September 05, 2002



The latest film version of A.E.W. Mason's The Four Feathers (1902) opens later this month... I'm certainly looking forward to how, in this politically correct era, they portray the hopelessly onesided Battle of Omdurman that it centers on, where, despite being totally tactically surprised on the second morning, the Anglo-Egyptian army under "Sirdar" Kitchener racked up a kill ratio of 11,000 Dervishes to only 48 of his own men (out of some 26,000, mostly Egyptian troops). It's one of the great colonialist slaughters of history, pitting modern rifles and artillery against closely ranked suicidal natives with spears: in the history books its mostly remembered for the substantially lower number of rounds fired per enemy casualty than... well, just about any other battle ever. Even conservative estimates agree that over 50 per cent of all the Dervishes engaged were killed or wounded, and some say it was closer to 90, one of the highest relative loss rates ever recorded... only about 5,000 were captured out of an army of more than 50,000 Muslims.

Only one Egyptian regiment and one British cavalry unit got to hand to hand fighting: for everyone else, not a single Dervish got closer than about 100 yards, Winston Churchill, a war correspondent at the time, reported. Try and throw some Hollywood suspense into that outcome, eh, what? As Churchill put it:

Thus ended the Battle of Omdurman---the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victors.

Warning: In the next couple weeks as the run up to opening night continues, you'll no doubt see comparisons of the Mahdi and Khalifa to Bin Laden and Omar, Kitchener to Rumsfeld, etc., etc. The parallels of two wars, separated by a century, between the dominant Western power of the day and a extremist Muslim nation state, in which a huge technological "delta" and the savvy use of native allies, stiffened by a few white troops, guaranteed massive kill ratios for the English-speakers, are undeniable and unavoidable. I'm always more interested in the differences than the similarities, though: and the difference I'd see is that Britain invested a lot more in rebuilding Sudan than the U.S. has in Afghanistan, at least thus far.

Posted by BruceR at 12:34 PM