Omdurman was a transitional event, linking 19th Century tactics with modern technology to overcome an enemy armed chiefly with spears and swords.
In early September 1898, General H.H. Kitchener, commanding at Omdurman in the African Sudan, informed his government that, “The remnant of the Khalifa’s forces has surrendered, and I have now a very large number of prisoners on my hands.” Omdurman was located up the Nile River, across from Khartoum where Major-General Charles Gordon had been killed by the Mahdist forces fourteen years earlier. Kitchener, at that time, was part of the relief operation led by Viscount Garnett Wolsey. The expedition arrived too late; Omdurman was to be the long awaited act of revenge. Yet Omdurman was also a transitional object lesson perpetuating the belief of European superiority.
Avenging Governor-General Charles Gordon of Khartoum
General Gordon had returned to the Sudan to confront the Mahdi, whose personal ambitions rested on Islamic mysticism and posed a serious threat to Egyptian hegemony over the vast expanse of desert. It would not be until Kitchener’s victory at Omdurman in 1898, however, that, as the London Times postulated, the territory would be re-opened, “to the benefits of peace, civilization, and good government.”
Following the death of Gordon and the destruction of Khartoum, the Mahdi himself died, succeeded by the Khalifa Abdullahi, who turned the fort at Omdurman into a citadel housing his palace and the tomb of the Mahdi. According to writer Philip Ziegler, Omdurman was “Africa’s largest slum.” Kitchener’s army, composed of a well-trained Egyptian contingent as well as the British Brigade, began the long and arduous march up the Nile to Omdurman, vastly outnumbered by the dervishes. But, as Ziegler writes, “…arithmetic counted for nothing in the fierce joy of battle.”
Omdurman Victory Attributed to Several Factors
As a transitional event, Omdurman would witness a heroic cavalry charge by the 21st Lancers, as well as the use of heavily armed gunboats and a significant advantage in artillery. The London Times correspondent pointed out that the siege of Khartoum several years earlier lasted 317 days; the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean conflict took slightly over 300 days. Omdurman fell after five hours. This can be attributed to Kitchener’s planning as well as modern weaponry.
Kitchener’s success was due to excellent planning as well as moments of good luck. The Khalifa, for example, was frequently guided by dreams. These dreams caused him to withdraw his troops from points along the Nile such as Berber, concentrating his men at Omdurman. Further, the battle would be fought on the Kerreri plain rather than a house-to-house battle within the city.
A notable exception was Atbara. 20,000 dervishes took part in the battle of Atbara under Emir Mahmoud. It was a foolish move. Sandhurst military historian Philip Warner argues that had those 20,000 men been available at Omdurman, “the outcome of that critical battle might well have been different.”
Role of the Forces under Kitchener’s Command
Both Egyptian and British forces were eager to fight. According to the London Times, the lesson of Omdurman showed that British soldiers “will go anywhere and do anything.” Lt. General Francis Grenfell, commander of the British contingent, wrote that, “…never, in the course of my service, have I seen a finer body of troops than the British contingent…as regards physique, smartness, and soldier like bearing.” (The London Gazette, September 30, 1898) To this must be added the contributions of loyalist Sudanese units.
Detractors like the young Lt. Winston Churchill, involved in his first conflict, showed their arrogance with criticism of Kitchener and fellow officers. Churchill became a life-long critic of Kitchener, attempting to blame the later Field Marshall in 1915 for Churchill’s own debacle at Gallipoli in Turkey. In Egypt, Kitchener had been selected to command over much older and seasoned officers, but had the confidence of Sir Evelyn Baring, Britain’s proconsul in Cairo.
Kitchener’s Success at Omdurman Assisted by Modern Technology
Victory at Omdurman was achieved by daring and bravery, but not without the presence of gunboats. This firepower saved the Camel Corps from almost sure annihilation, an action that could have altered the battle outcome. To this must be added the actions of Lt. Colonel H.A. Macdonald, whose native brigade managed to hold the line against an unforeseen mass of dervishes, as well as the charge of the 21st Lancers. By the afternoon of that fateful day, the Khalifa’s power was broken as he fled in disguise to the south.
Omdurman had all of the elements of a modern battle: the use of railroads, superior firepower, artillery placement, and gunboats specifically designed for the conflict. Unlike Islawanda or the much earlier devastation of Hicks Pasha in the Sudan desert, few British lives were lost but thousands of dervishes lay before the Khalifa’s capital in great bleeding piles. The British euphoria reinforced the notion of western superiority, a belief still held today in the technological war against Middle East extremists.
Gordon is Memorialized
Gordon was avenged with the fall of Omdurman. A memorial service was conducted in Khartoum with the 11th Sudanese band playing Gordon’s favorite hymn, “Abide with Me.” It was the same hymn played at the memorial service for Kitchener in 1916 after he died aboard the HMS Hampshire. With Omdurman achieved, Kitchener turned his attention southward to confront French incursions into British-claimed territory. Carving up Africa would continue as European powers used their technology to expand empires.