Part 4 out of 6
harangue: 'It is true that our chiefs have retired from Dongola. Yet they
are not defeated. Only they that disobeyed me have perished. I instructed
the faithful to refrain from fighting and return to Metemma. It was by my
command that they have done what they have done. For the angel of the Lord
and the spirit of the Mahdi have warned me in a vision that the souls of
the accursed Egyptians and of the miserable English shall leave their
bodies between Dongola and Omdurman, at some spot which their bones shall
whiten. Thus shall the infidels be conquered.' Then, drawing his sword,
he cried with a loud voice: 'Ed din mansur! The religion is victorious!
Islam shall triumph!' Whereupon the worshippers, who to the number of
20,000 filled the great quadrangle--although they could not all hear his
voice--saw his sword flashing in the sunlight, and with one accord
imitated him, waving their swords and spears, and raising a mighty shout
of fury and defiance. When the tumult had subsided, the Khalifa announced
that those who did not wish to remain faithful might go where they liked,
but that he for his part would remain, knowing that God would vindicate
the faith. Public confidence was thus restored.
In order that the divine favour might be assisted by human effort,
Abdullah adopted every measure or precaution that energy or prudence could
suggest. At first he seems to have apprehended that the Sirdar's army
would advance at once upon Omdurman, following the route of the Desert
Column in 1885 from Korti to Metemma. He therefore ordered Osman Azrak--
in spite of his severe wound--to hold Abu Klea Wells with the survivors of
his flag. Bishara, who had rallied and reorganised the remains of the
Dongola army, was instructed to occupy Metemma, the headquarters of the
Jaalin. Messengers were despatched to the most distant garrisons to arrange
for a general concentration upon Omdurman. The Emir Ibrahim Khalil was
recalled from the Ghezira, or the land between the Blue and White Niles,
and with his force of about 4,000 Jehadia and Baggara soon reached
the city. Another chief, Ahmed Fedil, who was actually on his way to
Gedaref, was ordered to return to the capital. Thither also Osman Digna
repaired from Adarama. But it appears that the Khalifa only required the
advice of that wily councillor, for he did not reduce the number of
Dervishes in the small forts along the line of the Atbara--Ed Darner,
Adarama, Asubri, El Fasher--and after a short visit and a long consultation
Osman Digna returned to his post at Adarama. Last of all, but not least in
importance, Mahmud, who commanded the 'Army of the West,' was ordered to
leave very reduced garrisons in Kordofan and Darfur, and march with his
whole remaining force, which may have numbered 10,000 fighting men,
to the Nile, and so to Omdurman. Mahmud, who was as daring and ambitious
as he was conceited and incapable, received the summons with delight,
and began forthwith to collect his troops.
The Khalifa saw very clearly that he could not trust the riverain tribes.
The Jaalin and Barabra were discontented. He knew that they were weary of
his rule and of war. In proportion as the Egyptian army advanced, so their
loyalty and the taxes they paid decreased. He therefore abandoned all idea
of making a stand at Berber. The Emir Yunes--who, since he had been
transferred from Dongola in 1895, had ruled the district--was directed to
collect all the camels, boats, grain, and other things that might assist
an invading army and send them to Metemma. The duty was most thoroughly
performed. The inhabitants were soon relieved of all their property and of
most of their means of livelihood, and their naturally bitter resentment at
this merciless treatment explains to some extent the astonishing events
which followed the capture of Abu Hamed. This last place Abdullah never
regarded as more than an outpost. Its garrison was not large, and although
it had now become the most northerly Dervish position, only a slender
reinforcement was added to the force under the command of Mohammed-ez-Zein.
The power of the gunboats and their effect in the Dongola campaign
were fully appreciated by the Arabs; and the Khalifa, in the hopes of
closing the Sixth Cataract, began to construct several forts at the
northern end of the Shabluka gorge. The Bordein, one of Gordon's old
steamers, plied busily between Omdurman and Wad Hamed, transporting guns
and stores; and Ahmed Fedil was sent with a sufficient force to hold the
works when they were made. But the prophecy of the Mahdi exercised a
powerful effect on the Khalifa's mind, and while he neglected no detail
he based his hopes on the issue of a great battle on the plains of Kerreri,
when the invaders should come to the walls of the city. With this prospect
continually before him he drilled and organised the increasing army at
Omdurman with the utmost regularity, and every day the savage soldiery
practised their evolutions upon the plain they were presently to strew
with their bodies.
But after a while it became apparent that the 'Turks' were not advancing.
They tarried on the lands they had won. The steamers went no further than
Merawi. The iron road stopped at Kerma. Why had they not followed up their
success? Obviously because they feared the army that awaited them at
Omdurman. At this the Khalifa took fresh courage, and in January 1897 he
began to revolve schemes for taking the offensive and expelling the
invaders from the Dongola province. The army drilled and manoeuvred
continually on the plains of Kerreri; great numbers of camels were
collected at Omdurman; large stores of dried kisru or 'Soudan biscuit,'
the food of Dervishes on expeditions, were prepared.
The Sirdar did not remain in ignorance of these preparations.
The tireless enterprise of the Intelligence Branch furnished the most
complete information; and preparations were made to concentrate the troops
in Dongola on any threatened point, should the enemy advance. Regular
reconnaissances were made by the cavalry both into the desert towards
Gakdul Wells and along the river. Towards the end of May it was reported
that the Emir Yunes had crossed the Nile and was raiding the villages on
the left bank below Abu Hamed. In consequence the Sirdar ordered a
strong patrol under Captain Le Gallais, and consisting of three squadrons
of cavalry under Captain Mahon, three companies of the Camel Corps, and 100
men of the IXth Soudanese on camels, with one Maxim gun, to reconnoitre up
the Nile through the Shukuk Pass and as far as Salamat.
The outward journey was unbroken by incident; but as the patrol was
returning it was attacked by an equal force of Dervishes, and a sharp
little skirmish ensued in which one British officer--Captain Peyton--
was severely wounded, nine Egyptian troopers were killed, and three
others wounded. This proof that the Dervishes were on the move
enforced the greatest vigilance in all the Dongola garrisons.
At the end of May, Mahmud with his army arrived at Omdurman.
The Khalifa received him with delight, and several imposing reviews were
held outside the city. Mahmud himself was eager to march against
the 'Turks.' He had no experience of modern rifles, and felt confident that
he could easily destroy or at least roll back the invading forces. Partly
persuaded by the zeal of his lieutenant, and partly by the wavering and
doubtful attitude of the Jaalin, the Khalifa determined early in June to
send the Kordofan army to occupy Metemma, and thereby either to awe the
tribe into loyalty, or force them to revolt while the Egyptian troops
were still too distant to assist them. He summoned the chief of the Jaalin,
Abdalla-Wad-Saad, to Omdurman, and informed him that the Jaalin territories
were threatened by the Turks. In the goodness of his heart, therefore, and
because he knew that they loved the Mahdi and practised the true religion,
he was resolved to protect them from their enemies. The chief bowed his
head. The Khalifa continued that the trusty Mahmud with his army would be
sent for that purpose; Abdalla might show his loyalty in furnishing them
with all supplies and accommodation. He intimated that the interview was
over. But the Jaalin chief had the temerity to protest. He assured the
Khalifa of his loyalty, and of the ability of his tribe to repel the enemy.
He implored him not to impose the burden of an army upon them.
He exaggerated the poverty of Metemma; he lamented the misfortunes
of the times. Finally he begged forgiveness for making his protest.
The Khalifa was infuriated. Forgetting his usual self-control and the
forms of public utterance, he broke out into a long and abusive harangue.
He told the chief that he had long doubted his loyalty, that he despised
his protestations, that he was worthy of a shameful death, that his tribe
were a blot upon the face of the earth, and that he hoped Mahmud would
improve their manners and those of their wives.
Abdalla-Wad-Saad crept from the presence, and returned in fury and disgust
to Metemma. Having collected the head men of his tribe, he informed them of
his reception and the Khalifa's intent. They did not need to be told that
the quartering upon them of Mahmud's army meant the plunder of their goods,
the ruin of their homes, and the rape of their women. It was resolved to
revolt and join the Egyptian forces. As a result of the council the Jaalin
chief wrote two letters. The first was addressed to the Sirdar, and reached
General Rundle at Merawi by messenger on the 24th of June. It declared the
Jaalin submission to the Government, and begged for help, if possible in
men, or, failing that, in arms; but ended by saying that, help or no help,
the tribe were resolved to fight the Dervishes and hold Metemma to the
death. The second letter--a mad and fatal letter--carried defiance
to the Khalifa.
Rundle, who was at Merawi when the Jaalin messenger found him,
lost no time. A large amount of ammunition and 1,100 Remington rifles
were speedily collected and hurried on camels across the desert by the
Korti-Metemma route, escorted by a strong detachment of the Camel Corps.
The Khalifa did not receive his letter until the 27th of June. But he
acted with even greater promptitude. Part of Mahmud's army had already
started for the north. Mahmud and the rest followed on the 28th. On the
30th the advanced guard arrived before Metemma. The Jaalin prepared to
resist desperately. Nearly the whole tribe had responded to the summons
of their chief, and more than 2,500 men were collected behind the walls
of the town. But in all this force there were only eighty serviceable
rifles, and only fifteen rounds of ammunition each. Abdalla expected that
the Dervishes would make their heaviest attack on the south side of
Metemma, and he therefore disposed his few riflemen along that front.
The defence of the rest of the town had perforce to be entrusted to the
valour of the spearmen.
On the morning of the 1st of July, Mahmud, with a force variously
estimated at 10,000 or 12,000 men, began his assault. The first attack
fell, as the chief had anticipated, on the southern face. It was repulsed
with severe loss by the Jaalin riflemen. A second attack followed
immediately. The enemy had meanwhile surrounded the whole town, and just as
the Jaalin ammunition was exhausted a strong force of the Dervishes
penetrated the northern face of their defences, which was held only by
spearmen. The whole of Mahmud's army poured in through the gap, and the
garrison, after a stubborn resistance, were methodically exterminated.
An inhuman butchery of the children and some of the women followed.
Abdalla-Wad-Saad was among the killed.
A few of the Jaalin who had escaped from the general destruction
fled towards Gakdul. Here they found the Camel Corps with their caravan of
rifles and ammunition. Like another force that had advanced by this very
road to carry succour to men in desperate distress, the relief had arrived
too late. The remnants of the Jaalin were left in occupation of Gakdul
Wells. The convoy and its escort returned to Korti.
But while the attention of the Khalifa was directed to these matters,
a far more serious menace offered from another quarter. Unnoticed by the
Dervishes, or, if noticed, unappreciated, the railway was stretching
farther and farther into the desert. By the middle of July it had reached
the 130th mile, and, as is related in the last chapter, work had to be
suspended until Abu Hamed was in the hands of the Egyptian forces.
The Nile was rising fast. Very soon steamers would be able to pass the
Fourth Cataract. It should have been evident that the next movement in the
advance of the 'Turks' impended. The Khalifa seems, indeed, to have
understood that the rise of the river increased his peril, for throughout
July he continued to send orders to the Emir in Berber--Yunes--that he
should advance into the Monassir district, harry such villages as existed,
and obstruct the frequent reconnaissances from Merawi. Yunes, however,
preferred to do otherwise, and remained on the left bank opposite Berber
until, at length, his master recalled him to Omdurman to explain his
conduct. Meanwhile, determined with mathematical exactness by the rise of
the Nile and progress of the railway, the moment of the Egyptian advance
At the end of July preparations were made, as secretly as possible,
to despatch a flying column against Abu Hamed. The Dervish garrison,
under Mohammed-ez-Zein, was not believed to exceed 600 men, but in order
that there should be no doubt as to the result it was determined to employ
a strong force.
A brigade of all arms was formed as follows:-
Commanding: MAJOR-GENERAL HUNTER
Cavalry . . . . . . . One troop
Artillery . . . . . . No. 2 Field Battery
[This battery consisted of six Krupp guns, two Maxims, one Gardner gun,
and one Nordenfeldt--an effective medley.]
Infantry . . . . . . . MACDONALD'S BRIGADE
- 3rd Egyptian
- IXth Soudanese
- Xth "
- XIth "
Major-General Sir Archibald Hunter, the officer to whom the operation
was entrusted, was from many points of view the most imposing figure in
the Egyptian army. He had served through the Nile Expedition of 1884-85,
with some distinction, in the Khedive's service. Thenceforward his rise
was rapid, even for an Egyptian officer, and in ten years he passed through
all the grades from Captain to Major-General. His promotion was not,
however, undeserved. Foremost in every action, twice wounded--once at the
head of his brigade--always distinguished for valour and conduct, Hunter
won the admiration of his comrades and superiors. During the River War
he became, in spite of his hard severity, the darling of the Egyptian Army.
All the personal popularity which great success might have brought to the
Sirdar focussed itself on his daring, good-humoured subordinate, and it
was to Hunter that the soldiers looked whenever there was fighting to be
done. The force now placed under his command for the attack upon Abu Hamed
amounted to about 3,600 men. Until that place was taken all other
operations were delayed. The Sirdar awaited the issue at Merawi.
The railway paused in mid-desert.
