Useful Notes / The River War
"Too late, too late to save him. In vain, in vain, they tried. His life was England's glory, his death was England's pride."
Music Hall song eulogizing Charles Gordon

Also called the Mahdist War or the Mahdist Revolt. Read on to see why.

In 1881, a religious leader in Sudan named Muhammad Ahmad declared himself the Mahdi, the expected redeemer and purifier of the Islamic faith before The End of the World as We Know It. He led a successful rebellion against the Egyptian government (since 1882 was under the control of The British Empire), astounding the world by defeating technological superior forces with just spears and lances. By 1884, the British government sent the renowned soldier and explorer Charles George Gordon to oversee the evacuation of Anglo-Egyptian troops from Sudan, but the Mahdists holed him up in Khartoum for ten months. The world eagerly awaited news from the besieged Gordon, but expeditions sent to relieve him were held up on the Nile and by the time they reached Khartoum, it had fallen and Gordon killed by the Mahdi.

This disaster sent shockwaves through the British government, causing Queen Victoria to send a Strongly Worded Letter to Prime Minister William Gladstone chastising him for failing to act in time. However, a crisis in India caused Britain to withdraw its troops from the Sudan before they could recapture Khartoum. The Mahdi died several months later, but his successor the Khalifa remained in power, engaging Anglo-Egyptian forces in a low-level conflict for the next decade. The fighting also spread to Sudan's neighbors, including Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Italian Eritrea and the Belgian Congo.

In 1896, the British sent a force under Horatio Kitchener to reclaim Sudan. This force was victorious at Omdurman in 1898, claiming revenge for Gordon's death 13 years earlier. This expedition included a relatively unknown solider with some political ambitions named Winston Churchill, who published the first exhaustive history of the war. The Sudan afterwards became an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, jointly ruled by those countries until achieving independence in 1956.

This conflict contained examples of:

