The Secret Service Major and the Invasion of Egypt

James Exelby unearths the activities of a forgotten British spy whose documents and memoir provide a fascinating insight into the circumstances surrounding the British occupation of Egypt.

‘We have today to make a somewhat startling announcement,’ began The Times in its Friday, November 26th, 1875, lead. ‘The British Government has bought from the KHEDIVE shares of the Suez Canal to the amount of £4,000,000 sterling, and the Egyptian Government is entitled to draw on Messr. ROTHSCHILD at sight for the amount.’ The paper continued: ‘The nation awakes this morning to find that it has acquired a heavy stake in the security and well-being of another distant country, and it will be held by all the world to have entered upon a new phase of Eastern policy.’ In public, the British government gave every support to Egypt’s ruler the Khedive Ismail as he struggled to cope with financial collapse and humiliating defeat in a war with Abyssinia. In private, and within weeks of the share purchase, it activated the Army’s recently formed Intelligence Branch (IB) to spy out the land. The head of the IB, Major-General Sir Patrick MacDougall, a frail-looking intellectual sort of soldier, was more the student of war than the hero of the battlefield and, accompanied by two brother officers – a colonel and a major – made his way to Egypt via Marseille ‘for his health’.

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