In 1884 Gordon had been besieged by the Mahdi in Khartoum; in 1885 the Mahdi had captured Khartoum and killed Gordon, and two days afterwards a relieving force had arrived too late by forty-eight hours to do any good. Before the year was out the English had left the Soudan to the dervishes, with the tragedy of Khartoum unavenged.
A word as to the Mahdi. He was a fanatical Mohammedan, whose self-made mission was to sweep the infidels from the Soudan, and his wars were therefore Holy Wars. The Mahdi died, and the Khalifa Abdullahi, one of his Emirs, took his place at the head of the dervishes. The Khalifa worked for the establishment of a dynasty, and cared little for the religious principles which had underlain the warlike enterprises of his predecessor. The Khalifa was not strong enough to bring his dreams of power true, and early in the nineties his throne began to totter, though his tyranny increased proportionately.
Then in 1896 Sir Herbert Kitchener, as Sirdar of the Egyptian Army, set out to smash the Khalifa and to avenge Gordon's death. With his victorious progress through the desert we are not now concerned, and must hasten on to the battle of Omdurman, where he inflicted a crushing defeat upon the dervish hordes.
Omdurman on the Nile was the sacred city of Mahdism, and from being a small village of no importance had in ten years become a great town where the Khalifa held his court. In 1896 he began to fortify it against the coming of the Sirdar, enclosing the central portion of the town by a well-built wall, something over a mile in diameter; another wall was about a mile long from north to south, and the river side of the city was protected by batteries, while the island of Tuti in the river opposite Omdurman was protected in a like manner, as also were the ruins of Khartoum, and the north and south of the city.
The Khalifa had massed his troops, numbering at least fifty thousand, on the north side of the town, and against these came the Sirdar with twenty-three thousand British and Egyptian soldiers.
Up the Nile went a flotilla of gunboats to tackle the batteries, while the army marched along through the desert and took up its position outside Omdurman. The Sirdar meanwhile sent word to the Khalifa that if he tried to defend the city it would be bombarded, and that it would be as well for him to remove the women and children. The Khalifa took no notice.
On August 31st Colonel Broadwood led some cavalry and a small battery out to reconnoitre, the 21st Lancers doing the same in another direction. The dervishes swarmed out upon them in thousands, and the British fell back on their camp. Meanwhile the flotilla had advanced up the river to take observations, incidentally shelling a dervish camp and sending the defenders scampering off into Omdurman.
The Sirdar's army was in camp at Agaiga, a few miles north of Omdurman, and September 1st was spent in attacking the river batteries and in placing the guns in position. Admiral Keppel took his gunboats across the river and disembarked near Halifya a detachment of nearly two hundred men to act as escort to the 37th Royal Artillery howitzer battery. Major Stuart-Wortley and his army of friendlies at the same time marched on Halifya; the village was shelled and taken, the battery was placed in position and began to fire on Omdurman. The gunboats then moved off and silenced a fort on Tuti Island, then passed along the river and opened out on the forts in front of the city. These also were silenced, and the town suffered great damage from the heavy firing to which it was subjected, the Mahdi's tomb being wrecked, and the palace getting a shell in its central building.
Let it not be thought that the dervishes left their batteries without a struggle. Pluckily did they stick to their guns, though shells fell thick around them and mangled and broke their bodies! But the fire was too hot for them to last long, and eventually Keppel was able to steam up the river towards Khartoum, where he quickly sent the garrison of a fort flying into Omdurman.
Meanwhile the army had been busy, and the Sirdar had sent out his scouts to keep watch on the dervishes. The Khalifa also had been at work. He began to realise that to sit and wait for the infidels to tackle Omdurman seriously was to court disaster; those howitzers were far too damaging! He therefore decided to move out of the city and give battle in the open, preferring to be the attacker rather than the attacked. His idea was to wait until night fell and then to move his troops against the enemy.
His plan miscarried, however, for he received the impression that the Sirdar himself was going to march under cover of the night and attack ere the sun rose; and the Khalifa became nervous, for he had had experience of such movements; Ferkeh and Atbara had been fought thus. The Khalifa decided to wait.
