Winston Churchill: The River War IX

    An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan (1902 edition)

TABLE OF CONTENTS


CHAPTER IX: ABU HAMED

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
The last chapter carried the account of the war forward at express speed. The reader, who had already on the railway reached the Atbara encampment and was prepared for the final advance on Khartoum, must allow his mind to revert to a period when the Egyptian forces are distributed along the river in garrisons at Dongola, Debba, Korti, and Merawi; when the reorganisation of the conquered province has been begun; and when the Desert Railway is still stretching steadily forward towards Abu Hamed.

The news of the fall of Dongola created a panic in Omdurman. Great numbers of Arabs, believing that the Khalifa's power was about to collapse, fled from the city. All business was at a standstill. For several days there were no executions. Abdullah himself kept his house, and thus doubtfully concealed his vexation and alarm from his subjects. On the fifth day, however, having recovered his own confidence, he proceeded to the mosque, and after the morning prayer ascended his small wooden pulpit and addressed the assembled worshippers. After admitting the retreat of the Dervishes under Wad Bishara, he enlarged on the losses the 'Turks' had sustained and described their miserable condition. He deplored the fact that certain of the Jehadia had surrendered, and reminded his listeners with a grim satisfaction of the horrible tortures which it was the practice of the English and Egyptians to inflict upon their captives. He bewailed the lack of faith in God which had allowed even the meanest of the Ansar to abandon the Jehad against the infidel, and he condemned the lack of piety which disgraced the age. But he proclaimed his confidence in the loyalty of his subjects and his enjoyment of the favour of God and the counsels of the late Mahdi; and having by his oratory raised the fanatical multitude to a high pitch of excitement, he thus concluded his long harangue: 'It is true that our chiefs have retired from Dongola. Yet they are not defeated. Only they that disobeyed me have perished. I instructed the faithful to refrain from fighting and return to Metemma. It was by my command that they have done what they have done. For the angel of the Lord and the spirit of the Mahdi have warned me in a vision that the souls of the accursed Egyptians and of the miserable English shall leave their bodies between Dongola and Omdurman, at some spot which their bones shall whiten. Thus shall the infidels be conquered.' Then, drawing his sword, he cried with a loud voice: 'Ed din mansur! The religion is victorious! Islam shall triumph!' Whereupon the worshippers, who to the number of 20,000 filled the great quadrangle—although they could not all hear his voice—saw his sword flashing in the sunlight, and with one accord imitated him, waving their swords and spears, and raising a mighty shout of fury and defiance. When the tumult had subsided, the Khalifa announced that those who did not wish to remain faithful might go where they liked, but that he for his part would remain, knowing that God would vindicate the faith. Public confidence was thus restored.

In order that the divine favour might be assisted by human effort, Abdullah adopted every measure or precaution that energy or prudence could suggest. At first he seems to have apprehended that the Sirdar's army would advance at once upon Omdurman, following the route of the Desert Column in 1885 from Korti to Metemma. He therefore ordered Osman Azrak—in spite of his severe wound—to hold Abu Klea Wells with the survivors of his flag. Bishara, who had rallied and reorganised the remains of the Dongola army, was instructed to occupy Metemma, the headquarters of the Jaalin. Messengers were despatched to the most distant garrisons to arrange for a general concentration upon Omdurman. The Emir Ibrahim Khalil was recalled from the Ghezira, or the land between the Blue and White Niles, and with his force of about 4,000 Jehadia and Baggara soon reached the city. Another chief, Ahmed Fedil, who was actually on his way to Gedaref, was ordered to return to the capital. Thither also Osman Digna repaired from Adarama. But it appears that the Khalifa only required the advice of that wily councillor, for he did not reduce the number of Dervishes in the small forts along the line of the Atbara—Ed Darner, Adarama, Asubri, El Fasher—and after a short visit and a long consultation Osman Digna returned to his post at Adarama. Last of all, but not least in importance, Mahmud, who commanded the 'Army of the West,' was ordered to leave very reduced garrisons in Kordofan and Darfur, and march with his whole remaining force, which may have numbered 10,000 fighting men, to the Nile, and so to Omdurman. Mahmud, who was as daring and ambitious as he was conceited and incapable, received the summons with delight, and began forthwith to collect his troops.

