In 1956 the Suez Canal seemed to flow through every British drawing room and the limits of British power and influence were forcefully brought home - but it had been a different story in 1882, explains Christopher Danziger, when the first Suez Crisis brought Britain prestige and the expansion of her Empire.
Most people know something about the Suez Crisis. By that they mean, of course, the crisis of 1956, when the Egyptians nationalised the canal. But if there had not been another Suez Crisis, in 1882, then the fiasco of 1956 would not have happened. The crisis of 1882 had a very different outcome, and it was really decided by a single battle, whose centenary falls this month, and although it has never passed into popular folklore like Rorke's Drift or Omdurman, it is difficult to think of any battle fought by the British in the last quarter of the nineteenth century which was more important in the long term.
The crisis of 1882 also led to an Egyptian seizure of the Canal, which was then only thirteen years old, and officially the property of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez. As the name suggests, most of the original 400,000 shares were taken up in France. Of the rest, over a quarter were bought by the ruler of Egypt, the Khedive Ismail, and the remainder in Austria and Russia. One country which did everything in its power to thwart the Canal was Britain, who saw in it nothing but a threat to her Eastern Empire and her mastery of the seas. However, once it had been completed (four years late), no one used it more than the British. In its first ten years, 80 per cent of all the traffic which passed through the Canal was British. It had already become too important a link with India to permit anyone else to control.
In 1875, the Khedive, desperately searching for some relief from his mounting debts, sold his shares to the British government, who therefore became the largest single shareholder in the Suez Canal Company. Disraeli may have said of the Canal, 'You have it, ma'am', to Queen Victoria, but it was very far from the truth. What Disraeli had bought was about a quarter of the founders' shares, which only totalled 8m pounds of the 19m pounds eventuaIly needed to complete the canal.
This sale did not solve the Khedive's problems. A year later, his finances were so chaotic that Rothschilds would only lend him more if he permitted a European Commission to manage his treasury. The Commission handed over its powers to the joint control of a Briton and a Frenchman. These two effectively became the backstage rulers of Egypt. It was a humiliation which many patriotic Egyptians were not prepared to accept.
As leader of this opposition there emerged a thick-set, forty year old colonel of peasant stock, Ahmed Arabi who was a xenophobic member of an extreme Moslem sect. As an army officer, he was also one of those whose career was most threatened by the cuts insisted on by the financial controllers. And finally, he was said to hate the Khedives, because Ismail had demoted him from the Palace Guard for being 'noisier than the big drum and less useful'. In 1881, Arabi became the central figure in two nationalist mutinies which had the effect of weakening the Khedive's authority, and, thereby, the grip of the European controllers.
By then Ismail had been hustled off by his puppetmasters to an exile in Smyrna made more comfortable by a golden handshake of 100,000 pounds and seventy of his harem. In his place had been installed his eldest son, Tewfik, whom he had fathered from one of his female slaves when he was seventeen. Tewfik – indecisive, apathetic, mild – was better suited to the role cast for him by the Dual Control.
The British and French decided to demonstrate their support for Tewfik with a stiff note to the Egyptian ministry, of which Arabi was now the dominant member. The Egyptians reacted angrily and aggressively. Britain and France therefore applied the well-tried nineteenth-century device of moving gunboats into enemy waters, which took up menacing positions outside Alexandria.
In the hot and overcrowded streets of Alexandria tensions mounted rapidly. On the June 11th, 1882, there was a violent disturbance, and an anti- European rampage resulted in about sixty deaths – what London and Paris instantly dubbed a 'massacre'. The British gunboats, brooding offshore under the command of Admiral Sir Beauchamp Seymour, could not risk reprisals until the safety of the 35,000 remaining Europeans was assured. But a month later Seymour was ready to send an ultimatum to the Egyptians: either dismantle the earthworks they were raising on the shore, or he would bombard them to rubble.
Arabi refused to dismantle the earthworks, and on July 10th, the British fleet moved inside the harbour, while fifty ironclads of other nations hung back outside to watch the action. For ten hours they blazed away at the shore. From there the Egyptians pounded back. All the observers noted two remarkable features. One was that about 70 per cent of all the British shells, the largest of which had cost 25.10s.0d. each, failed to explode. The other was the amazing courage of the Egyptian gunners in sticking to their guns through the whole assault. It was only discovered later that this was because infantry regiments had been posted at their rear to ensure just this effect. However, in the end, the Egyptians retired, and after a much criticised delay, Seymour put ashore about a thousand sailors who occupied Alexandria without much trouble.
Arabi's response was to seize the Canal. By doing so, he raised what might possibly have remained a local quarrel to the level of an Imperial one. Even Gladstone's natural inclination to turn the other cheek could not tolerate this insult. He asked for, and was given, a vote of about 3m pounds to mount a punitive expedition. On the same day, the French Chamber turned down a similar request by roughly the same margin, thus giving the British a free hand to take the initiative in Egypt.
There could only be one choice to lead the expedition. In the popular slang of the day, if things were in perfect order, they were'all Sir Garnet'. By 1882, at the relatively early age of forty-nine, Sir Garnet Wolseley was indeed the very model of, and for, Gilbert's 'modern major-general'. His self-educated Dublin childhood was a distant memory now, and successes too easily won against savage tribes had made him, as Queen Victoria complained, 'a braggart and an egotist'. 'So was Nelson, ma'am,' Disraeli assured her smoothly.
Wolseley's Suez campaign interrupted another much longer, harder fought campaign – to modernise the British army – against an enemy far more powerful than Arabi, Queen Victoria's cousin, the Duke of Cambridge. Most of Wolseley's supporters saw (and interpreted) the campaign of 1882 as a test of 'modern' generalship. The Times called the result 'the turning point of our military system'. The whole campaign was allegedly 'completed just as calculated before a single soldier had left this country'. Unfortunately, as no one has ever revealed what Wolseley's calculations were, it is not possible to verify this.
