ln 1881, in the Sudan, a leader emerged as if from out of the sands. He was a man of the desert, a mystic and a man of God. His name was Muhammad Ahmad and claimed to be the “Expected One”, the true “Mahdi”. He soon gathered a force of followers from the desert tribes, and declared jihad.
The Mahdi’s Army grew and his revolt spread. The Dervishes (as they came to be known) captured towns and defeated small Egyptian forces sent to destroy them.
Then, in 1883, the Turkish governor of Egypt hired William “Billy” Hicks, a retired British Colonel and several British subordinates to lead a modern army into the Sudan and crush the Mahdi. Hicks Pasha had at his disposal 10,000 regular infantry armed with modern rifles, 1,000 irregular cavalry, 14 field pieces and 6 Nordenfelt multiple barrel machine guns.
On paper it was an imposing force. But the infantry had been recruited from pardoned rebels and the cavalry were undisciplined bashibazouks. In the words of Winston Churchill, it was “perhaps the worst army that has ever marched to war”: unpaid, untrained, undisciplined, its soldiers having more in common with their enemies than with their officers.
The Mahdi awaited them, with 40,000 spear and sword-armed tribesmen. They had few rifles and no field guns; but they had something perhaps even greater. The Mahdi promised them a miracle, and they believed him.
They also knew the desert.