Our latest game was set in the Sudan and concerned the construction of the Suakin-Berber Railway, an uncompleted project which was the source of much comment in contemporary newspapers and political debate. The scenario was based on an action at Handub and not having all the offical details to hand, I have invented some characters to illustrate the way in which events unfolded.
Handub was the current railhead and the base for the surveying of the next stage of the line. In command was Captain James Lyle RE, an experienced officer from India, under his command he had a detachment of Royal Marines, (Captain Robert Thoroughgood, acting as 2i/c), a detachment of the Black Watch (Lieutenant Ian McWilliam) and a detatchment of naval artillery with a field gun and a gatling (Midshipmen Bolitho and Ramage). Some defensive precautions had been taken, but the train which had brought up the materials for the next stretch of line had been unable to return to Suakin as the line was blocked. Before the telegraph was cut an appeal for assistance had been sent. This had resulted in a relief column under the command of Colonel Sir Wellesley Tankerton being assembled. It comprised a unit of naval infantry, several companies of the Essex regiment, a detachment of the Black Watch, a unit of Indian infantry and a detachment of loyal Sudanese troops. This was augmented by a field gun, gatling and two units of cavalry comprising of a detachment of mounted infantry volunteers and the Royal Irish Lancers, both under the command of Captain Fitzwilliam Paget.
The local Dervish commander, Khalifa, had assembled a large force, intent on destroying not only the garrison at Handub but also the relief column he knew would be summoned. He delegated the task of capturing Handub to his cousin Karim Bey, whilst he would deal with the relief column.
Here are Karim Bey's forces for the attack on Hanbub, with the left wing of Khalifa's troops in the background.
Knowing that his progress would be impeded by enemy forces, Tankerton had sent Paget with the cavalry on a wide flanking manoeuvre to bring support to the garrison at Handub as soon as possible. Achieving this task in spite of Dervish scouts, Paget ordered the mounted infantry to hold the palm grove to the north of Handub, whilst he used the Lancers to secure the flank. The mounted infantry were supported by the Black Watch, which Lyle ordered to advance from Handub village.
Karim Bey knew he would need to stretch the defenders line and sent three units across the railway to atack from the east, whilst a further three units advanced against the palm grove and the train. the flank of this attack was covered by his cavalry. Surging forward, the Dervish forces attacked the positions of the Royal Marines and the Naval field gun. Fierce hand to hand fighting over the barricades followed, with Thoroughgood's marines and Ramage's gunners beating back the attackers, though the marines lost a third of their number. As the Dervish infantry regrouped, the naval gunners subjected them to heavy fire, hoping to dissuade them from further attacks. But they came forward again, this time supported by a third unit which began to work around the flank of the marines. Seeing this, Thoroughgood ordered his men to fire a volley and then fall back to the outskirts of the village to shorten the line and protect their flank.
This photograph shows the action to the north and east of Handub. The marines have fallen back from the defences, whilst Ramage's men are trying to beat off a second dervish attack. Bolitho, with the gatling on the train, is about to be attacked by the unit to his left and the Black Watch are desperately trying to hold the line of the palm grove. On the Black Watch's left flank, the mounted infantry were being overwhelmed by Dervish infantry and so McWilliam ordered his hard-pressed men to fall back to the train. On reaching the this relative security, McWilliam was concerned to find that only half his command was still present, though he could see, from the piles of corpses in the grove that the enemy had paid a heavy price for the ground they had gained. He had just enough time to distribute his men amongst the wagons of the train before a wave of Dervish infantry attacked. Again, fierce hand to hand fighting took place as the Dervishes tried to overwhelm the gallant defenders. When it seemed that all was lost, aid arrived in the shape of the Irish Lancers. Paget led his men forward and drove into the Dervish flank. After a brief struggle the lancers prevailed and to the sound of cheers from the grateful Black Watch, the cavalry fell back to reform.
Lyle scanned the western horizon for signs of the relief column, where the devil were they?
Tankerton had anticipated he would find it difficult to rescue the troops at Handub. The country between Suakin and the railhead was arid, with no water sources, so he had the added problem of safeguarding the water carts which accompanied his column. As he approached the last ridge before Handub he was astonished to see hordes of Dervishes barring his path. The usual Dervish style was to spring sudden ambushes and gradually diminish their opponent's strength; what were they up to?
Ordering his artillery to the fore he planned to force his way through the pass by driving off the Dervishes facing him. To protect his flanks, the Essex and Black Watch moved forward on his right and the Indians and Sudanese on his left. The guns began their work and soon a wavering could be seen in the enemy lines. Rather than retreat, one group ran forward and attacked the Indian infantry. After a bloody exchange the dervish fell back, but their was no relief for the gallant Indians as another body of dervishes fell on them. Waves of attacks left piles of Dervish dead, but also a dwindling number of Indians holding the line. The Sudanese troops moved to their aid, but were too late as the remaing troops were overrun. Now the Dervish switched their attention to the Sudanese. No quarter was asked or given as the bloody struggle continued. Eventually the Sudanese too were overwhelmed. Tankerton's left had ceased to exist.
Fortunately, his right was faring rather better, the disciplined volleys from the Essex Regiment drove the Sudanese back and secured the flank of the central battery. The battery had also done it's work and the way to Handub was now open.
Lyle had been greatly heartened by the sound of the relief column's guns, they were not a moment too soon. Dervish riflemen had worked their way round the southern edge of Handub and were now firmly established in the village. Thoroughgood and Ramage were in danger of being surrounded. McWilliam's few remaining men were also coming under increased fire. The time had come to abandon Handub and try and reach the relief column. Lyle ordered the engine crew to be ready to move on his order and sent runners to Ramage and Thoroughgood to watch for a red flare being fired from the engine. After five minutes the flare was fired and Ramage's gunners ran for the train. However, Thoroughgood's marines moved in the opposite direction, towards some broken ground. Before they got half way they were caught and overrun by Dervish infantry. Lyle received a message that McWilliam was severely wounded and his men were in danger of being unable to defend the train wagons. He had no choice, and ordered the driver to run as far as possible up the line and hope he was able to reach the relief column.
With Bolitho's men firing the Gatling for all they were worth, the little train moved forward, crushing several Dervishes beneath its wheels. Unable to keep up the Dervishes turned their attention to Handub and its stores. Lyle was able to link up with Tankerton and the remnants of the Imperial force returned to Suakin.