Army Reform and the Egyptian War, 1882

In 1881 a shameful and shaming defeat befell the British Army. It is true this only involved a very small portion of the Army - about half a battalion's worth; it is also true that the commander responsible had not shown the military genius expected of him - and forfeited his life thereby. The enemy had been severely underestimated and the operations as a whole, of which this defeat was their final and decisive termination, had been undertaken with a serious insufficiency of strength; a risk worth taking, in the commander's view, owing to the nature of his mission to relieve some distant, besieged garrisons - which in the event held out unassisted. Nevertheless it was a rout. This was, of course, the battle of Majuba Hill, the end of the Transvaal War.

Compared with the really serious fighting of the Sikh Wars, the great battles with the Russians, the exhausting sieges, counter-sieges and matches against the mutinous sepoys of the Bengal Army, even the campaigns in Zululand and Afghanistan, Majuba was a minor skirmish. Yet coming less than a year after the debacle at Maiwand in Afghanistan, two years after the fiasco at Isandlwana, Majuba, where British soldiers, some of them the favourites of the Great British Public, had actually run away, came as such a shock that at first it was only acceptable to the GBP by putting a gloss on it - one account claimed it to be "A Tale of Highland Heroism" - and second, by remembering it as a festering sore which could only be healed by a "return match" later.

More to the point, it and the two earlier disasters caused a good deal of upset and recrimination within the Army. The early 1870s had produced the Cardwell reforms, the culmination of much reform and reorganisation that had begun after the Crimean War. Two changes that most clearly affected the fighting Arms were the abolition of purchase of commissions and promotion for regimental officers (see SOTQ No 36) and, for soldiers, the replacement of long-service engagements by short-service, part with the Colours, part on the reserve, to create a reserve which had not existed with long-service, and, supposedly, to attract "a better class" of recruit, this to be assisted by the localisation of regimental recruiting and early training. Alongside these administrative reforms, new tactical doctrines had been issued to all three fighting Arms. Two years before the Zulu War the new infantry manual abolished the old line and column as fighting formations, replacing them with a three-tier system, based on the extended formations hitherto used when skirmishing, of a fighting, or firing, line, supports and reserves; this, in essentials, would continue to serve up until manoeuvre warfare bogged down in the trench-lines of late 1914. A similar system applied to cavalry which, besides its traditional shock role, was to pay greater attention to reconnaissance and dismounted action with carbines. Artillery batteries were to be permitted greater independence so as to make more effective use of the improved range and accuracy of their new rifled guns in support of the other two Arms, in attack or defence. These new methods were all perfectly sound, but, in a generally conservative-minded Army, it would take time to put them effectually into practice; furthermore, the campaigns and opposition the Army was to face immediately after this introduction were not at all of the European type for which they were designed.

All these reforms were intended to yield a better army than that which had fought the Crimean War. Actually that war was not the unmitigated disaster it is usually perceived to have been. To begin with, it often seems to be forgotten that the contest, with one of Europe's great powers, was actually won. Admittedly the French bore much of the burden in 1855, but they had not shone in 1854, and by early 1856, when the British divisions had been restored to a high state of readiness for a spring campaign, they had suffered as badly that winter as the British had in the previous one. Certainly the war revealed appalling inadequacies and failings in the British Army's command, staff and logistic arrangements. Yet the performance of the regimental officers, notwithstanding the purchase system, and their long-service soldiers, drawn originally from the lowest class, had been as steadfast and effective in the battles of 1854, and the struggle to survive in the first winter, as any in the Army's long history. The failures in the summer of 1855 stemmed from the severely depleted ranks having to be filled up by young, barely-trained recruits, who were simply not of the mettle, then, of those who had been lost. However, the merits of the long-service soldier, and of his "purchase" officer, would again be displayed in the great ordeal of the Sepoy Mutiny that followed soon after.

By the late 1870s that old Army was in the past and the new reforms were beginning to take effect. Then came the trio of defeats; not at the hands of a European power like the Russians, nor even the British-trained sepoys, but first by spear-and-shield savages, second by Afghan regulars and irregulars, and last by Boer farmer-riflemen.

In the War Office, the military clubs and the service journals, the pundits were quick to explain "the reason why". One of the most-heard arguments was that it was all the fault of the short-service system which failed to produce men like the old long-service stalwarts, a breed much admired, almost revered, by officers who had shared danger and hardships with them. This did not really hold water and, furthermore, there were other contributory factors.

