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Abu Halfa, 1884


Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, Black Powder, 28mm

This week we were off to the desert, fighting an fictional engagement in the Sudan. This scrap was set against the backdrop of the Nile Expedition of 1884-85. The premise was that in late 1884, before the advance could begin a telegraph line had to be built across the desert, from Korti to Berber. That would cut across the big bend in the River Nile, and allow communication between the desert and river columns during the advance on Khartoum. In this game organised and umpired by Bart, the Royal Sussex regiment plus a small Naval detachment would escort the engineer detachment as it worked. Their destination was the small oasis village of Abu Halfa, where the work would halt until the rest of the army came up to join them. Abu Halfa was held by a brigade of Egyptian and Sudanese troops, backed up by a Royal Artillery battery. As the game began the engineers and their escort were camped a little way from a small oasis, just a mile or so to the west of the village. Unbeknownst to them a large Mahdist force under the Emir Musa was Bilu (played by Bill Gilchrist) was in the area, and planning to launch a dawn attack on the garrison. So, the scene was set for what would prove a lively and finely balanced battle, fought out on an 8×6 foot table. The game began with the engineers and their escort packing their tents away, brewing tea and generally getting themselves ready for the coming day. Strangely nobody thought of wandering over to the little oasis just a few hundred yards away to the south. It was probably just as well. Hidden among the palm trees – rather unbelievably – was a whole brigade of Campbell’s Mahdist cavalry!The action kicked off at dawn, with the Mahdists advancing on the village from the south. The engineers and their escort set to work erecting telegraph poles – the engineer stand had to move into place, then pass a command roll to erect a pole. It then moved to the next site 12″ away, and repeated the process – ideally all the way to Abu Halfa. On Turn 2 the growing light let the garrison see the approaching Mahdists. Unfortunately the telegraph party couldn’t see them yet. That though, was about to change. On Turn 3 two things happened.First, Bill rolled pretty  good command dice, and the Mahdists raced across the remaining few feet of table to reach the village, where Michael’s Egyptians and Sudanese had formed into a defensive line.  Next, the Mahdist cavalry came barreling out of the palm trees and smashed into the engineer’s escort, which was drawn up facing the oasis. The garrison’s defensive fire was fairly lamentable, and the Mahdist hordes piled in. Here the melee didn’t go well for the two battalions of Sudanese defenders, who were pushed back. They didn’t break though – they were still in the game. There were also two Egyptian battalions acting as a flank guard and a reserve – which helped steady the Sudanese a little. Over by the Oasis the British “closing fire” was a little better, and  both charging Mahdist horse units were either shaken or disordered, and stopped in their tracks. One of them stayed disordered and eventually backed off, having become shaken, but the other one charged home the following turn, overrunning the sailor’s Gatling gun and its small escort (classed as a “tiny unit” under the rules). Fortunately for the British the victorious cavalry were driven off by fire from the Royal Sussex. While this was going on the engineers were busy sending a signal down the line, calling for reinforcements. That’s where I came in. As the Earl of Airlie my job was to provide a Relief Column – what in naval parlance would be the Distant Covering Force – a brigade of good quality infantry who were there to bail out Major Sutherland of the Sussex Regiment if he got into trouble. When the message came down the wire Bart rolled a D3, and it turned out we appeared the following turn. Excellent. To get on the table quickly I arrived in march column, but spaced out ready to form into a big square when the time came. My cavalry detachment – a squadron of the 19th Hussars – formed up on my right, between the British infantry and the enemy. By Turn 6 we were well on the table, and the cavalry were poised to smack the shaken Mahdist cavalry in the flank .Things were looking up.Back in Abu Halfa Michael’s Sudanese and Egyptians were holding on by the skin of their teeth. Waves of Mahdsits were swarming round the village by this stage, and one Egyptian battalion was driven off the table, while a Sudanese one was overrun on the edge of the village. So, the garrison was down to half strength. Still, the gun crew did a great job, firing at the Mahdist reserves, and rolling quite a few “6s”, which disordered and temporarily halted some of the enemy spearmen. That was probably what saved the last of the garrison. When the game ended they were still holding on, and Mahdist casualties were mounting. Meanwhile the engineers and the Royal Sussex had linked up with the Relief Column, and together they advanced far up the table, passing the site of the morning’s encampment of the engineers. There they formed a big square, which effectively secured the approach top the village – and ensured the relief of the garrison. its firepower was sufficient to keep the Mahdist hordes at bay. However, before the game drew to a close there was one last fight. The 19th Lancers rashly charged the Mahdists, who had pulled back to the east. Amazingly despite all the odds in their favour they lost the melee, and were caught in the flank by a third unit of Mahdist cavalry, which amazingly had been hiding in the oasis within a few inches of the British all game, and had never been spotted. The British cavalry went down amid a welter of flashing blades. At that point the game ended, and Bart declared it a British victory. After all, the garrison had held out, the Relief Column had done its job, and the engineers only had two poles to erect before Abu Halfa was linked to the outside world. All in all it was a well thought out and tense little game. It was a bit frustrating for me, sitting on the sidelines until my troops appeared, but it looked great, and it was fun to play. I now rather regret selling of my Mahdists last year, after our big Khartoum game. Perhaps the answer is to raise some more Indian troops, of the kind seem at Tofrek in 1885, and base them so I can use them for both the Sudan and the North-West Frontier. Oh dear – more lead…

 

 

 

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About Angus

Angus Konstam is an author and historian he also plays wargames with historical miniatures. Yup, that’s little toy soldiers to you!