Osman Digna & Colleagues: Sudanese Fighters Commended by Enemies

By: Aisha Braima

KHARTOUM (SUDANOW) - This month marks the 89th anniversary of the demise of the Mahdist legendary figure, the Amir of the East, Osman Digna, praised by his enemies, before his friends, recognizing the bravery, wisdom and military ingenuity he displayed.
According to history references, Amir Osman Digna was born in Sawakin, on the Red Sea, in 1840 to parents hailing from the Hadandawa tribe that is involved in the business of trade along with his brothers. He was outraged by the tyranny of the Turk-Egyptian rulers and joined anti-colonialist youth groups. Digna thought of joining the Mahdist revolution soon upon hearing of its inception and upon hearing news of occupation of El-Obeid by the Mahdi in 1883, he mounted his horse and, without even thinking of taking food for the road, traveled to Kordofan to join the Mahdi who named him Amir for the East.

Lord Fitzmaurice:
An outstanding accomplishment by Osman Digna on the Red Sea coast was annihilation of the Turk-Egyptian garrisons which were commanded by English army officers. One of his most important battles was the one in which the British Consul Moncrieff was killed and which was aimed at disconnecting supplies by the Red Sea to Colonel William Hicks' campaign that was heading westwards to check the Mahdi's victories. This helped the Mahdi defeat the campaign and wipe out all of its soldiers in 1883, prompting Lord Fitzmaurice to comment in the House of Lords by saying
"An army has not vanished in such a fashion since Pharaoh's host perished in the Red Sea."

The First Fighter to Break Through English Square Formation:
Prompted by Digna's multiple military victories, the British government dispatched an army under the command of Major General Valentine Baker, a renowned officer, to break a siege by Amir Digna of Tokar town. Baker moved his army in the form of a tactical square the four sides of which were made up of soldiers carrying rifles and guns with the provisions inside the square. This formation was used by the armies for centuries and was the best one in the state of a standing defense in an open battleground. Digna applied the maneuvering tactic with which he drew Baker's forces inside Al-Teb village where they were attacked by a wave of Hadandawa horsemen and annihilated them in a terrific massacre, but Baker managed to escape with a number of his guardsmen to the fortified town of Sawakin.
As a result of the defeats by Digna in the East and the Mahdi in the west and center of Sudan that distorted the British image, the latter sent one of the greatest English commanders, General Gordon, at the time to eliminate the Mahdi. It sent another battalion commanded by General Gerald Graham to East Sudan to punish Osman Digna, then to assist General Gordon. Naval crews and warships were collected from several colonies and high-ranking and highly experienced officers were included in the battalion.
After the arrival of the huge formation of Graham in February 1884, Digna broke into the square formation soon upon its movement by soldiers who were hiding in the valleys. Digna soldiers engaged in fierce fighting with the English troops. Some Hadandawa fighters lay on the ground, chopped the legs of the horses and killed the fallen riders. The battles continued in Sinkat, Tamay and elsewhere and Digna got used to thwarting into the British army square formation for killing the troops and creating chaos in their ranks.
Graham could not reach Khartoum to assist General Gordon and in April 1884 his forces withdrew to Cairo.
Osman Digna and his fighters succeeded in what the French and Russians together failed, that was breaking through the English square formation. Digna skill for breaking through this formation was based on maneuvers and alluring the enemy and attacking him on the time of movement of the square formation, with emphasis on the rear, beside preparing ambushes on the way of the enemy and applying the attack-and-retreat tactic making use of the elegance and bravery of his fighters.
According to the (Arab Army Forum) site "during a study of the theory of breaking through the rear of enemy in the British Staff College, Camberly, reference is made to Amir Digna tactics as an example".