The Khalifa saw very clearly that he could not trust the riverain tribes. The Jaalin and Barabra were discontented. He knew that they were weary of his rule and of war. In proportion as the Egyptian army advanced, so their loyalty and the taxes they paid decreased. He therefore abandoned all idea of making a stand at Berber. The Emir Yunes—who, since he had been transferred from Dongola in 1895, had ruled the district—was directed to collect all the camels, boats, grain, and other things that might assist an invading army and send them to Metemma. The duty was most thoroughly performed. The inhabitants were soon relieved of all their property and of most of their means of livelihood, and their naturally bitter resentment at this merciless treatment explains to some extent the astonishing events which followed the capture of Abu Hamed. This last place Abdullah never regarded as more than an outpost. Its garrison was not large, and although it had now become the most northerly Dervish position, only a slender reinforcement was added to the force under the command of Mohammed-ez-Zein.

The power of the gunboats and their effect in the Dongola campaign were fully appreciated by the Arabs; and the Khalifa, in the hopes of closing the Sixth Cataract, began to construct several forts at the northern end of the Shabluka gorge. The Bordein, one of Gordon's old steamers, plied busily between Omdurman and Wad Hamed, transporting guns and stores; and Ahmed Fedil was sent with a sufficient force to hold the works when they were made. But the prophecy of the Mahdi exercised a powerful effect on the Khalifa's mind, and while he neglected no detail he based his hopes on the issue of a great battle on the plains of Kerreri, when the invaders should come to the walls of the city. With this prospect continually before him he drilled and organised the increasing army at Omdurman with the utmost regularity, and every day the savage soldiery practised their evolutions upon the plain they were presently to strew with their bodies.

But after a while it became apparent that the 'Turks' were not advancing. They tarried on the lands they had won. The steamers went no further than Merawi. The iron road stopped at Kerma. Why had they not followed up their success? Obviously because they feared the army that awaited them at Omdurman. At this the Khalifa took fresh courage, and in January 1897 he began to revolve schemes for taking the offensive and expelling the invaders from the Dongola province. The army drilled and manoeuvred continually on the plains of Kerreri; great numbers of camels were collected at Omdurman; large stores of dried kisru or 'Soudan biscuit,' the food of Dervishes on expeditions, were prepared.

The Sirdar did not remain in ignorance of these preparations. The tireless enterprise of the Intelligence Branch furnished the most complete information; and preparations were made to concentrate the troops in Dongola on any threatened point, should the enemy advance. Regular reconnaissances were made by the cavalry both into the desert towards Gakdul Wells and along the river. Towards the end of May it was reported that the Emir Yunes had crossed the Nile and was raiding the villages on the left bank below Abu Hamed. In consequence the Sirdar ordered a strong patrol under Captain Le Gallais, and consisting of three squadrons of cavalry under Captain Mahon, three companies of the Camel Corps, and 100 men of the IXth Soudanese on camels, with one Maxim gun, to reconnoitre up the Nile through the Shukuk Pass and as far as Salamat.

The outward journey was unbroken by incident; but as the patrol was returning it was attacked by an equal force of Dervishes, and a sharp little skirmish ensued in which one British officer—Captain Peyton—was severely wounded, nine Egyptian troopers were killed, and three others wounded. This proof that the Dervishes were on the move enforced the greatest vigilance in all the Dongola garrisons.

