The Battle of El-Teb
The First battle of Britain’s involvement in the Sudan during the 1880s; modern weapons used
from the square formation against Islamist tribesmen, essentially armed with spears and swords.
Battle: El Teb.
War: Sudan Campaign.
Date: 29th February 1884.
Place: The East of the Sudan near the Red Sea
Combatants: A British Army against the Sudanese
Jihadist Arabs in revolt against the Khedive.
Generals: Major General Graham against the
Mahdi’s lieutenant, Osman Digna.
Size of the armies: British: 3,342 infantry,
gunners and sappers, 864 cavalry and 28 guns. The size of the
Mahdist army is unknown but was probably in the region of 15,000
tribesmen and defected Egyptian troops.
Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British
infantry was armed with the Martini Henry single shot breech loading
rifle and bayonet. The English infantry wore khaki drill. The
Highlanders wore grey jackets and kilts. All wore pith helmets. The
cavalry were armed with sword and carbine. The Mahdists carried the
rifles they had captured from the various Egyptian detachments they
had overwhelmed, and deployed the Khedive’s Krupp guns captured in
the same way, but keeping the Egyptian gunners alive to man the
guns. In addition, the Mahdists carried their traditional and more
familiar weapons of the sword, spear and dagger. The Mahdists wore
white robes patched with black cloth. They fought under their
characteristic black flags. There was no Mahdist cavalry.
Winner: The British force.
The Black Watch storming the Mahdist earthworks at the
Battle of El Teb.
Royal Artillery with six 7 pounders, ten mountain guns and four 9
centimetre Krupp guns.
Naval Brigade; 162 men with two 9 pounders, six Gatlings and
1st Battalion Black Watch
3rd Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps
1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders
2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers
1st Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment
Royal Marine Light Infantry
Sudan, lying to the South of Egypt and bordering Abyssinia, in the
19th Century lay under the rule of the Khedive of Egypt, within the
Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Muslim Arab population lived mainly
along the banks of the Nile and in the Eastern areas up to the shore
of the Persian Gulf. To the South and West were the regions of
Darfour and Kordofan with largely African populations. Egyptian
garrisons, scattered across the country, occupied the towns. The
Muslim religion predominated.
Dressing station at the Battle of El Teb.
Illustration by F Villiers reporter for the Graphic.
In 1881 a young Muslim boat builder’s apprentice named Mohammed
Ahmed raised the standard of Jihadist revolt in the Sudan against
the Khedive, proclaiming himself the ‘Mahdi’ or saviour. The revolt
in the East of the Sudan was led by the Mahdi’s lieutenant, Osman
On 29th April 1883 the Mahdi’s army annihilated an Egyptian
force, commanded by a retired Bombay Army officer, Colonel Hicks, at
Kashgate. The remaining Egyptian garrisons, scattered across the
Sudan, lay at the mercy of the Mahdi and his tribesmen.
In January 1884 a British officer, Baker Pasha, took an Egyptian
force to Suakin on the coast of the Persian Gulf to provide cover
for a withdrawal of the Egyptian garrisons in the East of the Sudan.
The force was annihilated by the Mahdists at
General Buller standing on a camel to observe
the Sudanese before the Battle of El Teb.
Illustration by F Villiers reporter for the Graphic.
El Teb a few miles inland from a port called Trinkitat. The
Mahdists moved on to besiege the other garrison towns in the area
held by the Egyptians.
In January 1884 at the urging of the British Government, the
Khedive appointed General Charles Gordon to oversee the evacuation
of the Egyptian forces from the Sudan. General Gordon had acted as
governor of the Sudan in the 1870s with considerable effect. Gordon
traveled from London to Khartoum, the capital of the Sudan, arriving
on 18th February 1884.
In the meanwhile a British army, commanded by Major General
Graham, was dispatched from Egypt by ship down the Persian Gulf to
land at Suakin and relieve the Egyptian garrison at Tokar, 50 miles
to the South of Suakin.
General Graham’s force arrived at Suakin from 20th February 1884,
the first regiment being the 10th Hussars. Other Royal Navy ships
arrived with the remaining regiments. Once assembled, the force
moved down the coast by ship to the lagoon of Trinkitat for the
march to the relief of Tokar.
