed over it like clusters of
flies, and were carried to the extreme limit of the track. Every man knew
his task, and knew, too, that he would return to camp when it was finished,
and not before. Forthwith they set busily to work without the necessity of
an order. A hundred yards of material was unloaded. The sleepers were
arranged in a long succession. The rails were spiked to every alternate
sleeper, and then the great 80-ton engine moved cautiously forward along
the unballasted track, like an elephant trying a doubtful bridge.
The operation was repeated continually through the hours of the burning
day. Behind the train there followed other gangs of platelayers, who
completed the spiking and ballasting process; and when the sun sank
beneath the sands of the western horizon, and the engine pushed the empty
trucks and the weary men home to the Railhead camp, it came back over a
finished and permanent line. There was a brief interval while the
camp-fires twinkled in the waste, like the lights of a liner in mid-ocean,
while the officers and men chatted over their evening meal, and then the
darkness and silence of the desert was unbroken till morning brought
the glare and toil of another long day.
So, week in, week out, the work went on. Every few days saw a further
advance into the wilderness. The scene changed and remained unaltered--
'another, yet the same.' As Wady Halfa became more remote and Abu Hamed
grew near, an element of danger, the more appalling since it was peculiar,
was added to the strange conditions under which the inhabitants of
Railhead lived. What if the Dervishes should cut the line behind them?
They had three days' reserve of water. After that, unless the obstruction
were removed and traffic restored, all must wither and die in the sand,
and only their bones and their cooking-pots would attest the folly
of their undertaking.
By the 20th of July a hundred and thirty miles of line had been finished,
and it became too dangerous to advance further until Abu Hamed had been
cleared of the Dervish force. They were still a hundred miles away, but
camels travel fast and far, and the resources of the enemy were uncertain.
It appeared that progress would be checked, but on the 7th of August
General Hunter, marching from Merawi along the river bank, attacked and
took Abu Hamed--an operation which will be described hereafter. Work was
at once resumed with renewed energy. The pace of construction now became
remarkable. As much as 5,300 yards of track was surveyed, embanked,
and laid in a single day. On the 1st of November Abu Hamed was reached,
and by the banks of the Nile the men who had fought their way across the
desert joined hands with those who had fought their way along the river.
The strain and hardship had not, however, been without effect on the
constructors. Two of the Engineer subalterns--Polwhele and Cator--out of
the eight concerned in the laying of the Dongola and the Desert railways
had died. Their places were eagerly filled by others.
The completion of the line was accelerated by nearly a month through the
fortunate discovery of water. At the beginning of July a well was sunk in
what was thought to be a likely place at 'No. 4 Station,' seventy-seven
miles from Halfa. After five weeks' work water was found in abundance at a
depth of 90 feet. A steam-pump was erected, and the well yielded a
continual supply. In October a second well was sunk at 'No. 6 Station,'
fifty-five miles further on, whence water was obtained in still greater
quantity. These discoveries modified, though they did not solve, the water
question. They substantially increased the carrying capacity of the line,
and reduced the danger to which the construction gangs were exposed.
The sinking of the wells, an enterprise at which the friendly Arabs
scoffed, was begun on the Sirdar's personal initiative; but the chronicler
must impartially observe that the success was won by luck as much as by
calculation, for, since the first two wells were made, eight others of
greater depth have been bored and in no case has water been obtained.
As the railway had been made, the telegraph-wire had, of course,
followed it. Every consignment of rails and sleepers had been accompanied
by its proportion of telegraph-poles, insulators, and wire. Another
subaltern of Engineers, Lieutenant Manifold, who managed this part of the
military operations against the Arabs, had also laid a line from Merawi
to Abu Hamed, so that immediate correspondence was effected round the
entire circle of rail and river.
The labours of the Railway Battalion and its officers did not end with
the completion of the line to Abu Hamed. The Desert Railway was made.
It had now to be maintained, worked, and rapidly extended. The terminus at
Halfa had become a busy town. A mud village was transformed into a
miniature Crewe. The great workshops that had grown with the line were
equipped with diverse and elaborate machines. Plant of all kinds purchased
in Cairo or requisitioned from England, with odds and ends collected from
Ishmail's scrap heaps, filled the depots with an extraordinary variety of
stores. Foundries, lathes, dynamos, steam-hammers, hydraulic presses,
cupola furnaces, screw-cutting machines, and drills had been set up and
were in continual work. They needed constant attention. Every appliance
for repairing each must be provided. To haul the tonnage necessary to
supply the army and extend the line nearly forty engines were eventually
required. Purchased at different times and from different countries,
they included ten distinct patterns; each pattern needed a special reserve
of spare parts. The permutations and combinations of the stores were
multiplied. Some of the engines were old and already worn out. These broke
down periodically. The frictional parts of all were affected by the desert
sand, and needed ceaseless attention and repair. The workshops were busy
night and day for seven days a week.
