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The Battle of Abu Klea

Abu Klea: the quintessential Victorian colonial battle, fought by the lauded ‘Camel Corps’, and celebrated in Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem ‘Vitai Lampada’: … “The sand of the desert is sodden red, Red with the wreck of the square that broke; The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead, And the regiment blind with dust and smoke…… “Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

Death of General Gordon 1885
The death of General Gordon on the
steps of hi palace in Khartoum on
26th January 1885. Picture by GW Joy.

Battle: Abu Klea.

War: The Sudan Campaign to rescue General Charles Gordon besieged in Khartoum.

Date: 17th January 1885.

Place: In the bend of the River Nile, North of Khartoum.

Combatants: A British force against the Mahdi’s Sudanese army.

Generals: Major General Sir Herbert Stewart against the Mahdi’s lieutenants.

Size of the armies: The British force numbered 1,400 against a Sudanese army of around 14,000 of which some 3,000 actually attacked the British square.

An officer and soldier of the Coldstream Guards
An officer and soldier of the Coldstream Guards
serving with the Guards Regiment of the Camel
Corps in the Sudan in 1885.
Picture by Orlando Norie.

Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British Camel Corps wore grey tunics, cord breeches and helmets stained brown. The infantry of the Sussex Regiment wore khaki tunics. The British troops were all armed with Martini-Henry single shot rifles and 22 inch bayonets, both infantry and cavalry, and mounted on camels, except the 19th Hussars which carried carbines and swords and was mounted on horses. The Mahdist Sudanese carried spears and swords and the Remington single shot rifles they had captured from the Egyptians.
Winner: The British force.

British Regiments:
The Heavy Camel Corps, comprising Household Cavalry, Dragoon Guards, Dragoons and Lancers.
The Guards Camel Corps, comprising Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards and Royal Marine Light Infantry.
The Mounted Infantry Camel Corps, drawn from the infantry regiments stationed in Egypt.
1st Battalion the Sussex Regiment

Soldiers of the Camel Corps

Soldiers of the Camel Corps before the
battle of Abu Klea. Illustration by R Caton
Woodville for the Illustrated London News.

Click here to buy a print or image to enlarge

3 guns of the Royal Artillery
A Royal Navy contingent with a Gardiner Gun (a cranked machine gun similar to the Gatling).

In 1884 Mohammed Ahmed, an apprentice boat builder, declared himself to be the Mahdi or Saviour of the people of Sudan and began a revolt against the Khedive of Egypt, the ruler of Sudan, and his Egyptian garrisons across the country. The revolt was a Jihad, or Muslim Holy War. The Khedive resolved to evacuate his garrisons from Sudan and leave it to the Mahdi. The problem was in finding someone who could carry out this difficult operation.

In January 1884, on the urging of the British Government of William Gladstone, the Khedive appointed General Charles Gordon to conduct the withdrawal operations from Sudan. Gordon’s remit and appointment were not resolved. Gordon had successfully acted as governor of Sudan in the 1880s and left with a high reputation. It was the expectation of the British Government that Gordon would arrange the evacuation of the Egyptian forces and then leave Sudan without endangering himself.

Steamers make for Khartoum
The steamers make for Khartoum after
the Battles of Abu Klea and Abu Kru.

Gordon reached Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, on the Nile on 18th February 1884 and immediately put the city into a state of readiness for siege, while at the same time beginning the evacuation of the foreign civilians.

General Graham conducted his successful campaign from Suakin in February to April 1884, winning the battles of El Teb and Tamai, and was then withdrawn to Egypt. Gordon was left to depend upon his own resources.

The evacuation of Sudan proved to be infinitely more difficult than had been envisaged in Cairo or London. The Nile was the sole route of escape. It was far from easily navigable, having a series of rapids, the main ones known as the 6 Cataracts. In April 1884 the Mahdi captured Berber, a town on the Nile, cutting Gordon’s sole communication route with Egypt.

The Battle of Abu Klea by William Barnes Wollen
The Battle of Abu Klea by William Barnes Wollen
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Desultory communications came out of Khartoum, taking some time to reach Egypt, making it clear that Khartoum only had the capacity to hold out for 40 days once under siege. It was apparent that Gordon had no intention of leaving the Sudanese capital.

