The Wickes Expedition: Hunting Osman DogmaPosted: July 30, 2013
In the aftermath of the death of General Gordon in Khartoum, the Egyptians and British withdrew from most of the Sudan. They did, however, retain some small enclaves on the Red Sea coast, and amongst these was the small port of Tewfpik. A small garrison of Egyptian troops, led by Colonel Cuthbert Wickes, maintained an uneasy peace in the town and its hinterland.
The garrison was under constant threat of attack by Mahdist forces led by Osman Dogma and his trusted lieutenants Omar Gourd and Emir Baggar-Tel, and what later became known as ‘The Wickes Expedition’ arose because of increasing Egyptian (and thus British) disquiet about the depredations wreaked upon the area by the Mahdists.
Chapter 2 – Colonel Cuthbert Wickes
Colonel Cuthbert Wickes was a brave, genial, middle-aged but somewhat unimaginative man who was held in high regard in Cairo for his ability to handle poor-quality native troops. He had gained this reputation during earlier campaigns in the Sudan, where he had raised a group of irregular Arab riflemen who had harassed Mahdist operations. His skills were recognised, and he was promoted from the rank of Captain (Yuzbashi) to Colonel (Miralai) in the Egyptian Army.
Colonel Wickes was not, however, happy with his lot in life. He had only joined the Egyptian Army because he felt that his humble origins – he was the only son of a prosperous Norwood builder – had hampered his progress in the British Army. This had left him resentful of the influence of younger, more senior officers who served in Egyptian Army Headquarters in Cairo, and had clouded his otherwise sound judgment on several occasions in recent years. Wickes was, however, a basically sound officer, and he was the obvious choice to lead the punitive expedition against Osman Dogma’s Mahdist forces.
Chapter 3 – The Wickes Expedition
It was the arrival of Arnold Hack, then roving correspondent of “The London Weekly Enquirer”, in Tewfpik that forced the Egyptians and British to take action against Osman Dogma. Having obtained permission from Colonel Wickes to accompany a cavalry patrol into the hinterland, Hack went to several native villages that had been ‘visited’ by the Mahdists. What he saw appalled him. The Mahdists had taken everything they could – including food, young women, and all the able-bodied men – under the pretext of ‘taxing’ the villagers. Those that remained were starving to death.
As soon as he had returned from the patrol Hack sent a cabled report about what he had seen to his London office. The report made front page news, and the Opposition asked questions in the House of Commons about Government policy relating to the capture and defeat of Osman Dogma. Stung by this, the Prime Minister ordered the Sirdar to take action. Within a week of Hack’s report appearing on the pages of “The London Weekly Enquirer” reinforcements had been sent to Tewfpik, and Colonel Wickes was ordered to mount a punitive expedition against Osman Dogma.
Dogma and his Mahdists were believed to be based in and around the town of Dahmot, and Wickes decided to march on the town with all available troops. His intention was to surprise the Mahdists and to defeat them in open battle.
The troops available to Colonel Wickes included:
- 21st Egyptian Infantry Battalion
- 22nd Egyptian Infantry Battalion
- 16th Egyptian Cavalry Squadron
- 11th Egyptian Artillery Battery
- 12th Egyptian Gatling Gun Battery
Chapter 4 – The first day
After a delayed start, the Wickes Expedition marched westward from Tewfpik towards Dahmot. The column was led by the Egyptian Cavalry Squadron, with Colonel Wickes and his Staff following immediately behind. The main body of the column was formed by the two Egyptian Infantry Battalions, and the advance was covered on the left flank by the Egyptian Artillery and Gatling Gun Batteries.
The force made slow progress during the first day, and had only managed to march half the distance Colonel Wickes had planned to cover before nightfall.
Despite this set-back there had been no sign of the Mahdist forces, and as the column began to form square and make camp for the night Colonel Wickes confided to his diary that he fully expected to make a surprise attack on Osman Dogma’s army early on the next morning.
Chapter 5 – The first night and the second morning
Colonel Wickes’s confidence that he had stolen a march on Osman Dogma was misplaced. During the night the sentries became aware of movement just beyond the area lit by their watch fires, and their nervousness resulted in a constant stream of alerts and ‘stand to’s’. As a result none of the Egyptian soldiers got more than a few minutes sleep during that first night in the desert.
As morning broke the members of the expeditionary force fully expected to see themselves surrounded by Mahdist troops, but to their amazement the desert appeared empty. There were signs that a large body of troops had passed close by during the night, but it appeared that they had moved off.
