The Battle of Abu Klea

YE sons of Mars, come join with me,
And sing in praise of Sir Herbert Stewart’s little army,
That made ten thousand Arabs flee
At the charge of the bayonet at Abu Klea.

General Stewart’s force was about fifteen hundred all told,
A brave little band, but, like lions bold,
They fought under their brave and heroic commander,
As gallant and as skilful as the great Alexander.

And the nation has every reason to be proud,
And in praise of his little band we cannot speak too loud,
Because that gallant fifteen hundred soon put to flight
Ten thousand Arabs, which was a most beautiful sight.

The enemy kept up a harmless fire all night,
And threw up works on General Stewart’s right;
Therefore he tried to draw the enemy on to attack,
But they hesitated, and through fear drew back.

But General Stewart ordered his men forward in square,
All of them on foot, ready to die and to dare;
And he forced the enemy to engage in the fray,
But in a short time they were glad to run away.

But not before they penetrated through the British square,
Which was a critical moment to the British, I declare,
Owing to the great number of the Arabs,
Who rushed against their bayonets and received fearful stabs.

Then all was quiet again until after breakfast,
And when the brave little band had finished their repast,
Then the firing began from the heights on the right,
From the breastworks they had constructed during the night;

By eight o’clock the enemy was of considerable strength,
With their banners waving beautifully and of great length,
And creeping steadily up the grassy road direct to the wells,
But the British soon checked their advance by shot and shells.

At ten o’clock brave General Stewart made a counter-attack,
Resolved to turn the enemy on a diferent track;
And he ordered his men to form a hollow square,
Placing the Guards in the front, and telling them to prepare.

And on the left was the Mounted Infantry,
Which truly was a magnificent sight to see;
Then the Sussex Regiment was on the right,
And the Heavy Cavalry and Naval Brigade all ready to fight.

Then General Stewart took up a good position on a slope,
Where he guessed the enemy could not with him cope,
Where he knew the rebels must advance,
All up hill and upon open ground, which was his only chance.

Then Captain Norton’s battery planted shells amongst the densest mass,
Determined with shot and shell the enemy to harass;
Then carne the shock of the rebels against the British square,
While the fiendish shouts of the Arabs did rend the air.

But the steadiness of the Guards, Marines, and Infantry prevailed,
And for the loss of their brother officers they sadly bewailed,
Who fell mortally wounded in the bloody fray,
‘Which they will remember for many a long day.

For ten minutes a desperate struggle raged from left to rear
While Gunner Smith saved Lieutenant Guthrie’s life without dread or fear;
When all the other gunners had been borne back,
He took up a handspike, and the Arabs he did whack.

The noble hero hard blows did strike,
As he swung round his head the handspike;
He seemed like a destroying angel in the midst of the fight
The way he scattered the Arabs left and right.

Oh! it was an exciting and terrible sight,
To see Colonel Burnaby engaged in the fight:
With sword in hand, fighting with might and main,
Until killed by a spear-thrust in the jugular vein.

A braver soldier ne’er fought on a battle-field,
Death or glory was his motto, rather than yield;
A man of noble stature and manly to behold,
And an honour to his country be it told.

It was not long before every Arab in the square was killed.
And with a dense smoke and dust the air was filled;
General Stewart’s horse was shot, and he fell to the ground.
In the midst of shot and shell on every side around.

And when the victory was won they gave three British cheers.
While adown their cheeks flowed many tears
For their fallen comrades that lay weltering in their gore;
Then the square was re-formed, and the battle was o’er.

British Victory at Abu Klea

Severe Fighting

(By Eastern Company’s Cables.)

(From our Correspondent.)

KORTI, Jan 21.

General Stewart reports that he has fought a successful battle near Abu Klea Wells, 23 miles from the river.

The Hussars, who were out reconnoitring on the 16th instant, reported that they had discovered the enemy in force. It being then late in the afternoon, it was impossible to accomplish anything decisive. The English, therefore, bivouacked, having first strengthened their position, which was exposed to a distant fire.

Next morning they delayed for some time to move, hoping to induce the natives to attack, but, as it appeared that they were hesitating, the English moved out in front, with a view to enfilade the Arab position.

