Battle of Omdurman: Blood in the Sand

On the morning of 26 January 1885, after 319 days of siege the city of Khartoum in the Sudan fell to the forces of Muhammad Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, or Expected One, its Commander General George Gordon speared and hacked to death on the steps of the Governors Palace and his severed head carried off in triumph to the enemy camp where a displeased Mahdi, who had ordered that that the English Pasha be spared angrily remarked:

“What is this? What deeds are these, why do you disobey me, why have you mutilated him? What use is it?"

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His apparent respect for his enemy did not extend to the dignified repose of his remains for his head he ordered hung between two trees to be pecked at by crows and looked upon with disdain by children.

His remains he had thrown down a well.

The Sudan, nominally under the control of Egypt, had been cleared of the Infidel but the Mahdi’s dream of spreading his Wahhabi influenced brand of fundamentalist Islam to the rest of the Muslim world would go unrealised for he too would die, suddenly and unexpectedly, just six months after the moment of his greatest triumph.

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The Mahdi was succeeded by his long-time ally Abdullah ibn Muhammad, also known as Muhammad al-Taashi who took the title of Khalifa, but he was not the ‘Expected One’ neither was he entirely trusted being seen as a man of ambition and pride who wished to make himself a King.

His assumption of power did not go unopposed and he was to spend many years establishing his authority maintaining the strict Sharia law that had been imposed by his predecessor and a large army that kept the Sudan in constant preparedness for war. Indeed, he was to use war as a means of diverting criticism of his rule.

In 1887, he invaded neighbouring Ethiopia singling out the Christian population for particularly harsh treatment destroying Churches and massacring thousands but for all the brutality of the campaign and a series of victories that culminated in the death of the Emperor Yohannes IV at the Battle of Metemma, by 1889 he had withdrawn back to Khartoum.

If he had ever truly shared the Mahdi’s vision of imposing Wahhabism on the entire Islamic world, and many doubted his sincerity, then it had stalled in the desert wastes of the Sudan. Even so, al-Taashi’s belligerence and the fervent religious fundamentalism of the Ansar Movement he led posed a constant threat to Egypt and thereby Britain’s control of the Suez Canal its lifeline to the East; but it would not be the shifting sands of Islamic rivalry or the yearning to avenge Gordon that would see the wrath of the British Empire once more bear down upon the Sudan but the ambitions and frailties of its Imperial competitors in the Scramble for Africa.

But Africa was not just the geographical expression of Imperial aggrandisement but also a convenient place for the making of ersatz conflicts and the fighting of proxy wars, an opportunity for the bellicose flexing of muscles far away from the political tinderbox of Europe that could spark a far greater conflict as happened in 1914 with catastrophic consequences.

On 1 March 1896, an Italian attempt to annexe Ethiopia ended disastrously when its army was annihilated at the Battle of Adwa – national hubris had left to national humiliation – but worse it had shown to those seeking to do so that the Western Powers could be successfully resisted.

The Italian defeat had also left their possessions in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere vulnerable to incursion and attack and it was this coupled with French encroachment into the Upper reaches of the Nile Delta that now threatened British hegemony in Egypt.

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Despite its bloody ejection from the Sudan more than a decade earlier Egypt had never renounced its claim to it and in this they retained the full support of the British Government but as long as William Gladstone and his Liberal Party continued to dominate domestic politics there could be no thought of intervention.

He had been reluctant to send the Relief Column that had narrowly failed to extricate General Gordon from Khartoum but despite the defeat in the Sudan being a dent to the pride of the British Empire which by its very nature thirsted for revenge, Gladstone had not been the man to provide it.

In March 1894 however, having failed for a second time to pass a Home Rule Bill for Ireland he resigned the Premiership and retired from front-line politics at the venerable age of 84.

The Liberal Party he left behind was defeated in the General Election the following year and the new Conservative Government under Lord Salisbury pro-actively Imperialist determined upon a show of force in the Sudan to be commanded by the senior British Officer in Egypt, General Kitchener.

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Herbert Horatio Kitchener, an unsentimental man of whom it was said he had no soul, was a career soldier, self-confident, single-minded, short-tempered, and intolerant of fools who at 6’2” and ramrod straight cut an imposing figure.

Indeed, Sir Evelyn Baring who effectively governed Egypt on behalf of the British Empire though it was nominally ruled by the Khedive for the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople thought Kitchener – the finest soldier I have ever seen. Although he regularly heaped scorn upon praise as nothing but the viscous grease of politicians and newspapermen it was an opinion with which he likely agreed.