Poet Rudyard Kippling Tribute "a first-class fightin' man":
As a result of these battles, Amir Osman Digna and his brave Hadandawa soldiers won admiration by their enemies from English army who called them Fuzzy Wuzzy after their uncombed hair. Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) who was renowned poet, novelist, short-story writer and children's author - commemorated those courageous people in a poem expressing the opinion by the British soldiers of those fighters, saying:
"We've fought with many men across the seas,
An' some of 'em was brave an' some was not
The Paythan an' the Zulu an' Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o' the lot.
We never got a ha'porth's change of 'im:
'E squatted in the scrub an' 'ocked our 'orses,
'E cut our sentries up at Suakin,
An' 'e played the cat an' banjo with our forces.
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;
We gives you your certificate, an' if you want it signed
We'll come an' 'ave a romp with you whenever you're inclined.
We took our chanst among the Kyber 'ills,
The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills,
An' a Zulu impi dished us up in style:
But all we ever got from such as they
Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller;
We 'eld our bloomin' own, the papers say,
But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us 'oller.
Then 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an' the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an' of course we went an' did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an' it wasn't 'ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin' you, Fuzzy-Wuz you broke the square. "

Churchill's Testimony "these were as brave men as ever walked the earth":
The Sudan became independent but Britain could not forget the humiliation on the Sudanese soil and after 14 years it returned with a huge army commanded by General Herbert Kitchener. The Sudanese fought bravely under Khalifa Abdullah al-Ta'ayshi and tens of thousands of them were killed in Karrari (Omdurman battle in Western references) and Um Dibaikrat (the final battle in which the Khalifa was killed) after confronting machine-guns to which they were not used, outlawed bullets and explosives that were used for the first time in warfare.
The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, then the youngest officer in the British army, described them later, saying: "these were as brave men as ever walked the earth. The conviction was borne in on me that their claim beyond the grave in respect of a valiant death was not less good than that which any of our countrymen could make".
And once again, the only substantial loss the English army faced in Omdurman battle was the death of English troops who fell into an ambush set by the fighters of Osman Digna to the cavalry corps.
Churchil again described them as the great men of war who remained never wavered in their allegiance" Ali-Wad-Helu, whose leg had been shattered by a shell splinter, was senseless with pain; but the Sheikh-ed-Din, the astute Osman Digna, Ibrahim Khalil, who withstood the charge of the 21st Lancers, and others of less note rallied to the side of the appointed successor of Mohammed Ahmed (the Mahdi), and did not, even in this extremity, abandon his cause".

English War Correspondent G. W. Steevens "the Dervishes were superb beyond perfection":
Steevens wrote about the battle of Omdurman saying "It was the last day of Mahadism and the greatest. They could never get near and they refused to hold it. It was not a battle but an execution. Our men were perfect but the Dervishes were superb beyond perfection. It was their largest, best and bravest army that ever fought against us …and it died worthily for the empire Mahadism won and kept so long".

Digna Death & Exhumation:
After the Mahdist final battles Amir Osman Digna managed to sneak eastward and planned to reach Hejaz across the Red Sea. But when the British knew that he was in the East, they promised a bulky prize for anyone who would reveal his whereabouts. The British captured, shackled and moved Digna to Sawakin in 1900, then to Rashid Prison in Egypt, then to Wadi Halfa Prison in northern Sudan.
Amir Osman Digna spent the rest of his life fasting during the day and performing prayers and reading the Holy Koran all through the night. On 17th December 1927 he died in the prison and was buried in Wadi Halfa. When the city was about to be inundated by the High Dam in 1964, his body was exhumed and buried in Erkweet, on the Red Sea coast which witnessed his intrepidity in defense of his country against the colonizers.
Hassan Dafaalla, the administrator who was responsible for the relocation of the inhabitants of Halfa, wrote in his memoirs that Digna body did not change albeit the elapse of 38 years since his death. This is a recognized miracle in the history of Islam for the pious and martyrs.


Sudanow is the longest serving English speaking magazine in the Sudan. It is chartarized by its high quality professional journalism, focusing on political, social, economic, cultural and sport developments in the Sudan. Sudanow provides in depth analysis of these developments by academia, highly ...


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