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The Battle of Ey Bai, 1883


Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, Death in the Dark Continent, 28mm

Winston Churchill once called the Egyptian Army of Hicks Pasha as “perhaps the worst army that has ever marched to war”. So, when I was offered the chance to lead it into battle on the tabletop I jumped at the chance. The figures for this little colonial game were all supplied by Colin Jack, who also came up with the scenario. The plan was for us – myself and Bill Gilchrist – to lead our poorly-led and untrained little army across the desert to capture the town of Ey Bai. Obviously the Mahdist hordes would try to stop us. A quick glance at our army list showed us that of our entire force, only the gun team and a small detachment of Egyptian cavalry were classed as anything other than raw or untrained. Clearly this wasn’t going to be an easy fight! The only good thing going for us was that our raw Egyptian infantry were for the most part armed with Remington repeating rifles. Surely that would give us an edge if we could keep the Mahdists at arm’s length.sudan-001We advanced cautiously onto the table, with our raw infantry in the centre, and screened on the left by the gun and the cavalry, and on the right by a unit of untrained ansars armed with muskets. They were supported by two units of Bashi Bazouk skirmishers – one of which was mounted. These were colourful, but they were no soldiers. The danger, of course, was that the enemy would swamp us with an all-out charge. I decided – rather rashly – to commit the Bashi Bazouks to the fight, funneling up the right hand side of the table in an attempt to delay the advance of the Mahdists. For his part Bill began banging away with his gun, but he kept the cavalry in reserve. After all, we would probably need them to cover out retreat!sudan-004First blood went to the Egyptians. The Mahdists sent a unit of camel-mounted warriors down the centre of the table, trying to charge our raw infantry before they formed up. They were a little late – the little Krupp gun began shelling them, and when they closed further the hastily assembled Egyptian infantry began banging away with their repeaters. Within two turns the camel unit faced a morale check, and fled the field. At that point I decided to commit my Bashi Bazouk cavalry, over on our far right flank. A unit of Mahdist infantry lay in front of them, so they charged home, and against all the odds they emerged victorious. Their opponents were routed, and the cavalry moved on, hoping to reform somewhere behind the Mahdist lines. Their advance had also triggered the appearance of a unit of hidden Mahdist musket-armed infantry, who were lurking in rifle pits along the edge of the table.  I was just wondering how my cavalry might deal with them when the Bashi Bazouk horsemen were charged in the flank by a fast-moving unit of Dervishes. They were eviscerated, and now I had nothing left to delay the inevitable Mahdist advance.sudan-009Still, this charge had bought sufficient time to shake out the Egyptian army into some semblance of a firing line. Over on my right the Bashi Bazouk foot skirmishers traded shots with the Mahdists in rifle pits. This was all going well until the Mahdists suddenly leapt out of their holes and flung themselves on my skirmishers. Like their mounted counterparts, this unit of colourful but poor quality Bashi Bazouks were sent packing from the table. Another small disaster happened on the far side of the table. The Egyptian gun crew had been trading shots with their  Mahdist counterparts, and were getting the worst of the exchange. The Egyptian gunners failed a morale test and fled the field, leaving our infantrymen to fend for themselves. This, of course, was the moment the Mahdists launched their charge.sudan-005There’s a saying that any fool can fire a gun, and this held true for our Remington-armed Egyptian foot. They blazed away at the approaching Mahdists, and first one enemy unit was stopped and routed, and then another. and then a third. Things were starting to look up. The Egyptians just had their second line of three units, and their gun. Surely we could repeat our success? At that point my rather cocky Egyptian co-commander decided to launch his cavalry charge. The Egyptian horsemen had already taken casualties from the Mahdist gun, and so it sort of made sense to launch them into the attack. Unfortunately the Dervish mob stood their ground, and in the ensuing melee our cavalry were broken and routed. Still, we had seven units left, to their four units and a gun. The odds were on our side – or so it looked.sudan-014That’s when the second wave hit us. Two units of Dervishes raced forward – they rolled very good movement dice – and smashed into our line. Our raw troops broke immediately, leaving two great holes in our firing line – with angry Dervishes pouring through them. We had to do a morale test, which for Raw troops has a 50/50 chance of success. We failed all three “friends routing” tests, ad our beleaguered infantry garnered a healthy crop of disorder markers. Over on our right we saw off one more Mahdist unit, but now our chances of survival were pretty slim. We ran out of time – in the nick of time – just as the Dervishes were about to roll up our remaining Egyptian troops. Historically we did well – better than Hicks’ army had historically – but in the end our untrained little army fell apart, and victory was granted to the Mahdists. For this game we used the new(ish) Chris Peers’ rules Death in the Dark Continent, which worked fairly smoothly, and seemed to capture the flavour of the period. Next time though, I’ll let someone else take charge of the hapless Egyptians!sudan-010

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