Winston Churchill: The River War XIII

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

TABLE OF CONTENTS


CHAPTER XIII: THE GRAND ADVANCE

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
All through the early months of the summer the preparations for the final advance were steadily proceeding. A second British brigade was ordered to the Soudan. A new battery of Howitzer artillery—the 37th—firing enormous shells charged with lyddite, was despatched from England. Two large 40-pounder guns were sent from Cairo. Another British Maxim battery of four guns was formed in Cairo from men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Three new screw gunboats of the largest size and most formidable pattern had been passed over the indefatigable railway in sections, and were now launched on the clear waterway south of the Atbara encampment; and last, but not least, the 21st Lancers [The author led a troop in this regiment during the final advance to Omdurman; and it is from this standpoint that the ensuing chapters are to some extent conceived] were ordered up the Nile. Events now began to move rapidly. Within three weeks of the arrival of the reinforcements the climax of the war was over; within five weeks the British troops were returning home. There was no delay at the Atbara encampment. Even before the whole of the second brigade had arrived, some of its battalions were being despatched to Wad Hamed, the new point of concentration. This place was a few miles north of Shabluka, and only fifty-eight miles from Omdurman. It was evident, therefore, that the decisive moment of the three years' war approached. The Staff, the British infantry, one squadron, the guns, and the stores were carried south in steamers and barges. The Egyptian division marched to Wad Hamed by brigades. The horses of the batteries, the transport animals of the British division (about 1,400 in number), the chargers of the officers, some cattle, and most of the war correspondents were sent along the left bank of the river escorted by two squadrons of the 21st Lancers and two Maxim guns.

All the thirteen squadrons of cavalry remained three days at Wad Hamed. After the fatigues of the march we were glad to have an opportunity of looking about, of visiting regiments known in other circumstances, and of writing a few letters. This last was the most important, for it was now known that after leaving Wad Hamed there would be no post or communication with Cairo and Europe until the action had been fought and all was over. The halt was welcome for another reason. The camp itself was well worth looking at. It lay lengthways along the river-bank, and was nearly two miles from end to end. The Nile secured it from attack towards the east. On the western and southern sides were strong lines of thorn bushes, staked down and forming a zeriba; and the north face was protected by a deep artificial watercourse which allowed the waters of the river to make a considerable inundation. From the bank of this work the whole camp could be seen. Far away to the southward the white tents of the British division; a little nearer rows and rows of grass huts and blanket shelters, the bivouacs of the Egyptian and Soudanese brigades; the Sirdar's large white tent, with the red flag of Egypt flying from a high staff, on a small eminence; and to the right the grove of palm-trees in which the officers of the Egyptian cavalry had established themselves. The whole riverside was filled by a forest of masts. Crowds of gyassas, barges, and steamers were moored closely together; and while looking at the furled sails, the tangled riggings, and the tall funnels it was easy for the spectator to imagine that this was the docks of some populous city in a well-developed and civilised land.

But the significance of the picture grew when the mind, outstripping the eye, passed beyond the long, low heights of the gorge and cataract of Shabluka and contemplated the ruins of Khartoum and the city of Omdurman. There were known to be at least 50,000 fighting men collected in their last stronghold. We might imagine the scene of excitement, rumour, and resolve in the threatened capital. The Khalifa declares that he will destroy the impudent invaders. The Mahdi has appeared to him in a dream. Countless angelic warriors will charge with those of Islam. The 'enemies of God' will perish and their bones will whiten the broad plain. Loud is the boasting, and many are the oaths which are taken, as to what treatment the infidel dogs shall have when they are come to the city walls. The streets swarm with men and resound with their voices. Everywhere is preparation and defiance. And yet over all hangs the dark shadow of fear. Nearer and nearer comes this great serpent of an army, moving so slowly and with such terrible deliberation, but always moving. A week ago it was sixty miles away, now it is but fifty. Next week only twenty miles will intervene, and then the creep of the serpent will cease, and, without argument or parley, one way or the other the end will come.

The road to the next camp was a long one; for though Royan island, opposite to which the site had been selected, was only seven miles in the direct line, it was necessary to march eight miles into the desert to avoid the Shabluka heights, and then to turn back to the Nile. The infantry were therefore provided with camel transport to carry sufficient water in small iron tanks for one night; and they were thus able to bivouac half-way, and to complete the journey on the next morning, thus making a two days' march. The mounted troops, who remained at Wad Hamed till all had gone south, were ordered to move on the 27th of August, and by a double march catch up the rest of the army.

