As Edgar Clinton arrived in Egypt in Storm Over Khartoum, British interests were suffering a setback caused by typical indifference to the local situation by the British government. Having repressed the Urabi revolt of 1882 with the help of Sir Garnet Wolseley, Khedive Tawfik’s rule over the Sudan was dependant on British support, despite Egypt and the Sudan still being nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. Britain had two princpal interests in the region – the protection of the vital Suez Canal and the eradication of the Sudanese slave trade. On the other hand, Prime Minister Gladstone was unwilling to involve British military forces directly against the Sudanese uprising led by the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, who had declared war, against the ‘Turks’, represented by the Egyptian troops.
The Mahdi’s commander along the Red Sea coastal region was Osman Digna, whose Hadendoa tribesmen – the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzies’, as the British called them – had besieged several towns garrisoned by Egyptian troops. The port of Suakin, on the Red Sea, could be supplied by ship and still held out. But further inland, the towns of Tokar and Sinkat were completely cut off. The British government urged the beleaguered Egyptians to evacuate, but allowed a half-hearted expedition to go and help them get out.
In February 1884, Baker Pasha – effectively reporting to the Khedive, led a 3000 strong force from Suez to Suakin. He had a few European officers with him, but the greater part of the infantry was formed from Egyptian Gendarmerie Battalions who had enroled on the condition they would serve only for civil service in Egypt. On the news they were being sent to Sudan, many deserted, and the morale of the remainder was low, even mutinous.
The first battle of El Teb
On 3 February, Baker moved his force by ship from Suakin to Trinkitat, near to besieged Tokar. He set up a camp on the beach, and set off the next day. Baker had had little time to train his Egyptian troops, who advanced in a confused mass. On the way to Tokar they were attacked by a 1,000-strong Mahdist force at El Teb, 14 km southwest of Trinkitat. Despite superior numbers and much better weaponry, the troops became panic-stricken, and fled after firing a single volley.
The Mahdists inflicted huge losses, killing all the European officers who tried to resist. Baker was forced to retreat to his seashore camp with the survivors and managed to beat off a renewed Mahdist attack. Of a force of 3,500, barely 700 returned to Suakin, where Baker tried to organise the city’s defence of the city. As for the garrisons, the Egyptian troops at Sinkat
bravely sallied out to try and reach Suakin on foot, but were massacred. The Tokar garrison surrendered without a fight, giving up in the process several valuable Krupps field guns.
The second battle of El Teb
In England, Baker's defeat incensed Wolseley, and Gladstone was reluctantly forced by public outcry to permit the intervention of British troops. It was felt that the small garrison at Cairo had insufficient experience of fighting in the conditions prevailing further south in the Sudan and several units returning from India were diverted to Suakin, as described in Storm Over
Khartoum (although Edgar was lucky enough to be sent).
This time, Sir Gerald Graham was in command, and he left for El Teb via Trinkitat on 21 February (the day before General Gordon arrived at the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, which was still free of the Mahdists). Graham’s force comprised 4,500 men with 22 guns and 6 machine guns. On the 29th, they approached the main Mahdist position, various entrenchments and rifle pits dug into a hillside near El Teb. The Mahdists also had the Krupp guns captured off the Tokar garrison, some of whom had changed sides, and were now fighting for the Mahdists. The British, formed a square, circled the Mahdist entrenchments to outflank them, under a dense rifle and artillery fire. As described in Storm Over Khartoum, the Mahdists hid in trenches to avoid incoming British rifle and artillery, then rushed out in small groups of twenty to thirty warriors instead of the massed attack that was expected. Also described, as Edgar discovered, their other tactic was to play dead on the battlefield and let the British cavalry charge over, then, as the horsemen returned at a slower pace back through the ranks of the 'fallen', the Mahdists would rise up, slit the horses’ hamstrings and kill the troopers.
The outcome was never really in doubt. Unlike Baker’s force, this was a highly disciplined, modern army facing poorly armed tribesmen. At the top of the hill, the Mahdists resisted stubbornly in the fortified village, and the British infantry had to clear the trenches with bayonets. After the battle, most of the Baker's lost equipment was recovered. The British suffered only light casualties – the Mahdists, with their ancient flintlocks, were rotten shots into the bargain, although one got Baker Pasha through the jaw. The Mahdists suffered heavily from British firepower, losing 2,000 killed.
It might seem far-fetched in Storm Over Khartoum that a young trumpeter like Edgar Clinton might be nominated for the Victoria Cross, but the lower ranks played an important part at El Teb and Queen Victoria awarded a clutch of medals to NCOs and soldiers.
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Second battle of El Teb, by Józef Chełmoński — a smomewhat romantic vision of the battle for public consumption, since the Hadendoa tribesmen under Osman Digna's command had few mounts and, with the exception of the odd emir, fought on foot, unlike their Baqqara kinsmen deeper into the Sudan.