Recommend
33 
 Thumb up
 Hide
7 Posts

Battle Cry» Forums » Sessions

Subject: Sudan 1883: The Hicks Pasha Disaster and the Rise of the Mahdi rss

Your Tags: Add tags
Popular Tags: [View All]
Pete Belli
United States
Florida
flag msg tools
designer
"If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb


Sudan 1883: The Hicks Pasha Disaster and the Rise of the Mahdi





The tragic defeat of the Hicks Pasha expedition in 1883 was a disaster that had a major impact on British foreign policy. When this large Egyptian force led by a British officer was destroyed in a clash with Dervish warriors the power and prestige of the Islamic leader known as the Mahdi grew tremendously. After the legendary Gordon was sent to Khartoum in response to the crisis Victorian Britain became entangled in a twisted political labyrinth. The issue was not fully resolved for another 15 years until the decisive military triumph at Omdurman in 1898.






My first exposure to this fascinating battle was a lengthy action sequence in the epic 1966 film Khartoum starring Charlton Heston as General Gordon and Lawrence Olivier as the Mahdi. This depiction of the Battle of El Obeid (aka the Battle of Shaykan) is exciting but lacks historical accuracy. It does provide a reasonably accurate portrayal of Major-General William "Billy" Hicks (shown here on the white horse) and his courageous performance during the engagement.

At that time Egypt was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire and ruled by the Khedive, a sort of viceroy. The region was actually under British domination in the Age of Imperialism. Britain feared a tide of Islamic unrest flowing out of the Sudanese desert that would threaten the Suez Canal and other commercial interests. After the Mahdists scored several victories against Egyptian detachments a large expedition was sent to Kordofan Province.

It was common for the Khedive to employ European or American advisors. Hicks was a retired colonel with a solid record as a staff officer but limited battlefield experience. He had not seen action for more than a decade and had never served in Sudan. Hicks was appointed to the position of Pasha and awarded the temporary rank of Major-General in the Egyptian army.






Hicks led a force of approximately 7000 infantry and about 1000 cavalry with 14 artillery pieces and 6 primitive Nordenfelt machine guns. Most of the infantrymen were of poor quality and included many troops released from Egyptian prisons after participating in a failed revolt the previous year. The undisciplined Bashi-Bazouk cavalry was more useful while raiding and plundering than fighting on the battlefield. Morale was low. Hicks also quarreled with his Egyptian counterpart over command prerogatives. The doomed column was preordained for tragedy.

After a decision by Hicks to follow bad advice and take a lengthy wilderness route to the Mahdist stronghold of El Obeid unreliable guides pushed the column into a nearly waterless desert. During the first week of November a Mahdist army trapped Hicks in a strategic cul-de-sac and launched an attack.

Since no European officer survived the battle details of the engagement can seem contradictory and confusing. The area chosen for this map would have been on the road to El Obeid in a place where Hicks could be caught in a narrow defile with rough terrain on both flanks. There would be little chance of escape to the east (the right side of the board) because Arab irregulars were partially blocking the route back to the Nile River. The map is not exactly to scale but each hex would represent about 500 yards. The terrain tiles include scrubland and rugged hills.






This is an image of the front of the Egyptian column. There is an advance guard of cavalry with infantry following behind. Mahdist warriors have appeared in the hills so camels carrying the Egyptian army's supplies have been moved to the rear. Infantry figures represent approximately 75 to 100 soldiers while cavalry miniatures represent about 150 men. For example, an Egyptian battalion weakened by straggling and desertion would be composed of two groups containing four miniatures.

Only a fraction of the Mahdist warriors carried firearms; most of these were Remington breech-loaders taken from defeated Egyptian garrisons. Many of the riflemen (called Jihadiya) were captured Egyptian soldiers who decided to join the Mahdi. The remainder of the Mahdist force was armed with swords and spears. These units roll a 2-1 sequence on the battle dice but have a special close assault option we'll discuss later.

The poorly trained Egyptian troops were not good marksmen (this was partially due to a chronic eye disease called opthalmia) and were prone to firing away large quantities of ammunition. Most of these units roll a 2-1-1 sequence on the battle dice.






This image shows Hicks with a unit of Sudanese troops. While the "Egyptian" army included Turks, Circassians, and other nationalities these black soldiers from Sudan were widely regarded as the best fighting men serving the Khedive. They were often reluctant to retreat. In this scenario Sudanese units roll a 3-2-1 sequence on the battle dice and may ignore one flag result.

The miniature depicting Hicks Pasha plays a crucial role in the scenario. Determining the victory conditions for a battle where one of belligerents is essentially wiped out is difficult. I decided that the Egyptian player should represent Hicks; if the general is killed the game is over. If he survives and the army does not collapse (more on that later) Hicks might have a chance to escape the battlefield and return to Khartoum.

