The Battle of Tofrek 22 March 1885
Created 7 May 2003. Modified 06 Oct 17

1st Royal Tank Regiment was located in Tofrek Barracks Hildesheim from 1984 - 1993. This is how the name came about.

In 1879 the wild extravagance of Ismail Pasha, who then ruled Egypt, had brought the country to the verge of complete financial collapse. This was a serious matter for Great Britain, whose government was naturally deeply concerned for the safety of the new Suez Canal, and it was decided that it was necessary to take over the complete administration of the country. The French, who were also involved initially, soon pulled out (what a surprise, a bit like modern times I think) leaving the British to put things right, and at first things went well. A rather half hearted rising by the Egyptian Army under a fervent nationalist, Colonel Arabi Pasha, was soon put down in 1882, but it then became clear that much more serious trouble was brewing further south. The Sudan, which was then a Province of Egypt, had been hideously misgoverned for years, and this eventually led to a large scale rising under a fanatical Muslim leader known as the Mahdi. The situation was soon out of hand, the Egyptian troops, many of whom were little more than bandits, were progressively destroyed, and the British, reluctant to involve themselves too deeply in a remote and largely barren area, decided to abandon the whole Province to its inhabitants. In 1884, Major General Gordon, who had had much experience there as the agent of the Egyptian government, was therefore despatched to arrange the rapid and orderly withdrawal of the Egyptian garrisons. However, Gordon had no great regard for orders when they clashed with his own opinions, and appears to have had ideas that the Sudan might yet have been saved by his personal exertions. He was soon besieged by the rebels in Khartoum, which he defended gallantly with a somewhat scratch garrison, but the British government was still reluctant to get involved until public opinion, which had begun to regard Gordon as a wronged hero, compelled the despatch of a large and costly expedition under Sir Garnett Wolseley. It left too late, and in spite of gallant efforts under fearful conditions, Khartoum fell on 26 January 1885, Gordon being killed by the Mahdi's forces.

The situation regarding relief had been made worse by an new outbreak in the Eastern Sudan, led by one of the Mahdi's Lieutenants, an erstwhile slave trader named Osman Digna, and as the Red Sea formed a vital part of Britain's communications with her Far East possessions, action became necessary there. In 1884 an expedition had done something to suppress an earlier rising, but in the next year trouble flared again. The Suakin Field Force was therefore reconstituted under its original Commander, Lt Gen Sir G Graham, VC, KCB, and sent back to Suakin, one of its units being the 1st Bn The Berkshire Regiment which, until 1881, had been the 49th Foot. The first requirement was to re-establish a proper base at Suakin, from which the Force could be administered and supplied. The surrounding country was mostly stony desert, considerable areas of which were covered with dense thorn and mimosa, and as it was almost waterless the need for a regular supply of that vital commodity necessarily dominated the whole planning of operations. The actual provision of it was solved by the large scale condensing of sea water, but the real difficulty came in distributing it. The transport available consisted almost entirely of baggage camels, mainly under civilian drivers, and the problems of controlling and protecting the large and unwieldy convoys was never really overcome.

The preparatory work went well, although it was constantly interrupted by night raids. Many of Osman Digna's men were Hadendowas, who were brave and fanatical beyond belief, and their constant attacks soon had an adverse effect on the efficiency of the troops who worked hard by day and needed rest at night. Finally a reconnaissance in force attacked their base at Hashin, after which the situation improved. Information was then obtained that the bulk of Osman Digna's forces were some 15 miles to the south west of Suakin, and Graham decided to launch a strong attack with the hopes of crushing them by a single stroke. Inevitably, of course, local conditions made it necessary first to establish an intermediate post where large supplies of water and other stores could be pre-positioned under adequate protection, and early on March 22nd 1885 a considerable force left Suakin to carry out this preliminary operation. It was commanded by Maj Gen Sir J McNeill, VC, KCB, KCMG and consisted of the Berkshire Regiment, a composite battalion of Marines from the Red Sea Fleet, 3 battalions of Indian Infantry, and a small force of Cavalry, together with a detachment of the Royal Engineers and various supporting troops, and a vast convoy of some 1500 animals, mainly camels. One comparatively modern invention was the presence of a Telegraph Detachment, which was to lay a wire from Suakin so that Graham could keep in touch with developments.

