1898 - George Warrington Steevens
With Kitchener’s Army into Omdurman
At the corner we come upon a breach - 500 cubic feet or so of fissure - torn by a lyddite shell. Over the rubble we scrambled, then through a stout double-leafed gate, pulses leaping: we were inside. But as yet only half inside - only in a broad road between another high stone wall on our right and the river on our left. We saw the choked embrasures and a maimed gun or two, and walls so clownishly loop-holed that a man could only get one oblique shot at a gunboat, and then wait till the next came up to have one shot at that. We saw worse things - horrors such as do not sicken in the mass on the battlefield - a scarlet man sitting with his chin on his knees, hit by a shell, clothed from head to foot in his own blood, a woman, young and beautifully formed, stark naked, rolling from side to side, moaning. As yet we saw not one fighting man, and still we could feel that the place was alive. We pushed on between walls, we knew not whither, through breathing emptiness, through pulsing silence.
Round a corner we came suddenly on a bundle of dirty patched cloth and dirty, lean, black limbs - a typical Dervish. He was alive and unarmed, and threw up his hands: he was taken for a guide. Next at our feet, cutting the road, we found a broad khor [river bed], flowing in from the Nile, washing up above the base of the wall. Four Dervishes popped out, seemingly from dead walls beyond. They came towards us and probably wished to surrender; but the blacks fired, and they dived into their dead walls again. The guide said the water was not deep, and a crowd of men and women suddenly shooting up from the rear bore him out by fording it. Most of these new-reconciled foes had baskets to take away their late master's loot. We plashed through the water - and here at last, in the face of the high wall on our right, was a great wooden gate. Six blacks stood by with the bayonet, while another beat it open with his rifle-butt. We stepped inside and gasped with wonder and disappointment.
For the inside of the Khalifa's own enclosure was even more squalid, an even more wonderful teeming beehive than the outer town itself. Like all tyrants, he was constantly increasing his body-guard, till the fortified enclosure was bursting with them. From the height of a saddle you could see that this was only part of the citadel, an enclosure within an enclosure. Fast a little guard-house at the gate a narrow path ran up the centre of it; all the rest was a chaos of piggish dwelling-holes. Tiny round straw tukls [huts], mats propped up a foot from earth with crooked sticks, dome-topped mud kennels that a man could just crawl into, exaggerated birds' nests falling to pieces of stick and straw - lucky was the man of the Khalifa's guard who could house himself and his family in a mud cabin the size of an omnibus. On every side, of every type, they jumbled and jostled and crushed; and they sweated and stank with people. For one or two old men in new gibbas came out, and one or two younger men naked and wounded. When we offered them no harm the Khalifa's body-guard broke cover. One second the place might have been an uncouth cemetery; the next it was a gibbering monkey-house. From naked hovels, presto! it turned to naked bodies. Climbing, squeezing, burrowing, they came out like vermin from a burning coat.
They were just as skinny and shabby as any other Dervishes; as the Omdurman Guards they were a failure. They were all very friendly, the men anxious to tell what they knew of the Khalifa's movements - which was nothing - the women overjoyed to fetch drinks of water. But when they were told to bring out their arms and ammunition they became a bit sticky, as soldiers say. They looked like refusing, and a snapshot round a corner which killed a black soldier began to look nasty. There must have been thousands of them all about us, all under cover, all knowing every twist and turn of their warren. But a confident front imposed on them, as it will on all savages. A raised voice, a band on the shoulder - and they were slipping away to their dens and slouching back with Remingtons and bandoliers. The first came very, very slowly; as the pile grew they came quicker and quicker, from crawling they changed in five minutes to a trot; they smiled all over, and informed zealously against anybody who hung back. Why not? Three masterless hours will hardly wipe out the rest of a lifetime of slavery. Maxwell Bey left a guard over the arms, and went back: it was not in this compartment that we should find the Khalifa. We went on through the walled street along the river-front; the gunboats were still Maximing now and again a cable or two ahead. So on, until we came to the southern river corner of the hold, and here was a winding, ascending path between two higher, stouter walls than ever. Here was a stouter wooden gate; it must be here. In this enclosure, too, was a multitude of dwellings, but larger and more amply spaced. The Sirdar [Kitchener] overtook us now, and the guns: the gunners had cut their road and levelled the breach, and tugged the first gate off its hinges. On; we must be coming to it now. We were quite close upon the towering, shell-torn skeleton of the Mahdi's tomb. The way broadened to a square. But the sun had some time struck level into our eyes. He went down; in ten minutes it would be dark. Now or never! Here we were opposite the tomb; to our left front was the Khalifa's own palace. We were there, if only he was. A section of blacks filed away to the left through the walled passage that led to the door. Another filed to the right, behind the tomb, towards his private iron mosque. We waited. We waited. And then, on left and right, they reappeared, rather draggingly.
