Darfur region of the Sudan has been on our news-programme television screens
for some time depicted as a remote desert corner of Africa where raids, rapes
and massacres occur, and where child-soldiers are recruited. In 1916 the British Army mounted a campaign
against the Ruler of Darfur and a King’s Own officer, Captain A.J. Pott DCM took part. He later wrote a book describing scenes from his time in Sudan including
the Darfur Campaign, and he produced the sketch map seen here of the Beringia
British had abandoned the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1884 in the face of a revolt
that they could not handle. General
Gordon stayed on in Khartoum
but was killed and beheaded by rebels in January 1885, just two days before a
British relief column arrived.
Retribution was necessary and General Kitchener gained a decisive
victory over the rebels at Omdurman
British, through the Sudan
government, then expanded political influence in the Sudan and finally defeated the
remnants of religious insurrectionist forces a year later at Umm
Diwaykarat. Here the Sudanese insurgent
leader, the Khalifa, was killed and his remaining troops wiped out. Hiram Maxim’s gun controlled the battlefields
and British fingers and thumbs were firing it.
Hillaire Belloc wrote:
“Whatever happens we have gotThe Maxim Gun and they have not”
Above: British Soldiers man a Maxim Gun at the end of the 19th century
Blood thought he knew the
He said you must be firm, but kind.
A mutiny resulted.
I shall never forget the way
That Blood stood upon this awful day
Preserved us all from death.
He stood upon a little mound
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:
'Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.
(the land of the Fur people) lay on Sudan’s western border with French
Chad and measured approximately 450
miles (725 kilometres) from north to south and 350 miles (565 kilometres) from east to west. Just to the north was the Libyan-Sudanese
border and political problems in Italian-run Libya,
known as Tripoli, during World War 1 were to
lead to the British campaign in Darfur in
leader of the Tama tribe in Darfur, Ali Dinar, had signified his acceptance of
Sudanese government authority after Omdurman and
the government appointed him as their agent for Darfur. However Ali Dinar played his own game in his
remote unattractive land, gradually distancing himself from British
By 1901 he had become the
independent Sultan of Darfur, paying nominal tribute to the Governor-General in
Khartoum. Ali Dinar was intensely motivated by the
Turkish influence was strong, and in fact Egypt
and the Sudan were
theoretical provinces of the Ottoman Empire until 1914 when Britain declared that Egypt was now a British
Protectorate. Sultan Ali Dinar did not
like this British move and when Turkey
entered the Great War he corresponded with Turkish officers in Libya.
probably felt optimistic because at that time the Germans and Turks were
providing a lot of support for the Libyan leader of the Senussi people who was
fighting the Allies. The Senussi leader,
Grand Sheikh Sayyid Ahmed al-Sharif, had driven Italian troops back to the
Libyan coast, was supporting dissidence against the French in Tunis, had
invaded Egypt, and was encouraging Ali Dinar in Darfur.
Dinar, believing Turco-German propaganda promising that an Islamic state would
be created in northern Africa when the European colonisers had been driven out,
decided to challenge British authority in Sudan. He did have some legitimate grievances, such
as British passivity towards French land-grabbing on his western border, and
his tribesmen did not want to accept the application of quarantine regulations
when selling livestock in other regions of Sudan, but it was the arrival of
around 250 rifles and some boxes of ammunition in Darfur, sent by the Senussi
in Libya, that tipped the scale and decided British action against him.
Above: Men of the Sudanese Camel Corps on patrol
Governor-General of the Sudan,
General Sir Reginald Wingate GCB, ordered the mounting of a punitive expedition to Darfur
under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel P.V. Kelly, 3rd Hussars. The force was 2,000 strong and included:
companies of Mounted Infantry
batteries of Artillery (six 12.5 pounder
Guns (half of them British-crewed, with Mule transport)
companies of Camel Corps
companies Sudanese Infantry (XIII & XIV Battalions)
companies Arab Infantry (from the Arab Battalion)
companies Egyptian Infantry (from the IVth Battalion)
baggage camels organised into five Transport Companies
supporting medical, supply and transport services.
importantly, Egyptian Army HQ provided a flight of four B.E.2 aeroplanes of the
Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and eleven 30-cwt. motor lorries.
British Intelligence Officer responsible for Darfur, Captain H.A. MacMichael,
estimated that the Fur Army could put into the field 800 Regular Cavalry, 3,000
Regular Infantry with rifles “but very badly trained and ill-equipped with
ammunition”, and perhaps up to 2,000 irregular spearmen.
of the Campaign lay not in the military opposition but in the distance to and
remoteness of Darfur, and the shortage of good wells for drinking water between
the railhead at El Obeid and El Fasher, the
Sultan’s capital. El Obeid was 428 miles
(690 km) from the military base at Khartoum and
El Fasher was 400 miles (650 km) further on from El Obeid.
March 1916 the British Western Frontier Force, as it was titled (quickly
adapted to Waterless Fatigue Force by the British soldiers involved) marched
north-westwards from the railhead through desolate scorching country – at one
point it is alleged that the water being carried on camels in tins was boiling
from the sun’s heat!