He had spent many years in Cairo training the Egyptian Army and in 1892 was appointed Sirdar, or its Commander-in-Chief, and four years later was promoted to the rank of Major-General in the British Army.

Kitchener was familiar with the terrain of the Sudan having participated in the campaign to relief Gordon in 1885 and was the obvious choice to lead the Anglo-Egyptian Expeditionary Force that crossed into the Sudan on 12 March 1896, and he was determined that the incursion should be more than a mere display of arms and a camel ride through the desert taking pot-shots at the natives but a campaign of substance and though his progress was slow he began building the infrastructure of a more permanent presence as railway tracks were laid, a water pipeline constructed, and fortified camps built to serve as storage depots and protect the supply lines.

For the most part, aware that the incursion had not yet become a campaign of conquest the Khalifa observed events from afar choosing to harass rather than confront the Sirdar’s army with the only serious clash occurring at Ferkeh when the Allies surprised and routed a sizeable but ill-prepared Dervish encampment.

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But the presence of a British Army in the Sudan had once again revived the campaign to avenge Gordon.

The passage of time had done little to diminish his status in the public imagination as the quintessential Englishman, a Victorian hero who had given his life in the service of God and the British Empire, and as far as the people and the popular press were concerned the New Mahdi was the same as the Old Mahdi and they were both the Mad Mahdi indistinguishable in their savagery and barbarism.

Lord Salisbury’s Government needed little encouragement and in early March General Kitchener received orders for the re-conquest of the Sudan.

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Although his army had been heavily reinforced in the meantime he could still only muster half or less the number of fighting men available to the Khalifa but his 8,200 British Regulars among them the Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders along with 17,600 Egyptian and Sudanese troops were well-trained and well-armed.

Four River Gunboats had been built in Britain and despatched to Egypt in pack form to be reconstructed upon arrival increasing his number of Steamers to ten armed with 36 cannon and 24 machine guns.

The British troops were armed with the new Lee-Metford bolt action magazine rifle and some units were provided with the recently developed hollowed out Dum Dum bullet designed to cause maximum damage to the internal organs that would be banned at the Hague Convention of 1899.

Although they had been trained and were led by British Officers the Egyptian troops along with their Sudanese allies were still not thought entirely reliable and so were armed with the old single-shot Martini-Henry rifle; but then they were expected to play a subordinate role, though this wouldn’t be the case at Omdurman.

There was also the Camel Corps and a sole Cavalry Regiment the 21st Lancers.

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The 21st Lancers would achieve lasting fame at Omdurman and among their number would be the young Lieutenant Winston Churchill of the 4th Hussars then stationed in India.

Churchill was desperate to see action and participate in the Sudan campaign but his attempts to obtain a transfer or secondment to the 21st Lancers despite frequent telegrams and intensive lobbying on his behalf by colleagues and friends were ignored by Kitchener who had little time for (jingo) Officers particularly those who considered themselves journalists wishing to write of their experiences (Churchill had just published his book The Malakand Field Force). The Sirdar was not impressed and turned a deaf ear and it was only when Sir Evelyn Wood, who had the authority to appoint Officers to the Regiment, overruled Kitchener that Churchill at last obtained the transfer he desired but even then he’d had to wait for a fellow Officer to signal his ability to participate due to ill-health.

Kitchener’s ire was increased further when just prior to his embarkation for the Sudan Churchill received the commission as War Correspondent for the Morning Post.

Despite his contempt for some of the Officers under his command with 25,000 men, 44 artillery pieces and 20 Maxim Machine Guns supported by Gunboats he was confident of ultimate success. It was after all, was the best equipped army ever to undertake a desert campaign.

The large Dervish Army, a seething mass of 60,000 fierce and experienced warrior tribesmen who had often tasted victory were armed with spear, sword, knife, and many firearms captured from their Egyptian enemy though they remained largely unskilled in their use.

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Dressed in white tunics with black patches on their chest and accompanied by an array of flags in a multitude of colours, green, black, red, and many white banners embroidered with quotes from the Koran they made for an impressive sight the razor sharp tips of their swords and spears glinting in the desert sun.

It was for them Jihad, or Holy War, and fired by religious zeal they would fight and die for their God against the Infidel it being said that their desire for death was greater than their lust for life.

