Sudan Special Cover

 

THE DESERT COLUMN, 1884-5

By Doug Johnson

General Wolseley always considered himself an innovator and sought in his campaigns to produce some starting tactical innovation with which to carry on his battles. In the Sudan campaign of !884-85 he tried two - a river column of whale boats (similar to the Red River Campaign of Canada where he won his fame), and a flying desert column of camel mounted troops.

Of course the idea of a camel corps did not originate with Wolseley, but the Sudan was the first time a camel corps figured into the major plans of the British army. Its object was to cross the Bayuda Desert from Korti to Metemma in order to place a small but effective force close to Khartoum to either reinforce it or relieve it entirely while the bulk of the British army rowed its weary way up the Rile. The Desert Column was to be a self-sufficient force of cavalry, artillery and infantry. Though not all infantry involved belonged to the Camel Corps, the four regiments that comprised the newly raised unit were to be the backbone of the force.

The first contingent of the Camel Corps was raised in Dongala and was composed of the Royal Sussex Regiment and a wing of the Mounted Infantry. It was known as Major Marriott's Camel Corps (Colville, Vol. I, pp. 109-111). Volunteer were seconded from regiments serving in Egypt as well as some home regiments, and the first batch of these volunteers began to arrive at Alexandria on October 7, 1884. On October 26, 1884 the Camel Corps was officially divided into four regiments. They were:

Guards Camel Regiment: 23 officers, 403 men; 1st, 2nd 3rd Grenadier Guards, 1st and 2nd Coldstream Guards, 1st and 2nd Scots Guard, 10o Royal Marine Light Infantry (RMLI).

Heavy Camel Regiment: 24 officers, 430 men; 1st and 2nd Life Guards, Royal Horse Guards, 2nd, 4th, 5th Dragoon Guards, 1st, 2nd (Scots Greys) Dragoons, 5th and 16th Lancers.

Light Camel Regiment: 21 officers, 387 men; 3rd 4th, 7th, 10th, 11th, 15th, 18th, 20th, 21st Hussars.

Mounted Infantry Camel Regiment: 26 officers, 480 men; 1st South Staffordshire (38th), 1st Royal West Kents (50th), 1st Black Watch Highlanders (42nd), 1st Gordon Highlanders (75th), 2nd Essex (56th), 1st Sussex (35th), 2nd Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (46th), 3rd King's Royal Rifie Corps, Rifle Brigade, Somerset Light Infantry, Connaught Rangers, Royal Scots Fusiliers.

The Light Camel Regiment was left at Korti and was used to guard supplies. The final composition of the Desert Column was:

2 squadrons 19th Hussar 8 officers, 127 men

Guards Camel Regiment 19, 365

Heavy Camel Regiment 24 376

Mtd. Inf. Camel Regiment 24, 359

1st Royal Sussex 8, 250

Naval Brigade 5, 53

1/2 of 1st Bty., 1st Bde./
Sou. Div., Royal Arty. 4, 34

1/2 26th Co, Royal Engineers 2, 25

(List from Colville, V.II, p. 254)

All of the above numbers are approximate as many men were used on convoy and garrison duty, and rarely did the entire Column move together. Rather they were sent in two or three waves from one point to another. Fifty men of the Essex Regiment relieved the Mounted Infantry Camel Regiment at El Howeiya Wells so that the Mounted Infantry could join the rest of the Column, and 150 of the Royal Sussex were stationed at Gakdul, leaving only 100 to travel with the rest of the Column. (Ibid., pp. S, 14). The total strength of the Desert Column was 98 officers, 1,509 NCO's and men, 296 natives and interpreters. 8 Egyptians, 2,778 camels. 155 horses, and two mules (Ibid., p. 6).

All of the Desert Column, except the 19th Hussars, were mounted on camels. This included the Royal Sussex, the Naval Brigade, the Royal Artillery, and the Royal Engineers in addition to those designated as Camel Corps.

The Naval Brigade had one five-barrelled Gardner gun with four camels to carry it; one for the barrels, one for the wheels and elevating gear, one for the trail, and one for the ammunition. The Camel Battery of the Royal Artillery had three 7 pdr. screw guns. Each gun, plus two boxes of ammunition, were carried on six camels with one native driver allotted to every two camels.

