The River War
by Winston S. Churchill
On September 2, 1898, 11o years ago today, the Battle of Omdurman took place in the Sudan. A joint Anglo-Egyptian expeditionary force, with a complement of Sudanese troops, met and defeated a 50,000 man army of Dervishes on the outskirts of the city of Omdurman.
This was the culmination of months of intense effort by British General Sir Horatio Kitchener to mass an army deep in the Sudan to bring to an end the Dervish empire. The defeat of the Mahdi army would bring peace to the Egyptian - Sudan border, but this was also retribution for the death of British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon who died on January 26, 1885 during the siege of Khartoum. A British relief force had arrived too late to rescue Gordon - Khartoum fell to the Mahdi's revolutionary forces and Gordon was killed. The Sudan was now completely independent and no longer under Anglo/Egyptian control.
After the death of Gordon the British government concentrated its efforts in Egypt and put the Sudan on a back burner. Muhammad Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, died not long afterwards. His successor, the Khalifa, continued a state of war with his neighbors.
With a change of government in London it was finally decided to bring this unsatisfactory state of affairs to an end. Gathering troops from all over the Empire, an army was collected on the banks of the Nile. Specially designed gunboats, armed with Maxim guns, were built for the expedition - they had to be capable of being broken down and transported overland to avoid the cataracts of the Nile. Infantry regiments from as far away as India were brought in to build up the army and garrison forts.
The army was to advance up the Nile with both a desert column and river force. The 21st Lancers, a regular cavalry unit, was attached to the expedition and used as a scouting force. Lt. Winston Churchill of the 4th Hussars was attached to the Lancers and later wrote a short history of the war in his book The River War. (A very readable account, but somewhat detached considering it was written by someone who was there).
The army advanced deep into the Sudan finally encountering the main Dervish army on the approach to Omdurman. The Anglo-Egyptian army was greatly outnumbered, but the combination of modern arms, discipline and fortitude, along with some luck, led to a decisive victory. The Mahdi army was efectively destroyed and except for some mopping-up operations, the subjugation of the Sudan was complete.
An interesting side note of the battle was the action of the 21st Lancers. Engaging what they believed to be a small force of Dervishes they rode over a small rise and found themselves instead charging a sizable contingent of the fierce fighters. The Lancers were forced to ride and fight their way through to freedom. Five officers, 65 enlisted and 120 horses were killed in the bitter fighting. Three Victoria Crosses were awarded to members of the unit. Lt. Churchill was not injured in the action. This may well have been the last time in its long history British cavalry ever conducted a charge in battle.