At the end of May, Mahmud with his army arrived at Omdurman. The Khalifa received him with delight, and several imposing reviews were held outside the city. Mahmud himself was eager to march against the 'Turks.' He had no experience of modern rifles, and felt confident that he could easily destroy or at least roll back the invading forces. Partly persuaded by the zeal of his lieutenant, and partly by the wavering and doubtful attitude of the Jaalin, the Khalifa determined early in June to send the Kordofan army to occupy Metemma, and thereby either to awe the tribe into loyalty, or force them to revolt while the Egyptian troops were still too distant to assist them. He summoned the chief of the Jaalin, Abdalla-Wad-Saad, to Omdurman, and informed him that the Jaalin territories were threatened by the Turks. In the goodness of his heart, therefore, and because he knew that they loved the Mahdi and practised the true religion, he was resolved to protect them from their enemies. The chief bowed his head. The Khalifa continued that the trusty Mahmud with his army would be sent for that purpose; Abdalla might show his loyalty in furnishing them with all supplies and accommodation. He intimated that the interview was over. But the Jaalin chief had the temerity to protest. He assured the Khalifa of his loyalty, and of the ability of his tribe to repel the enemy. He implored him not to impose the burden of an army upon them. He exaggerated the poverty of Metemma; he lamented the misfortunes of the times. Finally he begged forgiveness for making his protest.

The Khalifa was infuriated. Forgetting his usual self-control and the forms of public utterance, he broke out into a long and abusive harangue. He told the chief that he had long doubted his loyalty, that he despised his protestations, that he was worthy of a shameful death, that his tribe were a blot upon the face of the earth, and that he hoped Mahmud would improve their manners and those of their wives.

Abdalla-Wad-Saad crept from the presence, and returned in fury and disgust to Metemma. Having collected the head men of his tribe, he informed them of his reception and the Khalifa's intent. They did not need to be told that the quartering upon them of Mahmud's army meant the plunder of their goods, the ruin of their homes, and the rape of their women. It was resolved to revolt and join the Egyptian forces. As a result of the council the Jaalin chief wrote two letters. The first was addressed to the Sirdar, and reached General Rundle at Merawi by messenger on the 24th of June. It declared the Jaalin submission to the Government, and begged for help, if possible in men, or, failing that, in arms; but ended by saying that, help or no help, the tribe were resolved to fight the Dervishes and hold Metemma to the death. The second letter—a mad and fatal letter—carried defiance to the Khalifa.

Rundle, who was at Merawi when the Jaalin messenger found him, lost no time. A large amount of ammunition and 1,100 Remington rifles were speedily collected and hurried on camels across the desert by the Korti-Metemma route, escorted by a strong detachment of the Camel Corps. The Khalifa did not receive his letter until the 27th of June. But he acted with even greater promptitude. Part of Mahmud's army had already started for the north. Mahmud and the rest followed on the 28th. On the 30th the advanced guard arrived before Metemma. The Jaalin prepared to resist desperately. Nearly the whole tribe had responded to the summons of their chief, and more than 2,500 men were collected behind the walls of the town. But in all this force there were only eighty serviceable rifles, and only fifteen rounds of ammunition each. Abdalla expected that the Dervishes would make their heaviest attack on the south side of Metemma, and he therefore disposed his few riflemen along that front. The defence of the rest of the town had perforce to be entrusted to the valour of the spearmen.

On the morning of the 1st of July, Mahmud, with a force variously estimated at 10,000 or 12,000 men, began his assault. The first attack fell, as the chief had anticipated, on the southern face. It was repulsed with severe loss by the Jaalin riflemen. A second attack followed immediately. The enemy had meanwhile surrounded the whole town, and just as the Jaalin ammunition was exhausted a strong force of the Dervishes penetrated the northern face of their defences, which was held only by spearmen. The whole of Mahmud's army poured in through the gap, and the garrison, after a stubborn resistance, were methodically exterminated. An inhuman butchery of the children and some of the women followed. Abdalla-Wad-Saad was among the killed.

A few of the Jaalin who had escaped from the general destruction fled towards Gakdul. Here they found the Camel Corps with their caravan of rifles and ammunition. Like another force that had advanced by this very road to carry succour to men in desperate distress, the relief had arrived too late. The remnants of the Jaalin were left in occupation of Gakdul Wells. The convoy and its escort returned to Korti.