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Adhering rigidly to the course of the Nile where he could be supplied and supported by his steamers and gunboats Kitchener’s progress was slow much to the frustration of the Government in Westminster which sought a swift conclusion to the campaign and their frustration increased even further when an overwhelming victory at the Battle of Atbara in early April did little to speed the momentum.

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If Government Ministers were muttering dissatisfaction under their breath then Kitchener cared little for it, he knew that inconclusive victories become mere footnotes of history whereas defeats are rarely forgotten.

If it was not in the Sirdar’s character to act in haste then it was not in the Khalifa’s interests to compel him to do so.

He may have wished to lure Kitchener’s Army into the desert wilderness as alongside the Mahdi he had done to General Hicks at el-Obeid with catastrophic consequences for his Egyptian Army fifteen years earlier, but the Sirdar could not be tempted so his advance was closely monitored instead, his patrols were harassed and communications could be often seen flashing across the desert plain but the Sudan is vast in its expanse and there was no need to confront - time is less precious in a timeless place, and Allah would provide.

But the progress of the Sirdar and his Anglo-Egyptian Army, slow though it was, remained relentless nonetheless.

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As August passed into September the Sirdar’s Army reached Kerreri just seven miles short of the Khalifa’s capital at Omdurman on the outskirts of Khartoum where they dug-in to await the inevitable attack.

Flying in the face of military convention which ordained it unsustainable as it precluded the prospect of withdrawal in-extremis, Kitchener entrenched his army with its backs to the River Nile so he could be supported by the gunboats thereby maximising his firepower.

There the army prepared for battle behind the Zariba, a series of shallow trenches protected by a thorn thicket fence with before them a wide open plain almost devoid of cover with hills either side that loomed large in the barren landscape and offered the opportunity for concealment.

Kitchener despatched his cavalry to reconnoitre the terrain and drive any Dervish from the nearby hills but the enemy were closer than at first thought and they soon withdrew back to the Zariba.

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The Dervish Army was advancing fast, some 60,000 men many of them from the feared Haddendowa Tribe known to the British soldier as the Fuzzy-Wuzzy for their distinctive hair in five great columns on a front four miles long with a force so great it appeared to make the ground shake.

An attack seemed imminent as in the Zariba bugles sounded the call to arms but the Dervish stopped short of doing so and instead with a great roar that echoed off the hillsides made camp, their distant flags fluttering in the light breeze.

Battle would be delayed for the time being and as darkness descended searchlights from the steamers on the River Nile swept the desert plain making for an eerie sight as both camps settled down for a nervous if not quiet night.

In the meantime, Kitchener had sent gunboats down river to bombard Omdurman with their howitzers and silence its guns which after a short but ferocious exchange of artillery fire they succeeded in doing.

The Khalifa had intended to prevent the Sirdar from using his gunboats to such good effect by mining the approaches to both Omdurman and Khartoum but the experiment was abandoned when the Egyptian engineer who had been released from prison on condition that he assist in the defence, and the boat he was working from, blew itself up.

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At 05.50 on 2 September 1898, with his men already at their posts, having ordered his cavalry back into the hills, and the gunboats to support the vulnerable flanks of his army, General Kitchener surrounded by his Staff Officers could hear the banging of drums, the blowing of horns, and the barely distinguishable cries of Allahu Akbar, God is Great, on the still, hot air – the Dervish Army was advancing.

The Khalifa’s plan was a simple one - he would overwhelm the inferior Infidel by the ferocity of the attack and weight of numbers sweeping them into the River Nile from where there could be no escape.

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As such, he ordered his trusted subordinate Osman Azrek with two Corps, around 16,000 men, to advance across the open plain and assault the centre of the Allied line whilst simultaneous attacks would be made on both flanks.

In the meantime, he would wait in reserve with a similar number of men concealed behind hills and in the folds of the ground ready to exploit the gaps in the Allied line as the enemy crumbled before the Will of Allah.

Should the slaughter of the Infidel not prove to be the Will of Allah then he had an alternative plan in mind, but this had already been second-guessed by the Sirdar.

The Khalifa’s guns fired first but fell short of the Zariba kicking up dust but little else causing the Allied artillery to retaliate to far greater effect as opening fire at some 3,000 yards distance whilst the Dervish Army remained but dots in the desert the shells tore into their ranks reaping a terrible harvest long before they even came within range of rifle and machine gun fire.

