Major Burnside’s Blunder

Information had been received in Cairo suggesting that a large force of Mahdists under Sheikh Aboud had been gathering deep in the desert near the hitherto lost temple of Ra. Accordingly, a small force under Major Barnaby Burnside was sent to investigate and disperse what was believed to be only a small incursion. Major Burnside was, as usual, accompanied by his faithful hound Tiffin and the intrepid reporter Percival “Nibs” Penman of the World Illustrated News. The field force consisted of “A” and “B” Companies of the Royal North Surrey Regiment, E Company of the Lennox Highlanders, and a detachment of the 23rd “White” Hussars.

The hussars, carrying Mahdist spears as improvised lances, were sent to scout ahead of the column. They had just come into sight of the lost temple when there was a crack of rifle shots from the hill to their right as previously concealed Mahdists revealed themselves and immediately attacked. Despite casualties, the hussars remained unshaken, wheeled to the right, and attempted to screen the arrival of the infantry. Major Burnside quickly arrived with “A” Company and ordered them into line facing the oncoming horde.

No sooner than A Company had deployed, another previously hidden force of Mahdists rose from the cover of the hillside and launched themselves in a headlong charge towards the White Hussars. In turn, they counter-charged the approaching host. Fortunately, “B” Company arrived in the nick of time and quickly formed up to left of “A” Company.

“A” Company fired a volley at the Dervish horde to its front, but apparently the company hadn’t adjusted their rifle sights and fired high. The horde closed in for the kill but was repulsed, with both attackers and defenders suffering heavy casualties. Meanwhile, the hussars, expertly using their improvised lances, drove the Madhists before them. Cold steel and cool nerves had won the initial engagements.

As Major Burnside and “Nibs” looked towards the oasis and temple, they spotted yet another Dervish unit previously hidden by the swaying palms. However, they did not panic as they could hear the drone of bagpipes as the Lennox Highlanders arrived. “A” Company took the opportunity to retire from the firing line and were quickly replaced by the highlanders. “B” Company redeployed to face the new threat and fired a deadly volley. The White Hussars, having broken the enemy to their front, wheeled left and hit the new Madhist force in the flank. It all proved too much for the Mahdists, and they broke and fled to the safety of the temple ruins.

Sheikh Aboud, despite the heavy losses, had faith that victory would be his. He had cunningly sent two units of Dervishes to flank the infidels. These had moved swiftly, using the terrain to go unnoticed. Every sand dune and donga had been their ally, and now they appeared behind the British line. Both units seemingly rose from the sands of the desert and charged the unsuspecting British. As soon as they were observed, “B” Company opened fire on the closest unit to them, but their volley failed to slow the Dervish host. Burnside and “Nibs,” with Tiffin following close behind, quickly found safety with the Highlanders, whose volley finally eliminated the enemy force in front of them.

“A” Company rapidly about-faced and attempted to stop the dervishes charging them. But once again, their sights were set too high, and the volley missed. Both units of Mahdists struck home on their respective targets, and “A” Company was virtually destroyed in the ensuing melee. “B” Company fared no better and was reduced to less than half strength. The Lennox Highlanders about-faced, readied themselves, took aim, and sent a death dealing volley into the Dervishes that had done for “A” Company. The survivors of the destroyed companies rallied around the rock steady men of the Lennox Regiment and fought on.

The White Hussars broke off their pursuit of the Mahdists skulking amid the ruins of the temple and launched a death or glory charge against the horde that threatened their comrades. The charge hit home and inflicted some casualties, but the hussars were too few and were pulled from their saddles to die on the points of Dervish spears.

The Mahdists, sensing victory was within their grasp once again, charged. Units that had previously been mauled by the British lions and had become reluctant to fight now joined the onslaught. Sheikh Aboud even sent his rifle armed personal guard to support the attack in the hope of finally wiping out the unbelievers. This renewed attack was repulsed by the men of Lennox, however, the survivors from the North Surreys succumbed to Dervish spears. Tiffin even helped the desperate defenders and successfully brought down one of the attacking Dervishes.

The Dervish hordes once again rallied and repeatedly attacked, while the rifle fire from Sheikh Aboud’s guard whittled down the highlanders until the “die hards” of the Lennox Highlanders were no more. Major Burnside and Percival “Nibs” Penman, who were mounted, made their escape, along with Tiffin the dog, with the victorious Dervishes in hot pursuit. Nibs, having made his escape, wrote his report and wired it to his publisher. His account of Major Burnside’s blunder horrified readers of the morning newspaper. Major Barnaby Burnside rode off to face a court-martial for his part in the loss of so many of Queen Victoria’s finest soldiers.

The game was hastily put together one idle afternoon and played using the solo rules from “Men Who Would Be Kings.” It had been quite some time since I played a game using the rules, so I just kept to the basics, and as it was a scratch game, I used the skirmish kings variant of half sized units. Using the variant does seem to make units brittle and combat results much more brutal, particularly for smaller units like the British.

Mr. Babbage, the dice-driven AI, plays a good game and keeps players guessing about where the next attack will land. I didn’t use the commander ratings or the points system for developing field forces. This might have made the Mahdists force too strong. However, the battle hung in the balance until the very end, and I had great fun watching it play out. As a side note, all the British units are from fiction. Do you know their origin?

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