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1896-1899 - Nile Expedition - Reconquest of Sudan

Of the causes which led to the reconquest of the Sudan — the natural desire of the Egyptian government to recover lost territory, the equally natural desire in Great Britain to "avenge" the death of Gordon were among them — the most weighty was the necessity of securing for Egypt the control of the Upper Nile, Egypt being wholly dependent on the waters of the river for its prosperity. That control would have been lost had a European power other than Great Britain obtained possession of any part of the Nile valley; and at the time the Sudan was reconquered (1896-98) France was endeavouring to establish her authority on the river between Khartum and Gondokoro, as the Marchand expedition from the Congo to Fashoda demonstrated. The Nile constituted, in the words of Lord Cromer, the true justification of the policy of re-occupation, and made the Sudan a priceless possession for Egypt.

In 1869 the Suez Canal had opened and quickly became Britain's economic lifeline to India and the Far East. To defend this waterway, Britain sought a greater role in Egyptian affairs. In 1873 the British government therefore supported a program whereby an Anglo-French debt commission assumed responsibility for managing Egypt's fiscal affairs. This commission eventually forced Khedive Ismail to abdicate in favor of his more politically acceptable son, Tawfiq (1877-92).

The wonderful progress — political, economical, and social — which Egypt had made during British occupation, together with the revelation in so strong a light of the character of the Khalifa's despotism in the Sudan and the miserable condition of his misgoverned people, stirred public opinion in Great Britain, and brought the question of the recovery of the Sudan into prominence.

The British decision to occupy Sudan resulted in part from international developments that required the country be brought under British supervision. By the early 1890s, British, French, and Belgian claims had converged at the Nile headwaters. Britain feared that the other colonial powers would take advantage of Sudan's instability to acquire territory previously annexed to Egypt. Apart from these political considerations, Britain wanted to establish control over the Nile to safeguard a planned irrigation dam at Aswan.

A change of ministry took place in 1895, and Lord Salisbury's Cabinet, which had consistently assailed the Egyptian policy of the old, was not unwilling to consider whether the flourishing condition of Egyptian finance, the prosperity of the country and the settled state of its affairs, with a capable and proved little army ready to hand, did not warrant an attempt being made to recover gradually the Sudan provinces abandoned by Egypt in 1885 on the advice of Mr Gladstone's Government. Such being the condition of public and official sentiment, the crushing defeat of the Italians by the Abyssinians at the battle of Adowa on 1st March 1896, and the critical state of Kassala — held by Italy at British suggestion, and now closely invested by the dervishes—made it not only desirable but necessary to take immediate action.

In 1892 Herbert Kitchener (later Lord Kitchener) succeeded Sir Francis Grenfell as Sirdar, or commander, of the Egyptian army. Kitchener is remembered for four great constructive works of organization, carried out in Egypt, South Africa, India, and England. In each case his work was creative and revolutionary in conception, and carried out with the utmost precision in every least detail. No man touched the world-extended British Empire at more points, or touched it with such decisive, fateful effect. It may be said, indeed, that the integrity of the Empire, in the twentieth century, is the work of Kitchener. Four dangers arose, in regions separated by vast continental spaces; in each region, Kitchener met the danger, piercingly diagnosed the cause, patiently and courageously overcame it. Every honor within the power of his countrymen to give him was offered to Kitchener; yet all honors fall short of his immense attainment.

Beaconsfield's pro-Turkish policy drew England closer to Turkey's great Viceroyalty, Egypt; and, because of his knowledge of the colloquial tongue of the Egyptian people, a modern dialect of Arabic, Kitchener naturally gravitated into the Egyptian service, in which many Englishmen, like Sir Samuel Baker, were doing fine constructive work. From 1882 to 1884, immediately after leaving Cyprus, Kitchener was in command of Egyptian cavalry, and took part in the Nile Expedition of 1884-5. Halfway down the Red Sea, over against the sacred city of Mecca, is Suakim, the southern outpost of Egypt, and one of the hottest stations on earth and one of the most desolate, comparable to central Arizona in the hot season. Here Kitchener served as Governor, from 1886 to 1888, with distinction; the following year, 1889, saw him fighting on the frontier of the Sudan. from 1889 to 1892, he served as Adjutant-General of the Egyptian army, nominally as an officer of the Sultan's Viceroy, the Khedive; but in reality, consolidating the beneficent influence of England over Egypt. The next year, 1893, saw him at the head of the Khedive's army, with the title of Sirdar, "Commander-in-Chief."