Gordon sent his second in command, Colonel Stewart, with a message for Sir Evelyn Baring, the British Commissioner in Cairo. Stewart in one of Gordon’s 5 steamers sailed past Berber, but then went aground was captured and executed by one of the Mahdi’s lieutenants.
The British Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was determined that Britain would not intervene further in the Sudan. Public opinion was outraged. It was the view in the country that Gordon must be rescued. Queen Victoria expressed the same view. Finally the threatened resignation of Lord Hartington, the Secretary of State for War, forced Gladstone to agree to the sending of an expeditionary force to relieve Gordon.

Map of Sudan

General Lord Wolseley, Britain’s most eminent general, was given command of the Sudan expeditionary force. Wolseley had the choice of two routes to reach Gordon in Khartoum: the shorter from Suakin on the Red Sea and the longer up the Nile. Wolseley chose the Nile route. Landing at Suakin would have presented the problem of movement across a wide expanse of country held by the Mahdist Hadendoa tribe, which General Graham had fought at El Teb and Tamai the previous year, to reach Khartoum. The Nile was a route of sorts up which the British force could travel.

A force was sent to Suakin on the Red Sea, commanded, as in the previous year, by General Sir Gilbert Graham VC. An Indian Army cavalry regiment, Hodson’s Horse and an Indian Army infantry brigade formed part of the Suakin force.
The Nile presented significant difficulties for the British Army. There was no established department that could provide the transport for such a journey. Boats had to be built and crews recruited and transported from Canada and South Africa. Sir Thomas Cook’s travel company provided the steamers.

The force allocated to Lord Wolseley for the advance up the Nile comprised 6 battalions of infantry, 1 regiment of cavalry, with guns and engineers taken from the British forces already in Egypt. Sir Redvers Buller, promoted major general following the Suakin campaign, was appointed Lord Wolseley’s chief of staff.

The Desert Column at Abu Klea
The Desert column at the beginning of the Battle
of Abu Klea. Illustration by R Caton Woodville
for the Illustrated London News.

It was apparent to Wolseley that to reach Khartoum in time he needed a flying column. Thus was formed the Camel Corps. The British public imagination had been fired by the need to rescue the extraordinary Charles Gordon. Instead of forming the Camel Corps from the line infantry regiments, in the expectation that the corps would simply be mounted infantry, the Camel Corps took many of its officers and men from the socially elite regiments of the British Army. Two of the Camel Corps’ regiments were formed from the cavalry: the Heavy Regiment from the Household Cavalry, the Dragoon Guards, the Dragoons and Lancers: the Light Regiment from the Hussars. The Guards regiment of the camel corps was formed from the Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards (with the Royal Marine Light Infantry) and the Mounted Infantry regiment from line infantry regiments.

The British square attacking Metemmeh after the Battle of Abu Klea.
The British square attacking Metemmeh after the
Battle of Abu Klea.  Illustration by WE Overend
in the Illustrated London News

While the main contingent of Wolseley’s army struggled up the Nile from Wadi Halfa in boats, Major General Sir Herbert Stewart, who had commanded the cavalry in the Suakin campaign the previous year, was to march across the desert from Korti to capture Metemmeh, on the Nile, 50 miles North of Khartoum; with the Desert Column, comprising the Camel Corps, additional troops of the Sussex Regiment, the 19th Hussars on horses, 3 Royal Artillery guns and a Royal Navy detachment with a Gardiner gun.

Difficulty was immediately encountered. There were insufficient camels to carry the supplies necessary for the Desert Column. So Stewart was forced to take part of his force across the desert to the wells at Jakdul, a point halfway between Korti and Metemmeh, leave the troops there while returning with the camels to bring up the rest of his force.

The 19th Hussars at Abu Klea
The 19th Hussars crossing the desert before the
Battle of Abu Klea. Illustration by R Caton
Woodville for the Illustrated London News.

On 14th January 1884 General Stewart moved out from Jakdul with the Heavy Camel Regiment, the Guards Camel Regiment, the Mounted Infantry Camel Infantry, the 19th Hussars and part of the 1st Battalion Sussex Regiment and the guns. A garrison was left to hold the wells.

It had been hoped that Stewart’s advance across the desert would take the Mahdi by surprise and ensure that Metemmeh could be stormed with the minimum of difficulty.

