The issue could not have been simpler. Egypt had been bankrupted by interest payments on loans incurred to fund an over-ambitious programme of infrastructure projects. To sustain the flow of payments to British and French bankers, it had been placed under ‘dual control’ by colonial administrators. The Khedive of Egypt, nominally a subject of the Ottoman Sultan, had become a vassal of Anglo-French finance-capital. In effect, the Egyptian peasantry – the fellahin – was being fleeced to pay the bondholders of London and Paris.
In 1881, the country had exploded into revolution. A group of radical army officers, backed by the military rank-and-file and the mass of the Egyptian people, had pushed aside the puppet Khedive and assumed control of the country.
Not only was the flow of interest payments threatened, but the security of the Suez Canal, which, since its opening in 1869, had become vital to the global communications of the British Empire, seemed imperilled.
The Liberal Government of William Ewart Gladstone had sent a fleet of ironclads. Alexandria had been bombarded and occupied. But a navy cannot overthrow a government and occupy a country. So an expeditionary force followed – 21,000 men under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley.
It was the largest British overseas operation since the Crimean War. But in other respects it could not have been more different. For the British Army that fought in the Crimea in the 1850s was a relic of Waterloo. Since then, radical reform had created a new, modern, efficient army fit for purpose. And the chief engineer of that reform had been Garnet Wolseley.
The campaign that followed was an industrialised blitzkrieg. Seizing control of the Suez Canal, securing his communications, creating a strong base, building up stores, concentrating his forces, Wolseley left nothing to chance. Then, when things were ‘all Sir Garnet’ (as the popular expression had it), he pushed forwards to the decisive battle he intended should end the campaign.
The Tel el-Kebir position
Ahmad Arabi Pasha, the Egyptian nationalist leader, had arrived to take command at Tel el-Kebir at the end of August 1882. He had already mounted two abortive attacks on Wolseley’s forward position at Kassassin.
The centre of gravity of the Egyptian national defence – the main army position – had shifted from Kafr el-Daur, facing the British lodgement at Alexandria, to Tel el-Kebir as soon as it was known that the bulk of Wolseley’s army was on the Canal.
Arabi had about 20,000 regulars in the line, 20 battalions in all, 14 of which were in the main position, three in a forward position south of the canal, three more in reserve. They were armed with good, single-shot, breech-loading Remington rifles, and supported by 75 cannon, mainly 9-pdr and 14-pdr Krupp field-guns, well served by artillerymen whom Wolseley considered ‘the only good branch of the Egyptian Army’.
Egypt’s peasant soldiers had proved reluctant to press attacks in the face of superior firepower. Concentrated in defence of strong fortifications, backed by plentiful artillery, they might prove more formidable. If they stood their ground, they might exact a heavy toll.
The fortifications were indeed strong: the British commander considered them ‘a hard nut to crack’. They comprised a continuous line of sand-and-gravel earthworks running northwards into the desert from the Sweetwater Canal and the Ismailia-Zagazig Railway. Arabi’s position blocked the way to Cairo.
The works, located on a plateau about 120 feet high, were fronted by a ditch, ten feet wide and five deep, with the upcast used to form an embankment of similar dimensions, behind which was the Egyptian fire-step. The sides were revetted with mud and reeds.
Along the length were ten projecting artillery redoubts of varying size, with the strongest defences on the right, closest to the canal and railway. Also on the right, some 1,000 yards in advance of the main line, was a forward redoubt with eight guns and supporting infantry. These artillery redoubts were more substantially constructed, the main ditch wider and deeper, with a secondary ditch and rampart in front.
The obstacle to attacking infantry was substantial: even poor marksmen might achieve fearful execution firing at point-blank range into a backed-up mass of men struggling to climb out of the ditch.
