In 1869 the Suez Canal had opened, and after initial reservations as to its feasibility it quickly became strategically important for British imperial interests as it considerably shortened the sea route to India and the Far East. However the Canal lay on Egyptian territory, and France also had a strategic and commercial interest in the waterway.
Above: The Suez Canal, running from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.
Egypt was nominally a province of the Turkish Empire but the Turks had their own internal problems and took little interest in Egyptian affairs. This situation led to the Khedives, who ruled Egypt, mismanaging national affairs and running-up huge debts. In 1875 the French and the British took over the management of Egypt’s finances through a “Dual Control” administration. However Egyptian nationalists resented this foreign intrusion and in 1882 violent rioting broke out in cities during which European civilians were attacked, 50 of them being killed in Alexandria on 11th and 12th June. A very popular Egyptian nationalist leader, the War Minister Colonel Ahmed Arabi, competed for overall power with Khedive Tewfik who had deposed his father Khedive Ismail (thanks to British and French political activity). Ismail had tried to overthrow the Dual Control and Tewfik was viewed by the Europeans as being more pliable, but the result was that the power and prestige of the Khedive was seen by Egyptians to have been seriously reduced. Colonel Arabi was an eloquent and strong-willed political leader.
Britain was concerned that the nationalist Egyptian ministers would repudiate the country’s debts and that the security of the Canal would be threatened, and so two battalions of infantry were moved from Malta to Cyprus and an expeditionary force for Egypt was assembled in England. The British Admiral at Alexandria, Sir Beauchamp Seymour, now reported that the Egyptians were constructing fortifications and shore batteries that menaced his fleet. London approved that Seymour demand the cessation of work on these projects, but the Admiral then exceeded his authority by bombarding the forts and batteries on 11th July when the Egyptians failed to surrender all their guns to him. The war had started.
Left: The British fleet in front of an Egyptian shore battery at Alexandria.
The Egyptian Army evacuated Alexandria and Khedive Tewfik sought refuge with the British fleet. Rioting continued in the city and Seymour landed parties of seamen and Royal Marines to restore order. Back in Britain Lieutenant-General Sir Garnet Wolseley was placed in command of an expeditionary force consisting of 16,416 troops organized into two Divisions. Sir Garnet had a secret plan for the speedy subjugation of the Egyptian Army and, knowing that his campaign was totally dependant upon sound and effective logistic support, he loaded train engines and rolling stock onto eleven of the 69 troop transport ships. He also loaded four regiments of cavalry, ten battalions of infantry, eight batteries of artillery, 5,487 horses, plus Royal Engineers, Ordnance, Commissariat, Transport, Medical and other supporting units. British Mediterranean garrison troops concentrated at Alexandria (nine battalions) and also the Indian Army dispatched three cavalry regiments, three Indian battalions, two British battalions and Sappers and Miners (the total of Indian Army troops dispatched was 6,930). The opposing Egyptian forces were thought to number 60,000 with an additional 6,000 Bedouin allies.
Wolseley’s plan was to attack from the Suez Canal westwards towards Cairo, using the Sweetwater Canal as a water source and a light-shipping supply route.
His deception plan, which succeeded, was to convince the Egyptian Army that the British land attack would be mounted from Alexandria towards Cairo. The Royal Navy provided effective support throughout the campaign, seizing the entire Canal on 20th and 21st August. Foreign vessels on the Canal were made to halt in the “gares” or waiting stations so that the Royal Navy had total control of the waterway.
Leaving a Division in Alexandria to practice the Deception Plan (even the Divisional Commander was deceived!) Wolseley sailed by night to Port Said and down the Canal to Ismailia with his other Division, whilst the Indian contingent joined him from the Suez end. On the way there was light fighting with Egyptian garrisons who caused some damage to installations. If the Egyptians had sunk block-ships in the Canal beforehand then the British plan would have needed drastic revision, but the Egyptians did not sink any. By the evening of 23rd August most of the British troops destined for Ismailia had arrived there but they needed supplies to be brought ashore and a back-log in unloading freight occurred. However the Royal Navy and Royal Engineers assisted by large fatigue parties of troops responded professionally to the challenge. Supply cattle and many mules were swum ashore whilst new roads and landing piers were built.
The level of water in the Sweetwater Canal was dropping due to a dam being built by the Egyptians six miles away at Magfar. A British force advanced and seized the dam whilst the Royal Navy put light boats onto the Sweetwater Canal and established a Boat Transport Service. The Intelligence Department received reports of a bigger and well-defended dam five miles further on at Tel-El Mahuta, and Wolseley attacked there on 26th August. However after an artillery duel the Egyptian forces withdrew rapidly and were not destroyed. The Egyptian gunners had a number of good Krupps guns but fortunately for the British the percussion fuzes being used allowed the Egyptian shells to bury themselves into the soft sand before bursting. Meanwhile the British troops, wearing European-style thick red serge uniform jackets, flannel shirts and woollen trousers, suffered badly during the heat of the day. Perhaps the kilted soldiers of the Highland Brigade were the most appropriately dressed British troops. The horses also were out of condition due to the sea voyage and they needed time to recover and graze.
However the British pushed on another three miles and captured Kassassin Lock on 26th August. Meanwhile the train engines and rolling stock brought from England were being put to good use on the existing railway lines between Suez and Ismailia and alongside the Sweetwater Canal. Wolseley now built-up his ammunition and supplies dumps along the Sweetwater Canal route, also using captured enemy supplies to augment his own stocks. The Egyptian artillery made a stand-off attack on Kassassin on 28th August and attacked again on 8th September with 8,000 troops. The fighting lasted for several hours and heat and thirst taxed the British troops. However when the British made a general advance the Egyptians fell back, both their Generals having been wounded, and the withdrawal turned into a rout. Wolseley did not pursue far forward as he first needed more infantry to be brought forward from Ismailia.
