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The Mahdist War was a colonial war of the late 19th century. It was fought between the Mahdist Sudanesemarker and the Egyptianmarker and later Britishmarker forces. It has also been called the Anglo-Sudan War or the Sudanese Mahdist Revolt. The British have called their part in the conflict the Sudan Campaign. It was vividly described by Winston Churchill (who took part in its concluding stages) in The River War.

The Mahdist revolt

Following the invasion by Muhammed Ali in 1819, Sudan was governed by an Egyptian administration. This colonial system was resented by the Sudanese people, because of the heavy taxes it imposed and because of Egyptian attempts to end the slave trade. In the 1870s, a Muslim cleric named Muhammad Ahmad preached renewal of the faith and liberation of the land, and began attracting followers. Soon in open revolt against the Egyptians, Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the promised redeemer of the Islamic world. The then-governor of the Sudan, Raouf Pasha, sent two companies of infantry with one machine gun to arrest him. The captains of the two companies were each promised promotion if their soldiers were the ones to return the Mahdi to the governor. Both companies disembarked from the steamer that had brought them up the Nile to Abba and approached the Mahdi's village from separate directions. Arriving simultaneously, each force began to fire blindly on the other, allowing the Mahdi's scant followers to attack and destroy each force in turn.

The Mahdi then began a strategic retreat to Kordofan, where he was at a greater distance from the seat of government in Khartoummarker. This movement, couched as a triumphal progress, incited many of the Arab tribes to rise in support of the Jihad the Mahdi had declared against the "Turkish oppressors". Another Egyptian expedition dispatched from Fashodamarker was ambushed and slaughtered on the night of December 9.

The Egyptian administration in the Sudan, now thoroughly concerned by the scale of the uprising, assembled a force of four thousand troops under Yusef Pasha. This force approached the Mahdist gathering, whose members were poorly clothed, half starving, and armed only with sticks and stones. However, supreme overconfidence led the Egyptian army into camping within sight of the Mahdist 'army' without posting sentries. The Mahdi led a dawn assault on June 7 which slaughtered the army to a man. The rebels gained vast stores of arms and ammunition, military clothing and other supplies.

The Hicks Expedition

With the Egyptian government now passing largely under British control (See History of modern Egypt), the European powers became increasingly aware of the troubles in the Sudan. The British advisers to the Egyptian government gave tacit consent for another expedition. Throughout the summer of 1883, Egyptian troops were concentrated at Khartoum, eventually reaching the strength of 7,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, 20 machine guns, and artillery. This force was placed under the command of a retired British Indian Staff Corps officer William Hicks and twelve European officers. The force was, in the words of Winston Churchill, "perhaps the worst army that has ever marched to war" - unpaid, untrained, undisciplined and whose soldiers had more in common with their enemies than their officers.

El Obeidmarker, the city whose siege Hicks had intended to relieve, had already fallen by the time the expedition left Khartoum, but Hicks continued anyway, although not confident of his chances of success. Upon his approach, the Mahdi assembled an army of about 40,000 men and drilled them rigorously in the art of war, equipping them with the arms and ammunition captured in previous battles. By the time Hicks' forces actually offered battle, the Mahdist army was a credible military force, which utterly annihilated the opposition at the battle of El Obeid.

Evacuation

At this time, the British Empire was increasingly entrenching itself in the workings of the Egyptianmarker government. Egypt was groaning under a barely maintainable debt repayment structure for her enormous European debt. For the Egyptian government to avoid further interference from its European creditors, it had to ensure that the debt interest was paid on time, every time. To this end, the Egyptian treasury, initially crippled by corruption and bureaucracy, was placed by the British almost entirely under the control of a 'Financial Advisor', who exercised the power of veto over all matters of financial policy. The holders of this office, firstly Sir Auckland Colvin, and later Sir Edgar Vincent , were instructed to exercise the greatest possible parsimony in Egypt's financial affairs. Maintaining the garrisons in the Sudan was costing the Egyptian government over 100,000 Egyptian pounds a year, an unmaintainable expense.

