Tagged: Victorian


“Call me Ishmael…” and so begins one of the great American stories. Originally published as “The Whale” in October 1851 in London, Herman Melville’s classic American novel was published in New York with its definitive title on 13 November 1851. The story is based partly off of the true and tragic fate of the whaler Essex, which was destroyed by a whale in 1820, whose survivors had to resort to cannibalism, and the Mocha Dick, an albino sperm whale that fed off the coast of Chile in the early 19th century that was notoriously hard to kill. Mocha Dick survived over a hundred encounters with American whalers before he was slain.

Moby Dick is the story of the crew of the Nantucket whaler, Pequod, and told through the eyes of the sailor Ishmael. But it is really the tale of Captain Ahab, and his self destructive and obsessive quest for revenge on Moby Dick, a great white whale. With themes of obsession, race, defiance, revenge, friendship, brotherhood, free will, and duty, the Pequod is a microcosm of America and every bit as relevant today as it was in antebellum America.

“Wherefore … we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in individuality… . In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s ark; and if ever the world is to be flooded again, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

The Austro-Prussian War

Romanticism was the emotional reaction to the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment and the first Industrial Revolution. By the end of the Romantic Era in the mid nineteenth century, there was no greater zeitgeist in Central Europe than the unification of the German people. Since the creation of the Holy Roman Empire in the Dark Ages, the German people have been ruled by dozens of small independent dukes and princes. Other nations had united and formed great empires, such as France, Great Britain, and Russia. Now it was the Germans’ turn. In 1866, it wasn’t a matter of if or when, but who would lead it: the Prussians on the North German Plain or the Austrians of the Austrian Empire.

The multiethnic Austrian Empire wasn’t a melting pot. It was more of a garden salad with each ethnicity separate from the others, but all in the same bowl covered in a bit of Habsburg dressing. In 1866, the empire was wracked and weakened by 30 years of nationalist revolutions. Prussia was almost the exact opposite. He had been at peace with only limited wars since the Age of Napoleon half a century before. Furthermore, Prussia on the vulnerable North German plain had for centuries known that the only defense it had against its enemies was the quick mobilization of his army. The technology in the mid-19th century finally allowed that mindset to become a strategic advantage.

Under the direction Field Marshal Helmuth Von Moltke (the Elder) the Prussian army developed a General Staff dedicated to the operational and logistical details necessary to fighting a modern war. This led to a mobilization plan that was regional and four times as fast as Austria. Furthermore, Prussia had extensive railways and telegraphs which allowed those mobilized troops to concentrate quicker. Finally, the Prussians were equipped with the Dreyse Needle Gun, the world’s first bolt action rifle, which was far superior to the muskets and muzzle loading rifles of the Austrian army. (For comparison, imagine if the entire Union army in the contemporary American Civil War had been equipped with Spencer repeating rifles).

Prussia’s pragmatic chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck, deftly negotiated the European isolation of Austria and then on 16 June 1866, engineered a dispute with Austria over the succession of the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein. The resulting Austro-Prussian War of 1866 lasted just seven weeks, and only so because Austria continued well after defeat by the Prussians against Garibaldi and his crusade to unite Italy. As a result, Prussia would unite all of the North German states under its rule. It was the first step to Kaiser Wilhelm I forming the German Second Reich in 1870.

The Paris Commune

After the French Second Empire fell in its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Paris demanded more representation in the interim Third Republic ruled by the National Assembly at Versailles. Paris was administered directly by the Assembly the same way Washington DC was administered the US Congress for many years. Furthermore, many Parisians felt that they were not adequately represented in the Assembly (they weren’t) and that the Assembly was going to bring back the monarchy (they weren’t). On 18 March 1871, the Paris Commune, or city council, revolted against Republican rule with the support of the National Guard which was not disarmed by the Prussians at the end of the war as was the French army.