Readers of this journal should surely know by now why breech-loading rifles failed to overcome the assegais, and in any case the l/24th, having been on foreign service since 1866, must still have had long-service men in its ranks. Mai wand resulted from faulty reconnaissance, a misappreciation of the situation, and the collapse of the native troops, leaving the single British battalion hopelessly outnumbered. The reasons for Majuba have been touched on above; in addition the short- versus long-service argument failed to carry weight here as the regiment most strongly represented, having come from India, was still predominantly of long-service men. Nevertheless, the "new" Army had certainly failed to impress. For the reformers, like Sir Garnet Wolseley, a success was badly needed to justify their beliefs.

The chance came the following year and it fell to Wolseley to make the most of it. The campaign in Egypt in 1882, fought to restore the position of its rightful ruler, the Khedive, (but in reality to protect British interests and to ensure the vital Suez Canal did not fall into unfriendly hands) has been covered in SOTQ No. 31. As this number appeared ten years ago, a short resume may not come amiss. The situation arose from the resentment of the native-born Egyptian towards the Anglo-French Dual Control, which was trying to restore Egypt to solvency, and the Turco-Circassian elements, which formed the ruling class and filled the senior posts in the Egyptian Army. This resentment found a leader in Arabi Pasha, an Egyptian officer, whom the Khedive was forced to make Minister of War and who thereby gained control of the army. The Khedive soon lost all authority. Anti-Christian riots broke out in Alexandria, whereupon the city's forts where bombarded by the Royal Navy. Arabi evacuated the city, which was given over to mob rule, until naval landing parties, and eventually the first elements of a British expeditionary force, restored order.

Wolseley's force for the confrontation with Arabi and the Egyptian Army consisted of two infantry divisions, a cavalry brigade and a siege train from the home and Mediterranean garrisons, some 24,000 strong, and an all-Arms contingent from India, 7,000 strong. His ultimate objective was Cairo, to reach which there were only two routes offering a railway line and a freshwater supply: from Alexandria south down the Nile delta, or to approach from the east along the Sweetwater Canal, via Ismailia on the Suez Canal. Having deceived Arabi into thinking he would be attacked in his position south of Alexandria, Wolseley sailed down the Canal, took Ismailia, and began his advance along the north bank of the Sweetwater Canal, while the Indian Contingent, having landed at Suez, advanced in parallel along the south bank.

By 12 September, after a few minor actions, Wolseley came up to the main Egyptian position at Tel-el-Kebir at which Arabi, having by now realised he had been duped, had concentrated up to 30,000 men with 75 guns, entrenched in well-constructed earthworks. These ran due north from the Sweetwater Canal for some four miles and were built up to a height of about five feet, and of a thickness at least four feet at the top, with a ditch between six and nine feet deep in front; interspersed along the ramparts were ten redoubts, each with a number of guns. The northern flank, in the desert, was open, but running back from the centre of the line were further entrenchments, manned by infantry and artillery, facing north-west. The troops manning these robust defences were in no way similar to those who had inflicted the trio of defeats, but rather from a conscript army, trained and organised on European, or more precisely Turkish, lines, and armed with modern rifles and artillery. Their recent history however, as Dr Douglas Johnson pointed out in the aforementioned SOTQ, had not been conducive to either high morale or battle-worthiness. Wolseley considered their artillery to be better than the rest, but all would be fighting from behind quite formidable obstacles which, more importantly, completely dominated the flat, open approaches.

To achieve the surprise necessary for a successful break-in, Wolseley determined on a night advance, followed by an assault at first light with both divisions, supported by a similar advance by the Indian Contingent on the other side of the Sweetwater Canal. Once the infantry were in, the cavalry were to ride round the north end and sweep south-westwards.

In the event all went according to plan. Though fierce resistance was encountered in some places, within two hours it was all over, the Egyptians in flight, the cavalry in pursuit. The cavalry went staight on to cover the 50 miles to Cairo, entering the city the following evening; late that night Arabi surrendered. Tel-el-Kebir had cost the Egyptians 2,000 killed, the British 57. It had occurred at the very place Wolseley had predicted before he even left England.

It had been a well-planned, well-executed and decisive campaign, a clear justification of the reformed Army and of one of its chief protagonists, the "modern major-general" himself, Garnet Wolseley. There had, inevitably, been some set-backs, particularly on the logistic side, but these had not affected the ultimate outcome. Whether the opposition, though better armed than the Zulus, Afghans and Boers, were of equal calibre to them is a different matter. Some, particularly the Sudanese battalions - which later would form the backbone of the reformed, British-trained Egyptian Army - had fought stoutly, but the officers had not been up to their work, and the 'fellahin' conscripts had shown little enthusiasm for their cause or their task, as evinced by the alacrity wth which they dispersed to their homes after, even before, the surrender in Cairo.

