The deserter Gustav Klootz had seen death before, but never carnage like this. The bodies were scattered over a distance of two miles through the thorn-scrub: eleven thousand Egyptian soldiers and camp-followers in piles, hacked, stabbed and shot to ribbons. Swarms of dervishes were moving among them, dipping their ten-foot-long spears ritually in the wounds. They were stripping the corpses of everything – weapons, ammunition, boots, watches, even the blood-soaked uniforms themselves. The sky was already black with circling vultures. Some of the dead were smouldering from bullets fired at point-blank range. The dervishes claimed they were infidels being consumed by hellfire. Klootz saw one dead soldier hanging suspended from a huge baobab tree, where he had probably climbed in a futile attempt to escape the slaughter.
Among the corpses was that of Klootz’s former commander, Lieut. General William Hicks. Nearby were the bodies of the two men for whom Klootz had served as orderly – the giant Prussian Major Baron Gotz von Seckendorff, and the drunken Irish war-correspondent Edmund O’Donovan, of the Daily News. O’Donovan in particular had been furious at Klootz’s betrayal. ‘What must be the condition of an army,’ he had written in his journal after Klootz had absconded, ‘when even a European servant deserts to the enemy?’
Klootz, a tall, blond Berliner with socialist notions, had joined the dervishes at er-Rahad a week previously and had converted to Islam. He had contributed to the massacre by alerting the enemy to the column’s weakness. He had once won the Iron Cross for bravery with the Uhlans, but still he was nauseated by what he saw on the battlefield. ‘I had the greatest difficulty in keeping myself from breaking down,’ he said, ‘when I saw the mutilated corpses of those with whom but a short while before I had laughed and spoken.’
The savage attack by forty thousand screaming dervishes had smashed into the Egyptian column in the forest of Shaykan, Kordofan Province, in the western Sudan, that morning, 5 November 1883. Hicks’s force had been moving tactically in three ragged squares, one up and two back. The leading square had buckled instantly under the onslaught. The riflemen in the flanking squares were so exhausted and racked with thirst that they could hardly focus. They had wheeled and fired blindly into the mêlée, killing their own comrades as well as the enemy. ‘Almost at the same instant,’ said Mohammad Nur al-Barudi, Hicks’s cook, who had survived after being shot and slashed with a sword, ‘the dervishes simultaneously attacked from the woods on both sides and from front and rear. The wildest confusion followed. Squares fired on each other, on friends and enemies… the surging mass of dervishes now completely circled the force and gradually closed in on them.’ Any remnants of discipline among Hicks’s force evaporated. The squares fractured into thrashing knots of men, who were cut to pieces. ‘No proper formation could be preserved among the soldiers,’ an unnamed survivor said. ‘They fought in detached groups, each body of men surrounded by [dervishes], who picked them off in turn.’
The only organized resistance came from the eleven European officers and their bodyguard of Bashi-Bazuks, or irregular cavalry – mostly Turks, Albanians and Shaygiyya tribesmen from the northern Sudan. On point of the column when the attack came, they drew up with their backs to a baobab tree, and fought to the last man. Hicks himself was one of the last to die. He emptied his revolver three times, loading and reloading automatically. When his rounds were spent, he charged a body of dervish horsemen brandishing his sword so maniacally that they actually ran away. His stallion wounded, he slipped out of the saddle and fought the enemy off with his blade, until he was speared to death. ‘[Hicks] was full of courage like an elephant,’ said Sheikh ‘Ali Gulla, a dervish wounded earlier in the fighting. ‘He feared nothing… the bravest of all the brave men I have known.’ Afterwards, the heads of both Hicks and Seckendorff were cut off and carried as trophies to the dervish camp, where Klootz was required to identify them. Later they were stuck on spikes over the gate of el-Obeid.
The Egyptian colonial government had walked into this massacre through over-confidence and a desire for decisive action. For two years a rebel force based in Kordofan had inflicted on them defeat after defeat. Columns had been ambushed and wiped out, garrisons had been slaughtered. Then, in January 1883, Kordofan’s capital, el-Obeid, had fallen. The Khedive Tewfiq had at first dismissed the rebellion as a local disturbance by religious fanatics. By early 1883, though, it had become clear that if el-Obeid was not retaken the whole of the Sudan might be lost.
The rebellion was led by a Muslim holy man named Mohammad Ahmad, who claimed to be the Mahdi – the direct successor of the Prophet Mohammad. His followers were known as daraweesh, after the Sudanese colloquial word for ‘holy men’ – anglicized as ‘dervishes’. Preaching death to anyone who refused his own brand of Islam, the Mahdi had subverted tens of thousands of tribesmen from the Nile Valley and the western Sudan, united in their shared religion and their hatred of Turco-Egyptian rule.
