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The Battle of Tamai

General Graham’s second defeat of the Mahdist insurgents under Osman Digna.

Battle: Tamai.

War: Sudan Campaign.

Date: 13th March 1884.

Place: The East of the Sudan near the Red Sea coast.

Combatants: A British Army against the Sudanese Jihadists in revolt against the Khedive; mostly Hadendoa tribesmen.

Generals: Major General Graham against the Mahdi’s lieutenant, Osman Digna.

An incident at the Battle of Tamai; picture by Geoffrey Douglas Giles.

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 8,000 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.

Osman Digna’s Mahdist army had, at the Battle of El Teb, lost many of the rifles and guns captured from the Khedive’s Egyptian troops. Following El Teb more Sudanese tribesmen joined his army to fight the infidel British. These new recruits carried their traditional weapons of spears, swords and knives. The British knew that the next battle would be fought, not with long range rifle and gun fire, but in the traditional Sudanese manner of charges on foot armed with these weapons.

Royal Marine Light Infantry
A Royal Marine Light Infantry at the Battle of
Tamai. Illustration by Charles Stadden.
Click image to enlarge

Winner: The British force.

British Regiments:
10th Hussars
19th Hussars
Mounted Infantry
Royal Artillery with six 7 pounders, ten mountain guns and four 9 centimetre Krupp guns.
Naval Brigade; 162 men with two 9 pounders, six Gatlings and Gardiner guns.
1st Battalion Black Watch
3rd Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps
1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders
2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers
1st Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment
Royal Marine Light Infantry
Royal Engineers

The Battle of Tamai
The Battle of Tamai on 13th March 1884, 1884, a painting by Melton Prior.
Click here or image to buy on-line


Following the Battle of El Teb it had been the expectation of the British commander, Major General Graham, that the Sudanese in rebellion against the Khedive under Osman Digna would capitulate and surrender the guns and rifles they had taken from the defeated Egyptian army troops they had defeated in battle, or captured from surrendered garrisons. Graham was mistaken. Osman Digna sent a number of defiant and threatening messages that made it clear that he fully intended to continue the revolt in the name of the Mahdi.

General Charles Gordon, now in Khartoum, was urging General Graham to continue his operations against Osman Digna.

The British army in the zeriba
The British army in the zeriba the night
before the Battle of Tamai. Illustration
by F Villiers reporter for the Graphic
Click image to enlarge

General Graham and Admiral Hewitt were forced to abandon the plan to withdraw the British force to Egypt and instead to advance inland from Suakin to attack Osman Digna’s camp at Tamai.

The first step was to dispatch the Black Watch to occupy a zeriba (a thorn branch enclosure) built inland by Baker Pasha earlier in the year for his Egyptian troops, subsequently annihilated by Osman Digna, which lay within a few miles of the Sudanese camp.

On 12th March 1884 the rest of General Graham’s force marched into the zeriba to join the Black Watch. During that night the British troops were kept on edge by a desultory rifle fire from a group of around 150 skirmishers who circled the zeriba. The most prominent targets were the British hospital wagons, so those mainly harassed by the fire were the medical staff.

At 8am on 13th March 1884 the British force paraded for the advance to attack Osman Digna’s camp, some 2 miles distant.

The 2nd Brigade square under heavy attack in Tamai
The 2nd Brigade square under heavy attack
in the distance. The 1st Brigade square in the
right foreground. Illustration by F Villiers
reporter for the Graphic. Click image to enlarge

Two brigade squares were formed with the 2nd Brigade leading and the 1st Brigade marching on a path behind and to the right of the 2nd Brigade.

The leading 2nd Brigade comprised 1st Black Watch, 2nd York and Lancaster, the RMLI and the Naval Brigade with Gardiner and Gatling guns, the brigade commanded by General Davis. The 1st Brigade comprised 1st Gordon Highlanders, 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers and 3rd KRRC and was commanded by Colonel Redvers Buller. General Graham and his staff accompanied the leading 2nd Brigade.

The British cavalry, which had been reconnoitring the Sudanese positions, fell back behind the 2nd Brigade.

