As the end of the 19th Century
prepared to re-occupy the Anglo-Egyptian
Sudan that she had evacuated after
death in Khartoum
in January 1885. The insurgent Mahdist armies were seen to be vulnerable to
attack and the British were optimistic of success. The British
government looked around for allies to open
other fronts in the Sudan.
One serious problem was French territorial ambition in Africa, as France wanted
colonial boundary on or across the River Nile
for its Central African possessions.
Britain had to thwart the French
Britain turned to the Belgian King Leopold
II who privately owned the massive Congo Free State (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
On 12th May 1894 Great Britain
leased to the Congo Free State all the territory between the 30th
meridian east of Greenwhich and the Nile up to
the 10th parallel of latitude. This land lay in the Equatoria
Province of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and extended from Lake
Albert in the south to Fashoda in the north. It lay directly
across the route that a French advance eastwards would take. The territory was
leased for the duration of King Leopold’s lifetime and it was expected that Great Britain
would exert some supervision over the lease and that a slightly altered British
flag would be flown. In return the Congo Free State agreed to provide Britain with a strip of land on its eastern
border to be used for the building of a section of the proposed Cape to Cairo Railway.
France was determined to exert influence in this matter and three months later
signed an agreement with the Congo Free State in Paris that saw King Leopold
renouncing occupation and political influence in the leased territory north of
5 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. In return for this renunciation France agreed to the northern boundary of the
Congo Free State moving north of the 4th parallel north (where the
Berlin Conference of 1884-85 had fixed it) up to the Ubangi and Mbomu Rivers.
(In 1898 France did push an
expedition eastwards that planted a flag on the Nile
at Fashoda in the renounced territory. Confrontation and negotiation led to France and Britain accepting river watersheds
rather than rivers as boundaries between their possessions.)
Above: The Battle of Rejaf 1897
shortened area of leased territory became known as the Lado Enclave and was to
be fully administered by the Congo Free State,
but at first there was a problem for the Belgians – Mahdist armed forces were
occupying Rejaf in the enclave. Rejaf was the highest navigable port on the
White Nile and was strongly defended, being supplied from Mahdist headquarters
in Khartoum by
Right: Congo Free State Soldiers with a European officer
1896 the Congo Free State assembled a military
force at Dungu under the command of an energetic 40-year old officer named
Louis Chaltin. Commandant Chaltin moved eastwards to Surrur which he renamed
Vankerhovenville after a deceased officer who had campaigned on the Nile in 1893, and built a strong fort. His troops were
697 Congolese soldiers organized into seven rifle companies commanded by
Europeans. The force had one field gun under the command of Sergent Cajot, a
former gunner, who also commanded No 7 Company. A band of 19 musicians
accompanied the force, and a transport team of 32 soldiers under a European
supervised 250 porters.
December 1896 the chiefs of three local tribes, the Azande, Renzi and Bafuka,
joined Chaltin bringing 50 riflemen, 500 spearmen and another 400 porters with
column advanced north-eastwards towards the Nile on 1st January 1897
with an Advance Guard of two companies led by a 50-man scouting group 300
metres ahead; a Main Body of four companies and the artillery; a Baggage Guard
of one company and porters with the vital baggage; a Rear Guard of general
baggage and Azande spearmen; and two Flank Guards of Renzi and Bafuka spearmen.
Left: A Congo Free State soldier
light skirmishing in the Tendia Pass against natives using poisoned arrows the column
dropped down towards the Nile Valley on 16 January, establishing a fortified post
at Mount Adra a week later. Chaltin’s men were
now advancing through well-cultivated country where the tribes were friendly
and crops available for food, but the hunters in the force only occasionally
encountered game animals to kill for meat. On St. Valentine’s Day the Nile was reached – here 800 metres wide. Along the banks
herds of game browsed whilst predators and crocodiles stalked them. Chaltin
halted at the old Turkish post of Bedden, four hours march south of Rejaf.
hours On 16 January Chaltin’s camp was approached by groups of enemy carrying
banners. The enemy troops stayed on high ground but a couple of rounds from
Cajot’s gun dispersed them. At 0600 hours the following day the Belgians
advanced using the Nile to protect the right
flank and the Azande spearmen to protect the left. An hour later the enemy was
found dug-in occupying a three-kilometre front, again on high ground. A pass
was in the centre of the enemy line which ran from the Nile
to the bank of a tributary river. The position appeared impregnable.