The “Communards”, as they were known, were very progressive minded and even managed to put some reforms into place, such as women’s suffrage, the separation of the church and state, pensions for widows of National Guardsmen, and some worker’s rights, particularly the abolition of shift work and worker’s fines. But by the same token, many radical ideas were forced upon the Parisians at the barrel of a gun, such as banishment of rent, debt, and interest, and workers forcibly taking over their employer’s enterprises. The Commune ruled by decree and acted as the three branches of govt: executive, legislative and judicial, backed by the guns of the National Guard. The French Tricolor was immediately abandoned for the Socialist Red.

Like any organization with absolute power, absolute corruption soon followed. And the “Tyranny of the Majority” became progressively worse over the next two months. First they came for the Catholics, then the businessmen, then the managers, then the property owners, then finally anyone deemed “Enemies of the People”. Within two weeks, social order broke down and culminated in early May with the establishment of the Committee for Public Safety, which was just as brutal as it was during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. But instead of guillotines, the preferred method of executing “undesirables” was firing squad.

By mid-April, the chaos descended to the point that the units of the National Guard, which were recruited and based on Parisian neighborhoods, became mere neighborhood gangs and protection rackets against the excesses of rival neighborhoods and their National Guard units, or muscle to prevent spurious denunciations of its members as “Enemies of the People”. This prevented the National Guard from coordinating the defense of Paris against the rearmed French Army supported by the Prussians. On 21 May, the “Versaillier” Army entered the city through an unguarded gate and began seizing neighborhoods. The Communards had no organized defense, so like their grandparents in 1830, and their parents in 1848, the Communards resorted to the time honored barricade, where furniture, bricks, carts and wagons formed impromptu ramparts across Parisian streets. But the French army was prepared for this and bypassed the barricades by blowing through or knocking down walls inside the buildings along the street. As the French army steadily pacified each neighborhood in turn, they shot any Communard that was found with a weapon, or had powder stains on their person. 21-28 May 1871 was known as “Bloody Week” and tens of thousands more were killed and much of Paris burned to the ground.

Future communists, socialists and anarchists would see the Paris Commune as a model. Karl Marx praised the Paris Commune, calling it the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, but felt that the Communards did not go far enough fast enough. Marx would later write that Communards should have immediately eliminated all undesirables, and in the moment of the initial fervor, formed the supporters into an army to export the revolution, or at the very least defeat and “reactionaries and their armies”. Marx’s disciples: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ho, Kim, Castro, Mugabe, Chavez, and many others would put the lessons of the Paris Commune into action to great, and deadly, effect in the 20th Century.

The Pennsylvania Oil Rush

In the 1850s, the Industrial Revolution was moving forward steadily in the United States, but in Europe, which at the time was technologically about 30 years ahead, it was beginning to slow. The Industrial Revolution was tied to coal, and in 1850s Europe, coal was starting to reach the limits of its commercial viability. Mining coal was (and is) a labor intensive process, and the mines couldn’t keep up with the demand. A new and cheaper energy source was needed.

Everyone knew that energy source was oil, but there was no efficient method of extracting it. The only practical way of harvesting oil was whale fat, and tens of thousands of innocent whales were being slaughtered each year. However, while whale oil was good for lamps, it was not economically viable for industrialization. In 1850, there were only a few places on the planet where oil was known to exist in the ground.

One of those places was Baby Jesus’ Chosen Land and America’s Keystone State: The Grand Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In the picturesque glens, moraines, and dales of glacier formed Central and Western PA, there had always existed “oil seeps”. For hundreds of years, its former Amerindian inhabitants, the Iroquois and their subject peoples after them, and the hardy Scots-Irish and German immigrants who followed them, knew of this phenomenon. But, they avoided those areas because the hunting or farming was horrible, and not practical.

Enter entrepreneur Colonel Edwin Drake, and his blacksmith assistant, Billy Smith. They formed the Seneca Oil Company in 1858, and were determined to prove that “rock oil” was profitably extractable. With an old steam engine and a drill used for salt mining, they moved to Pennsylvania in search of commercially viable amounts of Mother Nature’s Sweet Sweet Nectar of Civilization. On 27 August, 1859, just outside the town of Titusville, in beautiful and bountiful Pennsylvania, Drake and Smith struck oil. Their discovery (g)ushered (Ha!) in the world’s first oil boom.

