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Battle of Abu Klea

Battle of Abu Klea

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The Battle of Abu Klea took place between the dates of 16 and 18 January 1885, at Abu Klea, Sudan
Sudan
Sudan , officially the Republic of the Sudan , is a country in North Africa, sometimes considered part of the Middle East politically. It is bordered by Egypt to the north, the Red Sea to the northeast, Eritrea and Ethiopia to the east, South Sudan to the south, the Central African Republic to the...

, between the British Desert Column and Mahdist
Mahdi
In Islamic eschatology, the Mahdi is the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will stay on Earth for seven, nine or nineteen years- before the Day of Judgment and, alongside Jesus, will rid the world of wrongdoing, injustice and tyranny.In Shia Islam, the belief in the Mahdi is a "central religious...

 forces encamped near Abu Klea. The Desert Column, a force of approximately 1,400 soldiers, started from Korti, Sudan on 30 December 1884; the Desert Column's mission, in a joint effort titled "The Gordon Relief Expedition", was to march across the desert to the aid of General Charles George Gordon
Charles George Gordon
Major-General Charles George Gordon, CB , known as "Chinese" Gordon, Gordon Pasha, and Gordon of Khartoum, was a British army officer and administrator....

  at Khartoum
Khartoum
Khartoum is the capital and largest city of Sudan and of Khartoum State. It is located at the confluence of the White Nile flowing north from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile flowing west from Ethiopia. The location where the two Niles meet is known as "al-Mogran"...

, Sudan, who was besieged there by Mahdist forces.

The place is generally known in British military records as Abu Klea, which arose as a contemporary British attempt at spelling its Arabic name, Abu Tͅuleiħ (أَبُو طُلَيْح).

Background


The British forces consisted of the 1,100 British of the Desert Column under Sir Herbert Stewart
Herbert Stewart
Major-General Sir Herbert Stewart KCB ADC , British soldier, eldest son of the Rev. Edward Stewart, was born at Sparsholt, Hampshire. He was the grandson of Edward Richard Stewart and great-grandson of John Stewart, 7th Earl of Galloway...

, against a Sudanese force of approximately 12,000 fighters. While the main British force (the River Column), led by General Sir Garnet Wolseley travelled by river from Korti to Khartoum, Stewart's column was to cut across country by column directly for Khartoum, since time was running short according to what little information was available from the garrison. The force was composed of four regiments of camel-mounted troops (Guards, Heavy, Light and Mounted Infantry), formed from detachments of the various regiments in Egypt and the River Column, and a detachment of the 19th Hussars
19th Royal Hussars
The 19th Royal Hussars was a cavalry regiment of the British Army, created in 1857 and amalgamated to form the 15th/19th Hussars in 1922.-History:...

, mounted on horses. Four light field pieces and a small Naval Brigade
Naval Brigade
A Naval Brigade is a body of sailors serving in a ground combat role to augment land forces.-Royal Navy:Within the Royal Navy, a Naval Brigade is a large temporary detachment of Royal Marines and of seamen from the Royal Navy formed to undertake operations on shore, particularly during the mid- to...

 manning a Gardner machine gun
Gardner gun
The Gardner gun was an early type of mechanical machine gun. It had one or two barrels, was fed from a vertical magazine or hopper and was operated by a crank. When the crank was turned, a feed arm positioned a cartridge in the breech, the bolt closed and the weapon fired...

 completed the force.

Battle


As the Desert Column approached the wells at Abu Klea, they were set upon by a Mahdist force. Stewart formed the troops into a square
Infantry square
An infantry square is a combat formation an infantry unit forms in close order when threatened with cavalry attack.-Very early history:The formation was described by Plutarch and used by the Romans, and was developed from an earlier circular formation...

, with the cannon on the north face and the Naval Brigade, with their Gardner machine gun, at a corner. Several officers and men of HMS Alexandra
HMS Alexandra (1875)
HMS Alexandra was a central battery ironclad of the Victorian Royal Navy, whose seagoing career was from 1877 to 1900. She spent much of her career as a flagship, and took part in operations to deter Russian aggression against Turkey in 1878 and the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882.-Background:At...

 were killed at the battle. As the British advanced to outflank the Mahdist force, a gap had opened up towards the rear left corner of the square
Infantry square
An infantry square is a combat formation an infantry unit forms in close order when threatened with cavalry attack.-Very early history:The formation was described by Plutarch and used by the Romans, and was developed from an earlier circular formation...