The 2nd Brigade square under heavy attack. The Royal Navy
gatling gun in the foreground. . Illustration by F Villiers
reporter for the Graphic. Click image to enlarge

The Mahdists could be seen in the scrub ahead of the squares, skirmishers to the front and the main force in the camp to the rear.
The going for the British troops was difficult, the path being intersected by gullies containing dried water courses.

The ground was broken by thorn bushes. 2 squadrons of British cavalry moved forward on the left and engaged the Mahdists with dismounted rifle fire, until, under threat of being overrun, they withdrew.

The British square after the Battle of Tamai
The British square after the Battle of Tamai.
Illustration by F Villiers reporter for the Graphic.
Click image to enlarge

The 2nd Brigade came into contact with the Mahdists and fire was opened as the brigade square continued to advance. The brigade then found itself on the edge of a wide deep gully. The sides of the square were being subjected to repeated and increasingly threatening rushes by the Mahdists. The fire discipline of the troops began to deteriorate. Smoke from the rifle fire with the dust from the dry plain, stirred up by the numbers of men rushing about, made visibility difficult. The front face of the brigade square moved down into the ravine, but the men forming the sides of the square failed to conform fully to the movement so that the continuity of the square was broken and it began to disintegrate.

The Mahdists launched an attack on the right face of the square, comprising 2nd York and Lancaster, which halted to give fire, while the front face of the square continued to advance. The York and Lancaster fell back on the RMLI and the two battalions became intertwined and disordered. The Black Watch, now thrown into confusion, fell back into the square and the brigade was forced to retreat, pressed hard by the attacking tribesmen. 3 Royal Navy guns had to be abandoned and casualties were mounting. The tribesmen took some of the Gatling and Gardiner guns.

The British square after the Battle of Tamai
The Sudanese with the Gatling Gun captured after the 2nd Brigade square broke - Painting by Douglas Giles.

Colonel Buller’s 1st Brigade now came up on the right of the 2nd Brigade to the lip of the ravine. Not until now engaged and in good order, Buller’s battalions opened a heavy fire on the Mahdist tribesmen. The 2nd Brigade was reformed by General Graham and his staff, fresh supplies of ammunition being brought forward. The brigade, with the Black Watch taking the lead, moved back to engage the

Mahdists at the edge of the ravine, retaking the abandoned guns.

A party of tribesmen launched an attack from concealed positions in a neighbouring gully, but were shot down by the British troops, now well in hand.

The two brigades opened a heavy fire on the Mahdists who were withdrawing across the ravine and up the far bank.

With the 1st Brigade providing supporting fire the 2nd Brigade stormed across the ravine. The brigades reformed on the far bank of the ravine and moved into the valley to occupy Osman Digna’s camp.

The 1st Battalion Black Watch and 1st Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment
The 1st Battalion Black Watch and 1st Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment
in the 2nd Brigade square at the Battle of Tamai. Painting by Douglas Giles.

The Mahdists continued to resist the advance but were finally dispersed by artillery fire. The battle was over, leaving Osman Digna’s camp in British hands to be burnt by Colonel Buller’s brigade.

Casualties: British casualties were 6 officers and 105 non-commissioned ranks killed with 8 officers and 103 non-commissioned ranks wounded. British estimates put the Sudanese dead at 2,000. The number of wounded was unknown.

Follow-up: It was General Graham’s intention to follow up his two successes, at El Teb and Tamai, by sending his cavalry across country to Berber on the Nile, but he was ordered by the British Government to disembark his force and return to Egypt, leaving a garrison in Suakin.

Graham’s force had one last action with Osman Digna’s tribesmen at Tamanieb before leaving the Sudan for Egypt.
General Gordon was left to manage the deteriorating situation in the Sudan with only Egyptian resources.

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
2 Victoria Crosses were awarded for the Battle of Tamai: one to Lieutenant Scroope Marling of 3rd KRRC, serving with the Mounted Infantry, for rescuing a private soldier who was wounded and dismounted during the attack. The second VC went to Private Edwards of the Black Watch for vigorously defending the mules he was in charge of and assisting his gun team to bring their gun into action.

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, --
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 Honor 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

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.
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!"  

Decorations: 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 ‘Tamai’ for that medal. In the same way the Khedive Star was issued to those ranks that did not already have it.