Battle of Omdurman
The 2nd of September 1898 AD
The Battle of Omdurman has a certain resonance for contemporary Britain in that it was fought on behalf of Middle Eastern allies (in this case Egypt) against religious zealots, the Mahdists, though it is not hard to cast them as Sudanese freedom fighters. It was a colonial conflict, the colony we were helping to reconquer in this case Egyptian.
At Omdurman Sir Herbert Kitchener (who subsequently was made Baron Kitchener) commanded a force of roughly 8000 British and 18000 Egyptian and Sudanese; facing him was the Mahdi’s successor, Abdullah al-Taashi with more than 50000 men. The clash proved the value of Western armaments (notably artillery and the Maxim gun, used in a major set-piece battle for the first time) and military discipline over strength of numbers and fanaticism.
British artillery devastated Mahdist forces charging across open land; controlled volley-firing with Martini-Henry rifles was an equally effective tactic whenever the survivors of such carnage got closer; and those Maxim guns which didn’t jam were also highly destructive, their noise a powerful psychological weapon.
The conflict began in the early morning, and ended before noon. Two famous actions within the battle are noteworthy: the 21st Lancers were sent to charge what appeared a small group of enemy infantry, on arrival at their position encountering a large concealed force; Winston Churchill was in that charge, though he was not one of the three Lancers awarded VCs for their valour. The second was the decisive command shown by Hector MacDonald, an officer who had risen from the ranks. By skilful manoeuvres of his Sudanese brigade MacDonald saved Kitchener’s force from being outflanked – had he not done so the British-Egyptian casualties would have been higher, and the outcome of Omdurman in the balance.
As it was Kitchener lost just 48 men in the battle, the Mahdists probably more than 10,000.
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