Sudan Special Cover

British Army uniform plate

Sketch Map of Battle Of Ginnis

The Battle of Ginnis

By Doug Johnson (Originally appeared in Soldiers of the Queen, Issue 11)

The Battle of Ginnis was a small affair notable for three points: it ended the phase of the Sudan campaign that began with Graham's battle of El Teb in 1884, it was the first battle of consequence in which the new Egyptian army took part, it was the last battle in which the British army wore red coats.

PRELUDE TO THE BATTLE

After the fall of Khartoum, both the Nile and Desert Columns withdrew to Egypt and were disbanded late in 1885. The frontier was garrisoned against a potential Mahdist invasion by a Frontier Field Force composed of units from the British garrison in Egypt and the new Egyptian army. Major-General Grenfell, later Sirdar of the Egyptian army, was commander-in-chief of the Field Force with his headquarters at Asuan. The garrisons were strung along the Nile and the railroad from Asuan to Akasha, with the southern-most fort at Kosha. Brigadier General Butler was in command of the advance posts from Wadi Halfa to Kosha.

The Mahdist forces were under the command of Muhamnad al-Khair. They were little more than provincial levies occupying the northern territories as the British forces withdrew. The invasion of Egypt, which was part of the Mahdi's strategy, was delayed by the death of the Mahdi in June, after which various provincial commanders were called back to Omdurman to swear allegiance to the Khalifa. This was followed by consolidation throughout the Sudan as a few remaining Egyptian outposts were subdued and provincial administration was organized.

Each side feared an invasion by the other, but neither had the capacity at the end of 1885 to justify their enemy's suspicion. In September, Muhammad al-Khair reported to the Khalifa that the British were encouraged by the Mahdi's death to launch an invasion of Dongala (Holt, p. 142). This was not the case, but the Khalifa increased recruitment of troops, especially from the Gezira, south of Khartoum, to be sent as reinforcements to meet this invasion. These reinforcements were first noted along the frontier in November, and Wingate later claimed that they were an advance force sent to take Wadi Halfa in preparation for Wad al-Nujumi's invasion of Egypt (Wingate, p. 270). Wad al-Nujumi arrived in Berber late in December to organize an army, but documents in the Mahdist archives reveal that his preparations were designed to thwart an expected British Invasion, not to invade Egypt. (Holt, p. 142).

The Anglo-Egyptian force on the frontier in November-December 1885 was divided as follows:

  • Wadi Halfa - 500 British, 350 Egyptians;
  • Akasha (railhead) -600 British, 350 Egyptians;
  • Sarkametto and Dal (two villages on opposite banks of the Nile) -200 Egyptians;
  • Kosha-600 British, 300 Egyptians;
  • Mograka-266 Egyptians.

There were various smaller detachments of thirty to fifty men in forts overlooking the rail line at Ambigol Wells, Tanjur Road, Murrat Wells and Saras. (Wingate,p. 272).

Documentation of the Mahdist force at the frontier is less clear, and it is evident that the Intelligence department, still in its infancy, had only the vaguest idea of Mahdist strength and intentions. Some 4,000 men were reported in front of Kosha at the end of November (Grant, p. 159), and there appear to have been only 5,000 men divided under about 40 flags In late December Grant, p. 162). Wingate later claimed 6000 men were involved (Wingate, p. 279).

Muhamnad al-Khair Abd Allah Khugali, a former teacher of the Mahdi and commander of Berber, was in command of the frontier troops. Abd al-flajid Nasr al-Din abd al Khalik, the commander of the Mahdists at Kirbekan, was sent as second-in-comnand. Among the leading amirs in the force were:

  • Abd al-Majid KhuJali, Muharmmad al- Khair's nephew and leader of the Berber contingent at Abu Klea;
  • 'Uthman Azraq, who later captured Charles Neufeld, was one of al-Nujumi's divisional commander at Toski, as Governor of Berber opposed the Anglo-Egyptian advance of 1896, and died at Omdurman;
  • Hassan Abu Qarja who commanded the Khartoum contingent;
  • Mahmud al-Ajami Hamza, a leading Berber amir who had also fought at Abu Klea;
  • Shaikh wad ar-Rahama, commander of the Berber contingent;
  • Wad ar-Rais (sometimes 7isted as Wad Ebrais) who commanded the riflemen and artillery;
  • Bashir who commanded the Rubtab contingent;
  • Umar wad al-fakir, a staff officer;
  • Hamuda Idris who later commanded the Mahdists at Firka. (Cairant 1/11/55,and Hill).