Right: "First into the fray" Wolseley's men attack the Egyptian gunners with cold steel
The main Egyptian defensive position was on Tel-El-Kebir (the Big Hill), a 120-feet high hill extending for nearly four miles north of the Sweetwater Canal (by now this canal was anything but sweet, being littered with debris and the bodies of dead men and animals). Around 20,000 Egyptian troops defended this position, many being Bedouin irregulars. Attackers had to cross a wide ditch and fight past parapets and redoubts constructed forward of the first trench line. Behind lay a second trench line with shelter trenches and rifle pits. Often wicker fences had been used to wall-in the sand in the fighting positions. The Egyptian gunners were manning 75 guns on the Tel and during daylight hours they could engage attackers at a distance on the surrounding flat plain.
After Wolseley had personally reconnoitred this formidable defensive position he ordered a silent night advance culminating in a bayonet assault, followed by a cavalry action to destroy the withdrawing enemy. The scale and daring of this manoeuvre was novel, but the time and place was right for Wolseley, and above all else he had the expertise amongst his Navy and Army staff officers to make this operation work.
Two British Divisions were to advance north of the Sweetwater Canal and two brigades and an armoured train carrying a 40-pounder gun were to advance on the south bank. The British field artillery with 61 guns and six naval Gatlings would march between the two Divisions on the northern axis of advance. The cavalry and Royal Horse Artillery were to advance on the right flank of the two Divisions.
After an inspection by Wolseley the northern bank troops advanced from the start line, Ninth Hill, at 0130 hours on 13th September and the southern bank troops advanced one hour later. A Royal Navy officer, Lieutenant Rawson, successfully used the stars to navigate the Highland Brigade that was leading the left-hand Division onto the enemy positions, arriving there just before 0500 hours. An alert Egyptian sentry then opened fire and the British troops quickly fixed their three-cornered bayonets and charged forward, scrambling over breastworks to close with the defenders as the dawn light filtered across the desert.
The Egyptian Army had been taken by surprise. Private Robert Tutt of the Royal Marine Light Infantry later wrote an account of the battle:
“It was a time of wild confusion and fury, the ceaseless, savage plying of butt and bayonet, and the driving forth of a dispirited and panic-stricken horde. There was a hideous clamour – the shouts of the combatants, the rattle of musketry, the clash of steel, the crash of artillery, the cries of the wounded, and the despairing screams of the dying masses. And above all there arose that sound which you can never mistake – the skirl of pipes, for as soon as the Highlanders were in the trenches and on the tops, their bagpipes rose in wild strains and fired the kilted troops to great achievements.
Tel-El-Kebir was, like Inkerman, a soldiers’ battle, and an infantryman’s at that. When we had done our work with the bayonet the rest was left to the cavalry and artillery. It was marvelous to see the way in which the British gunners rushed their weapons over obstacles and swept the flying masses down, and terrible to watch the British and Indian cavalry pursuing and destroying the fugitives. There was no escape for them, and recognizing this they surrendered and were made prisoners – and it was pleasanter work to take their bodies than their lives.”
Many brave Egyptian soldiers, particularly from the Sudanese infantry units, died fighting in the trenches but the remainder fled into the path of the British cavalry. South of the canal the Egyptians broke, and by 0700 hours the enemy entrenchments, camp and Tel-El-Kebir station were in British hands. Wolseley ordered the British cavalry to ride on Cairo which was captured on the evening of 14th September. Egyptian resistance was shattered, Colonel Arabi surrendered and was exiled to Ceylon (now named Sri Lanka), his army was disarmed or demobilized itself and Khedive Tewfik was re-instated in his palace.
Lieutenant-General Sir Garnet Wolseley had displayed daring and innovation to gain a great victory. His casualty list totalled 57 men killed, 382 wounded and 30 missing out of approximately 17,000 men who fought at Tel-El-Kebir. Of these the Highland Brigade lost 45 killed, 182 wounded and 6 missing. Robert Tutt’s Royal Marine Light Infantry battalion took more casualties than did any other British unit, as 80 of the Royal Marines were killed, wounded or missing. It does not appear as though the Egyptian casualties were quantified.
Britain could now look south towards the Sudan.
Acts of individual gallantry led to three Victoria Crosses and 17 Distinguished Conduct Medals being awarded. A new British campaign medal, The Egypt Medal 1892 was issued to participants. Those men who took part in the bombardment of Alexandria were entitled to the clasp “ALEXANDRIA 11th July” and those who took part in the night march on Tel-El-Kebir were entitled to the clasp “TEL-EL-KEBIR”. The Khedive also issued the Khedive’s Star 1882 for all recipients of the Egypt Medal.
The Egypt Medal 1882-89 shown above was awarded to Gunner J. Dooley of the Royal Marine Artillery. He served aboard HMS ALEXANDRA which fired the first British shell on 11th July. The medal is shown here through the kindness of the copyright holders, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
The three medals: Distinguished Conduct Medal, Egypt Medal 1882-89 with Clasp TEL-EL-KEBIR and the Khedive’s Star 1882 shown here were awarded to Lance-Corporal Isaac Drake, Army Hospital Corps (attached to the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry). Isaac Drake’s citation for his DCM mentioned his gallant conduct and coolness at Kassassin and for being in the most advanced line of skirmishers in every engagement, of which there were six.
The Drake group is shown through the kindness of The Orders and Medals Research Society. This image appeared in an article by John D. O’Malley in the June 2003 copy of the Society’s journal.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING: Victorian Military Campaigns edited by Brian Bond Marching to the Drums by Ian Knight British Battles and Medals published by Spink