OMDURMAN

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.

The Battle of Adwalton Moor

30 June 1643

The Earl of Newcastle’s reaction to the storming of Wakefield must have been of considerable concern to the Fairfaxes. It must have come as a great surprise when Newcastle tamely withdrew his army to York. The Earl’s main task was still the protection of the Queen and her safe despatch to the south. In early June Newcastle put his plan into operation. On the 4th his army, accompanied by the Queen and her arms convoy, left York and marched to Pontefract. A Council of War was then held to decide on the next course of action. The main question was: should Newcastle and his whole army escort the Queen? Many of Newcastle’s officers were Yorkshire men and did not like the idea of leaving the county in the possession of the Parliamentarians. A decision was made for the bulk of the army to remain in the county while the Queen, with a strong escort, travelled to Newark, where she arrived safely on 16 June.

With the departure of the Queen, Newcastle was now free to move against Lord Fairfax in the West Riding. The Earl spent a number of days at Pontefract, gathering his forces and recruiting and training replacements for the troops that had accompanied the Queen. Newcastle first moved his troops to Wakefield in preparation for an advance on Bradford, where Fairfax’s main army was stationed. On 21 June he captured Howley Hall but was unable to carry on his advance due to the unseasonal heavy rain. By 30 June the roads had dried enough to allow him to begin his approach march to Bradford.

While Newcastle waited for a change in the weather at Howley Hall, Fairfax gathered his commanders, and troops, at Bradford and tried to come to a decision. The town was untenable. Bradford sits in a bowl and is overlooked from all sides. It was also unfortified and would take a lot of men to defend. If Fairfax could gather enough men he would not be able to supply them, so defending the town was discounted. He could attempt to skirt around the Royalist army and head for Hull but, as the Hothams were becoming less and less cooperative, this was not an attractive option. A withdrawal into Lancashire, a Parliamentarian stronghold at this time, seems to have been discounted. This left one course of action – to fight. The success of the attack on Wakefield may have caused the Parliamentarian command to have a ‘rush of blood to the head’. They had defeated twice their number at Wakefield; could a surprise attack on the Royalist encampment at Howley Hall not have the same success? A decision was made and on 30 June the Parliamentarian army left Bradford. Both armies were now marching along the same road towards each other. A clash was inevitable.

The old road between Bradford and Wakefield ran along a narrow ridgeline, running from north-west (Bradford) to south-east (Wakefield). As Lord Fairfax’s army marched towards Wakefield, the road began to rise up the north-west side of a hill, known locally as Whiskett, or Westgate Hill, whose crest stood at about 700 feet. About three-quarters of a mile south-east of the main crest of Whiskett Hill was a second crest, slightly lower at 650 feet, which formed the military crest of the hill for an army marching from Bradford. It was not until the top of this hill was reached that Adwalton Moor could be seen, as the ground gently drops into a shallow bowl between the two crests. About half a mile further on is the edge of Adwalton Moor. The north-west edge of the moor had a series of hedged enclosures, and a substantial ditch along it, and further enclosures encroached onto the southwest corner of the moor. A couple of hundred yards from the edge of the moor the land begins to rise again and climbs to 650 feet at the top of Hungar Hill, which formed the south-east edge of the battlefield. On either side of the ridge the ground falls away quite steeply.

As Lord Fairfax’s army left Bradford it was divided into a number of bodies. First came the Forlorn Hope, or advance guard, which was a combined arms force of six companies/troops of horse, foot and dragoons, although it is not certain what proportion each type provided, but it would have had a total of 300–350 men. It was commanded by Captain Mildmay, who seems to have been a trusted officer, more than capable of operating independently, as had been shown at Leeds when he was detached with a substantial force to attack the town from the south side of the River Aire.

The vanguard was commanded by Sergeant-Major-General Gifford and comprised 1,200 men from the Leeds garrison. Lord Fairfax himself commanded the main battle, which was made up of 500 men from the garrisons of Halifax, and its surrounding towns, and 700 Lancashire foot, divided into twelve companies. Sir Thomas Fairfax had command of the horse, which was formed from thirteen troops, for a strength of about 650–700 men. The horse was divided into two wings of five troops each, which points to the remaining three troops being part of the Forlorn Hope. Thomas Stockdale, a close associate of Lord Fairfax, stated that the Parliamentarian army was ‘not full 4,000 men horse and foot armed’. Taking into account the troops already listed this gives a total of about 500–600 men for the Bradford garrison, divided into seven companies, which formed the rearguard, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Forbes. Thomas Stockdale also mentions a substantial number of clubmen being present, although he does not give an exact number.

The strength of the Royalist army is much more problematic and little detail is given in any of the contemporary accounts of the battle. Thomas Stockdale stated that the Royalist had 15,000 foot and 4,000 horse, almost certainly a highly inflated figure, although his total for the horse may be close. Sir Thomas Fairfax puts the Royalist strength at between 10,000 and 12,000 men, and this is probably very close to the truth. The two Royalist accounts that give any clue to their strength are the Duchess of Newcastle, who writes that ‘My Lord’s forces, which then contained not above half so many musketeers as the enemy had; their chiefest strength consisting in horse’, and the Earl of Newcastle himself who reports the enemy having ‘a greater number of foot than we’. It is probable that the Royalist army was close to Sir Thomas Fairfax’s lower total of 10,000 men, with an almost equal split of horse and foot at about 5,000 men each. Newcastle also had a substantial artillery train, as his objective was to lay siege to Bradford.

The first shots of the battle were fired on the north-west slopes of Whiskett Hill, when the two Forlorn Hopes clashed with each other. No contemporary account gives a time for this first clash, but Sir Thomas Fairfax provides a clue:

My father appointed 4 o’clock the next morning, to begin to march; but Major-General Gifford, who had the ordering of the business, so delayed the execution of it, that it was 7 or 8 before we began to move; and not without much suspicion of treachery in it.

If Sir Thomas is correct and the Parliamentarian army had covered four miles, then the first clash must have been between nine and ten o’clock on the morning of 30 June 1643.

Three accounts give details of the initial clash between the Forlorn Hopes. Sir Henry Slingsby writes:

The fortune [forlorn] hope of his excellency’s army met unexpectedly with the van of the enemy. They skirmish and are put to retreat. He encouraged his men and put the enemy to a stand. They come on fiercer, and beat the enemy from one hedge, from one house to another; at last they are driven to retreat and we recover the moor.

Thomas Stockdale reported:

Upon Atherton Moor they planted ordnance, and ordered their battalia, but they manned diverse houses standing in the enclosed grounds between Bradford and Atherton Moor with musketeers, and sent out great parties of horse and foot by the lanes and enclosed ground to give us fight. Our forlorn hope beat back the enemy’s out of the lanes and enclosed ground, killing many and taking some prisoners.

Finally, Sir Thomas Fairfax writes:

For when we were near the place we intended, the whole enemy army was drawn up in battalia. We were to go up a hill to them, which our forlorn hope gained by beating theirs into their main body, which was drawn up half a mile further, upon a place called Adderton Moor [locals still sometimes refer to Adwalton as Adderton]. We being all up the hill drew into battalia also.

There seems to be some discrepancy between these accounts as to the state of the Royalist army at the start of the action. Enough information is given to work out the course of events.

Captain Mildmay led his forlorn hope up the northwest side of Whiskett Hill, where they clashed unexpectedly with the Royalist vanguard. The Royalists were driven back from Whiskett Hill to the second, lower ridge, where they were rallied by the Earl of Newcastle and the Parliamentarian forlorn hope was brought to a stand. Reinforced, the Parliamentarians renewed their attack, driving the Royalists back into the enclosures at the foot of the hill and here, once again, the Royalists made a stand.

By this time the Royalist army had begun to deploy onto the moor, and a large number of musketeers, supported by horse, had been sent into the enclosures to reinforce their retreating forlorn hope. The main Parliamentarian army had reached the top of the lower crest, overlooking the moor, and began to form into line of battle. There would have been a pause while both armies continued to deploy.

The Parliamentarian army split into two wings and a reserve. Major-General Gifford commanded the left wing, with his five troops of horse deployed close to the Bradford-Wakefield road, and to their right 1,200 foot, mostly musketeers. Continuing the line was a similar sized body of foot and then another five troops of horse completed the Parliamentarian line. The right half of the Parliamentarian front line was commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax. Somewhere within this line were deployed three light cannon, the only guns Lord Fairfax had with him. The remainder of Lord Fairfax’s troops formed a reserve, and this comprised about 600 regular foot, possibly the men from the Bradford garrison, and the clubmen, and, as they are not taken into account elsewhere Captain Mildmay’s weary forlorn hope.

On the moor the Royalists were in the process of deploying into a similar formation, with horse on the flanks and foot in the centre. As most of Newcastle’s musketeers had been deployed into the enclosures on the edge of the moor, the foot in the centre would have comprised, in the main, blocks of pikemen and these would have been interspersed with cannon, most of which were still in the act of deploying onto the moor. The troops of horse on the Royalist left flank had problems deploying due to a number of coal pits dotted around the southern half of the moor, the remains of which can still be detected today. The Royalist right flank may well have extended beyond the Bradford-Wakefield road, which was open ground at the time of the battle, but any advance they made would be affected by a continuation of the enclosures bordering the moor. It is difficult to ascertain how far forward on the moor the Royalists had deployed but, as several accounts write of the Royalists coming down towards the Parliamentarian troops and Parliamentarian troops going up towards the Royalists, it is a fair assumption that the main Royalist line was deployed part way up the northwest slope of Hungar Hill.

Once their deployment was complete the Parliamentarian army began to roll forward towards the enclosure at the bottom of the hill. After a sharp fight the Royalist musketeers were driven from the enclosures, withdrawing towards their main body, and the Parliamentarian troops closed up to the edge of the moor. Sir Thomas Fairfax’s five troops of horse had occupied an enclosure running along the south-west edge of the moor and some of his musketeers were deployed in another enclosure at right angles to the first. The only entrance to the field in which Sir Thomas’s horse was deployed was through a narrow opening, or gateway, which was flanked by his musketeers, the whole forming a very useful defensive position. Sir Thomas needed this as the enemy horse opposing him vastly outnumbered his five troops. It was not long before a body of Royalist horse began to move forward to attack him, sweeping around the end of the enclosure to force an entry through the gateway. Sir Thomas reports the results of this attack:

Ten or 12 troops of horse charged us in the right wing. We kept the enclosure, placing our musketeers in the hedges in the moor, which was a good advantage to us who had so few horse. There was a gate, or open place to the moor, where 5 or 6 might enter abreast. Here they strove to enter, and we to defend; but after some dispute, those that entered the pass found sharp entertainment; and those that had not yet entered, a hot welcome from the musketeers that flanked them in the hedges. All, in the end, were forced to retreat, with the loss of one Colonel Howard, who commanded them.

The Duchess of Newcastle gives similar details to Sir Thomas but states that the gateway would only allow access to two men at a time. Outnumbered two to one, the importance of Sir Thomas’s position was proven and his men not only held their ground but drove off the enemy.

Shortly after the repulse of the first cavalry attack, another large body of Royalist horse descended the hill and almost succeeded in breaking into the enclosure, as Sir Thomas Fairfax reports:

The horse came down again and charged us, being about 13 or 14 troops. We defended ourselves as before, but with much more difficulty, many having gotten in among us; but were beaten off again, with loss; and Colonel Heme who commanded that party was slain. We pursued them to their cannon.

Sir Thomas goes on to describe an act of divine retribution which took place just after this attack:

And here, I cannot omit a remarkable passage of divine justice. While we were engaged in the fight with the horse that entered the gate, 4 soldiers had stripped Colonel Heme naked, as he laid dead on the ground (men still fighting around about him), and so dextrous were these villains, that they had done it, and mounted themselves again before we had beat them off. But after we had beaten them to their ordnance (as I said) and now returning to our ground again, the enemy discharged a piece of cannon in our rear; the bullet fell into Captain Copley’s troop, in which these 4 men were; two of them were killed and some hurt, or mark remained on the rest, though dispersed into several ranks of the troop which was the more remarkable, we had not martial law among us, which gave me a good occasion to reprove it, by showing the soldiers the sinfulness of the act, and how God would punish when man wanted power to do it.

