The Sudan Military Railway

The story of Kitchener's 1896-98 Reconquest of the Sudan is of course well documented. Herbert Horatio Kitchener the giant driving force, the newly trained Egyptian/Sudanese Infantry and the great British Tommy.

The decisive weapon that was used was The Sudan Military Railway, Victorian writers had described it as the greatest weapon ever forged against Mahdism. Its a long detailed and fascinating story and too important to be omitted from this Sudan Special, so I have attempted to give a concise and readable account of it.

The opportunity for the Reconquest came during March 1896 when an Italian army was routed by the Abyssinians at Adowa in Eritrea - see SOTQ 86. The British Government saw that this might encourage the Khalifa to re-start attacks on Suakin and the Egyptian frontier. If Italy was crushed in Africa her European partners would be weakened, thus creating an imbalance with France and Russia. France did seize the opportunity which culminated in the Fashoda incident - see SOTQ 90. Italy asked for Britain's help to relieve Kassala, with a diversion up the Nile. Britain saw this as an opportunity to forestall Dervish aggression and to extend her influence south.

Kitchener who had been appointed Sirdar of the Egyptian Army in 1892 was ordered to advance up the Nile and recapture the province of Dongola. To do this Kitchener needed the existing Wadi Haifa to Kerma railway line. After the Sudan was abandoned in 1886 the Dervishes had bent, twisted and torn up much of the line and burnt the sleepers for firewood.

The line was in need of replacement and repair as far north as Sarras. Kitchener had found the answer to the problem in the growing reputation of a Royal Engineer - Edouard Percy Cranwell Girouard.

Girouard was born in Canada and was fluent in English and French from an early age. He was a good Col. Sir Edouard PercyCranwell Girouard,K.C.M.G., D.S.O. lateRoyal Engineersstudent, receiving a sound education at the Royal Military College. In the small class that he had led, it had won prizes in military history, strategy, tactics, reconnaisance, administration and law. During summer vacations he had worked on Canadian railroads. After four years at R.M.C, he was offered a commission in the British Infantry in 1886, which he declined due to a disagreement with his father who wanted him to follow a career in law. He compromised by accepting employment with the Canadian Pacific Railway until they could agree on his future.

After two years as a junior civil engineer, and only twenty years old, he learned of a limited number of commissions in the Royal Engineers being offered in Britain. He applied, was accepted and in 1888 took passage to England. He trained at Chatham, ran the Royal Arsenal railway, continued to study, and gained himself the reputation as an imaginative railroader.

Kitchener after meeting Girouard in London, arranged for his transfer to the Egyptian Army and railway. Girouard now known as "Gerry" was high spirited, handsome and cheerful, and spoke his mind - a man after the Sirdar's own heart. On one occasion Kitchener had taken command of a slow heavily laden train, ordered the latter half detached and the driver to "Go like hell". After a hairaising journey and arriving in record time Kitchener exclaimed, "What a terrible terrible, dreadful journey we have had Girouard". Gerry adjusted his monocle before replying with his lazy smile, "You'll break the record and your own ruddy neck one day". Kitchener flushing with rage quickly cooled, he could not be angry with Girouard for long, who was his favourite, privileged and indispensable Director of Railways.

Sudan Engine “Kassala” In March 1896 Girouard got stuck into repairs and relaying the tracks, and by June the army which had advanced with the line defeated the Dervishes at Firket. Kitchener's first phase of the Reconquest was a success. Girouard had had his problems, there were delays at first, as the labour force largely Egyptian and Sudanese navvies, included convicts and prisoners. Laziness, dishonesty, stupidity and the intelligent were all intermixed. The intelligent learned quickly and Girouard formed a school to educate them at Wadi Haifa. They were supervised by technicians from many nations and guarded by an Egyptian infantry battalion. 

Girouard suffered sunstroke, and the Egyptian army and railway engineers suffered a cholera outbreak. They worked in heat of 109° - 116° in the shade, and a massive storm washed away twelve miles of track. This was replaced by Girouard and Kitchener with five thousand men working day and night for a week.

