“Ye sons of Mars, come join with me ” (William Topaz McGonagal – The Battle of Abu Klea)
Early 1884, General Charles G. Gordon was sent by the British Prime Minister William Gladstone to Sudan, aimed to evacuate Egyptian troops out of the country, where Muhammad Ahmad had declared himself The Mahdi or Saviour. He had begun a revolt to throw Egyptians out of Sudan, leading the path to a muslim jihad.
Gordon had succesfully acted as Governor of Sudan years ago, so Gladstone thought the Egyptian troops could be easily evacuated. However, once in Khartoum, Gordon thought he could defeat the mahdist troops and decided to resist into the city, trying to force the British Army to help them.
Khartoum was besieged by The Mahdi army in March, but Gladstone waited until August, when gave up to the government (even Queen Victoria’s) and public opinion pressures. He sent an expeditionary force to rescue General Gordon. General Lord Wolseley was given command of the task, but the troops weren’t ready until November.
Wolseley decided to approximate to Khartoum by two different ways, dividing the forces in two groups. The main column, commanded by himself, was called the River Column, as it followed the Nile river course. They could be not in time to rescue Gordon, as it was a long way, so he decided to set up a second column, commanded by General Sir Herbert Stewart and formed by light troops, ready to go into action: the Camel Corps. Their aim was to cross the desert, reaching Khartoum by the fastest way.
Stewart departed from Korti with four infantry regiments mounted in camels, the 19th Hussars on horses, four Royal Artillery guns and a litlle Naval Brigade equipped with a Gardner machine gun. Stewart expected to catch the rebels by surprise, but when reaching the wells of Abu Klea, the 19th Hussars scouts encountered parties of Mahdists in the oasis. As the British column had left the last wells afar, they needed to take Abu Klea by assault. Stewart decided to camp two miles short of the oasis, thinking of having a quiet night before the attack, but the British were annoyed throughout all the night by constant sniper fire.
At dawn, a huge mahdist force formed up in front of the British, who were forced to set up their famous defensive square to move forward to the wells, while resisting enemy attacks. The Naval Brigade and the Heavy Camel Regiment were in charge of the flanks’ defense. The mahdists isolated the Naval Brigade, thanks to a jamming in the gun, and got their way to the British defensive square, but the Camel Brigade fought them, forcing their retreat. The battle was fairly short, but really bloody: British’ casualties were 71 killed (11 officers included) and 64 wounded. The mahdist troops suffered around 1500 casualties.
The Desert Column, as well as the River one, arrived both too late to Khartoum, despite its efforts: the city had been taken by the mahdist army, and Gordon had already been killed and beheaded.