In the last quarter of the 19th century, empires controlled much of the world. The competition among imperial powers to expand their territory through occupation or financial-economic domination was fierce. Yet not all imperial powers were equal; some were on the rise while others were in decline.
The Ottoman Empire in 1882 was the most prominent example of the latter, earning the unenviable nickname “The Sick Man of Europe.” At its greatest extent in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire included vast territories in Anatolia (modern Turkey), the Middle East, North Africa, southern Europe and the Caucasus. Thereafter, Ottoman rulers in the capital at Constantinople presided over a steady loss of territory and, increasingly, economic domination by other imperial powers.
Moreover, many remaining portions of the shrinking empire, such as Egypt, were Ottoman in name only. Egypt’s khedive (viceroy) was only nominally under Ottoman rule, and the country’s economy was dominated by foreign business interests, principally British and French. Indeed, London and Paris exerted more influence on Egypt than did Constantinople. For instance, the Suez Canal, a vital link in global sea commerce, was jointly owned by French (55 percent) and British (45 percent) stockholders. Ottoman weakness in Egypt exposed the country to increased control and exploitation by the European powers, particularly Britain.
Britain in 1882 was an imperial power on the rise. The saying “the sun never sets on the British Empire” was literally true. Britain’s globe-circling possessions encompassed 10 million square miles, and 400 million people were subjects of British Queen Victoria. Britain sought to enlarge its burgeoning empire and vigorously reacted against any threat to its global power and influence. Therefore, when a disaffected, anti-Western Egyptian army officer, Arabi Pasha, led a coup that seized power from Egypt’s Britain-friendly khedive, Tewfik Pasha, British leaders decided to take military action to eliminate this threat to their country’s extensive financial and expansionist interests in Egypt and, especially, to maintain control of the Suez Canal.
Britain’s senior service, the Royal Navy, was sent first to deal with the Egyptian crisis. Admiral Frederick Beauchamp Seymour led a fleet of warships to Alexandria Harbor, where he issued an ultimatum to Arabi to stop fortifying Alexandria’s defenses. When the ultimatum expired on July 11, 1882, the troops west into the desert to strike Arabi’s army. Your attacking force consists of four infantry brigades with a total of 11,000 men, two cavalry brigades with a combined 2,000 troopers, and an artillery brigade of 54 guns.
Two of your infantry brigades, one commanded by Major General Gerald Graham and the other by Archibald Alison, are “heavy,” consisting of four battalions of foot soldiers. A third brigade, commanded by Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, has three Guards battalions, while Colonel Cromer Ashburnham’s fourth brigade is a “light” unit with only two infantry battalions. All 11,000 infantrymen are armed with breech-loading, single-shot .45-caliber Martini-Henry rifles. These well-trained, highly disciplined soldiers can deliver effective volley fire at 600 yards and accurate aimed fire at 350-400 yards.
Your cavalry contingent’s two brigades each contain three regiments with 350 troopers per regiment. Brigadier General Baker Creed Russell commands one brigade, while Brigadier General H.C. Wilkinson commands the other. The cavalrymen are armed with sabers and .476-caliber Mk I Enfield revolvers, except for one Bengal Lancer regiment armed with 9-foot lances. All of your cavalry units are well led and superbly trained, capable of executing precise battlefield maneuvers, delivering powerful mounted charges and conducting rapid pursuits of fleeing enemy troops.
Your artillery brigade, commanded by Brigadier General W.H. Goodenough, consists of seven batteries of Royal Artillery supporting the infantry brigades and two batteries of highly mobile Royal Horse Artillery supporting the cavalry brigades. The expedition’s 54 artillery guns are rifled muzzle-loading weapons of various calibers: 76 mm, 90 mm, 121 mm and 160 mm. Your well-trained gun crews, particularly the elite Royal Horse Artillerymen, expertly handle these weapons to deliver fast, accurate artillery fire.
Arabi’s coup placed him in command of Egypt’s regular army, where he was welcomed by sympathetic commanders who embraced his anti-Western policies. The Egyptian troops are well trained, although not up to the more rigorous standards of combat-experienced British army soldiers. Principally an infantry force, Arabi’s 20,000- strong army is built around 20 infantry battalions whose soldiers carry breech-loading .43-caliber Remington rolling block rifles. Although these U.S.-manufactured weapons have a greater volley range than do your men’s rifles, their effective aimed fire is only 200-300 yards.
The Egyptian army’s cavalry arm consists of 2,000 horse soldiers, each armed with the carbine version of the Remington rifle. Composed mainly of wild Bedouin tribesmen, Arabi’s cavalry fights fiercely in melee combat. However, unlike your British soldiers, his men lack the strict military discipline necessary to execute precise battlefield maneuvers or mount overwhelming charges by closely packed ranks of horsemen.
The Egyptian army’s 62 artillery guns are mainly 80 mm and 90 mm rifled breech-loading Krupp C-64 field cannon – the same type the Prussian army used so effectively in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War – and a few French-manufactured field pieces. Although the modern Krupp cannon are superior to British artillery guns, Egyptian crewmen in general are not as well drilled or as skilled as Royal Artillerymen.
