Siege of Khartoum
||The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2013)|
|Siege of Khartoum|
|Part of The Mahdist War|
A painting General Gordon's death
| United Kingdom
|Commanders and leaders|
|Charles George Gordon †||Muhammad Ahmad|
|Casualties and losses|
|Entire force destroyed||unknown, but reportedly heavy|
|~4,000 civilians dead|
The Battle of Khartoum, Siege of Khartoum or Fall of Khartoum was the conquest of British-held Khartoum by the Mahdist forces led by Muhammad Ahmad. British forces and their Egyptian allies had held the city for some time prior, but the siege that the Mahdists engineered and carried out from March 13, 1884, to January 26, 1885 was enough to wrest control away from the colonial leaders. After a ten-month siege, when the Mahdists finally broke into the city, the entire garrison of British and Egyptian soldiers (along with some Sudanese supporters) was killed.
Appointment of General Gordon
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Since the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, the British military presence had ensured that Egypt remained a de facto British protectorate. Egypt also controlled Sudan, and the administration of Sudan was considered a domestic Egyptian matter by the British government. It was left to the Khedive's government to administer. As a result, the suppression of the Mahdist revolt was left to the Egyptian army, which suffered a bloody defeat at the hands of the Mahdist rebels at El Obeid, in November 1883. The Mahdi's forces captured huge amounts of equipment and overran large parts of Sudan, including Darfur and Kordofan.
The Mahdist forces backed their self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. He claimed to be the redeemer of the Islamic nation and enjoyed the support of many in Sudan who desired independence from their Egyptian and British rulers.
The rebellion brought Sudan to the attention of the British government and public. Prime Minister William Gladstone and War Secretary Lord Hartington did not wish to become involved in Sudan and persuaded the Egyptian government to evacuate all their garrisons in Sudan. General Charles George Gordon, a popular figure in Great Britain and former Governor-General of Sudan in 1876-79, was appointed to accomplish this task.
Gordon's ideas on Sudan were radically different from Gladstone's: he believed that the Mahdi's rebellion had to be defeated, or he might gain control of the whole of Sudan, and from there sweep over Egypt. His fears were based on the Mahdi's claim to dominion over the entire Islamic world and on the fragility of the Egyptian army, which had suffered several defeats at the hands of the Sudanese. Gordon favoured an aggressive policy in Sudan, in agreement with noted imperialists such as Sir Samuel Baker and Sir Garnet Wolseley, and his opinions were published in The Times in January 1884.
Despite this, Gordon pledged himself to accomplish the evacuation of Sudan; he was given a credit of £100,000 and was promised by the British and Egyptian authorities "all support and cooperation in their power.". On his way to Khartoum with his assistant, Colonel Stewart, Gordon stopped in Berber to address an assembly of tribal chiefs. Here he committed a cardinal mistake by revealing that the Egyptian government wished to withdraw from Sudan. The tribesmen became worried by this news, and their loyalty wavered.
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Gordon arrived at Khartoum on February 18, 1884, but instead of organising the evacuation of the garrisons, set about administering the city.
His first decisions were to reduce the injustices caused by the Egyptian colonial administration: arbitrary imprisonments were cancelled, torture instruments were destroyed, and taxes were remitted. To enlist the support of the population, Gordon legalised slavery, despite the fact that he himself had abolished it a few years earlier. This decision was popular in Khartoum, where the economy still rested on the slave trade, but caused controversy in Britain.
Gordon was determined to "smash up the Mahdi". He requested that a regiment of Turkish soldiers be sent to Khartoum as Egypt was still nominally a province of the Ottoman Empire. When this was refused, Gordon asked for a unit of Indian Muslim troops and later for 200 British soldiers to strengthen the defenses of Khartoum. All these proposals were rejected by the Gladstone cabinet, since Britain was still intent on evacuation and refused absolutely to be pressured into military intervention in Sudan.
Gordon began to resent the government's policy, and his telegrams to Cairo became more acrimonious. On April 8, he wrote: "I leave you with the indelible disgrace of abandoning the garrisons" and added that such a course would be "the climax of meanness".
Knowing that the Mahdists were closing in, Gordon finally ordered the strengthening of the fortifications around Khartoum. The city was protected to the north by the Blue Nile and to the west by the White Nile. To defend the river banks, he created a flotilla of gunboats from nine small paddle-wheel steamers, until then used for communication purposes, which were fitted with guns and protected by metal plates. In the southern part of the town, which faced the open desert, he prepared an elaborate system of trenches, makeshift Fougasse-type land mines, and wire entanglements. Also, the surrounding country was controlled by the Shagia tribe, which was hostile to the Mahdi.
By early April 1884, the tribes north of Khartoum rose in support of the Mahdi, and cut the Egyptian traffic on the Nile and the telegraph to Cairo. Communications were not entirely cut, as runners could still get through, but the siege had begun and Khartoum could only rely on its own food stores, which could last five or six months.
On March 16, an abortive sortie from Khartoum was launched, which led to the death of 200 Egyptian troops as the combined forces besieging Khartoum grew to over 30,000 men. Through the months of April, May, June, and July, Gordon and the garrison dealt with being cut off as food stores dwindled and starvation began to set in for both the garrison and the civilian population. Communication was kept through couriers while Gordon also kept in contact with the Mahdi, who rejected his offers of peace and to lift the siege.
On September 16, an expedition sent from Khartoum to Sennar was defeated by the Mahdists which resulted in the death of over 800 garrison troops at Al Aylafuh. By the end of the month, the Mahdi moved the bulk of his army to Khartoum, more than doubling the number already besieging it. As of September 10, 1884, the civilian population of Khartoum was about 34,000.
