By Michael Perry
The war in the Sudan, as was the 1882 war in Egypt, one that Britain was reluctant to become involved in. El Mahdi (messiah) emerged in southern Sudan with an ever expanding mass of faithful Ansar (followers) which by early 1883 covered the whole of Egyptian held Sudan, west of the Nile. Egyptian field forces were sent out, were generally annihilated, and one by one Egyptian towns fell to the Mahdists. The Egyptian government hired one William Hicks, a colonel in the Indian army, to take charge of the Egyptian army in the Sudan. Equipped with poor quality troops and a motley European/Egyptian command they marched to face the Mahdi. Buoyed up by one outstanding victory at Jebel Ain, Hicks requested British troops which were refused but with a larger Egyptian force set out to retake the rich province of Kordofan. After an exhausting two months cat and mouse chase the force, together with Hicks, were massacred at Kashgil.
Valentine Baker, an English born officer in the Turkish army, arrived in Suakin and gathered a force of 3,500 (including European volunteers) to relieve Tokar. These in turn were heavily defeated by 1,000 Hadendowan tribesmen. At last the British government began to react as British shipping would be threatened in the Suez canal if the port of Suakin was taken. British troops were to be sent to relieve Tokar and Egypt was ordered by Britain to withdraw from southern Sudan.
The popular hero General Charles (Chinese) Gordon was sent with a mission to supervise the evacuation of Khartoum, the capital city. Meanwhile the British force of 3,000 led by General Gerald Graham marched on Tokar, even though it had already fallen, and defeated a Dervish force double their number at El Teb (29th February 1884). In March Graham decided to hunt down Osman Digna, the Mahdi’s right hand man, and in doing so came close to disaster at Tamai on the 13th as one of the two British squares broke and fell back under the Dervish onslaught. Order was restored by the second square and victory snatched from defeat. Digna survived and took control of the surrounding area as Graham was ordered back to Suakin by the British government.
What started as a diplomatic and peaceful operation for Gordon soon became a desperate defence of the city as he and it became cut off and surrounded. Public and royal fury at home with Gordon’s situation eventually forced Prime Minister Gladstone’s hand and a relief expedition of 7,000 was sent up the Nile and into the Sudan under General Garnet Wolseley.
Negotiating the cataracts of the Nile proved an exhausting and painfully slow ordeal. The Camel Corp., under General Herbert Stewart, left Korti on December 30th to march across the Bayuda desert cutting off a loop of the Nile and intending to meet up with some of Gordon’s steamers below Gubat. In two sharp actions at Abu Klea on the 17th January 1885 and two days later at Abu Kru the desert column were victorious, though suffering heavy casualties in the former.
Despite many sorties, some successful but others not, the grip around Khartoum tightened and through January food supplies ran out. On the 26th the Mahdi’s forces assaulted and massacred the besieged, Gordon among them. Two days later Gordon’s steamers, met by the desert column, dashed back to the outskirts of Khartoum to save Gordon but were forced back by heavy fire.
On February 10th the Nile column won the battle of Kirbekan on the banks of the river. More troops were sent from Britain and India and a 13,000 strong expeditionary force arrived in Suakin on the 12th March with the intention of protecting the construction of a military railway from Suakin to Berber. Graham was in charge and led his troops in a renewed hunt for Osman Digna, engaging the enemy in a running battle at Hashin on the 21st and were caught by a surprise attack the next day at Tofrik. Both engagements were won but Osman was not captured and skirmishing continued. By the middle of May Graham’s force was ordered by the government to be broken up as Suakin and the railway were to be abandoned and British forces withdrawn from Sudan altogether. A potential war with Russia in Afghanistan was Gladstone’s reasoning.
The Mahdi died on 20th June, possibly of typhus, and leadership was immediately taken up by Khalifa Abdullah el-Taaishi. Khalifa’s army moved up to the Egyptian border and engaged an Anglo-Egyptian force guarding it. The Dervish force were beaten and dispersed at Ginniss on the 30th December 1885, this action brought to a close the first Sudan war.
What follows is a guide to the uniforms of the British army in the Sudan.
1. Infantry Sergeant in Grey Serge
The initial force to operate against the Mahdi garrisoned in the Mediterranean (excluding the Naval Brigade) were supplied with grey uniforms. These uniforms were first sent to Egypt in September 1882 after favourable reports of Indian khaki in the late war with the Egyptians. Helmet and 74 valise equipment are stained off-white, mess tin cover and expense pouch (not always worn) are black. Only the greatcoat was carried, not the actual valise. The rifle is the .45in Martini-Henry.
2. English Khaki
Due to the lack of obtaining a satisfactory dye in England khaki only began to replace the grey uniforms in the Sudan in 1885. Not all regiments received it, and only a portion of some. The painting of the battle of Tofrek by C E Fripp shows the Berkshires in action in both uniforms.
3. Royal Marine
Shown here wearing grey but with white pipe clayed helmet, pouches and belts, rather than the more usual stained finish, as observed by Count Gleichen of the Camel Corp.
4. The King’s Royal Rifle Corp.
The KRRC sported their traditional black pouches, belts and buttons. Neck curtains for protection against the sun were not supplied to the army and it was left up to the individual to procure a towel or similar to attach to, or wear under, the helmet. These curtains are nearly always depicted as white.
5. York & Lancaster Regiment
A battalion of this regiment together with others (Royal Irish and East Surrey) arrived from India wearing Indian khaki drill uniforms. It fought with fairly outdated equipment, cartridge pouch and belt from 1854 and 1857 expense pouch. The greatcoat had to be carried over the shoulder. According to Bennet Burleigh of the Telegraph all troops passing through Suakin were issued with Oliver pattern water bottles as shown here.
