Nov 052013

Regimental VC`s (Mahdist War)

 (Regimental Airs (Please Play Me)

The Mahdist War (also called the Mahdist Revolt) was a colonial war of the late 19th century. It was fought between the Mahdist Sudanese and the Egyptian and later British 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.

Following the invasion by Muhammed Aliin 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 the bloody start of the Turkish-Egyptian rule in Sudan.

Throughout the period of Turco-Egyptian rule, many segments of the Sudanese population suffered extreme hardship due to the system of taxation imposed by the central government. Under this system, a flat tax was imposed on farmers and small traders and collected by government-appointed tax collectors from the Sha`iqiyyatribe of northern Sudan. In bad years, and especially during times of drought and famine, farmers were unable to pay the high taxes. Fearing the brutal and unjust methods of the Sha’iqiyya, many farmers fled their villages in the fertile Nile Valleyto the remote areas of Kordofanand Darfur. These migrants, known as black “Jallaba” after their loose-fitting style of dress, began to function as small traders and middlemen for the foreign trading companies that had established themselves in the cities and towns of central Sudan.

By the middle 19th century the Ottoman Imperial subject administration in Egypt was in the hands of Khedive Ismail. Although not a competent or devoted leader, Khedive Ismail had grandiose schemes about Egypt. His spending had put Egypt into huge debt and when his financing of the Suez Canelstarted to crumble, Great Britain stepped in and repaid his loans in return for controlling shares in the canal. As the most direct route to the jewel in the British Crown, India, control over the Suez Canal was of paramount strategic importance, so that British interests dictated the need to seize or otherwise control it. Thus an ever increasing role in Egyptian affairs was mandated for the British Empire. With Khedive Ismail’s spending and corruption causing instability, in 1873 the British government supported a program where an Anglo-French debt commission assumed responsibility for managing Egypt’s fiscal affairs. This commission eventually forced Khedive Ismailto abdicate in favor of his son Tawfiq in 1877, leading to a period of political turmoil.

Ismail had appointed General Charles ” Chinese” Gordon Governor of the Equatorial Provinces of Sudan in 1873. For the next three years, General Gordon fought against a native chieftain of Darfur, Al-Zubayr Rahma Mansur.

Upon Ismail’s abdication Gordon found himself with dramatically decreased support. He eventually resigned his post in 1880, exhausted by years of work, and left early the next year. His policies were soon abandoned by the new governors, but the anger and discontent of the dominant Arab minority was left unaddressed.

Although the Egyptians were fearful of the deteriorating conditions, the British refused to get involved, “Her Majesty’s Government are in no way responsible for operations in the Sudan”, the Foreign Secretary Earl Granville noted.

Among the forces historians see as the causes of the uprising are ethnic Sudanese anger at the foreign Turkish Ottoman rulers, Muslim revivalist anger at the Turks’ lax religious standards and willingness to appoint non-Muslims such as the Christian Charles Gordon to high positions and Sudanese Sufi resistance to “dry, scholastic Islam of Egyptian officialdom”

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 Nileto Abbaand 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 Korofan, where he was at a greater distance from the seat of government in Khartoum. 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 Fashoda 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 4,000 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.

With the Egyptian government now passing largely under British control (see; History of modern Egyptand Anglo- Egyptian War (1882), 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 and undisciplined, its soldiers having more in common with their enemies than with their officers.

El Odeid, 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, Muhammad 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.

At this time, the British Empire was increasingly entrenching itself in the workings of the Egyptian 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 intrest was paid on time, every time. To this end, the Egyptian treasury, initially crippled by corruptionand bureaucracy, was placed by the British almost entirely under the control of a ‘Financial Advisor’, who exercised the power of  vetoover 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 poundsa year,an unmaintainable expense.

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 subject 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 China (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-generalin 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 England on 18th January 1884and arrived in Cairoon the evening of the 24th January.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 18th February,and immediately became apprised with the vast difficulty of the task. Egypt’s garrisons were scattered widely across the country; three (Sennar,Tokarand 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 debatedwhether or not Gordon deliberately remained in Khartoum longer than strategically sensible, seemingly intent on becoming besieged within the town. Gordon’s brother, 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 telegraphlines between Khartoum and Cairowere cut on March 15th, severing communication with the outside world.

Seige of Khartoum

Gordon’s position in Khartoum was very strong, as the city was bordered to the north and east by the Blue Nile, 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 Ethiopia), 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 25th, 1885, after a siege of 313 days.

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.


The British also sent an expeditionary force under Lieutenant-General Sir Gerald Graham, including an Indian contingent, to Suakinin March 1885. It became known as the Suakin Expedition. Although it was successful in the two actions it fought, it failed to change the military situation and was withdrawn.These events temporarily ended British and Egyptian involvement in Sudan, which passed completely under the control of the Mahdists.

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 Mahdivah(or the Mahdist state).

Between 1886 and 1889 a British expedition to relieve the Egyptian governor of Equatoria made its way through central Africa. The governor, Emin Pasha, was rescued, but the expedition was not without its failures, such as the disaster that befell the rear column.

Return to Britain

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 officer. 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 with 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 Adwa, the Italian position in East Africa was seriously weakened. With the Mahdists threatening Kassala, 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 Nileregions. Lord Cromer, judging that the Conservative and Unionist government in power would favour taking the offensive, managed to extend the demonstration into a full-fledged invasion.

Horation 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 11,000 men, Kitchener’s force was armed with the most modern military equipment of the time, including Maxim machine-guns and 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 Halfa 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 9,000 strong force that wiped out the Mahdist garrison at Ferkeh.

In 1898, in the context of the scramble of 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 Atbarain 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 Marchandat Fashodo, resulting in the Fashoda Incident. 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.

Regimental VC`s (Mahdist War / Sudan)

Colonel Sir Percival Scrope Marling, 3rd Baronet VC,CB, DL (6th March 1861 – 29th May 1936) was an English recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

Born on 6 March 1861, he was 23 years old, and a lieutenantin the 3rd Battalion, The King`s Royal Rifle Corps,of the British Army, attached Mounted Infantry during the Mahdist Warwhen the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC.

On 13 March 1884 at the Battle of Tamai in the Sudan during the Mahdist War, Lieutenant Marling risked his life to save that of a private of The Royal Sussex Regiment who had been shot. His citation reads:

For his conspicuous bravery at the battle of Tamai, on 13th March last, in risking his life to save that of Private Morley, Royal Sussex Regiment, who, having been shot, was lifted and placed in front of Lieutenant Marling on his horse. He fell off almost immediately, when Lieutenant Marling dismounted, and gave up his horse for the purpose of carrying off Private Morley, the enemy pressing close on to them until they succeeded in carrying him about 80 yards to a place of comparative safety.

Marling later served in the Second Anglo-Boer- War(1899-1901) in South Africa, where in March 1901 he took over the command of the 18th Hussars.

On 20 October 1903, he was appointed a deputy lieutenantof Gloucestershire,and in 1923 was appointed High Sheriff of Gloucestershire.

He later achieved the rank of  colonel and died on 29th May 1936.

His VC is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum.

By Julie-Ann Rosser

Sourced from Wikipedia

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