South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 11 August 2016 was Mr Alan Mountain whose topic was Lord Kitchener and the Battles of Atbara and Omdurman. Mr Alan Mountain is the Vice-Chairman of the Cape Town Branch and is a regular and popular presenter of well-researched and thought-provoking lectures locally. I use the word “presenter” instead of “speaker”, as Alan’s hallmark is his pre-recorded audio-visual historical topics presented digitally by means of state-of-the-art equipment. This is the first of a three-part lecture series on this well-known but controversial personality, taking us up to the death of Kitchener in 1916.

Herbert Horatio Kitchener was the oldest son of a British Army colonel who had sold his commission to become a farmer in Ireland. Horatio’s sensitive disposition troubled his mother who feared that his instincts were too repressed. Kitchener and his siblings were educated by local tutors who were invariably poorly qualified. He was humiliated to discover this when his mother became ill and the family moved to Montreaux in Switzerland. She died there and he felt this loss deeply. The only school he could attend was a local French school but he could not speak French and his general education was at a far lower level than his contemporaries there. He was shy and did not make friends easily and, as a result, he developed a deep and lasting inferiority complex. His lack of a public school education resulted in his being slow to learn the need for conformity. This was something he never learnt.

He passed the entrance examination to the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich at the age of eighteen. After completing his training there, he was sent to the School of Military Engineering at Chatham and was then posted to the Royal Engineers at Aldershot. He detested Aldershot but excelled in the then new science of field telegraphy. In 1874, Kitchener spent his summer leave in Hanover working to improve his German, so that he could study the manuals and textbooks of the German engineer corps.

He cared nothing for the uncongenial regimental and social routine at Aldershot and escaped this by applying for a special service post in Palestine, mapping all the archaeological sites in that country for the Palestine Exploration Fund, while at the same time mapping the whole of Palestine for the benefit of the British Army. To do this, he learnt to speak Arabic fluently and grew a beard, dressed like an Arab and adopted Arabic customs to gain the cooperation and support of local communities. This held him in good stead later in his career. His boundless energy, his attention to minute detail and ruthless determination to complete the massive task as cost-effectively and as quickly as possible was noted by his superiors.

In September 1878, Kitchener handed over his completed work to the committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, which was highly impressed with his work. His superiors decided that his merits be brought to the attention of the head of the Royal Engineers and also to the attention of the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshall the Duke of Cambridge. He was now known in very high places. He was appointed to survey the island of Cyprus and to reorganise the Cyprus Land Registry.

He had enjoyed his land survey work but realised that he was prejudicing his career through failing to see active service. He applied to Sir Garnet Wolseley for secondment to South Africa to fight the Zulus in 1879. When this failed, he set his eyes on Egypt and his attention was soon centred on the Sudan, sensing that there was an opportunity to further his career there.

The Sudan had been under Egyptian rule for sixty years but, in 1881, a charismatic and powerful leader, Muhammed Ahmed bin Abdullah, proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi – a reincarnation of the Prophet Mohammed and thus a new religious leader. The Mahdi therefore possessed the sanctity of holy writ and was a great orator as well. His followers obeyed him with a fanatical reverence.

He launched an uprising of powerful tribes against the alien and incompetent Ottoman-Egyptian administration. The British tried to avoid any responsibility for involvement in the Sudan but the British-controlled Egyptian government could not sit on the fence and do nothing as it had a commitment to the Egyptian Khedive Osman Pasha and so they engaged the services of a retired Indian Army officer, Colonel William Hicks, and sent him with an army of 7,000 ill-trained infantry, 1,000 cavalrymen and some guns, to Khartoum to sort out the situation there.

On 6 November 1883, near El Obeid, the second largest city in the Sudan, Hicks and the Mahdi met in battle. Hick’s force was wiped out. The British Government ordered the Egyptian Government to evacuate all Egyptians from the Sudan and to send Maj Gen Charles Gordon, a brilliant and fearless but erratic and perverse soldier, to the Sudan to effect a withdrawal from the Sudan altogether. Gordon was based in Khartoum and the Mahdi’s forces were advancing from the south, so the British needed to open solid communication lines from the north to the Sudanese capital. Kitchener volunteered to reconnoitre alternative routes from the north to Khartoum and, after taking great risks often alone and disguised as an Arab, he submitted his report. But the Gladstone Government delayed making any decision to relieve the embattled Gordon and there was equal procrastination in Egypt by the British Representative Sir Evelyn Baring and the C-in-C, Sir Evelyn Wood. Eventually, on 10 September 1881, it was decided to send a relief expedition, led by Sir Garnett Wolseley, to Khartoum. Kitchener was appointed intelligence officer. At the age of 34, he had developed a reputation for cold, determined machine-like precision with more than a little daring. Wolseley dithered and his column arrived too late to relieve Khartoum. Gordon had been hacked to death a few days earlier and the Mahdi’s troops celebrated their victory. The news caused a huge outpouring of grief and anger in Britain.

