Part 5 out of 6
sent back. It was calculated that the scope of this operation would not
be greater than three weeks, and on the 27th the army were equipped with
twenty-one days' supplies, of which two were carried by the troops, five by
the regimental barges, and fourteen in the army transport sailing-vessels.
All surplus stores were deposited at Royan island, where a field hospital
was also formed.
The Expeditionary Force which was thus concentrated, equipped, and supplied
for the culminating moment of the River War, was organised as follows:
Commander-in-Chief: THE SIRDAR
The British Division: MAJOR-GENERAL GATACRE Commanding
1st Brigade 2nd Brigade
BRIGADIER-GEN. WAUCHOPE BRIGADIER-GEN. LYTTELTON
1st Btn. Royal Warwickshire Regt. 1st Btn. Grenadier Guards
" " Lincoln Regiment " " Northumberland Fusiliers
" " Seaforth Highlanders 2nd " Lancashire Fusiliers
" " Cameron Highlanders " " Rifle Brigade
The Egyptian Division: MAJOR-GENERAL HUNTER Commanding
1st Brigade 2nd Brigade 3rd Brigade 4th Brigade
COL. MACDONALD COL. MAXWELL COL. LEWIS COL. COLLINSON
2nd Egyptians 8th Egyptians 3rd Egyptians 1st Egyptians
IXth Soudanese XIIth Soudanese 4th " 5th (half) "
Xth " XIIIth " 7th " 17th "
XIth " XIVth " 15th " 18th "
21st Lancers Camel Corps Egyptian Cavalry
COLONEL MARTIN MAJOR TUDWAY COLONEL BROADWOOD
4 squadrons 8 companies 9 squadrons
Artillery: COLONEL LONG Commanding
(British) 32nd Field Battery, R.A.(with two 40-pounder guns) 8 guns
" 37th " " " (5-inch Howitzers) . 6 guns
(Egyptian) The Horse Battery, E.A. (Krupp) . . . 6 guns
" No. 1 Field Battery, E.A. (Maxim-Nordenfeldt) 6 guns
" No. 2 " " " . . . . 6 guns
" No. 3 " " " . . . . 6 guns
" No. 4 " " " . . . . 6 guns
(British) Detachment 16th Co. Eastern Division R.A. . 6 Maxim
" " Royal Irish Fusiliers . . 4 "
(Egyptian) 2 Maxim guns to each of the five
Egyptian batteries . . . . 10 "
Detachment of Royal Engineers
The Flotilla: COMMANDER KEPPEL
1898 Class Armoured Screw Gunboats (3): the Sultan, the Melik, the Sheikh
each carrying: 2 Nordenfeldt guns
1 quick-firing 12-pounder gun
1896 Class Armoured Screw Gunboats (3): the Fateh, The Naser, the Zafir
each carrying: 1 quick-firing 12-pounder gun
2 6-pounder guns
Old Class Armoured Stern-wheel Gunboats (4): the Tamai, the Hafir*,
the Abu Klea, the Metemma
each carrying: 1 12-pounder gun
2 Maxim-Nordenfeldt guns
5 Steamers: The Dal, The Akasha, the Tahra, The Okma, the Kaibar
[*The steamer El Teb, wrecked at the Fourth Cataract in 1897, had been
refloated, and to change the luck was renamed Hafir.]
The total strength of the Expeditionary Force amounted to 8,200 British
and 17,600 Egyptian soldiers, with 44 guns and 20 Maxims on land,
with 36 guns and 24 Maxims on the river, and with 2,469 horses, 896 mules,
3,524 camels, and 229 donkeys, besides followers and private animals.
While the army were to move along the west bank of the river--the Omdurman
side--a force of Arab irregulars, formed from the friendly tribes, would
march along the east bank and clear it of any Dervishes. All the debris
which the Egyptian advance had broken off the Dervish Empire was thus to be
hurled against that falling State. Eager for plunder, anxious to be on the
winning side, Sheikhs and Emirs from every tribe in the Military Soudan
had hurried, with what following the years of war had left them, to Wad
Hamed. On the 26th of August the force of irregulars numbered about 2,500
men, principally Jaalin survivors, but also comprising bands and
individuals of Bisharin; of Hadendoa from Suakin; of Shukria,
the camel-breeders; of Batahin, who had suffered a bloody diminution at
the Khalifa's hands; of Shaiggia, Gordon's vexatious allies; and lastly
some Gellilab Arabs under a reputed son of Zubehr Pasha. The command of
the whole motley force was given to Major Stuart-Wortley, Lieutenant Wood
accompanying him as Staff Officer; and the position of these officers among
the cowed and untrustworthy Arabs was one of considerable peril.
While the infantry divisions were marching round the heights of Shabluka
to the camp opposite Royan island, the steamers and gunboats ascended the
stream and passed through the gorge, dragging up with them the whole fleet
of barges and gyassas. The northern end of the narrow passage had been
guarded by the five Dervish forts, which now stood deserted and dismantled.
They were well built, and formed nearly a straight line--four on one bank
and one on the other. Each fort had three embrasures, and might,
when occupied, have been a formidable defence to the cataract.
Threshing up against the current, the gunboats and stern-wheelers
one after another entered the gorge. The Nile, which below is nearly a mile
across, narrows to a bare 200 yards. The pace of the stream becomes more
swift. Great swirls and eddies disturb its surface. High on either side
rise black, broken, and precipitous cliffs, looking like piles of gigantic
stones. Through and among them the flood-river pours with a loud roaring,
breaking into foam and rapids wherever the submerged rocks are near the
surface. Between the barren heights and the water is a strip of green
bushes and grass. The bright verdant colour seems the more brilliant by
contrast with the muddy water and the sombre rocks. It is a forbidding
passage. A few hundred riflemen scattered Afridiwise among the tops of
the hills, a few field-guns in the mud forts by the bank, and the door
would be shut.
The mounted forces marched from Wad Hamed at dawn on the 27th and,
striking out into the desert, skirted the rocky hills. Besides the 21st
Lancers and nine squadrons of Egyptian cavalry, the column included the
Camel Corps, 800 strong, and a battery of Horse Artillery; and it was a
fine sight to see all these horsemen and camel-men trotting swiftly across
the sand by squadrons and companies, with a great cloud of dust rising
from each and drifting away to the northward.
The zeriba of the camp at Royan had been already made and much of the
ground cleared by the energy of the Soudanese division, which had been the
first to arrive. An advanced depot was established at Royan island which
was covered with white hospital tents, near which there was a forest of
masts and sails. The barges and boats containing the stores and kits
awaited the troops, and they had only to bivouac along the river-bank and
shelter themselves as quickly as possible from the fierce heat of the sun.
The dark hills of Shabluka, among and beneath which the camp and army
nestled, lay behind us now. To the south the country appeared a level plain
covered with bush and only broken by occasional peaks of rock. The eternal
Nile flowed swiftly by the tents and shelters, and disappeared mysteriously
in the gloom of the gorge; and on the further bank there rose a great
mountain--Jebel Royan--from the top of which it was said that men
might see Khartoum.
The whole army broke camp at Royan on the 28th of August at four o'clock
in the afternoon, and marched to Wady el Abid six miles further south.
We now moved on a broad front, which could immediately be converted into a
fighting formation. This was the first time that it had been possible to
see the whole force--infantry, cavalry, and guns--on the march at once.
In the clear air the amazing detail of the picture was striking. There were
six brigades of infantry, composed of twenty-four battalions; yet every
battalion showed that it was made up of tiny figures, all perfectly defined
on the plain. A Soudanese brigade had been sent on to hold the ground with
pickets until the troops had constructed a zeriba. But a single Dervish
horseman managed to evade these and, just as the light faded, rode up to
the Warwickshire Regiment and flung his broad-bladed spear in token of
defiance. So great was the astonishment which this unexpected apparition
created that the bold man actually made good his escape uninjured.
On the 29th the forces remained halted opposite Um Teref, and only the
Egyptian cavalry went out to reconnoitre. They searched the country for
eight or nine miles, and Colonel Broadwood returned in the afternoon,
having found a convenient camping-ground, but nothing else. During the day
the news of two river disasters arrived--the first to ourselves, the second
to our foes. On the 28th the gunboat Zafir was steaming from the Atbara to
Wad Hamed, intending thereafter to ascend the Shabluka Cataract.
Suddenly--overtaken now, as on the eve of the advance on Dongola,
by misfortune--she sprang a leak, and, in spite of every effort to run her
ashore, foundered by the head in deep water near Metemma. The officers on
board--among whom was Keppel, the commander of the whole flotilla--
had scarcely time to leap from the wreck, and with difficulty made their
way to the shore, where they were afterwards found very cold and hungry.
The Sirdar received the news at Royan. His calculations were disturbed by
the loss of a powerful vessel; but he had allowed for accidents, and in
consequence accepted the misfortune very phlegmatically. The days of
struggling warfare were over, and the General knew that he had
a safe margin of strength.
The other catastrophe afflicted the Khalifa, and its tale was brought to
the advancing army by the Intelligence spies, who to the last--even when
the forces were closing--tried to pass between them. Not content with
building batteries along the banks, Abdullah, fearing the gunboats,
had resolved to mine the river. An old officer of the old Egyptian army,
long a prisoner in Omdurman, was brought from his chains and ordered to
construct mines. Two iron boilers were filled with gunpowder, and it was
arranged that these should be sunk in the Nile at convenient spots.
Buried in the powder of each was a loaded pistol with a string attached to
the trigger. On pulling the string the pistol, and consequently the mine,
would be exploded. So the Khalifa argued; nor was he wrong. It was resolved
to lay one mine first. On the 17th of August the Dervish steamer Ismailia
moved out into the middle of the Nile, carrying one of the boilers fully
charged and equipped with pistol detonator. Arrived at the selected spot,
the great cylinder of powder was dropped over the side. Its efficiency as
a destructive engine was immediately demonstrated, for, on the string being
pulled by accident, the pistol discharged itself, the powder exploded,
and the Ismailia and all on board were blown to pieces.
Undeterred by the loss of life, and encouraged by the manifest power
of the contrivance, the Khalifa immediately ordered the second of the two
boilers to be sunk in the stream. As the old Egyptian officer had been
killed by the explosion, the Emir in charge of the arsenal was entrusted
with the perilous business. He rose, however, to the occasion, and, having
first taken the precaution of letting the water into the boiler so as to
damp the powder, he succeeded in laying the second mine in mid-stream,
to the joy and delight of Abdullah, who, not understanding that it was
now useless, overwhelmed him with praise and presents.
Beguiled with such stories and diversions, the day of rest at
Wady el Abid passed swiftly. Night brought beetles, bugs, and ants,
and several men were stung by scorpions--a most painful though not
dangerous affair. Towards morning it began to rain, and everyone was
drenched and chilled when the sun rose across the river from behind a great
conical hill and dispersed the clouds into wisps of creamy flame. Then we
mounted and set out. This day the army moved prepared for immediate action,
and all the cavalry were thrown out ten miles in front in a great screen
which reached from the gunboats on the river to the Camel Corps
far out in the desert.
When we had advanced a little further, there arose above the scrub
the dark outlines of a rocky peak, the hill of Merreh. The whole of
the 21st Lancers now concentrated, and, trotting quickly forward, occupied
this position, whence a considerable tract of country was visible. We were
hardly twenty-five miles from Khartoum, and of that distance at least ten
miles were displayed. Yet there were no enemy. Had they all fled?
Would there be no opposition? Should we find Omdurman deserted
or submissive? These were questions which occurred to everyone, and many
answered them affirmatively. Colonel Martin had meanwhile heliographed
back to the Sirdar that all the ground was up to this point clear,
and that there were no Dervishes to be seen. After some delay orders were
signalled back for one squadron to remain till sunset in observation on
the hill and for the rest to return to camp.
With two troops thrown out a mile in front we waited watching on the hill.
Time passed slowly, for the sun was hot. Suddenly it became evident that
one of the advanced troops was signalling energetically. The message was
spelt out. The officer with the troop perceived Dervishes in his front.
We looked through our glasses. It was true. There, on a white patch of sand
among the bushes of the plain, were a lot of little brown spots, moving
slowly across the front of the cavalry outposts towards an Egyptian
squadron, which was watching far out to the westward. There may have been
seventy horsemen altogether. We could not take our eyes off those distant
specks we had travelled so far, if possible, to destroy. Presently the
Dervish patrol approached our right troop, and apparently came nearer than
they imagined, for the officer who commanded--Lieutenant Conolly--
opened fire on them with carbines, and we saw them turn and ride back,
but without hurrying.
The camp to which we returned was a very different place from the one
we had left in the morning. Instead of lying along the river-bank,
it was pitched in the thinner scrub. The bushes had on all sides been cut
down, the ground cleared, and an immense oblong zeriba was built,
around which the six brigades were drawn up, and into which cavalry, guns,
and transport were closely packed.
Very early next morning the advance was continued. The army paraded
by starlight, and with the first streak of the dawn the cavalry were again
flung far out in advance. Secure behind the screen of horsemen and Camel
Corps, the infantry advanced in regular array. Up to the 27th of August
the force marched by divisions; but on and after the 30th of August the
whole force commenced to march in fighting formation. The British division
was on the left, the Egyptian army on the right. All the brigades marched
in line, or in a slight echelon. The flank brigades kept their flank
battalions in column or in fours. Other British battalions had six
companies in the front line (in company column of fours) and two companies
in support. The Egyptian brigades usually marched with three battalions in
the front line and one in reserve, each of the three in the front line
having four companies in front and two in support.