Before this could be effected, the natives, numbering about 10,000 men, wheeled to the left and charged down on the left front corner of the square. Sweeping round to the left, they penetrated the heavy cavalry formation, and during the mélée which ensued Colonel Burnaby, fighting hard, was killed with a spear thrust.

This face had not quite closed up before it was attacked, but the men in it maintained a hand-to-hand fight. In the meantime, the other faces inflicted great loss on the enemy, who at last retreated under a heavy fire, leaving 800 dead around the square, none who had actually approached it escaping.

The cavalry was sen on at once, seized the wells, and occupied them; the whole of the force, including the camels, baggage, &c., being brought up there from the last bivouack next morning. General Stewart was about to push on to Metammeh when the messanger conveying this intelligence started.

Everyone here praises loudly the admirable manner in which the affair was conducted by General Stewart, who for his part speaks in the highest terms of the conduct of all ranks. Our loss was severe but our success was complete.

We have received the following from the War Office:-

From General Lord Wolseley to the Secretary of state for War
(Received January 21, 5 p.m.)

“Korti, January 21, 3 p.m.

“General Stewart had a most successful fight on the 17th instant with about 10,000 of the Mahdi’s forces near the Abu Klea Wells, which are about 23 miles on this side of Metammeh. The enemy’s force was collected from Berber, Metammeh, and Omdurman, which place, I regret to say, prisoners report was recently captured by Mahdi, thus releasing men from there to fight Stewart.

“On afternoon of 16th instant, Stewart’s cavalry reported enemy in position some few miles on this side of wells. It being too late to allow of advance and successful fight, Stewart bivouacked for night. Enemy kept up a harmless fire all night, and threw up works on Stewart’s right flank.

“On 17th, Stewart endeavoured to draw enemy on to attack, but they hesitated; so, leaving all his impediments and camels under a guard of Sussex Regiment and some Mounted Infantry, he moved forward in square, all men on foot, and passed round left flank of enemy’s position, forcing him to attack or be enfiladed.

“Enemy wheeled to the left and delivered a well-organized charge under a withering fire from our men. Square was unfortunately penetrated about its left rear, where Heavy Cavalry Camel Regiment stood, by sheer weight of numbers. The admirable steadiness of our men enabled a hand-to-hand combat to be maintained; while severe punishment was being inflicted on enemy by all other parts of square, and the enemy at last driven bank under heavy fire from all sides.

“19th Hussars then pushed forward to wells, which were in our possession at 5 p.m. Enemy left not less than 800 dead round the square, and prisoners report the number of their wounded to be quite exceptional. Many are submitting.

“Necessity of obtaining water at wells delayed for some hours his advance on Metammeh; for which place force was, however, about to push on when messenger left Stewart. A strong post has been established at wells, where tents have been pitched for the wounded, who were doing well.

“Stewart concludes his report thus:— ‘It has been my duty to command a force from which exceptional work, exceptional hardships, and, it may even be added, exceptional fighting has been called for. It would be impossible for me adequately to describe the admirable support that has been given to me by every officer and man of the force.’

“I regret to say our loss has been severe; but the success has been so complete and enemy’s loss so very heavy, that it may dishearten the enemy, so that all future fighting may be of a less obstinate character.

“General Stewart’s operations have been most creditable to him as a commander, and the nation has every reason to be proud of the gallantry and splendid spirit, displayed by Her Majesty’s soldiers on this occasion. Our losses have been 9 officers killed, 9 officers wounded, and 65 non-commissioned officers and men killed and 85 wounded. Stewart’s force was about 1,500 all told.”

The Times, 22nd January 1885


By the beginning of January 1885, time was running out for General Gordon’s defence of Khartoum. A relief column under the command of Lord Wolseley had set out from Wadi Haifa in August, but progress down the banks of the Nile had been slow – by the end of the year they had only got as far as Korti. Sensing that the end was near in Khartoum, Wolseley formed a 1500 man camel corps under General Sir Herbert Stewart to march across the desert, cutting out a wide loop of the river.

