In mid-summer, the expedition reached Metemma, where they found the remains of positions dug by Wolseley’s troops fourteen years earlier, along with the graves of those who had died at Abu Klea and Abu Kru. Supplies were again built up, and the troops, Egyptian and British alike, were spoiling for a fight. By the end of August Omdurman was almost in sight, and on September 1, 1898, the Sirdar halted his army on the bank of the Nile fifteen miles above the city. There he began preparing for the battle that would seal the fate of the Mahdyyah.
As dawn broke that morning, Kitchener sent the British and Egyptian cavalry, with the Camel Corps and Horse Artillery in support, out in advance of the army, where it quickly formed a screen for the infantry and advanced toward Omdurman for a distance of about eight miles. The 21st Lancers took up positions on the left flank, anchoring the line on the Nile, while the Egyptian horse covered the front and right flank, deploying in a vast arc that stretched back into the desert. At the same time the gunboat began chugging up the river, keeping pace with the land forces.
As the cavalry advanced, just ten miles north of Omdurman, they came up to the Kerreri Hills, which to their surprise were undefended, although an abandoned Dervish camp was found. It had evidently been shelled by the gunboats the day before. It was about this time that the men of the 21st Lancers noticed that a flock of enormous vultures, numbering as many as a hundred, had suddenly begun hovering over the regiment. The belief was widespread throughout the Sudan that this was an ill omen, a sign the troops over which the birds circled would suffer heavy losses. The regiment halted at the foot of the hills, and the senior officers and a party of scouts made their way to the highest crest. From there they could behold a sight no British soldier or civilian had seen for thirteen years: Khartoum. The advance resumed and shortly every man with a pair of field-glasses or a telescope could make out not only Khartoum but also the now-yellowish dome of the Mahdi’s Tomb and the city of Omdurman.
The cavalry screen began its descent from the Kerreri Hills and onto a wide, gently rolling sand plain, some six to seven miles wide, interrupted here and there with patches of coarse grass and straggling bushes. On the left, to the east, was the Nile, with a small, deserted mud-hut village perched on its bank. The remaining three sides of the plain were surrounded by low, rocky hills and ridges, while a single low black hill and a long, low ridge running from it bisected the plain from east to west. The ground behind the ridge, that is, to the south of it, was invisible to the British and Egyptian cavalry.
Sharp-eyed observers among the Lancers noticed a long black line with white spots running along the ridge. It appeared to be a dense zeriba, or barricade, of thorn bushes. The cavalry continued to move forward in a vast line, khaki-colored on the left where the 21st Lancers were positioned, black in the center where the dark-skinned Egyptians sat on their black horses, and mottled on the right, where the Camel Corps and Horse Artillery jostled for position. As they closed with the zeriba, they could make out enemy horsemen riding about the flanks and front of the Ansar line.
It was now nearly eleven o’clock and the sun was getting hot. Suddenly the whole black line which had seemed to be the zeriba began moving—it wasn’t a thornbush barricade, it was a mass of fighting men. Behind it thousands upon thousands of Ansar and Dervish soldiers began to appear over the crest of the ridge. It was the whole of the Mahdist army. Stretching across a front of four miles, formed into five huge divisions, it moved with astonishing swiftness. A cloud of banners—black, white, and green, embroidered in gold with inscriptions from the Koran—floated above them, while their spearpoints glittered in the noon sun. It was an army of more than 50,000 men.
The Khalifa had assembled every able-bodied fighting man he could muster at Omdurman, determined to achieve the victory over the British that had eluded Muhammed Ahmed. But remembering only the victory over William Hicks’ Egyptian conscripts in 1883 and forgetting the slaughter at Abu Klea three years later, he ordered his soldiers forward into the attack rather than make a stand on the plains of Kerreri. On August 30 his scouts informed him that the enemy was nearing Omdurman, and the next day he assembled his army. Some sense of what was to come seeped through his forces, however, and nearly six thousand men deserted the night before the battle. Still it was an imposing force that advanced toward the British and Egyptians, forty-eight thousand foot soldiers and four thousand horse.
