BLTC Press Titles


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Some Experiences of an Irish R. M.

Edith Somerville and Martin Ross


Mortal Coils

Aldous Huxley


My Man Jeeves

P. G. Wodehouse


The Secret Doctrine, Volume I Cosmogenesis

H. P. Blavatsky


Khartoum campaign, 1898

by Bennet Burleigh

Excerpt:

After the battle and victory of the Atbara in the spring, the British troops, or Gatacre's brigade, marched back from Omdabiya by easy stages to the Nile. The wounded and sick were conveyed into the base hospital at Dakhala, whence they were afterwards sent down to Ginenetta or, as it then was, Rail-head. From that point they were, as each case required, forwarded by train and steamboat to Wady Halfa and Cairo. It was at Darmali, 12 miles or more north of Dakhala, that the British soldiers went into summer-quarters. On the 14th of April the brigade mustered 3818 strong, made up as follows:—833 Camerons, 826 Seaforths, 969 Lincolns, and 665 Warwicks. Two companies of Warwicks had been left in the Dongola province when the advance was made. Besides the muster of battalions enumerated, the brigade included a Maxim battery, detachments of the Army Service Corps, and other details. The "Tommies" settled down in camp, living under peace conditions, for with the rout of Mahmoud's men, the nearest dervish force worth considering was as far off as Shabluka Cataract. Everybody was bidden to make himself as snug as possible. Outlying houses and walls were thrown down to secure a free circulation of air. As for sunlight, that was shut out wherever practicable. The first home drafts to make up for losses arrived at Darmali on the 23rd of April. About 130 men then joined. It was thought desirable to maintain the British battalions at their full strength, and some of them mustered nearly one thousand strong. As the percentage of sick was continuous, and the rate increased as the campaign progressed, the actual roll of men "fit for duty" grew less as we neared Omdurman. Of course, "youths," and all the "weedy ones," were in the first instance rejected by the army doctors, and were never permitted to go to the front. Men over 25 years of age were preferred, and it so happened that both the Grenadier Guards and the Northumberland Fusiliers had a high average of relatively old soldiers, and consequently few sick. From the end of April until the end of May, dull hot days in the Soudan, leave was granted to officers to run down to Alexandria and have a "blow "at San Stefano, by the sea-side. There were quite a number of deaths in the brigade shortly after the men got into camp, the customary reaction having set in on account of the exposure and strain precedent to the victory of the Atbara. To reduce the numbers quartered at Darmali, the Lincolns and Warwicks, on the 19th of April, were marched a mile farther north along the Nile, to EsSelim, where they formed a separate encampment, the Camerons and Seaforths remaining at the first-named place. The average daily number of sick in the brigade at that period was 100 to 150. On one occasion there were 190 men reported unfit for duty. Most of the cases were not of a serious nature, and the patients speedily recovered and returned to their places in the ranks. There was no lack of stores and even dainties at the camps, for supplies were carried up by

caravan, escorted by Jaalin friendlies, from Berber and elsewhere. Much of the sickness in the army was probably due to the men recklessly drinking unboiled and unfiltered Nile water. At that season the river had sunk into its narrowest bed, and there were backwashes and sluggish channels full of light-green tinted water. More filters were procured, and extra care was taken with all the water used for domestic purposes.

In May there were route marches twice a week, the brigade going off at 5.30 a.m. and returning about 7.30 a.m., all in the cool of the morning or such bearable temperature as there was in the 24 hours' daily round in that month. During these exercises the troops had plenty of firing practice, being taught to blaze away at bushes, and occasionally at targets representing dervishes. In that way the remainder of the million of tip-filed Lee-Metford bullets were disposed of, for it had been arranged that there was to be a new cartridge case for the Omdurman campaign. The latest pattern "man-stopper " was a bullet fashioned with a hollow or crater at the point, the nickel casing being perforated.

