Some battles seem to have attracted more than a reasonable share of fame - or should that be "notoriety"? - and that at Abu Klea in the Sudan during 1885 is one of these. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two about nineteenth century colonial soldiering, having been involved personally at short range, commented that it was one of the most savage in the experience of the British Army in the Sudan. But the problem of this type of fame is that myth and supposition overshadow fact.
Central to the story - whether fact or supposition - was the age-old British fighting formation for defence against either cavalry or overwhelming numbers: the square. The square could be of any size, but usually consisted of a battalion with a company forming each side of the square, facing outwards. It was a remarkably successful formation - as Frenchmen and savages found to their cost. The square at Abu Klea, then, is what this story is all about.
However, even that celebrated poet and author Rudyard Kipling was a casualty of the myth problem. In his poem Fuzzy Wuzzy he describes a healthy and admiring regard on the part of British soldiers towards their erstwhile enemies, the black Sudanese warriors of the Mahdi. And, indeed, actual soldiers of the time who had experienced campaigning in the Sudan did have a thoroughly professional regard for the abilities of their Sudanese foe. But in the poem his fictional soldiers give voice to the understanding common throughout Britain's civilian population at the time (who were, naturally, unaware of the actualities of combat) that the fuzzy-wuzzies - so nick-named by the British troops for their hair-styles - had done the impossible: they had broken a British square.
But they hadn't.
The British government in 1885 found itself yet again in a difficult and potentially embarrassing position. It had ordered the War Office to sent a competent officer to the Sudan to supervise the withdrawal of all Egyptian troops from the region in the face of overwhelming numbers of Mahdist troops who were opposed to the Egyptian rule over their land - the local men had demonstrated on a number of occasions that they were well able to handle any Egyptian military ambitions. The Mahdi, a self-styled "messiah" - there is some doubt about whether he merely used the age-old prophecy of the coming of a man with a gap between his upper teeth who would lead the Sudanese people to freedom as a means to get personal power, or whether he actually believed he was the "promised one" - anyway, this Mahdi had a huge and growing following. The Mahdist armies had destroyed every force sent against them, including a powerful Egyptian formation out from Suakim on the Red Sea coast and led by a former officer of the Indian Army, General Hicks, under contract to the Egyptian government. Hicks and all his officers, British and Egyptian, and almost all his soldiers - who, disastrously, were in the main recently-recruited men with insufficient training - had been killed, their weapons eagerly collected by the Mahdists. In the face of this situation, the British government decided that withdrawal was the only option until a properly-negotiated settlement could be arranged - or until the British managed to train an Egyptian army capable of handling the situation.
The man selected to bring out the Egyptian troops was General George "Chinese" Gordon. Gordon's nickname stemmed from his earlier service in China, forming and training a Chinese army and leading it against a number of local forces led by ambitious war-lords, with some remarkable success. A former officer of the Royal Engineers, he was of a religious nature and stubborn: only his ideas were ever correct! He had served before in the Sudan, however, suppressing the slave trade and toppling corrupt Egyptian commissioners; a large number of the men who were to serve under him again in this campaign were freed slaves and he enjoyed a huge reputation as a saviour. Even some of his officers were themselves former slave-traders, but duly reformed and with intense loyalty to Gordon.
Britain's interest in the area was due entirely to the Suez Canal, which provided a much faster route from Britain to India and the rest of the "Far East" where the British held numerous tracts of real estate. It was necessary, therefore, that they should be able to keep a tight grip on security in Egypt. And, because security in the Sudan had a direct effect upon that in Egypt itself, the same applied to that vast country, which was jointly administered by Egypt and Britain. It is interesting and relevant to this tale that many senior positions in the Egyptian army of the time were filled by British officers either appointed by the War Office in London or under contract to the Egyptian government, as had been Hicks; it was generally reckoned that very few of the Egyptian officers of the day were sufficiently competent to handle affairs unguided - hence the appointment of Gordon.