Wad Hamed then ceased for the time being to exist except in name. All the stores and transport were moved by land or water to the south of Shabluka, and an advanced base was formed upon Royan island. Communications with the Atbara encampment and with Cairo were dropped, and the army carried with them in their boats sufficient supplies to last until after the capture of Omdurman, when the British division would be immediately sent back. It was calculated that the scope of this operation would not be greater than three weeks, and on the 27th the army were equipped with twenty-one days' supplies, of which two were carried by the troops, five by the regimental barges, and fourteen in the army transport sailing-vessels. All surplus stores were deposited at Royan island, where a field hospital was also formed.

The Expeditionary Force which was thus concentrated, equipped, and supplied for the culminating moment of the River War, was organised as follows:

 Commander-in-Chief: THE SIRDAR

 The British Division: MAJOR-GENERAL GATACRE Commanding

  1st Brigade                         2nd Brigade
  BRIGADIER-GEN. WAUCHOPE             BRIGADIER-GEN. LYTTELTON
  1st Btn. Royal Warwickshire Regt.   1st Btn. Grenadier Guards
   "  "   Lincoln Regiment             "   "   Northumberland Fusiliers
   "  "   Seaforth Highlanders        2nd  "   Lancashire Fusiliers
   "  "   Cameron Highlanders          "   "   Rifle Brigade

 The Egyptian Division: MAJOR-GENERAL HUNTER Commanding

  1st Brigade       2nd Brigade       3rd Brigade     4th Brigade
  COL. MACDONALD    COL. MAXWELL      COL. LEWIS      COL. COLLINSON
  2nd Egyptians     8th Egyptians     3rd Egyptians   1st Egyptians
  IXth Soudanese    XIIth Soudanese   4th     "       5th (half) "
  Xth     "         XIIIth   "        7th     "       17th       "
  XIth    "         XIVth    "        15th    "       18th       "

 Mounted Forces

  21st Lancers         Camel Corps        Egyptian Cavalry
  COLONEL MARTIN       MAJOR TUDWAY       COLONEL BROADWOOD
  4 squadrons          8 companies        9 squadrons

 Artillery: COLONEL LONG Commanding

  (British)  32nd Field Battery, R.A.(with two 40-pounder guns) 8 guns
      "      37th   "      "      "   (5-inch Howitzers).    6 guns
  (Egyptian) The Horse Battery, E.A. (Krupp).  .  .     6 guns
      "      No. 1 Field Battery, E.A. (Maxim-Nordenfeldt)      6 guns
      "      No. 2   "      "      " .  .  .  .     6 guns
      "      No. 3   "      "      " .  .  .  .     6 guns
      "      No. 4   "      "      " .  .  .  .     6 guns

 Machine Guns

  (British)  Detachment 16th Co. Eastern Division R.A..    6 Maxim
      "          "      Royal Irish Fusiliers  .  .     4   "
  (Egyptian) 2 Maxim guns to each of the five
                Egyptian batteries  .  . .  .     10  "

 Engineers

  Detachment of Royal Engineers

 The Flotilla: COMMANDER KEPPEL

  1898 Class Armoured Screw Gunboats (3): the Sultan, the Melik, the Sheikh

   each carrying: 2 Nordenfeldt guns
                  1 quick-firing 12-pounder gun
                  1 Howitzer
                  4 Maxims

  1896 Class Armoured Screw Gunboats (3): the Fateh, The Naser, the Zafir

   each carrying: 1 quick-firing 12-pounder gun
                  2 6-pounder guns
                  4 Maxims

  Old Class Armoured Stern-wheel Gunboats (4): the Tamai, the Hafir*,
                                                the Abu Klea, the Metemma

   each carrying: 1 12-pounder gun
                  2 Maxim-Nordenfeldt guns

 Steam Transport

  5 Steamers: The Dal, The Akasha, the Tahra, The Okma, the Kaibar

    [*The steamer El Teb, wrecked at the Fourth Cataract in 1897, had been
       refloated, and to change the luck was renamed Hafir.] 

