Stirring National Consciousness
From the Admiralty's points of view, the bombardment of Alexandria was a copybook operation that had achieved fully its objectives. The forts were destroyed ad order was restored to the city with a minimum of loss to the British forces. Politically, however, the attack was a disaster. Sir Garnet Wolseley would later call it 'silly and criminal' especially after riots broke out across the rest of Egypt and fresh impetus was given to the nationalist cause. The bombardment would inadvertently lead to British entanglement in Egyptian affairs for the next seven decades.

When Arabi Pasha threatened to destroy the Suez Canal 'in defence of Egypt' and to burn down Cairo 'rather than surrender', Gladstone felt it necessary to intervene. Such were his powers of persuasion that he was able to convince his fellow Liberals that the only possible course was the despatch of an expeditionary force to 'restore law and order' and safeguard the Canal. These limited objectives seemed to bring aboard enough waverers to allow the despatch of British forces.

The French were invited to participate in the expeditionary force. However domestic politics had not yet played out fully in France. The French cabinet were still smarting from the missed opportunity at Alexandria. They offered a commitment to defend the Suez Canal, but even this was too much for the Chamber of Deputies, who threw out the government and declined to have anything to do with the affair - although it left a nasty diplomatic taste between Britain and France for many more years to come.

The Expedition
After some disagreement about his appointment, Sir Garnet Wolseley was appointed on July 20th, 1882. He had something of a reputation of an Avant-Garde planner and reformer. It says much for his talent that he had managed to throw a force of 20,000 men, supplies and equipment ashore in Egypt within a month of his appointment. The soldiers were well armed, well supplied and morale was high. It vindicated many of the reforms instituted in the previous ten years by Lord Cardwell.

Convinced that the British would follow the route taken by Napoleon up the River Nile to Cairo, the Egyptian forces of Arabi Pasha concentrated their forces along the Mediterranean Coast and in the Delta. Wolseley surprised them by landing further to the East and heading directly to the Canal establishing his main base at Ismalia. Arabi Pasha redirected his troops to the village of Tel-el-Kebir. It was a village about 25 miles from the Suez Canal, situated between the railway line and the so-called Sweetwater Canal. It represented a significant blocking position between Ismalia and the Egyptian capital.

The British Probed along the railway to find the enemy, a series of major advanced guard actions took place for the next fortnight. It took 17 days to advance 25 miles. This advance successively captured each of the three enemy outpost positions built to protect the great Tel-el-Kebir fortifications. The final line was secured on 26 August with the capture of Kassassin, 11 miles east of Tel-el-Kebir. Two half-hearted sorties by Arabi were also driven off.

The heights of Tel-el-Kebir represented a significant natural barrier in otherwise flat and featureless terrain. Arabi Pasha had begun fortifying the high ground with a network of trenches. There was no shortage of manpower available; what they lacked was time. And although the ambitious plans were never completed, what was achieved was formidable enough: Main trench lines to a minimum depth of five feet; breastworks as high as six feet; salinets were built at regular intervals with commanding fields of fire; rifle pits and gun emplacements were all built overlooking the positions.

Wolseley surveys the battle
The defences impressed Wolseley who that they would prove 'a very hard nut to crack'. A frontal assault across open terrain against a well-armed and well-equipped enemy would end in a blood bath. His staff took four days devising a suitable plan. During that time, reconnaissance discovered that the Egyptians did not man their outposts after dark. This gave Wolseley the key he had been looking for. Against all conventional military wisdom he decided on a night march against the enemy, to take him unawares and overrun his position before he could rally an effective defence. It was an audacious and and risky plan because soldiers in the dark, unable to see their officers or NCOs, could quickly lose their bearings and become confused. Furthermore, to carry out such a large manoeuvre in total silence would require a level of training and discipline of a very high order. One shout in the darkness, one rifle accidentally discharged, and the vital element of surprise would be lost with unforeseeable results.

Wolseley had available five brigades with a total of 17 battalions, making 12,124 infantrymen. Six cavalry regiments (2,785 troopers) and 61 guns brought the total up to 17,401 men. Arabi had 20,000 regulars waiting in the great trench with 6,000 Bedouin and 2,500 cavalry. There were 75 Egyptian guns, including 60mm and 80mm Krupp breech-loaders. On the railway itself sailors of the Naval Brigade manned an armored train carrying a 40-pounder gun.