That night, therefore, the two armies lay under arms. Keppel's gunboats kept their searchlights working to guard against any surprise attack, much to the dismay of some of the dervishes, who positively refused to fight against a foe that could use the sunlight—so they looked upon the searchlights—and they accordingly deserted.
At half-past three the Egyptian army was called from its sleep; the bugles sounded breakfast time, and there, under the star-spangled sky of the desert, the soldiers partook of what was for some of them their last meal.
While they are thus occupied let us take a look at their battle array. The line was a mile and a half long, and arranged in the form of a semi-circle, with its ends resting on the bank of the Nile. Between the bank and the line there was a large space of some thousand yards wide, in the centre of which was the village of Agaiga and the field hospital.
On the right, facing north, was MacDonald's brigade; in the centre, behind a shelter trench which they had dug, were Lewis's and Maxwell's brigades of the Egyptian army; on the left, Lyttelton's and Wauchope's brigades of the British division, their front covered by a zereba hedge of thorn bushes. With Lyttelton were also the Maxim battery, the 32nd Battery of the Royal Artillery, and two Egyptian field batteries, while other batteries and Maxims were placed amongst the Egyptian brigades. Collinson with the 4th Egyptian Brigade was in reserve on the right, inside the battle line. On the extreme right, and well away from the line, were Broadwood's Egyptian cavalry, the camel corps, and the horse battery.
Along the river were the gunboats, well-equipped with quick-firing guns, forming a tremendously useful support to the Anglo-Egyptian army, which at sunrise was ready to march out on Omdurman. The Sirdar's plan was to move down on the Khalifa, but his scouts brought him news that that gentleman was getting to work, and would shortly be coming forth to give battle. Kitchener at once cancelled orders to march, and prepared to receive the foe—a much better plan than taking the offensive, for the position and arrangement of the army were in every respect admirable for withstanding an attack. "It was a good piece of luck for the Anglo-Egyptian army. They would be able to meet the dervish host with every chance of success in their favour—an open field of fire extending for nearly three thousand yards to their front, over which no troops in the world could successfully advance in the face of modern weapons and civilised discipline, and with their flanks resting on the river and protected by the quick-firing guns of the flotilla. The Khalifa was throwing away every chance by attacking our troops while they were still in their camp. Even if he had waited till they were on the move, he might have met them in the broken ground between Kerreri and Omdurman on less hopelessly disadvantagous terms."
Soon after six o'clock the cavalry outposts fell carefully back on the camp. Behind them came the dervish horde, drums beating, standards flying, voices raised in imprecation and battle-cries. Midst them all, a dark patch in a moving mass of white jibba-clad men, was the black flag of the Khalifa, round which the day was to see such a terrible struggle.
The Khalifa's force came on in two lines, between two and three miles long, the first formed of five great columns many deep, riflemen and spearmen flanked by cavalry. With them they brought out three Krupp guns and an old Nordenfeldt; evidently they were relying upon getting to close quarters.
The Anglo-Egyptians waited for the dervishes to cross the ridges that ran some two miles in front of their line. On came the Mahdists, shouting their battle-cries still, and beating their drums, here and there firing a shot, but generally reserving their fire until they were within better range.
The time had come.
The Royal Artillery on the left opened the ball with a round of shrapnel which bowled over a dozen or so dervishes in the front rank. It was the signal for general artillery firing, and the great guns boomed out their death-messages. Thick and fast fell the shells, tearing great gaps in the advancing hordes. Then the left of the British line of infantry opened fire at two thousand seven hundred yards, and their Lee-Metfords spat death. "The Guardsmen standing close to the zereba hedge opened fire with volleys by sections, and the other regiments of Gatacre's division carried on the firing away to the left. In the huge moving mass in front of them they had a target against which even at such a distance the volleys could hardly fail to be effective."