In September, the Khedive Tewfiq had sent the Hicks expedition to recapture el-Obeid and put an end to the Mahdi once and for all. It was the largest modern army ever dispatched into the interior of the Sudan: 8,300 infantry, nearly two thousand cavalry, an artillery battery of sixteen Krupp mountain-guns and Nordenfeldt machine-guns, and a baggage-train of two thousand men and some six thousand camels, mules and donkeys. It should have been formidable weighed against the motley rabble the Mahdi could muster, many of whom were armed with swords, sticks or spears. But the Egyptian force had one major weakness: its morale.
Many of the troops had been captured by the British fighting for the Egyptian nationalist leader, Colonel ‘Arabi Pasha, at Tel el-Kebir in the Nile Delta the previous year. Most had been sent to the Sudan in shackles. A British officer who had inspected them in Cairo before departure had been shocked to discover that some had cut off their own trigger-fingers to avoid being re-enlisted. Others had even rubbed lime into their eyes to ruin their eyesight. Almost all had obtained forged certificates proving that they could not be called on for further service.
As for Hicks himself, his name had been literally picked out of a hat in Cairo’s Shepheard’s Hotel. Though he had never held a major executive command before, he was a courageous, competent officer, concerned simply with getting the job done. Fifty-three years old, married with two children, his ambition was to obtain a secure full-time post in the Egyptian service. He had arrived in the Sudan with dreams of a knighthood, and later of taking over from the current Sirdar or Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian army, Sir Evelyn Wood, VC. Tall, rugged and physically tough, Hicks was a retired honorary colonel of the Indian army. He had survived more than twenty actions in India and Abyssinia, and had been mentioned in dispatches twice. Despite the calumnies poured on him afterwards, he was no fool.
In June, he had suggested that the army should be used simply to defend the Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, and the Jazira – the area to the south between the Blue and White Niles. Here, in April, his field force had held steady and had scored one of a handful of victories against the rebels in the past two years. Dervish horsemen had charged to within a few yards of the square, but had been flattened by volleys from the Egyptian troops. Six hundred dervishes had been left dead on the battlefield, including a brother of the Mahdi. ‘The Egyptian soldiers were much steadier than I expected,’ Hicks had written after the first engagement, ‘but I don’t know that they will be so steady when we cross to the Kordofan side, where we shall meet many more rifles and guns.’
Hicks was correct in his assessment. Fighting in sight of the Nile, with the support of armed steamers, was one thing: marching out into the arid steppes of Kordofan was quite another. What Hicks did not know was that the Egyptian fellahin had a traditional terror of the desert.
As an Englishman in the service of the Egyptian Khedive, though, Hicks was in a difficult position. The Khedive was not master in his own country. Ousted in 1879 and replaced by the nationalist Colonel ‘Arabi Pasha, he had been reinstated by the British after the battle of Tel el-Kebir in 1882. Since then, Khedive Tewfiq had ruled only in name. The real authority in Egypt was Her Britannic Majesty’s agent in Cairo, Sir Edward Malet.
Malet agreed with Hicks that the army should be used only to defend Khartoum, but his hands were tied by his own government. Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, a Liberal, was reluctant to get drawn into affairs in the Sudan. His Foreign Secretary, George Leveson-Gower, Lord Granville, had obliged Malet to carry on the pretence that, in its relations with the Sudan, the Egyptian government was in fact independent.
Sir Evelyn Baring, who took over Malet’s job three days after Hicks had left, had been opposed to the expedition from the start. He later blamed the massacre on British hypocrisy. Gladstone’s government, he said, could not claim to have been unaware of the dangers. In March 1883 a British officer, Lieut. Colonel John Donald Hammill Stewart of the 11th Hussars, had been sent to Khartoum. He had produced a report outlining the risks of an expedition into hostile territory, which had been scathing about the cowardliness of the Egyptian troops and their officers. Stewart had been clear in his opinion that, should Hicks be defeated, the whole of the Sudan would probably be lost.
Instead of showing a firm hand, though, Gladstone’s government had allowed Hicks’s men to go like lambs to the slaughter. If, against all odds, Hicks succeeded, they would enjoy the kudos. If he failed, they believed – quite wrongly – that they could wash their hands of the whole matter. The Khedive Tewfiq, unfettered by advice from Malet, also chose to ignore Stewart’s warning. His government was determined to show the British they were still capable of handling trouble in their own back yard.
Hicks, who had de facto authority in the Sudan, could have disputed the Khedive’s instructions by arguing that his superiors in Cairo were unaware of conditions on the ground. It had been impressed on him, though, that his appointment was a fine opportunity to distinguish himself. ‘It is most important that this campaign is a successful one,’ he had written in January, ‘as the retention or loss of the Sudan depends on it.’6 Originally sent to Khartoum as second-in-command, he had fought hard to get himself appointed commander-in-chief. Having attained his wish, it would have seemed churlish of him to refuse to march. It would also have been anathema to a professional soldier who had just been given his first big command, and might even have opened him to a charge of cowardice. In any case, he had his Krupps and Nordenfeldts, and hoped these modern weapons would make up for his worthless soldiers.
