Battle of Omdurman: September 2nd, 1898

By Shonfeld, David | History Today, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Battle of Omdurman: September 2nd, 1898


Shonfeld, David, History Today


"THE MASSACRE OF THE ARMY OF Sudanese Dervishes on a plain near Omdurman in the Sudan was an occasion that a new military technology was tested -- to devastating effect -- by Britain in battle. It proved a major factor in Kitchener's victory, in his efforts to reconquer Sudan from the Madhists who had killed General Gordon in 1885, as well as to safeguard the Suez Canal and ensure the region against the threat of French occupation.

The key to Britain's presence in Egypt and the Sudan (Egypt's backdoor and the source of the Nile) was the Suez Canal, opened in 1869. The new quick route to India had to be safeguarded.

As `Sirdar' or commander-in-chief of the Anglo-Egyptian army, Major-General Herbert Kitchener, an engineer and veteran of the Indian army, had spent over two years training his troops and building up extensive railway and steamship supply lines with a view to attacking the Mahdist state to the south.

The Khalifa Abdullahi, leader of the Sudanese and religious successor to the Mahdi, aware of Kitchener's intentions, had assembled a large army near Omdurman, since 1885 the Mahdist capital, across the Nile from Khartoum.

Kitchener's army of 17,600 Egyptian and Sudanese troops and 8,200 British regulars, was heavily outnumbered, but had at its disposal fifty pieces of artillery, ten gunboats and five auxiliary steamers on the Nile. It also possessed forty single-barrelled, water-cooled Maxim machine-guns, each capable of firing six hundred rounds a minute. The British infantry was equipped with Lee Metford rifles, or its successor, the .303 Lee Enfield. They both had a range of 2,800 yards, and a skilled rifleman could fire up to ten rounds a minute.

The Khalifa's army consisted of about 60,000 tribesmen, mainly ansars or servants of Allah, referred to as Dervishes by the British. According to the young war correspondent, Winston Churchill, it resembled nothings so much as a `twelfth-century Crusader army' armed with spears, swords, and with hundreds of banners embroided with Koranic texts.

In terms of weaponry, however, the Khalifa's army was not quite as primitive as it looked. The Dervishes possessed some 15,000 captured shoulder arms, even though they were poorly maintained. Their riflemen were dispersed among the spearmen and swordbearers in the hopes of giving the latter a better opportunity of getting to grips with the enemy. …

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