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Royal Marines Camel Corps - Battle of Abu Klea

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Unit/ Formation: Royal Marines Location: Sudan Period/ Conflict: Sudanese War Year: 1885 Date/s: 17th January 1885

The Guards Regiment of the Camel Corps was formed from the Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards, with Royal Marine Light Infantry and the Mounted Infantry Regiment from line infantry regiments already in Egypt.

The Battle of Abu Klea, or the Battle of Abu Tulayh took place between the dates of 16 and 18 January 1885, at Abu Klea, Sudan, between the British Desert Column and Mahdist forces encamped near Abu Klea.

The Desert Column, a force of approximately 1,400 soldiers, started from Korti, Sudan on 30 December 1884; the Desert Column's mission, in a joint effort titled "The Gordon Relief Expedition", was to march across the Bayuda Desert to the aid of General Charles George Gordon at Khartoum, Sudan, who was besieged there by Mahdist forces.

Account of the Battle of Abu Klea: On 14th January 1884, General Stewart moved out from Jakdul with the Heavy Camel Regiment, the Guards Camel Regiment, the Mounted Infantry Camel Regiment, the 19th Hussars and part of the 1st Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment and the guns. A garrison was left to hold the wells.

Camel Corps and 19th Hussars crossing the desert: Battle of Abu Klea fought on 17th January 1885 in the Sudanese War: picture by Orlando Norie

It was hoped that Stewart’s advance across the desert would take the Mahdi by surprise and ensure that Metemmeh could be stormed with the minimum of difficulty.

As General Stewart’s force approached the wells at Abu Klea on 16th January 1884, piquets of the 19th Hussars, scouting ahead of the main column, encountered parties of Mahdists. It could be seen that a large force was established at the wells and ready to give battle. The British had left the last water some forty-three miles before and needed replenishment.

It was apparent that Abu Klea could only be taken by assault. Stewart halted two miles short of Abu Klea and camped.

The night was a busy one. A thorn bush zereba or compound was built. The British camp was under constant sniper fire and preparations had to be made for the formation of the attack.

With daylight on 17th January 1884, a strong force of Mahdists could be seen formed up to the left of the zereba. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to lure this force into attacking, by sending a strong party of British troops forward, which then retreated into the zereba. As this ploy had no effect, General Stewart resolved to advance to the wells at Abu Klea in a square formation.

The Mounted Infantry were positioned in the left front corner of the square. The Guards Camel Regiment (Foot Guards and Royal Marine Light Infantry) took the right front corner. The Heavy Camel Regiment took the left rear corner and the rear face, while the Royal Sussex Regiment took the rear of the right face.

The troops marched on foot with the camels bunched in the centre of the square. The guns were placed in the centre of the front face. The Gardner gun with its Royal Navy gun team, under Captain Lord Beresford RN, took the rear of the centre, ready to be rushed to any point of crisis. The main body of the 19th Hussars was posted to the left of the square, with a small detachment on the right.

At 7.30am on 17th January 1884, the British square began its difficult and cumbersome advance, the aim being to pass the flank of the Mahdist position and force an attack. As the square moved forward, skirmishers from the Guards and Mounted Infantry went out to engage the Mahdist riflemen. The ground was broken and the square formation became severely distorted, with the rear lagging back, forced out of place by the vagaries of the movement of the camels. As casualties were inflicted by the Mahdist sniping, camels were stopped and loaded with the wounded, after the administration of first aid, thereby causing the camels to lag and further distort the formation. The officers in front, who controlled the movement of the square, gave insufficient consideration to the difficulties being experienced at the rear. As a result, gaps opened up at crucial points in the corners and rear of the square.

Much of the Mahdist fire was coming from a gully that ran parallel to the route the British were taking on its left. General Stewart ordered that skirmishers be sent out from the Heavy Regiment to neutralize this fire.

Mahdist attack on the British square at the Battle of Abu Klea on 17th January 1885 in the Sudanese War: picture by William Barnes Wollen

At around 9.30am, it became clear that the Mahdist army was about to attack the front left corner of the square. The square was wheeled to the right, to move onto higher ground. A large force of probably around 3,000 Mahdists, armed with spears and swords, appeared from the nearby gully and charged the square.

At this point the British were hampered by the presence of their skirmishers, who had to be permitted to regain the square before fire could be opened. The Mahdist assault was consequently within 200 yards or less of the square before the British troops fired their first volley.

