Battle of Abu Klea

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Abu Klea

partof=The Mahdist War
date=17 January 1885
result=British Victory
combatant1=flagicon|UK United Kingdom
combatant2=Mahdist Sudanese
commander1=Herbert Stewart
commander2=Muhammad Ahmad
strength1= approx. 1,100
strength2= approx. 12,000
casualties1=76 killed
82 wounded
casualties2=1,100 killed or wounded

The Battle of Abu Klea took place between the dates of January 16 and January 18, 1885, at Abu Klea, Sudan, between the British Desert Column and Mahdist forces encamped near Abu Klea. The Desert Column, a force of approximately 1,100 soldiers, started from Korti, Sudan on the 30th of December, 1885; the Desert Column's mission, in a joint effort titled "The Gordon Relief Expedition", was to march cross desert to the aid of General Charles George Gordon at Khartoum, Sudan, who was besieged there by Mahdist forces.

The place is generally known in British military records as Abu Klea, which arose as a contemporary British attempt at spelling its correct Arabic name, which is 'Abu Tͅuleiħ أبو طليح.


The opposing forces consisted of the 1,100 British of the Desert Column under Sir Herbert Stewart, against a Sudanese force of approximately 12,000 fighters. While the main British force (the River Column), led by General Sir Garnet Wolseley travelled by river from Korti to Khartoum, Stewart's column was to cut across country by column directly for Khartoum, since time was running short according to what little information was available from the garrison. The force was composed of four regiments of camel-mounted troops (Guards, Heavy, Light and Mounted Infantry), formed from detachments of the various regiments in Egypt and the River Column, and a detachment of the 19th Hussars, mounted on horses. Four light field pieces and a small Naval Brigade manning a Gardner machine gun finished off the force.


As the Desert Column approached the wells at Abu Klea, they were set upon by a Mahdist force. Stewart formed the troops into a square, with the cannon on the north face and the Naval Brigade, with their Gardner, at a corner. Several officers and men of HMS Alexandra were killed at the battle. As the British advanced to outflank the Mahdist force, a gap had opened up towards the rear left corner of the square. The Gardner gun was run out to the left flank of the infantry square to provide covering fire. The square closed behind them leaving them exposed. Two companies of the Heavy Camel Regiment were also wheeled out of the square to support the Gardner gun. After seventy rounds were fired, the gun jammed and as the crew tried to clear it they were cut down in a rush by the Dervishes. Out of the forty men in the Naval contingent, Lieutenants Alfred Piggott and Rudolph de Lisle were killed along with Chief Boatswain's Mate Bill Rhodes and five other seamen and seven more were wounded. Lord Charles Beresford was 'scratched' on the left hand by a spear as he managed to duck under the gun. The weight of the rush pushed the sailors back into the face of the square. Several Dervishes were able to gain access to the square, but found the interior full of camels and were unable to proceed. The troops in the rear ranks faced about and opened fire into the press of men and camels behind them, and were able to drive the Dervishes out of the square and compelling them to retreat from the field.

The battle was remarkably short, lasting barely fifteen minutes from start to finish. Casualties for the British were nine officers and 65 other ranks killed and over a hundred wounded. The Mahdists lost 1,100 dead during the quarter hour of fighting, made all the worse by the fact that only around half of the Dervish force was actually engaged. Among the Dervish dead was Musa wad Helu, one of the Mahdist chiefs. British national hero Colonel F. G. Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards was killed by a spear to the throat. Frank Rhodes (brother of Cecil) distinguished himself when he had several horses shot from under him in the course of the engagement, earning him a Distinguished Service Order. Gunner Alfred Smith fought bravely to save his officer, Lieutenant Guthrie, and was awarded a VC. Another action happened two days later at Abu Kru (the Battle of El Gubat) and the advance rescue force leader Sir Herbert Stewart was mortally wounded leaving command to the inexperienced leader Sir Charles Wilson (the column's intelligence officer) who was slower in organising his forces.


The column was too late to save Khartoum; it was taken by the Mahdists just a few days later leading to the death of General Gordon. The Dervishes of the Mahdi ruled over Sudan for the next thirteen years as the British pulled out of the area. The official public blame for this failure was left with Prime Minister Gladstone for delaying several months to authorize a rescue. Gladstone lost public confidence and much authority and within two months he resigned.

The battle was celebrated by the Scottish doggerel poet William McGonagall:Clarifyme|date=March 2008

Ye sons of Mars, come join with me,And sing in praise of Sir Herbert Stewart’s little army,That made ten thousand Arabs fleeAt the charge of the bayonet at Abou Klea
and so on for 19 stanzas

And also the battle and one of its notable participants is mentioned in the song "Colonel Burnaby", which has as its chorus:

Weep not my boys, for those who fell,They did not flinch nor fear.They stood their ground like Englishmen,and died at Abu Klea

ee also

*The Four Feathers (2002 film)
*Khartoum (film)


*Craig, Simon, “Breaking the Square: Dervishes vs. Brits at the 1885 Battle of Abu Klea”, "Military Heritage", volume 3, No. 3 (December 2001), 78-84. (Describes the failed British attempt to rescue major general Charles Gordon and friendly forces at Khartoum from the Dervishes led by the Mahdi.)

External links

* [ The Battle Of Abu Klea] Full text of the poem, from McGonagall Online.

Churchill, Winston Spencer. "The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan." Middlesex: The Echo Library, 2007. 43-48.

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