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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter XIV - The Egyptian War: 1882


THIS Egyptian war in which Browne was now to take a part was practically the beginning of the long-continued conflict of Britain in North-east Africa against Mahomedan misrule and fanaticism; though it had not yet taken the later form of Mahdi-ism. The Mahdi and his followers had not yet appeared at, much less north of, Khartoum, though their territory covered ten degrees of longitude and ten of latitude immediately to its south. Their attitude was very threatening. They were known to be advancing, and in the very next year they were giving trouble about Suakim. It was under the heated atmosphere which they were creating that Arabi had been playing his quasi-patriotic, but really self-seeking part and stirring up Alexandria into fanatical revolt. There its Egyptian population in accord with him were showing their hostility to the British and Europeans generally. It was essential that this spirit should be met and crushed, and, as France had declined to co-operate with her, England was now undertaking the task single-handed, and had begun by the bombardment of Alexandria.

The general features of the subsequent campaign may be at once sketched briefly, without dealing further with the original outbreak.

The British force (from England) first showed itself at Alexandria and hovered about in that neighbourhood. Then British ships-of-war blocked the two ends of the Suez Canal, Port Said and Suez, and dominated the whole sea-coast of Egypt. On this, but while the Indian contingent was still en route from Bombay to Suez, Arabi Pasha concentrated the Egyptian army at Benha, south-east of Alexandria, a railway junction for the lines from Alexandria, from Cairo, from Damietta, and from Suez; after which he threw out detachments from Benha eastwards to Zagazig and Tel-el-Kebir, and then awaited further developments.

On the other hand, about the middle of August, when the Indian contingent might be soon expected to appear near Suez, Wolseley, who commanded the whole expedition, disappeared with his fleet, and the bulk of the force that had been at Alexandria, leading the Egyptians to look out for his landing at Damietta; nor were they undeceived till a week later, when, on August 20th, Port Said and Suez, the two ends of the Canal, were simultaneously seized and occupied in strength, as noted, the former by Wolseley’s force, and the latter by the Indian contingent under General Mac-pherson. Four days afterwards, on the 24th, a column of 8,000 men occupied the Port of Ismailia, on the Canal, lying midway between Port Said and Suez, and exactly east of Arabi’s position at Zagazig and Tel-el-Kebir. Wolseleys column went forward at once from Ismailia, fought advanced guard actions with Arabi’s army, and took up a position at Kassassin, within striking distance of the Egyptian position. There it remained, clearing the neighbourhood and collecting its resources, till September 12th. Then by a night march it burst on Arabi at Tel-el-Kebir on the morning of the 13th, and totally routed his force. On that evening it seized the railway centres about Zagazig, capturing numerous trains, and next day Cairo surrendered to the force. Thus was the war finished at one blow.

It is advisable to touch on a feature of this war the grave importance of which is not always recognised. Arabi, in his measures for bringing on the war, meant to give it the character of a holy war and turn it into a crescentade—a widespread conflict of creeds— and he worked vigorously to rouse and to bring to his standard and support the Arab tribes op the east of the Suez Canal and in the Sinai Peninsula, and if possible all Arabia and Syria also. Only that narrow strip of canal separated all these possible allies from the impending theatre of operations. This danger, though kept in the dark, was realised in England, and steps were at once taken to secure the services of Mr. Edward Palmer, foremost of Orientalists and Arabian travellers, and with him Captain Gill, a traveller and a retired R.E., to proceed to the Sinai Peninsula and influence the tribes there to side with us instead of attacking us. This scheme was successfully carried out. Of the four great tribes that occupy that region, three had promised to side with us by protecting and patrolling the Canal and keeping off intruders. Only the fourth tribe showed a hostile tendency, and they were prevented by the other three from doing serious mischief, at any rate from going against us in a body or in any great numbers. How different it would have been if, for instance, they had been at Tel-el-Kebir to patrol during the night, in the front of the position, and so avert a surprise! But unfortunately this fourth tribe managed to watch Palmer and Gill, attacking and killing them when taking treasure to the friendly tribes. They captured and then shot them in cold blood, on August nth, in one of the; wadies to the southeast of Suez.

To turn now to details and especially to Browne’s part. He was C.R.E. (Commanding Royal Engineer) of General Macpherson’s contingent, as already mentioned, with Captains Nicholson and Bum-Murdoch as his field Engineers, and four companies of Sappers and Pioneers from the several armies of India (Bengal, Punjab, Madras, and Bombay) under him. Before starting for Bombay he had made careful investigations and preparations for the work before him, especially in regard to the best modes of restoring railway communications that might there become interrupted; and had provided the necessary plant In this he showed much real ability and great foresight, but there does not appear to have been any official recognition of the matter. He had reached Bombay on August 6th, and with Bum-Murdoch’s assistance prepared all the material they were likely to require, including a 56-foot girder which could be taken to pieces and packed for carriage. Then off in steamers and transports to Suez.

