Monday, 30 December 2013

Combined Operations in the Sudan

The last post for this year returns to the Sudan.  The Brigadier has received reports that the Ansar are gathering stores and munitions at a small Nile-side village to the south of the British headquarters.  In his opinion, a swift moving force, supported by the steamer 'Victoria' could attack the village, seize or destroy the accumulated stores and munitions and be back at base before the Ansar reinforcements arrive.  For this foray he called on Lieutenant Bolitho of the Royal Marines to command steamer and Bluejackets; whilst the mounted column would be commanded by Captain Bertram Yoxall Eckersley, recently transferred from the 33rd regiment (Duke of Wellington's).  The captain was popular with both his brother officers and the men under his command; (the latter referring to him by the nickname "By Eck").  Although new to the Sudan, Eckersley had served for 5 years in India and was experienced in dealing with native opponents.

Bolitho and Eckersley planned to attack the village shortly after dawn, closing on the objective during a night march, taking advantage of a full moon.

This is the view from behind Eckersley's force.  The objective is the village in the distance by the banks of the Nile.  Bolitho's steamer is just out of shot.  Eckersley decided to advance directly towards the objective, but needed to be sure his left flank was secure and therefore asked the 2nd squadron of the Lancers to send scouts towards the compound.  Scouts also investigated the broken ground between Eckersley and the river village.  For his part, Bolitho had orders to check the wadis running into the Nile and disperse any Ansar lurking there.

As the cavalry scouts neared the walls of the compound shots rang out.  Turning quickly, the scouts fell back on the main body and the whole squadron retreated.  As they did so ragged volleys were fired from the compound, obviously, it had a garrison and also, the sound of the shots would alert the river village.  Eckersley called forward C company of the mounted infantry and ordered them to engage the Ansar with rifle fire.  The field gun added its fire to that of the infantry.  The Ansar quickly found that the British infantry were out of range for their firearms, but, that they were within range of the British.  Losses began to rise and the fire from the compound slackened.  Before Eckersley could take any satisfaction from this, a lancer trooper galloped up with a report of Arab cavalry gathering beyond the compound.  Scanning the area with his binoculars Eckersley saw a growing cloud of dust and then a large body of camelry swept into view.   The 1st squadron of lancers were scouting out the advance and reacted to the arrival of the enemy by forming line against this new threat and then moving towards them.  The thin sound of cavalry bugles carried across the desert and through his binoculars Eckersley saw the lance points lower as the two units came together.    Then all was obscured as the dust rose about the combatants.

Suddenly a few camel riders burst from the cloud and fell back towards the compound.  Then a mass of cavalry and camelry moved in the same direction.  All order lost the British cavalry did as it had done for almost a century, forgot orders and pursued the enemy.   As had happened many times before this proved its undoing.  There was a large body of Arab cavalry behind the camelry and that absorbed the shock of the British pursuit and then began to lap around the lancers.  Realising their predicament the officers attempted to restore some order, but it was too late.  A small body managed to cut their way out of the melee and gallop for the main force, but over half the squadron was lost.

Meanwhile D and E companies of the mounted infantry had continued to advance on the river village.  Scouting their way forward they had covered half the distance when a gun, concealed in the village opened fire. Fortunately, the shot went wide and caused no damage.  More serious was the body of Ansar which rose out of a wadi and surged towards d company.  Bolitho had been making slow progress towards the village.  He had ordered the engineer to try and hold the steamer against the flow of the river so that they could support Eckersley with the fire of the machine gun and the rifles of the Bluejackets. This proved its worth now as all the fire of the men on the steamer was concentrated on the Ansar.  Many men fell, but the mass surged on.  D company was directly in their path and opted to stand and try and drive them off by rifle fire.  However, the broken terrain made forming a proper firing line impossible and before the mistake could be rectified the Ansar were upon them.  Caught in the broken terrain the British fought in groups rather than in a steady square and suffered heavy casualties.

 The battered remains of D company fell back towards Eckersley, pursued by the victorious Ansar.  However, the pursuit was now caught in the crossfire of the British artillery and E company.  Unable to withstand this volume of fire the Ansar fell back.

Pressure now began to increase against C company.  Although they out ranged the Ansar in the compound, the latter now received reinforcements and this second unit began to move round the flank of the British. The British artillery was fully employed trying to drive off the Arab cavalry and also a unit of Hadendoa which had appeared from behind the compound and could offer no support.  Turning to face this new threat C company had time to fire two volleys before the wave of Ansar hit them.   Spears and scimitars clashed with bayonets and a fierce melee took place under the blazing sun.  Bravely they fought, but C company were fighting against overwhelming odds and in the end they perished.

With two thirds of his infantry dead, together with half his cavalry and sensing that there was now no chance of reaching the village, Eckersley ordered that the signal rocket to retire was fired.  Covered by the remaining lancers the battered remnants of Eckersley's force retreated.  For his part Bolitho had done what he could.  The presence of the 'Victoria' had flushed the Ansar from the wadi and the fire from the steamer had inflicted heavy losses.  However, he could see three fresh units of Hadendoa near the village and the Ansar artillery had begun to get the range of the 'Victoria'.  He therefore ordered the helmsman to turn upstream and head back to base.

Not a good day for the British.  We had been experimenting with a new method for the arrival of reinforcements and it seemed to assist the Ansar more than the British.  All the cavalry arrived within the first three moves; which really hampered the advance.  Also, the although the Hadendoa arrived at the far end of the table, they also arrived quite early and made it very unlikely that the British would achieve their objective.  Some of the blame must rest with Eckersley (ie me) because I neglected to put the mounted infantry in square which would have helped them when facing the Ansar.  (it would also have helped if they had not been in broken ground).   


  1. Newbolt will have a hard time turning that into a poem.

    1. Yes Conrad, not one of my more distinguished outings as a commander. The sand ran red with British blood!