Pennsylvania’s Oil Boom first fueled the continuation of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, and within a few years it pushed America’s own Industrial Revolution into high gear. It supercharged the growth and expansion of the railroad industry, which massively expanded, replacing turnpikes and canals, and connected the West with antebellum East. The boom turned Pittsburgh from the center of America’s glass making industry to America’s Beating Industrial Heart.

One can easily argue that late Modern America started 161 years ago today. Thank you Pennsylvania, in particular your sons Messrs. Drake and Smith, for being a net exporter of energy, and laying the economic foundations necessary to free the slaves, defeat the Confederates, save the whales, advance Western Civilization and human rights, defeat the Nazis and Communists, raise countless billions out of poverty, and like a cherry on top, enjoy Sunday Steelers’ Football.

The Battle of Maiwand

In 1879, the British invaded Afghanistan after the slaughter of their diplomatic mission in Kabul in October. They quickly occupied Kabul, Jalabad, Khost (eastern Afghanistan) and Kandahar (southern Afghanistan). They selected Abdur Rahman Khan as Amir, but in the cutthroat tribal politics of the Victorian era Great Game in Afghanistan, his cousin Ayab Khan rose in revolt.

Ayab Khan was the Governor of Herat (western Afghanistan) and marched on Kandahar, the key to southern Afghanistan, with an army of about 15,000. The British responded by sending an 8,500 strong army to intercept them that included British and Indian troop under British command and Afghan troops under Ayab Khan’s father Sher Ali (Abdur Rahman Khan’s uncle). As Ayab Khan approached, most of Sher Ali’s troops deserted to Ayab Khan and the two armies blundered into each other in the Maiwand Pass, the strategically important connection between the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. The British commander, Brigadier General George Burrows, though now heavily outnumbered, could not retreat because he would face accusations of cowardice, so he attacked.

The 2700 British, Indians and remaining Afghans were more disciplined, better trained, and with certain exceptions, namely artillery, better equipped but were still thoroughly thrashed by Ayab Khan. The attacks quickly turned into desperate defenses against overwhelming odds. The positions were exposed and the British army took a terrible pounding. Ayab Khan’s army was a mix of disciplined Herati and Kabuli regiments, extremely effective modern breech loading artillery, irregular cavalry, and thousands of tribal ghazis armed with swords, spears, and ancient jezails or Afghan muskets. The British were completely outmaneuvered, out fought, and despite their extremely effective Martini-Henry rifles, outgunned. By 1300, the British force was nearly out of ammunition, and their rifles overheated. They broke, and on the 50 mile retreat back to Kandahar, thousands were massacred.

The only bright spot in the battle for the British was the withdrawal of the 66th Regiment of Foot. The remaining 400 men withdrew in good order and covered the retreat for two hours, firing and withdrawing. Their disciplined formation soon caught the attention of the victorious Afghans, who stopped pursuing the routed individuals, and swarmed around the recalcitrant 66th. Around 3 pm, the remnants withdrew into the village of Khig.

According to one of Ayab Khan’s captains, about 200 survivors of the 66th withdrew into Khig. At their first stand in its walled gardens, the 66th inflicted hundreds of casualties, but lost 40 men. Of the 160 who fell back to the next walled garden, 84 died. 56 men made a third stand further back in the village. The final stand was made by just eleven men, calmly firing and reloading. Surrounded by thousands of Afghans, the final eleven “charged out of the garden, and died with their faces to the foe, fighting to the death… The conduct of those men was the admiration of all that witnessed it.”

The 66th’s last stand at Khig allowed hundreds to escape and reach Kandahar. Burrows lost over a thousand with another few hundred wounded who managed to stagger back into Kandahar. It seemed a repeat of the disastrous retreat from Kabul 40 years before.

