1st Battalion KSLI in the Eastern Sudan 1885-86
The British occupation of Egypt in 1882 was meant to be a brief affair - long enough to allow the pro-western Khedive to rebuild his authority and the country’s financial stability.
However, Britain became embroiled in the problems of Egypt’s huge southern protectorate, the Sudan. Here, a fundamentalist Islamic movement led by Mohamed Ahmed (known at the Mahdi or “expected one”) was sweeping northwards, threatening Egypt itself. The comprehensive British destruction of the Egyptian army in 1882 only added to the problem: Egypt itself did not have the military power to suppress the Mahdi or halt the advance of his followers. To emphasise this weakness, poorly-armed Egyptian forces sent into the Sudan in 1883 and 1884 were decimated in battle by the ansar, the followers of the Mahdi.
As a partial response to Egypt’s need for self-defence, British forces were sent to the port of Suakin on the Red Sea in 1884 (to engage in operations against Osman Digna, one of the Mahdi’s chief supporters) and British forces garrisoned Wadi Halfa on the Egypt-Sudan frontier. Since the anti-imperialist Liberal government under Gladstone had no intention of becoming deeply entangled in the Sudan and favoured the complete abandonment of the country, it sanctioned the dispatch of General Charles Gordon to Khartoum in 1884 to supervise the withdrawal of Egyptian garrisons stationed along the Sudanese Nile.
As is well-known, Gordon became trapped in Khartoum and in October 1884 a British army under Sir Garnet Wolseley was dispatched to relieve the city and rescue Gordon. This failed in its attempts; Khartoum fell to the Mahdi in January 1885, Gordon was killed and Wolseley’s force retired back along the Nile into Egypt.
Despite these failures, it was not immediately clear that Britain would abandon Khartoum or would cease operations against the Mahdi. Accordingly, Sir Gerald Graham (who had commanded at Suakin in 1884) was ordered to return to Suakin in March 1885 with another British and Indian force. Its task was to supervise and protect the construction of a railway from Suakin (which could be supplied by sea) to Berber on the Nile.
This enormously expensive project would involve constructing a line over 280 miles through some of the most difficult terrain imaginable, all of which was in enemy hands. The railway was intended to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies deep into the Sudan should the government decide to renew operations to recapture Khartoum.
It is in this context that the 1st Battalion, then based in Malta, received orders to prepare for service in the eastern Sudan.
Suakin and surrounding area, 1885.
1-KSLI at Suakin, 1885
When the KSLI was ordered on overseas service in the middle of February 1885, its Colours were deposited with due ceremony in the Governor’s Palace in Malta.
On Feb. 24th, the battalion, with a strength of 27 officers, 1 Warrant Officer, 41 Sergeants, 13 Drummers and 782 other ranks, under Lt. Col. R. H. Truell, embarked on the P & O transport Deccan. As it steamed out of Grand Harbour, it was cheered by men of the Mediterranean fleet and played out by bands at Forts Ricasoli and St. Elmo at the entrance to the harbour.
After passing through the Suez Canal (where it left two officers and 60 men to serve at the Base Hospital at Suez) the Deccan arrived at Suakin on March 8th. The battalion remained aboard ship until march 12th when it finally disembarked.
Suakin in 1884 and 1885 was not a popular or attractive destination for British troops. Although many commented on the picturesque look of the town, which was located on an island in a fine natural harbour, with old white-washed buildings and narrow streets, the town offered few amenities or comforts; British soldiers based around Suakin found the heat unbearable, the dust and flies a constant torment and the lack of good food and clean water an added cause of discontent.
Early days at Suakin
Suakin : view from the sea.
The port was surrounded at a distance of about two miles by a chain of redoubts, blockhouses, trenches and forts, many built of railway sleepers and corrugated iron and surrounded by ditches and thorn fences.
The country beyond was an open rocky plain merging into prickly mimosa and thorn bushes, often growing to such a density as to be impenetrable. This made it easier for the enemy to come within close range of piquets and outposts, whilst scouting and patrolling was difficult
The local tribesmen, the Hadendowa and Amara, made famous by Kipling as “fuzzy-wuzzies”, had shown themselves in 1884 to be redoubtable opponents, well-armed with spears, swords and captured rifles and often imbued with a reckless courage. The terrain favoured their fighting tactics - long-range sniping and sudden rushes from concealed positions to engage in hand-to-hand combat; they had shown no fear of coming to close quarters with Sir Gerald Graham’s forces in 1884 and a number of major engagements had been fought in the desert near Suakin.
