The Egyptian Army
By Doug Johnson (Originally appeared in S&S Vol VIII, No. 1)
Colonial wargamers have a hard time assessing the Egyptian army. The defeats of Tel el-Kebir, El-Obeid and El-Teb stand out in their minds as primary examples of Egyptian cowardice and ineptness. Much praise is given to the Sudanese battalions, and this is deserved. Contempt is reserved for the Egyptian battalions of 1881and 1898, but this is inaccurate. The task of an accurate evaluation is not made easier by the Patronizing remarks of British observers who had no real experience with the Egyptian army. However readable the accounts of Steevens, Churchill, Burleigh, etc., only one was a military man, and not one knew Arabic or had ever commanded Egyptians in battle. Their knowledge was at best second-hand. It is unfortunate then that wargamers have tended to adopt their prejudices. This article hopes to reform the prejudiced opinions which have resulted.
THE EARLY YEARS
The Egyptian army had a checkered career in the 19th Century. Capable of extensive conquests under Muhammad Ali, by the 1880's it was in a sad state, especially so since its defeat by the Ethiopians in the late 1870's. The best Egyptian battalions were kept in Egypt, and those Egyptians sent to the Sudan (especially officers) were often sent for punishment. The best troops seem to have been the Sudanese battalions raised from the Africans of the South. Still, some of the original Egyptian garrisons in the Sudan fought well in the early days of the Mahdiyya, as with Slatin or in the defenses of El-Obeid, Sennar, Sinkat and Kassala. The soldiers sent down with Baker and Hicks were certainly not up to the standard of the Egyptian garrisons already in the Sudan. In fact, they were men who were considered unfit to be enrolled in the new Egyptian army of Sir Evelyn Wood.
Wingate relates an incident on the disarming of theEgyptian army after Tel el-Kebir:
In the early 1880's, the Egyptian army battalion consisted of four Buluks (companies) of approximately 200 men each. The Sudanese garrisons followed this organization while the new army under Wood in Egypt underwent an entirely new organization.
The new Egyptian army was formally raised in 1883. A total of 6,000 men was raised in eight battalions for four years' service in the army, and then four each in the police and the reserves. British officers seconded to the Egyptian any were given a commission of one or two ranks above their own. Egyptian ranks (as well as the drill) were in Turkish. They were: Sirdar (Commander-in-Chief), Farik (Lt.-general), and Lewa (Major-General) which were all called Pasha; Miralai (Colonel), KaiMkan (Lt.-Colonel) both being called Bey; Bimbashi (Major), Yuzbashi (Captain), Mulazim awal (1st Lieutenant) and Mulazim tani (2nd Lieutenant) all of which were called Effendi. Although the first eight battalions were formed into two regiments, the first commanded by British officers under Brigadier Grenfell and the second under native officers under El Lewa Shuhdi Pasha, in fact the practice soon came to be that there were no British officers below the rank of Bimbashi and few Egyptian officers above Yuzbashi.
Throughout the campaigns of 1884 and 1885 few units of the new army were sent to the front. Some served on the frontier, in garrison duty at Suakin, and hauling boats for the Nile Column. Forty men of the Camel corps (at this time consisting of only one company) were with the British at El-Teb and Tammai in 1884, and another detachment with one Camel battery saw action at Kirbekan in 1885. But by and large the Egyptians were kept strictly out of the fight. Plans were even floated to raise a Turkish battalion for the war in the Sudan rather than use the Egyptians. When this fell through, it was decided to raise a battalion of Sudanese veterans from the old Dongala and Berber regiments. This was the IX Battalion and served on garrisons at Suakin and on the frontier (it was conventional to distinguish the Sudanese battalions from the Egyptian by using Roman numerals).
GROWTH OF THE ARMY
By the end of 1885 the Egyptian army totaled nine battalions of infantry (25 British officers, 181 native officers, 4,646 men), eight troops of cavalry (one British officer, 27 native officers, 540 men), four batteries of artillery (one British officer, 18 native officers, 403 men), and three companies of Camel Corps (two British officers, seven native officers, 203 men) (Colville, I, p. 277). Two battalions of infantry, two troops of cavalry, one battery of artillery.and fifty men of the Camel Corps were stationed at Suakin while five battalions of infantry, five troops of cavalry, one camel battery of artillery and the rest of the Camel Corps were stationed between Wadi Halfa and the frontier. (Ibid.)