It is quite a surprise that after ten months at war the Parliamentarian army in Yorkshire does not seem to have had any articles of war.

The Parliamentarians were exerting pressure right along the line and began to advance onto the moor itself, driving the Royalist musketeers before them. Joseph Lister, an inhabitant of Bradford, writes that the Parliamentarian foot:

Charged them so warmly, that they beat them off their great guns, and turned them against the enemy and they began to run.

There is no evidence to support Lister’s mention of the Royalist guns being captured and turned on their original owners, but several other accounts talk of Lord Fairfax’s foot almost reaching the Royalist guns. Sir Henry Slingsby wrote:

There the enemy had like to have gained our cannon; but was manfully defended by a stand of pikes.

While the Duchess of Newcastle said that:

In the meanwhile the foot of both sides on the right and left wings encountered each other, who fought from hedge to hedge and for a long time together overpowered and got ground of my Lord’s foot, almost to the environing of his cannon.

By this time the action had been going on for two hours and it must have been around noon. The Royalist musketeers had been driven back to their gun line, the horse of their left wing had been driven back twice by Sir Thomas Fairfax’s men – the Royalist right wing does not seem to have taken a great part in the action – and their guns were in danger of capture. Sir Philip Warwick sums up the Royalist situation:

When the day seemed lost on his side [Newcastle’s], and many of his horse and foot standing doubtful and wavering; a stand or body of pikes, which being not useful, where the two armies were strongest engaged, came up to the defence of their foot, and charged by Fairfax’s horse, repelling them, gave leisure to rally horse and foot.

Sir Thomas Fairfax takes this a little further:

This charge and the resolution that our soldiers showed in the left wing, made the enemy think of retreating. Orders were given for it, and some marched off the field.

Outnumbered by almost three to one, the Parliamentarian army was on the verge of winning a stunning victory. Although the intervention of some of the Royalist pikes had halted the enemy’s advance temporarily, the Royalist army was in some disarray and Newcastle issued orders to withdraw. Battles can sometimes swing on the actions of one man and Adwalton Moor was a prime example of this, when a Royalist colonel changed the whole course of the action, as Sir Thomas Fairfax reports:

While they were in this wavering condition, one Colonel Skirton, a wild and desperate man, desired his General [Newcastle] to let him charge once more, with a stand of pikes, with which he broke in upon our men, and not relieved by our reserves, commanded by some ill affected officers, and chiefly, Major-General Gifford (who did not his part as he ought to have done) our men lost ground; which the enemy seeing, pursued their advantage by bringing on fresh troops. Ours being herewith discouraged, began to flee, and so were soon routed.

This turn of events is also mentioned by the Duchess of Newcastle:

At last the pikes of my Lord’s army having had no employment all the day, were drawn against the enemy’s left wing, and particularly those of my Lord’s own regiment, which were all stout and valiant men, who fell so furiously upon the enemy, that they forsook their hedges, and fell to their heels.

Colonel Skirton, who was probably Colonel Posthumous Kirton, requested Newcastle’s permission to carry out one last attack against the enemy and this turned the course of the battle. Closing rapidly with the enemy musketeers, Kirton’s pikemen broke in among them and drove them back into the enclosures. Other bodies of foot joined in this attack and the situation of Lord Fairfax’s left wing deteriorated rapidly. Sir Thomas Fairfax states that Gifford was responsible for the defeat, as he did not deploy the reserve promptly. This hardly seems justified. It was no more Gifford’s responsibility to deploy the reserve than it was Sir Thomas’s and his statement seems to be trying to find a scapegoat for the officer whose responsibility it was – his father Lord Ferdinando Fairfax.

With the enemy being forced back into the enclosures, General King, Newcastle’s Lieutenant-General, led forward the horse of the Royalist right wing. This was the last straw for Fairfax’s left wing and in short order they were streaming back towards Bradford with the Royalist horse in full pursuit. Due to the lie of the land and the mass of powder smoke blowing across the battlefield, Sir Thomas Fairfax was unaware of the disaster on the left flank. Newcastle now turned his attention to Sir Thomas’s men, the only surviving formed bodies of Parliamentarian troops on the battlefield. The Duchess of Newcastle writes:

At which very instant my Lord caused a shot or two to be made by his cannon against the body of the enemy’s horse, drawn up within cannon shot, which took so good effect, that it disordered the enemy’s troops. Hereupon my Lord’s horse got over the hedge, not in a body (for that they could not), but dispersedly two on a breast; and as soon as some considerable number was gotten over, and drawn up, they charged the enemy, and routed them. So that in an instant there was a strange change of fortune, and the field totally won by my Lord.

Sir Thomas mentions the enemy guns opening fire on his men as they withdrew to the enclosure they had so stoutly defended and this continued once they had arrived there. The reason for Sir Thomas’s withdrawal was almost certainly the repulse of Gifford’s men by Kirton’s attack and, finding his men facing the whole Royalist left wing, he had no option but to pull back. Sir Thomas goes on to describe the closing moments of the battle:

The horse also charged us again. We not knowing what was done in the left wing, our men maintained their ground, until a command came for us to retreat having scarce any way now to do it; the enemy being almost round about us, and our way to Bradford cut off; but there was a lane in the field we were in which led to Halifax, which, as a happy providence, brought us off without any great loss, saving one Captain Talbot and 12 more which were slain in this last encounter.

So there is a discrepancy between the Duchess’s account and that of Sir Thomas. The Duchess asserts that Fairfax was driven from the field, while Sir Thomas states that he withdrew from the field after receiving an order, probably from his father. Sir Thomas’s story has the ring of truth about it, as he brought virtually all of his men off the field in good order, something he certainly would not have been able to do had he been driven from the field. Local tradition has it that the lane along which Sir Thomas withdrew was Warren Lane, which still exists today, although it follows a slightly different course, passing through the grounds of Oakwell Hall, just to the south of the battlefield.

By early afternoon the Fairfaxes were in full retreat, Sir Thomas to Halifax and the remainder of the army towards Bradford. Accounts of both sides’ losses in the battle are sparse and contradictory. For example Sir Thomas Fairfax puts the Parliamentarian losses at ‘about 60 killed, and 300 taken prisoners’, while the Duchess of Newcastle writes:

In this victory the enemy lost most of their foot, about 3,000 were taken prisoner, and 700 horse and foot slain, and those that escaped fled into their garrison at Bradford, amongst whom was also their General of Horse [Sir Thomas Fairfax].

Both of these accounts were written a long time after the battle and give vastly different figures, one too low and one too high. A third account giving more realistic figures is attributed to the Earl of Newcastle and was written soon after the battle:

So we pursued them, killing and taking them to Bradford town end, which was more than two mile [old English miles, nearer four modern miles], in which chase was slain (as is supposed) about 500 of the enemy’s, and about 1400 taken prisoners, amongst which many officers, together with three field pieces, and all their ammunition there, which was not much. We had many soldiers hurt, two colonels of horse slain, Heron and Howard, and some officers hurt, as Colonel Throckmorton, Colonel Carnaby, and Captain Maison, all recoverable, and not above twenty common soldiers slain.

This account gives more reasonable figures for the Parliamentarian losses, although the figure for the Royalist dead seems a little low. That said, most of the Parliamentarian dead would have been killed during the pursuit after the battle. With the enemy in rout Newcastle was able to continue his march to his original objective – Bradford.

During the night Sir Thomas Fairfax was able to march from Halifax to Bradford where he joined the remnants of his father’s army. Sir Thomas sums up their situation:

I found my Father much troubled, having neither a place of strength to defend ourselves in; nor a garrison in Yorkshire to retreat to. (For the Governor of Hull [Sir John Hotham] had declared himself, that if we were forced to retreat thither, he would shut the gates against us.) But while he was musing on these sad thoughts, a messenger was sent from Hull to let him know that the townsmen had secured the Governor, and if he had any occasion to make use of that place (for they were sensible of the danger he was in) he should be readily and gladly received. Which news was joyfully received, and acknowledged as a great mercy of God to us.

The Hothams had continued their correspondence with Newcastle and were on the verge of changing sides. Fortunately for Parliament, the citizens of Hull took matters into their own hands and arrested Sir John on 29 June. He managed to escape but was pursued and recaptured at Beverley. His son had also been arrested and the two were transported to the Tower of London on the ship Hercules. The pair were tried, convicted and executed on Tower Hill: Captain John on 1 January 1644 and his father on the following day. With the arrival of the news from Hull, Lord Fairfax decided to withdraw what he could of his army to Leeds and then on to Hull.

Leaving his son to defend Bradford with 800 foot and sixty horse, Fairfax safely reached Leeds early on 1 July. During the previous evening the Royalists had moved their artillery into position to bombard Bradford. This bombardment commenced on the morning of the 1st. Having given the defenders a taste of what was to come, Newcastle called for a parley. If Parliamentarian accounts are to be believed, Newcastle did not intend to come to an agreement with the defenders but used the time to surround the town. A decision to break out was taken by the Parliamentarian officers and they attempted to carry this out during the night of the 1st/2nd. While many of the horse were able to break out most of the foot were driven back into the town. Sir Thomas Fairfax clashed with a force of enemy horse and during the exchange his wife was captured. The Earl of Newcastle showed that he was a real gentleman by returning Sir Thomas’s wife in his own coach. Sir Thomas reached Leeds safely.

Newcastle had ordered his men to storm Bradford on the morning of the 2nd and they were to show no quarter. Local tradition has it that Newcastle, who was spending the night at Boiling Hall, was awoken by a spirit imploring him to ‘Pity poor Bradford’ several times during the night. Whether or not there is any truth in this tradition, by the morning of the 2nd Newcastle called off the assault and occupied the town peacefully.

Within two hours of his arrival at Leeds, Sir Thomas Fairfax was on the road again, this time marching for Hull and safety. The Parliamentarians’ first objective was to cross the Ouse at Selby and several bodies of Royalist horse had been sent to intercept them. While his father and the bulk of his surviving troops crossed the Ouse, Sir Thomas turned on one of the Royalist forces, attacking it in the streets of Selby. During the fight Sir Thomas was wounded in the wrist but his men sent the Royalist troopers on their way back to Cawood Castle. Unfortunately, Fairfax and his men were unable to cross the Ouse and follow his father. Crossing the Trent they rode along the south bank of the Humber, pursued by the Royalists, until they came to Barton-on-Humber where they were picked up by a ship and taken to Hull. During the pursuit Fairfax had to leave his young daughter, who was ill, behind. His relief must have been great when she was subsequently brought safely to Hull.

The immediate aftermath of the Battle of Adwalton Moor was that, with the exception of Hull, the Royalists had control of the whole of Yorkshire. This meant that Newcastle was now able to move his army to the south and reinforce the King. Not for the first time, the Yorkshire gentry bridled against leaving the county while an enemy force existed. On 2 September the Royalists once again laid siege to Hull. Lord Fairfax’s horse were of no use during a siege, so they were ferried across the Humber. This force, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax, joined with the cavalry of the Eastern Association commanded by Oliver Cromwell.

The siege of Hull progressed slowly. Lord Fairfax opened the floodgates along the River Hull and inundated the land around the town, seriously inhibiting the Royalist attempts to commence a bombardment. On 11 October Newcastle received two pieces of bad news. At Hull a major sortie by the garrison had driven his men back and on the 12th the siege was raised. In Lincolnshire a large body of his horse had been defeated by Fairfax and Cromwell at the Battle of Winceby. These two events, both taking place on the 11th, seem to have brought Newcastle to a decision to go into winter quarters at Welbeck and the fighting in Yorkshire came to a close for 1643.

Although Adwalton Moor had given control of Yorkshire to the Royalists it had a much more profound effect on the course of the war. In the immediate aftermath of the battle Thomas Stockdale, a close associate of Lord Fairfax, had written from Halifax to the Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthall, summing up the day’s events and the magnitude of Fairfax’s defeat. This letter was read to the House on 5 July and galvanised Parliament to follow a course it had been considering for some time – an alliance with the Scots. On 25 September Parliament ratified an agreement with the Scots, known as the Solemn League and Covenant. Although this agreement contained political and religious clauses, it was its military implications that would have the greatest effect on the Civil War in Yorkshire and, indeed, the rest of the country. The Scots would invade northern England with an army of 20,000 men in support of Parliament. Due to some minor disagreements this part of the treaty was not completed until November 1643. The Scots began to gather their forces and would be ready to invade the North in January 1644.

