Major-General Herbert Kitchener meets the Emir Mahmud after defeating him at Atbara, April 1898
The scene about Kosheh that afternoon in September 1896 was dazzling. The sun beat down relentlessly, bleaching the colour out of everything. Here and there the rays of light were reflected by the waters of the great Nile as it flowed past. But to the officers who had gathered on the river bank, the real brilliance was that of British ingenuity, British grit and British war machines.
All eyes were upon the Zafir, a ‘great white devil’ of a gunboat, 140 feet long and 24 feet abeam. Her steam boilers could drive her, via a great stern paddle, up the Nile at 12 m.p.h. When the Queen’s enemies were found, they could be dispatched day or night (Zafir was fitted with electric searchlights) by a 12-pounder, two 6-pounders and a couple of Maxim machine-guns. Three more salient facts about this juggernaut suffice: she drew just thirty-nine inches of water, allowing her (usually) to cruise over the rocky beds of the Nile’s treacherous cataracts; she had been built to order in London in just six weeks; and the construction was in sections to allow Zafir to be dismantled and transported by ship and railway to the theatre of war.
The kit of parts had been brought up to Kosheh on flatcars during the preceding weeks, offloaded by steam cranes, and assembled in a purpose-built dock at the riverside. The railway itself, jutting 105 miles into the northern part of Sudan from Wadi Haifa on the Egyptian border, had been in operation only since early August. Those who watched the gunboat being put together knew that two more were on their way, sister ships that would give their commander a vital advantage in a country dominated by the Nile. It was all planned like clockwork.
Science was being applied to this campaign, guided as it was by a Royal Engineer, a British officer of fearsome dedication who held the rank of sirdar, or commander, of the Egyptian Army. But as the great six-foot two-inch figure of Herbert Kitchener strode along the quayside, he knew acts of God could discomfit every calculation. Further setbacks simply could not be allowed to happen. Kitchener intended to push south towards Dongola in four days’ time.
Days before, at the end of August, following the worst storms for fifty years, a flash flood had carried off a twelve-mile stretch of railway embankment. Kitchener had joined his native railway workers relaying the sleepers and rails, working around the clock. He knew that the long African summer had starved the river, and that soon it would fall to its lowest level of the year, threatening even the Zafir’s ability to get up river.
As he boarded the ship with Commander Stanley Colville, the naval officer in charge of the river flotilla, though, Kitchener’s troubles were not over. Lines were cast off, fore and aft. The Zafir’s bow moved out into the Nile and hundreds of spectators on the banks sent up a cheer. Engineers opened the valves driving the great wheel. But ‘The stern paddle had hardly moved twice’, according to one account, ‘when there was a loud report, like that of a heavy gun, clouds of steam rushed up from the boilers, and the engines stopped.’ A key valve had blown. Kitchener turned to the commander: ‘By God, Colville, I don’t know which of us it’s hardest luck on.’
He stepped off the stricken vessel, ordered the guns to be shipped onto others and retired to a different boat’s cabin. One of his ADCs found him there, crying. ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ the forty-six-year-old general, eyes reddened and face drawn with exhaustion, asked a subaltern in his early twenties.
Kitchener’s orders in September 1896 were to take Dongola Province, the northern portion of Sudan that bordered Egypt. It was not a full-blown conquest of the country, though many British generals longed to do just that. The motive of avenging Gordon played strongly with many of these men — Kitchener himself having served in 1884 with the Desert Column — but far less with the government of the day.
The Tory administration of Lord Salisbury was in power and in matters of foreign and military policy it adopted a very different tone from Gladstone’s. Salisbury was prickly, portly and patrician. He cared little for the popularity of public meetings or indeed the officers’ mess and intended to keep an iron grip on his military policy. He had sanctioned the attack on Sudan’s northern province in order to take some pressure off his Italian allies to the south-east. They had suffered an epic disaster at Adowa in May, when an Italian brigade was largely wiped out by Abyssinian tribesmen. The British Prime Minister wanted to draw the Dervish armies of the Khalifa (the Mahdi’s successor) towards Dongola.
In London and Cairo those in the know understood that Kitchener’s 1896 campaign might serve as a preparatory move to taking the whole country, but they were equally convinced that they did not want to commit themselves to such a course for the time being. Salisbury was quite clear that he did not want any further Gordon-style adventurism. So General Lord Wolseley, who had by now become Commander-in-Chief in Whitehall, was excluded as far as possible from the chain of command. As the Dongola expedition was being prepared, the Prime Minister wrote to the Secretary of War, ‘My advice will be not to pay too much attention to your military advisers.’
