“…the sacred Black banner of the Khalifa floated high and remarkable.” (Winston S. Churchill*)
European countries had very sophisticated armies, war industries and logistical understanding of warfare: war was a profession for Europeans. European wars were intensely competitive as witnessed by the Crimean War (1854-6) and the three Prussian Wars leading to the formation of Germany (1871). When Europeans went to war with non- Europeans they usually resulted in bloodbaths. Technology and military expertise decided the victory. And so it was with the battle of Omdurman. So why is Omdurman worth reviewing?
Sudan in 1898 had no strategic importance. It had no natural resources (oil hadn’t been discovered yet), but it was a vacant spot in the great European ‘Scramble for Africa’. For the British it filled in the space running north – south, for the French it would have completed the east – west French African Empire. The British also had a further motive: vengeance. The British had suffered defeat by the Mahdi in 1885 with the ‘glorious’ death of General Gordon in Khartoum. There was an understanding that the army of the Mahdi, (Dervishes) was a formidable enemy and Kipling described them as ‘first class fighting men’. All of this was more than sufficient for nineteenth century British Imperialists.
The plan created and implemented by Kitchener was ruthlessly effective. Although the Anglo- Egyptian army** was out – numbered, he knew this was irrelevant given his technological advantages. The Anglo – Egyptian army was a formidable modern force. A military railroad was built to carry gunboats, artillery and munitions. This railroad was built at the impressive speed of three miles a day. Once in place at Omdurman the battle commenced. British ‘maxim’ guns slaughtered the gallant Mahdi warriors, gunboats poured artillery shells down on their placements and there was a cavalry charge of some importance. It was a classic cavalry charge where the cavalrymen failed, but failed gallantly, winning a total of three VCs. Kitchener had planned the entire campaign around the idea of avoiding close order battles, which he felt levelled the opportunities in favour of the Dervishes. However, slaughtering ‘natives’ with maxim guns and shells was unheroic, unBritish and definitely didn’t attract medals, despite the fact that they won the battle.
Kitchener’s army lost about 50 dead*** and the Mahdi lost 11,000 dead along with 16,000 wounded. G. W. Steevens, an observer at the battle, described the Mahdi’s tactics as, “A masterpiece of imbecility.”**** But he missed the point. The followers of the Mahdi were fighting a religious war because the Mahdi is The Guided One: a prophesised redeemer of Islam who will rid the world of evil. The Mahdi’s followers knew they could only win. Either they won on the battlefield or they went to Heaven as dead righteous warriors. Churchill got it right-
Yet they rose again immediately, as other men pressed forward to die for the sacred cause of the Mahdi’s and in defence of the True Prophet. It was a terrible sight*****.
The Mahdi explains why Omdurman is of continuing importance. Analysing religious warfare is exceptionally subtle because the timescale isn’t obvious. Islam cannot be defeated because the concept of Jihad is a core belief. ‘Today’ is an eternal concept. For Islam ‘Today’ is reiterated meaning that as long as Islam survives, defence of the True Prophet trumps all other considerations. ISIS in Iraq and Syria uses the Black Flag as it sweeps into battle. Only now they use motorised vehicles, not horseback.
*Winston S. Churchill The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan, (1902)** 23,000 men of whom one third were British; the Mahdi numbered about 45,000. So they suffered about 25% deaths, plus a further 35% non- fatal casualties.
*** Including 30 British soldiers
**** G W Steevens, With Kitchener to Khartoum (1898)