Battle of Omdurman

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Battle of Omdurman
Part of the Mahdist War
(War of the Sudan)
21lancers.JPG
"The charge of the 21st Lancers" by Edward Matthew Hale.
Date 2 September 1898
Location Omdurman, Khartoum, Sudan
Result Decisive British-Egyptian Victory
Belligerents
United Kingdom United Kingdom
Egypt Egypt
Sudan
Commanders and leaders
Sir Herbert Kitchener Abdullah al-Taashi
Strength
8,200 British,
17,600 Sudanese and Egyptian soldiers
52,000 warriors
Casualties and losses
47 dead[1]
382 wounded
10,000 killed
13,000 wounded
5,000 captured

At the Battle of Omdurman (2 September 1898), an army commanded by the British General Sir Herbert Kitchener defeated the army of Abdullah al-Taashi, the successor to the self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. It was a demonstration of the superiority of a highly disciplined European-led army equipped with modern rifles, machine guns and artillery over a vastly larger force armed with older weapons, and marked the success of British efforts to re-conquer the Sudan. However, it was not until the 1899 Battle of Umm Diwaykarat that the final Mahdist forces were defeated.

Omdurman is today a suburb of Khartoum in central Sudan, with a population of some 1.5 million. The village of Omdurman was chosen in 1884 as the base of operations by the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. After his death in 1885, following the successful siege of Khartoum, his successor (Khalifa) Abdullah retained it as his capital.

Battle account[edit]

The battle took place at Kerreri, 11 km north of Omdurman. Kitchener commanded a force of 8,000 British regulars and a mixed force of 17,000 Sudanese and Egyptian troops. He arrayed his force in an arc around the village of Egeiga, close to the bank of the Nile, where a gunboat flotilla waited in support, facing a wide, flat plain with hills rising to the left and right. The British and Egyptian cavalry was placed on either flank.

Abdullah's followers, known as Ansar and sometimes referred to as Dervishes, numbered around 50,000, including some 3,000 cavalry. They were split into five groups--a force of 8,000 under Osman Azrak was arrayed directly opposite the British, in a shallow arc along a mile (1.6 km) of a low ridge leading onto the plain, and the other Mahdist forces were initially concealed from Kitchener's force. Abdullah al-Taashi and 17,000 men were concealed behind the Surgham Hills to the west and rear of Osman Azrak's force, with 20,000 more positioned to the northwest, close to the front behind the Kerreri hills, commanded by Ali-Wad-Helu and Sheikh ed-Din. A final force of around 8,000 was gathered on the slope on the right flank of Azrak's force.

The battle began in the early morning, at around 6:00 a.m. After the clashes of the previous day, the 8,000 men under Osman Azrak advanced straight at the waiting British, quickly followed by about 8,000 of those waiting to the northwest, a mixed force of rifle- and spearmen. The British artillery opened fire at around 2750 m (about 1.7 miles), inflicting severe casualties on the Mahdist forces before they even came within range of the Maxim guns and volley fire. The frontal attack ended quickly, with around 4,000 Mahdist casualties; none of the attackers got closer than 50 m to the British trenches. A flanking move from the Ansar right was also checked, and there were bloody clashes on the opposite flank that scattered the Mahdist forces there.

The Battle of Omdurman, 1898, from the Purton Museum, England. This illustration depicts the British wearing red ceremonial uniforms to identify the different regiments involved. The regiments in the picture have a number printed with them and a key at the bottom to identify them. The red uniforms had in fact been superseded by khaki since 1848 in India.

Kitchener was anxious to occupy Omdurman before the remaining Mahdist forces could withdraw there. He advanced his army on the city, arranging them in separate columns for the attack. The British light cavalry regiment, the 21st Lancers, was sent ahead to clear the plain to Omdurman. They had a tough time of it. The 400-strong regiment attacked what they thought were only a few hundred dervishes, but in fact there were 2,500 infantry hidden behind them in a depression. After a fierce clash, the Lancers drove them back (resulting in three Victoria Crosses being awarded). On a larger scale, the British advance allowed the Khalifa to re-organize his forces. He still had over 30,000 men in the field and directed his main reserve to attack from the west while ordering the forces to the northwest to attack simultaneously over the Kerreri Hills.

Kitchener's force wheeled left in echelon to advance up Surgham ridge and then southwards. To protect the rear, a brigade of 3,000 mainly Sudanese, commanded by Hector MacDonald, was reinforced with Maxims and artillery and followed the main force at around 1,350 m. Curiously, the supplies and wounded around Egeiga were left almost unprotected.

MacDonald was alerted to the presence of around 15,000 enemy troops moving towards him from the west, out from behind Surgham. He wheeled his force and lined them up to face the enemy charge. The Mahdist infantry attacked in two prongs and MacDonald was forced to repeatedly re-order his battalions. The brigade maintained a punishing fire. Kitchener, now aware of the problem, "began to throw his brigades about as if they were companies".[2] MacDonald's brigade was soon reinforced and the Mahdist forces were forced back; they finally broke and fled or died where they stood. The Mahdist forces to the north had regrouped too late and entered the clash only after the force in the central valley had been routed. They pressed Macdonald's Sudanese brigades hard, but the Lincolnshire Regiment was quickly brought up and with sustained section volleys repulsed the advance. A final desperate cavalry charge of around 500 horsemen was utterly destroyed. The march on Omdurman was resumed at about 11:30.

