Islamic Supremacists Defeated at Omdurman: 2 September 1898

Today is the 110th anniversary of the Battle of Omdurman, where Islamic supremacist Mahdists (followers of the former slave trader Mohammed Ahmad) were defeated by a British and Egyptian army. Future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who took part in the battle, describes the action from the Anglo-Egyptian side. Omdurman thoroughly avenged the disaster at Khartoum (1885), where the Mahdists sacked the city and killed General Charles Gordon.

They fired steadily and stolidly, without hurry or excitement, for the enemy were far away and the officers careful. Besides, the soldiers were interested in the work and took great pains. But presently the mere physical act became tedious. The tiny figures seen over the slide of the back-sight seemed a little larger, but also fewer at each successive volley. The rifles grew hot—so hot that they had to be changed for those of the reserve companies. The Maxim guns exhausted all the water in their jackets, and several had to be refreshed from the water-bottles of the Cameron Highlanders before they could go on with their deadly work. The empty cartridge-cases, tinkling to the ground, formed small but growing heaps beside each man. And all the time out on the plain on the other side bullets were shearing through flesh, smashing and splintering bone; blood spouted from terrible wounds; valiant men were struggling on through a hell of whistling metal, exploding shells, and spurting dust—-suffering, despairing, dying. Such was the first phase of the battle of Omdurman.

The work of the Maxim machine guns at Omdurman was the origin of the jingoistic slogan, “Whatever happens, we have got/ the Maxim gun, and they have not.” Churchill concludes,

Meanwhile the great Dervish army, which had advanced at sunrise in hope and courage, fled in utter rout, pursued by the Egyptian cavalry, harried by the 21st Lancers, and leaving more than 9,000 warriors dead and even greater numbers wounded behind them.

Thus ended the Battle of Omdurman—the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victors.

The editor adds, however, that the Dervishes (Mahdists) lost 90 percent of their army, versus 2 percent for the Anglo-Egyptian side.

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