Saturday, October 1, 2022

Battle of Abu Kru in 54mm


The baggage zariba in the foreground and Stewart's Camel Corps troop forming square in the upper righthand corner.
Metemmeh and the Nile can be seen in the far background.

Following up on his victory at Abu Klea earlier this month, General Herbert Stewart advanced his Desert Column onwards to Metemmeh and the Nile River. The objective was to reach the Nile and meet up with Gordon's steam boats from Khartoum. The boats would then transport the 1,000 plus troops of the Camel Corps to Khartoum, for what purpose, only God knows. The Mahdi had already invested the city with something on the order of 40,000 Dervish troops.

However, orders being orders, Stewart pushed on to the Nile. At the very least his troops would need the water to survive for much longer so there was nothing else left to do. Stewart led the majority of his troops forward to the Nile and left a rear guard behind to protect the wounded, the baggage and the rest of the artillery.

General Herbert Stewart (on camel on the right) and his staff survey the scene in front of them.

This is what they see: the Metemmeh contingent of the Dervish army.
Dervish riflemen hide in the wadi in front of the village of Metemmeh.

And what do we do when we see Dervish? Why form square, of course!

Berber riflemen take pot shots (from the comfort of hills, rocks and Acacia trees) at the British square.

Dervish riflemen surround the British square.

The Potted History Bits

The historical armies' strengths at the battle are estimated at 1,200 British and as many as 7,000 to 8,000 Mahdists. British losses from the battle were 121, including General Stewart who was mortally wounded, and the Mahdists losses are unknown, but thought to be considerably higher. Lt. Colonel Mike Snook, in his book Go Strong Into The Desert, estimates 900 men in the square and 454 in the zariba (excluding medical, transport, commissariat and other non-combatants totaling 120). Snook estimates that there were 300 native drivers and 2,750 camels in the zariba. Total casualties were 26 killed and 100 wounded during the battle.

Below is a map depicting the historical disposition of forces at the battle. Stewart had moved his main force onto a piece of high ground and established a square to fend off the expected Dervish attack. The baggage zariba was located on another hillock that could provide artillery support for Stewart's command. Arab riflemen circled around Stewart's position and peppered it with an endless staccato of bullets, killing and wounding a number of soldiers, Stewart amongst them. He would die several months after the battle.

I highly recommend acquiring a copy of Mike Snook's book, cited above, for the amount of detail, maps and readability of any book that I've read about this part of the campaign. Copies are available from the Perry Miniatures web site.


Back To The War-game Stuff

Here is the roster of forces in my wargame which was fought over the course of two days (September 28-29, 2022):

Desert Column Forces

45 x Camel Corps

40 x Yorks. & Lancs. regiment

12 x Egyptian Lancers (substituting for the 19th Hussars in my army)

1   x Gatling Gun with four crew

1 x War Correspondent (a brave soul)

2 x Senior Officers (Stewart and Wilson)

1 x Gadabout glory seeker (Colonel Frederick Burnaby)

    Total figures: 107 figures

Baggage Train Guard at the Zariba

20 x Yorks. & Lancs. regiment

2   x Gatling guns (8 crew total)

1   x 7-pound Screw Gun (4 crew)

1 x  Senior Officer

     Total figures: 35 figures

The Dervish army, of course, would attempt to interdict the Desert Column's march to the Nile and destroy it if at all possible. Noting that the Mahdists did not engage all of their forces at Abu Klea, I assumed that the same variable would be present at the follow up action at Abu Kru.

Dervish Forces

96 x  Berber Contingent

100 x Metemeh Contingent

50 x  Beja warriors

40 x  Riflemen

The above list of forces reflects figures that are available in my collection of 54mm Dervish troops and do not reflect the actual forces engaged in the battle.


I am mindful of the fact that battles in the Sudan start to look the same: a British square forms up in the desert and it is attacked from all sides by crazed Dervish fanatics, etc. There is probably some truth to that, but I find that each battle sort of tells its own story. The roll of dice determine the fate and outcome and storyline of my battles.

The Berber Contingent blocks the direct path to the Nile, but look out for the  
Metemmeh warriors creeping up through the Acacai trees out there on the right flank.

