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Battle of Omdurman, Episode 68 - 17/05/06

Overview

Battle Of Omdurman(Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Battle Of Omdurman
(Getty Images)
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The Battle of Omdurman started at first light on 2 September 1898. British, Egyptian and Sudanese troops under Sir Horatio Hebert Kitchener, later Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, defeated the Mahdist army that had ruled a large part of Egyptian Sudan since the Mahdi's rebellion in 1881. This was the same Madhi whose fighters had beheaded General Chinese Gordon in 1885. The Mahdi's died of natural causes in 1885 and his followers, under his successor Khalifa Abdullahi, established their capital at Omdurman.

Kitchener sought revenge for the circumstances of Gordon's death that had become a political scandale as well as restoring Sudan to Egypt. Kitchener's revenge was sweet and not entirely compatible with the heroic soul of Gordon, whom he revered. It was noted that many of the Khalifah's followers were summarily shot at the orders of John Maxwell, later General Sir John. It's said that he regarded a dead fanatic as the only one to which any sympathy might be extended.

The British tactic at Omdurman, was the late 19th century version of shock and awe. The Dervishes were well armed, but Kitchener's army had artillery from gunboats in the Nile and the latest in machine gunning. It would certainly seem that this uncompromising firepower decided the battle and so the destruction.

By 24 August, Kitchener had about 26,000 men plus twelve gun boats whose fire power would be crucial to bombarding both Omdurman and the 40,000 or so Dervish fighters. Yet, at a crucial point in the battle it seemed Kitchener's army was separating.

The army still talks of brigadier general Hector Macdonald who ignored Kitchener's orders and saved the day. Kitchener trusted him to do both. If he had not? The British army might not have won the battle. The death of Kitchener's hero, General Gordon of Khartoum would have remained unavenged and Egypt would not have recovered Sudan. Back to top

Historical Figure

Lord Kitchener (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Lord Kitchener
(Getty Images)
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Lord Kitchener (1850-1916)

Horatio Herbert Kitchener, known as Earl Kitchener of Khartoum (and of Broome). Born in Ireland and educated in Switzerland before joining the RMA Woolwich and then being commissioned into the Royal Engineers (as was Gordon). He was in the army survey group that mapped & charted Palestine and Cyprus (1874-82). Between 1883 and 1885 he was in the Sudan campaign and in 1890, Kitchener became sardar (also sirdar) the commander of the Egyptian army that by the Battle of Omdurman retrieved the Sudan for Egypt. He brought about the end of the Boer War (1902) and when C-in-C India notoriously fell out with the viceroy, Curzon & was partly responsible for his downfall. In June 1916 he was killed in HMS Hampshire when she was mined off the Orkneys.

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Did You Know...

In Omdurman there was the domed tomb of the Mahdi, as a symbol of his proclaimed jihad against all unbelievers and their collaborators. The Royal Navy flotilla moored midstream in the Nile and took range on the tomb. On the single command fire, the naval gunners systematically planted shell after shell on the tomb of the Mahdi reducing it to rubble. This was one of revolutionary Islam's most important shrines and its destruction has not been forgotton.

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Contemporary Sources

The Battle of Omdurman
Winston Churchill's account of the famous charge of the twenty first Lancers in which he took part..

"We had not accomplished more than a mile, when about a hundred enormous vultures joined us, and henceforth they accompanied the 21st Lancers, flying or waddling lazily from bush to bush, and always looking back at the horsemen. Throughout the Sudan it is believed that this portends ill-fortune, and that the troops over which vultures circle will suffer heavy losses. Although the ominous nature of the event was not known to us, officers and men alike were struck by the strange and unusual occurrence; and it was freely asserted that these birds of prey knew that two armies were approaching each other, and that this meant a battle, and hence a feast. It would be difficult to assign limitations to the possibilities of instinct. The sceptic must at least admit that the vultures guessed aright, even if they did not know."

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