Forgotten Voices of Empire: The Charge of the 21st Lancers 1898

On the 2nd September 1898,  General Sir Herbert Kitchener lead his army, made up of Regular British regiments and mixed Sudanese/Egyptian regiments into action against the army of Abdullah al-Taashi, the successor to the self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. Ostensibly the Battle the of Omdurman, as it became known was fought to help the Egyptian state reconquer the Sudan, though Kitchener was seeking revenge for the death of General Charles Gordon in Khartoum in 1885.

The battle has become famous/infamous for a number of reasons:

It demonstrated how a highly disciplined army, armed with modern rifles, artillery and machines guns could destroy an army twice its size but armed with obsolete weapons with minimal casualties. 16,000 dervishes attacked the British position, mainly armed with old rifles and spears, not one attacker reached within 50m of the British and suffered 4,000 casualties too artillery fire and then heavy volley fire and Maxim guns.

The battle was the first time that the Mark IV hollow point bullet, made in the arsenal in Dum Dum was used in a major battle. It was an expanding bullet and the units that used it considered it a great success though they caused dreadful wounds.

After a few incidences of wounded dervishes attacking British troops, Kitchener ordered all of the wounded the be killed and this brutal attack dogged him for the rest of his life, even Winston Churchill agreed he had gone to far.

Kitchener was anxious to occupy Omdurman before the remaining Mahdist forces could withdraw there. He advanced his army on the city, arranging them in separate columns for the attack. The British light cavalry regiment, the 21st Lancers, was sent ahead to clear the plain to Omdurman. They had a tough time of it. The 400-strong regiment attacked what they thought were only a few hundred dervishes, but in fact there were 2,500 infantry hidden behind them in a depression. After a fierce clash, the Lancers drove them back (resulting in three Victoria Crosses being awarded to Lancers who helped rescue wounded comrades)

The correspondent from Reuter describes the action:

Omdurman, September 4 (via Nasri, Monday)

There has been such a pressure of daily work that the great incident of the Battle of Omdurman has probably received less attention than it merited. This was the famous charge of the 21st Lancers against enormous odds.

Colonel Martin’s orders were to prevent the broken enemy from returning to Omdurman, five miles away from the filed of Battle. The 21st Lancers unexpectedly came upon the enemy’s reserve who were 2000 strong, but whose exact strength could not ascertained owing to the nature of the ground.

Sudan5

The Charge of the 21st Lancers Drawn by John Charlton The Graphic 24th September 1898

The cavalry were then in form of troops. They deployed into line for the attack and charged. When they were within thirty yards of the entrenchments they found the enemy ensconced in a nulla and concealed by a depression of the ground.

The Lancers wild with excitement and coming on at full gallop for the attack, had not a single moment for hesitation. They charged gallantly home, the brunt falling on No.2 squadron, who absolutely had to hack their way through the enemy twenty deep, exposed to a withering infantry fire.

They struggled through, but every man who fell was immediately hacked to pieces by the swords of the fanatic foe.

lancer 2

The London Illustrated News 17th September 1898.

The men of the British cavalry rallied, bleeding, on the far side of the lanes which they had cut for themselves in the enemy’s ranks and with admirable fortitude they re-formed as coolly as if they had been on parade.

One corporal, who was covered in blood, and reeling in his saddle, when ordered to fall out shouted , waving his bent lance- “Never! Form up No.2” meaning his squadron.

Then it was that young Grenfell was missed for the first time. Lieutenant de Montmorency, with Corporal Swarback dashed out to effect, if possible, the rescue of his body. They were immediately joined by Captain Kenna.

With their revolver fire the two officers kept the enemy forty yards away, and would have secured Lieutenant Grenfall’s body if the horse upon which it was placed had not shied with its burden.

Then seeing that a second charge would be futile, colonel Martin dismounted his men and with magazine and carbine fire drove the enemy steadily into the zone of the Anglo-Egyptian infantry fire, the Lancers having accomplished their object by covering the enemy line of retirement though at the cost of heavy casualties. This maiden charge of the 21st Lancers is regarded as an extremely brilliant affair.  [1]

Sudan officer

Officers wounded at Omdurman in the English Military Hospital at Abadia. Far right is Lieutenant C S Nesham 21st Lancers wounded in the charge. The Illustrated London News 8th October 1898.

 

Of less than 400 men involved in the charge 70 were killed and wounded and the regiment won three Victoria Crosses. These three were Private Thomas Byrne, Lieutenant Raymond de Montmorency and Captain Paul Kenna.

Winston Churchill was present at the battle and he rode with the 21st Lancers.