The troops composing the 'flying column' concentrated at Kassingar,
a small village a few miles above Merawi, on the right (or Abu Hamed) bank
of the Nile. General Hunter began his march on the 29th of July. The total
distance from Kassingar to Abu Hamed is 146 miles. The greatest secrecy
had been observed in the preparation of the force, but it was known that
as soon as the column actually started the news would be carried to the
enemy. Speed was therefore essential; for if the Dervish garrison in
Abu Hamed were reinforced from Berber, the flying column might not be
strong enough to take the village. On the other hand, the great heat and
the certainty that the troops would have to fight an action at the end of
the march imposed opposite considerations on the commander. To avoid the
sun, the greater part of the distance was covered at night. Yet the
advantage thus gained was to some extent neutralised by the difficulty of
marching over such broken ground in the darkness.
Throughout the whole length of the course of the Nile there is no more
miserable wilderness than the Monassir Desert. The stream of the river is
broken and its channel obstructed by a great confusion of boulders, between
and among which the water rushes in dangerous cataracts. The sandy waste
approaches the very brim, and only a few palm-trees, or here and there a
squalid mud hamlet, reveal the existence of life. The line of advance lay
along the river; but no road relieved the labour of the march. Sometimes
trailing across a broad stretch of white sand, in which the soldiers sank
to their ankles, and which filled their boots with a rasping grit;
sometimes winding over a pass or through a gorge of sharp-cut rocks, which,
even in the moonlight, felt hot with the heat of the previous day--always
in a long, jerky, and interrupted procession of men and camels, often in
single file--the column toiled painfully like the serpent to whom it
was said, 'On thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat.'
The column started at 5.30 in the evening, and by a march of sixteen and
a half miles reached Mushra-el-Obiad at about midnight. Here a convenient
watering-place, not commanded by the opposite bank, and the shade of eight
or ten thorny bushes afforded the first suitable bivouac. At 3.30 P.M. on
the 30th the march was continued eight and a half miles to a spot some
little distance beyond Shebabit. The pace was slow, and the route stony
and difficult. It was after dark when the halting-place was reached.
Several of the men strayed from the column, wandered in the gloom, and
reached the bivouac exhausted. General Hunter had proposed to push on the
next day to Hosh-el-Geref, but the fatigues of his troops in the two night
marches had already been severe, and as, after Abu Haraz, the track twisted
away from the river so that there was no water for five miles, he resolved
to halt for the day and rest. Hosh-el-Geref was therefore not reached until
the 1st of August--a day later than had been expected; but the rest had
proved of such benefit to the troops that the subsequent acceleration of
progress fully compensated for the delay. The column moved on again at
midnight and halted at daybreak at Salmi. In the small hours of the next
morning the march was resumed. The road by the Nile was found too difficult
for the Maxim guns, which were on wheels, and these had to make a detour
of twenty-eight miles into the desert while the infantry moved ten miles
along the river. In order that the Maxims should not arrive alone at
Dakfilli, General Hunter had marched thither with the IXth Soudanese
at 11 P.M. on the previous day. The rest of the column followed a few hours
later. On the 4th, by an eighteen-mile march through deep sand, El Kab was
reached. A single shot was fired from the opposite bank of the river as the
cavalry patrol entered the village; and there was no longer any doubt that
the Dervishes knew of the advance of the column. Both the troops and the
transport were now moving admirably; nevertheless, their sufferings
The nights were consumed in movement. Without shade the soldiers could not
sleep by day. All ranks wearied, and the men would frequently, during the
night marches, sink down upon the ground in profound slumber, only to be
sternly aroused and hurried on. But the pace of the advance continued to be
swift. On the 5th, the force, by a fourteen-mile march, reached Khula.
Here they were joined by Sheikh Abdel-Azim with 150 Ababda camel-men from
Murat Wells. Up to this point three Egyptians had died and fifty-eight men
had been left behind exhausted in depots. A double ration of meat was
issued to the whole force. The column moved on during the night,
and arrived at Ginnifab at 8 A.M. on the morning of the 6th. Here startling
news of the enemy was received. It was known that Mohammed-ez-Zein was
determined to fight, and a trustworthy report was now received that a large
force was coming down from Berber to support the Abu Hamed garrison.
In spite of the long marches and the fatigues of the troops, General Hunter
resolved to hurry on. He had already made up the day spent at Abu Haraz.
He now decided to improve on the prescribed itinerary, accelerate his own
arrival and anticipate that of the Dervish reinforcements. Accordingly the
troops marched all through the night of the 6-7th with only a short halt of
an hour and a half, so as to attack Abu Hamed at dawn. After covering
sixteen miles of bad ground, the 'flying column' reached Ginnifab,
144 miles from Kassingar and only two from the Dervish post, at 3.30 on
the morning of the 7th of August. A halt of two hours was allowed for the
troops to prepare themselves. Half the 3rd Egyptian Battalion remained as
escort to the transport and reserve ammunition, and then the force
moved off in the darkness towards the enemy's position.
The village of Abu Hamed straggles along the bank of the Nile,
and consists of a central mass of mud houses, intersected by a network of
winding lanes and alleys, about 500 yards long by perhaps 100 yards wide.
To the north and south are detached clusters of ruined huts, and to the
south there rises a large, ragged pile of rocks. The ground slopes
gradually up from the river, so that at a distance of 300 yards the village
is surrounded on three sides by a low plateau. Upon this plateau stand
three stone watch-towers, which were erected by General Gordon. The Dervish
garrison were strongly posted in shelter trenches and loop-holed houses
along the eastern face of the village. The towers were held
by their outposts.
Making a wide circuit to their left, and then swinging round to the right,
so as to front facing the river, the brigade silently moved towards the
enemy's position, and at a quarter past six occupied the plateau in a
crescent-shaped formation; the XIth Soudanese on the right, opposite the
north-east corner of the village; the battery, escorted by the remaining
half-battalion of the 3rd Egyptians, next; then the IXth in the centre,
and the Xth Soudanese on the left flank. As the troops approached the
watch-towers the Dervish outposts fell back and the force continued to
advance until the edge of the plateau was reached. From here the whole
scene was visible.
The day was just breaking, and the mist hung low and white over the
steel-grey surface of the river. The outlines of the mud houses were
sharply defined on this pale background. The Dervish riflemen crouched in
the shelter trench that ran round the village. Their cavalry, perhaps a
hundred strong, were falling in hurriedly on the sandy ground to the south
near the ragged rocks. The curve of the hills, crowned with the dark line
of the troops, completed and framed the picture. Within this small
amphitheatre one of the minor dramas of war was now to be enacted.
At half past six the battery came into action, and after a few shells had
been fired at the loopholed houses in the left centre of the position,
a general advance was ordered. In excellent order the three Soudanese
battalions, with General Hunter, Lieut.-Colonel MacDonald, and the other
British officers on horseback in front of their line, advanced slowly
down the hill, opening a destructive fire on the entrenchment. The distance
was scarcely three hundred yards; but the crescent formation of the attack
made the lines of advance converge, and before half the distance was
covered the Xth were compelled to halt, lest the XIth Soudanese on the
right flank should fire into them. The Dervishes remained silent until the
troops were within a hundred yards, when they discharged two tremendous
volleys, which were chiefly effective upon the halted battalion. Major
Sidney, Lieutenant Fitzclarence, and a dozen men were shot dead. More than
fifty men were wounded. All the Soudanese thereupon with a loud shout
rushed upon the entrenchment, stormed it, and hunted the Dervishes into the
houses. In the street-fighting which followed, the numbers of the troops
prevailed. The advance scarcely paused until the river bank was reached,
and by 7.30 Abu Hamed was in the possession of the Egyptian forces.
The Dervish horsemen, who had remained spectators near the southern crag
during the attack, fled towards Berber as soon as they saw the attack
successful. Scarcely any of the infantry escaped.
In this action, besides the two British officers, Major H. M. Sidney
and Lieutenant E. Fitzclarence, 21 native soldiers were killed; 61 native
soldiers were wounded.
The news of the capture of Abu Hamed was carried swiftly by camel
and wire to all whom it might concern. The Sirdar, anticipating the result,
had already ordered the gunboats to commence the passage of the Fourth
Cataract. The camp at Railhead sprang to life after an unaccustomed rest,
and the line began again to grow rapidly. The Dervishes who were hurrying
from Berber were only twenty miles from Abu Hamed when they met the
fugitives. They immediately turned back, and retired to the foot of the
Fifth Cataract, whence after a few days' halt they continued their retreat.
Their proximity to the captured village shows how little time the column
had to spare, and that General Hunter was wise to press his marches.
The Emir who commanded at Berber heard of the loss of the outpost on
the 9th. He sent the messenger on to Metemma. Mahmud replied on the 11th
that he was starting at once with his whole army to reinforce Berber.
Apparently, however, he did not dare to move without the Khalifa's
permission; for his letters, as late as the 20th, show that he had not
broken his camp, and was still asking the Emir for information as to the
doings of the 'Turks.' Of a truth there was plenty to tell.
On the 4th of August the gunboats El Teb and Tamai approached the Fourth
Cataract to ascend to the Abu Hamed-Berber reach of the river. Major David
was in charge of the operation. Lieutenants Hood and Beatty (Royal Navy)
commanded the vessels. Two hundred men of the 7th Egyptians were towed in
barges to assist in hauling the steamers in the difficult places.
The current was, however, too strong, and it was found necessary to leave
three barges, containing 160 soldiers, at the foot of the rapids.
Nevertheless, as the cataract was not considered a very formidable barrier,
Major David determined to make the attempt. Early on the 5th, therefore,
the Tamai tried the ascent. About 300 local Shaiggia tribesmen had been
collected, and their efforts were directed--or, as the result proved,
mis-directed--by those few of the Egyptian soldiers who had not been left
behind. The steamer, with her engines working at full speed, succeeded in
mounting half the distance. But the rush of water was then so great that
her bows were swept round, and, after a narrow escape of capsizing, she
was carried swiftly down the stream.
The officers thought that this failure was due to the accidental fouling
of a rope at a critical moment, and to the fact that there were not enough
local tribesmen pulling at the hawsers. Four hundred more Shaiggia were
therefore collected from the neighbouring villages, and in the afternoon
the Teb attempted the passage. Her fortunes were far worse than those of
the Tamai. Owing to the lack of co-operation and discipline among the local
tribesmen, their utter ignorance of what was required of them, and the want
of proper supervision, the hauling power was again too weak. Again the bows
of the steamer were swept round, and, as the hawsers held, a great rush of
water poured over the bulwarks. In ten seconds the Teb heeled over and
turned bottom upwards. The hawsers parted under this new strain, and she
was swept down stream with only her keel showing. Lieutenant Beatty and
most of the crew were thrown, or glad to jump, into the foaming water of
the cataract, and, being carried down the river, were picked up below the
rapids by the Tamai, which was luckily under steam. Their escape was
extraordinary, for of the score who were flung into the water only one
Egyptian was drowned. Two other men were, however, missing, and their fate
seemed certain. The capsized steamer, swirled along by the current,
was jammed about a mile below the cataract between two rocks, where she
became a total wreck. Anxious to see if there was any chance of raising
her, the officers proceeded in the Tamai to the scene. The bottom of the
vessel was just visible above the surface. It was evident to all that her
salvage would be a work of months. The officers were about to leave the
wreck, when suddenly a knocking was heard within the hull. Tools were
brought, a plate was removed, and there emerged, safe and sound from the
hold in which they had been thus terribly imprisoned, the second engineer
and a stoker. When the rapidity with which the steamer turned upside down,
with the engines working, the fires burning, and the boilers full--
the darkness, with all the floors become ceilings--the violent inrush
of water--the wild career down the stream--are remembered, it will be
conceded that the experience of these men was sufficiently remarkable.
Search was now made for another passage. This was found on the 6th,
nearer the right bank of the river. On the 8th the Metemma arrived with 300
more men of the 7th Egyptians. Three days were spent in preparations and to
allow the Nile to rise a little more. On the 13th, elaborate precautions
being observed, the Metemma passed the cataract safely, and was tied up to
the bank on the higher reach. The Tamai followed the next day. On the 19th
and 20th the new gunboats Fateh, Naser, and Zafir, the most powerful
vessels on the river, accomplished the passage. Meanwhile the Metemma and
Tamai had already proceeded up stream. On the 23rd the unarmed steamer Dal
made the ascent, and by the 29th the whole flotilla reached
Abu Hamed safely.
After the arrival of the gunboats events began to move at the double.
The sudden dart upon Abu Hamed had caused the utmost consternation among
the Dervishes. Finding that Mahmud was not going to reinforce him, and
fearing the treachery of the local tribes, Zeki Osman, the Emir in Berber,
decided to fall back, and on the 24th he evacuated Berber and marched
south. On the 27th General Hunter at Abu Hamed heard that the Dervish
garrison had left the town. The next day he despatched Abdel-Azim,
the chief of Irregulars, and Ahmed Bey Khalifa, his brother, with forty
Ababda tribesmen, to reconnoitre. These bold fellows pushed on recklessly,
and found the inhabitants everywhere terrified or acquiescent. Spreading
extraordinary tales of the strength of the army who were following them,
they created a panic all along the river, and, in spite of a sharp fight
with a Dervish patrol, reached Berber on the 31st. As there was no armed
force in the town, the enterprising allies rode into the streets and
occupied the grain store--the only public building--in the name of the
Government. They then sent word back to Abu Hamed of what they had done,
and sat down in the town, thus audaciously captured, to await developments.