  • Anti-Climax: The British never got to take revenge on the Mahdi personally, because he died of natural causes six months after the Battle of Khartoum.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Gordon's letters during the siege, which were smuggled out just before the city fell.
  • Big Bad: To the British, the Mahdi was this. However, according to Winston Churchill, Islam was the real Big Bad.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Gordon had a tremendously charismatic personality and field presence. He was respected by both Europeans and Arabs as a figure almost larger-than-life. He was also incredibly eccentric, insubordinate, and impossible to work with. His religious mysticism had something to do with it, as he literally believed he was on a Mission from God.
  • The Cavalry Arrives Late: The steamers didn't arrive in time to save Gordon.
  • Celibate Hero: Gordon is a famous real-life example. Though historians have often speculated about his sexuality, his writings indicate the topic simply didn't interest him, which considering the code of gentility at the time is understandable. Gordon was popularly considered a homosexual, most notably by the Kray gangsters who invoked him as a hero.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: A young intelligence officer named Horatio Kitchener relayed messages to and from General Gordon during the Siege of Khartoum. He returned a decade later at the head of an army.
  • Complaining About Rescues They Don't Like: Gordon was furious when he heard the press calling Wolseley's army "the Gordon Relief Expedition." He insisted it was for "the relief of the Sudan garrisons" instead, saying he would not leave Khartoum unless it was secured.
  • Crapsack World: Life under the Mahdi and his successors wasn't fun. If you weren't killed in the regime's constant wars with its neighbors, there's a good chance you were chronically overtaxed, enslaved, imprisoned for trivial reasons, or dying of famine or disease (several failed harvests occurred during the 1880s, with catastrophic results). There was also a mini-genocide of the Sudan's Christian population. It's estimated that two-thirds of the Sudan's population died between 1881 and 1898.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The destruction of the Hicks Column by the Mahdi in 1883; Valentin Baker's Egyptian gendarmerie met a similar fate at Tel-el-Kabr a year later. Most of his early battles are like this.
  • Dark Messiah: It's hard to think of a more fitting description for The Madhi.
  • Due to the Dead: Kitchener's disrespect toward the Madhi's remains would provoke a What the Hell, Hero? on the part of Winston Churchill.
  • The Empire: The British Empire and the Madhists.
  • Fake Defector: Austrian general Rudolph Carl von Slatin surrendered to the Mahdi at Darfur and publicly converted to Islam. He lived among the Mahdists for years before escaping and publishing his story just before the deployment of Kitchener to Sudan.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: It took almost three years for the British and Egyptians to take the Mahdi seriously, considering him just a tribal rabble-rouser until he defeated Hicks.
  • The Fundamentalist: Both the Mahdi and his followers and Gordon.
  • Gray and Grey Morality: In one corner, the British seeking to control Egypt and the Egyptians themselves perpetuating a corrupt, repressive regime in the Sudan. In the other, the Mahdi establishing a brutal Muslim theocracy that makes the Taliban look like liberal democrats.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Gordon.
    • As well as the entire Khartoum Garrison
  • The Horde: The stereotype of the Madhists, and one which their tactics played into.
  • I Can Rule Alone: The Mahdi did this to Yohannes IV of Ethiopia in response to the latter's alliance offer.
  • Immediate Sequel: The 1898 Fashoda Incident resulted directly from the Mahdist Wars. With Sudan "unclaimed" after Gordon's death, the French sent a small expedition under Captain Marchand to stake out the region. Unfortunately Kitchener simultaneously trounced the Mahdists at Omdurman and then sent a detachment to checkmate Marchand. This nearly precipitated war between Britain and France.
    • The war itself is an immediate sequel to Arabi Pasha's Egyptian nationalist revolt of 1881. The resultant turmoil (climaxed by British occupation) weakened Egyptian authority in the Sudan, allowing the Mahdists to gain steam. Further, many of the British players (notably Garnet Wolseley) took part in the Gordon Relief Expedition. Most of Hicks Pasha's ill-fated troops were Arabi supporters press-ganged into the Khedive's service.
  • Karmic Death: The Madhists (who took so much damage invading their neighbors and pissing off non-British-alligned powers like the Italians, King Leopold's Congo Company, and the Ethiopians that when the British returned, they were severely weakened).
  • La Résistance: The Mahdists thought of themselves as this at first.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: What's the surest way to ensure your new country has a short shelf life? Pick a fight with every single one of your neighbors. By the time Kitchener returned in 1898, the Mahdists had alienated everyone who might conceivably have opposed Britain's conquest of the Sudan: Belgium, Ethiopia, France, Italy.
    • In fact the only reason Italy (that was begging for any excuse to expand in Africa) and Ethiopia (by then under Menelik II) didn't gang up on the Mahdists after they launched an invasion on the south was that they were too busy fighting each other (even then the Italians did attack once, and the only reason they didn't do more was that they had their hands full with Menelik).
  • Massive Multiplayer Crossover: The war reads like a Crisis Crossover of The British Empire. It included the participation of characters who were famous before, such as Gordon, Samuel Baker, and Henry Morton Stanley, as well as those who would gain fame from the war like Kitchener. Winston Churchill also makes an appearance.
