The First battle of Britain’s involvement in the Sudan during the 1880s; modern weapons used
from the square formation against Islamist tribesmen, essentially armed with spears and swords.
Battle: El Teb.
War: Sudan Campaign.
Date: 29th February 1884.
Place: The East of the Sudan near the Red Sea coast.
Combatants: A British Army against the Sudanese Jihadist Arabs in revolt against the Khedive.
Generals: Major General Graham against the Mahdi’s lieutenant, Osman Digna.
Size of the armies: British: 3,342 infantry, gunners and sappers, 864 cavalry and 28 guns. The size of the Mahdist army is unknown but was probably in the region of 15,000 tribesmen and defected Egyptian troops.
Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British infantry was armed with the Martini Henry single shot breech loading rifle and bayonet. The English infantry wore khaki drill. The Highlanders wore grey jackets and kilts. All wore pith helmets. The cavalry were armed with sword and carbine. The Mahdists carried the rifles they had captured from the various Egyptian detachments they had overwhelmed, and deployed the Khedive’s Krupp guns captured in the same way, but keeping the Egyptian gunners alive to man the guns. In addition, the Mahdists carried their traditional and more familiar weapons of the sword, spear and dagger. The Mahdists wore white robes patched with black cloth. They fought under their characteristic black flags. There was no Mahdist cavalry.
Winner: The British force.
The Black Watch storming the Mahdist earthworks at the Battle of El Teb
In 1881 a young Muslim boat builder’s apprentice named Mohammed Ahmed raised the standard of Jihadist revolt in the Sudan against the Khedive, proclaiming himself the ‘Mahdi’ or saviour. The revolt in the East of the Sudan was led by the Mahdi’s lieutenant, Osman Digna.
On 29th April 1883 the Mahdi’s army annihilated an Egyptian
force, commanded by a retired Bombay Army officer, Colonel Hicks, at
Kashgate. The remaining Egyptian garrisons, scattered across the
Sudan, lay at the mercy of the Mahdi and his tribesmen.
In January 1884 a British officer, Baker Pasha, took an Egyptian force to Suakin on the coast of the Persian Gulf to provide cover for a withdrawal of the Egyptian garrisons in the East of the Sudan. The force was annihilated by the Mahdists at
El Teb a few miles inland from a port called Trinkitat. The Mahdists moved on to besiege the other garrison towns in the area held by the Egyptians.
In January 1884 at the urging of the British Government, the Khedive appointed General Charles Gordon to oversee the evacuation of the Egyptian forces from the Sudan. General Gordon had acted as governor of the Sudan in the 1870s with considerable effect. Gordon traveled from London to Khartoum, the capital of the Sudan, arriving on 18th February 1884.
In the meanwhile a British army, commanded by Major General Graham, was dispatched from Egypt by ship down the Persian Gulf to land at Suakin and relieve the Egyptian garrison at Tokar, 50 miles to the South of Suakin.
General Graham’s force arrived at Suakin from 20th February 1884, the first regiment being the 10th Hussars. Other Royal Navy ships arrived with the remaining regiments. Once assembled, the force moved down the coast by ship to the lagoon of Trinkitat for the march to the relief of Tokar.
On 22nd February 1884 General Graham received information from a group of Egyptian soldiers that the governor of Tokar had surrendered to the Mahdi’s forces, his troops joining the rebels to avoid being massacred.
The British force moved inland between two patches of salt marsh
to occupy a position called Fort Baker, the scene of Baker Pasha’s
disaster the previous month: Colonel Baker was accompanying the
British force. On 29th February 1884 the infantry brigade formed a
square and began the advance to the hamlet of El Teb, some 2 ½ miles
inland along the track to Tokar, where Osman Digna’s Mahdists lay in
The front of the square was formed by the Gordon Highlanders and
the rear by the Black Watch, both in company columns of fours at
company intervals. The right flank was formed by the 2nd Royal Irish
Fusiliers and 3rd KRRC, the left flank by 1st York and Lancaster and
RMLI, all in open column of companies. The angles of the square were
filled by guns manned by Royal Artillery and Royal Navy personnel.
Colonel Buller commanded the infantry brigade. The only baggage
animals taken with the force carried spare ammunition. The cavalry,
10th and 19th Hussars and Mounted Infantry commanded by Colonel
Stewart, followed the square at a distance.
The British square halted
and the infantry were ordered to lie down while the guns and machine
guns fired on the Mahdists. The effect of this bombardment was to
silence the Krupps. The square stood up and continued its advance
under rifle fire. The British began to take casualties.
When the square was within two hundred yards or so of the earthworks, the Mahdist tribesmen abandoned their firearms and charged the square with spears and swords. Large numbers of the tribesmen were shot down by the infantry with rifle fire and by the Gardiner and Gatling guns of the Naval Brigade. None broke into the square.
Following this assault, the tribesmen fell back and the square reformed and resumed its advance.
At this point Colonel Stewart’s Cavalry Brigade advanced past the right flank of the square and charged the massed Mahdist tribesmen, leading to a confused struggle with the tribesmen in the broken country covered by thorn bushes. The cavalry suffered heavy casualties in the scrimmage.
As the British infantry reached the earthworks, the battalions moved out of square formation and, forming line, stormed the tribesmen’s positions at the point of the bayonet.
At around 1pm General Graham’s troops took the hamlet of El Teb and the Mahdists began to stream away into the surrounding country.
The Royal Navy contingent firing Gatling guns at the battle of El Teb
Casualties: The British casualties were 5 officers and 24 non-commissioned ranks killed and 17 officers and 142 non-commissioned ranks wounded. The Mahdists suffered around 2,500 killed and an unknown number wounded.
Follow-up: Following the battle General Graham continued his advance on Tokar. He fought one further major engagement, at Tamai, before being ordered back to Egypt, leaving General Charles Gordon to manage the crisis in Sudan with Egyptian resources.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
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 ‘El Teb’ for that medal. In the same way the Khedive Star was issued to those ranks that did not already have it.
• War on the Nile by Michael Barthorp.
• British Battles by Grant