But the Dervish were advancing fast particularly into the hills with the 21st Lancers forced to beat a hasty retreat back to the Zariba whilst the Camel Corps in the Kerreri Hills were forced to dismount and engage in hand-to-hand combat and were only saved from annihilation by supporting fire from the gunboats positioned on the right of the line.

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In the centre the Dervish came on through the torrent of shot and shell and into a withering wall of fire that saw them disappear from view in a cloud of gun-smoke and dust. Few were to get within 350 yards of the Zariba with those armed with rifles lying down to exchange fire whilst others exhausted and terrified sat upon the ground and merely prayed. Unable to close with the Infidel they withdrew in disarray leaving behind more than 4,000 dead and wounded among them, Osman Azrek.

On either flank the Dervish attacks were likewise bloodily repulsed unable to sustain their momentum against the pounding of the howitzers and relentless rat-tat-tat of the Maxim guns coming from the boats.

A lull in the fighting followed the Dervish retreat, and the devastating impact of Allied firepower on their massed ranks now prompted Kitchener to take a bold decision – he would order his army to advance concerned that the Khalifa might withdraw to Omdurman or Khartoum and fight for them street by street, which he did indeed intend to do, and Kitchener did not wish to engage in a siege which would negate his superiority in arms and so he determined to place his army between the Khalifa and his capital forcing him to flee west into the desert.

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His decision was opposed by many on his Staff who thought it premature arguing that the Dervish Army was still intact, indeed many had not yet even been engaged, and that to advance now would be to lose the support of the gunboats moored on the river and expose the army to possible encirclement. But Kitchener’s worst fears seemed realised when reports reached him that large numbers of Dervish had been seen marching in the direction of Omdurman.

The 21st Lancers were sent to reconnoitre the Jebel Surgham and locate the main body of the Khalifa’s Army, this they could not do but they did signal to confirm the earlier reports. A little later they received the order:

“Advance and clear the left flank and use every effort to prevent the enemy re-entering Omdurman.”

Commanding the 21st Lancers Lieutenant-Colonel Martin took the order to mean that he was to engage the enemy where he found them, something he was eager to do, so when he received the news that some 700 Dervishes had been observed sheltering in a Khor, or hollow in the ground, on the road to Omdurman he determined to attack them but whether they had been deliberately reinforced in the meantime or the initial report had been misleading the actual number of Dervishes present was nearer 2,500.

The Officers of the 21st Lancers were desperate to win the Regiment its first battle honours and Lt-Colonel Martin ordered them to do so in the grand style by dispersing the enemy in a classic cavalry charge with lances lowered and swords drawn.

Lt Winston Churchill, commanding a troop, sheathed his sword trusting instead to the Mauser pistol he had purchased in London prior to his departure for the Sudan.

Advancing slowly at first and wheeling left and right to avoid groups of Dervishes who stood in their path they began to pick up the pace as they neared their destination until at 250 yards distant the bugles were blown to sound the charge.

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Whether Lt-Colonel Martin realised it or not he was leading his 350 men into an ambush and as they swept down the side of the Khor they did so into a solid mass of humanity as Dervish tribesmen seemed to appear from nowhere.

Churchill later described the scene:

“A deep crease in the ground – a dry watercourse, a khor – appeared where all had seemed smooth, level plain, and from it there sprang, with the suddenness of a pantomime effect and a high-pitched yell, a dense white mass of men nearly as long as our front and about twelve deep. A score of horsemen and a dozen bright flags rose as if by magic from the earth.”

Surrounded, with their horses speared and slashed with hands reaching up to pull them from the saddle, the Lancers maintained enough momentum to cut their way through but at a cost, 109 horses lost, 20 men killed, and a further 50 wounded. Had the charge stalled it would have ended in a massacre and free of the melee Lt-Colonel Martin wasn’t going to repeat the mistake, he ordered his men to dismount and engage the enemy using their carbines. Under fire and unable to respond the Dervishes simply melted away.

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At 09.15 the Allied Army marching in line of column with the British Brigades in the vanguard moved out from the Zariba heading west towards the Jebel Surgham Ridge from where they hoped to sever the Khalifa’s line of retreat.

The advance was covered, though from some distance, by the gunboats on the Nile as they moved towards Omdurman whilst the artillery and Maxim guns had been distributed throughout the Column to provide added protection on the open plain.

