Mahdist Wars (a.k.a Soudan Campaign)

1883 to 1898
Mahdists — versus — Egypt and Britain

First Mahdist War — 1883-1885      Second Mahdist War — 1896-1898     
Somali Expedition — 1904     

The Mahdist War, also known as the Soudan Campaign, was fought between a radical group of Moslem dervishes, called Mahdists, who had over-run much of Soudan, and the British and Egyptian forces who nominally controlled the government of the region. The Mahdi, also known as Muhammad Ahmad, was a self-proclaimed prophet whose base of support was Arab traders, who were angry over the efforts of the Egyptian-British government to abolish slavery. They had long held most of the population in subjugation, and now either made alliances with or massacred the native tribes in the region. In a short time, the Mahdists, who opposed not only the infidel British, but also the secular Egyptian government, controlled much of Soudan. At that point, the difficult decision of whether to intervene, or leave the country to its fate had to be dealt with by the colonial government.

The Soudan region had long been a bastion of slavery. It was controlled principally by slave-trading Arab tribes who gained dominance and enslaved much of the negro population. When Egypt first came to dominate the region in about 1819, it merely taxed the slave-trade, and did nothing to oppose slavery or the abuses of the chieftains. As Britain gained ascendency over Egypt, it pressured the Egyptian khedives to prohibit slavery, and eventually General Charles Gordon, a British war hero was installed as the Governor of Soudan. He worked tirelessly for nearly a decade in Soudan doing everything possible to break up the slave trade, and finally returned to Britain exhausted. No replacement was found for him however, and the region began to drift again into chaos. It was a this point that the Mahdi arose and united the disgruntled Arabs in the region against the Egyptian-British government.

