The last of the Redcoats?
The battle of Ginnis, 30th December 1885.
by Peter Duckers
Medal collectors often seem uninterested in “no bar” medals for campaigns where a number of clasps were issued for “signifciant” actions. There are plenty of “no bar” medals on the market, for example for the Indian Mutiny or the second Afghan War, to name but two. But as a little research shows, a “no bar” medal can represent quite extensive and “active” service even if their recipient was not fortunate (?) enough to be involved in the major actions of a campaign.
A good example is the Egypt Medal of 1882-91, which was issued with the large number of 13 separate clasps covering 1882-89, most representing major actions justifiably chosen for recognition. Many more were awarded without clasp – for example, for offshore naval operations or for service in the Alexandria garrison during the 1882 campaign.
But not all the medals without clasp are necessarily uninterestng; several engagements fought during the Egypt/Sudan operations gained no recognition with a medal clasp – Sarras and Hasheen being but two. Another was the battle fought on the Egyptian fronier near Ginnis in December 1885.
After the disaster of the fall of Khartoum in January 1885, it looked as if the British might continue operations deep in the Sudan, to recapture Khartoum and to destroy the state established by Mohamed Ahmed, “the Mahdi”. But it was not to be. The small British expeditionary force under Sir Garnet Wolseley, which had failed to relieve Gordon, was far too small and dangerously isolated and besides, an anti-imperialist Liberal government under William Gladstone had no desire to enage in expensive Sudanese adventures. The growing issue with Russia over the Afghan frontier (the “Penjdeh Crisis”) was a suitable excuse to end British intervention in the Sudan, to concetrate immediately on the Indian frontier.
As an immediate result, British forces were withdrawn from the Sudan and fell back to the Egyptian border, essentially no further south than Wadi Halfa; Gladstone’s government, however opposed to expensive imperial interventions still had to defend Egypt, as did his Tory successor, Lord Salisbury. The Mahdi himself had died as recently as June 1885 but under his successor the Khalifa Abdullah el Taaishi, the Dervish army rapidly pressed on northwards and by the autumn of 1885, the Egyptian frontier itself was being probed by Mahdist raids.
Along the frontier a series of forts and fortified villages represented the boundary of Brtish influence and some soon came under attack. In November, the British presence on the frontier was reinforced at Wadi Halfa, Akasheh, Dal and Firket – the 1st Berkshires and 1st Yorkshires initially going to Wadi Halfa, later joined by the 2nd Durham LI and 1st West Kents. One of the threatened border forts was on the Nile near the town of Kosheh, where two companies of the Cameron Highlanders and two of the 9th Sudanese were stationed. In December, thousands of Dervishes began raiding in the vicinity of Kosheh and Ginnis, taking control of both villages and effectively besieged Kosheh fort and, for a time, its small outlier at Mograkeh. Sorties from the garrison and machine-gun fire from the Nile steamer Lotus helped to fend off the attacks, though with some losses to the Camerons.
The British command in Egypt became concerned about the siege and the raids and eventually the commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Stephenson, arrived at Wadi Halfa to begin operations to clear the Ginnis frontier zone, with Major General Francis Grenfell as his chief-of-staff. They concentrated a force of two infantry brigades and a cavalry brigade to do the job.
The Egyptian Frontier Force:
First Brigade, commanded by Major General W. F. Butler CB :
1st Royal West Kent Regiment
2nd Durham Light Infantry
Egyptian artillery battery, escorted by sixty Egyptian troops
Second Brigade under Col. A. G. Huyshe CB:
1st Yorkshire Regiment (four companies)
Cameron Highlanders (six companies)
9th Sudanese – detachment of 152 soldiers
1st Egyptian Battalion (detachment : 278 men)
2/1 South Irish Div., RA – mule-drawn screw battery, under Lt. Col. Whateley
Detachments from both the British and Egyptian Camel Corps.
Three machine guns manned by 30 men of 1st Yorkshires.
Cavalry Brigade under Colonel Blake :
One Troop of 20th Hussars
Detachment of the Egyptian Camel Corps.