The outlying garrisons were with difficulty and some casualties brought in to Khartoum, principal city of the Sudan and lying on the left - western - bank of the Nile. The river was navigable to Khartoum from the north (with the exception of a few rapids where the boats had to be hauled up the torrents of falling water by teams of men on the banks) and Gordon had the service of a few paddle steamers in addition to his land force; these steamers had been brought overland in pieces and assembled above the rapids in some cases, in others they too had been hauled up the hard way. The provision of boats was not without losses to them; the rapids were vicious. These boats were duly armed with machine guns and cannon on Gordon's instructions, with Egyptian soldiers aboard under British officers and sergeants to garrison these mobile bunkers. Gordon was able, using these craft, to maintain at first a rather tenuous contact with the authorities in Egypt, the boats being frequently shot up from the banks; but, in the last stages of the siege, boats were either sunk or captured - indeed, the last boat out, carrying his British second-in-command with Gordon's report and despatches, and a few other Europeans including journalists and businessmen, was captured and the passengers and crew executed.
As an Engineer, however, Gordon was ideally placed to arrange for the defence of Khartoum, and he ordered the placing of locally-made mines, the digging of ditches which were then flooded by connecting them to the Nile, the placing of artillery to cover approaches, and so on. The problem, however, was that Gordon had been ordered to bring the troops out of the Sudan or to leave them and escape by himself if full withdrawal were to prove impossible, but quite definitely not to stay and fight. That didn't suit Gordon's loyalty to "his" people; he felt immovably that he couldn't just pull out by himself and leave those men whom he had saved from slavery to be either enslaved once more or to be killed; and his judgment was that the full withdrawal ordered was not practicable. As far as he was concerned, these people needed him, and he simply wasn't going to leave them. He sent messages to Britain saying so. And, being Gordon, refused to give in when very specifically ordered to escape.
Inevitably, then, the Mahdi's forces closed in around Khartoum; to them the city was a source of food, weapons and - frankly - men; the Mahdi's army already numbered many former enemies amongst its ranks. And there was also the matter of this white foreigner named Gordon who earlier had been - was still, really - interfering in the private affairs of the Sudan. The siege became closely prosecuted, with attack and riposte from both sides. Casualties were higher amongst the Mahdi's troops, but then he could afford to lose men; Gordon couldn't.
The Liberal government of British prime-minister William Ewart Gladstone, back in London, were embarrassed because they had not wanted another war; Gladstone was a renowned pacifist. But now the people of the country, duly enlightened and encouraged by the anti-Gladstone newspapers, were clamouring for a relief column to be sent to rescue the famous Gordon. Gladstone, typically, dithered; he was famous for his inability to make decisions. It took some months before, under pressure from the press and many members of parliament - even of his own party, it must be said - Gladstone reluctantly ordered the War Office to despatch troops to bring out Gordon. The job was handed to General Sir Garnet Wolseley.
Wolseley was the inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan's caricature officer: "I am the very model of a modern major-general". Talented, vastly conceited, arrogant and vindictive, and the star of the British Army - well he thought he was, anyway - Wolseley attracted a covey of ambitious officers to whom he was able, in his position as chief of staff of the Army, to give preferment. Unfortunately, his followers included a number of officers of strictly limited talent other than their praise and adulation for Wolseley, which, driven by personal ambition, knew no bounds.
Wolseley, being a bright officer despite all his failings, already had a draft plan in being just in case the government - actually, just Gladstone - finally decided to make a move, so in no time troopships were sailing for Alexandria in Egypt. There, he set about the final organisation of his men. To lead them he nominated himself; after all, the rescue of the public's hero, Gordon, would be a feather in his cap.
The relief column set off south from Wadi Halfa following the Nile in the scorching August of 1885. Some of the troops marched, some were transported in barges and feluccas and some rode camels - Wolseley had selected a number of troops to form camel-mounted regiments. The Nile provided more than just a navigation aid and a channel for the boats; it also gave the troops and their impressed labour force of Egyptian and Sudanese porters and hauliers a vital source of drinking water. While they were near the river, they would never be short of that commodity, so vital for desert travel.
But there was a difficulty concerning the river: the Nile doesn't flow in a straight line. Some way south of the marching column's start point at Wadi Halfa and over half-way to Khartoum, the river follows a huge bend to the east and troops marching along its banks would be taken many many miles out of their way. What to do?