Left: A Sudanese Tribesman in traditional warrior garb
the RFC flew reconnaissance missions and made a propaganda leaflet drop on El
Fasher (one plane being damaged by a Fur bullet-strike on the propeller),
mounted troops moved ahead of the main column to seize key water-holes,
sometimes skirmishing for them but always being able to deploy more effective
firepower than the Fur Army could. These
desert water-holes had small openings about two feet square to prevent sand
falling in and the water lay at considerable depths. The water was drawn up in a skin bladder on
the end of a long thin rope and it took considerable skill and all the hours of
darkness to bring up sufficient water to sustain the men and animals in a
column. The key water-hole of Melit was
seized on 18th May after a RFC bombing raid caused the Fur garrison
to withdraw. The Force, now considerably
fatigued, concentrated at Melit and rested in preparation for an advance south
onto El Fasher.
May the British advance resumed, mounted troops keeping in touch with large
parties of Fur horsemen and camel-mounted troops. The following morning saw the British camp
struck at 0530 hours and the whole Force advancing in square formation through
large sand dunes that limited visibility.
This was one of the last occasions that a large British square advanced
to the attack and it must have been a memorable spectacle and experience for
Mounted Infantry composed the front face of the square, but because of the
proximity of enemy mounted troops four Maxims escorted by a company of Camel
Corps were added to this front face. At
around 1030 hours the square halted whilst Artillery and Maxims came into
action to disperse an entrenched enemy group on the left of the axis of
advance. The square advanced again
another 800 yards (730 metres) and began to entrench for a rest from the fierce
British could see a small village, named Beringia, 500 yards (460 metres) to
the front, and ominously a small length of trench containing about 200 men
behind the village. Scouts returned to
say that the trench was very long and contained thousands of men, but Force
Headquarters did not believe this. But
the scouts were right as the trench was over a mile long and contained the main
Fur force that was waiting to ambush the British. As his men dug-in Lt Col Kelly planned an
attack to be delivered from the left front of his square onto the length of
enemy trench that he could see, and he formed-up his assault troops.
at that moment Major H.J. Huddlestone MC (who had been commissioned from the
ranks of the Coldstream Guards into the Dorsetshire Regiment), the Camel Corps
company commander in the front face, advanced his company without orders to a
ridge to the right front that overlooked Beringia Village. Why ‘Huddle’ as his contemporaries called him
made this move is not known, but perhaps from his elevated seat on his camel he
had seen more of the enemy trench and wished to observe the full length of it.
Huddleston’s move triggered a general enemy attack as the Fur swarmed out of
the trench in their brightly-coloured robes, raised their battle-flags and
raced towards the hated British infidels.
Huddlestone’s company now withdrew, firing volleys by alternate
sections, and this apparent retreat spurred the Fur warriors onwards. The British infantry on the two sides of the
square now swung forward to join the face in one long firing line containing
eight Artillery guns firing case ammunition (quantities of metal balls), four
Maxims and five companies of Infantry.
warriors displayed tremendous courage in storming forward to attack the British
firing line where Alexander Pott was commanding the left front corner,
steadying his men and issuing fire orders.
Successive waves of attackers were cut down by British firepower, the nearest
warriors getting within 10 yards of Pott’s Sudanese before being killed. After 40 minutes of carnage the Fur finally
wavered and fell back. Lt Col Kelly then
ordered a counter-attack and as the Sudanese Infantry, supported by Artillery
and Maxims, trotted forward offering the bayonet the Fur broke and fled. Alexander Pott’s men captured a large yellow
and green embroidered flag, believed to have been made and blessed in Mecca. (This flag was later presented to
Out of an
estimated 4,000 attackers the Fur left 261 dead and 96 seriously wounded on the
battlefield. Because of their ability to
accept wounds that would have immobilized Europeans probably many more
seriously wounded Fur were carried, walked or staggered away. The British casualties were three Officers
wounded, five Other Ranks killed and 18 wounded. Major Huddlestone’s Camel Corps company,
which Lt Col Kelly had mentally written-off, had conducted a fighting
withdrawal back into the square and had suffered only four men slightly
wounded. ‘Huddle’s provocation of the
enemy had drawn the Fur out of their planned fighting position and onto the
afternoon at 1600 hours the British Force advanced towards El Fasher, halting
and entrenching a few miles outside the capital. Here at 0300 hours next morning 500 Fur
cavalry with 300 infantry attacked the British square. The British illuminated the battlefield with
star shell and magnesium flares, giving the Artillery and Maxims another good
shoot. After ten minutes of heavy
defensive firing this attack dispersed.
A British aircraft piloted by Lieutenant John Slessor (later to become
Air Marshal Sir John Slessor) bombed the Fur assault group in daylight as it
withdrew towards El Fasher.
Above: A Dervish assault. 'Whatever happens, we have got, The Maxim Gun, and they have not.'
hours Lt Col Kelly and the mounted troops entered El Fasher, which now was
inhabited by women, children and old men.