[1] The Citizen 10th September 1898.

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Empire and the art it inspired

The British Empire and the events that occurred during it have inspired a huge range art and artists. Whether it was capturing and extolling the heroic actions of the British Army (Rorke’s Drift 1879) or putting the most positive spin on disasters (Retreat from Kabul 1842) the artists wanted to show the British public the Empire and the men who defended it in the best light.

In this post I will show the works of three of the best Victorian battle scene painters.

Lady Elizabeth Butler (1846-1933)

roll-call

The Roll Call: The men of the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, after the Battle of Inkerman. The famous picture that won acclaim for Lady Butler at the Royal Academy in London.

One of the most famous war artists was Lady Elizabeth Butler. Inspired by a visit to France and the battle scenes by Meissonier and Detallie she started painting battles scenes in 1870.

She earned  her first commission to the Royal Academy in 1874 and won renown and fame with The Roll Call depicting the Genadier Guards after the battle of Inkerman (1854).

As the painting toured Europe she found herself gaining fame because the public found out that she was young and pretty, something not normally associated with battlefield painters.

Her painting captured the realism of war, the men were disheveled and exhausted and she always tired to capture the dirt and grime of battle.

"The Defense of Rorke's Drift" by Lady Elizabeth Butler  Commissioned by Queen Victoria and inspired by survivors' accounts.

“The Defense of Rorke’s Drift” by Lady Elizabeth Butler Commissioned by Queen Victoria and inspired by survivors’ accounts.

A firm favourite of Queen Victoria (who purchased ‘the Roll call’) Lady Butler went on to capture some of the most Iconic chapters of British Military history during the 19th Century.

 'Remnants of an Army' by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842.

‘Remnants of an Army’ by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842.

As the wife of a British Army officer she traveled the Empire extensively and came to believe that maybe the Empire wasn’t in the best interests of the natives.

This didn’t stop her from painting the soldiers who defended it in the best possible light and she continued painting until her death in 1933.

From the Charge of the Royal Scots Greys during Waterloo (1815) to the Retreat from Mons (1915) her painting have gone down in history as some of the best paintings of the British Empire at war.

William Barnes Wollen (1857-1936)

Wollen was born in Leipzig in 1857. Elected to the Royal Academy in 1879, he exhibited every year until 1922.

The first picture he exhibited was called ‘Football’ but he soon started painting Military scenes.

 

William Barnes Wollen Battle of Abu Klea 17 Jan 1885 captures the moment when the Mahdist surged through the left  rear corner of the British Square

William Barnes Wollen Battle of Abu Klea 17 Jan 1885 captures the moment when the Mahdist surged through the left rear corner of the British Square

His first painting was the rescue of Private Andrews by Captain Garnet Wolseley H.M. 90th L.I. at the storming of the Motee Mahail, Lucknow. 

He is best remembered for painting of the last moments of the 44th regiment on their retreat from Kabul.
Wollen was employed by an Illustrated newspaper and was in South Africa during the Boer war which inspired a number of paintings. He also exhibited a number of painting both during and after WW1 and continued painting until his death in 1936.

image00171

Last stand of the 44th at Gandamak, painted by William Barnes Wollen

George William Joy (1844-1925)

While not strictly a battle scene painter, Joy did paint one of the most iconic painting to have come out of the 19th century. His painting of General Charles Gordon facing the hordes of the Madhi at the fall of Khartoum inspired across Britain a host of Christian evangelists to spread the christian message across the empire.

General_Gordon's_Last_Stand

General Gordon’s Last stand on the Palace steps Khartoum 1885

Robert Gibb (1845-1932)

Robert Gibb was a Scottish painter who was a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy who was an accomplished portrait painter as well as painting battle scenes.

His most famous work was ‘The thin red line’ which showed the red coated 93rd (Highland) Regiment standing fast against an attack by Russian cavalry during the Battle of Balaclava (1854). Gibb found his inspiration for the painting while reading Alexander Kinglake’s book ‘The Invasion of the Crimea’.

Gibb continued to paint throughout the late 19th century and during ww1.

Robert Gibb's 'the Thin red Line' Battle of Balaclava 1854

Robert Gibb’s ‘the Thin red Line’ Battle of Balaclava 1854

Comrades by Robert Gibb. A dying soldier of the Black Watch is supported by his comrade, while another stands to protect them, as the ranks of the Highlanders march on, after the battles at Sebastopol during the Crimean war.

Comrades by Robert Gibb.
A dying soldier of the Black Watch is supported by his comrade, while another stands to protect them, as the ranks of the Highlanders march on, after the battles at Sebastopol during the Crimean war.