The Battle of Berber

Inside the beleagured town of Berber, garrison commander Manila Bey kept close watch on the stores. He knew that unless help arrived soon, the end was both certain and near. His tiny force was too small to challenge the fanatical ansar in the open, but behind the fortified walls of Government House, he hoped each day to see the smoke of a river steamer smudging the sky.

Then his spies reported that one way or another, the siege was over. The Mahdist emir, Sallah bin Waheed, would wait no longer for surrender; he intended to crush the Turks within their walls. Manila Bey wondered, what would cause the normally conservative Waheed to reverse his strategy when a bloodless victory was so near? Could relief be approaching? On a gamble, Manila Bey assembled the garrison and told them, "Today is the last day of our trial. We must hold out, come what may. By this time tomorrow, the steamers from Khartoum will be here, our enemies will be scattered, and our bellies will be full."

As the rays of the dawning sun broke over the flat eastern horizon and the Egyptians stood to the walls, Manila Bey’s great heart lurched in his chest – the ansar had a cannon! During the night they had dragged it onto a prominent jebel southeast of the town, beyond rifle range. Now, with the rising sun lighting up the plain, the rebels could pound the garrison into submission at their leisure. The doughty officer scanned the horizon with his binoculars and counted the fluttering flags of the dervishes. He was outnumbered at least four or five to one, possibly more. Counterattacking the guns would be suicide. Only reinforcements could save him now.

Turn 1: The dervish gun on the hill opened up against the town, wounding one fellah with its first shot. The Mahdist host cheered wildly, banging their war drums and blowing their horns, but did not advance. First they would let the gun do its work.

Turn 2: The lookout watching the river shouted that he could see smoke! A steamboat was approaching from upriver, and it was flying the Khedive’s flag!

The Egyptians were not the only ones with eyes, however. Sallah bin Waheed, too, saw the smoke and the red flag. Suddenly an easy victory became a race against time. At a signal from the emir, his bannerman waved the fluttering black flag and the rebel host surged forward, screaming "Allah Akbar! La illah ila Allah!"

With plenty of targets in range now, Manila Bey ordered the Egyptians to open fire. Their Remingtons brought down three of the attackers. The ansar gun on the hill wounded a second fellah, but this time it was answered by Safieh’s deck gun, which wounded three ansar and killed one of the dervish gunners.

Turn 3: Safieh churned through the muddy water, and a second cheer broke from the town as Bordein, towing a barge filled with the fellahin of the 2/2 brigade, rounded the bend in the river.

Manila Bey hauled his ponderous bulk to the roof and braved the whistling bullets to get a look at the steamers himself. Even with help on the way, however, the situation inside Government House was critical. Couldn't those steamers move faster?

A devastating series of volleys from the Egyptians dropped five of the onrushing Mahdists, including the sheikhs of both of the southernmost bands! Safieh’s deck gun removed three more, but her Gatling gun and Bordein’s gun were either out of range or blocked by hills and unable to fire. Sallah bin Waheed was alarmed at the silence from his artillery position. The emir dispatched his trumpeter to find out what the problem was, but the gun failed to fire (roll of 6). His jehadia, however, had by this time worked their way forward to within rifle range of the walls. Their fire was wild, but a bullet caroming off a building succeeded in killing one of the wounded fellahin resting in the courtyard.

Turn 4: The dervish gun's fire sailed high across the fort. The Egyptians dropped five more of the advancing ansar, but by now three bands had contacted the thornbrush entanglement surrounding the fort. Soon they would be at the walls. Safieh steamed ahead toward the town’s jetty only to find its targets obscured by the outlying buildings of Berber. Bordein’s deck gun was free to fire, however, and the already decimated and leaderless red flag tribe suffered five more casualties, leaving only five warriors standing. At the same time, Bordein angled toward shore, hoping to debark its load of infantry and sailors outside the town for a counterattack.

When the red flag tribe checked critical morale, it rolled snake-eyes! The referee ruled that they were covered by the hand of God. Henceforth these five survivors, who charged unscathed through the withering fire and shellbursts of the infidels, would be hit only as key figures and would take no more penalties for casualties or the loss of their sheikh!

Turn 5: All around Government House, the Beja fanatics, green flag band, and black flag band breached the zeriba. Emir Waheed finally gave the signal releasing his reserve of camel riders to lurch into action, to delay any infantry advancing from the river. On the river, Safieh kept steam up to bypass the jetty and get below the town where her guns could sweep the northern wall clear of attackers – if she could get into position in time. Meanwhile, Bordein hove in toward shore and cut the barge free, letting it ground itself on the muddy bank. The fellahin will go ashore next turn.

Turn 6: The 2/2 Egyptian infantry scrambled from its grounded barge but because of a poor movement dice roll most of the platoon could not clear the rising ground along the riverbank. They assembled below the bank, oblivious to the camel-mounted trouble forming up in front of them. They weren’t oblivious, however, to the dervish cannon, which had a clear line of sight from the top of its hill to the left end of the Egyptian line. Four fellahin fell beneath the rolling shot.

