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El Obeid

El Obeid

[el oh-beyd]
Obeid, El: see Al Ubayyid, Sudan.
The Battle of El Obeid was fought between Anglo-Egyptian forces under the command of Hicks Pasha and forces of Mohammed Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, on a plain near the town of Al Ubayyid (El Obeid) on November 3rd-5th, 1883.


After the Mahdi retreated into Kordofan in 1881 he started to raise an army there and in Darfur. A force of 4,000 was sent to capture him, but it was ambushed near El Obeid and destroyed, and all of its equipment captured. The Mahdi's forces had grown spectacularly, and by 1883 British sources placed their size at 200,000, although that is almost certainly an overestimate.

The Egyptian Governor, Raouf Pasha, decided that the only solution to the growing rebellion was a fight, and against the advice of his British advisors started to raise an army of his own. He hired a number of European officers to lead his force, placing them under the command of William "Billy" Hicks, a retired Colonel who had experience in India and Abyssinia. Hicks' force was composed mostly of Egyptian soldiers who had been imprisoned after fighting in the Urabi Revolt. They were released for service in Sudan and accordingly showed little inclination to fight. They initially stayed near Khartoum and met small portions of the Mahdist forces on April 29th, near the fort of Kawa, on the Nile, beating them off without too much trouble. Similar skimishes followed over the next few weeks.

Later that summer they heard that the Mahdi himself was besieging El Obeid, a small town set up by the Egyptians some years earlier and now the capital of the Kordofan. The Egyptian officials decided to capture him, and, despite Hicks' reluctance, planned an expedition from their current location at Duem on the Nile to El Obeid, about 200 miles away.


The so-called Kordofan expedition was made up of about 8,000 Egyptian regulars, 1,000 bashi-bazouks, 100 tribal irregulars, and 2,000 camp followers. They carried supplies for 50 days on an immense baggage train consisting of 5,000 camels. The army also carried some ten mountain guns, four Krupp field guns, and six Nordenfeldt machine guns. By the time the expedition started, El Obeid had fallen, but the operation was maintained to relieve Slatin bey, the Governor of Darfur.

Either by mistake or by design, their guides led them astray, and they soon found themselves surrounded. The regulars' morale plummeted and they started to desert en masse. After marching for some time they were set upon by the entire Mahdist army on November 3rd. The Egyptian forces quickly formed into a defensive square. According to reports published in England soon after, the square held for two days before finally collapsing. About one-third of the Egyptian soldiers surrendered and were later freed, while all the officers were killed. Only about 500 Egyptian troops managed to escape and make it back to Khartoum. Neither Hicks nor any of his senior officers were among them. Apparently only two or three Europeans survived.

After the battle the Mahdist army made El Obeid a centre for operations for some time. Their success also emboldened Osman Digna, whose Hadendoa tribesmen, the so-called fuzzy-wuzzies, joined the rebellion from their lands on the Red Sea coast.


  • Churchill Winston, The river war, Eyre and Spottiswoode, London , 1952

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