As we have observed, Wolseley had a plan in mind even before the column had formed up. He had decided to send a sizeable part of his force in a more-or-less straight line from Korti, which stood on the north (right) bank of the Nile, down to Metemmeh, just north of Khartoum itself, across the arid desert contained in the "bulge" of the river's mammoth meander. This move was a principal reason for the formation of the camel regiments (although Wolseley had also assigned to the desert column for scouting some ordinary cavalry - the 19th Hussars - with their thirsty horses). So, having reached Korti at the end of the year, the relief column then split into its two components and the desert force crossed the river and set off into the wasteland.
There were a few wells along the route and the desert force stopped at each to refill water bags and canteens. It was a slow process as the provision at each well was not designed for hundreds of men and animals; water was scooped up in leather bags lowered into the water on a rope at the end of along pole. The commander of the force, 42-year-old General Sir Herbert Stewart, dropped off a garrison of 300 men to guard the best well, positioned half-way along the route; then he and his troops pressed on south.
The march was not without its perils. At night, many soldiers of the camel corps dropped off to sleep aboard their still-moving mounts and a few, un-noticed by their dozing comrades, failed to steer their equally-dozy beasts in the line the column was taking and woke up well away from the column, completely lost, out of sight of the rest of the troops; and in due course they died of thirst. Some other men died of heat stroke.
But Stewart had the vast majority of his men together and in good condition for a fight when, just north of the wells at Abu Klea, a few miles from the river, he bumped into a Mahdist force.
Mounted scouts of the 19th Hussars spotted the Mahdists well before the marching British came up to them, and galloped back to report to Stewart. The enemy troops numbered around 10,000, so Stewart and his men were well-outnumbered - he had roughly 1500 soldiers all told - but they had one significant advantage in the equipment his column had brought with them, which to some extent - in theory, at least - made up for the numbers difference.
There was current at the time in Britain a jingle relating to the colonial wars around the world, when British troops usually seemed to be out-numbered by the local forces. It went:
"No matter what happens, we have got
the Gatling gun - and they have not!"
Stewart's men were accompanied by a naval contingent and they had brought a Gardner gun - similar in many ways to the Gatling, but the choice of the Royal Navy while the Army preferred the Gatling. The sheer firepower of a machine-gun made the sweat and tears of heaving it around well worth the effort. Just why it was deemed good practice to have a naval contingent along with the column to provide automatic fire potential is a mystery; there were suitable Maxim teams from the Army which could have been included, but this sort of arrangement was quite common in the colonial wars of the British 19th century.
So it transpired that the two forces eyed each other up for a while, weighing possibilities. Stewart needed to advance, because the wells at Abu Klea lay only two miles (3.2 kms) further on and the water bags needed replenishment. The Mahdist force commander, Osman Digma, understood this perfectly. Indeed, it was the reason for his Sudanese warriors being where they were, acting as a blocking party; Digma knew that the British would have to fight him to get to the water - and his numbers should be sufficient to ensure victory. The day was well on when the two groups met, and so Stewart decreed that his men should form a defensive square and settle down for the night, to rest before the inevitable battle on the morrow. Rest actually came later: first, the tired soldiers constructed a zareba, a fence of camel-thorn about waist-high all round their camp, as a defence against charging Mahdists.
There was a little patrol skirmishing during the night as Mahdists probed the British defences, but nothing of any great consequence. In the morning, early, and having left a garrison in the zareba, Stewart got his men moving towards the wells in a direct challenge to the defenders. He selected a square as the most appropriate formation, accepting the difficulty of cross-country movement in this layout as a worthwhile trade-off for its potential defensive advantage - there was a virtual certainty that the Mahdists would attack before he reached the wells; indeed, they had to. To act as advanced warning in case of their attack, Stewart ordered a screen of skirmishers to be thrown out a few hundred paces all round the square.
