The Battle of Abu Klea

132 years ago, between the 16th to 18th January 1885, the Household Cavalry fought at the Battle of Abu Klea, one of a series of battles in Northern Africa in a desperate race against time to reach a trapped contingent of British soldiers in the region.

The battle was one of several fought by the British Desert Column against Mahdist forces (the Mahdists were Sudanese fanatics loyal to Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, a self-proclaimed Islamic messianic figure who took advantage of widespread resentment amongst the Sudanese population towards the oppressive policies of the Turco-Egyptian rulers, and capitalized on the messianic beliefs popular among the various Sudanese religious sects of the time).

The overall goal of the British forces was to push through the Mahdists to Khartoum and relieve General Charles Gordon, under siege there by Mahdist forces, with time swiftly running out to save their embattled comrades at Khartoum. Having spent the night before the battle taking continual fire from Mahdist snipers, when the British forces began advancing into the wadi of Abu Klea at first light, they came under attack from a Mahdist force concealed in the ravine that had been waiting to ambush them.

Despite being heavily outnumbered (approximately 1,100 British troops to supposedly 12,000 Mahdist warriors), in a bloody exchange that lasted little more than fifteen minutes, the British forces were able to push the Mahdists back. Unfortunately, despite having technically won the battle and inflicting serious casualties on the enemy (British losses were 76 dead, 82 wounded, in contrast to Mahdist casualties numbering at least 1100), Abu Klea was a phyrric victory, given that the overall British goal to reach Khartoum and relieve General Gordon failed (the city had fallen and Gordon killed two days before the British Desert Column arrived). The failure to save Gordon caused a major public backlash that effectively ended the political career of Prime Minister William Gladstone (most in British society, including Queen Victoria, blamed Gladstone for the delay in sending a rescue mission), as well as forcing a British retreat from Sudan that would leave the country under the control of the Mahdists for 13 years.

Among the losses suffered at Abu Klea was one of particular significance to the Household Cavalry: Lieutenant Fredrick Burnaby of the Blues, killed by a Mahdist spear through the throat while trying to rescue an injured comrade. This bombastic and swashbuckling soldier, a hero in the hearts and minds of the Victorian public, had rejoined his old regiment voluntarily to accompany them to Sudan, the War Office having denied him an official posting. When word of his death on the battlefield spread amongst the soldiers, the commanding officer of one detachment recorded that many of his men sat down and wept at the death of such a beloved figure.

Colonel Frederick Burnaby
Colonel Frederick Burnaby, a hero of the regiment and beloved figure in Victorian high society, died in battle at Abu Klea.

Among the artefacts contained in the Household Cavalry Museum’s collection, you can find a dagger of the sort that would have been wielded by the Mahdist warriors (also known as Dervishes) and the boots Burnaby was wearing when he met his end on the battlefield that day.

Some of the artefacts belonging to Colonel Burnaby, on display at the Household Cavalry Museum. Image belongs to L.Courtne,y 2017