The astonishing news of the fall of Berber reached General Hunter
on the 2nd of September. He immediately telegraphed to Merawi. Sir Herbert
Kitchener was confronted with a momentous question: should Berber be
occupied or not? It may at first seem that there could be little doubt
about the matter. The objective of the expedition was Omdurman.
The occupation of Berber by an Egyptian garrison would settle at once the
difficulties near Suakin. The town was believed to be on the clear waterway
to the Dervish capital. The moral effect of its capture upon the riverain
tribes and throughout the Soudan would be enormous. Berber was, in fact,
the most important strategic point on the whole line of advance. This great
prize and advantage was now to be had for the asking.
The opposite considerations were, however, tremendous. Abu Hamed marked
a definite stage in the advance. As long as Merawi and the other posts in
Dongola were strongly held, the line from Abu Hamed to Debba was capable of
easy defence. Abu Hamed could soon be made impregnable to Dervish attack.
The forces in Dongola could be quickly concentrated on any threatened
point. At this moment in the campaign it was possible to stop and wait with
perfect safety. In the meantime the Khalifa would steadily weaken and the
railway might steadily grow. When the line reached the angle of the river,
it would be time to continue the systematic and cautious advance.
Until then prudence and reason counselled delay. To occupy Berber was to
risk much. Mahmud, with a large and victorious army, lay at Metemma.
Osman Digna, with 2,000 men, held Adarama almost within striking distance.
The railway still lagged in the desert. The Dongola garrisons must be
weakened to provide a force for Berber. The Dervishes had the advantage of
occupying the interior of the angle which the Nile forms at Abu Hamed.
The troops in Berber would have to draw their supplies by a long and
slender line of camel communication, winding along all the way from Merawi,
and exposed, as a glance at the map will show, throughout its whole length
to attack. More than all this: to advance to Berber must inevitably force
the development of the whole war. The force in the town would certainly
have its communications threatened, would probably have to fight for its
very existence. The occupation of Berber would involve sooner or later a
general action; not a fight like Firket, Hafir, or Abu Hamed, with the
advantage of numbers on the side of the Egyptian troops, but an even
battle. For such a struggle British troops were necessary. At this time
it seemed most unlikely that they would be granted. But if Berber was
occupied, the war, until the arrival of British troops, would cease to be
so largely a matter of calculation, and must pass almost entirely into the
sphere of chance. The whole situation was premature and unforeseen.
The Sirdar had already won success. To halt was to halt in safety; to go on
was to go on at hazard. Most of the officers who had served long in the
Egyptian army understood the question. They waited the decision
The Sirdar and the Consul-General unhesitatingly faced the responsibility
together. On the 3rd of September General Hunter received orders to occupy
Berber. He started at once with 350 men of the IXth Soudanese on board
the gunboats Tamai, Zafir, Naser, and Fateh. Shortly after daybreak on the
5th the Egyptian flag was hoisted over the town. Having disembarked the
infantry detachment, the flotilla steamed south to try to harass the
retreating Emir. They succeeded; for on the next day they caught him,
moving along the bank in considerable disorder, and, opening a heavy fire,
soon drove the mixed crowd of fugitives, horse and foot, away from the
river into the desert. The gunboats then returned to Berber, towing a dozen
captured grain-boats. Meanwhile the Sirdar had started for the front
himself. Riding swiftly with a small escort across the desert from Merawi,
he crossed the Nile at the Baggara Cataract and reached Berber on the 10th
of September. Having inspected the immediate arrangements for defence,
he withdrew to Abu Hamed, and there busily prepared to meet the
developments which he well knew might follow at once, and must follow
in the course of a few months.
CHAPTER X: BERBER
The town of Berber stands at a little distance from the Nile,
on the right bank of a channel which is full only when the river is in
flood. Between this occasional stream and the regular waterway there runs
a long strip of rich alluvial soil, covered during the greater part of the
year with the abundant crops which result from its annual submersion and
the thick coating of Nile mud which it then receives. The situation of
Berber is fixed by this fertile tract, and the houses stretch for more
than seven miles along it and the channel by which it is caused. The town,
as is usual on the Nile, is comparatively narrow, and in all its length
it is only at one point broader than three-quarters of a mile. Two wide
streets run longitudinally north and south from end to end, and from these
many narrow twisting alleys lead to the desert or the river. The Berber of
Egyptian days lies in ruins at the southern end of the main roads. The new
town built by the Dervishes stands at the north. Both are foul and
unhealthy; and if Old Berber is the more dilapidated, New Berber seemed to
the British officers who visited it to be in a more active state of decay.
The architectural style of both was similar. The houses were constructed
by a simple method. A hole was dug in the ground. The excavated mud formed
the walls of the building. The roof consisted of palm-leaves and thorn
bushes. The hole became a convenient cesspool. Such was Berber, and this
'emporium of Soudan trade,' as it has been called by enthusiasts, contained
at the time of its recapture by the Egyptian forces a miserable population
of 5,000 males and 7,000 females, as destitute of property as their
dwellings were of elegance.
The Egyptian garrison of Berber at first consisted only of the 350 men
of the IXth Soudanese, and two companies of the Camel Corps, who arrived on
the 16th of September, having marched across the desert from Merawi.
But the proximity of Osman Digna at Adarama made it necessary speedily to
strengthen the force.
During the latter part of September MacDonald's brigade, with the exception
of half the 3rd Egyptians, was moved south from Abu Hamed, and by the end
of the month the infantry in Berber were swollen to three and a half
battalions. This was further increased on the 11th of October by the
arrival of the XIIIth Soudanese and the remaining half of the 3rd
Egyptians, and thereafter the place was held by five battalions (3rd, IXth,
Xth, XIth, XIIIth), No. 2 Field Battery, and two companies of the Camel
Corps. As all the Dervishes on the right bank of the Nile had fled to the
south of the Atbara, it was found possible to establish a small advanced
post of Camel Corps and friendly Arabs in the village of Dakhila, at the
confluence of the rivers. From this humble beginning the Atbara fort with
its great entrenchment was soon to develop.
The effect of the occupation of Berber upon the tribes around Suakin
was decisive, and the whole country between these towns became at once
tranquil and loyal. Osman Digna's influence was destroyed. The friendly
villages were no longer raided. The Governor of the town became in reality,
as well as in name, the Governor of the Red Sea Littoral. The route from
Suakin to Berber was opened; and a Camel Corps patrol, several small
caravans of traders, and a party of war correspondents--who might boast
that they were the first Europeans to make the journey for thirteen
years--passed safely along it.
It is now necessary to look to the enemy. Had the Khalifa allowed the Emir
Mahmud to march north immediately after the destruction of the Dervish
outpost in Abu Hamed, the course of the operations would have been very
different. Mahmud would certainly have defended Berber with his whole army.
The advance of the Expeditionary Force must have been delayed until the
Desert Railway reached the river, and probably for another year.
But, as the last chapter has described, the sudden seizure of Abu Hamed,
the defection of the riverain tribes, and the appearance of the gunboats
above the Fourth Cataract persuaded Abdullah that the climax of the war
approached, and that he was about to be attacked in his capital.
He accordingly devoted himself to his preparations for defence, and forbade
his lieutenant to advance north of Metemma or attempt any offensive
operations. In consequence Berber fell, and its fall convinced the Khalifa
that his belief was well founded. He worked with redoubled energy.
An elaborate system of forts armed with artillery was constructed outside
the great wall of Omdurman along the river-bank. The concentration of Arab
and black soldiery from Gedaref, Kordofan, and Darfur continued. Large
quantities of grain, of camels and other supplies, were requisitioned from
the people of the Ghezira (the country lying between the Blue and White
Niles) and stored or stabled in the city. The discontent to which this
arbitrary taxation gave rise was cured by a more arbitrary remedy. As many
of the doubtful and embittered tribesmen as could be caught were collected
in Omdurman, where they were compelled to drill regularly, and found it
prudent to protest their loyalty. The strength and tenacity of the ruler
were surprisingly displayed. The Khalifa Sherif, who had been suspected of
sympathising with the Jaalin, was made a prisoner at large. The direst
penalties attended the appearance of sedition. A close cordon around the
city, and especially towards the north, prevented much information from
reaching the Egyptian troops; and though small revolts broke out in
Kordofan in consequence of the withdrawal of Mahmud's army, the Dervish
Empire as a whole remained submissive, and the Khalifa was able to muster
all its remaining force to meet the expected onslaught of his enemies.
During the first week in October the Sirdar decided to send the
gunboats--which now plied, though with some difficulty, up and down the
Fifth Cataract--to reconnoitre Metemma and discover the actual strength
and position of Mahmud's army. On the 14th the Zafir, Fateh, and Naser
steamed south from Berber, under Commander Keppel, each carrying, besides
its ordinary native crew, fifty men of the IXth Soudanese and two British
sergeants of Marine Artillery. Shortly after daybreak on the 16th the
flotilla approached the enemy's position. So silently had they moved that
a small Dervish outpost a few miles to the north of Shendi was surprised
still sleeping, and the negligent guards, aroused by a splutter of firing
from the Maxim guns, awoke to find three terrible machines close upon them.
The gunboats pursued their way, and, disdaining a few shots which were
fired from the ruins of Shendi, arrived, at about seven o'clock, within
range of Metemma. The town itself stood more than a thousand yards from the
Nile, but six substantial mud forts, armed with artillery, lined and
defended the riverside. Creeping leisurely forward along the east bank,
remote from the Dervish works, the flotilla came into action at a range of
4,000 yards. The fire was at first concentrated on the two northern forts,
and the shells, striking the mud walls in rapid succession or bursting in
the interior, soon enveloped them in dust and smoke. The Dervishes
immediately replied, but the inferiority of their skill and weapons was
marked, and, although their projectiles reached the flotilla, very few
took effect. One shell, however, crashed through the deck of the Zafir,
mortally wounding a Soudanese soldier, and two struck the Fateh. After the
long-range bombardment had continued for about an hour the gunboats moved
forward opposite to the enemy's position, and poured a heavy and continuous
fire of shrapnel and double shell into all the forts, gradually subduing
their resistance. The fugitives from the batteries, and small parties of
Baggara horse who galloped about on the open plain between the works and
the town, afforded good targets to the Maxims, and many were licked up
even at extreme ranges.
No sooner had the gunboats passed the forts than the Dervish fire
ceased entirely, and it was discovered that their embrasures only commanded
the northern approach. As the guns could not be pointed to the southward,
the flotilla need fear nothing from any fort that had been left behind. The
officers were congratulating themselves on the folly of their foes, when
danger threatened from another quarter. The boats had hugged the eastern
bank as closely as possible during their duel with the forts. They were
scarcely a hundred yards from the shore, when suddenly a sharp fire of
musketry was opened from twenty or thirty Dervish rifle-men concealed in
the mimosa scrub. The bullets pattered all over the decks, but while many
recorded narrow escapes no one was actually hit, and the Maxim guns,
revolving quickly on their pivots, took a bloody vengeance for the
surprise. The flotilla then steamed slowly past the town, and, having
thoroughly reconnoitred it, turned about and ran down stream, again
exchanging shells with the Dervish artillery. All firing ceased at
half-past two; but six sailing-boats containing grain were captured on
the return voyage, and with these the gunboats retired in triumph to a
small island six miles north of Metemma, where they remained for the night.
It being now known that bombarding the Dervishes was no less enjoyable
than exciting, it was determined to spend another day with them; and at
four o'clock the next morning the flotilla again steamed southward, so as
to be in position opposite Metemma before daylight. Fire was opened on
both sides with the dawn, and it was at once evident that the Dervishes
had not been idle during the night. It appeared that on the previous day
Mahmud had expected a land attack from the direction of Gakdul, and had
placed part of his artillery and nearly all his army in position to
resist it. But as soon as he was convinced that the gunboats were
unsupported he moved several of the landward guns into the river forts,
and even built two new works, so that on the 17th the Dervishes brought
into action eleven guns, firing from eight small round forts. The gunboats,
however, contented themselves with keeping at a range at which their
superior weapons enabled them to strike without being struck, and so,
while inflicting heavy loss on their enemies, sustained no injury
themselves. After four hours' methodical and remorseless bombardment
Commander Keppel considered the reconnaissance complete, and gave the
order to retire down stream. The Dervish gunners, elated in spite of their
losses by the spectacle of the retreating vessels, redoubled their fire,
and continued hurling shell after shell in defiance down the river until
their adversaries were far beyond their range. As the gunboats floated
northward their officers, looking back towards Metemma, saw an even
stranger scene than the impotent but exulting forts. During the morning
a few flags and figures had been distinguished moving about the low range
of sandhills near the town; and as soon as the retirement of the flotilla
began, the whole of the Dervish army, at least 10,000 men, both horse and
foot, and formed in an array more than a mile in length, marched
triumphantly into view, singing, shouting, and waving their banners amid
a great cloud of dust. It was their only victory.
The loss on the gunboats was limited to the single Soudanese soldier,
who died of his wounds, and a few trifling damages. The Arab slaughter
is variously estimated, one account rating it at 1,000 men; but half that
number would probably be no exaggeration. The gunboats fired in the two
days' bombardment 650 shells and several thousand rounds of Maxim-gun
ammunition. They then returned to Berber, reporting fully on the enemy's
position and army.