To the complication of machinery was added the confusion of tongues.
Natives of various races were employed as operatives. Foremen had been
obtained from Europe. No fewer than seven separate languages were spoken
in the shops. Wady Halfa became a second Babel. Yet the undertaking
prospered. The Engineer officers displayed qualities of tact and temper:
their director was cool and indefatigable. Over all the Sirdar exercised
a regular control. Usually ungracious, rarely impatient, never
unreasonable, he moved among the workshops and about the line, satisfying
himself that all was proceeding with economy and despatch. The sympathy of
common labour won him the affection of the subalterns. Nowhere in the
Soudan was he better known than on the railroad. Nowhere was he
so ardently believed in.
It is now necessary to anticipate the course of events. As soon as the
railway reached Abu Hamed, General Hunter's force, which was holding that
place, dropped its slender camel communications with Merawi and drew its
supplies along the new line direct from Wady Halfa. After the completion of
the desert line there was still left seventeen miles of material for
construction, and the railway was consequently at once extended to Dakhesh,
sixteen miles south of Abu Hamed. Meanwhile Berber was seized, and military
considerations compelled the concentration of a larger force to maintain
that town. The four battalions which had remained at Merawi were floated
down stream to Kerma, and, there entraining, were carried by Halfa and
Abu Hamed to Dakhesh--a journey of 450 miles.
When the railway had been begun across the desert, it was believed that
the Nile was always navigable above Abu Hamed. In former campaigns it had
been reconnoitred and the waterway declared clear. But as the river fell
it became evident that this was untrue. With the subsidence of the waters
cataracts began to appear, and to avoid these it became necessary first of
all to extend the railway to Bashtinab, later on to Abadia, and finally to
the Atbara. To do this more money had to be obtained, and the usual
financial difficulties presented themselves. Finally, however, the matter
was settled, and the extension began at the rate of about a mile a day.
The character of the country varies considerably between Abu Hamed and the
Atbara River. For the first sixty miles the line ran beside the Nile,
at the edge of the riparian belt. On the right was the cultivable though
mostly uncultivated strip, long neglected and silted up with fine sand
drifted into dunes, from which scattered, scraggy dom palms and prickly
mimosa bushes grew. Between the branches of these sombre trees the river
gleamed, a cool and attractive flood. On the left was the desert, here
broken by frequent rocks and dry watercourses. From Bashtinab to Abadia
another desert section of fifty miles was necessary to avoid some very
difficult ground by the Nile bank. From Abadia to the Atbara the last
stretch of the line runs across a broad alluvial expanse from whose surface
plane-trees of mean appearance, but affording welcome shade, rise, watered
by the autumn rains. The fact that the railway was approaching regions
where rain is not an almost unknown phenomenon increased the labour of
construction. To prevent the embankments from being washed away in the
watercourses, ten bridges and sixty culverts had to be made; and this
involved the transport over the railway of more than 1,000 tons of material
in addition to the ordinary plant.
By the arrival of the reinforcements at Berber the fighting force at the
front was doubled: doubled also was the business of supply. The task of
providing the food of an army in a desert, a thousand miles from their
base, and with no apparent means of subsistence at the end of the day's
march, is less picturesque, though not less important, than the building
of railways along which that nourishment is drawn to the front. Supply and
transport stand or fall together; history depends on both; and in order to
explain the commissariat aspect of the River War, I must again both repeat
and anticipate the account. The Sirdar exercised a direct and personal
supervision over the whole department of supply, but his action was
restricted almost entirely to the distribution of the rations. Their
accumulation and regular supply were the task of Colonel Rogers, and this
officer, by three years of exact calculation and unfailing allowance for
the unforeseen, has well deserved his high reputation as
a feeder of armies.