Both the infantry and the Camel Corps were armed with the Martini-Henry rifle and triangular socket bayonet, weapons they retained into the 20th Century. The cavalry were armed with the Martini-Henry carbine and sabre. It was not until the 1890's that the front ranks of the cavalry were given lances. The artillery used both mules and camels in each battery, alternating the mounts depending on the type of terrain (mules being used for rocky or hilly country and camels for the desert). At this time the artillery was armed with seven pounder mountain guns and small caliber Krupps. Despite the lightness of the guns, the batteries were designated Field Batteries, a term used throughout the rest of the Century.
In 1886 four new battalions were raised. Two, the Xth and XIIIth, were Sudanese. However, later on in the year the 11th and 12th Egyptian battalions were disbanded for reasons of economy. One Sudanese battalion of Valentine Baker's Gendarmerie was used on the frontier and in Suakin as regular infantry in 1886 and 1887, until it finally incorporated into the army on May 1, 1888 as the XIth Sudanese. A XIIth Sudanese battalion was raised the same year, and the Camel Corps was increased to four companies.
Enlistment in the Egyptian battalions was changed in 1888 to six years in the army, five in the police, and four in the reserves. The Sudanese, on the other hand, were enlisted for life and kept until too old to fight.Their treatment when "retired" contrasted unfavorably with their Egyptian counterparts, for very little attention was paid to their fate, aside from occasional donations from individual British officers. It was not until after the reconquest of the Sudan that the government took a more active role in setting up pensions and "retirement" villages.
In 1890 the Sudanese battalions were expanded from four companies of 170 each to six companies of 150 each. The Egyptian battalions remained at four companies. By 1891 there were fourteen battalions of infantry (the last six were Sudanese), five squadrons of cavalry (at 100 men each), six batteries of artillery (113 men each, except the one horse battery which had 137 men), and six companies of Camel Corps (at 152 men each) totaling 12,633 men (Wingate, p. 225). The cavalry were recruited exclusively from the Egyptian peasantry (fellahin) primarily from the Fayoum oasis (Steevens, p. 15). The Camel Corps had originally been all Egyptian, but now included two companies of Sudanese. By 1898 the Egyptian infantry battalions also had six companies each (Pritchard, p. 206).
When the reconquest of the Sudan began in 1896, the army had been increased by four squadrons of cavalry and the 15th and 16th Egyptian battalions had been raised from the reserves. In 1897 the Camel Corps was increased to eight companies (four Egyptian and four Sudanese), the cavalry to ten squadrons, and two more reserve battalions (the 17th and 18th Egyptians) were raised. In 1898 another battalion of infantry was included when the askaris of the Italian garrison at Kassala were redesignated "Kassala Irregulars" after the garrison was handed over to Egypt. The army now totaled 18,000 men.
The field artillery continued to use 6.5cm Krupps up through the Dongala campaign. These were carried on four mules (or camels) but also had a shaft that could be attached to the gun trail for draught (Headlam, p. 243). In 1897 they began to be replaced by Maxim-Nordenfelt 75mm quick-firers which fired a 12 1/2 pdr. shell, or an 18 1/2 pdr. double shell. This was a compact gun that also could be carried on four mules. At Atbara only the 1st and 2nd Field Batteries had Maxim-Nordenfelts, but at Omdurman all four Field Batteries were armed with them, though No.3 battery retained two of its Krupps (Headlam, p. 245). The Horse Battery was armed with an antiquated 7.75cm Krupps (sometimes referred to as a 7pdr.), which lacked brakes, had a slow rate of fire, and often had poor quality shells. Each gun was drawn by a team of eight Syrian horses, and had ammunition wagons accompanying them into battle. Multi-barrelled Gardner and Nordenfelt machine guns were used through 1896. The first Maxim guns manned by Egyptians appeared in 1897; until 1898 all Egyptian machine guns were Maxims, including the famous "galloping maxim" of the cavalry, which was drawn by teams of six horses. Whi le artillery batteries had six guns each, the machine gun batteries had only two.
THE FRONTIER, 1885-1896
Numerous frontier skirmishes took place at the end of 1885 as the British retreated and the Mahdists advanced. The new Egyptian army got its first test in December, 1885, in the battles around Kosheh and Ginnis. Unlike later actions with the British army, the Egyptians were not brigaded separately, The 3rd Egyptians, one company of the Camel Corps and one Field Battery were with the 1st Brigade; and the 1st Egyptians, IXth Sudanese, one company of Camel Corps and one squadron of cavalry were with the 2nd Brigade.
