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Two Minutes at Omdurman

A Verner's Patent Compass at Omdurman, 2nd September 1898

"The most dangerous two minutes I shall live to see"  Winston Churchill

The J. H. Steward Verner's Patent military compasses, produced during the 1890's, are some of the finest of their type. Beautifully made, they're very sought after. I've owned several and when I came across one recently I bought it without paying too much attention to its condition. It looked like it had had quite a hard life. But it turned out to be very much more than a rather nice, if quite well used, Victorian military compass. The compass, marked 'No. 711, Verner Patent', seemed to work well, although it looked like it needed a good clean. On examining it more closely I noticed a tiny set of initials and numerals engraved on the lid. They read 'C.J.C., 21L'. Now to most people that probably wouldn't mean much, but the clue is in the '21L'. When dealing with a military compass, I always tend to look for a unit number or regimental association. '21L' was pretty straightforward to work out: the 21st Lancers. So, presuming my deduction was correct, and knowing the compass was made sometime between 1895 and 1900, I was looking for an officer with the initials 'C.J.C' who served with the regiment after 1895. The date could be narrowed down even further, as the 21st Lancers only came into being in 1897, having previously been the 21st Hussars. My starting point for this search would be to look for any significant actions or campaigns that involved the 21st Lancers around the time the compass was most likely to have been purchased, between 1895-1899. This led me very swiftly to the most celebrated action ever carried out by the regiment: the last charge of the British Army, at the Battle of Omdurman on 2nd September 1898.

The action, which lasted for little more than two minutes, is probably best known today for the involvement of Winston Churchill, who charged alongside the men of the 21st, famously carrying a 10-shot Mauser automatic pistol. Unable to use a sword due to a polo injury, the decision to rely on the Mauser very probably saved his life. Churchill was an officer with the 4th Hussars, and had been attached to 'A' Squadron of the 21st. During the charge he was in command of a Troop positioned on the extreme right of the formation. 'A' Squadron was led by Major Finn. Just behind him, and almost directly in front of Lt. Churchill, was the squadron's Signals Officer, Lieutenant C. J. Clerk. Could this officer be the 'C. J. C.' I was looking for?

The charge took place when the Lancers spotted a group of around 200 Dervishes on the edge of a sunken lane or Khor. As they wheeled to engage the enemy, the Lancers came under heavy fire and started taking casualties. At this point one of the officers, Lt. de Montmorency shouted "Why the blazes don't we charge those . . . before they shoot us down?". What the Lancers didn't know was that the enemy was luring them into an ambush: more than 2,500 Dervishes were waiting for them, hidden from view at the bottom of the sunken lane. As the first horses stumbled down the steep incline into the Khor, the Lancers were met by a densely packed mass of sword-wielding Dervishes. Some, like Churchill, were able to fight their way through unscathed. Many others, their horses brought to a standstill, were caught up in a gruesome and extremely brutal hand-to-hand fight. Lt. Clerk was one of the lucky ones: his horse had stumbled as he rode down into the Khor. Almost thrown from the saddle, he recovered and made it through. Churchill wanted to turn back and charge the Dervishes a second time. But commonsense prevailed, the Lancers regrouped, dismounted, and opened up a sustained volley of rifle fire which forced the Dervishes to retire. The cost of this brief and bloody encounter was high: one officer and 20 men killed and many badly wounded. Enemy losses were hard to assess, being estimated at much the same as those of the Lancers, although some reports suggested as many as 70 dead.

So did Lieutenant Clerk carry J. H. Steward's Verner compass No. 711 during those two minutes at Omdurman? There's no way to be certain, but it seems quite likely he did. There were no other 21st Lancers officers with the initials 'C.J.C.' serving around this time. And the fact that the compass itself is of exactly the right type and date seem to point very strongly towards the conclusion that this was Clerk's compass. If it was his, he would most certainly have had it on his person when the charge took place. One thing is certain: it's very definitely one of those objects which will remain an intriguing and fascinating source of speculation, and is quite possibly something of real historic importance.


(For more information on the Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman, see Terry Brighton's excellent account The Last Charge, published by The Crowood Press, 1998)

The Officers of the 21st Lancers, pictured soon after the Battle of Omdurman. Lieutenant Clerk is second from right, second row, behind Major Finn.