The whole affair soon became something of a shambles, the 2 British units, marching in advance in loose hollow square, had no real problem but the unfortunate Indian Brigade, to whom fell the task of escorting the convoy, were soon in trouble. Neither drivers nor camels had had any training and the loads, often badly put on, were frequently dragged off by the thorn bushes. Straggling became worse and worse, and after 6 miles, which had taken 6 hours to cover, McNeill decided to halt and establish the post some 2 miles short of the point originally selected. The intention was that once the place was established the baggage animals should be escorted back to Suakin by the Indians, and it was clearly vital that this operation should be completed before dark, which fell early. The location finally chosen was a small clearing in otherwise thick shrub, it appears to have been a fairly regular staging post for local caravans, and was known as Tofrek. The enemy had few firearms so that their only method of fighting was to charge to close quarters with swords and spears, which they did with an almost total disregard for casualties. As long fields of fire were hard to find in the shrub, some sort of defensive obstacles were essential, their object being to check the impetus of an attack until modern firepower could take effect, this being particularly important at night. The usual method was to make a broad barrier of cut thorn bush about 4 foot high, such defences being known locally as "zaribas". It should be said here that McNeill's firepower was considerable, the British troops had the comparatively new, purpose built breech loading rifle known as the Martini-Henry, which although a single loader, was still capable of a fairly high rate of fire, while the Indians had the Snider. This was a breech loading conversion of the original Enfield percussion rifle, and although technically obsolete, was an arm of great power and accuracy. The Force had no artillery, but was accompanied by 4 Gardner guns, an early type of hand cranked machine gun, these being manned by the sailors from the Fleet.

The plan, on this occasion, was to make one large zariba, 120 yards square, for the stores and admin troops, with 2 smaller flanking ones, each 65 yards square at the south west and north east corners. They were to be held by the Berkshires and Marines respectively, each with 2 Gardner guns, and were so sited they could bring down flanking fire onto all four sides of the main zariba. The line of the works was soon marked out by the Engineers and construction began immediately, while simultaneously the Commissariat troops began unloading the water and other stores. Once the animals had their loads removed they were sent to a collecting area just to the east of the main zariba in preparation for their return to Suakin. The Royal Marines dispersed to cut thorn bush for their zariba, and did the right flank of the Berkshires, while the left remained to protect the baggage animals and act as reserve. The main zariba was to be built by parties from the 3 Indian battalions, the remainder of which provided local protection to the north, west and south. This, in general, consisted of the units of the line with piquet's in front of them. In addition, the Cavalry furnished a line of vedette posts on the southern side, but as their pennants could be seen above the shrub by an observer 5' 8" high it is clear that they were not very far in advance of the main line. The general disposition of the Force is shown on the map on the top of the page.

At approximately 1400 hrs the Arabs, who had been concentrating in the shrub to the south and west, decided to attack. It seemed likely that they had prior warning of the original plans and had concentrated initially near the point originally selected for the Post, only to find that they had to move a couple of miles eastwards to find the new position. The attack, when it came, was sudden and violent, the cavalry vedettes were completely surprised and galloped back in confusion, yelling the Arabs were coming, and the whole force stood to. The initial rush seems to have come from the west and came close to destroying the right half of the Berkshires who were cutting thorn bush in the area, they were completely unarmed, having left their rifles piled up in the unfinished zariba, and all they could do was run back as fast as they could. Fortunately the Sikh outposts kept their heads and retired steadily, and in good order, which just gave the Berkshires time to reach their rifles. Even so a few of the slower ones would have been overtaken, had not a very gallant Subedar turned back single handed and killed several of their pursuers with his sword.

