Winston Churchill: The River War VI

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

TABLE OF CONTENTS


CHAPTER VI: FIRKET

June 7, 1896

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
Since the end of 1895 the Dervish force in Firket had been under the command of the Emir Hammuda, and it was through the indolence and neglect of this dissipated Arab that the Egyptian army had been able to make good its position at Akasha without any fighting. Week after week the convoys had straggled unmolested through the difficult country between Sarras and the advanced base. No attack had been made upon the brigade at Akasha. No enterprise was directed against its communications. This fatal inactivity did not pass unnoticed by Wad Bishara, the Governor of Dongola; but although he was nominally in supreme command of all the Dervish forces in the province he had hardly any means of enforcing his authority. His rebukes and exhortations, however, gradually roused Hammuda, and during May two or three minor raids were planned and executed, and the Egyptian position at Akasha was several times reconnoitred.

Bishara remained unsatisfied, and at length, despairing of infusing energy into Hammuda, he ordered his subordinate Osman Azrak to supersede him. Osman was a Dervish of very different type. He was a fanatical and devoted believer in the Mahdi and a loyal follower of the Khalifa. For many years he had served on the northern frontier of the Dervish Empire, and his name was well known to the Egyptian Government as the contriver of the most daring and the most brutal raids. His cruelty to the wretched inhabitants of the border villages had excluded him from all hope of mercy should he ever fall into the hands of the enemy. His crafty skill, however, protected him, and among the Emirs gathered at Firket there was none whose death would have given greater satisfaction to the military authorities than the man who was now to replace Hammuda.

Whether Osman Azrak had actually assumed command on the 6th of June is uncertain. It seems more likely that Hammuda declined to admit his right, and that the matter still stood in dispute. But in any case Osman was determined to justify his appointment by his activity, and about midday he started from the camp at Firket, and, accompanied by a strong patrol of camel-men, set out to reconnoitre Akasha. Moving cautiously, he arrived unperceived within sight of the position at about three o'clock in the afternoon. The columns which were to storm Firket at dawn were then actually parading. But the clouds of dust which the high wind drove across or whirled about the camp obscured the view, and the Dervish could distinguish nothing unusual. He therefore made the customary pentagonal mark on the sand to ensure good luck, and so returned to Firket to renew his dispute with Hammuda, bearing the reassuring news that 'the Turks lay quiet.'

The force which the Sirdar had concentrated for the capture of Firket amounted to about nine thousand men, and was organised as follows:—

                Commander-in-Chief: THE SIRDAR

       The Infantry Division: COLONEL HUNTER Commanding

 1st Brigade           2nd Brigade            3rd Brigade
 Major LEWIS           MAJOR MACDONALD        MAJOR MAXWELL
 3rd Egyptians         IXth Soudanese         2nd Egyptians
 4th     "             XIth     "             7th     "
 Xth Soudanese         XIIth    "             8th     "
                       XIIIth   "

       Mounted Forces: MAJOR BURN-MURDOCH

 Egyptian Cavalry.... 7 squadrons
 Camel Corps. .... 8 companies

                  Artillery

 Horse Artillery .... 1 battery
 Field Artillery .... 2 batteries
 Maxim Guns . .... 1 battery

Two roads led from Akasha to Firket—one by the bank of the river, the other inland and along the projected railway line. The Sirdar determined to avail himself of both. The force was therefore divided into two columns. The main column, under command of the Sirdar, was to move by the river road, and consisted of the infantry division, the Field Artillery, and the Maxim guns. The Desert Column, under command of Major Burn-Murdoch, consisted of the mounted forces, the Horse Artillery, and one battalion of infantry (the XIIth Soudanese) drawn from MacDonald's brigade and mounted upon camels: in all about two thousand men. Very precise orders were given to the smaller column, and Burn-Murdoch was instructed to occupy the hills to the south-east of the centre of Firket village by 4.30 A.M.; to dispose his force facing west, with the cavalry on the left, the Camel Corps in the centre, and the XIIth Soudanese on the right. The only point left to his discretion was the position to be occupied by the Horse battery. He was especially warned not to come under the fire of the main infantry force. As soon as the enemy should be routed, the XIIth Soudanese were to return to the Sirdar. The cavalry, camelry, and Horse Artillery were to pursue—the objective being, firstly, Koyeka, and, secondly, Suarda.

