We return this week to the continuing adventures of Lieutenant C V Firth-Newsome in the Sudan. Following his successful 'rescue mission' he has been promoted to acting captain, (the brigadier and Firth-Newsome's father happened to go to the same school) and in his new capacity has been given command of a force which has been given the task of depriving the local dervish forces of the supplies they have been accumulating at an oasis inland from the British base at Atbara. "Bit of a picnic for you", the brigadier had said. "Take Stapleton-Darcy, (the new cavalry officer), with you, he needs to get to know the country".
The British infantry force marched onto the table in a commendably tight formation, Firth-Newsome had been listening to some of the 'old hands' back in the mess at Atbara and they had impressed on him the need to keep his units together and not chase off in all directions. He ordered the three units leading the advance to deploy scouts to investigate the broken ground ahead.
The riflemen in the wadi, instead of shooting at the approaching British, instead tried to charge. They were saved from this folly by some low dice which meant that they failed to reach the enemy unit, the Highlanders, and in the following move withdrew to the wadi. This worked in the Dervish commanders favour because the Loyals were now drawn further to their right to deal with this threat. On the British left, the Berkshires' scouts discovered an Ansar unit hiding in the dead ground, which after a volley charged forward. The Berkshires stood their ground and fired a volley which inflicted some casualties, but not enough to stop the Ansar. As the two forces came together, the blue jackets moved further to the left, covering the flank of the Berkshires line.
On the British right, the Loyals had reached the Wadi and exchanged fire with the Ansar riflemen. These now withdrew towards some broken ground from which they could fire on the flank of any attack on the village. The Ansar moved just in time, because, as they streamed across the desert a cloud of dust announced the arrival of Stapleton-Darcy with the cavalry and camelry. He was just too late to catch the riflemen, but, Stapleton-Darcy led his lancers towards the village, hoping to catch the defenders unawares. The two units of infantry mounted on camels were left under the command of his fellow lieutenant, Witherington as Stapleton-Darcy galloped off with the lancers. Ignoring the scattered shots from the broken ground the British cavalry swept into the village. As they neared the oasis they saw a unit of Hadendoa and charged. Just before they closed a round from the Ansar artillery tore through their formation and ended Stapleton-Darcy's short career in an instant. Trapped in a narrow area the cavalry could make no impression on the Hadendoa formation and lost many horses to the stabbing spears. A bugle sounded and the lancers fell back, many men having to 'hitch' a rider from comrades.
Meanwhile, in the centre Firth-Newsome had decided it was time to push forward. He was just about to give the order when the Highlanders reported enemy cavalry to their rear. The cavalry which had forced the blue jackets into square and by now moved round behind the British line and were in position to charge. The rear rank of the Highlanders turned to fire at the cavalry and the machine gun also re-deployed. Anxious that everything was done to preserve his line, Firth-Newsome ordered the field gun to move to the centre and add their fire to stop any cavalry attack. As the massed Arab cavalry swept forward a hail of bullets and shell met them. Their commander, resplendent in his antique armour was in the lead and was one of the first to fall. Despite their courage, none of the Arab horsemen reached the British line. Turning his thoughts once again to the attack on the village, Firth-Newsome was interrupted by a runner from the Fusiliers. "Sir, the Berkshires have gone!. the enemy is on our flank!"
The Berkshires had advanced in line with the Fusiliers and although suffering a few casualties from Ansar fire had inflicted some on the defenders in return. Then, in a fewminutes, three rounds from the Hadendoa artillery had torn through their ranks. As the NCOs restored the line, the Ansar defenders left the village and swept towards them. The fire from the Berkshires killed the first line of Ansar, but they kept on coming. Then, from the left a unit of Hadendoa charged the British flank. Some men changed front to meet this new threat, but it was like trying to stem the tide. Assailed in front and flank the British line crumpled. A corporal managed to get a few wounded men away, covered by the knots of men who fought to the last.
With his chance of seizing the supplies now gone, Firth-Newsome gave the order to return to Atbara. The 'picnic' had not been a success and the Brigadier would not be happy about having to write a letter to Stapleton-Darcy's parents.
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