But while the attention of the Khalifa was directed to these matters, a far more serious menace offered from another quarter. Unnoticed by the Dervishes, or, if noticed, unappreciated, the railway was stretching farther and farther into the desert. By the middle of July it had reached the 130th mile, and, as is related in the last chapter, work had to be suspended until Abu Hamed was in the hands of the Egyptian forces. The Nile was rising fast. Very soon steamers would be able to pass the Fourth Cataract. It should have been evident that the next movement in the advance of the 'Turks' impended. The Khalifa seems, indeed, to have understood that the rise of the river increased his peril, for throughout July he continued to send orders to the Emir in Berber—Yunes—that he should advance into the Monassir district, harry such villages as existed, and obstruct the frequent reconnaissances from Merawi. Yunes, however, preferred to do otherwise, and remained on the left bank opposite Berber until, at length, his master recalled him to Omdurman to explain his conduct. Meanwhile, determined with mathematical exactness by the rise of the Nile and progress of the railway, the moment of the Egyptian advance arrived.

At the end of July preparations were made, as secretly as possible, to despatch a flying column against Abu Hamed. The Dervish garrison, under Mohammed-ez-Zein, was not believed to exceed 600 men, but in order that there should be no doubt as to the result it was determined to employ a strong force.

A brigade of all arms was formed as follows:—

  Commanding: MAJOR-GENERAL HUNTER

  Cavalry.......   One troop
  Artillery  ......   No. 2 Field Battery
   [This battery consisted of six Krupp guns, two Maxims, one Gardner gun,
     and one Nordenfeldt—an effective medley.]

  Infantry.......   MACDONALD'S BRIGADE
                                       —3rd Egyptian
                                       —IXth Soudanese
                                       —Xth     "
                                       —XIth    " 

Major-General Sir Archibald Hunter, the officer to whom the operation was entrusted, was from many points of view the most imposing figure in the Egyptian army. He had served through the Nile Expedition of 1884-85, with some distinction, in the Khedive's service. Thenceforward his rise was rapid, even for an Egyptian officer, and in ten years he passed through all the grades from Captain to Major-General. His promotion was not, however, undeserved. Foremost in every action, twice wounded—once at the head of his brigade—always distinguished for valour and conduct, Hunter won the admiration of his comrades and superiors. During the River War he became, in spite of his hard severity, the darling of the Egyptian Army. All the personal popularity which great success might have brought to the Sirdar focussed itself on his daring, good-humoured subordinate, and it was to Hunter that the soldiers looked whenever there was fighting to be done. The force now placed under his command for the attack upon Abu Hamed amounted to about 3,600 men. Until that place was taken all other operations were delayed. The Sirdar awaited the issue at Merawi. The railway paused in mid-desert.

The troops composing the 'flying column' concentrated at Kassingar, a small village a few miles above Merawi, on the right (or Abu Hamed) bank of the Nile. General Hunter began his march on the 29th of July. The total distance from Kassingar to Abu Hamed is 146 miles. The greatest secrecy had been observed in the preparation of the force, but it was known that as soon as the column actually started the news would be carried to the enemy. Speed was therefore essential; for if the Dervish garrison in Abu Hamed were reinforced from Berber, the flying column might not be strong enough to take the village. On the other hand, the great heat and the certainty that the troops would have to fight an action at the end of the march imposed opposite considerations on the commander. To avoid the sun, the greater part of the distance was covered at night. Yet the advantage thus gained was to some extent neutralised by the difficulty of marching over such broken ground in the darkness.