The spectacle of the moving army--the grand army of the Nile--as it
advanced towards its goal was especially wonderful in the clear air of the
early morning; a long row of great brown masses of infantry and artillery,
with a fringe of cavalry dotting the plain for miles in front, with the
Camel Corps--chocolate-coloured men on cream-coloured camels--stretching
into the desert on the right, and the white gunboats stealing silently up
the river on the left, scrutinising the banks with their guns; while far
in rear the transport trailed away into the mirage, and far in front the
field-glass disclosed the enemy's patrols. Day after day and hour after
hour the advance was maintained. Arrived at the camping-ground, the zeriba
had to be built; and this involved a long afternoon of fatigue. In the
evening, when the dusty, tired-out squadrons returned, the troopers
attended to their horses, and so went to sleep in peace. It was then that
the dusty, tired-out infantry provided sentries and pickets, who in a
ceaseless succession paced the zeriba and guarded its occupants.
The position of the next camp was a strong one, on a high swell of
open ground which afforded a clear field of fire in every direction.
Everyone that night lay down to sleep with a feeling of keen expectancy.
One way or the other all doubts would be settled the next day. The cavalry
would ride over the Kerreri Hills, if they were not occupied by the enemy,
and right up to the walls of Omdurman. If the Dervishes had any army--
if there was to be any battle--we should know within a few hours.
The telegrams which were despatched that evening were the last to reach
England before the event. During the night heavy rain fell, and all the
country was drenched. The telegraph-wire had been laid along the ground,
as there had been no time to pole it. The sand when dry is a sufficient
insulator, but when wet its non-conductivity is destroyed. Hence all
communications ceased, and those at home who had husbands, sons, brothers,
or friends in the Expeditionary Force were left in an uncertainty as great
as that in which we slept--and far more painful.
The long day had tired everyone. Indeed, the whole fortnight
since the cavalry convoy had started from the Atbara had been a period
of great exertion, and the Lancers, officers and men, were glad to eat a
hasty meal, and forget the fatigues of the day, the hardness of the ground,
and the anticipations of the morrow in deep sleep. The camp was watched by
the infantry, whose labours did not end with the daylight. At two o'clock
in the morning the clouds broke in rain and storm. Great blue flashes of
lightning lit up the wide expanse of sleeping figures, of crowded animals,
and of shelters fluttering in the wind; and from the centre of the camp it
was even possible to see for an instant the continuous line of sentries who
watched throughout the night with ceaseless vigilance. Nor was this all.
Far away, near the Kerreri Hills, the yellow light of a burning village
shot up, unquenched by the rain, and only invisible in the brightest
flashes of the lightning. There was war to the southward.
CHAPTER XIV: THE OPERATIONS OF THE FIRST OF SEPTEMBER
The British and Egyptian cavalry, supported by the Camel Corps
and Horse Artillery, trotted out rapidly, and soon interposed a distance
of eight miles between them and the army. As before, the 21st Lancers
were on the left nearest the river, and the Khedivial squadrons curved
backwards in a wide half-moon to protect the right flank. Meanwhile the
gunboat flotilla was seen to be in motion. The white boats began to ascend
the stream leisurely. Yet their array was significant. Hitherto they had
moved at long and indefinite intervals--one following perhaps a mile,
or even two miles, behind the other. Now a regular distance of about 300
yards was observed. The orders of the cavalry were to reconnoitre Omdurman;
of the gunboats to bombard it.
As soon as the squadrons of the 21st Lancers had turned the shoulder of
the steep Kerreri Hills, we saw in the distance a yellow-brown pointed
dome rising above the blurred horizon. It was the Mahdi's Tomb, standing
in the very heart of Omdurman. From the high ground the field-glass
disclosed rows and rows of mud houses, making a dark patch on the brown of
the plain. To the left the river, steel-grey in the morning light, forked
into two channels, and on the tongue of land between them the gleam of a
white building showed among the trees. Before us were the ruins
of Khartoum and the confluence of the Blue and White Niles.
A black, solitary hill rose between the Kerreri position and Omdurman.
A long, low ridge running from it concealed the ground beyond. For the rest
there was a wide-rolling, sandy plain of great extent, surrounded on three
sides by rocky hills and ridges, and patched with coarse, starveling grass
or occasional bushes. By the banks of the river which framed the picture on
the left stood a straggling mud village, and this, though we did not
know it, was to be the field of Omdurman. It was deserted. Not a living
creature could be seen. And now there were many who said once and for all
that there would be no fight; for here we were arrived at the very walls
of Omdurman, and never an enemy to bar our path. Then, with four squadrons
looking very tiny on the broad expanse of ground, we moved steadily
forward, and at the same time the Egyptian cavalry and the Camel Corps
entered the plain several miles further to the west, and they too
began to trot across it.
It was about three miles to the last ridge which lay between us
and the city. If there was a Dervish army, if there was to be a battle,
if the Khalifa would maintain his boast and accept the arbitrament of war,
much must be visible from that ridge. We looked over. At first nothing was
apparent except the walls and houses of Omdurman and the sandy plain
sloping up from the river to distant hills. Then four miles away on our
right front emerged a long black line with white spots. It was the enemy.
It seemed to us, as we looked, that there might be 3,000 men behind a
high dense zeriba of thorn-bushes. That, said the officers, was better
than nothing. It is scarcely necessary to describe our tortuous movements
towards the Dervish position. Looking at it now from one point of view,
now from another, but always edging nearer, the cavalry slowly approached,
and halted in the plain about three miles away--three great serpents
of men--the light-coloured one, the 21st Lancers; a much longer and a
blacker one, the Egyptian squadrons; a mottled one, the Camel Corps and
Horse Artillery. From this distance a clearer view was possible,
and we distinguished many horsemen riding about the flanks and front of
the broad dark line which crowned the crest of the slope. A few of these
rode carelessly towards the squadrons to look at them. They were not
apparently acquainted with the long range of the Lee-Metford carbine.
Several troops were dismounted, and at 800 yards fire was made on them.
Two were shot and fell to the ground. Their companions, dismounting,
examined them, picked up one, let the other lie, and resumed their ride,
without acknowledging the bullets by even an increase of pace.
While this passed, so did the time. It was now nearly eleven o'clock.
Suddenly the whole black line which seemed to be zeriba began to move.
It was made of men, not bushes. Behind it other immense masses and lines
of men appeared over the crest; and while we watched, amazed by the wonder
of the sight, the whole face of the slope became black with swarming
savages. Four miles from end to end, and, as it seemed, in five great
divisions, this mighty army advanced--swiftly. The whole side of the hill
seemed to move. Between the masses horsemen galloped continually;
before them many patrols dotted the plain; above them waved hundreds of
banners, and the sun, glinting on many thousand hostile spear-points,
spread a sparkling cloud.
It is now known that the Khalifa had succeeded in concentrating at
Omdurman an army of more than 60,000 men. He remembered that all the former
victories over the Egyptians had been won by the Dervishes attacking.
He knew that in all the recent defeats they had stood on the defensive.
He therefore determined not to oppose the advance at the Shabluka or on
the march thence to Omdurman. All was to be staked on the issue of a great
battle on the plains of Kerreri. The Mahdi's prophecy was propitious.
The strength of the Dervish army seemed overwhelming. When the 'Turks'
arrived, they should be driven into the river. Accordingly the Khalifa had
only watched the advance of the Expeditionary Force from Wad Hamed with
a patrol of cavalry about 200 strong. On the 30th he was informed that the
enemy drew near, and on the 31st he assembled his bodyguard and regular
army, with the exception of the men needed for the river batteries,
on the Omdurman parade ground. He harangued the leaders; and remained
encamped with his troops during the night. The next day all the male
population of the city were compelled to join the army in the field,
and only the gunners and garrisons on the river-face remained within.
In spite, however, of his utmost vigilance, nearly 6,000 men deserted
during the nights of the 31st of August and the 1st of September.
This and the detachments in the forts reduced the force actually engaged
in the battle to 52,000 men. The host that now advanced towards the British
and Egyptian cavalry was perhaps 4,000 stronger.
Their array was regular and precise, and, facing northeast, stretched for
more than four miles from flank to flank. A strong detachment of the
mulazemin or guard was extended in front of the centre. Ali-Wad-Helu,
with his bright green flag, prolonged the line to the left; and his 5,000
warriors, chiefly of the Degheim and Kenana tribes, soon began to reach out
towards the Egyptian cavalry. The centre and main force of the army was
composed of the regular troops, formed in squares under Osman Sheikh-ed-Din
and Osman Azrak. This great body comprised 12,000 black riflemen and about
13,000 black and Arab spearmen. In their midst rose the large, dark green
flag which the Sheikh-ed-Din had adopted to annoy Ali-Wad-Helu, of whose
distinctive emblem he was inordinately jealous. The Khalifa with his own
bodyguard, about 2,000 strong, followed the centre. In rear of all marched
Yakub with the Black Flag and 13,000 men--nearly all swordsmen and
spearmen, who with those extended in front of the army constituted the
guard. The right wing was formed by the brigade of the Khalifa Sherif,
consisting of 2,000 Danagla tribesmen, whose principal ensign was a broad
red flag. Osman Digna, with about 1,700 Hadendoa, guarded the extreme right
and the flank nearest Omdurman, and his fame needed no flag. Such was the
great army which now moved swiftly towards the watching squadrons;
and these, pausing on the sandy ridge, pushed out a fringe of tentative
patrols, as if to assure themselves that what they saw was real.
The Egyptian cavalry had meanwhile a somewhat different view of
the spectacle. Working on the right of the 21st Lancers, and keeping
further from the river, the leading squadrons had reached the extreme
western end of the Kerreri ridge at about seven o'clock. From here the
Mahdi's Tomb was visible, and, since the rocks of Surgham did not obstruct
the view from this point, the British officers, looking through their
field-glasses, saw what appeared to be a long column of brown spots moving
south-westwards across the wide plain which stretches away to the west of
Omdurman. The telescope, an invaluable aid to reconnaissance, developed
the picture. The brown objects proved to be troops of horses grazing;
and beyond, to the southward, camels and white flapping tents could be
distinguished. There were no signs that a retreat was in progress;
but from such a distance--nearly four miles--no certain information
could be obtained, and Colonel Broadwood decided to advance closer.
He accordingly led his whole command south-westward towards a round-topped
hill which rose about four miles from the end of the Kerreri ridge and was
one of the more distant hill features bounding the plain on the western
side. The Egyptian cavalry moved slowly across the desert to this new
point of observation. On their way they traversed the end of the Khor
Shambat, a long depression which is the natural drainage channel of the
plains of Kerreri and Omdurman, and joins the Nile about four miles from
the city. The heavy rain of the previous night had made the low ground
swampy, and pools of water stood in the soft, wet sand. The passage,
however, presented no great difficulty, and at half-past eleven the
Egyptian squadrons began to climb the lower slopes of the round-topped
hill. Here the whole scene burst suddenly upon them. Scarcely three miles
away the Dervish army was advancing with the regularity of parade.
The south wind carried the martial sound of horns and drums and--far more
menacing--the deep murmur of a multitude to the astonished officers.
Like the 21st Lancers--three miles away to their left, at the end of the
long sandy ridge which runs westward from Surgham--the soldiers remained
for a space spell-bound. But all eyes were soon drawn from the thrilling
spectacle of the Dervish advance by the sound of guns on the river.
At about eleven o'clock the gunboats had ascended the Nile, and now
engaged the enemy's batteries on both banks. Throughout the day the loud
reports of their guns could be heard, and, looking from our position on
the ridge, we could see the white vessels steaming slowly forward against
the current, under clouds of black smoke from their furnaces and amid
other clouds of white smoke from the artillery. The forts, which mounted
nearly fifty guns, replied vigorously; but the British aim was accurate
and their fire crushing. The embrasures were smashed to bits and many of
the Dervish guns dismounted. The rifle trenches which flanked the forts
were swept by the Maxim guns. The heavier projectiles, striking the mud
walls of the works and houses, dashed the red dust high into the air and
scattered destruction around. Despite the tenacity and courage of the
Dervish gunners, they were driven from their defences and took refuge
among the streets of the city. The great wall of Omdurman was breached
in many places, and a large number of unfortunate non-combatants
were killed and wounded.
Meanwhile the Arab irregulars, under Major Wortley, had been sharply
engaged. That officer's orders were to co-operate with the flotilla by
taking in rear the forts and fortified villages on the east bank of the
river. As soon as the gunboats had silenced the lower forts, Major Wortley
ordered the irregulars to advance on them and on the houses. He placed the
Jaalin, who were practically the only trustworthy men in his force,
in reserve, and formed the tribes according to their capabilities and
prejudices. On the order to attack being given, the whole force, some 3,000
strong, advanced on the buildings, from which the Dervishes at once
opened fire. Arrived within 500 yards they halted, and began to discharge
their rifles in the air; they also indulged in frantic dances expressive of
their fury and valour, but declined to advance any further.
Major Wortley then ordered the Jaalin to attack. These--formed in a
long column, animated by the desire for vengeance, and being besides brave
men--moved upon the village at a slow pace, and, surrounding one house
after another, captured it and slew all its defenders; including the
Dervish Emir and 350 of his followers. The Jaalin themselves suffered a
loss of about sixty killed and wounded.
