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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The Amritsar Massacre

On the morning of Sunday 13th April 1919 thousands of protesters had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh garden in the holy city Amritsar, Punjab. Mingled with the protesters were Sikh pilgrims celebrating the festival of Baishakhi.

Numbering about 15,000 the crowds was largely peaceful and demanded the release of two protest leaders who had been arrested earlier in the week and moved to a secret location.

Ignoring the curfew, ordered by the Indian Government after various violent acts across the PunJab, the crowd were determined to have their demands met. On hearing of this illegal gathering and fearing the start of a major rebellion, the local military commander Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer gathered 50+ Gurkhas from the garrison and led them to the gardens.

On arrival at the gardens the vast crowd shocked Dyer and he immediately ordered his men into position on a bank overlooking the crowd. As the situation dawned on him, Dyer came to believe he was about to save the Raj from rebellion.

The gardens were surrounded by large walls and buildings and the few exits were narrow and many were also locked or blocked by Dyer’s men.

Dyer was determined to punish the crowd and prevent it spreading further so without warning he gave his men the order to fire.

Brigadier-General Dyer. Military Commander Amritsar 1919

Brigadier-General Dyer. Military Commander Amritsar 1919

With the Gurkhas firing indiscriminately the crowd began to panic and move towards the exits. In the following stampede many women and children were crushed underfoot. The protesters now began to crowd around the blocked and locked exits and the soldiers started to target these large groups of protesters.

As the bullets from the soldiers .303 rifles began to find their targets the dead and injured began to further block the exits, panic began to grow as the protesters realized they had no where to go or hide. Men, women and children started to fall to the accurate shots of the battle hardened Gurkhas.

The Jallianwala Bagh garden 1919. Taken after the Massacre.

The Jallianwala Bagh garden 1919. Taken after the Massacre.

For a full ten minutes the soldiers kept up this fire until their ammunition began to get low and Dyer gave the order to cease fire, A deathly silence settled over the gardens punctuated by the cries and groans of the injured.

As his men shouldered their arms, Dyer could look at the scene in front of him with the satisfaction of a job well done.

Aftermath

The official body count for the massacre was put by the British authorities as 379 killed and approximately 1000 wounded although the Indian National congress’s own investigation put the figure closer 1500 casualties including 1000 killed.

Brigadier General Dyer was lauded by conservative elements throughout the Empire as a hero and saviour of the Raj. After he reported to his superiors that he had been “confronted by a revolutionary army”, Lieutenant-Governor Michael O’Dwyer wrote in a telegram sent to Dyer: “Your action is correct and the Lieutenant Governor approves.”

Martial law was imposed on most of the Punjab and rigorously enforced by the Indian authorities.

Not everyone approved of his actions and the British government was ferocious in its condemnation of the action. Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill called it monstrous and former Prime Minister H H Asquith described it as “one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history“.

Churchill went even further during a debate in the House of Commons in July 1920.

“The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything… When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the fire was then directed down on the ground. This was continued to 8 to 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.”

Churchill urged the government to punish Dyer and succeeded in persuading the House of Commons to forcibly retire Dyer in 1920.

Despite this censure, Dyer was still seen as a hero in some eyes, the House of Lords passed a resolution praising his actions and in India he was seen as the saviour of the Raj by British society.

The Streets of Amritsar bearing the signs of Riots that broke out after the Massacre. 1919

The Streets of Amritsar bearing the signs of Riots that broke out after the Massacre. 1919

Dyer himself was unrepentant over his actions and during the Hunter Commission (set up to investigate the event) stated that:

“I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself.”

and when asked if :

supposing the passage was sufficient to allow the armoured cars to go in, would you have opened fire with the machine guns?

He replied:

I think probably, yes.

He stated that he intended to strike fear into the Punjab and instill a fear of the British to deter further rebellions.

Brigadier General Reginald Dyer died in 1927 still believing he had acted with honour and had saved the jewel in the Crown with his actions.

The Amritsar Massacre shocked the world, already numb to the slaughter of the First world war. It was seen by many as the beginning of the end of British rule in India. Many in the Punjab felt betrayed by the action after the service and losses the Punjab had given during the war.

A relatively peaceful province became the center of Indian resistance to British rule and the people of the Punjab lead the way to Indian independence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Churchill: Man of Empire

Today is Empire day! Every year on the 24th of May throughout the Empire the achievements of this Little Island in the Atlantic Ocean were celebrated. In honour of this day I thought I would do a quick post on one of the Empires favourite sons, Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.

One of the things I have noticed as I have researched for this blog is the amount of times you come across Churchill in the Empire. He seems to appear in pictures from the Sudan, India and South Africa and this is all before his greatest moment in World war 2.

He was born on the 30th November 1874 into one of the grandest families in Britain and was the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. A true son of the empire he born at the height of Imperial reach.

Churchill as a child.

Churchill as a child.