On 22nd February 1884 General Graham received information from a
group of Egyptian soldiers that the governor of Tokar had
surrendered to the Mahdi’s forces, his troops joining the rebels to
avoid being massacred.
The British force moved inland between two patches of salt marsh
to occupy a position called Fort Baker, the scene of Baker Pasha’s
disaster the previous month: Colonel Baker was accompanying the
British force. On 29th February 1884 the infantry brigade formed a
square and began the advance to the hamlet of El Teb, some 2 ½ miles
inland along the track to Tokar, where Osman Digna’s Mahdists lay in
Royal Marine Light Infantry.
Print by Richard Simkin.
The front of the square was formed by the Gordon Highlanders and
the rear by the Black Watch, both in company columns of fours at
company intervals. The right flank was formed by the 2nd Royal Irish
Fusiliers and 3rd KRRC, the left flank by 1st York and Lancaster and
RMLI, all in open column of companies. The angles of the square were
filled by guns manned by Royal Artillery and Royal Navy personnel.
Colonel Buller commanded the infantry brigade. The only baggage
animals taken with the force carried spare ammunition. The cavalry,
10th and 19th Hussars and Mounted Infantry commanded by Colonel
Stewart, followed the square at a distance.
At 11.20am the Mahdists opened rifle and artillery fire, using the
small arms and Krupp guns captured from the Egyptian forces they had
annihilated in the course of the revolt.
The Charge of the 19th Hussars at the Battle of
El Teb: Lieutenant Colonel Barrow, the commanding
officer, wounded in the arm. Illustrtion by
F Villiers reporter for the Graphic.
The British square halted
and the infantry were ordered to lie down while the guns and machine
guns fired on the Mahdists. The effect of this bombardment was to
silence the Krupps. The square stood up and continued its advance
under rifle fire. The British began to take casualties.
When the square was within two hundred yards or so of the
earthworks, the Mahdist tribesmen abandoned their firearms and
charged the square with spears and swords. Large numbers of the
tribesmen were shot down by the infantry with rifle fire and by the
Gardiner and Gatling guns of the Naval Brigade. None broke into the
Following this assault, the tribesmen fell back and the square
reformed and resumed its advance.
At this point Colonel Stewart’s Cavalry Brigade advanced past the
right flank of the square and charged the massed Mahdist tribesmen,
leading to a confused struggle with the tribesmen in the broken
country covered by thorn bushes. The cavalry suffered heavy
casualties in the scrimmage.
As the British infantry reached the earthworks, the battalions moved
out of square formation and, forming line, stormed the tribesmen’s
positions at the point of the bayonet.
At around 1pm General Graham’s troops took the hamlet of El Teb and
the Mahdists began to stream away into the surrounding country.
The Royal Navy contingent firing Gatling guns at the battle
of El Teb
Casualties: The British casualties were 5 officers and 24
non-commissioned ranks killed and 17 officers and 142
non-commissioned ranks wounded. The Mahdists suffered around 2,500
killed and an unknown number wounded.
Quartermaster Sergeant William Marshall of the
19th Hussars winning the Victoria Cross at the
Battle of El Teb by rescuing his commanding officer,
Lieutenant Colonel Barrow. Print by Harry Payne
Follow-up: Following the battle General Graham
continued his advance on Tokar. He fought one further major
engagement, at Tamai, before being ordered back to Egypt, leaving
General Charles Gordon to manage the crisis in Sudan with Egyptian
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
For the Sudan campaign the British troops received the Egypt medal
that had been issued for the Tel-El-Kebir campaign in 1882, but
without the date. Where troops already had the Egypt 1882 medal they
received an additional clasp ‘El Teb’ for that medal. In the same
way the Khedive Star was issued to those ranks that did not already
British Egypt medal on the left; Khedive’s Star in the centre;
British Long Service Good Conduct medal on the right.
Thanks to Historik Orders of Greenwich, Conn, USA.
• War on the Nile by Michael Barthorp.
• British Battles by Grant.
10th Royal Hussars in action against
the Sudanese tribesmen at the
Battle of El Teb. Picture by Orlando Norie.