Throughout the whole length of the course of the Nile there is no more miserable wilderness than the Monassir Desert. The stream of the river is broken and its channel obstructed by a great confusion of boulders, between and among which the water rushes in dangerous cataracts. The sandy waste approaches the very brim, and only a few palm-trees, or here and there a squalid mud hamlet, reveal the existence of life. The line of advance lay along the river; but no road relieved the labour of the march. Sometimes trailing across a broad stretch of white sand, in which the soldiers sank to their ankles, and which filled their boots with a rasping grit; sometimes winding over a pass or through a gorge of sharp-cut rocks, which, even in the moonlight, felt hot with the heat of the previous day—always in a long, jerky, and interrupted procession of men and camels, often in single file—the column toiled painfully like the serpent to whom it was said, 'On thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat.'

The column started at 5.30 in the evening, and by a march of sixteen and a half miles reached Mushra-el-Obiad at about midnight. Here a convenient watering-place, not commanded by the opposite bank, and the shade of eight or ten thorny bushes afforded the first suitable bivouac. At 3.30 P.M. on the 30th the march was continued eight and a half miles to a spot some little distance beyond Shebabit. The pace was slow, and the route stony and difficult. It was after dark when the halting-place was reached. Several of the men strayed from the column, wandered in the gloom, and reached the bivouac exhausted. General Hunter had proposed to push on the next day to Hosh-el-Geref, but the fatigues of his troops in the two night marches had already been severe, and as, after Abu Haraz, the track twisted away from the river so that there was no water for five miles, he resolved to halt for the day and rest. Hosh-el-Geref was therefore not reached until the 1st of August—a day later than had been expected; but the rest had proved of such benefit to the troops that the subsequent acceleration of progress fully compensated for the delay. The column moved on again at midnight and halted at daybreak at Salmi. In the small hours of the next morning the march was resumed. The road by the Nile was found too difficult for the Maxim guns, which were on wheels, and these had to make a detour of twenty-eight miles into the desert while the infantry moved ten miles along the river. In order that the Maxims should not arrive alone at Dakfilli, General Hunter had marched thither with the IXth Soudanese at 11 P.M. on the previous day. The rest of the column followed a few hours later. On the 4th, by an eighteen-mile march through deep sand, El Kab was reached. A single shot was fired from the opposite bank of the river as the cavalry patrol entered the village; and there was no longer any doubt that the Dervishes knew of the advance of the column. Both the troops and the transport were now moving admirably; nevertheless, their sufferings were severe.

The nights were consumed in movement. Without shade the soldiers could not sleep by day. All ranks wearied, and the men would frequently, during the night marches, sink down upon the ground in profound slumber, only to be sternly aroused and hurried on. But the pace of the advance continued to be swift. On the 5th, the force, by a fourteen-mile march, reached Khula. Here they were joined by Sheikh Abdel-Azim with 150 Ababda camel-men from Murat Wells. Up to this point three Egyptians had died and fifty-eight men had been left behind exhausted in depots. A double ration of meat was issued to the whole force. The column moved on during the night, and arrived at Ginnifab at 8 A.M. on the morning of the 6th. Here startling news of the enemy was received. It was known that Mohammed-ez-Zein was determined to fight, and a trustworthy report was now received that a large force was coming down from Berber to support the Abu Hamed garrison. In spite of the long marches and the fatigues of the troops, General Hunter resolved to hurry on. He had already made up the day spent at Abu Haraz. He now decided to improve on the prescribed itinerary, accelerate his own arrival and anticipate that of the Dervish reinforcements. Accordingly the troops marched all through the night of the 6-7th with only a short halt of an hour and a half, so as to attack Abu Hamed at dawn. After covering sixteen miles of bad ground, the 'flying column' reached Ginnifab, 144 miles from Kassingar and only two from the Dervish post, at 3.30 on the morning of the 7th of August. A halt of two hours was allowed for the troops to prepare themselves. Half the 3rd Egyptian Battalion remained as escort to the transport and reserve ammunition, and then the force moved off in the darkness towards the enemy's position.