Salisbury’s words give some sense of how deep and acrimonious the divisions between political and military leaders had become. At the end of the nineteenth century, unresolved questions about the respective roles of the army, government and sovereign caused considerable friction. Wolseley tried to prevail by making alliances with politicians. He had fallen out with the Liberals over the Gordon relief expedition. Having then aligned himself with the Tories, he was indignant when Salisbury prevented him lobbying publicly and reduced his influence over strategy. ‘The men of talk will give way to the men of action,’ Wolseley wrote to his wife in 1897, in perhaps his most violent outburst against politicians, ‘and all that most contemptible of God’s creatures will black the boots of some successful cavalry colonel. A new Cromwell will clear the country of these frothing talkers, and the soldiers will rule.’ Wolseley was ready to act against the government of the day on many matters, including, for example, Irish home rule. There can be little wonder, then, that in contemplating military action in the Sudan, the Prime Minister wanted this general involved as little as possible.
Once Kitchener’s force began its advance, Salisbury put the venerable British Agent in Cairo, Evelyn Baring (who was by this time styled Lord Cromer), in overall control of operations, thereby bypassing Wolseley.
Cromer was convinced of Kitchener’s qualities. He had backed the appointment to sirdar, and watched with satisfaction as this driven man, with a team of 108 British officers, had rebuilt the Egyptian Army. As the expeditionary force moved further into northern Sudan, the Prime Minister had worried at one point whether Kitchener might make a dash for Omdurman (capital of the Khalifa, who ruled Sudan as the Mahdi’s successor, just across the Nile from Khartoum). Cromer had reassured Downing Street that Kitchener was ‘not at all inclined to be rash’. The care and quality of the sirdar’s logistic preparations were in marked contrast to Wolseley’s 1884-5 relief mission, which Kitchener himself considered to have been hopelessly organised. There were other obvious differences between the two men, too. ‘K’, as almost all his officers called him, was tall and deliberate in his movements, whereas Gordon had been small and constantly active. They had some traits in common, notably their background as sappers, Christian faith and shared disdain for English society in Cairo, being more comfortable in the desert among the Arabs. If there was one area where Kitchener might be unfavourably compared to Gordon, it was as a leader of men. K rarely made eye contact, possibly because he had a natural squint that had been exaggerated by a wound to the side of his face. His shyness meant he rarely opened up to his brother officers. The prominent brow and the huge moustache that later became his trademarks served to mask the emotions of a naturally closed character and gave him a forbidding mien.
Kitchener came from a respectable but cash-strapped family. His mother died when he was in his teens, and he grew into an introspective young man. During survey work in Palestine, and later working as an intelligence officer for the Egyptian Army, he was able to immerse himself in Arabic language and culture, as well as escaping the irksome routines of the officers’ mess. Shortly after joining the Gordon relief force, he wrote, ‘I have grown such a solitary bird that I often think I were happier alone.’
Many of those serving with Kitchener in September 1896, as he struggled to overcome setbacks to his plan, found his combination of relentless drive and personal remoteness hard to take. ‘He was always inclined to bully his own entourage, as some men are rude to their wives,’ noted the same young staff officer who found K crying. ‘He was inclined to let off his spleen on those around him. He was often morose and silent for hours together . . . he was even morbidly afraid of showing any feeling or enthusiasm, and he preferred to be misunderstood rather than be suspected of human feeling.’
To Kitchener’s superiors, the fact that he achieved impressive results clearly made up for some of these unpleasant personal qualities. ‘A good brigadier, very ambitious,’ noted his confidential report for 1890, before adding: ‘not popular, but has of late greatly improved in tact and manner . . . a fine gallant soldier and good linguist, and very successful in dealing with orientals’.
Using forced marches through the desert, Kitchener drove his men along the Nile and overcame the early setbacks. On 23 September, the town of Dongola was taken. The scene was set for further advances into Sudan, if only the political will and money could be found.
The prospect on the banks of the Nile just under two years after the Zafir’s maiden voyage was once again one of feverish anticipation. This time, though, the khaki-clad soldiers were hundreds of miles to the south of Kosheh. Kitchener’s invading army had advanced to just a few miles north of the Khalifa’s capital, Omdurman. The invaders had brought 8,200 British as well as 17,600 Egyptian Army troops (many battalions being officered by Britons) to the heart of Sudan.
Kitchener’s army bivouacked on 1 September 1898 with their backs to the Nile, the bend of the river forming the line into a crescent. It was a deployment that would allow them to focus fire on any enemy that attacked their front. The ends of this curved deployment were secured by gunboats, able to enfilade any lines of Dervishes advancing towards the British.