First Mahdist War : 1883-1885

The Mahdist movement was not at first taken seriously by the Egyptian governor until late 1883 when two Egyptian armies sent to restore order were massacred by the Mahdists. The Mahdist warriors were fanatical, brutal, and nearly fearless, and much of Soudan fell under their influence out of sheer terror. The British government, under Gladstone, had no desire to contend for Soudan, and ordered the Egyptian and British garrisons in the region to retreat. General Gordon was sent to Khartoum in order to aid in the withdrawal from the region, but seeing how brutally the Mahdist treated their enemies, he insisted that a relief force be sent to Khartoum to prevent it falling into the hands of the Mahdists. Although the British government opposed him, he was able to rally public opinion to his side, and force the British to send a relief column. Unfortunately, the relieving army was delayed in setting forth, and met with considerable resistance, so they arrived at Khartoum several days after it had been taken, and General Gordon killed. With Khartoum lost, the British retreated and left Soudan in the hands of the Mahdists.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Kashgal (First ) Madhists victory
On November 3, 1883, an Egyptian force, 11,000 strong, under Hicks Pasha, with several British officers, was led by a treacherous guide into a defile, where they were attacked by the Mahdists, and after fighting for three days, were massacred almost to a man.
Battle of El Teb (First ) Madhists victory
Fought February 4, 1884, when a column of 3,500 Egyptian troops under Baker Pasha, marching to relieve Sinkat, was overwhelmed, and practically annihilated by 12,000 Soudanese under Osman Digna. The Egyptians lost 2,360 killed and wounded.
Battle of Tamai (First ) British victory
Fought March 13, 1884, when 4,000 British, under General Graham, attacked and defeated the Mahdists, under Osman Digna, destroying their camp. The British fought in two squares, one of which was momentarily broken by the Mahdists, who captured the naval guns. The second square, however, moved up in support, and the Mahdists were repulsed and the guns recovered. The British lost 10 officers and 204 men killed and wounded; the Dervishes over 2,000 killed.
Battle of Trinkitat (First ) British victory
Fought March 29, 1884, when the British, 4,000 strong, under General Graham, totally defeated 6,000 Mahdists, under Osman Digna, after five hours' severe fighting. The British casualties amounted to 189 killed and wounded; the Mahdists lost about 2,000. This action is also known as the Battle of El Teb.
Battle of Khartoum (First ) Madhists victory
This city, defended by an Egyptian garrison under General Gordon, was invested by the Mahdi in the early part of 1884, and, after a gallant defense, was stormed January 26, 1885. The forerunners of the relieving force, consisting of the river gunboats under Lord Charles Beresford, arrived off the city on the 28th, two days too late, and after a brief engagement with the Mahdist batteries, returned down the river.
Battle of Abu Klea (First ) British victory
Fought January 17, 1885, between a British force, 1,500 strong, under Sir Herbert Stewart, and 12,000 Mahdists, of whom about 5,000 actually attacked. The British square was broken at one corner, owing to the jamming of a Gardner gun, and the Mahdists forcing their way inside, a desperate hand-to-hand conflict followed. Eventually the assailants were driven off, and the square reformed. The British loss was 18 officers, among them Colonel Fred. Burnaby, and 150 men. In the immediate vicinity of the square, 1,100 Arab dead were counted.
Battle of Abu Kru (First ) British victory
Fought January 19, 1885, between 1,200 British troops under Sir Herbert Stewart, and a large force of Mahdists. The Mahdists attacked a short distance from the Nile, and the British square moved towards the river, repelling all assaults successfully till they reached the Nile. The British losses were 121, including Sir Herbert Stewart, mortally wounded. This action is also known as the battle of Gubat.
Battle of Kirbekan (First ) British victory
Fought February 10, 1885, when the British, about 1,000 strong, under General Earle, stormed the heights of Kirbekan, which were held by a strong Mahdist force, and totally routed them, with heavy loss. The British lost 60, among whom was General Earle, killed.
Battle of Hashin (First ) British victory
Fought March 20, 1885, when 8,000 British troops, under General Graham, defeated a detachment of Osman Digna's army, inflicting upon them a loss of about 1,000 killed. The British lost 48 killed and wounded.
Battle of Tofrek (Second ) British victory
Fought March 22, 1885, when General McNeill, with 3 battalions of Indian, and 1 1/2 of British troops, was surprised in his zariba, by about 5,000 Mahdists. One of the native regiments broke and fled, but the Berkshires and Marines, made a gallant defense, though the zariba was forced, as did the other native regiments. After twenty minutes' fighting the attack was beaten off, the Mahdists leaving 1,500 dead on the field. The British lost 294 combatants and 176 camp-followers, killed, wounded and missing.

Short Biography
Charles Gordon General who defeated the Tai-pings in China, served as governor in Soudan and resisted the Mahdi in Khartoum.
Mahdi Raised an army of Rebel Muslim Sudanese. Caused widespread carnage. Besieged Khartoum.

Story Links
Book Links
General Gordon  in  Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary  by  Cambridge Press
Recent Times  in  The Hanoverians  by  C. J. B. Gaskoin
Gordon  in  Red Book of Heroes  by  Mrs. Andrew Lang
Khartoum  in  The Story of General Gordon  by  Jeanie Lang
Gathering Clouds in  Life of Gladstone  by  M. B. Synge
Gordon—The Hero of Khartum  in  Growth of the British Empire  by  M. B. Synge
Gloomy Days in Egypt  in  The Reign of Queen Victoria  by  M. B. Synge

