Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Battle of Abu Hamad - part two

Taking a deep breath, Brigadier General Stewart ordered the recall sounded, and the bugle call rang out over the sound of combat. Obediently the men of A and B companies of the Camel Corps broke off their struggle against the Mahdists at the zareba and trotted back to the main body. The Mahdists jeered at their cowardice but didn't pursue. Once the battered companies had cleared the line of fire, General Stewart nodded to the Camel Corps Colonel, who gave the word to his other two companies to open fire. A double volley crashed out, the nearby Gatling gun adding to the mass of lead that shredded the zareba and the warriors sheltering behind it. The Gunboat Khedive took her cue from the Camel Corps and opened up with her aft Nordenfeldt, catching the defenders in a vicious crossfire.


As gunfire filled the air a courier brought word of the 19th Hussar's appearance to the north. Stewart nodded. He'd have a few pointed words to say to the Colonel of the Hussars later, but for now the regiment's tardy arrival worked to his advantage. It would place it on the flank of the oncoming Mahdist army. Should the enemy chose to attack the town, the Hussars could attack his flank and rear. Should the enemy commander divert part of his force to drive off the Hussars, it would weaken him. Stewart trusted the Colonel to know his business and handle his regiment accordingly, but a heliograph message conveyed his orders just in case.

To the east the Egyptian Gendarmerie faced the oncoming Mahdist army. Their comrades of the Bengal Lancers attacked and pinned the enemy's cavalry wing, throwing it into confusion and delaying their deployment.

Meanwhile the steamboats closed with the town. Stewart eyed their progress and considered they might reach Abu Hamad and disembark the infantry before the Mahdist army was in reach to interfere. Then a groan went up from the men. One of the steamboats had contrived to go aground on a mud bank. Her stern swung as the paddles thrashed the water helplessly.

Thankfully the combined fire from his brigade and the Khedive had driven the defenders away from the zareba guarding the north beach. Stewart ordered his men to move into the town as the Khedive and the other steamboats headed for the shore.

The Khedive moored up, and her Naval Brigade contingent went ashore with alacrity. They made for the nearest two buildings, securing both and taking up positions at window and rooftop. They eyed the undecided mob of Mahdists, who milled in an open area some little distance away. A shell from the Khedive's aft gun persuaded them to go elsewhere.

The beachhead in Abu Hamad became a scene of frenetic activity as the British troops sought to establish a defensive perimeter. Brigadier General Stewart resisted the temptation to manage every aspect of the arrangements, leaving that to his subordinates as he pondered what best to do in the circumstances. A cheer announced the steamboat's freeing herself from the glutinous mud. She now made best speed to join her sisters along the waterfront, but another groan went up as the second steamboat succeeded in grounding within yards of the shore.

Emir ibn Yusuf led his fierce warriors closer to the town, intending to cut off the infidel's retreat. Messengers ran to and from the town or shouted from the battlements informing him of developments. ibn Yusuf stroked his beard and considered the situation. With Allah's blessing he had caught the infidel before he could secure a defence. He would slaughter them until the Nile ran red with their blood, which would flow downstream to tell the British and their Egyptian lackeys that the Sudan belonged to Allah and the Mahdi.

General Stewart ordered his defence as best he could, although the situation did not look promising. Some of the newly arrived Royal Irish Regiment he deployed along the palm tree-lined levee in case the Mahdists attempted to force the breach in the wall.  The RA 12 pdr and a Gatling gun lined up behind the zareba to lend fire support for the battered companies of the Camel Corps. C company Stewart sent to the battlements, ready to fire down into the enemy should he storm the defences. Long range sniping from enemy riflemen failed to make much impression as the company commanders ordered the men to stay below the parapets until needed.

Out on the river some of the stranded steamboat's crew went over the side onto the mud bank. After a few minutes pushing and shoving they succeeded in freeing her from the mud.

Having disembarked her Naval Brigade, Khedive moves upriver a short way to cover the town.
The 19th Hussars succeeded in drawing off the enemy cavalry wing. Emir ibn Yakub sent orders to his cavalry not to pursue, and had his camelry turn about to guard against another attack from the Egyptian gendarmerie. He intended to force the gap in the northern defences as the garrison of Abu Hamad attacked the infidel from within the walls. Given the small number of enemy reported ashore, he felt confident Allah would allow him victory.