One British Mounted Infantry company
57 Egyptian cavalry.
The cavalry reached the Ginnis area first and there was some skirmishing between the 20th Hussars with the Egyptian Camel Corps and the Dervishes near Mograkeh fort on 22nd December which forced the cavalry to retire. But on the 29th, the main Anglo-Egyptian force arrived on the scene and camped between the Kosheh and Mograkeh forts, effectively raising the siege of the former and forcing the Dervishes back to the two villages.
The operation that followed next day, 30th December 1885, effectively devolved into two separate actions – the 2nd Brigade’s attack on Kosheh and Ginnis and the 1st Brigade’s attack on the main Mahdist position south of Gennis; both columns would converge on the Mahdist camp itelf, backing onto the Nile near Ginnis.
At 5.00 a.m. on the morning of 30th, the Anglo-Egyptian force marched out of its bivouac to attack and disperse the Dervishes. The First Brigade began the advance, led by the 20th Hussars and Camel Corps, with the Second Brigade following. The Second Brigade came into action first. It took up positions overlooking Kosheh, while the fort garrison of Cameron Highlanders and 9th Sudanese, seizing the opportunity, sortied out along the banks of the Nile and stormed the village.
On the Nile itself, the stern-wheel paddle steamer Lotus, which had mounted a Gardner machine-gun, reported that a large body of Dervishes was moving out of Ginnis in the direction of the 1st Brigade. The Camerons and 9th Sudanese, followed by the whole Second Brigade and covered by the Royal Artillery battery and the machine-gun of the Lotus, fought their way through Kosheh and moved along the banks of the Nile, heading straight for the village of Ginnis and the Dervish camp beyond.
As the Second Brigade pushed through sand dunes and riverside palm groves towards Ginnis, Dervish riflemen opened a long-range and relatively inaccurate fire on the First Brigade, then swinging slightly southwards to attack the main Dervish defensive position in low rolling hills south of the village. Hidden spearmen attacked the advancing Camel Corps, which was forced to withdraw, but the 2nd Durham Light Infantry moved rapidly forward and drove off the Dervish attack at bayonet point. The first Brigade then took up its battle positions for an assault on the Dervish lines.
As the First Brigade prepared to attack the main Dervish position south of Ginnis, the Second Brigade fought its way into and through the town itself. By then, the First Brigade had gone into action and quickly forced the Dervishes to retreat westwards and fall back into the Atab Defile, from where Grenfell ordered Colonel Blake’s cavalry to dislodge the Arabs. The Mounted Infantry took the defile at the point of the bayonet and a general cavalry pursuit began. But Blake had to halt his exhausted men and the main body of the Dervishes fled unmolested into the desert, as the two Anglo-Egyptian brigades concetrated at Ginnis.
As the 1st Egyptian Battalion marched through Ginnis, the men noticed that some Dervishes, probably seeking shelter during the retreat, had hidden, with their weapons, in a mud house. With a screw gun from the RA battery covering them, the Egyptians stormed the house, an encounter that marked the end of the battle in the villages. Over the next few days, cavalry and Camel Corps patrols, supported on the river by the Lotus, combed the surrounding area. Apart from desultory skirmishes into early January (in which a few men were wounded), it was soon clear that the Dervish forces were in full retreat southwards, back into the desert.
Although now largely forgotten, Ginnis was in many ways a signal victory. It effectively ended the first Sudan or Mahdist Campaign and definitely halted the previously unstoppable Dervish advance on Egypt itself. However, it would take a number of separate defensive actions between 1885-95 and a full-scale campaign in 1896-98 to bring the Sudan firmly under Anglo-Egyptian rule. The main Dervish resistance was ended by the major Battle of Omdurman in September 1898, though small-scale actions continued in the southern Sudan for some years after that.
As well as having this real signifcance, the action at Ginnis was first occasion when the British army served alongside units the newly-recreated Egyptian army (the old one having been largely destroyed by the British at Tel-el-Kebir in 1882 and dismantled afterwards); their conduct, and that of the associated Sudanese units, was warmly praised and the first DSOs – newly instituted then – were awarded to some British and Egyptian officers for this action.
It is also interesting that as late as the end of 1885, British infantry went into action dressed in their familiar scarlet tunics, with white sun helmets, the Egyptians wearing white or khaki uniforms, with many Egyptian officers in their traditional blue jackets. It has been said that this use of the old British army colour was deliberate – an attempt to play on the reputation of the “redcoats” to impress the Dervishes; Gordon himself had asked for the Khartoum relief force to wear red because of its “morale effect” on the enemy.