Kosheh and Ginnis were a revelation to the British on the ability of the Egyptians. Together the Cameron Highlanders and the IXth Sudanese cleared a Mahdist village near Kosheh, the IXth alone capturing two cannon. The Egyptians, too, cleared part of the village of Ginnis in stiff hand-to-hand fighting and captured four Mahdist guns.
After Ginnis the British force at the Frontier was progressively reduced until only one company remained at Assuan by 3 january 1888, and this was withdrawn to Cairo in June The defense of the Frontier and of Suakin was, for all practical purposes, left entirely to the Egyptian army from 1886 on. British troops were either entirely absent, or played only a supporting role. The defeat of Wad al-Nujumi at Toski was done entirely by Egyptians and Sudanese, the 20th Hussars being the only British troops involved.
Most of the fights that took place were skirmishes and small actions, with both the Egyptians and the Mahdists advancing and retreating around the villages of Serras, Gemai, Suarda, Argin, and others. Usually the Mahdists remained in Serras and Gemai while the advanced posts of Egypt were at Argin and the Khor Musa Fort. After Toski the Egyptians advanced up to Serras, though they generally remained on the defensive up to 1891.
Many of these skirmishes ended in Egyptian defeats, but they were defeats of a type that proved the steadiness of the new army. Only a few examples need be cited.
In a skirmish near Khor Musa Fort in October, 1887, the Camel Corps and cavalry were caught in a melee by a superior Mahdist force while withdrawing. Yet they were able to continue their retreat in good order, while fighting, until the rifles of the IXth Sudanese could come to their aid. (Royle, p. 470). The disasterous Handub expedition three months later, which nearly cost Kitchener his life, could have ended in a massacre but for the valor of one company of the Xth Sudanese that was with the force. This company was caught unsupported when 300 "friendlies" routed in the face of Uthman Diqna's troops. A force of 150 men faced 1,000, of which 600 were entrenched with rifles. The Xth held out until Kitchener could bring up his reserves of cavalry and Camel Corps. Despite losses of 40 percent the remnants of this company covered the retreat of the entire force. One British officer later wrote "...had it not been for the gallantry and steadiness of the Xth, we must have all been scuppered." (Hunter, pp. 6-9). A similar incident happened at the KhorMusa fort the night of August 29, 1888. The Mahdists managed to enter the fort at night and occupy half of it while part of the Egyptian battalion there, under the comnand of an Egyptian major, was able to hold the other half until relief came in the morning in the form of cavalry, infantry, an armored train and a gunboat (Royle 1900, p. 472).
Various British writers date the "transformation" of the Egyptian army from Toski in 1889, or Tokar in 1891, and some even as late as Omdurman itself. But it is clear that the transformation was earlier than that.... for one cannot think of a greater contrast between El-Obeid and El-Teb than the above incidents where the Egyptians remained steady when outnumbered and outgunned, surprised or actually overtaken by the enemy. Toski and Tokar were the largest tests, but they only showed the British public what the British officers in the Egyptian Army already knew.
In late June, 1889, reports came that Wad al-Nujumi was advancing into Egypt with a force of about 4,000 fighting men. Immediately a Flying Column of about 1,940 men and four steamers under Colonel Wodehouse was formed to make contact with the enemy. This they did at the village of Argin where, by fortifying the village, setting the guns across the river overlooking the village, and skillfully using the steamers filled with men to rush reinforcements from one sector to the next, the Flying Column repelled the Mahdist attack. The force then spent the rest of July trailing Wad al-Nujumi and preventing him from reaching the river while the Sirdar, Sir Francis Grenfell, gathered a larger force of Egyptians and called In British reinforcements.
The Egyptian force was concentrated at Toski and reformed into two brigades. Grenfell hoped to delay action until the British arrived, but it turned out he needn't have worried, On August 3rd, two days after the Sirdar's arrival at Toski, a battle was unexpectedly precipitated.
At first the Mahdist rifle fire was so heavy that the Camel Corps and cavalry were forced out of two defensive positions. But in a series of rushes the Sudanese and Egyptian battalions were able to storm and sieze the Mahdist hill-tops. The last hill was taken by a united charge of the IXth, Xth and XIIIth battalions. The ensuing Mahdist retreat was harassed by the Egyptian cavalry aided by the 20th Hussars, the only incident where British troops came into action in the nearly two month long expedition. (See Hunter, pp. 17-18; Royle 1900, pp. 480-484; Wingate, pp. 406-432).
With their defeat at Toski the Mahdists retreated south to Suarda. Minor raiding continued until 1893, but the frontier was quiet after that. Only Suakin needed security. In 1891 Colonel Holled-Smith, commander of the Suakin garrison, was sent to secure Tokar.