Sultan Ali Dinar tried to rally his men for another attack on the
British, but his two best commanders had been killed at Beringea and his men
started dispersing. John Slessor bombed
these dispersing troops at the southern end of El Fasher, but Fur riflemen hit
him and his plane. It is believed that
as Sultan Ali Dinar withdrew southwards with loyal troops he hit John Slessor
in the thigh with a round from a sporting rifle presented to him some years
earlier by the Governor-General. The
aircraft rudder controls were also damaged, making Lieutenant Slessor’s return
to base difficult. Because of the
impending rainy season the Royal Flying Corps now withdrew to Egypt to repair
planes and pilot.
MacMichael explored the Sultan’s Palace and reported that it was: “ . . . a perfect Sudanese Alhambra
. . . There are small shady gardens and little fish ponds, arcades, colonnades,
storerooms and every type of building.
The floors are strewn with fine silver sand . . .Trellis work in ebony
is found in place of interior walls and the very flooring in the women’s
quarters, under the silvery sand, is impregnated with spices.”
records had been scrupulously maintained and one book, using a page for each
lady who bore them, listed the names of about 120 of the Sultan’s sons. MacMichael forgot what the number of
Dinar was still alive and so the Campaign continued. On 29 May Lt Col Kelly received a letter from Ali Dinar,
renouncing his sultanate and requesting that he may live with his family
quietly on his lands. Kelly replied that
on his surrender the Sultan would be given safe-passage elsewhere. (He would probably have been sent across the
Red Sea to exile in the Hedjaz in Saudi Arabia.) Ali agreed, saying that he would come in
after the rains, but he then wrote again to say that he could not convince all
of his men to surrender. Kelly wrote
again, requesting a surrender, but by now the British knew that Ali Dinar was
playing for time and so would have to be killed.
October Lt Col Kelly sent Major Huddlestone
with 250 dismounted men from the Camel Corps and XIIIth Sudanese Infantry,
Alexander Pott’s Battalion, south to establish a fortified post at Kas, east of
Jebel Marra (Marra
Mountain). Whilst on the march ‘Huddle’ heard that a Fur
force under the former Sultan’s eldest son Zakariya was at Dibbis, on his flank
and threatening the British lines of communication. ‘Huddle’ rounded up some ponies for his men
(now nicknamed ‘Huddlestone’s Horse’) rode on Dibbis, made a surprise attack on
the Fur camp and routed Zakariya and his troops.
Huddlestone, realizing that he was now near Ali Din’s own camp, requested
reinforcements so that he could attack.
Both Kelly and Wingate said “No” as they were awaiting the
end of the rainy season before mounting another large military operation. But as we have seen, ‘Huddle’ was not the
kind of chap to let the grass grow under his feet whilst senior officers
pondered. Hearing of a Fur camp not far
away at Kulme he marched with 100 men on ponies and mules and attacked the camp
at dawn. Maxims dispersed the Furs, and
whilst most of Huddlestone’s men made for the loot and the female companionship
in the camp, Huddlestone and a small party chased the best-dressed party of
fleeing Furs over a series of ridge-lines, shooting as they pursued.
“ . .
. after about the third rise we came on a thick-built form, with a strong and
dignified face marred only by cruel, sensuous lips, with a bullet hole drilled
through the centre of his forehead. It
was Ali Dinar.”
Ali’s elder sons, one of them wounded in the leg, waited nearby ready to
surrender. The Darfur Campaign was over.
January 1917 Darfur became a province of the
Anglo-Egyptian Sudan under civil administration. Major Hubert Huddlestone MC, who so ably
demonstrated the military virtue of immediately seizing initiatives, was
awarded a Distinguished Service Order and Bar, received six Mentions in
Despatches during the war, and went on to become Governor-General of the Sudan
in 1940 – 47. Captain Alexander Pott
gained a Mention in Despatches and the silver Khedive’s Sudan Medal 1910 with
clasp “Darfur 1916”. He fought on in the Sudan and earned more clasps and
Mentions, as we shall see.
John Pott (Right) had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (London Gazette
Issue No 27359 dated 27 September 1901) when serving as a Sergeant in the 2nd
Dragoons in the South African War, as well as being promoted to Queen’s
Sergeant on the field for bravery. For
his service in South Africa
he received the Queen’s Medal with seven clasps, the King’s Medal and a Mention
in Despatches. In 1916 he was an officer
in the King’s Own and was attached to the Egyptian Army, serving in the 13th
History of the Great War. Military
Operations Egypt & Palestine to June 1917.Ali
Dinar – Last Sultan of Darfur by A.B. Theobald. People
of the Book by
Major A.J. Pott.
Back by Reginald
on the Nile – The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan 1898-1934 by M.W. Daly.
Wars & Skirmishes 1902-1918
by Edwin Herbert.
Despatch in London
Gazette Issue No 29800, dated 25 October 1916.
of the Nile by Henry Keown-Boyd.