As the 21st Lancers left the ridge, the fire of the Arab riflemen
on the hill ceased. We advanced at a walk in mass for about 300 yards.
The scattered parties of Dervishes fell back and melted away, and only one
straggling line of men in dark blue waited motionless a quarter of a mile
to the left front. They were scarcely a hundred strong. The regiment formed
into line of squadron columns, and continued at a walk until within 300
yards of this small body of Dervishes. The firing behind the ridges had
stopped. There was complete silence, intensified by the recent tumult.
Far beyond the thin blue row of Dervishes the fugitives were visible
streaming into Omdurman. And should these few devoted men impede a regiment?
Yet it were wiser to examine their position from the other flank before
slipping a squadron at them. The heads of the squadrons wheeled slowly
to the left, and the Lancers, breaking into a trot, began to cross the
Dervish front in column of troops. Thereupon and with one accord the
blue-clad men dropped on their knees, and there burst out a loud, crackling
fire of musketry. It was hardly possible to miss such a target at such
a range. Horses and men fell at once. The only course was plain and welcome
to all. The Colonel, nearer than his regiment, already saw what lay behind
the skirmishers. He ordered, 'Right wheel into line' to be sounded.
The trumpet jerked out a shrill note, heard faintly above the trampling of
the horses and the noise of the rifles. On the instant all the sixteen
troops swung round and locked up into a long galloping line, and the
21st Lancers were committed to their first charge in war.
Two hundred and fifty yards away the dark-blue men were firing madly
in a thin film of light-blue smoke. Their bullets struck the hard gravel
into the air, and the troopers, to shield
their faces from the stinging
dust, bowed their helmets forward, like the Cuirassiers at Waterloo.
The pace was fast and the distance short. Yet, before it was half covered,
the whole aspect of the affair changed. A deep crease in the ground--a dry
watercourse, a khor--appeared where all had seemed smooth, level plain;
and from it there sprang, with the suddenness of a pantomime effect
and a high-pitched yell, a dense white mass of men nearly as long as our
front and about twelve deep. A score of horsemen and a dozen bright flags
rose as if by magic from the earth. Eager warriors sprang forward
to anticipate the shock. The rest stood firm to meet it. The Lancers
acknowledged the apparition only by an increase of pace. Each man wanted
sufficient momentum to drive through such a solid line. The flank troops,
seeing that they overlapped, curved inwards like the horns of a moon.
But the whole event was a matter of seconds. The riflemen, firing bravely
to the last, were swept head over heels into the khor, and jumping down
with them, at full gallop and in the closest order, the British squadrons
struck the fierce brigade with one loud furious shout. The collision was
prodigious. Nearly thirty Lancers, men and horses, and at least two hundred
Arabs were overthrown. The shock was stunning to both sides, and for
perhaps ten wonderful seconds no man heeded his enemy. Terrified horses
wedged in the crowd, bruised and shaken men, sprawling in heaps, struggled,
dazed and stupid, to their feet, panted, and looked about them. Several
fallen Lancers had even time to re-mount. Meanwhile the impetus of the
cavalry carried them on. As a rider tears through a bullfinch, the officers
forced their way through the press; and as an iron rake might be drawn
through a heap of shingle, so the regiment followed. They shattered the
Dervish array, and, their pace reduced to a walk, scrambled out of the khor
on the further side, leaving a score of troopers behind them, and dragging
on with the charge more than a thousand Arabs. Then, and not till then, the
killing began; and thereafter each man saw the world along his lance,
under his guard, or through the back-sight of his pistol; and each had
his own strange tale to tell.
Stubborn and unshaken infantry hardly ever meet stubborn and unshaken
cavalry. Either the infantry run away and are cut down in flight, or they
keep their heads and destroy nearly all the horsemen by their musketry.
On this occasion two living walls had actually crashed together.
The Dervishes fought manfully. They tried to hamstring the horses,
They fired their rifles, pressing the muzzles into the very bodies of
their opponents. They cut reins and stirrup-leathers. They flung their
throwing-spears with great dexterity. They tried every device of cool,
determined men practised in war and familiar with cavalry; and, besides,
they swung sharp, heavy swords which bit deep. The hand-to-hand fighting
on the further side of the khor lasted for perhaps one minute. Then the
horses got into their stride again, the pace increased, and the Lancers
drew out from among their antagonists. Within two minutes of the collision
every living man was clear of the Dervish mass. All who had fallen were
cut at with swords till they stopped quivering, but no artistic mutilations
Two hundred yards away the regiment halted, rallied, faced about,
and in less than five minutes were re-formed and ready for a second charge.
The men were anxious to cut their way back through their enemies. We were
alone together--the cavalry regiment and the Dervish brigade. The ridge
hung like a curtain between us and the army. The general battle was
forgotten, as it was unseen. This was a private quarrel. The other might
have been a massacre; but here the fight was fair, for we too fought with
sword and spear. Indeed the advantage of ground and numbers lay with them.