Turn One:

My wargame of the Battle of Abu Kru lasted five turns. The first turn saw the square advancing towards a dry wadi in their path between them and the Nile River. At the same time, Dervish riflemen surged around the sides of the square and delivered an ineffectual, but unnerving, fire on the British team. General Stewart knew that an attack was coming, so he ordered the square to stop short of the wadi and take up the defense. Note that crossing the wadi disorders the troops that attempt to cross. 

Turn Two:

The Dervish commanders remembered from the previous battle that charging a British square in piecemeal fashion was a pointless exercise, so this time they chose to send in everyone at the same time. I might have elected to pepper the square with small arms fire for a couple of turns, but I don't disagree with the Dervish decision to go on an all-out attack on the same turn. Another advantage for the Dervish is that it limited the amount of artillery support that the zariba contingent could provide to their compatriots in the square because our rules don't allow for firing into enemy troops that are engaged in a melee.

The pictures below depict the Berber Contingent charging the square from the right hand side with a supporting band of Beja warriors, on the bottom of the picture, attacking a different face of the square. The Berbers had two 50 figure war bands, but they elected to divide them into two 30 figure groups and two 20 figure groups. The thinking was that this might get the maximum number of Dervish into the face of the square as soon as possible. The uncertainties of dice rolling caused one unit of Berbers to refuse to charge, resulting in a sort of checkerboard attack pattern.

Well dash it all! The Dervish decided to attack with everything from every side of the square.
I say, not very sporting of them. Eh?

All that said, the Beja warriors made a dash for the square face that was closest to the zariba, and as expected, they got hammered from the artillery fire coming from the zariba (Gatling Guns and a 7-pd Screw Gun). They lost 14 of 50 figures due to the artillery fire, yet they still rolled on towards the square.

On the front face of the British square, the Metemmeh Contingent trotted up to the edge of the dry wadi in preparation to charge the square on the following turn.

The Metemmeh tribes advance at the trot towards the front face of the British square.
The dry wadi to their front will disorder them (the Berbers) as they hurl their bodies into the battle.

Egads, that's a lot of Dervish.
And they are coming my way!

The Berbers appeared to be attacking in a checkerboard formation, but what really happened is that the unit in the middle did not pass it "attempt to charge" dice roll so the units on each of its flanks charged into the square.

The Berber unit just barely visible on the right lost 7 of 20 figures but still managed to pass morale and close with the square. The unit in the center simply refused to charge and the Berber unit on the left closed with the square, lost 9 of 20 figures, and fell back a full move in disorder.

Camel Corps troops and their trusty Gatling Gun make short work of the Berber charge.

So at the conclusion of Turn Two, three Dervish units attempted to close into a melee with the British square and they were all repulsed.

Turn Three:

General Stewart looked at the mass of Metemmeh Dervish heading towards his square, to his front, and demonstrated that he was well versed in his maths and could count heads. There were 96 Metemmeh men crashing across the wadi and he had no more than 30 Yorks. & Lancs. ("Y& L") regiment men to face them. During the movement face, he told off every other man on the square face that was not being attacked and shifted them over to the front face to reinforce the Y&L regiment. He also turned his only Gatling Gun left by 90 degrees to face the oncoming surge of enemies.

Concurrently, the Beja crashed into the rear face of the square and the Berbers rejoined the melees of the previous turn. Accordingly, the British square was now under attack on three of its faces, while the fourth (unopposed) face had been thinned out into what was in effect, a skirmish line. 

The picture below shows where the trouble is all about on Turn 3:

TURN THREE - the Beja attack from the the bottom face of the square in this picture.

One side of the square is now a thin khaki line as some of its men have 
shifted to their right to reinforce the upper left face of the square.

The Metemmeh contingent attacked the front face of the square.

Gentlemen, may I introduce you to Mr. Gatling's invention.

Nearly 100 Metemmeh Dervish swarm over a third the number of Yorks & Lancs soldiers.

When all else fails, count on Colonel Burnaby.
Note that the Gatling gun crew have fired and abandoned their gun.