Although Wolseley had correctly appreciated the unreliability of the Egyptian infantry, Tel-el-Kebir was some nine miles from his own positions and an attack across the intervening open desert, in the face of Arabi's well dug-in Krupp guns could have been very costly. Hence the night approach. This in itself was not only something of a novelty, but also a considerable gamble. In Afghanistan Roberts had used a night advance to turn the Afghan position at Feiwar Kotal in1878, but night operations were the exception, rather than the rule, at this date. At Tel-el-Kebir the navigation of the leading assault formations had to be entrusted to an officer borrowed from the Royal Navy. Such operations entailed much greater risk of con¬fusion and loss of control, let alone getting lost, even when careful reconnaissances had been made and the troops rehearsed in their formations; furthermore, the larger the force ¬and it was a large force at Tel-el-Kebir, with two divisions in line - the greater the risk. None of the troops involved can have ever taken part in a night attack before, nor can there have been much time for rehearsals. The objective and approaches had been reconnoitred, and measures taken to ensure the divisions formed up at their required intervals for the advance. Even so mistakes occurred: at one point during the advance the Highland Brigade, the left assault formation, ended up in a crescent shape, the flanks not having received an order to halt at the same time as the centre; the right assault brigade had to alter its formation on less than three times, owing to problems of control, before it actually attacked. Fortunately the Egyptians' outpost system and alertness were so inadequate that surprise was not lost. The next time a Highland Brigade made a night attack, at Magersfontein 17 years later, the result was disastrous.

Tel-el-Kebir was the first action since the Crimea when a force fought by divisions. Yet their component parts - the brigades and battalions therein - had only been assembled together at the start of the campaign, and the commanders and staffs were newly appointed. Thus there was no common experience of working together, discovering strengths and weaknesses, of commanders knowing their men and vice versa, all the matters that turn an 'ad hoc' collection of units into an effective fighting formation. In the event this potential weakness in the force did not materialise, but against a more formidable opposition it could have been otherwise - as it had in the Crimea, when the burden of winning victory had so often fallen on the regimental officers and their men, and as it was to do so again in the early stages of the South African War in 1899. Not until after that war were operational divisions and brigades formed in peacetime, with results that paid off in 1914.

Nor were relations between the higher commanders conducive to the mutual understanding and quick cooperation necessary for the smooth functioning of a corps in the field. Hamley, commanding the 2nd Division, was a quick-tempered man who took offence at Wolseley's concealing from him the deception plan before the move to Ismailia, and thereafter conceived the notion that he was not trusted. The other infantry divisional commander, Willis, although co-operative enough, gave Wolseley cause to doubt whether he had the physical stamina for a desert campaign. The presence of the Duke of Connaught, wished on a reluctant Wolseley by his mother, the Queen, to command the Guards Brigade, ensured that the Guardsmen, on their first campaign since the Crimea, had a rearward, rather than a forward, role throughout the operations -much to their disgust. If the campaign had run less smoothly, these potentially disruptive weaknesses might have been more serious, but fortunately the brigade commanders were sound, and Wolseley was general enough to be able to overcome them; tact, however, was never his strong point.

The war saw the first utilisation of the new tactical methods against an enemy organised, trained and armed on European lines. These seem to have worked well enough, with good mutual support between Arms. Of course the need for control during the night advance at Tel-el-Kebir necessitated much tighter formations than would be used in daylight. By the time surprise was lost, the Highland Brigade's fighting line had only some 150 yards to go so went straight into the charge. Graham's brigade on the right, however, were still 700 yards from the objective and had to open out quickly, advancing in short rushes, interspersed by rifle fire, until close enough to charge home. Even so, the Royal Marine Light Infantry, Graham's left-hand battalion, sustained heavier casualties than any other battaltion in the corps during the break-in.

There were other, non-tactical aspects of the campaign that made it something of a milestone in the history of the reformed Army. Card well's localisation scheme had involved the linking in pairs of single-battalion regiments for the purposes of recruiting, recruit training and manning; regiments with two battalions obviously did not have to link. Card well aimed to equalise battalions at home and abroad, so that the home battalion of a pair would feed the other abroad. In practice this had not always worked out as intended, an obvious example being the presence of both battalions of the 24th in the Zulu War. Cardwell's successor, Childers, carried this a stage further, converting single-battalion regiments into two Regular battalions of a new regiment, which was also to embrace the linked regiments' depot and affiliated Militia and Volunteer battalions; the time-honoured and treasured regimental numbers were abolished, and all the new, "large" regiments, including those formerly with two battalions, were given new titles, usually of a territorial nature - a measure much disliked and resented within the Army.