And attack the Mahdists duly did. The assault came from two separate groups, the one on the east side of the square a good deal bigger than the other, on the west. On the east side of the square, that is, the British left flank, were the Guards camel regiment and, well towards the rear face of the square but still on the left flank, the Gardner gun with its sailor attendants. The face of the square in advance of the Gardner was sloped inwards, arranged by having fewer men placed in the front of the square than in the rear face, so the gun would have an uninterrupted field of fire more-or-less forwards; Stewart had realised that the machine-gun's fire would be more effective if laid across the Mahdist leading ranks rather than directly at the mass - it would be able to fell attackers as they attacked, rather than as they moved forward to the assault. Thus the Gardner and its crew were sticking out a little from the face of the square.
Unused to land-based operations, as the Mahdist assault came in and the square halted to fend it off, the sailors pushed the Gardner out of the square still further, to have an even better field of fire, but leaving the gap thus created in the square unfilled so that they would have space to move back into its protection when they needed. That was fine until the machine gun jammed - and it jammed solid after firing only about 70 rounds! In a trice the charging Mahdists changed course, ran over and round the useless gun and through the gap in the square it had once occupied. They were now inside the square and behind the ranks of soldiers.
Here the very compactness of the square came to the British soldiers' aid as much as it hindered the soldiers of the Mahdi; it was roughly 75 yards (68 m) along each face. Inside its four sides were a host of camels and other beasts plus all the paraphernalia of an army on the march. The charging Mahdists were halted by the lack of space to charge rather than by any other cause. It was in this challenging position for the attackers that the soldiers of the rear rank of the rear face of the square about-faced and poured volley after volley at point blank range into the enemy mass, inevitably in the excitement missing some men and killing a number of their own camels. So far, so good; then some of the soldiers of the western (right) face of the square - the rear rank of that embattled face - turned and charged with the bayonet to clear the Mahdist survivors out of British territory. Then the square closed up again.
During this short episode - it lasted only a few minutes - there were a number of separate acts of bravery and tragedy for the soldiers. The chief petty officer of the Gardner's naval crew was killed in the rush, along with some others of his men; his officer, wounded by a spear thrust, fell underneath the gun but survived. A soldier on the same left face of the square quit its protection to rescue an officer who had been wounded while himself trying to rescue some of the skirmishers who had been too late in getting back to safety in the ranks, while another very experienced officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Burnaby, was killed in the same attempt.
Meanwhile, the main press of assaulting warriors closed with the ranks of soldiers despite the horrendous losses they were suffering from the steady rifle volleys of the .45 inch (11.4 mm) Martini-Henry rifles carried by the soldiers. Bayonet clashed with shovel-headed spear and curved scimitar, rifle-butts were used as clubs - the battle became what one might describe as "up close and personal". In this melée the volleys naturally became a trifle disrupted, but still they crashed out; it was the men of the front ranks who used bayonet and butt, and in doing so they effectively protected their rear-rank comrades who maintained the volley fire as best they could and their "best" was extremely effective, as we shall see.
The front and rear ranks of the square were hardly involved other than to pick off Mahdists who overlapped the adjacent faces and ran around to their own. The thunder of volleys came mainly from the eastern face of the square, to a lesser extent from the western face.
Then, suddenly, it was over as quickly as it had begun. Surviving warriors ran back the way they had come, leaving a litter of bodies around the square. The whole action had lasted about fifteen minutes, no more.
The next day found Stewart and his little army at the river, having filled their water carriers at the Abu Klea wells; they were not yet near Metemmeh but only a few miles from it - and within striking distance of Khartoum. Stewart reckoned that he should wait for the river-following main force to come up - on the other side of the river - as he had certainly insufficient numbers to take on the vast horde of Mahdists surrounding the city. But his personal luck was out; in scuffles around his camp, Stewart was severely wounded and died later the next day.