Big guns, Maxims, Lee-Metfords, however, could not stop the charge of the Mahdists, whose pluck and determination won the admiration of their opponents; then the gunboats opened fire, then the centre and the right of the line, but still the dervish spearmen raced over the sands, striving to reach their foe. Hundreds fell before the galling fire, yet they got to within eight hundred yards of the Anglo-Egyptian line. They had got their Krupps into action, but these were badly placed and badly aimed, and so did no damage at all.
The Sirdar's right wing was subjected to an attack by the dervishes under the Khalifa's son Osman, who, pouring over the Kerreri Hills, swept down upon Broad wood's cavalry. Sheer weight of numbers made it necessary for Broadwood to retire somewhat, in order to cover the camel corps in their retirement along the river bank. Broadwood dismounted some of his men and, carbines in hand, for a time they held the fanatics in check, a horse battery helping them. At last, however, he was compelled by superior numbers to leave the camel corps to the protection of the gunboats, which, by a hail of shells from their quick firing guns and storms of bullets from their Maxims, turned aside the dervish horde which threatened the destruction of the camel corps.
Broadwood meanwhile pushed northward, fighting his way against the dervishes, whose spearmen and cavalry in turns charged down upon him. Now dismounted, now mounted, the Egyptian cavalry faced the foe, blazing at them with their carbines, or charging them with great courage. The horse battery did dreadful damage in the dervish ranks. They were having a battle on their own, well away from the main army, which, be it said, felt the effects of having several thousand dervishes attracted from itself. Eventually, however, Broadwood found himself less pressed, and after a while was able to retrace his steps, and, marching along the river bank, made his way to the main body again.
When Osman had tackled Broadwood he had placed his force between the cavalry and the infantry and the artillery, and by this manœuvre he was able to inflict much damage on the latter. Men fell all round the guns, struck down by a galling rifle fire; horses fell, too, so that it was only possible to fully horse four guns, the other two being divested of their breech locks, etc., and left.
All along the line the fight was now in progress. From eight hundred yards the dervishes moved to five hundred yards distance from the British line, seeking to get to close quarters. Their riflemen poured in a heavy fire at the men behind the zereba hedge, but did little damage. Mass after mass of them pressed forward and ever forward, but the sharp fire from the British line kept them at a distance. As one man fell another took his place—there seemed no end to the horde. Right in the front rank flew the Khalifa's black flag, a splendid mark for the foe. Of bearers there were plenty, and man after man fell a victim to devotion to the standard, but as fast as one fell another gripped the staff and kept the flag floating above an increasing pile of dead.
Within an hour after it had begun the battle was all but won. Gradually the dervishes ceased their mad rushes to death—leaving hundreds of dead and wounded on the ground. For one short moment they gathered themselves together for a mighty effort, withdrew themselves from the attack on the British front, and swept down on the Egyptian portion of the line, firing as they went, and being fired upon. In solid masses they came, in scores they went down—the ranks filling up with almost incredible rapidity. But they never got to grips; the hail of bullets pulled them up, and at last the mad rush was over the dervishes began to fall back on the ridges.
But the fight was not yet over. The wreck of the Khalifa's army still lay between the Sirdar and Omdurman—and Omdurman was to be occupied.
The order was given to advance, pouches were refilled with ammunition, and the Anglo-Egyptian army moved out from its camp. Lyttelton's brigade led the way, followed on its right, somewhat to the rear, by Wauchope's. Still farther to the right came Maxwell and Lewis with their Egyptians, MacDonald's brigade bringing up the rear, with the Egyptian cavalry and camel corps marching along the rivet bank, a brigade under Collinson acting as reserve and escort to the transport train.
Now took place one of the outstanding episodes of that day of battle. The 21st Lancers had so far taken but little part in the fighting, but when the army began its march on Omdurman, orders were given for them to take the van and reconnoitre the farther slope of the ridge that ran down from Jebel Surgham whither large numbers of the dervishes had retired; their orders were to see if the enemy had rallied with an intention of opposing themselves to the oncoming army, in which case they were to cut off their retreat on the city and turn them across the British front into the desert.