A second, shorter line, running at an angle for about two miles and facing north-west, lay behind the first; this was designed to protect the rear of the Egyptian position against any attempt at a flanking movement through the open desert to the north. A third trench, facing south, ran between the first and the second, so as to enclose the Egyptian camp, located in the centre of the position. Behind each of the two main trenches lay a support line formed of short lengths of trench, where defenders might rally if their forward line was lost.
The ground facing east towards the British position at Kassassin was gently shelving and completely devoid of cover. ‘To have marched upon the enemy’s position in daylight,’ Wolseley reported after detailed reconnaissance, ‘our troops would have had to advance over a glacis-like slope in full view of the enemy, and under the fire of his well-served artillery for about five miles. Such an operation would have entailed enormous losses from an enemy with men and guns well protected by entrenchments from any artillery fire we could have brought to bear upon them.’
Nor was this the only problem confronting the invaders. In addition to the main concentration at Tel el-Kebir, around 30,000 regulars and 80 guns were distributed across half a dozen other posts in the Nile Delta. Operating on internal lines and served by telegraph lines and a rail network, these separate garrisons were capable of mutual support. Each, moreover, was assisted by a large contingent of Bedouin irregulars.
The latter were waging a low-intensity guerrilla war, harassing outposts, attacking vessels on the Suez Canal, tearing down telegraph lines, and looting where they could. The main effect was a considerable diversion of British military strength in guarding the line of communications, such that, as Wolseley lamented, ‘I could place in line only about 11,000 bayonets, 2,000 sabres, and 60 field-guns.’
The Bedouin also supplied Arabi’s officers with abundant (though not always accurate) intelligence, while their presence on the edges of successive battlefields was a constant source of British anxiety.
Also encouraging (for Arabi) was news from the Sudan, where Osman Bey, the Governor-General, had renounced his allegiance to the Khedive and declared for Arabi. His army of 22,000 regulars included large numbers of Sudanese – the best troops in the Egyptian Army. The insurgency seemed to be gaining momentum, the military resistance thickening.
But there was to be no more time. At 4.55am on the morning of 13 September, pickets stationed about 200 yards in front of the Egyptian trenches spotted a silent line of shadowy soldiers looming like spectres out of the darkness.
Warning shots alerted the sleeping Egyptian infantry, and almost immediately, as General Archibald Alison, commanding the Highland Brigade, recalled, ‘a blaze of musketry flashed across our front, and passed far away to each flank, by the light of which we saw the swarthy faces of the Egyptians, surmounted by their red tarbooshes, lining the dark rampart before us.’ The Battle of Tel el-Kebir had begun.
Daunted by the strength of the enemy position and the forbidding frontal approach, Wolseley had decided upon the bold expedient of a night march and dawn attack. The main alternative – a wide flanking movement – he had ruled out on two grounds: that it would have involved ‘a long, difficult, and fatiguing march’, and, more importantly, that ‘it would not have accomplished the object I had in view, namely to grapple with enemy at such close-quarters that he should not be able to shake himself free from our clutches …’
As Wolseley further explained in an official dispatch following the battle:
I wished to make the battle a final one; whereas a wide turning movement would probably only have forced him to retreat, and would have left him free to have moved his troops in good order to some other position further back. My desire was to fight him decisively where he was, in the open desert, before he could retire to take up fresh positions more difficult of access in the cultivated country in his rear. That cultivated country is practically impassable to a regular army, being irrigated and cut up in every direction by deep canals.
The risk of a night march – always an accident-prone operation of war – was taken in order to achieve the ultimate: a pitched battle that would destroy the Egyptian Army and the Nationalist Revolution in a single hammer-blow.
Orders to prepare for battle were issued at 3pm on the afternoon of 12 September. One hundred rounds and two days’ rations were issued to every man. The troops were told to maintain strict silence on the march; orders were to be given in whispers and rifles would be unloaded to avoid chance shots. No lights were to be shown; smoking was banned. Tents were left standing until dusk, campfires burning thereafter, so as not to alert the enemy to the fact that the British were on the move.