Chaltin advanced four companies to cover in rocky ground and held three
companies in reserve. Cajot’s gun fired six shells from the centre of the
Belgian line. The enemy rifle fire could not hit the four forward companies but
did hit the reserves and the baggage porters. The Mahdists then made a mistake,
sending a group from the high ground to outflank the Belgians on their left. Chaltin
seized the initiative and advanced his four forward companies to within 200
metres of the enemy line from where they laid down intense fire.
now hesitated and Chaltin deployed two reserve companies to his left, causing
the Mahdist outflanking party to give way. A general advance was now sounded
and the 500 Azande spearmen were ordered to charge the retreating enemy who
were now cut off from their main body. The Azande performed this task well. The
right-hand forward rifle companies seized the pass in front of them whilst the
companies on their left advanced over the high ground. At first the Mahdists
offered a disciplined fighting withdrawal but the faint-hearted ones in their
ranks soon began to run, and the withdrawal turned into a rout. The rifle
companies methodically cleared and secured the battlefield whilst their
spearmen allies dealt with enemy stragglers. Chaltin had won the first battle,
which had lasted for around 30 minutes.
ground was strewn with dead and wounded Mahdists. Egyptians, Abyssinians and
Darfuris were identified amongst the casualties. Mahommed Adi Bedi, the enemy
commander, was amongst the killed. He had commanded 2,000 men in a very strong
entrenched position but had made the mistake of splitting his force by
attempting to out-flank the Belgians.
column rested for two hours then, under a scorching sun, followed up the enemy
retreat, crossing ground where all the watercourses were dry. After 90 minutes
the point men arrived at the foot of Mount
Rejaf, over 150 metres high, where
Mahdists occupied a crest line running down to the Nile.
Chaltin’s column was stretched out now and took some time to concentrate. Meanwhile
the enemy opened fire with a cannon which fortunately did little damage.
Left: Mahdist uniforms and equipment
the Mahdists defended their position desperately, the thirsty Belgian riflemen
wanted an end to the fight and five companies were advanced to close with the
enemy. The Belgians turned the enemy left flank, causing an enemy withdrawal
into a ravine where the Mahdists formed a line with their backs on the Nile. Cajot was ordered forward with his cannon, and at
100 metres range he fired canister shell (a shell that explodes in the air
projecting many bullets forward) into the enemy line, reducing the Mahdist
resistance. Chaltin ordered a company to attack and this action broke the enemy
ranks. Two more Belgian companies were advanced to follow-up the enemy who now
withdrew behind the Rejaf town walls to man defensive positions in the fort and
houses. Chaltin had won the second battle.
assault on the town was quickly mounted, and the soldiers now had loot as an
incentive. The battle devolved out of Chaltin’s control as company commanders
fought their men forward down labyrinths of passageways from one defended house
to the next. At 1900 hours the Belgians ceased fire and consolidated their
gains. The enemy sniped for a further five hours, then the town fell silent. The
Belgians rested for the night, doubtless spending a little time looking for
water, food, booty and other relaxation. They advanced again at 0400 hours only
to find that the fort was empty as the Mahdist survivors had slipped away
during the night.
hundred Mahdists were lying dead, including eight important leaders. Booty
included two useful cannon and a signalling gun, 700 good rifles, revolvers,
swords (some appearing to be as used by Crusaders), battle standards, two
stores full of ammunition, drums and musical instruments, large quantities of
food (a steamer from downriver had just unloaded and it had been quickly
dispatched downriver again as the fighting reached Rejaf town), four tonnes of
good ivory, the garrison archives, mules, donkeys, 100 head of livestock and
hundreds of goats and sheep. Over 400 cattle had been killed during the
fighting and these carcasses provided fresh meat for the troops and their
allies. Hundreds of women and children remained in the town, and they would no
doubt have provided a welcome and useful labour force for the Belgians. Chaltin
had lost one European and an unrecorded number of soldiers and spearmen killed.
located 800 metres from the Nile and the
town’s defences had faced south and west. Chaltin now reversed this, digging
600 metres of trenches facing north. A parapet was constructed allowing
riflemen to shoot over a 3-metre wide ditch filled with thorn bush. Two gates
controlled entry from north and south and a stone battery position housed the
cannon on the west. Stone houses were built inside the town for Europeans and
for administrative purposes, and a grass-hutted camp for soldiers was
constructed outside the north entrance. Fields were cultivated and livestock
herded to provide food for the garrison.
The Congo Free State could now develop and exploit the Lado
Left: Statue of King Leopold II
EXPÉDITION BELGE AU NIL by Léon CHOMÉ.
Beyond the Rivers – the Southern Sudan
1898-1918 by Robert O. Collins.
on the Upper Nile and Niger
in the Brussels Military
Museum and the Royal
Museum for Central Africa at Tervuren,
more contemporary account of soldiering in this scenic Congo-Sudan border
region, read chapters 12 to 16 of Mike Hoare’s “Congo Mercenary” and the several
chapters covering operations in Oriental
Province in his book