RÖSSELPRUNG

After 1941, the Balkans provided a much-required supply of natural resources for the Reich. One source, citing post-war reports from the Nuremberg trials, stated the Balkans provided “50% of petroleum, 100% of chrome, 60% of bauxite and 21% of Copper” for the German war machine. To protect both this vital source of resources and the lines of communication for its substantial occupation forces in Greece, Germany had some 18 Divisions in Yugoslavia, along with numerous other independent formations. This was an ulcer in the side of Germany as they sought to find troops to bolster their deteriorating position on the Eastern Front. These forces were still not sufficient to dominate the country and consequently they occupied the major urban areas and important communication nodes, while Partisan forces controlled the rugged countryside and were free to attack at will. The resulting situation for the Germans was dismal. In fact, in some areas morale was so low amongst German troops that many thought their prospects were better against the Russians and took the extraordinary move of volunteering for transfer to the Eastern Front rather than take their chances against the Partisans.

To Field Marshal Maximilian Freiherr von Weichs, who was not only the Commander of Army Group F responsible for Yugoslavia and Albania but also oversaw Luftwaffe General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E in Greece, it was very apparent that he lacked the manpower and equipment to gain total victory in the field over the Partisan masses. The terrain was extremely well suited for guerrilla operations and very much favored the Partisans. He believed that the elimination of Tito, the personification of the Partisan movement and its center of gravity, would eliminate their will to fight. Hitler, who had personally ordered the elimination of Tito, shared this belief.

The task to locate Tito was assumed by several German intelligence organizations, including SS special operations expert Major Otto Skorzeny, operating independently on Hitler’s direct orders, and elements of the Brandenburg Division, the Abwehr’s special operations arm. The Brandenburgers had been involved on the attack on Jajce and now had their agents looking for clues as to Tito’s new location. The detailed task went to the Brandenburg Lieutenant Kirchner and his troops, and in a series of events to be discussed later, Tito and his headquarters were discovered from several sources to be in Drvar.

Planning and Preparation

Planning for the operation began in earnest. Field Marshal von Weichs signed the order on 6 May, and balancing synchronization of the operation with operational security, General Lothar Rendulic issued the Second Panzer Army order for Operation RÖSSELPRUNG two weeks later, on the 21st of May, allowing only three full days for subordinates to conduct battle procedure. Given potential security leaks in the form of Partisan agents, this was a prudent move. Rendulic, whose Second Panzer Army paradoxically did not include any panzer divisions, directed that the XV Gebirgs (Mountain) Army Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Ernest von Leyser, was to execute the operation.

A heavy bombardment of Partisan positions in and around Drvar by Fliegerführer Kroatien (Air Command Croatia) aircraft was to precede a parachute and glider assault by 500 SS Fallschirmjäger Battalion whose task it was to destroy Tito and his headquarters. Concurrently, XV Corps elements would converge on Drvar from all directions, in order to linkup with 500 SS on the same day, 25 May 1944. Speed, shock and surprise were key for the paratroopers of 500 SS to accomplish their mission.

500 SS Fallschirmjäger Battalion was a relatively new unit. It was formed in the autumn of 1943 by direction of Hitler’s headquarters for the purpose of performing special missions. Sometimes referred to as a penal unit, it included many volunteers but for the most part initially, the enlisted ranks came from ‘probationary soldiers’. These were soldiers and officers who were serving sentences for minor infractions of a disciplinary instead of a criminal nature, imposed in the draconian environment of the Waffen SS. Dishonored men of all ranks of the SS could redeem themselves in this battalion and once joined had their rank restored. The unit conducted parachute school at the Luftwaffes’s Paratroop School Number Three near Sarajevo, Yugoslavia in November and finished in Papa, Hungary, early in 1944, as the school relocated there. After training was completed the unit participated in several minor Partisan drives before returning to its training grounds on the outskirts of Sarajevo in mid-April and remained there under strict security measures. While there, the 27-year-old SS Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Kurt Rybka took command of the battalion.

Rybka received an outline of the operation on 20 May and more detailed orders the following day. Realizing there were not enough gliders or transport aircraft to deploy 500 SS in one lift, he devised a plan where 654 troops would conduct the initial assault at 0700 hours, and a further 220 would reinforce as a second wave some five hours later. The intelligence picture that was portrayed to him was based on available sources, and recent air photos were used to aid in the planning. The suspected location of Tito’s headquarters, a cemetery on dominating ground, was given the codename ‘Citadel’ and the important crossroads in town was entitled the ‘Western Cross’.

The town was to be secured by 314 parachute troops. They were split into Red (led by Rybka), Green, and Blue Groups and were based on elements of the unit’s three rifle companies. Another 354 troops, based on remaining members of the rifle companies and the heavy weapons company, were split into six assault groups for specific missions. Panther Group of 110 soldiers, the largest, was to capture Citadel and destroy Tito’s headquarters. Greifer Group of 40 soldiers was to destroy the British military mission. Sturmer Group of 50 men was to destroy the Soviet military mission. Brecher Group of 50 men was to destroy the U.S. military mission. Draufgaenger Group was to capture the Western Cross and the suspected nearby Partisan communication facility. Of the 70 personnel in Draufgaegner Group, 40 belonged to the Brandenburg Benesch Group (some of whom were Chetniks and other local Bosnians) and six came from an Abwehr detachment commanded by Lieutenant Zavadil. These attachments were given specific intelligence collection, translation and communication tasks. Beisser Group of 20 soldiers was to seize an outpost radio station, then assist Greifer group. Finally, the second wave, base on the Field Reserve Company (basically the training company) and the remainder of the unit was to insert by parachute at 1200 hours.

For security reasons, the Battalion’s soldiers were not briefed on the operation until several hours before it was launched, but preliminary moves began on 22 May as the unit, dressed in non-descript Wehrmacht uniforms for security reasons, was transported by truck to three assembly areas, Nagy-Betskerek, Zagreb and Banja Luka. There they linked up with their Luftwaffe transport from Fliegerführer Kroatien, some of which had been brought in from France and Germany specifically for the operation. The 1st and 2nd Squadrons of Towing Group 1, and 2nd and 3rd Battalions of Air Landing Group 1, all with 10-passenger DFS 230 gliders and towed by either Hs 126 or Ju 87 (Stukas in a towing role) aircraft, would transport the glider-borne force. The 2nd Battalion of Transport Group 4, with about 40 Ju 52 transports, would deliver the parachute force. By 24 May, battle procedure was complete.

Partisan Disposition

German intelligence claimed about 12,000 Partisans were active in the area of operations, but Yugoslav sources place this number around 16,000, not including auxiliary support, schools, or members of the SKOJ (Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia). Immediately surrounding Drvar were the First (Nikola Tesla) and Six Proletarian Divisions of the First Proletarian Corps, with the Corps HQ based six kilometres to the east in Mokronoge. Of immediate concern was the Third Lika Brigade of the First Division stationed five kilometers south of Drvar in Kamenica, whose four battalions of were the most potent reaction force.

Within Drvar itself there was a mixed bag of military liaison missions, support and escort troops and both the Supreme Headquarters of the NOVJ and the Central Committee of the Yugoslav Communist Party. The Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia was located in town, and had just held a congress of over 800 youths in attendance, some of whom were still in the process of departing. As well, the AVNOJ (Anti-Fascist Council of the National Liberation of Yugoslavia) had their headquarters on the outskirts of town and in the nearby village of Sipovljani there was the Partisan officers’ school with about 130 students. The Soviet Union, Britain and the United States all had military missions to Tito’s headquarters in some of the adjoining small villages. Finally, Tito’s Escort Battalion of three companies, two of which were with him, was present to provide personal protection to the Marshal and the various headquarters and missions.

Tito’s personal headquarters was initially located in a cave immediately north of Drvar and overlooked the town. When rumors surfaced that this location had become compromised, he moved his main headquarters to another cave in the town of Basasi, some seven kilometres to the west. His Drvar cave was used primarily during the day and he would return to Bastasi at night for security reasons. The location the Germans believed housed his headquarters, the cemetery at Slobica Glavica (Objective Citadel), was, in fact, sparsely manned.

Tito’s birthday was the 25th of May. On the evening of the 24th, a celebration was held in Drvar, and, due to the festivities finishing late, Tito decided to spend the night in his Drvar cave. Despite his initial concerns that caused him to relocate to Bastasi, he felt confident all would be quiet. It almost proved to be a fatal error.

The Battle

Tito, still somewhat sluggish from the previous evening’s celebration, awoke to the attack on Drvar. Operation RÖSSELPRUNG began according to plan on 25 May with a preparatory aerial bombardment of suspected Partisan location in Drvar, including the cemetery. This bombardment was to begin at 0635 hours and consisted of five squadrons of Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, older He 46 medium bombers, and Italian made Ca 314 and Cr 42 medium-bombers. It appears that the plan was closely followed. P-Hour began at 0700 hours. Although dense smoke from the bombardment reduced visibility, most pilots were able to orient themselves on the Western Cross and land gliders or drop their paratroops relatively close to designated objectives. Several gliders did land off course, including one in front of the main headquarters cave in Bastasi, where members of the Escort Battalion immediately killed the occupants before they could exit. Between two and four others landed in Vrtoce and the occupants had to fight their way into Drvar. German sources claim the parachute jump was made at 60 to 75 metres above ground level, but pictures taken from the ground of the jump indicate the it was somewhat higher.

Once on the ground, the Fallschirmjägers quickly seized control of Drvar. Panther Group, supported by Red Group, rapidly overcame token resistance at the cemetery and Rybka established battalion headquarters behind its walls. The only forces of consequence located there were the crews manning three anti-aircraft machine guns, of which two escaped. Needless to say, neither Tito nor his headquarters were found. Greiffer and Brecher Groups came up empty handed as the British and American missions were not present in their accommodations. Elements of Sturmer Group landed in a field immediately south of the cave and came under fire from Escort Battalion members positioned in the high ground surrounding Tito’s location. The most intense fighting was with Draufganger Group in the area of the Western Cross who assaulted what they believed to be the Partisan communications center, but was in fact the office building for the Communist Party’s Central Committee. After intense close quarter combat against fanatical resistance, the building was basically leveled with satchel charges.

Also subject to very fierce fighting were Blue and Green Groups, who were attempting to establish a cordon in the eastern part of town, where most of the population was located. Although not mentioned in German reports, Yugoslav accounts proudly cite a Partisan counter-attack by four captured Italian CV-34 tanks. Not inflicting any noteworthy damage, three tanks were quickly disabled and the remaining one escaped to Bastasi. Also creating a problem for the Germans, especially in the more populated areas, was resistance from the members of the Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia who remained in Drvar and whose enthusiasm in taking up arms (whatever were available) against the attackers could explain some accounts of spontaneous uprisings.

Immediately upon realizing the nature of the attack, the candidates from the officers’ school marched to the sound of gunfire. Armed with only pistols and the odd rifle, they split into two groups. The smaller group crossed to the north side of the Unac River and advanced west along the rail line with the aim of protecting Tito’s headquarters. The larger group, bolstered by the retrieval of several misdirected drops of German ammunition and arms, attacked Green and Blue Groups in their eastern flank beginning at approximately 0800 hours. Although the officer candidates suffered severe casualties, the pressure of their attack on this flank was maintained throughout the day.

By about 0900 hours, the Germans had secured the majority of Drvar, but they still had no trace of Tito. Before the operation, every Fallschirmjäger was issued with a picture of him[36] and they now went door to door, brutally questioning those civilians they could find. There are many Yugoslav based stories of German atrocities against the civilian population at this point in the battle, including herding people into houses to be burned alive, but it is difficult to determine where the Germans would find the time to do this based on the influence of other events.

