2 September 1898

This illustration by E Matthew Hale of the charge of the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman on 8 April 1898 was produced for Sir Evelyn Wood’s 1915 edition of British Battles on Land and Sea. As they rode over the low ridge, the lancers were surprised by the thousands of Sudanese soldiers concealed behind it.

One of the commanders of the Sudanese army at the Battle of Omdurman, Ibrahim al-Khalil, had the habit of taking two horses with him into battle. The first was always called Aim’, the second one ‘End’. If Aim was hurt, he would switch to End so he could carry on fighting. On the fateful early morning when between 50,000 and 60,000 men of the Mahdist leader, Khalifa ‘Abdullahi, advanced on a mixed British-Egyptian expeditionary force with only half the number of troops, Ibrahim led the army in a massed charge against the enemy encampment. Aim was hit by shellfire and collapsed; Ibrahim jumped onto the ill-named End and was killed by machine-gun fire a few minutes later. Thirteen years earlier, the Mahdist army had swarmed into Khartoum and famously killed General Gordon. At Omdurman, mere numbers no longer sufficed to ensure a Mahdist victory.

The expedition to Omdurman was only loosely connected with the British desire to avenge Gordon’s death. For years after the fall of Khartoum to the Sudanese army of the self-proclaimed Mahdi, the Islamic religious reformer Muhammad Ahmad, the British allowed the new Islamic state to survive. The Mahdi died in 1885 and his place was taken by one of his closest advisers, Khalifa ‘Abdullahi, who used a reign of terror to impose his own domination over the regions of Sudan and to enforce the strict Islamic code favoured by the Mahdi himself.

As the state began to disintegrate in the late 1890s, the British once again became concerned about the region’s security, and the threat to British-occupied Egypt, while the British public was fed on horror stories of rape, torture and slavery which only European rule could expunge. In January 1898, the commander, or sirdar, of the Egyptian army, Colonel Horatio Herbert Kitchener, was sent with a force of 8,000 British and 17,000 Egyptian and Sudanese troops for the long trek to the Mahdist capital at Omdurman, on the opposite side of the River Nile from Khartoum, charged with the unpredictable task of overthrowing the Khalifa.

The risks were considerable since disease and the dangers of river navigation were bound to eat into the small number of European soldiers dispatched for the campaign. Kitchener understood these dangers and insisted on making sure that communication by rail and telegraph would be constructed all the way south into the Sudan; he also tried to discipline his troops to drink only filtered water to prevent dysentery. The long journey for men who had in many cases never seen service in the tropics was fraught with difficulty, with temperatures rising at times to 48°C (118°F), and men and animals covered with a thick, dark dust thrown up by the march of men and horses over the sandy ground. Not until August 1898 did they arrive at the approach to Omdurman knowing that the Khalifa was gathering a large army to challenge them.

The Mahdist leader chose to meet them on a broad plain north of the city with the Karari (Kerreri) hills to the north and the Jebel Surgham hills to the south, both high enough to allow his armies to gather out of sight of the enemy. The Sudanese commanders arrived with their men organized in units called rub’s, each of which comprised 800–1,200 men, most armed with swords and spears, the privileged jihadiya with firearms. After arguing whether it was better to attack by night or by day, the Khalifa finally insisted on an early morning attack. Prayers were said and the standards – Green, Dark Green and Black – were allocated to the main divisions of the Mahdist army. On 1 September, the forces moved into position.

Kitchener arrived at Karari with enough time to build a defensive perimeter of stakes, thorn bushes and shallow trenches (known in North Africa as a zariba). He was supported by ten gunboats on the Nile, armed with thirty small artillery pieces and twenty-four Maxim machine guns. The land forces had forty-four guns and twenty machine guns. These were positioned to do maximum damage to any onrushing enemy. The army stayed on watch the night of 1 September expecting an attack at any moment, but not until early morning did scouts detect the whole Mahdist army on the march. Around 6.45 a.m., the first waves of rub’s, dressed all in white, wailing loudly and firing at random, ran across the barren plain towards the British zariba.

A mix of artillery fire, accurate rifle fire and the machine guns ripped the attacking forces apart. Most died or were wounded at more than 1,000 metres from their goal, brought down by the long-range British Lee-Metford rifle. A few intrepid jihadiya got within 50 metres (160 feet) of the British line before their suicidal run was ended. A second wave attempted to attack from a different direction, but the onrushing soldiers were mown down in their turn. The plain was strewn with the dead and dying. Sudanese cavalry and infantry on the left wing under the Green Standard then attacked the British cavalry and the Camel Corps perched on the Karara hills at Abu Zariba, driving them north but unable to destroy them because of intense fire from two of the gunboats.

It was at this point that Kitchener sent off the 21st Lancers to round the Jebel Surgham hills to try to cut off any Mahdist retreat to Omdurman. Unknown to the British, Osman Digna and 2,000 soldiers were concealed behind the ridge in a small depression. The cavalry rode right into the trap. Their number included the young Winston Churchill, who would later write a two-volume account of the campaign in Sudan called The River War. Attacked on all sides, the lancers fought back, eventually dismounting and using their carbines to drive off the enemy, for the loss of one officer and twenty men. Meanwhile the remaining Black Standard and Green Standard warriors drove forward to meet the advancing British and Egyptian forces, suffering the same withering fire.The large contingent to the Mahdist far left under the young Shaykh al Din arrived too late to prevent the decimation of the Black Standard army under Amir Ya’qub, whose 12,000 men were slaughtered by the British battalions that were now on the move across the plain.

When the final wave of horsemen and infantry attacked from the Karara hills, the forward British units, reinforced from the zariba, inflicted the same punishment. Some of the rub’s’ remaining soldiers rushed at the enemy unarmed, embracing death in their fight with the infidel.By 11.00 a.m. the contest was over. The wounded Mahdists were shot or bayoneted as the British and Egyptian soldiers advanced, since it was argued that they continued to fire or slash with their swords even when immobilized by injury.

An estimated 10,800 Mahdists were killed, 16,000 wounded. Kitchener’s losses were 47 dead and 434 wounded, testament to the efficiency of new forms of defensive firepower against which a mere mass of soldiers was helpless. Omdurman was occupied under a joint Anglo-Egyptian condominium, which lasted until 1956. One of the cavalrymen present on the day of the battle was the young Captain Douglas Haig. Eighteen years later he was ordering his own troops to run the gauntlet of artillery and machine guns across open ground in the first days of Battle of the Somme.