Fall of Khartoum
Gordon's plight excited great concern in the British press, and even Queen Victoria intervened on his behalf. The government ordered him to return, but Gordon refused, saying he was honour-bound to defend the city. By July 1884, Gladstone reluctantly agreed to send an expedition to Khartoum. The expedition, led by Sir Garnet Wolseley, took several months to organise and only entered Sudan in January 1885, but by then the Egyptian-British situation had become desperate, with food supplies running low, many inhabitants dying of hunger and the defenders' morale at its lowest.
The relief expedition was attacked at Abu Klea on January 17, and two days later at Abu Kru. Though their square was broken at Abu Klea, the British managed to repel the Mahdists. The Mahdi, hearing of the British advance, decided to press the attack on Khartoum. On the night of January 25–26, an estimated 50,000 Mahdists attacked the city wall just before midnight. The Mahdists took advantage of the low level of the Nile, actually crossing it on foot, and rushed around the wall on the shores of the river and into the town. The details of the final assault are vague, but it is said that by 3:30 am, the Mahdists managed to concurrently outflank the city wall at the low end of the Nile while another force, led by Al Nujumi, broke down the Massalamieh Gate despite taking some casualties from mines and barbed wire obstacles laid out by Gordon's men. The entire garrison, physically weakened by starvation, offered only patchy resistance and were slaughtered to the last man within a few hours, as were 4,000 of the town's inhabitants, while many others were carried into slavery. Accounts differ as to how Gordon was killed. According to one version, when Mahdist warriors broke into the governor's palace, Gordon came out in full uniform, and, after disdaining to fight, he was speared to death in defiance of the orders of the Mahdi, who had wanted him captured alive. In another version, Gordon was recognised by Mahdists while making for the Austrian consulate and shot dead in the street. What appears certain is that his head was cut off, stuck on a pike, and brought to the Mahdi as a trophy. His body was summarily dumped in the Nile.
Advance elements of the relief expedition arrived within sight of Khartoum two days later. After the fall of the city, the surviving British and Egyptian troops withdrew from the Sudan, with the exception of the city of Suakin on the Red Sea coast and the Nile town of Wadi Halfa at the Egyptian border, leaving Muhammad Ahmad in control of the entire country.
After his victory, Muhammad Ahmad became the ruler of most parts of what is now Sudan, and established a religious state, the Mahdiyah, which was governed by a harsh enforcement of Sharia law. He died shortly afterwards, in June 1885, though the state he founded survived him. Following a string of mostly disastrous battles in the years to come, as well as complex international events that would compel further colonial interests throughout Africa, the Anglo-Egyptian forces would steadily regain their control over Sudan. Fourteen years after their great conquest of Khartoum, at the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat, the Sudanese Empire was finally extinguished and the Mahdist war was over.
In the immediate aftermath of the Mahdist victory, the joy in the Mahdist camp was contrasted by consternation in Great Britain and Egypt. The British press put the blame of Gordon's death on Gladstone, who was charged with excessive slowness in sending relief to Khartoum. He was rebuked by Queen Victoria in a telegram which became known to the public. His government fell in June 1885, though he was back in office the next year. The public outcry soon weakened, first when press coverage and sensationalism of the events began to diminish and secondly when the government released details of the £11.5 million military budget cost for pursuing war in the Sudan.
In reality, Gladstone had always viewed the Egyptian-Sudanese imbroglio with distaste and had felt some sympathy for the Sudanese striving to throw off the Egyptian colonial rule. He once declared in the House of Commons: "Yes, those people are struggling to be free, and they are rightly struggling to be free." Also, Gordon's arrogant and insubordinate manner did nothing to endear him to Gladstone's government.
In Britain, Gordon came to be seen as a martyr and a hero. In 1896, an expedition led by Horatio Herbert Kitchener was sent to avenge his death (who swore to do so upon hearing of Gordon's demise) and reconquer Sudan. On 2 September 1898 Kitchener's troops defeated the bulk of the Mahdist army at the Battle of Omdurman. Two days later a memorial service for Gordon was held in front of the ruins of the palace where he had died. Surviving family members of the movement's leaders were held by the British in a prison in Egypt. The women and children were held there for ten years. The men were held for twelve years. After their return to Sudan they were held under house arrest for the rest of their lives.
- These events are depicted in the 1966 film Khartoum, with Charlton Heston as General Gordon and Laurence Olivier as Muhammad Ahmad.
- The Siege of Khartoum is the setting for Wilbur Smith's novel The Triumph of the Sun, pub. 2005
- G. A. Henty wrote a young adults' novel about the siege called The Dash for Khartoum, originally published in 1892, since reissued and also available to read free online at Project Gutenberg.
- Henryk Sienkiewicz, Polish writer and Nobel Prize winner, set his novel In Desert and Wilderness in Sudan during Mahdi's rebellion, which plays a vital role in the plot.
- The 1999 Mike Leigh film Topsy-Turvy makes reference to the Fall of Khartoum.
- Gillian Slovo based her novel An Honourable Man (2012) on the established narrative of General Gordon's last days in Khartoum.
- Strachey, Lytton (1918), Eminent Victorians p.38
- Monick, S.; The Political Martyr: General Gordon and the Fall of Kartum; in Military History Journal - Vol 6 No 6 
- Churchill, Winston S. (1952); The River War - an Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan; Eyre and Spottiswoode, p.40
- Strachey, p.57
- Strachey, p.58
- Churchill p.46
- Journals at Khartoum, p8
- Strachey, p.84
- Alfred Egmont Hake in Eva March Tappan (ed.) The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art (Boston, 1914) vol. III, p.249.
- Strachey, p.65
- Clive Stafford Smith (2007-04-23). "The circle of rendition". New Statesman. Archived from the original on 2009-12-13.
- Asher, Michael (2005). Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-025855-8.