The village of Abu Hamed straggles along the bank of the Nile, and consists of a central mass of mud houses, intersected by a network of winding lanes and alleys, about 500 yards long by perhaps 100 yards wide. To the north and south are detached clusters of ruined huts, and to the south there rises a large, ragged pile of rocks. The ground slopes gradually up from the river, so that at a distance of 300 yards the village is surrounded on three sides by a low plateau. Upon this plateau stand three stone watch-towers, which were erected by General Gordon. The Dervish garrison were strongly posted in shelter trenches and loop-holed houses along the eastern face of the village. The towers were held by their outposts.

Making a wide circuit to their left, and then swinging round to the right, so as to front facing the river, the brigade silently moved towards the enemy's position, and at a quarter past six occupied the plateau in a crescent-shaped formation; the XIth Soudanese on the right, opposite the north-east corner of the village; the battery, escorted by the remaining half-battalion of the 3rd Egyptians, next; then the IXth in the centre, and the Xth Soudanese on the left flank. As the troops approached the watch-towers the Dervish outposts fell back and the force continued to advance until the edge of the plateau was reached. From here the whole scene was visible.

The day was just breaking, and the mist hung low and white over the steel-grey surface of the river. The outlines of the mud houses were sharply defined on this pale background. The Dervish riflemen crouched in the shelter trench that ran round the village. Their cavalry, perhaps a hundred strong, were falling in hurriedly on the sandy ground to the south near the ragged rocks. The curve of the hills, crowned with the dark line of the troops, completed and framed the picture. Within this small amphitheatre one of the minor dramas of war was now to be enacted.

At half past six the battery came into action, and after a few shells had been fired at the loopholed houses in the left centre of the position, a general advance was ordered. In excellent order the three Soudanese battalions, with General Hunter, Lieut.-Colonel MacDonald, and the other British officers on horseback in front of their line, advanced slowly down the hill, opening a destructive fire on the entrenchment. The distance was scarcely three hundred yards; but the crescent formation of the attack made the lines of advance converge, and before half the distance was covered the Xth were compelled to halt, lest the XIth Soudanese on the right flank should fire into them. The Dervishes remained silent until the troops were within a hundred yards, when they discharged two tremendous volleys, which were chiefly effective upon the halted battalion. Major Sidney, Lieutenant Fitzclarence, and a dozen men were shot dead. More than fifty men were wounded. All the Soudanese thereupon with a loud shout rushed upon the entrenchment, stormed it, and hunted the Dervishes into the houses. In the street-fighting which followed, the numbers of the troops prevailed. The advance scarcely paused until the river bank was reached, and by 7.30 Abu Hamed was in the possession of the Egyptian forces.

The Dervish horsemen, who had remained spectators near the southern crag during the attack, fled towards Berber as soon as they saw the attack successful. Scarcely any of the infantry escaped.

In this action, besides the two British officers, Major H. M. Sidney and Lieutenant E. Fitzclarence, 21 native soldiers were killed; 61 native soldiers were wounded.

The news of the capture of Abu Hamed was carried swiftly by camel and wire to all whom it might concern. The Sirdar, anticipating the result, had already ordered the gunboats to commence the passage of the Fourth Cataract. The camp at Railhead sprang to life after an unaccustomed rest, and the line began again to grow rapidly. The Dervishes who were hurrying from Berber were only twenty miles from Abu Hamed when they met the fugitives. They immediately turned back, and retired to the foot of the Fifth Cataract, whence after a few days' halt they continued their retreat. Their proximity to the captured village shows how little time the column had to spare, and that General Hunter was wise to press his marches. The Emir who commanded at Berber heard of the loss of the outpost on the 9th. He sent the messenger on to Metemma. Mahmud replied on the 11th that he was starting at once with his whole army to reinforce Berber. Apparently, however, he did not dare to move without the Khalifa's permission; for his letters, as late as the 20th, show that he had not broken his camp, and was still asking the Emir for information as to the doings of the 'Turks.' Of a truth there was plenty to tell.