Taking Handub first on January 27, 1891, he arrived at the old government buildings of Tokar on February 19th. The battle there was not the dramatic event some writer later made it to be. A force of three battalions of veterans (two had been at Toski) was attacked by a smaller force of some 2,000. There was no question of whether the Egyptians would hold, or whether the square would break. The main attack came against the XIIth but firing was general all along the perimeter. Once the Mahdist charge was checked the XIth launched a counter charge which cleared the field. Uthman Diqna was forced to fall back on Kassala and for the next five years made only occasional raids against Suakin and Tokar.
Egypt, through the army, had now established secure frontiers which could also serve as bases for its own invasion of the Sudan.
It is natural that British authors give more attention to the few British troops involved in the conquest of the Sudan, but this gives a distorted view. In one sense the conquest of the Sudan was a British victory, for the designers of the military and political strategy were British. The Egyptian army was remodeled by British officers and British infantry and artillery did play a considerable part at Atbara and Omdurman. Yet it is as untrue to claim the reconquest a British victory as it would be to claim that the Normandy landings were an American victory. Even in substituting "Anglo-Egyptian" for "British" the emphasis should be on Egyptian, for it was the Egyptian army that won the battles.
When the decision was made to advance on Dongala in April, 1896, the Egyptian army was momentarily caught off-guard, only in that no campaign was expected that year. Two new battalions were raised from the reserves, an Indian Contingent was sent to replace the garrison at Suakin, and the North Staffordshire Regiment moved south to occupy frontier posts for the Egyptian army. The force that crossed the frontier was on its own. The first engagement at Firka on June 7th was carried out entirely by the three Egyptian brigades and mounted support. While the North Staffordshire Regiment was at Hafir, that battle was primarily an artillery duel between the Mahdist guns and the Egyptian flotilla. It fell to the Egyptian artillery and two companies of the Xth Sudanese to cross over the neighboring island of Artaghasi and silence the Mahdist redoubt at close range. Dongala fell to the gunboats.
The consolidation of 1897 again was done solely by the Egyptian army. Abu Hamid was captured by four battalions and the artillery on August 7, Berber was taken by Ja'alin "friendlies" on September 6th. Kassala was handed over by the Italians to the 16th Egyptians on December 25th.
It was not until February, 1898, that one brigade of British infantry began to arrive at the frontier. This brigade was a great help at Atbara, and all are agreed that the bulk of the fighting done was by the two Highland and six Sudanese battalions.' Yet it was the Sudanese who, having the longest distance to travel and coming under the heaviest fire, breached the zariba first. It was the Xth that captured Mahmud.
The 21st Lancers did not come out from Cairo until August, nearly six months after Atbara. They seem to have been a totally superfluous regiment as most reconnaissances were conducted by the Egyptian cavalry either in small groups, or, as at Atbara In force. Together with the Camel Corps, the Horse battery and the galloping maxims, the Egyptian cavalry could form the advance force for the entire army, engaging the enemy with rifles, artillery and machine-guns. The galloping maxims even allowed the cavalry to fire while withdrawing, though the effect at full tilt must have been erratic. This potent formation was used effectively at Omdurman in "soaking off" the forces of Shaikh al-Din and Ali wad Hilu. But, as so often before, the slow moving Camel Corps nearly got overwhelmed by the enemy's fleeter movement, and the entire farce might have come to grief without the intervention of the gunboats. By the end of the battle the Egyptian cavalry and the Camel Corps were still able to attempt the pursuit of the Khalifa. This pursuit, or rather the prevention of the Khalifa's escape was supposed to be the job of the 21st Lancers who had wasted their opportunity by being tricked into their charge, They were in no condition afterwards to pursue anything but their own glory.
Another brigade of British infantry, plus two batteries of artillery were sent to reinforce the Egyptians after Atbara, though one wonders if they were needed. The artillery support at Omdurman was effective. The first Mahdist charge was directed mainly at the British brigades but finished in front of Maxwell's. This was scarcely the whole battle. The main attack, first by the Black Flag, then by the two Green Flags, was directed at the Egyptians, and particularly against Macdonald's Sudanese. The credit for meeting both of these threats, delivered almost simultaneously, should go equally to Macdonald and his men, for he gave the orders, but they carried them out perfectly. The eventual support of the 10th Lincolnshire Regiment hastened, but did not dictate the end of the Mahdist charge. That was already decided by the 2nd Egyptians and the IXth, Xth and XIth Sudanese. One English officer with the 2nd Egyptians wrote home after the battle, "I also saw (from newspaper clippings) that 2 cos. of the Lincolns came up and saved us!! Certainly 2 English Regiments came up to our support but after we had finished our job, they never formed up into alignment, much less fired a shot." (Ready Ms, NAM).