Hicks set out with his army from Khartoum on 5 September 1883, on a campaign that, as Times correspondent Frank Power commented, ‘even the most sanguine look forward to with the greatest gloom’. Power was supposed to accompany Hicks but was providentially evacuated back to Khartoum with dysentery on the third day out. Long before, though, he had confidently predicted that all Hicks’s Krupps and machine-guns would not deter the Mahdi’s fanatics. If fifty dervishes managed to get inside the Egyptian square, he declared, the whole column would be lost.
Had Hicks followed his instincts he might still have prevailed. His original plan had been to approach el-Obeid from the north, which entailed using a short-cut passing through the fringes of the Sahara desert. Hicks was dissuaded from this plan by ‘Ala ad-Din Pasha, a former Ottoman cavalry officer whom Hicks himself had proclaimed civil governor-general of the Sudan, and who was to die with him at Shaykan. ‘Ala ad-Din preferred the more southerly route, along the Khor al-Habl, a seasonal watercourse likely to yield more abundant water. Reluctantly agreeing to take this route, Hicks planned to leave small garrisons at intervals along it to safeguard a withdrawal. These posts would also serve as way stations for supply caravans due to move up later from the Nile. Again, the governor-general deterred him, persuading him that to divide their force would be dangerous. The small garrisons, ‘Ala ad-Din said, would in any case be picked off piecemeal by the rebels.
Hicks was a good officer but felt unable to delegate, because none of his men had had staff experience. He neglected strategy and intelligence. His biggest mistake, though, was in allowing his instincts and experience to be overruled by ‘Ala ad-Din. On the southern course, the expedition was in hostile territory. Here, the dervishes operated a scorched-earth policy, moving tribes from their villages, polluting or filling in wells, and manipulating the movement of the column. From the day Hicks left the White Nile at ed-Duem on 22 September, three thousand rebel scouts shadowed him all the way.
Frank Power’s observations had proved tragically prescient. After harassing the column for weeks, on 1 or 2 November – the actual date is disputed – the dervishes had occupied the water-pool at Birka, forty miles south of el-Obeid. This gave Hicks no choice but to turn north to another pool with the unenticing name of Fula al-Masarin, the ‘Pool of the Entrails’. His path took him through the forest of Shaykan, where there was dense cover from kitr trees and thorn-scrub. The scrub here was so dense, in fact, that the force was unable to keep formation. It was an ideal spot for an ambush.
On the night of 3 November the Egyptians dug in behind earthworks, the remains of which were still to be found fifty years afterwards. By dawn the next day – 4 November – the Mahdi’s riflemen had crept through the scrub to within yards of the enemy. That morning the Mahdi himself arrived. ‘We dervishes were anxious to attack at once,’ said Bela Ahmad Siraj, one of the Mahdi’s men, interviewed years later, ‘but the Mahdi restrained us. So we contented ourselves with skirmishing and firing rifles at the [enemy]. So fierce was the fire that the bark was stripped from the trees as if they had been washed by soap.’
Almost every bullet found a target, and the Egyptians fired back ineffectually at their invisible assailants. ‘The bullets are flying in all directions,’ wrote Major Arthur Herlth, an Austrian cavalry officer on Hicks’s staff, ‘and camels, mules and men keep dropping down; we are all cramped up together, so the bullets cannot fail to strike. We are faint and weary and have no idea what to do…’ The firefight continued all day. It was unseasonally hot, and by evening the Egyptian soldiers were too thirsty and demoralized to build a thorn enclosure – a zariba. The following morning, 5 November, they assembled in three squares at about 1000 hours. When they moved off, they left scores of dead behind them, and even artillery pieces whose crews had been wiped out. The Egyptians, by now almost blind with thirst, advanced slowly through the forest, which was less dense here than it had been the previous day. They had been pressing forward for no more than an hour when the dervishes launched their final devastating charge.
As Power had predicted, the Mahdi’s men were not perturbed by Hicks’s Krupps or Nordenfeldts. Their best weapon was the country, and they had used it brilliantly. They had no problems with morale. They outnumbered the Egyptians at least four to one, and believed they were fighting for God. That most of the enemy were fellow Muslims mattered not a jot. If they were not Mahdists, they were unbelievers. To the dervishes, all fair-skinned foreigners, British, Austrian, German, Egyptian, Albanian, Anatolian, Circassian or Greek, Christian or Muslim, were ‘Turks’, and fuel for the fire.