The Egyptian campaign was the first in which the Infantry fought under their new designations. Whether the 2nd Bn Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, for example, was full of Cornishmen, or even West Countymen, cannot be known without a detailed examination of its muster rolls, but it is unlikely. What can be said is that, notwithstanding the new titles, it was still known, and referred to, as the 46th. The five Highland battalions, the two Irish, 1st Royal West Kent and 2nd York and Lancaster likewise adhered to their old numbers; see the sketch map in SOTQ No. 31, p. 16. When Tel-el-Kebir was fought the territorial designations were only just over a year old, but the practice of referring to themselves by their former numbers would be maintained by some battalions until the amalgamations of 1958-70.

Another innovation of the campaign was that it was the first in which infantry battalions no longer went into action under their Colours. The sacrifices made to preserve Colours in the Zulu and Afghan Wars, together with the vulnerability of Colour parties in an age of long-range, rifled firearms and artillery, as seen against the Boers in 1881, made it obvious that this longstanding practice was now neither sensible nor appropriate. The Colours carried by the 58th Regiment at Laing's Nek in 1881 were the last to be carried in action and thereafter it was ruled that, although its Colours would accompany a battalion on foreign service, they would not be taken into battle. The rallying-point they had always provided would no longer be there, but their absence would free two officers and three sergeants for the more vital tasks of command and control over the new, more extended tactical formations.

With the exception of the Indian Contingent, the Cavalry, Artillery and Infantry fought the campaign in home service clothing of red, blue or rifle-green serge. The only concession to the Egyptian climate and terrain was the issue of foreign service helmets, sun goggles and anti-fly face veils. The British battalions of the Indian Contingent, 1st Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Manchesters, had khaki drill, which had been introduced in the later stages of the Afghan War to replace the dyed white drill clothing worn earlier, although the 1st Seaforth retained their old 72nd tartan trews. A US Navy observer with Wolseley's army remarked that, against a desert background, the red frocks were less conspicuous than the Egyptians' white or blue uniforms, but compared very badly for a clean appearance with the khaki drill. At the close of the campaign 30,000 suits of grey serge clothing were sent out from England to supplement the coloured serge, and henceforth these became the service dress for troops in Egypt. Tel-el-Kebir was not the last battle fought in the traditional colours as the battalions engaged at Ginniss three years later were ordered to replace their grey with red, the better to overawe the Mahdists; it was, however, the last in which troops from the home and Mediterranean garrisons had no alternative clothing but that in the traditional colours.

Until this date no Household troops had served in Asia or Africa, except during the 1801 campaign in Egypt against the French. Two Guards battalions had been sent to Canada to increase its garrison during the American Civil War, but, as remarked above, the war of 1882 was the Foot Guards' first campaign since the Crimea. For the Household Cavalry, it was their first since Waterloo. Henceforth, however, Africa would come within the Household troops' permitted area of operations, although India would remain closed to them. Indeed no Guards battalions would serve east of Suez until the Malayan Emergency of the 1950s.

Wolseley's campaign certainly ensured the security of the vital route to the East through the Suez Canal, but the assumption of responsibility for Egypt's security soon embroiled the Army in yet another new commitment, the defence of Egypt, and the recovery of its Sudanese provinces, from the hands of the Mahdi - a task that would not be completed until 1898. The competent performance of the force under Wolseley's command brought to a satisfactory and convincing conclusion the reforms to the Army which had begun after the Crimean War. Perhaps the Army had undergone sufficient changes in the preceding decades and more tampering might have been counter-productive. On the other hand it could be said that, having breathed a collective sigh of relief that change was now complete, the Army's minds, and those of its political masters, became closed to progress - with results that would manifest themselves 17 years later in South Africa.

Some further reading:

Barthorp, Michael, War on the Nile: Britain, Egypt and theSudan, 1882-98 (1984, p/back 1986).

Bond, Brian (Ed.), Victorian Military Campaigns, (1967).

Emery, Frank, Marching over Africa (1986).

Lehmann, Joseph, All Sir Garnet: Life of Field-Marshal Lord Wolseley (1964).

Maurice, Col. J. F., Military History of the Campaign in Egypt 1882 (1887).

Spiers, Edward M., The Army and Society, 1815-1914 (1980).

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen', issue71

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