The total strength of the Expeditionary Force amounted to 8,200 British and 17,600 Egyptian soldiers, with 44 guns and 20 Maxims on land, with 36 guns and 24 Maxims on the river, and with 2,469 horses, 896 mules, 3,524 camels, and 229 donkeys, besides followers and private animals.

While the army were to move along the west bank of the river—the Omdurman side—a force of Arab irregulars, formed from the friendly tribes, would march along the east bank and clear it of any Dervishes. All the debris which the Egyptian advance had broken off the Dervish Empire was thus to be hurled against that falling State. Eager for plunder, anxious to be on the winning side, Sheikhs and Emirs from every tribe in the Military Soudan had hurried, with what following the years of war had left them, to Wad Hamed. On the 26th of August the force of irregulars numbered about 2,500 men, principally Jaalin survivors, but also comprising bands and individuals of Bisharin; of Hadendoa from Suakin; of Shukria, the camel-breeders; of Batahin, who had suffered a bloody diminution at the Khalifa's hands; of Shaiggia, Gordon's vexatious allies; and lastly some Gellilab Arabs under a reputed son of Zubehr Pasha. The command of the whole motley force was given to Major Stuart-Wortley, Lieutenant Wood accompanying him as Staff Officer; and the position of these officers among the cowed and untrustworthy Arabs was one of considerable peril.

While the infantry divisions were marching round the heights of Shabluka to the camp opposite Royan island, the steamers and gunboats ascended the stream and passed through the gorge, dragging up with them the whole fleet of barges and gyassas. The northern end of the narrow passage had been guarded by the five Dervish forts, which now stood deserted and dismantled. They were well built, and formed nearly a straight line—four on one bank and one on the other. Each fort had three embrasures, and might, when occupied, have been a formidable defence to the cataract.

Threshing up against the current, the gunboats and stern-wheelers one after another entered the gorge. The Nile, which below is nearly a mile across, narrows to a bare 200 yards. The pace of the stream becomes more swift. Great swirls and eddies disturb its surface. High on either side rise black, broken, and precipitous cliffs, looking like piles of gigantic stones. Through and among them the flood-river pours with a loud roaring, breaking into foam and rapids wherever the submerged rocks are near the surface. Between the barren heights and the water is a strip of green bushes and grass. The bright verdant colour seems the more brilliant by contrast with the muddy water and the sombre rocks. It is a forbidding passage. A few hundred riflemen scattered Afridiwise among the tops of the hills, a few field-guns in the mud forts by the bank, and the door would be shut.

The mounted forces marched from Wad Hamed at dawn on the 27th and, striking out into the desert, skirted the rocky hills. Besides the 21st Lancers and nine squadrons of Egyptian cavalry, the column included the Camel Corps, 800 strong, and a battery of Horse Artillery; and it was a fine sight to see all these horsemen and camel-men trotting swiftly across the sand by squadrons and companies, with a great cloud of dust rising from each and drifting away to the northward.

The zeriba of the camp at Royan had been already made and much of the ground cleared by the energy of the Soudanese division, which had been the first to arrive. An advanced depot was established at Royan island which was covered with white hospital tents, near which there was a forest of masts and sails. The barges and boats containing the stores and kits awaited the troops, and they had only to bivouac along the river-bank and shelter themselves as quickly as possible from the fierce heat of the sun. The dark hills of Shabluka, among and beneath which the camp and army nestled, lay behind us now. To the south the country appeared a level plain covered with bush and only broken by occasional peaks of rock. The eternal Nile flowed swiftly by the tents and shelters, and disappeared mysteriously in the gloom of the gorge; and on the further bank there rose a great mountain—Jebel Royan—from the top of which it was said that men might see Khartoum.

The whole army broke camp at Royan on the 28th of August at four o'clock in the afternoon, and marched to Wady el Abid six miles further south. We now moved on a broad front, which could immediately be converted into a fighting formation. This was the first time that it had been possible to see the whole force—infantry, cavalry, and guns—on the march at once. In the clear air the amazing detail of the picture was striking. There were six brigades of infantry, composed of twenty-four battalions; yet every battalion showed that it was made up of tiny figures, all perfectly defined on the plain. A Soudanese brigade had been sent on to hold the ground with pickets until the troops had constructed a zeriba. But a single Dervish horseman managed to evade these and, just as the light faded, rode up to the Warwickshire Regiment and flung his broad-bladed spear in token of defiance. So great was the astonishment which this unexpected apparition created that the bold man actually made good his escape uninjured.

