The Battle of Atbara

Ye Sons of Great Britain, pray list to me,
And I’ll tell ye of a great victory.
Where the British defeated the Dervishes, without delay,
At the Battle of Atbara, without dismay.

The attack took place, ’twas on the 8th of April, in the early morning dawn,
And the British behaved manfully to a man;
And Mahmud’s front was raked fearfully, before the assault began,
By the disposition of the force under Colonel Long :
Because the cannonading of their guns was very strong.

The main attack was made by General Gatacre’s British Brigade,
And a heroic display they really made;
And General Macdonald’s and General Maxwell’s Brigade looked very fine,
And the Cameron Highlanders were extended along the line.

And behind them came the Lincolnshire Regiment, on the right,
And the Seaforth Highlanders in the centre, ’twas a most gorgeous sight,
And the Warwickshire Regiment were on the left,
And many of the Dervishes’ heads by them were cleft.

General Macdonald’s Brigade was on the right centre in similar formation,
And the 9th Battalion also in line in front rotation;
Then the whole force arrived about four o’clock,
And each man’s courage was as firm as the rock.

At first the march was over a ridge of gravel,
But it didn’t impede the noble heroes’ travel;
No, they were as steady as when marching in the valley below,
And each man was eager to attack the foe.

And as the sun shone out above the horizon,
The advancing army, with banners flying, came boldly marching on;
The spectacle was really imposing to see,
And a dead silence was observed throughout the whole army.

Then Colonel Murray addressed the Seaforth Highlanders, and said,
“Come now my lads, don’t be afraid,
For the news of the victory must be in London to-night,
So ye must charge the enemy with your bayonets, left and right.”

General Gatacre also delivered a stirring address,
Which gave courage to the troops, I must confess:
He told the troops to drive the Dervishes into the river,
And go right through the zereba, and do not shiver.

Then the artillery on the right opened fire with shrapnel and percussion shell,
Whereby many of the Dervishes were wounded and fell,
And the cannonading raked the whole of the Dervishes’ camp, and did great execution,
Which to Mahmud and his followers has been a great retribution.

Then the artillery ceased fire, and the bugles sounded the advance,
And the Cameron Highlanders at the enemy were eager to get a chance;
So the pipers struck up the March of the Cameron Men,
Which reminded them of the ancient Camerons marching o’er mountain and glen.

The business of this regiment was to clear the front with a rifle fire,
Which to their honour, be it said, was their greatest desire;
Then there was a momentary pause until they reached the zereba,
Then the Dervishes opened fire on them, but it did not them awe.

And with their pipes loudly sounding, and one ringing cheer,
Then the Cameron Highlanders soon did the zereba clear.
And right through the Dervish camp they went without dismay,
And scattered the Dervishes across the desert, far, far away.

Then the victory was complete, and the British gave three cheers,
While adown their cheeks flowed burning tears
For the loss of their commanders and comrades who fell in the fray,
Which they will remember for many a day.

Captain Urquhart’s last words were “never mind me my lads, fight on,”
While, no doubt, the Cameron Highlanders felt woebegone
For the loss of their brave captain, who was foremost in the field,
Death or glory was his motto, rather than yield.

There have been 4,000 prisoners taken, including Mahmud himself,
Who is very fond of dancing girls, likewise drink and pelf;
Besides 3,000 of his followers have been found dead,
And the living are scattered o’er the desert with their hearts full of dread.

Long life and prosperity to the British army,
May they always be able to conquer their enemies by land and by sea,
May God enable them to put their enemies to flight,
And to annihilate barbarity, and to establish what is right.

Defeat of the Dervishes

Mahmud a Prisoner

British Losses

The following telegram from the Sirdar, of yesterday’s date, has been received at the Foreign Office, through Lord Cromer:

Attack on Mahmud’s intrenched position has been completely successful.

I marched from Umdabia last night, arriving at one mile from the position at dawn, and advanced to within 500 yards of the enemy’s trenches. These were bombarded, the first gun being fired at 6 15.

At 7 45 three brigades, British on left, formed for assault, and the whole force advanced most gallantly, rushing the zeriba and trenches down to the river without a check.

Losses of the Dervishes are very heavy, as they stood well and reserved their fire till we were quite close to their trenches.

Mahmud has been taken prisoner, and cavalry, horse battery, and Maxims are now pursuing the fugitives.