The first shots of the battle were fired at just after 11:00 AM by the gunboats on the Nile. Spotting batteries of Mahdist artillery on the riverbanks, the Royal Navy gun crews immediately opened fire on them. The Arab batteries replied as best they could, as did the forts along the river. It was a one-sided exchange, for though the Arabs had some fifty guns that could be brought to bear, the Royal Navy’s weapons were heavier and better served, and the combination of better accuracy and greater weight of shells soon took the Arab guns out of the battle. Rifle pits along the riverbanks were swept by machine-gun fire. Under cover of this barrage, the Arab Irregulars under Major Wortley began clearing out the forts and their outlying villages, which were defended by Dervishes. Most of the Irregulars refused to move closer to the buildings than five hundred yards, but Wortley’s reserve—Jaalin tribesmen who despised the Dervishes—moved in and began methodically clearing out each building, executing every Dervish they captured.
A battery of the Royal Artillery began shelling Omdurman, scoring at least three hits on the Mahdi’s Tomb. The damage to the tomb was an unfortunate consequence of its proximity to Omdurman’s arsenal, but the Arabs took it as a deliberate insult, and in their anger they sped up their advance. The Egyptian cavalry and the Horse Artillery began to withdraw, followed by the Camel Corps; the 21st Lancers remained on the army’s left flank. The Mahdist army maintained its order and began to close with the six brigades of infantry that made up the main body of the British force. The collision of the two armies, if it came, would be shattering.
Kitchener quickly issued orders that drew up the British and Egyptian infantry in lines of parade-ground precision, anchoring each flank on the Nile, the whole of the army forming an arc along the river. When a junior officer named Winston Churchill reported to the Sirdar that the advancing Arab army would be within range within the hour, Kitchener informed his staff: “We want nothing better. Here is a good field of fire. They may as well come today as tomorrow.”
As soon as the troops’ mid-day meal was finished the whole of the army stood to arms, awaiting the approaching Arabs. But instead, just before 2:00 PM, the Dervish army halted. Their riflemen loosed a single volley into the air, then the entire force went to ground. There would be no engagement that day, but it was certain that the battle that both Kitchener and the Khalifa wanted would take place on the morrow.
The rest of that day, September 1, and night were marked by a handful of desultory skirmishes between small groups of British infantry and Ansar on the Kerreri Plain. The steamers took up positions on the Nile to cover the flanks of the army, and throughout the night shone their searchlights up and down the riverbanks to prevent any surprise attacks.
Kitchener had ordered his troops to bed down for the night in the positions they had occupied during the day, so rather than establishing the checkerboard arrangement of brigade squares which had been typical of the British Army at night, each brigade had constructed rough zeribas of thorn bushes about its position and posted double sentries, while patrols roamed the intervals between brigades. It was a tactic through which Kitchener displayed his intimate knowledge of the Arab way of making war. Knowing that they despised night attacks, he gave himself the advantage of having his units sleep in their lines, which in the morning would save valuable time by not requiring the brigades to maneuver into position in the face of the enemy.
As the pre-dawn grayness crept across the sky on September 2, 1899, bugles sounded the morning stand-to across the British camp. Cavalry patrols were sent out, and by 6:30 AM the first reports were coming in: the Khalifa’s army had spent the night in the same place it had halted the day before. Suddenly the cavalry scouts realized that the entire Mahdist army was on the move. A roar of righteous fury arose from the Arab mass as they rode and marched to the attack, a sound so loud that it was faintly heard in the British camp, still nearly five miles distant.
The British and Egyptians were ready. As the morning light grew, the banners of each Khalifa and Emir became visible to the waiting infantry: on the extreme left the bright green flag of Ali-Wad-Helu; next to his followers flew the dark green flag of Osman Sheikh-ed-Din, surrounded by a mass of spearmen, preceded by long lines of warriors armed presumably with rifles; on the right a host of Dervishes surged forward under a collection of white flags, while visible among them was the red banner of Sherif; in the center flew the sacred Black banner of Abdullahi himself. Within the ranks of this army were, as Churchill later described it, “Riflemen who had helped to destroy Hicks, spearmen who had charged at Abu Klea, Emirs who saw the sack of Gondar, Baggara fresh from raiding the Shillooks, warriors who had besieged Khartoum—-all marched, inspired by the memories of former triumphs and embittered by the knowledge of late defeats, to chastise the impudent and accursed invaders.”