The village being captured, and the enemy on the east bank
killed or dispersed, the gunboats proceeded to engage the batteries higher
up the river. The howitzer battery was now landed, and at 1.30 began to
bombard the Mahdi's Tomb. This part of the proceedings was plainly visible
to us, waiting and watching on the ridge, and its interest even distracted
attention from the Dervish army. The dome of the tomb rose tall and
prominent above the mud houses of the city. A lyddite shell burst over it
--a great flash, a white ball of smoke, and, after a pause, the dull thud
of the distant explosion. Another followed. At the third shot, instead of
the white smoke, there was a prodigious cloud of red dust, in which the
whole tomb disappeared. When this cleared away we saw that, instead of
being pointed, it was now flat-topped. Other shells continued to strike it
with like effect, some breaking holes in the dome, others smashing off
the cupolas, all enveloping it in dust.
All this time the Dervishes were coming nearer, and the steady and
continuous advance of the great army compelled the Egyptian cavalry to
mount their horses and trot off to some safer point of view.
Colonel Broadwood conceived his direct line of retreat to camp threatened,
and shortly after one o'clock he began a regular retirement.
Eight squadrons of Egyptian cavalry and the Horse Artillery moved
off first. Five companies of the Camel Corps, a Maxim gun section, and the
ninth squadron of cavalry followed as a rear-guard under Major Tudway.
The Dervish horsemen contented themselves with firing occasional shots,
which were replied to by the Camel Corps with volleys whenever the ground
was suited to dismounted action. From time to time one of the more daring
Arabs would gallop after the retreating squadrons, but a shot from a
carbine or a threatened advance always brought the adventurous horseman
to a halt. The retirement was continued without serious interference,
and the boggy ground of the Khor Shambat was recrossed in safety.
As soon as the Egyptian squadrons--a darker mass under the dark hills
to the westward--were seen to be in retirement, the 21st Lancers were
withdrawn slowly along the sandy ridge towards the rocks of Surgham--
the position whence we had first seen the Dervish army. The regiment
wheeled about and fell back by alternate wings, dropping two detached
troops to the rear and flanks to make the enemy's patrols keep their
distance. But when the Arab horsemen saw all the cavalry retiring they
became very bold, and numerous small groups of fives and sixes began to
draw nearer at a trot. Accordingly, whenever the ground was favourable,
the squadrons halted in turn for a few minutes to fire on them. In this
way perhaps half-a-dozen were killed or wounded. The others, however,
paid little attention to the bullets, and continued to pry curiously,
until at last it was thought necessary to send a troop to drive them away.
The score of Lancers galloped back towards the inquisitive patrols in the
most earnest fashion. The Dervishes, although more numerous, were
scattered about in small parties, and, being unable to collect,
they declined the combat. The great army, however, still advanced
majestically, pressing the cavalry back before it; and it was evident
that if the Khalifa's movement continued, in spite of it being nearly
one o'clock, there would be a collision between the main forces
before the night.
From the summit of the black hill of Surgham the scene was extraordinary.
The great army of Dervishes was dwarfed by the size of the landscape to
mere dark smears and smudges on the brown of the plain. Looking east,
another army was now visible--the British and Egyptian army. All six
brigades had passed the Kerreri Hills, and now stood drawn up
in a crescent, with their backs to the Nile. The transport and the houses
of the village of Egeiga filled the enclosed space. Neither force could see
the other, though but five miles divided them. The array of the enemy was,
without doubt, both longer and deeper. Yet there seemed a superior strength
in the solid battalions, whose lines were so straight that they might
have been drawn with a ruler.
The camp presented an animated appearance. The troops had piled arms
after the march, and had already built a slender hedge of thorn-bushes
around them. Now they were eating their dinners, and in high expectation
of a fight. The whole army had been ordered to stand to arms at two o'clock
in formation to resist the attack which it seemed the Dervishes were about
to deliver. But at a quarter to two the Dervish army halted. Their drill
was excellent, and they all stopped as by a single command. Then suddenly
their riflemen discharged their rifles in the air with a great roar--
a barbaric feu de joie. The smoke sprang up along the whole front of their
array, running from one end to the other. After this they lay down on the
ground, and it became certain that the matter would not be settled
that day. We remained in our position among the sandhills of the ridge
until the approach of darkness, and during the afternoon various petty
encounters took place between our patrols and those of the enemy, resulting
in a loss to them of about a dozen killed and wounded, and to us of one
corporal wounded and one horse killed. Then, as the light failed,
we returned to the river to water and encamp, passing into the zeriba
through the ranks of the British division, where officers and men,
looking out steadfastly over the fading plain, asked us whether the enemy
were coming--and, if so, when. And it was with confidence and satisfaction
that we replied, and they heard, 'Probably at daylight.'
When the gunboats had completed their bombardment, had sunk a Dervish
steamer, had silenced all the hostile batteries, and had sorely battered
the Mahdi's Tomb, they returned leisurely to the camp, and lay moored close
to the bank to lend the assistance of their guns in case of attack. As the
darkness became complete they threw their powerful searchlights over the
front of the zeriba and on to the distant hills. The wheeling beams of
dazzling light swept across the desolate, yet not deserted, plain.
The Dervish army lay for the night along the eastern slope of the Shambat
depression. All the 50,000 faithful warriors rested in their companies near
the flags of their Emirs. The Khalifa slept in rear of the centre of
his host, surrounded by his generals. Suddenly the whole scene was lit
by a pale glare. Abdullah and the chiefs sprang up. Everything around them
was bathed in an awful white illumination. Far away by the river there
gleamed a brilliant circle of light--the cold, pitiless eye of a demon.
The Khalifa put his hand on Osman Azrak's shoulder--Osman, who was to lead
the frontal attack at dawn--and whispered, 'What is this strange thing?'
'Sire,' replied Osman, 'they are looking at us.' Thereat a great fear
filled all their minds. The Khalifa had a small tent, which showed
conspicuously in the searchlight. He had it hurriedly pulled down. Some of
the Emirs covered their faces, lest the baleful rays should blind them.
All feared that some terrible projectile would follow in the path of
the light. And then suddenly it passed on--for the sapper who worked the
lens could see nothing at that distance but the brown plain--and swept
along the ranks of the sleeping army, rousing up the startled warriors,
as a wind sweeps over a field of standing corn.
The Anglo-Egyptian army had not formed a quadrilateral camp, as on
other nights, but had lain down to rest in the formation for attack they
had assumed in the afternoon. Every fifty yards behind the thorn-bushes
were double sentries. Every hundred yards a patrol with an officer was
to be met. Fifty yards in rear of this line lay the battalions, the men in
all their ranks, armed and accoutred, but sprawled into every conceivable
attitude which utter weariness could suggest or dictate. The enemy,
twice as strong as the Expeditionary Force, were within five miles.
They had advanced that day with confidence and determination. But it
seemed impossible to believe that they would attack by daylight across the
open ground. Two explanations of their advance and halt presented
themselves. Either they had offered battle in a position where they could
not themselves be attacked until four o'clock in the afternoon, and hoped
that the Sirdar's army, even though victorious, would have to fight a
rear-guard action in the darkness to the river; or they intended to make
a night attack. It was not likely that an experienced commander would
accept battle at so late an hour in the day. If the Dervishes were anxious
to attack, so much the worse for them. But the army would remain strictly
on the defensive--at any rate, until there was plenty of daylight.
The alternative remained--a night attack.
Here lay the great peril which threatened the expedition.
What was to be done with the troops during the hours of darkness? In the
daytime they recked little of their enemy. But at night, when 400 yards
was the extreme range at which their fire could be opened, it was a matter
of grave doubt whether the front could be kept and the attack repelled.
The consequences of the line being penetrated in the darkness were
appalling to think of. The sudden appearance of crowds of figures swarming
to the attack through the gloom; the wild outburst of musketry and
artillery all along the zeriba; the crowds still coming on in spite of the
bullets; the fire getting uncontrolled, and then a great bunching and
crumpling of some part of the front, and mad confusion, in which a
multitude of fierce swordsmen would surge through the gap, cutting and
slashing at every living thing; in which transport animals would stampede
and rush wildly in all directions, upsetting every formation and destroying
all attempts to restore order; in which regiments and brigades would shift
for themselves and fire savagely on all sides, slaying alike friend
and foe; and out of which only a few thousand, perhaps only a few hundred,
demoralised men would escape in barges and steamers to tell the tale
of ruin and defeat.
The picture--true or false--flamed before the eyes of all the leaders
that night; but, whatever their thoughts may have been, their tactics were
bold. Whatever advice was given, whatever opinions were expressed, the
responsibility was Sir Herbert Kitchener's. Upon his shoulders lay the
burden, and the decision that was taken must be attributed solely to him.
He might have formed the army into a solid mass of men and animals,
arranged the infantry four deep all round the perimeter, and dug as big a
ditch or built as high a zeriba as time allowed. He might have filled the
numerous houses with the infantry, making them join the buildings with
hasty entrenchments, and so enclose a little space in which to squeeze
cavalry, transport, and guns. Instead he formed his army in a long thin
curve, resting on the river and enclosing a wide area of ground, about
which baggage and animals were scattered in open order and luxurious
accommodation. His line was but two deep; and only two companies per
battalion and one Egyptian brigade (Collinson's) were in reserve. He thus
obtained the greatest possible development of fire, and waited, prepared
if necessary to stake everything on the arms of precision, but hoping
with fervour that he would not be compelled to gamble by night.
The night was, however, undisturbed; and the moonlit camp,
with its anxious generals, its weary soldiers, its fearful machinery of
destruction, all strewn along the bank of the great river, remained plunged
in silence, as if brooding over the chances of the morrow and the failures
of the past. And hardly four miles away another army--twice as numerous,
equally confident, equally brave--were waiting impatiently for the morning
and the final settlement of the long quarrel.
CHAPTER XV: THE BATTLE OF OMDURMAN
SEPTEMBER 2, 1898
The bugles all over the camp by the river began to sound at half-past four.
The cavalry trumpets and the drums and fifes of the British division joined
the chorus, and everyone awoke amid a confusion of merry or defiant notes.
Then it grew gradually lighter, and the cavalry mounted their horses,
the infantry stood to their arms, and the gunners went to their batteries;
while the sun, rising over the Nile, revealed the wide plain, the dark
rocky hills, and the waiting army. It was as if all the preliminaries were
settled, the ground cleared, and nothing remained but the final act and
'the rigour of the game.'
Even before it became light several squadrons of British and Egyptian
cavalry were pushed swiftly forward to gain contact with the enemy and
learn his intentions. The first of these, under Captain Baring, occupied
Surgham Hill, and waited in the gloom until the whereabouts of the
Dervishes should be disclosed by the dawn. It was a perilous undertaking,
for he might have found them unexpectedly near. As the sun rose, the 21st
Lancers trotted out of the zeriba and threw out a spray of officers'
patrols. As there had been no night attack, it was expected that the
Dervish army would have retired to their original position or entered
the town. It was hardly conceivable that they would advance across the open
ground to attack the zeriba by daylight. Indeed, it appeared more probable
that their hearts had failed them in the night, and that they had melted
away into the desert. But these anticipations were immediately dispelled
by the scene which was visible from the crest of the ridge.
It was a quarter to six. The light was dim, but growing stronger
every minute. There in the plain lay the enemy, their numbers unaltered,
their confidence and intentions apparently unshaken. Their front was now
nearly five miles long, and composed of great masses of men joined together
by thinner lines. Behind and near to the flanks were large reserves.
From the ridge they looked dark blurs and streaks, relieved and diversified
with an odd-looking shimmer of light from the spear-points. At about
ten minutes to six it was evident that the masses were in motion and
advancing swiftly. Their Emirs galloped about and before their ranks.
Scouts and patrols scattered themselves all over the front. Then they began
to cheer. They were still a mile away from the hill, and were concealed
from the Sirdar's army by the folds of the ground. The noise of the
shouting was heard, albeit faintly, by the troops down by the river.
But to those watching on the hill a tremendous roar came up in waves
of intense sound, like the tumult of the rising wind and sea
before a storm.
The British and Egyptian forces were arranged in line, with their
back to the river. The flanks were secured by the gunboats lying moored
in the stream. Before them was the rolling sandy plain, looking from the
slight elevation of the ridge smooth and flat as a table. To the right rose
the rocky hills of the Kerreri position, near which the Egyptian cavalry
were drawn up--a dark solid mass of men and horses. On the left the
21st Lancers, with a single squadron thrown out in advance, were halted
watching their patrols, who climbed about Surgham Hill, stretched forward
beyond it, or perched, as we did, on the ridge.
The ground sloped gently up from the river; so that it seemed
as if the landward ends of the Surgham and Kerreri ridges curved in towards
each other, enclosing what lay between. Beyond the long swell of sand which
formed the western wall of this spacious amphitheatre the black shapes of
the distant hills rose in misty confusion. The challengers were already
in the arena; their antagonists swiftly approached.
Although the Dervishes were steadily advancing, a belief that
their musketry was inferior encouraged a nearer view, and we trotted round
the south-west slopes of Surgham Hill until we reached the sandhills on the
enemy's side, among which the regiment had waited the day before.
Thence the whole array was visible in minute detail. It seemed that every
single man of all the thousands could be examined separately. The pace of
their march was fast and steady, and it was evident that it would not be
safe to wait long among the sandhills. Yet the wonder of the scene
exercised a dangerous fascination, and for a while we tarried.
The emblems of the more famous Emirs were easily distinguishable.