  • Memetic Badass: Charles Gordon gained fame abolishing slavery in the Sudan years before, and he assumed that his mere presence in Khartoum (sans British troops) could unite the Sudanese against the Mahdi. He was surprisingly successful, at least initially. He certainly convinced the British public; it was popular outcry to save Gordon that led Gladstone's government to organize the Gordon Relief Expedition.
  • Never Found the Body: Gordon's body was never recovered, but reports held that the Mahdi cut off his head and displayed it as a trophy.
  • Occupiers out of Our Country: The rebels' immediate goal.
  • One Riot, One Ranger: General Gordon was supposed to achieve this. He failed.
  • Playing Both Sides: Attempted by Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV, who tried to make an alliance with the radical Islamists against the Western imperialists in spite of being a Christian, and tried to cut a deal with the Western imperialists against the radical Islamists. In the end the Madhists decided to just stab him with spears.
  • Ragtag Band of Misfits: The Hicks Pasha expedition, whose agonizing defeat goes to show that this trope isn't always good in Real Life.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: What happened to Khartoum after the Mahdi defeated Gordon.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Gordon literally had no fear of death, and actively volunteered for impossible battles because he believed that if he died he would be with God.
  • The Remnant: Emin Pasha, the German-born Governor of Equatoria (South Sudan), held out against the Mahdists until being "rescued" in 1889 by British-backed mercenaries led by Henry Morton Stanley. This being four years after Gordon's defeat and death.
    • On the flip side, a few scattered Mahdists escaped the slaughter at Omdurman, including Abdallahi ibn Muhammad (the Khalifa), the Mahdi's successor. His band of diehards weren't defeated until November 1899, over a year later.
  • Rock Beats Laser: Both played straight and subverted. The Mahdi's early victories were accomplished with only primitive armaments, until he found it difficult to besiege the city of El Obeid, whereupon he reversed his edicts prohibiting modern weapons.
  • The Siege: Lasted for 10 months. Did not end well.
  • Technology Marches On (In-Universe): The Mahdi failed to attack the advancing British until they were almost on top of him, because he's been made overconfident by the defeat of Hick's Expedition. He didn't understand how Maxim machine guns, bolt-action rifles and breech-loading artillery were a Game Changer. Neither did he launch raids on the railway being built to supply the British forces, being unaware of just how much a railway can supply.
  • Token Evil Teammate: The other person put in charge of overseeing the evacuation in 1884 was Zubehr Pasha, a notorious slave trader who Gordon had clashed with years earlier.
  • Took A Level In Bad Ass: The Egyptian Army was universally regarded as a joke, which their early defeats by the Mahdists did little to dissuade. By the time of the Omdurman Campaign however, they were a trained, well-armed force that served with distinction under Kitchener.
  • Vestigial Empire: The war was triggered by a combination of the Egyptian Khedieve's decay coupled with its attempts to assert control over the region. By the time of Khartoum it was all but a subdivision of the British Empire. Ethiopia also counts, and the splash damage from the conflict was enough to plunge them into a Succession Crisis.
  • Victorian Britain
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Winston Churchill does this in his history of the war. He criticizes Kitchener's decision to dig up the Mahdi's body and cut off his head as excessive and disrespectful.
  • Worthy Opponent: The Mahdi considered Gordon this, even asking him at one point to abandon Khartoum so he wouldn't be killed. Gordon refused. The Mahdi later ordered Gordon captured alive though his soldiers disobeyed.
    • Also, Colonel Hicks, commander of the first punitive expedition against the Mahdi, died fighting with sword and pistol and was buried with full military honors by the Mahdists.
    • The British troops generally respected Mahdist bravery, in part due to their breaking an infantry square at Abu Klea. Kipling even wrote a laudatory poem, "Fuzzy Wuzzy," in tribute.
  • You Can't Thwart Stage One: The Madhist conquest of the Sudan and probing attacks into pretty much all of its neighbors.
  • Zerg Rush: Standard Madhist practice.

Depictions in fiction

  • The film Khartoum starring Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi and Charlton Heston as Gordon was released in 1966.
  • The death of Gordon at Khartoum is mentioned in passing in Topsy Turvy, preceded by a helpful super-imposed title for the benefit of Viewers Who Are Not Geniuses.
  • The war is mentioned in both Dad's Army and Blackadder Goes Forth, as characters in those shows were veterans of the Sudan conflict.
  • A. E. W. Mason's novel The Four Feathers and its various film adaptations are all set during this war. Oddly, the book takes place between Gordon's death and Kitchener's reconquest, the 1939 version during Kitchener's campaign, the 2002 version during the Gordon Relief Expedition.
  • The Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz set his In Desert And Wilderness against the backdrop of this war.
  • Rudyard Kipling wrote about it while it was still ongoing, in his 1890 novel The Light That Failed. It, too, was made into a film.
  • Described in an episode of Murdoch Mysteries where Winston Churchill appears as a young man. His disapproval of Kitchener's disrespect for the Mahdi's remains is part of what drives the plot.
  • The movie Young Winston (1972) depicts the Battle of Omdurman.
  • Wilbur Smith featured the Siege of Khartoum in his novel Triumph of the Sun.