Other Duels In The Desert

BACK TRACKS

February 24, 1991|By Carleton Jones

With the United States and its allies settled in for a long fight in the Middle Eastern desert, now's a good time to take a look at some other, long-ago duels in the region.

In September of 1898 a victorious group of British soldiers raised a flag above the capital city of Khartoum, deep in the Sudan region of Africa. The band played a solemn air, the hymn "Abide with Me," and the Union Jack rose to the top of a flagstaff.

It was a memorial to the best-known foe of Arab forces in modern history, Gen. Charles George Gordon, the British governor general of the Sudan. As the movie-watching world knows, Khartoum was General Gordon's Waterloo. Thirteen years before the flag raising, Gordon and his garrison had been massacred on the same spot. The Mahdi, a self-proclaimed Muslim prophet, and tens of thousands of his followers had attacked the isolated garrison while a British relief expedition moved too slowly southward to lift the siege of Khartoum.

British revenge had come in 1898 across the river from Khartoum at Omdurman. Here 23,000 Britons mowed down 50,000 "whirling dervishes" of the Sudanese army in one of the most slaughterous battles of modern warfare up to that time.

It is Khartoum and Omdurman that military buffs usually note when thinking of clashes between modern Western war technology and the weapons of desert folk. That is, clashes between high-velocity artillery and machine guns and spears, sabers and knives. But there had been even earlier proof of the superiority of Western technology during battles with Middle Eastern and African foes.

In September of 1882 a British force of about 17,000 made a night march and surprised the 25,000 armed supporters of an Egyptian revolution at Tel El-Kebir, a way station in northern Egypt between Suez and Cairo. Though entrenched behind 70 guns, the forces of Col. Ahmet Arabi were shattered within two hours. Every single British soldier in this confrontation received a medal from Queen Victoria.

Even that engagement, however, is dwarfed by a totally forgotten battle that occurred in the middle of World War I. It was one of the greatest clashes between Western forces with state-of-the-art military equipment and the Arabic peoples. It was also the worst defeat ever suffered by the British army up to that time, in terms of the casualty rate and the number of troops captured.

The setting was near the heart of a nation that allied forces today hope to conquer soon.

About 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, the Tigris River makes one of its many snaky loops. On the banks of the river in 1915

stood the mud-walled city of Kut all Amarah. It was an inconsequential river town, nowhere near as strategic or attractive as Khartoum.

Turkey, the remnant of the old Ottoman empire, was fighting on Germany's side in that war. By December 1915, a British force, driven back from Baghdad by the Turks, had managed to get itself holed up in Kut. They were in what would later become Iraq as part of an effort to secure the oil production and the lines along the southeast quadrant of the Allies' war zone.

There the garrison was surrounded and slowly starved as food shortages continued. History's first air drop of military supplies and food (much of which ended up in the hands of the Turks) was carried out. A bribe of 2 million pounds in silver offered to the Turks failed to break their demand for unconditional surrender.

The British army surrendered on April 17, 1916. The siege had ended as all sieges must if a sally or escape is not attempted. A sort of "death march" followed, similar to Japanese treatment of the Bataan fighters in World War II. Among the casualties of the siege: 1,700 dead from wounds or disease and 4,000 more in captivity -- 70 percent of the British rank and file. Also captured were all of the army's weapons and 18,000 mules.

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