8 APRIL 1898
THE BATTLE OF ATBARA – A HIGHLY ASYMETRICAL CONTEST
Few people In Britain today have heard of the Battle of Atbara fought on 8 April 1898, amid the arid brushland surrounding the River Atbara, a tributary of the Nile in Sudan, some 200 miles north east of Khartoum. As the sun rose, a half starved Dervish army of 14,000, with swords, spears and some outdated rifles, awoke to find themselves encircled by an invading Anglo-Egyptian force of 16,000. The attacking force was highly trained, well supplied by a railway it had constructed across the desert and lavishly equipped with
- the latest Lee-Metford rifles firing hollow nosed bullets which were banned the following year by the 1899 Hague convention as they exploded on impact causing appalling injuries and suffering.
- twenty Maxim machine guns capable collectively of firing nearly 2,000 rounds a minute.
- several batteries of rockets and
- thirty heavy guns firing lethal shrapnel shells manufactured by the arms giants Krupp and Maxim-Nordenfeldt.1
KITCHENER ORDERED SOUTH TO CRUSH DERVISH RESISTANCE
The Anglo-Egyptian army was commanded by the legendary General Kitchener. His moustached face as Secretary of State for War sixteen years later would feature on the “Your Country Needs You !” posters across Britain.
In March 1896, his troops had crossed from Egypt into the Sudan to assert British hegemony over northern areas of the country which were crucial to Britain’s control of Egypt and the Red Sea route to India. Two years later, in January 1898, increasingly irritated by the continued defiance of Dervish Sudanese forces under Khalif Abdullah, the appointed successor to the Mahdi who had led an earlier revolt against the British in 1885, London ordered Kitchener to push south to Khartoum and crush all resistance.
THE DERVISH ENCAMPMENT AT ATBARA SURROUNDED
At the end of March, a reconnaissance unit of British cavalry detected a large encampment of the Khalif’s forces on the north bank of the Atbara, under the command of Emir Mahmud Ahmad. Mahmud knew him men were in no condition to launch an immediate attack on kitchener’s army. Possibly his greatest challenge was the enormous disparity in firepower favouring the British , exacerbated by what even the jingoistic Morning Post would subsequently acknowledge was “an extraordinary paucity of ammunition on the part of the enemy,”
Mahmud hoped to at least partially mitigate this handicap by defending an entrenched position in the densest brushland that he could find.2 Even then, he must have feared the worst, with Britain’s Army and Navy Gazette crowing that his force was thought to be ‘suffering much from hunger,’ and also, according to the Edinburgh Evening News, ‘a good deal from desertion.’3
Kitchener decided on a direct frontal assault. Before the sun had risen that Easter Friday, Colonel Long, commanding the British artillery, positioned 24 of his heavy guns only a few hundred metres from the entrenched Sudanese defences without his men coming under any significant return gunfire.4 Mahmud’s forces were desperately short of ammunition and had understandably decided to conserve their ammunition for close range fighting.
The British, on the other hand, had ample supplies of both bullets and shells and at 6.16 am sharp an intense and accurate bombardment began. 1,400 shells rained down on each and every sector of the Dervish army’s defences at an average rate of one every five seconds.5 The troops crouching in their shallow trenches were exposed to a hail of shrapnel from each explosive device, annihilating any living thing in its path, while rockets ignited the surrounding straw huts, tents, palm trees and bushes.
DERVISH TROOPS MASSACRED AFTER THE BATTLE IS OVER
At 7.40 am the shelling suddenly ceased, the bugles sounded and British and Egyptian troops rushed the Sudanese positions. The Dervish defenders reserved their few cartridges until the Kitchener’s men were almost on them. For a while, they put up a brave and determined fight against impossible odds, but as soon as the leading British troops had driven through their lines as far as the Atbara, any continued resistance was hopeless, and those that were not seriously wounded knew they faced a bleak choice, depending on their particular circumstances, to either attempt to surrender or try to flee southwards across the river and then across the desert back towards Khartoum.
