Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sudan Game

The Dervish prepare to attack Fort Bombay, somewhere in Mafrica.

I spent a delightful day at General Pettygree's home re-enacting a little known battle in the Sudan, circa 1898. In fact, it is so obscure that I cannot remember the name of the action or the town in which it was fought.

A thrilling encounter in the Sudan -

by Edward Speake, London Times Correspondent

(Fort Bombay, Mafrica) June 11, 1898

Your correspondent began his journey in Fort Grant, deep inside Tranjipour. There, he boarded the HMS Zanzibar and joined elements of the 66th Bershires and the 78th Seaforth Highlanders in a voyage to Fort Bombay, located in the obscure continent of Mafrica.

The busy port at Fort Bombay, where your correspondent disembarked.

After many days at sea, too many to keep count of, we reached Port Suez and changed boats, taking a smaller riverboat steamer up river to Fort Bombay. We reached our destination after 4 days of travel, and I must tell you how relieved I was to see the Union Jack flying proudly over the busy port of Fort Bombay.

Aerial view of Fort Bombay. The old stone tower guards the dock area on the eastern side of the fort. The walls are seen to be in a bit of disrepair in this section, as Her Majesty's Forces had only recently occuppied the fort and immediately set to in improving the defenses. Note the forward watch tower and the sandbag redoubt to the right (manned by a regiment of Sikhs).

A certain Captain Bartlett, of Her Majesty's 11th Hussars, asked me if I would like to join him in a little scouting expedition, just beyond the heavily wooded ridge, seen to the west of the fort. The Captain explained that he had orders to find a team of archeologists who were sifting through some ancient ruins, not too far from the fort. It was certain to be a rather routine scouting trip, and I imagined that we would be back in a jiff, so I agreed to accompany the 1st Squadron of the 11th Hussars, along with a squadron of the 9th Bengal Lancers.

A certain Trooper Thornton, a rather husky sort, was assigned to protect me (or escort me, as Captain Bartlett put it) on the expedition. Seeing that Thornton had the grizzled look of a veteran, I decided that my life would be in good hands if I stayed next to him during the journey. Thornton walked me over to the stables and helped me select a suitable mount, a fine Roan by the name of Ajax. We departed within the hour and as we rode west, I looked back at Fort Bombay and dearly hoped that I would see it again before the day was out.

As I looked back, here is the view that I saw of Fort Bombay from the west.

We quickly rode past the forward outpost, consisting of wood observation tower and a row of tents that looked sufficient to to hold a company of infantry. Off to the North, I took a last look at the Sikh infantry manning one of the forward redoubts. It was with some trepidation that I watched the last vestige of civilization and safety slip out of view. We passed through a narrow defile of trees -- scouts were sent ahead of the cavalry column to make sure that we were in for safe passage. It occurred to me that Captain Bartlett knew his trade well, and that helped to ease some of the anxiety that I had about this journey.

Captain Bartlett's cavalry column approaches Sir Henry Biedecker's camp.

A couple of hours out of the fort, we arrived in a lush valley of verdant green, and there before us were some splendid Greek ruins. I had not been aware that the Greeks had colonized parts of Mafrica, but apparently they did. I noticed a tidy row of tents and was told by Captain Bartlett that this was the site of Sir Henry Biedecker's archeological expedition. It seems that he had made an important discover of some sort. What it was was very hush, hush. All that I was told was that we were to escort Sir Henry and Lady Charlotte Biedecker back to Fort Bombay, post haste.

The ancient Greek ruins of Alexandropolis.

Captain Bartlett and a couple of troopers rode ahead into Biedecker's camp. Lieutenant Faversham was left in command of the column and he he quickly fanned out the Hussars to his left, along with several troops of Lancers. The remaining troop of Lancers rode off to the right and took up position atop a small knoll, where they could keep an eye out for any trouble that might come from that direction. Sergeant Bourne was in command of this smaller detachment and as a further precaution, he sent Privates Ham and Burns off to scout some of the wadis to make certain that there were no Dervish lurking about.

"Dervish". The mere mention of the name was enough to send shivers down my spine. I knew what they were all about and didn't particularly fancy meeting up with any of them today. The only thing worse would be to stumble upon a hoard of Hadendowa, the famed Fuzzy Wuzzy.

Sergeant Bourne could tell that I was a little bit agitated and he ambled over to me and Ajax to give me some assurance that everything would be all right.

"Mister Speake, sir. Perhaps it would ease your mind a bit if you rode over there and took a look at those ruins. I don't imagine that you've seen anything like them and I doubt that we will be coming back here anytime soon."

I wasn't sure that it was a good idea to get very far from my escort, but Sergeant Bourne's confidence made me feel a little bit better. I reasoned that if a seasoned veteran such as he was not perturbed, then I had best not let on that I was shivering in my boots from fright.

"Very well Sergeant," said I, " I think that I shall ride forward and take a closer look at the ruins."

Well, no sooner had I crested the knoll upon which the ruins lay, when I looked off to the south and could see a cloud of dust spilling into the horizon. I did not like the look of that. I could see that Trooper Thornton and another fellow had been sent forward to investigate the happenings on our left. I could also see that Thornton was slapping leather and riding pell mell back to the ruins. There he reported to Captain Bartlett, snapped off a tidy salute, and came trotting towards me.

"Captain says that we should be getting back to the baggage train right now and where you will be safe." he said. "as you can see, we have some trouble brewing yonder".