While the Khalifa was committed to attacking Kitchener’s army, he had no intention of simply flinging his Dervishes and Ansar into a headlong assault. Instead he formulated a clever plan that, had he not so greatly underestimated the destructive power of modern weaponry, might actually have succeeded in driving Kitchener’s army into the Nile. His first move was to send fifteen thousand of Osman Sheikh-ed-Din’s Dervishes forward to deliver a frontal attack on the Anglo-Egyptian line. He waited with a similar force near a rise known as Surgham Hill to watch the outcome.
Though he almost certainly didn’t expect it to succeed, if it did the assault would have been followed by Abdullahi’s own bodyguard, the elite of the Arab army. As every man in the British and Egyptian Armies knew by now, the Dervishes were extraordinarily brave men and dangerous opponents. The purpose of this attack was two-fold: it might actually succeed in breaking the enemy line, and at the same time it would cover a movement by the rest of Osman Sheikh-ed-Din’s soldiers, who were to move to the northern flank and swing around to strike at the Egyptian brigade, not by any means Kitchener’s best or most reliable troops. But that was not the most clever part of the Khalifa’s plan. Ali-Wad-Helu had been instructed to keep some twenty-two thousand men in reserve behind the Kerreri Hills, out of sight and out of range of the British. If the first two attacks failed—and by his planning it seems that Abdullahi was to some degree anticipating that they would—when the Anglo-Egyptian army advanced on Omdurman, believing they had won an easy victory, the remaining Ansar would swoop down from the hills, catching the enemy out in the open plain, in marching order, unable to form their habitual square. Caught by Ali-Wad-Helu’s twenty-two thousand to the north and the Khalifa with sixteen thousand to the south, with the Nile behind them and the open desert before them, the British and Egyptian soldiers would be doomed. It would be the Hicks disaster all over again.
But it was not to be. The British artillery opened up when the Dervish center came within range. Four batteries began firing at a range of about 3,000 yards. Gaps momentarily appeared in the Arab ranks. They were quickly filled, and the advance continued. The gunboats joined in the cannonade, and soon shells were bursting all along the Arab line. Still the Arabs closed with their British and Egyptian foes.
At a thousand yards the infantry opened fire, the crash of their massed volleys of rifles punctuated by the chatter of machine-guns. The gaps in the Arab lines grew larger and were filled less quickly now, the approach becoming a bit ragged—yet they still came on. The artillery was firing shrapnel shells over the heads of the advancing Dervishes and Ansar, the fragments raining down on them. It was here that two mistakes caught up with the Khalifa, dooming his plans. The first was that in one of those quirks of fate which can often decide battles and which no commander can ever completely avoid, both divisions of Dervishes attacked simultaneously rather than in succession. This meant that the Anglo-Egyptian infantry would only confront a single charge, rather than being forced to divide their fire, and would only have to endure a single shock action if the Arabs were able to come to close combat instead of the succession of impacts that Abdullahi had anticipated. It also meant exposing them to the devastating rifle volleys of British and Egyptian troops and the raking fire of the Maxim guns. The second mistake was the Khalifa’s apparent ignorance of the effectiveness of his enemy’s weapons.
The British Army and its Egyptian counterpart, now thoroughly reorganized along British lines, were now equipped with the .303 calibre Lee-Metford, a bolt action rifle which had replaced the old Martini-Henrys. The Lee-Metford fired a round at nearly twice the velocity and twice the range of the Martini, with almost double the rate of fire. When the Arab army advanced toward the Anglo-Egyptian lines, they marched into a veritable wall of fire, as the 300 rounds-per-minute rate of fire of the Maxim guns was added to the fifteen rounds per minute each infantryman was capable of producing.
The effect was devastating. Entire ranks of Ansar and Dervishes were brought down in bloody heaps before they could get within range with their own weapons. With each volley the charging Arabs seemed to draw a little closer to the British ranks, but in ever dwindling numbers. Finally, at about 800 yards from the British lines, the Dervishes could do no more—it was impossible to advance another foot against such firepower.
On the Anglo-Egyptian right, a force of cavalry, the Camel Corps, and Horse Artillery, supported by the Egyptian Brigade, brought the Dervish left to a halt, preventing the turning movement that Abdullahi had thought possible there. The fighting was fierce and the British suffered significant casualties, though the Dervish losses were just awful. Several British officers would recall how the Dervishes continued to close relentlessly, heedless of the artillery shells exploding within their ranks. When one of the gunboats stood in close to the shoreline and began firing at the Dervish soldiers at almost point-blank range, the situation became unbearable even for those incredibly brave men, and they fell back in confusion, harassed by the British cavalry, effectively out of the battle.