Sir Gerald Grahams’s force in 1885 was very large, amounting to no fewer than 13,000 men, British and Indian, later joined by the a contingent from New South Wales - the first occasion on which Colonial troops were accepted for campaign service with the British army.
On landing, 1 KSLI pitched tents on the perimeter defence lines near the Right Water Fort, south-west of the town, the camps of the various regiments then being very scattered. This made them rather difficult to protect in case of attack, whilst volley-firing from one often endangered another. The Arabs were not slow to recognise and exploit these weaknesses and at night, groups would creep from the bushes between the piquets and spear sentries or men sleeping in or outside their tents. These constant pin-prick night attacks caused few casualties but disturbed the men’s rest, wasted ammunition and unfitted the men for heavy fatigue duties around the port next day (such as unloading ships and moving supplies).
On their first night ashore the KSLI was to subject to just such a disturbance. From dusk onwards, the Arabs kept up a desultory rifle fire which went on for most of the night. At midnight, the 15th Sikhs, encamped to the rear left of the KSLI, were attacked by an Arab party and opened volley-firing into the night; the Guards’ Brigade to the KSLI’s right also opened fire. At 2.00 a.m., the KSLI was ordered to fall in and man the front line trenches. Their piquets were ordered back and two KSLI soldiers, Ptes. Hanna and Ballantyne, were caught in the open and speared to death as they withdrew from their posts. These were the battalion’s first casualties of the campaign. A determined attack was then launched against the Ordnance Depot on the seashore and well within the defence perimeter. The Arabs had worked round the along the sea coast behind the British lines and then attacked from behind. The Depot was defended by men of the Berkshires, whose sentries were killed where they stood. The Berkshire detachment had to fight its way out of its tents and engage the attackers hand-to-hand before they were driven off.
Possibly as a result of the serious losses suffered by the Hadendowa the night before, the following night was quieter although the KSLI camp was attacked at 1.00 a.m. by a group which crept up to the tents, fired a volley into them and then vanished into the night as the guard fired back.
The night of 13th March saw much greater enemy activity and the KSLI camp suffered some damage from volleys fired by nearby regiments, although no casualties were caused.
On the 14th there was sniper fire throughout the night and HMS Dolphin - part of the squadron of the Mediterranean fleet based in Suakin harbour - swept the ground with its powerful electric searchlights. Unfortunately, this only had the effect of lighting up the British camps and blinding the sentries and was not done again.
Sir Gerald Graham had landed at Suakin on March 12th and immediately began to reorganise the defence perimeter and camp arrangements. Outlying piquets were withdrawn and the camps concentrated and surrounded with wire entanglements; the night attacks ceased.
Shortly after landing, the battalion was issued with a form of khaki uniform (in place of the red serge they were still wearing, this presumably being the last occasion on which the KSLI went on active service in red) and were given tinted glasses and veils. Later, “spine protectors” and “cholera belts” were issued as an attempted protection against disease and sunstroke.
During the first fortnight, the battalion’s workload was very heavy - loading and moving supplies and digging. The heat was unbearable day and night, with temperatures frequently at 110º F, and the dust and flies plagued the men, causing eye and skin ailments, blisters and sores. Added to all this, the water supply was not good. Although the ships in the harbour were immediately set to condensing seawater, and eventually produced 75,000 gallons a day, the ration in Suakin was only two gallons per man and on the defensive perimeter or beyond, only two quarts per day. The water was stored in 400-gallon tanks and carried to the troops in tins or canvas receptacles. It rarely stayed fresh or drinkable for long and lack of water was a constant source of discontent and worry. food was also a problem; whilst officers could and did import luxuries from home - champagne, tinned meats, liqueurs - the other ranks rarely got anything more than salty corned beef and hard-tack biscuits.
"Active service" around Suakin
On the 19th March, the KSLI took part in their first operation beyond the defence lines, escorting a cavalry reconnaissance to the village of Hashin (or Hasheen), eight miles from Suakin.
The next day, a sizeable British force (approx. 8,000 men) under Sir Gerald Graham himself moved from Suakin to establish a camp at Hashin - having perhaps unwisely advertised their interest in the village the day before. On arrival, they found the area heavily occupied by the Arabs and a major battle ensued, in which the Arabs lost about 250 men killed and the British 18 killed and 46 wounded. The KSLI took no part in the action, having been left behind as part of the guard at Suakin.
Having secured his right flank, Graham prepared to launch an attack on the main enemy position at Tamai. A force was assembled under Sir John McNeill, V.C., with orders to march out from Suakin for a distance of eight miles and construct near Hashin three thorn-bush enclosures or zaribas, each large enough to hold a battalion of infantry.