The first military necessity of the war was, as has been described,
to place the bulk of the Egyptian army at Akasha. In ordinary circumstances
this would not have been a serious commissariat problem. The frontier
reserves of food were calculated to meet such an emergency. But in 1895
the crops in Egypt had been much below the average. At the beginning of
1896 there was a great scarcity of grain. When the order for the advance
was issued, the frontier grain stores were nearly exhausted. The new crops
could not be garnered until the end of April. Thus while the world regarded
Egypt as a vast granary, her soldiers were obliged to purchase 4,000 tons
of doura and 1,000 tons of barley from India and Russia on which to begin
The chief item of a soldier's diet in most armies is bread. In several of
our wars the health, and consequently the efficiency, of the troops has
been impaired by bad bread or by the too frequent substitution of hard
biscuit. For more than a year the army up the river ate 20 tons of flour
daily, and it is easy to imagine how bitter amid ordinary circumstances
would have been the battle between the commissariat officers, whose duty
it was to insist on proper quality, and the contractors--often, I fear,
meriting the epithet 'rascally'--intent only upon profit. But in the
well-managed Egyptian Service no such difficulties arose. The War
Department had in 1892 converted one of Ismail Pasha's gun factories near
Cairo into a victualling-yard. Here were set up their own mills for
grinding flour, machinery for manufacturing biscuit to the extent of 60,000
rations daily, and even for making soap. Three great advantages sprang from
this wise arrangement. Firstly, the good quality of the supply was assured.
Complaints about bread and biscuit were practically unknown, and the soap--
since the soldier, in contrast to the mixture of rubble and grease with
which the contractors had formerly furnished him, could actually wash
himself and his clothes with it--was greatly prized. Secondly, all risk of
contractors failing to deliver in time was avoided. Lastly, the funds
resulting from the economy had been utilised to form a useful corps of 150
bakers. And thus, although the purchase of foreign grain added to the
expense, the beginning of the war found the commissariat of the Egyptian
Army in a thoroughly efficient state.
Vast reserves of stores were quickly accumulated at Assuan. From these
not an ounce of food was issued without the Sirdar's direct sanction.
At the subsidiary depot, formed at Wady Halfa, the same rule prevailed.
The man who was responsible to no one took all the responsibility;
and the system whereby a Chief of the Staff is subjected to the continual
bombardment of heads of departments was happily avoided. Sufficient
supplies having been accumulated at Akasha to allow of a forward movement,
Firket was fought. After Firket the situation became difficult, and the
problem of the supply officers was to keep the troops alive without
delaying the progress of the railway with the carriage of their food.
A small quantity of provisions was painfully dragged, with an average
loss of 50 per cent from theft and water damage, up the succession of
cataracts which obstruct the river-way from Halfa to Kosheh. Camel convoys
from Railhead carried the rest. But until the line reached Kosheh the
resources of the transport were terribly strained, and at one time it was
even necessary to send the mounted troops north to avoid actual famine.
The apparent inadequacy of the means to the end reached a climax when
the army moved southward from Dulgo. The marches and halts to Dongola were
estimated to take ten days, which was the utmost capacity of camel and
steam transport, A few boat-loads of grain might be captured; a few
handfuls of dates might be plucked; but scarcely any local supplies would
be available. The sailing-boats, which were the only regular means of
transport, were all delayed by the adverse winds. Fortune returned at the
critical moment. By good luck on the first day of the march the north wind
began to blow, and twelve days' supplies, over and above those moved by
camel and steamer, reached Dongola with the troops. With this reserve in
hand, the occupation of the province was completed, and although the army
only existed from hand to mouth until the railway reached Kerma, no further
serious difficulty was experienced in supplying them.
The account of the commissariat is now complete to the end of the Dongola
Expedition; but it may conveniently be carried forward with the railway
construction. In the Abu Hamed phase the supplies were so regulated that a
convoy travelling from Murat Wells along the caravan route arrived the day
after the fight; and thereafter communications were opened with Merawi.
The unexpected occupation of Berber, following Abu Hamed, created the most
difficult situation of the war. Until the railway was forced on to Berber
a peculiarly inconvenient line of supply had to be used; and strings
of camels, scattering never less than 30 per cent of their loads,
meandered through the rough and thorny country between Merawi and
Abu Hamed. This line was strengthened by other convoys from Murat and
the approaching Railhead, and a system of boats and camel portages
filtered the supplies to their destination.
