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As the end of the 19th Century approached Britain prepared to re-occupy the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan that she had evacuated after General Gordon’s death in Khartoum in January 1885. The insurgent Mahdist armies were seen to be vulnerable to attack and the British were optimistic of success. The British government looked around for allies to open other fronts in the Sudan. One serious problem was French territorial ambition in Africa, as France wanted an eastern colonial boundary on or across the River Nile for its Central African possessions.

Britain had to thwart the French plans.

Britain turned to the Belgian King Leopold II who privately owned the massive Congo Free State (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). On 12th May 1894 Great Britain leased to the Congo Free State all the territory between the 30th meridian east of Greenwhich and the Nile up to the 10th parallel of latitude. This land lay in the Equatoria Province of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and extended from Lake Albert in the south to Fashoda in the north. It lay directly across the route that a French advance eastwards would take. The territory was leased for the duration of King Leopold’s lifetime and it was expected that Great Britain would exert some supervision over the lease and that a slightly altered British flag would be flown. In return the Congo Free State agreed to provide Britain with a strip of land on its eastern border to be used for the building of a section of the proposed Cape to Cairo Railway.

However France was determined to exert influence in this matter and three months later signed an agreement with the Congo Free State in Paris that saw King Leopold renouncing occupation and political influence in the leased territory north of 5 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. In return for this renunciation France agreed to the northern boundary of the Congo Free State moving north of the 4th parallel north (where the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 had fixed it) up to the Ubangi and Mbomu Rivers. (In 1898 France did push an expedition eastwards that planted a flag on the Nile at Fashoda in the renounced territory. Confrontation and negotiation led to France and Britain accepting river watersheds rather than rivers as boundaries between their possessions.)

Above: The Battle of Rejaf 1897

This shortened area of leased territory became known as the Lado Enclave and was to be fully administered by the Congo Free State, but at first there was a problem for the Belgians – Mahdist armed forces were occupying Rejaf in the enclave. Rejaf was the highest navigable port on the White Nile and was strongly defended, being supplied from Mahdist headquarters in Khartoum by river steamer.  

Right: Congo Free State Soldiers with a European officer

In late 1896 the Congo Free State assembled a military force at Dungu under the command of an energetic 40-year old officer named Louis Chaltin. Commandant Chaltin moved eastwards to Surrur which he renamed Vankerhovenville after a deceased officer who had campaigned on the Nile in 1893, and built a strong fort. His troops were 697 Congolese soldiers organized into seven rifle companies commanded by Europeans. The force had one field gun under the command of Sergent Cajot, a former gunner, who also commanded No 7 Company. A band of 19 musicians accompanied the force, and a transport team of 32 soldiers under a European supervised 250 porters.

On 27 December 1896 the chiefs of three local tribes, the Azande, Renzi and Bafuka, joined Chaltin bringing 50 riflemen, 500 spearmen and another 400 porters with them.  

The column advanced north-eastwards towards the Nile on 1st January 1897 with an Advance Guard of two companies led by a 50-man scouting group 300 metres ahead; a Main Body of four companies and the artillery; a Baggage Guard of one company and porters with the vital baggage; a Rear Guard of general baggage and Azande spearmen; and two Flank Guards of Renzi and Bafuka spearmen.

Left: A Congo Free State soldier

After light skirmishing in the Tendia Pass against natives using poisoned arrows the column dropped down towards the Nile Valley on 16 January, establishing a fortified post at Mount Adra a week later. Chaltin’s men were now advancing through well-cultivated country where the tribes were friendly and crops available for food, but the hunters in the force only occasionally encountered game animals to kill for meat. On St. Valentine’s Day the Nile was reached – here 800 metres wide. Along the banks herds of game browsed whilst predators and crocodiles stalked them. Chaltin halted at the old Turkish post of Bedden, four hours march south of Rejaf.  

At 1730 hours On 16 January Chaltin’s camp was approached by groups of enemy carrying banners. The enemy troops stayed on high ground but a couple of rounds from Cajot’s gun dispersed them. At 0600 hours the following day the Belgians advanced using the Nile to protect the right flank and the Azande spearmen to protect the left. An hour later the enemy was found dug-in occupying a three-kilometre front, again on high ground. A pass was in the centre of the enemy line which ran from the Nile to the bank of a tributary river. The position appeared impregnable.  

Undaunted Chaltin advanced four companies to cover in rocky ground and held three companies in reserve. Cajot’s gun fired six shells from the centre of the Belgian line. The enemy rifle fire could not hit the four forward companies but did hit the reserves and the baggage porters. The Mahdists then made a mistake, sending a group from the high ground to outflank the Belgians on their left. Chaltin seized the initiative and advanced his four forward companies to within 200 metres of the enemy line from where they laid down intense fire.  

