Battle of Abu Klea

The Battle of Abu Klea by William Barnes Wollen

(January 16-18, 1885)

The fierce Battle of Abu Klea was fought between British soldiers of the Gordon Relief Expedition and dervishes in the Sudan. The dervish onslaught, aided by British command and control problems, broke the British units deployed in the square formation in a battle characterized by courage on both sides.

A British expeditionary force was formed in the fall of 1884 under the command of General (later Field Marshal Viscount) Lord Garnet J. Wolseley to rescue Major General Charles G. Gordon, who was besieged in Khartoum. Gordon had been sent on a mission to assess the feasibility of evacuating Egyptians from the Sudan after the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. In December 1884, to hasten the relief, Wolseley divided his force into two elements. The first was the River Column, which was to follow the Nile River, and the second was the Desert Column, under the command of Brigadier General (later Major General) Sir Herbert Stewart, with Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick G. Burnaby as second in command. The camel-mounted Desert Column was to cross the Bayuda Desert from Korti and reach Metemmeh on the Nile by January 7, 1885.

The Desert Column was delayed due to water and supply shortages, and Stewart planned to reach the wells at Abu Klea on January 16, 1885. Dervish forces contested his advance, and Stewart’s force halted and built a zareba (a stone redoubt enclosed by a thorny mimosa bush hedge) that night.

Stewart left soldiers wounded by dervish harassing fire, as well as baggage, in the zareba and formed his 1,450-man force into a hollow square formation to advance. The front face of the square contained two Mounted Infantry Regiment companies, guns, and Coldstream and Scots Guards companies. Guards and Grenadier troops, Royal Marines, and soldiers of the Royal Sussex Regiment formed the right face of the square. On the opposite side were two companies of the Mounted Infantry and one of the Heavy Regiment, and the rear had four companies of the Heavy Regiment and the naval brigade with its rapid- firing Gardner gun in the center. The soldiers were formed in double ranks on each side of the square and numbered 235 rifles on the left face and 300 or more on each of the other three faces. Staff and supply elements, with about 150 camels, were in the center of the square.

The square advanced slowly over the undulating ground and soon halted to reform because the camels in the center were delaying the rear side of the square. As this was taking place, about 5,000 dervishes in two columns attacked the left front corner of the square. British fire forced the dervishes to veer off course and join other dervishes, who were attacking the left rear corner of the formation.

The ensuing action was chaotic. It seems that Burnaby ordered the companies on the left face of the square to open up a gap to permit the Gardner gun to move outside the square and open fire. As the dervishes assaulted, the Gardner gun jammed and was overrun. The dervishes poured through the gap in the square, killing Burnaby by a spear thrust to the neck, and forced Heavy Regiment soldiers back against the camels in the center of the square. This stopped the momentum of the dervish onslaught. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place, and the rear ranks of the soldiers on the square’s right face turned around and began firing rapidly into the densely packed groups of dervishes inside the square. As the dervishes in the rear saw the piles of their dead comrades to their front, they wavered and finally broke off their attack. Dervish cavalry made a last attempt on the right rear corner of the square, but withering rifle fire drove them off.

After this sharp, fifteen- minute engagement, about 1,100 dead dervishes were found in and near the British square. The Desert Column lost 74 all ranks (officers and enlisted ranks) killed and 94 wounded, two of whom later died. These significant losses did not prevent the Desert Column from continuing to advance the next day and had little overall impact on the outcome of the campaign.

Further Reading Barthorp, Michael. War on the Nile: Britain, Egypt, and the Sudan, 1882-1898. Poole, UK: Blandford, 1984. Keown- Boyd, Henry. A Good Dusting: A Centenary Review of the Sudan Campaigns, 1883-1899. London: Guild, 1986. Neillands, Robin. The Dervish Wars: Gordon and Kitchener in the Sudan, 1880-1898. London: John Murray, 1996. Robson, Brian. Fuzzy Wuzzy: The Campaigns in the Eastern Sudan, 1884-85. Tunbridge Wells, UK: Spellmount, 1993.

Herbert Stewart, (1843-1885)

Major-General Sir Herbert Stewart was a leading cavalry commander of his day. He was mortally wounded during the Gordon Relief Expedition.