While on board he managed a useful little piece of work. Getting hold of a quantity of ship’s hose, he cut it up into proper lengths, for men and for horses respectively, and sewing up the ends, turned these into excellent water-bottles, carrying three days’ supply for the march, slung round the men’s shoulders, or tied round the horses’ bodies like sausages.

The whole squadron reached Suez on the 20th, and Browne and his party were immediately at work, putting into a state of defence against any sudden attack the principal local buildings and works, such as the Chalet, the Victoria Hospital, the Freshwater Canal, and so on. The force, including horses and material as well as men, had then to be landed; and much amusement occurred. Browne had already erected a substantial pier, and now there arose a demand for a gangway. Having nothing else available, he pounced on some suitable material lying on the bank without any. visible claimant, promptly sawed it up into the needful parts, and made his gangway. Now comes on the scene the rightful owner, a naval officer! Tableau, and result! First—good strong nautical language ; next—compliments on the excellent use and advantage to which the stolen goods had been put; eventually—a warm friendship!

Browne, too, was apparently the first person to use the gangway. A question had arisen of the mode of landing the horses, chucking them into the sea, or how. Now Browne was exceptionally fond of horses, and they of him, and he was at this juncture the happy owner of a very powerful and docile English mare; so he quietly led her himself ahead of all over the gangway, and the other steeds all followed her closely in a string without a mishap. The force from England had not managed their landing in this manner, but had used boats and barges.

From Suez Browne was first engaged in repairing the roads (to Geneffe and elsewhere), the local canals, and the railways lying to the north. In this task the preparations he had made in India and the plant he had brought with him stood him and the army in good stead, especially as Captain Wallace arrived shortly by the Canal from the Alexandria party, bringing a locomotive with him—so that Browne was presently going along the old line to Ismailia, repairing the track as he proceeded. The cavalry of the contingent had been sent off before he started, and there had been much chaff as to the messages they would give in advance; and now, en revanche, the engines, whistling and blowing off steam, rushed past the cavalry horses, fresh from board ship—with a result that need not be described.

The contingent presently moved to and collected at Ismailia and was kept there in the rear of the whole force till the final advance, and then only, for the first time, if one is to be guided by the official record, was its existence as part of the force recognised. But it had been first denuded of its cavalry, which had been sent ahead to join the cavalry division of the army at the front. While at Ismailia, Browne was kept hard at work, repairing roads and canals, and making accessory railway lines. At length, on September 6th, the contingent was warned of the impending advance, and on the 10th it started, with baggage and stores complete, for the front. On the 10th it reached Mahuta, and on the nth Kassassin, whence, after a brief halt to prepare for the concerted action, it started on the night of the 12th for the next day’s surprise and the series of battles of the 13th, which began at Tel-el-Kebir and went on to Zagazig or Cairo without a check or halt. The contingent started from a point which was in rear of the whole army ; it had also to make a circuitous flanking movement round the Tel-el-Kebir mound, which, of course, lengthened its march. This was intentional, in order that it might not show too early to the villagers and others on the left flank that the force had begun to advance. Fortunately its route was not over the deep, sandy, trackless desert plain which the main army had to traverse, but along the Canal bank, which formed a fair and marked roadway. The result of this was that, though the contingent had to march a greater distance than the rest of the army, it moved faster and reached the enemy’s trenches as soon as the main army did, and was not subjected during the darkness to the same anxiety, fatigue, or uncertainty as to the route, and to the consequent halts and delays that troubled the main force. It accordingly came suddenly as a surprise on the enemy at their extreme right flank, which was weak and unsupported and consisted chiefly of gun pits. The enemy were consequently taken aback and tried to open fire when unprepared. One sixteen pounder shell did burst close to the general, but without doing any damage; and General Macpherson then went to work at once with the bayonet. His loss consequently was small. He first charged and took the gun pits and their guns, and then immediately afterwards two redoubts, farther on, where he captured fourteen guns. At the gun pits the enemy apparently tried to run out some of their guns into the open in order to get them nearer the Canal and to act on our flank, but Macpherson was too quick for them. The 72nd charged the lines splendidly, while Browne and Burn-Murdoch, being independent, kept on the extreme left, dashed by themselves at the guns there, and captured them; Browne never using his sword or other weapon, but upsetting the enemy like ninepins by the weight of his charger and the swish of her tail. He likened his steed to “an iron-clad rushing through a fleet of cockle shells." When the fight at Tel-el-Kebir itself was over, the enemy had already begun to flee in the most open directions, most of them, including Arabi, towards Cairo, the rest towards Zagazig. The latter was the direction in which the Indian contingent was ordered to pursue vigorously, as it was evidently much less exhausted than the English force, which had had to plough its way over plains of sand.

