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Mahdist War: Battle of Omdurman

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Battle of Omdurman - Conflict:

The Battle of Omdurman took place in present-day Sudan during the Mahdist War (1881-1899).

Battle of Omdurman - Date:

The British triumphed on September 2, 1898.

Armies & Commanders:

British

Mahdists

  • Abdullah al-Taashi
  • approx. 52,000 men

Battle of Omdurman - Background:

Following the capture of Khartoum by the Mahdists and the death Major General Charles Gordon on January 26, 1885, British leaders began contemplating how to retake power in Sudan. Over the next several years, the urgency of this operation waxed and waned as William Gladstone's Liberal Party exchanged power with Lord Salisbury's Conservatives. In 1895, the British consul-general of Egypt, Sir Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer, finally convinced Salisbury's government to take action citing the desire to create a "Cape-to-Cairo" chain of colonies and the need to prevent foreign powers from entering the area.

Concerned about the nation's finances and international opinion, Salisbury gave permission for Cromer to began planning the reconquest of Sudan, but stipulated that he was to use only Egyptian forces and that all actions were to appear to take place under Egyptian authority. To lead Egypt's army, Cromer selected Colonel Horatio Kitchener of the Royal Engineers. An efficient planner, Kitchener was promoted to major general (in Egyptian service) and appointed sirdar (commander-in-chief). Taking command of Egypt's forces, Kitchener began a rigorous training program and equipped his men with modern weapons.

Battle of Omdurman - Planning:

By 1896, the sirdar's army numbered around 18,000 well-trained men. Advancing up the Nile in March 1896, Kitchener's forces moved slowly, consolidating their gains as they went. By September, they had occupied Dongala, just above the third cataract of the Nile, and had met little resistance from the Mahdists. With his supply lines badly stretched, Kitchener turned to Cromer for additional funding. Playing on the government's fears of French intrigue in East Africa, Cromer was able to secure more money from London.

With this in hand, Kitchener began building the Sudan Military Railroad from his base at Wadi Halfa to a terminus at Abu Hamed, 200 miles to the southeast. As the construction crews pressed through the desert, Kitchener dispatched troops under Sir Archibald Hunter to clear Abu Hamed of Mahdist forces. This was accomplished with minimal casualties on August 7, 1897. With the completion of the railroad on in late October, Salisbury decided to expand the government's commitment to the operation and began sending the first of 8,200 British troops to Kitchener. These were joined by several gunboats.

Battle of Omdurman - Kitchener's Victory:

Concerned about the Kitchener's advance, the leader of the Mahdist army, Abdullah al-Taashi sent 14,000 men to attack the British near Atara. On April 7, 1898, they were badly defeated and suffered 3,000 dead. As Kitchener prepared for the push to Khartoum, Abdullah raised a force of 52,000 to block the Anglo-Egyptian advance. Armed with a mix of spears and antique firearms they mustered near the Mahdist capital of Omdurman. On September 1, British gunboats appeared in the river off Omdurman and shelled the city. This was followed by the arrival of Kitchener's army in the nearby village of Egeiga.

Forming a perimeter around the village, with river at their back, Kitchener's men waited for the arrival of the Mahdist army. Around dawn on September 2, Abdullah attacked the Anglo-Egyptian position with 15,000 men while a second Mahdist force continued moving north. Equipped with the latest European rifles, Maxim machine guns, and artillery, Kitchener's men mowed down the attacking Mahdist dervishes (infantry). With the attack defeated, the 21st Lancers were ordered to reconnoiter in force towards Omdurman. Moving out, they met a group of 700 Hadenoa tribesman.

Switching to the attack, they were soon confronted by 2,500 dervishes which had been hiding in a dry streambed. Charging through the enemy, they fought a bitter battle before rejoining the main army. Around 9:15, believing the battle won, Kitchener ordered his men to begin advancing on Omdurman. This movement exposed his right flank to a Mahdist force that was lurking to west. Shortly after beginning their march, three Sudanese and one Egyptian battalion came under fire from this force. Compounding the situation was the arrival of 20,000 men under Osman Shiekh El Din which had moved north earlier in the battle. Shiekh El Din's men soon began attacking the Sudanese brigade of Colonel Hector MacDonald.

While the threatened units made a stand and poured disciplined fire into the approaching enemy, Kitchener began wheeling the rest of the army around to join the fight. As at Egeiga, modern weaponry triumphed and the dervishes were shot down in alarming numbers. By 11:30, Abdullah gave up the battle as lost and fled the field. With the Mahdist army destroyed, the march to Omdurman and Khartoum was resumed.

Battle of Omdurman - Aftermath

The Battle of Omdurman cost the Mahdists a stunning 9,700 killed, 13,000 wounded, and 5,000 captured. Kitchener's losses were a mere 47 dead and 340 wounded. The victory at Omdurman concluded the campaign to retake Sudan and Khartoum was quickly reoccupied. Despite the victory, several officers were critical of Kitchener's handling of the battle and cited MacDonald's stand for saving the day. Arriving at Khartoum, Kitchener was ordered to proceed south to Fashoda to block French incursions in the area.

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