The British Empire Library

The Sirdar and the Khalifa

by Mark Simner

Mark Simner has written a book which focusses on Kitchener's Anglo-Egyptian campaign to retake the Sudan from 1896 to 1898. This particular campaign is not as famous (or should I say infamous) as Gordon being besieged in Khartoum in 1885 nor the desperate relief expedition which came so tantalisingly close to relieving Gordon before his demise. In many ways, Kitchener's campaign is a coda to Gordon's doomed mission although with a suitable intermission between the main acts. The author actually does a very good job of outlining the events that saw the rise of the Mahdi and how his rise actually helped in undermining Egyptian control in Sudan and played a small but important part in weakening both Egyptian finances and the Egyptian military and which ultimately helped suck Britain into its own intervention in Egypt from 1882 onwards. The author provides a good balance between just enough detail for you to understand the important narrative concepts but too much information to weigh the reader down with extraneous information that overwhelms and obscures the main processes and events. It is a very delicate balance but one with Mark Simner achieves with aplomb. I would say that he does a similarly good job when he describes the military actions. These are often covered in just a couple of paragraphs of maybe about a page or two but he conveys the key details of any action clearly and concisely and it is not a chore at all to follow these thumb portraits of military events. Given that there were so many minor actions, battles and skirmishes it could have been tempting for the author to dwell overly on too many actions. The exception to this rule is the battle of Omdurman which he describes in far more detail but given that that action was the climax of the campaign and the fact that it was such a large battle fought in a series of clearly delineated episodes he can be more than forgiven for providing more detail and insight into this important action.

The organisation of the book is highly effective. As mentioned above, it begins with the rise of the Mahdi himself which in many ways was my favourite part of the book as it is an area that is often overlooked or underplayed in more traditional descriptions of the Sudan campaigns. The book then explains how Britain found itself dragged into the Sudan quagmire in the 1880s and the political pressure that saw the belated rescue attempt prove to be too little too late. This part of the book is more widely known but it is useful to have it here in order to maintain the narrative drive and much of the inspiration behind the later campaigns. The author then explains what happened in the interlude between the Gordon events and the Kitchener expedition. Again, I found this fascinating as it is yet another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of events that is often overlooked or sidelined. The fact that the all important Mahdi died so quickly after his own victory transformed the political dynamics within Sudan. Who knows what may have happened if the Mahdi had lived on to spread his brand of Islam? As it was, it was to be Abdullah al Taishi - known as the Khalifa - who took over the Mahdi's mantle and had to protect the Ansar Caliphate created by his predecessor. Indeed, the Mahdi had intended to expand his political and philosophical power beyond the Sudan. This was a task that the Khalifa was to find tough to achieve partly as he did not have the same levels of charisma or religious credibility as the Mahdi, but also because surrounding regions had their own political, religious and military responses to the threat of Ansar Mahdism. The author explains how the Khalifa did attempt to expand into Abyssinia, Eritrea, Southern Egypt, South towards Congo and further into the desert to the West. These met with mixed success as the Khalifa found himself increasingly having to defend his own position within Sudan from internal rivals whether real or perceived. His descent into ruthless paranoia weakened this Ansar state as it stagnated both militarily and economically and turned itself increasingly into a tyrannical state. Meanwhile, rival neighbouring polities did not stand still technologically, economically nor militarily. Indeed, Ethiopia's relative rise would provide a separate but important reason for Britain to intervene in the Sudan itself in the late 1890s. The author also outlines the basic structures of the forces, troop types and leadership available to the two sides. Perhaps I should explain that the title 'Sirdar' was given to Kitchener as the head of Egyptian Army. The author does explain very clearly how this British officer came to be in charge of what was effectively an Anglo-Egyptian force with its own complicated legal basis for intervening in Sudan. Egypt was technically an Ottoman colony but one that had all but detached itself from Turkish control. Egypt had regarded Sudan as its own territory long before the British had arrived to reorganise Egyptian finances and forces in the 1880s. It should be said that a powerful undercurrent of this book is just how effectively British officers like Kitchener reorganised a corrupt and inefficient Egyptian military and turned it into an increasingly effective military machine in its own right. I am sure that many lay people would have thought that the British army played the lion's share in Kitchener's campaign but the Egyptian (and indeed some Sudanese) forces played a critical role and provided the majority of the personnel involved. They did not let down their British officers at all and displayed bravery and professionalism every bit as reliably as the British forces involved by the end of the campaign. Back to the organisation of the book, the author goes on to explain how the Anglo-Egyptian intervention was a two step process. First of all there was a limited intervention into Dongola. Perhaps surprisingly this was at least partially in response to the Italian defeat at Adowa in Ethiopia in 1896. This unexpected defeat of a European power had the potential to destabilise the entire region and so the British took the precaution of moving their forces further South especially when the Ansar took advantage of the Italian defeat to launch their own attack upon Italian Eritrea. This Ansar expedition also meant that the British knew that the Khalifa's forces were tied up elsewhere and so a campaign could be conducted without having to face the full weight of his army. The main part of the book then focusses on the second part of the invasion of Sudan. The relative success of the first part of the campaign combined with wider 'Scramble for Africa' events elsewhere on the continent as imperial power politics raised its head. The French had announced plans that they were wishing for their own Empire to spread from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. If successful, this would have meant controlling the upper reaches of the Nile and also of preventing any British North to South control of the continent. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, therefore gave permission to Kitchener to extend his campaign further south into Sudan in a campaign that would conveniently frustrate the French whilst also avenging the all too recent death of Gordon in a clear case of Khaki politics.