On the extreme left the chiefs and soldiers of the bright green flag
gathered under Ali-Wad-Helu; between this and the centre the large
dark green flag of Osman Sheikh-ed-Din rose above a dense mass of spearmen,
preceded by long lines of warriors armed presumably with rifles; over the
centre, commanded by Yakub, the sacred Black banner of the Khalifa floated
high and remarkable; while on the right a great square of Dervishes was
arrayed under an extraordinary number of white flags, amid which the red
ensign of Sherif was almost hidden. All the pride and might of the Dervish
Empire were massed on this last great day of its existence. Riflemen who
had helped to destroy Hicks, spearmen who had charged at Abu Klea,
Emirs who saw the sack of Gondar, Baggara fresh from raiding the Shillooks,
warriors who had besieged Khartoum--all marched, inspired by the memories
of former triumphs and embittered by the knowledge of late defeats,
to chastise the impudent and accursed invaders.
The advance continued. The Dervish left began to stretch out
across the plain towards Kerreri--as I thought, to turn our right flank.
Their centre, under the Black Flag, moved directly towards Surgham.
The right pursued a line of advance south of that hill. This mass of men
were the most striking of all. They could not have mustered fewer
than 6,000. Their array was perfect. They displayed a great number
of flags--perhaps 500--which looked at the distance white, though they
were really covered with texts from the Koran, and which by their
admirable alignment made this division of the Khalifa's army look like
the old representations of the Crusaders in the Bayeux tapestry.
The attack developed. The left, nearly 20,000 strong, toiled across
the plain and approached the Egyptian squadrons. The leading masses of
the centre deployed facing the zeriba and marched forthwith to the direct
assault. As the whole Dervish army continued to advance, the division
with the white flags, which had until now been echeloned in rear of
their right, moved up into the general line and began to climb the
southern slopes of Surgham Hill. Meanwhile yet another body of the enemy,
comparatively insignificant in numbers, who had been drawn up behind the
'White Flags,' were moving slowly towards the Nile, echeloned still further
behind their right, and not far from the suburbs of Omdurman. These men
had evidently been posted to prevent the Dervish army being cut off from
the city and to secure their line of retreat; and with them
the 21st Lancers were destined to have a much closer acquaintance
about two hours later.
The Dervish centre had come within range. But it was not
the British and Egyptian army that began the battle. If there was one arm
in which the Arabs were beyond all comparison inferior to their adversaries,
it was in guns. Yet it was with this arm that they opened their attack.
In the middle of the Dervish line now marching in frontal assault were
two puffs of smoke. About fifty yards short of the thorn fence two
red clouds of sand and dust sprang up, where the projectiles had struck.
It looked like a challenge. It was immediately answered. Great clouds
of smoke appeared all along the front of the British and Soudanese brigades.
One after another four batteries opened on the enemy at a range of about
3,000 yards. The sound of the cannonade rolled up to us on the ridge,
and was re-echoed by the hills. Above the heads of the moving masses
shells began to burst, dotting the air with smoke-balls and the ground
with bodies. But a nearer tragedy impended. The 'White Flags' were nearly
over the crest. In another minute they would become visible to the
batteries. Did they realise what would come to meet them? They were in
a dense mass, 2,800 yards from the 32nd Field Battery and the gunboats.
The ranges were known. It was a matter of machinery. The more distant
slaughter passed unnoticed, as the mind was fascinated by the approaching
horror. In a few seconds swift destruction would rush on these brave men.
They topped the crest and drew out into full view of the whole army.
Their white banners made them conspicuous above all. As they saw the camp
of their enemies, they discharged their rifles with a great roar of
musketry and quickened their pace. For a moment the white flags advanced
in regular order, and the whole division crossed the crest and were exposed.
Forthwith the gunboats, the 32nd British Field Battery, and other guns
from the zeriba opened on them. About twenty shells struck them
in the first minute. Some burst high in the air, others exactly in their
faces. Others, again, plunged into the sand and, exploding, dashed clouds
of red dust, splinters, and bullets amid their ranks. The white banners
toppled over in all directions. Yet they rose again immediately, as other
men pressed forward to die for the Mahdi's sacred cause and in the
defence of the successor of the True Prophet. It was a terrible sight,
for as yet they had not hurt us at all, and it seemed an unfair advantage
to strike thus cruelly when they could not reply. Under the influence
of the shells the mass of the 'White Flags' dissolved into thin lines of
spearmen and skirmishers, and came on in altered formation and diminished
numbers, but with unabated enthusiasm. And now, the whole attack being
thoroughly exposed, it became the duty of the cavalry to clear the front
as quickly as possible, and leave the further conduct of the debate
to the infantry and the Maxim guns. All the patrols trotted or cantered
back to their squadrons, and the regiment retired swiftly into the zeriba,
while the shells from the gunboats screamed overhead and the whole length
of the position began to burst into flame and smoke. Nor was it long
before the tremendous banging of the artillery was swollen
by the roar of musketry.
Taking advantage of the shelter of the river-bank, the cavalry dismounted;
we watered our horses, waited, and wondered what was happening. And every
moment the tumult grew louder and more intense, until even the flickering
stutter of the Maxims could scarcely be heard above the continuous din.
Eighty yards away, and perhaps twenty feet above us, the 32nd Field Battery
was in action. The nimble figures of the gunners darted about as they
busied themselves in their complicated process of destruction. The officers,
some standing on biscuit-boxes, peered through their glasses and studied
the effect. Of this I had one glimpse. Eight hundred yards away a ragged
line of men were coming on desperately, struggling forward in the face
of the pitiless fire--white banners tossing and collapsing; white figures
subsiding in dozens to the ground; little white puffs from their rifles,
larger white puffs spreading in a row all along their front from the
The infantry fired steadily and stolidly, without hurry or excitement,
for the enemy were far away and the officers careful. Besides, the soldiers
were interested in the work and took great pains. But presently the mere
physical act became tedious. The tiny figures seen over the slide of the
backsight seemed a little larger, but also fewer at each successive volley.
The rifles grew hot--so hot that they had to be changed for those of the
reserve companies. The Maxim guns exhausted all the water in their jackets,
and several had to be refreshed from the water-bottles of the Cameron
Highlanders before they could go on with their deadly work. The empty
cartridge-cases, tinkling to the ground, formed a small but growing heap
beside each man. And all the time out on the plain on the other side
bullets were shearing through flesh, smashing and splintering bone;
blood spouted from terrible wounds; valiant men were struggling on through
a hell of whistling metal, exploding shells, and spurting dust--suffering,
despairing, dying. Such was the first phase of the battle of Omdurman.
The Khalifa's plan of attack appears to have been complex and ingenious.
It was, however, based on an extraordinary miscalculation of the power of
modern weapons; with the exception of this cardinal error, it is not
necessary to criticise it. He first ordered about 15,000 men, drawn chiefly
from the army of Osman Sheikh-ed-Din and placed under the command of Osman
Azrak, to deliver a frontal attack. He himself waited with an equal force
near Surgham Hill to watch the result. If it succeeded, he would move
forward with his bodyguard, the flower of the Arab army, and complete the
victory. If it failed, there was yet another chance. The Dervishes who were
first launched against the zeriba, although very brave men, were not by any
means his best or most reliable troops. Their destruction might be a
heavy loss, but it would not end the struggle. While the attack was
proceeding, the valiant left, consisting of the rest of the army of Osman
Sheikh-ed-Din, might move unnoticed to the northern flank and curve round
on to the front of the zeriba held by the Egyptian brigade. Ali-Wad-Helu
was meanwhile to march to the Kerreri Hills, and remain out of range and,
if possible, out of sight among them. Should the frontal and flank attacks
be unhappily repulsed, the 'enemies of God,' exulting in their easy victory
over the faithful, would leave their strong place and march to the capture
and sack of the city. Then, while they were yet dispersed on the plain,
with no zeriba to protect them, the chosen warriors of the True Religion
would abandon all concealment, and hasten in their thousands to the utter
destruction of the accursed--the Khalifa with 15,000 falling upon them from
behind Surgham; Ali-Wad-Helu and all that remained of Osman's army
assailing them from Kerreri. Attacked at once from the north and south,
and encompassed on every side, the infidels would abandon hope and order,
and Kitchener might share the fate of Hicks and Gordon. Two circumstances,
which will appear as the account proceeds, prevented the accomplishment of
this plan. The second attack was not executed simultaneously by the two
divisions of the Dervish army; and even had it been, the power of the
musketry would have triumphed, and though the Expeditionary Force might
have sustained heavier losses the main result could not have been affected.
The last hopes of barbarism had passed with the shades of night.
Colonel Broadwood, with nine squadrons of cavalry, the Camel Corps,
and the Horse Artillery, had been ordered to check the Dervish left,
and prevent it enveloping the downstream flank of the zeriba, as this was
held by the Egyptian brigade, which it was not thought desirable to expose
to the full weight of an attack. With this object, as the Dervishes
approached, he had occupied the Kerreri ridge with the Horse battery and
the Camel Corps, holding his cavalry in reserve in rear of the centre.
The Kerreri ridge, to which reference has so frequently been made,
consists of two main features, which rise to the height of about 300 feet
above the plain, are each above a mile long, and run nearly east and west,
with a dip or trough about 1,000 yards wide between them. The eastern ends
of these main ridges are perhaps 1,000 yards from the river, and in this
intervening space there are several rocky under-features and knolls.
The Kerreri Hills, the spaces between them, and the smaller features
are covered with rough boulders and angular stones of volcanic origin,
which render the movements of horses and camels difficult and painful.
The cavalry horses and camels were in the dip between the two ridges;
and the dismounted men of the Camel Corps were deployed along the crest of
the most southerly of the ridges, with their right at the desert end.
Next in order to the Camel Corps, the centre of the ridge was occupied by
the dismounted cavalry. The Horse Artillery were on the left.
The remainder of the cavalry waited in the hollow behind the guns.
The tempestuous advance of Osman soon brought him into contact with
the mounted force. His real intentions are still a matter of conjecture.
Whether he had been ordered to attack the Egyptian brigade, or to drive
back the cavalry, or to disappear behind the Kerreri Hills in conformity
with Ali-Wad-Helu, is impossible to pronounce. His action was, however,
clear. He could not safely assail the Egyptians with a powerful cavalry
force threatening his left rear. He therefore continued his move across the
front of the zeriba. Keeping out of the range of infantry fire, bringing up
his right, and marching along due north, he fell upon Broadwood.
This officer, who had expected to have to deal with small bodies on the
Dervish flank, found himself suddenly exposed to the attack of nearly
15,000 men, many of whom were riflemen. The Sirdar, seeing the situation
from the zeriba, sent him an order to withdraw within the lines of
infantry. Colonel Broadwood, however, preferred to retire through
the Kerreri Hills to the northward, drawing Osman after him.
He replied to that effect.
The first position had soon to be abandoned. The Dervishes,
advancing in a north-easterly direction, attacked the Kerreri Hills
obliquely. They immediately enveloped the right flank of the mounted troops
holding them. It will be seen from the map that as soon as the Dervish
riflemen gained a point west and in prolongation of the trough between the
two ridges, they not only turned the right flank, but also threatened the
retreat of the defenders of the southerly ridge; for they were able to
sweep the trough from end to end with their fire. As soon as it became
certain that the southerly ridge could not be held any longer, Colonel
Broadwood retired the battery to the east end of the second or northern
ridge. This was scarcely accomplished when the dip was enfiladed, and the
cavalry and Camel Corps who followed lost about fifty men and many horses
and camels killed and wounded. The Camel Corps were the most unfortunate.
They were soon encumbered with wounded, and it was now painfully evident
that in rocky ground the Dervishes could go faster on their feet than the
soldiers on their camels. Pressing on impetuously at a pace of nearly seven
miles an hour, and unchecked by a heavy artillery fire from the zeriba
and a less effective fire from the Horse battery, which was only armed with
7-pounder Krupps of an obsolete pattern, the Arabs rapidly diminished the
distance between themselves and their enemies. In these circumstances
Colonel Broadwood decided to send the Camel Corps back to the zeriba under
cover of a gunboat, which, watchfully observing the progress of the fight,
was coming down stream to assist. The distance which divided the combatants
was scarcely 400 yards and decreasing every minute. The cavalry were
drawn up across the eastern or river end of the trough. The guns of the
Horse battery fired steadily from their new position on the northern ridge.
But the Camel Corps were still struggling in the broken ground, and it was
clear that their position was one of great peril. The Dervishes already
carpeted the rocks of the southern ridge with dull yellow swarms, and,
heedless of the shells which still assailed them in reverse from the zeriba,
continued to push their attack home. On the very instant that they saw the
Camel Corps make for the river they realised that those they had deemed
their prey were trying, like a hunted animal, to run to ground within the
lines of infantry. With that instinctive knowledge of war which is the
heritage of savage peoples, the whole attack swung to the right, changed
direction from north to east, and rushed down the trough and along the
southern ridge towards the Nile, with the plain intention of cutting off
the Camel Corps and driving them into the river.
The moment was critical. It appeared to the cavalry commander that
the Dervishes would actually succeed, and their success must involve the
total destruction of the Camel Corps. That could not, of course,
be tolerated. The whole nine squadrons of cavalry assumed a preparatory
formation. The British officers believed that a terrible charge impended.
They would meet in direct collision the swarms of men who were hurrying
down the trough. The diversion might enable the Camel Corps to escape.
But the ground was bad; the enemy's force was overwhelming; the Egyptian
troopers were prepared to obey--but that was all. There was no exalted
enthusiasm such as at these moments carries sterner breeds to victory.