Ayab Khan couldn’t translate his tactical victory into any advantage because it took him eight days to reorganize his army and march the 45 miles to Kandahar. By then, the British were prepared for a siege. A relief force would smash Ayab Khan’s army on 1 September. Nonetheless, the Battle of Maiwand was a shock to Victorian Great Britain, particularly coming so close on the heels of the loss against the Zulus at Isandlwana the year before. The Battle of Maiwand is the equivalent of the America’s Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The Battle of Maiwand was immortalized in the British consciousness most famously by Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose fictitious Dr Watson was wounded in the battle.

The Franco-Prussian War

In the 1860s, the Chancellor of Prussia and master diplomat Otto Von Bismarck provoked short wars with Austria and Denmark in order bind the lesser northern German states to Prussia instead of its rival Austria as the leader of the German people. In July 1870, he engineered a deliberate insult to France, knowing that the proud French would declare war. This war would force the remaining southern German states, such as Bavaria, Hesse, Baden, and Wuertemburg, to honor their treaty obligations and go to war against France under Prussian leadership. A successful conclusion of the war would be the perfect opportunity to unite the German states into an empire under the Prussian King Wilhelm I. On 20 July 1870, Napoleon III, Emperor of France declared War on Prussia, and the German states dutifully declared war on France in turn, just as Bismarck expected.

Bismarck made sure the deck was stacked against the French from the very beginning. Not only did the Germans raise twice as many troops, but they also did it twice as fast due to the efficiency, organization, and planning of Helmuth Von Moltke’s (the Elder) superior General Staff. Von Moltke expanded the concept of mission tactics that placed great faith in junior leaders accomplishing their missions without the pain of micromanagement, and German units consistently out fought and out maneuvered larger French formations. The French relied on a 60 year old Napoleonic reputation for fighting prowess, so inevitably they were outclassed in almost all respects. Over the next seven months the Germans kicked the shit out of the French. They trapped most of the French army in Metz in September, captured Emperor Napoleon III at Sedan in October, and occupied Paris in January. In the jubilation of victory, Bismarck wasted no time and convinced the separate German states to willingly unite with Prussia. King Wilhelm I of Prussia was crowned Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany in the Versailles Palace on 18 January 1871.

The German Empire, or Second Reich (Charlemagne’s was the First Reich) completely upset the balance of power in Europe that had generally kept the peace since Napoleon’s fall in 1815. This led directly to the First World War. (Which of course would lead directly to Hitler’s Third Reich and the Second World War.)

The Siege of the International Legations

In early 1900, the Chinese Boxer Movement, an indigenous, anti-Christian, anti-foreign, semi-mystical peasant crusade, erupted into open “rebellion” against Christians and missionaries, and the Victorian era Great Powers that were slowly carving up China. 3500 Chinese Christians and foreigners sought refuge in the International Legations (embassy) Quarter outside the Chinese Imperial City in Peking (Beijing).

In late May 1900, 450 soldiers, sailors, and marines of eight countries: the US, Great Britain (Including Indians), Germany, France, Austria, Russia, Italy, and Japan disembarked from the ships off the coast of Tiensten and secured the Legation Quarter. They arrived just before 40,000 Boxers including Imperial Chinese troops after the Qing Empress gave her blessing. Most of the foreign civilians took refuge in the British Legation because it was the most defensible and British Minister Claude MacDonald took charge of the defense of the entire Quarter. 150 civilians volunteered to fight. The Austrians and Italians abandoned their exposed embassies, and withdrew inside, the Austrians with the French and Italians to the Japanese embassy. The small force, with considerable Help from the Chinese Christians, constructed barricades and had protection on two sides by the large walls of the Imperial city. However, they were low on ammunition. Only the contingent of US Marines was sufficiently equipped. Furthermore, they had only three machine guns and two small artillery pieces, one of which, “Betsy”, the Americans constructed from various Chinese pieces they found and patched together.