Now that Dongola was reached by the railway, Kitchener went to London for further orders, and in The Sudan ExpressNovember 1896 the advance to Khartoum was sanctioned.

Kitchener faced strong opposition from all the "experts", to the idea of a desert military railway from Wadi Haifa towards Khartoum. The land was hostile, there was no water, nothing like it had ever been attempted through an ocean of sand, it was madness. Kitchener over ruIed all this and began. Girouard had begun with his lists and plans ever bearing in mind the cost, and had gone to England for essential equipment. There he met Cecil-Rhodes who was buying for the Cape Railways, and borrowed several heavy engines from him. Rhodes was happy to lend them. Kitchener had forced the decision of using the 3' 6" broader gauge, and it would seem that he had a hidden agenda. This gauge matched with Rhodes' imperial dream of a Cape to Cairo railway!

Kitchener's "Band of Boys" under Girouard drove the first spike on New Years Day 1897, and construction began. The experience of the former work was now beginning to pay off, and the workmen were progressing faster. The workshops at Wadi Haifa were the industrial heart of the whole enterprise working day and night. Water was discovered at two points along the route, and wells were sunk at 77 and 126 miles from Wadi Haifa, a tremendous advantage. Gerry in his small rail-car converted to an office, was up and down the line giving advice, praising, criticizing and encouraging.

Delays were mainly due to faulty machinery and inexperienced drivers who played havoc with elderly engines in desert conditions. A major problem occurred when a leading train had a broken axle and blocked the line, causing a rail-gang to be marooned without water. Lieutenant Newcombe RE. had the reputation as a remover of wreckage, he completed a diversion within 24 hours bringing the much needed water. Canvas towns housed the men, and the small wayside stations where trains drew coal and water, were stored under an Egyptian corporal's guard.

The gangs in the desert would see each morning the small shimmering dot of the material train on the horizon, gradually coming ever nearer tooting its whistle. Arriving with its own water, water for the men, 2 thousand yards of rails, sleepers and accessories. At noon the next supply train arrived with water, food, letters, newspapers, sausages and jam, whisky, soda-water and the "cigaretter", which as Churchill noted "enabled the Briton to conquer the world without discomfort."

Up to three miles of track a day was now being laid and on the 7 August 1897 when Abu Hamed was captured, 100 miles of line had been completed. Kitchener, the man in a hurry put the pressure on to complete the 120 miles to Abu Hamed quickly, and this was done by the end of October. Established at Abu Hamed the force learned of the unexpected evacuation of Berber by the Dervishes. Kitchener was now temporarily halted having only enough material to go another seventeen miles. The force now remained stationary until January 1898. Kitchener in the meantime obtained the final sanction to advance on Khartoum, and Girouard ordered more material to be rushed from Britain.

On the 8 April 1898 the Battle of Atbara was fought, and by then the line was only 25 miles from Berber and 48 from the Atbara battlefield itself. Girouard completed the line to the railhead at Atbara by 3 July having laid 385 miles from Wadi Haifa.

Apart from supplying itself, the railway had brought the army, supplies, horses and three new gunboats in sections - the Melik, Sultan and Sheikh. Those who travelled in comparative comfort by rail must have reflected on the suffering of the Gordon Relief Expedition that had toiled across the Bayuda desert in 1885.

Girouard's rapid construction across the impossible was an engineering record of modern times, and had confounded the critics. The railway had brought Kitchener to the heart of the Sudan and the inevitable was about to begin.


Our Sudan, its Pyramids and Progress, John Ward 1905

Royal Engineers in the Sudan, E.W.C. Sandes 1937

Kitchener's Army, Owen S. Watkins 1899

The River War, Winston Churchill 1899

Omdurman Diaries, John Meredith 1998

A Good Dusting, Henry Keown-Boyd 1986

Khartoum Campaign, Bennet Burleigh 1899

War on the Nile, Michael Barthorp 1984

Omdurman, Philip Ziegler 1973

The Egyptian Sudan, Alford and Sword 1898

Canadians on the Nile, McClaren 1978.

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen', issue 94

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