Following the 1885 fall of Khartoum and death of Maj. Gen. Charles George “Chinese” Gordon, the British resolved to deal with the Mahdi army in the Sudan. Finally, in the fall of 1898, Maj. Gen. Sir Herbert Kitchener led 8,200 British and 17,600 Sudanese-Egyptian troops against a Mahdi army of more than 50,000 dervishes led by Abdullah al-Taashi.
Kitchener landed his forces near Omdurman, a city on the west bank of the Nile opposite Khartoum. There he waited for the Mahdists, deploying his troops in an arc, its flanks on the Nile with several gunboats providing fire support. At dawn on September 2, al-Taashi launched 17,000 dervishes against the British, while a larger Mahdist force swung north, undetected.
At dawn the dervishes—armed mostly with spears, swords and antique rifles—charged the British. At 3,000 yards the British artillery opened up, tearing huge holes in the attackers’ ranks. When the Mahdists came within range of Kitchener’s Maxim machine guns, British gunners mowed down their leading ranks. The dervishes broke, leaving behind 4,000 casualties.
Thinking the battle won, Kitchener ordered an advance on Omdurman, the 21st Lancers in the lead. Attached to the cavalry unit was a young Winston Churchill, doing double duty as army officer and war correspondent. Spotting what appeared to be a few hundred Mahdists, the 400 men of the 21st charged. But the Lancers ran up against 2,500 more Mahdists concealed in a ravine. A quarter of the Lancers fell before they drove back the Mahdists. Churchill’s preference for using a pistol over a sword probably saved his life.
As Major Hector MacDonald’s brigade of 3,000 mostly Sudanese troopers prepared to advance on Omdurman, MacDonald received word the flanking dervish column was approaching the rear of Kitchener’s unsuspecting force. Arranging his force to meet the threat, the Scot received Kitchener’s orders to rejoin the main body. He replied, “I’ll no do it. I’ll see them damned first! We maun [shall] just fight!”
MacDonald maneuvered his forces brilliantly, first employing artillery and machine guns, then disciplined rifle fire. Just when it seemed his men must give way, the Lincolnshire Regiment arrived to deliver cool, deliberate fire into the dervish ranks.
In a final act of desperation, 400 surviving Arab horsemen charged the British lines. “It was evident that they could not possibly succeed,” Churchill wrote. “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…a brown smear across the sandy plain.”
With 10,000 dervishes killed and another 15,000 wounded, the Mahdi army was eliminated as an effective fighting force. Kitchener’s casualties were 48 killed and 382 wounded.
■ If armed with spears, don’t charge machine guns. In fact, infantry should never charge machine guns, a lesson Kitchener should have communicated to troops in France in 1914.
■ Modern weaponry trumps sheer numbers. If your opponent outmatches you in every aspect of conventional warfare, fight him asymmetrically.
■ Career-wise, it never hurts to bring a journalist like Churchill to write up the story.
■ Artillery, machine guns and gunboats are superb things to have on your side when fighting masses of poorly armed tribesmen.
■ Well-trained, disciplined troops are a distinct advantage in any fight.
■ Bring a gun to a sword fight.
■ Bring artillery to every fight.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.