By mid-morning it became apparent to Rybka that Partisan resistance was concentrated to the north in the area of the headquarters cave. He surmised that there must be something to protect in this area, and if Tito was in Drvar this would be his likely location. Launching a red flare as a pre-arranged signal, he rallied his soldiers for an attack on the new objective. Around 1030 hours he launched a frontal attack across the Unac River, supported by at least one MG-42 medium machine gun firing into the mouth of the cave. They made it as far as the base of the hill leading up to the cave, less than fifty metres from its mouth, before being repulsed. The Fallschirmjägers from 500 SS, already parched from a lack of water, had suffered severe casualties.

Concurrent with the mounting and execution of this attack, more Partisan forces were beginning to converge on Drvar. From the west and southwest came three of the battalions of the Third Brigade of the Sixth Lika Division. One battalion attacked directly towards the German position at the cemetery while the other two swung around to the west through Vrtoce to hit the Germans in the western flank with a view to relieve pressure on the cave area.

At approximately 1115 hours, during a lull in the fighting and after the attack had been repulsed, Tito managed to escape from the cave. This act has been inaccurately described in many accounts. After the first attack failed, Tito, escorted by several staff, climbed down a rope through a trap door in a platform at the mouth of the cave. He then followed a small creek leading to the Unac River, then diagonally climbed the heights to the east of the cave, a route which would provide cover for most of the way. From the Klekovaca ridge overlooking Drvar, he began his withdrawal east to Potoci.

1200 hours was P-Hour for the reinforcing second wave of 220 Fallschirmjägers who jumped in two groups just to the west of Objective Citadel. Their drop zone was situated within Partisan fields of fire and thus the wave suffered many casualties as they hit the ground. Newly armed with the remaining reinforcements, Rybka attempted another assault, but by now the pressure on his flanks was too great and the attack again floundered. Fighting continued throughout the afternoon with both sides taking heavy casualties. By late afternoon Rybka, realizing that the capture of Tito was improbable at this point and that the linkup with ground forces would not happen as planned, ordered a withdrawal. He initially planned to have a defensive perimeter encompassing both the cellulose factory and the cemetery, but after realizing the extent of his casualties and his consequent inability to hold the large perimeter, he reduced his defensive position to include just the cemetery. At about 1800 hours, while withdrawing under fire, he was injured by a grenade blast and was out of the battle.

The withdrawal to the cemetery was done under considerable pressure. At least one group of Fallschirmjägers was cut-off and wiped out. By about 2130 hours, the remnants of the Battalion had consolidated in the cemetery. Partisan forces had the remnants of 500 SS completely surrounded. Throughout the night attacks against the German position continued. The fourth battalion of the Third Lika Brigade, which had arrived later than the other three and been kept in reserve, was launched with the remnants of the other three battalions against the cemetery. Elements of the Ninth Dalmatian Division joined the attacks at some point during the night, increasing the pressure. The Fallschirmjägers continued to hold their ground, but casualties were mounting. At 0330 hours the final Partisan attack was launched, breaching the cemetery wall in several locations, but the German defence held.

Throughout the day, the progress of the converging elements of XV Mountain Corps was not as rapid as had been planned. Unexpected resistance from I, V, and VIII Partisan Corps along their axis of advance greatly hindered their movement. Most post-operation reports cite extremely poor radio communications amongst the different elements, causing a plague of coordination difficulties. It would also appear that Allied aircraft, based in Italy, attacked the linkup forces with several sorties throughout the day, however air support from the Luftwaffe was also present throughout. In fact, an unarmed Fiesler Stork reconnaissance plane, initially intended to whisk Tito away once taken, was able to land and extract casualties, including Rybka.

After the last attack failed to penetrate the German defences and knowing that relief in the form of XV Mountain Corps was on the way, Tito ordered the Partisan forces to withdraw, and then made good his escape. Escorted by elements of the Third Krajina Brigade, he first went to Potoci, where he met up with a battalion from the First Proletarian Brigade, and, after discovering German troops in force in the area, made his way to Kupres. In the Kupres Valley, a Soviet Dakota aircraft stationed at a Royal Air Force base in Italy and escorted by six American Aircraft picked him up on 3 June and took him to Bari, Italy. On 6 June, a Royal Navy destroyer delivered him to the Island of Vis, along the Dalmatian Coast, to re-establish his headquarters.

The remnants of 500 SS were to spend the rest of the night of 25/26 May in their hasty defensive positions. They received some support at 0500 hours as a German fighter-bomber formation attacked the withdrawing Partisans. At 0700 hours, the unit finally established radio contact with the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 373rd Division but physical linkup in Drvar with XV Mountain Corps did not occur until 1245 hours when the lead elements of the Second Battalion of the 92nd Motorized Grenadier Regiment arrived.

Despite not eliminating Tito, the Germans were unwilling to admit defeat and viewed this operation as a success with blind arrogance. According to a self-congratulatory report from Second Panzer Army:

“The operation against the partisans in Croatia [this area of Bosnia was included as part of Croatia at this time] enjoyed considerable success. It succeeded in 1) destroying the core region of the communist partisans by occupying their command and control centers and their supply installations, thereby considerably weakening their supply situation; 2) forcing the elite communist formations (1st Proletarian Division and the 3rd Lika Division [incorrect designation] to give battle and severely battering them, forcing them to withdraw due to shortages of ammunition and supplies, and avoid further combat (the 9th, 39th and 4th Tito Divisions also suffered great losses); 3) capturing landing fields used by Allied aircraft, administrative establishments, and headquarters of foreign military missions, forcing the partisans to reorganize and restructure; 4) giving the Allies a true picture of the combat capability of the partisans; 5) obtaining important communications equipment, code keys, radios, etc. for our side; 6) achieving these successes under difficult conditions that included numerous enemy air attacks.”

The future commander of 500 SS was even more sanguine: “Overall the operation with its jump and landing was a success. Unfortunately Tito and the Allied military delegations managed to escape.” With an understanding of the German mission, this becomes a rather contradictory statement.

The overarching intent of Operation RÖSSELPRUNG was the elimination of Tito, the man who personified the Partisan movement. To the German high command, Tito was the center of gravity for the Partisans and his elimination would greatly diminish the resolve of the movement to continue. “Tito is our most dangerous enemy,” Field Marshal von Weichs was to claim before the operation. Despite the words of praise, the costly operation only netted the Marshal’s uniform, in for tailoring, a Jeep, which was a gift from the American mission, and three British journalists, one of whom later escaped. Even the intelligence information gathered, contrary to the above report, was not of much use. When the operation failed to eliminate Tito, it failed to achieve its underlying intent for being launched, and thus by no stretch can be considered to have achieved its purpose.

Ironically, Tito’s dramatic escape further solidified his deity-like stature amongst the Yugoslav population, and became part of the mythology surrounding this cult of personality. Although NOVJ headquarters, along with several other Partisan organizations, had their operations temporarily disrupted and several higher level personnel killed, they were quick to recover and set up in different locations. Drvar reverted to Partisan control within weeks.

Many accounts of `Rösselsprung’ state that SS-Fallschirmjäger-Bataillon 500 was `destroyed’ in the fighting, claiming that of the 874 men that had landed at Drvar only some 200 survived fit for service at the end of the battle, but this assertion needs to be differentiated. According to official German after-action figures dating from June 10, the battalion had 61 killed, 114 seriously and 91 lightly wounded and 11 missing, making for a total of 277 casualties. An earlier report from June 7 quoted even lower figures: 50 killed, 132 wounded and six missing, i. e. a total of 188. Even if one allows for the casualties suffered by the attachments (of the 36 glider pilots five had been killed and seven wounded; of teams Zawadil and Benesch two men had been killed and 24 wounded, etc) this is far from the reputed 650 casualties.

It continued throughout the rest of the war as the sole SS parachute unit, with its designation later changed to 600 SS Fallschirmjäger Battalion, but Operation RÖSSELPRUNG was to be its only combat jump of the war.

Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm (1882–1951)

German Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm seen here cracking a joke with officers and men during an Iron Cross award ceremony for the 1st Company, Bavarian Infantry (Bavarian King’s Guard Regiment), during the Verdun campaign, July 7, 1916.

The First Battle of the Marne had recently been won by the French Army when, in the first half of November 1914, American Hearst Corporation journalist Karl von Wiegand paid a visit to the commander of the German 5th Army at Stenay in occupied France.

He was stunned to hear its commander—Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm himself of the reigning House of Hohenzollern—assert in a private aside, “We have lost the war! It will go on for a long time, but lost it is already!”

This accurate analysis was not published until 1961 by German author Klaus Jonas in his groundbreaking, and still singular today, biography of the man his enemies both foreign and domestic derided as Little Willy, to denote him from his father the Kaiser.

Crown Prince Wilhelm’s offhand remark was seen as all the more surprising in that it had been said three and a half years before the bloody struggle ground to a halt following the also lost Second Battle of the Marne in 1918.

The other surprise was that it had been correctly foreseen by a man many considered to be a failed soldier, and also a morally discredited heir to the throne who was long thought to be an ineffectual fool supremely interested in chasing women, racing cars and horses, playing tennis, and hunting stags.

Ironically, this supposed intellectual lightweight had foreseen what the learned gentlemen of the German general staff at supreme headquarters had failed to admit—even to themselves—that the former, much-touted Schlieffen Plan to defeat the combined Allied armies of France, Great Britain, and Belgium on the Western Front had been stillborn. Thus, their expected war of movement was abruptly over, that of the stalemated trenches begun, and the vaunted victories in the east ultimately made meaningless thereby.

Beyond that, His Royal Highness also grasped simultaneously that Imperial Germany and his own ruling dynasty—caught in the maw of war—had thus doomed itself, and this at the very start of the conflict it had worked a generation to win.

Not so ironically, this very same young prince—aged thirty-two at its outset—had been a trained soldier for most of his life: in childhood, adolescence, and on into adulthood, as had also previously been the case with all the male members of his family, commissioned lieutenant at the age of ten. Oddly, the 1914 celebrated “Hero of Longwy” soon emerged early on in the conflict as one of the most cruelly maligned figures of the entire Great War.

Noted Horne: “The leptic, unfinished-looking figure—with the narrow, sloping shoulders and almost deformed Modigliani neck in its high collar, and the elongated features of an amiable greyhound—was a boon to the caricaturists.”

Added Tuchman, “The cartoonists’ pet was the Crown Prince, whom they delighted to draw as an exaggerated fop with pinched waist, high tight collar, rakish cap, and an expression of fatuous vacuity” that, often enough, unfortunately for him, was not very far from being the truth.

Yet German and foreign women the world over found the prim, prudish Kaiser’s eldest son and offspring wildly sexy and attractive, an attribute that, in the end, helped materially in losing him his 300-year-old rightful crown as his father’s legal successor. In studied contrast to his father—who himself had served as crown prince for a mere ninety-nine days—Little Willy was fated to be the long-suffering heir for sixty-nine years, one of the longest such stints on record.

As a six-year-old at his father’s 1888 accession, from then on, Willy’s most personal dealings with his august, austere father had to occur through the latter’s formal chief of the military cabinet, as a younger officer to his army superior.

He became a corporal in the Prussian Army at the age of seven, having been placed within the daily regimen of a series of martial tutors. Indeed, in full Prussian dress kit and regalia, “the pathetic little boy” saluted on a parade ground his own father on the latter’s thirtieth birthday in 1889 during the first year of the latter’s three-decade-long reign.

One of his thousands of ardent female admirers was his own younger and only sister, Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia, who gushed that “He looked brilliant, and—because of his natural, unaffected manner—won a lot of sympathy,” but rarely from his Imperial father, however.

Tuchman described Little Willy in rather less fulsome terms. In 1914, “The Imperial scion was a narrow chested, willowy creature with the face of a fox,” who was known as an avowed militarist who had already glorified war in a book he had edited for children entitled, Germany in Arms, which celebrated the centennial of the War of Liberation against the hated, but feared, Napoleon Bonaparte that had been led by his own earlier dynasty, no less, and won. Postwar, the imperial author published a pair of autobiographical works that I have found useful here, both in 1922, while he was in his Dutch exile: The Memoirs of the Crown Prince of Germany and My War Experiences.

In the latter, young Wilhelm recalled watching with glee his invading, “Joyous German soldiers with sparkling eyes,” as they launched the later famed Battle of the Frontiers of August–September 1914 against the French. During the heady general mobilization days of August 1914, as all Europe went to war, it seemed, Albrecht Duke of Württemberg (1865–1939) and Kronprinz Rupprecht (1869–1955) of Bavaria of the ruling House of Wittelsbach each received Army commands from their imperial master the Kaiser. Thus it was both politically and dynastically essential that the German Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm as his own heir receive one as well.