Gone ! None could know it for certain till the place had been searched through as well as the darkness would let it. Next morning some of the smaller Emirs avowed that they knew it. He had been supposed to be surrounded, but who could stop every earth in such a spinny? He had bolted out of one door as we went in at another.
We filed back. For the present we had missed the crowning capture. But going back under the wall we found a very good assurance that Abdullah was no more a ruler. The street under the wall was now a breathless stream of men and women, all carrying baskets - the whole population of the Khalifa's capital racing to pilfer the Khalifa's grain. There was no doubt about their good disposition now. They salaamed with enthusiasm, and "lued" most genuinely; one flat-nosed black lady forgot propriety so far as to kiss my hand. Wonderful workings of the savage mind! Six hours before they were dying in regiments for their master; now they were looting his corn. Six hours before they were slashing our wounded to pieces; now they were asking us for coppers.
By this time the darkling streets were choked with the men and horses and guns and camels of the in-pouring army. You dragged along a mile an hour, clamped immovably into a mass of troops. A hundred good spearmen now - but the Dervishes were true savages to the end: they had decided that they were beaten, and beaten they remained. Soon it was pitchy night; where the bulk of the army bivouacked, I know not, neither do they. I stumbled on the Second British Brigade, which had had a relatively easy day, and there, by a solitary candle, the Sirdar, flat on his back, was dictating his despatch to Colonel Wingate, flat on his belly. I scraped a short hieroglyphic scrawl on a telegraph form, and fell asleep on the gravel with a half-eaten biscuit in my mouth.
Next morning the army awoke refreshed, and was able to appreciate to the full the beauties of Omdurman. When you saw it close, and by the light of day, the last suggestion of stateliness vanished. It had nothing left but size - mere stupid multiplication of rubbish. One or two relics of civilisation were found. Taps in the Khalifa's bath; a ship's chronorneter; a small pair of compasses in a boy's writing-desk, and a larger pair modelled clumsily upon them; the drooping telegraph wire and cable to Khartum; Gordon's old Bordein, a shell-torn husk of broken wood round engines that still worked marvellously; a few half-naked Egyptians, once Government servants ; Charles Neufeld, the captive German merchant, quoting Schiller over his ankle-chains; Sister Teresa, the captive nun, forcibly married to a Greek, presenting a green orange to Colonel Wingate, the tried friend she had never seen before, such was the pathetic flotsam overtaken by the advancing wave of Mahdism, now stranded by its ebb.
The Mahdi's tomb was shoddy brick, and you dared not talk in it lest the rest of the dome should come on your head. The inside was tawdry panels and railings round a gaudy pall. The Khalifa's house was the house of a well-to-do fellah, and a dead donkey putrefied under its window-holes. The arsenal was the reduplication of all the loot that has gone for half a dollar apiece these three years. The great mosque was a wall round a biggish square with a few stick-and-thatch booths at one end of it. The iron mosque was a galvanised shed, and would have repulsed the customers of a third-rate country photographer. Everything was wretched.
And foul. They dropped their dung where they listed; they drew their water from beside green sewers; they had filled the streets and khors with dead donkeys; they left their brothers to rot and puff up hideously in the sun. The stench of the place was in your nostrils, in your throat, in your stomach. You could not eat; you dared not drink. Well you could believe that this was the city where they crucified a man to steal a handful of base dollars, and sold mother and daughter together to be divided five hundred rniles apart, to live and die in the same bestial concubinage.
Steevens, George Warrington
With Kitchener to Khartum
London/Edinburgh/Dublin/New York - without date