On 16th January, Stewart’s column encountered a large party of Mahdists in a strong position in front of the Abu Klea oasis. It being too late in day to launch an attack, Stewart (pictured left) had his men build a fortified camp before settling down for the night. Aside from taking a few ineffectual pot shots at eachother, both sides spent the night in relative peace.

The next morning, the sides faced eachother, each trying to induce the other to attack their defensive works. At last, Stewart broke the deadlock by forming most of his force into a huge open square and advancing to the right of the Mahdist position, threatening to outflank them. Before they could do so, the Mahdists wheeled around to their left and swept down on the British square in two huge 5000-man columns.

The left face of the square was formed by the Heavy Camel regiment and the mounted infantry bolstered by a Gardner gun – a primitive machine gun – manned by a party of sailors (the army establishment of the time did not approve of machine guns!). These troops opened a withering fire on the enemy, but they came on undeterred. At a critical moment the Gardner jammed, just as the dervishes were coming to close quarters. The left rear corner of the square was broken, and eager tribesmen poured into the interior. This was the moment of crisis, the kind of crisis that would inspire Sir Henry Newbolt to write a decade later:

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

Whether or not it was schoolboy sporting spirit that rallied them, the men of the Camel corps held their nerve. A combination of fierce hand-to-hand fighting and the firepower of the other faces of the square enabled them to regain their formation and drive the Mahdists off with heavy losses. The whole engagement lasted for scarcely 15 minutes.

Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Burnaby (pictured left) was a notable Victorian adventurer. Standing 6 foot 4 inches tall and reputed to be the strongest man in Her Majesty’s army, Burnaby was a gifted writer and able to speak seven languages including Russian and Turkish. During the 1870s he made two epic journeys into Central Asia to assess whether Russian expansion in the region was a threat to British India. His accounts of these expeditions: A Ride to Khiva and On Horseback Through Asia Minor captured the Victorian public’s imaginations and remain in print to this day. In 1882, he made the first solo balloon flight across the English Channel.

Eager to see active service, Burnaby set out for the Sudan without official leave, distinguishing himself at the battle of El Teb despite being wounded. Undeterred, he sought employment in Wolseley’s Nile expidition and was made second in command of the Camel Corps, in whose ranks he was killed in more-or-less the manner that McGonagall describes.

Including the redoubtable Colonel Burnaby, the British lost 74 men killed and 94 wounded. The Mahdists lost about 1100 killed and wounded – a sign of the tremendous firepower of the British and the courage the Sudanese tribesmen showed in facing it.

However, all this bloodshed was in vain. Stewart himself was mortally wounded on the day followng the battle, and the Corps reached the Nile only to learn of the fall of Khartoum and the death of General Gordon, which had happened on 26th January. The British withdrew from the Sudan, and the country was left to the followers of the Mahdi (who himself died later that year) for the next thirteen years.

Further Reading


Wikipedia Article

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Comments (5) »

  1. robin scott- smith
    In the year 2011, on the 7th day of December at 10:55 pm

    I enjoid reading this artical its very interestin. I am just about to purchase a medal to the 5th Dragoons to a privare killed in action in the square. Thank you.. Best of luck. Robin.

  2. Leonard H
    In the year 2012, on the 29th day of December at 2:30 pm

    Having watched the 2002 movie called “The Four Feathers” where Abu Klea actually fell to the Mahdi – I find this account of the accurate record of events fascinating.
    Thanks for reproducing the poem on the web for all to read

  3. Gordon Northing
    In the year 2013, on the 24th day of January at 1:57 pm

    I am interested in this battle because I think that my maternal grandfather took part in it.

    He was Frederick William Foster who was in The Royal Engineers and definitely went to the rescue of General Gordon (hence my name!) He was born in Bradford (died March 1934. He was married to Edith Susannah Foster.

    Unless he accompanied the party that went the long way round the river route on the Nile on that occasion?

  4. In the year 2015, on the 17th day of January at 6:00 am

    […] 1885 – Brits beat Mahdists at Battle of Abu Klea in Sudan […]

  5. In the year 2022, on the 24th day of July at 4:29 pm

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