The 19th Hussars capturing supplies during the desert march
The 19th Hussars capturing supplies during
the desert march: Illustration by R Caton
Woodville for the Illustrated London News.

As General Stewart’s force approached the wells at Abu Klea on 16th January 1884, piquets of the 19th Hussars, scouting ahead of the main column, encountered parties of Mahdists. It could be seen that a large force was established at the wells and ready to give battle. The British had left the last water some 43 miles before and were in need of replenishment. Nevertheless it was apparent that Abu Klea could only be taken by assault. Stewart halted two miles short of Abu Klea and camped.

The night was a busy one. A thorn bush zereba or compound was built. The British camp was under constant sniper fire and preparations had to be made for the formation of the attack.

The Battle of Abu Klea by Richard Caton Woodville.
The Battle of Abu Klea by Richard Caton Woodville.
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With daylight a strong force of Mahdists could be seen formed up to the left of the zereba. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to lure this force into attacking by sending a strong force forward which then retreated into the zereba. As this ploy had no effect General Stewart resolved to advance to the wells at Abu Klea in a square formation.

The Mounted Infantry were positioned in the left front corner of the square. The Guards Camel Regiment (Foot Guards and Royal Marine Light Infantry) took the right front corner. The Heavy Camel Regiment took the left rear corner and the rear face while the Sussex Regiment took the rear of the right face. The troops marched on foot with the camels bunched in the centre of the square. The guns marched in the centre of the front face. The Gardner gun with its Royal Navy gun team, under Captain Lord Berseford RN, took the rear of the centre, ready to be rushed to any point of crisis. The main part of the 19th Hussars was posted to the left of the square with a small detachment on the right.

Household Cavalry members of the Camel 
Corps and 19th Hussar
Household Cavalry members of the Camel
Corps and 19th Hussars in the desert crossing
to Metemmeh. Picture by Orlando Norie.

At 7.30am the square began its difficult and cumbersome advance, the aim being to pass the flank of the Mahdist position and force an attack. As the square moved forward skirmishers from the Guards and Mounted Infantry moved out to engage the Mahdist riflemen with fire. The ground was broken and the square formation became severely distorted with the rear lagging back, forced out of place by the vagaries of the movement of the camels. As casualties were inflicted by the sniping rifle fire camels had to be stopped to be loaded with the wounded, who had to be given first aid, thereby causing the camels to lag and further distort the formation. The officers in front, who controlled the movement of the square, gave insufficient consideration to the difficulties being experienced at the rear. As a result gaps opened up at crucial points in the corners and rear of the square.

Much of the Mahdist fire was coming from a gully that ran parallel to the route the British were taking on its left flank. General Stewart ordered that skirmishers be sent out from the Heavy Regiment to neutralize this fire.

At around 9.30am it became clear that the Mahdist army was about to attack the front left corner of the square. The square was wheeled to the right to move onto higher ground. A large force of probably around 3,000 Mahdists, armed with spears and swords, appeared from the nearby gully and charged the square.

At this point the British were hampered by the presence of their skirmishers who had to be permitted to regain the square before fire could be opened. The Mahdist assault was consequently within 200 yards or less of the square before the first volleys were delivered.
The charge was delivered at the section of the front left face held by the Mounted Infantry Regiment of the Camel Corps. Captain Lord Beresford brought his Gardner gun from its position at the rear of the square and took it out through the Mounted Infantry position and opened fire on the charging Mahdists. After firing some 70 rounds the Gardner gun jammed. Before it could be cleared the Mahdist spearmen overwhelmed the Royal Navy detachment manning the Gardner and killed all but Lord Beresford, who fell under the gun, and one of the ratings.

Probably due to the heavy volley firing from the Mounted Infantry and shrapnel from the 3 guns in the front face, the charge continued on down the left face of the square and fell on the fragmented corner held by the Heavy Cavalry regiment, where the Mahdists broke into the square.

Death of Colonel Fred Burnaby at the Battle of Abu Klea.
Death of Colonel Fred Burnaby at the Battle of Abu Klea.
Click image to enlarge, click here to buy

The troopers of the Heavy Cavalry Camel Regiment were defending themselves with the long infantry rifle, a weapon they were unfamiliar with. The cavalry officers had no experience of fighting an infantry square. It seems to be the universal view of informed senior officers that the cavalry officers took insufficient care to ensure the integrity of the square formation.
As happened at Tamai, with the break of the square, many of the officers and non-commissioned officers standing to the rear of the line became casualties.