The following telegram from the general officer commanding the troops in Egypt, dated Cairo, April 8, has been received at the War Office :-

Sirdar attacked successfully Mahmud’s position early this morning. Mahmud taken prisoner. Dervish losses heavy. Cavalry and Horse Artillery now in pursuit.

Our casualties are, approximately, among officers of British Brigade:-

Killed.- Captain Urquhart, Cameron Highlanders; 2nd Lieutenant J. [? P.] A. Gore, Seaforths.

Wounded.- Warwicks, Lieut. M. Greer; Lincolns, Colonel J. E. Verner, Lieut. A. [? H. E.R.] Boxer; Seaforth Highlanders, Colonel RH. Murray (slightly), Captain N. C. Maclachlan, Captain A. C. Baillie, Lieut. N. A. Thomson, Lieut. R. S. Vandeleur; Camerons, Major B. Napier, Captain Findlay.

Casualties among rank and file British Brigade will be sent later.

No casualties among British officers with Egyptian army, but Captain Walsh, Rifle Brigade (severely); Captain Harley, Indian Staff Corps Major Shekleton, South Lancashire Regiment and Major W. F. Walter, Lancashire Fusiliers (slightly) wounded. All wounded are being attended to.

(From our Special Correspondent)
On The Atbara, April 8

The Sirdar’s force numbered 13,000 men, with 24 guns under Colonel Long and 12 Maxims. The enemy left Shendy with 19,000 men, but have suffered a good deal from desertion since. The enemy at first were practically concealed underground in a strong zariba running round the whole position.

We left yesterday’s camp at 6 p.m., bivouacked in the desert, and reached Mahmud’s position at 6 a.m. The enemy were evidently aware of our approach. After an hour’s heavy bombardment the brigades were formed up and carried the position at the point of the bayonet, under a tremendous fire from the enemy. The zariba was torn away, but the enemy clung obstinately to the trenches and were bayoneted in them. During the whole of the admirable bombardment by Colonel Long not a single Dervish was visible. The cavalry are now in full pursuit.

Nothing could have been finer than the behaviour of the troops. The Sirdar received a tremendous ovation after the position was taken. Mahmud was taken prisoner by the 1oth Sudanese battalion. He was underground the whole time his men were fighting. Osman Digna fled, as usual.

Prisoners say that Mahmud’s force was deserting much before the battle. The enemy’s guns, baggage animals, and standards were captured. Our loss would have been much heavier if the enemy had not fired high. This will be called the battle of Atbara.


The British and Egyptian troops are still cheering each other this evening. The river bed and thick bush down to the river are full of Dervish dead. The Sirdar issued an order late last night saying he was sure that every man of the force would do his duty, but he hoped they would remember Gordon.

The dervish fire was vary heavy, but too high. The British loss was mostly before reaching the zariba. Colonel Murray had his horse shot under him, and was wounded in the arm.

The enemy certainly behaved with the greatest bravery. Prisoners say that they lost heavily by the bombardment before the advance. Some of the enemy tried to break across the river at an early stage, but were driven back by Dervish horsemen. The rockets, under Captain Beatty, set the enemy’s camp on fire in many places. The enemy were in deep trenches in rows behind the zariba. Bishari Redi fell at the head of his men. Ten guns were captured. Prisoners say that Osman fled early during the bombardment.

The feature of the battle was the extraordinary steadiness of the troops throughout.

The Times, 9th April 1898

Wikipedia Article

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Comments (6) »

  1. Gamal
    In the year 2012, on the 5th day of April at 12:47 pm

    Nice to find information about history, but is it available to sent me photos about Atbara city or rarely photos ?

  2. emlyn t evans
    In the year 2013, on the 10th day of January at 11:47 pm

    As an ex cameron highlander and in training i was in Atbara squad. It is only now that I have found out where the place is in the Sudan.

  3. Daniel B
    In the year 2016, on the 29th day of August at 9:41 am

    McGonagall had this habit of adding an extra line here and there, such as in verse 2 of this poem. This makes it difficult to play a game, common in our house, where you read a couplet omitting the final word. Whoever guesses the most missing words correctly is the winner. In this example “zereba” and “pelf” caused problems, the former being the thorn fence around houses in east Africa and the latter referring to stolen goods. Even if you knew what a zariba was you might not pronounce it in a way that rhymes with awe. Similarly, “said” and “afraid” don’t rhyme less in southerly dialects, but McGonagall uses this device quite regularly and it doesn’t cause many problems. Sometimes participants can never guess what the final word is, and curse McGonagall’s genius as a result.

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