As soon as Berber had been strongly occupied by the Egyptian troops,
Osman Digna realised that his position at Adarama was not only useless but
very dangerous. Mahmud had long been imperiously summoning him to join the
forces at Metemma; and although he hated the Kordofan general, and resented
his superior authority, the wary and cunning Osman decided that in this
case it would be convenient to obey and make a virtue of necessity.
Accordingly about the same time that the gunboats were making their first
reconnaissance and bombardment of Metemma, he withdrew with his two
thousand Hadendoa from Adarama, moved along the left bank of the Atbara
until the tongue of desert between the rivers became sufficiently narrow
for it to be crossed in a day, and so made his way by easy stages
When the Sirdar heard of the evacuation of Adarama he immediately
determined to assure himself of the fact, to reconnoitre the unmapped
country in that region, and to destroy any property that Osman might have
left behind him. On the 23rd of October, therefore, a flying column started
from Berber under the command of General Hunter, and formed as follows:
XIth Soudanese (Major Jackson), two guns, one company of the Camel Corps,
and Abdel-Azim and 150 irregulars. Lightly equipped, and carrying the
supplies on a train of 500 camels, the small force moved rapidly along
the Nile and reached the post at the confluence on the 24th, and arrived at
Adarama on the 29th, after a journey of eighty-four miles. The report that
Osman Digna had returned to the Nile proved to be correct. His former
headquarters were deserted, and although a patrol of sixty of the Camel
Corps and the Arab irregulars scouted for forty miles further up the river,
not a single Dervish was to be seen. Having thus collected a great deal of
negative information, and delaying only to burn Adarama to the ground,
the column returned to Berber.
It was now November. The Nile was falling fast, and an impassable rapid
began to appear at Um Tiur, four miles north of the confluence. The Sirdar
had a few days in which to make up his mind whether he would keep his
gunboats on the upper or lower reach. As in the latter case their
patrolling limits would have been restricted, and they would no longer have
been able to watch the army at Metemma, he determined to leave them on the
enemy's side of the obstruction. This involved the formation of a depot at
Dakhila ['Atbara Fort'], where simple repairs could be executed and wood
and other necessities stored. To guard this little dockyard half the 3rd
Egyptian battalion was moved from Berber and posted in a small
entrenchment. The other half-battalion followed in a few weeks.
The post at the confluence was gradually growing into
the great camp of a few months later.
A regular system of gunboat patrolling was established on the upper reach,
and on the 1st of November the Zafir, Naser, and Metemma, under Commander
Keppel, again steamed south to reconnoitre Mahmud's position. The next day
they were joined by the Fateh, and on the 3rd the three larger boats ran
the gauntlet of the forts. A brisk artillery duel ensued, but the Dervish
aim was, as usual, erratic, and the vessels received no injury. It was
observed that the position of the Dervish force was unchanged, but that
three new forts had been constructed to the south of the town. The gunboats
continued on their way and proceeded as far as Wad Habeshi. The Arab
cavalry kept pace with them along the bank, ready to prevent any landing.
Having seen all there was to be seen, the flotilla returned and again
passed the batteries at Metemma. But this time they were not unscathed,
and a shell struck the Fateh, slightly wounding three men.
No other incident enlivened the monotony of November. The Khalifa
continued his defensive preparations. Mahmud remained motionless at Metemma;
and although he repeatedly begged to be allowed to advance against the
force near Berber he was steadily refused, and had to content himself with
sending raiding parties along the left bank of the Nile, and collecting
large stores of grain from all the villages within his reach. Meanwhile the
railway was stretching further and further to the south, and the great
strain which the sudden occupation of Berber had thrown upon the transport
was to some extent relieved. The tranquillity which had followed the
advance to Berber was as opportune as it was unexpected. The Sirdar,
delighted that no evil consequences had followed his daring move,
and finding that he was neither attacked nor harassed in any way,
journeyed to Kassala to arrange the details of its retrocession.
The convenient situation of Kassala--almost equally distant from Omdurman,
Berber, Suakin, Massowa, and Rosaires--and the fertility of the surrounding
region raise it to the dignity of the most important place in the Eastern
Soudan. The soil is rich; the climate, except in the rainy season,
not unhealthy. A cool night breeze relieves the heat of the day, and the
presence of abundant water at the depth of a few feet below the surface
supplies the deficiency of a river. In the year 1883 the population is said
to have numbered more than 60,000. The Egyptians considered the town of
sufficient value to require a garrison of 3,900 soldiers. A cotton mill
adequately fitted with machinery and a factory chimney gave promise of
the future development of manufacture. A regular revenue attested the
existence of trade. But disasters fell in heavy succession on the Eastern
Soudan and blighted the prosperity of its mud metropolis. In 1885, after a
long siege and a stubborn resistance, Kassala was taken by the Dervishes.
The garrison were massacred, enslaved, or incorporated in the Mahdi's army.
The town was plundered and the trade destroyed. For nearly ten years an
Arab force occupied the ruins and a camp outside them. Kassala became a
frontier post of the Dervish Empire. Its population perished or fled to the
Italian territory. This situation might have remained unaltered until after
the battle of Omdurman if the Dervishes had been content with the
possession of Kassala. But in 1893 the Emir in command of the garrison,
being anxious to distinguish himself, disobeyed the Khalifa's instructions
to remain on the defensive and attacked the Europeans at Agordat. The Arab
force of about 8,000 men were confronted by 2,300 Italian troops, protected
by strong entrenchments, under Colonel Arimondi. After a fierce but
hopeless attack the Dervishes were repulsed with a loss of 3,000 men,
among whom was their rash leader. The engagement was, however,
as disastrous to Italy as to the Khalifa. The fatal African policy of
Signor Crispi received a decided impetus, and in the next year, agreeably
to their aspirations in Abyssinia, the Italians under General Baratieri
advanced from Agordat and captured Kassala. The occupation was
provisionally recognised by Egypt without prejudice to her sovereign
rights, and 900 Italian regulars and irregulars established themselves in a
well-built fort. The severe defeat at Adowa in 1896, the disgrace of
Baratieri, the destruction of his army, and the fall of the Crispi Cabinet
rudely dispelled the African ambitions of Italy. Kassala became an
encumbrance. Nor was that all. The Dervishes, encouraged by the victory of
the Abyssinians, invested the fort, and the garrison were compelled to
fight hard to hold what their countrymen were anxious to abandon. In these
circumstances the Italian Government offered, at a convenient opportunity,
to retrocede Kassala to Egypt. The offer was accepted, and an arrangement
made. The advance of the Khedivial forces into the Dongola province
relieved, as has been described, the pressure of the Dervish attacks.
The Arabs occupied various small posts along the Atbara and in the
neighbourhood of the town, and contented themselves with raiding.
The Italians remained entirely on the defensive, waiting patiently for
the moment when the fort could be handed over to the Egyptian troops.
The Sirdar had no difficulty in coming to a satisfactory arrangement
with General Caneva, the Italian commander. The fort was to be occupied by
an Egyptian force, the stores and armament to be purchased at a valuation,
and a force of Italian Arab irregulars to be transferred to the Egyptian
service. Sir H. Kitchener then returned to the Nile, where the situation
had suddenly become acute. During November Colonel Parsons, the 16th
Egyptian Battalion, and a few native gunners marched from Suakin, and on
the 20th of December arrived at Kassala. The Italian irregulars--
henceforth to be known as the Arab battalion--were at once despatched to
the attack of the small Dervish posts at El Fasher and Asubri, and on the
next day these places were surprised and taken with scarcely any loss.
The Italian officers, although a little disgusted at the turn of events,
treated the Egyptian representatives with the most perfect courtesy,
and the formal transference of Kassala fort was arranged to take place
on Christmas Day.
An imposing ceremonial was observed, and the scene itself was strange.
The fort was oblong in plan, with mud ramparts and parapets pierced for
musketry. Tents and stores filled the enclosure. In the middle stood the
cotton factory. Its machinery had long since been destroyed, but the
substantial building formed the central keep of the fort. The tall chimney
had become a convenient look-out post. The lightning-conductor acted as a
flagstaff. The ruins of the old town of Kassala lay brown and confused on
the plain to the southward, and behind all rose the dark rugged spurs of
the Abyssinian mountains. The flags of Egypt and of Italy were hoisted.
The troops of both countries, drawn up in line, exchanged military
compliments. Then the Egyptian guard marched across the drawbridge into
the fort and relieved the Italian soldiers. The brass band of the 16th
Battalion played appropriate airs. The Italian flag was lowered, and with
a salute of twenty-one guns the retrocession of Kassala was complete.
Here, then, for a year we leave Colonel Parsons and his small force
to swelter in the mud fort, to carry on a partisan warfare with the Dervish
raiders, to look longingly towards Gedaref, and to nurse the hope that when
Omdurman has fallen their opportunity will come. The reader, like the
Sirdar, must return in a hurry to the Upper Nile.
Towards the end of November the Khalifa had begun to realise
that the Turks did not mean to advance any further till the next flood
of the river. He perceived that the troops remained near Berber, and that
the railway was only a little way south of Abu Hamed. The blow still
impended, but it was delayed. As soon as he had come to this conclusion,
he no longer turned a deaf ear to Mahmud's solicitations. He knew that the
falling Nile would restrict the movements of the gunboats. He knew that
there were only 2,000 men in Berber--a mere handful. He did not realise
the tremendous power of rapid concentration which the railway had given
his enemies; and he began to think of offensive operations. But Mahmud
should not go alone. The whole strength of the Dervish army should be
exerted to drive back the invaders. All the troops in Omdurman were ordered
north. A great camp was again formed near Kerreri. Thousands of camels were
collected, and once more every preparation was made for a general advance.
At the beginning of December he sent his own secretary to Mahmud to explain
the plan, and to assure him of early reinforcements and supplies. Lastly,
Abdullah preached a new Jehad, and it is remarkable that, while all former
exhortations had been directed against 'the infidel'--i.e., those who did
not believe in the Mahdi--his letters and sermons on this occasion summoned
the tribes to destroy not the Egyptians but the Christians. The Khalifa had
no doubts as to who inspired the movement which threatened him. There were
at this time scarcely 150 Europeans in the Soudan; but they had made
their presence felt.
The Sirdar was returning from Kassala when the rumours of an intended
Dervish advance began to grow. Every scrap of information was assiduously
collected by the Intelligence Department, but it was not until the 18th of
December, just as he reached Wady Halfa, that the General received
apparently certain news that the Khalifa, Mahmud, all the Emirs, and the
whole army were about to march north. There can be no doubt that even this
tardy movement of the enemy seriously threatened the success of the
operations. If the Dervishes moved swiftly, it looked as if a very critical
engagement would have to be fought to avoid a damaging retreat. Sir H.
Kitchener's reply to the Khalifa's open intent was to order a general
concentration of the available Egyptian army towards Berber, to telegraph
to Lord Cromer asking for a British brigade, and to close
the Suakin-Berber route.
The gunboat depot at the confluence, with only a half-battalion escort,
was now in an extremely exposed position. The gunboats could not steam
north, for the cataract four miles below the confluence was already
impassable. Since they must remain on the enemy's side, so must their
depot; and the depot must be held by a much stronger force. Although the
Sirdar felt too weak to maintain himself even on the defensive without
reinforcements, he was now compelled to push still further south. On the
22nd of December Lewis's brigade of four battalions and a battery were
hurried along the Nile to its junction with the Atbara, and began busily
entrenching themselves in a angle formed by the rivers. The Atbara fort
sprang into existence.
Meanwhile the concentration was proceeding. All the troops in Dongola,
with the exception of scanty garrisons in Merawi, Korti, and Debba, were
massed at Berber. The infantry and guns, dropping down the river in boats,
entrained at Kerma, were carried back to Halfa, then hustled across the
invaluable Desert Railway, past Abu Hamed, and finally deposited at
Railhead, which then (January 1) stood at Dakhesh. The whole journey by
rail from Merawi to Dakhesh occupied four days, whereas General Hunter
with his flying column had taken eight--a fact which proves that,
in certain circumstances which Euclid could not have foreseen, two sides
of a triangle are together shorter than the third side. The Egyptian
cavalry at Merawi received their orders on the 25th of December, and the
British officers hurried from their Christmas dinners to prepare for their
long march across the bend of the Nile to Berber. Of the eight squadrons,
three were pushed on to join Lewis's force at the position which will
hereinafter be called 'the Atbara encampment,' or more familiarly 'the
Atbara'; three swelled the gathering forces at Berber; and two remained
for the present in the Dongola province, looking anxiously out
towards Gakdul Wells and Metemma.
The War Office, who had been nervous about the situation
in the Soudan since the hasty occupation of Berber, and who had a very
lively recollection of the events of 1884 and 1885, lost no time in the
despatch of British troops; and the speed with which a force, so suddenly
called for, was concentrated shows the capacity for energy which may on
occasion be developed even by our disjointed military organisation.
The 1st Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, of the Lincoln
Regiment, and of the Cameron Highlanders were formed into a brigade
and moved from Cairo into the Soudan. The 1st Battalion of the Seaforth
Highlanders was brought from Malta to Egypt, and held in immediate
readiness to reinforce the troops at the front. Other battalions were sent
to take the places of those moved south, so that the Army of Occupation
was not diminished.
