06 May 2022
Neil Thornton describes Wolseley’s swift and decisive Egyptian victory on 13 September 1882.
Late in the 19th century, Egypt and the Suez Canal were of vital importance to Victorian Britain, as the gateway to the jewel in the crown of the Empire, India. So, when Colonel Arabi Pasha (there are various spellings) staged a revolt that involved thousands of Egyptian officers and men, a speedy response was needed. The British Navy reached the Egyptian port of Alexandria on 20 May 1882 with the aim of restoring control of the country to the Khedive Tewfiq and thus protecting their own interests.
As the time of the Navy’s arrival, the Egyptian military were strengthening the city and reinforcing their coastal defences. On 11 July, after weeks of anxious suspense at trying to bring about a peaceful settlement, and following the refusal by the Egyptian government to order the defences and batteries at Alexandria to be dismantled, the Royal Navy began a bombardment of the city. This provoked a response from the Egyptian gun batteries which, although somewhat determined, proved to be quite ineffective, with British casualties standing at five men killed, and a further 28 wounded as a result. Although a definitive number cannot be placed on Egyptian’s losses, they were estimated to have been very great.
Two days later, a large naval force landed ashore, prompting the Egyptians to withdraw from the city after some resistance.
Consequently, nothing more happened. Weeks passed by before it was decided that an advance on Cairo was required but, by then, the initial British hesitancy in engaging in open warfare and advancing into Egypt, had served only to bolster support for Arabi Pasha’s cause.
Major-General Sir Archibald Alison (CO of the Highland Brigade) arrived at Alexandria from England on 17 July with some additional units. Further reinforcements continued to arrive over the course of the next few weeks. The 15 August saw the arrival of Sir Garnet Wolseley from Malta, who, as the Commander-in-Chief, was to command the campaign.
Determined resistance by the Egyptians mean that Cairo could not be reached from Alexandria. Therefore, Wolseley moved his expeditionary force through the Suez Canal to Ismalia, which was reached without opposition on 20 August. An advance to Kassassin, situated to the west of Ismalia on the Suez Canal, then followed, which was taken after heavy fighting.
Kassassin acted as the launch pad for the advance on Tel el-Kebir, and troops continued to arrive right up until the attack. According to a statement by Arabi Pasha, when in exile in Ceylon after the war, Tel el-Kebir was defended by 20,000 Egyptian soldiers and 75 guns at the time of the battle. Wolseley’s force was considerably smaller, numbering 11,000 troops, 2,000 cavalry, and 45 guns, the latter being a combination of 9pdrs, 13pdrs and 16pdrs.
Wolseley recognised that to advance across the open plain to Tel el-Kebir, in full view of the enemy, would result in severe casualties amongst his men. The ground was completely flat and represented nothing short of a killing zone for anyone attempting to cross it under fire. As such, Wolseley decided to move forward during the night in the hope of closing the gap and to give his men the advantage when launching their assault.
It had also been observed that the Egyptians were only sending out their picquets at 5.45am each morning and by launching the attack before this time the chances of achieving a successful element of surprise would be further increased.
LEFT: ‘Storming the Trenches’ by Harry Payne. Soldiers of the Highland Brigade charge into action after climbing the Egyptian parapet
During the night, thousands of soldiers moved forward in absolute silence. Meanwhile, the Egyptian defenders remained completely unaware of what was happening right in front of them.
The orders for the infantry were in accordance with the well-established usage of night attacks; they were to charge to the enemy breastworks without firing a shot. It would not do for men to pause in their assault to fire at an enemy who were well dug in. The objective was to close in on them as quickly as possible and for the attack not to stall.
The Highland Brigade, consisting of the Royal Highlanders, Gordon Highlanders, Cameron Highlanders, and the Highland Light Infantry (HLI), under the command Major-General Alison, moved to within 150yd of the Egyptian defences before a few isolated shots rang out from the sentries. Soon, a heavy fire was erupting from the whole line of the parapet. Egyptian bugles then sounded the alarm. In response, the bagpipes were immediately struck up, and the Highlanders charged forward, screaming at the top of their lungs. A close-range fire did little to hinder them as they surged forward in two waves into an inferno of lead. The Highlanders reached the breastworks and began to scramble up as best they could. Those who managed to scale it turned to assist their struggling comrades, grabbing them and hauling them up under fire.
LEFT: The Black Watch struggle up the ramparts of the Egyptian defences. Men turned to assist their comrades up the steep slope whilst under fire
The first man of the Gordon Highlanders to mount the parapet was Lieutenant Brooks, but he quickly fell dead, ‘pierced with four wounds.’ The aptly-named Private Donald Cameron of the Cameron Highlanders was the first of his battalion to climb the parapet, but on reaching the summit, he too was killed, falling into the enemy’s trench after being shot through the head.
In a letter sent to his mother after the battle, Sergeant Macpherson explained that they had been ordered not to load their weapons but to ‘trust the bayonet.’ He described charging with his comrades who were cheering loudly as they ran. Then: ‘We dashed forward, jumping into their trenches and clambering up again and tackling them.’
The fight quickly became hand-to-hand. As the HLI fought their way through the Egyptian position, Lieutenant Edwards found himself some distance ahead of his men. Without waiting to see if he was supported, the officer rushed into an enemy gun battery alone and promptly killed the Egyptian officer commanding it. He was quickly surrounded and knocked to the ground by a vicious clout to the head by a gunner using his ramrod as a club, but his life was saved by the timely arrival of three of his men, who rushed into the pit just in time. Lieutenant Edwards’ actions of charging single-handedly into the gun pit would earn him the only Victoria Cross of the battle.