Kitchener had guessed correctly that the Khalifa intended to withdraw to Omdurman and fight a defensive battle but by advancing when he did before being fully aware of the disposition of his enemy’s forces he had exposed his flanks to attack and left the rearguard vulnerable to being separated from the rest of the Column and systematically destroyed.

The Sirdar in his haste had provided the Khalifa with an opportunity he had not expected and it was one he was determined to seize.

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Despite the bloody repulse of earlier in the day he still had some 40,000 men at his disposal, 20,000 in the Kerreri Hills to the east and rear of the Allied Column including fast-moving Baggara Horsemen and his own elite bodyguard the Black Flag concealed behind the Jebel Surgham - and it would be with these and God’s blessing that he would annihilate the Infidel.

As the advance units of the Column began to scale the Jebel Surgham they encountered the 21st Lancers still holding their position and tending to their wounded (many of whom had deep and disfiguring cuts to their legs, arms, and faces) who with the adrenaline still pumping through their veins were eager to make their report and talk of their exploits but General Kitchener remained unimpressed, disappointed that they had failed in their mission to locate the main body of the Dervish Army.

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Bringing up the rear of the Column were the 3,500 men of Colonel Hector MacDonald’s mostly Sudanese Brigade who found themselves particularly vulnerable to attack from the tribesmen massed in the Kerreri Hills and so had been provided with 8 cannon and 3 Maxim guns as an extra precaution; they would prove an invaluable reinforcement as the Column became increasingly stretched, gaps appeared in the line, and their position became ever more exposed.

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The Sudanese contingent of the Sirdar’s Army also drew the ire of their tribal brethren for whom they were not only traitors but apostates who had abandoned the One True Faith and so were primed for death.

As the Sirdar prepared to storm the Jebel Surgham Ridge and expel the Dervish there, MacDonald could already be seen deploying his troops for what he thought was the threat of imminent attack – he was right. Out from behind the Jebel Surgham stormed the 15,000 men of the Black Flag, the finest warriors in the Dervish Army led by Yakub, the Khalifa’s most trusted commander.

Sweeping past and beyond other Allied units on their flanks the Black Flag headed straight for MacDonald’s Brigade still deploying frantically to meet the threat. As they did so the Sirdar’s troops who had since captured the Jebel Surgham Ridge were ordered to fire down upon the Black Flag as they advanced forcing the Khalifa to divert men from the main thrust of the attack to try and re-take the heights. It was a forlorn task and charging uphill into a hail of gunfire they were cut to pieces.

The Black Flag fared little better in their attack upon the rearguards right flank for despite an effective range of only 400 yards and a maximum rate of fire of 12 rounds per minute, which few could achieve, the massed ranks of the Martini-Henry armed Sudanese and Egyptian troops of MacDonald’s Brigade took a terrible toll of the attacking Dervish who began to break up and fall away long before they could even get close to the hand-to-hand fighting they so desperately sought. But any respite for MacDonald’s men would be brief.

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As the Black Flag began to flee the field Ali-Wad-Helu led his 20,000 tribesmen from the Kerreri Hills to attack from the rear as once again the experienced and capable MacDonald had to rapidly re-deploy amidst the chaos of battle and impose discipline on frightened men with parched throats and sweaty palms on the verge of panic.

It must have seemed as if he was being assailed from all directions but now reinforced by an Egyptian Brigade on his left and the Lincolnshire Regiment coming up on his right the Dervish were mown down like skittles.

Yet, had Ali-Wad-Helu co-ordinated his attack with that of the Black Flag MacDonald’s Brigade may well have been overwhelmed and the outcome of the Battle of Omdurman very different. Indeed, Winston Churchill was to express less admiration for the performance of the Sudanese Brigade than others claiming that they had been in a funk and firing wildly and indiscriminately and had only been saved from annihilation by the timely arrival and well-disciplined enfilading fire of the Lincolnshire Regiment; and a careful audit of ammunition expended did reveal that in the final assault each Sudanese and Egyptian trooper had fired on average sixty rounds, an extraordinary amount for a single-shot weapon. But such criticism seems churlish and it was not widely shared.

In a final tragic denouement 400 Baggara horsemen appeared and charged Macdonald’s line, all were shot down.

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As the dust began to settle it became increasingly clear that the Dervish Army had been utterly destroyed in both manpower and spirit. They had lost more than 12,000 men killed, 13,000 wounded, with a further 5,000 taken prisoner.