All prepared to settle the debate at once and for ever. But some
realisation of the cost of our wild ride began to come to those who were
responsible. Riderless horses galloped across the plain. Men, clinging to
their saddles, lurched helplessly about, covered with blood from perhaps
a dozen wounds. Horses, streaming from tremendous gashes, limped and
staggered with their riders. In 120 seconds five officers, 65 men, and 119
horses out of fewer than 400 had been killed or wounded.
The Dervish line, broken by the charge, began to re-form at once.
They closed up, shook themselves together, and prepared with constancy and
courage for another shock. But on military considerations it was desirable
to turn them out of the khor first and thus deprive them of their vantage
ground. The regiment again drawn up, three squadrons in line and the fourth
in column, now wheeled to the right, and, galloping round the Dervish flank,
dismounted and opened a heavy fire with their magazine carbines. Under the
pressure of this fire the enemy changed front to meet the new attack,
so that both sides were formed at right angles to their original lines.
When the Dervish change of front was completed, they began to advance
against the dismounted men. But the fire was accurate, and there can be
little doubt that the moral effect of the charge had been very great,
and that these brave enemies were no longer unshaken. Be this as it may,
the fact remains that they retreated swiftly, though in good order,
towards the ridge of Surgham Hill, where the Khalifa's Black Flag still
waved, and the 21st Lancers remained in possession of the ground--
and of their dead.
Such is the true and literal account of the charge; but the reader
may care to consider a few incidents. Colonel Martin, busy with the
direction of his regiment, drew neither sword nor revolver, and rode
through the press unarmed and uninjured. Major Crole Wyndham had his horse
shot under him by a Dervish who pressed the muzzle of his rifle into its
hide before firing. From out of the middle of that savage crowd the
officer fought his way on foot and escaped in safety. Lieutenant Molyneux
fell in the khor into the midst of the enemy. In the confusion he
disentangled himself from his horse, drew his revolver, and jumped out
of the hollow before the Dervishes recoved from the impact of the charge.
Then they attacked him. He fired at the nearest, and at the moment of
firing was slashed across the right wrist by another. The pistol fell
from his nerveless hand, and, being wounded, dismounted, and disarmed,
he turned in the hopes of regaining, by following the line of the charge,
his squadron, which was just getting clear. Hard upon his track came
the enemy, eager to make an end. Beset on all sides, and thus hotly
pursued, the wounded officer perceived a single Lancer riding across his
path. He called on him for help. Whereupon the trooper, Private Byrne,
although already severely wounded by a bullet which had penetrated his
right arm, replied without a moment's hesitation and in a cheery voice,
'All right, sir!' and turning, rode at four Dervishes who were about to
kill his officer. His wound, which had partly paralysed his arm,
prevented him from grasping his sword, and at the first ineffectual
blow it fell from his hand, and he received another wound from a spear
in the chest. But his solitary charge had checked the pursuing Dervishes.
Lieutenant Molyneux regained his squadron alive, and the trooper, seeing
that his object was attained, galloped away, reeling in his saddle.
Arrived at his troop, his desperate condition was noticed and he was told
to fall out. But this he refused to do, urging that he was entitled to
remain on duty and have 'another go at them.' At length he was compelled
to leave the field, fainting from loss of blood.
Lieutenant Nesham had an even more extraordinary escape than Molyneux.
He had scrambled out of the khor when, as his horse was nearly stopping,
an Arab seized his bridle. He struck at the man with his sword, but did not
prevent him cutting his off-rein. The officer's bridle-hand, unexpectedly
released, flew out, and, as it did so, a swordsman at a single stroke
nearly severed it from his body. Then they cut at him from all sides.
One blow sheared through his helmet and grazed his head. Another inflicted
a deep wound in his right leg. A third, intercepted by his shoulder-chains,
paralysed his right arm. Two more, missing him narrowly, cut right through
the cantel of the saddle and into the horse's back. The wounded subaltern
--he was the youngest of all--reeled. A man on either side seized his legs
to pull him to the ground; but the long spurs stuck into the horse's flanks,
and the maddened animal, throwing up its head and springing forward,
broke away from the crowd of foes, and carried the rider--bleeding,
fainting, but still alive--to safety among the rallying squadrons.
Lieutenant Nesham's experience was that of the men who were killed,
only that he escaped to describe it.
The wounded were sent with a small escort towards the river and hospitals.
An officer was despatched with the news to the Sirdar, and on the instant
both cannonade and fusillade broke out again behind the ridge, and grew in
a crashing crescendo until the whole landscape seemed to vibrate with
the sound of explosions. The second phase of the battle had begun.