The officer selected for the command of the British brigade was a man
of high character and ability. General Gatacre had already led a brigade
in the Chitral expedition, and, serving under Sir Robert Low and Sir Bindon
Blood had gained so good a reputation that after the storming of the
Malakand Pass and the subsequent action in the plain of Khar it was thought
desirable to transpose his brigade with that of General Kinloch, and send
Gatacre forward to Chitral. From the mountains of the North-West Frontier
the general was ordered to Bombay, and in a stubborn struggle with the
bubonic plague, which was then at its height, he turned his attention from
camps of war to camps of segregation. He left India, leaving behind him
golden opinions, just before the outbreak of the great Frontier rising,
and was appointed to a brigade at Aldershot. Thence we now find him hurried
to the Soudan--a spare, middle-sized man, of great physical strength and
energy, of marked capacity and unquestioned courage, but disturbed by a
restless irritation, to which even the most inordinate activity afforded
little relief, and which often left him the exhausted victim
of his own vitality.
By the end of January a powerful force lay encamped along the river
from Abu Hamed to the Atbara. Meanwhile the Dervishes made no forward
movement. Their army was collected at Kerreri; supplies were plentiful;
all preparations had been made. Yet they tarried. The burning question of
the command had arisen. A dispute that was never settled ensued. When the
whole army was regularly assembled, the Khalifa announced publicly that he
would lead the faithful in person; but at the same time he arranged
privately that many Emirs and notables should beg him not to expose his
sacred person. After proper solicitation, therefore, he yielded to their
appeals. Then he looked round for a subordinate. The Khalifa Ali-Wad-Helu
presented himself. In the Soudan every advantage and honour accrues to the
possessor of an army, and the rival chief saw a chance of regaining his
lost power. This consideration was not, however, lost upon Abdullah.
He accepted the offer with apparent delight, but he professed himself
unable to spare any rifles for the army which Ali-Wad-Helu aspired to lead.
'Alas!' he cried, 'there are none. But that will make no difference to so
famous a warrior.' Ali-Wad-Helu, however, considered that it would make
a great deal of difference, and declined the command. Osman Sheikh-ed-Din
offered to lead the army, if he might arm the riverain tribes and use them
as auxiliaries to swell his force. This roused the disapproval of Yakub.
Such a policy, he declared, was fatal. The riverain tribes were traitors--
dogs--worthy only of being destroyed; and he enlarged upon the more refined
methods by which his policy might be carried out. The squabble continued,
until at last the Khalifa, despairing of any agreement, decided merely to
reinforce Mahmud, and accordingly ordered the Emir Yunes to march to
Metemma with about 5,000 men. But it was then discovered that Mahmud hated
Yunes, and would have none of him. At this the Khalifa broke up his camp,
and the Dervish army marched back for a second time, in vexation
and disgust, to the city.
It seemed to those who were acquainted with the Dervish movements
that all offensive operations on their part had been definitely abandoned.
Even in the Intelligence Department it was believed that the break-up of
the Kerreri camp was the end of the Khalifa's determination to move north.
There would be a hot and uneventful summer, and with the flood Nile the
expedition would begin its final advance. The news which was received on
the 15th of February came as a great and pleasant surprise. Mahmud was
crossing the Nile and proposed to advance on Berber without reinforcements
of any kind. The Sirdar, highly satisfied at this astounding piece of good
fortune, immediately began to mass his force nearer the confluence. On the
21st the British at Abu Dis were instructed to hold themselves in
readiness. The Seaforths began their journey from Cairo, and the various
battalions of the Egyptian army pressed forward towards Berber and
Atbara fort. On the 25th, Mahmud being reported as having crossed
to the right bank, the general concentration was ordered.
CHAPTER XI: RECONNAISSANCE
Although the story of a campaign is made up of many details which
cannot be omitted, since they are essential to the truth as well as the
interest of the account, it is of paramount importance that the reader
should preserve throughout a general idea. For otherwise the marches,
forays, and reconnaissance will seem disconnected and purposeless affairs,
and the battle simply a greater operation undertaken in the same haphazard
fashion. To appreciate the tale it is less necessary to contemplate the
wild scenes and stirring incidents, than thoroughly to understand the
logical sequence of incidents which all tend to and ultimately culminate
in a decisive trial of strength.
The hazards which were courted by the daring occupation of Berber
have been discussed in the last chapter. From October to December the
situation was threatening. In December it suddenly became critical.
Had the Emir Mahmud advanced with the Dervishes at Metemma even as late
as the middle of January, he might possibly have re-captured Berber.
If the great Omdurman army had taken the field, the possibility would have
become a certainty. The young Kordofan general saw his opportunity, and
begged to be allowed to seize it. But it was not until the Khalifa had sent
his own army back into the city that, being very badly informed of the
numbers and disposition of the Egyptian force, he allowed the Metemma
Dervishes to move.
Mahmud received permission to advance at the end of January.
He eagerly obeyed the longed-for order. But the whole situation
was now changed. The Egyptian army was concentrated; the British brigade
had arrived; the railway had reached Geneinetti; the miserable hamlet of
Dakhila, at the confluence, had grown from a small depot to a fort,
and from a fort to an entrenched camp, against which neither Dervish
science nor strength could by any possibility prevail. Perhaps Mahmud
did not realise the amazing power of movement that the railway had given
his foes; perhaps he still believed, with the Khalifa, that Berber was held
only by 2,000 Egyptians; or else--and this is the most probable--he was
reckless of danger and strong in his own conceit. At any rate, during the
second week in February he began to transport himself across the Nile,
with the plain design of an advance north. With all the procrastination of
an Arab he crawled leisurely forward towards the confluence of the rivers.
At El Aliab some idea of the strength of the Atbara entrenchment seems to
have dawned upon him. He paused undecided. A council was held. Mahmud was
for a continued advance and for making a direct attack on the enemy's
position. Osman Digna urged a more prudent course. Many years of hard
fighting against disciplined troops had taught the wily Hadendoa slaver
the power of modern rifles, and much sound tactics besides. He pressed his
case with jealous enthusiasm upon the commander he detested and despised.
An insurmountable obstacle confronted them. Yet what could not be overcome
might be avoided. The hardy Dervishes could endure privations which would
destroy the soldiers of civilisation. Barren and inhospitable as was
the desert, they might move round the army at the Atbara fort and so
capture Berber after all. Once they were behind the Egyptians,
these accursed ones were lost. The railway--that mysterious source of
strength--could be cut. The host that drew its life along it must fight
at a fearful disadvantage or perish miserably. Besides, he reminded Mahmud
--not without reason--that they could count on help in Berber itself.
The agreement of the Emirs, called to the council,
decided the Dervish leader. His confidence in himself was weakened,
his hatred of Osman Digna increased. Nevertheless, following the older
man's advice, he left Aliab on the 18th of March, and struck north-east
into the desert towards the village and ford of Hudi on the Atbara river.
Thence by a long desert march he might reach the Nile and Berber. But while
his information of the Sirdar's force and movements was uncertain,
the British General was better served. What Mahmud failed to derive from
spies and 'friendlies,' his adversary obtained by gunboats and cavalry.
As soon, therefore, as Sir H. Kitchener learned that the Dervishes had left
the Nile and were making a detour around his left flank, he marched up the
Atbara river to Hudi. This offered Mahmud the alternative of attacking him
in a strong position or of making a still longer detour. Having determined
upon caution he chose the latter, and, deflecting his march still more to
the east, reached the Atbara at Nakheila. But from this point the distance
to Berber was far too great for him to cover. He could not carry enough
water in his skins. The wells were few, and held against him. Further
advance was impossible. So he waited and entrenched himself, sorely
troubled, but uncertain what to do. Supplies were running short.
His magazines at Shendi had been destroyed as soon as he had left the Nile.
The Dervishes might exist, but they did not thrive, on the nuts of the
dom palms. Soldiers began to desert. Osman Digna, although his advice
had been followed, was at open enmity. His army dwindled.
And all this time his terrible antagonist watched him as a tiger gloats on
a helpless and certain prey--silent, merciless, inexorable. Then the end
came suddenly. As soon as the process of attrition was sufficiently far
advanced to demoralise the Dervish host, without completely dissolving
them, the Sirdar and his army moved. The victim, as if petrified,
was powerless to fly. The tiger crept forward two measured strides--
from Ras-el-Hudi to Abadar, from Abadar to Umdabia--crouched for a moment,
and then bounded with irresistible fury upon its prey
and tore it to pieces.
Such is a brief strategic account of the Atbara campaign;
but the tale must be told in full.
On the 23rd of January the Khalifa, having learned of the arrival of
British troops near Abu Hamed, and baffled by the disputes about the
command of his army, ordered Kerreri camp to be broken up, and permitted
his forces to return within the city, which he continued to fortify.
A few days later he authorised Mahmud to advance against Berber. What he
had not dared with 60,000 men he now attempted with 20,000. The course of
action which had for three months offered a good hope of success he
resolved to pursue only when it led to ruin. He forbade the advance while
it was advisable. When it was already become mad and fatal he commanded it.
And this was a man whose reputation for intelligence and military skill
had been bloodily demonstrated!
The gunboats ceaselessly patrolled the river, and exchanged shots with
the Dervish forts. Throughout January nothing of note had happened.
The reports of spies showed the Khalifa to be at Kerreri or in Omdurman.
Ahmed Fedil held the Shabluka Gorge, Osman Digna was at Shendi, and his
presence was proved by the construction of two new forts on that side of
the river. But beyond this the Dervishes had remained passive. On the 12th
of February, however, it was noticed that their small outpost at Khulli
had been withdrawn. This event seemed to point to a renewal of activity.
It was felt that some important movement impended. But it was not until
the 15th that its nature was apparent, and the gunboats were able to report
definitely that Mahmud was crossing to the east bank of the Nile.
The flotilla exerted itself to harass the Dervishes and impede the
transportation; but although several sailing-boats and other river craft
were captured, Mahmud succeeded in moving his whole army to Shendi by the
28th of February. His own headquarters were established at Hosh-ben-Naga,
a little village about five miles further south. A delay of more than a
fortnight followed, during which the gunboats exercised the utmost
vigilance. The Suakin-Berber road was again closed for caravans, and the
Sirdar himself proceeded to Berber. On the 11th of March the remnants of
the Jaalin tribe, having collected at Gakdul, re-occupied the now abandoned
Metemma, to find its streets and houses choked with the decaying bodies
of their relations. On the 13th the Egyptian look-out station, which had
been established on Shebaliya island, was attacked by the Dervishes,
and in the skirmish that ensued Major Sitwell was wounded. On the same day
the enemy were reported moving northwards to Aliab, and it became evident
that Mahmud had begun his advance.
He started from Shendi with a force which has been estimated
at 19,000 souls, but which included many women and children, and may have
actually numbered 12,000 fighting men, each and all supplied with a month's
rations and about ninety rounds of ammunition. The Sirdar immediately
ordered the Anglo-Egyptian army, with the exception of the cavalry and
Lewis's Egyptian brigade--which, with three squadrons, held the fort at the
confluence--to concentrate at Kunur. Broadwood, with the remaining five
squadrons, marched thither on the 16th; and the whole cavalry force,
with the Camel Corps in support, on the three subsequent days reconnoitred
twenty miles up the Nile and the Atbara.
Meanwhile the concentration was proceeding apace. The two Soudanese
brigades, formed into a division under command of Major-General Hunter,
with the artillery, reached Kunur on the night of the 15th. The British
brigade--the Lincolns, the Warwicks, and the Camerons--marched thither
from Dabeika. The Seaforth Highlanders, who on the 13th were still at Wady
Halfa, were swiftly railed across the desert to Geneinetti. Thence the
first half-battalion were brought to Kunur in steamers. The second wing--
since the need was urgent and the steamers few--were jolted across the
desert from Railhead on camels, an experience for which neither their
training nor their clothes had prepared them. By the 16th the whole force
was concentrated at Kunur, and on the following day they were reviewed by
the Sirdar. The first three days at Kunur were days of eager expectation.
Rumour was king. The Dervish army had crossed the Atbara at Hudi, and was
within ten miles of the camp. Mahmud was already making a flank march
through the desert to Berber. A battle was imminent. A collision must take
place in a few hours. Officers with field-glasses scanned the sandy horizon
for the first signs of the enemy. But the skyline remained unbroken, except
by the wheeling dust devils, and gradually the excitement abated, and the
British brigade began to regret all the useful articles they had
scrupulously left behind them at Dabeika, when they marched in a hurry
and the lightest possible order to Kunur.
