Boy's Book of Battles - Eric Wood

Kassassin And Tel-El-Kebir

Desert Fights in Egypt

Aribi Pasha, the rebel, aimed high. Resenting the growth of English influence in Egypt, his resentment carried farther than he at first intended, so that finally his ambition was to become Dictator in Egypt.

At Alexandria the Europeans were massacred, and the British fleet lying off the city were surprised to find that Arabi had begun putting the outer forts into warlike array. The guns were trained upon the fleet, which Sir Beauchamp Seymour regarded as an unhealthy sign. Arabi was therefore warned that if he took any further steps in this aggressive direction the British fleet would open fire upon him. To which the bold Arabi replied by mounting more guns, boasting that he could hold the city against all the fleets of Europe. An ultimatum was issued: either surrender the forts or be bombarded.

Arabi chose bombardment.

Seymour prepared for action, and on July firth, 1882, the British fleet opened fire on Alexandria, and after an action which will ever remain memorable in the annals of the naval history of Britain, Alexandria fell, and Arabi the boaster went into his desert.

Into the desert after him went the British army under Sir Garnet Wolseley, a force of some forty thousand men, from England, India, Malta, Cyprus and Gibraltar. Even before leaving England to take up command over this force, Sir Garnet had mapped out his plan of campaign, had fixed the limits of Arabi's power, and had decided where he was going to inflict upon the Egyptian the blow that should knock all the boasting out of him.

"There," said Sir Garnet, pointing to Tel-el-Kebir, "shall I about September 13th meet and beat the army of Arabi Pasha."

Which he did, as we shall see.

Arabi was put down as much by the military science of Sir Garnet as by the courage of the troops under him. The Pasha had sixty thousand men at his command, as against the forty thousand of English, but Sir Garnet led Arabi into believing that the army would land at Alexandria, and probably give him battle at Kafr Dowar, although it was left delightfully vague as to where the actual blow would be dealt. The result was that Arabi really did not know what to do, and deemed that the safest course was to be prepared at all the most likely places, and so he split up his army into three sections, one near Alexandria, one at Cairo, and the third at Tel-el-Kebir, lying between Ismailia, on the Suez Canal, and the capital. Arabi commanded at the latter post.

Naturally, this distribution of forces weakened Arabi's striking power.

As a matter of fact, Sir Garnet, to give colour to the reports spread about as to his intentions, landed a large force at Alexandria and gave the rebels a good deal of trouble; whereupon Arabi thought that the whole British army was landing. What happened, however, was that one night, instead of disembarking at Alexandria, the fleet of transports and ironclads stole away east, passed into the Suez Canal, and on August l0th disgorged their army at Ismailia.

The first task that confronted Sir Garnet was to secure an adequate water supply, for to be waterless on the scorching deserts of Egypt was to be powerless. There was plenty of water, because the Fresh-water Canal running from the Nile to Ismailia was at hand; the trouble was that Arabi might, and probably would, unless prevented, cut the supply off. To obviate this, Sir Garnet immediately sent forward an advance force to Kassassin, where, twenty miles in the desert, there was a lock, the key to the water supply.

Out into the desert the vanguard went, General Graham leading it. At Mahuta the Egyptians came out against them; they quickly retired, for the two thousand men, consisting of Royal Marine Artillery, the Yorks and Lancasters, some mounted infantry and a few guns, and the Duke of Cornwall's Regiment, simply hurled themselves at those who would have barred their progress, and swept them before them.

That obstacle overcome, Graham pushed on to Kassassin, where he immediately entrenched and prepared to hold the post until reinforcements appeared.

Graham had to fight for it. Arabi well knew that if the lock remained in English possession all hope of cutting off the water was gone, and he therefore determined to do his utmost to drive Graham back before the main army arrived. The rebels made several attempts to do this, but failed in each case.

Before the great skirmish on August 28th, Arabi sent forward Mahmoud Fehmi, his second in command, to reconnoitre Graham's position.