Dervishes surged up against the wall of Government House. A hush fell over the fort when a well-placed bullet found Manila Bey, but owing to his great bulk, it was naught but a minor flesh wound. Bordein steamed toward the jetty, intending to put her sailors ashore there. She also fired a raking shot into the fanatical red flag band, but the shield of Allah protected them, canceling all four hits (no face cards were turned).

Turn 7: Bordein glided up to the jetty, ready to disgorge its troops next turn. All around Government House, dervishes hurled themselves up the walls. With the action becoming so close, Safieh was unwilling to fire for fear of hitting the already badly outnumbered defenders inside the enclosure.

On the southern flank of the battle, things turned deadly for the 2/2 Egyptian infantry. The camel riders pulled back, leaving the cannon a clear field of fire. The Egyptians advanced in open order across the high ground and leveled a volley into the camel riders, dropping almost half of them. Then the cannon fired into the Egyptians’ ranks, knocking down four casualties. A moment later, its fire was joined by another unit of 10 jehadia that had been hidden in the rocks through the whole battle. The sole casualty of the rifle fire was Lieutenant Bidsworthy. In just two turns the platoon had lost 40% casualties and now found itself outnumbered, outgunned, and unsupported.

Back at the town, two men on the southern wall were overrun by the red flag fanatics, three of whom got inside. On the southeastern corner, five fellahin drove off 13 of the black flag band, killing or wounding six but losing two of their own in the fighting. On the northeastern corner, the NCO and one other man were killed before the third bolted for the courtyard, seeing no sense in trying to hold off 11 howling dervishes by himself. On the northern side, one man bolted and the two he left behind died trying to fend off 12 Beja.

As dervishes poured over the wall, Manila Bey gathered the survivors around himself in the courtyard. The door to the barracks stood open—if he got the jump on the advancing enemy, he and his men could barricade themselves inside while the gunboats cleared the walls.

Turn 8: Truly, God is great! A red card allowed Manila Bey and his five surviving fellahin to dash inside the barracks and bar the door before the dervishes could cut them off. Howling ansar hammered outside, but the heavy wood held. Manila Bey’s men, firing through loopholes, killed two ansar, and Manila Bey picked off a third with his pistol.

Beja lined the front wall, jeering and taunting the enemy outside. Bluejackets ignored the insults and calmly doubletimed off Bordein, forming up on the bank to storm the front gate. Bordein’s gun crew drew a bead on the sandbagged gate and blew it wide open while Safieh’s cannon and Gatling gun raked the walls.  

To the south, the remnants of the 2/2 Egyptian infantry hastily scooped up their wounded and beat a retreat back across the hilltop and below the riverbank, taking care this time to stay out of the dervish cannon’s line of fire. The ansar camels approached cautiously, maneuvering within charging distance without exposing themselves to fire across the top of the hill.

Turn 9: The Beja quickly realized that to stay in the fort without rifles would be suicide—the cannons, Gatling gun, and rifles of the gunboats would shoot them to pieces in just a few turns. So they counterattacked, charging through the shattered gate toward the bluejackets forming up at the jetty. Meanwhile, Safieh deposited her sailors on shore south of the fort, but mud hampered their movement and deployment.

Certain that Allah would deliver to them a miracle, the camel riders charged over the rise into the infantry sheltering at the river’s edge. Two of seven straggled and Remington fire brought down two more, but the three remaining closed for battle. The Egyptians had endured enough for one day and despite their 11:3 advantage, they broke and ran toward the gunboats. The ansar had to satisfy their bloodlust by spearing the wounded fellahin and Lt. Bidsworthy, who had been left behind by their fleeing comrades.

The bluejackets stood firm at the jetty and fought off the enemy with their cutlass bayonets. Only three Beja survived to flee back through the gateway. Manila Bey and his men picked off three more ansar, who died futilely trying to batter down the door.

At the end of the turn, every dervish unit except the jehadia in the rocks had to check critical morale, and all failed. With their flags still waving high, they turned and abandoned the battlefield to the advancing bluejackets and their unendurable artillery.

Berber was saved, but at a terrible cost. The town garrison, 1/ 4 Egyptian infantry, lost an NCO and 13 men. The 2/2 Egyptian infantry lost an officer and seven men. The Bluejackets lost only two men wounded, one of whom recovered. Overall, 21 of 60 Anglo-Egyptians engaged (not counting the steamers’ gun crews) were lost.

Enough supplies could be scraped together to keep Berber secure for three more turns, if a garrison force can be put together. If not, the battle was for nothing. And Khartoum badly needs the steamers to return with whatever supplies can be gathered on the return trip upstream. All in all, a Pyrrhic victory for the Egyptians.

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