<Bloody Frying Pan >
The Year is 1885. Khartoum has fallen, General Gordon is dead, and the Nile Expeditionary Force has withdrawn to Egypt. On the Red Sea coast, General Graham fights a deadly cat-and-mouse war with Osman Digna and his ferocious beja tribesmen. A string of tiny outposts clings to the edge of the Suakin frontier, wholly dependent on supplies brought out by armed caravans from the town. Guarded by cannons and sturdy zeribas, the outposts are relatively secure against attack. The supply columns, on the other hand, are a different story entirely . . .
"Bloody Frying Pan" was played at Rockcon, in Rockford, Illinois, on November 6, 1999. The table was 7 1/2 ' x 5'. The game involved approximately 70 Egyptians vs. about 100 ansar. The rules were The Sword & the Flame, 1st edition, with phased cavalry movement. After about 30 minutes of pre-game briefing and planning, the game lasted 3 1/2 hours, ending right on schedule.
Relief Column: 12 Egyptian Camel Corps, 20 Egyptian infantry, 8 Sudanese "friendlies," 3 Sudanese infantry escorting 2 supply camels, commanding officer
Outpost Garrison: 20 Sudanese infantry, 2 cannons with 4-man crews
Mahdists: 60 ansars (two tribes of rifles and spears, one of just spears), 20 fuzzy-wuzzies (treated like Zulus), 12 camelry, one cannon with 4-man crew, amir and musician
At the start of the game, the garrison occupies the outpost at the NW corner of the table. The camel corps is just on the table at the opposite corner, in column alongside the dry wadi which extends about a foot, then splits into a "Y." Ahead of the camel corps, a series of jebels (rocky outcrops) extends from the left, angling across the camels' front toward the outpost. Beyond the jebels and lining the wadi are several areas of dense mimosa scrub. The ansar players have the option to conceal one or two units in the jebels or in the brushy areas behind them. Off-board units can enter along the SW corner between the jebels and the furthest area of scrub.
Disdaining both the rough ground and the protection of the wadi, Capt. Treadwell decided to steer the camel corps toward the jebels. He expected to find smooth going, but there was always the hope of kicking up a few ansar. A good fight would work the kinks out of his men. Meanwhile, a lookout posted on the watchtower at the outpost spotted a small dust cloud near the rocks. A handful of arabs were rolling a gun past the towering boulders!
The Egyptian 9-lbrs. in the zeriba immediately opened fire on the startled native gun crew, wiping them out and delivering a valuable lesson to the Mahdist amir, Khalid ibn Sabah, on the terrible firepower of the Turks' weapons.
Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the jebels, the camel corps was equally surprised by the sudden and unexpectedly deadly fusillade loosed upon them by jehadiya riflemen concealed among the fortress-like rocks. Five camel riders screamed and swayed in their saddles or tumbled to the gravel below. Lessons could be taught both ways, it seemed.
As if the situation was not already bad enough for Capt. Treadwell, with blood-curdling screams a body of ansar camel riders burst out of the rocks and charged toward his right flank. There was no time to tend the wounded as his small command fell back into the brushy cover of the wadi and dismounted. He prayed that Major Hopwood, moving up behind the wadi with the Egyptian infantry and the supply camels , would be able to shelter the fallen fellahin. At the same time, rifle fire from the rocks was steadily increasing. Captain Farthingame, commanding officer at the zeriba, could hear firing from the east and saw smoke drifting over the jebels, but the range was too great for his cannons.
By now, the rocks ahead were fairly swarming with arabs while the camel riders continued pressing forward into the slackening fire of the camel corps. In desperation, Capt. Treadwell fell back alongside the infantry, forming an L-shaped line. Enemy spearmen, emboldened by this apparent loss of nerve, rushed forward against the Egyptian line as the camel riders threatened to overrun the corner.
In an attempt to fathom what in blazes was going on, Major Hopwood stood up in his stirrups. To the horror of all those around, a dervish bullet caught him square in the chest and bowled him from the saddle. The gallant officer was dead before his body struck the ground.
There was no time to sort out the situation as the badly weakened ansars and camel riders, true to their fierce reputations, swept forward and hit the firing line. Although outnumbered 5 to 1, they inflicted far heavier casualties than they suffered in the melee, leaving a gaping hole between the two lines when the slashing and bayoneting finally stopped.
Stunned by the news of Captain Hopwood's death, runners frantically searched for Habala Mulazim-awal, commanding officer of the Egyptian infantry, to tell him that he must take charge of the column. But in the smoke and confusion, no one could find him. Meanwhile the troops stood in place, horribly exposed to the punishing rifle fire from the jebels, awaiting orders. (The Egyptians failed their major morale check at the end of Turn 3 triggered by losing their C-in-C, and were frozen in place for turn 4.)
At this point, we can only assume that the jehadiya among the rocks were horrified when their officers ordered them to continue firing even as their own spearmen ran headlong into the killing zone. Caught between enemy rifles to their front and friendly rifles to their rear, the ansar melted away.
The Egyptians were briefly heartened by the arrival of a small body of friendly Sudanese tribesmen, but their relief quickly turned to horror as jehadiya who were steadily creeping forward picked off the "traitors" one after another. Inside the bent-back Egyptian line, all was chaos.
