Monday, 12 November 2007


I mentioned yesterday that in the last sixty years nearly 16,000 British service personnel had lost their lives on active service. To suggest that those lives were lost in vain is to denigrate the tremendous job that has been done in peace-keeping and saving lives around the world. From the point of view of their families very few of those men and women had lives that were wasted. Nevertheless, in broad terms most people would acknowledge that wars are a terrible waste of young and promising lives.

Having introduced the subject of wars and the loss of lives may I now recount the tale of the Battle of Omdurman which took place in 1898 . Omdurman is the largest city in Sudan and lies on the Western banks of the Nile opposite the capital Khartoum. In the 1890s the British and Egyptians were battling in the Sudan against the forces of the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, who had chosen Omdurman as his headquarters. He was killed in 1895 in the siege of Khartoum and his successor, Khalifa Abdullah al-Taashi, kept Omdurman as his centre of operations. The battle, which took place on September 2nd, was a decisive point in the conflict and established British dominance in the Sudan.

The followers of al-Taashi, known as Ansar and sometimes referred to as Dervishes numbered around 50,000, including some 3,000 cavalry. They faced a highly disciplined army of British and Egyptian troops commanded by General Sir Horatio Herbert Kitchener and equipped with modern rifles and artillery. In five and a half hours of fighting the Ansar lost 10,000 men with a further 13,000 wounded and 5,000 taken prisoner. The British lost 48 men in the battle itself with a further five officers, 65 men and 120 horses of the 21st Lancers in the push on towards Khartoum. A total of 382 British troops were wounded.

The devastating damage done by the British guns is summed up by those simple statistics – 10,000 dead on one side and 48 on the other. Even Kitchener acknowledged that it was a waste. In calling for the men to stop firing the maxim guns he shouted “Cease Fire! Please! Cease Fire! What a dreadful waste of ammunition!

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