Unfortunately for the Dervish soldiers, particularly for the many who were wounded, the British Army was not inclined to take prisoners. This should be clearly evident merely from the distribution of Dervish corpses. The London Daily News admitted that ‘after counting two thousand (enemy) dead in the open, it is estimated that the Dervish loss in killed in the thick bush’ across an extensive area around the battlefield ‘was probably not less than a total of 3,000.’6
The Times correspondent similarly reported that ,according to the cavalry, ‘the river bed,’ across which Dervish soldiers would have had to flee, ‘and thick bush down to the river are full of Dervish dead,’ while The Aberdeen Press and Journal reminded readers that ‘the (Dervish) fugitives were being pursued across the desert by our cavalry, horse artillery and Maxims.’7 It is also interesting to note that, although the Dervish army was comprised of both black and Arab Sudanese soldiers, there were few Arabs among the prisoners.
Winston Churchill, who wrote a detailed account of the battle of Atbara in his book “The River War” claims that this was because the ‘Arabs refused to surrender… or tried to escape.’8 However, it’s also possible that there was an unofficial and widely understood policy that it was acceptable or even expected that Arab prisoners should be immediately shot. If this was the case it may have been because as Churchill himself believed the black soldiers would fight ‘with equal willingness on either side’ and therefore could serve as useful new recruits, while the Arabs were perceived as being far more dedicated to the khalif.
There is, not surprisingly, no obvious evidence in the written directives by Kitchener of any official British policy of killing the enemy wounded or those attempting to surrender. According to one of the general’s apologetic biographers, Philip Magnus, Kitchener had insisted that ‘he had given strict orders that prisoners were to be taken, and that enemy wounded were not to be automatically dispatched, as they had been on some previous occasions,’ and he accordingly attributes the mass slaughter ‘less to inhumanity and more to the excitement of battle.’
Walter Kitchener, who was then serving as a Major, also strongly defended his brother’s conduct, asserting in a letter to his wife, a week after the battle, that he had seen Herbert attempt to restrain a group of soldiers from shooting their helpless Dervish prisoners, growling that it was a was a waste of ammunition. Walter added
‘I saw some of them shot a yard off, as they ran forward with bits of palm up in their hands. But Tommy was just as bad as the blacks.’9
Some British soldiers in private correspondence, attempted to justify the indiscriminate slaughter, arguing that it was from fear and vengeance. Edward M Spears recounts in ‘The Victorian Soldier in Africa‘ how Drum-Major David Nelson of the Seaforth Highlanders, claimed to have been provoked after discovering Dervish soldiers shamming death before attacking passing soldiers. He wrote home, explaining how ‘after that they got no mercy. They got bayoneted every time.’
Another combatant, Corporal W. D. Anderson of the Lincolns, though not specifying whether any opportunity was given to surrender, recalled that ‘as we drove them to the river they were properly butchered, and hundreds of them were fairly blown to pieces.’10 So it’s of little surprise that some historians have considered the combination of circumstantial evidence and witness testimony amply sufficient to reach the reasonable conclusion, to cite the historian Rodney Attwood, that the ‘Dervishes were ruthlessly shot, bayoneted or clubbed even when they tried to surrender.’11
- Military equipment numbers based on several sources including Winston Churchill, The River War, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2009 and ‘Great Fight in the Sudan,’ St. James’s Gazette, 9 April 1898, p. 8. There are some differences in the numbers given. For instance the article in St. James’s Gazette lists only 12 Maxims, while Winston Churchill’s account, which was probably the more accurate, lists twenty.
- The Morning Post, 9 April 1898, p. 5.
- The Army and Navy Gazette, 9 April 1898, p. 14 and ‘The Soudan Battle… Dervish Army Annihilated,’ The Edinburgh Evening News, 9 April 1898, p. 2.
- Philip Magnus, ‘Kitchener: Portrait of an Imperialist,’ John Murray, London, 1958, p. 120.
- ‘The Battle of Atbara,’ The (London) Daily News, 11 April 1898 and Winston Churchill, The River War, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2009
- ‘The Battle of Atbara,’ The (London) Daily News, 11 April 1898.
- The Times cited in the Liverpool Echo, 11 April 1898, p. 4 and The Aberdeen Press and Journal, 9 April 1898, p. 4.
- Winston Churchill, The River War, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2009
- CIted in Philip Magnus, Op. cit., pp. 121-122.
- David Nelson and W. D Anderson cited in Edward M. Spiers, ‘The Victorian Soldier in Africa,’ Manchester University Press, 2004, p. 147.
- Rodney Atwood, Roberts and Kitchener in South Africa, 1900-1902, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2011, p. 46.
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