Fehmi had set out from Tel-el-Kebir in a train, and, arrived at Mehsameh, alighted to have a look round. While he was doing this, the engine-driver became aware that the English were in possession, and, putting on full steam, sped away, leaving Fehmi to his fate. Almost at the same moment that the train departed Fehmi made a similar discovery; till then he had not been aware that the English were at Mehsameh, and was therefore somewhat taken aback to find himself almost within arm's reach of General Drury Lowe, who was in command of a cavalry brigade, consisting of the 7th Dragoons and three squadrons of Household Cavalry (drawn from the 1st and and Lifeguards and the Horse Guards). Taking his courage into his hands, Fehmi boldly marched up to the General and entered into conversation without the latter being in the least aware of his identity.

Whilst this was going on, a batch of Egyptian prisoners passed by, and one of them cried out:

"That man is Mahmoud Fehmi, Arabi's second in command!"

It was now Lowe's turn to be taken aback, but, like Fehmi, he acted promptly; and the Egyptian was immediately made prisoner. It was a great coup, for Fehmi was Arabi's right-hand man in everything, his master engineer, and it is said that the Pasha later attributed his failure to turn Graham out of Kassassin to the fact that Fehmi was taken prisoner.

The day after this Arabi sent forward a large force toward Kassassin, where Graham had taken up positions on either side of the lock. As soon as General Lowe heard the booming of the guns in the distance towards Kassassin he ordered an advance, but ere they began their march a message came from General Graham that the firing was "inexplicable, except upon the supposition that the Egyptians were fighting amongst themselves." Lowe therefore waited, but not for long, for before twelve o'clock the signallers at Kassassin sent word that Arabi was coming, and that Lowe was to move his men forward to help on the right flank at Kassassin.

Meanwhile, Graham had sent forward Major Hart and some mounted infantry to reconnoitre the sandhills where it was evident the rebels were taking cover. Major Hart therefore made his way in the direction of Tel-el-Kebir, and, two miles from Kassassin, ran into a body of Arabi's men who had come down the railway, bringing a couple of guns of large calibre. The men immediately dismounted, and returned the fire, standing their ground well for a time, but being compelled at last to fall back upon the base. They had suffered no harm, however, for the rebels were bad range-finders, and their guns had been useless, the shells falling short and plowing up the sand instead of mowing down men. Four thousand Bedouins appeared, extending over a line of two miles, but instead of rushing to the attack, as was expected, they retired, the two guns going with them.

When Lowe arrived, therefore, it was only to find that the prospect of a good fight was "off," and as Graham wanted him to be in reserve and not to engage unnecessarily, the cavalry was sent back to Mehsameh.

As soon as the Egyptians had retired, Graham also withdrew his men from exposure to the sun, which all day had been blazing down upon the desert sand, half blinding, scorching, and parching the waiting troops. Nowhere was there shade to be found except under canvas, and men fell by the dozen, sun-struck. But none flinched from the hardships, none thought of aught but the fray.

All through that scorching afternoon the troops lay waiting for the foe to return, and at last, about 4:30, Arabi's artillery again opened fire. Twelve guns, this time, and eight battalions were coming against them, concentrating upon Graham's right flank. It was just what Graham had hoped they would do, for while he had taken up a very strong position on the left, he had allowed his right to appear weak in order that the enemy might imagine it an easy prey, whereas it was only a bait, for Lowe was to come from Mehsameh and fall upon the attackers. As soon as he saw that they had fallen into the trap, Graham dispatched a messenger to Lowe to tell him that he was "to take the cavalry round by our right, under cover of the hill, and attack the left flank of the enemy's skirmishers." Instead of that message, however, the one delivered was to the effect that Graham was only just able to hold his own, and that Lowe was to attack the left of the enemy's infantry skirmishers. Lowe, whose men had barely had time to unsaddle their horses and sit down to partake of a much-wanted meal, gave the order to saddle again at once, and the cavalry set out over the desert towards Kassassin.