One final issue is why the battle was not commemorated by its own clasp. That it should have been was widely thought at the time, so much so that the matter was raised in the House of Commons. The Liberal Secretary for War in 1886, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (later to be Prime Minister), responded to a question on the subject with the strange reply that since the battle had cost so few British and Egyptian casualties, it was not deemed fitting to issue a separate clasp. That a significant victory should be relatively bloodless is a strange way to look the matter! There were plenty of other British campaigns which fitted that bill – Hazara 1868, Red River 1870 and Ashanti 1896 to name only three – but were nevertheless accorded a distinctive clasp or even medal. It may simply be that the Gladstone Liberal governments of 1885 and 1886 and the Salisbury Tory administration that briefly came between them were less than interested in matters in the distant Sudan – Ireland being the key concern at that date – and, since Britain’s direct involvement now seemed to be over, they were happy to let the matter quietly drop from sight.
The undated Egypt medal without clasp was, however, specially authorised for those who had served “at or to the south of Wady Halfa between 30th November 1885 and 11th January 1886”. Thus the men of Ginnis received (if they had not already earned one) the usual Egypt medal, undated, without clasp, and the Khedive’s Star dated 1884-86. Some, of course, may have already qualified for the dated 1882 medal or later undated medal with clasps for earlier actions. Collectors may, however, find on looking closely at the careers of men whose Egypt medals they have, that they were in fact participants in the battle which finally stayed the Dervish advance towards Egypt and brought to a close – for a time at least – a whole chapter in British involvement in the Sudan. Such a medal would make an interesting find!
16th Dec. nr Kosheh 707 l.Cpl. Mackie, Cam. Hldrs – sl. wounded
1141 Pte. Drinkwater, Cam. Hldrs – sl. wounded
464 Pte. J. Stanley Cam. Hldrs – sl. wounded
17th Dec. 272 Pte. David Mackenzie – Cam. Hldrs –died of wounds same day
228 Pte. Wm. Anderson – Cam. Hldrs – sev. wounded
[the above were presumably part of the garrison at Kosheh fort.]
30th Dec. at Ginnis 1666 Pte. F. Kerley, 20th Hussars – sev. wounded
1001 Pte. W. Major, Mtd. Inf. – severely wded
Lt. Sotau, Berks – killed in action
Lt. Wigan, Berks – wounded
180 Pte. W. Bunter, Berks – wounded
7 Pte. J. Harper, Berks. – wounded
699 Pte. R. Paddeck, Berks. – wounded (died)
81 Pte. A. Bonny, Berks. – wounded
2259 Pte A. Askill, Berks. – sl. wounded
2377 Pte. W. Smith, Berks. – wounded
2792 Pte. J. Burke, West Kents – wounded
338 Cpl. Baker, Durham LI – wounded
13 Cpl. J. O’Donnell, Durham LI – wounded
188 Pte. S. Mason, Durham LI – wounded (died)
1291 Pte. H. Crapson, Durham LI – wounded
573 Pte. J. Jones, Yorks Regt – wounded
560 Pte. J. Stevenson, Cameron Hldrs – wounded.
960 Pte. J. Thompson, Cameron Hldrs – wounded
1296 Pte. J. Smith, Cameron Hldrs – wounded
1622 Pte. W. Nathan, Cameron Hldrs – wounded
1413 Pte. W. Foulkes, Cameron Hldrs – wounded
1456 Pte. – Harris, Cameron Hldrs – wounded
144 Pte. J. Redfern, Cameron Hldrs – wounded
Lt. Moh. Hamdy, 1st Egyptian Battn – wounded
Lt. Said Redwan, Egyptian Camel Corps – wounded.
Lt. Mowsam Hamonda, Egyptian Camel Corps – wounded.
Lt. Farnham Effendi, 9th Sudanese Battn., wounded
And 11 Egyptian Other Ranks, unnamed.
Official dispatches giving an account of the operations appear in The London Gazette for 9.2.1886; there are also good accounts in The Times on December 31st 1885 and Jan., 20th 1886, with many interesting smaller reports on other local operations around those dates.