The Allan and Janet Woodliffe Collection of Medals relating to the Reconquest and Pacification of The Sudan 1896-1956
More years ago than I care to remember, I needed to make a visit to Khartoum on business. When flying over the vast waterless deserts of the Sudan, I began to realise what a formidable task it must have been for Victorian soldiers to have even traversed this awe inspiring country; let alone fight battles for it, build railways over it and to eventually govern it – especially as they did not want it in the first place! I determined that on my return home I would learn more about the history of the British presence here. The more I read of its fascinating yet bloody history, the more I became hooked. I did not at that time have any particular interest in the Sudan wars, but that was soon to change, and from that time on I specialised in medals awarded to those who took part in the reconquest and pacification of this fascinating country, the largest in Africa.
I subsequently visited the Sudan a number of times, both for business and pleasure, each visit re- enforcing both my interest of and love for it. I was fortunate to make good friends, both British and Sudanese, to visit homes and historical sites, to take tea with the grandsons of both the Mahdi and the Khalifa, and even buy one or two medals in the Omdurman souk. During my travels I 'relocated' the remains of Kitchener's riverine gunboat <i>Melik</i> (King) beached near Khartoum and, having sparked the enthusiasm of some good friends, we founded the 'Melik Society', which is dedicated to restoring the gunboat to its former glory. One day we may even be successful.
During my visits I met all types of Sudanese, from swarthy Arabs in Dongola to the blue-black Nuer people from the equatorial south. They were all unfailingly friendly and treated me with kindness and courtesy wherever I went. They had no rancour over past events and seemed rather proud of the fact that Gordon Pasha, Lord Kitchener and Winston Churchill served in the Sudan. In fact, there seemed a sort of nostalgia for the time that the British administered the country with what is still felt as fairness and honesty. The Sudanese of course also remember with pride the names of the great fighting Emirs of the Mahdiya, men such as Osman Digna, Wad el Nejumi, Osman Azrak and Mahmud.
One day, when exploring Omdurman, I came across a rather smart-looking elderly gentleman standing on a street corner, and as our eyes met, for some reason I said in English "Sudan Defence Force", he immediately snapped to attention, saying "Bash Shawish Mohammed...Effendi Sah", as he saluted. I spent quite some time talking of past times to this wonderful old sergeant-major, who saw no contradiction in the fact that his grandfather fought against the British at the Battle of Karerri (Omdurman) and that he had himself later fought with the British. It is indeed hard not to like the Sudanese.
The period of the reconquest and pacification is a very fertile area for research. The officers and men involved were becoming better educated than their predecessors, and a surprising number left accounts of their time in the Sudan, which are deposited in archives all over the UK. There is, as one would expect, a treasure trove of records in the Khartoum Record Office and, whereas access to this particular archive is difficult though not impossible, there are quite comprehensive records held in the Sudan Archive at Durham University and the National Archives at Kew.
The medal groups in this collection are, in the majority, those awarded to officers of the British army who were seconded to the Egyptian army (EA) and come from a wide variety of regiments. All have research notes, which can vary from a few pages of text to large folders and even a couple of boxes of material. To have experience commanding units of the EA in the Sudan was, during the years of the reconquest, considered an advantageous stepping-stone towards moving on to greater things. However, post-1900, there seemed to be more of a desire to go there for the adventure of serving, and sometimes fighting, in an exotic country. However, the Sudan is a seductive mistress and many fell in love with the country and its people, staying on for long periods, even up to the end of their careers. Of course, the administrators of the Sudan Political Service (SPS) were the hand-picked crème de la crème.
For those interested in reading a history of the Sudan wars there have been many well-researched and quite comprehensive books published in the last few years. I found one of the most enjoyable to be 'A Good Dusting: The Sudan Campaigns 1883-1899' by the Herefordshire author Henry Keown-Boyd (1986). For those interested in brief biographies of all the British officers who took part on attachment to the EA, Keown-Boyd's 'Soldiers of the Nile 1882-1925' (1996) is the book to have. Keown-Boyd not only lived in the Sudan and has a great affinity with the country and its people, but he is the son of Sir Alexander Keown-Boyd (1884-1954), who was Reginald Wingate's private secretary. For a feel of what it was like to govern and administer that vast country, see 'Set Under Authority' by K.D.D. Henderson (1987), another fascinating and very enjoyable read.
In this catalogue I have given little detail about the actions leading up to the occupation of Khartoum, as they have been well covered in military histories written by far better scholars than me. I have, however, briefly summarised the story behind the later and less well-known pacification actions for which clasps were awarded. Hopefully I have done enough to excite the imagination about what it was like to serve in such a magnificent yet difficult country.
Finally, I must mention my wife Janet, who has always been my partner in assembling this collection. She has scoured the antique markets for Sudan-related ephemera, stoically put up with my disappearing down to the Sudan on odd occasions, and over the years become good friends with some of the old Sudani hands, as well as quite a few other medal collectors. Thank you Janet.
Allan J. Woodliffe
Pontypridd April 2011