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

Ride to Khiva

A simple book that tells the story of a daring adventure made by one of the Household Cavalry’s best-loved figures.

This month, we look at one of the artefacts in our collection: a copy of “A Ride to Khiva”. This book may not seem like much, but in fact, it details the adventures of one of the great heroes of the Household Cavalry; Frederick G. Burnaby, Commanding Officer of the Blues, Burnaby always had a thirst for adventure, and his curiousity was piqued when he heard rumours that travel to the city of Khiva, in what is modern day Uzbekistan, at the time under the control of Tsarist Russia like much of central Asia, was off-limits to foreign travellers.

Burnaby took it upon himself to travel out there, at his own expense and great personal risk, recording the things he saw on his journey in meticulous detail. Upon his return to Britain in 1876 and the book’s publication, the tale of Burnaby’s journey became a best-seller; it was the sort of derring-do adventure that went over extremely well with the Victorians, and Burnaby, already a hugely beloved figure in London high society, became even more feted for his daring exploits in the wilderness of Central Asia.

“Copy of ‘A Ride To Khiva” by Frederick G. Burnaby. Image belongs to L. Courtney 2017

Later this month, ‘A Ride to Khiva’ will be republished, allowing present-day readers to also follow Burnaby on his adventures across hostile territory and read about the things he saw and did on this daring trek from the streets of London to the sands of Uzbekistan.

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by James Jacques Tissot, oil on panel, 1870

Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby was one of the Household’s Cavalry’s most beloved and certainly most colourful heroes. A veritable giant of a man, standing at 6ft 4in tall and weighing 20 stone, Burnaby was exceptionally strong and frequently worked out in a London gym, much to the bemusement of his fellow officers (one of the many stories about him is that when a few younger officers locked a couple of ponies in his quarters for a practical joke, the next morning he carried the animals down to the mess room, one under each arm!)

Burnaby’s adventurous spirit, pioneering achievements, and swashbuckling courage earned him quite an affection in the minds of Victorian imperial idealists. As well as travelling across Europe and Central Asia, he mastered the art of ballooning, spoke a number of foreign languages fluently, stood for Parliament twice, published several books, made numerous contributions to the Times and other publications, and was admired and feted by the women of London High Society. His popularity was legendary, appearing in a number of stories and tales of empire. Even after his time as commanding officer of the Blues came to an end, he remained close to and retained a place in his heart for his former regiment; after being denied the chance to officially accompany his regiment by the War Office, he accompanied the Blues to Sudan in a civilian capacity, where he was ultimately to die fighting alongside his former regiment, killed at the Battle of Abu Klea on 17th January 1885 during the ultimately thwarted expedition to save General Charles Gordon at Khartoum, while trying to rescue a wounded comrade.

The Household Cavalry Museum has a number of artefacts, besides the copy of “A Ride to Khiva”, that belonged to Burnaby, including a winter dress frock coat worn by him during his time as Colonel of the Blues that demonstrates his proportions, as well as the boots Burnaby wore when he met his end at Abu Klea.

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