6. Yorkshire Regiment
The battle of Ginniss (30th December 1885) was the last occasion on which the British army fought in red. At this battle, as well as a couple of others eg. Kirbekan, red was ordered ‘to look more formidable to the Dervishes’. Some units probably remained in their khaki trousers and puttees. Regimental facings on the red frocks were changed in 1881 to white for English and Welsh, yellow for Scottish, green for Irish and blue for royal regiments. This figure has the larger 1882 pattern pouches which have been pipe clayed for the occasion.
7. Gordon Highlanders
This is the uniform worn by the highlanders at the battles of El Teb, 29th February 1884 and Tamai, 13th March 1884.
8. The Black Watch
Similar to the above apart from the tartan, sporran and the addition of the red hackle. Melton Prior, the war artist, shows them with the 1874 valise as in fig.1, but with a Glengarry under the straps of the greatcoat. Other units do not seem to have carried their forage caps.
9. Cameron Highlanders
At the battle of Ginniss this unit was ordered into red from it’s khaki.
10. 15th Bengal Infantry (Ludhiana Sikhs)
Sikhs fought in their khaki drill with brown leather equipment and puttees. Indian infantry were armed with Snider rifle.
11. 28th Bombay Infantry
Again clothed in their Indian khaki and brown equipment but with canvas leggings.
12. New South Wales Contingent
This was the first war in which Australians were involved. They arrived wearing their home service dress, ie. red frock and white helmet, they soon received a shipment of English khaki, 1882 valise equipment and leggings although the latter were not popular and trousers were often left loose. Australia supplied one battalion of infantry (volunteers) and a battery of artillery.
13. Grenadier Guards
On the 12th March 1885 the Guards Brigade consisting of 1st Bn Coldstream Guards, 2nd Bn Scots Guards and 3rd Bn Grenadier Guards arrived in Suakin with two khaki suits per man. They wore 1882 valise equipment and also, unusually their regimental badges on the front of their puggarees.
15. The Naval Brigade
The Navel brigade manned the Gardiner and Gatling machine guns. Pistol and cutlass were the personal armourment of the crews, who were in turn protected by a detachment of Martini Henry armed sailors with the equipment as pictured here. Major Giles’s picture of Tamai shows them in this uniform with white covered caps, a drawing by A Forester shows them wearing sennet hats and white trousers as is shown on the 2nd figure, whilst Dickenson has them in helmets, shirts sleeves and white trousers.
16. Royal Artillery
This is their probable uniform at El Teb. A Forester’s drawing of the battle of Ginniss depicts them in what looks to be a mix of home service dark blue trousers and either dark blue or khaki frocks. Puttees are either dark blue or khaki.
17. 19th Hussars
The 19th wore the standard grey serge frocks but with Bedford cord pantaloons and home service boots. After El Teb Burleigh says that the cavalry were ordered to arm themselves with native spears which were found to be far more effective than swords for reaching enemy going prone at the point of impact.
18. 10th Hussars
On the other hand the 10th arrived from India at the beginning of the war in Khaki. Their blue pantaloons had double yellow welts and their uncovered helmets kept their parade spikes. They also kept their Indian pattern water bottles. Officers retained their black leather and gilt cartridge pouch belt and black undress sabertache. The carbines were Martini Henry.
19. 5th Dragoon Guards, Camel Regt.
The Camel Corp of roughly 1,600 men consisted of the Guard’s Camel Regt. (detachments from Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards), Royal Marine Camel Regt., then Heavy Camel Regt. (1st & 2nd Life Guards, Royal Horse Guards, 2nd, 4th & 5th Dragoon Guards, 1st & 2nd Dragoons & 5th & 16th Lancers), the Light Camel Regt. (3rd, 4th, 7th, 11th, 15th, 18th, 20th & 21st Hussars) and the Mounted Infantry Camel Regt. (detachments drawn from most of the infantry regiments out there). The same basic uniform was worn by all with the addition of the battalion number and regimental initials in red on the right sleeve as pictured (a). Armament was the Martini Henry and sword bayonet plus a 50 round bandolier. 6,000 ‘mushroom’ topis (b) were made and sent from India arriving in April 1885. Initially intended for the Camel Corp. they crop up in photos on heads of various units including Australian Artillery and Royal Engineers.
20. Mounted Infantry KRRC
Mounted Infantry were raised from various regiments and mounted on local ponies. Frocks were the same as their parent unit but all wore Bedford cords, blue puttees, 50 round bandolier and carried a Martini Henry and sword bayonet. The pouch and belt on this figure are Rifles issue.
21. 9th Bengal Cavalry
As well as sword and carbine the Bengal Cavalry carried the 9 foot bamboo lance. The colour of the regimental turban which was worn at the battle of Hashin (21st March 1885) is speculative, I can find pictures of all but the 9th!
22. Infantry Officer
Officers tended to wear their own style and cut of uniform and shades of colour also varied. This is the popular Norfolk jacket type with deep pleats at the front which sometimes concealed pockets. He wears boots but puttees were as common and a Sam Browne belt with his own choice of pistol.
23. York & Lancaster Officer
Based on Giles’s officer from his Tamai painting he is from the Indian contingent and, like his men, carries his blanket roll over his shoulder and has a helmet cover. He has blue/black puttees for riding duties.
24. Naval Officer.
He looks a little over dressed for fighting in the Sudan but this was standard for Naval Officers sometimes exchanging puttees for gaiters.
25. 15th Bengal Infantry Officer
Dressed similarly to his men but wearing the Sam Browne belt and armed with a sword and pistol. British officers in Indian regiments wore the European cut of uniform and helmets.
26. Life Guards Officer, Heavy Camel Regt.
This is another version of the Norfolk jacket. Around his puggaree is twisted red cloth which was particular to the Life Guards. Above the puggaree are goggles which were issued to the Camel Corp.