It’s not my business here to provide a narrative of the First World War. I’m more interested in shining a small light into the many nooks and crannies largely ignored by one-track posterity, and in joining up some of the forgotten threads that link that world with ours. That’s why, with the great powers of 1916 in the midst of vast military enterprises all over Europe, I’m heading for a small but geopolitically formed campaign in the Sudan, or to be more precise in the remote (and these days infamous) western province of Darfur.
A century ago today, an Anglo-Egyptian force met and defeated the fighters of Ali Dinar, Sultan of Darfur, at Beringia, near the regional capital of El Fahser. Before I get into details of the battle itself – which was an old-school colonial affair defined by a huge technological gap between the two sides – it’s worth taking a look at why, at a time when manpower shortages for ambitious offensives elsewhere were a major issue, the British saw fit to send some 2,000 well-equipped and supported troops to the back of beyond.
One basic reason is that, from start to finish, Great Britain viewed the First World War in a global, imperial context. The Empire’s first act on the outbreak of war had been to send naval units to protect imperial oil supplies coming out of Mesopotamia, and by 1916 it had time and again proved willing to commit resources to securing or expanding its overseas possessions.
This was partly a product of attitude, in that a century of largely unchallenged global supremacy had left British ruling elites accustomed to imperial success and inclined to assume that it would remain the index of geopolitical power in the post-War world – but it was also a matter of circumstance. Britain had more resources available than any other European empire; its prosperity was more dependent on overseas trade; and it wasn’t required to focus every effort on defeating a homeland invasion, or threat of invasion. In contrast, wartime France and Belgium regarded empire primarily as a source of manpower against the invader on the Western Front, Germany had never seen overseas possessions as more than bargaining chips in a European power struggle, the Netherlands and Portugal were strictly minor military powers, and Italy’s imperial pretensions were little more than optimistic fantasies. Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were meanwhile concerned only with the preservation or expansion of their centralised land empires.
The second, more specific reason is lodged in the history of the region, giving me an excuse to provide some distant background to its modern troubles, and to give one granite-minded icon of militarism through the ages his first mention of the War to date.
If you’ve ever stayed awake through much of the movie, you may know that Charlton Heston (aka General Charles Gordon) met his death at the hands of Sudanese rebels, led by an Islamic sect, in January 1885, shortly before a belated British relief attempt reached his besieged headquarters at Khartoum. Gordon’s ill-fated expedition from Egypt had marked a reversal of the British government’s previous decision to abandon the Sudan as worthless. The change had been forced by popular and press outrage at the perceived loss of prestige involved, and Gordon’s death sealed the renewed commitment.
The commander of the relief force, future war minister General Kitchener, began a process of destroying rebel enclaves in the Sudan that was complete by the end of the century, leaving the British in theoretical control of a vast, wild and endemically lawless nation. It was also a largely Moslem nation, making its people particularly amenable to Turkish agitation once Britain was at war with the Ottoman Empire.
Policing the Sudan was the primary wartime responsibility of the Egyptian Army – a force that was (like Egypt) nominally independent but was trained and led by British officers, and equipped with obsolete British weapons. The task kept some 14,000 Egyptian, Sudanese and Arab troops occupied throughout the War, along with a battalion of British Army infantry (and attached artillery) based at Khartoum. Helped by a relative boom in the Sudanese economy – moribund and chaotic in 1914, but boosted by the supply needs of British forces in Egypt and East Africa – they generally restricted insurgent activity to isolated incidents. Before 1916, the noisiest of these had been the arrest of Ottoman emissary Elmaz Bey for inciting uprising among Egyptian troops at Port Sudan in 1915, but the prospect of a concerted Islamic rebellion in the Darfur region posed a more serious threat.
Dafur – the land of the Fur people – covered some 400,000 square kilometres of western Sudan, bordered by French Chad to the west and Libya to the north.
The leader of the region’s Tama tribe, Ali Dinar, had accepted British rule at the turn of the century and been appointed British agent for Darfur, but had since run his unloved province as an increasingly autonomous fiefdom, treating the British authorities in much the same way other Ottoman outposts in North Africa treated the regime in Constantinople.