War correspondent Melton Prior can be seen scribbling a farewell note to Mother 
as the Dervish break into the British square. He is joined by the crew of the Gatling gun.
General Stewart has joined the fray, atop of his camel to lend support.

The three Berber units on the right: the one in the bottom right corner is recovering its morale after being pushed back;
the second unit in the middle has closed near the corner of the square and take on the Camel Corps;
and the third unit on the top right  is routing away after getting shredded by the steady fire of the British troops.

The Metemmeh men push back the Yorks & Lancs men and break the square.

The other two sides of the square have held their own, repulsing the attackers, 
but the battle will be decided on this side of the square.

The men in the zariba watch in awe as the Dervish seem to overwhelm the square.
They can't do anything to stop it due to the ongoing melees taking place this turn.

To summarize the events of Turn Three, the Beja and the Berbers were repulsed on two sides of the square, a third side had turned into a skirmish line, and the fourth (front) face of the square was being over run by the Dervish from Metemmeh.

Two segments of the Metemmeh men collide with the Yorks & Lancs.

One of the Metemmeh units falls back, probably accomplished by Colonel Burnaby all by himself.
The other unit, led by the Black Flag Emir, push the Yorks & Lancs back after whittling them down to only 9 survivors.

Aerial view of the battle depicts the extent of the Dervish break through.

Turn Four (the climax of the battle):

Things were totally desperate at the end of Turn Three and it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the square would break and threaten the entire column with annihilation. British soldiers were clutching rosaries, lucky rabbits feet, four leaf clovers and anything else that might protect them from the slaughter.

The British won the first initiative of the movement phase (those lucky rabbits feet must be working) and Stewart used the time to rearrange his square into something that resembled an oval or the letter "D". Every possible man moved to confront the Metemmeh threat. There were now 22 Y&L soldiers under Stewart's direct command instead of the original 9 survivors of the previous attack. The other half of the line, which held 6 survivors,  was now manned by 20 Camel Corps men commanded by Colonel Burnaby, who seemed to be leading a charmed life up to this point.

The British form the famous "D Formation".

The Black Flag war band on the left continued its melee from the previous turn.
The unit on the right had fallen back from an attempted charge on the previous turn,
but now they return for more blood. Will it be their's or that of the infidels in khaki?

The Beja had routed off the field and some of the Berbers were regrouping out in the forest of Acacia scrub, but they were only a show of force to keep the British square honest (that is, Stewart couldn't entirely ignore threats to his front or flank).

Do we have any good tenors in the ranks? Let's hear a rousing round of "Men of Yorkshire".

Burnaby's Camel Corps men do their part and shoot down the thinned out ranks of the final Dervish charge.

On the other half of the battle line, the forces of the Black Flag come in strong with 35 figures...

... but finish the melee round with only 21 warriors as the Yorks & Lancs lads
hold the line once again, albeit with rather thinned out ranks

General Stewart lends confidence to his rank and file troops
by his noticeable presence astride his camel.

So to summarize the events of Turn Four, there were only two viable Dervish fighting units, both of the Metemmeh tribe, fighting across the dry wadi. The remaining Dervish war bands had been slaughtered and either ran away or were trying to regroup and making a show of force so that Stewart couldn't turn his whole command on to fight the Metemmeh contingent.

The Black Flag war band continued to push its way into what we can loosely call a "square" formation, while the second war band was repulsed for a second time. Both Metemmeh war bands were a spent force by the end of Turn Four.

Turn Five:

The British gained the first movement initiative and used it to disengage from the Dervish Black Flag band, falling back 15-inches towards the baggage zariba. Since the British troops in the zariba were now close enough to protect the rear of Stewart's command, he could confidently deploy all of his remaining Yorks & Lancs and his Camel Corps soldiers into one solid line facing the Black Flag Dervish. The leader of the Dervish survivors surveyed the scene and decided (it's about time there Old Sport!) that anymore fighting was futile.

Future students of military strategy will study this battle and
write a countless number of tomes about the now famous British D Formation

The last stand of the Desert Column?
It could have been worse.

Now Wasn't That A Peach of a Time?