Then, as Little Willy looked forward to the “happy, cheerful war,” as he initially called it, German general headquarters—where sat his own father as Supreme Warlord, no less—created the imperial crown prince an army commander as well, complete with his own first chief of staff, Gen. Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf (1860–1936.)

The crown prince’s father-cum-military superior sternly admonished his oldest—and by then, well wayward—son as he left for the Western Front: “Whatever he advises you, you must do!”

Thus did Little Willy enter upon a four-year-long top combat command with but a prior colonelcy of the famed Death’s Head Hussars under his belt, that and a year on the general staff at Berlin, but no experience as either a divisional or a corps commander—and more was to come, too.

Nevertheless, the steeple-chasing imperial crown prince had faith in himself, as he later wrote, and believed as well that what he had, “Gave [him] the theoretical groundwork for command of large units.” Indeed, von Moltke told HRH personally that he had “a good military outlook and a healthy common sense.” He would both need and display them before the Great War played itself out, four years and more later.

Indeed, to almost everyone’s astonishment, on both sides, his 5th Army won the Battle of the Frontiers, making him instantly renowned as the “Hero of the Battle of Longwy” of August 23, 1914, and this on the very day that far to the east the Hindenburg-Ludendorff team was being forged in steel as well.

That day, his 5th Army bypassed the Longwy Fortress itself, leaving it to be taken later by follow-up siege troops and engineers. Thus freed of this obstacle now to his rear, the intrepid imperial crown prince won laurels in the media for advancing, impressing for the very first time even his stern papa. Flush with this victory that reflected well on their dynasty jointly, the Kaiser joyously awarded him, as well as Rupprecht, the coveted Iron Cross, both First and Second Class, simultaneously.

“Deeply moved,” the proud crown prince handed his father’s telegram around for all his personal staff to see as well. Soon, the handsome young prince would be awarding combat medals for battlefield bravery himself, clad in “A dazzling white tunic, walking between two lines of soldiers distributing Iron Crosses from a basket carried by an aide,” thus aping his father’s own front visit style.

The coveted telegram trumpeted, “Well done! Am proud of you!” In fact, the incident even made the famous American New York Times edition August 26, 1914 thus:

Kaiser Decorates 2 Sons for Bravery

Berlin, via Copenhagen & London—Emperor William has conferred the decoration of the Iron Cross of the 2nd and 1st Class on Crown Prince Frederick William and Duke Albrecht of Württemberg.

He has conferred also the Iron Cross decoration of the 2nd Class on his son Prince Oskar. His Majesty also sent the following telegram to the Crown Princess: “I thank thee with all my heart, dear child; I rejoice with thee over the first victory of Wilhelm!”

“God has been on his side, and has most brilliantly supported him! To Him be thanks and honor! I remit to Wilhelm the Iron Cross of the 2nd and 1st Class. Oskar also fought brilliantly with his grenadiers!

“He has achieved the Iron Cross of the 2nd Class. Repeat that to Ina and Marie! Also in the future, God be with thee and all wives! Papa Wilhelm.”

The younger son again made the New York Times on February 8, 1916:

Kaiser’s Son Oskar is Wounded Again. Hit in the Head and Thigh by Shell Splinters on the Russian Front

Amsterdam—Prince Oskar of Prussia—fifth son of Emperor William—has been slightly wounded in the head and on the upper part of the thigh by shell splinters during the fighting in the eastern war theater, according to a Berlin official report received here.

Prince Oskar was wounded at Virton, Belgium in September 1914. He was ill for a long time, and was declared to be suffering also from an affection of the heart. He returned to duty in the field in November 1914, and narrowly escaped capture the following month during the fighting in Poland.

In Klaus Jonas’s The Life of Crown Prince Wilhelm, it was written that in that same early spirit of wartime magnanimity, the crown prince’s own 5th Army Chamberlain Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau (1855–1937) recalled in his postwar memoirs of 1936:

I shall never forget how the Crown Prince with a noble gesture returned the sword to the brave French commander, and gave him the choice of returning to France if he would give his word of honor not to fight any longer against Germany.

However, the officer frankly refused the offer, and accepted the hard fate of imprisonment.

Following the sudden and totally unexpected loss of First Marne—for the remainder of 1914 and all of 1915—Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm remained at his Stenay Field headquarters while the interminable trench warfare dragged on.

By the end of 1915, he had concluded that Germany simply could not win a two-front war, and, therefore, must seek to conclude a peace in either the east or the west. He even floated the controversial idea himself of returning to the French their famous lost Fortress Metz of 1870 as an olive branch toward a peace settlement with at least the Gauls, if not yet the English.

The Battle of Verdun, February–December 1916

Then came the idea of “bleeding white” the French Army opposite the crown prince’s own 5th German Army command at the former’s Verdun fortress system, which was proposed by the Kaiser’s favorite chief of general staff, Gen. von Falkenhayn. He was the Kaiser’s antidote to the politically feared duo of the Eastern Front—Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Here, then, was how the bogged down war in the west would be won, via a brutal wastage slugfest, but it never was.

Asserted Perrett: “The German intention was to impose a ruinous battle of attrition on the French Army, thereby destroying its limited manpower reserves at this fortified city on the upper Meuse River in eastern France.”

The overall main battle lasted from February 21 to December 18, 1916, with Gen. Henri Philippe Pétain and then Gen. Robert Nivelle facing the imperial crown prince of the German Reich.

The epic bloodletting was an inconclusive standoff between Gallic defender and Teutonic attacker, with severe casualties on both sides—overall French Army commander Gen. Joseph “Papa” Joffre lost 362,000 killed to the German toll of 337,000 slain and wounded. Begun under von Falkenhayn’s aegis, it took the succeeding duo partnership another four months to wind down the slaughter, even after they assumed the supreme command on August 29, 1916. This abrupt change-of-command was one that the political intriguer Crown Prince Wilhelm had worked for mightily behind the scenes, proving that he had some powerful domestic chops as well.

The blame on the German side of the ledger for the Verdun debacle—for, indeed, such it was, with very little actually accomplished—has been debated by military historians ever since. Again, proposed by von Falkenhayn at the start, it had nonetheless been warmly endorsed by both the crown prince and his respected chief of staff, von Knobelsdorf. As the grim death toll mounted, however, young Wilhelm began more and more to have his own serious doubts as to the operation’s actual worth.

The story is told that—at the other end of the world—the great British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton reached South Georgia Island in 1916 after two years’ isolation in Antarctica and asked when the war had ended. He was told, “The war is not over! Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad!” according to Horne. Indeed, thought one German writer of the struggle at Verdun, there would be no end, “Until the last German and the last Frenchman hobbled out of the trenches on crutches to exterminate each other with pocket knives, or teeth and finger nails.”

The overall battle statistics were truly staggering: German artillery alone shot about 22 million rounds, with the French guns also accounting for an estimated 15 million. The French Army in 1916 boasted ninety-six divisions stationed on the Western Front, and of these, seventy had been deployed to Verdun, with the Germans throwing in a little over forty-six of their divisional-sized units.

All that either side ever gained territorially was about that of the size of the Royal Parks of London combined, leading the later crestfallen Little Willy—once so fond of glorious wartime exploits—to note postwar that “The Mill on the Meuse ground to powder the hearts as well as the bodies of the troops.”

Nevertheless, both he and his staff learned well the lessons that the sturdy French had so bloodily taught the German 5th Army at Verdun, and they employed them well the following year, as he later admitted: “Had we held to such defenses that had hitherto been the rule, I am convinced that we should not have come through the great defensive battles of 1917.”

By now, Gen. Friedrich von der Schulenburg had replaced Schmidt von Knobelsdorf as the crown prince’s new and final chief of staff, and the former leather pickelhaube (spiked helmet) was superseded by the 1916–35 “coal scuttle” helmet as well. Some things remained grimly the same as always, however, such as the men shitting their pants as they went “over the top” from both ends of the battlefields to their deaths.

By then, the crown prince had joined the scheming duo of the east in their behind-the-scenes political maneuvering at the Kaiser’s court, which helped overthrow the 1914 era’s Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856–1921).

The crown prince went further by backing Hindenburg’s abrupt First Quartermaster General Ludendorff against the interests of his father by campaigning, successfully, to have certain high members of the Kaiser’s various personal cabinets removed as well, especially that of the Civil Cabinet, Rudolf von Valentini.

Indeed, it must have seemed like a long time ago, as Crown Prince Wilhelm later recalled in his postwar memoirs: “The moment when I was standing in the old chapel of the Berlin Castle and took my military oath in front of my father the Kaiser, and stands out in my mind as my most cherished memory.”

Countered Jonas, however, of the crown prince in The Life of Crown Prince Wilhelm:

He had often—without wanting to—shocked soldiers returning from the front lines when he greeted them in his extravagant clothing, with a narrow riding whip in his hand, surrounded by his Indian whippets.

If now and then in his white uniform he threw them cigarettes, many of them indignantly thought that he had just come back from playing tennis. Whenever young French girls waved to him, he made his bright red car stop in the street, picked them up, and listened with a great deal of interest to their worries about the fate of their husbands or sweethearts.

Often, he promised to make inquiries for them in Supreme Headquarters, and by doing so, completely ruined his reputation at the German High Command.

THE ETHIOPIAN ARMY AT ADOWA

Like many tribal societies, the ethnic groups of Ethiopia put a strong emphasis on martial ability. Boys were trained from early childhood in the use of the sword, spear and shield. Every man yearned to own a gun, not just for what it would do for him on the battlefield, but also for hunting.

The Italians faced an Ethiopian army larger and more organized than in all of its recent history. Menelik had centralized and streamlined the taxation system, bringing in more goods to the central government. This allowed Menelik to keep a larger standing army, and support a huge temporary army at need. Most taxes were in kind – food or labour that went directly to support the soldiers. Menelik also ordered an extensive geographical survey in order to increase revenue, and to identify land that could be given to soldiers as a reward. His government also enjoyed the revenue from customs duties on ever-increasing international trade.

Mobilization and logistics

While the emperor maintained only a relatively small standing army, the entire countryside could be mobilized when a Negus ordered a kitet, or call to arms. This was made by proclamations in marketplaces and other gathering spots, and large negarit war drums were beaten to alert outlying farms. One even acted as a platform for the messenger, who stood on an upturned drum and read the proclamation while a slave held his lance and robe next to him as symbols of his rank. While the king was not always in full control of his territory, `beating the kitet’ was generally effective; it usually summoned men to fight against a common enemy, and always offered a chance for plunder and prestige. The Ethiopian army on the march looked more like a migration. Many warriors brought their families along, and wives and children would cook and gather provisions and firewood. During the march there were no stops until a camp was found for the night. The was assembling might run into difficulties of supply, especially considering that some regions he planned to march through were suffering from famine, so he ordered depots of food to be placed at regular intervals along the lines of march. This allowed Menelik to wait out the Italians on a couple of occasions.

This need for strategic speed affected how the Ethiopians made war. They avoided long conflicts in favour of big showdown battles in which they could destroy the enemy army and force favourable terms from the enemy commander. Drawn-out campaigns could prove counterproductive, since the army would have to ravage the very land they sought to conquer, forcing the inhabitants to flee. During Menelik’s long wait before Adowa the area was picked clean of food and most of the trees were chopped down for firewood. Shortages of ammunition, and the often fragile coalitions among the leaders, also encouraged quick campaigns.

To aid the advance, teams of workmen moved ahead of the main army clearing the way of trees and stones and searching out the best passes through the mountains. The Negus Negasti kept a group that outsiders called the `Royal Engineers’, but while some were undoubtedly skilled at complex operations such as building bridges, most were simply labourers.

