The First and Second Battles of El Teb (February 4, 1884 and February 29, 1884) took place during the British Sudan Campaign where a force of Sudanese under Osman Digna won a victory over a 3500 strong Egyptian force under the command of General Valentine Baker which was marching to relieve Tokar on the 4th. A second British force under Sir Gerald Graham arrived on the 29th, engaging and defeating Osman Digna with few casualties.
Britain's involvement in the Sudan was a consequence of its support for the Khedive of Egypt following the repression of Urabi Pasha's revolt in 1882. Despite Egypt still being nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, the Khedive's rule was dependent on direct British support, given to ensure the security of the Suez Canal and the elimination of the Sudanese slave trade.
However, the British government under Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone sought to stay out of affairs in Egyptian-governed Sudan, that was threatened by an uprising led by the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, who declared a Jihad, against the ‘Turks’, represented by the Egyptian troops. The Mahdist forces enjoyed considerable success against Egyptian troops in 1882 and 1883, and several towns garrisoned by Egyptian troops found themselves surrounded. In their haste to be rid of the Sudanese question, the British urged the Egyptians to evacuate their troops.
Below is a list of the British Army forces involved in the battles.
- 10th (Prince of Wales's Own Royal) Hussars
- 19th Hussars — former 1st Bengal European Cavalry
- 1st Battalion, The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders)
- 3rd Battalion, The King's Royal Rifle Corps
- 2nd Battalion, East Surrey Regiment
- 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders
- 2nd Battalion, Princess Victoria's (Royal Irish Fusiliers)
- Unknown amount of troops from the Royal Marine Light Infantry and Royal Navy
February 4, 1884
The port of Suakin, on the Red Sea, could be supplied by ship and still held out. But further inland, the towns of Tokar and Sinkat were completely cut off. In February 1884, a 3,000 strong force was dispatched from Suez to Suakin to relieve the beleaguered garrisons. The command of this force was entrusted to Baker Pasha accompanied by other European officers. From the start the expedition was beset with problems. The greater part of the infantry was formed from Egyptian Gendarmerie Battalions who had enrolled on the condition they would serve only for civil service in Egypt. On the news they were being sent to Sudan, many of them deserted, and the others grew dispirited and mutinous.
On the 3 February, Baker moved his force by ship from Suakin to Trinkitat, on the coast near Tokar. He set up a camp on the beach, and set off the next day. The Egyptians, who were not used to marching in formation, advanced in a confused mass. At the halting place of El Teb, on the road to Tokar they were attacked by a Mahdist force 1,000 strong. Despite their superiority in numbers and weaponry, the troops became panic-stricken, and fled after firing a single volley. The Mahdists caught up with them and inflicted huge losses, killing all the European officers who tried to resist. Baker, unable to rally his men, retreated to the camp with the few survivors and managed to protect it from the Mahdists. Of a force of 3,500, barely 700 returned.
After returning to Suakin, Baker tried to organize the defence of the city, but the Egyptian troops had grown distrustful of the British officers, and refused to obey. This defeat sealed the fate of the garrisons: the Sinkat garrison sallied out to try to reach Suakin on foot; they were massacred. The Tokar garrison surrendered without a fight.
February 29, 1884
In Britain, Baker's defeat incensed the imperialist faction, represented by Lord Wolseley, who demanded the intervention of British troops. Reluctantly, the British government agreed and several units returning from India were diverted to Suakin.
On the 21st, the force under the command of Sir Gerald Graham left for El Teb, via Trinkitat. It was composed of 4,500 men with 22 guns and 6 machine guns. On the 29th, they approached the main Mahdist position, on a hill near El Teb. This position consisted of various entrenchments and rifle pits. The Mahdists also had several artillery pieces including Krupp guns captured from the Tokar garrison, some of whom had changed sides, and were now fighting for the Mahdists. The British, forming into a square, circled the Mahdist entrenchments to outflank them, under cover of dense rifle and cannon fire. After a brief artillery duel, the Mahdist guns were silenced, and the British advanced. The Mahdists hid in trenches to avoid incoming British rifle and artillery rounds, then rushed out in small groups of twenty to thirty warriors instead of the massive attack that was expected. Another tactic was to pretend to lie dead on the battlefield as British cavalry charged through, then, as the cavalry returned at a slower pace back through the ranks of the 'dead', the Mahdists would rise up and slit the hamstrings of the horses then proceed to kill the riders. At the top of the hill, a village had been fortified by the Mahdists, and here they resisted the most stubbornly. The British infantry had to clear the trenches with bayonets after which the fighting died down.
During the battle, Captain Arthur Wilson of HMS Hecla joined the right half-battery, Naval Brigade, in place of a lieutenant who was mortally wounded. As the troops closed on the enemy battery, the Dervish charged out on the detachment which was dragging one of the guns, whereupon Wilson sprang to the front and engaged in single combat with some of the enemy, and so protected the detachment until men of the 1st Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, came to his assistance. For this action he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Graham's force then advanced to Tokar, encountering no further resistance. After the battle, most of the equipment lost by Baker's force was recovered.
The British suffered only light casualties, the Mahdist fire being generally inaccurate. Baker Pasha, who accompanied the force, was wounded in the jaw. The Mahdists suffered heavily from British firepower, losing 2,000 killed.
Captain Littledale had a narrow escape in a hand to hand conflict with an Arab, but no officers were killed. The Arab had been armed with a knife and Littledale with a pistol that had jammed. The fight went to the ground, but Littledale was rescued by Corporal Henry Baxter, who saw the struggle and was able to disarm the Arab, bayonet him and carry Littledale to safety and later rejoin the battle. Littledale survived even though he had been stabbed several times and was covered in serious bite marks.
Quartermaster Sergeant William Marshall, 19th Hussars was also decorated with the Victoria Cross by the Queen in Windsor on 3 July 1884, for conspicuous bravery during the cavalry charge at El Teb on 29 February, in bringing Lieutenant Colonel Barrow, 19th Hussars, out of action severely wounded. Both Quartermaster Sergeant Marshall & Sergeant Henry Phipps, 19th Hussars were mentioned in dispatches in the London Gazette of May 6th 1884, Sergeant Phipps was credited with remaining with his troops after twice being wounded and saving the life of Corporal Cramp, 10th Hussars. Sergeant Phipps was among those awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal by Queen Victoria at Windsor on July 3 1884.
Because of the heroism of the lower ranks who did have many casualties, the Distinguished Conduct Medal was dispatched to the following on 3 July by Queen Victoria herself at Windsor: Colour-Sergeant Charles Wake, Colour-Sergeant Hayward, Sergeant Henry Phipps, 19th Hussars, Frank Webb, Lance-Sergeant John Doyle, Lance-Sergeant Henry Haycock, Lance-Sergeant Henry James, Corporal Henry Baxter, Corporal David Dossett.
The battle was part of the escalation of the conflict in the Sudan, a conflict which led to the reconquest of Sudan in 1898, Herbert Kitchener, involving 25,800 men, 8,600 of whom were British, including Winston Churchill.
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- Fuzzy-Wuzzy; Notes on the text(by Roger Ayers) at www.kipling.org.uk
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El Teb by J Hamid. The book is centered on the battle of El Teb and a rifle captain in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps and his company during the conflict.
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- London Gazette of May 6th 1884
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