Few would return. Nevertheless, the operation appeared inevitable.
The Camel Corps were already close to the river. But thousands of
Dervishes were running swiftly towards them at right angles to their line
of retreat, and it was certain that if the camelry attempted to cross
this new front of the enemy they would be annihilated. Their only hope
lay in maintaining themselves by their fire near the river-bank until help
could reach them, and, in order to delay and weaken the Dervish attack
the cavalry would have to make a desperate charge.
But at the critical moment the gunboat arrived on the scene and began
suddenly to blaze and flame from Maxim guns, quick-firing guns, and rifles.
The range was short; the effect tremendous. The terrible machine, floating
gracefully on the waters--a beautiful white devil--wreathed itself in smoke.
The river slopes of the Kerreri Hills, crowded with the advancing thousands,
sprang up into clouds of dust and splinters of rock. The charging Dervishes
sank down in tangled heaps. The masses in rear paused, irresolute. It was
too hot even for them. The approach of another gunboat completed their
discomfiture. The Camel Corps, hurrying along the shore, slipped past the
fatal point of interception, and saw safety and the zeriba before them.
Exasperated by their disappointment, the soldiers of Osman Sheikh-ed-Din
turned again upon the cavalry, and, forgetting in their anger the mobile
nature of their foe, pursued the elusive squadrons three long miles to the
north. The cavalry, intensely relieved by the escape of the Camel Corps,
played with their powerful antagonist, as the banderillo teases the bull.
Colonel Broadwood thus succeeded in luring this division of the Dervish
army far away from the field of battle, where they were sorely needed.
The rough ground, however, delayed the Horse battery. They lagged, as the
Camel Corps had done, and caused constant anxiety. At length two of their
guns stuck fast in a marshy spot, and as several men and horses were shot
in the attempt to extricate them Broadwood wisely ordered them to be
abandoned, and they were soon engulfed in the Dervish masses. Encouraged
by this capture, the horsemen of Osman's command daringly attacked the
retreating cavalry. But they were effectually checked by the charge
of a squadron under Major Mahon.
Both gunboats, having watched the Camel Corps safely into the zeriba,
now returned with the current and renewed their attack upon the Arabs.
Opening a heavy and accurate fire upon the river flank, they drove them
westward and away from the Nile. Through the gap thus opened Broadwood and
his squadrons trotted to rejoin the main body, picking up on the way
the two guns which had been abandoned.
While these things were passing on the northern flank, the frontal attack
was in progress. The debris of the 'White Flags' joined the centre, and the
whole 14,000 pressed forward against the zeriba, spreading out by degrees
and abandoning their dense formations, and gradually slowing down. At about
800 yards from the British division the advance ceased, and they could make
no headway. Opposite the Soudanese, who were armed only with the
Martini-Henry rifle, the assailants came within 300 yards; and one brave
old man, carrying a flag, fell at 150 paces from the shelter trench.
But the result was conclusive all along the line. The attack was shattered.
The leader, clad in his new jibba of many colours, rode on steadfastly
towards the inexorable firing line, until, pierced by several bullets,
he fell lifeless. Such was the end of that stubborn warrior of many
fights--wicked Osman Azrak, faithful unto death. The surviving Dervishes
lay down on the ground. Unable to advance, they were unwilling to retire;
and their riflemen, taking advantage of the folds of the plain, opened and
maintained an unequal combat. By eight o'clock it was evident that the
whole attack had failed. The loss of the enemy was more than 2,000 killed,
and perhaps as many wounded. To the infantry, who were busy with their
rifles, it had scarcely seemed a fight. Yet all along the front bullets had
whizzed over and into the ranks, and in every battalion there were
casualties. Captain Caldecott, of the Warwicks, was killed; the Camerons
had two officers, Captain Clarke and Lieutenant Nicholson, severely wounded;
the Grenadiers one, Captain Bagot. Colonel F. Rhodes, as he sat on his
horse near the Maxim battery of the 1st British Brigade, was shot through
the shoulder and carried from the field just as the attack reached
its climax. There were, besides these officers, about 150 casualties
among the soldiers.
The attack languished. The enemy's rifle fire continued, and as soon as
the heavy firing ceased it began to be annoying. The ground, although it
appeared flat and level to the eye, nevertheless contained depressions and
swellings which afforded good cover to the sharpshooters, and the solid
line behind the zeriba was an easy target. The artillery now began to
clear out these depressions by their shells, and in this work they
displayed a searching power very remarkable when their flat trajectory
is remembered. As the shells burst accurately above the Dervish skirmishers
and spearmen who were taking refuge in the folds of the plain, they rose by
hundreds and by fifties to fly. Instantly the hungry and attentive Maxims
and the watchful infantry opened on them, sweeping them all to the ground--
some in death, others in terror. Again the shells followed them to their
new concealment. Again they rose, fewer than before, and ran. Again the
Maxims and the rifles spluttered. Again they fell. And so on until the
front of the zeriba was clear of unwounded men for at least half a mile.
A few escaped. Some, notwithstanding the vices of which they have been
accused and the perils with which they were encompassed, gloriously
carried off their injured comrades.
After the attack had been broken, and while the front of the zeriba
was being cleared of the Dervish riflemen, the 21st Lancers were again
called upon to act. The Sirdar and his generals were all agreed on
one point. They must occupy Omdurman before the Dervish army could get
back there. They could fight as many Dervishes as cared to come in the
plain; among the houses it was different. As the Khalifa had anticipated,
the infidels, exulting in their victory, were eager, though for a different
reason, to seize the city. And this they were now in a position to do.
The Arabs were out in the desert. A great part of their army was even
as far away as Kerreri. The troops could move on interior lines. They were
bound to reach Omdurman first. The order was therefore given to march on
the city at once. But first the Surgham ridge must be reconnoitred, and the
ground between the zeriba and Omdurman cleared of the Dervishes--
with infantry if necessary, but with cavalry if possible,
because that would be quicker.
As the fusillade slackened, the Lancers stood to their horses.
Then General Gatacre, with Captain Brooke and the rest of his Staff,
came galloping along the rear of the line of infantry and guns, and shouted
for Colonel Martin. There was a brief conversation--an outstretched arm
pointing at the ridge--an order, and we were all scrambling into our
saddles and straightening the ranks in high expectation. We started at
a trot, two or three patrols galloping out in front, towards the high
ground, while the regiment followed in mass--a great square block of
ungainly brown figures and little horses, hung all over with water-bottles,
saddle-bags, picketing-gear, tins of bully-beef, all jolting and jangling
together; the polish of peace gone; soldiers without glitter; horsemen
without grace; but still a regiment of light cavalry in active operation
against the enemy.
The crest of the ridge was only half a mile away. It was found unoccupied.
The rocky mass of Surgham obstructed the view and concealed the great
reserve collected around the Black Flag. But southward, between us and
Omdurman, the whole plain was exposed. It was infested with small parties
of Dervishes, moving about, mounted and on foot, in tens and twenties.
Three miles away a broad stream of fugitives, of wounded, and of deserters
flowed from the Khalifa's army to the city. The mirages blurred and
distorted the picture, so that some of the routed Arabs walked in air
and some through water, and all were misty and unreal. But the sight was
sufficient to excite the fiercest instincts of cavalry. Only the scattered
parties in the plain appeared to prevent a glorious pursuit. The signalling
officer was set to heliograph back to the Sirdar that the ridge was
unoccupied and that several thousand Dervishes could be seen flying into
Omdurman. Pending the answer, we waited; and looking back northwards,
across the front of the zeriba, where the first attack had been stopped,
perceived a greyish-white smudge, perhaps a mile long. The glass disclosed
details--hundreds of tiny white figures heaped or scattered; dozens hopping,
crawling, staggering away; a few horses standing stolidly among the corpses;
a few unwounded men dragging off their comrades. The skirmishers among the
rocks of Surgham soon began to fire at the regiment, and we sheltered among
the mounds of sand, while a couple of troops replied with their carbines.
Then the heliograph in the zeriba began to talk in flashes of light that
opened and shut capriciously. The actual order is important. 'Advance,'
said the helio, 'and clear the left flank, and use every effort to prevent
the enemy re-entering Omdurman.' That was all, but it was sufficient.
In the distance the enemy could be seen re-entering Omdurman in hundreds.
There was no room for doubt. They must be stopped, and incidentally these
small parties in the plain might be brushed away. We remounted; the ground
looked smooth and unbroken; yet it was desirable to reconnoitre.
Two patrols were sent out. The small parties of Dervishes who were
scattered all over the plain and the slopes of the hill prevented anything
less than a squadron moving, except at their peril. The first patrol
struck out towards Omdurman, and began to push in between the scattered
Dervishes, who fired their rifles and showed great excitement. The other
patrol, under Lieutenant Grenfell, were sent to see what the ground looked
like from further along the ridge and on the lower slopes of Surgham.
The riflemen among the rocks turned their fire from the regiment to these
nearer objects. The five brown figures cantered over the rough ground,
presenting difficult targets, but under continual fire, and disappeared
round the spur. However, in two or three minutes they re-appeared,
the riflemen on the hill making a regular rattle of musketry, amid which
the Lancers galloped safely back, followed last of all by their officer.
He said that the plain looked as safe from the other side of the hill as
from where we were. At this moment the other patrol returned. They, too,
had had good fortune in their adventurous ride. Their information was exact.
They reported that in a shallow and apparently practicable khor about
three-quarters of a mile to the south-west, and between the regiment and
the fugitives, there was drawn up a formed body of Dervishes about 1,000
strong. Colonel Martin decided on this information to advance and attack
this force, which alone interposed between him and the Arab line of retreat.
Then we started.
But all this time the enemy had been busy. At the beginning of the battle
the Khalifa had posted a small force of 700 men on his extreme right,
to prevent his line of retreat to Omdurman being harassed. This detachment
was composed entirely of the Hadendoa tribesmen of Osman Digna's flag,
and was commanded by one of his subordinate Emirs, who selected a suitable
position in the shallow khor. As soon as the 21st Lancers left the zeriba
the Dervish scouts on the top of Surgham carried the news to the Khalifa.
It was said that the English cavalry were coming to cut him off from
Omdurman. Abdullah thereupon determined to strengthen his extreme right;
and he immediately ordered four regiments, each 500 strong, drawn from
the force around the Black Flag and under the Emir Ibrahim Khalil,
to reinforce the Hadendoa in the khor. While we were waiting for orders on
the ridge these men were hurrying southwards along the depression,
and concealed by a spur of Surgham Hill. The Lancer patrol reconnoitred the
khor, at the imminent risk of their lives, while it was only occupied by
the original 700 Hadendoa. Galloping back, they reported that it was held
by about 1,000 men. Before they reached the regiment this number was
increased to 2,700. This, however, we had no means of knowing. The Khalifa,
having despatched his reinforcement, rode on his donkey with a scanty
escort nearly half a mile from the Black Flag towards the khor, in order to
watch the event, and in consequence he was within 500 yards of the scene.
As the 21st Lancers left the ridge, the fire of the Arab riflemen
on the hill ceased. We advanced at a walk in mass for about 300 yards.
The scattered parties of Dervishes fell back and melted away, and only one
straggling line of men in dark blue waited motionless a quarter of a mile
to the left front. They were scarcely a hundred strong. The regiment formed
into line of squadron columns, and continued at a walk until within 300
yards of this small body of Dervishes. The firing behind the ridges had
stopped. There was complete silence, intensified by the recent tumult.
Far beyond the thin blue row of Dervishes the fugitives were visible
streaming into Omdurman. And should these few devoted men impede a regiment?
Yet it were wiser to examine their position from the other flank before
slipping a squadron at them. The heads of the squadrons wheeled slowly
to the left, and the Lancers, breaking into a trot, began to cross the
Dervish front in column of troops. Thereupon and with one accord the
blue-clad men dropped on their knees, and there burst out a loud, crackling
fire of musketry. It was hardly possible to miss such a target at such
a range. Horses and men fell at once. The only course was plain and welcome
to all. The Colonel, nearer than his regiment, already saw what lay behind
the skirmishers. He ordered, 'Right wheel into line' to be sounded.
The trumpet jerked out a shrill note, heard faintly above the trampling of
the horses and the noise of the rifles. On the instant all the sixteen
troops swung round and locked up into a long galloping line, and the
21st Lancers were committed to their first charge in war.
Two hundred and fifty yards away the dark-blue men were firing madly
in a thin film of light-blue smoke. Their bullets struck the hard gravel
into the air, and the troopers, to shield their faces from the stinging
dust, bowed their helmets forward, like the Cuirassiers at Waterloo.
The pace was fast and the distance short. Yet, before it was half covered,
the whole aspect of the affair changed. A deep crease in the ground--a dry
watercourse, a khor--appeared where all had seemed smooth, level plain;
and from it there sprang, with the suddenness of a pantomime effect
and a high-pitched yell, a dense white mass of men nearly as long as our
front and about twelve deep. A score of horsemen and a dozen bright flags
rose as if by magic from the earth. Eager warriors sprang forward
to anticipate the shock. The rest stood firm to meet it. The Lancers
acknowledged the apparition only by an increase of pace. Each man wanted
sufficient momentum to drive through such a solid line. The flank troops,
seeing that they overlapped, curved inwards like the horns of a moon.