The arrangement suited both sides until war between the empires brought British declaration of a protectorate over Egypt and the Sudan in 1914 (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab), ending their nominal status as Ottoman provinces. This, along with grievances about French incursions from Chad and British quarantine regulations applied to livestock, prompted Ali Dinar to seek Turkish support against the infidel.
In touch with Turkish officers aiding the Senussi uprising in Libya (13 December, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge), Ali Dinar apparently accepted their assurances that Darfur would become an autonomous Islamic state after an Ottoman victory, and definitely accepted a shipment of 250 rifles from the Senussi. Aware of the latter, the British Governor-General of the Sudan, Sir Reginald Wingate, opted to nip rebellion in the bud by sending a punitive expedition from Khartoum to Darfur .
The Western Frontier Force (WFF) assembled by Wingate was powerful enough for the job. Some 2,000 infantry supported by six light artillery pieces, a dozen machine guns, eleven motorised trucks and an RFC contingent of four BE2 biplanes, marched against perhaps 3,000 poorly armed and trained Fur regulars, backed by about 2,000 tribal spear-carriers and 800 cavalry. Defeating Ali Dinar was not expected to be problem… but getting to him was another matter.
The Sudan’s western railhead at El Obeid was almost 700km from Khartoum, and reaching the regional capital of El Fasher meant travelling another 650km across dry, inhospitable country, with survival dependent on the efficient seizure of precious water holes. The WFF marched northwest from El Obeid on 16 March 1916, moving from water hole to water hole, using aircraft to scare away Fur fighters posted for their defence. The advance eventually reached the approaches to the capital on 21 May, and the following morning, shadowed by Ali Dinar’s mounted forces, it came up against defenders entrenched beyond the village of Beringia, some 20km short of El Fasher.
What followed was, aircraft aside, straight out of the nineteenth-century imperial playbook. The WFF’s infantry moved forward in a square, in the style of the Napoleonic Wars, and when an unauthorised advance by a British Camel Corps company (that’s cavalry on camels, obviously) occupied a ridge overlooking the village, Ali Dinar’s 4,000 fighters abandoned their trenches and launched an attack. Though unquestionably brave, this was not a smart move, and during a 40-minute exercise in slaughter the Fur were cut down without getting close to the British square, leaving 261 dead and 95 seriously wounded on the battlefield and removing many more casualties when they fled.
That afternoon the British moved up and entrenched outside El Fasher, where they were attacked at three in the morning by about 700 Fur cavalry and 300 infantry, but starshell (flares) illuminated the battlefield for machine-gunners and the attackers were driven off in less than fifteen minutes.
Ali Dinar had abandoned the capital and withdrawn to the southwest by the time the British entered El Fasher next morning, and on 29 May he sent word to WFF commander Lt.-Col. Kelly that he intended to surrender and renounce his sultanate. At that point operations by both sides were brought to a halt by the rainy season, and by the time it was over, in October, Ali Dinar had shown no sign of actually surrendering, forcing Kelly to send a detachment in pursuit.
A small British force eventually attacked and defeated the last coherent Fur force in early November, and on 6 November Ali Dinar was tracked to his hideaway and killed, effectively ending the campaign. The result was formalised on 1 January 1917, when the autonomous province of Darfur was absorbed into the Sudan and placed under direct British administration.
The British weren’t primarily responsible for Ali Dinar’s rebellion. It was a product of the self-interested ambition typical among regional warlords within the crumbling Ottoman Empire, fuelled by the genuine (and religiously inspired) support of his followers and ignited by false Turkish promises of post-War independence. Nor could the British know that, a century after they crushed the Fur people’s clumsy bid for self-governance, the independent status of Darfur would still be a running sore poisonous with slaughter and deprivation.
On the other hand, particularly given the tendency of British heritage industries to portray the Empire as an adventure seen through British eyes, the casual manner in which Britain ran roughshod over the Sudan in general, and Darfur in particular, is a breathtaking reminder of the self-centred thinking behind the ‘civilising mission’ of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European empires.
Britain didn’t want to control the Sudan and had no use for it. It was only there because a nationalist press and public behaved like fans of flat-track bullies, forcing Gordon’s expedition and everything that followed, including 1916’s pointless suppression of nascent national awareness in Darfur. Needless to say, the campaign aroused no controversy at the time, but these days its long-term effects are painfully obvious, and peddlers of heritage are letting down history by ignoring it.