Meanwhile Graham was busy. The intense heat of the day had cooled off, and the men were feeling more fit for the warm work that was in front of them. Slowly but steadily the Egyptians advanced, pounding away with their Krupp guns, pushing their infantry forward in the hope of being able to rush the English position. Graham determined upon a counter-attack. The whole line advanced, therefore, and for a time kept up a good reply to the Krupp guns. Unfortunately, however, the transport service had been unable to keep the artillery supplied with ammunition, owing to the difficulty of getting the wagons through the sand.

Matters had reached this critical stage when Graham saw that on the right a detachment of Royal Marine Artillery had been able to mount a Krupp gun which had been taken from the enemy somewhat earlier in the day, and with this Captain Tucker was pounding away for all he was worth, doing good work. The Egyptians soon noticed that Graham's fire had slackened, and that only Tucker's gun was directed against them, and, realising what advantage this gave them, pushed forward more energetically, the artillery doing their utmost meanwhile to put Tucker's little battery out of action. Shot and shell fell thick around the devoted little band, but, heedless of danger and fearless of death, the men stuck boldly to their task, keeping up the fire till the end of the engagement.

Despite his lack of guns, Graham still pushed forward, in face of a heavy fire, and while this was going on Lowe and his cavalry appeared on the scene. They had had a terrible journey in the face of a hot wind which swirled up the sand into their faces, choking them, blinding them, and hiding everything from them. Into the zone of fire they rode. Away in the west the sun had gone down in a blaze of glory, and now only the moon gave light, though the intermittent flash of the enemy's guns told Lowe in which direction his way lay.

At the gallop he led his men on towards the Egyptian line, whose artillery was backing up the infantry, though a good distance from them. As soon as the enemy located Lowe and his men they opened a terrific fire upon them, and shells hurtled past them and over them, shrapnel bullets tore up the road on either side. But not a man fell; every one of them seemed to bear a charmed life. A quick sharp order, and the squadron had moved to the right, so throwing the Egyptian gunners out of range; then on again, beneath the screaming shells, which once more sailed high. Now the infantry begin, and rifles flash and bullets ping; a man and a horse go down, but the rest ride on, until, calling a halt, Lowe orders his artillery to unlimber and pour in several rounds of shell. This done, the order was given to charge, and, led by Colonel Ewart, the Household Cavalry dashed off for the Egyptian lines.

Quickly they had disappeared into the darkness, Sir Baker Russell crying:

"Now we have them! Trot—gallop—charge!"

And charge they did. With naught to guide them but the flashes of rifles, and the roar of the big guns, Ewart led his men bang into the Egyptian infantry. Hacking sabres and trampling horses did awful work amongst the foe, who, scared and dismayed, broke and fled, falling back upon their guns. But the cavalry had not done with them yet; down upon the artillery they charged, sweeping right "through a battery of seven or nine guns," said General Lowe in his dispatch, cutting down the gunners, and putting the guns out of action for want of men to work them.

Then, their work done, and the foe driven back, they reformed their ranks, and, heroes all, rode off into Kassassin, having won glory and renown. Not all returned; how could it be? Some were dead, others were prisoners, while yet others had lost themselves in the darkness. The guns they had silenced were not captured, for during the night the Egyptians returned and took them into their camp.

Sudan Campaign


After this abortive attempt to rush the British position at Kassassin, several other skirmishes ensued, but the only one with which we can deal here took place on September 9th. Sir Garnet had meanwhile been busy getting his stores up to Kassassin, preparatory to his advance on Tel-el-Kebir, a work which, seeing that it entailed the laying down of a branch railway, took some little time. Arabi hoped to reap the benefit of this delay, but Graham had by this time received large reinforcements, including the 13th Bengal Lancers, the Royal Irish, several battalions of Royal Marines, the Naval Brigade, and two battalions of artillery.

