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!”
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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
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: 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.
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
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 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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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:
- In his book ‘The River War’ Winston Churchill described Abu Klea
as “The most savage and bloody action ever fought in the Sudan by
- Although members of so many British regiments fought at Abu Klea
in the Camel Corps, the only regiments to have the battle honour are
the 19th Hussars and the Sussex Regiment.
- The Desert Column suffered from inadequate equipment. The Gardner
gun that jammed in the battle was the same Gardiner that had jammed
at Tamai the year before. The small arms ammunition used by the
column was of poor quality and caused frequent jams in the
Martini-Henry rifles. The bayonets were of sub-standard material and
bent during the battle. They were insufficiently sharp.
Major Kitchener, in 1897 to win the battle of Omdurman and then to
become Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was an intelligence officer
with the Desert Column.
- The officer commanding the piquet of the 19th Hussars that first
made contact with the Mahdi’s forces at Abu Klea was Major John
French, later general officer commanding the Cavalry Division in the
relief of Kimberley and the GOC of the British Expeditionary Force
to France in 1914.
- Colonel Fred Burnaby’s colourful career ended with his death at
Abu Klea. A man of great height and strength, Burnaby was highly
popular in his regiment, the Royal Horse Guards, although actively
disliked by the Royal Family and the Commander in Chief, the Duke of
Cambridge, for making unseemly jokes about them. Burnaby once came
into the officers’ mess carrying a pony under his arm. Burnaby
became a Member of Parliament and colonel of the Royal Horse Guards.
Vetoed for an appointment in the Sudan by the Duke of Cambridge,
Burnaby arrived as a volunteer. He acted as Brigade Major with the
Suakin force, fighting at El Teb and wounded at Tamai. Again he
appeared as a volunteer when Wolseley’s force was dispatched to the
Sudan and accompanied the Camel Corps across the desert, apparently
holding a command at Abu Klea. Punch published a poem in
commemoration of Burnaby’s death. Burnaby was a keen balloonist,
crossing the Channel. He reported the Carlist Wars in Spain as a
journalist and wrote a book about his cross country ride to Khiva.
- Captain Piggott of the 21st Hussars, known as ‘Bloody minded
Piggott’ fought with a shot gun at Abu Klea.
- In Major General Sir Herbert Stewart, fatally wounded at Abu Kru
the day after Abu Klea, the British Army lost one of its rising
stars. Stewart had fought at Tel El Kebir and commanded the cavalry
brigade at El Teb and Tamai. Lord Wolseley described him as the best
staff officer he had encountered.
- 22 regiments provided the personnel (1,789 officers and men) for
the 4 regiments of the Camel Corps. An officer described the corps
as ‘London society on camels’. The corps fired the imagination of
late Victorian England and officers, many of them peers, unable to
serve in the campaign with their regiments, volunteered for the
Camel Corps. While the troops were meant to be the best available,
some regiments sent their throw-outs. The commanding officer of the
2nd Life Guards assigned the regiment’s drunks to the Camel Corps on
the basis that they would be unlikely to find alcohol in the desert.
- The Camel Corps caused enormous interest and comment in Britain.
It was referred to as the ‘Nile Circus’. Lord Wolseley fuelled the
mirth by ordering 1,000 white umbrellas to keep the desert sun off
the corps. The regimental march selected for the corps was the
Scottish air ‘The Campbells are coming’. This was transposed to ‘The
Camels are coming’.
- The Heavy Regiment of the Camel Corps was drawn from 10 regiments
of cavalry: 1st Life Guards, 2nd Life Guards, the Royal Horse
Guards, the 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen’s Bays), 4th Dragoon Guards,
5th Dragoon Guards, 1st Royal Dragoons, the 2nd Dragoons (Royal
Scots Greys), the 16th Lancers and the 5th Lancers.
- The 19th Hussars, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Barrow, was an
experienced regiment. The change from long service to short service
engagements had not bitten on the regiment due to its service
overseas, so that the average length of service of the soldiers was
7 years. The regiment fought at Tel El Kebir and with the Suakin
force commanded by General Graham at El Teb and Tamai. The regiment
was mounted on small wiry Syrian ponies of enormous stamina. At the
end of Abu Klea, General Stewart enquired as to why the 19th Hussars
had not charged the enemy. The reason was that the horses were
hungry, dehydrated and exhausted after the long march and the
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!"
The sand of the desert is sodden red, --
Royal Navy Gatling Gun team.
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 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
- England’s Pride by Julian Symons.
- War on the Nile by Michael Barthorp.
- A History of the British Cavalry by the Marquess of Anglesey,
- The River War by Winston Churchill.
- British Battles by Grant.