The staff of the Desert Column consisted of Sir Herbert Stewart as Commander-in-chief, with Colonel Burnaby as second in command. Wilson took over command after Stewart was mortally wounded at Abu Kru. The Guards Camel¥ Regiment was commanded by Lt. Colonel E. Boscawen; Heavy Camel Regiment by Lt. Colonel R.A. Talbot; the Mtd. Inf. Camel Regiment by G. H. Gough; the Royal Sussex by Major Sunderland; 19th Hussars by Lt. Colonel P. Barren; Naval Brigade by Capt, Lord Charles Beresford; Royal Artillery by Capt. G. Norton, and the Royal Engineers by Major Darward.

After leaving Gakdul before Abu Klea the Column marched out with 300 men of the Heavies, 367 of the Guards, 360 of the Mounted Infantry, 100 Royal Sussex, 3 troops (90 men) of 19th Hussars, 30 men and 3 guns from Royal Artillery. 30 men and one Gardner Gun of the Naval Brigade, and 25 Royal Engineers.

At Abu Klea the square was broken momentarily and the Column suffered heavy losses. Colonel Burnaby himself was killed, so Charles Wilson became second in command. At Abu Kru, four miles from the Nile, Stewart was mortally wounded and though he did not die until some time later, Wilson assumed entire command.

At the Nile the column met four of Gordon's steamers which contained over 100 of his irregular Black Sudanese riflemen (who also sported a small brass mountain gun). Taking two of these steamers, along with portions of the Naval Brigade, the Sudanese, and 20 of the Royal Sussex, Wilson and Beresford tried to steam up to Khartoum before it fell. They were two days late.

Redvers Buller was sent with the Royal Irish Regiment and the West Kents to take command of the Desert Column. He left Korti on January 29, 1885, and though ordered to attack and take Metemma, he decided his force was too small and began withdrawing them. An earlier attack on the Madhist town by Wilson had failed. In the meantime Buller had left the West Kents to guard the wells on the route back and six companies of the Royal Irish joined the Desert Column at Gubat (Royle, II, p. 307). The Light Camel Corps arrived at Abu Klea on the 20th of February and Sir Evelyn Wood and three companies of the West Kents arrived at Gakdul on the 17th. The Desert Column withdrew from the Sudan on foot, even the 19th Hussars, who had only a few horses left.

 

TACTICS OF THE CAMEL CORPS

Contrary to the portrayal in the movie "Khartoum", the Camel Corps never used their camels for cover! Nor, as some wargamers might be tempted to do, did they ever fight mounted as cavalry. From the beginning they were conceived of as a mounted infantry force, and fought as mounted infantry.

In a memorandum dated 27th October, 1884 and signed by Redvers Buller, the following guidelines were issued:

"The soldiers of the Camel Regiments will fight only on foot. They are mounted on camels only to enable them to make long marches. The camel is a good traveller; but he is a slow mover.

He cannot be managed as easily as a horse, and he cannot be mounted, or dismounted From, with great rapidity. The men of the Camel Corps must therefore trust dolely to themselves and their weapons when once they have dismounted, This cannot be too strongly impressed upon the men. If we have to fight in the Sudan, we must expect to meet an enemy far outnumbering us, and who may at first charge recklessly home, apparently regardless of the intense fire we bring to bear upon him.

...The attack formation far infantry of our Drill Book is not intended to be employed against an enemy like the Arabs of the Sudan, It is designed to enable infantry to advance with the least possible lost over ground swept by a heavy fire from guns and rifles of an enemy as well armed and disciplined as ourselves, against whom an advance in close order would be impossible.

In acting against Arabs who are Indifferently armed and bad shots, the open formation of the grill Book is not necessary." (Colville, II, p.240).

When under attack the Camel Corps dismounted and lashed its camels' knees together, thus eliminating the need to keep "horse-holders" back per regular mounted infantry. The camels were placed In "a compact formation under guard" (see below) and the main force would march away to battle so as to keep the camels From being brought under fire.(Colville, V.I., p. 102).