The infantry column began to march out of Akasha at 3.30 in the afternoon of the 6th, and trailed southwards along the track by the river in the following order: Lewis's brigade, with the Xth Soudanese leading; two Maxim guns and the artillery; MacDonald's brigade; Maxwell's brigade; and, lastly, the field hospitals and a half-battalion forming rearguard. The Sirdar marched behind the artillery. The rear of the long column was clear of the camp by 4.30, and about two hours later the mounted force started by the desert road. The River Column made good progress till dark, but thereafter the advance was slow and tedious. The track led through broken rocky ground, and was so narrow that it nowhere allowed a larger front to be formed than of four men abreast. In some places the sharp rocks and crumbling heaps of stone almost stopped the gun-mules altogether, while the infantry tripped and stumbled painfully. The moon had not risen, and the darkness was intense. Still the long procession of men, winding like a whiplash between the jagged hills, toiled onward through the night, with no sound except the tramping of feet and the rattle of accoutrements. At half-past ten the head of Lewis's brigade debouched into a smooth sandy plain about a mile to the north of Sarkamatto village. This was the spot—scarcely three miles from the enemy's position—where the Sirdar had decided to halt and bivouac. The bank and foreshore of the river were convenient for watering; all bottles and skins were filled, and soldiers and animals drank. A little food was eaten, and then, battalion by battalion, as the force arrived at the halting-place, they lay down to rest. The tail of Maxwell's brigade reached the bivouac about midnight, and the whole column was then concentrated.

Meanwhile the mounted force were also on their way. Like the River Column, they were disordered by the broken ground, and the XIIth Soudanese, who were unused to camel riding and mounted only on transport saddles, were soon wearied. After one o'clock many men, both in the Camel Corps and in the battalion, fell asleep on their camels, and the officers had great difficulty in keeping them awake. However, the force reached their point of concentration—about three miles to the south-east of Firket—at a quarter to three. Here the XIIth Soudanese dismounted from their camels and became again a fighting unit. Leaving the extra camels under a guard, Major Burn-Murdoch then advanced towards his appointed position on the hills overlooking Firket.

The Sirdar moved on again with the infantry at 2.30. The moon had risen over the rocks to the left of the line of march, but it was only a thin crescent and did not give much light. The very worst part of the whole track was encountered immediately the bivouac was left, and the column of nearly six thousand men had to trickle through one narrow place in single file. There were already signs of the approach of dawn; the Dervish camp was near; the Sirdar and his Staff began to look anxious. He sent many messages to the leading battalions to hurry; and the soldiers, although now very weary, ran and scrambled through the difficult passage like sheep crowding through a gate. By four o'clock the leading brigade had cleared the obstacle, and the most critical moment seemed to have passed.

Suddenly, a mile to the southward, rose the sound of the beating of drums. Everyone held his breath. The Dervishes were prepared. Perhaps they would attack the column before it could deploy. Then the sound died away, and but for the clatter of the marching columns all was again silent. It was no alarm, but only the call to the morning prayer; and the Dervishes, still ignorant that their enemies approached and that swift destruction was upon them, trooped from their huts to obey the pious summons.