The actual capture of Omdurman was carried out by the Egyptian army, with the XIIIth Sudanese entering and taking the citadel just too late to capture the Khalifa.
With Omdurman captured the British troops left the Sudan. The Guards and the 21st Lancers returned home to cheering crowds while the Egyptian army continued the year-long hunt for the Khalifa and his remaining amirs. Gedaref, the last major Mahdist stronghold was taken by the 16th Egyptians and the "Kassala Irregulars". The largest battle after Omdurman was at Rosaires on December 26, 1898, when a few companies of the IXth and Xth attacked Ahmad Fadil in a well-entrenched position. The Mahdists had two tiers of riflemen concealed in sand hills and scrub and subjected the Sudanese to a fire that many compared to the fire the Mahdists received at Omdurman. The Xth alone lost nearly a quarter of its strength. Yet when they halted and were rushed by the Mahdists, they returned an equally devastating fire at close range which completely repulsed the Mahdists (Hunter, p. 52).
The Khalifa was finally met and killed at El Gedid on November 23, 1899, by the IXth and XIIIth Sudanese. Among the trophies carried off by the IXth were the Khalifa's own leather and silver encased ombeya (elephant tusk horn) and the Mahdi's original modest green flag.
THE SUDANESE BATTALIONS
In making a critical assessment of the Egyptian army it has to be admitted that the Sudanese battalions were universally regarded as the pride of the army. In numerous battles they were placed in the firing line first, with the Egyptians in support. Though there may be something in the attitudes toward war in the Sudanese culture to account for their reputation, it would be a mistake to explain it solely by the "martial race" theory. A better reason for their reliability is found in the set-up of the Egyptian army itself.
The Sudanese battalions were recruited from the Blacks of the Southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Many were veterans of the old Egyptian army who had fought in Mexico and Turkey. Some later served with the Mahdists in the jihadiyya. Many of these had-been commanded by Hamdan Abu Anja, the greatest tactician and general of the Mahdist army. The first Sudanese battalion, the IXth, was raised from ex-soldiers still in Egypt. The next two, the Xth and XIIIth, were drawn mostly from the survivors of three Sudanese battalions in the Eastern Sudan who had escaped, en masse, from the Mahdists In 1885. After every major battle, a few recruits from the jihadiyya prisoners were sent off for additional training to replace losses. Thus, in the beginning and throughout the long war against the Mahdiyya the Sudanese battalions were able to recruit almost exclusively from veterans with many years' experience fighting under a variety of conditions in the Sudan. Unlike the Egyptian battalions, the Sudanese were recruited for life, so these veterans were retained from campaign to campaign.
This experience told in the soldiers' relations with their British officers. One subaltern who served with the the IXth on the frontier reports several instances of being corrected by his men. Prior to Toski he was assigned to fortify a house and walled courtyard with part of one company:
At another point during the battle of Toski he was ordered to fire on a body of Mahdists same 900 yards away to prevent their advance north:
Thus there seems to have been a continuous rapport between the Sudanese and their officers: sharing combat experience, explaining, relying on initiative, and a general keeping everyone on his toes. This did much to maintain their standard of fighting.
There has been much criticism about Sudanese fire-discipline. The authority most often quoted on this is Churchill, whose greatest criticism is voiced regarding incidents he did not witness. He claims that Sudanese firing at Atbara "was of the wildest and most reckless description." though he himself had not been at Atbara (Churchill, I, p. 934). His criticism compelled his editor, who had served with the Egyptian army throughout the reconquest, to comment "The shooting was generally very free, and no unit can be either entirely exonerated or severely blamed." (Ibid.) Churchill then gives a very long and vivid description of the wild nature in which the Sudanese of Macdonald's brigade wasted ammunition. Yet at this time he was nowhere near the scene of the action and his seemingly eye-witness account appears more and more like the imaginative reporting for which he was known. A more reliable authority reported that when Macdonald's brigade was drawn up to face the Mahdists the artillery and maxims opened fire prematurely, and this set the Sudanese off at independent firing. Macdonald brought this to a halt, company vollies were opened up at four hundred yards, and "from that time on they worked like a machine" (Pritchard p. 206). The real problem the Sudanese faced was a shortage of ammunition, which is not surprising considering they bore the brunt of the battle (Zulfo, p.227). The official report records that Macdonald's brigade repulsed the attack by their own firepower (SIR, p.7). This was only one of three attacks the Sudanese repulsed with firepower during the battle. There were other battles, Firka, Hafir and Rosaires, for instance, where the effectiveness of Sudanese firepower drew special comment (Knight, p. 123, Atteridge, p. 212, Hunter, p. 52).
