Royal Irish Rifles Mounted Infantry, Battle of Suakin, Sudan.

Thursday, 20 December, 1888

Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi (the Guided One) had proclaimed a Jihad and led the uprising in the Sudan, known as the Mahdi Revolt, against the Khedivate of Egypt. The revolt began in 1881 and although Muhammad Ahmad died in 1885, the revolt continued under his successor, Khalifa Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, until 1899. British interests in Egypt were driven by their acquisition of the Suez Canal and the growth of British political and military involvement.

Early in 1888, the 2nd Battalion The Royal Irish Rifles was stationed at Alexandria in Egypt. On 13 December 1888, 10 officers and 450 other ranks were moved with only one hour's notice to garrison Cairo. The Cairo garrison, together with a Royal Irish Rifles mounted infantry platoon of two officers and 37 other ranks, commanded by Brigadier Francis Grenfell, was hastily sent to Suakin in the Sudan, where the military commander was Colonel Herbert Kitchener (later Field Marshal Lord Kitchener).

Osman Digna, the most able of the former Mahdi's generals and now loyal to Khalifa, was opposing Kitchener at the Sudanese port town of Suakin. Digna's force was entrenched outside the town and action by Grenfell's force would raise the siege and disperse the rebels. The fighting consisted of a sortie from the town at 0700 hours on 20 December, supported by Royal Navy gunfire, and the action was reported to have lasted only 30 minutes. The rebel forces suffered up to 1,000 casualties against 12 NCOs and men for Grenfell's force. Concern was expressed in the House of Commons several days later when a member asked the government 'whether they will take any steps to prevent a further battue of the Arabs on the system of scientific slaughter which had been adopted'. However, British public attitudes were still very much influenced by the death, beheading and desecration of General Gordon at Khartoum three years earlier in 1885.