He landed, as expected, at Alexandria, still held by Admiral Seymour’s sailors, on August 15th, 1882, where the Khedive 'gave' him full powers to act in Egypt. There the information that his next move was to capture Aboukir was carefully leaked to the very war correspondents of whom Sir Garnet himself had said that they had no virtue 'except to disseminate false intelligence'. He then slipped out of Alexandria by night and landed instead at Port Said, which he took almost without resistance. Many of the maligned war correspondents justified Wolseley's opinion of them by rushing home reports which claimed to have been the first to hear the sounds of firing at Aboukir. Meanwhile a contingent from India landed at Port Suez, and in three days the Canal had been secured. If Arabi could have been trusted to let well alone, then Wolseley's mission had really been accomplished.
However, Arabi could be trusted to do no such thing. He was indeed bracing his troops (rather demoralised after their easy defeat on the Canal) for the expected attack at a well chosen strategic site on the road from Ismailia to Cairo. The Egyptians called it Tel-el-Kebir (the great mound). Wolseley's panegyrists claimed that he had identified it as the spot where the decisive battle would take place even before leaving England.
Wolseley's plan was to suprise Tel-el-Kebir by a night march of nine miles, and a dawn attack which would spare his men the worst of the day's heat, an important factor when one bears in mind that more men had so far been lost to sunstroke than to the enemy. It was perhaps not very subtle, but nothing can detract from the faultless way it was executed.
At 10pm on September 12th, the British struck camp, and moved 'in exhilarating silence' within striking distance of Arabi's army. At 5 am on September 13th, the order was given to attack on two broad fronts. Surprise seems to have been so complete that the Highlanders passed an Egyptian redoubt a thousand yards in front of the lines without either side being aware of the other's existence. The British intention was in fact not to resort to gunfire at all, but to rely entirely on bayonet charges. A random shot actually gave their position away about 300 yards short of the trenches but they kept their heads and stormed the front lines in perfect order.
Crack troops though they were in the front lines (mostly Blacks from the Sudan), they were at too much of a disadvantage in that situation. The crucial moment came when the Highlanders' initial momentum carried them through to the chief of the inner redoubts. When the rest of the army saw the Sudanese overpowered in the first violent half an hour, their resistance melted. No one was apparently quicker to turn tail than the officers of whom someone said, 'Each one knew that he would flee, but hoped his neighbour would fight'. After an hour the Egyptian army began to disintegrate; after ninety minutes it was in headlong retreat, with the guns of its own battery being used to mow it down.
Arabi Pasha still tried to salvage something from the wreck. Hoping to regroup outside Cairo, he gave out the usual bulletins announcing Tel-el-Kebir as a victory, However, when the excited Egyptians, rushing out to garland the returning heroes, instead found Arabi alone and defeated, there was an understandable revulsion of feeling against him. He was imprisoned and handed over to the British the next day, who arranged a comfortable exile for him in Ceylon.
Cairo itself could still have offered formidable resistance. The preachers claimed to be in control of 27,000 Moslem fanatics, and its massive citadel was garrisoned by 10,000 men. Sad to say, they seem to have capitulated meekly to the heavy cavalry when they trotted in with only 1,500 men the next day. Tewfik returned to Cairo, 'like a child in his nurse's arms' and the Suez Crisis of 1882 was over.
What, then, was the significance of Tel-el-Kebir? Did it mark 'the turning point of the British military system?' Not in the least, according to an observer sent by the German army. Far from being a triumph of organisation, he shook his head in wonder that it was not until two weeks after the campaign began that doctors' instruments and bandages arrived. Wolseley's attack on Tel-el-Kebir was held up for sixteen days because there were absolutely no supplies or transport. Even British commentators conceded that after taking Ismailia, the troops had to live for three days on biscuits and 'muddy water flavoured only with dead Egyptians and horses', (according to the German, because the water filters had not arrived). Things may have been much better, to do them justice, than they had been in the Crimea thirty years before, but they still reassured the Germans that the British could not really play a significant part in a continental war.
Why Tel-el-Kebir was significant, therefore, was for two reasons. First, it brought Egypt under British control for the next sixty years. It provided Britain with such security in the Mediterranean that she even became quite relaxed about the Russian threat to Constantinople. The strategic value of holding Egypt proved to be immense in both world wars: not for nothing did a book on its military potential describe it as 'The Most Important Country in the World'.
The second reason for Tel-el-Kebir's enormous importance is less direct. Until then, European interest in Africa, apart from the south, had been confined to coastal areas and navigable rivers. There was a kind of gentleman's agreement in force not to claim possession of anything for which you had no practical use. However, the French believed, or claimed to believe, that the British had cheated and betrayed them over the Suez campaign. Very well, they reasoned, if Britannia waives the rules, so will we, and over the next twenty years, they adopted a highly acquisitive policy in Africa. Not to be outdone, the Germans, Belgians and Italians followed suit. Britain was driven to many further annexations to prevent previous gains from becoming worthless. One of the most eminent of modern African historians lays at the feet of Tel-el-Kebir the responsibility for most of the 'Scramble for Africa'.
For Further Reading:
The best analytical explanation of the background to the British occupation of Egypt is to be found in R. Robinson and J. Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians (Macmillan, 1961). A specialist book on the Suez Canal is J. Pudney, Suez: de Lesseps' Canal . More information about the role of individualscan be found in P. Magnus, Gladstone (Murray, 1954) and Sir F. Maurice, A Life of Lord Wolseley (London, 1921).