Fire & Sword in the Sudan: September-November 1883

Illustrated London News

September 1883: Baker Advances

As predicted, General Baker has advanced from Trinkitat to subdue the rebellious Hadendowa tribes of the Eastern Sudan. His expedition, some 4000 strong and well provided with artillery, met with no opposition as it advanced across the salt marshes that surround the town, the enemy melting away into the hills as they came on. Scouts sent out to reconnoitre the ‘road’ to Sinkat by Lieutenant Commander Moncrief, British Consul at Suakin, report that the enemy also appears to have withdrawn from here as well.

The threat to the Red Sea ports appears, for now, to be receding. Moving inland, a few native scouts were seen to be shadowing the column, but were driven off by loyal Watusi horsemen without loss. The oasis at Tokar has already been reached and occupied without incident although a number of the Watusi levies have deserted from the ranks over the last few days, nervous of advancing so deeply into enemy territory and so far from their coastal villages.

Colonel Fred Burnaby

Colonel Fred Burnaby

At the oasis, the expedition was joined by Colonel Burnaby of the Blues, who, having taken leave from his regiment ‘in order to go hunting’ somewhat unexpectedly then took a fast packet first to Alexandria and then on to Suakin, riding through the desert accompanied only by his faithful manservant, Niazar, a Turkoman bandit, to join his long-time friend in this great adventure. The Colonel has also brought with him a fine pair of Purdeys, in anticipation of some sport.

Meanwhile, under cover of nightfall, Tewfiq Bey, accompanied only by a few hand-picked men, slipped out from Wadi Halfa, passed unseen through the enemy lines and rode northwards along the banks of the Nile to Aswan. His arrival coincided with that of a brigade of Egyptian cavalry and a second unit of infantry, bringing Egyptian numbers there to almost 2000 men. With a similar number garrisoning Wadi Halfa available for action, it is to be hoped that the pacification of the northern district of the country will soon begin.

Reports have reached us that the beleaguered, exhausted and demoralized garrison of El Obeid has finally surrendered to the insurgents after a siege lasting over 6 weeks. Except for Khartoum and the Red Sea ports, the whole of the Sudan south of Berber is now in the hands of the Mahdi. It is hoped that robust action by General Baker will soon be forthcoming if the situation is to be stabilized.

Illustrated London News

October 1883: The Sand of the Desert is Sodden Red

The Egyptian expeditionary force under General Baker advanced inland to secure the strategically important town of Sinkat, straddling the main road inland from the Red Sea ports to Berber and Atbara. A few miles south of the town they were forced to contend with fierce but uncoordinated attacks by approximately 2000 Hadendowa tribesmen. Disciplined volleys supported by machine guns and rockets inflicted heavy casualties and enabled them to drive off the rebels without serious loss.

Readers with an appreciation of the finer things in life have written to the editor, asking for further information on Colonel Burnaby’s “fine pair of Purdeys”, with which he has enjoyed some sport in recent weeks. We are happy to oblige with a completely gratuitous illustration that offers only the slightest association with the perfectly proportioned game pieces built using the famous self-opening system patented by Frederick Beesley in 1880 that are now offered by James Purdey & Sons at their new showroom in South Audley Street.

Readers with an appreciation of the finer things in life have written to the editor, asking for further information on Colonel Burnaby’s “fine pair of Purdeys”, with which he has enjoyed some sport in recent weeks. We are happy to oblige with a completely gratuitous illustration that offers only the slightest association with the perfectly proportioned game pieces built using the famous self-opening system patented by Frederick Beesley in 1880 that are now offered by James Purdey & Sons at their new showroom in South Audley Street.

The distant sound of renewed firing some way to the northeast, the thunder of Martini Henrys mixed with the staccato rattle of Gardner guns, out of sight beyond a range of low hills, prompted the column to hastily resume its advance. It was clear that the British Naval Brigade, advancing from Suakin to link up with Baker had encountered fierce resistance from rebel forces en route and was in urgent need of support. Unfortunately, relief came too late – Baker’s men arrived just as the last few redcoats and jack tars fought to their last bullet and twisted bayonet, back to back in small groups amongst the shattered remnants of their defensive square, taking over twice their number of tribesmen with them, but ultimately being overwhelmed by weight of numbers. Only a few survivors were rescued, including a badly wounded midshipman, from whom it is hoped that a more detailed account of the last stand of the marine battalion will be forthcoming. Coming only 4 years after the debacle in South Africa, it is probably for the best that Commander Moncrief did not survive the loss of his first independent command. A new Consul will be appointed in due course.