On the 29th the forces remained halted opposite Um Teref, and only the Egyptian cavalry went out to reconnoitre. They searched the country for eight or nine miles, and Colonel Broadwood returned in the afternoon, having found a convenient camping-ground, but nothing else. During the day the news of two river disasters arrived—the first to ourselves, the second to our foes. On the 28th the gunboat Zafir was steaming from the Atbara to Wad Hamed, intending thereafter to ascend the Shabluka Cataract. Suddenly—overtaken now, as on the eve of the advance on Dongola, by misfortune—she sprang a leak, and, in spite of every effort to run her ashore, foundered by the head in deep water near Metemma. The officers on board—among whom was Keppel, the commander of the whole flotilla—had scarcely time to leap from the wreck, and with difficulty made their way to the shore, where they were afterwards found very cold and hungry. The Sirdar received the news at Royan. His calculations were disturbed by the loss of a powerful vessel; but he had allowed for accidents, and in consequence accepted the misfortune very phlegmatically. The days of struggling warfare were over, and the General knew that he had a safe margin of strength.

The other catastrophe afflicted the Khalifa, and its tale was brought to the advancing army by the Intelligence spies, who to the last—even when the forces were closing—tried to pass between them. Not content with building batteries along the banks, Abdullah, fearing the gunboats, had resolved to mine the river. An old officer of the old Egyptian army, long a prisoner in Omdurman, was brought from his chains and ordered to construct mines. Two iron boilers were filled with gunpowder, and it was arranged that these should be sunk in the Nile at convenient spots. Buried in the powder of each was a loaded pistol with a string attached to the trigger. On pulling the string the pistol, and consequently the mine, would be exploded. So the Khalifa argued; nor was he wrong. It was resolved to lay one mine first. On the 17th of August the Dervish steamer Ismailia moved out into the middle of the Nile, carrying one of the boilers fully charged and equipped with pistol detonator. Arrived at the selected spot, the great cylinder of powder was dropped over the side. Its efficiency as a destructive engine was immediately demonstrated, for, on the string being pulled by accident, the pistol discharged itself, the powder exploded, and the Ismailia and all on board were blown to pieces.

Undeterred by the loss of life, and encouraged by the manifest power of the contrivance, the Khalifa immediately ordered the second of the two boilers to be sunk in the stream. As the old Egyptian officer had been killed by the explosion, the Emir in charge of the arsenal was entrusted with the perilous business. He rose, however, to the occasion, and, having first taken the precaution of letting the water into the boiler so as to damp the powder, he succeeded in laying the second mine in mid-stream, to the joy and delight of Abdullah, who, not understanding that it was now useless, overwhelmed him with praise and presents.

Beguiled with such stories and diversions, the day of rest at Wady el Abid passed swiftly. Night brought beetles, bugs, and ants, and several men were stung by scorpions—a most painful though not dangerous affair. Towards morning it began to rain, and everyone was drenched and chilled when the sun rose across the river from behind a great conical hill and dispersed the clouds into wisps of creamy flame. Then we mounted and set out. This day the army moved prepared for immediate action, and all the cavalry were thrown out ten miles in front in a great screen which reached from the gunboats on the river to the Camel Corps far out in the desert.

When we had advanced a little further, there arose above the scrub the dark outlines of a rocky peak, the hill of Merreh. The whole of the 21st Lancers now concentrated, and, trotting quickly forward, occupied this position, whence a considerable tract of country was visible. We were hardly twenty-five miles from Khartoum, and of that distance at least ten miles were displayed. Yet there were no enemy. Had they all fled? Would there be no opposition? Should we find Omdurman deserted or submissive? These were questions which occurred to everyone, and many answered them affirmatively. Colonel Martin had meanwhile heliographed back to the Sirdar that all the ground was up to this point clear, and that there were no Dervishes to be seen. After some delay orders were signalled back for one squadron to remain till sunset in observation on the hill and for the rest to return to camp.