But the whole event was a matter of seconds. The riflemen, firing bravely
to the last, were swept head over heels into the khor, and jumping down
with them, at full gallop and in the closest order, the British squadrons
struck the fierce brigade with one loud furious shout. The collision was
prodigious. Nearly thirty Lancers, men and horses, and at least two hundred
Arabs were overthrown. The shock was stunning to both sides, and for
perhaps ten wonderful seconds no man heeded his enemy. Terrified horses
wedged in the crowd, bruised and shaken men, sprawling in heaps, struggled,
dazed and stupid, to their feet, panted, and looked about them. Several
fallen Lancers had even time to re-mount. Meanwhile the impetus of the
cavalry carried them on. As a rider tears through a bullfinch, the officers
forced their way through the press; and as an iron rake might be drawn
through a heap of shingle, so the regiment followed. They shattered the
Dervish array, and, their pace reduced to a walk, scrambled out of the khor
on the further side, leaving a score of troopers behind them, and dragging
on with the charge more than a thousand Arabs. Then, and not till then, the
killing began; and thereafter each man saw the world along his lance,
under his guard, or through the back-sight of his pistol; and each had
his own strange tale to tell.
Stubborn and unshaken infantry hardly ever meet stubborn and unshaken
cavalry. Either the infantry run away and are cut down in flight, or they
keep their heads and destroy nearly all the horsemen by their musketry.
On this occasion two living walls had actually crashed together.
The Dervishes fought manfully. They tried to hamstring the horses,
They fired their rifles, pressing the muzzles into the very bodies of
their opponents. They cut reins and stirrup-leathers. They flung their
throwing-spears with great dexterity. They tried every device of cool,
determined men practised in war and familiar with cavalry; and, besides,
they swung sharp, heavy swords which bit deep. The hand-to-hand fighting
on the further side of the khor lasted for perhaps one minute. Then the
horses got into their stride again, the pace increased, and the Lancers
drew out from among their antagonists. Within two minutes of the collision
every living man was clear of the Dervish mass. All who had fallen were
cut at with swords till they stopped quivering, but no artistic mutilations
Two hundred yards away the regiment halted, rallied, faced about,
and in less than five minutes were re-formed and ready for a second charge.
The men were anxious to cut their way back through their enemies. We were
alone together--the cavalry regiment and the Dervish brigade. The ridge
hung like a curtain between us and the army. The general battle was
forgotten, as it was unseen. This was a private quarrel. The other might
have been a massacre; but here the fight was fair, for we too fought with
sword and spear. Indeed the advantage of ground and numbers lay with them.
All prepared to settle the debate at once and for ever. But some
realisation of the cost of our wild ride began to come to those who were
responsible. Riderless horses galloped across the plain. Men, clinging to
their saddles, lurched helplessly about, covered with blood from perhaps
a dozen wounds. Horses, streaming from tremendous gashes, limped and
staggered with their riders. In 120 seconds five officers, 65 men, and 119
horses out of fewer than 400 had been killed or wounded.
The Dervish line, broken by the charge, began to re-form at once.
They closed up, shook themselves together, and prepared with constancy and
courage for another shock. But on military considerations it was desirable
to turn them out of the khor first and thus deprive them of their vantage
ground. The regiment again drawn up, three squadrons in line and the fourth
in column, now wheeled to the right, and, galloping round the Dervish flank,
dismounted and opened a heavy fire with their magazine carbines. Under the
pressure of this fire the enemy changed front to meet the new attack,
so that both sides were formed at right angles to their original lines.
When the Dervish change of front was completed, they began to advance
against the dismounted men. But the fire was accurate, and there can be
little doubt that the moral effect of the charge had been very great,
and that these brave enemies were no longer unshaken. Be this as it may,
the fact remains that they retreated swiftly, though in good order,
towards the ridge of Surgham Hill, where the Khalifa's Black Flag still
waved, and the 21st Lancers remained in possession of the ground--
and of their dead.
Such is the true and literal account of the charge; but the reader
may care to consider a few incidents. Colonel Martin, busy with the
direction of his regiment, drew neither sword nor revolver, and rode
through the press unarmed and uninjured. Major Crole Wyndham had his horse
shot under him by a Dervish who pressed the muzzle of his rifle into its
hide before firing. From out of the middle of that savage crowd the
officer fought his way on foot and escaped in safety. Lieutenant Molyneux
fell in the khor into the midst of the enemy. In the confusion he
disentangled himself from his horse, drew his revolver, and jumped out
of the hollow before the Dervishes recoved from the impact of the charge.
Then they attacked him. He fired at the nearest, and at the moment of
firing was slashed across the right wrist by another. The pistol fell
from his nerveless hand, and, being wounded, dismounted, and disarmed,
he turned in the hopes of regaining, by following the line of the charge,
his squadron, which was just getting clear. Hard upon his track came
the enemy, eager to make an end. Beset on all sides, and thus hotly
pursued, the wounded officer perceived a single Lancer riding across his
path. He called on him for help. Whereupon the trooper, Private Byrne,
although already severely wounded by a bullet which had penetrated his
right arm, replied without a moment's hesitation and in a cheery voice,
'All right, sir!' and turning, rode at four Dervishes who were about to
kill his officer. His wound, which had partly paralysed his arm,
prevented him from grasping his sword, and at the first ineffectual
blow it fell from his hand, and he received another wound from a spear
in the chest. But his solitary charge had checked the pursuing Dervishes.
Lieutenant Molyneux regained his squadron alive, and the trooper, seeing
that his object was attained, galloped away, reeling in his saddle.
Arrived at his troop, his desperate condition was noticed and he was told
to fall out. But this he refused to do, urging that he was entitled to
remain on duty and have 'another go at them.' At length he was compelled
to leave the field, fainting from loss of blood.
Lieutenant Nesham had an even more extraordinary escape than Molyneux.
He had scrambled out of the khor when, as his horse was nearly stopping,
an Arab seized his bridle. He struck at the man with his sword, but did not
prevent him cutting his off-rein. The officer's bridle-hand, unexpectedly
released, flew out, and, as it did so, a swordsman at a single stroke
nearly severed it from his body. Then they cut at him from all sides.
One blow sheared through his helmet and grazed his head. Another inflicted
a deep wound in his right leg. A third, intercepted by his shoulder-chains,
paralysed his right arm. Two more, missing him narrowly, cut right through
the cantel of the saddle and into the horse's back. The wounded subaltern
--he was the youngest of all--reeled. A man on either side seized his legs
to pull him to the ground; but the long spurs stuck into the horse's flanks,
and the maddened animal, throwing up its head and springing forward,
broke away from the crowd of foes, and carried the rider--bleeding,
fainting, but still alive--to safety among the rallying squadrons.
Lieutenant Nesham's experience was that of the men who were killed,
only that he escaped to describe it.
The wounded were sent with a small escort towards the river and hospitals.
An officer was despatched with the news to the Sirdar, and on the instant
both cannonade and fusillade broke out again behind the ridge, and grew in
a crashing crescendo until the whole landscape seemed to vibrate with
the sound of explosions. The second phase of the battle had begun.
Even before the 21st Lancers had reconnoitred Surgham ridge, the Sirdar
had set his brigades in motion towards Omdurman. He was determined, even at
a very great risk, to occupy the city while it was empty and before the
army in the plain could return to defend it. The advantage might be
tremendous. Nevertheless the movement was premature. The Khalifa still
remained undefeated west of Surgham Hill; Ali-Wad-Helu lurked behind
Kerreri; Osman was rapidly re-forming. There were still at least 35,000 men
on the field. Nor, as the event proved, was it possible to enter Omdurman
until they had been beaten.
As soon as the infantry had replenished their ammunition, they wheeled to
the left in echelon of brigades, and began to march towards Surgham ridge.
The movements of a great force are slow. It was not desirable that the
British division, which led the echelon, should remain in the low ground
north of Surgham--where they were commanded, had no field of fire,
and could see nothing--and accordingly both these brigades moved forward
almost together to occupy the crest of the ridge. Thus two steps of the
ladder were run into one, and Maxwell's brigade, which followed Wauchope's,
was 600 yards further south than it would have been had the regular echelon
been observed. In the zeriba MacDonald had been next to Maxwell. But a very
significant change in the order was now made. General Hunter evidently
conceived the rear of the echelon threatened from the direction of Kerreri.
Had the earth swallowed all the thousands who had moved across the plain
towards the hills? At any rate, he would have his best brigade and his most
experienced general in the post of possible danger. He therefore ordered
Lewis's brigade to follow Maxwell, and left MacDonald last of all,
strengthening him with three batteries of artillery and eight Maxim guns.
Collinson marched with the transport. MacDonald moved out westward into the
desert to take his place in the echelon, and also to allow Lewis to pass
him as ordered. Lewis hurried on after Maxwell, and, taking his distance
from him, was thus also 600 yards further south than the regular echelon
admitted. The step which had been absorbed when both British brigades moved
off--advisedly--together, caused a double gap between MacDonald and the
rest of the army. And this distance was further increased by the fact that
while he was moving west, to assume his place in correct echelon, the other
five brigades were drawing off to the southward. Hence MacDonald's
At 9.15 the whole army was marching south in echelon, with the rear brigade
at rather more than double distance. Collinson had already started with the
transport, but the field hospitals still remained in the deserted zeriba,
busily packing up. The medical staff had about 150 wounded on their hands.
The Sirdar's orders had been that these were to be placed on the hospital
barges, and that the field hospitals were to follow the transport. But the
moving of wounded men is a painful and delicate affair, and by a stupid and
grievous mistake the three regular hospital barges, duly prepared for the
reception of the wounded, had been towed across to the right bank. It was
necessary to use three ammunition barges, which, although in no way
arranged for the reception of wounded, were luckily at hand. Meanwhile time
was passing, and the doctors, who worked with devoted energy, became
suddenly aware that, with the exception of a few detachments from the
British division and three Egyptian companies, there were no troops within
half a mile, and none between them and the dark Kerreri Hills. The two
gunboats which could have guarded them from the river were down stream,
helping the cavalry; MacDonald with the rear brigade was out in the plain;
Collinson was hurrying along the bank with his transport. They were alone
and unprotected. The army and the river together formed a huge "V" pointing
south. The northern extremity--the gorge of the redan, as it were--
gaped open towards Kerreri; and from Kerreri there now began to come, like
the first warning drops before a storm of rain, small straggling parties
of Dervish cavalry. The interior of the "V" was soon actually invaded
by these predatory patrols, and one troop of perhaps a score of Baggara
horse watered their ponies within 300 yards of the unprotected hospitals.
Behind, in the distance, the banners of an army began to re-appear.
The situation was alarming. The wounded were bundled on to the barges,
although, since there was no steamer to tow them, they were scarcely any
safer when embarked. While some of the medical officers were thus busied,
Colonel Sloggett galloped off, and, running the gauntlet of the Baggara
horsemen, hurried to claim protection for the hospitals and their helpless
occupants. In the midst of this excitement and confusion the wounded from
the cavalry charge began to trickle in.
When the British division had moved out of the zeriba, a few skirmishers
among the crags of Surgham Hill alone suggested the presence of an enemy.
Each brigade, formed in four parallel columns of route, which closed in
until they were scarcely forty paces apart, and both at deploying interval
--the second brigade nearer the river, the first almost in line with it
and on its right--hurried on, eager to see what lay beyond the ridge.
All was quiet, except for a few 'sniping' shots from the top of Surgham.
But gradually as Maxwell's brigade--the third in the echelon--approached
the hill, these shots became more numerous, until the summit of the peak
was spotted with smoke-puffs. The British division moved on steadily, and,
leaving these bold skirmishers to the Soudanese, soon reached the crest of
the ridge. At once and for the first time the whole panorama of Omdurman--
the brown and battered dome of the Mahdi's Tomb, the multitude of mud
houses, the glittering fork of water which marked the confluence of the
rivers--burst on their vision. For a moment they stared entranced.
Then their attention was distracted; for trotting, galloping, or halting
and gazing stupidly about them, terrified and bewildered, a dozen riderless
troop-horses appeared over the further crest--for the ridge was flat-topped
--coming from the plain, as yet invisible, below. It was the first news of
the Lancers' charge. Details soon followed in the shape of the wounded,
who in twos and threes began to make their way between the battalions,
all covered with blood and many displaying most terrible injuries--
faces cut to rags, bowels protruding, fishhook spears still stuck in their
bodies--realistic pictures from the darker side of war. Thus absorbed,
the soldiers hardly noticed the growing musketry fire from the peak.
But suddenly the bang of a field-gun set all eyes looking backward.
A battery had unlimbered in the plain between the zeriba and the ridge,
and was beginning to shell the summit of the hill. The report of the guns
seemed to be the signal for the whole battle to reopen. From far away to
the right rear there came the sound of loud and continuous infantry firing,
and immediately Gatacre halted his division.
Almost before the British had topped the crest of the ridge, before the
battery had opened from the plain, while Colonel Sloggett was still
spurring across the dangerous ground between the river and the army,
the Sirdar knew that his enemy was again upon him. Looking back from the
slopes of Surgham, he saw that MacDonald, instead of continuing his march
in echelon, had halted and deployed. The veteran brigadier had seen the
Dervish formations on the ridge to the west of Surgham, realised that he
was about to be attacked, and, resolving to anticipate the enemy,
immediately brought his three batteries into action at 1,200 yards,
Five minutes later the whole of the Khalifa's reserve, 15,000 strong,
led by Yakub with the Black Flag, the bodyguard and 'all the glories' of
the Dervish Empire, surged into view from behind the hill and advanced on
the solitary brigade with the vigour of the first attack and thrice its
chances of success. Thereupon Sir Herbert Kitchener ordered Maxwell to
change front to the right and storm Surgham Hill. He sent Major Sandbach
to tell Lewis to conform and come into line on Maxwell's right.