By 11pm, the men were assembled in their jumping-off position, and Wolseley inspected the lines. South of the canal was General Macpherson’s Indian Infantry Brigade (1st Seaforth Highlanders, 7th Bengalis, 20th Punjabis, and 29th Baluchis), supported by some 13th Bengal Cavalry, a mountain-gun battery, and a 250-strong Naval Brigade with six Gatling guns and a 40-pdr cannon mounted on an armoured train. Their job, starting an hour after the main advance so as not to alert local residents, was to clear the area of houses, garden-plots, date-palms, and irrigation ditches around the village of Tel el-Kebir.
General Hamley’s 2nd Division was deployed about 2,000 yards north of the canal and railway, General Alison’s Highland Brigade leading (Black Watch, 1st Cameron Highlanders, 2nd Gordon Highlanders, and 2nd Highland Light Infantry), Colonel Ashburnham’s Composite Brigade forming the reserve (2nd Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and 3rd King’s Royal Rifle Corps).
General Willis’s 1st Division was deployed on the right, General Graham’s brigade leading (Royal Marine Light Infantry, 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, 2nd Yorks and Lancs, and 2nd Royal Irish), the Duke of Connaught’s Guards Brigade forming the reserve (1st Scots Guards, 2nd Coldstream Guards, and 2nd Grenadier Guards).
Each division formed on a front of about 1,000 yards, with an interval of about 1,000 yards between the forward and reserve lines. Between the respective inner flanks of the two infantry divisions lay a gap of 1,200 yards, and here was deployed a grand battery of 42 field-guns commanded by Brigadier-General Goodenough, with orders to keep pace with the rear brigades and provide close fire support as the attack developed.
Finally, on the outer desert flank was Drury-Lowe’s Cavalry Division (Household Cavalry, 4th Dragoon Guards, 7th Dragoon Guards, 2nd Bengal Cavalry, 6th Bengal Cavalry, and two batteries of Royal Horse Artillery), its mission to flank the Egyptian line, cut off retreat, and mount an aggressive pursuit.
The British advance
The advance began at 1.30am – timed to ensure a dawn attack on the assumption of a one-mile-per-hour average speed – and was guided by the stars. Halts to check direction and alignment were frequent.
On one occasion, the wings of Alison’s Brigade wheeled inwards to form a crescent during a poorly communicated halt. At the same time, Graham’s Brigade was compelled to halt to alter its formation. Despite these upsets, the advance proceeded to schedule – much time had been allowed for the inevitable stops and starts of a night march – and the Egyptians were taken totally by surprise. The Bedouin, on whom they relied for long-range scouting, did not operate at night.
The first warning of the British onset was that given by the forward picket line. This was quickly followed by bugles sounding the alarm and an eruption of musketry from the Egyptian parapet. The Highlanders fixed bayonets and charged the enemy works ‘with pipes playing and one long continued howl’.
The ‘howl’ was what Wolseley expected. ‘A ringing cheer is inseparable from charging,’ he had written in his Soldier’s Pocket-Book for Field Service (virtually the bible of the military reformers). ‘It encourages, lends nerve and confidence to an assailant; its very clamour makes men feel their strength as they realise the numbers that are charging with them. Nothing serves more to strike terror into a force that is charged than a loud ringing cheer …’
Spencer Ewart, a young lieutenant with the Camerons, was in the thick of it: ‘We all ran cheering as hard as we could towards the earthworks, stumbling into holes in the darkness. It was a distance of 400 yards, and I was dead beat when I fell into their trench, a great deep place.’
The attack on the left
The sudden shock to men only just aroused from sleep might have triggered immediate panic. It did not. The Egyptian infantry delivered a fierce close-range fire into the crowded mass of Highlanders struggling to get out of the ditch and up the scarp. Some Camerons and Gordons eventually mounted the summit and broke into the enemy position, but others recoiled before the fire and had to be rallied by Hamley himself, the divisional commander, coming up behind.