So the days droned past for the British soldiers, with little to do beyond essaying the impossible of trying to keep cool. It was often otherwise with the Egyptians, for they had to assist in getting the railroad through to Dakhala from Ginenetta, in forwarding boats and stores, and later on in establishing wood stations and cutting fuel for the steamers. The first of the tropical summer rain showers fell at Darmali on the 27th of May. On the 18th of June Major-General Gatacre went off on a shooting excursion up the Atbara, taking with him a party of ten officers and a few orderlies. They found relatively little big game but plenty of gazelle and birds. The bodies of the slain in Mahmoud's zereba at Omdabiya still lay where they fell, unburied, but dried up and mummified by the sun. Natives had stripped the place and carried off everything left behind by us. A number of dervishes were seen lurking about, part of the defeated army of the enemy, who were afraid to return to Omdurman, anticipating that the Khalifa would have them killed. Indeed, it appeared that numbers of the runaways had settled down at New Hilgi, and were attempting to cultivate. As for the four or five thousand dervish cavalry that Mahmoud had with him, they also never returned to Omdurman. Quite probably they made their way back to their original homes in small bands, rightly believing that Mahdism was doomed. Assured of pardon and good treatment at our hands, fourteen of the Mahdists and a number of women came in with General Gatacre's people. No attempt was made by the dervishes in the neighbourhood to "snipe" the party. They returned to Darmali on the 27th of June. With the sun gone north came the rising of the Nile and fresh breezes. The gunboats kept diligently patrolling the river, watching for any signs of movement on the part of the Khalifa and his forces. The enemy were reported to be gathering in large numbers at Omdurman for the coming conflict. As Shendy was held by a small force of Egyptians, and Metemmeh nominally by the Jaalin for us, frequent visits were made to those posts. Later on, other shooting parties went up to Omdabiya and found that there was an increase in the numbers of natives about, and that flocks and herds were to be seen grazing in the vicinity. The tribesmen showed that they had abandoned the Khalifa by tearing the dervish patches off their clothing. All being quiet, and peace assured in the Dongola province, the two detached companies of the Warwickshire left Korti and joined their comrades in Es Selim camp.

July was a very busy month. The river flotilla and transport service had all to be thoroughly organised for the impending advance. Gunboats received the final touches and completed their armament. The steamers, barges and giasses, native sailing craft, underwent thorough repair. More and still more munitions of war and provisions were sent forward and stored at Dakhala. That post grew into a formidable camp. The three new twin-screw gunboats built on the Thames, besides other ship-work reconstruction, were put together near Abadia, a village above the Fifth Cataract and north of Berber. The railroad had been hastily laid and completed to Abadia after the battle of Atbara. Thither the sections of the barges and steamers needed for the campaign had been sent by rail from Wady Halfa. Before that date, engineering and other workshops had been erected at Abadia, which, because of its favourable position, was chosen for a permanent camp and industrial centre. Base-hospitals, too, were built there, in order that the wounded and sick might travel as far as possible by water. Astonishing as had been the rapidity with which the Wady Halfa Abu Hamid portion of the desert railroad was laid, smarter work still was done carrying the line through to the Atbara. The utmost energy was put forth, after the defeat of Mahmoud, by the Director of Railways, Major Girouard, R.E., to get the track completed to Dakhala, the junction of the Atbara with the Nile. Not only the railroad battalion, which was nearly 3000 strong, but every available Khedivial soldier, laboured in some way or other at the task. They put their hearts and thews to the toil, for it was recognised that its completion not only solved the transport problem, but was a swift and sure means of return to Egypt. The railroad battalion worked wonders in grading and laying. Fellaheen and negro, they showed a vim and intelligence in track-making that Europeans could not surpass. Native lads, some in their early teens, clothed with little beyond a sense of their own importance and " army ammunition boots," many sizes too big for their feet, adjusted the fish-plates and put on the screw nuts. Then, for those who bore the heavy burden of rails and sleepers and carried material for the road bed, there were licensed fools, mummers, and droll mimics, who by their antics revived the lagging spirits of the gangs. There is an unsuspected capacity for mimicry in what are called savage men. I have seen Red Indians give excellent pantomimic entertainments, and aborigines in other lands exhibit high mumming talent. In the railroad battalion there was an eccentric negro who was a very king of jesters. From the Sirdar and the Khalifa downwards—for he was an ex-dervish and had played pranks in Omdurman — none escaped a parodying portrayal of their mannerisms. He imitated the tones of their voice and twisted and contorted his face and body to resemble the originals. Nothing was sacred from that mimic any more than from a sapper. He showed us Osman Digna's little ways, and gave ghastly imitations of trials, mutilations and executions by hanging in the Mahdist camps. And these things were for relaxation, though maybe they served as a reminder of the dervishes' brutal rule. There were vexations and jokes of another sort for Major Girouard and those held tightly responsible for the rapid construction and regular running of the material trains, as indeed all trains were. When the line had been laid beyond Abu Dis, for a time known as Rail-head, the camp and quarters were moved on to the next station. Abu Dis sank in dignity and population until only a corporal and two men were left to guard the place and work the sidings. The desert railway being a single track, frequent sidings are indispensable for the better running of trains. All the control for working the system was vested in the Wady Halfa officials. One night there came to them over the wires an alarmist message to send no more trains to Abu Dis. It was the corporal who urgently rang up his chiefs. What could it mean? Had they deserted, or, more likely, were the dervishes raiding the district? A demand was made from Wady Halfa for the corporal to explain what had happened. His answer was naive, if not satisfactory: "The wild beasts have come down from the hills, and


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