On the 4th of August the gunboats El Teb and Tamai approached the Fourth Cataract to ascend to the Abu Hamed-Berber reach of the river. Major David was in charge of the operation. Lieutenants Hood and Beatty (Royal Navy) commanded the vessels. Two hundred men of the 7th Egyptians were towed in barges to assist in hauling the steamers in the difficult places. The current was, however, too strong, and it was found necessary to leave three barges, containing 160 soldiers, at the foot of the rapids. Nevertheless, as the cataract was not considered a very formidable barrier, Major David determined to make the attempt. Early on the 5th, therefore, the Tamai tried the ascent. About 300 local Shaiggia tribesmen had been collected, and their efforts were directed—or, as the result proved, mis-directed—by those few of the Egyptian soldiers who had not been left behind. The steamer, with her engines working at full speed, succeeded in mounting half the distance. But the rush of water was then so great that her bows were swept round, and, after a narrow escape of capsizing, she was carried swiftly down the stream.

The officers thought that this failure was due to the accidental fouling of a rope at a critical moment, and to the fact that there were not enough local tribesmen pulling at the hawsers. Four hundred more Shaiggia were therefore collected from the neighbouring villages, and in the afternoon the Teb attempted the passage. Her fortunes were far worse than those of the Tamai. Owing to the lack of co-operation and discipline among the local tribesmen, their utter ignorance of what was required of them, and the want of proper supervision, the hauling power was again too weak. Again the bows of the steamer were swept round, and, as the hawsers held, a great rush of water poured over the bulwarks. In ten seconds the Teb heeled over and turned bottom upwards. The hawsers parted under this new strain, and she was swept down stream with only her keel showing. Lieutenant Beatty and most of the crew were thrown, or glad to jump, into the foaming water of the cataract, and, being carried down the river, were picked up below the rapids by the Tamai, which was luckily under steam. Their escape was extraordinary, for of the score who were flung into the water only one Egyptian was drowned. Two other men were, however, missing, and their fate seemed certain. The capsized steamer, swirled along by the current, was jammed about a mile below the cataract between two rocks, where she became a total wreck. Anxious to see if there was any chance of raising her, the officers proceeded in the Tamai to the scene. The bottom of the vessel was just visible above the surface. It was evident to all that her salvage would be a work of months. The officers were about to leave the wreck, when suddenly a knocking was heard within the hull. Tools were brought, a plate was removed, and there emerged, safe and sound from the hold in which they had been thus terribly imprisoned, the second engineer and a stoker. When the rapidity with which the steamer turned upside down, with the engines working, the fires burning, and the boilers full—the darkness, with all the floors become ceilings—the violent inrush of water—the wild career down the stream—are remembered, it will be conceded that the experience of these men was sufficiently remarkable.

Search was now made for another passage. This was found on the 6th, nearer the right bank of the river. On the 8th the Metemma arrived with 300 more men of the 7th Egyptians. Three days were spent in preparations and to allow the Nile to rise a little more. On the 13th, elaborate precautions being observed, the Metemma passed the cataract safely, and was tied up to the bank on the higher reach. The Tamai followed the next day. On the 19th and 20th the new gunboats Fateh, Naser, and Zafir, the most powerful vessels on the river, accomplished the passage. Meanwhile the Metemma and Tamai had already proceeded up stream. On the 23rd the unarmed steamer Dal made the ascent, and by the 29th the whole flotilla reached Abu Hamed safely.

After the arrival of the gunboats events began to move at the double. The sudden dart upon Abu Hamed had caused the utmost consternation among the Dervishes. Finding that Mahmud was not going to reinforce him, and fearing the treachery of the local tribes, Zeki Osman, the Emir in Berber, decided to fall back, and on the 24th he evacuated Berber and marched south. On the 27th General Hunter at Abu Hamed heard that the Dervish garrison had left the town. The next day he despatched Abdel-Azim, the chief of Irregulars, and Ahmed Bey Khalifa, his brother, with forty Ababda tribesmen, to reconnoitre. These bold fellows pushed on recklessly, and found the inhabitants everywhere terrified or acquiescent. Spreading extraordinary tales of the strength of the army who were following them, they created a panic all along the river, and, in spite of a sharp fight with a Dervish patrol, reached Berber on the 31st. As there was no armed force in the town, the enterprising allies rode into the streets and occupied the grain store—the only public building—in the name of the Government. They then sent word back to Abu Hamed of what they had done, and sat down in the town, thus audaciously captured, to await developments.