When it became clear that nothing more would be done in the Sudan, he resigned his commission in the Egyptian army and sailed home to England on 3 July 1885 to enjoy some leave and promote his career. Kitchener managed to secure an appointment to the Zanzibar boundary Commission and seized the opportunity to embark on some military excursions into the region with the ultimate objective of securing the Red sea littoral for Britain.

In the Sudan, the Mahdi was now in total control of the Sudan. In February 1885, less than a month after the fall of Khartoum, he retired to Omdurman across the river and, giving up any further idea of further conquest, indulged in his extreme love of sensual pleasure. Only five months after the death of Gordon he died of unknown cases.

His chosen successor was Khalifa Abdullahi, a sly, vain, suspicious, quick-tempered, cruel and despotic man, but shrewd and energetic. He razed Khartoum to the ground and established a new capital in Omdurman on the eastern bank of the Nile. He eliminated all potential contenders to the Mahdi’s vacant throne.

In England there was a rising desire for revenge for the death of Gordon and the defeat of Hicks and Wolseley. A new Conservative government wanted to add the Sudan to the British Empire and to consolidate its control of north-east Africa, as well as to protect the Suez Canal.

Kitchener, now a major general, was appointed Sirdar1 of the Anglo-Egyptian Army and GOC of the invasion forces. His officers were British and the troops were Egyptian, financed by both Britain and Egypt. Kitchener commanded but had the British representative in Egypt, Sir Evelyn Baring, serving as a cautious chairman. He had to wage his war on a limited budget and with merciless economy. The medical services were cut back as part of this. The two-year campaign was fraught with difficulties, none of which deterred Kitchener. He endured continual strain, worry and anxiety. The need for tight economy created additional burdens and stresses.

The Anglo-Egyptian army of 25,000 men advanced up the Nile using steam-powered vessels with troop-carrying barges lashed on either side. Just south of Wadi Halfa there were cataracts and the expeditionary force was forced to build a railway across the blistering Nubian Desert from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hamed. This took two years of almost super-human effort, enduring flash floods, equipment failures, adverse weather, enemy attacks to complete, but with Kitchener leading from the front.

The Khalifa sent his nephew Mahmud Ahmad to attack Metemmeh, the stronghold of the Jaalin tribe who loathed the Khalifas’s rule. Mahmoud defeated them in a bloodbath of immense cruelty and slaughter. Kitchener sent Lt Col Hunter with a flying column to capture Abu Hamed. This he followed with his entire army, using the new railway and the river steamers with barges, supported by gun boats.

Mahmoud retreated from the Nile and awaited Kitchener’s advance at Nakheila on the Atbara River, with his back to the river with his force entrenched behind a zariba of thorn bushes. Kitchener halted some 13 miles from Nakheila and, for once, was not sure of what to do next. Then he made up his mind and moved his army in brigade squares to a point three miles from Mahmds’s position. The next morning they advanced, the artillery opened fire and, at 0740, 12 battalions stormed forward and assaulted Mahmud’s position. Forty minutes later, 2,000 Arabs lay dead and the enemy was defeated and Mahmoud a prisoner. The army was elated and Kitchener showed some emotion – one of his officers said that he was "quite human for 15 minutes".

On 24 August 1898 the army advanced from Abu Hamed in fighting formation in a double line of brigades with the British next to the West bank of the Nile and covered by cavalry and horse artillery. He had 40 guns and 20 Maxims, with a further 36 guns and 24 maxims on the gunboats which accompanied the troops. The 8,200 British and 17,600 Sudanese were bivouacked in a semi-circular zariba2 with its back to the Nile and with gunboats on each side of the semi-circle.

