Sudanese War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the Sudanese War, British and Egyptian forces crushed Sudanese rebels to reestablish imperial control and to forestall rival European imperial powers from planting their flags at the headwaters of the Nile.

Summary of Event

From the 1820’s through the 1890’s, khedival Egypt dominated the Sudan. Although it provided few services in return, the Egyptian regime squeezed local peoples for taxes and manpower. To the Sudanese, this was to be expected from “Turks”—their generic name for all Muslim outsiders from the north. To the Sudanese, Turks had no redeeming values, aside from the fact that they were powerful and well armed. Under Egyptian rule, rebellion became a regular feature of life in the Sudan. However, rebellion did not become a major problem until 1881. During that year, as government officials focused on Cairo, Cairo;army coup where Colonel Ahmad Urabi Urabi, Ahmad was organizing a military coup, a local insurrection broke out on the Nile River’s Aba Island in the Sudan. Under the battle cry of “Believe in the power of God, not of the Turks!” the Islamic fundamentalist Muḥammad Aḥmad ibn as-Sayyid Abd-ՙAllāh enjoined his followers to throw out the Sudan’s despised Egyptian regime. The Sudanese people declared him to be the Mahdi, the Deliverer whom Islam promised would unite and purify Muslims immediately before the end of the world. Increasing his following through skillful use of religious appeals, diplomacy, and politics, the Mahdi established an Islamic theocracy on the Nile, but only after a violent campaign that drew world attention. Mahdi, the Sudanese War (1896-1899) Egypt;and Sudanese War[Sudanese War] Nile River;and Sudanese War[Sudanese War] Islam;fundamentalist movements Islam;Mahdism Mahdism [kw]Sudanese War (Mar., 1896-Nov., 1899) [kw]War, Sudanese (Mar., 1896-Nov., 1899) Mahdi, the Sudanese War (1896-1899) Egypt;and Sudanese War[Sudanese War] Nile River;and Sudanese War[Sudanese War] Islam;fundamentalist movements Islam;Mahdism Mahdism [g]Egypt;Mar., 1896-Nov., 1899: Sudanese War[6115] [g]Great Britain;Mar., 1896-Nov., 1899: Sudanese War[6115] [g]Africa;Mar., 1896-Nov., 1899: Sudanese War[6115] [g]Sudan;Mar., 1896-Nov., 1899: Sudanese War[6115] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar., 1896-Nov., 1899: Sudanese War[6115] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Mar., 1896-Nov., 1899: Sudanese War[6115] Kitchener, Horatio Herbert [p]Kitchener, Horatio Herbert;and Sudan[Sudan] ՙAbd Allāh

Mahdist army advancing on Omdurman.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The Mahdi’s campaign coincided with Colonel Urabi’s failed effort to establish an Egyptian nationalist regime in Cairo. Instead of freeing Egypt from Ottoman control, the coup led to British occupation in 1882 and the establishment of the so-called “veiled protectorate” that would govern Egypt until 1914. From that time, Great Britain maintained a powerful interest in all affairs relating to Egypt. At first, this new situation presented a dilemma, as one of the fundamental reasons for crushing Urabi was to ensure that Egypt paid off its massive debts to European investors. This was important, as German and French bankers could easily turn to their home governments if Egypt failed to make interest payments on its loans. This in turn could jeopardize Great Britain’s veiled protectorate and threaten its control of the now vital Suez Canal Suez Canal . Thus. it was a primary concern for every British proconsul to make sure his Egyptian puppets maximized revenues and minimized expenses.

One way to accomplish this goal was to cut back on the government payroll, especially by reducing expenses in the recently defeated Egyptian army. Thus, as the Mahdi expanded his forces between 1882 and 1884, Egypt sent little military assistance to relieve its beleaguered garrisons. Finally, the Egyptian government decided to evacuate the Sudan. This was a major undertaking, and involved the hiring of the British officer Charles George Gordon Gordon, Charles George , a former governor-general of the Sudan who had become an iconic hero to the Victorian public. Sent to organize an evacuation of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum Khartoum , Gordon instead attempted to defend the city. An epic siege resulted, ending in 1885 with Gordon’s death and a general massacre by the Mahdi’s forces. Gordon’s death was an international news event that evoked a strong reaction in Great Britain. British troops had made a half-hearted effort to relieve Khartoum in 1884-1885 but failed to arrive in time. In effect, the Sudan was abandoned to the Mahdists. This did not sit well with the British public, who demanded that the death of a British hero be avenged. Vengeance was not the sole reason for a campaign of reconquest. The British public also recoiled from tales of savage injustice in the Sudan and the Mahdist endorsement of slavery.





The actions of the Mahdi and his successor, Khalifa ՙAbd Allāh, ՙAbd Allāh appeared to reinforce such tales as the Mahdists launched poorly planned invasions of Egypt. Mahdist armies demanded submission to their leaders and promised fire and sword to all who refused to submit. The Mahdist invasions were repulsed, but British officials feared the possibility that infiltrating Mahdists might stir up trouble among Egyptian Muslims. Meanwhile, the politics of imperialism eventually forced Great Britain to reconsider its interests in the Sudan. By 1890, three other imperialist powers were probing the Sudan’s poorly defined frontiers. To the east of the Sudan, where Italy had gained control over the former Egyptian possession of Eritrea Eritrea , Italian forces were fighting Mahdist armies and moving inland. In the south, the Congo Free State Congo Free State;and Sudan[Sudan] , really the private possession of King Leopold II of Belgium, was sending African soldiers into regions that had been part of the Egyptian Sudan. Finally, and from the British perspective the most serious threat to the Sudan, a column of French French Empire;and Sudan[Sudan] troops under Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand Marchand, Jean-Baptiste had begun an epic march that would end up in the tiny Nile village of Fashoda. Fashoda incident (1898) Sudan;Fashoda incident (1898) Egypt;Fashoda incident (1898) British Empire;Fashoda incident British Empire;and Sudan[Sudan] Nile River;Fashoda incident