It is uncertain how many rifles and cannon the Mahdists had. Four cannons (small brass mountain guns) were later captured at Kosha and Ginnis, and one more was mounted in a fort on the west bank, so at least five cannons were present.

Between November 27th, when the Mahdists were first sighted near Kosha, and December 22nd, there were many skirmishes. The amirs 'Uthman Azraq, Hamid az-Zain, and Siwari ad-Dahab were the main leaders of the Mahdist frontier raids. An early skirmish, on November 30th, involved the river boat Lotus (one of the Yarrow-built steamers left over from the Nile campaign), the Egyptian cavalry and the British Mounted Infantry (Grant, p.160). Between December 2nd and 4th Hamid az-Zain led a force of cavalry, camelry, infantry and one gun in raids on the fort at Ambigol Wells and the rail line in that area. On December 12th, he raided Firka and made off with some cattle and money. The Kordofani amir Siwari ad-Dahab raided the fort at Mograka the same night (Wingate, P. 273).

During this time the Mahdists set up camp at the village of Ginnis and moved into the village of Kosha, completely investing the fort on its southern side. (Wingate later claimed that this concentration was ordered by Abd al-Majid abd al-Khujali against the Khalifa's orders) (Wingate, p. 279). A continuous fire was poured into the fort from a high black rock directly overlooking the fort's southern wall. Some entrenchments and a gun emplacement were also set up opposite the fort on the west bank. The Mahdist artillery fire became increasingly accurate during the month-long siege, and one shell dismounted the fort's Gardner gun on December 20th.

The Anglo-Egyptian forces under the command of Lt.General Stephenson began to concentrate at Firka to meet the supposed invasion. On December 15th the Cameron Highlanders made a sortie from Kosha against the black rock. Brigadier Butler made a stronger reconnaissance to Ginnis on December 22nd with the Mounted Infantry, Egyptian Camel Corps and the 20th Hussars. In this sortie the mounted troops were suddenly attacked and had to fall back. The Mahdist casualties were tight, but the Kordofani amir Badawi al-Azraq was killed.

On December 29th, General Stephenson ordered General Grenfell to advance from Firka to Kosha, bivouacking between Mograka and Kosha forts. The Anglo-Egyptian force was divided into two brigades with a semi-independent cavalry command. General Butler commanded the 1st Brigade with the 1st Berkshires, the West Kents, the 2nd Durham Light Infantry, one camel battery (six guns) Egyptian artillery, with a sixty-man escort from the 3rd Egyptians, and the 11th Company R.E. Colonel Huyshe,who commanded the Berkshires at Tofrek, commanded the 2nd Brigade with the Yorkshire Regiment, six companies of the Cameron Highlanders, two companies (152 men) of the IXth Sudanese, 278 men of the 1st Egyptians, the 3rd Company (39 men) of the Egyptian Camel Corps, a detachment of the British Camel Corps (the last time such a unit appeared in the Sudan), one mule battery (screw guns) of the 2nd battery, 1st Brigade, South Irish Division R.A., and two Gardner guns.

The mounted troops under Colonel Blake consisted of the 1st Company (11 men) Egyptian Camel Corps, one company Mounted Infantry (referred to in one dispatch as the Royal Highlanders Mounted Infantry), the 20th Hussars, and one squadron ~57 men) of the Egyptian cavalry. Two companies of the IXth Sudanese were left in Barrow's zariba opposite Fort Kosha on the west bank, 200 men of the 3rd Egyptians were at Mograka Fort, one company of the Camerons in Kosha fort and one company Camerons with one Krupp gun in the redoubt outside the fort (see pp. Wingate 215-278; Haggard, pp. 367-368; and Cairint 1/11/55).

THE BATTLE

At 5:00 AM on December 30th the Anglo-Egyptian force marched out of its camp. All men were issued with 80 rounds of ammunition. The British infantry wore their red coats, leaving greatcoats and blankets in the camp. The First Brigade plus the 1st Company Egyptian Camel Corps marched off first with the mounted troops following and keeping in touch. The British Camel Corps followed the mounted troops maintaining contact with them and the 2nd Brigade behind them. The Lotus had its steam up and was manned by a rifle detatchment from the West Kents and a Gardner gun manned by the IXth Sudanese.

The 1st Brigade marched three miles south-east into the desert, hidden by the hills, until they were able to take up a position on the ridges opposite Ginnis. The cavalry was spread out in vedettes on their left. The 2nd Brigade, minus six companies of the Cameron Highlanders and two companies of the Sudanese, took up a position overlooking Kosha village, while the Egyptian cavalry occupied vedettes in the rear. The Cameron Highlanders and the IXth Sudanese formed up in front of Kosha fort.