McNeill set out with his men in two squares towards Tamai. The greatest difficulty was found in keeping formation through the dense scrubland and only six miles from Suakin, McNeill decided to halt where he was, near Tofrek, and construct his thorn-bush defences.
The work went on all morning and into the afternoon and was well-underway when the entire column was suddenly attacked from the south and west by thousands of Arabs. Another major engagement followed, with the outcome in some doubt as the British and Indian troops were caught unawares and with their thorn-bush defences only partially complete.
After a ferocious battle, in which 127 British officers and men were killed and over 300 wounded, the Arabs were beaten off, their own casualties being put in the region of 1,500 out of the 5,000 engaged.
The KSLI was again held back at Suakin during these operations, only going out on the 24th March to escort a convoy of supplies as far as Hashin. Here, the East Surreys were established in a zariba guarding the local wells and denying their use to the enemy. This zariba was abandoned and destroyed the next day and the KSLI was called out on the 26th as part of the escort to the Hashin convoy on its return to Suakin. On the 29th, the KSLI was part of an escort taking supplies to the Tofrek zariba. Although it was attacked as it advanced, the column easily brushed aside the Arabs and had an unpleasant experience in crossing the battlefield of Tofrek, where the dead - men, mules and horses - still lay out in the sun or in partially-exposed shallow graves.
Operations Continue - A Camel Corps
The contingent from New South Wales arrived on March 29th, and was quartered in the camp of the KSLI, where it received a rousing reception.
The KSLI was next called out on 2nd April to join Graham’s column heading for Tamai and a possible confrontation with Osman Digna’s main force. The force assembled at 3.00 a.m. and reached the Tofrek zariba at 8.30, when it halted for breakfast. Joined by the 28th Bombay Infantry - which had garrisoned the zariba - the column, now 8,000 strong, moved to Teselah Hill and here constructed another zariba to protect the troops during the night.
Next day, Sir Gerald Graham moved off, leaving the KSLI and East Surreys to defend the camp at Teselah Hill, and proceeded towards Tamai. Tamai was found deserted and was burned, the enemy having withdrawn into the hills some miles to the south-west. However, Sir Gerald was unable to follow them, as his water supplies were low. The whole column returned to Tofrek and entered Suakin the next day.
The next few days were occupied ferrying stores from the post at Tofrek or working alongside the railway line which was being constructed by Messrs. Aird and Lucas.
On April 18th, the KSLI and East Surreys moved two miles beyond the defence perimeter towards Handoub, which was later occupied by the Guards, and during the following week, the KSLI was engaged in escorting convoys, ferrying stores and equipment or protecting railway working-parties along the route of the new railway.
On the 19th, the KSLI itself moved into the camp at Handoub and patrolled the newly-built line to protect it and the telegraph line from night-time attacks and damage by the Arabs. On one of these patrols, Major Rogerson, with ‘C’ Company, drove off a party of marauding Arabs with some loss. Later, an armoured train patrolled the length of the line as it was laid down.
Since during the Nile campaign of 1884 a Camel Corps had served with some effect, it was decided to establish such a unit at Suakin. On April 16th, 300 Indian camels arrived and five companies were eventually raised to form a Camel Corps. The first of these companies was established on April 18th from 90 volunteers of the KSLI under Captain J.H.W. Eyton and Lts. F.L. Banon and R.Jenkins. There was a native driver per three camels and each camel carried two soldiers or a soldier and the driver. The Corps was quickly trained and employed in reconnaissance work
On the 24th, the KSLI company of the Camel Corps, with over a hundred “friendly” Amaras mounted on small camels, marched from Tambouk towards Es Sibil, escorting a Royal Engineers party whose duty was to sink bore-holes for water along the proposed route of the railway.
On 2nd May, Lord Wolseley arrived in Suakin to inspect the garrison and the progress of the railway and to report on the future prospects of Suakin. His inspection drew very favourable reports on the KSLI.
At this time, reports were received that an Amara leader, Mohamed Adam Sardun, was collecting a hostile force at T’Hakul, ten miles south of Otao, with the intention of raiding the vicinity of Suakin. Otao, 18 miles from Suakin, had been occupied by British forces on April 16th
Sir Gerald determined to surprise the Amara forces by an overnight march and dawn attack, using forces from both the Suakin garrison and from those at Otao. Graham himself led the Suakin column, which included the Camel Corps, and marched via Hashin to the Abent valley, towards T’Hakul.
The Otao column arrived at the other end of the valley about the same time and drove the Arabs before it, capturing hundreds of sheep and goats in the process. The Arabs, forced to flee towards the Suakin force, put up no real resistance and fled into the hills, pursued by cavalry and mounted infantry. They are estimated to have lost 100 killed in the process.