One of the advantages of reading a book focussed on a single campaign like this book does is the way it can expand upon a wider understanding of the mechanics of the warfare involved. In the case of Kitchener's invasion, the unsung hero is undoubtedly the logistical effort put in by the Anglo-Egyptian invading army. The fact that Kitchener himself was an officer of the Royal Engineers meant that he had a peculiar advantage in understanding the logistical and engineering enterprise that confronted his soldiers going south into the the harsh Sudanese desert. The building of a railway to facilitate the transport of supplies, water and reinforcements was fundamental to the success of the entire enterprise. The exploits of Edward Percy Cranwell Girouard in constructing this railway are nothing less than remarkable. At times, the laying of track was taking place in hostile territory and in the harshest of climates and environments. Its construction would give incredible tactical flexibility to Kitchener who could rush fresh troops and equipment to the front or evacuate the wounded as the case required. The Khalifa's failure to understand (or even comprehend) the advantages of this military infrastructure and his failure to attack or disrupt its construction would prove fundamental to his own defeat. The technological advantage did not just end with the railway though. Kitchener also used steam boats carrying modern artillery to support his advance and to act as the eyes and ears of his own forces as they plied the Nile and its tributaries searching for the Khalifa's forces and strong points. I was interested to read that the Khalifa had steamboats of his own although these were older vessels captured at the time of the demise of Gordon. These vessels seemed to steer clear of the larger and more modern British steamships although they did see some action against the smaller French forces of Captain Marchand when they appeared further South! The technological imbalance is a key factor in understanding the eventual Anglo-Egyptian victory. Again it goes back to the stultifying effects of what was effectively a pariah state whose economy and military stagnated as they cut themselves off from the regional trade flows and clashed with nearly all their neighbours at one point or another. The lack of modern artillery and having to rely on captured and outdated rifles from the earlier campaigns against Gordon and the Egyptians meant that time and again their forces would be at a disadvantage unless they could get close enough to engage in hand to hand combat where their numbers and undoubted courage could redress the balance. Perhaps the Battle of Atbara en route to Khartoum showed that the Anglo-Egyptian invasion was anything but a foregone conclusion and that tough fighting and good generalship was indeed required. Atbara was different to many of the battles because the Anglo-Egyptians were on the offensive against an encamped enemy in a defensive position. But even here, the meticulous preparation of the well-drilled and well-armed Anglo-Egyptian forces meant that artillery and the relatively new weapon of the Maxim gun could support their attack and weaken their enemy even before they got into hand to hand combat. However, they still had to engage the enemy in their defences and the ferocious bravery of the Ansar on an individual basis was clearly demonstrated. It is telling that the British and Egyptians took more casualties in this battle than they did in the far larger and far more consequential battle at Omdurman.