One has to wonder just what was in Wolseley's mind when he sent Stewart and the camel force across the desert to Khartoum. The move was, in effect, a classic case of dividing his force in the face of the enemy - well, it would be "in the face of" when they got to where they were going. Just what he expected Stewart and his (originally) 1800 soldiers to do against the tens of thousands the Mahdi was known to have around Khartoum is debatable. Only with the arrival of the main force following the Nile was it realistically possible to take on the enemy with some prospect of winning. Think about it; if Stewart's force was sufficient to handle the relief of Khartoum by itself - or to survive, anyway - then why did Wolesley take thousands more men along? Therefore, the desert column was not by itself sufficient in numbers to do the job it was given. Certainly, Stewart's men would arrive ahead of the main force, but to what end? And there are other questions which arise stemming from Wolseley's formation of the camel corps and its despatch across the "bend" of the Nile.
The casualty figures reveal a lot about colonial wars and the techniques and equipment used in fighting them. British casualties at Abu Klea amounted to 74 dead and 94 wounded, while the Mahdists lost a total of around 1100, or over six times the British losses. Of the Mahdist casualties, the majority would have proved fatal as their medical services were non-existent, although their soldiers were tough and fit to an extent the British could hardly dream of; but the Martini-Henry's bullet was a real man-stopper, tearing chunks of flesh from its victim, and usually put paid to any thoughts of survival from battle wounds. This suggests that the eventual Mahdists' death toll would number near 1000, allowing wounds from bayonets included in the total casualties quoted above to not prove fatal, which adjusts the actual kill ratio - that is, looking only at fatalities - to about 13:1.
Even allowing for a degree of supposition in their calculation - as above - the relative casualty statistics are interesting. At the battle of Rorke's Drift six years earlier the corresponding ratio was 17:1 during the battle and 47:1 after the soldiers had finished off severely-wounded Zulus who would have died anyway from the wounds they had received, while using the same weapon, the .45 inch (11.43mm) Martini-Henry rifle, even including in the calculation 12 soldiers killed when they were helpless casualties in the primitive hospital - and when the defending force had no machine guns. Why the huge difference?
With a single-shot weapon not fitted with a magazine, it was essential for survival against large odds for the killing to start as far from the soldiers' ranks as was possible; at close range the charging warrior could cover anything up to 25 yards (23 m) while the soldier loaded his next round. Constant practice was needed to ensure the soldier's speed in the reloading process and the ability to do it without any fluster resulting from nervousness as the enemy approached ever closer.
At Rorke's Drift the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion 24th Foot were virtually all members of an unfashionable bog-standard infantry regiment which used a huge amount of its non-combat time in this essential weapons practice; to give some idea of what was not only possible but actually practised, the contemporary 41st Foot comments in its regimental history (about its involvement in the same campaign) that its men opened effective fire on Zulus at 500 yards (455 m) having started to seriously harass them at 1000! (Interestingly, in the late 20th Century these two regiments were amalgamated to form the 24th/41st Royal Regiment of Wales.) The camel-mounted soldiers of Stewart's expedition, however, had been largely selected from fashionable cavalry and Guards regiments, used more to ceremonial duties than to basic mud-soldiering. All the same, the Mahdists had had a hammering even if not to the extent of the actions against the Zulus. Interesting, again, however, is the action of the west face of the square in clearing it with the bayonet: these were more ordinary line infantry. Hmm. One wonders if these facts were instrumental in persuading the War Office that realistic battle training be included for the Guards regiments of future years - which actually happened.
It is also revealing that the British casualties at Abu Klea showed such a high proportion of fatalities amongst the total, surely a testament to the effectiveness of the Mahdists' shovel-headed spears - similar in some respects to the assegais of the Zulus - and their long-bladed swords: the wounds inflicted by these weapons were frequently, like those of the Martini-Henrys, so severe that death was the inevitable result even if it was not immediate. Thus we have a direct comparison between the effectiveness of a modern weapon system against a medieval one; the essential difference was just that the Mahdists' weapons were only effective at arm's length, otherwise their lethality was every bit as savage as the rifles.
One wonders, too, about the short-term capability of the Gardner machine gun at Abu Klea; did its seventy or so rounds actually fired match the effect of rifles and spears against a massed target, or was it merely a producer of noise? We shall probably never know.
