Mahdist War: Siege of Khartoum

Major General Charles "Chinese" Gordon. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Siege of Khartoum lasted from March 13, 1884 to January 26, 1885, and took place during the Mahdist War (1881-1899). In early 1884, Major General Charles "Chinese" Gordon arrived to take command of British and Egyptian forces in Khartoum. Though tasked with extracting his command from the area before Mahdist rebels arrived, he elected to defend the city. The resulting siege saw Gordon's garrison overwhelmed and wiped out shortly before a relief force arrived. The failure to rescue Gordon and his men was blamed on Prime Minister William Gladstone and caused his government to fall.


In the wake of 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, British troops remained in Egypt to protect British interests. Though occupying the country, they allowed the Khedive to continue overseeing domestic affairs. This included dealing with the Mahdist Revolt which had commenced in Sudan. Though technically under Egyptian rule, large parts of Sudan had fallen to Mahdist forces led by Muhammad Ahmad.

Considering himself the Mahdi (the redeemer of Islam), Ahmad defeated Egyptian forces at El Obeid in November 1883 and overran Kordofan and Darfur. This defeat and the deteriorating situation led to Sudan being discussed in Parliament. Assessing the problem and wishing to avoid the cost of intervention, Prime Minister William Gladstone and his cabinet were unwilling to commit forces to the conflict.

As a result, their representative in Cairo, Sir Evelyn Baring, directed the Khedive to order the garrisons in Sudan to evacuate back into Egypt. To oversee this operation, London requested that Major General Charles "Chinese" Gordon be placed in command. A veteran officer and former governor-general of Sudan, Gordon was familiar with the region and its peoples.

Leaving in early 1884, he was also tasked with reporting on the best means for extracting the Egyptians from the conflict. Arriving in Cairo, he was re-appointed Governor-General of Sudan with full executive powers. Sailing up the Nile, he arrived at Khartoum on February 18. Directing his limited forces against the advancing Mahdists, Gordon began evacuating women and children north to Egypt.

Siege of Khartoum

  • Conflict: Mahdist War (1881-1899)
  • Date: March 13, 1884 to January 26, 1885
  • Armies & Commanders:
  • British & Egyptians
  • Major General Charles Gordon
  • 7,000 men, 9 gunboats
  • Mahdists
  • Muhammad Ahmad
  • approx. 50,000 men
  • Casualties:
  • British: Entire force lost
  • Mahdists: Unknown

Gordon Digs In

Though London desired to abandon Sudan, Gordon firmly believed the Mahdists needed to be defeated or they could overrun Egypt. Citing a lack of boats and transport, he ignored his orders to evacuate and began organizing a defense of Khartoum. In an effort to win over the city's residents, he improved the justice system and remitted taxes. Recognizing that Khartoum's economy rested on the trade of enslaved people, he re-legalized enslavement despite the fact that he had originally ended it during his earlier term as governor-general.

While unpopular at home, this move increased Gordon's support in the city. As he moved forward, he began requesting reinforcements to defend the city. An initial request for a regiment of Turkish troops was denied as was a later call for a force of Indian Muslims. Increasingly agitated by Gladstone's lack of support, Gordon began sending a series of angry telegrams to London.

These soon became public and led to a vote of no confidence against Gladstone's government. Though he survived, Gladstone steadfastly refused to become committed to a war in Sudan. Left on his own, Gordon began enhancing Khartoum's defenses. Protected to the north and west by the White and Blue Niles, he saw that fortifications and trenches were constructed to the south and east.

Facing the desert, these were supported by land mines and wire barriers. To defend the rivers, Gordon retrofitted several steamers into gunboats which were protected by metal plates. Attempting an offensive near Halfaya on March 16, Gordon's troops faltered and took 200 casualties. In the wake of the setback, he concluded that he should remain on the defensive.

The Siege Begins

Later that month, Mahdist forces began to near Khartoum and skirmishing commenced. With Mahdist forces closing in, Gordon telegraphed London on April 19 that he had provisions for five months. He also requested two to three thousand Turkish troops as his men were increasingly unreliable. Gordon believed that with such a force, he could drive off the enemy.

As the month ended, the tribes to the north elected to join with the Mahdi and cut off Gordon's lines of communication to Egypt. While runners were able to make the journey, the Nile and telegraph were severed. As enemy forces surrounded the city, Gordon attempted to convince the Mahdi to make peace but with no success.

Garnet Wolseley in a military uniform.
General Sir Garnet Wolseley. Public Domain

Trapped in Khartoum

Holding the city, Gordon was able to somewhat replenish his supplies by raiding with his gunboats. In London, his plight was played up in the press and eventually, Queen Victoria directed Gladstone to send aid to the beleaguered garrison. Acquiescing in July 1884, Gladstone ordered General Sir Garnet Wolseley to form an expedition for the relief of Khartoum.

Despite this, it took a substantial amount of time to organize the needed men and supplies. As the fall progressed, Gordon's position became increasingly tenuous as supplies dwindled and many of his more capable officers were killed. Shortening his line, he constructed a new wall inside the city and tower from which to observe the enemy. Though communications remained spotty, Gordon did receive word that a relief expedition was en route.

General Gordon standing at the top of stairs with enemy troops approaching.
General Gordon's Last Stand, 1893. Public Domain

Despite this news, Gordon greatly feared for the city. A letter that arrived in Cairo on December 14 informed a friend, "Farewell. You will never hear from me again. I fear that there will be treachery in the garrison, and all will be over by Christmas." Two days later, Gordon was forced to destroy his outpost across the White Nile at Omdurman. Made aware of Gordon's concerns, Wolseley began pressing south.

Defeating the Mahdists at Abu Klea on January 17, 1885, the men met the enemy again two days later. With the relief force approaching, the Mahdi began planning to storm Khartoum. Possessing around 50,000 men, he ordered one column to wade across the White Nile to attack the city's walls while another assaulted the Massalamieh Gate.

The City Falls

Moving forward on the night of January 25-26, both columns quickly overwhelmed the exhausted defenders. Swarming through the city, the Mahdists massacred the garrison and around 4,000 of Khartoum's residents. Though the Mahdi had expressly ordered that Gordon be taken alive, he was struck down in the fighting. Accounts of his death vary with some reports stating he was killed at the governor's palace, while others claim he was shot in the street while trying to escape to the Austrian consulate. In either case, Gordon's body was decapitated and taken to the Mahdi on a pike.


In the fighting at Khartoum, Gordon's entire 7,000-man garrison was killed. Mahdist casualties are not known. Driving south, Wolseley's relief force reached Khartoum two days after the city's fall. With no reason to remain, he ordered his men to return to Egypt, leaving Sudan to the Mahdi.

It remained under Mahdist control until 1898 when Major General Herbert Kitchener defeated them at the Battle of Omdurman. Though a search was made for Gordon's remains after Khartoum was retaken, they were never found. Acclaimed by the public, Gordon's death was blamed on Gladstone who delayed forming a relief expedition. The resulting outcry led his government to fall in March 1885 and he was formally rebuked by Queen Victoria.

Battle of Omdurman. Photograph Source: Public Domain
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Hickman, Kennedy. "Mahdist War: Siege of Khartoum." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). Mahdist War: Siege of Khartoum. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Mahdist War: Siege of Khartoum." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).