DESERT COMMAND POST
By yesterday, September 12, your force had marched westward from the Suez Canal to a position in the desert about seven miles from Arabi’s army. After spending all day conducting a personal reconnaissance, you learned that Arabi has placed his force in a strong defensive position firmly anchored on the east-west running Sweet Water Canal. The main Egyptian defensive line, which extends approximately four miles north perpendicular to the canal, consists of a 12-foot-wide main trench, successive lines of supporting trenches, thick earthen embankments, covered walkways, artillery-gun positions, several redoubts, and protected firing embrasures for artillery and infantry riflemen.
After nightfall, you decided to move your army under cover of darkness to an attack position about 1,000 yards east of the Egyptian trench line. You realized the intervening high ground would obscure your troops from the enemy’s view and allow you to form them for an attack without revealing your dispositions to the Egyptians until you are ready to strike.
Your intention is to launch your attack at dawn. Therefore, now, a few hours after midnight, you gather your subordinate commanders at your desert command post to brief them on three possible courses of action you are considering. You are interested in hearing their insights on each plan.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: LEFT FLANK ATTACK
“The first course of action I am considering,” you begin, “is to unhinge the Egyptian line at its southernmost point, where it is anchored on Sweet Water Canal, by launching Alison’s and Graham’s two heavy infantry brigades in a left flank attack. To fix the enemy in place while the main force strikes, our remaining two infantry brigades and the artillery brigade will engage the Egyptian line frontally with concentrated rifle and artillery fire. The cavalry brigades will guard our right flank against any threat in the north from the enemy cavalry.”
Alison immediately endorses this plan. “General,” he responds, “by destroying the anchor of the enemy trench line – cutting it adrift, so to speak – we will effectively neutralize the strength of Arabi’s position, making it untenable. The Egyptians will have only two choices: a hasty retreat or surrender.”
The Duke of Connaught, however, is not as enthusiastic. “Garnet,” he interjects, “as Alison’s and Graham’s brigades advance over the open terrain, their men will be fully exposed to concentrated fire from the Egyptian artillery. Moreover, as our leading infantrymen break through the enemy line, they will be extremely vulnerable to counterattack until Alison and Graham can push sufficient troops through the breach to consolidate the breakthrough. I fear this plan puts us at risk of failure.”
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: RIGHT FLANK ATTACK
“My second option,” you continue, “is to launch Alison’s and Graham’s infantry brigades and the cavalry brigades in a powerful attack in the north to collapse the Egyptian line on our right flank. As in the first plan, our remaining infantry brigades and the artillery brigade will fix the enemy in place with concentrated rifle and artillery fire all along the rest of the line.”
This time, Graham objects. “General,” he complains, “unlike the first plan, which destroys the anchor of the enemy line in a stroke and makes the entire position untenable, this course of action initially seizes only the far northern portion of the 4-mile-long trench line, leaving the remainder of it intact. This forces our infantry to engage in costly, time-consuming close-quarter combat to clear the entire trench line, position by position, all the way south to Sweet Water Canal.”
Goodenough, however, disagrees. “My artillery will heavily bombard the length of the enemy line,” he explains, “destroying its strongpoints and battering the defenders unmercifully. With shells raining down on them, and with our infantry moving inexorably south through the trenches, I expect the Egyptians to break and run, making it unnecessary for our infantrymen to clear the whole line. Once the Egyptians are on open ground, our cavalrymen will make short work of them.”
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: FRONTAL ATTACK
“The final plan,” you conclude, “is to overpower the entire Egyptian line with a strong frontal attack conducted by all four infantry brigades supported by a heavy artillery bombardment. As the attack commences, our cavalry brigades will launch a charge from our extreme right flank into the enemy rear area to prevent Arabi from shifting troops to threatened sections and to disrupt any attempt to bring up reinforcements. After our infantrymen overrun the trench line, our cavalrymen will pursue the fleeing Egyptians and, upon my order, strike quickly toward Cairo.”
After exchanging worried glances with Graham, Alison says, “With respect, General, won’t we be playing to the Egyptians’ strength by launching a head-on attack over open ground against well-entrenched infantry and artillery? It seems this plan unnecessarily puts us at risk of incurring heavy casualties and could result in failure. I have the greatest confidence in our soldiers’ bravery and discipline under fire, but I fear that directly assaulting the entire Egyptian line in this manner is asking too much of our men.”
Since dawn is about to break, you must conclude the meeting and decide how you will attack and defeat Arabi’s army. “Thank you, gentlemen,” you announce, signaling that the meeting is over. “Please return to your units and prepare them for the impending action. I will inform you of my plan forthwith.”
Once your subordinate commanders depart, you reflect on their comments as you weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each course of action. However, now is the time for you to choose the one you believe will be most effective.
What is your decision, Lieutenant General Wolseley?
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Armchair General.