The Dervish frontal attack on the center continued, but still could make no headway against the fearsome British firepower. Though they quickly learned that the dense ranks in which they advanced presented targets impossible to miss and so began advancing in more dispersed formations, eight hundred yards was the closest any of the Ansar could approach to the British lines. Yet, though they were unable to advance, they were unwilling to retire. Here and there Arab riflemen would find a fold of ground that allowed them to take shots at the British troops, but the range was long, their weapons old, and their effect was negligible. Slowly, reluctantly, the Arabs withdrew. Their courage had been unquestionable, but it hadn’t been enough against the measured volleys of a modern army supported by machine guns and artillery. By eight o’clock more than four thousand of the Dervish warriors lay dead or wounded on the open ground before the British lines.
As the Arabs withdrew, artillery started picking off the small groups of riflemen who were still doing their best to harass the British line. Small pockets of warriors, seeking shelter from the British volleys, were flushed into the open and, deciding that they had endured enough for the moment, quickly fled the field. Lee-Metford and Maxim fire followed them, until they were lost to sight behind the far ridge of the Kerreri plain.
Once the Arab attack had been broken, Kitchener and his officers agreed that they had to occupy Omdurman before the Dervish army could retreat into the city. The British unit on the extreme left of the Anglo-Egyptian position, the 21st Lancers, was sent orders to ride for the city and cut off the retreat of the Arab army: “Advance and clear the left flank, and use every effort to prevent the enemy re-entering Omdurman.”
Initially facing the Lancers was a small force of seven hundred Arabs, positioned to prevent any blocking movement of the Khalifa’s line of retreat to Omdurman. As soon as the Lancers began moving toward Omdurman, Abdullahi sent an additional twenty-four hundred of his fighting men to support the blocking force. While the Arabs raced to get into position, the 21st methodically went through the drill preparatory to advancing against an enemy—or if need be, charging one.
This was not a demonstration of British dedication to military orthodoxy or the commanders’ lack of imagination or sense of urgency. To be truly effective, cavalry charges had to be carefully organized and staged: in real life they were a far cry from the spectacles depicted in countless motion pictures, where a bugle sounds the “Charge” and a mass of horsemen spring forward in a mad, headlong gallop. The success or failure of a charge came down to one single moment—the instant when the horsemen met the foot soldiers. Unformed infantry, that is troops not in a column or square, were vulnerable at all times to cavalry, but formed troops could only be defeated if the cavalry met them in a single, cohesive mass, relying on the shock of the impact to break the infantry formation. Maintaining that cohesion and mass was the purpose of the careful preparations the 21st Lancers were now undertaking.
They first formed into line of squadron columns, and continued forward at a walk until they came to within three hundred yards of the Arabs. Wheeling left, the squadrons broke into a trot as they moved across the Dervish front. The Arabs quickly opened fire on the cavalry, inflicting casualties among the troopers and the horses. The order rang out, “Right wheel into line,” and at that, four hundred horsemen swung round into a single line and began working up to the gallop.
It was the first charge the regiment had ever made in its history. The fact that the unit had never before been in battle was an embarrassment to all of its officers and troopers. Though the regimental motto was “Death or Glory,” cynical officers from other cavalry units scorned the 21st by declaring that its actual motto was “Thou shalt not kill.” Now the 21st was given a chance to prove its mettle. What was about to happen would be a costly demonstration of regimental pride.
The horsemen were still some two hundred and fifty yards from the Arab riflemen who were still firing away at them, when the rising, ten-note bugle call of the “Charge!” was sounded and the regiment broke into a full gallop. Before half the distance to the riflemen had been crossed, a khor—a dry watercourse—appeared that had been invisible until the riders were virtually on top of it. Out of it sprang a screaming, surging mass of white-clad Arabs, the twenty-four hundred reinforcements the Khalifa had sent to support the blocking force.
The Lancers crashed into and through the Arabs, down into the khor and up the other side. Seventy-one officers and troopers fell in that first clash, and as its impetus carried it through the Arab position, the regiment wheeled about-face, reformed, and charged once again. By this time, though, the unit had lost much of its cohesion and the pace of the charge was slower. Soon a hand-to-hand melee was underway between Dervish and trooper, and it was only decided when one squadron of the Lancers drew off, dismounted and opened fire on the Arabs with their carbines. It was the last cavalry charge ever made by the British Army, and it was over in barely ten minutes.