If the praise for the Sudanese battalions is sometimes as wild and free as Sudanese firing was reputed to be, the praise of the Egyptian battalions is more restrained, almost defensive. "Though the Sudanese might be considered the flower of the army," wrote one British officer, "the fellaheen cavalry, artillery and infantry were absolutely trustworthy troops" (Maxse, p. 133). "Excellent soldiers, but not heroes" is the type of remark one Is apt to hear about them. It is a general feeling, rarely substantiated by specific instances. Some of the examples can be questioned in their interpretation, and others do not merit being turned into blanket generalizations.
The Times correspondent was impressed with the Egyptian performance at Firka:
A new reputation should have begun with Ginnis when the 3rd Egyptians cleared several houses at the bayonet and captured four guns, or with the early string of "gallant actions" of the Camel Corps. Yet the memory of El-Obeid and El-Teb, as unindicative of the new army as they were, lingered.
I have already noted the veteran status of the Sudanese as one reason for their reliability. Egyptian soldiers were recruited for only six years, so that only officers and NCO's were likely to be veterans of the widely separated campaigns. Seven years had elapsed between Toski and Firka, with only one Egyptian battalion having served in the 1891 Tokar expedition. It is not likely that any battalion had the accumulated experience of the Sudanese. It is not surprising, then, that some of the reservist battalions distinguished themselves quite well, though generally kept out of battle. The 15th battalion, unsupported, took Shendi before Atbara. The 16th battalion did so well at Gedaref and other actions along the Blue Nile that even Churchill was moved to say that it "won greater distinction than any fellahin troops during the war." (Churchill, II, p. 266).
The common explanation for the fighting ability of the new Egyptian army is that it was now "properly led by British officer." Though nothing should be detracted from the real achievements of the British officers and NCO's that trained and officered the Egyptian army, it is time that this emphasis on the officer be dropped. When properly led and trained, by anybody any army can fight well. It is not true that an army is only as good as its officers - the British army has proved that over and over again in the 19th Century, and especially WWI. An army is only as good as its soldiers, and again the British army has proved that.
There were certainly some very good officers seconded to the Egyptian army, Those who came early and were in command of a company or two, who had close contact with their men, seem In many ways better than those who straight away commanded a battalion or larger. They had a better understanding of their men, knew their capabilities and how to reach them. It also seems that those who came out in the 80's or early 90's and stayed on became the best officers in the army. Certainly there was a difference between them and those who came much later, for the last phase of the reconquest. There were some brand new officers who came out in 1898 just in time for Atbara, and who could not converse fluently in Arabic on military matters until after Omdurman! One might also suggest that those in the Sudanese battalions seemed to advance further than those in the Egyptian battalions. It is more than a coincidence that during the reconquest the commander of the Egyptian Division, General Hunter, and three out of four commanders - Lewis, Macdonald and Collinson all had served in Sudanese battalions.
Native officers were often belittled. It was often said that the 7th Egyptians at Omdurman, the only battalion with no British officers, wavered In the face of the enemy. The fact that it was commanded by native officers was seen as sufficient explanation. Unfortunately no one has yet gone into the matter more thoroughly.
There were many instances on the frontier and the Dongala campaign where troops under their own officers fought quite gallantly. The case of the Egyptian major defending Khor Musa Fort has already been cited.
There was a difference between Egyptian and Sudanese officers. Almost all Egyptian officers (many of whom served in Sudanese battalions) were trained at the military academy in Cairo. All Sudanese officers came from the ranks. These officers won high praise from the Times correspondent in 1896, and he could by no stretch of the imagination be called a negrophile.
RELATIONS WITH THE BRITISH
Churchill attributes the transformation of the Egyptian army to the regimental pride adopted and instilled by the British officers. "The officer's military honour is the honour of his men...whatever they are, or wherever they are, the officer who leads them believes in them and swears by them" (Churchill, 2,p. 412). This may not be a major reason for the change, but it certainly was an element. Officers in the Egyptian battalions despised the Sudanese. Officers with the Sudanese knew their men were best. Both resented the officers of the British regiments. At Ginnis a British officer in the Egyptian army was the first to enter the Mahdist camp. He went rushing about grabbing Mahdist banners yelling "Don't let the English get the flags! Don't let the English get the flags!" It was only after remonstrations from Grenfell that he reluctantly gave up a few of the trophies he had gathered for the Egyptians (Haggard, p. 376).