This was what Trooper Thornton saw. Dervish horsemen, and they were riding towards me!

The Dervish horse close in from the left, the Fuzzies close in rapidly from the right. Sir Henry and Lady Biedecker can be seen riding down the road between the two Imperial cavalry groups. You can see me, Edward Speake, in the blue coat mounted on horse behind the left hand section of cavalry.

Things were desperate on the left, as the 11th Hussars and the Bengal Lancers were greatly outnumbered by the heathen hoard. We were fighting for our lives, with little hope of seeing the sun set today.

Sergeant Bourne led his troop of Bengal Lancers straight into the Hadendowa foot, hoping to buy time for the rest of the Imperials to escape down the valley.

Well, to make a long story short, the Dervish cavalry surged forward from our left and Lt. Faversham readied his troopers to charge them so that Captain Bartlett and I could escort the archeological party to safety. The first round of melee was an awful affair, with many a good hussar falling. At the height of the melee, the Bengal Lancers suddenly pulled back, trying to regroup for another charge. But instead, the rearward movement turned to panic and I was horror struck as I watched them ride away.

Captain Bartlett looked at me and Thornton and said, "Mr. Speake, I would advise you to ride down that road with the Biedeckers and make sure that they get back to Fort Bombay -- and do look to your own safety as well, I'm afraid that we are done for here."

With that, Bartlett put spur to his horse and yelled, "come on Thornton, let's have at them. There is nothing left to do."

Bartlett rode into the melee to meet his death with the remainder of his squadron of the 11th Hussars.

" Aw, now why would the Captain go ahead and do something daffy such as thay?" said Thornton. He spurred his horse and said to me, "get out of here Speake, save your hide while you still can!"

Believe me, I was sorely tempted to take Thornton's advise and high tail it down the road. I glanced over on the right and could see that Sergeant Bourne's troop was pitching into the Fuzzies in order to keep the valley road open for the rest of the column. But for some reason, and I can't exactly explain why, I chose to join Bartlett and Thornton. I rode like a madman towards the melee, screaming like a Banshee and trying to catch up with the Captain. I took one last look behind me and could see that a troop of hussars were escorting the Biedeckers to safety. I really longed to join them, but figured that the Fuzzies would cut me off. So I did the only sensible thing (so it seemed at the time) and rode after Bartlett.

Life can be very strange at times and sometimes it is hard to understand why things turn out the way that they do. You would think that a small troop of hussars would get cut down by the teeming mob of Dervish horse. But you would be wrong.

I drew my sword as I approached the swirling mass of horses, hacking and slashing as I cut my way towards the colours. I figured that as long as I was doomed anyway, I might as well perish with the colours. It was the darndest thing though, for suddenly the Dervish broke away and began streaming away from us.

As the dust settled, I looked around me and there were but five of us remaining in our saddles: Captain Bartlett, Ensign Phillips, Troopers Hardy and Thornton, and me. We all looked at one another in disbelief. Somehow, someway, we were still alive.

"It must have been Mr. Speake's screaming like a stuck pig that scared them off", said Thornton, with a grin.

"Whatever it was, it has given us a respite," said Bartlett, "and we had better take good advantage of it get out of here right now!"

We could not ride back down the valley to the fort. The passage was full of angry Hadendowa and they were Hell bent on going to Fort Bombay. So the way home was blocked. Neither could we ride off to the left and work our way to the southern approach to the fort. That too, was full of Dervish.

There was only one way out: going back to the ruins. We followed Captain Bartlett as he picked his way over the rocks and gained the path that led to the ruins. They were surrounded by dense thicket of trees, and we reasoned that we could seek shelter therein until the Fuzzies had moved down the valley to the fort. So that is what we did.

We reached the thicket and dismounted, then we quickly melded into the woods where no pair of eyes would find us. The battle was over for us. At least for today. I had no idea of what would happen at Fort Bombay.

The Hadendowa assemble on the plain in front of Fort Bombay and muster their forces for the attack.

A band of Dervish attack the fort from the south, in concert with the Hadendowa attack from the west.

A gritty band of defenders were determined that Fort Bombay would not fall.

Mr. Speake et al appear to be safe for now, but what of the garrison at Fort Bombay? I do not know the outcome of that fight, but pray that Britannia would prevail on this day.


  1. Ah, a welcome return to the battles against the Dervish. Well described as always. I shall look forward to more to come.

    -- Jeff

  2. Great report, thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Makes me wish I'd stop pushing my Sudan plans further into the future.

  3. A really inspiring battle report! I look forward to reading more in the future.

    All the best,


  4. My Dear Mr. Speake,
    The honour to read The Times story about your exploits in Mafrica motivated me to write Sir. May I take the liberty to sincerely compliment you? The drama of the ride to the ruins, explanation of essential particularities of the mission, the unexpected appearance of the foe in Biblically large numbers, their attack, the sacrifice of so many of HM soldiers to save the civilian party, your providential and singular escape are prodigously compelling.

    There is a book here Sir and I hope you will call upon me to discuss it when you are next in London. I have the honour to be sincerely yours,
    William, etc. etc. etc.
    Kanter and Upwin Publishers

  5. I can actually hear Cecille B. DeMille crying into his pint.

  6. Dear Jim, Thanks for posting this. The fact that you were able to get what amounts to two seperate games on the table(s) is truly impressive.
    Well done, lads! well done!

  7. A battle report of the finest kind!

    Excellently written and quite stirring, sah!

  8. Great game and equally great pictures.