At Abu Kru, however, the Column Has caught unaware and had to hastily construct a zariba of boxes and saddles keeping the camels inside of the square itself.

The Royal Engineers were brought along to help construct earthworks like the stone forts surrounding the wells at Gakdule, as well as to work the pumps used to bring the water out of the wells. Occasionally they built smaller squares for the camels or wounded away from the main square, and often times the Naval Brigade's Gardner gun was placed in these smaller squares.

At Abu Klea the Column made the mistake of sending out skirmishers to cover the square, The Mahdists advanced so fast, and the square had to hold fire until the skirmishers got into the square, that only a few volleys were fired before the Mahdists engaged the British in hand-to-hand fighting. The cavalry was reserved for scouting. The guns were usually put in the corners of the square, or placed in smaller fortified zaribas outside of the main square.

 

UNIFORMS AND EQUIPMENT

The official order concerning equipment for the Corps, issued on 4 August, 1884, included the following: waist kit, bandolier of 50 rounds, rifle, sword bayonet and scabbard, water bottle, and haversack.

The uniform was as follows: White helmet with white pagri, grey frock, yellow-ochre cord breeches, blue puttees, and boots. A glengary was carried in the zulleetah (saddle bag). (Colville, V. I, p. 239). Though spurs were issued they were never used.

There were, however, variations to the uniforms, the Guards and Heavies came over on the saw boat and to distinguish each unit they sewed the initials of their regiments on the right arm of their jackets. Red cloth was used and some examples are RHG (Royal horse Guards - The Blues), 5L (5th Lancers) or 1GG (1st Grenadier Guards). In the last case the number was sewn above the letters "GG".

Even before marching off to the Sudan the Guards dyed their helmets coffee color and used brown leather belts. the exception to this was the contingent of RMLI who arrived in camp in "spotless" white helmet, kits and pouches (Gleichen, p. 61). Though described by Gleichen as wearing regulation grey, Reynolds states that the RHLI of the Camel Corps wore khaki jackets and Bedford cord breeches (Reynolds, V. 35, p. 390). The confusion may be due to the fact that the actual color of what war officially designated "khaki" was closer to grey than it later became. One Marine officer insisted on wearing his red coat and was later wounded by Mahdist rifle fire (Gleichen, p. 174).

It is not clear when a tan khaki began to be worn. One picture of the Battle of Abu Klea by Y.D. Wollen in the National Army Museum in Chelsea shows soldiers in an all khaki uniform with dark blue puttee, they also are wearing a khaki pagri with red stripes crossing it diagonally all the way around. A black and white picture in Marling shows Marling in what appears to be an all khaki uniform (photo opposite p. 132, Marling).

By the end of the camlpaign the Camel Corps was pretty rag-tag. On return to Gakdul some were wearing black serge trousers, some with puttees and others tied up under the knees (Gleichen, p. 243), On return to Egypt from Dongala in June 1885 they were wearing khaki tunics and trousers, but probably without puttees. Many patched their pants with red saddle leather or with sacking. Few had boots, and some wore red Arab slippers (Gleichen p. 289).

Stewart was described as wearing a "shiney Guards' helmet" with an orange silk pagri (Symons), but Gleichen says he wore a yellow pagri. One picture from the Graphic reproduced in Preston's book shows a man that may be Stewart with a colored pagri and a brass spike in his helmet.

Royal Sussex: All troops stationed in Egypt prior to the Sudan campaign were issued with grey serge uniforms (Gretton, p. 260). One photograph of the Royal Sussex shows the men wearing a variety of clothing; full khaki uniforms, khaki jackets with blue trousers, grey shirts with either blue or khaki trousers (Sandes photo opp. p. 114), The helmets appear also to be khaki. Puttees were not always worn.

Royal Irish: The Royal Irish marched out from Korti with Buller wearing khaki cotton drill jackets, trousers and helmet covers, grey woolen puttees, rolled greatcoats, wooden water bottles, haversacks, waistbelts and braces and pouches. They were armed with the triangular socket bayonet and had a leather hand-guard sewn around the stock and barrel of their rifles. By the time they returned to Korti their boots were falling to bits, and their uniforms were patched with any material that was available (Gretton, pp. 274, 280, 285).

