Shoot the prisoners and the wounded !
2 September 1892
On 2 September 1892, the army of the Mahdi, a Sudanese religious leader, was massacred by a British force, under General Kitchener, at the so called battle of Omdurman. About sixteen thousand Dervishes were killed for the loss of just 48 of Kitchener’s men. British soldiers were then ordered to shoot the prisoners and wounded in revenge for the killing of General Gordon during the siege of Khartoum fourteen years earlier. One NCO commented ‘well, if that is not murder, I do not know what is,’ while another declared that it was ‘more like a butcher’s killing house than anything else.’1
A youthful Lieutenant Winston Churchill, who was at the battle, informed his mother by letter that the ‘victory at Omdurman was disgraced by the inhuman slaughter of the wounded and… Kitchener was responsible for this.’2 War correspondent Ernest Bennett was equally appalled by ‘the slaughter of men who were unarmed and manifestly helpless’ and by the indiscriminate use of the Maxim machine gun against fleeing Dervishes in the town of Omdurman after the battle. ‘One street especially which led down to the river,’ he reported, ‘was swept by a frightful hail of Maxim bullets, which mowed the fugitives down in scores, non-combatants as well as combatants. If… Gordon could have foreseen some of the deeds sanctioned by the general who was sent to “avenge” him, his dying request… would, I think, have been to put away all thoughts of vengeance !’3
General Kitchener, however, insisted that he had not given any orders to execute the wounded and was, in fact, annoyed by the killings because it was ‘a dreadful waste of ammunition.’4 The Army and Navy Gazette leaped to the general’s defence, explaining that ‘when the forces of a civilised power are employed against semi-barbarous enemies it is not possible to control excesses.’ 5 Other newspapers were equally unequivocal in their condemnation of any criticism. ‘You cannot be humane to such a foe,’ asserted St. James’s Gazette, adding that ‘it is a simple fact that in wars of the more ferocious nature all concerned become hardened and barbarized.’ The Gazette reasoned that Kitchener’s war in Sudan was ‘in essentials a just war, and one sure to be beneficent in its general results.’ It questioned ‘what purpose Mr. Bennett can reasonably have hoped to serve by dragging out all the ‘tacenda’ of the Omdurman campaign.’6
- First officer cited in “The Omdurman Victory: Serious Charges Against Anglo-Egyptian Troops,”The Northampton Mercury, 6 January 1899 p. 5 and second in John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, Bookmarks 2013 London, p. 106.
- Steven J Corvi and Ian F W Beckett (Editors), Victoria’s Generals, Pen and Sword Military 2009 Barnsley, p. 199.
- Ernest N Bennett cited in “The Omdurman Victory: Serious Charges Against Anglo-Egyptian Troops,” The Northampton Mercury, 6 January 1899 p. 5.
- Philip Magnus, Kitchenere: Portrait of an Imperialist, John Murray 1958, London p. 128.
- “Army Notes,” The Army and Navy Gazette, 7 January 1899 p. 4
- “These Things Must Be At Every Victory,” St. James’s Gazette 31 December 1898 p. 3.
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