Your RDA of Irony

On This Day in 1898

This was the way that Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to end: the outnumbered but morally superior (and better armed) western army decisively vanquishes the fanatic Moslem horde. That was the rousing finale of the Mahdi War in the Sudan as well as the 47 or so film versions of “The Four Feathers.”

On this day in 1898, on the outskirts of Khartoum, a British and Egyptian force of 26,000 faced a Sudanese army of 50,000. Both armies were organized by caste and race; the enemies had snobbery in common. The British soldiers had artillery, machine guns and the most modern rifles; their Egyptian allies had old rifles but carried the latest in British baggage. On the Sudanese side, the Arabs had horses and rifles while the sub-Saharan Africans (yes, I am trying to find a euphemism for Black) had swords and their feet.

Ironically, the invading British were reluctant imperialists. Nothing in the Sudan was of interest or value; if the Islamic fanatics running the desolate region had behaved themselves, the British would have been happy to ignore them. But when have you heard of a subtle, discreet fanatic? The Sudanese thought that they were being led by an Islamic messiah–the Madhi–and they intended to spread their cult to Egypt. Now, there, the British had a cherished interest: the Suez Canal. To protect that Canal, Britain had usurped Egypt–relegating the reigning Khedive to be their pampered puppet while running the country.

Unfortunately, by taking over Egypt, Britain had also acquired the chronic problem of Sudan. It was not merely an annoying neighbor but a rebellious province of Egypt. In fact, the Sudanese were winning. One Egyptian army had been massacred in 1881; a second Egyptian army–with British advisors–was massacred in 1883; and a third Egyptian army–under the very British general (and celebrity) Charles Gordon was trapped in Khartoum in 1885. Knowing the Sudanese habit of using British officers’ heads as decorations, the English newspapers demanded the military relief of Khartoum. S-l-o-w-l-y acceding to popular demand, Britain finally sent  an expedition to the Sudan: it arrived to find the late General Gordon–if not his head–and his equally decomposing Egyptian army.

Not slowly, the British left Sudan and stayed out for 15 years. By 1898, however, the British found that they could no longer ignore the Mahdists. They were fomenting unrest in neighboring territories, and now the French were threatening to do something about it. It was bad enough that Sudan is a French name; it would be insufferable for it to be a French territory. If only to keep the French out, the British finally resolved to retake the Sudan. Of course, they offered all sorts of noble excuses–end slavery, suppress fanaticism and avenge General Gordon–all of which were true, if not really important.

In any case, Omdurman was a glorious British victory. The British and Egyptians suffered less than 500 casualties while killing or wounding more than 20,000 Mahdists. The rebellion was effectively crushed, and British would control the Sudan for another 50 years.

A young British cavalry officer expressed the sense of elation at Omdurman: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” This unusually articulate lieutenant was also moonlighting as a journalist. Check your 110 year-old copies of the Daily Telegraph for his byline: Winston Churchill.

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