Heroic Pasha Hicks fell with his army of 10,000 at Kashgil

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Religion, War on Tuesday, 25 June 2013

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This edited article about William Hicks originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 303 published on 4 November 1967.

Col William Hicks, picture, image, illustration

'Pasha Hicks' commanded an entire Egyptian army which was defeated by the Mahdi in 1883

General William Hicks (or Hicks Pasha, as he was known by his Egyptian troops) mopped his face wearily and turned in his saddle to survey the lines of his army, which straggled behind him until they were lost to sight in the desert dust. The date was 3rd November, 1883, and Hicks’s men were making a painful journey through an unmapped wilderness towards El Obeyd. Their objective was simple – they had to destroy the Mahdi and his following of religious fanatics.

Hicks was worried. The expedition had started well enough on 20th September. It had left the comfort of the Nile at Duem and, using local guides, had entered the waterless wastes of Kordofan. Now the water supply was almost exhausted, the men and animals were tormented by thirst and heat, and when the guides were questioned about the distance from El Obeyd they answered vaguely.

Ahead of the column, Hicks saw a strange forest of sun-bleached trees rising from the desert. As they approached it, the men began to mutter and the guides looked anxiously about them. Some of the Egyptians knew this to be the forest of Kashgil, but why had the guides led them here?

They were soon to find out. As the army entered the forest, the sound of shots and war cries echoed through the shimmering air. Hicks realised his guides had led him into an ambush. With the bullets of the Mahdists flying about him, he snapped orders to his bugler, and the army of 7,000 soldiers, 1,000 cavalry and 2,000 camp followers began to fight back.

Born in 1830, William Hicks entered the British Army at the age of 19. He was a good soldier, serving in the Indian Mutiny, and in the Abyssinian Campaign in 1867. Several times he was mentioned in dispatches. In 1880, he entered the service of the Khedive in Egypt, and as Chief of Staff his main problem was to defeat the Mahdi, who was trying to gain control of the Sudan. The Mahdi was a man called Mohammed Ahmed, who claimed to be a divine leader. With a huge Moslem following in the Sudan, he waged a ‘holy war’ to overthrow Egyptian power.

Now the army that had set forth to crush the rebels was itself surrounded by thousands of the Mahdi’s ragged followers. With no water, with no shelter from the desert sun or the bullets of their enemies, the Egyptians fought back desperately. For three days the smoke of the battle rolled over the dried-out forest of Kashgil. On the third day Hicks’s ammunition ran out and the Mahdists charged forward for the kill.

Of the army of 10,000, barely 300 managed to escape and bring back the news of what seemed an almost incredible military defeat. Not only had it given the Mahdi great prestige among his followers, but he had the weapons of an entire army at his disposal.

Among the few who somehow managed to escape the massacre at Kashgil was General Hicks’s cook. He reported that his master had been one of the last to fall. When he had run out of ammunition on the final day he had fought the rebels with his sword until he was speared to death.

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