Naval Brigade: A picture in Reynolds (v. 35, 0.200) shows the Naval Brigade of the Desert Column in their regulation blue seaman's collar bordered in white, white straw hats with blue hat bands tied with the ends hanging over the back brim. A thin red arm-band is worn around both upper arm. The gaiters and waist-belt are brown, the haversack is white and the bayonet is in a black scabbard with a brass tip. Officers wore double-breasted frock coats and straw hats.

Wollen's painting in the NAM, however, shows the Naval Brigade in all white uniforms, white helmets with blue pagris, and blue seaman's collars.

Gleichen shows the Naval Brigade with white helmets without pagris and either all blue or all white uniforms. The officer is wearing a frock coat with regulation naval cuff insignia. The officer is shown with a sword, and it should be noted that the bayonet the Naval Brigade usd was a specially contrived cutlass with brass cutlass hilt that could be attached to the rifle as a bayonet. It is likely that any variation of white and blue uniforms were worn, with either straw hats or sun helmets.

19th Hussars: The Hussars were mounted on the same grey Syrian Arab horses, about 18 hands high, that the Egyptian cavalry used (Biddulph, p. 247). The ILN depicts them in white helmets, blue jackets, khaki breeches, blue puttees, brown belts and white haversacks. They may have occasionally worn blue trousers with yellow seam stripes, as such trousers turned up among Gordon's Sudanese at Korti after they had pilfered some of the British soldiers' kits (Gleichen, pp. 210-211).

R.A. and R.E.: Both the artillery and the engineers were dressed in the grey khaki uniform issued in Egypt. One photo of an R. E. officer shows him in full khaki with no puttees, and with his helmet a darker shade with than his uniform (Sandes, photo opp. p. 114). The R.A. were armed with three 2.5" rifled muzzle loading screw guns, each carried by five camels, (Headlam, pp. 211, 218-19).

Native Drivers: There were some 120 drivers attached to the Column. They wore a red turban, a blue jersey that reached almost to the knees, white haversack, and "a brass ticket", though it is unclear just what a brass ticket was (Gleichen, p. 107).

Gordon's Sudanese: The officer of this irregular force were Egyptians and wore the regulation Egyptian uniform with red fez. The troops themselves wore red fezes and white jibbas. They were armed with Remington rifles, spears, a cartridge belt worn around the waist, and sometimes bayonets attached to the cartridge belt. On the march back to Egypt they picked up many things from the British camp and some pictures show them in blue jerseys (with a white "5L" sewn on front) and blue infantry pants (Gleichen, pp. 210 -11).

Saddles: Saddles were various and often of poor quality. Though the Mounted Infantry Camel Regiment was issued with the best, most fell apart after hard use. Two zuleethas (saddle bags) were worn, one on each side. They were white with a broad red border. A brown leather "Namanqua" rifle bucket was worn on the off side over a leather water skin (gubeleh). A long stiff leather Egyptian water bottle (mussek) was worn on the left side. In front a tan 30 pound bag of corn was strapped (three days rations for the camel - this sometime later was replaced by a net-bag of grass. All of this was covered with a red saddle cover. The head stall was black leather. The saddle cover for the Camel Corps, Naval Brigade and all other troops was always red, though I have been unable to locate the peculiar pattern shown in the movie "Khartoum".

 

CONCLUSIONS

In making rules for wargames one should keep in mind that the Camel Corps fought an foot. They should, when mounted, move faster than infantry but somewhat slower than cavalry, and perhaps have a bigger decrease in movement when dismounting and mounting. Perhaps it shauld take longer for them to go from marching order to a square formation with the camels in a different square or in the center of the main square. Saddles and boxes can be used for cover -- but please, never the camels themselves - they suffered enough from the British soldier without adding that! As the camels were lashed securely one needn't hold back the usual one out of every four men to secure them as the normal Mounted Infantry - the entire force can be placed on the firing line.