The great mass of Firket mountain, still dark in the half-light, now rose up on the left of the line of march. Between it and the river stretched a narrow strip of scrub-covered ground; and here, though obstructed by the long grass, bushes, palm-trees, and holes, the leading brigade was ordered to deploy. There was, however, as yet only room for the Xth Soudanese to form line, and the 3rd and 4th Egyptians contented themselves with widening to column of companies—the 3rd in rear of the right of the Xth, the 4th in rear of the centre. The force now began to emerge from the narrow space between the hills and the river, and debouch into open country. As the space widened No. 1 field battery came into line on the left, and No. 2 On the right of the Xth Soudanese. A swell of ground hid Firket village, though it was known to be within a mile, and it was now daylight. Still there was no sign that the Dervishes were prepared. It seemed scarcely possible to believe that the advance had not yet been discovered. The silence seemed to forbode some unexpected attack. The leading brigade and guns halted for a few minutes to allow MacDonald to form his battalions from 'fours' into column of companies. Then at five o'clock the advance was resumed, and at this moment from the shoulder of Firket mountain there rang out a solitary shot. The Dervish outposts had at last learned their danger. Several other shots followed in quick succession, and were answered by a volley from the Xth, and then from far away to the south-east came the report of a field-gun. The Horse Artillery battery had come into action. The operation of the two columns was simultaneous: the surpise of the enemy was complete.

The great object was now to push on and deploy as fast as possible. The popping of musketry broke out from many points, and the repeated explosions of the Horse battery added to the eager excitement of the troops. For what is more thrilling than the sudden and swift development of an attack at dawn? The Xth Soudanese had now reached the top of the rise which had hidden Firket, and the whole scene came into view. To the right front the village of Firket stretched by the side of the river—a confusion of mud houses nearly a mile in length and perhaps 300 yards broad. On the landward side the tents and straw shelters of the Dervish force showed white and yellow. A system of mud walls and loop-holed houses strengthened the northern end of the village. Behind it as a background stood lines and clusters of palm-trees, through which the broad river and the masts of the Arab boats might be seen. In front of the troops, but a little to their left, rose a low rocky ridge surmounted with flags and defended by a stone breastwork running along its base. Across the open space between the village and the hill hundreds of Dervishes on horse and on foot were hurrying to man their defences, and others scrambled up the rocks to see for themselves the numbers of the enemy. Scores of little puffs of smoke already speckled the black rocks of the ridge and the brown houses of the village.

The attack developed very rapidly. The narrow passage between the mountain and the river poured forth its brigades and battalions, and the firing-line stretched away to the right and left with extraordinary speed. The Xth Soudanese opened fire on the village as soon as they topped the rise. The 3rd and 4th Egyptians deployed on the right and left of the leading regiment, two companies of the 4th extending down on to the foreshore below the steep river-bank. Peake's battery (No. 1) and the Maxim guns, coming into action from a spur of Firket mountain, began to fire over the heads of the advancing infantry.

The whole of Lewis's brigade now swung to the right and attacked the village; MacDonald's, coming up at the double in line of battalion columns, deployed to the left, inland, round the shoulder of the mountain, and, bearing away still more to the left, advanced swiftly upon the rocky ridge. The ground in MacDonald's front was much broken by boulders and scrub, and a deep khor delayed the advance. The enemy, though taken at obvious disadvantage, maintained an irregular fire; but the Soudanese, greatly excited, pressed on eagerly towards the breastworks. When the brigade was still 200 yards from the ridge, about fifty Dervish horsemen dashed out from among the rocks and charged the left flank. All were immediately shot down by a wild but heavy independent fire. With joyful yells the blacks broke into a run and carried the breastworks at the bayonet. The Dervishes did not await the shock. As soon as they saw their horsemen—among whom was the Emir Hammuda himself and Yusef Angar, Emir of the Jehadia—swept away, they abandoned the first ridge and fell back on another which lay behind. The Soudanese followed closely, and pursued the outnumbered enemy up one and down the other side of the rocky hills, up again and down again, continually shouldering and bringing round the left of the brigade; until at last the hills were cleared of all except the dead, and the fugitives were running towards the river-bank. Then the scattered battalions re-formed facing west, and the panting soldiers looked about them.

