By Michael Kirkby
Since the days of the English Civil War and the emergence of the New Model Army, the quintessential piece of kit for the British ‘Tommy’ was the redcoat. This garment was not merely a piece of clothing but over a 230 year period became a symbol of empire, discipline and global domination.
Men from all over the country and further afield wore this garment fighting in some of the most prolific battles in British history such as Blenheim, Yorktown, Waterloo and Ishandlwana. Whether in defeat or victory, the redcoat symbolised that one of the most modern thinking and professional armies was on the field.
However, this image was to change near an obscure Sudanese village called Ginnis on the afternoon of the 30th December 1885.
There had been conflict in the Sudan since four years earlier when civil unrest in Egypt by revolutionaries led Arabi Pasha, a colonel in the Egyptian Army to raise a 60,000 strong force to rebel against the rule of the Khedive, a pro-Western sultan.
Pasha seized Alexandria and set about arming the forts and blockading European trade which caused the British government to dispatch a 7,000 strong force under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley (mainly consisting of Scottish regiments) from India to Egypt to bolster the Khedive’s forces.
In August 1882 a Britsh expeditionary force was landed under the overall command of Wolseley and moved onto the Suez Canal and onwards to Cairo.
The British first engaged Arabi’s forces as Kassassin lock on the 24th August to capture and control the main water supply to progress further into the desert. General Graham successfully captured the lock and chased Pasha’s forces back into the desert after the British cavalry made their famous moonlight charge on the Egyptian force.
The British continued to pursue Pasha and eventually came upon his main army at Tel-el-Kebir railway station where Pasha’s 25,000 strong force were entrenched . With only 13,000 men to challenge him , the British force charged Arabi’s positions in September 1882 and after close hand to hand fighting and delivering heavy firepower Arabi’s rebels broke and fled. On the 14th September the British cavalry entered Cairo and arrested Pasha bringing two months of campaigning to a close.
In 1883 a boat builder’s apprentice called Mohamed Ahmed proclaimed to be the Mahdi (Messiah), and God had instructed him to unite and lead the Sudanese to overthrow the British invader from all Islamic lands.
The Mahdi’s forces quickly flocked to him and his cause gathered momentum and within months he had tens of thousands of followers, mainly made up of Sudanese tribesmen, many of whom had served in Pasha’s rebellion.
Knowing that his power would grow the longer he was left un-challenged the British government decided to intervene in the Sudan and in March 1883 an Egyptian army under the command of a British officer, Colonel Hicks was dispatched to the Sudan to challenge the Mahdi and crush his rebellion. Hicks seriously underestimated the Mahdi’s capabilities and in April 1883 Hicks and 10,000 of his Egyptian allies were massacred in an ambush which practically armed the Mahdi’s forces with modern rifles and artillery.
Over the next few months in face of an ever growing enemy the British made plans to evacuate Khatoum and reinforced their key positions in the Sudan to repel the ever growing hostile situation.
In February 1884 a British force managed to repel a stronger Arab force who had entrenched themselves at El-Teb and ten days later General Graham’s force encountered the Sudanese force at Tamai. The battle was close with the enemy getting inside the British defensive squares but the quick thinking of the British quickly turned this near defeat into an enemy rout through superior firepower.
By this time General Gordon had now become besieged at Khatoum and requested that a rescue force under Sir Garnet Wolseley be sent out to relive him. Gordon, who had a vast knowledge of desert warfare and understood the mentality of the enemy made a special request that the relief force wore their red coats instead of khaki. The enemy it would seem were much more wary of the British redcoats as they associated them with a fierce fighting spirit on the battlefield. Gordon hoped that the sight of a redcoat force approaching would scatter the Mahdi’s forces quicker.
On the 16th June 1884 the Camel Corps found its route blocked by a much superior Dervish force at Abu-Klea. Unable to retreat or divert for fear of losing their access to water they force made a make shift fortress out of boxes and riding equipment. Again, the Dervish force swarmed around them and broke into the square but the Camel Corps was able to turn their Gatling guns into their own square and turn it into a killing ground which caused the Dervish force to break and scatter.
Following their victory at Abu Klea the desert column progressed forward and reaching a bend in the Nile where in January 1885 240 Sudanese and 20 men of the Royal Sussex embarked onto paddle steamers and went on alone to lift the siege of Khartoum. Following Gordon’s request that all troops were red coatees, the men had to borrow red coats from the Guards units in the Camel Corps before embarking. The next night however, the Sudanese force assaulted Khartoum and Gordon, along with the 4000 strong Egyptian garrison were massacred.
Wolseley attempted to retake Khartoum but the enemy fire was so strong that he was forced to retire. The number of the Mahdi’s forces facing Wolseley was so strong that he eventually ordered no further offensive movements in the Sudan and instead focussed on reinforcing his key positions.