It had been a desperate, ferocious, and ultimately needless action. Winston Churchill, who had not only been an eyewitness to the charge but a participant, painted a memorable picture of the aftermath of one of the last stands of the Mahdi’s army:
The Lancers remained in possession of the dearly bought ground. There was not much to show that there had been a desperate fight. A quarter of a mile away nothing would have been noticed. Close to, the scene looked like a place where rubbish is thrown, or where a fair has recently been held. White objects, like dirty bits of newspaper, lay scattered here and there—-the bodies of the enemy. Brown objects, almost the color of the earth, like bundles of dead grass or heaps of manure, were also dotted about—-the bodies of soldiers. Among these were goat-skin water-bottles, broken weapons, torn and draggled flags, cartridge cases. In the foreground lay a group of dead horses and several dead or dying donkeys. It was all litter.
It had been a costly action. The seventy-one dead and wounded Lancers amounted to nearly a fifth of the regimental strength, while close to a thousand Arabs lay dead or dying on the field. The remainder fled while the surviving Lancers collected their casualties and reformed their ranks. At about the same time, a heavy barrage of cannon fire began and seconds later the crackle of small arms could be heard from behind the ridge. It was just on 9:00 AM and the whole of the British Army had swung over to the attack.
As soon as the Mahdist soldiers in the center began to withdraw, Kitchener had ordered his British and Egyptian brigades to advance toward Omdurman. It was a bold move, for there were still more than thirty-six thousand Ansar and Dervishes on the field, many of them mounted—more than sufficient forces to block Kitchener’s advance and inflict heavy losses in the process.
The infantry brigades wheeled left in echelon formation and began marching toward Surgham Ridge. At the same time, the Khalifa’s reserves, fifteen thousand horsemen and foot-soldiers, turned on the northernmost British brigade, that is, the last in the line. Surging over the ridge, the Arabs charged with as much ferocity as the Dervishes had shown earlier. Seeing the looming threat, Kitchener instantly responded with a series of crisp orders that completely realigned his army. Whereas it had begun the fight facing to the southwest, it was now facing almost due north.
The Khalifa, watching from the far side of the plain as his warriors attacked the British line, saw a possibility that his original plan might still come to pass—catching the British and Egyptians in the open desert—if his widely separated divisions could manage to attack both British flanks simultaneously. It would create a crisis for Kitchener, compelling him to divide his reserves, denying him the opportunity to move units from one part of the line to support threatened sections. But even as he watched he saw that the assault against the British left would begin too soon. On the other side, the divisions of Ali-Wad-Helu and Osman Sheikh ed-Din were still reforming on the Kerreri Hills, and their attack on the British right would come too late.
The British front was nearly a mile in length, and all along it the Lee-Metfords and Maxims took a savage toll of the Arabs. Many of the Ansar and Dervish leaders lay dead in the sand, surrounded by their bodyguards and warriors. Field batteries ranged artillery fire up and down the Arab ranks. With the Sirdar in the center, the entire Anglo-Egyptian line began to move forward against what was left of the Mahdist army. Shiekh Yakub and his bodyguards made a defiant stand under their Black Flag, refusing to give up their ground, and were killed where they stood. The remnants of Abdullahi’s other divisions began to dissolve, fleeing into the desert. Thousands straggled toward Omdurman, where survivors of the 21st Lancers harried the flanks of the fugitive column. One group of some four hundred Arab horsemen formed up and charged the British brigade on the far left of the line, only to be shot down to a man before they reached the khaki-clad infantry.
Kitchener pressed his attack until the Ansar and Dervishes were driven into the desert, left in a state of chaos and confusion, and no longer a threat to his army. At 11:30 AM, the Sirdar turned to his staff and announced that the enemy had been given “a good dusting.” He then gave orders that the march to Omdurman be resumed. The “Cease Fire” sounded up and down the line, rifles brought to the slope, and columns of march reformed.
As they departed the field, the British left behind nearly twenty thousand Arab dead, with another five thousand trailing behind under guard as prisoners. The Arab wounded totaled more than twenty-two thousand. British and Egyptian losses, in contrast, were forty-eight dead and less than four hundred wounded. Abdullahi had escaped, but his power was broken, his eventual capture a mere formality—at least, that was what Kitchener and his officers believed.