A formation accompanied by the Hicks Pasha miniature never requires an order to be activated.






Mahdist warriors fought under a tribal structure. Each tribe or alliance of tribes was led by a Khalifa; smaller groups were commanded by an Emir (or Amir) who provided direct battlefield leadership. A mounted Emir like the fearless man shown in this image would lead a group of infantrymen in assaults against enemy formations.

Contrary to a common misperception, the Mahdi was not in command on the battlefield in 1883.






This structure is reflected in the scenario. Each faction is color-coded (tan, gray, brown, etc.) and an entire faction can be activated by the Mahdist player during a turn by expending a command card of the player's choice. In addition, one formation can be activated if accompanied by the white Emir miniature... but the activated unit must launch an attack!






The unique Emir miniature may be assigned to any faction. Since the Emir figure does not represent a specific individual the miniature is never destroyed or removed from play. The figure may be shifted from unit to unit each turn as the Mahdist player chooses.






Thousands of baggage camels accompanied the Hicks Pasha column. These herds and the supplies carried by the camels would provide an irresistible target for the Mahdist army. This is another major element of the victory conditions. If all four supply camels are captured by the Mahdists an Egyptian collapse is almost certain to occur.

However, it is important for the Mahdists to capture these herds, not destroy them. Subtle tactics are required. A baggage camel unit is only captured on a cavalry, crossed-sword, or flag result. Infantry or artillery symbols indicate a failed attempt and the Mahdists must try again later with another attack on the herd.






Hundreds of "camp followers" and noncombatants joined the Hicks Pasha expedition, placing an additional burden on the water supply. Students of the American Civil War will recognize the name Frank Vizetelly, a famous British war correspondent and artist... this is his sketch of a Confederate camp scene. Vizetelly accompanied Hicks and was never seen again.






According to some accounts of the battle the Nordenfelt battery inflicted heavy casualties on the Mahdist army. This model of a Gardner Gun represents the similar Nordenfelt, a rapid-fire weapon using ammunition fed into the mechanism by hand. This rudimentary machine gun unit rolls a 4-3-2 sequence on the battle dice.

It should be mentioned that in this nasty claustrophobic battle a crossed-sword result only scores a hit if the enemy unit is adjacent.






This is an image of a Mahdist attack on the rear of the column near the eastern edge of the board. This artillery battery is armed with the useful 7 pound mountain gun, known as a "screw-gun" because the barrel could be taken apart and loaded on camels or mules. However, it would be less powerful than field artillery and rolls a 3-2-2-2-2 sequence on the battle dice.

Egyptian artillery was considered the most effective branch of the army. There are three "artillery" units in the scenario... the Nordenfelt battery, the mountain artillery battery, and a battery of Krupp guns. If these guns stopped firing the already shaky Egyptian morale would plummet. Unless at least one artillery unit remains on the board the Egyptian army will collapse when all four supply camels have been captured by the Mahdists.

BTW, the Egyptian cannon were the same type of Krupp artillery used during the Franco-Prussian War. These guns roll a 3-3-3-2-2-2-2 sequence on the battle dice.






My unique "hot" deck includes two types of cards... Command Cards and Event Cards. Command Cards are regular cards like Attack or Probe that allow the player to activate formations in a certain section of the board. These are used in a player's hand according to the standard rules. Event Cards are cards converted from their typical function to simulate elements of the historical narrative. For example, the Rally event in this scenario allows both players (not just the player drawing the event card) to gather stragglers and add replacement figures to depleted formations.

Events like Bombard (fire all Egyptian artillery) or Hit and Run (move all Mahdist cavalry) occur immediately, regardless of which player has just completed a turn and drawn the top card from the deck. The player drawing a random event immediately pulls another card from deck to refill his hand.

The special Short of Supplies event card serves as a timer to end the session. The scenario will last about 9 or 10 turns.






The tactical goal of the Mahdist commander is "breaking the square" and seizing the baggage camels with those precious supplies. The flag token marks a captured camel herd.

Mahdist infantry doctrine was simple but effective if properly executed. Riflemen would direct skirmish fire against the enemy position while swordsmen and spearmen used covered approaches like ravines or rock formations to prepare an assault. Dervish soldiers were quick as cats but this method required extra time. Mahdist infantry can expend two movement points (infantry has two moves but hills cost an extra point) and still attack. However, a unit that conducts a close assault without moving rolls three battle dice instead of two during the attack.

Egyptian units must use rifle fire to drive Mahdist formations away before they can launch these devastating blows. The sluggish Egyptian infantry can only expend one movement point and attack.

All cavalry has three movement points with scrubland costing two points and hills three points. Baggara cavalry serving with the Mahdi rolls two battle dice while the weak Egyptian cavalry gets just one.