While MacDonald's brigade was storming the hills, Lewis's had advanced on the village and the Dervish camp. The Arabs from their loopholed houses made a stubborn resistance, and the 4th battalion by the river-bank were sharply engaged, their commanding officer, Captain Sparkes, having his horse shot in four places. Encouraged by their enormous superiority in number and weapons, the Egyptians showed considerable zeal in the attack, and their conduct on this occasion was regarded as a very happy augury for the war, of which this was the first general engagement.

As Lewis's brigade had swung to its right, and MacDonald's had borne away to the left, a wide gap had opened in the centre of the attack. This was immediately filled by Maxwell's brigade, so that the whole force was now formed in one line, which curved and wheeled continually to the right until, by the time the rocky hills had been taken, all three brigades practically faced west and were advancing together towards the Nile. The Dervishes—penned between the river and the enemy, and unable to prevent the remorseless advance, which every moment restricted them to narrower limits—now thought only of flight, and they could be seen galloping hither and thither seeking for some means of escape. The position of the Desert Column would have enabled the XIIth Soudanese, by moving down to the river, to cut off this line of retreat; but the foreshore of the river at the southern end of Firket is concealed from a landward view by the steep bank, and by this sandy path the greater number of the fugitives found safety.

The cavalry and the Camel Corps, instead of cutting at the flank, contented themselves with making a direct pursuit after the enemy had crossed their front, and in consequence several hundred Arabs made good their escape to the south. Others swam the river and fled by the west bank. The wicked Osman Azrak, his authority now no longer disputed, for his rival was a corpse, galloped from the field and reached Suarda. The rest of the Dervish force held to the houses, and variously prepared to fight to the death or surrender to their conquerors.

The three brigades now closed upon the village and, clearing it step by step, advanced to the water's edge. MacDonald's brigade did not indeed stop until they had crossed the swampy isthmus and occupied the island. The Arabs, many of whom refused quarter, resisted desperately, though without much effect, and more than eighty corpses were afterwards found in one group of buildings. By 7.20 o'clock all firing had ceased; the entire Dervish camp was in the hands of the Egyptian troops, and the engagement of Firket was over.

The Sirdar now busied himself with the pursuit, and proceeded with the mounted troops as far as Mograka, five miles south of Firket. The whole cavalry force, with the Camel Corps and Horse Artillery, pressed the retreat vigorously to Suarda. Osman Azrak, however, succeeded in transporting the women and children and some stores, with a sufficient escort, to the west bank before the arrival of the troops. On the approach of the cavalry he retired along the east bank, with a small mounted force, without fighting. The Emir in charge of the escort on the other side delayed, and was in consequence shelled at long range by the Horse battery. The local inhabitants, tired of the ceaseless war which had desolated the frontier province for so long, welcomed their new masters with an appearance of enthusiasm. The main pursuit stopped at Suarda, but a week later two squadrons and sixteen men of the Camel Corps, under Captain Mahon, were pushed out twenty miles further south, and an Arab store of grain was captured.

The Dervish loss in the action was severe. More than 800 dead were left on the field, and there were besides 500 wounded and 600 prisoners. The casualties in the Egyptian army were 1 British officer—Captain Legge—wounded, 20 native soldiers killed and 83 wounded.

Firket is officially classed as a general action: special despatches were written, and a special clasp struck. The reader will have formed his own estimate of the magnitude and severity of the fight. The whole operation was well and carefully planned, and its success in execution was complete. The long and difficult night march, the accurate arrival and combination of the two columns, the swift deployment, the enveloping movement, proved alike the discipline and training of the troops and the skill of their officers. The only point on which criticism may be made is the failure of the Desert Column to intercept the flying Dervishes. But it should be remembered they had marched far, and it was not at that time certain what the powers of the mounted troops were. The brilliant aspect of the affair caused great satisfaction in England, and the further prosecution of the campaign was looked for with increasing interest.


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

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