In 1884, a Sudanese Islamic religious leader, Muhammad Ahmed, also known as "The Mahdi", planned and executed a series of attacks that left a British general, William Hicks, and thousands of ill-trained Egyptian soldiers dead at the hands of angry Arab rebels called Dervishes or (more accurately) Mahdists. The Sudan was controlled by an Anglo-Egyptian administration, and it was decided that something must be done. General Charles Gordon was sent by the British government to be the Egyptian Army's Governor-General there. General Gordon and his aide, Colonel John Donald Hamill Stewart, carried orders from both governments to evacuate the town from the Mahdi. Instead, Gordon built up the town's defenses and prepared for a siege. The British government sent two relief columns, the slow River Column and the mobile Desert Column, to rescue Gordon, Stewart, and the Egyptian garrison. After both columns won hard-fought battles, Kirbekan and Abu Klea, respectively, it was found that Stewart had been murdered by wandering Arabs north of Khartoum after his steamboat ran aground and that, through the treachery of an Egyptian deputy commander, Khartoum had fallen and Gordon was killed, the columns retreated, leaving behind a series of forts.
One of these forts was near the towns of Kosha and Ginnis, in northern Sudan, where a detachment of Cameron Highlanders and Egyptian-Sudanese troops from the Ninth Sudanese Battalion were stationed. Thousands of Mahdist warriors, led by their provincial Amirs, began raiding in the vicinity of Ginnis. They besieged the fort, and at one time the garrison's Gardner gun was dismounted by a Mahdist artillery barrage. General Evelyn Wood, the British commander in Egypt as well as the Sirdar (commander) of the Egyptian Army, became concerned about the siege and the raids and he ordered Major General Francis Grenfell with a force of two infantry brigades and a cavalry brigade to rid the area of Mahdists.
The First Brigade consisted of the 1st Berkshires, the West Kent Regiment, the 2nd Durham Light Infantry, an Egyptian artillery battery escorted by sixty Egyptian troops, and a Royal Engineer detachment. This brigade was commanded by Brigadier General Butler. Colonel Huyshe's Second Brigade was composed of the Yorkshire Regiment, six companies of the Cameron Highlanders, 152 Sudanese soldiers, 278 men of the 1st Egyptian Battalion, a mule battery of the Royal Artillery, and detachments from both the British Camel Corps and its Egyptian counterpart. Three Gardner guns were also brought along by the 2nd Brigade. The cavalry brigade, led by Colonel Blake, was formed by another detachment of the Egyptian Camel Corps, a British Mounted Infantry company, and 57 Egyptian cavalrymen. Some of the British troops were dressed in scarlet coats; the Durham Light Infantry, however, had left their red coats in Cairo before heading south, and were wearing khaki. The Egyptians were dressed in white or khaki. Some Egyptian officers preferred their traditional blue coat. British soldiers and officers wore white sun helmets while the Egyptians wore red fezzes.
At 5:00 on the morning of December 30, 1885, General Grenfell and his troops marched out of their bivouack, which was located between the Ginnis-Kosha fort and a smaller fort further south on the Nile. The First Brigade was at the head of the column, with the Camel Corps and Second Brigade following. The Second Brigade took up positions overlooking Kosha, while the fort garrison, seizing the opportunity, sortied and stormed the town. On the Nile, the steamer Lotus, which had mounted a Gardner gun, reported that a large body of Dervishes was moving out of Ginnis in the direction of Grenfell's column. The Camerons and Sudanese, followed by the Second Brigade and covered by the Lotus, moved to investigate and counter this threat.
As the Second Brigade fought through the palm groves near Ginnis, Dervish riflemen fired several volleys at the First Brigade. Although the firing was inaccurate, the smoke it created allowed spearmen to surprise the Camel Corps. In the ensuing skirmish, that detachment was forced to withdraw, but the Durham Light Infantry moved forward and repulsed the Dervish attack.