Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman, 2 September 1898
Oil on canvas by Edward Matthew Hale (1852-1924), 1899.
The charge of the 21st Lancers in September 1898 was one of the last full-scale cavalry charges of the British Army. The battle took place 6.4 km. (four miles) outside Omdurman, just north of Khartoum and marked the culmination of Major-General Sir Horatio Herbert (later Field Marshal, 1st Earl) Kitchener's campaign for the re-conquest of the Sudan, the 2nd Sudan War (1896-1898).
The 350 men of the 21st Lancers attacked what they believed to be a body of about 700 Dervishes. However, as one participant in the charge, the young Lieutenant (later Prime Minister Sir) Winston Churchill (1874-1965), recounted in his book 'The River War', the situation soon changed;
'A deep crease in the ground - a dry watercourse, a khor - appeared where all had seemed smooth, level plain; and from it there sprang, with the suddenness of a pantomime effect and a high-pitched yell, a dense white mass of men nearly as long as our front and about twelve deep. A score of horsemen and a dozen bright flags rose as if by magic from the earth.'
In fact, 2,000 tribesmen who had remained concealed in a deep gulley engaged the lancers in desperate hand-to-hand combat. Although the 21st Lancers had not seen battle before, they managed to cut their way out of the ambush. The regiment suffered 70 men killed or wounded and the loss of 119 horses, the highest casualty figures of any British regiment engaged at Omdurman. Three Victoria Crosses were later awarded to members of the 21st Lancers who had helped to rescue wounded comrades during the action.
News of this heroic charge against appalling odds captured the imagination of the public at home. Newspaper headlines in Britain read 'Gordon Avenged', and based on their reports, artists such as Edward Matthew Hale, raced to complete paintings of the victory to feed the public demand for images of the battle.
NAM Accession Number
National Army Museum, London
National Army Museum, Study Collection
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