The extremely cool Construct Fieldworks event allows the Egyptian player to place every baggage camel unit in a zareba or hedge made of thorn bushes. This subtracts one from the attacker's total available battle dice just like a hill or scrubland hex.






Dervish infantry led by an Emir has destroyed the mountain artillery battery and is now threatening a zareba. The camel herds are difficult to protect.






Major-General Hicks must always be accompanied by an Egyptian formation. The Hicks miniature may be moved to an adjacent hex containing a friendly unit if the formation he is "stacked" with is destroyed. However, if Hicks is left alone in a hex he is killed... which is what happened in 1883. In this example the flag result allows Hicks to escape the pincer maneuver executed by the Mahdist player. Three hits would have left Hicks at the mercy of the Dervishes.






Only a lucky roll by the Nordenfelt battery can stop this attack on another zareba. The result was poor and the camel herd was captured. The other Dervish unit wrecked the Nordenfelt formation. The Krupp battery near the front of the column had been destroyed during a previous turn, leaving the Egyptian army without artillery.






Hicks is defending this hill when the last baggage camel herd is seized by the Mahdists. Since the Egyptian army has now collapsed Hicks will have no chance -- however slim -- to leave the battlefield when the Short of Supplies event brings the session to a close. A victory for the Mahdi!






The triumph at El Obeid was more than a psychological victory for the Mahdi in 1883. He captured thousands of rifles and a mountain of supplies along with numerous pieces of artillery. Many of these weapons were used against British and Egyptian forces later in the campaign. Even if Hicks Pasha lives and returns to Khartoum in my scenario the battle would still be a disaster for the British Empire.




Hope you enjoyed this Session Report.

Two more of my BGG articles depicting battles from this period of history:

Tel El-Kebir 1882 -- featuring Victorian Era photographs from the archives of Lieutenant Craig Speel, a veteran of the campaign

Sudan 1898: an epic Omdurman scenario
41 
 Thumb up
5.05
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Marc Puig
Spain
Tarragona
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb

Thanks for your report.
2 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Barry Kendall
United States
Lebanon
Pennsylvania
flag msg tools
designer
mbmbmbmbmb
Another magnificent epic brought to the board, Pete. Very well done! Love the background info and the trivia re the reporter.

You should seriously publish a book on your C&C adaptations. I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

You might also approach the 20mm plastic-figure companies about being put on retainer or receiving a commission for increased sales . . .
6 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Steve Herron
United States
Johnson City
Tennessee
flag msg tools
badge
Never play block wargames with a dentist, they have those little mirrors to peek behind the block.
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
This session reminded me of the old jokes we made off the movie Khartoum.

You are like the Mahdi you have a mole a the space between the ears.

What do you call the white guy, white girl, and black young adults that are in close service to the Mahdi?

Spoiler (click to reveal)
The Mahdi Squad, like the old TV show The Mod Squad
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Mayor Jim
United States
Fort Wright
Kentucky
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Barry Kendall wrote:
Another magnificent epic brought to the board, Pete. Very well done! Love the background info and the trivia re the reporter.

You should seriously publish a book on your C&C adaptations. I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

You might also approach the 20mm plastic-figure companies about being put on retainer or receiving a commission for increased sales . . .

Yep, I agree...another magnificent Pete work...Really need a separate forum just for Pete's historical narratives, pics and game variants!
1 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Milton Soong
United States
San Francisco
California
flag msg tools
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
This is awesome!
What makes are your plastic figures?
2 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Pete Belli
United States
Florida
flag msg tools
designer
"If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Thanks for the positive comments.

msoong wrote:
What makes are your plastic figures?


Miniatures from the following sets were included:

Egyptian

HaT 8266 Askari
HaT 8193 Egyptian Camel Corps
HaT 8210 British Colonial Artillery
HaT 8180 Gardner Gun
HaT 8288 Colonial British Dragoons
HaT 8109 WWI German Artillery
HaT 8269 Ruga Ruga


Mahdist

HaT 8271 Dervish Warriors
Esci 238 Muslim Warriors
Strelets 115 Lawrence of Arabia
Beggara cavalry are generic horsemen from War! Age of Imperialism

I should mention that estimates of the number of Mahdist warriors at El Obeid vary widely... Gordon guessed less than 5000 while other sources claimed ridiculous totals approaching 40000 men. There were several engagements during the 1880s where outnumbered Mahdists defeated larger Egyptian forces. There are 96 Dervish infantry figures (plus 9 cavalry) on the board. This might provide a total of approximately 11000 Mahdists.
4 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Front Page | Welcome | Contact | Privacy Policy | Terms of Service | Advertise | Support BGG | Feeds RSS
Geekdo, BoardGameGeek, the Geekdo logo, and the BoardGameGeek logo are trademarks of BoardGameGeek, LLC.