Tactics

Ethiopians favoured a half-moon formation in order to outflank and envelop an enemy, although extreme terrain often made this impossible. Despite having a general plan, warriors fought more or less as individuals, advancing and retreating as they saw fit. Chiefs only had a loose control over their men, and never kept them in close formation except for the final charge, when everyone bunched together and hurried to be the first to reach the foe. Considering the lethal effectiveness of late 19th-century rifles, this loose mode of fighting was actually in advance of its day. The Ethiopian tendency was to get in close to ensure a good shot, although rushing en masse when the enemy appeared weak did lead to great losses. The Italian army, especially the ascari, showed good discipline under fire, and inflicted heavy casualties on the Ethiopians; the majority of these tended to be suffered during the final rush. When charging, the Ethiopians used various battle cries depending on their origin: the Oromo shouted `Slay! Slay!’, while warriors from Gojjam cried `God pardon us, Christ!’, and those from Shewa rallied to the call `Together! Together!’

The Ethiopians had no formal medical corps. Healers trained in traditional medicine followed the army, but were too few to care adequately for the huge numbers of casualties. Still, traditional healers did the best they could at setting limbs and cleaning out wounds. One method for sanitizing gunshot wounds was to pour melted butter mixed with the local herb fetho (lapidum sativum) into the wound. In battle the warriors’ families cared for the wounded, collected guns from the fallen to distribute to poorly armed warriors, and fetched water for those wealthier warriors had servants to carry their equipment and mules or horses to ride. All these extra people and animals had to be fed, increasing the need to keep mobile. While some food was carried by the men themselves or on muleback, the army was expected to live off the land, and foragers spread out over a large area. The central highlands of Ethiopia are green and filled with game, so as long as an army kept moving it could feed itself, and, being relatively unburdened, it could move quickly. If it stopped for long, however, it would soon starve; this was a major problem if the army had to besiege a fortification, or – as in the run-up to Adowa – wait for an enemy to make the first move. Menelik realized that the large force he fighting. This last detail was important; at Adowa, Itegue Taitu had at least 10,000 women bringing water to the warriors, while the Italians suffered from thirst throughout the day.

The Ethiopians lacked uniforms; common warriors wore their everyday clothing – generally a white, cream, or brown length of cotton called a shamma that was wound around the body in various ways. Chiefs and higher nobility wore a variety of colourful garments, including the lembd, a ceremonial item vaguely resembling the cope or dalmatic of Christian churchmen. If a man had slain a lion during his career, his formal clothing could be embellished with the lion’s mane.

Rifles

Despite Western preconceptions, and the employment of antique firearms by the poorest warriors, the majority of Ethiopians were armed with large-calibre, breech-loading, mostly single-shot rifles no more than 30 years old since they had first appeared in Western armies. It is estimated that Menelik’s army may have had as many as 100,000 of such weapons in 1896. Until the collapse of diplomatic relations he had been able to purchase large numbers of rifles from the Italians, and also from the Russians, French and British. After Italian sources dried up Menelik strove to increase his other imports, and a key figure in this trade was Ras Mekonnen of Harar, a city in eastern Ethiopia with trade links to the Red Sea. Individual chiefs also stockpiled arms, and issued them to their best warriors in times of need.

The types used by the Ethiopians included the elderly British 1866/67 Snider – an 1856 Enfield muzzle-loader converted into a single-shot breechloader. Used on the British Magdala expedition of 1867-68 against the Emperor Tewodros II, it had a massive 14.6mm calibre and a hinged breech action. However, the Ethiopians also had considerable numbers of the superior 1871 Martini-Henry – the classic British single-shot, lever-action, falling-block weapon of the colonial wars, firing 11.43mm bullets. The French 1866 Chassepot was another second-generation breechloader, a bolt-action, single-shot weapon taking 11mm paper and card cartridges; but again, the Ethiopians also had larger numbers of more modern 1871 Le Gras rifles, in which the Chassepot’s paper cartridges were replaced with 11mm brass rounds. Menelik’s warriors even had some 1886 Lebel 8mm bolt-action magazine rifles; with eight cartridges in the tubular magazine below the barrel, one in the cradle behind the chamber and one `up the spout’, these took ten rounds. The Lebel’s smaller-bore, smokeless-powder ammunition was the most advanced in the world (all the other types took black-powder rounds, which produced a giveaway cloud of white smoke and fouled the chamber fairly quickly with continuous firing).

The Peabody-Martini was an 1870 Swiss modification of an 1862 Peabody design from the United States. Widely manufactured across Europe, it had a single-shot, falling-block action in various calibres from 10.41mm to 11.43 mm. Probably the single most common rifle in Ethiopian use was the `rolling-block’ Remington, another American design very widely built under licence in the 1860s-80s, in calibres up to 12.7mm (.50 calibre). The Winchester 1866 was a lever-action 11.18mm calibre weapon with a tubular magazine taking 12 rounds; several later models used a box magazine. The Russians had supplied the Ethiopians with a fair number of US-designed, Russian-made Berdan 1864 and 1870 rifles; both were single-shot 10.75mm weapons, the 1864 model with a hinged `trapdoor’ breech and the 1870 with a bolt action. Sources also mention German Mausers, most likely the 11mm single-shot, bolt-action 1871 model. The Ethiopians also had some examples of the Austrian 1878 Kropatschek, an 11mm bolt-action repeater with an eight-round tubular magazine.

This wide variety of rifles and calibres inevitably created local shortages of ammunition. Menelik instituted a quartermaster system, and individual leaders may have helped supply individuals who were short of cartridges, but in general each man was expected to supply his own (and probably `collected his brass’ for artisan reloading). Cartridges were so valuable they were often used as currency; being hoarded, they tended to be older than was ideal, but Menelik and other leaders strove to purchase as much new ammunition as possible, and it appears that his forces at Adowa were well supplied. Still, out of habit the Ethiopian soldier conserved his ammunition, preferring to get up close before firing. Wylde noted they `made good practice at up to about 400-600 yards, and at a short distance they are as good shots as any men in Africa, the Transvaal Boers not excepted, as they never throw away a cartridge if they can help it and never shoot in a hurry’.

Traditional weapons

Despite the wide availability of firearms, many Ethiopians still went into battle with more traditional weapons. The shotel was the favoured type of sword, a heavy steel weapon curved like a scimitar, but with the sharpened edge usually on the inside of the curve so that the warrior could stab around the edge of an opponent’s shield. It was carried slung on the right side, so that the left (shield) arm had a full range of movement. Steel-headed spears were pretty much universal among men and boys for defending their flocks from wild animals; generally about 6ft long with a leaf-shaped head, they could be thrown, but were more often used for thrusting. Small shields completed an Ethiopian warrior’s kit. Styles varied among the tribes, but the most common was a circular, conical shield made of hide and covered on the front with coloured cloth such as velvet. Many were decorated and strengthened with strips of brass, tin or more valuable metals; a shield was an easy way for a warrior to show off his wealth and status, and many were quite elaborate.

Cavalry was common in the Ethiopian lowlands, and the horsemen of the Oromo were especially renowned. Horses were useful and acted as a status symbol, so every warrior wanted one. The Ethiopian horse is smaller than its European counterpart and can negotiate terrain that would stop a European steed. Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s mountainous terrain and dense thickets of thorn-bushes often meant that battles had to be fought on foot. Weaponry for cavalrymen was identical to that for footsoldiers.

Artillery

The Ethiopians had 42 guns at Adowa. It is unclear what types of cannon were used, but sources agree that they were a mix of older guns bought or captured from various sources. They included Krupps, and mountain guns captured from the Egyptians when they tried to take Ethiopian territory in 1875 and 1876, or left behind when the Egyptian garrison evacuated Harar in 1885. One source describes the artillery as `of all calibres and systems’. There was a chronic shortage of shells, and thus crews had little chance to practise. While the Ethiopians were capable of bombarding a fort, as at Mekele, they had difficulty in manoeuvring guns and laying down accurate fire in broken terrain against a moving enemy; Italian eyewitnesses said that the Ethiopian artillery made a poor performance at Adowa.

More effective were the several automatic cannon that Menelik brought to Adowa. A detailed listing is unavailable, but Maxim weapons are mentioned, and perhaps six were 37mm Hotchkiss pieces. Produced by an American company from 1875, these were later licence-built in Europe, particularly France. Early versions were multi-barrel revolvers, fired by turning a crank like a Gatling gun; later models had a single barrel and were fed by a belt. These later-model `pom-poms’ fired both solid and explosive rounds, and were superior in range and accuracy to the Italian artillery.

THE MAHDIST CHALLENGE, 1890–94

SUDANESE MAHDIST WARRIORS

1: Baqqara cavalryman This warrior is protected by quilted armour under an iron helmet and long ringmail shirt; note too the extensive quilted horse-armour and leather chamfron. He is armed with a spear with a broad leaf-shaped head, and a kaskara sword and flintlock pistol carried on his saddle. The Dervishes plundered many Martini-Henry rifles from defeated Egyptian soldiers, but the only modern touch to disrupt the splendidly medieval impression created by this warrior is a holstered revolver at his hip.

2: Sudanese footsoldier This infantryman, too, wears quilted armour; while useless against firearms, this was still fairly effective against the spears and swords of the Mahdists’ tribal enemies. He is armed with a spear, and a kaskara sword carried in a crocodile-skin scabbard; the flared end of the scabbard is purely stylistic, as the blade has conventional parallel edges. His concave hide shield with a large boss and nicked rim is of a type common in the Sudan.

A challenge to the Italians came from the loosely structured Mahdiyya army in the Sudan. The Mahdi claimed to be the new prophet of Islam, and his devout followers drawn from disparate peoples made great gains against the British-sponsored Egyptians and neighbouring tribes. There had been a longstanding rivalry between these Muslim warriors and the mostly Christian Ethiopians. Emperor Yohannes campaigned against the Dervishes, but, while at first successful, he was defeated and fatally wounded at the battle of Metemma on 9 March 1889.

Although the Mahdi died in June 1885 the fight was continued by his successor, the Khalifa. Between 1885 and 1896, when the reconquest of the Sudan was undertaken by the Anglo-Egyptians.

The Mahdists fought the Italians for the first time at Agordat on 27 June 1890. About 1,000 warriors raided the Beni Amer, a tribe under Italian protection, and then went on to the wells at Agordat, on the road between the Sudan and northern Eritrea. An Italian force of two ascari companies surprised and routed them; Italian losses were only three killed and eight wounded, while the Mahdists lost about 250 dead. In 1892 the Mahdists raided again, and on 26 June a force of 120 ascari and about 200 allied Baria warriors beat them at Serobeti. Again, Italian losses were minimal – three killed and ten wounded – while the raiders lost about 100 dead and wounded out of a total of some 1,000 men. Twice the ascari had shown solid discipline while facing a larger force, and had emerged victorious. The inferior weaponry and fire discipline of the Mahdists played a large part in these defeats.

Major-General Oreste Baratieri took over as military commander of Italian forces in Africa on 1 November 1891, and also became civil governor of the colony on 22 February 1892. Baratieri had fought under Garibaldi during the wars of Italian unification, and was one of the most respected Italian generals of his time. He instituted a series of civil and military reforms to make the colony more efficient and its garrison effective. The latter was established by royal decree on 11 December 1892. The Italian troops included a battalion of Cacciatori (light infantry), a section of artillery artificers, a medical section, and a section of engineers. The main force was to be four native infantry battalions, two squadrons of native cavalry, and two mountain batteries. There were also mixed Italian/native contingents that included one company each of gunners, engineers and commissariat. This made a grand total of 6,561 men, of whom 2,115 were Italians. Facing the Mahdists, and with tension increasing with the Ethiopians, this garrison was soon strengthened by the addition of seven battalions, three of which were Italian volunteers (forming new 1st, 2nd and 3rd Inf Bns) and four of local ascari, plus another native battery. A Native Mobile Militia of 1,500 was also recruited, the best of them being encouraged to join the regular units. Like all the other colonial powers, the Italians also made widespread use of native irregulars recruited and led by local chiefs.

The first big test came at the second battle of Agordat on 21 December 1893. A force of about 12,000 Mahdists, including some 600 elite Baqqara cavalry, headed south out of the Sudan towards Agordat and the Italian colony. Facing them were 42 Italian officers and 23 Italian other ranks, 2,106 ascari, and eight mountain guns. The Italian force anchored itself on either side of the fort at Agordat, and from this strong position they repelled a mass attack, though not without significant losses – four Italians and 104 ascari killed, three Italians and 121 ascari wounded. The Mahdists lost about 2,000 killed and wounded, and 180 captured.