The Sirdar and his staff rode into Omdurman with their troops in the late afternoon. The rumor had been spread by the Khalifa that should the city be taken the British would massacre all the inhabitants as revenge for the murder of Gordon, but when this proved to be false there was a tremendous celebration in the streets. British troops were scouring the city, hoping to find Abdullahi, only to learn that as the Arab army was collapsing under the weight of Kitchener’s final assault, the Khalifa had fled into the city, spent two hours in prayer at the Mahdi’s tomb, and then just as Kitchener was entering the city by the north, Abdullahi mounted a donkey, took a Greek nun with him as a hostage, and fled out the southern gate. There he joined thirty thousand refugees, the remnants of his army, who were trudging their way south toward El Obeid.
Kitchener’s troops did find Rudolf Karl von Slatin, the Austrian officer who had been a prisoner of the Mahdi and the Khalifa for fifteen years, along with Karl Neufeld, a German trader who had been held captive for twelve. Kitchener himself paid a visit to the Mahdi’s tomb, which had been badly damaged when the British gunboats had shelled the city’s arsenal, and initiated what was probably the most disturbing incident of his entire career. Arriving at the tomb, he ordered Muhammed Ahmed’s body removed, its head cut off, and its remains thrown into the Nile. What he intended to do with the skull is unknown, although rumors later had it that he either intended to turn it into a drinking cup or send it to the Royal College of Surgeons as a curiosity. In any event, once word of this incident reached the public the outcry was fierce—even Queen Victoria expressed outrage at the desecration, remarking that it “savoured too much of the Middle Ages.” Chastened, Kitchener then sent the skull to Cairo, where Evelyn Baring took possession of it and had it buried according to Moslem custom in a cemetery at Wadi Halfa.
In the meantime, Kitchener and his troops occupied Khartoum, now falling into ruin, and there found a handful of reminders of General Gordon. Though his body was never found, a funeral service for Gordon was held on September 4 with full military honors. As gunboats on the Nile fired a salute and three cheers were raised, first for the Queen, then for the Khedive, the British and Egyptian flags were once again unfurled above the Governor’s Palace. Kitchener, who had long admired Gordon and had taken the news of Khartoum’s fall fourteen years earlier very hard, was so moved by the ceremony that he was unable to give the order to dismiss the troops on parade, and had one of his subordinates issue the command. In the days to come he would be seen spending long hours in solitary contemplation walking in the courtyard where Gordon had met his death. When Queen Victoria received Kitchener’s report of the funeral service, she confided to her diary with some satisfaction, “Surely he is avenged.”
A part of Kitchener’s solitary walks were no doubt devoted to a set of orders he had been given before departing Cairo, but was not permitted to open until he had taken Khartoum. Upon reading them, he discovered that he had been ordered to take his army further up the Nile into the Sudan to a small mud-fort called Fashoda, once held by the Egyptians but now occupied by a column of French soldiers who had marched out of the Congo. Once there, Kitchener was to remove the French and place the fort and the surrounding territory firmly under Anglo-Egyptian control.
Setting out from Khartoum in a small flotilla of riverboats on September 10, Kitchener reached Fashoda eight days later, and through a remarkable demonstration of tact and diplomacy, persuaded the French commander to leave the fort. It took two months for the details of the two officers’ agreement to be settled by their respective governments, but on December 11, the French departed. Kitchener took his time returning to Khartoum, securing the Nile along the way by building small forts and leaving Egyptian garrisons to man them.
When he arrived in Khartoum at the beginning of March, he discovered that a grateful nation, by an act of Parliament, had awarded him the sum of £30,000, and that he had been elevated to an earl—styling himself “Kitchener of Khartoum,” he would be known throughout the Empire as simply “K of K.” At the same time he had also been given the authority to rebuild the Sudanese capital. Seven thousand new trees were planted as five thousand workmen began repairing the buildings damaged during the siege or allowed to fall into ruin during the Mahdyyah. Kitchener also raised a £120,000 public subscription for the establishment of Gordon College in Khartoum. To further commemorate the General, a statue of Gordon mounted on a camel was eventually placed in the square in front of the Governor’s Palace.