Aftermath[edit]

Around 10,000 Mahdists were killed, 13,000 wounded and 5,000 taken prisoner. Kitchener's force lost 47 men killed and 382 wounded, the majority from MacDonald's command. One eye-witness described the appalling scene:

They could never get near and they refused to hold back . . . It was not a battle but an execution . . . The bodies were not in heaps—bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres. Some lay very composedly with their slippers placed under their heads for a last pillow; some knelt, cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces . . . [3]

Controversy over wounded Mahdists killed after the battle began soon afterwards.[4] Churchill thought Kitchener was too brutal in his killing of the wounded.[5]

The Khalifa escaped and survived until 1899, when he was killed in the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat.

Several days after the battle, Kitchener was sent to Fashoda, due to the developing Fashoda Incident.

Kitchener was ennobled as a baron, Kitchener of Khartoum, for his victory. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded, three to members of the 21st Lancers, as a result of this action: 2nd Lieutenant Raymond H.L.J. De Montmorency, Captain Paul A. Kenna, Pte. Thomas Byrne and one to Capt. Nevill Smyth of the 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen's Bays).[6]

Winston Churchill was present at the battle and he rode with the 21st Lancers. He published an account in 1899 as "The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan", which is the basis for this article. Present as a war correspondent for The Times was Colonel Frank Rhodes, brother of Cecil, who was shot and severely wounded in the right arm. For his services during that battle he was restored to the army active list.

The Battle of Omdurman has also lent its name to many streets in British and Commonwealth cities, for example 'Omdurman Road' in Southampton and 'Omdurman Street' in Freshwater, Sydney.

Fictional accounts[edit]

The 1939 film adaptation of the novel The Four Feathers is set in the time of this battle, and covers other aspects of the Sudan Campaign.

The 2008 novel After Omdurman by John Ferry is partly set during the 1898 re-conquest of the Sudan, with the book's lead character, Evelyn Winters, playing a peripheral role in the Battle of Omdurman.

In the British television sitcom Dad's Army, the character of Corporal Jones often refers to the days he spent serving under General Kitchener at the Battle of Omdurman.

The 1972 film Young Winston includes a depiction of the initial Anglo-Egyptian artillery bombardment at the start of the battle as well as a recreation of the charge of the 21st Lancers.

The 2009 novel The Devil's Paintbrush by Jake Arnott involves a retelling of the life of Hector MacDonald, and includes the battle and Kitchener's railway-building drive through Sudan.

The 2005 novel "The Triumph of the Sun" by Wilbur Smith depicts the siege of Khartoum and the Battle of Omdurman with mixture of historical and fictional characters

In art[edit]

The subject of the battle made its appearance in several oil paintings exhibited in Britain at the time. In particular, the charge of the 21st Lancers held special appeal and several artists portrayed the scene including Stanley Berkeley, Robert Alexander Hillingford, Richard Caton Woodville, William Barnes Wollen, Gilbert S. Wright, Edward Mathew Hale, Capt. Adrian Jones, Major John C. Mathews, and Allan Stewart.[7] The pictorial press covered the campaign extensively and employed several artists to record the events.[8]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Road to Omdurman: Omdurman - Analysis and Criticism[dead link]
  2. ^ Winston S. Churchill The Battle of Omdurman, 1898
  3. ^ Ellis, John (1981) [1975]. The Social History of the Machine Gun. New York, NY: Arno Press. p. 86. 
  4. ^ Treatment of wounded at Omdurman Hansard
  5. ^ The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, Churchill
  6. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27023. p. 6688. 1898-11-15. Retrieved 2008-08-23.
  7. ^ Harrington, Peter (1993). British Artists and War: The Face of Battle in Paintings and Prints, 1700-1914. London: Greenhill. ISBN 1-85367-157-6
  8. ^ Harrington, Peter, "Images and Perceptions: Visualising the Sudan Campaign," in Edward M. Spiers (ed.), Sudan: The Reconquest Reappraised. London: Frank Cass, 1998, pp. 82-101. ISBN 0-7146-4749-7.
  • Churchill, Winston Spencer. River War: An Historical Account of The Reconquest of the Soudan. , two-volume unabridged version, published by Longmans & Green in 1899, and abridged to one volume in 1902; unabridged two volume version to be republished by St. Augustine's Press in 2008, ISBN 1-58731-700-1 - also available at the Gutenberg Project

Further reading[edit]

  • Asher, Michael (2005). Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-025855-8. 
  • Brighton, Terry (1998). The Last Charge: the 21st Lancers and the Battle of Omdurman. Marlborough: Crowood. ISBN 1-86126-189-6.
  • Featherstone, Donald (1993). Omdurman 1898: Kitchener's victory in the Sudan. London: Osprey. ISBN 1-85532-368-0.
  • Ferry, John (2008). After Omdurman. London: Robert Hale. ISBN 0-7090-8516-8. 
  • Harrington, Peter, and Frederic A. Sharf (ed.) (1998). Omdurman 1898: The Eyewitnesses Speak. London: Greenhill. ISBN 1-85367-333-1.
  • Meredith, John (1998). Omdurman Diaries 1898: Eyewitness accounts of the legendary campaign. Barnsley: Pen & Sword. ISBN 0-85052-607-8.
  • Spiers, Edward M. (ed.) (1999). Sudan: The Reconquest Reappraised. London: Frank Cass. ISBN 0-7146-4749-7.
  • Ziegler, Philip (1974). Omdurman. New York: Knoff. ISBN 0-394-48936-5. 
  • Zulfo, I.H. (1980). Karari: The Sudanese Account of the Battle of Omdurman. Warne. . ISBN 0-7232-2677-6.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 15°45′07″N 32°31′12″E / 15.75194°N 32.52000°E / 15.75194; 32.52000