The Khalifa’s army of 50,000 men came in sight on 1 September 1898, confident of victory and charged the British position. It was not a battle but a slaughter. Artillery and Maxims opened fire and the infantry followed with rifle fire. Hardly a dervish came within 366m/400 yards of the British positions. An estimated 11,000 wounded lay in the sun and as many lay dead. The Khalifa stood no chance of winning. A Grenadier Guardsman described the battle as murder. The 21st Lancers charged a group of 2,000 dervishes and scattered them at a cost of 79 dead and wounded and 119 horses killed. A few riflemen could have done the same with no casualties. Churchill, who was present, described this action as a glorious and magnificent folly. It was a first step in the decline of the mounted arm. British casualties were small (48 dead and 434 wounded, excluding the Lancers’ losses). The dervishes had lost at least 11,000 dead. Omdurman was captured the next day after a bombardment by the gunboats. Gordon’s death had been avenged and a memorial service was held at his ruined palace in Khartoum.

During the first week of August 1898 Kitchener had received a letter from the Foreign Office to be opened after the capture of Khartoum. He was ordered to take an expedition up the White Nile in order to bring to a head the simmering issue in the relationship between England and France, as a result of their vested interests in Sudan and Egypt. The French had launched a secret expeditionary force from the Atlantic coast of French Equatorial Africa, to cross the breadth of Central Africa to reach the upper Nile at Fashoda, regarded hydrographically as the key point of the Upper Nile. This was led by a Major Marchand and took two years to accomplish. The British were adamant that the whole of the Nile was a British sphere of influence and that the French expedition was an unfriendly action which could possibly lead to war between France and England. Marchand had signed a treaty with the local chief and hoisted the French flag. Kitchener then insisted that the Egyptian flag be hoisted as a symbolic assertion of Egypt’s historical sovereignty over the whole of the Sudan. His gunboats flew the Egyptian flag and he wore an Egyptian uniform.

Kitchener and Marchand had taken an instant liking to each other and discussed the situation over lunch and drinks. It was agreed that the Egyptian flag be hoisted and that the French flag be left flying until the politicians in London and Paris had come to an agreement. A battalion and some artillery was left at Fashoda by Kitchener. His actions received the approval of the British Government who could then negotiate with the French Government.

Kitchener returned to England on 27 October 1898 to be feted by the British populace. He was awarded a peerage, the Grand Cross of the Bath, the thanks of both Houses of Parliament and a Parliamentary grant of thirty thousand pounds. He was invited by the Queen to Balmoral and allowed to sit in the Royal presence. He was a guest in many noble homes and granted the freedom of London and many other cities and towns aas well as academic honours from the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge. He collected a sum of money to build a college in the memory of Gordon in Khartoum but which in fact would provide some education for Sudanese who would be employed as clerks by the government of Sudan. In December 1898 Kitchener returned to Egypt to complete his work. The Khalifa had managed to escape from Omdurman and was still at large. Abdullahi had fled southwards but, in November 1899 a force under Col Wingate was sent to capture the Khalifa. On 20 November, the Khalifa was sighted. His escort were mown down in a repeat of the battle of Omdurman and the Khalifa was killed. The Mahdist revolution was at an end.

Kitchener chose the first governors for the provinces and recruited young Englishmen to form the nucleus of what became a model civil service. He instructed them to respect the Moslem religion but to suppress unorthodox religious fanaticism.

On 19 January 1899 the British and Egyptian governments signed an agreement which established an Anglo-Egyptian condominium over the Sudan. Kitchener was appointed Governor-General of the Sudan. He ordered work to start on the rebuilding of Khartoum and refused to account for all of the expenditure involved. He was soon in conflict with his nominal superior, Baring and, in June 1899, returned to England to see whether he could be employed in South Africa if war broke out there and if Lord Roberts were to be given command there. Hostilities duly broke out, and on 18 December 1899, Roberts was given command with Kitchener as his Chief-of-Staff.

Our speaker then discussed the four important elements governing Kitchener’s thinking and actions up to this point in his life.

The Chairman thanked our speaker for another really outstanding pre-recorded audio-visual lecture, which has become our speaker’s hallmark over the last number of years, and presented him with the customary gift.

1 Sirdar a variant of Sardar, a long-standing rank in Western and Southern Asia and was assigned to the British Commander-in-Chief of the British-controlled Egyptian Army in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
2 Zariba An enclosure of bushes or stakes protecting a campsite or village in northeast Africa.



In Memoriam: We regret to inform members of the passing of our Life Member Mr Achilles Kallos who passed away on 23 August 2016. Our sincere condolences and deepest sympathy are extended to his wife and family for their sad loss.

New Members: We welcome Messrs C Burger, J McKenzie and T McKenzie who joined our Branch at the last meeting and hope to see them at our future meetings.