On 20 June, 1900, the Boxers attacked, mostly armed with spears, swords and the belief that they couldn’t be harmed by bullets. The international defenders continually fought them off, but after ten days of constant hand to hand combat, casualties became a serious issue. On 3 July, the Boxers pushed the Germans off the Tartar Wall, and American Marines fell back with them to organize a counter attack. Pvt Dan Daly volunteered to hold a critical chokepoint at the top of the stairs on the wall to buy time. He fought all night as Minister MacDonald and Marine Captain John Twiggs Meyers organized a counterattack. The next morning they found Pvt Daly calmly smoking a cigarette at his post — his machine gun and rifle out of ammunition, and 200 dead Chinese to his front, including 18 by bayonet. For remaining at his post, Pvt Dan Daly was awarded the first of his two Medals of Honor.

The siege came to a crescendo on 13 July 1900, when the Boxers exploded a mine underneath the French Legation and promptly over ran it. They were only stopped from breaking inside the defense by furious counterattacks by the remaining French and Austrian soldiers, and civilian volunteers. Simultaneously, the Boxers broke through the Fu, held by the Japanese led by the indomitable LtCol Goro Shiba, and only determined counterattacks by the Japanese and British soldiers and civilians (including a group known as “The Fighting Parsons”) prevented the massacre of the Chinese Christians there. Nonetheless, they lost their positions and still had to fall back. Minister MacDonald wrote that 13 July was, “a most harassing day…”

The 13 July attacks were the last chance for the Empress and the Boxers to overrun to Legations Quarter. Though the defenders didn’t know it, a 20,000 strong relief force had landed at Tientsin, and captured the city that day. The full might of the Imperial army and the Boxers were forced to move against the relief column for the rest of the siege. The attacks on the legations slowed considerably as the Boxers concentrated on destroying the relief force. The Boxers were defeated at the Battle of Peking on 20 August and the 55 day siege ended the next day.

The Gurkhas Enter British Service

In 1814, the British East Company invaded the aggressive Gorkha Kingdom of Nepal in order to prevent them from distracting the Company from their expansion into the Kingdom of Marathas. During the hard fought Anglo-Nepalese War, the British recognized that their best irregular troops were the wielders of the distinctive inwardly curved knife, the khukuri, whom were actually deserters from the Gorkha Army.

Impressed by their loyalty, courage, stoicism, resilience, and military efficacy, the British formed the Gorkhas into the First Nusseree Battalion on 24 April 1815. By the end of the war (which was fought to stalemate) there was an entire regiment of Gorkhas and an agreement with the Kingdom of Nepal to continue recruitment in the future. Living up their motto “Kayar Hunu Bhanda Marnu Ramro” (Better to die than live like a coward), the Gorkhas quickly formed the backbone of the East India Company’s, and eventually Great Britain’s, Indian Army.

For the next two hundred years, the Gurkhas served faithfully in every conflict involving the Indian or British Army. They were one of the few indigenous units to remain loyal during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. 200,000 served in the First World War, including in the trenches on the Western Front and in the landing at Gallipoli in 1915. At the height of the Second World War, the Gurkhas contributed 250,000 men from their home villages in the Himalayan foothills, which were neither a part of the British Empire nor a protectorate of Great Britain. In 1947, the Gurkha regiments were split between the newly independent Indian Army and the British Army.

Currently 3500 Gurkhas serve in the British Army in the Brigade of Gurkhas. Tens of thousands of young Gurkha men apply during recruitment events in Nepal for the few hundred training slots. They also serve in the armies of India, Brunei and Singapore.

One of my favorite Gurkha stories. From the Second Battle of Monte Cassino:

On the night of 12 February 1944, one of the Gurkha battalions sent out a reconnaissance patrol to identify German positions around the town of Cassino. The small patrol came across six German infantrymen in a house: two awake and alert, and four asleep. The Gurkhas snuck up on the German sentries and slit their throats without waking the others. They then decapitated two of the sleeping soldiers and let the others to slumber so they can find their comrades in the morning.

A friend of mine said of the Gurkhas he worked with in Afghanistan, “They react to contact (with the Taliban) the way my kids react to Christmas morning.”

Jaya Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali! (Glory to the Great Kali! Gorkhas Approach!) –Gurkha war cry, then and now.

The Man in the Arena

After spending a year hunting in Africa, Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit toured Europe in 1910. On 23 April, they arrived in Paris and the former president was asked to speak to a crowd of about two thousand at the University of Sorbonne. He spoke on history, family, war, human rights, property rights, cynics, and most prominently, the responsibilities of being a citizen. The speech was officially titled “Citizenship in a Republic” but is now more commonly known as “The Man in the Arena” speech because of this passage,

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Other great passages:

“Self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution—these are the qualities which mark a masterful people.”

“Indeed, it is a sign of marked political weakness in any commonwealth if the people tend to be carried away by mere oratory, if they tend to value words in and for themselves, as divorced from the deeds for which they are supposed to stand.”

“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not of superiority but of weakness.”

“But with you and with us the case is different. With you here, and with us in my own home, in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional crises which call for the heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average can not be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”

“Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into a fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of the great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and the valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who “but for the vile guns would have been a soldier.”

The Battle of Abu Klea

In 1881, the Sudan was a protectorate of Egypt, which was an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire. Citing oppression by “their Turkish overlords”, the Muslim imam Mohammad Ahmad declared himself the “Mahdi” or “Guided One” (The Mahdi is the Islamic term for the messianic herald or redeemer. In Christian terms, he would be John the Baptist. Today, Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq considers himself the Mahdi) and declares Jihad against the Egyptian-Turkish administration of the country. Ahmad’s Mahdism, was a very strict, literal, and fanatical version of Islam that had fallen out of favor in Islamic lands since the height of the Ottoman Empire and the failure to capture Vienna two hundred years before.

As the Mahdists grew in strength, they defeated every army sent by the Egyptians to put down the revolt. With no support from Istanbul, the Egyptians increasingly fell under British influence. Exasperated, the Egyptians decided to let the Mahdists have the Sudan and asked for British assistance extracting their garrisons. The British government sent the popular, competent and aggressive General Charles “Chinese” Gordan (he made a name for himself in the Opium Wars in China). Gordan captured Khartoum in March 1884, but he recognized the danger of Ahmad’s radical version of Islam and determined to force the Mahdists to battle.

Ahmad immediately surrounded Gordan’s 8000 British and Egyptian troops, and besieged Khartoum. Gordan planned to use the relief column as the hammer to his anvil to destroy the Mahdists. However, the British government refused for six months to send a relief column and only did so at Queen Victoria’s insistence. In January of 1885, Sir Herbert Stewart’s Desert Column of mostly camel bound troops, entered the Sudan.

The Mahdi sent his own column to intercept and on 16 January 1885 they met at the oasis at Abu Klea. Stewart’s 1400 soldiers, eight cannon and one machine gun formed a square, and the Ahmad’s 13,000 warriors attacked. With the development of the rifle and horse artillery, most Western armies had abandoned the square formation, but Britain continued to use it because of its effectiveness against indigenous armies. (Six years before, the Zulus, easily the best indigenous army in Africa, accomplished the rare feat of breaking a British square at Isandlwana, but they had 4000 killed in the process, and did so only after the British ran out of ammunition.)

The “dervishes” as the British mistakenly called them, couldn’t withstand the massed firepower of the square, even after the machine gun jammed due to sand. The Mahdists took over a thousand killed and wounded, and the Battle of Abu Klea was over in fifteen minutes. Stewart had less than 200 casualties.

Unfortunately, Stewart was too late to relieve Khartoum. On 25 January, the Mahdists stormed the city, and Gordan’s troops, weakened by disease and starvation were overrun. Gordan and all 8000 of his British and Egyptian soldiers were massacred, along with 4000 residents of the city. Many thousands more were sold into slavery. Stewart’s Desert Column arrived just two days later on 27 January, and seeing that the city fell, quickly returned to Egypt.

Ahmad ruled Sudan as a fundamentalist Islamic state for the next 13 years. Although the Mahdists only ruled Sudan for a short time, it proved an incubator for radical Islam, particularly the aggressive and expansionist Wahhabist sect. The Mahdists would provide inspiration to a young Wahhabi, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1902.