So Macpherson pushed along beyond the battlefield, marching nearly thirty miles in the day’s work, and seizing every opportunity for thoroughly completing and utilising the success. At an early stage of this pursuit Browne caught some of the enemy opening the Canal sluices, but soon stopped the attempt. The contingent forced its way on towards Zagazig, which it reached at four o’clock, preceded by its cavalry, a picked detachment, with Macpherson at its head, accompanied by his staff, including Browne and Burn-Murdoch. They were the first of the army to arrive at Zagazig. Burn-Murdoch, with some twenty of the Sowars (troopers), being the foremost of all, went straight for the railway station, where they caught a train as it was on the point of starting. He forced it to halt, having first to shoot the engine-driver, who had refused to do so. Nicholson, with another party, then captured four other trains complete with locomotives and stores; on which Browne sent one of them back under Burn-Murdoch to help the 72nd in for the last six miles—a great relief after the day’s long and exhausting march.

The whole day’s performance was wonderful, so thorough and clean, including as it did not only the victory at Tel-el-Kebir, but its effect in the capture next day of Cairo itself, and Macpherson’s brilliant and successful seizure of Zagazig, which cut the railway system in two, at once paralysing the enemy and dominating the position in every direction. The Indian contingent afterwards went on to Cairo, was especially reviewed, and attracted much attention— particularly that of the Russian attache, who seemed thunderstruck with their appearance. “ I had no conception you had such troops in India—I will never again call England a second-class military power. With such troops—fed by the millions of India—you could lay down the law to the world.”

After the assault on Tel-el-Kebir there had been no fighting. While galloping along with Macpherson’s party to Zagazig, the troops with him hardly meddled with the “ Gippys,” who were simply stampeding, and not attempting to fight or defend themselves. It seemed almost a farce, and drew forth the contemptuous anger of an old Sikh officer: “ Call this war! No fighting, no slaughter—not even loot!”

A pleasant ending to Browne's experiences of this expedition was the R.E. dinner, in which some seventy of the corps joined. But he was then for a short time prostrated by a very severe attack of illness, before he could actually start on his return to India, as he did in the first week of October.

Before quitting the subject of the Egyptian war it may be permitted to remark on a few points that are suggested by the campaign, to which Browne was afterwards in the habit of referring.

There was no sign whatever of a fanatical feeling in the Egyptian soldiery or among the people generally. This was very striking to one who had had experience of this fanaticism among the Afreedees and the wild tribes on the north-west frontiers of the Punjab. Such efforts as Arabi may have made for his own ends to excite a fanatical feeling among his own troops or among the Arab race were quite fruitless, and in the murder of Gill and Palmer lust of gold and not fanaticism was the real exciting cause.

Next, the Egyptian troops showed neither discipline nor valour. Nothing was more obvious than that Arabi’s prevision for the organisation of his army had been wanting in all essentials and was worthless. Further, all the bravery of the race seems, for the time, to have evaporated, and it required a Kitchener to restore discipline and steady courage.

Browne, of course, took no part in these subsequent operations in Egypt; but he kept a keen watch over them, especially as so many of those concerned in them were old friends and brother officers, and it was with no small elation that he felt what grand work they were doing—Gordon at Khartoum and Wilson’s efforts to reach him, Scott Moncrieff at the barrage of the Nile, Kitchener at his new army, Gerald Graham at the coast, Girouard and his desert railway. He appreciated the resolute, wise, steady stand against what to many seemed to be the irresistible advance of the Mahdi and his fanatic slave stealers, ruthlessly bent on throwing back for centuries the civilisation and the advancement of mankind which it has been so specially the aim and r6le of England to forward at all cost and all hazard.

Doubtless Browne often found himself wishing to play his part in these regions, but, after all, he was to be doing equally valuable work in India, building up the defences that were essential to the permanent safety and stability of the British rule of the country.

But from the day of Tel-el-Kebir English control and guidance has never left the soil of Egypt At first the intention of the British was only to restore order, and in no way to interfere afresh in the affairs of the country, still less to go in for its military occupation. But it was only now that the terrible rottenness of the country came clearly to light, and led to the present issue. The whole administrative machinery had to be overhauled and mostly reconstructed. The policy of the British officials, before the war, had been sound and wise, but they had no real power or support; and now they went at the task with a will, as far as they—i.e. Baring and the local authorities—were concerned, though only halfheartedly supported from England.

The story of the continuous efforts that eventually succeeded so thoroughly is too well known to need further description here. But it is important to recall all the past mishaps—the opposition to our steps for the suppression of slavery, the death of Gordon, the advance of the Mahdi, and then the eventual triumph of Kitchener, and the prosperity with which the land of Egypt has been gladdened.

That country has well added its quota to the evidence that able Englishmen in foreign lands, if let alone, can add immeasurably to the glory and honour of England; but if worried by ignorant interference, may, from their sense of loyalty and discipline and habits of obedience, submit to complications which with most nations could not be repaired.

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