(notes by
Roger Ayers)

notes on the text
the poem
[May 18th 2006]

Publication History

First published in W.E. Henley’s weekly Scots Observer (later to become the National Observer) on 15 March 1890.

First collected in Departmental Ditties, Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses, United States Book Company, New York, 1890. Collected in B.R.B and O.V., 1892; I.V., 1919 and D.V. 1940; Sussex Edition, Vol 32, page 180; Burwash Edition, Vol 25. In the ORG it is numbered 421.

Verse Form

The poem has four eight-line narrative verses, each followed by a four-line stanza in the form of a toast to the bravery and local success of the Sudanese warriors that the British Army faced in operations against the forces of the Mahdi in 1884-85 in its attempt to relieve General Gordon and his Egyptian garrison in Khartoum.

Nothing in the poem relates to anything later than 1886, so it could well have been one of the twelve ‘soldier’s songs’ with the title Barrack-Room Ballads which Kipling offered to Thacker, Spink & Co. in 1889 before he left India. However, its final form as a serio-comic recitation may owe something to Kipling’s well-attested acquaintance with the music-hall in the first five months from his arrival in England in October 1889 and the poem’s publication in March 1890.

Critical reception

In 1893, Francis Adams wrote in Fortnightly of "Fuzzy-Wuzzy": ‘no single ballad has had such a furore of success’. [Quoted in A Kipling Primer, F.L. Knowles, Brown & Co., Boston, 1899).

Richard Le Gallienne wrote of its initial reception‘:

…the news went round that Mr Kipling was contributing some quite fascinating ballads to the Scots Observer….and, long before the volume entitled Barrack-Room Ballads appeared, “Danny Deever”, “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” and “Mandalay” had become household words. There was a go and a catchiness about them that no English ballads had possessed since Macauley. When the volume appeared it was more widely read than any poetry published for some years. It was that rare thing in poetry, a genuinely popular success; and the success was significant of the achievement.’ [Rudyard Kipling, A Criticism, John Lane: The Bodley Head, London & New York, 1900].
However, not all comment was so favourable, Robert Buchanan stating at about the same time that:

‘in all the ballads, with scarcely an exception, the tone is one of absolute triviality, unredeemed by a touch of tenderness and pity. …the picture they represent is one of unmitigated barbarism’.['The Voice of “The Hooligan”', Contemporary Review, New York, December 1899].
The mix of violence and fairly crude humour in this poem has continued to trouble some critics to this day.

Background to the poem

Britain’s involvement in the Sudan was a consequence of its support for the Khedive of Egypt following British action in crushing the revolt of Arabi Pasha in 1882 (see “The Jacket”). Despite Egypt still being nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, the Khedive’s rule was dependent on direct British support, given to ensure the security of the Suez Canal and the elimination of the Sudanese slave trade.

However, the British government under Prime Minister Gladstone sought to stay out of affairs in Egyptian-governed Sudan, where the administration was facing an uprising under the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, who declared a Jihad, or holy war, against the ‘Turks’, represented by the Egyptian government troops. The Mahdist forces from the Beja and the Baggara tribal groups had considerable success against Egyptian troops in 1882 and 1883 until, in early 1884, the British Government was forced to send two British brigades, with cavalry and artillery, to the support of the Egyptian army. In addition, General Charles George Gordon was seconded to the Egyptian forces. Sent by the Khedive to Khartoum, he ended up with the Egyptian garrison besieged by the Mahdists, then decided that he was unable to extricate his garrison and called for reinforcements.

Gordon’s refusal to leave his troops and his popularity in Britain forced Gladstone to step in with the ‘Gordon Relief Expedition’, a British force to relieve Khartoum. Command was given to Lord Wolseley, who moved this force south by gunboats up the twisting Nile, with a Desert Column taking a shorter but more difficult route over land. They encountered considerable difficulties in making the journey and met some stiff resistance, the advance elements arriving outside Khartoum on 28 January 1885, two days after the city had fallen to the Mahdi and Gordon had been killed.

The Gordon Relief Expedition withdrew from the immediate area of Khartoum and the Mahdi later withdrew to Omdurman. However, in the face of national (and Regal) indignation, the decision was taken by the Liberal Government to build up a British, Indian and Australian force based on Suakin in the Eastern Sudan with a view to destroying the Mahdi and setting up an orderly government. This build up was well under way by mid-March, 1885, but was opposed by Beja tribesmen under Osman Digna, who attacked British troops in the process of building a defensive compound at Tofrek on 22 March. Both sides suffered heavy casualties but the Beja losses caused the tribesmen to lose heart. However, the Liberal Government then had other concerns, so that was effectively the end of the Early Campaigns, which fizzled out in the sweltering Sudanese summer of 1885.


