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Over-enthusiastic account of the Empire's bloodiest campaign
on 12 September 2008
Michael Asher, ex-Parachute regiment and SAS, has written a vivid account of the Sudan campaigns of 1883-98. In 1883, at Shaykan, Sudanese forces killed 11,000 Egyptian troops under British command. Asher calls this defeat a massacre.
The victory meant that the Mahdist state in Sudan became `the first modern Islamic realm, and the only African nation ever to win independence from a colonial power by force of arms'. It lasted just 14 years.
In 1884, the government sent General Charles Gordon to Sudan. He had been part of the 1859 Anglo-French expedition to Peking to impose the Treaty of Tientsin, forcing China to buy opium from British traders, hence his media nickname of `Chinese' Gordon. He had arrived too late for the fighting, but in time to help destroy Peking's beautiful Summer Palace.
When the government sent Gordon to Sudan, his orders were to withdraw from Sudan. But the ruling class wanted to keep Sudan, whether the government wanted to or not. Gordon lied to his political masters that he accepted the policy of withdrawal. He decided to stay in Khartoum, trying to make the government change its policy.
In 1884, British-led forces killed 2,000 Sudanese in each of the battles of Tamaai and et-Teb. In the 1885 battle of Kirkbekan, they killed another 2,000 Sudanese. Asher accurately sums up these campaigns, "10,000 men, British and Sudanese, had died in vain."
In 1896, the government ordered Herbert Kitchener, Sirdar of the Egyptian army, to reconquer Sudan. At the battle of Nukhayla, 558 British soldiers were killed and 8,000 Sudanese. At Omdurman, in 1898, Kitchener used heavy artillery and the new Maxim machine-guns against the Sudanese: none got within three hundred yards of the British guns. 11,000 Sudanese were killed and 16,000 wounded.
Asher does not call this a massacre. In fact he describes this 15-year war, the bloodiest of all the Empire's colonial wars, as `the last great romantic adventure of the imperial age'.