Colonel Wickes knew that all chance of surprise was now lost and suspected that a trap had been laid. He was about to order a withdrawal to Tewfpik so that reinforcements could be gathered together to mount a much larger operation against Osman Dogma, when he chanced to hear a remark that made him change his mind. A young officer – Lieutenant the Honourable Ronald Crawley – who had newly joined the Colonel’s Staff as Quartermaster at the direct request Egyptian Army Headquarters, was speaking to another member of the Staff – Lieutenant Marmaduke Tiptree – about the possibility of Colonel Wickes ordering a withdrawal. In reply to Lieutenant Tiptree’s comment that they were lucky to have the Colonel in charge because knew what he was doing, Lieutenant Crawley replied that “What else would you expect from a tradesman’s son? That sort have no backbone for a fight!”. This so enraged the Colonel that he immediately changed his mind and ordered camp to be broken prior to continuing the advance on Dahmot.
Although this major lapse in judgment was to have a profound effect upon course of the battle that followed, the Colonel was sufficiently in control of his temper to order his force to form two mutually supporting squares. Although this would slow the advance even further, it would ensure that if a trap was sprung his troops would be well placed to fight off any attacks.
Chapter 6 – The Mahdists attack
Shortly after the Egyptians resumed their advance towards Dahmot the Mahdists attacked. A group of Jiadia Riflemen and a battery of ancient but nonetheless deadly muzzle-loading Artillery, led by Omar Gourd, attacked the left side of the 21st Egyptian Infantry Battalion’s square. At the same time a mixed force of Baggara and Hadendowa Infantry, led by Emir Baggar-Tel debouched from the nearby ‘deserted’ village, and struck the right side of the 22nd Egyptian Infantry Battalion’s square.
The Egyptian Cavalry had failed to carry out a proper reconnaissance of their line of advance, and they were also attacked without warning. They were outnumbered seven-to-one by Baggara Cavalry and Camelry, and although not surrounded they were forced to make a fighting retreat towards the two Infantry squares.
Osman Dogma had retained a large reserve of Baggara and Hadendowa Infantry in Dahmot, and as the main attacks on the Egyptian Infantry squares developed he led these troops forward into battle.
At first the Egyptian Infantry held their own, and supported by their Artillery and Gatling Guns they inflicted substantial casualties upon their attackers. However it soon became apparent that the supply of rifle ammunition in the 21st Egyptian Infantry Battalion’s square was running low, and that the Quartermaster – Lieutenant the Honourable Ronald Crawley – had placed the ammunition reserve inside the 22nd Egyptian Infantry Battalion’s square. Furthermore, Lieutenant Crawley could do nothing to sort the situation out because he, along with Colonel Wickes and the rest of the Staff, had been caught outside the Infantry squares and were themselves fighting for their lives.
Chapter 7 – The destruction of the Wickes Expedition
As the 21st Egyptian Infantry Battalion began to run out of ammunition its square began to collapse. Seeing that nothing could be done to save it, the 12th Egyptian Gatling Gun Battery that accompanied it, or his own Commander and his Staff, the Commanding Officer of the 22nd Egyptian Infantry Battalion – Bimbashi (Major) Ahmed Bey – ordered his Battalion and the 11th Egyptian Artillery Battery to make a fighting withdrawal towards Tewfpik.
As the surviving Egyptians slowly but surely retreated towards Tewfpik they could see the final destruction of the 21st Egyptian Infantry Battalion and the 12th Egyptian Gatling Gun Battery. They also observed the final moments of Colonel Wickes’s life. With his horse shot from under him, he stood back-to-back with his young Quartermaster, firing his pistol and slashing at his attackers with his sword. Then both men were seen to disappear from sight, and a few moments later their severed heads were raised above the attacking throng on spears.
Now that over half the Egyptian force had been overcome, and with his reserve as yet uncommitted, Osman Dogma ordered his troops forward. Ahmed Bey foresaw this move, and he formed his troops into line so as to maximize their firepower. The combined effect of several minutes of intense rifle fire and Shrapnel shell deterred any further Mahdist attacks, and as night fell the remnants of the Wickes Expedition withdrew forlornly into Tewfpik.
The troops featured in the photographs are 15mm-scale Essex Miniatures figures. They were painted by MILI-ART. The buildings and sailing vessels are home-made from FIMO™, the trees are Small Palm Trees supplied by Essex Miniatures, the terrain is made from cork floor tiles, the Red Sea is made from Solid Marine Marley self adhesive floor tiles, and the hills and mountains are home-made from plywood, cork tiles, white glue, Dulux matt emulsion paint, and various scenic scatter materials.
The rules used were SCWaRes (Simple Colonial Wargames Rules), which use a zonal movement and weapon range system.