But there was still one piece of unfinished business: the Khalifa. For more than a year Abdullahi had wandered in the dry hills of the central Sudan, among the Baggara, the tribe from which the Khalifa had come. British and Egyptian agents searched for him, but it wasn’t until October 1899 that definitive reports of a camp near Jebel Gedir were received. An oasis more than four hundred miles south of Khartoum, Jebel Gedir was hardly a likely focal point for a new Islamic uprising, while the Khaifa had fewer than ten thousand followers who remained loyal. It is even arguable that Abdullahi himself had given up the cause of the Mahdi. Yet there was still a cause for concern among the British and Egyptians: Jebel Gedir lay just south of Abbas Island, where the Mahdi had been born and where he had begun his jihad. There remained strong undercurrents of pro-Mahdist sentiment in the region, and that alone was reason enough for Kitchener to choose to settle the issue with the Khalifa once and for all.
Sending eight thousand men up the Nile to the village of Kaka, where they began their overland trek to Jebel Gedir, Kitchener gave command of the force to Colonel Sir Francis Reginald Wingate, who had served as an aide to Field Marshal Wolseley on the Gordon Relief Expedition, spoke fluent Arabic, and was by all accounts an expert on Egypt, the Sudan and the Middle East. Moving swiftly, Wingate took part of his force westward and on November 21 overtook an Arab caravan carrying grain for the Khalifa. Two days later the Khalifa’s camp was discovered near a well at Um Diwaykarat. Wingate brought up the whole of his force and Abdullahi was trapped. With the route to the north cut off by the British, the Nile to the east, the desert to the west and impassible scrub and brush to the south, a battle was inevitable.
It was Omdurman all over again, though on a far smaller scale. As the Arabs attacked in the early morning light, the crashing British rifle volleys and chattering machine guns chewed into the ranks of the charging enemy. It was over within an hour: a thousand Arab dead lay on the field, while nearly ten thousand more were taken prisoner, including the Khalifa’s son, his designated successor. As the morning light grew brighter, an amazing sight greeted the British officers examining the battlefield. Wingate told the tale with simple dignity:
Only a few hundred yards from our original position on the rising ground, a large number of the enemy were seen lying dead, huddled together in a comparatively small space; on examination these proved to be the bodies of the Khalifa Abdullahi, the Khalifa Ali Wad Helu, Ahmed-el-Fedil, the Khalifa’s two brothers, Sennousi Ahmed and Hamed Muhammed, the Mahdi’s son, Es-Sadek, and a number of other well-known leaders.
At a short distance behind them lay their dead horses, and, from the few men still alive—among whom was the Emir Yunis Eddekin—we learnt that the Khalifa, having failed in his attempt to reach the rising ground where we had forestalled him, had then endeavoured to make a turning movement, which had been crushed under our fire. Seeing his followers retiring, he made an ineffectual attempt to rally them, but recognizing that the day was lost, he had called on his emirs to dismount from their horses, and seating himself on his “furwa” or sheepskin—as is the custom of Arab chiefs who disdain surrender—he had placed the Khalifa Ali Wad Helu on his right and Ahmed Fedil on his left, whilst the remaining emirs seated themselves round him, their bodyguard in line some twenty paces to their front, and in this position they had unflinchingly met their death. They were given a fitting burial, under our supervision, by the surviving members of their own tribesmen.
It was the end of the Mahdyyah.
Kitchener added a postscript to Wingate’s report, saying, “The country has at last been finally relieved of the military tyranny which started in a movement of wild religious fanaticism upwards of 19 years ago. Mahdism is now a thing of the past, and I hope that a brighter era has now opened for the Sudan.” As prophecies and predictions go, this was both prescient and naive.
Certainly the Sudan would prosper under British rule. Once the last remnants of the Mahdyyah were swept away the slave trade quickly withered and died, while railroads brought permanent connections to the outside world for the entire country; the Sudan would no longer be dependent solely on the Nile. Culturally the country would remain divided between the Arab, Moslem north and the African, Christian south, but as long as the British retained power, there was little friction between the two—the British simply did not tolerate it. When independence came to the Sudan in 1956, to all appearances the country, its administration, finances, industry, and agriculture were all in fine shape—the transition from colonial rule to home rule was smooth and uncomplicated.
