Pete Belli
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Abu Klea 1885 -- the Gatling jammed and the colonel is dead





Abu Klea was a fascinating battle fought in the Age of Imperialism. During the 1885 expedition to relieve Gordon at Khartoum a small brigade of British soldiers known as the Desert Column was attacked by a large group of Mahdist warriors. Both armies suffered heavy losses in a battle that demonstrated the finest military qualities of each belligerent. The dramatic narrative of Abu Klea was immortalized during the Victorian era in a poem by Sir Henry Newbolt:

The sand of the desert is sodden red,
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;
The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.


Never mind that the weapon was a Gardner gun, not a Gatling. The square was only fractured (never actually broken) but the colonel was killed after a heroic struggle and the sand of the desert was definitely soaked with blood.






The column of approximately 1500 soldiers was moving across broken desert terrain in a loose square formation. Thousands of Mahdist infantrymen swarmed out of a wadi or dry riverbed to block the route to the wells at Abu Klea. Five groups of Dervish warriors attacked the British.

The playing surface was created with the desert terrain Memoir '44: Breakthrough board. The map in not exactly to scale but I kept the firing ranges short to simulate the dust and smoke on the Abu Klea battlefield. Terrain tiles include hilltop hexes and the wadi embankment... this steep obstacle slows movement.






The column was composed of detachments from some of the finest regiments in the British Army plus Royal Marines and a small group of sailors known as the Naval Brigade. While the elite 19th Hussars retained cavalry horses the majority of the Desert Column (which included both infantry and cavalry units) was mounted on camels.

Everyone fought dismounted because the camels were not good firing platforms. There was an inherent weakness in the brigade. The cavalrymen were unfamiliar with infantry weapons and tactics. The infantrymen were fighting in small groups which had never served together.

Many of the officers were strangers to the men. The column was described as "the Nile Circus" and "London Society on camels" because a number of socially prominent officers had joined the expedition seeking glory and adventure. British commander Major-General Sir Herbert Stewart was a competent professional thrust into an extremely fluid (and dangerous) situation. His performance was solid. Bravery on the battlefield cost Stewart his life later in the campaign.






Each faction of the Dervish army (Berber tribesmen under Abd el Majid, Metammeh Arabs under Ali wad Saad, Baggara cavalry, etc.) is represented by color-coded figures. The special Mahdist command rules for this scenario incorporate these tribal allegiances. During each turn the Mahdist player can activate all of the formations in one faction of his choice and also play a command card.

This scenario uses my hot deck of command cards to keep the action flowing. Events include the "Rally" card inserted in the middle of the deck to signal a pause in the action while both sides gather stragglers and regroup and the "Short of Supplies" card to end the session if the battle continues until sunset.






This artillery unit represents a battery of three 7-pounder "screw guns" designed to be taken apart and transported on camels. Shrapnel fired by these guns forced the first Dervish attack on the square to shift to another section of the battlefield. Artillery fires using standard Battle Cry rules but executes multiple bombardments when activated.

British infantry units roll a 4-3-2 sequence on the battle dice. Each miniature represents approximately 35 men. During the early phase of the Mahdist assault defensive fire from the square was obstructed by the presence of British skirmishers on both flanks. The number of dice rolled is reduced by one in the first turn.

British troops wore a bewildering variety of uniforms during the campaign. Many of the soldiers in the Desert Column were issued gray tunics so that color is used for the these miniatures.





Here is an illustration of the famous Gardner gun (not a Gatling!) being manhandled into position. This weapon was also transported on camels (four beasts were required to carry the Gardner) and it was operated by sailors from the Naval Brigade. Gardner guns were prone to jamming in dusty conditions. Several of the men in the Naval Brigade became casualties when the weapon misfired at Abu Klea... more on that later.






As in 1885, the Gardner gun has been placed outside the square to give the weapon a better field of fire. The gun always rolls three battle dice. Dervish warriors can be seen advancing on the British left flank. The baggage camels are an important Mahdist objective.

The miniature brandishing a revolver is an officer figure. These leaders can be attached to any British unit and issue an order to activate that formation. A unit with an officer attached may ignore one retreat flag. Three officer figures plus the drawing of a Command Card give the British player a certain amount of tactical flexibility.






A cavalry squadron is attempting to screen the British right flank. Cavalry was not effective against Dervishes in rough terrain. Mahdist warriors also used a nasty weapon similar to a boomerang that was thrown at the legs of horses to cripple the animals. British cavalry rolls a 2-1 sequence on the battle dice, reflecting the ability to fight dismounted with carbines.






A leader known as an Emir (or Amir) led each group of tribal fighting men. The unique Emir miniature may be assigned to any faction and activate one unit. If that formation launches a close assault one extra dice is rolled. 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.






A retreat by the artillery unit has opened a gap in the square. As the British discovered in 1885, these weapons deliver a powerful punch but are vulnerable to Dervish infantry attacks. The baggage camels are now exposed to an enemy thrust.






British units on the opposite side of the square have turned to fire on the Mahdist penetration. Camels blocked the line of sight in 1885 but formations at higher elevations were able to hit the Dervish warriors with volleys of musketry.






The fortunate appearance of the All-Out Offensive event card allows the British player to activate any four units on the board. The defensive lines have been restored. Each player has one of these events; they are inserted randomly into the Command Card deck.






While many Dervish warriors have fallen British losses have also been heavy. The special Rally card allowed both players to gather stragglers and add miniatures to depleted formations but British casualties are particularly significant. A wounded British soldier was a serious military burden in 1885. Casualties could not be left in unguarded hospital camps so a special wooden and metal frame known as a cacolet was used to transport the wounded men on camels.

The unreliable Gardner gun has jammed. Whenever the weapon is activated and the artillery symbol is rolled the gun is unable to fire during that turn. Since a Mahdist formation is in an adjacent hex the timing of this mechanical breakdown is dangerously unlucky.






An event card is used to activate the Mahdist formations which have previously been held in reserve. It will take time for the infantry units to reach the firing line. Dervish cavalry was more useful raiding and gathering plunder than it was on the battlefield. Perhaps this was not the best option for the Mahdist player.






The dead colonel mentioned in the poem was Fred Burnaby. He was a popular celebrity known throughout the British Empire. Burnaby was an author, an accomplished balloonist, a world traveler, and a giant of a man with great athletic ability. He was the type of British officer frequently portrayed in epic adventure films. Burnaby volunteered to join the Desert Column and was killed while trying to close a gap in the square following the loss of the Gardner gun crew.






An officer has been attached to this British infantry unit. When every miniature in a formation has been eliminated the officer figure is assumed to be killed. Three hits (in this scenario a crossed-sword result only counts if the enemy is adjacent) have wrecked this infantry formation and caused the death of the officer.

Each commander is attempting to "demoralize" the other leader. This goal is achieved by inflicting heavy losses or (for the British player) hanging on until sunset. As mentioned earlier, a large number of wounded men can practically immobilize the Desert Column. That was the outcome in this session. Dervish losses were severe but the British player reached his threshold before the number of wrecked Mahdist formations hit the limit.


Thank you for taking a few minutes to read this lengthy article. Obviously, this campaign has really sparked my interest as an amateur military historian.
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Mayor Jim
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Thanks Pete...as usual, a great historical narrative with an AAR and nice pics...well done!
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Pete Belli
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This image of a Dervish faction in the wadi is missing from the Session Report:




Each infantry faction (with four groups of miniatures) represents approximately 800 to 1000 warriors.
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