Colonel Fred Burnaby was fatally injured and brought from his horse. A soldier from Burnaby’s regiment, the Royal Horse Guards, Corporal McIntosh, rushed forward to assist him, but together the two were overwhelmed. General Stewart’s horse was killed and he had to be rescued by men from the Mounted Infantry regiment.

Lieutenant Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Blues
Lieutenant Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Blues
who was killed at Abu Klea. Painting by JG Tissot.

The charge of the Mahdists into the centre of the square was impeded by the mass of camels, which prevented the Mahdists from reaching the rear ranks of the opposing faces. The rear rank of the Mounted Infantry in the front face and the Foot Guards and Royal Marines of the Guards regiment in the right face turned about and opened a devastating fire on the Mahdists. After some hectic minutes the Mahdists who had broken into the square were shot down and the charge died away. The battle was over after 10 hectic minutes.
The 19th Hussars moved forward and took possession of the wells at Abu Klea.

By 1pm the square had reformed and the wounded taken care of so the force could moved forward to the wells which were reached by 4pm. In the evening a party of mounted infantry returned to the overnight zereba and brought up the garrison and wounded left there.
Casualties: British casualties were 71 killed and 64 wounded. Of the 11 officers killed, 7 were cavalry officers.

Among the officers killed were Colonel Fred Burnaby, who had been wounded while acting as a volunteer in General Graham’s force at Tamai, Major Carmichael, 5th Lancers, of the Heavy Regiment, Camel Corps and Lord St Vincent of the 16th Lancers, the adjutant of the Heavy Regiment.

It is likely that the Mahdists suffered around 1,500 casualties. The Mahdists refused to surrender even when wounded. Only one man was taken prisoner, an Egyptian soldier captured at Berber and forced to fight for the Mahdi. The Mahdists lost a number of important leaders in the battle: Sheikh Suleiman, Sheikh Abu Seyd, the Mahdi’s Emir from Shendy and Sheikh Nouringeh, the Emir of Berber.

Follow-up: On the afternoon of the day after the battle at Abu Klea, 19th January 1885, the column resumed its advance to Metemmeh. A prisoner revealed that there were some 8,000 Mahdists in the town. The march was continued through the night, dawn finding the British force within 4 miles of Metemmeh, having covered around 20 miles. A position was adopted on which the Mahdists opened a heavy fire. Finally the British troops formed square and advanced to the Nile at Gubat under heavy fire. One of the casualties to this fire was General Stewart who was fatally wounded. Command of the desert column devolved on Brigadier Wilson.

On 21st January 1885 4 Nile steamers arrived from Khartoum at Gubat. Brigadier Wilson on 23rd January 1885 embarked with soldiers of the Sussex Regiment on the steamers and headed for Khartoum.

Memorial service for General Gordon
The memorial service for General Gordon held in
the ruins of his palace. Painting by R Caton Woodville

Wilson’s men reached Khartoum on 28th January 1885, Wilson’s steamer having twice grounded. They sailed past the city under heavy fire, but could see only Mahdist troops on the banks. The Mahdi’s forces had taken Khartoum on 26th January 1885, massacring the defenders. General Charles Gordon had been killed on the steps of his palace. The British relief was 2 days too late.

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:

Vitai Lampada by Sir Henry Newbolt
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night --
Ten to make and the match to win --
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

Royal Navy Gatling Gun team.
Royal Navy Gatling Gun team.
The sand of the desert is sodden red, --
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; --
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind --
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

British Egypt Medal
British Egypt medal on the left; Khedive’s Star in the centre;
British Long Service Good Conduct medal on the right.
Thanks to Historik Orders of Greenwich, Conn, USA.

For the Sudan campaign the British troops received the Egypt medal that had been issued for the Tel-El-Kebir campaign in 1882, but without the date. Where troops already had the Egypt 1882 medal they received an additional clasp ‘Abu Klea’ for that medal. In the same way the Khedive Star was issued to those ranks that did not already have it.