He galloped himself to the British division--conveniently halted by General
Gatacre on the northern crest of the ridge--and ordered Lyttelton with the
2nd Brigade to form facing west on Maxwell's left south of Surgham,
and Wauchope with the 1st Brigade to hurry back to fill the wide gap
between Lewis and MacDonald. Last of all he sent an officer to Collinson
and the Camel Corps with orders that they should swing round to their right
rear and close the open part of the "V". By these movements the army,
instead of facing south in echelon, with its left on the river and its
right in the desert, was made to face west in line, with its left in the
desert and its right reaching back to the river. It had turned nearly
a complete somersault.
In obedience to these orders Lyttelton's brigade brought up their left
shoulders, deployed into line, and advanced west; Maxwell's Soudanese
scrambled up the Surgham rocks, and, in spite of a sharp fire, cleared the
peak with the bayonet and pressed on down the further side; Lewis began to
come into action on Maxwell's right; MacDonald, against whom the Khalifa's
attack was at first entirely directed, remained facing south-west, and was
soon shrouded in the smoke of his own musketry and artillery fire.
The three brigades which were now moving west and away from the Nile
attacked the right flank of the Dervishes assailing MacDonald, and,
compelling them to form front towards the river, undoubtedly took much of
the weight of the attack off the isolated brigade. There remained the gap
between Lewis and MacDonald. But Wauchope's brigade--still in four parallel
columns of route--had shouldered completely round to the north, and was now
doubling swiftly across the plain to fill the unguarded space. With the
exception of Wauchope's brigade and of Collinson's Egyptians, the whole
infantry and artillery force were at once furiously engaged.
The firing became again tremendous, and the sound was even louder than
during the attack on the zeriba. As each fresh battalion was brought into
line the tumult steadily increased. The three leading brigades continued to
advance westward in one long line looped up over Surgham Hill, and with the
right battalion held back in column. As the forces gradually drew nearer,
the possibility of the Dervishes penetrating the gap between Lewis and
MacDonald presented itself, and the flank battalion was wheeled into line
so as to protect the right flank. The aspect of the Dervish attack was at
this moment most formidable. Enormous masses of men were hurrying towards
the smoke-clouds that almost hid MacDonald. Other masses turned to meet the
attack which was developing on their right. Within the angle formed by the
three brigades facing west and MacDonald facing nearly south a great army
of not fewer than 15,000 men was enclosed, like a flock of sheep in a fold,
by the thin brown lines of the British and Egyptian brigades. As the 7th
Egyptians, the right battalion of Lewis's brigade and nearest the gap
between that unit and MacDonald, deployed to protect the flank, they became
unsteady, began to bunch and waver, and actually made several retrograde
movements. There was a moment of danger; but General Hunter, who was on the
spot, himself ordered the two reserve companies of the 15th Egyptians under
Major Hickman to march up behind them with fixed bayonets. Their morale was
thus restored and the peril averted. The advance of the three brigades
Yakub found himself utterly unable to withstand the attack from the river.
His own attack on MacDonald languished. The musketry was producing terrible
losses in his crowded ranks. The valiant Wad Bishara and many other less
famous Emirs fell dead. Gradually he began to give ground. It was evident
that the civilised troops were the stronger. But even before the attack was
repulsed, the Khalifa, who watched from a close position, must have known
that the day was lost; for when he launched Yakub at MacDonald, it was
clear that the only chance of success depended on Ali-Wad-Helu and Osman
Sheikh-ed-Din attacking at the same time from Kerreri. And with bitter rage
and mortification he perceived that, although the banners were now
gathering under the Kerreri Hills, Ali and Osman were too late, and the
attacks which should have been simultaneous would only be consecutive.
The effect of Broadwood's cavalry action upon the extreme right was now
Regrets and fury were alike futile. The three brigades advancing drove the
Khalifa's Dervishes back into the desert. Along a mile of front an intense
and destructive fire flared and crackled. The 32nd British Field Battery on
the extreme left was drawn by its hardy mules at full gallop into action.
The Maxim guns pulsated feverishly. Two were even dragged by the enterprise
of a subaltern to the very summit of Surgham, and from this elevated
position intervened with bloody effect. Thus the long line moved forward in
irresistible strength. In the centre, under the red Egyptian flag, careless
of the bullets which that conspicuous emblem drew, and which inflicted some
loss among those around him, rode the Sirdar, stern and sullen, equally
unmoved by fear or enthusiasm. A mile away to the rear the gunboats,
irritated that the fight was passing beyond their reach, steamed restlessly
up and down, like caged Polar bears seeking what they might devour. Before
that terrible line the Khalifa's division began to break up. The whole
ground was strewn with dead and wounded, among whose bodies the soldiers
picked their steps with the customary Soudan precautions. Surviving
thousands struggled away towards Omdurman and swelled the broad stream of
fugitives upon whose flank the 2lst Lancers already hung vengefully.
Yakub and the defenders of the Black Flag disdained to fly, and perished
where they stood, beneath the holy ensign, so that when their conquerors
reached the spot the dark folds of the banner waved only over the dead.
While all this was taking place--for events were moving at speed--
the 1st British Brigade were still doubling across the rear of Maxwell and
Lewis to fill the gap between the latter and MacDonald. As they had wheeled
round, the regiments gained on each other according to their proximity to
the pivot flank. The brigade assumed a formation which may be described as
an echelon of columns of route, with the Lincolns, who were actually the
pivot regiment, leading. By the time that the right of Lewis's brigade was
reached and the British had begun to deploy, it was evident that the
Khalifa's attack was broken and that his force was in full retreat. In the
near foreground the Arab dead lay thick. Crowds of fugitives were trooping
off in the distance. The Black Flag alone waved defiantly over the corpses
of its defenders. In the front of the brigade the fight was over. But those
who looked away to the right saw a different spectacle. What appeared to be
an entirely new army was coming down from the Kerreri Hills. While the
soldiers looked and wondered, fresh orders arrived. A mounted officer
galloped up. There was a report that terrible events were happening in the
dust and smoke to the northward. The spearmen had closed with MacDonald's
brigade; were crumpling his line from the flank; had already broken it.
Such were the rumours. The orders were more precise. The nearest regiment--
the Lincolnshire--was to hurry to MacDonald's threatened flank to meet the
attack. The rest of the brigade was to change front half right, and remain
in support. The Lincolnshires, breathless but elated, forthwith started off
again at the double. They began to traverse the rear of MacDonald's brigade,
dimly conscious of rapid movements by its battalions, and to the sound of
tremendous independent firing, which did not, however, prevent them from
hearing the venomous hiss of bullets.
Had the Khalifa's attack been simultaneous with that which was now
developed, the position of MacDonald's brigade must have been almost
hopeless. In the actual event it was one of extreme peril. The attack in
his front was weakening every minute, but the far more formidable attack
on his right rear grew stronger and nearer in inverse ratio. Both attacks
must be met. The moment was critical; the danger near. All depended on
MacDonald, and that officer, who by valour and conduct in war had won his
way from the rank of a private soldier to the command of a brigade,
and will doubtless obtain still higher employment, was equal
to the emergency.
To meet the Khalifa's attack he had arranged his force facing south-west,
with three battalions in line and the fourth held back in column of
companies in rear of the right flank--an inverted L-shaped formation.
As the attack from the south-west gradually weakened and the attack from
the north-west continually increased, he broke off his battalions and
batteries from the longer side of the L and transferred them to the shorter.
He timed these movements so accurately that each face of his brigade was
able to exactly sustain the attacks of the enemy. As soon as the Khalifa's
force began to waver he ordered the XIth Soudanese and a battery on his left
to move across the angle in which the brigade was formed, and deploy along
the shorter face to meet the impending onslaught of Ali-Wad-Helu. Perceiving
this, the IXth Soudanese, who were the regiment in column on the right of
the original front, wheeled to the right from column into line without
waiting for orders, so that two battalions faced towards the Khalifa and
two towards the fresh attack. By this time it was clear that the Khalifa
was practically repulsed, and MacDonald ordered the Xth Soudanese and
another battery to change front and prolong the line of the IXth and XIth.
He then moved the 2nd Egyptians diagonally to their right front, so as to
close the gap at the angle between their line and that of the three other
battalions. These difficult manoeuvres were carried out under a heavy fire,
which in twenty minutes caused over 120 casualties in the four battalions--
exclusive of the losses in the artillery batteries--and in the face of the
determined attacks of an enemy who outnumbered the troops by seven to one
and had only to close with them to be victorious. Amid the roar of the
firing and the dust, smoke, and confusion of the change of front,
the general found time to summon the officers of the IXth Soudanese
around him, rebuked them for having wheeled into line in anticipation
of his order, and requested them to drill more steadily in brigade.
The three Soudanese battalions were now confronted with the whole fury
of the Dervish attack from Kerreri. The bravery of the blacks was no less
conspicuous than the wildness of their musketry. They evinced an
extraordinary excitement--firing their rifles without any attempt to sight
or aim, and only anxious to pull the trigger, re-load, and pull it again.
In vain the British officers strove to calm their impulsive soldiers.
In vain they called upon them by name, or, taking their rifles from them,
adjusted the sights themselves. The independent firing was utterly beyond
control. Soon the ammunition began to be exhausted, and the soldiers
turned round clamouring for more cartridges, which their officers doled out
to them by twos and threes in the hopes of steadying them. It was useless.
They fired them all off and clamoured for more. Meanwhile, although
suffering fearfully from the close and accurate fire of the three artillery
batteries and eight Maxim guns, and to a less extent from the random firing
of the Soudanese, the Dervishes drew nearer in thousands, and it seemed
certain that there would be an actual collision. The valiant blacks
prepared themselves with delight to meet the shock, notwithstanding the
overwhelming numbers of the enemy. Scarcely three rounds per man remained
throughout the brigade. The batteries opened a rapid fire of case-shot.
Still the Dervishes advanced, and the survivors of their first wave of
assault were scarcely 100 yards away. Behind them both green flags
pressed forward over enormous masses of armed humanity, rolling on
as they now believed to victory.
At this moment the Lincoln Regiment began to come up. As soon as the
leading company cleared the right of MacDonald's brigade, they formed line,
and opened an independent fire obliquely across the front of the Soudanese.
Groups of Dervishes in twos and threes were then within 100 yards.
The great masses were within 300 yards. The independent firing lasted two
minutes, during which the whole regiment deployed. Its effect was to clear
away the leading groups of Arabs. The deployment having been accomplished
with the loss of a dozen men, including Colonel Sloggett, who fell shot
through the breast while attending to the wounded, section volleys were
ordered. With excellent discipline the independent firing was instantly
stopped, and the battalion began with machine-like regularity to carry out
the principles of modern musketry, for which their training had efficiently
prepared them and their rifles were admirably suited. They fired on an
average sixty rounds per man, and finally repulsed the attack.
The Dervishes were weak in cavalry, and had scarcely 2,000 horsemen on
the field. About 400 of these, mostly the personal retainers of the various
Emirs, were formed into an irregular regiment and attached to the flag of
Ali-Wad-Helu. Now when these horsemen perceived that there was no more hope
of victory, they arranged themselves in a solid mass and charged the left
of MacDonald's brigade. The distance was about 500 yards, and, wild as was
the firing of the Soudanese, it was evident that they could not possibly
succeed. Nevertheless, many carrying no weapon in their hands, and all
urging their horses to their utmost speed, they rode unflinchingly to
certain death. All were killed and fell as they entered the zone of fire--
three, twenty, fifty, two hundred, sixty, thirty, five and one out beyond
them all--a brown smear across the sandy plain. A few riderless horses
alone broke through the ranks of the infantry.
After the failure of the attack from Kerreri the whole Anglo-Egyptian
army advanced westward, in a line of bayonets and artillery nearly two
miles long, and drove the Dervishes before them into the desert, so that
they could by no means rally or reform. The Egyptian cavalry, who had
returned along the river, formed line on the right of the infantry in
readiness to pursue. At half-past eleven Sir H. Kitchener shut up his
glasses, and, remarking that he thought the enemy had been given 'a good
dusting,' gave the order for the brigades to resume their interrupted march
on Omdurman--a movement which was possible, now that the forces in the
plain were beaten. The brigadiers thereupon stopped the firing,
massed their commands in convenient formations, and turned again towards
the south and the city. The Lincolnshire Regiment remained detached
as a rearguard.
Meanwhile the great Dervish army, who had advanced at sunrise
in hope and courage, fled in utter rout, pursued by the Egyptian cavalry,
harried by the 21st Lancers, and leaving more than 9,000 warriors dead
and even greater numbers wounded behind them.
Thus ended the battle of Omdurman--the most signal triumph
ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within the space of
five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a
modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any
difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss
to the victors.
CHAPTER XVI: THE FALL OF THE CITY
Now, when the Khalifa Abdullah saw that the last army that remained to him
was broken, that all his attacks had failed, and that thousands of his
bravest warriors were slain, he rode from the field of battle in haste,
and, regaining the city, proceeded like a brave and stubborn soldier to
make preparations for its defence, and, like a prudent man, to arrange for
his own flight should further resistance be impossible. He ordered his
great war-drum to be beaten and the ombya to be blown, and for the last
time those dismal notes boomed through the streets of Omdurman. They were
not heeded. The Arabs had had enough fighting. They recognised that all was
lost. Besides, to return to the city was difficult and dangerous.
