Battle of Tel el-Kebir
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (September 2012)|
The Battle of Tel el-Kebir or el-Tal el-Kebir was fought between the Egyptian army led by Ahmed Urabi and the British military near Tel-el-Kebir. After discontented Egyptian officers under Urabi rebelled in 1882, the United Kingdom reacted to protect its financial and expansionist interests in the country, and in particular the Suez Canal.
Bombardment and invasion of Alexandria
On May 20, a combined Anglo-French fleet arrived at Alexandria. At the same time, Egyptian troops were reinforcing the coastal defenses of the city in anticipation of an attack. These events heightened tension in Alexandria, and eventually triggered tumultuous rioting with loss of life on both sides. As a result of the riots, an ultimatum was sent to the Egyptian government demanding they order Urabi's officers in Alexandria to dismantle their coastal defence batteries. The Egyptian government refused. Meanwhile, tension increased between Britain and France over the crisis, as most of the losses had been non-French, the principal European beneficiaries of the revolution would be the French. Thus, the French government refused to support this ultimatum and decided against armed intervention.
When the ultimatum was ignored, Admiral Seymour gave the order for the Royal Navy to bombard the Egyptian gun emplacements at Alexandria. On July 11 at 7:00 am, the first shell was fired on Fort Adda by HMS Alexandra (1875) and by 7:10, the entire fleet was engaged. The coastal defenses returned fire soon after, with minimal effect and minimal casualties to the British fleet. No British ships were sunk. On July 13, a large naval force landed in the city. Despite heavy resistance from the garrison for several hours, the overwhelming superiority of the smaller British forces eventually forced the Egyptian troops to withdraw from the city.
Lieutenant General Garnet Wolseley was placed in charge of a large force with the aim of destroying Urabi's regime and restoring the nominal authority of the Khedive Tawfiq. The total force was 24,000 British troops, which concentrated in Malta and Cyprus, and a force of 7,000 Indian troops which staged through Aden.
Wolseley first tried to reach Cairo directly from Alexandria. Urabi deployed his troops at Kafr-el-Dawwar between Cairo and Alexandria and prepared very substantial defences. There, attacks by British troops were repelled for five weeks at the Battle of Kafr-el-Dawwar.
Securing the canal
Wolseley then decided to approach Cairo from a different route. He resolved to attack from the Suez canal. Urabi knew that Wolseley's only other approach to Cairo was from the canal, and he wanted to block it. Ferdinand de Lesseps, upon knowing of Urabi's intentions, assured him the British would never risk damaging the canal, and would avoid involving it in operations at all costs according to Lutsky, he even "gave his word of honour to Arabi not to permit the landing of British troops in the Canal Zone, and Arabi trusted de Lesseps. By so doing, Urabi committed a grave military and political mistake". Arabi listened to his advice and did not block the canal, leaving it open for an invasion by British forces. As a result, Wolseley's forces were able to quickly secure the canal. Two armies, one from Britain and the other from India landed in the canal. Over 40 warships were involved in the operation. By September 6, the canal was securely in British hands.
Egyptian attack at Kassassin
Urabi attempted to recapture the canal when he attacked the British forces near Kassassin on September 10. The British troops were caught by surprise, as they did not expect an attack. Fighting was intense, and there were heavy losses on the British side. Fortunately for them, the arrival of fresh reinforcements, including the superb 7th Dragoon Guards and the Highland Brigade, forced the larger but weary Egyptian force to retreat.
Urabi redeployed to defend Cairo against Wolseley. His main force dug in at Tel el-Kebir, north of the railway and the Sweetwater Canal, both of which linked Cairo to Ismailia on the canal. The defences were hastily prepared as there was little time to arrange them. Urabi's forces possessed 60 pieces of artillery and breech loading rifles. Wolseley made several personal reconnaissances, and determined that the Egyptians did not man outposts in front of their main defences at night, which made it possible for an attacking force to approach the defences under cover of darkness. Rather than make an outflanking movement around Urabi's entrenchments, which would involve a long march through waterless desert, or undertake formal bombardment and assault, Wolseley planned to approach the position by night and attack frontally at dawn, hoping to achieve surprise.
Wolseley began his advance from Ismailia on September 12, with two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade. A brigade of Indian troops covered the flank on the southern bank of the Sweetwater Canal. The approach march of the main forces was made easier because the desert west of Kassassin was almost flat and unobstructed, making it look like a gigantic parade ground. Even though there were repeated halts to maintain dressing and alignment, the British troops reached the Egyptian position at the time Wolseley intended.
At 5.45 a.m. Wolseley's troops were barely three hundred yards from the entrenchments and dawn was just breaking, when Egyptian sentries saw them and fired. The first shots were followed by several volleys from the entrenchments. British troops, led by the Highland Brigade on the left flank, and the 2nd Brigade on the right flank with the Guards Brigade (commanded by Queen Victoria's third son, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn) in support, charged with the bayonet. The resulting battle was over in an hour. Most of the Egyptian soldiers were tired from having stood to all night. Because of the haste with which Urabi's forces had prepared their defences, there were no obstacles in front of them to disrupt the attackers. Several groups stood and fought, mainly the Sudanese troops in the front of the Highland Brigade, but those not overwhelmed in the first rush were forced to retreat. In the end, it was less a battle than a massacre. Official British figures gave a total of 57 British troops killed. Approximately two thousand Egyptians died. British cavalry pursued towards Cairo, which was undefended.
Urabi had retreated in the battle, and with no organised forces left to him, he and his National Party's officials surrendered to the cavalry. Wolseley and his senior officers arrived in Cairo by train the next day. Khedive Tawfiq was formally reinstated twelve days later. Urabi was later sentenced to death, but for fear of sparking further uprisings, the sentence was commuted and he was exiled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The British subsequently granted training and new investment under British tutelage to Egypt as a means of mollifying Urabi's National Party.
However, the financing, training, and infrastructure improvements granted by the British government included guarantees and concessions made by Tawfiq which were meant to protect British and European lives and property. Amongst these guarantees was included a British military presence which marked the start of a permanent garrison in Egypt. British Army officers were appointed as commanders of the Egyptian Army. The latter, which had been the centrality of Egyptian government since medieval times of the Mamlukes, was reorganized, disciplined according to British standards, reformed of corruption, and slowly given British-trained Egyptian officers and non-commissioned officers.
Although strict British military occupation of Egypt ended in 1937 as the result of the Treaty of December 1936 by which British forces withdrew to the Canal Zone and to the naval base in Alexandria, the British and Egyptian relationship established through the Khedive and the Egyptian Army lasted until 1954. Nonetheless, with the withdrawal of British military and influence from Egypt and the region as a whole the United States of America and the Soviet Union pursued a diplomatic cold war. British-trained officer corps of Egypt retained its traditional role within Egyptian government circles well into the 21st century, thereby providing a continuity of government noticeably absent in other Arabic nations.
- Reproduction of official British casualty figures
- Pakenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 Harper Collins, 1992. p. 114
- Kafr el Dawwar surrender
- Modern History of the Arab Countries