There is an old myth that the charge of the 21st Lancers against the Mahdists at the Battle of Omdurman, fought in Sudan on 2 September 1898, was the last full-scale British cavalry charge in history. As with many such myths, this is incorrect, since the charge of the 20th Hussars against Turkish infantry during the Chanak Crisis of 1920 perhaps better deserves this distinction. Nevertheless, this does nothing to diminish the dramatic events of almost 120 years ago, and the legend of the lancers endures in the minds of historians and within the pages of numerous books.
The Battle of Omdurman itself was the grand finale of Major-General Herbert Kitchener’s campaign to re-conquer Sudan from the Mahdists, in order to restore the territory back to Egyptian control. Begun in 1896 as a means of relieving pressure off Italian troops following their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Adwa, the limited campaign soon expanded into a full re-conquest. A number of sizeable actions and battles ensued, including: Firket (7 June 1896), Abu Hamed (7 August 1897) and Atbara (8 April 1898); but that fought near Omdurman would be the largest and most important action by far.
It would be around 06:45 hours that the battle opened when the guns of 32nd Field Battery roared into action. This would begin the first of three phases of the battle, when thousands of the Khalifa’s warriors hurled themselves towards Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian troops who were entrenched behind a zariba constructed around a village called Egeiga near the Nile River. The attack was bloodily repulsed by the intense rifle, machinegun and artillery fire of the well-armed and disciplined British, Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers. By 08:00 hours, the order was given to ‘cease-fire’, and the bodies of thousands of Mahdists lay dead or wounded on the sands in front of Kitchener’s position. The battle, however, was far from over.
Kitchener now pondered what to do next. He was concerned that the Khalifa would retire to the city of Omdurman, thus forcing the Anglo-Egyptian Army into what could prove to be a bitter contest of costly street fighting. Omdurman, therefore, had to be taken before the withdrawing Mahdist warriors could reach it. To ascertain what enemy forces lay between Egeiga and the city, and to sweep any away that might inhibit the advance of the infantry, Kitchener ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Rowland Hill Martin, the commanding officer of the 21st Lancers, to lead out all four of his squadrons – around 320 men in total – and reconnoitre from the southern end of the zariba to the outskirts of the city.
As the lancers rode past the eastern slopes of the Jebel Surgham mountain, they could see columns of thousands of wounded Mahdist warriors making towards Omdurman. Martin ordered his signalling officer to relay what they had seen to Kitchener, and as they awaited a reply they suddenly came under fire, forcing the cavalrymen to take shelter behind some nearby mounds of sand. Eventually, the reply came to advance and ‘use every effort to prevent the enemy re-entering Omdurman’. Martin then sent out several patrols to ascertain what lay ahead, one of which, under the command of Lieutenant Robert Grenfell, skirted around the slopes of Jebel Surgham. When the lieutenant and his men returned, they informed Martin that a force of around 700 to 1,000 warriors were holding position in a khor known as Abu Sunt. This force was acting as a screen to the retreating Mahdists. It was now about 09:00 hours, and Martin was determined to attack and drive off this blocking force.
The lancers descended from the ridge of Jebel Surgham and began to advance on Abu Sunt at walking pace. Once they were within about quarter of a mile of the khor, the cavalrymen could make out a group of 100 to 150 dark blue, motionless figures to their left-front. Moments later, this line of distant figures suddenly opened fire on the advancing cavalry, bringing a small number of horses and their riders crashing to the ground. At once, Martin gave the order to ‘Right wheel into line’ and all sixteen of his troops swung round and, according to Lieutenant Winston Spencer Churchill, ‘locked up into a long galloping line’. The men of the 21st Lancers then broke out into a charge.
Unbeknown to the British cavalrymen, the khor was both wider and deeper than previously thought. If this was not bad enough, as the lancers drew closer to Abu Sunt they suddenly saw a number of warriors and banners unexpectedly rise up from the ground. The position was more heavily defended than anticipated, with over 2,000 Mahdists now awaiting their attackers. The lancers were galloping directly into what was later learned to be a carefully laid ambush!
Moments later, the cavalrymen smashed their way into Abu Sunt, with hundreds of horses and men plunging four to six feet down into the khor. A number of lancers became unhorsed, being stabbed to death by frenzied warriors as they lay helpless on the ground. Others, still on their mounts, continued to charge on, desperately fighting their way through to the other side. Churchill, who had drawn his Masuer pistol before reaching the khor, found himself shooting Mahdists point-blank in their faces, while other troopers experienced their lances or swords shattering into pieces upon impact with their enemy. Individual and particularly violent combats raged across Abu Sunt.
The entire clash of arms lasted less than two minutes, and resulted in the loss of one officer and twenty men of the 21st Lancers killed, while another four officers and forty-six men were wounded. Of the 320 horses engaged in the charge, 119 had been either killed or wounded. Yet the charge had achieved little, and is largely viewed as a near disaster and a terrible mistake by military people of the day and historians ever since. It also showed the inadequacy of the weapons in use by the British cavalry for the type of combat they were now engaged. However, a total of three Victoria Crosses would be awarded to men of the regiment for that fateful day, and the charge was viewed as heroic by the British public at the time. Today, it remains engrained in British military history legend.