With just five weeks to go before the publication of my pre-WW1 espionage thriller, Now the Darkness Gathers, here is a taster of what to expect. I will add another chapter nearer the time. I hope you enjoy reading this and will feed tempted to buy the book on publication from Amazon as an e-book or paperback.
Sir Herbert Kitchener, Sirdar of the Egyptian Army, seemed pleased to receive the two scruffy Dervishes and had even offered them hospitality. This struck his aide-de-camp as odd. Both visitors were dressed in the manner of the followers of the Mahdi, that is barefoot and semi-naked apart from the curious headgear, and yet they had claimed to be British officers. The ADC found this hard to credit, given the disgustingly black colour of their skin, and yet they both spoke faultless English with no accent. There was, also, something disconcerting about the taller of the two. He was probably three or four inches taller even than his own height of six feet, but it was not his tallness that commanded obedience. It was the eyes. They were deep-set and dark, like two railway tunnels. Meeting the stare, the ADC had felt he had been looking into the stygian darkness of Hades itself. Somehow he had felt compelled to announce the visitors to his general, despite his disquiet. Now the Sirdar had asked to be left alone with his guests and the chief of intelligence, Colonel Wingate. Something was up.
‘How certain are you of this information?’ Kitchener asked of the tall naval commander seated before him in the disguise of a Mahdi warrior.
‘We cannot guarantee any of it,’ William Miller replied. ‘But Lieutenant Kensett and I are very confident that the attack tomorrow will be a feint. Al-Taashi’s real intention is to lure your army into the Surgham Hills where his main army will await you. He has 17,000 men there and another 20,000 of his followers further to the north-west … about here, behind the Kerreri Hills.’ Miller stabbed a finger on the map spread out between him and the general.’
‘But you have your doubts, Miller?’ Kitchener had dozens of agents in Omdurman and Khartoum, but these two officers from the Royal Naval Brigade were his best. Miller had his own network of spies that had penetrated the inner circle of the Khalifa, Abdullah al-Taashi, and the intelligence provided so far had been vital as the Egyptian Army had made its slow, but steady, progress down the Nile.
‘No, sir. Not on that score. We just haven’t been able to penetrate the army of Muhammed Sherif, the commander of the Army of the Red Flag. He’s the one protecting al-Taashi’s right flank between the Surgham Hills and the Nile. We’ve discovered very little about the strength or disposition of his forces.’
Kitchener slowly stroked his moustache and studied the map for the hundredth time. His army of about 25,000 troops was centred on the village of El Egeiga with its back to the Nile and the precious navy gunboats and transports that made up his fleet train. He knew he was outnumbered by the Mahdi troops, but he had more modern weaponry, including field artillery and Maxim guns. His troops would also be trying out for the first time in battle the new hollow-point bullets made in the arsenal at Dum Dum. He was confident of victory in daylight, but he worried about a surprise attack by night. He would not then be able to maximise his technological advantage.
Whilst Kitchener deliberated, Wingate offered the two naval officers a cup of thick coffee. Miller tasted it and immediately winced.
‘Is the coffee not to your liking, old boy?’ Wingate asked suspiciously.
‘I’m sorry. I find it too sweet, that’s all. I suppose over the last couple of months I’ve become more used to the Sudanese style.’
‘It’s fine by me, sir,’ Kensett cut in. ‘I find the sweetness quite refreshing in this heat.’
Kitchener interrupted the social pleasantries. ‘Wingate, what have you to say about this information?’
Wingate paused before replying. ‘It seems fairly consistent with what I’ve heard from other sources, sir, in terms of the numbers. My understanding is that the Khalifa has split his forces into five forces and I suppose Azrak’s attack might be a feint.’
‘But why not make a surprise attack tonight? If al-Taashi waits until dawn, we’ll murder his Ansar.’
‘I honestly don’t know, sir. I think you have to trust to the information from Commander Miller, sir.’
‘Sir,’ Miller interceded. ‘Whilst our information suggests the attack will be at dawn, I see your difficulty and have a suggestion to make. Why not bring up the gunboats closer and use their searchlights to sweep the line of your overnight defences? You could land a few lights in key positions, too. If al-Taashi’s men do have any thoughts of a night attack, it will make them think twice about presenting an easy target for your pickets.’
Kitchener looked across to Wingate questioningly. Wingate just shrugged in reply and pursed his lips non-committally. Kitchener made his decision. ‘Very well, gentlemen. I will discuss it with Commander Keppel.’
Lieutenant Winston Churchill felt the thrill of battle course through his veins. Up to now the infantry and artillery had had the best of the battle. At dawn, the Dervishes had swept down the hills and past the front of the Anglo-Egyptian army position. Then they had turned and launched a full-frontal assault on the defending army. It had been carnage. The superior firepower of the British had mown down the Mahdists in their thousands. The attack was shattered and the savages were withdrawing from the battlefield. After four hours of watching the infantry and gunners gain all the glory, Lieutenant Colonel Martin, the Commanding Officer of the 21st Lancers, had just received orders to cut off the enemy’s retreat across the plain to Omdurman.
As his squadron commander followed the colonel’s lead in increasing the pace of the pursuit, from a walk to the trot, Churchill found the noise amusing. Kitted out for all eventualities in the desert, the troopers’ pots and pans clanked in a cacophony of noise. It was a bizarre sight and odd musical accompaniment to war, he thought. Some of the wags in his troop had described it as ‘Christmas Tree Order’. It didn’t matter. After decades of inaction in India, the 21st Lancers were going into a fight. No longer would the rest of the army mock them that their regimental motto should be: ‘Thou shall not kill’.
He reined back his Syrian mare. She, too, was being caught up with the infectious excitement of going into battle and had trotted too close to the squadron commander ahead. Like Churchill, beads of sweat ran down her head, attracting the flies. Ahead, he saw the enemy for the first time. A few hundred Mahdists were in full flight, but others were being made to halt and turn to face the oncoming cavalry. The colonel and squadron commanders had seen them, too, and without orders the regiment increased its pace to a canter. The horsemen began to spread out and Churchill’s squadron was to the left of the others, only a few hundred yards from the bank of the Nile.
The horses’ hooves kicked up whirls of dust and Churchill had to turn his head to one side to spit out the sand that was clogging his throat. Or was this the dryness of fear? He had heard fellow officers of his earlier regiment, the 4th Hussars, talk of parched throats on entering battle. He saw a red flag fluttering on the crest of a ridge before him and a file of Dervishes armed with rifles, swords and spears in a ragged line abreast it. He was close enough to make out the square, black patches sewn on the front of their white tunics. He glanced across his right shoulder and saw the sunshine reflecting off a forest of lances and drawn sabres. It was a magnificent sight. This was the way to fight a battle. Not for the 21st Lancers the impersonal firing of lead and shrapnel from a range of several hundred yards. This would be point against flesh, although he had opted for a Mauser pistol in preference to the sabre. The pounding of the hooves of hundreds of horses at the canter seemed to reverberate in unison. He suddenly found the smell of horse, sweat and leather intoxicating. This was the thrill he had always craved since his childhood.
Some of the Mahdists opened fire on the approaching cavalry and he could make out the bearded faces of his enemy about 200 years ahead, just as he heard the trumpet major sound the three ‘Gs’ from his bugle, the signal for the regiment to charge. There was no time to feel fear. The adrenalin took over and, as one, the regiment began the gallop.
Within seconds, the 350 lancers swept through the line of Dervishes, overwhelming them as waves pour over the beach. Then Churchill discovered their horrible mistake.
The ridge was in fact the bank of a khor, a dry watercourse four to six feet deep and in which were carefully hidden thousands of angry Dervishes. The 21st had been drawn into an ambush. With only a slight stumble, his mount found her footing, but was hemmed in by the seething mass of Dervishes feverishly stabbing at the lancers and horses with their spears and short swords. All around him he could see green or white banners covered in the strange script of the Orient and, at the far end of the water course, more Mahdist troops joining the battle. Several lancers had been unhorsed by the fall into the khor and were being hacked to death without mercy. Those that had retained their mounts were desperately trying to fight through to the other bank.
He spurred his horse forwards and fired his pistol point-blank into the faces of those who tried to impede his progress. Suddenly, and for the first time in his memory, he felt afraid.
He spotted his troop corporal 100 yards away, being brought to a standstill by a horde of the enemy and in imminent need of help. Like a mounted policeman in a riot, he and his horse waded through the frenzied mob and he fired the remainder of his ten rounds at his corporal’s attackers. Hurriedly, he loaded a fresh clip into the pistol, but the enemy recognised his temporary helplessness and lunged towards him and his horse. He just had enough time to realise the loneliness of his position when he heard, rising above the inhuman howls of the Dervishes, the sound of a bugle and, as he looked up, he knew he would always be grateful for the sight: a dismounted troop of another squadron had rallied to the aid of his own.
The lancers began to pour fire from their carbines into the mob below and from a range at which they could not miss. The Dervishes were shocked and momentarily stunned into inaction. It had had the opposite effect on a section of the troop to Churchill’s left. Under the quick-thinking command of their sergeant, several lancers who had made it to the opposite bank, also formed up to open fire on the ambushers. In the narrow confines of the gulley the effect was devastating and too much for the Mahdist army. They quickly turned and ran.
Churchill’s emotions instantly changed from astonishment to gratitude that his life had been spared. He knew the battle was now won and suddenly he felt tired and emotionally spent. The charge must have lasted only two minutes, but those minutes had been the most exciting of his life. Brushing down his uniform, he realised that he was filthy from the dust of battle and incredibly thirsty. Leaving his fellow lancers to mop up the remaining Dervishes, he led his mare and ascended the river bank in search of water.
To his shock, a few hundred yards away he saw a gunboat, from the stern of which proudly, but lazily, flapped the ensign of the Royal Navy. With a start, he spotted only yards from him, two men standing in Dervish costume. In a panic, he reached quickly for his Mauser once again, but was stunned to be addressed in English by the taller Dervisher.
‘There’s no need for that.’ The taller man bowed slightly to him and again addressed him. ‘Commander William Miller of the Royal Naval Brigade and temporarily appointed to Her Majesty’s River Boat Melik. At your service, sir. Allow me to introduce you to my second-in-command, Lieutenant Philip Kensett, also of the Royal Naval Brigade.’
For a few seconds Churchill was too surprised to speak. He quickly recovered and replied, ‘Lieutenant Winston Churchill, attached to the 21st Lancers. But, sir, what are you doing here?’
‘It’s too long a story to relate right now. But judging from my recent observations, I suspect you are sorely in need of a little light refreshment to wash away the remnants of battle. If you will wait but a moment, I have some champagne chilling in the river.’