British officials had every reason to fear the consequences of any military success by Italian, Congo Free State, or French forces in the Sudan. Explorers, such as Samuel Baker Baker, Sir Samuel White , had firmly established that the southern Sudan, with its many lakes and gigantic swamps, was a major source of the Nile. As virtually all of Africa was considered to be fair game during the age of imperialism, there appeared to be no force in place to stop another power from colonizing the southern Sudan and taking control of the Nile’s headwaters. Such control might even allow for a diversion of these waters that could have serious consequences for Egypt that would in turn threaten Britain’s control of the Suez Canal. It is thus not difficult to understand the March 12, 1896, decision of the cabinet of British prime minister Salisbury Salisbury, third marquess of [p]Salisbury, third marquess of;and Sudan[Sudan] to approve an Anglo-Egyptian force to retake the Sudan.

Commanded by General Herbert Kitchener Kitchener, Horatio Herbert [p]Kitchener, Horatio Herbert;and Sudan[Sudan] , a veteran of the 1884-1885 campaign, this force was a state-of-the-art army. Combining well-trained Egyptians, Sudanese loyalists, and regular British and Scottish troops, it numbered 25,800 men. It was the largest British army sent to fight in Africa until the South African War of 1899-1902. Its troops employed modern breach-loading and magazine-fed rifles. Their artillery included Maxim Maxim guns machine guns and the new quick-fire field artillery that were coming into use during the mid-1890’s. Armored gunboats ensured that there would be no naval opposition for control of the vital Nile River, while telegraphs Telegraph;and Sudanese War[Sudanese War] and railroads Railroads;and Sudanese War[Sudanese War] increased the data- and supply-gathering capabilities of Kitchener’s troops. All these advantages, combined with effective training and leadership, created a sense of superiority.

Kitchener developed a careful strategy that provided for a slow but steady advance with secure lines of supply. Skirmishes and even a major battle at Atbara on April 8, 1898, could not halt his advance. By late July, Kitchener’s army was advancing on Khartoum. It deployed near Omdurman, a suburb of Khartoum on the west side of the Nile, on September 1. The next day, a massive battle erupted as more than thirty thousand Mahdists charged the Anglo-Egyptian lines. This was folly in the extreme, as the most poorly equipped allied forces possessed firepower superior to the best of what the Mahdists had. Attacking Kitchener’s position actually strengthened his already significant advantage, allowing his men to employ cover and fight close to their reserves and supplies. The Mahdist strategy all but ensured an Anglo-Egyptian victory.

The Twenty-first Lancer Regiment, which included future British prime minister Winston S. Churchill Churchill, Winston S. among its officers, provides a case study for the tremendous advantages held by Anglo-Egyptian soldiers at Omdurman. Charging into a mass of Mahdists, the cavalrymen suffered heavy casualties in hand-to-hand combat. After breaking away, they dismounted, employed their rifles, and broke every attack launched by the more numerous enemy. After the Mahdists failed to destroy this small unit cut off from support, they appeared to have no chance of defeating Kitchener’s main force. By noon, 11,000 Mahdists were dead, and another 16,000 had been captured. Anglo-Egyptian losses were 48 dead and 434 wounded.

The khalifa escaped Omdurman and the fall of Khartoum, leaving only minutes before British forces entered the city. Retreating westward into remote Kordofan, he rebuilt some of his army. However, he was defeated and killed at Umm Diwaykarat on November 24, 1899. His death marks the end of the significant fighting, but the Mahdist general Osman Digna remained at large until January of 1900.


Destroying the Mahdist state secured Egypt from invasion, established the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and eliminated the possibility of a French, Italian, or Congo Free State takeover of the headwaters of the Nile. It also made Kitchener a household name in Great Britain, and ensured his future advancement to the highest ranks of the Royal Army.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Churchill, Winston S. The River War. London: Longmans, Green, 1899. A later winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Winston Churchill had an excellent writing style that enhances his firsthand account of the Omdurman campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrington, Peter, and Sharp, Frederic, eds. Omdurman 1898: The Eye-Witnesses Speak. London: Greenhill Books, 1998. Compilation of firsthand British accounts of the Sudanese War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, P. M. The Mahdist State in the Sudan, 1881-1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Excellent scholarly work based on Sudanese primary sources. Remains the best work on the Sudanese War in the English language.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magnus, Sir Philip. Kitchener, Portrait of an Imperialist. London: John Murray, 1958. Standard biography of the British military commander in the Sudanese War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neillands, Robin. The Dervish Wars: Gordon and Kitchener in the Sudan, 1880-1898. London: John Murray, 1996. Study of British imperial interests in the Sudan that both students and scholars of the subject will find useful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zulfo, Ismat Hasan. Karar: The Sudanese Account of the Battle of Omdurman. London: Frederick Warne, 1980. Important book based on Arabic sources and oral tradition. Especially good on the makeup, training, and weapons of the Sudanese.

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Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Charles George Gordon; The Mahdi; Third Marquis of Salisbury. Mahdi, the Sudanese War (1896-1899) Egypt;and Sudanese War[Sudanese War] Nile River;and Sudanese War[Sudanese War] Islam;fundamentalist movements Islam;Mahdism Mahdism

Categories: History