The charge of the 21st Lancers had been costly, but it was not ineffective.
The consequent retirement of the Dervish brigade protecting the extreme
right exposed their line of retreat. The cavalry were resolved to take full
advantage of the position they had paid so much to gain, and while the
second attack was at its height we were already trotting over the plain
towards the long lines of fugitives who streamed across it. With the
experience of the past hour in our minds, and with the great numbers of
the enemy in our front, it seemed to many that a bloody day lay before us.
But we had not gone far when individual Dervishes began to walk towards the
advancing squadrons, throwing down their weapons, holding up their hands,
and imploring mercy.
As soon as it was apparent that the surrender of individuals was accepted,
the Dervishes began to come in and lay down their arms--at first by twos
and threes, then by dozens, and finally by scores. Meanwhile those who were
still intent on flight made a wide detour to avoid the cavalry,
and streamed past our front at a mile's distance in uninterrupted
succession. The disarming and escorting of the prisoners delayed our
advance, and many thousands of Dervishes escaped from the field. But the
position of the cavalry and the pressure they exerted shouldered the routed
army out into the desert, so that retiring they missed the city of Omdurman
altogether, and, disregarding the Khalifa's summons to defend it and the
orders of their Emirs; continued their flight to the south. To harry and
annoy the fugitives a few troops were dismounted with carbines, and a
constant fire was made on such as did not attempt to come in and surrender.
Yet the crowds continued to run the gauntlet, and at least 20,000 men made
good their escape. Many of these were still vicious, and replied to our
fire with bullets, fortunately at very long range. It would have been
madness for 300 Lancers to gallop in among such masses, and we had to
be content with the results of the carbine fire.
While all this had been going on, the advance of the army on Omdurman
was continuing. Nor was it long before we saw the imposing array of
infantry topping the sandhills near Surgham and flooding out into the
plain which lay between them and the city. High over the centre brigade
flew the Black Flag of the Khalifa, and underneath a smaller flash of red
marked the position of the Headquarters Staff. The black masses of men
continued to move slowly across the open ground while we fired at the
flying Arabs, and at twelve o'clock we saw them halt near the river about
three miles from the city. Orders now reached us to join them, and as the
sun was hot, the day dragged, all were tired and hungry, and the horses
needed water, we were not long in complying, and the remnants of the
Dervish army made good their retreat unmolested.
We marched back to the Nile. The whole force had halted to drink, to eat,
and to rest at Khor Shambat. The scene was striking. Imagine a six hundred
yards stretch of the Suez Canal. Both banks are crowded with brown- or
chocolate-clad figures. The northern side is completely covered with the
swarming infantry of the British division. Thousands of animals--the horses
of the cavalry, the artillery mules, the transport camels--fill the spaces
and the foreground. Multitudes of khaki-clad men are sitting in rows on the
slopes. Hundreds are standing by the brim or actually in the red muddy
water. All are drinking deeply. Two or three carcasses, lying in the
shallows, show that the soldiers are thirsty rather than particular.
On all sides water-bottles are being filled from the welcome Nile, which
has come into the desert to refresh the weary animals and men.
During the attack on MacDonald's brigade the Egyptian cavalry had
watched from their position on the southern slopes of the Kerreri Hills,
ready to intervene, if necessary, and support the infantry by a charge.
As soon as the Dervish onsets had ended and the whole mass had begun to
retreat, Broadwood's cavalry brigade formed in two lines, of four and of
five squadrons respectively, and advanced in pursuit--first west for two
miles, and then south-west for three miles more towards the Round-topped
Hill. Like the 21st Lancers, they were delayed by many Dcrvishes who threw
down their arms and surrendered, and whom it was necessary to escort to
the river. But as they drew nearer the mass of the routed army, it became
apparent that the spirit of the enemy was by no means broken. Stubborn men
fired continually as they lay wounded, refusing to ask for quarter--
doubting, perhaps, that it would be granted. Under every bush that gave
protection from the lances of the horsemen little groups collected to make
a desperate stand. Solitary spearmen awaited unflinching the charge of a
whole squadron. Men who had feigned death sprang up to fire an unexpected
shot. The cavalry began to suffer occasional casualties. In proportion as
they advanced the resistance of the enemy increased. The direct pursuit had
soon to be abandoned, but in the hope of intercepting some part of the
retreating mob Major Le Gallais, who commanded the three leading squadrons,
changed direction towards the river, and, galloping nearly parallel to
Khor Shambat, charged and cut into the tail of the enemy's disordered array.
The Arabs, however, stood their ground, and, firing their rifles wildly in
all directions, killed and wounded a good many horses and men, so that the
squadrons were content to bring up their right still more, and finally to
ride out of the hornet swarm, into which they had plunged, towards
Surgham Hill. The pursuit was then suspended, and the Egyptian cavalry
joined the rest of the army by the Nile.
It was not until four o'clock that the cavalry received orders to ride
round the outside of the city and harry such as should seek to escape.
The Egyptian squadrons and the 21st Lancers started forthwith, and,
keeping about a mile from the houses of the suburbs, proceeded to make the
circle of the town. The infantry had already entered it, as was evident
from a continual patter of shots and an occasional rattle of the Maxim guns.
The leading Soudanese brigade--Maxwell's--had moved from Khor Shambat at
2.30, formed in line of company columns and in the following order:-
^ Direction of Advance ^
XIVth XIIth Maxims 8th 32nd XIIIth
Soudanese Soudanese Egyptians Field Battery Soudanese
The Sirdar, attended by his whole Staff, with the Black Flag of the Khalifa
carried behind him and accompanied by the band of the XIth Soudanese, rode
in front of the XIVth battalion. The regiments were soon enveloped by the
numberless houses of the suburbs and divided by the twisting streets;
but the whole brigade pressed forward on a broad front. Behind followed the
rest of the army--battalion after battalion, brigade after brigade--
until all, swallowed up by the maze of mud houses, were filling the open
spaces and blocking and choking the streets and alleys with solid masses of
armed men, who marched or pushed their way up to the great wall.
For two miles the progress through the suburbs continued, and the General,
hurrying on with his Staff, soon found himself, with the band, the Maxims,
and the artillery, at the foot of the great wall. Several hundred Dervishes
had gathered for its defence; but the fact that no banquette had been made
on which they could stand to fire prevented their resistance from being
effective. A few ill-aimed shots were, however, fired, to which the Maxim
guns replied with vigour. In a quarter of an hour the wall was cleared.
The Sirdar then posted two guns of the 32nd Field Battery at its northern
angle, and then, accompanied by the remaining four guns and the XIVth
Soudanese, turned eastwards and rode along the foot of the wall towards
the river, seeking some means of entry into the inner city. The breach made
by the gunboats was found temporarily blocked by wooden doors, but the main
gate was open, and through this the General passed into the heart of
Omdurman. Within the wall the scenes were more terrible than in the suburbs.
The effects of the bombardment were evident on every side. Women and
children lay frightfully mangled in the roadway. At one place a whole
family had been crushed by a projectile. Dead Dervishes, already in the
fierce heat beginning to decompose, dotted the ground. The houses were
crammed with wounded. Hundreds of decaying carcasses of animals filled the
air with a sickening smell. Here, as without the wall, the anxious
inhabitants renewed their protestations of loyalty and welcome;
and interpreters, riding down the narrow alleys, proclaimed the merciful
conditions of the conquerors and called on the people to lay down
their arms. Great piles of surrendered weapons rose in the streets,
guarded by Soudanese soldiers. Many Arabs sought clemency; but there were
others who disdained it; and the whirring of the Maxims, the crashes of
the volleys, and a continual dropping fire attested that there was fighting
in all parts of the city into which the columns had penetrated.
All Dervishes who did not immediately surrender were shot or bayoneted,
and bullets whistled at random along or across the streets. But while women
crowded round his horse, while sullen men filed carefully from houses,
while beaten warriors cast their spears on the ground and others, still
resisting, were despatched in corners, the Sirdar rode steadily onward
through the confusion, the stench, and the danger, until he reached
the Mahdi's Tomb.
At the mosque two fanatics charged the Soudanese escort,
and each killed or badly wounded a soldier before he was shot.
The day was now far spent, and it was dusk when the prison was reached.
The General was the first to enter that foul and gloomy den. Charles
Neufeld and some thirty heavily shackled prisoners were released. Neufeld,
who was placed on a pony, seemed nearly mad with delight, and talked and
gesticulated with queer animation. 'Thirteen years,' he said to his rescuer,
'have I waited for this day.' From the prison, as it was now dark,
the Sirdar rode to the great square in front of the mosque, in which his
headquarters were established, and where both British brigades were already
bivouacking. The rest of the army settled down along the roadways through
the suburbs, and only Maxwell's brigade remained in the city to complete
the establishment of law and order--a business which was fortunately hidden
by the shades of night.
While the Sirdar with the infantry of the army was taking possession
of Omdurman, the British and Egyptian cavalry had moved round to the west
of the city. There for nearly two hours we waited, listening to the
dropping fusillade which could be heard within the great wall and wondering
what was happening. Large numbers of Dervishes and Arabs, who, laying aside
their jibbas, had ceased to be Dervishes, appeared among the houses at the
edge of the suburbs. Several hundreds of these, with two or three Emirs,
came out to make their submission; and we were presently so loaded with
spears and swords that it was impossible to carry them, and many
interesting trophies had to be destroyed. It was just getting dark when
suddenly Colonel Slatin galloped up. The Khalifa had fled! The Egyptian
cavalry were at once to pursue him. The 21st Lancers must await further
orders. Slatin appeared very much in earnest. He talked with animated
manner to Colonel Broadwood, questioned two of the surrendered Emirs
closely, and hurried off into the dusk, while the Egyptian squadrons,
mounting, also rode away at a trot.
It was not for some hours after he had left the field of battle
that Abdullah realised that his army had not obeyed his summons,
but were continuing their retreat, and that only a few hundred Dervishes
remained for the defence of the city. He seems, if we judge from the
accounts of his personal servant, an Abyssinian boy, to have faced the
disasters that had overtaken him with singular composure. He rested until
two o'clock, when he ate some food. Thereafter he repaired to the Tomb,
and in that ruined shrine, amid the wreckage of the shell-fire,
the defeated sovereign appealed to the spirit of Mohammed Ahmed to help him
in his sore distress. It was the last prayer ever offered over the Mahdi's
grave. The celestial counsels seem to have been in accord with the dictates
of common-sense, and at four o'clock the Khalifa, hearing that the Sirdar
was already entering the city, and that the English cavalry were on the
parade ground to the west, mounted a small donkey, and, accompanied by his
principal wife, a Greek nun as a hostage, and a few attendants, rode
leisurely off towards the south. Eight miles from Omdurman a score of swift
camels awaited him, and on these he soon reached the main body of his
routed army. Here he found many disheartened friends; but the fact that,
in this evil plight, he found any friends at all must be recorded in his
favour and in that of his subjects. When he arrived he had no escort--
was, indeed, unarmed. The fugitives had good reason to be savage.
Their leaders had led them only to their ruin. To cut the throat of this
one man who was the cause of all their sufferings was as easy as they would
have thought it innocent. Yet none assailed him. The tyrant, the oppressor,
the scourge of the Soudan, the hypocrite, the abominated Khalifa;
the embodiment, as he has been depicted to European eyes, of all the vices;
the object, as he was believed in England, of his people's bitter hatred,
found safety and welcome among his flying soldiers. The surviving Emirs
hurried to his side. Many had gone down on the fatal plain. Osman Azrak,
the valiant Bishara, Yakub, and scores whose strange names have not
obscured these pages, but who were, nevertheless, great men of war,
lay staring up at the stars. Yet those who remained never wavered in their
allegiance. Ali-Wad-Helu, whose leg had been shattered by a shell splinter,
was senseless with pain; but the Sheikh-ed-Din, the astute Osman Digna,
lbrahim Khalil, who withstood the charge of the 21st Lancers, and others
of less note rallied to the side of the appointed successor of Mohammed
Ahmed, and did not, even in this extremity, abandon his cause. And so all
hurried on through the gathering darkness, a confused and miserable
multitude--dejected warriors still preserving their trashy rifles,
and wounded men hobbling pitifully along; camels and donkeys laden with
household goods; women crying, panting, dragging little children; all in
thousands--nearly 30,000 altogether; with little food and less water to
sustain them; the desert before them, the gunboats on the Nile,
and behind the rumours of pursuit and a broad trail of dead and dying
to mark the path of flight.
Meanwhile the Egyptian cavalry had already started on their
fruitless errand. The squadrons were greatly reduced in numbers.
The men carried food to suffice till morning, the horses barely enough to
last till noon. To supplement this slender provision a steamer had been
ordered up the river to meet them the next day with fresh supplies.
The road by the Nile was choked with armed Dervishes, and to avoid these
dangerous fugitives the column struck inland and marched southward towards
some hills whose dark outline showed against the sky. The unknown ground
was difficult and swampy. At times the horses floundered to their girths
in wet sand; at others rocky khors obstructed the march; horses and camels
blundered and fell. The darkness complicated the confusion. At about ten
o'clock Colonel Broadwood decided to go no further till there was more
light. He therefore drew off the column towards the desert, and halted on
a comparatively dry spot. Some muddy pools, which were luckily discovered,
enabled the bottles to be filled and the horses to be watered. Then, having
posted many sentries, the exhausted pursuers slept, waking from time to
time to listen to the intermittent firing which was still audible,