Several well-aimed Egyptian volleys were enough to drive the remaining rebels from the field, exhausted as they were by the desperate last stand of the marines, securing the approaches to the town as resistance died away, the enemy having suffered an estimated 3000 casualties, dead and wounded by this point. Meanwhile, the wild horsemen of the Watusi tribe rode into Sinkat itself, causing the few remaining rebel defenders within the walls, whose rifle and artillery fire was once again wholly ineffective, to flee the field in disorder, abandoning their single Krupp’s gun in their haste.

Elsewhere, the garrison of Khartoum remains defiant despite a desultory bombardment of the fortifications by the rebels and a few, easily repulsed, assaults on the walls. However, for the first time, Gordon’s messages speak of dwindling supplies and the need for urgency if the city is to be saved from the rebels.

An advance party of the Yorkshire & Lancashire Regiment, en-route home from a tour of duty in India, is understood to have been held back in Aden. The Government continues to deny that the presence of British troops in the theatre is not a prelude to direct intervention. Although their numbers are small (less than 200 men), rumours are rife that the remainder of the battalion will soon reinforce them. It is also reported that there has been unusually high levels of activity in several barracks in southern England, a clear prelude to intervention in the region.

James Purdy was founded in 1814, moving to its purpose built showroom at Audley House in 1882. Fred Burnaby became infamous for using one of their ‘side by side’ hammerless shotguns at the battle of El Teb, provoking letters to The Times criticizing his ungentlemanly behaviour.

Illustrated London News

November 1883: Baker Recaptures Atbara

General Baker continued his advance inland through the inhospitable desert of the Eastern Sudan, brushing aside several further attacks by Hadendowa tribesmen en route. After several days arduous march, ably assisted by Kitchener and his scouts, the expedition marched into the Northern District, encamping within sight of Atbara, and gaining their first sight of the Nile. A surprise dawn attack by an estimated 6000 enemy warriors, including cavalry and many trained riflemen, was driven off with heavy losses in a close-fought encounter that saw the zeriba overrun in one place and a company of Egyptian infantry badly cut up while defending the mountain gun battery stationed there. Thereafter, with the enemy routed, Baker was able to enter Atbara itself and secure the town without further resistance.

General Valentine Baker

Gendarmerie-General Valentine Baker

To the south, Tewfiq Bey marched on Wadi Halfa, accompanied by General Wolseley. The disheartened Mahdists besieging the town did not put up much of a fight, although a body of mounted warriors ambushed one unit of Egyptian infantry, inflicting heavy casualties. It should also be noted that enemy rifle fire was more accurate than previously experienced, indicating the presence of Sudanese regular army deserters and bazinqirs amongst the rebels. Having relieved the town, General Wolseley has assumed command, reinforced the column with units from the garrison and pushed forward, reaching Akasha without further incident.

Reports from Khartoum suggest that the situation there is reaching crisis point. It is rumoured that Gordon is drinking heavily, praying harder and prone to fits of deep melancholy. He has the look of a martyr, despite Hick’s best efforts to keep up the morale of the garrison. A sally from the city is expected, either to escape downriver or to raid the hinterland for much needed supplies.

Further British troops have been assembled in Aden – the Yorkshire and Lancashire regiment has been brought up to strength and reinforced by the Royal Irish Fusiliers. General Graham recently inspected the brigade, which is commanded by Lieutenant General Redvers Buller VC. It is expected to be deployed to Suakin without further delay.

Despite increasing pressure from the field commanders and the general public back home, the Government has refused to send further troops to the region. Concerns about growing Russian expansionist policies in central Asia, and the recent victories achieved with the resources already deployed, have been cited by senior officials.

Read on Fire & Sword in the Sudan: December 1883-January 1884.

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