The role of Lieutenant David Beatty RN and the gunboat flotilla in the Reconquest of the Sudan

Many of those who fought at Omdurman in 1898 were later to become even more famous, playing leading roles during the Great War only sixteen years away. Names such as Douglas Haig and Winston Churchill spring immediately to mind. However, the activities of a young naval officer were not to go unnoticed and, no doubt, the opportunities for leadership and action thrust upon him through service in the Sudan, helped prepare him for an illustrious career. This young lieutenant of 27 was later to become Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Beatty of the North Sea P.C, G.C.B., O.M., G.C.V.O., D.S.O. (1871-1936).

Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars most military activity had been undertaken by the army and consequently there had been relatively little opportunity during the nineteenth century for young naval officers to gain distinction in action. As a result any campaign experience gained was more likely to involve a role played on land in support of the army rather than in an epic sea battle. Career progression was invariably slow and rather tedious with enormous competition among naval officers for whatever few "exciting" posts were available.

By sheer chance young David Beatty found himself in the right place at the right time when in 1895 he was posted as a new lieutenant to HMS Trafalgar, a battleship of the Lieutenant David Beatty, D.S.O., R.N., 1898Mediterranean Fleet. The ship's commanding officer was Stanley Colville who, ten years earlier as a young lieutenant himself, had been involved in Wolseley's vain attempt to save General Gordon and relieve Khartoum. In 1896 Kitchener was assembling on the Nile the Anglo-Egyptian army which was to reconquer the Sudan and end the tyranny of the Khalifa. Because of his earlier experience Colville was appointed to command a gunboat flotilla in support of the army and in turn chose his trusted lieutenant, David Beatty, to command one of the gunboats.

The gunboats in service on the Nile in 1896 were shallow draught, stern wheel, wood burning steamers, lightly protected and armed with Nordenfelt guns. However, a railway had also been built and it was used to transport sections and fittings for three new gunboats, specifi¬cally designed for the purpose and armed with 12 pounder and 6 pounder guns, howitzers and maxims. Although they were 140ft long and equipped with ammunition hoists, searchlights and steam winches they had a draught of only 39 inches of water. These gunboats were assembled at Kosheh between the second and third cataracts by the shipbuilders Jarrow. However, before these new vessels were available Beatty had been leading the advance of Kitchener's army in 1896 from Kosheh to Dongola in the "Abu Klea", an older boat.

The desert lines of communication of the combined British and Egyptian forces were long and difficult, as would be the task of the flotilla in supporting them. This initially entailed careful planning and preparation requiring the surveying of all the cataracts, the noting of the vagaries of the currents and devising means of lightening the ships to the shallowest draught. The ascent through rocks and shoals of the swirling waters of the Nile necessitated great navigational competence and skill. Some idea of the enormity of the task is given by Churchill when describing the passage of the gunboat "Metemmeh": "The boat had been carefully prepared for the ordeal. Her freeboard had been raised, guns and ammunition removed, a wire strop passed round the hull and the fires drawn. Five hawsers were employed on which 2,000 (men) were set to pull, yet such was the extraordinary force of the current that although the actual distance was less than 100 yards, the passage of each steamer occupied an hour and a half."

However, the danger was not just from the river. At Hafir, just above the third cataract, the Dervishes, having artillery, made a determined stand behind fortified positions. In the attack "Abu Klea" was hit by a shell, which lodged in her magazine, but did not explode. Beatty, realising the danger to his ship, picked up the shell and threw it overboard. The decks of the gunboats were constantly raked by enemy rifle fire during which Beatty got a bullet through his helmet and Colville was severely wounded in the arm. Despite the strong current which forced two other gunboats to break off the action for a time, Beatty held his position and after two hours continuous fighting Colville was forced by his wound to hand over command of the flotilla to him.

Beatty immediately decided to lead the flotilla upstream and outflanking the Arabs cut off their line of retreat. At the age of 25 Beatty had shown all the qualities of a born leader. Although he was undoubtedly courageous and daring he was neither foolhardy nor impetuous. He always seemed to think carefully before taking action . For his gallantry Beatty was commended by the Sirdar and received a D.S.O., although there were some who felt very strongly that he should have been awarded a Victoria Cross.
After a period of leave Beatty returned to the Nile in July 1897 at Kitchener's request under the command of Commander Colin Keppel (later Admiral Sir Colin Keppel (1862-1947), who had replaced Colville. Owing to the Sirdar's order for an immediate advance there was not enough time for proper preparations for the passing of the Fourth Cataract as there had been for the Second Cataract the previous year. As a result when Beatty's steamer "El Teb" attempted to pass the cataract her bows were swept round and as the hawsers held, a great rush of water poured over the deck. In ten seconds the "El Teb" keeled over and she was swept downstream. Beatty and his crew were thrown into the foaming water and were fortunate to be picked up by the "Tamai" which was downstream. Beatty was lucky to escape so lightly and was apparently "as good as new" an hour later on taking over command of the "Fateh", one of the new gunboats. Understandably after this incident greater care was taken in encountering the cataracts and more native labour found to pull the hawsers. The "El Teb" was later refloated, repaired and renamed "Hafir" in an attempt to improve her luck.