Wolseley's audacious plan would be put to the test in the very early hours of the morning of September 13th. There was some nervousness when a Scotsman let out a peal of laughter. He was quickly silenced and taken to the rear to sober up. The rest of the Highlanders would fail to get into their proper positions and would have the misfortune of coming face-to-face with some of the toughest troops in Arabi's army - seasoned fighters from the Sudan who gave no quarter and expected none. At 0455, Egyptian army sentries fired one or two individual shots. Then a blaze of fire burst from the whole line of the parapet. The Highland Brigade was only 150 yards short of their objective, while on the right the 2nd Brigade was only 800 yards from the enemy.

When the concentrated fire was opened against the Highlanders they fixed bayonets. The charge was sounded by the regimental buglers, and the position was rushed. Soft sand on the outer slope of the parapet impeded the troops and 200 casualties were caused by enemy fire at point-blank range. The first man to reach the top, Lieutenant Brooks of the Gordon Highlanders, was shot dead but the Gordons together with the Camerons reached the top and pouring down into the main trench and quickly cleared it. Gunners in the artillery redoubts were bayoneted in the back serving their guns. Pressing on, the Highlanders assaulted the second line in isolated parties and were there held up by rifle fire from Egyptian and Sudanese troops being rushed to counter the attack. On the left of the position it was even more dire as the Sudanese not only held there position but counterattacked.

The Highlander's faltering advanced was steadied by the arrival of the second wave. Meanwhile the cavalry hit the right flank and the Indian brigade skirted around the rear to head off the anticipated Egyptian retreat. By 0520 it was light enough for the British artillery to move. Two batteries of guns were pushed forward in the gap between the two leading infantry brigades and, reaching the great trench crossed it, forming up facing south. From here they enfiladed the enemy from the flank. This greatly shook the enemy on the lower right half of their main position and their units started to disintegrate. This allowed the Highlanders to renew their advance fully. The Egyptians were individually brave, but their leadership displayed a lack of initiative and adaptability to changing circumstances. Retreat soon turned to a rout, although most soldiers could not avoid the pincer movement conducted by the Indian brigade.

Within two hours it was all over. For the loss of 57 men killed, 383 wounded and 30 missing, Sir Garnet Wolseley had crushed Arabi Pasha's main force. The road to Cairo was wide open. British cavalry raced ahead of the main force to try and avoid any coalescing of residual forces. They persuaded the garrison commander not to offer any resistance. They proceeded to the Citadel to negotiate the final surrender of the city. Arabi Pasha was located there and and arrested. Sir Garnet Wolseley arrived on September 15th abourd a special train.

As for Arabi Pasha, initially he was sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to a exile to Ceylon. However what was more difficult to ascertain was what the British should do now that they had secured the Suez Canal. Most Liberal politicians were keen on leaving Egypt. However, the country was still in a financial mess and the canal might soon be re-imperilled if the British were to leave. However, other European nations were not keen on seeing the British add such a large, close and famous colony to its growing empire. Instead, Gladstone and the Liberals prevaricated before trying to come up with a complicated Condominium solution - that was all but colonialism in another name.

Sir Evelyn Baring was appointed as British agent and consul-general. He had had an illustrious career as finance member of the Viceroy's council in India. He would serve a total of 23 years in his post. The strength of British domination and Egyptian weakness would be revealed shortly with the Mahdi's uprising in the South of the country and in the Sudan. It would soon be clear who was really controlling Egypt.

map of campaign
Map of Campaign
map of Battle
Map of Battlefield
20th Punjabis
Images
Significant Individuals
Arabi Pasha
Sir Garnet Wolseley
Medal
Egypt Medal
Link
Britain in Egypt
A 1915 account of action by John Holland Rose
Suggested Reading
War on the Nile
Barthorp

Objective: Egypt
Blaxland

Return from Tel-el-Kebir
Butler, Elizabeth

Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt
Blunt

Victorian Military Campaigns
Bond

Victoria's Enemies
Featherstone

Tel-el-Kebir
Featherstone

Report of the British Naval and Military Operations in Egypt
Goodrich

Queen Victoria's Enemies
Knight

Egypt 1879 - 1883
Malet

The British in Egypt
Mansfield

Military history of the Campaign of 1882
Maurice






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by Stephen Luscombe