The Indian Battalion on the south face had been thrown into confusion by the cavalry vedettes which galloped back through its lines and were quite unable to face the Arabs. It fired one desperate volley then broke and ran, its CO being killed as he tried to rally it. The Berkshires had, in the meantime, reached their rifles and flung themselves into rallying squares just in time to see hundreds of Hadendowas come swarming over the unfinished south and west walls of the zariba. The Gardner guns, which were just being got into position at the south west angle were over run and their detachments killed or wounded in a brief struggle, then the yelling mass flung themselves upon the 4 isolated companies. The next 20 minutes were a period of fearful confusion that it was almost impossible to give a coherent account of the battle which followed. The whole area was covered in a great pall of dust churned up by thousands of running feet and was made a great deal worse by the clouds of acrid black powder smoke from the rifles. Firing was continuous and initially quite uncontrolled as the troops blazed away at the enemy only a few yards from them. Presently the worst pressure slackened and the officers were then able to revert to more disciplined volley firing. The Arabs were so close that many casualties were inflicted by sword and spear, yet in spite of their almost superhuman efforts they never succeeded in breaking in. After a while even they became sick of the slaughter and veered off eastwards to make for the stores zariba, and it was here that Lt Ford, the Battalion Quartermaster, had a narrow escape. Seeing what was coming, and being quite alone, he sensibly made for the Marine zariba with a number of Arabs in pursuit. The Marines, rifles levelled, were unable to fire in case they hit him, and watched anxiously as his pursuers rapidly overhauled him, and when, very fortunately, he stumbled and fell flat on his face,  they fired a volley over him and killed every one of the Arabs behind him. The location of 2 of the 4 companies of the left half battalion is still open to doubt after more than a hundred years. It is certain that E and H were together, roughly as shown on the sketch map above, but F and G are more difficult to place. F Company had been in support close behind the 17th Native Infantry on the south face, but had been relieved just before the battle started and were actually queuing at the water cart when the attack started. There are indications that they were located as shown but by no means is it certain.

When the battle started they formed rallying squares and may have been joined by a detachment of Engineers which fought with them. E and H Companies were fallen out and having their midday meal when the attack came, they seized their rifles and formed a single rallying square round the 2IC, who in true drill book fashion, stood with sword raised to indicate his position. At first they were in a mass so that only a portion of the men could fire, but after the first confusion they shook into lines and began firing volleys. G Company was probably somewhere between them and the Marine zariba and probably close to the latter since the Company Commander later recorded that he could hear their volleys coming from his left flank. In general the attack on the left battalion was less severe than the one on the right, their main danger was from the hundreds of stampeding animals, many wounded and crazed with fear, as they fled north east in the general direction of Suakin, the Arabs amongst them, hacking and stabbing furiously. The Companies only saved themselves from being trampled down by firing volleys into them which scattered them left and right. The position of the Commanding Officer, Lt Col Huyshe, is by no means clear. The Regimental History puts him with the left battalion, but the Second in Command was clearly in command of E and H Companies and neither of the other companies mention him. It is probable that he was riding from one half battalion to the other when battle started and at least one account states that he was attacked whilst on his own by several Hadendowas, all of whom he killed with his revolver.

After about 20 minutes, the enemy withdrew, the wind clearing the dust and smoke, and they were at last able to see the battlefield, which was a fearful sight. 21 men of the right half battalion were dead and as many wounded, mostly by sword and spear, although in the quite literal fog of battle it was inevitable that some had been hit by wild firing from their own side. The entire area, about 25 acres in extent, was littered, and in places, heaped with dead and dying Arabs, some British and Indian, sailors and camp follower casualties intermixed amongst them. There were hundreds of dead and wounded animals, some shot by the Berkshires, others hamstrung or stabbed by the Arabs, who knew their value. The horror of the scene was not lessened by the arrival of flocks of Vultures and Kites which had been quickly attracted to the area and were gorging themselves on the bodies.

The first need was to clear the battlefield, for a wounded Hadendowa, seeking only Paradise for killing an infidel, was a very dangerous customer. Lt Swinton died as the result of a spear thrust by a wounded, dying Arab. This task was soon completed by the Berkshires and the Marines, while the Forces own casualties were collected and dealt with. General Graham, who had heard the firing at Suakin, was preparing a Relief Force, but was informed by telephone that all was well, and postponed his move until the next day. The reorganisation was largely completed by dusk, when the Force settled down for the night. The Berkshires together in its zariba for the first time. Although exhausted, it is probable that few slept well. There were a few false alarms and one occasion a loose mule gave rise to wild firing which was stopped only with difficulty. The Company Commander chiefly concerned was the recipient of some harsh words from his Commanding Officer next morning, which understandably, hurt his feelings. Work continued throughout the following day, the main task being the removal to leeward of the hundreds of dead men and animals who were already becoming offensive, a task which proved so arduous that it was soon decided that it would be easier to rebuild the zariba a suitable distance upwind. A rough count revealed some 1600 dead Arabs, which allowing for those who crawled or were dragged away indicates a probable death toll of some 2000, a fearful loss which seems to have discouraged even the most fanatically brave of the survivors and imposed an uncharacteristic caution on them thereafter. Most of them were reported as being men in the prime of life, with only a few boys and old men amongst them, and one noticeable feature was that they had all shaved their hair, having been assured by Osman Dinga that this was an infallible charm against bullets. Surprisingly, there were a number of women too, who had apparently fought with the same courage as the men. The British lost 78 men and the Indians 63. Inevitably a fair number of the casualties fell amongst the Commissariat and Engineers, who by virtue of their work, tended to be spread about. The suddenness of the transition from calm to bloody war was well illustrated by an officer of F Company, who later related that a minute to two before the attack two mounted officers of the Royal Engineers had stopped by his post to enquire the way to Bn HQ, where they had been invited to lunch. After the battle, their bodies were found only a few yards from his position.