Destined for a career in the army he struggled to pass the entrance exam for the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. It took him three attempts and he only qualified for the cavalry and not the Infantry. Sandhurst was the making of him and in 1894 he passed out 2oth out of 130.

Upon passing out he joined the 4th Hussars as lowly Cornet (2nd Lieutenant). With his pay at £400 pa but by his own reckoning needing £900 pa to live up to the standards expected he turned to war correspondence to supplement his earning.

young winston

A young Winston in the Uniform of the 4th Hussars

Churchill was determined to see action where ever and whenever he could.

In 1895 he sailed to Cuba to see the Spanish fight Cuban guerrillas and he came under fire on his 21st birthday. It was while in Cuba that he first acquired the taste  for Havana cigars. Something that would acquire a fame of its own during WW2.

Churchill in India 1897

Churchill in polo kit. India 1897

In late 1896, Churchill transferrred to Bombay in India. A keen Polo player he soon established himself one of the best players in India. As always his aim was to see action, this time it was in Malakand in the North West Frontier to campaign against the Pashtun tribes.

Every influence, every motive, that provokes the spirit of murder among men, impels these mountaineers to deeds of treachery and violence. The strong aboriginal propensity to kill, inherent in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour. That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword — the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men — stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism. The love of plunder, always a characteristic of hill tribes, is fostered by the spectacle of opulence and luxury which, to their eyes, the cities and plains of the south display. A code of honour not less punctilious than that of old Spain, is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica.

Churchill’s description of the Tribes on the NWF

India had a profound effect on Churchill and he saw India as the jewel in the Crown and essential to the Empire.

His racism towards the Indians would effect is outlook on dealing with The Indian independence moment and he had a deep dislike for Gandhi. His actions during the Bengal famine where ineffectual if not down right negligent but he always believed that The British Empire was a force for good in India and that by bring civilization to millions of ordinary Indians it would improve their lives.

Churchill in the Sudan.

Churchill in the Sudan.

In 1898 Churchill was sent to the Egypt where he explored the sites of Cairo and the Pyramids before joining the 21st Lancers in the Sudan. During this time he was commanded by General Herbert Kitchener and Douglas Haig, both of whom he would work with during WW1.

At the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898 he would take part in what is know as the last meaningful charge by British Cavalry. His books on the Conquest of the Sudan became best sellers and he resigned from the army in 1899.

It is the habit of the boa constrictor to besmear the body of his victim with a foul slime before he devours it; and there are many people in England, and perhaps elsewhere, who seem to be unable to contemplate military operations for clear political objects, unless they can cajole themselves into the belief that their enemy are utterly and hopelessly vile. To this end the Dervishes, from the Mahdi and the Khalifa downwards, have been loaded with every variety of abuse and charged with all conceivable crimes. This may be very comforting to philanthropic persons at home; but when an army in the field becomes imbued with the idea that the enemy are vermin who cumber the earth, instances of barbarity may easily be the outcome. This unmeasured condemnation is moreover as unjust as it is dangerous and unnecessary.

From Churchill’s book Red River

Churchill as a prisoner of War. South Africa.

Churchill as a prisoner of War. South Africa.

In 1899 as the Boer War broke out in South Africa, Churchill obtained a commission to act as a war correspondent for the Morning Post. He was soon in the thick of the action. He was in a scouting expedition on an armoured train when it was ambushed. Captured and despite being a correspondent he was sent to Pretoria as a POW.

His escape and return to British lines turned him into a minor celebrity and this helped in securing his election to Parliament in the 1900 elections.

What is the true and original root of Dutch aversion to British rule? It is the abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man … the Kaffir is to be declared the brother of the European, to be constituted his legal equal, to be armed with political rights

Churchill on the Boers

ww1 ch

Churchill in Command of the Royal Scots Fusiliers at Ploegsteert. 1916

Churchill had a mixed war. As first lord of the Admiralty his proposal for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign lead to his resignation and after leaving the cabinet he travelled to the Western Front where he was given command of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers.

Correspondence with his wife shows that his intent in taking up active service was to rehabilitate his reputation, but this was balanced by the serious risk of being killed. As a commander he continued to exhibit the reckless daring which had been a hallmark of all his military actions, although he disapproved strongly of the mass slaughter.

I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment — and yet — I can’t help it — I enjoy every second of it.

Winston writing to a friend 1916

The Inter war years were some of the toughest Churchill would have to face. As an outspoken critic of disarmament and appeasement of Hitler’s Germany  he became something of a laughing stock. With the coming of war and Chamberlain’s resignation the country clamored for one man.

Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 and immediately galvanized the country.

I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

Winston’s speech to the House of Commons 13th May 1940

The second World War has been called Winston’s greatest hour so it is somewhat ironic that in winning the war he destroyed the Empire he adored.

Winston Churchill 1940

Winston Churchill 1940

Winston Churchill died on the 24th January 1965. He died known as the saviour of the free world and even in 2001 was voted the Greatest Britain of all time but in my eyes he will always be a son of the Empire.