Second Mahdist War : 1896-1898

In 1896 the British resumed their war upon the Mahdists of Soudan, but in the interim several important things had happened. Mahdi himself had been murdered by one of the women in his harem, and his command was taken by the Khalifa, one of his Generals. The Mahdists themselves were troubled with internal disputes, and their expansion had been hindered by the Italians in the east, and the French in the west. Most importantly for the Britain, the Egyptian government itself, which had been in a precarious state during the first war against the Mahdi due to financial troubles and the recent rebellion in the army, was now much on a much more solid footing, under the administration of Lord Baring. The Campaign was led by Kitchener, who built a railroad through the Nile valley before leading the British and Egyptians to a decisive victory over the Mahdists. The decisive battle was fought at Omdurman. The Mahdi army was broken up, the Khalifa put to flight, and a stable government was set up in Khartoum.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Agordat (Second ) Italians victory
Fought December 21, 1893, between 2,200 Italians, and native troops, under General Arimondi, and 11,500 Mahdists under Ahmed Ali, who had invaded Italian territory. The Mahdists were routed with a loss of about 3,000 men. The Italians lost 13, and 225 natives killed and wounded.
Battle of Ferkeh (Second ) Egyptians victory
Fought June 7, 1896, between 9,500 Egyptian troops, with a British horse battery, under Sir Herbert Kitchener, and 4,000 Mahdists under the Emir Hamada. Kitchener, by a night march, surprised the Mahdists in their camp, and after two hours' fighting, drove them out with a loss of 1,500 killed and 500 prisoners. Of 62 Emirs present in the camp, 44 fell and four were captured. The Egyptians lost 20 killed and 81 wounded.
Battle of Abu Hamed (Second ) Egyptians victory
Fought August 7, 1897, when the Dervish entrenchments outside Abu Hamed were stormed by a Soudanese Brigade, with 2 guns Royal Artillery, under Major-General Hunter. The Mahdist garrison was driven through the town, losing heavily, and their commander, Mohammed Zain, captured. The Egyptian loss was 80 killed and wounded, including 4 British officers.
Battle of Atbara (Second ) British-Egyptians victory
Fought April 8, 1898, between the British and Egyptian army, 14,000 strong, under Sir Herbert Kitchener, and 18,000 Mahdists under Mahmad. The Mahdists occupied an entrenched zareeba on the Atbara, where they were attacked and utterly routed, with a loss in the zareeba of 5,000 killed and 1,000 prisoners, while many more fell in the pursuit. Mahmad was captured. The Anglo-Egyptian losses were 570 killed and wounded, including 29 British officers.
Battle of Omdurman (Somali Expedition ) British-Egyptians victory
Fought September 2, 1898, between the British and Egyptians, 23,000 strong, under Sir Herbert Kitchener, and 50,000 Dervishes, under the Khalifa. The Dervishes attacked the British zareba, and were repulsed with heavy loss. Kitchener then advanced, to drive the enemy before him into Omdurman, and capture the place. In the course of the operation, however, the Egyptian Brigade on the British right, under General Macdonald, became isolated, and was attacked in front by the centre of the Dervish army, while his flank and rear were threatened by the Dervish left, which had not previously been engaged. The position was critical, but through the extreme steadiness of the Soudanese, who changed front under heavy fire, the attack was repulsed. The British and Egyptian losses were 500 killed and wounded. The Dervishes lost about 15,000.

Short Biography
Horatio Kitchener Military hero of the late 19th century, first in Sudan, and later in the Boer Wars
The Khalifa Succeeded as leader of the Mahdists on the death of Mahdi. Fought Kitchener at Omdurman.

Story Links
Book Links
Redemption of Egypt  in  Growth of the British Empire  by  M. B. Synge
Modern Egypt  in  The Reign of Queen Victoria  by  M. B. Synge
Omdurman  in  The Boy's Book of Battles  by  Eric Wood

Somali Expedition : 1904

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Jidballi (cuba ) British victory
Fought January 10, 1904, between the Somalis, 5,000 strong, and a small British and native force, under Sir Charles Egerton. The Somalis' camp was attacked, and after a brisk action they were driven out and pursued by the cavalry for twelve miles, losing 1,000 killed in the fight and pursuit. The British losses were very small.

Image Links

Charge of the Dervishes at Omdurman
 in Greatest Nations - Persia

A shot ended his life.
 in Red Book of Heroes

Looking for the help that never came
 in The Story of General Gordon

Omdurman: One after another the bearers were shot down.
 in The Boy's Book of Battles