If 2013 was a leap year, 29 February would mark 129 years since The Black Watch fought at the battle of El Teb. Since it is not a leap year, and we won’t have a 29th day this month, I thought we would mark the occasion a little bit early with this object of the month post.
This month’s object is a print entitled ‘Bird’s-Eye View of the Battle of El-Teb’. It shows the British soldiers in a battle formation common at the time: the infantry square.
At the battle of El Teb, The Black Watch, along with soldiers of other regiments, faced the Hadendowa, of the Beja tribe, led by Osman Digna. He had allied himself to the cause of Muhammad Ahmed bin Abd Allah, a Sufi Sheikh who had proclaimed himself the redeemer of the Islamic faith, or ‘Mahdi’. The Mahdi was leading his followers in opposition to the British presence in the Sudan, both military and economic. The British forces had been sent to the region to resist the armed followers of the Mahdi.
In this print of the battle, you can see very clearly how the square formation worked. It was formed with each side made up of at least two lines of soldiers. The image shows a formation that is four lines deep. The square is formed around a hollow interior where the commanding officer would be positioned along with reserve troops waiting to reinforce weakened sections of the square.
The square formation was not just used in battle; in a letter written to his sister, Bandsman Spencer Barwood who was present at the battle of El Teb writes that “in the formation of a British Square, we lay and slept”; he also talks of keeping in square while marching through the rain and mud.
This battle was a victory for the British. After several more, including those fought at Tamaii and Kirbekan, the campaign was eventually cancelled following news of the the death of General Gordon and the fall of Khartoum on 25 January 1885.