In 1895 the British government authorized Kitchener to launch a campaign to reconquer Sudan. Britain provided men and matériel while Egypt financed the expedition. The Anglo-Egyptian Nile Expeditionary Force included 25,800 men, 8,600 of whom were British. The remainder were troops belonging to Egyptian units that included six battalions recruited in southern Sudan. An armed river flotilla escorted the force, which also had artillery support. In preparation for the attack, the British established army headquarters at Wadi Halfa and extended and reinforced the perimeter defenses around Sawakin. In March 1896, the campaign started; in September, Kitchener captured Dunqulah.

On 14 March 1896 Major-General Sir H. Kitchener received orders to reoccupy Akasheh, 50 miles south of Sarras, and to carry the railway on from Sarras. The railway reconstruction, under Lieutenant E.P. Girouard, RE., pushed southward; and a telegraph line followed the advance. At the commencement of the campaign the Egyptian army, including reserves, consisted of 16 battalions of infantry, of which 6 were Sudanese, 10 squadrons of cavalry, 5 batteries of artillery, 3 companies of garrison artillery, and 8 companies of camel corps, and it possessed 13 gunboats for river work.

By the end of June the railway was advanced beyond Akasheh, and headquarters were at Kosheh, 10 miles farther south. Cholera and fever were busy both with the North Staffordshire Begiment at Gemai, whither they had been moved on its approach, and with the Egyptian troops at the front, and carried off many officers and men. The railway reached Kosheh early in August; the cholera disappeared, and stores were collected and arrangements steadily made for a farther advance. Dongola was bombarded by the gunboats and captured by the army on 23 September 1896. The dervish Dongola army practically ceased to exist, and the principal sheiks came in and submitted to the Sirdar. The Dongola campaign was over, and the province recovered to Egypt.

The railway up the right bank of the Nile was continued to Kermah, in order to evade the difficulties of the 3rd Cataract; but the Sirdar had conceived the bold project of cutting off the great angle of the Nile from Wadi Haifa to Abu Hamed, involving nearly 600 miles of navigation and including the Fourth Cataract, by Tae Sudan constructing a railway across the Nubian desert, and so bringing his base at Wadi Haifa within a few hours of his force. The railway reached Abu Hamed on the 4th November 1897 [some sources report 31 October 1897], and was pushed rapidly forward along the right bank of the Nile towards Berber.

The dervish army reached Nakheila on 20 March 1898, and entrenched themselves there. After several reconnaissances, in which fighting took place with Mahmud's outposts, it was ascertained from prisoners that their army was short of provisions and that great leakage was going on. Kitchener, therefore, did not hurry. Mahmud's camp, after an hour's bombardment on the morning of 08 April 1898, was stormed with complete success. Mahmud and several hundred dervishes were captured, 40 emirs and 3000 Arabs killed, and many more wounded; the rest escaped to Gedaref. The Sirdar's casualties were 80 killed and 472 wounded. Preparations were now made for the attack on the Khalifa's force at Omdurman.

On the 1st September the army bivouacked at Egeiga, on the west bank of the Nile, within 4 miles of Omdurman. Here, on the morning of 02 September 1898, the Khalifa's army, 40,000 strong, attacked, but was repulsed with slaughter. Kitchener then moved out and marched towards Omdurman, when he was again twice fiercely attacked on the right flank and rear. The 21st Lancers gallantly charged a body of 2000 dervishes which was unexpectedly met, and drove them westward, the Lancers losing a fifth of their number in killed and wounded. The Khalifa was now in full retreat, and the Sirdar, sending his cavalry in pursuit, marched into Omdurman. The dervish loss was over 10,000 killed, as many wounded, and 5000 prisoners. The British and Egyptian casualties together amounted to 48 dead and fewer than 400 wounded. The Khalifa's black flag was captured and sent home to the Queen. The power of modern armies had been demonstrated.

The reconquest of Dongola and the Sudan provinces during the three years from March 1896 to December 1898, considering the enormous extent and difficulties of the country, was achieved at an unprecedentedly small cost, while the main item of expenditure—the railway—remains a permanent benefit to the country. The railway, delayed by the construction of the big bridge over the Atbara, was opened to the Blue Nile opposite Khartum, 187 miles from the Atbara, at the end of 1899.

Mopping-up operations required several years, but organized resistance ended when the Khalifa, who had escaped to Kurdufan, died in fighting at Umm Diwaykarat in November 1899. Many areas welcomed the downfall of his regime. Sudan's economy had been all but destroyed during his reign and the population had declined by approximately one-half because of famine, disease, persecution, and warfare. Moreover, none of the country's traditional institutions or loyalties remained intact. Tribes had been divided in their attitudes toward Mahdism, religious brotherhoods had been weakened, and orthodox religious leaders had vanished.

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