Charles Gordon as Governor of the Sudan
It was therefore decided by the Egyptian government, under some coercion by their British controllers, that the Egyptian presence in the Sudan should be withdrawn and the country left to some form of self-government, likely headed by the Mahdi. The withdrawal of the Egyptian garrisons stationed throughout the country was therefore threatened unless it was conducted in an orderly fashion. The Egyptian government asked for a British officer to be sent to the Sudan to co-ordinate the withdrawal of the garrisons. It was hoped that Mahdist forces would judge an attack on a British citizen to be too great a risk, and hence allow the withdrawal to proceed without incident. It was proposed to send Charles 'Chinese' Gordon. Gordon was an extremely gifted officer who had distinguished himself in several campaigns in the Far East, particularly Chinamarker (See the Second Opium War). However, he was also renowned for his aggression and rigid personal honour which, in the eyes of several prominent British officials in Egypt, made him unsuitable for the task. Sir Evelyn Baring (later the Earl of Cromer), the British Consul-general in Egypt, was particularly opposed to Gordon's appointment, only reluctantly being won over by the British press and public. Gordon was eventually given the mission, but he was to be accompanied by the much more levelheaded and reliable Colonel John Stewart. It was intended that Stewart, while nominally Gordon's subordinate, would act as a brake on the latter and ensure that the Sudan was evacuated quickly and peacefully.

Gordon left Englandmarker on 18 January and arrived in Cairomarker on the evening of the 24th. Gordon was largely responsible for drafting his own orders, along with proclamations from the Khedive announcing Egypt's intentions to leave the Sudan. Gordon's orders, by his own request, were extremely unequivocal and left little room for misinterpretation.

Gordon arrived in Khartoum on 18 February, and immediately became apprised with the vast difficulty of the task. Egypt's garrisons were scattered widely across the country, three (Sennarmarker, Tokar and Sinkat) were under siege, and the majority of the territory between them was under the control of the Mahdi. There was no guarantee that, if the garrisons were to sortie, even with the clear intention of withdrawing, they would not be cut to pieces by the Mahdist forces. Khartoum's Egyptian and European population was greater than all the other garrisons combined, including 7,000 Egyptian troops, 27,000 civilians, and the staffs of several embassies. Although the pragmatic approach would have been to secure the safety of the Khartoum garrison and abandon the outlying fortifications, with their troops, to the Mahdi, Gordon became increasingly reluctant to leave the Sudan until "every one who wants to go down [the Nile] is given the chance to do so", feeling it would be a slight on his honour to abandon any Egyptian soldiers to the Mahdi. He also became increasingly fearful of the Mahdi's potential to cause trouble in Egypt if allowed control of the Sudan, leading to a conviction that the Mahdi must be "crushed", by British troops if necessary, to assure the stability of the region. It is debated whether or not Gordon deliberately remained in Khartoum longer than strategically sensible, seemingly intent on becoming besieged within the town. Gordon's father, H. W. Gordon, was of the opinion that the British officers could easily have escaped from Khartoum up until December 14, 1884.

Whether or not it was the Mahdi's intention, in March 1883, the Sudanese tribes to the north of Khartoum, who had previously been sympathetic or at least neutral towards the Egyptian authorities, rose in support of the Mahdi. The telegraph lines between Khartoum and Cairomarker were cut on March 15, severing communication with the outside world.

Siege of Khartoum

Gordon's position in Khartoum was very strong, as the city was bordered to the north and east by the Blue Nilemarker, to the west by the White Nile, and to the south by ancient fortifications looking on to a vast expanse of desert. Gordon had food for an estimated six months, several million rounds of ammunition in store, with the capacity to produce a further 50,000 rounds per week, and 7,000 Egyptian soldiers. However, outside the walls, the Mahdi had mustered about 50,000 Dervish soldiers, and as time went on, the chances of a successful breakout became slim. Gordon by degrees considered:
  • Making a breakout southwards along the Blue Nile towards Abyssinia (now Ethiopiamarker), which would have enabled him to collect the garrisons stationed along that route. However, the window for navigation of the upper reaches of that river was very narrow.
  • Requesting that a notorious former slaver, Pasha Zobeir, be sent to Khartoum in an attempt to incite a popular uprising against the Mahdi.
  • Requesting the services of several thousand Turkish troops be sent to quell the uprising.
Eventually, it became impossible for Gordon to be relieved without British troops. An expedition was duly dispatched under Sir Garnet Wolseley. However, as the level of the White Nile fell through the winter, muddy 'beaches' at the foot of the walls were exposed. With starvation and cholera rampant in the city and the morale of the Egyptian troops shattered, Gordon's position became untenable and the city fell on January 25, 1885, after a siege of 313 days.

The Nile Campaign

The British Government, reluctantly and late, but under strong pressure from public opinion, sent a relief column under Sir Garnet Wolseley to relieve the Khartoum garrison. This was described in some British papers as the 'Gordon Relief Expedition', a title which Gordon strongly objected to. After defeating the Mahdists at Abu Klea, the column arrived within sight of Khartoum, only to find they were too late: the city had fallen two days earlier, and Gordon and the garrison had been massacred. These events temporarily ended British and Egyptian involvement in Sudan, which passed completely under the control of the Mahdists.