The same rivalry was sometimes displayed by the men. One Sudanese battalion fired warning shots over the heads of the Grenadiers as the latter tried to pull in front of them in the rush to be the first to enter Omdurman after the battle. When one officer nervously inquired about the shots, another answered, trying to sound cheerful, "oh, it's the Gyppies behind...they always do that if you get in front of them." (Ziegler, p. 191). Nor did the "Gyppies" let the Guards remain in front for long. Smith-Dorrien led his XIIIth Sudanese through the back alleys and the outskirts of the town, re-entering the main road in front of the Guards, and then spread his companies out across the width of the street so that no one else could pass (Ziegler, p. 196). As it was, Sirdar chose the XIIIth over the Guards to be the first to storm the citadel.
There were friendlier relations between individual battalions. In commemoration for their joint defense of Kosheh, the Cameron Highlanders presented the IXth Sudanese with their own color. Friendly interest continued between the two regiments until 1930 when the IXth was disbanded. The IXth insisted on returning their color to the Camerons for safekeeping, and also gave them two of their most prized trophies: the Khalifa's war horn and the Mahdi's original green flag. The Xth Sudanese had a similar relationship with the 10th Lincolnshire Regiment while the latter was stationed in Egypt, but this friendship was based on the fact that both shared the number ten. On the march into Omdurman both battalions cheered as they passed and repassed each other on the way. The band of the Xth played the "Lincolnshire Poacher", and finally gave the 10th a Mahdist flag to carry in front as a trophy. In reciprocation the 10th presented the Xth with a color of their own after the campaign. The Grenadier Guards also presented the Xth with a Drum Major's staff.
The conquest of Africa was carried out by European governments, but primarily through African troops. The old askaris do not figure as prominently in modern history as their enemies who resisted European domination. "Mercenaries" they are sometimes called, and mercenaries they often were, but not In the image that word now evokes. Thus dismissed by Africanists, they fare no better with modern. British writers who, with extraordinary ingratitude, ignore the soldiers who won for them the empire they remember so fondly.
The Egyptian army was raised with the conquest of the Sudan as its main, almost its sole purpose. The defense of the Suez Canal and British interests were left to the Royal Navy and British troops in Egypt. This purpose the Egyptians achieved through a long frontier war, In battles on their own, and finally in battles aided by the British army. The officers who served in the Egyptian army have long since died. The battalions who bore Ginnis, or Toski, or Firka on their flags have been disbanded. They have no regimental histories or museums to maintain the credit due them. Many recent books by British authors on the colonial period have emphasized such notable British traits as a sense of "fair play", yet there has been little that is fair in the treatment of the memory of the Egyptian army. There is still the need for fairer and more analytical accounts. They may come in the near future, but they are long overdue.
The army retained its white uniform of the earlier period up through 1885. Sometime in 1885 the new Khaki uniform was introduced. The cavalry and camel corps at Suakin were still in white by the end of the campaign (Haggard), but the Desert Column met Egyptians in khaki and puttees when they returned to Egypt in June and July (see Gleichen, Camel Corps).
While the Egyptian battalions had khaki drill early the Sudanese were less uniform. The IXth did not get full khaki drill until 1887, and did not even have a full issue of boots before 1886 (Mitford, p. 181). At first they wore a dark blue jersey and puttees, fez, and white pants. They had no regulation equipment, each man being Issued a bit of leather out of which he improvised his own bandolier, same of very ornate design (Mitford, p. 175). When they finally did get their khaki drill and regulation equipment, they retained the blue jersey, and most men also kept their own bandoliers in preference to the new ammunition pouches which were stiff and often did not close properly (Mitford, p. 181). The XIth Sudanese began as a Gendarmerie battalion, and as such wore a zouave style uniform of dark blue cloth, red cumberbund, white spats and yellow piping (Mitford, p. 177). The retained this uniform for some time after they were incorporated into the regular army, though one photo of the battalion at Suakin in 1891 shows them in the regular khaki drill (Scrapbook, Gordon Highlanders). This same zouave uniform was issued to all Sudanese battalions as a winter uniform in 1890, though the other battalions wore light blue piping. At this time the uniform was dark blue cloth, though a later photograph (1898) shows a uniform that Is either medium or light blue (Khalifa's House, Omdurman).