. The Gardner gun
Gardner gun
The Gardner gun was an early type of mechanical machine gun. It had one or two barrels, was fed from a vertical magazine or hopper and was operated by a crank. When the crank was turned, a feed arm positioned a cartridge in the breech, the bolt closed and the weapon fired...

 was run out to the left flank of the infantry square
Infantry square
An infantry square is a combat formation an infantry unit forms in close order when threatened with cavalry attack.-Very early history:The formation was described by Plutarch and used by the Romans, and was developed from an earlier circular formation...

 to provide covering fire. The square closed behind them leaving them exposed. Two companies of the Heavy Camel Regiment were also wheeled out of the square to support the Gardner gun. The Gardner gun had been tested and found very reliable in Britain, but had not been tested in a desert with loose sand getting into its mechanism. After seventy rounds were fired, the gun jammed and as the crew tried to clear it they were cut down in a rush by the Dervish
Dervish
A Dervish or Darvesh is someone treading a Sufi Muslim ascetic path or "Tariqah", known for their extreme poverty and austerity, similar to mendicant friars in Christianity or Hindu/Buddhist/Jain sadhus.-Etymology:The Persian word darvīsh is of ancient origin and descends from a Proto-Iranian...

es. Out of the forty men in the Naval contingent, Lieutenants Alfred Piggott and Rudolph de Lisle were killed along with Chief Boatswain's Mate Bill Rhodes and five other seamen and seven more were wounded. Lord Charles Beresford
Lord Charles Beresford
Charles William de la Poer Beresford, 1st Baron Beresford GCB GCVO , styled Lord Charles Beresford between 1859 and 1916, was a British Admiral and Member of Parliament....

 was 'scratched' on the left hand by a spear as he managed to duck under the gun. The weight of the rush pushed the sailors back into the face of the square. Several Dervishes got inside the square, but found the interior full of camels and could not proceed. The troops in the rear ranks faced about and opened fire into the press of men and camels behind them, and were able to drive the Dervishes out of the square and compel them to retreat from the field.

The battle was short, lasting barely fifteen minutes from start to finish. Casualties for the British were nine officers and 65 other ranks killed and over a hundred wounded. The Mahdists lost 1,100 dead during the quarter hour of fighting, made all the worse by the fact only 5,000 of the Dervish force were engaged. Among the Dervish dead was Musa wad Helu, one of the Mahdist chiefs. British national hero Colonel F. G. Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards
Royal Horse Guards
The Royal Horse Guards was a cavalry regiment of the British Army, part of the Household Cavalry.Founded August 1650 in Newcastle Upon Tyne by Sir Arthur Haselrig on the orders of Oliver Cromwell as the Regiment of Cuirassiers, the regiment became the Earl of Oxford's Regiment during the reign of...

 was killed by a spear to the throat. Frank Rhodes
Francis William Rhodes
Colonel Francis William Rhodes, CB, DSO , better known as "Frank", is perhaps the best known member of the Rhodes family after his brother Cecil. Trained as a soldier from his youth, he participated in a considerable amount of conflict in different parts of the world...

 (brother of Cecil) distinguished himself when several horses were shot under him during the engagement, earning him a Distinguished Service Order
Distinguished Service Order
The Distinguished Service Order is a military decoration of the United Kingdom, and formerly of other parts of the British Commonwealth and Empire, awarded for meritorious or distinguished service by officers of the armed forces during wartime, typically in actual combat.Instituted on 6 September...

. Gunner Alfred Smith fought bravely to save his officer, Lieutenant Guthrie, and was awarded a VC
Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories....

. Another action happened two days later at Abu Kru (the Battle of El Gubat) and the advance rescue force leader Sir Herbert Stewart was mortally wounded leaving command to the inexperienced leader Sir Charles Wilson
Charles William Wilson
Sir Charles William Wilson K.C.B., K.C.M.G., F.R.S., D.C.L., LL.D., M.E. was a British military officer and geographer.-Biography:...