Annual Military Dinner: The annual event is again to be held at the Kelvin Grove Club as is the custom, and this year scheduled for the 6th of October. The organisers have specially changed the date so as not to clash with the society meeting the following Thursday, and, as our society do not have a similar arrangement locally, members are urged to attend. The dinner is always well-attended by ex-servicemen as well as serving members of the Defence Force, the company is always congenial, the food excellent and the speaker for the evening outstanding. Dress code is Mess Dress (with miniature medals); Dinner Jacket; Suit or Formal Jacket with Tie (miniature medals optional). Cost is approximately R185,00. The speaker is still to be finalised (when available it will be communicated in the October newsletter). To book or for further details, please contact Capt. Bruce Risien (Cell: 082-493-608 or Email:




The subject is the second and concluding part of Alan Mountain’s biographical sketch of the life of Lord Kitchener, building his reputation upon his successful military campaigns in Africa. In part two we find Sir Herbert Kitchener having returned to an adoring England upon the defeat of the Khalifa (successor to the Mahdi). A grateful nation acclaimed him a hero and bestowed upon him the Freedom of many cities and towns, academic honours, titles and a handsome cash gift from Parliament. Kitchener was also ennobled as a baron, Kitchener of Khartoum, for his victory at Omdurman. Less than a year later Kitchener joined Lord Roberts in South Africa to save England from defeat following the disasters of Black Week in the Anglo-Boer War.

The lecture will be presented by in a pre-recorded audio-visual format. The third and concluding part, dealing with Kitchener’s career up to and including his death in the First World War will be presented in the course of 2017.

13 OCTOBER 2016: Part One - BATTLE OF BLAAUWBERG by Ms Barbara George

Our first speaker for the evening will give an overview of a recent overseas visit to Europe and the United Kingdom, where 15 different Archive Repositories in 4 countries were visited in the space of eight weeks to collect material – some of it hitherto not accessed since the battle itself.

She will share some thoughts on the similarities and differences, challenges, experiences, people and events during this hectic two-month whirlwind research endeavour in collecting material for fellow-member Ian van Oordt’s in-depth study of the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806.


Waterloo as one of the most famous battles in modern history, needs no introduction. Having recently visited the battlefield on its 201st anniversary, our speaker will present the talk as a photographic tour of the battlefield from a “then and now” perspective.

The whole battlefield today is protected and although it is still used for agricultural purposes, no further development is allowed and buildings can only be maintained and repaired, but not extended.

To orientate and inform the audience, selected old paintings will highlight specific areas of the battlefield, such as places where heavy fighting occurred or of prominent buildings, and recent photographs will show what these places look like today. There are a number of museums on the battlefield of which some are new, but most are housed in the original buildings that played a role during the battle. The museums are outstanding in their content, but under the poor lighting conditions, difficult to photograph properly. However, the photographs will give a good idea of what is displayed.

The photographic tour will start off at the battle of Quatre Bras the day before Waterloo itself, and move on to Waterloo proper. The viewer will see where the Allied and French lines formed up, Hougoumont farm, the killing field, and where Capt Mercer’s artillery battery covered themselves in immortal glory, and the charge of the French Cavalry of Ney and Kellerman took place. Moving eastwards, in the vicinity of La Haye Saint, the assault by D'Erlon’s Corps, the charge by the Scots Greys, Papelotte, La Haye and the sunken road will be graphically portrayed to give a clearer understanding of events on that fateful day. The audience will also follow the Prussian advance, the crucial clash at Plancenoit, view the Prussian monument, Napoleon’s observation point, La Belle Alliance and the fallen eagle. Finally we will visit Napoleon’s and Wellington’s bivouacs the night before the battle.

All positions of the photographs taken will be clearly shown on a map prepared for this talk.

10 NOVEMBER 2016: ANNUAL OVERVIEW OF THE SECURITY SITUATION IN AFRICA by Maj Helmoed Römer-Heitman Major Heitman’s annual overview of the security situation in Africa has never failed in the past to draw a full-house as far as attendance is concerned – this year it certainly would be no less so, in view of the continuing unstable political situation and economic turmoil in many an African state. As with his previous lectures, he will probably start the evening with a short introductory talk on an as yet undisclosed subject.

This will be the final lecture in the year’s programme. Make sure you don’t miss it.

The lecture will be illustrated.


No lectures are scheduled for December as the Cape Town Branch will be in recess in view of the upcoming summer holiday/festive season at the end of the year. The Branch will routinely commence with its activities on the third Thursday of January, the date being the 19th of January, 2017.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /