Saturday, 6 February 2016

Mahdist War 1888, or Battle of the River Bank

So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan;
You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man;
An' 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your 'ayrick 'ead of 'air;
You big black boundin' beggar, for you broke a British square!

- Rudyard Kipling "Fuzzy-Wuzzy"

So far 2016 has been a bit of a mixed gaming bag and I’ve been mainly playing board games, and X-Wing.

This week however, we’ve kicked off a long-planned bit of large scale colonial gaming with some action in the Sudan. We’re using 28mm miniatures from a mix of companies, including Perry Miniatures, Black Tree Design, etc.

For this extravaganza, we decided to go for some light rules and dug out our old copies of Black Powder.

Plans were made, emails exchanged, which resulted in the general murmur along the lines of, ‘I’ll give them a read-through this week’. We got the boards down, dragged the toys out of the box and one thing became immediately and abundantly clear. None of us had made good on that promise. So, we started at page one under the, as it turns out somewhat accurate, assumption that ‘the rules will all come flooding back once we get underway’. The basics did at least, and with minimal effort the game trotted along quite swiftly and with only a few ‘glasses on foreheads breaks’ to find a particular rule. Black Powder is a good set of rules that suffers from two notable issues: rules buried under mounds of ‘flavour text’, and no index. To be fair, these are ‘issues’ that really only come to the fore when you don’t bother to put the prep work in and actually read them. Ahem.

Still, we managed to set up and kick off fair enough and no evident fouls were seen, so...

OK, the scenario was fairly simple, and in any case immediately abandoned by both sides as the battle developed into a mass scrum. The objective has something to do with the boat, but frankly it ceased to matter pretty early on. The British (fielding mostly subject troops like Highlanders and Egyptians) didn’t really care, and the Mahdists never really wanted the boat anyway, so instead a bloody set-to ensued.

By Jove! But it's a barren featureless desert out there. 

Ansar 'uniform during the Mahdist uprising.
Hadendoa tribesmen.  Greatly feared and respected by the British for their fighting prowess, the British soldiers called them 'Fuzzy wuzzys' on account of their afro hairstyle.

The Mahdists deployed to the south of the boat, placing skirmishers up front to distract the Imperial guns. A good mix of Ansar and Hadendoa tribesmen were itching to cover the open ground before the Imperial rifles and cannons could set up in a firing line. They may be brave, but they’d rather not have that bravery tested by a wall of .577/450 Martini–Henry lead thank you very much.

The British deployed to the north, just beyond the only significant feature on the narrow battlefield, a small sandy hill. The Devils in skirts played their bagpipes (much to the annoyance of the English), and the Egyptians eyed the dusty clouds approaching from the south with a suspicious and somewhat wavering eye.

The British line draws up to the west of the hill. Englishmen and Scotsmen march side by side in the spirit of friendly banter and a shared dislike of the heat.

The Mahdists 'down by the river'...

And further inland to the west, the skirmishing horsemen are eager to get going.

Aye but those black men swatch fierce dornt they?

The Egyptians seem decidedly uncertain about this whole affair.

Hadendoa scouts peer through the dust across the sand at the Imperial devils...

Fight hard my brave warriors, and we shall drive these white dogs from our land.

I say chaps, dashed warm what?! These fellows look like they've come to fight I say. Let's give them a taste of good British steel!

Early moves
So the scene was set, and the battle opened with a fierce advance by the Mahdists. The warriors closest to the river found good ground and sprinted forwards double-time. Further inland, some rocks and soft sand slowed the advance somewhat, although the cavalry made good time in the eagerness to pincushion the redcoats. For their part, the Imperial forces made a steady advance, which was hampered by language problems, some Anglo-Scottish banter, and the cannons getting bogged down.

The Mahdist line staggers...

Soon, the Highlanders occupied the hill with their flank guarded by Egyptian troops that looked decided un-keen about the whole affair. On came the Mahdists, storming up the hill in the face of some withering closing fire. Scottish belligerence, and a nifty bit of bayonet work met the Fuzzy-Wuzzy spears and some frankly outrageously vicious fighting proceeded on the hilltop. The Scots held firm, despite hard pressure and the immediate collapse of the Egyptians on their flank, who took flight to the rear in a cunningly tactical withdrawal.

The thin red, er, and blue and khaki line stands firm...

The Hadendoa got the worst of it and seeing the determination in the flinty Scottish eyes, and flapping tartan skirts, they sought urgent appointments elsewhere, leaving the Ansar behind them to finish the job.

Meanwhile, the Egyptians, so far subjected to insult and derision at their slovenly failure to stand and fight looked unduly smug as their cannon finally got their act together and managed to deploy. Vicious enfilades into the Fuzzy’s flanks did the job from that point on. Herr Krupp’s steel marvels saved the day, and the Egyptian infantry’s honour, bacon, and chips.

A great deal of 'up 'em' type behaviour that they definitely do not like...

The Ansar wonder where all those Beja tribesmen went...

But get stuck in anyway...

The dirty, hot fighting on the hill sees the Hadendoa, Ansar, and Highlanders all give up their positions, leave their collective dead on the rise, and head back to their respective rears to rethink their lives, lick wounds, slake thirsts and generally find as many reasons as possible not to return to the battle.  Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, neither side  had the foresight (our resources) to keep reserves.  So the scene of the main fighting in the early battle becomes a deserted gap in the line.  The British send a surveyor up to see what's what...

Mid game

By now, the British inland had managed to stumble forwards as the Mahdist west flank made its way into range. With skirmishing cavalry bearing down on the sun-burned British, the rough ground slowed the supporting infantry. This may well have done for the Ansar, as the British managed to deploy into a firing line. Messer’s Heath and Robinson overtook the command here though and despite being ordered to move up in support, the British reserves decided it would be far better simply to push on through and give these tribal chaps a taste of the old cold steel. Corporal Jones had been insisting for weeks that, apparently they don’t like it up ‘em. They DO NOT like it up them, he insisted.

The Mahdists obliged by very much proving that it was the British who didn’t like it, or indeed anything up ‘em.

The British command blunder tells dearly among the unprepared reserves who are caught out in front of the firing line.

And so, there we left the battle to be concluded next week.

It’s looking pretty solid for the British by the Mahdists have enough left on the field to turn the tide and push the Imperial devils (who want to take away the Egyptians’ slaves) back into the Mediterranean.

Overall, a jolly fun evening’s gaming with a good set of rules, some splendid toy soldiers, and damned fine company.

Well done boys! Keep those upper lips stiff now...
Uh, we'd rather have some replacement ammo and a good drink of water sir...or rum if there's some going?

Here's a perspective on the game from a spectator's point of view.  Darrell, one of the other jolly good chaps at the club took a great interest in what we were up to.  Check out his blog here.

Part 2 here.


  1. What modifications to the basic rules did you use? Did either side have special abilities?

    1. Hi Grant,

      There's this:

      However, we used the basic rules with reference to the Thud and Blunder campaign rules that are available on the Black Powder Yahoo group. As for special abilities, we kept them to a minimum. The Hadendoa had 'Fanatics', British had 'form square' and 'steady', and that was about it i think.

  2. Hello,
    Excellent looking game, we use black powder for our soudan games and always have a laugh when using them, hope you have a second part to your AAR when you continue the battle next week.

  3. Excellent looking game and look forward to the conclusion.

  4. What a wonderful looking game with such superb terrain and figures. Great post!