When the Mahdists launched raids across the border in the spring of 1894, the Italians decided to take the offensive and capture Kassala, an important Mahdist town. General Baratieri led 56 Italian officers and 41 Italian other ranks, along with 2,526 ascari and two mountain guns. At Kassala on 17 July they clashed with about 2,000 Mahdist infantry and 600 Baqqara cavalry. The Italians formed two squares, which inflicted heavy losses on the mass attacks by the Mahdists, before an Italian counterattack ended the battle. The Italians suffered an officer and 27 men killed, and two native NCOs and 39 men wounded; Mahdist casualties numbered 1,400 dead and wounded – a majority of their force. The Italians also captured 52 flags, some 600 rifles, 50 pistols, two cannons, 59 horses, and 175 cattle. This crushing defeat stopped Mahdist incursions for more than a year, and earned Baratieri acclaim at home. (In 1896 the Mahdi’s followers would make several more incursions into Eritrean territory, but without success. Fighting the Italians seriously weakened the Mahdiyya, and contributed to its defeat at the hands of Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian army at Omdurman in 1898.)

Confederate Raid on New Bern, North Carolina

Start Date: February 1, 1864

End Date: February 2, 1864

New Bern, North Carolina, strategically sited on the Neuse River in North Carolina, had been captured by Union forces in March 1862. Not until January 1864 was Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commander General Robert E. Lee in position to propose a plan, which was duly approved by President Jefferson Davis, to retake New Bern, which was held by Union troops under Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer. For the operation, Lee detached 13,000 men under the command of Major General George E. Pickett. The men were on their way south on January 30, 1864.

The Confederate plan of attack, developed by Pickett’s subordinate, Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, called for a coordinated attack with the Confederates converging on New Bern from three different directions. Brigadier General Seth M. Barton would move south of the Trent River and advance on New Bern from the southwest with most of 3 infantry brigades, 600 cavalry, and 14 artillery pieces. At the same time, Colonel James Dearing would strike from the northeast with 3 infantry regiments, 300 cavalry, and 3 guns to attack Fort Anderson, directly across the Neuse from New Bern. The third column, under Hoke with Pickett accompanying it, would consist of Hoke’s own division. It would strike from the northwest via Batchelder’s Creek.

There was also a fourth, naval, column. Confederate Navy commander John Taylor Wood would lead a daring night attack on the Union side-wheeler steam gunboat Underwriter, anchored in the Neuse near New Bern, to prevent it from aiding Union forces ashore. Toward this end the Confederates shipped a dozen small cutters by rail from Petersburg, Virginia, to Kinston, North Carolina, where they were started downriver.

The Confederate attack began well. Hoke was able to cross Batchelder’s Creek and repulse Union attacks against him, while Barton captured Union outposts below the town. Meanwhile, the Confederate water attack achieved success. The 14 Confederate boats carrying 300 men in them were not discovered until about 2:00 a. m. on February 2, when they were only 100 yards from the Underwriter. The attackers quickly boarded and overpowered the Union crew. Acting Master Jacob Westervelt, the Underwriter’s captain, was among those killed in the fight. Because the Union gunboat did not have steam up, Wood was thus unable to move it and soon found himself under heavy fire from Union shore batteries. Wood then ordered the ship scuttled.

At this point, however, the Confederate plans fell apart. Both Barton and Dearing found the Union defensive works too strong and failed to attack. With two of his three land prongs now stalled, Pickett withdrew Hoke’s division, marking the end of the battle. Sinking the Underwriter was the sole Confederate accomplishment of the battle. Casualties were light on both sides. Pickett estimated Union losses at about 100 men and Confederate casualties at half that figure. Pickett bears major responsibility for the failure of the attack, for the desired coordination did not materialize. Pickett then returned to Virginia. Hoke continued in command, and he then moved against Plymouth, North Carolina.

The Capture of Plymouth, North Carolina

May 5, 1864

In April 1864 the new shallow-draft Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle (with two 6.4-inch rifled guns) played the key role in the capture of Plymouth, North Carolina. The attack on the Union base, begun on April 17 by 7,000 Confederate troops under Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, had failed in large part thanks to gunfire support provided by Union gunboats on the Roanoke River. Early on April 19, however, the Albemarle, captained by Commander James W. Cooke, appeared and attacked the Union wooden gunboats Miami (with one 6.4-inch Parrott rifled gun, six IX-inch smoothbore Dahlgrens, and one 24-pounder boat howitzer) and Southfield (with one 6.4-inch Parrott rifle and five IX-inch Dahlgrens). With Union shot bouncing harmlessly off its plated sides, the Albemarle rammed and sank the Southfield. The commander of the Southfield, Lieutenant Commander Charles W. Flusser, was killed; 11 other Union seamen were wounded, and 8 were taken prisoner. The Albemarle lost 1 man, killed by a pistol shot. The Miami and other Union ships then withdrew from the river to watch the ram from a distance. The Albemarle now controlled the water approaches to Plymouth. Its guns and the sharpshooters aboard the Confederate steamer Cotton Plant enabled the more numerous Confederate infantry to take Plymouth on April 20.

Capture of New Bern, North Carolina

March 14, 1862

Union forces captured New Bern, North Carolina, on March 14, 1862. New Bern is located in the eastern part of the state, some 87 miles northeast of Wilmington on the Neuse River. Following the Union capture of Roanoke Island, North Carolina, in February 1862, Confederates in New Bern braced for a Union attack. Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch had command of 4,000 largely untested troops, who occupied a defensive line about 6 miles south of New Bern on the Neuse. Fort Thompson, mounting 13 guns, anchored the left of the Confederate line on the Neuse River.

Confederate engineers believed an attack on New Bern would come by water, so 10 of the fort’s guns faced the river, while only 3 covered the land approaches. From Fort Thompson, a line of entrenchments stretched westward for about a mile to the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad line. Because of a shortage of manpower, rather than continue these fortifications across the railroad tracks toward Brice’s Creek, Branch positioned his troops on the right of his line, 150 yards behind an arm of Brice’s Creek. This placement led to a gap of 150 yards in the Confederate line along the railroad at Wood’s Brickyard.

On March 11, 1862, Union brigadier general Ambrose Burnside began the assault on New Bern. His 11,000-man force boarded ships at Roanoke Island, then rendezvoused with U. S. Navy warships off Hatteras. The expeditionary force entered the Neuse River early in the afternoon of March 12 and anchored near the mouth of Slocum Creek that night.

At dawn the next morning, Union gunboats bombarded the North Carolina shore in preparation for the landing. The shelling was unnecessary, as there were no Confederate troops in the area. The Union soldiers landed unimpeded.

After coming ashore near Slocum Creek, Burnside’s troops began their march to New Bern, 17 miles distant, but heavy rains that day made the journey slow and difficult. Union troops made camp near the Fort Thompson line on the night of March 13.

At 7:00 a. m. on March 14, Burnside’s men advanced in three columns toward the Confederate positions. Brigadier General Jesse Reno commanded the Union troops to the left of the railroad, while Brigadier General John G. Foster’s brigade advanced on the right between the railroad and the Neuse River. Brigadier General John Parke’s brigade was held in reserve along the railroad, positioned to support either Reno or Foster.

Foster’s command made first contact with the Confederates, immediately encountering devastating Confederate musket and artillery fire, including the three land-sited guns at Fort Thompson. A number of shells from the Union gunboats, firing in support of the attack, also landed within the Union lines, although Foster was able to get word to the gunboats and have them cease fire. He brought up his two reserve regiments to continue the attack on the Confederate position but was unable to break the Confederate line.

On the Union left, Reno discovered the 150-yard gap in the Confederate line and prepared to attack it. The only Confederate troops guarding this break in Branch’s line were local militiamen who had been in service for only two weeks and were armed with only shotguns or hunting rifles. Reno personally led the charge of his men across the railroad against the militia, which soon fled in panic. But as Reno attempted to bring up more men to exploit the breach in the Confederate line, Branch sent reinforcements to seal it. Following heated action, Reno was forced to pull back, and the Confederate line stabilized.

Shortly after 11:00 a. m., Parke ordered his men forward against the Confederate center. Breaching the line, Parke’s men turned right and struck the Confederate troops occupying the breastworks between the railroad and Fort Thompson. Seeing the enemy behind their breastworks, the Confederate soldiers gave way. Branch then ordered a general retirement. The Confederates fled across the Trent River Bridge, which was destroyed after the last of them had crossed it. Later that afternoon, Burnside’s men crossed the river and occupied New Bern.

The capture of New Bern cost the Union 440 casualties. Confederate losses were 578. Fearful that Burnside’s army would sweep across North Carolina and divide the upper Confederacy, Confederate officials dispatched additional troops to the area.

The Fall of Jerusalem I

Now that the Allied pursuit of the Turks up the Plain of Philistra had come to a natural end, General Allenby had to decide his next step. His original plan, after Jaffa had been captured, was to suspend further operations until his supply lines and communications had caught up with the rapid British advance. He wanted to ensure he was in a position to sustain his whole army at the front without difficulty before moving on. Units also needed to be restored to full strength and the troops given a period of rest after two weeks of hard campaigning when water and rations had been in short supply. As Private Blunt of the London Regiment commented: ‘Owing to casualties the battalion is now only just over half strength. Everyone seems just beat and worn out. I am as weak as a kitten, feeling done up all over. My face is covered in septic sores and my feet are all blistered.’

However, powerful political and military pressures suggested that the immediate suspension of offensive operations would be unwise. In the end there was no more than a day’s break in operations (on 17 November) before Allenby decided to press on to Jerusalem. In ordering an immediate renewal of hostilities the British would be able to take advantage of the fact that the Turkish Seventh Army would have had no time to regroup after its long retreat and its troops would be tired and demoralized. Its new base in the Judean hills was potentially strong but there would have been no opportunity to organize proper defences. Allenby was concerned that ‘if we had given the Turks time to organize a defence we should never have stormed the heights.’

At the same time, Allenby believed that it should be possible to contain the Turkish Eighth Army on the coastal plain while this new advance to Jerusalem took place. He accepted that there was, however, a risk of a Turkish counter-attack at Jaffa and Ludd. He was also aware that the War Cabinet had expressed concern at the risk of operating in the rugged and difficult terrain that separated the Allies from their goal of Jerusalem and, given that Allied troops were tired and their ranks depleted after the Gaza campaign, had advised extreme caution. As well as the hazard of winter rains that were due at any moment and could make a difficult route impassable, he was reminded of the possibility that a substantial part of his force could be withdrawn early in 1918 to meet manpower demands on the Western Front. Lloyd George’s earlier requirement that Jerusalem be captured before Christmas 1917 had been tempered by a recognition of the potentially dangerous circumstances in which Allenby’s troops now found themselves.

Allenby’s revised plans envisaged the creation of a new defensive line in the Plain of Philistra which would serve to protect the main Allied communications to the south. It would be located opposite the recently established Turkish line of defence based on the Nahr el Auja, a river some four miles north-east of Jaffa. This defensive role was allotted to the Anzac Division with support from the 54th Division. The main operation, which involved the bulk of his forces, consisted of an advance eastwards into the Judean hills towards Jerusalem. As Allenby wished to avoid fighting in the vicinity of Jerusalem – with the risk of damage to the holy city and the resulting propaganda advantage that would be handed to the enemy – he planned an encircling movement that would be much more difficult to execute than a direct attack. Once British units were within striking distance of the city they were to advance to the north-east, cutting Turkish communications by pivoting on the right and swinging to the left across the road between Nablus and Jerusalem. As essential supplies dried up, the enemy garrison would be forced to surrender or withdraw.

In these operations, units of XXI Corps were to play a leading part. The 75th Division (which consisted of West Country territorials) would advance up the main road from Jaffa to Jerusalem – the only one in the whole area with a metalled surface – as far as Kuryet el Enab. The 52nd Division (Lowland Scottish) would advance on its immediate left. To the left of the 52nd Division was the Yeomanry Mounted Division, which was ordered to advance on Bireh, ten miles to the north of Jerusalem, via Beit Ur el Foka. It would be joined by the 75th Division which was ordered to turn north-east to Bireh as it approached Jerusalem. The combined force would then cut the Nablus-Jerusalem road. This would disrupt the Turks’ main line of supply and force the enemy to evacuate the city.

