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Battle of Tamai

Unit/ Formation: Royal Marines Location: Tamai Period/ Conflict: Sudanese War Year: 1884 Date/s: 13 March 1884 The Battle of Tamai (or Tamanieh) took place on 13 March 1884 between a British force under Sir Gerald Graham and a Mahdist Sudanese army led by Osman Digna.

At 8am on 13th March 1884, the British force paraded for the advance to attack Osman Digna’s camp, some two miles distant. Two brigade squares were formed with the Second Brigade leading and the First Brigade marching on a path behind and to the right of the Second Brigade.

The leading Second Brigade, commanded by General Davis, comprised 1st Black Watch, 2nd York and Lancaster Regiment, the Royal Marine Light Infantry detachment and the Royal Naval Brigade with Gardiner and Gatling guns. The First Brigade comprised 1st Gordon Highlanders, 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers and 3rd King’s Royal Rifle Corps and was commanded by Colonel Redvers Buller. General Graham and his staff accompanied the leading Second Brigade.

The British cavalry, after reconnoitring the Sudanese positions, fell back behind the Second Brigade. The Mahdists could be seen ahead of the squares, skirmishers to the front and the main force in the camp to the rear. The going for the British troops was difficult, the route dotted with thorn bushes and intersected by gullies containing dry water courses. Two squadrons of British cavalry moved forward on the left and engaged the Mahdists with dismounted rifle fire, until, under threat of being overrun, they withdrew.

Royal Marine - Sudan Battle of Tamai by C C Stadden

The Second Brigade came into contact with the Mahdists and fire was opened, the brigade square continuing to advance. The brigade then found itself on the edge of a wide deep gully. The sides of the square were subjected to repeated and increasingly threatening rushes by the Mahdists. The fire discipline of the troops began to deteriorate. Smoke from the rifle fire with the dust from the dry plain, stirred up by the numbers of men moving about, made visibility increasingly difficult.

British Second Brigade Square under heavy attack at the Battle of Tamai, 13th March 1884

The front face of the brigade square moved down into the ravine, but the men forming the sides of the square failed to conform fully to the movement, so that the continuity of the square was broken and it began to disintegrate. The Mahdists launched an attack on the right face of the square, comprising 2nd York and Lancaster, which halted to give fire, while the front face of the square continued to advance. The York and Lancaster fell back on the Royal Marine Light Infantry and the two battalions became intertwined and disordered. The Black Watch, forming the front, were thrown into confusion and retreated into the square. The brigade was forced to withdraw, pressed hard by the attacking tribesmen.

Three Royal Navy guns had to be abandoned and casualties mounted. The tribesmen captured several Gatling and Gardiner guns. Colonel Buller’s First Brigade now came up on the right of the Second Brigade, to the lip of the ravine. Not until now engaged and in good order, Buller’s battalions opened a heavy fire on the Mahdist tribesmen.

The Second Brigade was reformed by General Graham and his staff, fresh supplies of ammunition being brought forward. The brigade, with the Black Watch taking the lead, moved back to engage the Mahdists at the edge of the ravine, retaking the abandoned guns. A party of tribesmen launched an attack from concealed positions in a neighbouring gully, but were shot down by the British troops, now well in hand. The two brigades opened a heavy fire on the Mahdists, as they withdrew across the ravine and up the far bank. With the First Brigade providing supporting fire, the Second Brigade stormed across the ravine. The brigades reformed on the far bank of the ravine and moved into the valley to occupy Osman Digna’s camp. The Mahdists continued to resist the advance, but were finally dispersed by artillery fire. The battle was over, leaving Osman Digna’s camp in British hands, to be burnt by Colonel Buller’s brigade.

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