The situation was still more perilous on the flanks. The Black Watch on the right was held up for 25 minutes by a big five-gun redoubt with a double ditch in front and a 14-foot embankment beyond. Only when a sergeant and some others cut steps with their bayonets and clambered up did the regiment gain a footing on the summit. ‘Then up they came in swarms,’ recalled one participant, ‘wheeling to right and left, bayoneting or shooting every man.’
The Highland Light Infantry on the left had an even harder time against a four-gun redoubt protected by an exceptionally wide and deep ditch defended by determined Sudanese infantry. ‘The enemy soon put a heavy fire on us,’ remembered one traumatised private, ‘both from big guns and rifles; shot and shell were flying over our heads and on both sides of us. The shouting of our men as they got wounded was something heart-rending. I thought every moment I would be launched into eternity. I can’t write about it any more.’ Only after three-quarters of an hour, with help from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was the position taken.
Even when the British crossed the first line of entrenchments, Egyptian resistance continued along the second line. ‘I never saw men fight more steadily,’ recalled the Highland commander. ‘Retiring up a line of works which we had taken in flank, they rallied at every re-entering angle, at every battery, at every redoubt, and renewed the fight. Four or five times we had to close upon them with bayonet, and I saw these men fighting hard when their officers were flying.’
The casualties are a measure of the ferocity of the resistance: the Highland Brigade took 231 casualties at Tel el-Kebir; of these, the Black Watch suffered 56, the Highland Light Infantry 74.
The attack on the right
The Highlanders were in advance of Graham’s Brigade on the right, and for ten minutes fought alone in the enemy trenches. Then the right-hand division joined the fight, the Royal Irish charging with ‘unearthly yells’, followed by the Irish Fusiliers and the Yorks and Lancs.
Though the main trench was taken quickly in the first rush, the Egyptian infantry rallied on their second line, pouring fire on their assailants, who advanced in rushes, before closing to a frenzied mêlée with bayonet and clubbed rifle.
The Royal Marine Light Infantry, on Graham’s left front, had a still harder time, under fire from the same redoubt that had halted the attack of the Black Watch, taking 86 casualties in the course of their desperate struggle to reach the summit of the embankment. ‘The whole line of ramparts seemed in a blaze,’ reported Colonel Jones, ‘but, nothing daunted, our men gave a cheer and dashed into the ditch and scrambled up the parapet. Heaven knows how. I managed to dig my sword into the sand, and made a lever of it, by which I pulled myself up.’
By now, as well, some of Goodenough’s field-guns had been hauled over the entrenchments and were in action in support of the infantry firefight inside the works. As Viscount Fielding, serving with N/2 Battery, Royal Artillery, explained to his parents:
We found the enemy bolting in every direction across the plain, but they were pegging away hard at us from lines to our left front. After giving them a few rounds, they began to run, so we galloped after them, coming into action every 300 or 400 yards… We drove the enemy out of two or three redoubts, where they tried to stand … and got so close to the Egyptians sometimes that we fired several rounds of case-shot at about 200 yards, with great effect.
The cavalry charge
On the outer flank, Drury-Lowe’s cavalry and horse-guns had flanked the enemy position and were riding down the rear, cutting off the line of retreat. Panic spread down the Egyptian line from left to right, and soon thousands of fellahin soldiers were in flight, heading south-westwards, some towards the bridge over the canal at Tel el-Kebir, others with no particular plan except escape.
For the killing was not yet over: the enemy were to be cut down, traumatised, scattered in panic; they were not to be given a chance to rally. ‘I had not the heart to cut dozens down that I might have done,’ wrote one trooper of the 7th Dragoons. He continued:
… for they fell on their knees and held up their rifles for mercy. But I could not help cutting some down, because they fired on us to the last. One of the enemy was laid on his face, and as a man of the 4th Dragoon Guards rode past him he rose up and fired at him, and I just caught him as he galloped by and cut him from his shoulder to the middle of his back. But the best fellows for fighting are the Indian troops. They cut heads off as if they were cabbages, and the head fell in many cases eight foot away from the body. The battle only lasted two hours, and the whole time we were butchering them on the flanks as they tried to run away.