Once apprised of the situation, Habala quickly ordered a fighting withdrawal. As the supply camels struggled up the wadi, the Egyptians crossed over and formed a new line to protect the supplies. Their position was precarious, but the ansars, despite their numbers, had positioned themselves so they could not take advantage of the opportunity. They were strung out in the wadi, moving along its bottom and not posted in firing positions.
Capt. Farthingame, sensing the need to do something, organized a sortie from his platoon of Sudanese infantry and placed it under his own command, leaving Master Sergeant Lugaard in charge of the zeriba.
The all-important supply camels continued struggling slowly up the dry wash. To cover them, Habala formed line in the open at the top of the wadi. So arranged, his men were once again exposed to fire from the ansars who had flooded down the opposite branch of the wadi and taken up positions along the sunken bank. At this point the jehadiya outgunned the Egyptians and held better ground. Fierce Hadendowa warriors streamed behind them, spearing the wounded who had been abandoned in the ruins of the first position and hurrying on to threaten the Egyptians' left flank. Gunners in the zeriba watched helplessly as the battle raged just beyond their range.
After losing yet more men to the withering fire of the jehadiya, Habala Mulazim-awal decided that the protection of the wadi was essential, however much it might slow his men down. They scrambled down into the gully and formed a hasty line, waiting for the attack. The jehadiya stayed put, satisfied that they could still get the best of the firefight. But the fuzzy-wuzzies stormed up the wadi and slammed into the Egyptians' refused flank. The bejas' overwhelming numbers carried the fight, but although the Egyptians were further weakened, they were neither wiped out nor broken.
Seeing that he couldn't possibly reach the wadi in time to aid Habala, and that further advance would only increase the danger, Capt. Farthingame ordered his men back to the zeriba.
With their blood boiling from the melee, the fuzzy-wuzzies seized the initiative to charge straight through the disorganized Egyptians and close on the baggage camels, but the fleeing handlers managed to stay just out of reach. The heroic Habala Mulazim-awal gathered his remaining men and charged the fuzzy-wuzzies, hoping to scatter them before they could catch and loot the supplies. But at the last moment, his men's nerve failed them and they pulled up short.
The jehadiya and their accompanying spearmen, however, remained hunkered down in the opposite wadi, fearful of what the Egyptian cannons could do to them if they ventured onto the open ground within range.
With superhuman effort, Habala urged his men to follow him once again, and led them straight into the attack. Faced with the choice of fighting the Egyptians in the wadi or retreating into the open, the beja turned and fought. Habala fell to a spear in the first round, and one by one his men went down. All but two of those who charged with him died in the wadi, but they exacted a terrible price from the Hadendowa, who had lost nearly half their number by the time the fight ended. And Habala had bought one more precious turn for the supplies to escape.
By now, the one survivor of the camel corps who raced ahead of the relief column had reached the zeriba with the terrible news. But Captain Farthingame had seen how the events unfolded and he refused to send out help again. The enemy was too strong, and he suspected that more dervishes were moving in the brush to his south. A sortie now would only place both the outpost and the rescuers in jeopardy. Anyway, it was too late to save the column; the supplies were racing ahead of the fuzzy wuzzies and beyond their reach. All but two fellahin were dead or captured. Those two fought a desperate three-turn retreat to the edge of the battlefield, with Hadendowa screaming for their blood the whole way, but never quite able to close. Even if they escaped from the field, these brave men had only a thin chance of surviving both the exultant dervishes and the desert and returning to Suakin alive.
The battle was a tremendous victory for Amir Khalid ibn Sabah. He had wiped out the relief column almost to a man and suffered only negligible casualties in return.
The dervishes did three things very well:
The rifle-armed jehadiya who played so large a part in the victory made up only one-fifth of the force. The key element was not their numbers, but how they were used.
The Egyptians also contributed to their own defeat. The initial decision to approach the jebels instead of cutting a wide path around them or sticking to the cover of the wadi turned out to be ill-advised. Of course, had the Egyptians' suspicions turned out to be true -- that the main force of ansars was hiding in the wadi instead of the rocks -- things would have gone quite differently. In all fairness, too, the commander of the relief column suffered some terrible die-rolling luck in the early turns, and another piece of misfortune when his C-in-C got potted and the whole force spent a turn playing target while the new command structure was sorted out.
Finally, it's hard to judge whether Capt. Farthingame made the right choice in refusing to aid the relief column. The specter of that uncommitted tribe weighed heavily on Farthingame's mind. He probably had enough force to send out aid and still hold the zeriba, but on the other hand, everything he saw from the observation tower atop the redoubt only reinforced the idea that today was no day for taking chances.
On the Egyptian side, the column was tragically wiped out. Two more weeks' worth of supplies did reach the beleagured garrison, however, allowing them to hold out while another column gets organized. And the Egyptians, in spite of being outnumbered and outgunned by the enemy, fought heroically to the very end. I certainly expected them to throw down their packs and rifles and run once they were reduced to half strength, their commander dead, and their wounded fallen into enemy hands. But the one area where the relief column player never had a bad die roll was in critical morale. This battle would do much to retrieve the Egyptian army's reputation as a fighting force.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable game. My thanks to Bob, Stan, and my son Alex (the victorious dervishes of Amir Khalid ibn Sabah), to Sam (Capt. Farthingame), and especially to Scott (Maj. Hopwood and Habala Mulazim-awal), both for fighting so bravely and for sharing his digital photos.
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