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THE RIVER WAR:
AN ACCOUNT OF THE RECONQUEST OF THE SUDAN
Narrated by Simon Vance
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THE BATTLE OF THE ATBARA
In the evening of Thursday, the 7th of April, the army paraded for the attack.
The camp lay in the scrub whichgrows by the banks of the Atbara, as by those of the Nile, and in order toprofit by the open, level ground the four infantry brigades moved by
parallel routes into the desert, and then formed facing south-east
in column of brigade squares, the British brigade leading. The mounted
forces, with four batteries of artillery, waited in camp until two o'clock
the next morning, and did not break their march. The distance from the
river bank to the open plain was perhaps a mile and a half, and the whole
infantry force had cleared the scrub by six o'clock. The sun was setting,
and the red glow, brightening the sandy hillocks, made the western horizon
indefinite, so that it was hard to tell where the desert ended and the sky
began. A few gazelle, intercepted on their way to the water by the
unexpected movement of troops, trotted slowly away in the distance—
white spots on the rosy-brown of the sand—and on the great plain 12,000
infantry, conscious of their strength and eager to encounter the enemy,
were beautifully arranged in four solid masses. Then the march began.
The actual distance from the camp to the Dervish position was scarcely
seven miles, but the circle necessary to avoid the bushes and the gradual
bends of the river added perhaps another five to the length of the road.
The pace of the advance was slow, and the troops had not gone far when the
sun sank and, with hardly an interval of twilight, darkness enveloped
everything. In the stillness of the night the brigades moved steadily
forward, and only the regular scrunching of the hard sand betrayed
the advance of an overwhelming force upon their enemies.
No operation of a war is more critical than a night-march.
Over and over again in every country frightful disaster has overtaken
the rash or daring force that has attempted it. In the gloom the shape
and aspect of the ground are altered. Places well known by daylight appear
strange and unrecognisable. The smallest obstacle impedes the column,
which can only crawl sluggishly forward with continual checks and halts.
The effect of the gloom upon the nerves of the soldiers is not less than
on the features of the country. Each man tries to walk quietly, and hence
all are listening for the slightest sound. Every eye seeks to pierce the
darkness. Every sense in the body is raised to a pitch of expectancy.
In such hours doubts and fears come unbidden to the brain, and the marching
men wonder anxiously whether all will be well with the army, and whether
they themselves will survive the event. And if suddenly out of the black
silence there burst the jagged glare of rifles and the crash of a volley
followed by the yell of an attacking foe, the steadiest troops may be
thrown into confusion, and a panic, once afoot, stops only with the
destruction or dispersal of the whole force. Nevertheless, so paramount
is the necessity of attacking at dawn, with all the day to finish
the fight, that in spite of the recorded disasters and the known dangers,
the night-march is a frequent operation.
For more than two hours the force advanced, moving across smooth swells
of sand broken by rocks and with occasional small bushes. Several shallow
khors traversed the road, and these rocky ditches, filled with a strange,
sweet-scented grass, delayed the brigades until the pace was hardly
two miles an hour. The smell of the grass was noticed by the alert senses
of many, and will for ever refresh in their minds the strong impression of
the night. The breeze which had sprung up at sundown gradually freshened
and raised clouds of fine sand, which deepened the darkness with
a whiter mist.
At nine o'clock the army halted in a previously selected space,
near the deserted village of Mutrus and about two miles from the river.
Nearly half the distance to Mahmud's zeriba was accomplished, and barely
four miles in the direct line divided the combatants; but since it was not
desirable to arrive before the dawn, the soldiers, still formed in their
squares, lay down upon the ground. Meat and biscuits were served out to
the men. The transport animals went by relays to the pools of the Atbara
bed to drink and to replenish the tanks. All water-bottles were refilled,
pickets being thrown out to cover the business. Then, after sufficient
sentries had been posted, the army slept, still in array.
During the halt the moon had risen, and when at one o'clock the advance
was resumed, the white beams revealed a wider prospect and, glinting on
the fixed bayonets, crowned the squares with a sinister glitter. For three
hours the army toiled onwards at the same slow and interrupted crawl.
Strict silence was now enforced, and all smoking was forbidden.
The cavalry, the Camel Corps, and the five batteries had overtaken the
infantry, so that the whole attacking force was concentrated.
Meanwhile the Dervishes slept.
At three o'clock the glare of fires became visible to the south,
and, thus arrived before the Dervish position, the squares, with the
exception of the reserve brigade, were unlocked, and the whole force,
assuming formation of attack, now advanced in one long line through the
scattered bush and scrub, presently to emerge upon a large plateau which
overlooked Mahmud's zeriba from a distance of about 900 yards.
It was still dark, and the haze that shrouded the Dervish camp
was broken only by the glare of the watch-fires. The silence was profound.
It seemed impossible to believe that more than 25,000 men were ready to
join battle at scarcely the distance of half a mile. Yet the advance had
not been unperceived, and the Arabs knew that their terrible antagonists
crouched on the ridge waiting for the morning; For a while the suspense
was prolonged. At last, after what seemed to many an interminable period,
the uniform blackness of the horizon was broken by the first glimmer of
the dawn. Gradually the light grew stronger until, as a theatre curtain is
pulled up, the darkness rolled away, the vague outlines in the haze
became definite, and the whole scene was revealed.
The British and Egyptian army lay along the low ridge in the form of
a great bow—the British brigade on the left, MacDonald in the centre,
Maxwell curving forward on the right. The whole crest of the swell of
ground was crowned with a bristle of bayonets and the tiny figures of
thousands of men sitting or lying down and gazing curiously before them.
Behind them, in a solid square, was the transport, guarded by Lewis's
brigade. The leading squadrons of the cavalry were forming leisurely
towards the left flank. The four batteries and a rocket detachment,
moving between the infantry, ranged themselves on two convenient
positions about a hundred yards in front of the line of battalions.
All was ready. Yet everything was very quiet, and in the stillness
of the dawn it almost seemed that Nature held her breath.
Half a mile away, at the foot of the ridge, a long irregular black line
of thorn bushes enclosed the Dervish defences. Behind this zeriba, low
palisades and entrenchments bent back to the scrub by the river.
Odd shapeless mounds indicated the positions of the gun-emplacements,
and various casemates could be seen in the middle of the enclosure.
Without, the bushes had been cleared away, and the smooth sand stretched
in a gentle slope to where the army waited. Within were crowds of little
straw huts and scattered bushes, growing thicker to the southward.
From among this rose the palm-trees, between whose stems the dry bed of
the Atbara was exposed, and a single pool of water gleamed in the early
sunlight. Such was Mahmud's famous zeriba, which for more than a month had
been the predominant thought in the minds of the troops. It was scarcely
imposing, and at first the soldiers thought it deserted. Only a dozen stray
horsemen sat silently on their horses outside the entrenchment, watching
their enemies, and inside a few dirty-white figures appeared and
disappeared behind the parapets. Yet, insignificant as the zeriba looked,
the smoke of many fires cooking the morning meal—never to be eaten—showed
that it was occupied by men; and gay banners of varied colour and device,
flaunting along the entrenchments or within the enclosure, declared that
some at least were prepared to die in its defence.
The hush of the hour and the suspense of the army were broken by the bang
of a gun. Everyone on the ridge jumped up and looked towards the sound.
A battery of Krupps a little to the right of the Cameron Highlanders had
opened fire. Another gun further to the right was fired. Another shell
burst over the straw huts among the palm-trees. The two
batteries had come into action. The officers looked at their watches.
It was a quarter-past six. The bombardment had begun.
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