As often happens, however, appearances were deceiving. As the Anglo-Egyptian co-dominium wound down, two political parties had emerged in the Sudan. One was the National Unionist Party (NUP), which had as its central policy a demand for a union of the Sudan and Egypt. The other was the Umma Party, backed by Sayed Sir Abdur-Rahman al-Mahdi, the Mahdi’s grandson, which wanted no links with Egypt, but rather demanded complete independence. In December 1953, in the first elections held in the Sudan in preparation for the introduction of home rule, the NUP won a resounding victory, securing a majority in the House of Representatives with al-Aihari becoming the Sudan’s first Prime Minister. The replacement of colonial officials and bureaucrats with their Sudanese counterparts proceeded smoothly, and British and Egyptian troops left the country for the last time on January 1, 1956.
Yet, less than two years later, on November 17, 1958, General Ibrahim Abboud toppled the Government of al-Aihari in a bloodless army coup. Suspending democratic institutions indefinitely, General Abboud ruled through a thirteen-member army junta until October 1964, when a popular uprising among the Sudanese drove Abboud and his junta from power. For the next five years, the Sudan once again functioned as a working, if somewhat troubled, democracy.
It was during this period, though, that a new set of troubles began to emerge, as rebellion broke out in the southern Sudan as a consequence of what was felt to be oppression of the black southern Christians by the northern Arab Moslems. The rebels were led by Major-General Joseph Lagu, who continued with his rebellion even when the civilian government fell to another military coup in May 1969 and installed Colonel Jaafar al-Numieri as the new head of state. Open warfare broke out between the north and south that same year, and the fighting continued until March 1972 when a peaceful settlement was reached between the government and the rebels.
The ghost of the Mahdi still haunted the Sudan, however, as in July 1976, al-Numieri, who now styled himself President, was almost removed from power in an attempted coup led by former finance minister Hussein al-Hindi and former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, the Mahdi’s great-grandson. More than two thousand heavily armed civilians were carefully smuggled into Khartoum and Omdurman, where, once the signal to act was given, they caused widespread destruction among both civilian and military targets. The Sudanese army remained loyal to Numieri, however, and gradually crushed the coup. The reprisals were swift and severe: several hundred suspects were summarily imprisoned, while ninety-eight were executed for their part in the plot. Al-Hindi and al-Mahdi returned to exile.
It was on September 8, 1983 that President al-Numeiri brought the Sudan much closer to a return to the Mahdyyah, when he announced that the nation’s penal code would be linked “organically and spiritually” to Islamic common law, called the Sharia. All criminal offences would now subject to judgment according to the Koran. The penalties for murder, adultery, and theft suddenly became the same as they had been a century earlier. Alcohol and gambling were once more prohibited.
In the 1980s, as drought overtook central Africa and famine set in, millions of refugees poured into the Sudan, particularly to the south. Massive aid by the United Nations kept a tragedy from escalating into a disaster, but thousands still died as the Sudan’s agricultural base, though strong, was insufficient to support them all. Once regarded as the potential bread basket of the Arab world, there were now food shortages throughout the country, even in the capital of Khartoum.
Discontent with al-Numieri grew as the famine worsened and the southern provinces, now chafing under an Islamic legal system they did not recognize as legitimate, once again rose in open rebellion. In April 1985 al-Numieri was deposed in yet another military coup, this one led by Lt. Gen. Swar al-Dahab, who, in a departure from the norm for African and Middle Eastern politics, returned the government to civilian rule. The new Prime Minister was Sadiq al-Mahdi. A century after the Mahdi’s death, his great-grandson ruled the Sudan.
Like an Arabian fairy tale, the story of the Mahdi has become a fixture in the folklore and mythology of modern Islam. The young religious scholar who became the great desert warrior, dedicated to cleansing Islam, who defied and defeated great armies and generals, and who caused powerful leaders in mighty nations to tremble at his name, still holds a powerful sway over the hearts and minds of countless Moslems. Well into the twentieth century, the Mahdi remained a central figure in Sudanese history and myth, symbolic of a poor nation’s resistance to foreign aggrandizement and oppression. Nor was the lesson of his successes lost on all Western observers: historian Anthony Nutting offered an incisive analysis of how the Mahdi’s appeal still remains potent: “A boat builder’s son from the Nile had shown the world how a group of naked tribesmen, armed physically, at first, with sticks and stones but inwardly always with faith and unity, could be united and obtain superiority to a point where the greatest power on earth was held to ransom.” In emulating the Mahdi’s doctrines, his spirit, his intolerance, and his ruthlessness, it has been a lesson that modern militant Islam has taken to heart.