Out went the gallant Lancers, with Colonel Martin at their head—three hundred and fifty men to clear the way for a victorious army; three hundred and fifty men to meet—what?
They did not know; they did not care; they hoped they would meet the enemy and be able to add something on their own account to the tale of the day's fighting.
Their hope was realised.
Up the death-strewn slope of Jebel Surgham they went, catching sight of a few dervishes to the south-east but caring little for the pot-shots that these had at them; they were out for bigger fry.
When they were about half a mile south of the ridge their scouts rode back to report that two hundred or so dervishes were in hiding in a hollow running down to the river, while beyond them was a bunch of cavalry. This was something like, and Colonel Martin immediately gave the order to charge. The bugle call that then rang out was better than the noblest music ever played; lances were leveled on the instant, and away across the desert sand the Lancers went, their khaki-clad bodies and their wiry Arab horses lost in a whirl of dust.
On they went, every second bringing them nearer the hollow, and for a while the foe made no sign of resistance. Presently, however, there were spurts of smoke, flashes of fire—and bullets sang past the gallant little troop. Here and there a man dropped from his saddle; here and there a horse and rider went down with a crash and a clatter; but the rest rode on. Three hundred yards away the enemy were caught sight of—but instead of a few fugitives as had been anticipated, there were at least fifteen hundred of them! Those two hundred had been simply a lure—a favourite dervish dodge. Little cared the Lancers; there was no thought of pulling up in their headlong charge. Rather did they spur their horses harder.
Crash! another man down; crash! yet another. But nothing could stop them, and at last, riding like the wind through a storm of bullets, they had reached the near side of the hollow, breaking through the two hundred who had lured them on, scattering them in all directions and then, crash! they had leaped down a three-foot bank into the hollow—into and through a twenty-deep mass of dervish riflemen and spearmen.
As can be imagined, such a charge was not without its thrilling heroic incidents. As the hollow was reached horses tumbled headlong into it, drilled through by dervish bullets, or stuck by dervish spears, or hamstrung by dervish knives.
In a minute there was a mêlée such as the Lancers loved. The Soudanese stuck to their posts like brave men, unhorsing men and that tackling than with their spears. Captain Fair's swami was broken off at the hilt on the coat of mail of a dervish chief—he flung the hilt full in the enemy's face. Lieutenant Molyneux's horse fell dead before ever the hollow was reached; disentangling himself, the officer rushed into the fight on foot, gripping his revolver. A couple of dervishes set on him at once; one went down with a bullet in his brain, but the other swept down his sword and almost severed Molyneux's right arm. The revolver dropped, the officer, helpless as he was, turned and ran for a little distance to get near some of his comrades. After him went the dervish, and must have done for him but for the fact that just then the Lancers, who had broken through the ranks, turned back and dashed for them again. A corporal at once saw the plight of his officer, gave him his stirrup-leather, and managed to get him away safely.
Another officer, Lieutenant Grenfell, was fighting on foot; he emptied his revolver into the crowd that thronged about him, and then struck madly at them with his sword. The spearmen pressed in upon him, pierced him through and through, and at last his gallant stand was over, and a mangled body lay upon the ground. Captain Kenna and Corporal Swarbrick had seen Grenfell thus engaged, and worked their horses through the struggling mass, trying to get to him in time to effect his rescue, or failing that, to recover his body. They were too late; they arrived to see the dervishes hacking at the fallen man, and all they could do was to drive them off and lift the body on to a horse, which, however, dashed away with its burden. Grenfell's body was recovered later in the day, and laid to rest beneath the desert sand.
"One after another the bearers were shot down, yet always there was a hand outstretched to grasp it and keep it floating above the death-strewn hillside."
Incidents such as these were many; officers were saved by men, men by officers. Nearly every trooper was injured, yet not one of them but was ready to go at the charge again. Lyttelton, however, refused to give the order for this, and the Lancers were drawn up, several dismounted and opened a carbine fire upon the dervishes, and forced them to cross the British front, whereupon the artillery and infantry poured in a raking fire upon them and forced them back towards the hills. Few of them succeeded in escaping unharmed, and hundreds of them were left dead beneath the broiling sun.
