Sudan Special Cover

The Myth of Ansar Firepower

By Doug Johnson (Originally appeared in Savage and Soldiers, Issue 1-2), Webified by Ian Croxall

Recently I received an article about the Mahdists by one of the readers in which it was said that the jihadiyya (riflemen of the Mahdi) were poor shots.  In an article on firepower rules by Bob Beattie, Bob gives very low fire capability to his natives and then says that he feels he might be overestimating the native's effectiveness. It is unfortunately true that most colonial historians and wargamers seriously underestimate the quality of the Ansar riflemen.  Part of this is a result of an indiscriminate lumping of all natives into one category.  We know, for Instance, that the Zulus did not know how to use their rifles and the Ashanti, though well armed, over-loaded their guns and fired slugs rather than bullets, thus drastically reducing their potency.  Other Africans either were not adept at the use of firearms, or did not use them at all.  On this basis most people assume that all Africans were inept shots.  This is, in the case of the Sudan, demonstrably untrue.

In dealing with the military capability of the Mahdiyya one must remember that it went through three phases.  The first phase was the beginning of the revolt when the Ansar were poorly armed and the movement succeeded through the skills of its leaders, the courage of its followers, and the ineptness and cowardice of its enemies. The second phase came soon and lasted from about 1883 to roughly 1889 beginning with the fall of El Obeid and ending with the Abyssinian war.  At this stage the Mahdists became well armed in both firearms and artillery, the army was at its largest, and its leaders were at their best.  The third phase lasted during the 90's and ended with the defeat at Omdurman.  In this phase the Ansar military organization had deteriorated.  It had lost some of its best generals (Including the Mahdi himself), and Its equipment had been worn Into uselessness.  It is because more is known about this last phase, and because it is certainly more popular with the British authors of the Sudan wars, that people are apt to confuse it with the earlier period and assume that the Mahdiâs military was always in poor shape.  It has only been recently that serious historians have ceased to belittle the Mahdiyya and have attempted to correct the myths that have for so long obscured its real strengths and failures.

In the early stages of the revolt the Ansar had no guns, nor trained riflemen.  As the revolt spread, though, it gained recruits from Arab slavers and merchants who had their own armies of trained riflemen called bazingers.

More rifles and riflemen came with captures and defections of Egyptian garrisons.  Thus, not only did the Mahdiâs store of arms increase, but his complement of trained riflemen increased, too.  In this way he was different from other leaders of African armies.  Whereas most Africans had few or no trained men and obsolete guns, the Mahdi had both trained riflemen and up-to-date firearms.

It was not until 1883, though, that the Mahdi realized the importance of firearms.  When storming El Obeid he did not use any rifles, relying instead on the swords and spears that had succeeded so well up until then.  But his first attack was repulsed by heavy and disciplined fire from the black troops of the Egyptian jihadiyya.  The Mahdi was quick to learn this lesson.  All his firearms were collected and distributed to his captive jihadiyya.  An Ansar jihadiyya was formed under the command of Hamdan Abu Anja, having gained some experience in the use of firearms while with Zubair Pasha in the south, was to prove an excellent general.  The Mahdi now had a nucleus of trained, well armed troops.  It Is Important to note that all of the jihadiyya were Blacks from either the Nuba mountains or the south.  All Egyptian troops captured were pressed into service but were not equipped with guns (Holt, p. 57).  One should remember that throughout the war it was always the Sudanese troops in Egyptian service who stood and fought the Ansar while the Egyptian troops, themselves, retreated.  These Black troops were to fight equally well on the Mahdi's side as against.

El Obeid fell and Hicks was sent to defeat the Mahdi.  It was here that the jihadiyya  under Abu Anja proved their worth.  As Hicks neared El Obeid and was led by his guides into thick scrub brush, the jihadiyya hid in the grass and behind trees and kept up a steady fire.  At one point a caravan of water camels was shot and killed outside of the Egyptian square, and "so hot was the enemy's fire that it was impossible to recover the water skins." (Wingate, p.88).  One Mahdist was to recount later, ãWe Dervishes were eager to attack at once, but the Mahdi restrained us.  So we contented ourselves with skirmishing and firing our rifles at the Turuk (Turk).  So fierce was the fire that all the bark was stripped from the trees and they gleamed white as If washed by soapä (Aglen, p. 144).  Slatin, in his account of the battle, said, "How terrible must have been the feelings of poor Hicks!  Instead of water, his wretched men received a hail of lead·Abu Abu Anga (sic.) and his men, under cover of darkness, crept up to the zariba, and all night long poured an incessant fire into this seething mass of men and animals (Ibid, p. 140).  This fire did much to disorganize and demoralize the Egyptian army, and prepared the way for the final charge of spearmen.