In truth, the battle proper was over in barely an hour; it was only one-sided killing that continued longer. When it did finally end, around 7 o’clock that morning, while British casualties were 57 killed and 412 wounded, Egyptian casualties were around 2,000 killed, with an unknown number wounded.
The correspondent for The Standard penned a graphic description of the carnage:
The sufferings of the Egyptian wounded – as many were dying from bayonet stabs and lacerations by exploded shells that set their cotton clothing on fire – were awful. Their cries for aid and water loaded the morning air, and many were seen to tear off their scarlet tarbooshes and bury their bare heads frantically in the sand for coolness.
Many corpses were headless or had been disembowelled. Amputated arms and legs piled up around the British field hospitals where the wounded were brought in by stretcher-bearers. ‘Words cannot describe the horrors in the lines,’ wrote a Royal Engineer officer,
… the fearful stench, the corpses of the Egyptians all unburied and covered with masses of flies, which flew up into your face the moment you approached, even two of the Marines not yet buried, and one or two wounded Egyptians still living under the broiling sun (over 115º in the shade), the dead horses, mules, and camels, the wreck of camp tents, arms, etc abandoned by the Egyptians, the returned fugitives and Bedouin robbers prowling about all through the ruin, and even stripping the corpses of their clothes. It was necessary to keep a revolver ready for these fellows.
A very modern butchery
It had been a highly professional butchery; a matter of organisation, technology, and precision; an industrial operation. It had been carried out by thoroughly trained men, many of them grizzled combat veterans.
The soldiers of the Highland Light Infantry averaged eight years’ service. The Camerons had 460 men above 24 years of age, the Gordons 370. The Black Watch had left all soldiers under 20 at home.
Armed with the best weapons that Victorian industry could supply, trained for years in their use until every action became a reflex, the men of Wolseley’s army operated like small moving parts of a well-oiled machine.
South of the canal that terrible day, after Captain Fitzroy’s Gatling guns had broken up an Egyptian cavalry attack, firing first in one direction, then another, the Seaforth Highlanders had smashed the Egyptian infantry defending the village of Tel el-Kebir with fire. The Times correspondent described the operation:
The leading company was commanded by an ex-musketry instructor, who cautioned his men not to fire save by the word of command, and himself successively named the ranges. The consequence was that their fire was so deadly that not an Egyptian dared to show his head above the parapet.
Organised resistance collapsed after Tel el-Kebir. Wolseley’s army occupied Cairo and restored the puppet regime of the Khedive. Colonel Arabi was captured and sent into exile. Egypt became a British colony in all but name.
The first attempt at a modern Middle East based on nationalism, citizenship, liberal precept, and religious tolerance – for the Egyptian revolutionaries had espoused all these things – had been bulldozed by an industrialised war-machine.
Thus were the decks cleared for a different kind of revolution – an atavistic and reactionary revolution, more counter-revolution in fact, involving an Islamic-fundamentalism regression to a darker world of ignorance, oppression, and enslavement.
For an obscure religious teacher in the distant Sudan had already proclaimed himself Al Mahdi – the Expected One – and summoned the faithful to Holy War. The bitter fruit of Gladstone’s ‘liberal’ interventionism would be a jihadist insurgency that would rage across the region for 40 years. •
Neil Faulkner’s Empire and Jihad: the Anglo-Arab Wars of 1870-1920 has just been published by Yale University Press. Neil discusses this article and his book in more depth on a recent episode of The PastCast. You can listen to the episode here.
All images: author’s collection, unless otherwise stated.