General Graham arrived with a British Brigade early on 23rd March. The track which he had followed was littered with dead animals and not a few dead soldiers, and showed all the apparent signs of a disaster which did not please him. He was at best an irascible officer and used some harsh words in public to McNeill when they met. He was perhaps justified, for although Gen McNeill had behaved with great gallantry during the battle, there does seem to have been a somewhat lax attitude in the Force as a whole before the attack. The position chosen was in thick shrub, which while it certainly facilitated the building of the zariba's, also made it easy for Digna's forces to approach unseen and achieve virtual complete surprise. It so happened that the Berkshires were in a position where it received the full force of the attack and it was only their desperate resistance which saved the day. Had they broken lines, the Sikhs, attacked in line from front and flank, must have broken too, good soldiers though they were, and although the Marines would have fought to the end they would have been annihilated by the fire of the hundreds of rifles that would have fallen into the Arabs hands. As it was, a disaster on the scale is Isandlwana or Maiwand (then both of recent occurrence) was narrowly averted. The battle was originally known as "McNeill's Zariba" but was soon changed to Tofrek, the title by which it has been known ever since. The part played by the Berkshires was recognised by their appointment as a "Royal" Regiment.

There is little to be said about the campaign, which had really collapsed with Gordon's death. There had been a somewhat ambitious scheme to re-establish new routes to the Nile by building a railway across the desert from Suakin but with the threat of trouble over in Afghanistan this caused the British government to (thankfully) abandon Sudan to its misery until Kitchener finally sorted it out 13 years later.

General Gordon, lauded by the population back home, was the villain of the whole scenario; if he had followed orders from London/Cairo to the letter, many hundreds of lives would have undoubtedly have been saved and the Sudan, later abandoned, then retaken, would not have seen such bloody fanatical battles such as Tofrek.

Other peripheral information


Royal Engineers

Tanner served as a Lieutenant, Royal Engineers during operations in the Sudan in 1885. He was initially assigned to the Indian Labour Corps at Suakin. Following the Battle of Tofrek he was assigned to "F" Company, Madras Sappers and Miners as a replacement for an officer killed at the Battle of Tofrek on the 22nd of March 1885. He subsequently served in Waziristan in 1881 with the 6th Company, Bengal Sappers and Miners.

During the Great War Colonel Tanner went to France in September of 1915 as the Commander Royal Engineers (C.R.E.) of the 22nd Division. Later that year he was promoted to Brigadier General and posted as the Chief Engineer (C.E.) of the British VII Corps in the Third Army. He served in this capacity during the Somme offensive in July of 1916 and during the Battle of Arras in 1917. Brigadier General Tanner died on the 23rd of July 1917 at the age of 58

In August 1897, the Samana was garrisoned by 5 companies of the 36th Sikhs. The commanding officer was acting Lieutenant-Colonel John Haughton, aged 45 at the time. He survived this action but was killed at Shinkamar the following year. There were 5 other British officers, only one of whom had seen action before. He was the adjutant, Lieutenant George Munn who, as an officer in the Derbyshire Regiment had served with the Hazara Field Force in 1891 and as a member of the Indian Staff Corps, had been with the Chitral Relief Force in 1895. The 7 Indian officers had seen active service while serving with other regiments as rank and file. Amongst them was Subadar Diwan Singh who had been in Afghanistan in 1878/9 including the capture of Ali Musjid, and Jemadar Jwala Singh who had served on the Suakin expedition in 1885 and the battle of Tofrek. Both these officers were posted at Fort Gulistan under the command of Major Des Voeux, while Colonel Haughton and Lt. Munn were with the HQ at Fort Lockhart. Taken from the link below:

[ Books ] Galloway (Wm.) - The Battle of Tofrek, London, W.H.Allen, 1887,4to, original cloth (somewhat stained), Limited To 500 Copies, Presentation Copy To H.M. Stanley with full-page inscription from the author E100-150 - In auction Dec 2002