The Mahdist period

Muhammad Ahmad died soon after his victory in 1885, and was succeeded by the Khalifa Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, who proved to be an able, albeit ruthless, ruler of the Mahdiyah (or the Mahdist state).

The return of the British

In the intervening years, Egypt had not renounced her claims over Sudan, and the British authorities considered that claim legitimate. Under strict control by British administrators, Egypt's economy had been rebuilt, and the Egyptian army reformed, this time trained and led by British officers and non-commissioned officers. The situation evolved in a way that allowed Egypt, both politically and militarily to reconquer Sudan.

In 1891, a Catholic priest, Father Joseph Ohrwalder escaped from captivity in Sudan. Later, in 1895, the erstwhile Governor of Darfur, Rudolf von Slatin, managed to escape from the Khalifa's prison. Besides providing vital intelligence on the Mahdist dispositions, both men wrote detailed accounts of their experiences in Sudan. Written in collaboration of Reginald Wingate, a proponent of the reconquest of Sudan, both works emphasized the savagery and barbarism of the Mahdists, and through the wide publicity they received in Britain, served to influence public opinion in favour of military intervention.

In 1896, when Italy suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Ethiopians at Adwamarker, the Italian position in East Africa was seriously weakened. With the Mahdists threatening Kassalamarker, the British government judged it politic to assist the Italians, by making a military demonstration in northern Sudan. This coincided with the increased threat of French encroachment on the Upper Nilemarker regions. Lord Cromer, judging that the Conservative and Unionist government in power would favour taking the offensive, managed to extend the demonstration into a fully-fledged invasion.

Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the new Sirdar (commander) of the Anglo-Egyptian Army, received his marching orders on March 12, and his forces entered Sudan on the 18th. Numbering at first eleven thousand men, Kitchener's force was armed with most modern military equipment of the time, including Maxim machine-guns, modern artillery and was supported by a flotilla of gunboats on the Nile. Their advance was slow and methodical, while fortified camps were built along the way, and the railway was extended from Wadi Halfamarker into Sudan, in order to supply the army. Thus, it was only on June 7 that the first serious engagement of the campaign occurred, when Kitchener led a nine-thousand strong force that wiped out the Mahdist garrison at Ferkeh.

In 1898, in the context of the scramble for Africa, the British decided to reassert Egypt's claim on Sudan. An expedition, commanded by Kitchener, was organised in Egypt. It was composed of 8,200 British soldiers and 17,600 Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers commanded by British officers. To supply their advance, the British built a railway from Egypt. The Mahdist forces (sometimes called the Dervishes), were more numerous, numbering more than 60,000 warriors, but lacked modern weapons.

After defeating a Mahdist force in the Battle of Atbara in April 1898, the Anglo-Egyptians reached Omdurman, the Mahdist capital in September. The bulk of the Mahdist army attacked, but was cut down by British machine-guns and rifle fire.

The remnant, with the Khalifa Abdullah, fled to southern Sudan. During the pursuit, Kitchener's forces met a French force under Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand at Fashodamarker, resulting in the Fashoda Incidentmarker. They finally caught up with Abdullah at Umm Diwaykarat, where he was killed, effectively ending the Mahdist regime.

The casualties for this campaign were:

Sudan: 30,000 dead, wounded or captured

Britain: 700+ British, Egyptian and Sudanese dead, wounded or captured.

Aftermath

The British set up a new colonial system, the Anglo-Egyptian administration, which effectively established British domination over Sudan. This ended only with the independence of Sudan in 1956.

Films

The Mahdist War provided the backdrop for the numerous film versions of The Four Feathers, a novel by A. E. W. Mason.

It was also the subject of the 1890 Kipling novel The Light That Failed, which was made into a film in 1939 starring Ronald Colman and Walter Huston.

General Gordon was portrayed in the 1966 movie Khartoum by Charlton Heston, with Muhammad Ahmad played by Laurence Olivier.

See also



References

  1. Ibid
  2. Ibid, p18
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid, p86
  5. Strachey, Lytton (1918), Eminent Victorians[1], p.96
  6. - 34,000 total population, including soldiers
  7. Ibid p567
  8. Journals lx
  9. Journals at Khartoum, p73, 2,242,000 in store, 3,240,770 expended to 12/03/84-22/09/84
  10. Journals at Khartoum, p44
  11. Churchill, pp. 89-106
  12. Churchill, p.99
  13. Churchill, p.101
  14. Churchill, p.137



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