Besides, the Mahdi had assured his men that they were invulnerable. He had declared that the enemy’s bullets would turn to water. Many of the dervishes wore hejabs – magic amulets made of verses from the Quran rolled inside a leather pouch. These gave them protection against blades and bullets. Claiming a direct revelation from the Prophet Mohammad, the Mahdi also announced that on the day of battle forty thousand angels would join them, swooping down on the unbelievers like giant raptors. Later, some of the tribesmen swore they had actually seen these dark angels on the battlefield.
After the massacre, the dervish army remained near Shaykan for a week, collecting the spoils of war – sacks of biscuits, rice and barley, suits of mail, camels, horses, mules, donkeys, rifles, pistols, ammunition, swords, bayonets, shovels, clothing, watches, gold, silver and cash, as well as the Krupps and Nordenfeldts, and their shells. Klootz, now known among the dervishes as Mustafa, was given charge of Hicks’s injured white stallion. He was told to use the medical supplies he had collected on the battlefield to salve its wound.
Between two and three hundred Egyptian soldiers who had survived by hiding under the piles of dead were herded together. They were stripped naked and sent to el-Obeid with ropes round their necks. Those who were not executed later were left to beg in the market place, and eventually died of starvation. A few hundred dervishes had been killed. These included the Sheikh of the Kinana tribe from the White Nile, and fourteen of his men, who had been blown to shreds by a single artillery shell – proving, at least, that Hicks’s men did get their guns into action. These and the other dervish dead were buried with simple ceremony, while the enemy dead were left for the vultures.
The Mahdi had revived the primitive communism of traditional Islam. All loot was supposed to be handed in to the communal hoard, the bayt al-mal. Some booty was auctioned, some distributed as presents, but he gave short shrift to any private acquisitiveness. Tribesmen who had cached weapons or treasure on the battlefield for later collection were flogged with hippo-hide whips until they died or revealed where it was. Seven slaves in the service of the Mahdi’s own uncle, Sayid Mohammad Taha, had their right hands and left feet slashed off publicly for concealing plunder.
When the stench of the dead grew too oppressive, the dervishes decamped for el-Obeid. On the day after the victory, there had been a hundred-gun salute in the town. Now, there were scenes of savage ecstasy as the victorious warriors marched in trailing shrouds of dust. First came the banners, scarlet, black and green, followed by ranks of footmen tens of thousands strong. The tips of their leaf-bladed spears danced and scintillated, still stained with the enemy’s blood. The men were drunk with victory, moving to a mesmerizing chant of la ilaha illa-llah (there is no god but Allah). According to Father Joseph Ohrwalder, an Austrian Catholic missionary who was a prisoner in el-Obeid at the time, their voices were like the sound of a rushing stream. Some warriors, intoxicated by the mantra, wheeled and circled out of the columns, brandishing their spears and letting out blood-curdling roars.
After them came the cavalry, trotting, reining in, and launching suddenly into ferocious mock charges, with their spears thrust out. They were followed by the prisoners – a handful of naked fellahin, who were dragged forward by ropes, kicked, thumped, jeered at and spat upon. Finally, after the captured guns, came the Mahdi himself, mounted on a white camel.
The crowd went wild with excitement. Men rushed to kiss his feet, and to touch his robes, while others hurled themselves flat and kissed the ground on which his camel had walked. The women ululated in shrill voices, chanting, ‘The Mahdi! God’s Expected One!’ Mohammad Ahmad had performed a miracle. He had gathered an army of tribesmen and peasants from scratch. He had taken on the largest government force ever sent into the region and annihilated it. His warriors had charged modern rifles, cannons and machine-guns, armed only with swords, spears and sticks.
From this day on, the Mahdi became an object of veneration. The very water with which he made his ablutions was collected and handed out as a cure-all for ailments. The Mahdi was believed to be replete with baraka, the mystical life force possessed by all holy men, which could be passed on by touch. Those who had believed from the beginning that he was the Messiah foretold in legend could point to Shaykan as proof. Those who had not believed could either profess themselves convinced, or go along for the ride. Nobody who had witnessed the treatment of looters at Shaykan was now likely to dispute Mohammad Ahmad’s claim – at least not in public.
Even the Mahdi himself had not expected such a complete victory. He knew that he was no longer leading a rebellion. The balance of power had tipped, and he now had the Sudan in the palm of his hand. The government still possessed garrisons in the other provinces, some of them commanded by Europeans – Frank Lupton in Bahr al-Ghazal, Emin Pasha in Fashoda, Rudolf von Slatin in Darfur. Most were held by small numbers of ill-equipped troops isolated in remote outposts in the trackless wilderness. They did not perturb the Mahdi. The only obstacle that remained to the sirat al-mustaqim – the straight path of true Islam – lay three hundred miles to the east, where a thin grey line of soldiers manned the ramparts of Khartoum.