Dervishes break into the British square at the Battle of Abu Klea on 17th January 1885 in the Sudanese War: picture by Stanley Berkeley

Captain Lord Beresford, Royal Navy: Battle of Abu Klea fought on 17th January 1885 in the Sudanese War

The Mahdist charge was delivered at the section of the front left face held by the Mounted Infantry Regiment of the Camel Corps. Captain Lord Beresford brought his Gardner gun from its position at the rear of the square, took it out through the Mounted Infantry position and opened fire on the charging Mahdists. After firing some seventy rounds, the Gardner gun jammed. Before it could be cleared, the Mahdist spearmen overwhelmed the Royal Navy detachment manning the Gardner and killed all but Lord Beresford, who fell under the gun, and one of the sailors.

Probably due to the heavy volley firing from the Mounted Infantry and shrapnel from the three guns in the front face, the Mahdist charge veered away, down the left face and fell on the fragmented corner held by the Heavy Cavalry regiment, where the Mahdists broke into the square.

Dervish attack at the Battle of Abu Klea fought on 17th January 1885 in the Sudanese War

The troopers of the Heavy Cavalry Camel Regiment were fighting with the long infantry rifle, a weapon they were unfamiliar with. The cavalry officers had no experience of fighting an infantry square. It seems to be the universal view of informed senior officers that the cavalry officers took insufficient care to ensure the integrity of the square formation. As happened at the Battle of Tamai, with the break of the square many of the officers and non-commissioned officers standing to the rear of the line became casualties.

Colonel Fred Burnaby was fatally injured and brought from his horse. A soldier of Burnaby’s regiment, the Royal Horse Guards, Corporal McIntosh, rushed forward to assist him, but together the two were overwhelmed. General Stewart’s horse was killed and he had to be rescued by men from the Mounted Infantry regiment.

The charge of the Mahdists into the centre of the British square was impeded by the mass of camels, which prevented the Mahdists from reaching the ranks of the opposing faces. The rear rank of the Mounted Infantry in the front face and the Foot Guards and Royal Marine Light Infantry of the Guards regiment in the right face turned about and opened a devastating fire on the Mahdists. After a hectic time, the Mahdists who had broken into the square were shot down and the charge died away. The battle was over in ten minutes.

British troops drinking from the wells after the Battle of Abu Klea fought on 17th January 1884 in the Sudanese War

The 19th Hussars moved forward and took possession of the wells at Abu Klea.

By 1pm, the square had reformed and the wounded taken care of, so the force could move forward to the wells, which were reached by 4pm. In the evening, a party of Mounted Infantry returned to the overnight zereba and brought up the garrison and wounded left there.

British volley firing at Gubat or Abu Kru, two days after the Battle of Abu Klea on 17th January 1885 in the Sudanese War

British Square at Abu Kru, two days after the Battle of Abu Klea on 17th January 1885 in the Sudanese War: print by Stanley L. Wood

British casualties were 71 killed and 64 wounded. Of the 11 officers killed, 7 were cavalry officers.

It is likely that the Mahdists suffered around 1,500 casualties. The Mahdists refused to surrender, even when wounded. Only one man was taken prisoner, an Egyptian soldier captured at Berber and forced to fight for the Mahdi. The Mahdists lost a number of important leaders in the battle: Sheikh Suleiman, Sheikh Abu Seyd, the Mahdi’s Emir from Shendy, and Sheikh Nouringeh, the Emir of Berber.

…. ‘the sand of the desert is sodden red, red with the wreck of the square that broke; the Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead and the regiment blind with dust and smoke…….’Play up! Play up! And play the game!’
Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem ‘Vitai Lampada’;

9 Royal Marines were killed on the 17th January.

Private Arnold - 25th Company, Royal Marines:

Private Burney - Naval Brigade

Corporal Carey 37th Company, Royal Marines;

Private Holland - 21st Coy. Royal Marines:

Private Meade - 41st Coy, Royal Marines Light Infantry:

Private Mitchell - 24th Coy. Royal Marines Light Infantry:

Private Nye - Naval Brigade

Private Walter - Guards Camel Regiment (Marines) Service number 4:

Private Lucking. - RMLI probably Guards Camel Regiment (Marines) Service number 16.

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