On September 9th Arabi made his great effort to upset Wolseley's plans, at the head of eight—some say thirteen—thousand men and twenty-four guns. The Pasha had made his arrangements well, and nearly succeeded in taking Graham by surprise. Colonel Pennington and thirty Bengal Lancers, however, riding out at five o'clock in the morning to post vedettes, almost rode into three squadrons of cavalry and a column of infantry, Arabi's advance guard. These, as soon as they sighted the Bengals, began pouring in a heavy fire from their saddles, but made no attempt to charge, although they were in such vast numbers, and behind them came another and yet stronger line of cavalry. Pennington at once saw that some great movement was afoot, especially as in the distance he could see the smoke of several trains coming from Tel-el-Kebir.

Without the loss of a moment Pennington sent off two of his Lancers post haste to Graham, warning him of the impending attack. This done, the order was given to dismount, and, taking shelter behind a sandy ridge, these twenty-nine men from India matched them-selves against the coming army. Firing as quickly as they could load, they put up a bold defence, so that the enemy should think that a large force was at hand. Pennington's object was to gain time, in order that Graham's artillery and infantry should be able to turn out. Shoot though they did till their rifles grew hot and their hands ached, the enemy came on steadily, and at last Pennington found himself surrounded.

But he had accomplished his self-set task. Graham was ready. Into their saddles the Bengals sprang, and at the sharp word of command charged into the thick of the line of cavalry behind them, bent on cutting their way to Kassassin.

Crash! They were on them. Lance thrust and tulwar sweep laid many an Egyptian low. There was no stopping these Indian warriors. A medley of struggling horses and hacking men: a headlong rush of Bengals in blue uniform faced with red—and they were through, racing across the desert to Kassassin, where Graham was already formed in battle array.

While the outposts had been thus engaged behind the sandhills, Arabi had been quietly working his main body round towards the right flank of the English force, where Pennington's lancers were stationed.

By the time that Graham was in the field Arabi had posted his artillery on the sandhills. Some directed their fire on the camp, others on the advancing columns. Through the camp shells screamed and shrieked, throwing tents to the ground, stampeding the horses and cattle, and all was confusion.

Graham was losing no time. To have done so would have been fatal. As quickly as possible his artillery took up a strong position, unlimbered, and turned their attention to the enemy's guns, returning shot for shot, so that in the centre of the two lines an exceedingly fierce artillery duel was fought.

Pennington, meanwhile, was having a hot time. Thousands of Egyptian cavalry were pressing down upon his turbaned lancers, while behind them came column after column of infantry—extending for at least three miles—all intent upon outflanking Graham. Pennington fell back step by step; Graham's infantry on the right were in great danger of being outflanked, for Arabi had crossed the canal and attacked in the rear.

Matters had assumed a serious aspect, but it was left to Drury Lowe once more to turn the tide of battle. Pushing forward with all speed, he made for Arabi's left flank, where so far his plan for overlapping Graham had been successful. But the memory of that glorious charge on August 28th evidently still lingered amongst the Egyptians, and not staying to give Lowe a chance of repeating it, the enemy's cavalry fell back, though they still contintiued to try to circumvent Lowe, trusting to their light artillery to make him desist from charging them.

Lowe's appearance had a marked effect on the battle; the outflanking checked, the British artillery were able to concentrate, and very soon they began to get the upper hand. Superior aim, quicker firing, both these helped to this end, and presently Arabi's firing slackened. Graham immediately moved five regiments of infantry forward. In the face of a heavy but ridiculously ineffective hail of bullets they swept over the sands: grimly determined to advance at all costs, they stopped for nothing, and at last Arabi's infantry fell back. His second great attempt had failed, and, resolving to wait for the grand assault which he knew Sir Garnet would shortly make, he retreated to Tel-el-Kebir again.

Kassassin was saved. Water was assured.