Despite all the fury of the battle the Anglo-Egyptian Expeditionary Force lost just 47 men killed and 382 wounded, fewer casualties than they had suffered in the engagement at Atbara five months earlier.

It had been a great slaughter as one who had witnessed it later described:

“They could never get near yet they refused to hold back. It was not a battle but an execution. The bodies were not in heaps – bodies hardly ever are – but spread over acres and acres. Some lay very composedly with their slippers placed under their heads for a pillow, some knelt cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces.”

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No weapon had been more effective at Omdurman than the Maxim gun for which a terrain of flat earth and open spaces could not have been more ideal as they swept the landscape reaping a rich and deadly harvest.

In his book on the campaign in the Sudan, The River War, Winston Churchill described the impact of the Maxim gun:

“A dozen Dervishes are standing on a sandy knoll. All in a moment the dust began to jump in front of them, and then the clump of horsemen melts into a jumble on the ground, and a couple of scared survivors scurry for cover.”

The Battle of Omdurman also spawned the author Hilaire Belloc’s famous line:

“Whatever happens we have got the Maxim gun and they have not.”

It was a sentiment echoed perhaps more profoundly by the philosopher Bertrand Russell who saw that courage and belief in one’s cause was no longer enough:

“Ironclads and Maxim guns must (in future) be the arbiters of metaphysical truth.”

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With the Dervish threat eliminated Kitchener ordered his troops to advance with fixed bayonets to clear the field, force any remaining Dervish west into the desert, and despatch those wounded and unable to move of their own accord, and with the blade so as to save on ammunition.

The Khalifa had in the meantime fled to Omdurman where he ordered what remained of his army to join him and defend the city. The order was largely ignored and unable to fight on he later abandoned the city riding a donkey through an opened gate during the hours of darkness with a handful of die-hard loyalists following in his wake.

Shortly after the Khalifa’s hasty departure the Sirdar occupied Omdurman with barely a shot being fired in its defence, Khartoum soon followed.

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When news of the victory at Omdurman reached Britain it was greeted with joy and no little satisfaction as the newspaper headlines screamed – Gordon Avenged! And General Kitchener became the great hero of the late-Victorian era. His reputation soared even further when not long after he thwarted a French incursion into the Upper–Nile in a bloodless confrontation that became known as the Fashoda Incident.

The public also revelled in the four Victoria Crosses that were awarded at Omdurman all to men who had fought with the 21st Lancers, the greatest cavalry charge since the Light Brigade at Balaclava, and as it transpired the last such in British military history. They were the heroes of the battle much to the chagrin of Kitchener who sought to heap praise on MacDonald’s Brigade and their gallant defence of the rearguard.

Whilst Kitchener received the thanks and plaudits of a grateful nation the Khalifa, who hiding out in the desert proved incapable of rallying his forces sufficiently or revive his Ansar Movement that had been so savagely mauled, was killed on 24 November 1899, when his much diminished army was routed at the Battle of Umm Diwaikarat.

The more brutal aspects of the Sudan campaign such as the killing of prisoners and the desecration of the Mahdi’s Tomb were overlooked, at least by the public who were little interested in the subsequent Inquiry into inappropriate conduct which failed to gain any traction and which ended without much fuss in Kitchener’s complete exoneration.

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On 31 October 1898, General Kitchener became Baron Kitchener of Khartoum, Lord K of K, and was to be a surprisingly enlightened Governor of the Sudan given the brutality of its conquest. He was later to bring the Boer War to a successful conclusion and in August 1914 was appointed Minister of War lending his image to one of the world’s most iconic posters.

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On 5 June 1916, he boarded the Cruiser HMS Hampshire on a diplomatic mission to Russia in what would prove to be his last campaign.

In gale force conditions just a few miles off the Orkney Islands HMS Hampshire struck a mine and sank with great loss of life.

The last great hero of the British Empire had drowned aged 65, the nation went into mourning but not all those who had opposed, known or worked with him for Lord Kitchener had been a difficult man, ruthless in his pursuit of victory and brutal in his treatment of others, but then perhaps these are the men upon whom Empires are built and prosper.

** Notables other than Winston Churchill who fought at Omdurman included Major Douglas Haig future Commander of the British Army on the Western Front during the First World War and Lieutenant David Beatty future Admiral of the Grand Fleet and First Sea Lord who commanded one of the gunboats.

**See also Lord Kitchener: Your Country Needs You
Gordon of Khartoum

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