On the 19th of March the gunboats reported that the Dervishes were leaving
the Nile, and Mahmud's flanking movement became apparent. The next day the
whole force at Kunur marched across the desert angle between the rivers to
Hudi. The appearance of the army would have been formidable. The cavalry,
the Camel Corps, and the Horse Artillery covered the front and right flank;
the infantry, with the British on the right, moved in line of brigade
masses; the transport followed. All was, however, shrouded in a fearful
dust-storm. The distance, ten miles, was accomplished in five hours,
and the army reached Hudi in time to construct a strong zeriba before
the night. Here they were joined from Atbara fort by Lewis's brigade of
Egyptians--with the exception of the 15th Battalion, which was left as
garrison--and the troops at the Sirdar's disposal were thus raised to
14,000 men of all arms. This force was organised as follows:
Commander-in-Chief: THE SIRDAR
British Brigade: MAJOR-GENERAL GATACRE
1st Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment (6 companies)
" " Lincolnshire Regiment
" " Seaforth Highlanders
" " Cameron Highlanders
Egyptian Infantry Division: MAJOR-GENERAL HUNTER
1st Brigade 2nd Brigade 3rd Brigade
LIEUT.-COL. MAXWELL LIEUT.-COL. MACDONALD LIEUT.-COL. LEWIS
8th Egyptians 2nd Egyptians 3rd Egyptians
XIIth Soudanese IXth Soudanese 4th "
XIIIth " Xth " 7th "
XIVth " XIth "
Cavalry: LIEUT.-COL. BROADWOOD
2 Maxim guns
Camel Corps: MAJOR TUDWAY
Artillery: LIEUT.-COL. LONG
Detachment, No. 16 Company, E Division R.A.,
with 6 five-inch B.L. howitzers
Egyptian Horse Battery (6 guns)
Nos. 1, 2, and 3 Field Batteries Egyptian Army (18 guns)
British Maxim Battery (4 guns)
Rocket Detachment (2 sections)
Mahmud had early intelligence of the movement of the Anglo-Egyptian army.
His original intention had been to march to Hudi. But he now learned that
at Hudi he would have to fight the Sirdar's main force. Not feeling strong
enough to attack them, he determined to march to Nakheila. The mobility of
the Arabs was now as conspicuous as their dilatory nature had formerly
been. The whole Dervish army--horse, foot, and artillery, men, women,
children, and animals--actually traversed in a single day the forty miles
of waterless desert which lie between Aliab and Nakheila, at which latter
place they arrived on the night of the 20th. The Sirdar's next object was
to keep the enemy so far up the Atbara that they could not possibly strike
at Berber or Railhead. Accordingly, at dawn on the 21st, the whole force
was ordered to march to Ras-el-Hudi, five miles nearer the Dervishes'
supposed halting-place. The detour which the Arabs would have to make to
march round the troops was nearly doubled by this movement. The utter
impossibility of their flank march with a stronger enemy on the radius
of the circle was now apparent.
The movement of the Anglo-Egyptian force was screened by seven squadrons
of cavalry and the Horse Artillery, and Colonel Broadwood was further
instructed to reconnoitre along the river and endeavour to locate the
enemy. The country on either bank of the Atbara is covered with dense
scrub, impassable for civilised troops. From these belts, which average a
quarter of a mile in depth, the dom palms rise in great numbers. All the
bush is leafy, and looks very pretty and green by contrast with the sombre
vegetation of the Nile. Between the trees fly gay parrots and many other
bright birds. The river itself above Ras-el-Hudi is, during March and
April, only a dry bed of white sand about 400 yards broad, but dotted with
deep and beautifully clear pools, in which peculiarly brilliant fish and
crocodiles, deprived of their stream, are crowded together. The atmosphere
is more damp than by the Nile, and produces, in the terrible heat of the
summer, profuse and exhausting perspiration. The natives dislike the water
of the Atbara, and declare that it does not quench the thirst like that of
the great river. It has, indeed, a slightly bitter taste, which is a
strong contrast with the sweet waters of the Nile. Nevertheless the British
soldiers, with characteristic contrariness, declared their preference
for it. Outside the bush the ground undulated gently, but the surface was
either stony and uneven or else cracked and fissured by the annual
overflow. Both these conditions made it hard for cavalry, and still more
for artillery, to move freely; and the difficulties were complicated by
frequent holes and small khors full of long grass.
Amid such scenes the squadrons moved cautiously forward. Having made
the ground good for fifteen miles from Hudi, Colonel Broadwood halted
his force at Abadar, an old fort, and sent one squadron under Captain
Le Gallais seven miles further. At two o'clock this squadron returned,
having met a few of the enemy's scouts, but no formed bodies. While the
force watered by turns at the river Captain Baring's squadron was extended
in a line of outposts about a mile and a quarter to the south-east.
But the reconnoitring squadron had been followed homeward by several
hundred Dervish horsemen. Creeping along through the dense bush by the bank
and evading the vedettes, these suddenly fell on the picket line and
drove in all the outposts. In this affair eight troopers were killed and
seven wounded. Thirteen horses were also lost, as, having rid themselves
of their riders on the broken ground, they galloped off after the Arab
mares on which the Dervishes were mostly mounted.
The news of an attack on Adarama was received on this same afternoon.
It appeared that the Arabs had been repulsed by the Abyssinian irregulars
raised by Colonel Parsons. Glowing details were forthcoming, but I do not
propose to recount the Homeric struggles of the 'friendlies.'
Little in them is worthy of remembrance; much seeks oblivion.
For more than a week the Anglo-Egyptian force remained halted at
Ras-el-Hudi, waiting for privation to demoralise Mahmud's army or to
exasperate him into making an attack. Every morning the cavalry rode out
towards the enemy's camp. All day long they skirmished with or watched
the Baggara horse, and at night they returned wearily to camp. Each morning
the army awoke full of the hopes of battle, waited during the long hours,
and finally retired to sleep in deep disgust and profound peace. And while
the army halted, the camp began to assume a more homely appearance.
The zeriba grew stronger and thicker, the glacis wider, the field kitchens
more elaborate, the pools of the Atbara more dirty. Over all the sun
beat down in merciless persistence, till all white men quivered with weary
suffering when in the open air, and even under the grass huts or improvised
tents the temperature always registered 115° during the hottest hours of
the day. The nights were, however, cool and pleasant.
But although the main part of the force found the days long and tedious,
the time which the army spent at Ras-el-Hudi was by no means uneventful.
The work of the squadrons was hard, and ceased only with the night.
The continual patrolling told severely on men and horses; and the fact
that the Dervishes were far stronger in the mounted arm than the Sirdar's
army necessitated the utmost vigilance of the cavalry commander.
Employment was also found for the gunboats.
When Mahmud had left the Nile he had established a sort of depot at Shendi,
in which the wives of the Emirs and the surplus stores had been deposited.
This treasure house was protected only by a slender garrison of 700
riflemen and twenty-five horsemen. On ordinary military grounds, and also
since the event might infuriate the Arabs, it was decided to capture this
place and disperse its defenders. Accordingly, on the afternoon of the 24th
the 3rd Egyptian Battalion from Lewis's brigade marched from Ras-el-Hudi
to Atbara fort and relieved the 15th Egyptians then in garrison, and a
small force under Commander Keppel--consisting of the 15th Egyptians under
Major Hickman, two field-guns of Peake's battery, and 150 Jaalin
irregulars--was embarked on, or in boats towed by, the three gunboats
Zafir, Naser, and Fateh, and started the same night for Shendi.
At dawn on the 27th the flotilla appeared off Shendi. The Dervishes
had been apprised of its approach and prepared to offer resistance.
But the force against them was overwhelming. Under cover of the gunboats
the infantry and guns were landed. The artillery then came into action,
but after they had discharged two shells, the Arabs fled, firing their
rifles with little effect. Shendi was occupied by the Egyptians.
The pursuit was left to the Jaalin, and in it they are said to have killed
160 men--a revenge which must have been doubly sweet since it was
consummated so near to the scene of the destruction of their tribe,
and was also attended by scarcely any danger. Loot of all kinds fell to
the victors, and the gunboats were soon laden with a miscellaneous spoil.
The wives of the important Emirs made their escape to Omdurman,
but upwards of 650 women and children of inferior rank were taken prisoners
and transported to the Atbara, where in due course they contracted new
family ties with the Soudanese soldiery and, as far as can be ascertained,
lived happily ever afterwards. There were no casualties among the troops,
but the Jaalin lost a few men in their pursuit. The force then returned
to the Atbara.
The 3rd of April was the last day the army spent at Ras-el-Hudi.
The period of waiting was over. The enemy's position had been duly
reconnoitred. His strength was believed to be sufficiently impaired for
a successful attack to be made. The camp at Hudi was becoming very
insanitary. Moreover, the situation, satisfactory though it was, was not
one which the commander could view without anxiety. All the time that
the army was operating on the Atbara it drew its supplies from the fort
at the confluence. Between this and the camp, convoys, protected only by
a handful of Camel Corps, passed once in every four days. Only the idiotic
apathy of the Dervishes allowed the communications to remain uninterrupted.
Mahmud was strong in cavalry. It will be evident to anyone who looks at
the map how easily a force might have moved along the left bank to attack
the convoys. Such tactics would have occurred to most savage tribes.
But in their last campaigns the Dervishes thought only of battles,
and disregarded all smaller enterprises. Had they assailed the
communications, the Sirdar might have been forced to build a chain of forts
and to guard his convoys with strong infantry escorts. The fighting force
would have been weakened, the troops have been wearied, and the result must
have been delayed. The Dervishes had as yet attempted nothing. But there
was no reason why they should not at any moment become enterprising.
It was time to make an end. On the 4th of April the whole force moved to
Abadar, and established themselves in a new camp five miles nearer
the enemy. The tiger was tired of watching: he had taken his first stride
towards his prey.
Although the information as to the enemy's strength and position was
accurate and complete, the Sirdar decided to order a final reconnaissance
on the 5th of April.
Starting at four o'clock Broadwood cut off the sharp angle which the
Atbara forms at Umdabia, and, avoiding the thick bush, soon approached the
Dervish camp. Not a sign of the enemy was seen during the march. The bush
by the Atbara appeared deserted. The camp gave no sign of life; an ominous
silence prevailed. The squadrons moved forward at a walk, keeping about
1,200 yards away from the enemy's zeriba and almost parallel to it.
Presently, as they did so, a large force of cavalry became visible
in front. It was difficult to estimate their strength, but they appeared
to be superior in numbers to the reconnaissance. The Dervish horsemen
continued to retire towards the south-east, always reaching round the
Egyptian left flank.
And while the Egyptian force advanced, as soon as they were opposite the
southern end of the zeriba, another considerable body of Dervish horse
issued from the northern side and threatened the line of retreat.
At the same time the camp began to swarm with men, and crowds of tiny
figures were observed clambering on to the entrenchments and gun
emplacements, eagerly watching the development of the fight.
The cavalry had by this time approached to within 1,000 yards of
the zeriba, and the Arab artillery began to fire occasional round shot
and clumsily fused shells.
At nine o'clock, the enemy's position having been again sketched and
the approaches reconnoitred, Colonel Broadwood ordered the retirement to
begin. The Maxims and artillery were in the centre, supported by Colonel
Broadwood and three squadrons. Captain Baring with three squadrons watched
the left flank, now in retirement become the right. Captains Le Gallais
and Persse guarded the river flank.
The cavalry retired by alternate wings in measured fashion. But the enemy
pressed on impetuously, and their horsemen, soon completely enveloping the
desert flank of the Egyptians, began to threaten a charge. To meet this
Colonel Broadwood sent one of his squadrons from the centre to join those
under Captain Baring, so that at about a quarter to ten the reconnoitring
force was formed with four squadrons towards the desert, two with the guns,
and two towards the river. The weakness of the river flank of the troops
encouraged the Dervish horse lurking in the scrub to make a bold attempt to
capture the guns. The movement was shrewd and daring, but the cavalry
commander met it with admirable skill. The springing-up of dust-clouds
hardly 300 yards away was his only warning. He immediately took command of
the two squadrons under Persse and Le Gallais, and ordered them to 'right
about wheel' and charge. Thus headed by Broadwood himself, and with their
British officers several horse-lengths in front, the Egyptians broke into
a gallop and encountered the Baggara line, which numbered not fewer than
400 men but was in loose order, with firmness. They struck them obliquely
and perhaps a third of the way down their line, and, breaking through,
routed them utterly.
While this dashing operation was carried out on the river flank
the Dervish cavalry, following up the retirement, also delivered an attack
towards the guns. Thereupon Captain Baring with two squadrons galloped from
the desert flank across the front of the artillery, and, riding through the
advancing enemy, repulsed them with loss. The charge was good and
effective, but the shock and confusion broke both squadrons, and, although
successful, they came through the Dervishes and back on to the river flank
in some disorder. Persse and Le Gallais, who had just rallied, at once
dismounted their men and opened carbine fire on the retreating Dervishes.
Their action not only checked the enemy, but prevented, by getting
the troopers off their horses, any chance of their being involved in
the disorder of the squadrons who had just charged.
Although their horsemen were thus sharply checked, the Dervish infantry
continued in spite of losses to advance rapidly, and for a few minutes
a hot musketry fire was exchanged by the Arab riflemen and the two
dismounted squadrons. Captain Persse was severely wounded, and several
other casualties occurred. But the whole force was drawing away from the
enemy, and by eleven o'clock it had passed through the gap to the
north-east and had shaken off all pursuit. The casualties in the operation
were fortunately small. One British officer was wounded; six Egyptian
troopers were killed and ten wounded; and about thirty horses were lost
The details of the enemy's defences were now known; his strength
was estimated from trustworthy information. It was evident from the
frequent desertions that his army was disheartened, and from his inactivity
that he was scarcely hopeful of success. The moment for destroying him had
arrived. At daybreak on the morning of the 6th the whole army broke camp at
Abadar and marched to the deserted village of Umdabia, where they
bivouacked close by a convenient pool of the Atbara and seven miles nearer
the Dervish camp.