Meanwhile the main body of the army was marching forward, firing but little as they went, for there was no enemy to speak of in front of them. But away behind the hills the Khalifa was busy rallying his disorganised army for a last great stand. MacDonald's Egyptian Brigade of three thousand infantry and three field batteries on the right were attacked first. They had not got their guns in position before the enemy burst down upon them; the infantry opened fire upon them while the guns were unlimbered and placed, and then bullets and shells together flew towards the oncoming dervishes, who once again came on to the sound of drums and with their flags streaming. It was a gallant charge, but it was pulled up short by the terrific fire poured in upon them. At the same time another column dashed down upon MacDonald's left; calmly and coolly part of the Egyptian force swung round to face the new foe, and thus the line assumed a wedge-like shape, both sides facing thousands and thousands of the jibba-clad foe. It was three thousand to twenty thousand, and force of numbers enabled the dervishes to get fairly close up to the stubborn half-square—so close, indeed, that they were able to hurl their deadly spears. Resolute, determined, the Egyptians stood their ground, poured in their fire with deadly effect, and held the horde at bay until the 32nd Battery brought their fifteen-pounders to bear upon the foe. They were just in time, for many of the riflemen had but half-a-dozen cartridges left, and it might have gone ill with them but for the timely reinforcement. Then came the Maxims and Collinson's Brigade, while Maxwell and Lewis advanced on the dervish left and forced them to draw off. When the gunboats opened fire as well the foe began to fall back in all directions—the battle was well nigh over—the crisis had come and had passed. The Khalifa's cavalry made a noble effort to turn the fortune of the battle, but the wall of fire that opposed them sent them galloping back with great gaps in their ranks.
The Khalifa and his brother Yakub, who had attacked MacDonald, had taken up a position on the north slope of Jebel Surgham, where, with the black flag flying bravely, they made a stand before the oncoming victors. Presently the Khalifa made off towards Omdurman, but Yakub and four hundred noble dervishes stood bravely to their post. The black banner was stuck in the ground, and the four hundred gathered round to guard it to the end. The honour of the flag is the same in all soldiers, and these brave men were no exception. The 15th Egyptians and Lewis's brigade were coming towards them, bent on securing the flag; one after another the bearers were shot down, yet always there was a hand outstretched to grasp it and keep it floating above the death-strewn hillside. To hold the banner was to die, and one by one the noble four hundred and Yakub perished in its defence; but even with their death the black banner floated defiantly, for the last man to hold it retained it in his death-grip.
Never had men fought so bravely for the honour of the flag.
It was quickly seized by the 15th Egyptians. An orderly took it to the Sirdar, who had ridden up to the scene of the struggle. Almost immediately a shell from the gunboats screamed overhead, the English thinking the Khalifa's men still carried the banner. "Down with that flag!" cried Slatin Pasha, the Austrian officer who had done and suffered so much for Egypt. Quickly was the flag lowered, and the gunboats ceased their fire in that direction.
Meanwhile the victorious conquering army was forging ahead, driving the dervishes before them. Here and there crowds of the foe would make a gallant stand, but ever were they swept away, until at last, by eleven o'clock, the battle of Omdurman was over; the Khalifa was defeated; his reign was over.
The line halted awhile for rest; then once again the march was resumed, and after some desultory firing the Sirdar entered Omdurman, to find that the Khalifa had fled into the desert. He was pursued but not caught. Two days later the Sirdar entered Khartoum, and the following day, to the salute of the guns on the gunboats and the playing of the National Anthem and the Khedive's March, the Union Jack and the Egyptian flag were hoisted side by side on the ruins of the palace where the gallant Gordon had met his death eleven years before. Khartoum was avenged, and the tyranny of Mahdism was at an end, though there was still some work to be done; with which, however, we have no time to deal.
But to-day the Soudan is peaceful and prosperous.