Winston Churchill and the Last Cavalry Charge

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The charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman

It is difficult to find a more varied and important life than that lived by Winston Churchill. While he is most famously remembered as the great wartime leader of Britain during the Second World War, his reign of service in British politics spanned from 1900 when he was first elected to Parliament through 1955 when resigned after his third time as Prime Minister. Born during the heyday of Victorian England, he lived long enough to see the dawn of the nuclear age and to witness the first men venture into Space. By most accounts, he is remembered as having the greatest singular impact on shaping the events of the 20th century.

Churchill’s Early Life

What most people don’t know, however, is that Churchill first gained notoriety and fame as a soldier/journalist during the British Colonial period of the late 19th century when he served in India and then the Sudan. It was in the Sudan that Churchill was a participant in what has been remembered as the last great cavalry charge in British military history, when he served with the 21st Lancers in the British campaign to retake the Sudan.

From his earliest age, Churchill desired a career in the military, and after graduating from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1894, he joined the British cavalry’s 4th Hussars. From there he was stationed in British India. Churchill, however, always wanted to be where the action was, a trait that would mark his whole adult life, and the action in 1898 was in the Sudan. Pulling every string he could, he was transferred to the 21st Lancers and set sail for Cairo to join the British Army in its campaign to retake the Sudan.

The Sudan

Since 1885 when British General Charles Gordon was killed by the Mahdists in the siege of Khartoum, Britain had been debating for years when and if to send troops back in to retake the Sudan. Finally, in 1898 British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury’s Conservative government decided to create a “Cape-to-Cairo” chain of colonies to prevent foreign powers, most notably the French, from entering into the Sudan. The order was given for a British & Egyptian army under the command of General Herbert Kitchener to go to the Sudan and defeat the Sudanese Mahdist forces and retake the city of Khartoum.

Kitchener’s force consisted of 8,700 British and 17,600 Egyptian and Sudanese troops. In April 1898 they first encountered Mahdist forces under the command of Abdullah al-Taashi, where in a pitched battle, they defeated the Mahdists, killing 3,000 enemy troops in the process. Al-Taashi then moved his beaten troops south to the Mahdist capital of Omdurman to rest and regroup. There he raised his army to 52,000 men. Kitchener soon followed him south, and it was during that time, Winston Churchill, upon his arrival from India, joined Kitchener’s army on August 2, 1898.

On September 2, 1898, Kitchener’s army engaged the Mahdist forces at Omdurman. Although vastly outnumbered, the British & Egyptian forces, with the latest European rifles, artillery, and Maxim machine guns, heavily outgunned the Mahdists, who were mostly equipped with spears and a limited number of antique riles. It was at this battle that Winston Churchill joined in the last great cavalry charge in British history.

The Charge

In the afternoon of September 2, 1898, the 21st Lancers were on a reconnaissance patrol between the main battle and the city of Khartoum, when they spotted 150 spear carrying Mahdists. As the cavalrymen charged toward the enemy, they became aware they had ridden into a trap, as they found over 2,000 Mahdists hidden in a shallow ravine. It began what Churchill had described as the two most dangerous minutes of his life.

What followed was fierce hand-to-hand combat. Churchill later said he owed his luck to not being injured or killed because he was on the side of the line with the fewest enemy and was carrying an automatic pistol and not a sword. After two minutes of brutal fighting, the Mahdists were routed, but the British, with 340 officers and men in the charge, lost 28 men killed, 50 wounded, as well as 119 horses killed. Three soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross. The fighting was so brutal that Churchill wrote afterwards, “The shoddiness of war. You can not gild it. The raw comes through.”

The Aftermath

Kitchener’s Army soundly defeated the Mahdist forces at the battle of Omdurman in what was described as a battle won by the superiority of technology over manpower. The heavily outgunned Mahdists were no match for the British & Egyptian troops. They lost 9,700 killed, 13,000 wounded, and 5,000 captured. Kitchener’s own losses were minimal, with 47 killed, twenty-eight of whom were from the charge of the 21st Lancers, and 340 wounded. With the Mahdist army destroyed, the road was open to retake Omdurman and eventually Khartoum, which ended the Sudanese war.

For Winston Churchill significance of the battle of Omdurman was never lost on him. He came to understand that technology, discipline and firepower could overwhelm any enemy, a belief he espoused in his later years when describing the fight in World War II against Nazi Germany, and which he put into words shortly after the battle when he wrote, “Thus ended the Battle of Omdurman—the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victors.” For Churchill, it was also just one more remarkable personal event in a life that would in ensuing years overflow with them.

Source:

  1. Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874 – 1932. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1983.