Lieut. Austen of the KSLI Camel Corps was one of only three British casualties, being wounded in the arm. The success of this surprise attack brought most of the “neutral” local tribesmen round to the British cause and many hostile Arabs fled the neighbourhood.
On May the 15th, the KSLI moved to Otao, the furthest point reached by the railway. The heat was oppressive and there was a great deal of sickness, mainly through dysentery, enteric fever and sunstroke.
The end at Suakin - but not for the KSLI
"A Night Alarm at Suakin" "The Graphic" May 30 1885 : soldiers of Major Rogerson's "C" Company, 1-KSLI, called out to deal with a night attack on the new Suakin-Berber railway.
By this time, the British government had decided to abandon Suakin (and the Sudan) altogether and the general withdrawal of the garrison began. The expeditionary force began to break up on May 17th, leaving only an Indian garrison backed up by one British battalion, which was to be 1 KSLI.
The battalion evacuated Otao on May 22nd and returned to Suakin, with HQ going into Graham’s Point, near the harbour and four companies to 'H' Redoubt. On May 24th, Major Kirkwood’s company had a skirmish with the enemy whilst protecting the removal of stores from Handoub, but this was in effect the last “active” engagement of the campaign.
The KSLI then had the unenviable task of settling down to what turned out to be eleven months in the most unpleasant environment imaginable.
After the campaign : Garrison duty in Suakin, 1885-86.
Soldiers of 1 KSLI at Suakin in 1885. This was the last occasion on which any soldiers of KSLI wore the old scarlet tunics on active service. While at Suakin, new khaki uniforms were distributed.
The battalion - the only British unit left in the Suakin garrison (the others being Indian) - was quarterd in tents covered with matting to give some extra protection from the heat of the sun. The health of the men, however, continued to suffer and the hospital was always full. There were frequent deaths from dysentery and sunstroke, amongst whom was Lt. F. Carter who died of fever on July 5th.
On July 27th, half of the battalion under Major Rogerson , including all the unfit men, left in S.S. Geelong for Cyprus where they camped on Mount Troodos. The change of climate and air had immediate effects on their health. At the end of September, this half-battalion returned to Suakin and the other half under Major Cotton took their place, camping at Plastris at the foot of Mount Troodos. During the whole of this time, battalion HQ remained at Suakin.
In November, a draft of 180 men under Capt. C. H. Collette (who had exchanged from 2 KSLI) arrived in Suakin; they were to suffer severely from the effects of climate.
Strenuous attempts were made to vary the dull daily routine - there were horse races and gymkhanas, sports, boxing and athletics meetings, shooting and fishing contests and even cricket and tennis matches.
But life in Suakin continued to be difficult. To add to the general discomfort, the Arabs, emboldened by the withdrawal of the main British garrison, once again began to approach the defence lines at night and to snipe into the camps. On 2nd Dec., a mounted infantry patrol was attacked, with Pte. Peters of the KSLI, being killed and another man wounded. From this time onwards, the mounted infantry of the battalion exchanged fire on a daily basis with the enemy though no large-scale attack ever took place.
In May 1886, the decision having been taken to hold Suakin with purely Egyptian forces under British officers, the existing garrison was withdrawn. The KSLI sailed from the port on 15th April 1886, with no regrets at leaving.
On 20th April, the battalion disembarked at Suez and later that day arrived at Abbasiyeh barracks, Cairo. 1 KSLI was destined to remain on garrison duty in the Cairo area for ten months before returning to Malta in February 1887, where it remained for the next four years.
For its services during the campaign, the battalion was awarded the battle-honour Suakin 1885.
Officers who served at Suakin:
Lt. Col. R.H.Truell (in command)
Lt. Col. N.X. Gwynne.
Major W. Rogerson.
Capt. J.H.W. Eyton.
Capt. W. MacLaughlin.
Lieut. H. de Teissier.
Lieut. R. Jenkins.
Lieut. B. Cotton.
Lieut. G.C.Vesey (Adjutant).
Lieut. F.L. Banon.
Lieut. E.A. Haggard.
Lieut. H. Fenning.
Lieut. C.W.C. Cass.
Lieut. F. Moore.
Lieut. J. Carter.
Lieut. F. Moore.
Quartermaster : W. Griffiths.
Paymaster : A. Gleig.
Warrant Officer : Sgt. Major C. Shortt.
Lt. Col. Truell was promoted to Brevet Colonel and appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath. He was succeeded in command by Major Rooke on June 16th.