The enemy now hesitated and Chaltin deployed two reserve companies to his left, causing the Mahdist outflanking party to give way. A general advance was now sounded and the 500 Azande spearmen were ordered to charge the retreating enemy who were now cut off from their main body. The Azande performed this task well. The right-hand forward rifle companies seized the pass in front of them whilst the companies on their left advanced over the high ground. At first the Mahdists offered a disciplined fighting withdrawal but the faint-hearted ones in their ranks soon began to run, and the withdrawal turned into a rout. The rifle companies methodically cleared and secured the battlefield whilst their spearmen allies dealt with enemy stragglers. Chaltin had won the first battle, which had lasted for around 30 minutes.

The ground was strewn with dead and wounded Mahdists. Egyptians, Abyssinians and Darfuris were identified amongst the casualties. Mahommed Adi Bedi, the enemy commander, was amongst the killed. He had commanded 2,000 men in a very strong entrenched position but had made the mistake of splitting his force by attempting to out-flank the Belgians.  

The column rested for two hours then, under a scorching sun, followed up the enemy retreat, crossing ground where all the watercourses were dry. After 90 minutes the point men arrived at the foot of Mount Rejaf, over 150 metres high, where Mahdists occupied a crest line running down to the Nile. Chaltin’s column was stretched out now and took some time to concentrate. Meanwhile the enemy opened fire with a cannon which fortunately did little damage.

Left: Mahdist uniforms and equipment

Although the Mahdists defended their position desperately, the thirsty Belgian riflemen wanted an end to the fight and five companies were advanced to close with the enemy. The Belgians turned the enemy left flank, causing an enemy withdrawal into a ravine where the Mahdists formed a line with their backs on the Nile. Cajot was ordered forward with his cannon, and at 100 metres range he fired canister shell (a shell that explodes in the air projecting many bullets forward) into the enemy line, reducing the Mahdist resistance. Chaltin ordered a company to attack and this action broke the enemy ranks. Two more Belgian companies were advanced to follow-up the enemy who now withdrew behind the Rejaf town walls to man defensive positions in the fort and houses. Chaltin had won the second battle. A Belgian assault on the town was quickly mounted, and the soldiers now had loot as an incentive. The battle devolved out of Chaltin’s control as company commanders fought their men forward down labyrinths of passageways from one defended house to the next. At 1900 hours the Belgians ceased fire and consolidated their gains. The enemy sniped for a further five hours, then the town fell silent. The Belgians rested for the night, doubtless spending a little time looking for water, food, booty and other relaxation. They advanced again at 0400 hours only to find that the fort was empty as the Mahdist survivors had slipped away during the night.  

Several hundred Mahdists were lying dead, including eight important leaders. Booty included two useful cannon and a signalling gun, 700 good rifles, revolvers, swords (some appearing to be as used by Crusaders), battle standards, two stores full of ammunition, drums and musical instruments, large quantities of food (a steamer from downriver had just unloaded and it had been quickly dispatched downriver again as the fighting reached Rejaf town), four tonnes of good ivory, the garrison archives, mules, donkeys, 100 head of livestock and hundreds of goats and sheep. Over 400 cattle had been killed during the fighting and these carcasses provided fresh meat for the troops and their allies. Hundreds of women and children remained in the town, and they would no doubt have provided a welcome and useful labour force for the Belgians. Chaltin had lost one European and an unrecorded number of soldiers and spearmen killed.

Rejaf was located 800 metres from the Nile and the town’s defences had faced south and west. Chaltin now reversed this, digging 600 metres of trenches facing north. A parapet was constructed allowing riflemen to shoot over a 3-metre wide ditch filled with thorn bush. Two gates controlled entry from north and south and a stone battery position housed the cannon on the west. Stone houses were built inside the town for Europeans and for administrative purposes, and a grass-hutted camp for soldiers was constructed outside the north entrance. Fields were cultivated and livestock herded to provide food for the garrison.  

The Congo Free State could now develop and exploit the Lado Enclave.  

Left: Statue of King Leopold II

Land Beyond the Rivers – the Southern Sudan 1898-1918 by Robert O. Collins. Campaigning on the Upper Nile and Niger by Seymour Vandeleur.
Exhibits in the Brussels Military Museum and the Royal Museum for Central Africa at Tervuren, Brussels.
For a more contemporary account of soldiering in this scenic Congo-Sudan border region, read chapters 12 to 16 of Mike Hoare’s “Congo Mercenary” and the several chapters covering operations in Oriental Province in his book “Congo Warriors”.

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