Despite the enormous firepower at the disposal of this force, some of Kitchener’s men worried. Their line, like that of Wellington, was two deep. In places a reserve company supplemented it, with men ready to step into the gaps left by casualties or fetch ammunition boxes. But overall it was not a robust square, rather a fragile deployment of soldiers with their backs to water. Along much of its length the usual zariba of thorn bushes raked together formed an obstacle of sorts, but what if thousands of enemy rushed them? Reports suggested the Khalifa’s army might number 50,000 or more. They too had moved on since the battles of 1884-5. There were many more armed with rifles, and the Khalifa’s arsenal now contained dozens of cannon. K, though, was confidence itself. When alerted to a possible enemy push that afternoon, he had replied, ‘We want nothing better, we have an excellent field of fire and they might as well come today as tomorrow.’
The journey between Kosheh and Omdurman had been an epic struggle. Fighting sandstorms, Dervishes and government accountants, Kitchener had extended his railway from Wadi Haifa, 360 miles across the Nubian Desert, close to Berber, where the Nile route and the camel trail to the coast met. At times he had reclaimed sleepers from peasants’ roofs to save money; at others he had written to friends that the burden of organising it all made him want to die. But he had kept doggedly on, and his arrival at Omdurman was a triumph of organisation and supply.
‘Fighting the Dervishes was primarily a matter of transport,’ wrote Winston Churchill, who accompanied the expedition as a subaltern in the 21st Lancers and correspondent for the Morning Post. ‘The Khalifa was conquered on the railway.’ Throughout the two-year odyssey, biting off bits of the Sudanese Khalifate, Kitchener had been nourished by the supply train he created and the information provided by his director of intelligence, Major General Rex Wingate. Like K himself, Wingate had spent the best part of a decade in this part of the world. Both men had attained such a fluency in Arabic that they could even adopt the dialects of different tribes.
When the final push on Omdurman began, Wingate sifted reports from dozens of agents, many of whom had been on the books for years. They ranged from itinerant traders to servants of wealthy merchants and members of the small remaining European community. Even the Khalifa’s adviser on foreign affairs, a German pasha who had adopted Islam, was one of Wingate’s spies. Wingate, yet another Woolwich graduate (a gunner), had at times been maddened by Kitchener’s methods: ‘K irritates me by keeping his movements secret,’ Wingate wrote in his journal after one particularly frustrating day. But the two men eventually evolved a relationship of mutual trust and, by the early hours of 2 September 1898, their great common labour was close to fruition.
At around 5 a.m. reports reached the British camp that the Khalifa’s army was on the move. Great columns of men were marching out of the Omdurman fortress. A British 5-inch howitzer battery placed on the eastern bank of the Nile opened up, lofting 50-pound lyddite shells into the fortifications, sending billowing clouds of dust into the sky. Great wheeling masses of Dervishes, under hundreds of banners, moved to the south of Jebel Surgham, high ground to the front of the British line. ‘It was not alone the reverberation of the tread of horses and men’s feet I heard and seemed to feel as well as hear;’ wrote Bennet Burleigh, the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent, ‘but a voiced continuous shouting and chanting — the Dervish invocation and battle challenge “Allah el Allah Rasool Allah el Mahdi!” they reiterated in voxiferous rising measure, as they swept over the intervening ground.’
British officers had surveyed the land in front of them and knew exactly when to use the different weapons in their arsenal to best effect. At 2,800 yards, Royal Artillery 15-pounders opened up, the shells fused to air burst, showering the white-robed phalanxes with red-hot metal. ‘Above the heads of the moving masses shells began to burst, dotting the air with smoke-balls and the ground with bodies,’ observed Churchill, who was with a picket of lancers on the jebel in front of the British position. Then the Maxims joined in — German machine-guns selected by the War Office for their reliability and range. During the two hours of this engagement, one section of six British Maxims would fire 54,000 rounds. With the enemy still 2,700 yards away, the Grenadier Guards were invited to stand and deliver the first platoon fires with their Lee-Metford rifles. Both Dervishes and whistling bullets were getting too close for comfort, so it was time for Churchill and the other scouts out front to scurry back behind the British zariba. The pickets led their panting horses down to the river for a drink, and young Winston borrowed a biscuit tin to stand on so that he could see over the steep bank to the higher ground beyond the British firing line. It was not a spectacle he would ever forget: ‘A ragged line of men were coming on desperately, struggling forward in the face of the pitiless fire — white banners tossing and collapsing; white figures subsiding in dozens to the ground . . . valiant men were struggling on through a hell of whistling metal, exploding shells, and spurting dust — suffering, despairing, dying.’
Thousands of Dervishes were being cut down. The Lee-Metfords fired a hollow-nosed bullet — a ghastly invention that caused a kind of explosion when it struck flesh, intended to blow a limb clean off or gouge a great cavity in a man’s trunk. Such bullets were later banned by international convention. Many of the British officers watching this spectacle were uneasy. Even Kitchener’s brother Walter, who was serving with the army, wrote, ‘One’s feelings went over to the enemy, they just struggled on.’
For the most part, the Khalifa’s men did not get within 800 yards of the British line. One desperate charge by some cavalry managed to get to 300 yards, but that was the exception.