The Ansar was now organized around the jihadiyya. The main force was commanded by Abu Anja, while other commanders had contingents of these riflemen in their own troops.  By 1884 the Mahdi had around 20,000 rifles and plenty of ammunition (Wingate, p. 97).  More rifles and men were added to this.  In Darfur, Slatin's trained troops surrendered to the Mahdi, and in the Bahr al-Ghazal, the Amir Karam Allah Kurkusawi captured the province and 1200 trained soldiers under Lupton Bey (Theobald, p  134).  In the east, Uthman Diqna captured a total of nearly 4000 Remington rifles after the Egyptian defeats of El Teb, Tokar, Sinikat, and elsewhere.  With the exception of the east, all these gains were accompanied by gains of trained riflemen.  Uthman Diqna, however, did not capture trained riflemen, and his armed Hadendowa, being unused to rifles, were in all likelihood bad marksmen.

When the British arrived in the Sudan during the march up the Nile, they discovered, much to their surprise, that the Mahdist riflemen were very good marksmen.  At both Abu Klea and Abu Kru, Ansar riflemen kept up a hot fire. At Abu Kru, Wolseley reported that all British losses had been from ãrifle fire very well delivered" (Preston, p. 127).  Losses were indeed heavy, 23 men killed and 98 wounded (Symons, p. 212).  Yet, the Ansar tactics were not so effective against the British.  For one thing, most of their fire was individual sniper fire, and not directed volley firing, which would have caused much more damage to the closed formation of the British squares.  Secondly, the Sudanese used rifle fire to soften up the enemy and prepare the way for charging sword and spearmen.  This worked well against the demoralized Egyptians, and was to prove effective against the Abyssinians, but it was not suited against the discipline and superior fire-power of the British.  Had the Ansar concentrated on harassment, the fate of the British columns might have been different.

The interim between the two Sudan wars saw the decline of Arsar firepower.  The Mahdi captured some 15,000 rifles and plenty of ammunition from Khartoum (Preston, p. 138), plus the arsenal where bullets could be cast and powder manufactured.  In 1887 Abu Ania commanded 30,000 well armed and well trained jihadiyya (Theobald, p. 152), while each of the three khalifas and the provincial governors had large sections of these effective Black soldiers.  The arsenal was stocked mostly with Remington breechloaders and repeaters (Collins, p. 83).  The Abyssinian war, which lasted from 1887 to 1889, left the jihadiyya very much weaker.  Many men were killed, but the worst loss was the death of Handan Abu Anja who died accidentally from an over-dose of medicine.  Abu Anja's skill as a general and strict discipline had made the jihadiyya as effective as it was.  After his death the jihadiyya became of very dubious value and plagued the Khalifas with frequent regional revolts. The Khalifa never got rid of the jihadiyya, but he transferred his reliance to a new body. In 1892 he created the Mulazimiyya, his own bodyguard. Half of it was composed of some of the reliable jihadiyya and the rest were Western Arabs.  It was divided into three corps under the command of Osman Sheikh ed-Din (Holt, p. 188).  The garrison in Omdurman numbered around 9000 with about 3000-4000 scattered throughout the Sudan (Ibid.).

Even with this new force the Khalifa faced another problem the deterioration of his equipment.  As rifles wore out with use there was no way to replace them for the Sudan was cut off from any further supply of new and more modern guns.  When the Belgians began to penetrate the southern Sudan in the 90's with regu-lar and irregular troops, additional rifles were captured by the Mahdists.  Some undoubtedly were Albini breechloaders, but most were probably obsolete weapons issued to the irregular levies.  At any rate this was a minuscule source of supply.  Ammunition, too, was a big problem.  The arsenal was the site of powder manufacturing, but the powder was made by prisoners like Charles Neufeld who sabotaged the product and made the powder unreliable.  Lead for bullets had to be smuggled in from Egypt and Arabia, and after 1891 the supply from Egypt was effectively suppressed (Theobald, p. 179).  The ammunition shortage became so acute that by 1896 the riflemen in the south were issued spears as well as rifles (Collins, p. 136).  Though there was more ammunition in the north, the situation was not what it had been in "the old days."  Thus, severely han-dicapped, the Khalifa was indeed in a bad position when the Anglo-Egyptian army invaded in 1896.  Whereas the technology of this force had improved their firepower, the technology of the Mahdists had not even been able to maintain their firepower at a steady state (Zulfo, pp. 99-101).

It cannot be claimed that Ansar firepower in 1884 was equal to that of the British troops, but it was eminently better than most wargamers believe.  The jihadiyya seemed to have been skilled in mass firing and  sniper fire, though volley fire seems to have been little used.  Nor were they limited in good guns for by 1885 nearly half of the entire army was armed with modern rifles.  Unfortunately their skill and equipment deteriorated, and thus, over a period of 13 years, their effectiveness was severely limited.  Yet the Ansar army at its height was certainly a power to contend with.  It is important that colonial wargamers realize this and make allowances for this in their rules, for only then can a realistic, and fair Sudanese wargame take place.