Crewing the Nile Gunboats

Gunboat Melik underwayGunboats of one description or another have been used on the Nile ever since the first Arab to own a rifle took a pot shot at someone from the deck of his felucca.

They became more powerful machines of war during General Gordon’s time when the Mahdi began his jihad to liberate the Sudan from the Egyptian yoke. At the time of this crisis some of the Egyptian fleet of river steamers were modified to carry weaponry, including machine guns and artillery pieces. When Lord Kitchener began his campaign of re-conquest twelve years after the death of Gordon, he realised the advantages of having powerful warship dominating the river, and eventually deployed a flotilla of ten gunboats, several of which were specifically designed and built for service on the Nile.

Kitchener began the campaign with four old converted shallow draft (2ft-6ins) stern wheel paddle boats, which were named after earlier battles. These were the Metemma, the Tamai, the El Teb and the Abu Klea which was later renamed Hafir. The first of the new purpose-built gunboats, built at Wivenhoe by Forests and shipped out in sections, was the Zaphir (Victorious) which arrived in September 1896, followed after by the Fateh (Conqueror), and Nasir (Majestic). In July 1898, the more powerful armoured gunboats, Melik, Sultan and Sheikh built on the Thames by John I Thornycroft and Yarrows joined the flotilla.

These gunboats had an unusual mix of crews. Each was commanded by a British officer, who was either loaned from the Royal Navy or the Royal Engineers. The machine-guns and artillery pieces were commanded by two Royal Marine NCOs, with a team of Egyptian gunners. The boats themselves were operated by a mixture of senior RN ratings, and civilian engineers with locals acting as firemen for the boilers. These civilians were a mixed bag of many nationalities including Armenians, Egyptians, Greeks, Maltese as well as British.

All who served on the gunboats were entitled to the Khedive of Egypt’s silver campaign medal, which usually bore the recipient’s name or number on the rim, and to which was fixed a silver bar to denote the battle in which the recipient served. These bars included Hafir 1896, Sudan 1897, The Astbara 1898, Khartoum 1898, Gedaref 1898, Gedid 1899 and Sudan 1899. No gunboats took part in the battles of Firket (1896), or Abu Hamed (1897).

The medal rolls at the Public Record Office give most of the names of those who crewed the gunboats but not the boat in which they served. It is not possible to identify those who either served in the Egyptian gun-crews or as ratings. The roles of British officers can easily be established from the many books written about the campaign as can sometimes those of the RM gunners and RN ratings. It is also complicated by the fact that some British personnel moved from one gunboat to another during the campaign. Whilst the civilian engineers probably stayed with the boat to which they were originally assigned, it is difficult to place some of them as Kitchener used upwards of twenty other steamers in addition to the gunboat flotilla. It is interesting to see how many RN officers subsequently went on to attain senior rank.

It seems that some of the medals awarded to the civilian engineers were never issued to the recipients, probably due to their transient nature. The medal roll lists all those medals sent to Egypt which were returned to Woolwich in 1900 from where a few have since drifted into general circulation.

Civilian Engineers who served on the Gunboats

Allam, William Atbara, Khartoum
Bond, A J Atbara, Khartoum
Campbell, J Atbara, Khartoum
Catena, C Khartoum
Farminer, A E Khartoum
Jerich, C Khartoum
Seed, Thomas Atbara, Khartoum
Tucker, E Atbara, Khartoum
Mizzi, C Atbara, Khartoum
Archer, B G * Khartoum
Cortesis, C G * Hafir, Sudan ’97, Khartoum
Howell, James * Atbara, Khartoum – Melik
James, T * Hafir, Khartoum
Lennox, C * Khartoum
Lonman, A * Khartoum
Manning, F F * Khartoum
Mitchnik, A * Hafir, Khartoum
Page, C H * Hafir, Khartoum
Poole, R C * Hafir, Atbara, Khartoum
Potts, A C * Khartoum
Scilpini, E * Khartoum
Travlas, A * Khartoum
Warder, H * Sudan ’97, Khartoum
Walker, H * Khartoum
Zara, A * Sudan ’97, Khartoum

* also served on Steamers