Even when the railway had reached Dakhesh the tension was only slightly
relaxed. The necessity of supplying the large force at Berber, 108 miles
from Railhead, still required the maintenance of a huge and complicated
system of boat and camel transport. Of course, as the railway advanced,
it absorbed stage after stage of river and portage, and the difficulties
decreased. But the reader may gain some idea of their magnitude by
following the progress of a box of biscuits from Cairo to Berber in the
month of December 1897. The route was as follows: From Cairo to Nagh
Hamadi (340 miles) by rail; from Nagh Hamadi to Assuan (205 miles)
by boat; from Assuan to Shellal (6 miles} by rail; from Shellal to Halfa
(226 miles) by boat; from Halfa to Dakhesh (Railhead)--248 miles--
by military railway; from Dakhesh to Shereik (45 miles) by boat; from
Shereik by camel (13 miles) round a cataract to Bashtinab; from Bashtinab
by boat (25 miles) to Omsheyo; from Omsheyo round another impracticable
reach (11 miles) by camel to Geneinetti, and thence (22 miles) to Berber
by boat. The road taken by this box of biscuits was followed by every ton
of supplies required by 10,000 men in the field. The uninterrupted working
of the long and varied chain was vital to the welfare of the army and the
success of the war. It could only be maintained if every section was
adequately supplied and none were either choked or starved. This problem
had to be solved correctly every day by the transport officers, in spite
of uncertain winds that retarded the boats, of camels that grew sick or
died, and of engines that repeatedly broke down. In the face of every
difficulty a regular supply was maintained. The construction of the railway
was not delayed, nor the food of the troops reduced.
The line continued to grow rapidly, and as it grew the difficulties of
supply decreased. The weight was shifted from the backs of the camels and
the bottoms of the sailing-boats to the trucks of the iron road. The strong
hands of steam were directed to the prosecution of the war, and the
swiftness of the train replaced the toilsome plodding of the caravan.
The advance of the Dervishes towards Berber checked the progress of the
railway. Military precautions were imperative. Construction was delayed by
the passage of the 1st British Brigade from Cairo to the front, and by the
consequently increased volume of daily supplies. By the 10th of March,
however, the line was completed to Bashtinab. On the 5th of May it had
reached Abadia. On the 3rd of July the whole railway from Wady Halfa
to the Atbara was finished, and the southern terminus was established in
the great entrenched camp at the confluence of the rivers. The question
of supply was then settled once and for all. In less than a week stores
sufficient for three months were poured along the line, and the exhausting
labours of the commissariat officers ended. Their relief and achievement
were merged in the greater triumph of the Railway Staff. The director and
his subalterns had laboured long, and their efforts were crowned with
complete success. On the day that the first troop train steamed into the
fortified camp at the confluence of the Nile and the Atbara rivers the doom
of the Dervishes was sealed. It had now become possible with convenience
and speed to send into the heart of the Soudan great armies independent of
the season of the year and of the resources of the country; to supply them
not only with abundant food and ammunition, but with all the varied
paraphernalia of scientific war; and to support their action on land by a
powerful flotilla of gunboats, which could dominate the river and command
the banks, and could at any moment make their way past Khartoum even to
Sennar, Fashoda, or Sobat. Though the battle was not yet fought,
the victory was won. The Khalifa, his capital, and his army were now within
the Sirdar's reach. It remained only to pluck the fruit in the most
convenient hour, with the least trouble and at the smallest cost.
CHAPTER IX: ABU HAMED
The last chapter carried the account of the war forward at express speed.
The reader, who had already on the railway reached the Atbara encampment
and was prepared for the final advance on Khartoum, must allow his mind to
revert to a period when the Egyptian forces are distributed along the river
in garrisons at Dongola, Debba, Korti, and Merawi; when the reorganisation
of the conquered province has been begun; and when the Desert Railway is
still stretching steadily forward towards Abu Hamed.
The news of the fall of Dongola created a panic in Omdurman.
Great numbers of Arabs, believing that the Khalifa's power was about to
collapse, fled from the city. All business was at a standstill. For several
days there were no executions. Abdullah himself kept his house, and thus
doubtfully concealed his vexation and alarm from his subjects. On the fifth
day, however, having recovered his own confidence, he proceeded to the
mosque, and after the morning prayer ascended his small wooden pulpit and
addressed the assembled worshippers. After admitting the retreat of the
Dervishes under Wad Bishara, he enlarged on the losses the 'Turks' had
sustained and described their miserable condition. He deplored the fact
that certain of the Jehadia had surrendered, and reminded his listeners
with a grim satisfaction of the horrible tortures which it was the practice
of the English and Egyptians to inflict upon their captives. He bewailed
the lack of faith in God which had allowed even the meanest of the Ansar
to abandon the Jehad against the infidel, and he condemned the lack of
piety which disgraced the age. But he proclaimed his confidence in the
loyalty of his subjects and his enjoyment of the favour of God and the
counsels of the late Mahdi; and having by his oratory raised the fanatical
multitude to a high pitch of excitement, he thus concluded his long