By now there were a total of 10 gunboats under Keppel's command. Each craft was commanded by a British naval officer with an NCO of the Royal Marine Artillery as gunnery instructor. Beatty's vessel, the "Fateh", was an armoured stern wheel type armed with one quick firing 12 pounder gun, two 6 pounders and four maxims. The flotilla was augmented by five transport steamers which were loaded with supplies. So laden were the boats with two months supply of ammunition and food that in response to protests that they were grossly overloaded, Kitchener replied laconically "Plimsoll's dead!"

Because the railway could not be constructed fast enough, the gunboats were also used to carry troops as well as supplies, which they did with the help of barges and native craft. The mobility which this gave the army enabled it to advance far more rapidly than expected by the Arabs who were surprised on a number of occasions falling back without attempting to hold their positions. The gunboats were also invaluable for harrassing enemy supply lines, gathering intelligence and raiding enemy positions, for which purpose each boat carried a detachment of Sudanese troops. Beatty was always in the thick of any action and when the gunboats were not involved in the fight against one of the Khalifa's emirs, Mahmoud, at the Atbara in April 1898, he landed with a rocket detachment and accompanied the troops into battle. As the general advance was sounded Beatty was to be found in the firing line.

It might be thought that the many successes of the gunboats prior to the Battle of Omdurman and the considerable support they had already given Kitchener's army would mean that their contribution to victory had already been made. However, it transpired that their presence before and during the battle was at times essential when their heavy and concentrated firepower was to prove invaluable. On 1 September, the day before the battle, the gunboats carried out a bombardment of the Dervish forts and the walls of Khartoum causing substantial damage. Although the forts housed fifty guns, so accurate was the British fire that the walls of the town were breached and the forts silenced. 37th Field Battery had been ferried across the river to assist the gunboats with its howitzers. During the ensuing shelling the top of the gleaming white dome of the Mahdi's tomb was damaged. This 91ft high structure was the tallest building in Khartoum and a most distinctive architectural feature of the town. Its treatment would, no doubt, have had a strong psychological effect on the Khalifa's followers. In General Smith-Dorrien's opinion it was this shelling of Khartoum which caused the Khalifa to evacuate the town and mass his army in the open.

It was not certain on the night of September 1st whether the Dervish army would attack under cover of dark. Such a possibility was of major concern to Kitchener and his staff since the confusion, chaos and lack of control such an assault might have brought could have resulted in disaster for the Anglo-Egyptian force. Previous campaign experience in this part of the world had shown what havoc determined swordsmen could wreak and how it was almost impossible to assemble and control troops and stampeding animals as warriors darted in and out hacking and stabbing every man and beast before them. In spite of this concern Kitchener had rather surprisingly positioned his soldiers for the night two deep in a long sweeping curve so as to achieve maximum firepower during the coming battle. Such a formation would have found it very difficult to repulse a determined night attack and would possibly have been overwhelmed by the superior numbers. Fortunately no attack came that night and it was probably the constant sweeping of the electric searchlights of the gunboats which helped dissuade the Arabs, many of whom were disconcerted by the regular attention of these "evil eyes". It is alleged that after a beam landed on his tent the Khalifa had it pulled down and moved elsewhere among his army. Churchill commented on this lost opportunity: "The last hopes of barbarism had passed with the shades of night".

Gunboats on the Nile

The role of the gunboats during the battle the following day was no doubt instrumental in Kitchener's success. Both flanks of the army were secured by two gunboats moored off the river banks while the other boats steamed to and fro intervening during the action as the need arose. At one critical point when Colonel Broadwood's small force of Camel Corps, detailed to deter an advance against the extreme right of the line, became hard pressed, the firepower of the gunboats checked the Arab onslaught thus saving the Camel Corps and enabling them to reach the safety of the zeriba. The great asset of the boats was, of course, their mobility which they used to great effect throughout. Contemporary accounts clearly acknowledge the support given to the army by the gunboats during the action and their vital role in lessening the onslaught of the Dervish army on Kitchener's troops by checking their advances with their considerable firepower. Indeed a major reason for the loss of this critical battle by the Khalifa was his severe miscalculation of the power of modern weapons.

As Kitchener's army advanced into Khartoum after the battle the gunboats continued their support helping to silence fire from the walls of the city. This was not without its drama when a stray shell from a gunboat, which had been shelling the barred gates of the Khalifa's house, exploded near Kitchener as he was inspecting the town after the battle. Kitchener was uninjured but Hon. Hubert Howard, special correspondent of The Times and the New York Herald, who was standing by him, was killed. When he saw that all was lost in Khartoum the Khalifa escaped and fled to Kordofan to the garrison at El Obeid. Again it was the gunboats which enabled Wingate and his men to pursue him.

Following his distinguished role in Kitchener's campaign, Beatty was promoted to the rank of commander on his return to England. He subsequently became the youngest captain in the Royal Navy and then the youngest admiral since Nelson. Arguably the greatest British admiral this century, Beatty's great fame, like Churchill's, came from exploits in a latter conflict. This is not the place to examine Beatty as Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet and First Sea Lord, but to recognise his important contribution to Kitchener's success in the reconquest of the Sudan. There seems little doubt that by seizing the opportunity to distinguish himself in this campaign, he firmly set himself on the road to becoming this country's future "Hero of Jutland".


The Life and Letters of David Earl Beatty, Rear Admiral, W.S. Chalmers 1951

The River War, Winston S. Churchill 1899

The Egyptian Campaigns ,Charles Royle 1899

Kitchener, Portrait of an Imperialist, Philip Magnus 1958

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen', issue 1998

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