Throughout the next few months the British engaged the Dervishes with limited success but to no real achievement. They routed the Derivsh force at Dhilibat Hill and made a valiant stand at Tofrek where they fought back against a much stronger Dervish force. Though far from defeated, a decision was made at the end of March that the British would evacuate the Sudan as they now had further problems on the North West Frontier of a possible Russian invasion and needed reinforcements to deter their advances.
Suddenly in June 1885 hostilities re-surfaced when The Mahdi died and was replaced by Khalifa Abdullah el-Taaishi, who wanting to make his own mark declared an invasion of Egypt to fully eject the British from Arabic lands.
In mid December 1885 the Dervishes marched upon the British held post of Wadi Halfa where an allied garrison at Fort Kosheh that was manned by Cameron Highlanders and the 9th Sudanese Regiment, managed to hold out against the 7,000 Dervish warriors.
Reinforcements were called upon from Cairo and two brigades consisting of the 1st Berkshires, the West Kents, the 2nd Durham Light Infantry and detachments of the Royal Artillery and Egyptian Artillery in the first brigade under the command of General Butler and the Green Howards (2nd Yorkshires), six companies of the Cameron Highlanders, elements of Sudanese and Egyptian Units and some detachments of the Camel Corps and 20th Hussars in the second brigade, were dispatched to the area under the overall command of General Grenfell to lift the siege of Fort Kosheh and rid the area of the Mahdi’s forces who had settled at the village of Ginnis and occupied an ancient fort at Kosheh. On the 15th December a British sortie from the fort were ambushed by the Mahdi’s forces and forced to retire and on the 20th the fort’s Gardner Gun was dismounted from its position by heavy artillery fire, making the fort unable to fire back onto the besiegers.
Typical uniforms worn by the British, 1882 – 1885.
On the 29th General Grenfell marched from the main British position at Firka and camped outside Kosheh and at dawn on the 30th December General Grenfell’s force marched out of their camp just outside of Fort Kosheh where the First Brigade spearheaded an attack on the high ground to the south of Ginnis.
The battle opened up at 6:10am when British artillery opened fire on the Mahdi’s positions taking them by surprise. The Camerons and 9th Sudanese who had been besieged in Fort Kosheh but had been relieved at the arrival of Grenfell marched along the Nile and headed directly for the village of Kosheh to the east of Ginnis to clear it of enemy inhabitants, all the while covered by a Gardner Gun mounted on the decks of the gunboat Lotus that ran parallel with their march up the Nile. They were then to proceed on and clear the palm groves of the enemy hiding there, during this time the 9th Sudanese attacked the Black Rock, a hilly crest which dominated the ground, and chased away the Dervish defenders, and swarmed down with a massive cheer to meet up with their Cameron allies securing the ground around Kosheh for the British and Egyptians.
The Camerons and Sudanese carried on their advance to Ginnis and found themselves joining up with the second brigade where they encountered the Dervish forces in a palm grove, the Dervishes swung round to attack the first brigade who found themselves attacked by spearmen. Whilst the Camel Corps took the brunt of the ambush, the 2nd Durham Light Infantry (wearing khaki) held out and eventually repulsed the Dervish attack. The first brigade drew up to attack the main Dervish camp and the second brigade was to attack Ginnis itself. With the attack on the Dervish camp successful the main Dervish force pulled back into the Atab Defile to its west but were routed by a bayonet charge led by the Mounted Infantry who dislodged their position and sent them fleeing into the desert. With the town firmly in Anglo-Egyptian hands the last stand in a house by the Dervishes was brought to a close with the use of a screw gun that made little work of the makeshift fort and its defenders. The fight for Ginnis was over by 10:00am with only slight casualties taken.
Following Ginnis the Mahdist forces were put to flight and their attempted invasion of Egypt was put down as quickly as it started. Unfortunately, due to the low casualty rate and effectiveness of the battle, Ginnis was not recognised as a battle honour until 1937.
However, sharing in this momentous milestone at this small Sudanese settlement were men from Nottingham and the surrounding areas. Though the Sherwood Foresters were far away fighting other battles for the empire, a number of men mainly in the Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) were present having been recruited from Nottingham in the years 1881 – 1883 when the regiment recruited primarily in the East Midlands area. The 20th Hussars, who were also present on the day and though wearing their standard blue cavalry jackets also have records of a number of Nottinghamshire men amidst their ranks in the Sudan at this significant battle.
The battle may have been small in comparison to other engagements in the campaign and by no means was this the end of the war. Further engagements against the Mahdist and Dervish forces would continue until the turn of the century, but the 30th December 1885 will forever symbolise the day the British army’s identity changed as they were forced to come to terms with the fact the red jacket, a symbol as well as a uniform, no longer had a place in a modern, industrialising army.
Brian Bond, Victorian Military Campaigns (Tom Donovan Publishing, 1994)
Henry Keown-Boyd, A Good Dusting: The Sudan Campaigns 1883- 1899 (Leo Cooper, 1986)