The color of the khaki drill used by the Egyptian army has been described as yellow and brown, the brown referring to the jersey the Egyptians wore. Churchill describes it as darker and not as yellow as British khaki (Churchill II, p. 427). All branches wore the jersey for marching order: the Egyptians wore brown and the Sudanese (including the Sudanese companies of the Camel Corps) wore dark blue.
Chevrons were red and were worn on the right arm of either the jersey or the khaki jacket. Officers, both native and British, never wore jerseys. One photo of an Egyptian officer shows him in a coat considerably darker than his trousers. Officers generally wore gaiters, though some wore puttees. British officers occasionally wore the fez, but this was mainly for ceremonial occasions. Most of the time they wore the Egyptian pattern sun helmet, which had a wider brim than the India pattern then in use by British regiments.
The fez (sometimes called tarboosh) was tall, though shorter fezes of earlier times seem to have been wore through the 80's and into the early 90's. It was sometimes worn plain, but there were four styles of immas (turbans) worn around it. The plain khaki immas with neckcloth was worn most often by all troops. It covered the top, and sometimes the neckcloth was tucked up under the fez leaving the back of the neck bare. So sketches in Churchill, however, show Egyptian cavalry with the neckcloth worn in front, part of it tucked under the fez to stiffen it like a hat brim to shade the eyes. The Sudanese battalions also had a plaited straw imma, stitched in back, with neckcloth, but leaving the top of the fez bare and tassel free. A plain white cloth was also sometimes worn by all leaving the top of the fez bare. Another variation of this was a bulky white cloth wrapped around the entire fez, covering the top as well. Regimental flashes and stripes were worn on the khaki and straw immas only.
Bandsmen wore the same uniform as the regular soldier. However, at times Sudanese wore their red sash over their blue jerseys. Each battalion had a drum and bugle band, while the brigades had full brass band. About 1886 the first bagpipe band was raised for the IXth Sudanese by a pipe-major from the Cameron Highlanders. By the end of the century almost all infantry battalions, Egyptian and Sudanese, had pipe bands. Bag covers and drums were dark green. The drums were trimmed in red along the top and bottom, had white tension ropes, and bore the regimental number and battle honors.
Each infantry battalion was issued a plain green silk flag, about 40"x32", with white Arabic (Hindu) numerals of the battalion on the center. These flags were carried into battle.
The one battalion at this time that did have a distinctive regimental color was the IXth Sudanese. This was presented to the battalion by the Cameron Highlanders on May 27, 1886, and returned to the Camerons when the IXth was disbanded in 1930. When first presented it had only Kosheh and Ginnis as honors, others being added later. It was of red (maroon) silk. The fringe was red and gold, the scrolls were buff edged in gold with black lettering, the central wreath was gold with green leaves, and the staff had a gold crown and crescent star on top.
In addition to the battalion flags, each company had a small rectangle of colored cloth with a white numeral in the center giving the company's number. The color of each flag varied with the company and were: 1-blue, 2-black, 3-white, 4-amber, 5-green, 6-vermilion (Steevens, p. 90). These flags were attached to spear shafts and carried in front of each company as they marched.
The national flag of Egypt at this time was in fact the Turkish flag: red with a large white star and crescent in the middle. The Khedive's standard was red with three small stars and crescents on the half of the flag nearest the staff.
The numerals used in the Egyptian army might cause some confusion. In English documents it was customary to use Arabic numerals when referring to the Egyptian battalions, and Roman numerals for the Sudanese. There are some documents that use either for both.
The real confusion begins in the regimental flags and flashes of the regiments. For Arabic does not use what we call "Arabic" numerals, but a series of numbers based on a Hindu model. Unlike the language itself, the numbers are read from left to right, with the tens first and the units last.
Here is the Arabic numeral system, in the mest common orthography, as they would be used on the imma flashes of all regiments. (Note: the flag of the IXth Sudanese, being in English and Arabic, uses the Roman numeral on one side, and the Arabic numeral below on the other).
ATTACK FORMATIONS OF THE SUDANESE BATTALIONS
Both the Egyptian and Sudanese battalions marched in columns of double companies, but the Sudanese, having six companies, advanced to attack in a line of four companies with two companies in reserve behind the center at a distance of one company. In this way the two flank companies could swing around to form a square if necessary. Bayonet charges were launched in this formation. This formation was adopted by the Egyptian battalions at Omdurman as well.
In advancing in brigades the same formation was adopted, with two battalions on the fighting line, each with two companies out of their six behind in support (Knight, pp. 105, 117).
A brigade of four battalions had three battalions in front with one battalion in column (sometimes double companies) in the rear.