The Egyptian soldiers facing the Highlanders fought tenaciously, holding their positions with the utmost determination. Even when their officers turned tail and ran, the men stood their ground. ‘Five or six times we had to close in on them with the bayonet,’ wrote Major-General Alison, ‘and I saw those poor men fighting hard when their officers were flying before us.’
The Highlanders suffered the most casualties of all those who attacked, but even though the Egyptians put up a determined resistance, hundreds of their dead were piled high where the Highlanders had broken in.
LEFT: The guns arrive at the barricades to come into action against the Egyptian soldiers and strongholds amidst the cheers of the British infantry
For a while the Highland Brigade, who had attacked at 5.20am, was the only one to get to grips with the enemy. To their right, the 2nd Brigade under Major-General Graham still had some 800-900yd to go before they reached the enemy breastworks and they did not start their attack until 10 or 15 minutes after the Highlanders had gone in. Nevertheless, with Graham leading from the front, they covered the distance and got in amongst the Egyptians as soon as they could, at which point, the Highlanders were pushing on to the Egyptian’s inner defences to their left.
As the 2nd Brigade reached the Egyptian defences, Lieutenant Wilbraham of the Royal Irish Regiment jumped over a ditch and dropped off the parapet, straight over the heads of two enemy soldiers. He didn’t stop, but pushed on, shooting down two Egyptians with his revolver before striking a third with his sword. He was knocked down by another who clubbed him with his rifle. ‘I was too pumped to save myself and thought I was done for,’ Wilbraham later related, ‘but just as he was about to hit me again, a man named Kelly, the right hand man of my company, drove his bayonet clean through him, much to my relief.’
As the infantry fought it out, British cavalry and artillery units also came into action. Earlier, at around 4.40am, the cavalry, commanded by Major-General Drury Lowe, had begun a slow trot to the extreme right of the line. Shots had been fired in their direction from the Egyptian left flank at around 2,000yd, causing them to increase their pace. They neared the Egyptian defences as the battle raged. The Royal Horse Artillery galloped forward and wiped out a troublesome fort, that had been firing at them, and also destroyed a field battery that was placed in the open ground behind the parapet.
With the (2nd) Indian Brigade leading, the cavalry charged through the enemy entrenchments before swinging round to the left, coming in behind the Egyptian infantry, some of whom, at that moment, were beginning to fall back under pressure from their British counterparts. Artillery batteries dashed forward – one of which was manhandled up the parapet from where it began an effective fire. By 5.20am, three guns had advanced through the enemy line on the right and, having turned to face left, started a heavy fire into the flank of the Egyptian infantry. Other guns added their fire to other key enemy positions.
RIGHT: An officer belonging to the Highlanders attacks an enemy artilleryman with his sword. The image featured on the cover of The Illustrated London News shortly after the battle
Having fought through the enemy main line, Graham’s brigade charged a large mass of Egyptian soldiers who formed up to offer further resistance. These were promptly attacked, thus becoming a disorganised and defeated body, which then turned and fell back further.
A short distance beyond the Egyptian defences lay the Tel el-Kebir train station. Shortly before 6am, just as the sun rose, an artillery battery under Lieutenant-Colonel Brancker, began a bombardment on the station where Egyptian fugitives were heading to make their escape.
The first two trains got away, buy a third was hit and brought to a halt. The arrival of the Indian Brigade of Cavalry at the railway line prevented any further bombardment in fear of inflicting friendly casualties. A total of 100 carriages were later captured, and the Egyptian camp, including tents, baggage and stores, was taken. By approximately 7am, the rout was complete.
Major-General Sir Archibald Alison gave credit to the stubborn resistance put up by the Egyptians, saying: ‘I must do justice to those much-maligned Egyptian soldiers. I never saw men fight more steadily. They were falling-back on an inner line of works which we had taken in flank and at every re-entering angle, at every battery, and redoubt, they rallied and renewed the fight.’
Egyptian losses amounted to over 2,000, with almost 1,500 dead. British losses were significantly less, amounting to 57 killed (nine of whom were officers), and 382 wounded (of whom 27 were officers). 30 men were also listed as ‘missing.’ The British had, in fact, suffered more casualties through heatstroke than in action.
The Battle of Tel el-Kebir in Egypt, on 13 September 1882, ended in an impressive victory for the British forces involved. The decisiveness of the outcome was in no small part down to Sir Garnet Wolseley’s actions and tactics in the build-up to the battle, which one leading correspondent described as ‘masterly’.
The battle was the beginning of the end for Pasha and his revolt. The advance on Cairo began the following morning where the British were greeted by the white flags of a defeated enemy. Subsequently, Arabi Pasha offered his unconditional surrender.
LEFT: After the Battle, Tel-El-Kibir, hand coloured engraving, 19th century, by Richard Josey in the style of Lady Butler
The Egypt medal 1882-89
Those who served in Egypt during the campaign were entitled to the Egypt Medal. Today these can be obtained relatively cheaply with prices starting from around £200, although casualties and various ranks can command a wide range of premiums. A medal to a member of the Highland Brigade who was killed in the battle can be found on the market for prices up to £1,000.
A number of claps denoting specific engagements were also awarded to those who took part, and do affect the monetary value. Sanctioned on 17 October 1882, the Tel el-Kebir clasp was issued to those who had taken part in the night march from Kassassin and the attack on Te el-Kebir. It is dated ‘1882.’
Also worth looking for is the Khedive’s Star, which was a campaign medal issued by the Khedive Tewfik Pasha for all those who fought in Egypt and Sudan between 1882-1891, including British forces. Prices start around £85.
L-R: The Egypt Medal was awarded to those who took part in the 1882 campaign, and various clasps were available. The Khedive’s Star was issued for fighting in Egypt and the Sudan, including to British forces.
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