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Battle of Abu Tulauh

Battle of Abu Tulauh The Battle of Abu Tulauh occurred in January 1885, and is more commonly known as Abu Klea, forming part of the Nile Campaign to relieve Khartoum and defeat Mahdist Forces, after the ill advised attempt by General “Chinese” Gordon to hold the city. It was a key turning point of the Mahdist War 1881 – 1899.

The Mahdist War itself was an uprising lead by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah against the Khedive of Egypt, who controlled Egypt, Sudan, Syria-Lavent and other territories, being an autonomous state of the Ottoman Empire. Pasha Gordon entered the service of the Khedive in 1873 and by 1877 had been appointed Governor General of the Sudan. Much of his time was spent looking to suppress the slave trade but by 1879 he had become tired & disillusioned, and resigned his post returning to England in 1880.

Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi.

When the uprising occurred many of the Egyptian forces deserted or went over to the Mahdist. Initially Gordon had no interest in going back to the Sudan, but after an interview in the British Press, where he attacked the Government and urged for intervention, public support swelled and Gordon reluctantly agreed to help evacuate the garrison city. After arriving in the City, and being received by a large crowd chanting “Father!” Gordon possibly changed his mind, and decided to defend the city.

A cartoon of Charles Gordon greeting reinforcements at Khartoum in 1885. Published before Gordon’s death was known.

A British Expeditionary Force was formed under General Lord Garnet J. Wolseley to rescue Gordon. To hasten the rescue he divided his field force into two, the first part was formed into the River Column, which followed the Nile, with the second part forming the Desert Column under Brigadier General Sir Herbert Stewart, and Colonel Burnaby as his second.

Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley

The Desert Column was much delayed due to shortages, although later opinion also has it that these delays were in part down to caution on the part of Stewart.

The Battle of Abu Tulauh took place on the 17th January 1885 and lasted less than 15 minutes.

The Mahdist forces held the wells of the wadi, and at first light the Column, consisting of the 19th Hussars, Camel Corps (Light/Heavy/Guards), Royal Sussex Regt, RMLI, and RN Brigade was ordered to form a Hollow Square and to slowly advance by Sir Herbert Stewart.

The soldiers were formed in double ranks on each side of the square numbering 235 rifles on the left, and more than 300 of each on the other 3 sides, with Staff, supplies, and150 camels in the centre.

Photograph of two Sikh soldiers of the Camel Corps, by Felice Beato, ca. 1884/85

The regiments were formed thus: The guns of the British Army were at the front of the square along with two Mounted Infantry Regiment Companies, Coldstream and Scots Guards Companies; the right side of the square was formed by Guards & Grenadier Troops, Royal Marines, and soldiers of the Sussex Regiment; on the opposite side (left) were two companies of Mounted Infantry, and one company of the Heavy; and at the rear four companies of Heavy with RN Brigade’s Gardener Guns in centre rear. The hollow square soon halted, as the camels in the centre deformed and delayed it, so they had to reform.

At this point the enemy, consisting of 5,000 men, attacked the left of the square, but due to British fire, veered off course and formed up with a force attacking the left rear of the square. At this point Colonel Burnaby seems to have ordered the left face to open rank to allow the Gardener Gun to move outside of the Square. The RN Brigade Gardener Gun jammed, and as they tried to clear it the Mahdists rushed the position on the left rear.

Map of the Battle

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This caused Colonel Burnaby to wheel the Heavy Camel Corps out of the square in support, but it was too late. In heavy hand to hand combat Colonel Burnaby was killed – which was a huge loss given his huge popularity and fame – and the RN Brigade, along with the Heavy Camel Corps, was forced back into the centre of the square allowing the Mahdists to briefly break into the square.

The situation was saved as the troops in the rear ranks turned about and drove the Mahdists from the Square. As the enemy assaulting party at the rear witnessed the piles of dead accumulate at the front, the attack wavered and then faulted, before the enemy finally broke off the attack and retreated from the field.

After the battle approximately 1,000 dead Mahdists were counted at the centre and rear of the square, with the British Column lost 76 killed and 94 wounded. At this point Stewart, who had been wounded, thought about holding until reinforcements arrived, but decided better of it and pushed on.

Soon after, on the 19th Stewart fought another Battle at Abu Gubat against a force of around 13,000-14,000.The losses were 121 and included Stewart. On the 20th of January the Desert Column reached Metemma, and found the 4 Gunboats that Gordon had intentionally sent up river 4 months earlier, and by the 24th two steamers under Sir Charles Wilson were sent on a reconnaissance to Khartoum.

On that very night, with the Mahdists fearing Wolseley was close, representations were put forward to the Mahdi to attack Khartoum, or lose the initiative and retreat. After deliberating and seeking divine guidance, the decision was to attack on the morning of the 26th January. The Mahdists attacked at the sandy banks formed along the wall where the river was low. The defenders fought for more than an hour, but overwhelmed the Mahdists swept into the Garrison killing Gordon and a reported 7,000 – 10,000 others.

A further reconnaissance to Khartoum took place on the 28th January, and it was found that Khartoum had been sacked, with the fall of the city having taken place two days earlier.

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Battle of Abu Tulauh Written by Nicholas Higton

Compiled from various sources.


i) “Bird’s Eye of the Battle of Abu Klea” ii) Map of Central Sudaniii) a “Gordon’s Star” struct by Gordon, from a 4th Class Medjidie to raise funds and moraliv) Medals of Pte Fagan, Mounted Infantry Camel Corps, twice wounded at Abu Klea and Gubat, and presented the DCM by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle 25th Nov. 1885 given her personal interest in Gordon’s safety. Picture courtesy DNW.