We need not detail the movement of the British army; suffice it to say that on the day of this last attack Wolseley went up to Kassassin, his army having preceded him. Critics said that he should have brought matters to a head there and then; but whether they were right or wrong it is not for us to say here. Tel-el-Kebir was reconnoitred. Arabi had made entrenchments and earthworks over four miles long, behind which he had twenty-two thousand men. These works were strong; they had been made under the supervision of Mahmoud Fehmi, who was a skilful engineer, and they bade fair to be difficult to carry.

Sir Garnet had about seventeen thousand men and sixty-seven guns, and after giving them a rest-day on the 11th, he determined to advance. Experience had taught him that the yellow sands of Egypt were best traversed at night, when his men would suffer less from thirst and heat. At half-past six tents were struck and baggage piled up along the railway to be brought up to Tel-el-Kebir later. Wolseley had decided on a night attack, and no bugles sounded, no fires were allowed, smoking was prohibited, and silence was ordered.

At half-past one in the morning all was ready. The order was given to advance, and, each man supplied with a hundred rounds of ammunition, the army moved forward.

General Willis commanded the first division, on the right, having Graham under him in charge of the Royal Irish, Royal Marines, the York and Lancasters, and the Royal Irish Fusiliers; and the Duke of Connaught led the Brigade of Guards (Grenadiers, Cold-streams and Scots).

On the left, General Hamley led the second division, its front being commanded by Sir Archibald Alison, at the head of the Black Watch, Gordon Highlanders, Highland Light Infantry and the Camerons, backed by the King's Royal Rifles and the Duke of York's Infantry. General Goodenough and his artillery of forty-two guns rode between the two divisions. Drury's Lowe gallant cavalry supported the right flank, while on the other side of the Fresh-water Canal, supporting the left, came the Indian contingent, under General Macpherson, consisting of Bengal cavalry, Seaforth Highlanders, native infantry, and several mountain guns.

With almost uncanny quietness the great army passed over the desert; the darkness favoured them, although for a while it impeded their progress. Then, whilst Arabi nursed himself in the belief that sir Garnet was camping, if not sleeping, safely at Kassassin, the British were marching towards him, silent but of the swish of a moving body of men or the clanking of a scabbard, or the chain of a gun-carriage. During the day finger-posts had been put up to mark the route, but the darkness was so intense that these were practically of no use, and except for the stars of heaven the British had nothing to guide them. Now and then there would be false alarms, and more than once friends mistook each other for foes, and but for a hastily whispered word of reassurance would have hurled themselves at each other. Five miles off lay Arabi's lines, and until these were reached not a man was to fire a shot; the lines were to be carried at the point of the bayonet. Five miles! It took five hours to cover them—five hours of painful silence, of twitching nerves, of alternating hopes and fears!

Then, just as the stars began to fade away and tell of the approach of dawn, a shot rang out. It killed a man, but it effected nothing else. Still silent as the grave the columns moved forward. A bugle sounded within Arabi's camp, and immediately there came the flash of rifles and the singing of shots. They were discovered.

Silent as ever, except for the clash of steel on steel as bayonets were fixed, the British marched on. Not a shot did they fire. They were but two hundred yards from Arabi's entrenchments now, and then there rang out the word to charge. They charged.

Two hundred yards; a man to a yard fell. The Highland Brigade were first. Rushing at the ditch that lay between them and the foe, they dropped into it and scrambled up the other side, a parapet of ten feet high. Private Cameron, of the Camerons, mounted first: a gasp, a clattering rifle, a falling body—and Cameron was no more.

With their pipes skirling their battle-song, the Highlanders kept on surging upward: they met a worthy foe. At this point the best fighting men of Arabi were posted, but Scottish bayonets worked havoc amongst them. "Five or six times we had to close on them with the bayonet," said Sir Archibald Alison, "and I saw those poor men fighting hard when their officers were flying before us. All this time, too, it was a goodly sight to see the Cameron and Gordon Highlanders—mingled together as they were in the stream of the fight, their young officers leading in front, waving their swords above their heads—their pipes playing, and the men rushing on with that proud smile on their lips which you never see in soldiers save in the moment of successful battle."