The battle began at 6:10 AM after the 2nd Brigade mounted a crest 1,200 yards from Kosha village with the Yorkshire Regiment in half battalions on either side of the Royal Artillery and the Gardner guns and the 1st Egyptians in the rear. The battery opened fire on the village, taking the Mahdists by surprise. They replied with a "sharp but ill-directed fire , which was in turn answered by the Yorkshires. After fifteen minutes of bombardment the Camerons and the IXth began their advance along the river, while the Lotus steamed alongside them slightly in front.

The Camerons met the order to advance with great relief after one month pent-up in the fort. They headed directly for the village while the IXth stormed the black rock. The Lotus trained its Gardner gun and rifles on groups of Mahdists driven from hut to hut. The IXth cleared the black rock after stiff hand-to-hand fighting and captured one brass gun. When the Camerons joined the IXth on the other side of the rock they met them with a loud cheer.

By 6:50 AM Kosha village had been cleared. The Lotus reported a Mahdist farce advancing from Ginnis. She was ordered to continue steaming slightly ahead of the Camerons, bringing fire to bear an both banks. The Camerons and Sudanese continued their advance through the palm groves and cultivation towards Ginnis, and were joined by the rest of the brigade.

When the Mahdists in the camp behind Ginnis found that the 1st Brigade had taken a position in the ridges to the south-east they began an attack of their own screened by riflemen. The riflemen lined the crests and opened fire for about forty minutes, but this was described as "heavy but ill-directed" (Cairint). Some spearmen were able to advance unseen along a khor and attack the Egyptian Camel Corps while it was dismounted, forcing it back. But the attack was broken by fire from the DLI and the Camel Corps' own right flank troops.

The 1st Brigade now swung to the left, fighting for each crest as it continued to advance towards the camp at Ginnis. It occupied the camp as the Camerons and IXth Sudanese cleared the houses of Ginnis village. The British cavalry and Mounted infantry had formed on the left of the 1st Brigade and pursued the Mahdists through the Atab Defile. This was weakly held, and the Mahdists were dispersed by a bayonet charge of the Mounted Infantry. The cavalry then watched the Mahdist retreat "sullenly", an adjective used when natives withdrew slowly and in good order. When the commander of the cavalry was later taken to task for not pursuing the Mahdists more vigorously, he replied, rather testily, that he hadn't an independent command and didn't feel he could make such an initiative. (Cairint).

With the Mahdist camp and both villages now in Anglo-Egyptian hands it was found that a small band of Mahdists were still occupying a house in Kosha village. They were finally dislodged by a screw gun and the 1st Egyptians. The battle was over by 10:00 AM.

AFTERMATH OF THE BATTLE

The Anglo-Egyptian casualties during the battle were light. They were reported as two British killed and 25 wounded, 8 Egyptians killed and 13 wounded (Cairint). Later sources placed the dead at 20 Egyptians and 12 British (Haggard, p. 384), or a total of 150 casualties (Smith-Dorrien, p. 65).

It is hard to say what the Mahdist casualties were, as the official despatches give no figures either of the force or its losses Wingate gives casualty figues as 500 killed and 300 wounded (Wingate, p.279). Andrew Haggard, who commanded the 1st Egyptians in the battle, later claimed that an official estimate of 600 casualties was too high (Haggard, p. 384). It should be noted that Haggard's figures are usually at variance with the official figures. The loss of amirs seems to have been high, including as it did abd al-Kbjid, abd al-Khalik and Umar wad al-fakir among the high command, the commanders of the Rubatab, Berber and Khartoum contingents, and Hamid at-Zain. Abd al-Majid al-Khujali was wounded. The official despatch erroneously claimed Uthman Azraq and Mahmud al-Ajumi Hamza among the slain (Cairint).

The Mahdist forces' were rallied by 'Uthman Azraq at old Dongola, which served as the northern most Mahdist outpost during most of the rest of 1886. Muhamnad al-Khair reported to the Khalifa that his forces were taken completely by surprise. He was later blamed for the defeat and was removed from his command of Berber and Dongala in 1886.

The Mahdists continued to fear an invasion from the north until the Anglo-Egyptian forces, now satisfied that they faced no immediate threat from the south, abandoned Kosha and withdrew to Wadi Halfa, where they remained until the beginning of the Reconquest.

CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE BATTLE

Most of the front-line fighting was done by the British army, but it cannot be denied that all branches of the Egyptian army acquitted themselves well. Both the Camel Corps and the 1st Egyptians were involved in difficult hand-to-hand fighting, and all four guns captured during the battle were captured by the Egyptian army. The honors of the day went to the recently formed IXth Sudanese, the first, and at that time the only Sudanese battalion in the Egyptian army. Sergeant Major Ali Abdullah of the IXth, formerly a gunner on one of Gordon's steamers, was mentioned in despatches and recommended for promotion far his skill in handling the Gardner gun on the Lotus (Cairint). In the battle, the battalion captured two guns. A bond was formed between it and the Cameron Highlanders during the month they shared the siege in Kosha, and the Camerons presented the IXth with a set of colors, suitably inscribed with "Kosheh" and "Ginnis" as their first honors. The success of the IXth on the frontier led to the raising of a second Sudanese battalion, the XIIIth under Smith-Dorrien.

Even with the honors the Egyptian army won, so great was the rivalry between the British officers of the Egyptian army and those of the regular army that one officer attached to the Egyptian army rushed into the Mahdist camp at Ginnis, bundling Mahdist banners under his arms, shouting "Don' t let the English get the flags!" (Haggard, p. 376)

Ginnis marked the end of the active involvement of the British Army on the Nile frontier. The ad hoc Camel Corps and Mounted Infantry disappeared from all future engagements and the regulars returned to garrisons further down the river. It was also the last time that large units of British and Egyptian troops were brigaded together The defence of the Frontier devolved on the Egyptian Army and over the next few years certain units such as the Sudanese battalions and the Egyptian Camel Corps gained a reputation for fighting that was carried through the reconquest. It was the Egyptian Army that later defeated Wad al-Nujumi's army at Toski (only one British unit, the 20th Hussars was present), and it was the Egyptian Army that carried out the early stages of the reconquest. It was only with the Atbara and Omdurman campaigns that large numbers of the British Army were used, and then there were brigaded separately.

It is hard to make an assessment of the Mahdist performance, because intelligence reports about them at this time are so incomplete. Aside from the want of accurate numbers, there is no complete list of the different contingents. There seems to have been a separate command of riflemen, but it is unlikely that they were a regular unit of the jihadiyya (former Sudanese soldiers in the Mahdist army), as the jihadiyya at this time was still under the command of Hamdan Abu Anja, and he was using them in 1885 to put down various revolts in Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains.

There are varying opinions about the accuracy of the Mahdist riflemen at Kosha and Ginnis. One Cameron Highlander Sergeant claimed that the Mahdists did not use their Remingtons well and fired high, even at close range.(Lawton, pp. 31 and 68). Andrew Haggard stated that some of the snipers were very good shots (Haggard, p 367). The official reports speak of heavy or sharp, "but ill-directed fire", yet the Sirdar attributed the low casualties of the Anglo-Egyptian force to the complete surprise it achieved in its attack, not to the accurate rifle fire (Cairint). In the fighting around Kosha Fort prior to the battle, Wingate commented that "very harassing" Mahdist rifle fire forced the defenders to build additional earthworks, and it was the excellence of these that kept casualties low. Yet Smith-Dorrien, who visited the black rock above the fort after the battle claimed that every movement in the fort could be seen, and the low casualties were due to "the extraordinary bad shooting of the Arabs" (Smith-Dorrien, p. 59).

During the month preceding the battle, the Mahdists showed a high degree of ingenuity and skill in their many raids around Kosha and along the railroad. In particular their enemies noted their use of riflemen as skirmishers, and the well-placed gun emplacements along the river and overlooking the railroad (Grant, p.160). They were unable to counter the Anglo-Egyptian ability to bring in reinforcements quickly by train or steamer , and in the end they were totally surprised by the appearance of a large army where they were aware of only a small garrison.

The brevity of reports does not give us a very clear idea of the abilities of the different Mahdist commanders. Muhammad al-Khair was in over-all command of the frontier, but he does not seem to have been directly involved at Ginnis. The force there seems to have been commanded by Abd al-Majid al-Khujali, who proved to be somewhat careless. Hamid at-Zain was a very good hit and-run frontier fighter, and Wad ar-Rais placed his guns and riflemen well during the siege of Kosha.

What has to be emphasized is that the Mahdist army at Ginnis was not the vanguard of an invading army, but the first line of defence. While Wad al-Nujumi raised an army for the defence of the frontier, Muhammad al-Kahir and Abd al-najid al-Khujali were to contain the enemy. Their tactics were mainly defensive, aimed at forcing the withdrawal of the Kosha garrison without risking a major assault. What is surprising is that although the Mahdists were expecting a large invading force, they were totally unprepared for the one that attacked them, but Ginnis was not a major defeat. It allowed the Anglo-Egyptians to withdraw to Wadi Halfa without harassment, but it left the Mahdists in possession of a longer stretch of the Nile than they previously held.