Sloshing Them With Martinis

Today's selection -- from Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World by Kwasi Kwarteng. Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener gained everlasting British military fame in Sudan in the Battle of Omdurman when his forces lost fewer than 500 men while killing—some would say slaughtering—about 11,000 and wounding 16,000:

“As head of the Egyptian army, Kitchener was the only candidate for the command of the force which would reconquer Sudan. His hour had come. As Lord Cromer remembered, Kitchener at forty-six was 'young, energetic, ardently and exclusively devoted to his profession'. He also observed, as many others did, that the Sirdar's qualities did not inspire love among his troops. According to Cromer, the 'bonds which united' Kitchener and his subordinates were those of 'stern discipline'. Kitchener had a 'strong and masterful spirit', which he used to dominate his men and bully them to submission to his will, instead of obtaining from them 'the affectionate obedience yielded to the behests of a genial chief'. Kitchener left as little ‘as possible to chance’ and was, in the language of the period, a ‘rigid economist’, which meant that he was very careful with money, suppressing with ‘a heavy hand any tendency towards waste and extravagance’. 

“The most famous description of Kitchener from this period comes from the stirring account of the Sudan campaign written by G. W. Steevens, entitled With Kitchener to Khartoum, which was a bestseller in 1898. A brilliant Oxford Classics graduate, Steevens was a journalist of genius who worked for the newly founded popular newspaper the Daily Mail and wrote with a vividness and fluency which brought him early fame as a war correspondent, before he died in South Africa at the premature age of thirty. His sketch of Kitchener included the line: ‘You feel that he ought to be patented and shown with pride at the Paris International Exhibition. British Empire: Exhibit No. 1 ... the Sudan Machine.’ The ‘Sudan Machine’ was a name that stuck. Steevens referred to the Sirdar's ‘unerring precision’, and it was clear that his characteristics were beginning to fascinate the wider public, as the final resolution of the Sudan conflict became more widely anticipated. A great popular journalist, Steevens appreciated the Victorian public's appetite for supermen and imperial heroes. For him, Kitchener was quite simply ‘the man of destiny’. Against such a man, with the backing of the resources of the imperial government in London, the Khalifa and his followers, it was believed, stood little chance. Lord Cromer had mentioned the inevitability of a British triumph in a letter to Lord Salisbury written in 1892: ‘The very name of England is far more feared by the Khalifa and his Beggara than either Turkey or Egypt, and it is practically admitted that they cannot hope for success in fighting against the British.’

A portrait of Field Marshal Kitchener in full dress uniform taken shortly after being promoted to the rank

“The details of the Sudan campaign, which were recounted in numerous memoirs and descriptions, were once familiar to the British public. The one episode that is still renowned is the Battle of Omdurman, the final stand of the dervishes, made famous by the Charge of the 21st Lancers, the last occasion on which the British army made use of a cavalry charge in battle. Winston Churchill, a young cavalry officer who had cajoled and bullied his way on to Kitchener's campaign, would refer to the charge frequently as one of his repertoire of dinner-table anecdotes. It has become part of British military folklore. The Battle of Omdurman itself, which took place on 2 September 1898, was a heavily lopsided affair: at about six in the morning, the dervishes began their advance on the British position. Their ‘array was perfect’, and a great number of their flags, which had been covered with texts from the Koran, were visible on the horizon. To the young Churchill, ‘their admirable alignment made this division of the Khalifa's army look like the old representations of the Crusaders in the Bayeux tapestry'. The outcome of all this medieval pageantry and theatre was grisly, and, in accounts of the battle, one can almost detect the sense of wonder and shame the British felt in inflicting so much damage on a brave enemy, since the Victorian cult of the hero was more than matched by a passion for 'sportsmanship' and 'good form'. These were, after all, times when the veneration of cricket was perhaps at its height, when the cricket legend W.G. Grace was arguably the most famous man in Britain. The dervishes had been sportsmen: 'our men were perfect, but the Dervishes were superb', recounted Steevens. Churchill admitted that the 'Dervishes fought manfully'. The famous charge, in which 400 cavalrymen of the 21st Lancers attacked a force of what turned out to be 2,500 dervishes, made very little difference to the outcome of the battle, though it led to the award of three Victoria Crosses. In reality the dervishes were 'swept away in thousands by the deadly fire of the rifles and Maxims'. Their losses were 'terrible': out of an army whose strength was estimated at from 40,000 to 50,000 men, some 11,000 were killed, and about 16,000 wounded. The British casualties had been negligible: twenty-two men and NCOs killed, and a hundred wounded, while only two officers lost their lives, one of whom, Lieutenant Robert Grenfell, had been the 'life and soul of the joyous Christmas festivities' at Lord Cramer's house in Cairo the year before. Grenfell had been killed by a 'Dervish broadsword' while taking part in the charge. Colonel Frank Rhodes, a Times journalist and Cecil Rhodes's elder brother, was also wounded in the battle. The Khalifa struggled on for another year before being killed in the Battle of Umm Diwaykarat in November 1899.

“The Battle of Omdurman marks the end of an era of military adventurism and battlefield heroics. It was a day of frightful carnage for the dervish tribesmen, but it would, perhaps ironically, be dwarfed by the 20,000 dead the British themselves suffered on the first day of the Somme, less than eighteen years after Omdurman. Later observers reflected on this macabre symmetry. The constant theme of the battle is the contrast between what the British called civilization, on the one hand, and barbarism on the other. Churchill summed this up when he described Omdurman as the 'most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians.'"

Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World
author: Kwasi Kwarteng  
title: Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World  
publisher: PublicAffairs  
page(s): 227-229