With two troops thrown out a mile in front we waited watching on the hill. Time passed slowly, for the sun was hot. Suddenly it became evident that one of the advanced troops was signalling energetically. The message was spelt out. The officer with the troop perceived Dervishes in his front. We looked through our glasses. It was true. There, on a white patch of sand among the bushes of the plain, were a lot of little brown spots, moving slowly across the front of the cavalry outposts towards an Egyptian squadron, which was watching far out to the westward. There may have been seventy horsemen altogether. We could not take our eyes off those distant specks we had travelled so far, if possible, to destroy. Presently the Dervish patrol approached our right troop, and apparently came nearer than they imagined, for the officer who commanded—Lieutenant Conolly—opened fire on them with carbines, and we saw them turn and ride back, but without hurrying.

The camp to which we returned was a very different place from the one we had left in the morning. Instead of lying along the river-bank, it was pitched in the thinner scrub. The bushes had on all sides been cut down, the ground cleared, and an immense oblong zeriba was built, around which the six brigades were drawn up, and into which cavalry, guns, and transport were closely packed.

Very early next morning the advance was continued. The army paraded by starlight, and with the first streak of the dawn the cavalry were again flung far out in advance. Secure behind the screen of horsemen and Camel Corps, the infantry advanced in regular array. Up to the 27th of August the force marched by divisions; but on and after the 30th of August the whole force commenced to march in fighting formation. The British division was on the left, the Egyptian army on the right. All the brigades marched in line, or in a slight echelon. The flank brigades kept their flank battalions in column or in fours. Other British battalions had six companies in the front line (in company column of fours) and two companies in support. The Egyptian brigades usually marched with three battalions in the front line and one in reserve, each of the three in the front line having four companies in front and two in support.

The spectacle of the moving army—the grand army of the Nile—as it advanced towards its goal was especially wonderful in the clear air of the early morning; a long row of great brown masses of infantry and artillery, with a fringe of cavalry dotting the plain for miles in front, with the Camel Corps—chocolate-coloured men on cream-coloured camels—stretching into the desert on the right, and the white gunboats stealing silently up the river on the left, scrutinising the banks with their guns; while far in rear the transport trailed away into the mirage, and far in front the field-glass disclosed the enemy's patrols. Day after day and hour after hour the advance was maintained. Arrived at the camping-ground, the zeriba had to be built; and this involved a long afternoon of fatigue. In the evening, when the dusty, tired-out squadrons returned, the troopers attended to their horses, and so went to sleep in peace. It was then that the dusty, tired-out infantry provided sentries and pickets, who in a ceaseless succession paced the zeriba and guarded its occupants.

The position of the next camp was a strong one, on a high swell of open ground which afforded a clear field of fire in every direction. Everyone that night lay down to sleep with a feeling of keen expectancy. One way or the other all doubts would be settled the next day. The cavalry would ride over the Kerreri Hills, if they were not occupied by the enemy, and right up to the walls of Omdurman. If the Dervishes had any army—if there was to be any battle—we should know within a few hours. The telegrams which were despatched that evening were the last to reach England before the event. During the night heavy rain fell, and all the country was drenched. The telegraph-wire had been laid along the ground, as there had been no time to pole it. The sand when dry is a sufficient insulator, but when wet its non-conductivity is destroyed. Hence all communications ceased, and those at home who had husbands, sons, brothers, or friends in the Expeditionary Force were left in an uncertainty as great as that in which we slept—and far more painful.

The long day had tired everyone. Indeed, the whole fortnight since the cavalry convoy had started from the Atbara had been a period of great exertion, and the Lancers, officers and men, were glad to eat a hasty meal, and forget the fatigues of the day, the hardness of the ground, and the anticipations of the morrow in deep sleep. The camp was watched by the infantry, whose labours did not end with the daylight. At two o'clock in the morning the clouds broke in rain and storm. Great blue flashes of lightning lit up the wide expanse of sleeping figures, of crowded animals, and of shelters fluttering in the wind; and from the centre of the camp it was even possible to see for an instant the continuous line of sentries who watched throughout the night with ceaseless vigilance. Nor was this all. Far away, near the Kerreri Hills, the yellow light of a burning village shot up, unquenched by the rain, and only invisible in the brightest flashes of the lightning. There was war to the southward.


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

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