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Battle of Omdurman

At the Battle of Omdurman (September 2, 1898) an army commanded by the British General Sir Horatio Kitchener defeated the army of the Khalifa, the 'Dervishes' (a name that will be used in this article). It was a bloody demonstration of the superiority of machine guns and artillery over older weapons and marked the successful end of the British efforts to re-conquer the Sudan.

Omdurman is today a suburb of Khartoum in central Sudan, with a population of some 1.5 million. The village of Omdurman was chosen in 1884 as the base of operations by the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. It remained the centre for his theocratic empire after his death in 1885.

The battle took place at Kerreri, 11 km north of Omdurman. Kitchener command a force of 8,000 British regulars and a mixed force of 17,000 Sudanese and Egyptian soldiers. Kitchener arrayed his force in an arc around the village of Egeiga close to the bank of the Nile, where a gunboat flotilla waited in support, facing a wide flat plain with hills rising to the left and right. The British and Egyptian cavalry was placed on either flank.

The Dervish force of around 50,000, including only 3,000 cavalry, was split into five groups; a force of 8,000 under Azbak was arrayed directly opposite the British, in a shallow arc along a mile of a low ridge leading onto the plain; the other Dervish forces were initially concealed from Kitchener's force. Khalifa Addallah al-Taashi and 17,000 men were concealed behind the Surgham hills to the west and rear of Azbak's force, 20,000 more were positioned to the north-west close to the front behind the Kerreri hills, commanded by Ali-Wad-Helu and Sheikh ed-Din. A final group of around 8,000 were gathered on the slope at the right flank of Azbak's force.

The battle began in the early morning, at around 6 a.m. After the clashes of the previous day, the 8,000 men under Azbak advanced straight at the waiting British, quickly followed by about 8,000 of those waiting to the north-west. It was a mixed force of musketmen and spearmen. The British artillery opened fire at around 2,750 m and the Dervish forces were badly reduced before they even came into range of the Maxim guns and volley fire. The frontal attack ended quickly with around 4,000 Dervish casualties, none coming closer than 50 m to the British trenches. A flanking move from the Dervish right was also checked and there were untidy clashes on the opposite flank which scattered the Dervish forces there.

Kitchener was anxious to occupy Omdurman before the remaining Dervish forces could withdraw there and he directed the army to advance on Omdurman. The army was ordered into columns and began the advance. The Britsh light cavalry regiment, the 21st Lancers was sent ahead to clear the plain to the settlement and had a tough time of it, the 400 strong regiment clashed with a force of around 2,500 infantry and drove them back at some cost (three Victoria Crosses were awarded). On the larger scale the Britsh advance allowed the Khalifa to re-organize his forces, he still had over 30,000 men in the field, he directed his main reserve to attack from the west and ordered the forces to the north-west to attack simultaneously over the Kerreri Hills.

Kitchener's force wheeled left in echelon to advance up Surgham ridge and then southwards. To protect the rear a brigade of 3,000, mainly Sudanese and commanded by Hector MacDonald, was reinforced with Maxims and artillery and followed the main force at around 1,350 m. Curiously the supplies and wounded around Egeiga were left almost unprotected.

MacDonald was alerted to the presence of around 15,000 enemy troops moving towards him from the west, out from behind Surgham. He wheeled his force and lined them up to face the enemy charge. The Dervish infantry attacked in two prongs and MacDonald was forced to repeatedly re-order his batallions, the brigade maintained a punishing fire. Kitchener, now aware of the problem, "began to throw his brigades about as if they were companies". MacDonald's brigade was soon reinforced and the Dervish forces were forced back and finally broke or died where they stood. The Dervish forces to the north had regrouped too late and entered the clash only after the force in the central valley had been routed, they pressed Macdonald's Sudanese brigades hard, but the Lincolnshire Regiment was quickly brought up and with sustained section volleys repulsed the advance. A final, despairing and hugely brave, cavalry charge of around 500 men was utterly destroyed. The march on Omdurman was resumed at about 11.30.

Around 10,000 Dervishes were killed and 15,000 wounded, 5,000 were taken prisoner. Kitchener's force lost 48 men with 382 wounded, the majority from MacDonald's command. The Khalifa escaped and survived until 1899.

Kitchener was en-nobled as a baron, Kitchener of Khartoum, for his victory.

Winston Churchill was present at the battle as a reporter and he rode with the 21st Lancers, his account is the basis of this article.