 (the column's intelligence officer) who was slower in organising his forces.

Aftermath


The column was too late to save Khartoum
Khartoum
Khartoum is the capital and largest city of Sudan and of Khartoum State. It is located at the confluence of the White Nile flowing north from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile flowing west from Ethiopia. The location where the two Niles meet is known as "al-Mogran"...

; it was taken by the Mahdists just a few days later leading to the death of General Gordon. The Dervishes
Dervish (disambiguation)
Dervish may refer to:* Dervish, a Sufi Muslim ascetic worshipper in a fraternity* A nickname for the Sudanese mahdists* The first of the Allied Arctic convoys of World War II carrying supplies for the USSR-Music:...

 of the Mahdi ruled over Sudan for the next thirteen years as the British pulled out of the area. The official public blame for this failure was left with Prime Minister
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the Head of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister and Cabinet are collectively accountable for their policies and actions to the Sovereign, to Parliament, to their political party and...

 Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone FRS FSS was a British Liberal statesman. In a career lasting over sixty years, he served as Prime Minister four separate times , more than any other person. Gladstone was also Britain's oldest Prime Minister, 84 years old when he resigned for the last time...

 for delaying several months, to the considerable anger expressed in public of Queen Victoria, to authorize a rescue. Gladstone lost public confidence and much authority and within two months he resigned.

The battle was celebrated by the Scottish doggerel
Doggerel
Doggerel is a derogatory term for verse considered of little literary value. The word probably derived from dog, suggesting either ugliness, puppyish clumsiness, or unpalatability in the 1630s.-Variants:...

 poet William McGonagall:


Ye sons of Mars, come join with me,
And sing in praise of Sir Herbert Stewart’s little army,
That made ten thousand Arabs flee
At the charge of the bayonet at Abou Klea

and so on for 19 stanzas

And also the battle and one of its notable participants is mentioned in the song "Colonel Burnaby", which has as its chorus:

Weep not my boys, for those who fell,
They did not flinch nor fear.
They stood their ground like Englishmen,
and died at Abu Klea


The rhymes in these poems show varying attempts at pronouncing "Klea" from the English spelling, and the rhyme with "fear" shows British English arhotic pronunciation.

More celebrated and of higher literary quality is the mention of the battle in verse two of Sir Henry Newbolt's poem "Vitai Lampada":

…The sand of the desert is sodden red,
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of the schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”


The Royal Artillery
Royal Artillery
The Royal Regiment of Artillery, commonly referred to as the Royal Artillery , is the artillery arm of the British Army. Despite its name, it comprises a number of regiments.-History:...

 unit which took part in the battle still exists today, re-numbered as 176 Battery
176 (Abu Klea) Battery Royal Artillery
176 Battery Royal Artillery is the junior currently-existent regular battery of the Royal Artillery. Its name is pronounced "One Seven Six", and the battery is commonly referred to as "The Abus", and its members as "Abus", after the battery's Honour Title. The battery is one of the sub-units of...

, and has the honour title "Abu Klea", awarded in 1955 in recognition of the Victoria Cross won by Gunner Smith.

See also

  • The Four Feathers (2002 film)
    The Four Feathers (2002 film)
    The Four Feathers is a 2002 action drama film directed by Shekhar Kapur, starring Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson...

  • Khartoum (film)
    Khartoum (film)
    Khartoum is a 1966 film written by Robert Ardrey and directed by Basil Dearden. It stars Charlton Heston as General Gordon and Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi and is based on Gordon's defence of the Sudanese city of Khartoum from the forces of the Mahdist army during the Siege of Khartoum.Khartoum...

  • Frederick Gustavus Burnaby
    Frederick Gustavus Burnaby
    Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby was an English traveller and soldier.-Life:He was born in Bedford, the son of the Rev. Gustavus Andrew Burnaby of Somersby Hall, Leicestershire, and canon of Middleham in Yorkshire , by Harriet, sister of Mr. Henry Villebois of Marham House, Norfolk...


External links