The astonishing news of the fall of Berber reached General Hunter on the 2nd of September. He immediately telegraphed to Merawi. Sir Herbert Kitchener was confronted with a momentous question: should Berber be occupied or not? It may at first seem that there could be little doubt about the matter. The objective of the expedition was Omdurman. The occupation of Berber by an Egyptian garrison would settle at once the difficulties near Suakin. The town was believed to be on the clear waterway to the Dervish capital. The moral effect of its capture upon the riverain tribes and throughout the Soudan would be enormous. Berber was, in fact, the most important strategic point on the whole line of advance. This great prize and advantage was now to be had for the asking.

The opposite considerations were, however, tremendous. Abu Hamed marked a definite stage in the advance. As long as Merawi and the other posts in Dongola were strongly held, the line from Abu Hamed to Debba was capable of easy defence. Abu Hamed could soon be made impregnable to Dervish attack. The forces in Dongola could be quickly concentrated on any threatened point. At this moment in the campaign it was possible to stop and wait with perfect safety. In the meantime the Khalifa would steadily weaken and the railway might steadily grow. When the line reached the angle of the river, it would be time to continue the systematic and cautious advance. Until then prudence and reason counselled delay. To occupy Berber was to risk much. Mahmud, with a large and victorious army, lay at Metemma. Osman Digna, with 2,000 men, held Adarama almost within striking distance. The railway still lagged in the desert. The Dongola garrisons must be weakened to provide a force for Berber. The Dervishes had the advantage of occupying the interior of the angle which the Nile forms at Abu Hamed. The troops in Berber would have to draw their supplies by a long and slender line of camel communication, winding along all the way from Merawi, and exposed, as a glance at the map will show, throughout its whole length to attack. More than all this: to advance to Berber must inevitably force the development of the whole war. The force in the town would certainly have its communications threatened, would probably have to fight for its very existence. The occupation of Berber would involve sooner or later a general action; not a fight like Firket, Hafir, or Abu Hamed, with the advantage of numbers on the side of the Egyptian troops, but an even battle. For such a struggle British troops were necessary. At this time it seemed most unlikely that they would be granted. But if Berber was occupied, the war, until the arrival of British troops, would cease to be so largely a matter of calculation, and must pass almost entirely into the sphere of chance. The whole situation was premature and unforeseen. The Sirdar had already won success. To halt was to halt in safety; to go on was to go on at hazard. Most of the officers who had served long in the Egyptian army understood the question. They waited the decision in suspense.

The Sirdar and the Consul-General unhesitatingly faced the responsibility together. On the 3rd of September General Hunter received orders to occupy Berber. He started at once with 350 men of the IXth Soudanese on board the gunboats Tamai, Zafir, Naser, and Fateh. Shortly after daybreak on the 5th the Egyptian flag was hoisted over the town. Having disembarked the infantry detachment, the flotilla steamed south to try to harass the retreating Emir. They succeeded; for on the next day they caught him, moving along the bank in considerable disorder, and, opening a heavy fire, soon drove the mixed crowd of fugitives, horse and foot, away from the river into the desert. The gunboats then returned to Berber, towing a dozen captured grain-boats. Meanwhile the Sirdar had started for the front himself. Riding swiftly with a small escort across the desert from Merawi, he crossed the Nile at the Baggara Cataract and reached Berber on the 10th of September. Having inspected the immediate arrangements for defence, he withdrew to Abu Hamed, and there busily prepared to meet the developments which he well knew might follow at once, and must follow in the course of a few months.


The River War by Winston Churchill | Project Scenewash | Project Gutenberg

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