When it came down to face-to-face combat, the bayonet only just held its own against the spear and sword. Later analysts have claimed that in all battles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the bayonet did not earn its keep. This conclusion is derived from a trawl of casualty statistics from military hospitals. But what the researchers missed was that dead men were not taken to the hospital. And bayonet wounds - properly applied, and we must remember that British soldiers of the period (but not later) spent a deal of time practising their bayonet drills - bayonet wounds, then, tended to be fatal. So, no, the bayonet was not a useless encumbrance; for the soldier with a single-shot breech-loading rifle, it was his back-up weapon in a way the automatic pistol became a century later. The fact was, however, that the soldier had to be remarkably quick in withdrawing his bayonet from a victim he had just skewered or the next enemy warrior would be on him with unencumbered spear or sword.
While it is said that comparisons are odious, we need to pursue them if anything is to be learned. The soldiers at Abu Klea had to fight where Stewart had put them, in a square, standing or kneeling, whereas those at Rorke's Drift fought mainly behind barricades of mealie bags and biscuit tins. So were the men at Abu Klea fighting at a disadvantage? No - other than that they were commanded by Stewart - for their barricades were literally behind them, in the form of their camels and horses. French Foreign Legion contemporary practice in their so-called "mounted companies" was to fort up behind their mules if caught in an otherwise indefensible position. Surely, some of the mules died in this circumstance; but far fewer men died and that is the point. Again, French practice was for two men to share one mule; had Stewart's desert force lost camels they would surely not have lost over 50% of the beasts, and thus his men, who were originally supplied a camel each, would have been able to share one camel to two men after the battle and still be a very mobile force. This doesn't imply two men riding, for camels are actually quite delicate beasts and the load would have proved unacceptable. What the Legion practised was one man riding, together with the heavy campaign kit of the other, while the second man marched or jogged alongside, the men changing places at regular intervals. It wasn't the case that Stewart didn't understand the principle, however; he had ordered and had had built a camel-thorn zareba the night before the battle for the express purpose of impeding any charging Mahdists. But on the day of the battle, apparently pre-occupied with keeping a tidy formation while actually moving cross-country, Stewart ordered a square with his defence barricade safely out of harm's way behind the soldiers. Oh.
Is there a clue in Stewart's age. At just 42 he was remarkably young - about three ranks too young! - to be a major-general. Yet he was Wolseley's selection for the task, and could not have achieved his rank nor his assignment without Wolseley's approval or sponsorship. Yet again we see the probability of adulation (for his chief) taking precedence over solid ability. Stewart is supposed to have conducted a masterly action during the battle of Tel-el-kebir and in other fights, however; it is also possible, then, that he actually had genuine ability - or was that supposition the result of Wolseley's propaganda on behalf of one of his protegés? Stewart certainly had ambition; after commencing his service in the slightly unfashionable 37th Foot (The North Hampshire Regiment), he transferred to the much more socially prestigious 3rd Dragoon Guards and was soon known even in royal circles. There is a slight clue even here, in that transfer. The North Hampshires were another bog-standard infantry unit and it would have needed a massive change of professional thinking for Stewart to have changed to become a cavalryman and still remain comfortable and capable in his new guise. Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the tendency for many officers of the day to have been uninvolved in the actual work of soldiering; the uniform merely provided a social opportunity. Stewart must remain something of an enigma, then - but one with a big question mark against his reputation.
To sum up. The battle fought by British and Sudanese men at Abu Klea was the wrong battle at the wrong place, brought about by the thoroughly questionable decisions - both strategic and tactical - of the overall commander, Wolseley, the thoroughly questionable tactics of the force commander, Stewart, and the entirely professional appreciation and command of their enemy, Osman Digma. As with every battle, however, once they had been committed it was the ordinary soldiers who carried the burden of the fight. At Abu Klea both British and Sudanese soldiers performed with the exemplary precision of well-trained and experienced professionals, as did many of the British junior commanders - especially those of the right and rear faces of the square who on their own initiative ordered their own rear ranks to about-face and clear away the invading Mahdists.
But the Mahdist Sudanese "broke a British square"? Absolutely not; that they got into the square at all was due to the gap being opened in the left face of the square by inexperienced sailors. And who invited them along when the Army had its own Gatlings?