The road to the Nile River was now open, but at what cost? The British Desert Column went into battle with 120 total figures spread between the main square and the baggage square-zariba. They lost 43 figures or 35% casualties during the battle. Only 77 figures survived to make the final march to the Nile where Gordon's steam ships awaited.

If we separate the baggage guard from the attacking square, the British losses are even more startling. The Yorks & Lancs regiment started the battle with a full complement of 60 figures, of which 20 were left with the baggage train and 40 went with Stewart. Of the latter group, there were only 9 survivors of the 40 that started the day in the square. That's a 78% casualty rate! The Camel Corps regiment fielded 45 figures in Stewart's square (having lost 15 figures in the preceding battle of Abu Klea) and lost 12 figures (27% casualties), leaving a remainder of 33 figures.

The Dervish losses were even more horrific: of the initial 297 figures entering combat, 171 lay dead on the bloody sands of Abu Kru, or a loss of 42% of its total strength. History has lost the names of the Dervish dead and their leaders, but that did not matter to the Mahdi for he had thousands more ready to fight and die for him. Ask Gordon.

One of Gordon's steam boat waited for the Desert Column to arrive.

Some Thoughts About the Rules

I used Bill Protz's Colonial variation of his standard Batailles dans l'Ancien Regime ("BAR") rules. I am comfortable with these rules, having used them in quite a few Sudan and Northwest Frontier battles fought at Chez Protz. My familiarity with the rules made them easy to use for this solo wargame. During each game turn, I kept notes about the individual British and Dervish units over the course of the battle so that I could recount the events in this blog post. There is much more information and detail to reveal, but this would prove rather boring for anyone who hadn't played in the game, so I only summarized the action and events for each game turn.

The BAR rules have a built in bias for modern technology of rifles, cannon and machine guns and, more importantly, the expertise and training of the British soldiers in a square. The British get the benefit of a "rapid fire" bonus that is determined by the roll of one D6 die (if you roll a 6 you get to add +6 to your total dice score - higher number equals more casualties inflicted). They also get a "shooting into a mass of natives" firing bonus that, again, is determined by the roll of a single D6 die. So the British could potentially have a +12 factor added to their firing, but it rarely reaches such heights. Fortunately for the sake of a playable game, the dice have the last voice and decide how many of the enemy will get hit. In this game, there were quite a few extreme dice results at the low end of the spectrum which made it easier for the Dervish to charge and conduct a melee with the square.

The Dervish forces offset the British technological advantages with their speed of movement and ferocity of their soldiers in melee, as one might expect. A balanced game also requires that the Dervish outnumber the British by a factor of 3x or more in order to achieve Dervish success. My game gave the Dervish a 3 to 1 advantage in numbers over the British.

But enough of the maths and the technical aspects of the game, the unpredictable nature of dice gave the Dervish a very good chance of winning the game. In fact, after Turn Three I was certain that the Dervish would break the British square on the Metemmeh side and that the resulting pursuit would wipe out the rest of the square. At one point, nine surviving Yorks & Lancs soldiers were holding off 30+ Dervish in melee and refusing to make a break of it. They bought time enough for Stewart to redeploy the Camel Corps figures into a reinforced line that was finally able to stop the Dervish attack.

On To Historicon 2023

One of these battles, either Abu Klea or Abu Kru, will be run by me at next year's Historicon convention in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. So this was the first of many play tests of the scenario that I will conduct prior to making a return appearance at Lancaster. I will use the same game table to set up my "assault on Khartoum" game, scaling ladders and all!


  1. Beautiful pictures to illustrate this excellent post. Nicely done sir! 👍

  2. Another fine looking battle Jim and a close run thing for sure. Shades of stirring Boys Own stuff type tales!

  3. What a wonderful looking game - the 54mm collection really is a joy to behold - and your table and scenery is museum standard stuff - outstanding! The result was a little too close for comfort for my partisan British Army point of view, but that would make the game more appealing to players at a participation game, so is a good thing.....I suppose! Personally, I would have preferred to shoot the Fuzzy Wuzzies to pieces at 4-600 yards!