By 8.30 a.m., the Dervish attack had collapsed and Kitchener ordered a general advance. He was worried that thousands of enemy warriors might race back into Omdurman, forcing him to carry out a protracted siege. The British brigades moved forward in line, wheeling south as they crossed the plain just north of the city. Kitchener, on horseback, went up to Jebel Surgham, and seeing the thousands of dead and wounded Dervishes carpeting the landscape remarked, ‘Well, we have given them a damn good dusting.’
The battle was not over yet, though. There were still several columns of the Khalifa’s troops manoeuvring about the city. The British troops, advancing in their brittle formations, at times had large groups of Dervishes on their flanks and to their rear. This fighting was bloody and confused: quite a few wounded enemy warriors were dispatched because they were still resisting as the British and Egyptian Army troops marched through. At one point, Kitchener narrowly avoided being killed by a salvo of bullets from his own men.
During this advance the colonel of the 21st Lancers ordered his regiment (just under 400 mounted men) to charge some Dervishes who threatened the flank of one advancing brigade. Churchill took part in this desperate affair, an action some later compared to the charge of the Light Brigade. The lancers’ plan was to charge a group of riflemen, but after they set spurs to their mounts about 1,000 Dervishes appeared from a stream bed in front of them and dramatically changed the odds. The 21st were committed, though, and continued to hurl themselves forward.
‘The collision was prodigious,’ wrote Churchill, ‘and for perhaps ten wonderful seconds, no man heeded his enemy. Terrified horses wedged in the crowd, bruised and shaken men, sprawling in heaps, struggle dazed and stupid, to their feet, panted and looked about them.’ The charge’s impetus carried the troopers through several of the twelve ranks of enemy warriors like a rake through shingle. Then the killing began. For about a minute they set about one another before the 21st burst through. During less than two minutes of fighting, hundreds of Dervishes were cut down; the lancers suffered seventy casualties.
During the late afternoon, the British entered both the Khalifa’s capital and, across the river, Khartoum, freeing various chained Christians from the jail. The civilian population, fearing a general massacre, prostrated themselves, or rubbed dust in their hair in a gesture of self-abasement and submission.
The Battle of Omdurman was won with fewer than 500 casualties (killed and wounded) in Kitchener’s army. The Dervishes lost almost 11,000 killed (K, with characteristic thoroughness, had the corpses counted) and 17,000 wounded. ‘At Last!’ wrote Burleigh in the Telegraph. ‘Gordon has been avenged and justified. The dervishes have been overwhelmingly routed, Mahdism has been “smashed”, whilst the Khalifa’s capital of Omdurman has been stripped of its barbaric halo of sanctity and invulnerability.’ The Queen immediately raised Kitchener to the peerage. He had become a national hero.
In a private letter, Churchill gave vent to his feelings about the cost of it all, saying the victory had been ‘disgraced by the inhuman slaughter of the wounded and . . . Kitchener is responsible for this’. Some directly accused Kitchener of ordering a massacre of defenceless men, but there is no evidence for such a claim. Rather, it is clear that before the earlier Battle of Atbara (8 April 1898), he gave his troops a mixed message, telling them to show mercy to their enemy but exhorting them to ‘Remember Gordon’ and saying the men in front of them were Gordon’s murderers.
When Churchill wrote his book about these tumultuous events, The River War, he did not make any direct accusations against Kitchener, instead recording that large numbers of Dervishes came in near the end of the day, ‘as soon as it was apparent that the surrender of individuals was accepted’. This last statement guides us as close to the truth of the matter as we will ever get — implying both that Kitchener’s troops were not taking prisoners while in ‘hot blood’ and that large groups of enemy warriors were mown down, whenever seen, until the end of the day.
Churchill concluded his account of Omdurman with the memorable phrase that it was ‘the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians’. It is apparent, though, from his letters, that he modified the tone of his book for political reasons. He mentioned his need to ‘tone down or cut out’ his ‘more acrid criticism of the Sirdar’. His initial dislike of the general seems to have been based on class prejudice (Churchill told his mother that Kitchener was a ‘vulgar common man’), and fed off a general feeling in Cairo, doubtless part envy from other officers, that K did not quite deserve the heroic niche carved for him by the British press.
With the enemy capital captured, Anglo-Egyptian forces moved swiftly through the country, mopping up Dervish resistance. Upon taking Khartoum, Kitchener opened sealed orders from the Prime Minister, and at this moment Lord Salisbury’s primary motive for the invasion of Sudan became clear. Kitchener was to head south, in order to frustrate French attempts to seize the equatorial part of the country. Avenging Gordon might play well with the newspapers and army officers, but Downing Street was primarily interested in the great Imperial game. What Salisbury wanted to avoid above all else was a vacuum that would be exploited by the French,