CHAPTER XII: THE BATTLE OF THE ATBARA
April 8, 1898
In the evening of Thursday, the 7th of April, the army at Umdabia
paraded for the attack on Mahmud's zeriba. The camp lay in the scrub which
grows by the banks of the Atbara, as by those of the Nile, and in order to
profit by the open, level ground the four infantry brigades moved by
parallel routes into the desert, and then formed facing south-east
in column of brigade squares, the British brigade leading. The mounted
forces, with four batteries of artillery, waited in camp until two o'clock
the next morning, and did not break their march. The distance from the
river bank to the open plain was perhaps a mile and a half, and the whole
infantry force had cleared the scrub by six o'clock. The sun was setting,
and the red glow, brightening the sandy hillocks, made the western horizon
indefinite, so that it was hard to tell where the desert ended and the sky
began. A few gazelle, intercepted on their way to the water by the
unexpected movement of troops, trotted slowly away in the distance--
white spots on the rosy-brown of the sand--and on the great plain 12,000
infantry, conscious of their strength and eager to encounter the enemy,
were beautifully arranged in four solid masses. Then the march began.
The actual distance from the camp to the Dervish position was scarcely
seven miles, but the circle necessary to avoid the bushes and the gradual
bends of the river added perhaps another five to the length of the road.
The pace of the advance was slow, and the troops had not gone far when the
sun sank and, with hardly an interval of twilight, darkness enveloped
everything. In the stillness of the night the brigades moved steadily
forward, and only the regular scrunching of the hard sand betrayed
the advance of an overwhelming force upon their enemies.
No operation of a war is more critical than a night-march.
Over and over again in every country frightful disaster has overtaken
the rash or daring force that has attempted it. In the gloom the shape
and aspect of the ground are altered. Places well known by daylight appear
strange and unrecognisable. The smallest obstacle impedes the column,
which can only crawl sluggishly forward with continual checks and halts.
The effect of the gloom upon the nerves of the soldiers is not less than
on the features of the country. Each man tries to walk quietly, and hence
all are listening for the slightest sound. Every eye seeks to pierce the
darkness. Every sense in the body is raised to a pitch of expectancy.
In such hours doubts and fears come unbidden to the brain, and the marching
men wonder anxiously whether all will be well with the army, and whether
they themselves will survive the event. And if suddenly out of the black
silence there burst the jagged glare of rifles and the crash of a volley
followed by the yell of an attacking foe, the steadiest troops may be
thrown into confusion, and a panic, once afoot, stops only with the
destruction or dispersal of the whole force. Nevertheless, so paramount
is the necessity of attacking at dawn, with all the day to finish
the fight, that in spite of the recorded disasters and the known dangers,
the night-march is a frequent operation.
For more than two hours the force advanced, moving across smooth swells
of sand broken by rocks and with occasional small bushes. Several shallow
khors traversed the road, and these rocky ditches, filled with a strange,
sweet-scented grass, delayed the brigades until the pace was hardly
two miles an hour. The smell of the grass was noticed by the alert senses
of many, and will for ever refresh in their minds the strong impression of
the night. The breeze which had sprung up at sundown gradually freshened
and raised clouds of fine sand, which deepened the darkness with
a whiter mist.
At nine o'clock the army halted in a previously selected space,
near the deserted village of Mutrus and about two miles from the river.
Nearly half the distance to Mahmud's zeriba was accomplished, and barely
four miles in the direct line divided the combatants; but since it was not
desirable to arrive before the dawn, the soldiers, still formed in their
squares, lay down upon the ground. Meat and biscuits were served out to
the men. The transport animals went by relays to the pools of the Atbara
bed to drink and to replenish the tanks. All water-bottles were refilled,
pickets being thrown out to cover the business. Then, after sufficient
sentries had been posted, the army slept, still in array.
During the halt the moon had risen, and when at one o'clock the advance
was resumed, the white beams revealed a wider prospect and, glinting on
the fixed bayonets, crowned the squares with a sinister glitter. For three
hours the army toiled onwards at the same slow and interrupted crawl.
Strict silence was now enforced, and all smoking was forbidden.
The cavalry, the Camel Corps, and the five batteries had overtaken the
infantry, so that the whole attacking force was concentrated.
Meanwhile the Dervishes slept.
At three o'clock the glare of fires became visible to the south,
and, thus arrived before the Dervish position, the squares, with the
exception of the reserve brigade, were unlocked, and the whole force,
assuming formation of attack, now advanced in one long line through the
scattered bush and scrub, presently to emerge upon a large plateau which
overlooked Mahmud's zeriba from a distance of about 900 yards.
It was still dark, and the haze that shrouded the Dervish camp
was broken only by the glare of the watch-fires. The silence was profound.
It seemed impossible to believe that more than 25,000 men were ready to
join battle at scarcely the distance of half a mile. Yet the advance had
not been unperceived, and the Arabs knew that their terrible antagonists
crouched on the ridge waiting for the morning; For a while the suspense
was prolonged. At last, after what seemed to many an interminable period,
the uniform blackness of the horizon was broken by the first glimmer of
the dawn. Gradually the light grew stronger until, as a theatre curtain is
pulled up, the darkness rolled away, the vague outlines in the haze
became definite, and the whole scene was revealed.
The British and Egyptian army lay along the low ridge in the form of
a great bow--the British brigade on the left, MacDonald in the centre,
Maxwell curving forward on the right. The whole crest of the swell of
ground was crowned with a bristle of bayonets and the tiny figures of
thousands of men sitting or lying down and gazing curiously before them.
Behind them, in a solid square, was the transport, guarded by Lewis's
brigade. The leading squadrons of the cavalry were forming leisurely
towards the left flank. The four batteries and a rocket detachment,
moving between the infantry, ranged themselves on two convenient
positions about a hundred yards in front of the line of battalions.
All was ready. Yet everything was very quiet, and in the stillness
of the dawn it almost seemed that Nature held her breath.
Half a mile away, at the foot of the ridge, a long irregular black line
of thorn bushes enclosed the Dervish defences. Behind this zeriba low
palisades and entrenchments bent back to the scrub by the river.
Odd shapeless mounds indicated the positions of the gun-emplacements,
and various casemates could be seen in the middle of the enclosure.
Without, the bushes had been cleared away, and the smooth sand stretched
in a gentle slope to where the army waited. Within were crowds of little
straw huts and scattered bushes, growing thicker to the southward.
From among this rose the palm-trees, between whose stems the dry bed of
the Atbara was exposed, and a single pool of water gleamed in the early
sunlight. Such was Mahmud's famous zeriba, which for more than a month had
been the predominant thought in the minds of the troops. It was scarcely
imposing, and at first the soldiers thought it deserted. Only a dozen stray
horsemen sat silently on their horses outside the entrenchment, watching
their enemies, and inside a few dirty-white figures appeared and
disappeared behind the parapets. Yet, insignificant as the zeriba looked,
the smoke of many fires cooking the morning meal--never to be eaten--showed
that it was occupied by men; and gay banners of varied colour and device,
flaunting along the entrenchments or within the enclosure, declared that
some at least were prepared to die in its defence.
The hush of the hour and the suspense of the army were broken by the bang
of a gun. Everyone on the ridge jumped up and looked towards the sound.
A battery of Krupps a little to the right of the Cameron Highlanders had
opened fire. Another gun further to the right was fired. Another shell
burst over the straw huts among the palm-trees. The two Maxim-Nordenfeldt
batteries had come into action. The officers looked at their watches.
It was a quarter-past six. The bombardment had begun.
Explosion followed explosion in quick succession until all four batteries
were busily engaged. The cannonade grew loud and continuous. The rocket
detachment began to fire, and the strange projectiles hissed and screamed
as they left the troughs and jerked erratically towards the zeriba.
In the air above the enclosure shell after shell flashed into existence,
smote the ground with its leaden shower, and dispersed--a mere film--
into the haze and smoke which still hung over the Dervish encampment.
At the very first shot all the dirty-white figures disappeared, bobbing
down into their pits and shelters; but a few solitary horsemen remained
motionless for a while in the middle of the enclosure, watching the effect
of the fire, as if it had no concern with them. The British infantry stood
up on tip-toe to look at the wonderful spectacle of actual war,
and at first every shell was eagerly scrutinised and its probable effect
discussed. But the busy gunners multiplied the projectiles until so many
were alive in the air at once that all criticism was prevented. Gradually
even the strange sight became monotonous. The officers shut up their
glasses. The men began to sit down again. Many of them actually went
to sleep. The rest were soon tired of the amazing scene, the like of which
they had never looked on before, and awaited impatiently further
developments and 'some new thing.'
After the bombardment had lasted about ten minutes a great cloud of dust
sprang up in the zeriba, and hundreds of horsemen were seen scrambling into
their saddles and galloping through a gap in the rear face out into the
open sand to the right. To meet the possibility of an attempt to turn the
left flank of the attack, the eight squadrons of cavalry and two Maxim guns
jingled and clattered off in the direction of the danger. The dust,
which the swift passage of so many horsemen raised, shut the scene from the
eyes of the infantry, but continual dust-clouds above the scrub to the left
and the noise of the Maxims seemed to indicate a cavalry fight. The Baggara
horse, however, declined an unequal combat, and made no serious attempt to
interfere with the attack. Twice they showed some sort of front, and the
squadrons thought they might find opportunity to charge; but a few rounds
from the Maxims effectually checked the enemy, inflicting on each occasion
the loss of about twenty killed and wounded. With the exception of one
squadron detached on the right, the Egyptian cavalry force, however,
remained on the left flank, and shielded the operations of the
Meanwhile the bombardment--no longer watched with curiosity--continued with
accuracy and precision. The batteries searched the interior of the zeriba,
threshing out one section after another, and working the whole ground
regularly from front to rear. The zeriba and palisades were knocked about
in many places, and at a quarter to seven a cluster of straw huts caught
fire and began to burn briskly. At a quarter-past seven the infantry were
ordered to form in column for assault.
The plan of the attack for the army was simple. The long,
deployed line were to advance steadily against the entrenchments,
subduing by their continual fire that of the enemy. They were then to
tear the zeriba to pieces. Covered by their musketry, the dense columns
of assault which had followed the line were to enter the defences
through the gaps, deploy to the right, and march through the enclosure,
clearing it with the bayonet and by fire.
At twenty minutes to eight the Sirdar ordered his bugles to sound the
general advance. The call was repeated by all the brigades, and the clear
notes rang out above the noise of the artillery. The superior officers--
with the exception of Hunter, Maxwell, and MacDonald--dismounted and placed
themselves at the head of their commands. The whole mass of the infantry,
numbering nearly eleven thousand men, immediately began to move forward
upon the zeriba. The scene as this great force crested the ridge and
advanced down the slope was magnificent and tremendous. Large solid columns
of men, preceded by a long double line, with the sunlight flashing on their
bayonets and displaying their ensigns, marched to the assault in regular
and precise array. The pipes of the Highlanders, the bands of the
Soudanese, and the drums and fifes of the English regiments added a wild
and thrilling accompaniment. As soon as the advance masked the batteries,
the guns were run forward with the firing line, in order effectually to
support the attack. The deployed battalions opened a ceaseless and
crushing fire on the entrenchment, and as the necessity of firing delayed
the advance of the attacking columns, the pace did not exceed a slow march.
The Dervishes remained silent until the troops were within 300 yards.
Then the smoke-puffs spurted out all along the stockades, and a sharp
fusillade began, gradually and continually growing in intensity until the
assaulting troops were exposed to a furious and effective fire.
From 250 yards up to the position losses began to occur. The whole
entrenchment was rimmed with flame and smoke, amid which the active figures
of the Dervish riflemen were momentarily visible, and behind the filmy
curtain solid masses of swordsmen and spearmen appeared. The fortunate
interposition of a small knoll in some degree protected the advance of the
Lincoln Regiment, but in both Highland battalions soldiers began to drop.
The whole air was full of a strange chirping whistle. The hard pebbly sand
was everywhere dashed up into dust-spurts. Numerous explosive bullets,
fired by the Arabs, made queer startling reports. The roar of the rifles
drowned even the noise of the artillery. All the deployed battalions began
to suffer. But they and the assaulting columns, regardless of the fire,
bore down on the zeriba in all the majesty of war--an avalanche of men,
stern, unflinching, utterly irresistible.
Two hundred yards from the entrenchment and one hundred and fifty from
the thorn bushes independent firing broke out, running along the line from
end to end. Shooting continually, but without any hurry or confusion,
the British and Soudanese battalions continued their slow, remorseless
advance; and it was evident that, in spite of the fierce fire of the
defence, which was now causing many casualties, the assault would
The loss during the passage of the zeriba and in the assault of
the entrenchments was severe. Captain Findlay and Major Urquhart, of the
Cameron Highlanders, were both mortally wounded in the fight at the
stockades, and expired still cheering on their men. Major Napier,
of the same regiment, and Captain Baillie, of the Seaforth Highlanders,
received the wounds, of which they subsequently died, a few yards
further on. At all points the troops broke into the enclosure. Behind the
stockade there ran a treble trench. The whole interior was honeycombed
with pits and holes. From these there now sprang thousands of Dervishes,
desperately endeavouring to show a front to the attack. Second-Lieutenant
Gore, a young officer fresh from Sandburst, was shot dead between the thorn
fence and the stockade. Other officers in the Lincoln and the Warwickshire
regiments sustained severe wounds. Many soldiers were killed and wounded
in the narrow space. These losses were general throughout the assaulting
brigades. In the five minutes which were occupied in the passage of the
obstruction about four hundred casualties occurred. The attack continued.