Born on June 30, 1843 in Hampshire, Stewart was educated at Winchester and was commissioned in the army in 1863. He served in India with the 37th Regiment, and when he returned to England in 1873, he exchanged into the 3rd Dragoon Guards. He attended the Staff College in 1877 and in 1879 saw ser vice in the Anglo- Zulu War as a brigade major of a cavalry brigade. Ostensibly disgusted with the slow rate of promotion and poor career opportunities, Stewart was considering retirement when General Sir Garnet J. Wolseley arrived in July 1879 to assume command of the troops in South Africa and made him his military secretary.

After the conclusion of the Anglo- Zulu War, Wolseley’s Transvaal Field Force at- tacked the stronghold of the Pedi leader Sekhukhune in a campaign that lasted two months. Stewart remained on Wolseley’s staff, and when Wolseley returned to England in 1880 and was replaced as governor and commander- in- chief of Natal and the Transvaal by Major- General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, Stewart became Pomeroy Colley’s chief of staff. At the Battle of Majuba Hill (February 27, 1881), Stewart was captured by the Boers and briefly held prisoner.

When Wolseley was appointed commander of the British force sent to Egypt in 1882 to suppress the Urabi Rebellion, he selected many of the members of his “Ashanti Ring,” plus Stewart and a few others, to accompany him. Stewart served as chief of staff of the cavalry division, and after the Battle of Tel el- Kebir (September 13, 1882), he was responsible for the rapid pursuit of the vanquished enemy to Cairo and the surrender of Urabi.

Stewart, then a brigadier general, commanded the cavalry in the British force commanded by Major-General Sir Gerald Graham, V. C., that arrived in Egypt in early 1884 to help fight the dervishes. He led, rather impetuously, the charge of two regiments at El Teb on February 29, 1884, and was knighted for his services in the Sudan.

In the fall of 1884, when Wolseley was commanding the expedition to relieve Major-General Charles G. Gordon in Khartoum, Stewart returned to the Sudan. When Wolseley formed the River and Desert Columns in December 1884 to hasten the relief, Stewart was given command of the latter. Stewart’s Desert Column fought a fierce battle at Abu Klea on January 17, 1885, and two days later, at Abu Kru, in another fight with the dervishes, Stewart was wounded. The wound turned out to be mortal, and he died in the desert on February 16, 1885, shortly after he had been promoted to major-general. Wolseley bemoaned Stewart’s death: “I feel as if I had lost my right arm in this business & I cannot hope to see his like again” (Preston, 1967, p. 149).

Further Reading Barthorp, Michael. War on the Nile: Britain, Egypt, and the Sudan, 1882-1898. Poole, UK: Blandford, 1984. Kochanski, Halik. Sir Garnet Wolseley: Victorian Hero. London: Hambledon Press, 1999. Laband, John. The Transvaal Rebellion: The First Boer War, 1880-81. London: Pearson, 2005. Lehmann, Joseph H. All Sir Garnet: A Life of Field- Marshal Lord Wolseley. London: Jonathan Cape, 1964. Maxwell, Leigh. The Ashanti Ring: Sir Garnet Wolseley’s Campaigns, 1870-1882. London: Leo Cooper/Secker & Warburg, 1985. Preston, Adrian W. In Relief of Gordon: Lord Wolseley’s Campaign Journal of the Khartoum Relief Expedition, 1884-1885. Lon- don: Hutchinson, 1967. Symons, Julian. England’s Pride: The Story of the Gordon Relief Expedition. Reprint. Lon- don: White Lion, 1975.


1 thought on “Battle of Abu Klea

  1. I thought I read on another site that the British force was an Anglo-Egyptian one. Any idea how many were Egyptian? Stewart was incapacitated by his wound and his second in command took over and the column proceeded to the Nile, where they were ordered to find a way to Khartoum and give Gordon some relief, while the main army proceeded down the river. When the column reached the river, the commander ordered some R & R. In one of his brief moments of lucidness, the original commander awoke and expected to meet Gordon. He assumed he was in Khartoum. He was dismayed that this replacement had not followed orders and proceeded on to Khartoum. Did I read wrong? It was some time ago. Wherever I read it, I was left with the impression that the Egyptians made up a sizable part of the column, and that the second in command proved to be a bit of “an old woman” who chose to relax by the river after the desert crossing instead of proceeding, as order, on to Khartoum.


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