At this moment the second steamboat freed herself and headed for shore. Secure in the houses near the waterfront the Naval Brigade watched as the Mahdist garrison gathered in among the streets and houses. Were they planning an attack? 

Unable to see any potential targets within the walls, Khedive obeyed a signal from General Stewart desiring her to move downstream to provide fire support against the enemy army now gathered in the millet fields. Two hundred or so of the enemy broke off from the main force to investigate the camel park. Stewart sighed. The animals were as good as lost, but then, there were few riders left for them anyway. He felt the crisis was drawing near.

A high pitched wail followed by a wild roar announced the onset of the Mahdist attack. Stewart had finally decided to place two fresh companies of infantry from the Royal Irish Regiment at the zareba. As the enemy advanced, the RA 12 pdr, Khedive and the Gatling gun opened fire. The Gatling spat bullets - then jammed on the sixteenth round. 12 pdr canister and a double volley from the infantry lashed the enemy but on they came. Soon the line of the zareba surged with vicious hand to hand fighting. Pack animal handlers and artillery limber crews fled to the dubious safety of the rear. Aboard the steamboats nudging the beach the crews watched the unfolding melee nervously. 

In the town a sizable force of Mahdists gathered near the mosque. The Naval Brigade watched and waited for the enemy to decide what he would do.

The pressure on the British line became unbearable. Although the gun crews fought heroically they soon fell under the spears and swords of the enemy. The Royal Irish buckled under the onslaught. One company was destroyed outright. Only C company of the Camel Corps' fire into the mass of enemy surging below the battlements enabled the Irishmen to hold on.

General Stewart watches with concern as his troops buckle under the onslaught.
The steamboats began to shove off 'lest they fall to the Mahdists. Drawing his revolver Stewart and his HQ party made for the rear of the two companies of Royal Irish only recently disembarked from the vessels. On the river Khedive's paddles thrashed the water to stem the flow as she traded shots with the Mahdist artillery. As the last of their fellows died and the infantry fell back, the two screw guns and Gatling lining the levee turned about and blasted the oncoming enemy with canister and bullet. Rifle fire erupted from the nearby buildings as the Naval Brigade dealt with the remnants of the Mahdist garrison.

Safe behind the stalwart Irishmen, General Stewart watched the unfolding scene-and felt his heart rise. Struck hard by gunfire the enemy fell by the score. The survivors hesitated...

...then reluctantly fell back across the tattered zareba. Stewart could see his opponent gesticulating furiously at his men in an attempt to hold them to his aim, but it was not to be. Faced with increasing exposure to the deadly British guns, the Emir fell back with his men.

Khedive continued to exchange shots with the enemy artillery, destroying one gun at the cost of a direct hit near her bridge. The enemy artillery fell silent as their fellows streamed back from the failed attack. Khedive fired upon the mass, driving them into a faster retreat.

A near miss and a hit on the Khedive.
With the enemy in retreat, General Stewart ordered the Royal Irish to advance. Safe from the threat, the steamboat crews edged their vessels up to the shore. Their crew looked at the slaughter and wondered if any prize was worth such a cost. Would General Stewart stay, or order reembarkation?

The Naval Brigade divided, one half heading to support the army, the other fanning out through the town to winkle out the last of the garrison. Stewart reholstered his revolver. His men had fought and won-but at a terrible cost. He looked at the blood-soaked sand and the bodies of the fallen along and across the zareba. The fallen would be buried, and in a matter of months the Nile would rise with the spring flood and wash away the blood. As Stewart gave his orders he wished time would be as effective as the Nile in washing away the memories of this blood soaked day.

And so ends the Battle of Abu Hamad. Thoughts on the action to follow in a day or so.


Michael Awdry said...

A brutal final encounter! Very interesting, looking forward to the debrief.

Carlo said...

Wonderful report AJ and as Michael mentioned, quite an encounter.


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