The British brigade had struck the extremity of the north front of
the zeriba, and thus took the whole of the eastern face in enfilade,
sweeping it with their terrible musketry from end to end, and strewing
the ground with corpses. Although, owing to the lines of advance having
converged, there was not room for more than half the force to deploy,
the brigades pushed on. The conduct of the attack passed to the company
commanders. All these officers kept their heads, and brought their
companies up into the general line as the front gradually widened and
gaps appeared. So the whole force--companies, battalions, even brigades--
mixed up together and formed in one dense, ragged, but triumphant line,
marched on unchecked towards the river bed, driving their enemies in
hopeless confusion before them. Yet, although the Dervishes were unable to
make head against the attack, they disdained to run. Many hundreds held
their ground, firing their rifles valiantly till the end. Others charged
with spear and sword. The greater part retired in skirmishing order,
jumping over the numerous pits, walking across the open spaces,
and repeatedly turning round to shoot. The XIth Soudanese encountered
the most severe resistance after the defences were penetrated. As their
three deployed companies pressed on through the enclosure, they were
confronted by a small inner zeriba stubbornly defended by the Emir Mahmud's
personal bodyguard. These poured a sudden volley into the centre company at
close range, and so deadly was the effect that nearly all the company were
shot, falling to the ground still in their ranks, so that a British officer
passing at a little distance was provoked to inquire 'what they were doing
lying down.' Notwithstanding this severe check the regiment, gallantly led
by their colonel and supported by the Xth Soudanese, rushed this last
defence and slew its last defenders. Mahmud was himself captured.
Having duly inspected his defences and made his dispositions, he had
sheltered in a specially constructed casemate. Thence he was now
ignominiously dragged, and, on his being recognised, the intervention of
a British officer alone saved him from the fury of the excited Soudanese.
Still the advance continued, and it seemed to those who took part in it
more like a horrible nightmare than a waking reality. Captains and
subalterns collected whatever men they could, heedless of corps or
nationality, and strove to control and direct their fire. Jibba-clad
figures sprang out of the ground, fired or charged, and were destroyed at
every step. And onwards over their bodies--over pits choked with dead and
dying, among heaps of mangled camels and donkeys, among decapitated or
eviscerated trunks, the ghastly results of the shell fire; women and little
children killed by the bombardment or praying in wild terror for mercy;
blacks chained in their trenches, slaughtered in their chains--always
onwards marched the conquerors, with bayonets running blood; clothes,
hands, and faces all besmeared; the foul stench of a month's accumulated
filth in their nostrils, and the savage whistle of random bullets
in their ears.
But at about twenty minutes past eight the whole force, with the Seaforth
Highlanders well forward on the left, arrived at the bank of the Atbara,
having marched completely through the position, and shot or bayoneted all
in their path. Hundreds of Dervishes were still visible retiring across the
dry bed of the river, and making for the scrub on the opposite bank.
The leading companies of the Seaforth Highlanders and Lincolns, with such
odd parties of Camerons as had been carried on with the attack, opened a
murderous fire on these fugitives. Since they would not run their loss was
heavy, and it was a strange sight--the last vivid impression of the day--
to watch them struggling through the deep sand, with the dust knocked up
into clouds by the bullets which struck all round them. Very few escaped,
and the bodies of the killed lay thickly dotting the river-bed with heaps
of dirty-white. Then at 8.25 the 'Cease fire' sounded, and the battle
of the Atbara ended.
Forthwith the battalions began to re-form, and in every company the roll
was called. The losses had been severe. In the assault--a period not
exceeding half an hour--eighteen British, sixteen native officers and 525
men had been killed or wounded, the greater part during the passage of
The actual pursuit was abortive. Colonel Lewis, with his two battalions,
followed a line of advance which led south of the zeriba, and just before
reaching the river bank found and fired upon a few Dervishes retreating
through the scrub. All the cavalry and the Camel Corps crossed the Atbara
and plunged into the bush on the further side. But so dense and tangled
was the country that after three miles of peril and perplexity they
abandoned he attempt, and the routed Arabs fled unmolested. The Baggara
horse had ridden off during the action, headed by the prudent Osman Digna
--whose position in the zeriba was conveniently suited to such a
manoeuvre--and under that careful leadership suffered little loss.
The rest of the army was, however, destroyed or dispersed. The fugitives
fled up the Atbara river, leaving many wounded to die in the scrub,
all along their line of retreat. Of the powerful force of 12,000 fighting
men which Mahmud had gathered at Metemma, scarcely 4,000 reached Gedaret
in safety. These survivors were added to the army of Ahmed Fedil, and thus
prevented from spreading their evil tidings among the populace at Omdurman.
Osman Digna, Wad Bishara, and other important Emirs whose devotion and
discretion were undoubted, alone returned to the capital.
As soon as the troops were re-formed, the zeriba was evacuated and
the army drew up in line along the neighbouring ridge. It was then only
nine o'clock, and the air was still cool and fresh. The soldiers lit fires,
made some tea, and ate their rations of biscuits and meat. Then they lay
down and waited for evening. Gradually, as the hours passed, the sun became
powerful. There was no shade, and only a few thin, leafless bushes rose
from the sand. The hours of a day, peculiarly hot, even for the country
and season, dragged wearily away. The sandy ridge beat back the rays till
the air above was like the breath of a furnace and the pebbly ground
burned. The water in the fantasses and bottles was hot and scarce. The pool
of the Atbara was foul and tainted. In spite of the devoted efforts of the
few medical officers who had been allowed to accompany the force,
the wounded officers and soldiers endured the greatest miseries, and it is
certain that several died of their wounds who might in happier
circumstances have been saved.
Several hundred prisoners were taken. They were mostly negroes--for the
Arabs refused to surrender, and fought to the last or tried to escape.
The captive blacks, who fight with equal willingness on either side,
were content to be enlisted in the Soudanese regiments; so that many of
those who served the Khalifa on the Atbara helped to destroy him
at Omdurman. The most notable prisoner was the Emir Mahmud--a tall,
strong Arab, about thirty years old. Immediately after his capture he was
dragged before the Sirdar. 'Why,' inquired the General, 'have you come into
my country to burn and kill?' 'I have to obey my orders, and so have you,'
retorted the captive sullenly, yet not without a certain dignity. To other
questions he returned curt or evasive answers, and volunteered the opinion
that all this slaughter would be avenged at Omdurman. He was removed in
custody--a fine specimen of proud brutality, worthy perhaps of some better
fate than to linger indefinitely in the gaol at Rosetta.
With the cool of the evening the army left its bed of torment on the ridge
and returned to Umdabia. The homeward march was a severe trial; the troops
were exhausted; the ground was broken; the guides, less careful or less
fortunate than on the previous night, lost their way. The columns were
encumbered with wounded, most of whom were already in a high state
of fever, and whose sufferings were painful to witness. It was not until
after midnight that the camp was reached. The infantry had been
continuously under arms--marching, fighting, or sweltering in the sun--
for thirty hours, and most of them had hardly closed their eyes for two
days. Officers and soldiers--British, Soudanese, and Egyptian--struggled
into their bivouacs, and fell asleep, very weary but victorious.
British and Egyptian casualties on the Atbara included 20 officers
and 539 men killed or wounded. The Dervish loss was officially estimated
at 40 Emirs and 3,000 dervishes killed. No statistics as to their wounded
. . . . . . . . . .
As the battle of the Atbara had been decisive, the whole Expeditionary
Force went into summer quarters. The Egyptian army was distributed into
three principal garrisons--four battalions at Atbara camp, six battalions
and the cavalry at Berber, three battalions at Abadia. The artillery and
transport were proportionately divided. The British brigade encamped
with two battalions at Darmali and two at the village of Selim,
about a mile and a half distant.
For the final phase of the campaign three new gunboats had been ordered
from England. These were now sent in sections over the Desert Railway.
Special arrangements were made to admit of the clumsy loads passing trains
on the ordinary sidings. As usual, the contrivances of the railway
subalterns were attended with success. Sir H. Kitchener himself proceeded
to Abadia to accelerate by his personal activity and ingenuity the
construction of the vessels on which so much depended. Here during the heat
of the summer he remained, nursing his gunboats, maturing his plans,
and waiting only for the rise of the river to complete the downfall
of his foes.
CHAPTER XIII: THE GRAND ADVANCE
All through the early months of the summer the preparations for the final
advance were steadily proceeding. A second British brigade was ordered to
the Soudan. A new battery of Howitzer artillery--the 37th--firing enormous
shells charged with lyddite, was despatched from England. Two large
40-pounder guns were sent from Cairo. Another British Maxim battery of four
guns was formed in Cairo from men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Three new
screw gunboats of the largest size and most formidable pattern had been
passed over the indefatigable railway in sections, and were now launched on
the clear waterway south of the Atbara encampment; and last, but not least,
the 21st Lancers [The author led a troop in this regiment during the final
advance to Omdurman; and it is from this standpoint that the ensuing
chapters are to some extent conceived] were ordered up the Nile. Events now
began to move rapidly. Within three weeks of the arrival of the
reinforcements the climax of the war was over; within five weeks the
British troops were returning home. There was no delay at the Atbara
encampment. Even before the whole of the second brigade had arrived,
some of its battalions were being despatched to Wad Hamed, the new point of
concentration. This place was a few miles north of Shabluka, and only
fifty-eight miles from Omdurman. It was evident, therefore, that the
decisive moment of the three years' war approached. The Staff, the British
infantry, one squadron, the guns, and the stores were carried south in
steamers and barges. The Egyptian division marched to Wad Hamed by
brigades. The horses of the batteries, the transport animals of the British
division (about 1,400 in number), the chargers of the officers,
some cattle, and most of the war correspondents were sent along the left
bank of the river escorted by two squadrons of the 21st Lancers
and two Maxim guns.
All the thirteen squadrons of cavalry remained three days at Wad Hamed.
After the fatigues of the march we were glad to have an opportunity of
looking about, of visiting regiments known in other circumstances, and of
writing a few letters. This last was the most important, for it was now
known that after leaving Wad Hamed there would be no post or communication
with Cairo and Europe until the action had been fought and all was over.
The halt was welcome for another reason. The camp itself was well worth
looking at. It lay lengthways along the river-bank, and was nearly two
miles from end to end. The Nile secured it from attack towards the east.
On the western and southern sides were strong lines of thorn bushes,
staked down and forming a zeriba; and the north face was protected by a
deep artificial watercourse which allowed the waters of the river to make
a considerable inundation. From the bank of this work the whole camp could
be seen. Far away to the southward the white tents of the British division;
a little nearer rows and rows of grass huts and blanket shelters,
the bivouacs of the Egyptian and Soudanese brigades; the Sirdar's large
white tent, with the red flag of Egypt flying from a high staff, on a small
eminence; and to the right the grove of palm-trees in which the officers of
the Egyptian cavalry had established themselves. The whole riverside was
filled by a forest of masts. Crowds of gyassas, barges, and steamers were
moored closely together; and while looking at the furled sails, the tangled
riggings, and the tall funnels it was easy for the spectator to imagine
that this was the docks of some populous city in a well-developed
and civilised land.
But the significance of the picture grew when the mind, outstripping the
eye, passed beyond the long, low heights of the gorge and cataract of
Shabluka and contemplated the ruins of Khartoum and the city of Omdurman.
There were known to be at least 50,000 fighting men collected in their last
stronghold. We might imagine the scene of excitement, rumour, and resolve
in the threatened capital. The Khalifa declares that he will destroy the
impudent invaders. The Mahdi has appeared to him in a dream. Countless
angelic warriors will charge with those of Islam. The 'enemies of God'
will perish and their bones will whiten the broad plain. Loud is the
boasting, and many are the oaths which are taken, as to what treatment
the infidel dogs shall have when they are come to the city walls.
The streets swarm with men and resound with their voices. Everywhere is
preparation and defiance. And yet over all hangs the dark shadow of fear.
Nearer and nearer comes this great serpent of an army, moving so slowly and
with such terrible deliberation, but always moving. A week ago it was sixty
miles away, now it is but fifty. Next week only twenty miles will
intervene, and then the creep of the serpent will cease, and, without
argument or parley, one way or the other the end will come.
The road to the next camp was a long one; for though Royan island,
opposite to which the site had been selected, was only seven miles in the
direct line, it was necessary to march eight miles into the desert to avoid
the Shabluka heights, and then to turn back to the Nile. The infantry were
therefore provided with camel transport to carry sufficient water in small
iron tanks for one night; and they were thus able to bivouac half-way,
and to complete the journey on the next morning, thus making a two days'
march. The mounted troops, who remained at Wad Hamed till all had gone
south, were ordered to move on the 27th of August, and by a double march
catch up the rest of the army.
Wad Hamed then ceased for the time being to exist except in name.
All the stores and transport were moved by land or water to the south of
Shabluka, and an advanced base was formed upon Royan island. Communications
with the Atbara encampment and with Cairo were dropped, and the army
carried with them in their boats sufficient supplies to last until after
the capture of Omdurman, when the British division would be immediately