The Battle of Omdurman does dominate this book as it should. Again it is easy for armchair generals to believe that this battle was won even before it was fought thanks to Kitchener's advantages in equipment and training. But this would detract from the sheer size of the task that confronted the Anglo-Egyptian forces. They were facing a potentially enormous enemy and which had already demonstrated significant martial skill and bravery in the campaign. However, Kitchener's patience played to his advantage. His slow but steady advance down the Nile meant that he had unnerved some of the supporters of the Khalifa. So much so that the Khalifa was worried that if he delayed any engagement with the British, he might see significant sections of his army melt into the desert. He therefore decided to take bold and decisive action and to strike almost as soon as he could. Unfortunately, this would play into Kitchener's hands as it allowed the Anglo-Egyptian forces to form up defensively and hide behind a wall of technology in the form of artillery, Maxim guns and modern rifles in the hands of well trained troops. This is not to say that the Khalifa could not have won as the forces available to him were truly huge. However, their very size made them difficult to wield and this lack of coordination would prove fatal to the Khalifa. Had he been able to bring all his men on to the British at the same time, he may well have been able to get his forces into contact with the British in sufficient numbers to achieve victory. Although at least one of his disjointed attacks did come tantalisingly close to penetrating the British forces at one critical point in the battle. But the professionalism of the Anglo-Egyptian forces gave them the tactical flexibility to withstand and react rapidly to the unfolding danger. This was no foregone conclusion of a battle. Rather, it was well prepared for and hard fought from start to finish. Nobody underestimated the enemy in this battle least of all the meticulous Kitchener!

Of course, this should have been the end of the book had it not been for the fact that the Khalifa managed to escape in the confusion of victory for the British and the fact that Kitchener was distracted literally days later by discovering that the French had indeed acted upon their stated intentions and had arrived further down the Nile at Fashoda. Kitchener's foresight in building the railway with an accompanying telegraph system combined with his steam ships allowed him to rapidly transfer this difficult diplomatic incident back to Europe. There was definite talk of war between the British and French but the overwhelming power of the British in Sudan made the imbalance a starkly obvious one to all concerned. I was interested to read though just how much the French actually needed the British victory at Omdurman for their own security. They had had to withstand their own assault by Ansar forces and if there had been no victory for the British, the French would have had serious difficulties in sustaining large and determined attacks by the forces of the Khalifa! As it was, Kitchener's victory at Omdurman revealed the necessity for the speed of British intervention into Sudan and allowed them to overcome what could have been a serious colonial threat from the French in the Upper Nile region.

Mark Simner is rapidly becoming one of my favourite military historians. He has an engaging writing style and gets that all important balance between providing enough information to tell a fascinating story well but without giving too much detail to bog down the reader in inconsequential ephemera. In no way does he sacrifice narrative clarity. Rather, he lays out his books in a clear and understandable manner: He gives the back story, he describes the main characters and actors of both sides and tries where possible to be even handed in his praise and criticism, he lays out the main events in a chronologically logical and sensible order and then he describes the consequences and ramifications of the events described. This may sound like a common sense way of working, but you might be surprised to find how many authors struggle at keeping such a clear narrative drive from start to finish. The structure of this book is also a model of how I wish all such historical books were laid out. It has a glossary, bibliography, timeline, index, tables, orders of battle, plenty of illustrations (some of which I had never seen before) and contemporary maps of the main battles described. At its heart though, the core text runs to a highly manageable 219 pages in length. To me this proved the perfect length to allow me to gain an invaluable insight into a fascinating campaign in an interesting part of the empire and with the involvement of such an interesting cast of characters. I am sure that the author could have written twice as much on the subject but perhaps without adding much additional understanding to the campaign described. I felt that this book provided an efficient and informative overview of Kitchener's Reconquest of the Sudan. I for one cannot wait to add more of Mark Simner's books on other such imperial campaigns to my library!

British Empire Book
Mark Simner
Fonthill Media
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