The two main tribal groups in active opposition
to the Egyptian and British forces were the Baggara and the Beja. The Baggara, the dominant group, were a cattle-owning and slave trading society from Kordofan and Darfur in the western Sudan. Not all the Beja, dwelling in the Red sea coastal area of the east, were hostile, but the main opponents of the British forces were the Hadendowa, Amarer and Bisharin tribes of the Beja and it was their distinctive, shaggy, frizzed-out hairstyles which caused the British soldiers to give them the name of ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’.

Beja tribesmen pictured on a postcard sent from Khartoum during World War I but still showing the hairstyle that gave rise to the nickname Fuzzy-Wuzzy and the typical long Crusader-style swords.

This nickname, almost a pet name, was probably also a deliberate attempt to make a ferocious enemy seem less awesome, less terrible, since it was quickly found out that: ‘...without a doubt, these Arabs are the most fierce, brave, daring and unmerciful race of men in the world.’ [Sgt Danby, 18th Hussars, quoted in The Late Victorian Army, 1868-1902, Edward M. Spiers, Manchester U.P., 1992]. These are qualities which Kipling’s soldier acknowledges, but he has to make a joke of them as he makes the admission that they broke the British square.

The British Square

From the moment “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”
was published there was dispute over this admission in the poem that the Sudanese warriors ‘…broke the British square’; with arguments over which square or squares, if any, were broken and, if so, were they actually British or Egyptian and were they really ‘broken’ or were the attackers somehow let in ?

This was because, from its use in the Napoleonic Wars as an infantry means of defence against cavalry, and especially in the repulse of repeated attacks by French cavalry at Waterloo, both the British army and its public saw the square as an almost legendary symbol of its supremacy. That it might be broken was unthinkable.

However, the ‘square’ as employed in the Sudanese campaigns was very different from the Napoleonic form and was not a defence against cavalry. Although the 1877 ‘Field Exercises and Evolutions of Infantry’ still included the square in ‘Formations to Resist Cavalry’, it had effectively been discarded as unusable in the face of an enemy using breech-loading rifles. As Lieutenant-General Sir Garnet Wolseley had written in his Soldier’s Pocket Book, breech-loaders had:

‘…rendered obsolete the fighting tactics of Frederick the Great, which, improved by the Duke of Wellington to suit the arms of his day, are still alone to be found in our Field Exercise Book.’(1877).
. This was an opinion that he had to revise when, as General Lord Wolseley, he took command of the British force sent to the relief of General Gordon in 1884.

In fact, a new form of square had been introduced by 1883 in an effort to avoid a repeat of the disastrous experience of the 1879 Zulu War [see note to line 16 of the text]. The new square was not simply infantry in static defence but a large, close packed formation of some 1,000 to 1,500 men, capable of slow movement with ranks of infantry or cavalry forming the four sides and artillery, wheeled machine guns, transport carts, baggage animals and their handlers in the centre. Such a square could only survive where the enemy were without modern firearms. Apart from some 3000 Remington rifles captured from the Egyptian army, this applied to the Sudanese.

In the Sudan campaign of 1883–85, the square had proved successful but there were two occasions when such a square formation of British troops failed to maintain the all-round defence for which it was designed and, regardless of how the failure was caused, must be said to have been broken.

The first was at the battle of Tamai, 13 March 1884, when one of two British brigades, moving in separate squares with a cavalry and mounted infantry escort, was surprised by a mass attack of Mahdist troops launched from the cover of a ravine. In the confusion, one British battalion charged forward from the square, leaving a flanking unit unsupported and the square was penetrated and broken up into smaller groups of desperately fighting men. Heavy rifle fire from the other brigade square and the mounted escort came to the rescue and the surviving Mahdists were driven off. British casualties were over 100 dead and a similar number wounded. Mahdist dead on the field were estimated at over 1000.

The second occasion was at the wells at Abu Klea on 17 January 1885 when Mahdist forces tried to cut the supply lines of Wolseley’s Desert Column struggling to reach Gordon in Khartoum. The British force of some 1500 men formed a square round the large number of baggage camels and wounded that they were escorting, in order to break through and reach the wells. A mass Mahdist attack, some 5000 strong, was delivered against the left flank of the square but heavy Martini-Henry rifle fire drove it off. Despite the check, the Mahdists re-attacked the left rear corner of the square just as it was opened to let out a Gardner wheeled machine gun, which immediately jammed. The square was penetrated and fierce hand to hand fighting followed but eventually the attack lost momentum amongst the milling camels and transport in the centre, giving time for the flanking units to face inwards and support their comrades. In the brief, desperate struggle of 15 minutes or so, the casualties to both sides were half as many again as at Tamai.

There are two contemporary descriptions which convey something of the ferocity of the Sudanese assaults. One is a very simple verse from a piece in Punch, 11 April 1885, two weeks after Tofrek, the battle it describes, when it seemed to the surprised British troops that the desert itself rose up against them:

The other is Kipling's prose description in The Light that Failed, at the end of Chapter II (Uniform Edition, page 25).


©Roger Ayers 2005 All rights reserved