Major H.D.Rooke and Lieut.G.C.Vesey were mentioned in dispatches and Captain Eyton received the Brevet of Major in recognition of his services with the Camel Corps.
The Egypt medal
All ranks received the undated Egypt medal with clasp Suakin 1885, unless they were already in possession of the 1882 Egypt medal, in which case they simply received the clasp to add to their existing medal.
The reverse of the undated Egypt Medal.
The Khedive of Egypt awarded a bronze star to British soldiers, dated 1884-6, for this campaign, but those men already in possession of the Khedive’s Star for 1882 did not receive an additional award.
Egypt and Sudan Medals in the Regimental Collection
Campaign Medals for the Sudan, 1885. The British medal for Egypt (1882-1888), undated, as awarded for service in 1884-86. With clasp "Suakin 1885". Khedive's Star, dated 1884-86.
Annetts, 396, Pte. J. : Egypt 1882 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.
Banon, Lieut. F.L. : Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1884-6 (in larger group with Boer War and 1914-18 medals.)
Barrett, 304 L.Sgt. H. : Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1884-6. (with George V Territorial Force Efficiency Medal)
Bright, 1901 Pte. J. : Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885.
Broderick, 301 Pte. W. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.
Burke, 1482 Pte. M. : Egypt, undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star, 1884-6.
Caldwell, 1913 Pte. G. : Egypt, undated, clasps Suakin 1885 and Tofrek ; Khedive’s Star, 1884-6. (Confirmed as present at Tofrek)
Clough, 790 Pte. J. : Egypt 1882 ; Khedive’s Star 1882. (with re-named South Africa 1877-79, no clasp)
Colley, 505 Pte. W. : Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885.
Davies, 734 Pte. E. : Egypt 1882, no clasp. Entitled to Suakin 1885.
Davies, 1155 Pte. J. : Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885.
Davies, 2023 Pte. J. : Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star, 1884-6.
Dodd, 100 Pte. M. : Egypt 1882 ; clasps Suakin 1885 and Tofrek ; Khedive’s Star 1882. (Does not appear to be entitled to Tofrek clasp)
Ellis, 477 Pte. J. : Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885.
Evans, 484, Pte. T. : Egypt, undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star, 1884-6.
Fendall, Col. G.N. : Egypt 1882 ; Khedive’s Star 1882. (In medal group of four, with matching miniatures).
Gallears, 1271, Cpl. W. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885.
Homyard, 1989 Cpl. W. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885.
Hoskins, 1350 Pte. J. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.
Judge, Capt. F.S.: Egypt, undated, clasps Gemaizah and Toski; Khedive’s Star, undated.
(For Sudan 1888-89, not Suakin 1885. Part of larger group with gold DSO for Serra, Nile, 1889.)
King, 260 Pte. C.: Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.
Liddell, Band. Sgt. W. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1882. (With 1911 Coronation, Edward VII LSGC and Edward VII MSM)
Maclaughlin, Lieut. W. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.
Manders, 1832 Pte. T. : Egypt, undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star, 1884-6. (with another re-named pair to recipient, lacking Suakin clasp.)
Martin, 312 Pte. T. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.
Moger, Pte. A. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.
Moger, Pte. W. : Egypt, undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star, 1884-6.
Murray, Capt. P.H. : Egypt 1882 ; Khedive’s Star 1882 (with 1887 Jubilee medal)
Nicholls, 409 Pte. A. : Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885.
Parton, 481 Pte. S.: Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885.
Phillips, 532 Pte. J. : Egypt undated, clasps Suakin 1884, El Teb, Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1884-6.(Apparently not entitled to first two clasps)
Powell, 33 L.Sgt. E. : Egypt 1882 ; Khedive’s Star 1882. (with Imperial Service Medal, Geo. V.)
Preece, 1113 Pte. D. : Egypt, undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star, 1884-6.
Quarterman, 353 Pte.W. : Egypt 1882 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.
Roberts, 1975 Pte. G. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885.
Rowley, 680 Sgt. J. : Egypt 1882 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.
Smith, 1620 Pte. B. : Egypt undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star, 1884-6.
Stevenson, 238 Sgt. W. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.
Stockley, 241 Pte. D. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885.
Tobin, 122 Pte. J. : Egypt, undated, clasp Suakin 1885
Turner, 1449 Pte. C. : Egypt 1882, clasp Suakin 1885.
White, Lieut, L.A. : Egypt, undated, clasp Suakin 1885 ; Khedive’s Star, 1884-6. (with South Africa 1877-79, clasp 1879 for Zulu War - one of only two to 53rd.)
Wilson, 1516 Pte. T.D. : Egypt 1882 ; Khedive’s Star 1882.