The Highlanders had seen that a front charge was fruitless, and so they had swerved round and taken the foe at the flanks. The Black Watch had reached the crest of the works, but the Highland Light Infantry, "reeling under the flank fire, fell back for a moment. Then it was good to see how nobly Sir Edward Hamley, the division leader, threw himself into the midst of his men, animating them by voice and example, and amid a storm of shot led them to the charge."

"Scotland for ever!" cried a battery of artillery as it rushed past them to tackle Arabi's big guns. And Scotland won this first entrenchment.

Meanwhile Graham had been busy. He had posted his artillery on a ridge five hundred yards from the enemy's left flank, where they seemed more prepared for attack than on the right. Their whole line burst into fire, to which Graham's artillery replied with good effect. Then came the turn of the Royal Irish. Led by Major Hart, they dashed across the few hundred yards between them and the Egyptians, hurled themselves upon them in a terrific bayonet charge, curled the works with an Irish yell, and completely turned the flank of the position.

Behind the Royal Irish came the Royal Irish Fusiliers, followed hard by the 94th (2nd Battalion of the Connaught Rangers). By joining forces they hurled themselves down upon the Egyptians, who, thick as bees, swarmed their redoubts. Into their midst the British leaped, butt-end and bayonet being freely used, and many a fellahheen received a good old British punch in lieu of a bayonet thrust of steel. Down, down were they hurled from their redoubts and sent flying off to their second line of entrenchments, where lay twelve heavy guns, and, beyond these, line after line of shelter-trenches.

There was no time for rest; the battle was not yet won, though resistance was now feeble, for the almost miraculous appearance of the British and their fearful rush had demoralised Arabi's men.

On the extreme left Macpherson and his Indian contingent, etc., had been no less successful. The Seaforths led, advanced steadily towards a battery, stormed it at the bayonet point, cut down its gunners and captured the guns. The Bengal Cavalry set out in pursuit of the foe, chasing them right through Tel-el-Kebir itself. The Royal Marine Light Infantry pressed steadily forward up the slope of the redoubt in front of the enemy's northern position, fired a volley, fixed bayonets and charged. A nine-foot parapet they scaled, scrambling, cheering, ever pressing upward, until at last the top was reached, and, with bayonet and butt, scattered the Egyptians in all directions, chasing them four miles into Arabi's headquarters. Arabi had gone—in haste.

The Naval Brigade, crossing the canal by pontoon at three o'clock, marched along the opposite bank into position, sinking ankle deep into the sand, toiling like giants to get their heavy pieces through the soft sand.

"Heave, heave!" they cried. "Hurrah, there she goes!" and away for a few more yards the gun would go. To their right was Tel-el-Kebir, where Arabi's artillery was beginning its heavy cannonade. Lashing their mules and pulling like devils, they dashed off for Tel-el-Kebir. Cavalry intervened. The guns were swung round, sighted, and worked; and hundreds of bullets from these death-dealing Gatlings sped through the air, bringing down horses, emptying saddles, and finally turning the whole squadron back, spurring their horses like mad.

Limbering their guns, and once more lashing their mules, the brigade rattled towards the enemy's lines. Within easy range they halted, swerved round, and swept the parapets with a leaden hail, silencing the Egyptian fire.

With a cheer the Naval Brigade broke into a run and dashed over the redoubts. Before them were the flying foe, utterly cowed. The right flank was turned.

All along the line the British had been victorious, and the Egyptians were flying in all directions. The battle was won, and all that remained was to ensure the dispersion of the foe. The Bengals, the Seaforths, the Cavalry Division and the Mounted Infantry saw to this, and ere long the battle of Tel-el-Kebir was over and Arabi hastening away to Cairo, where, on October 14th, after several other engagements, he surrendered. The boaster had lost.