The advance eastwards into the hills towards Jerusalem began on 18 November. The Australian Mounted Division was responsible for clearing the enemy from Latron, on the Jaffa–Jerusalem road, before the 75th Division prepared to move off. The Yeomanry Mounted Division began its advance towards Bireh. The two infantry divisions prepared to follow them: the 52nd Division started from Ludd and Ramleh, while the 75th began its advance from a position near Latron. Their move into the Judean hills began on 19 November, the same day that saw the outbreak of the heavy winter rains. The 75th Division advanced through Latron towards the villages of Saris and Kuryet el Enab, where the Turks had damaged the road in several places.

The 52nd Division and the Yeomanry Division had a much more difficult task. They soon found that the routes they had been ordered to follow were no more than unmade tracks that were often steep and difficult for all but mule transport to negotiate; vehicles and guns could go no further and had to be returned to their starting points. As Guy Dawnay described it, the landscape was typically ‘very rough and rugged … Great hills overhanging deep valleys 1,500 or 2,000 feet almost sheer down in many places. Hill villages perched as in Italy on the tops of conical mountains. No roads – or only one, that to Jerusalem.’ The deteriorating weather added to British problems: troops were equipped for the extreme heat of Sinai and Gaza earlier in the year, rather than the cold and wet winter conditions that they now had to face. There was no early relief to the suffering of the rank and file as winter clothing was slow to arrive because of continuing transport bottlenecks.

Despite these constraints, however, some progress was made on the ground and during the course of 19 November the leading brigade of 52nd Division reached Beit Likia, while the Yeomanry advanced to Beit Ur el Tahta. By 20 November, the 75th Division had reached the villages of Saris and Kuryet el Enab. The Turks were strongly entrenched in ridges above these settlements and proved to be difficult to dislodge. The Turkish position at Saris fell during the afternoon but strong resistance was maintained on the ridge at Kuryet el Enab. On this occasion, for once, bad weather came to the aid of the British. Thick fog obscured the view of the Turkish gunners, giving the three British battalions the opportunity to charge the enemy positions without effective challenge. The result was that the entire ridge had been taken by the early evening, thus reopening the road towards Jerusalem. By this point, according to the official history, it was

pretty certain that the enemy meant to defend Jerusalem. Only small rearguard detachments had yet been encountered, and the great difficulty found in dislodging them from positions so admirably suited to their tactics augured ill for the moment drawing nigh when the Turks should be met with in strength.

The advance also continued on other parts of the front line. The 52nd made useful progress, but further to its left the Yeomanry Division was unable to reach Bireh, where it was charged with cutting the vital Nablus road. Instructed to capture Zeitun ridge to the west of Bireh, which was held by a determined enemy force of 3,000 troops and several artillery batteries, the yeomanry was initially unable to dislodge them. (It did in fact take it briefly on 21 November but was soon forced to relinquish it.) At this point for the first time, Falkenhayn’s strategy had been revealed. He left small rearguards to delay the progress of the Allied advance and thus gave the Turkish Seventh Army additional time to organize the defences surrounding Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the 75th Division continued its advance, turning north-east on 21 November towards Bireh and moving across the front of the 52nd Division on its left. The progress of the 75th Division was brought to a rapid halt when it discovered that its route to Bireh was completely blocked at Biddu. Here they encountered the dominating hill of Nebi Samweil, often described as the ‘key to Jerusalem’, which provided uninterrupted views of the city. The hill was taken by the 234th Brigade during the late evening, but the 52nd and 75th Divisions could make no further progress. Their attack on El Jib, the next important height beyond Nebi Samweil, on 22–24 November, was unsuccessful. Without substantial reinforcements, and in the absence of artillery support because of the lack of roads in the area north-west of Jerusalem, it was likely to stay beyond their reach. The Turkish defensive positions were held in strength and could not be dislodged by infantry action alone. General Allenby recognized that there was nothing to be gained by prolonging the fighting and, on 24 November, he ordered it to be broken off. The existing battle line was to be held and consolidated until fresh troops could be brought forward to renew the offensive.

The Turks made a concerted effort to recapture the Nebi Samweil height during the period 27–30 November but they were repulsed. Its defence was a brilliant feat of arms. Some 750 Turkish prisoners were taken during these few days. Fresh British forces now needed to be brought up to replace weary front-line troops who had been campaigning for three weeks in strenuous conditions. The first campaign to capture Jerusalem had stalled in face of the difficult terrain north-west of the capital where the British were unsupported by artillery; the Turks on the other hand had more flexibility because the Jerusalem to Nablus road remained under their control. The British action, however – generally characterized, in the words of the official history, by ‘boldness’ and ‘determination’ – was not entirely without benefit as it had left them in a stronger position than if they had delayed an attack until the Turks had dug themselves in. Allenby was quite clear about the gains that had so far been secured:

The narrow passes from the plain to the plateau of the Judean range have seldom been forced, and have been fatal to many invading armies. Had the attempt not been made at once, or had it been pressed with less determination, the enemy would have had time to reinforce his defences in the passes lower down, and the conquest of the plateau would then have been slow, costly, and precarious. As it was, positions had been won from which the final attack could be prepared and delivered with good prospects of success.

In the meantime, there had been far less action on the coastal plain and it was only on the day that the first Battle of Jerusalem ended, 24 November, that the Anzacs were ordered to advance across the River Auja and establish a bridgehead. The aim was to keep the defending Turkish Eighth Army on its guard and to discourage the possible transfer of troops from the coast to the Jerusalem area. Following a successful action by the New Zealand Mounted Brigade, two battalions of the 54th Division held two small bridgeheads on the northern banks of the wadi for a brief period. The occupation was, however, short-lived as the British infantry was forced to withdraw when the Turks attacked in overwhelming strength on 25 November.

Following this action there was a lull in the fighting on both fronts while the British made preparations for a second attack on Turkish forces in the area. In better weather conditions, existing roads and tracks were improved and new ones constructed to enable heavy and field artillery to be placed in position and ammunition and supplies brought up. The water supply was also developed. The British front-line forces needed both renewal and reinforcement and Allenby decided that the effectiveness of his front-line troops would be enhanced if he were to exchange his forces in the Judean hills with those on the coast. Under these plans XX Corps would leave its coastal bases and move inland, while units of XXI Corps would move in the opposite direction. XX Corps, under Chetwode, assumed its new duties on 28 November.

It was inevitable that the Turks would seek to capitalize on this time of uncertainty and instability. Over the period of a week they launched a series of attacks designed to test the resilience of the British position, in particular exploiting the gap of some five miles that existed between the right of the line in the plain and the left of the force in the hills. Using the ‘shock tactics’ employed by German troops on the Western Front, the Turks achieved a series of short-lived successes at the end of November and early in December. However, as British reinforcements arrived, lost ground was recovered and gaps in the line were soon closed. By 3 December the Turks had abandoned their action.

By 7 December, the exchange of British forces had been completed and XX Corps was prepared to make a second attempt to overcome the Turkish defences that protected Jerusalem. The Turkish Seventh Army, which consisted of some 16,000 troops, remained strongly entrenched in the hills to the west of Jerusalem. However, its morale had been seriously damaged by a succession of setbacks and defeats and it was not clear how much more resistance it would offer before withdrawing. The renewed attack was led by General Chetwode, commander of XX Corps, who adopted a very different plan from that of his predecessor. The original plan, to pivot on the right of the British line with the left swinging across the Nablus road, had entailed crossing rugged country with poor access. It failed because rapid movement had been impossible and wheeled transport, including artillery, could not be deployed. The Turks, on the other hand, could use the Jerusalem–Nablus road to bring up reinforcements quickly to meet any British advance.

As outlined by Chetwode at a conference on 3 December, which was attended by his divisional commanders, the new plan sought to address the weaknesses inherent in the original attack. Chetwode decided to pivot at Nebi Samweil on the left, with his right advancing up the Enab–Jerusalem road and past the western suburbs before cutting the Nablus road immediately to the north of the city. This plan, unlike its predecessor, would enable the British to deploy sufficient artillery against the Turkish defences by using the Jaffa road for this purpose, one of the few routes in the area that had the capacity to handle it. The main attack would be carried out by the 60th and 74th Divisions. To protect their right flank, two brigades of the 53rd Division were to advance up the Hebron road towards Bethlehem, moving round the eastern suburbs of Jerusalem and cutting the city’s road links with Jericho.

During the four days before the attack the main units moved into position. The 10th Division was to operate on a wider front than had originally been envisaged. This gave the 74th Division the opportunity to work in support of the 60th Division at Nebi Samweil. Starting from a point south of the Enab–Jerusalem road, the 60th Division was to advance with its left flank on this road and its right almost touching the Hebron road, making use of the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment and the Worcestershire Yeomanry to maintain contact with the 53rd Division. The 53rd was expected to be close to the Bethlehem defences before the attack began.

The British advance on Jerusalem began during the night of 7 December when the 179th Brigade of the 60th Division took the high ground south of Ain Karim. Private Wilson, 179th Machine Gun Corps, recorded his movements at the start of the operation:

We are moving tomorrow morning [7 December] for the Jerusalem operations. Apparently the place is to be ours by Sunday … We started off from Enab at nine in the morning … We were ordered to dump our packs, including bivvies and blankets, so we knew we were in for something hefty … we soon discovered why we had dumped our packs. We could never have got through with those burdens on our backs. The distance on the map which we went that night was roughly two miles as the crow flies. Not being crows, however, we had to do the journey as the donkey walks and found it a very different matter. Up hill and down ravine, winding about along ridges, and down precipitous hill paths, the whole way literally strewn with stones and boulders, it took us seven hours without a stop to traverse that two miles, ‘as the crow flies’.

The main attack followed at dawn in conditions that were less than favourable: it was cold, there was persistent heavy rain and visibility was restricted because of mist. These latter two factors slowed the pace of the advance, although the Allies were faced with a less energetic Turkish defence than they had experienced on other occasions since entering Palestine. On the Allied left, however, the 74th Division was delayed by enfilade fire from Turkish positions on Nebi Samweil. The heaviest fighting took place on the front covered by the 60th Division, which eventually prevailed against the enemy, capturing the main Turkish defences west of Jerusalem shortly after dawn. These defences, which in places were carved out of rock, should have been difficult to overcome. However, as Wavell explained, ‘the Londoners [of the 60th Division] attacked with their usual dash, and the Turks defended with less than their usual tenacity’. As a result of the adverse weather conditions, the 60th Division had lost touch with the 53rd Division on its right. With its right flank unprotected, the 60th Division was exposed to attack.

During the course of the afternoon, offensive operations were suspended to enable the British to regroup. According to the same British private, conditions for the advancing troops remained difficult in the hours leading up to the Turkish evacuation of Jerusalem:

Our quarters for the next twenty-four hours were against a ledge of rock surmounted by a stone wall which proved effective cover for shrapnel. This ledge of rock was near the top of the ravine on the side of it opposite the road … All the morning Johnnie kept shelling the road; but his range was inaccurate, and every shell fell into the ravine. Our little mountain guns were also busy speaking back. Towards evening a party was sent down to the village, who brought back water and some most welcome blankets and bits of carpet. Under the wall we kipped for the night, preserving some small warmth beneath these scant coverings … About ten o’clock over came about half a dozen more shells into the ravine. These, had we known it, were Johnnie’s parting shots.

The British had intended to renew their advance towards the Nablus road the next day, but by then it was evident that the city was about to fall into their hands. The impact of the British attack – particularly the apparent loss of their main defences – had been sufficient to convince the Turks that their position was untenable. This was underlined by the fact that panic had spread among several Turkish units after the loss of the defensive works. As explained by Kress, the British secured the city by a ‘lucky chance’:

The capture of a small sector of the Turkish front-line trench by a British patrol on the night of 7 December was magnified by a false report into the loss of the whole of the western defences. Ali Fuad, the commander, having received orders from the army group to withdraw on Jericho in case of the loss of Jerusalem, feared to execute a counter-attack lest he should be unable after it to carry out these orders, and therefore evacuated the holy city forthwith.