Sir Francis Reginald Wingate

Britain had occupied Egypt in 1882, and although early evacuation was an oft-stated goal, the conditions that had brought about the occupation tended to prolong it. One of these was the state of the Egyptian army, which had rebelled and been defeated and disbanded by the British. It was to the nascent new Egyptian army, under British officers, that Wingate was seconded in 1883. He was aide-de-camp to the sirdar (commander-in-chief), Sir Evelyn Wood (a lifelong patron) in 1883-4, and when Wood resigned in the aftermath of General Gordon's debacle at Khartoum in 1885, Wingate too left Egypt but returned to the Egyptian army in 1886 as assistant military secretary to the new sirdar, Sir Francis Grenfell.

Sir Francis Wingate spent the next twelve years as an increasingly prominent figure in the Anglo-Egyptian campaign against the Sudanese Mahdist state. The Mahdi himself had died in June 1885, but his successor, the khalifa 'Abdallahi, proved formidable. While Britain eschewed responsibility for Sudan, as the occupying power in Egypt she could not ignore a militant threat to Egypt's borders. But while British civilian authorities on the scene (most notably Sir Evelyn Baring, who was the chief British representative in Egypt from 1883 to 1907) and in London would not countenance an expensive 'reconquest', British soldiers in Egypt saw it as their mission to 'avenge Gordon' and conquer Sudan. For years the civilians had their way; border skirmishes were the rule, and after August 1889, when an invading Mahdist army was easily annihilated at Tushki in the Nubian Desert, there seemed little practical reason for an advance. This came only in 1896, when, mindful of French movements towards the upper Nile and wishing to divert the Sudanese from the embattled Italians in Eritrea, the British government authorized a limited Anglo-Egyptian advance into Sudan.

Wingate had played an important official and personal role in planning, co-ordinating, and indeed in winning approval for that advance. As successively (or, in the understaffed Egyptian army, simultaneously) assistant military secretary, assistant adjutant-general for recruiting, and, most notably, from 1888 as assistant adjutant-general for intelligence and from 1892 as director of military intelligence, Wingate became not only the chief collector of information on Mahdist Sudan, but ironically also its chief disseminator to the British public. In October 1891 the first of three books of which he shared authorship appeared, Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan. Largely a military history of the period 1883-9, the book won appreciation in specialist military and political circles, but produced little public response (or income). Learning from this experience, Wingate published in October 1892 Ten Years' Captivity in the Mahdi's Camp, an account of the adventures of an escaped priest, Josef Ohrwalder, which was an instant critical and commercial success. This was followed finally, and most notably, in February 1896, Fire and Sword in the Sudan, an account of the experiences of the Austrian Rudolf Slatin, an Egyptian official who had absconded from Sudan the previous year. All of these works brought Wingate to the favourable notice of the British military and political establishment, and brought the lurid details of alleged Mahdist barbarism to the attention of the British public.

The campaign that began tentatively in March 1896 concluded in September 1898 with the battle of Omdurman, where, in Wingate's presence, an Anglo-Egyptian army defeated the khalifa 'Abdallahi and overthrew his regime. With Kitchener, Wingate thereupon went to Fashoda, where the famous meeting with Major Marchand occurred. Marchand was persuaded that he could not hoist the French flag in the khedive's dominions and Wingate played an important role in the negotiations. Sudan was made a condominium of the conquering powers, and Kitchener became its governor-general. But it was Wingate who, in November 1899, commanded the force that finally tracked down, brought to battle, and killed the refugee khalifa, and in December, when Kitchener was called urgently to South Africa, Wingate succeeded him as sirdar of the Egyptian army and governor-general of Sudan.

For the next sixteen years, from 1899 to 1916, Wingate administered Sudan. It was under him that pacification and resettlement of the tribes took place, that the rebuilding of Khartoum (started by Kitchener) occurred, that the modern infrastructure of railways, telegraphs, Nile steamers, and Port Sudan was put in place, and that medical, educational, and other social services were inaugurated. Law codes were enacted, a civil service (soon famous for its excellence) was recruited, and the important and vast Gezira irrigation scheme for cotton begun. The policies and programmes adopted under Wingate (with Cromer's involvement, Egypt's critical financial support, and on bases established during the old Egyptian and Mahdist periods) became the institutional foundations of the modern Sudanese republic. Living in state at an address unequalled in the British empire--The Palace, Khartoum--Wingate ruled Sudan as a colony in all but name, while lessening the control of both Cairo and London. As a soldier-administrator Wingate indeed came to epitomize a type of pragmatism and moderation that seemed to ebb as the administration became demilitarized after the First World War.

During that war Wingate was fully involved, but largely behind the scenes. The Sudanese ignored the Ottoman call to jihad. But in 1916, after long planning and careful calculation, Anglo-Egyptian forces invaded and conquered Darfur, the autonomous sultanate whose ruler, Ali Dinar, had shown disaffection. More important, as far as Wingate was concerned, were the byzantine negotiations between the sherif of Mecca and the British that ended finally in the outbreak of the Arab revolt against the Turks. In those negotiations, as in supplying the sherif and co-ordinating Anglo-Arab activities, Wingate played a leading role; his appointment to command operations in Hejaz was in fact never made public, in deference to the sherif, and he reaped little credit for their success.

In October 1916 Wingate accepted the Foreign Office's offer of the high-commissionership of Egypt.

by M. W. Daly

Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

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