"The Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman", by Richard C. Woodville

Swords Versus Machine Guns: The Lopsided Battle of Omdurman — Part I

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Victorian imperialism reached its apex on 2 September 1898, when the modern British army faced off against an army of poorly equipped Islamic fundamentalists known as Mahdists, and the battle would end the Mahdist War that began in 1881. Even though the war would be officially over the following year in 1899, Omdurman was the defining battle that finally broke the Mahdist back.

But how did the war start?

Imperialism…and Revenge

What caused the British Empire to intervene into Sudan was imperialist monopolism, for other competing powers, like the French, wanted their share in the African land grab and it also appealed to bankers, such as the Rothschilds (a banking family with the largest private fortune in the world in the 19th century), who already invested a substantial amount of money into Egypt and were looking for new lucrative opportunities.

However, this was not how the public saw it. Your average citizens in Britain, who read the Pall Mall Gazette , took to the war with enthusiasm. For them, the subjugation and humiliation of the Sudan would be one of revenge.

In the early 1880s, Sudan became a hotbed of religious revolution. A man by the name of Mahdi, who claimed to be the last in the succession of twelve imans, had branded his own branch of strict Wahabbism and directly challenged the British who occupied Egypt. The army he mustered to wage jihad against the British forces were dervishes, who shaved their heads and wore a simple jibbeh.

A dervish, circa 1860s.

A dervish, circa 1860s. ( Public Domain )

In 1883, Col. Williams Hicks led his 10,000 strong Egyptian forces to El Obeid only to be slaughtered by Mahdi’s forces. After a great press outrage by investigative journalist W.T. Stead, the British decided to send General Charles George Gordon.

General Charles George Gordon.

General Charles George Gordon. ( Public Domain )

Smash the Mahdi!

Gen. Gordon seemed to be the perfect man for the job; he was a veteran who served in the Crimean War and had commanded the Chinese army that crushed the Taiping rebellion. However, Gordon’s mission this time was much different.

The British controllers of Egypt’s government made it clear that Egyptian forces should be withdrawn from the Sudan and leave to it Mahdi, or whomever. It was Gen. Gordon’s duty upon arrival in Khartoum to evacuate the Egyptian troops from Sudan and from the city. But this might be somewhat problematic, given that the Egyptian forces were stationed throughout the Sudan.

Charles Gordon greeting reinforcements at Khartoum in 1885.

Charles Gordon greeting reinforcements at Khartoum in 1885. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Gordon could have conducted the evacuation with ease. However, on 18 February 1884, Gordon arrived at Khartoum and did the opposite. Instead of conducting evacuations, Gordon decided to “smash up the Mahdi.” Whether Gen. Gordon did this because he felt it was his British-Christian obligation to do so, or because he saw the situation was far worse than the public would be later told, will always remain unclear. What is clear is that the Madhi surrounded, besieged, and broke into Khartoum a year later on 26 January 1885, and Gordon was hacked to pieces.

Gen. Gordon’s death sparked outrage among the British public but it would take thirteen years before boots would be on the ground to basically avenge Gen. Gordon’s death.

General Gordon's Last Stand, by George W. Joy

General Gordon's Last Stand, by George W. Joy ( Public Domain )

General Kitchener and Maximum Firepower

The man chosen to lead the Anglo-Egyptian forces in 1898 into the Sudan was General Horatio Herbert Kitchener. The combined forces of the Anglo-Egyptian forces consisted of 8,200 British and 17,600 Egyptian/Sudanese forces, along with 44 guns, 20 Maxims (heavy machine gun, and called “the weapon most associated with the British imperial conquest”), while on the river they had 36 guns, 24 Maxims.


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Cam Rea  is an author and military historian. He has written numerous articles for Ancient Origins, Classical Wisdom Weekly, and has authored several books, including: March of the Scythians: From Sargon II to the Fall of Nineveh

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