The Battle of Abu Klea – 17th January 1885

The Battle of Abu Klea was a quintessential Victorian battle, fought in the Sudan on 17th January 1885 by the lauded ‘Camel Corps’, comprising; the Heavy regiment formed from the Household Cavalry, Dragoon Guards, Dragoons and Lancers; the Guards Regiment, formed from Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards and the Royal Marine Light Infantry; and the Mounted Infantry Regiment, drawn from the Infantry regiments stationed in Egypt. 19th Hussars and the 1st Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment. The battle was fought against the Mahdi’s Dervishes, during the desperate attempt to rescue General Gordon in Khartoun.

The Battle was celebrated in Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem ‘Vitai Lampada’;…

‘the sand of the desert is sodden red, red with the wreck of the square that broke; the Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead and the regiment blind with dust and smoke’….. ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’.

My 4x great-uncle George Aylott was a private in the 2nd Dragoon Guards/The Queens Bays, and took part in this skirmish, as part of the victory he was promoted as Corporal George Aylott and received the following medals;

Medals that once belonged to Corporal George Aylott

2 clasps, The Nile 1884-85, Abu Klea (2353 Corpl., 2/Drag. Gds.); Khedive’s Star, 1884

The Battle was a result of the rescue of General Gordon from the Mahdi’s dervishes in Khartoum, it involved a boat trip up the Nile and the deployment of camel mounted troops to cross the Bayuda desert. There were 3 regiments, the Heavy Camel Regiment, the Guards Camel Regiment, and the Mounted Infantry Camel Regiment. The Heavy Camel Regiment and was made up of the following:

No.1 Coy. The Blues and the Queen’s Bays
No.2 Coy. 1st and 2nd Life Guards
No.3 Coy. 4th and 5th Dragoon Guards
No.4 Coy. Royal Dragoons and Scots Greys
No.5 Coy. 5th and 16th Lancers

Abu Klea, 17 Jan 1885

The men were unfamiliar with camel riding so the journey over the desert was hard enough. But the added complication was the formation that had to be maintained. They were ordered to travel as a square with the artillery in the middle of the front face and the Heavies forming the rear face. The men were also armed with unfamiliar Martini Henry rifles which tended to jam, and bayonets and swords which very often bent and broke in action. The rear face often lagged behind because they were held up by the baggage and wounded who were carried in the middle of the square. On 17th Jan, news of the enemy near Abu Klea caused the Camel Corps commander, Sir Herbert Stewart, to leave most of the camels and the wounded in a defensive zariba, under guard, and for the men to be dismounted and proceed in the square formation towards the wells. As they neared the wells of Abu Klea they were attacked by a large force of dervishes. The skirmishers had to race back to the square and the Royal Dragoons and Greys were led out by Colonel Burnaby of the Blues to give them covering fire.

queensbaysabuklea

This diagram shows the position of the various components of the Camel Corps formation that they maintained as they advanced across the desert. They were dismounted for the action at Abu Klea but for most of the journey they were camel-mounted. The five companies of the Heavy Camel Regiment made up the back of the square and lower part of the left side.

This made a gap in the lower left corner which was exploited by thousands of dervishes who rushed towards the breach. The Naval Brigade manhandled a five-barrelled Garner gun outside the corner to deter the oncoming force but the gun jammed and most of the sailors were killed. Burnaby’s Dragoons were unable to get back to their places in time and the Arabs rushed into the square. The Queen’s Bays were amongst those most involved in the melee. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting took place in a mass of men so packed together that some were lifted off their feet. There were many baggage camels in the middle of the square which prevented the scrimmage from spilling too far. The rear ranks of the other sides of the square turned about and poured a heavy fire into the enemy, thus causing them to falter and retreat. There was another charge made by Arab cavalry but the Bays and the Household Cavalry fired at them and drove them off. The whole action lasted 10 minutes. Over all the British losses were 9 officers and 66 men killed, 9 officers and 72 men wounded. The dervishes left 1,100 dead behind them. Colonel Burnaby of the Blues had been speared in the throat and his wounded and dying body cared for by a crying young Bays private.

queensbayscamelcorps

The Camel-mounted troops travelled up the Nile by boat as far as Korti. They were given their camels there and had to learn how to handle them. A contemporary account gives advice: ‘Mounting a frisky camel is exciting work for the beginner, and nearly always ends in a cropper. The mode of procedure should be thus: having made your camel to kneel by clearing your throat loudly at him and tugging at his rope, shorten your rein till you bring his head round to your shoulder, put your foot in the stirrup, and throw your leg over. With his head jammed like that he cannot rise, and must wait till you give him his head. Unless you do as directed, he will get up before your leg is over, and you will infallibly meet with a hideous catastrophe… A camel’s hind legs will reach anywhere, round his chest, and onto his hump; even when lying down an evil-disposed animal will shoot out his legs. His neck is of the same pliancy. He also bellows and roars at you whatever you are doing, saddling him, feeding him, mounting him, un-saddling him. To the uninitiated a camel with his mouth open and gurgling horribly is a terrifying spectacle; but do not mind him, it is only his way. He hardly ever bites, but when he does you feel it for some time!’

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