The May 2014 issue of Armchair General® presented the Combat Decision Game “Anglo-Egyptian War, 1882.” This CDG placed readers in the role of Lieutenant General Garnet Wolseley, commander of a British army expeditionary force in the Egyptian desert northeast of Cairo, the capital of Egypt. Wolseley’s mission on September 13, 1882, was to attack and defeat a larger entrenched Egyptian force under Arabi Pasha, who had seized power from Egypt’s Britain-friendly khedive (governor), Tewfik Pasha. Once Wolseley defeated Arabi’s army, he was to lead his force southwest and occupy Cairo, thereby firmly establishing British control of Egypt.
After an 1881 coup led by Arabi placed him in control of Egypt and its substantial military forces, British leaders were concerned his anti-Western policies threatened their extensive economic interests in the country. Moreover, they greatly feared losing control of the Suez Canal, a vital link in sea commerce with the British Empire’s far-flung global colonies. Thus in 1882, British leaders decided to take military action, both to eliminate the threat Arabi posed to Britain’s financial and expansionist interests in Egypt and especially to maintain control of the Suez Canal.
When the Royal Navy’s July 11, 1882, bombardment and occupation of Alexandria failed to force Arabi’s overthrow, Wolseley was ordered to form a British army expeditionary force and lead it to Egypt to defeat Arabi’s Egyptian army. But instead of moving on Cairo from Alexandria, Wolseley decided to land his force at Ismailia, on the Suez Canal. This not only protected the canal but also compelled Arabi to relocate his main army and prepare new defensive positions in the desert west of Ismailia to try and block Wolseley’s advance on Cairo.
Just before dawn on September 13, after a silent night march across the desert that brought Wolseley’s men to within about 1,000 yards of the enemy line, his 11,000-strong force of infantry, cavalry and artillery faced Arabi’s 20,000-man Egyptian army that was occupying a 4-mile-long line of trenches and strongpoints. The 12-footwide main trench with earthen embankments featured artillery redoubts at four strongpoints and was backed by supporting trenches and additional artillery positions.
Wolseley judged that the element of surprise combined with a rapid, stealthy approach and a vigorously pressed assault by his disciplined troops would allow his force to overcome the Egyptians’ defenses and advantage in numbers. He therefore decided to launch a frontal attack supported by artillery fire and bolstered by a cavalry charge on his right flank targeting the enemy’s vulnerable rear area (COURSE OF ACTION THREE: FRONTAL ATTACK). After arranging his army with two infantry brigades on the right and two on the left, and with the artillery in the center and the cavalry following en echelon on the far right flank, Wolseley launched his attack just as dawn was breaking.
The inattentive Egyptian sentries failed to detect the British approach until Wolseley’s troops were within 300 yards of the trench line. Taken by surprise, the startled sentries shouted frantic warnings in an effort to rouse their sleeping comrades. Belatedly alerted to the British assault, the Egyptian defenders were only able to deliver a few ragged, uncoordinated rifle volleys before the attackers rushed forward and reached the trenches. As British artillery battered the center of the Egyptian trench line, Wolseley’s infantry brigades to his left and right stormed the trenches to their front. Meanwhile, his two cavalry brigades on his right charged around the northernmost end of the Egyptian position and swept into the enemy rear area.
Within an hour, Wolseley’s force had routed Arabi’s Egyptian army, winning a stunning victory in what became known as the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir. Against a loss of only 57 British soldiers killed and fewer than 400 wounded, Wolseley’s troops had killed 1,500-2,000 Egyptian soldiers and had captured thousands more. Led by the cavalry brigades, his army then quickly advanced to Cairo and occupied the Egyptian capital without a fight. Arabi Pasha was captured in Cairo and then tried and sent into exile in Ceylon.
Wolseley’s victory gained Britain control of Egypt, and British troops occupied the country until 1922. Britain dominated Egypt militarily until 1936 and exercised supremacy over its affairs until the 1950s.
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION THREE: FRONTAL ATTACK or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of an attack on an entrenched position. Assaulting across a wide front had the advantage of fixing the defenders in place, thereby preventing them from shifting troops to mass defenses that could prevent a British breakthrough at any single point of attack. Although a frontal attack against enemy entrenchments was risky, the plan capitalized on surprise, a stealthy approach, and a final, rapid assault by disciplined troops who closed quickly with the Egyptians, thereby reducing British exposure to enemy fire. Moreover, the plan’s enveloping cavalry attack disrupted the cohesiveness of the Egyptian position and sowed panic among the front-line defenders when British troops suddenly confronted the Egyptians in the enemy rear area.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: LEFT FLANK ATTACK unwisely channeled the main strike force into an area with the strongest enemy defenses – a forward main trench line containing the greatest concentration of artillery guns and backed by successive trench lines. Additionally, if the British supporting effort to engage the main line frontally with rifle and artillery fire had failed to fix the defenders in place, the Egyptians could have shifted forces to launch a strong counterattack that would have caught the British troops in a dangerously exposed position with the Sweet Water Canal at their backs.
Although COURSE OF ACTION TWO: RIGHT FLANK ATTACK avoided the strongest defensive positions by striking the far northern end of the Egyptian line, it forced the attackers to engage in costly, time-consuming fighting to clear the 4-mile-long main trench line. It also put those clearing the trench line at risk of incurring “friendly fire” casualties from the concentrated rifle and artillery fire of the British troops engaging the Egyptian line.
And now for excerpts from the winning Reader Solutions to “Anglo-Egyptian War, 1882.”*
Major (Ret.) Trent D. Laviano, Tennessee: “Moving under cover of darkness screened by terrain features will enable the British to maintain the element of surprise. Maintain operational security by means of noise and light discipline during the approach march. British artillery is far more effective than that of the enemy, and this will also be a decisive factor.”
Garrett V. Scott-Miller, Indiana: “We will conduct a rapid and violet frontal assault to shatter the enemy line and then exploit the breakthrough. The cavalry force will be in position to sweep from the north of the Egyptian army through its rear area, fixing both the northern flank and the rear area, and it will be prepared to pursue the fleeing enemy and prevent them from reconsolidating.”
Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Frank X. Weiss, New York: “Reconnaissance of the enemy defensive line reveals that any daylight approach march will be under continuous enemy observation and artillery bombardment. Expeditionary artillery will distribute fire along the enemy’s entire front, concentrating on artillery and infantry strongpoints.”
Thank you to everyone who participated in this CDG. Now turn to page 56 and test your tactical decision-making skills with CDG #64, “Battle of Cholm Pocket, 1942.” This World War II battle in northwestern Russia on the Eastern Front places you in the role of General Theodor Scherer, commander of a German army kampfgruppe (battle group). Your mission is to attack and defeat Soviet units inside the city of Cholm that are occupying key positions whose capture will enable encircled German forces to continue to hold out within the Cholm Pocket. Use the CDG map and form on pages 59 and 60 to explain your solution and mail, email or fax it to Armchair General by August 29, 2014. Winners will be announced in the January 2015 issue, but those eager to read the historical outcome and analysis can log on to armchairgeneral.com/cdg after September 2, 2014.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: For each Combat Decision game, ACG typically receives numerous Reader Solutions that have selected the course of action that ACG judges have deemed the best COA for that CDG. However, our judges are required to choose winners and those earning an honorable mention from submissions whose explanations, in the judges’ opinion, best reflect an understanding of the principles and key points of the CDG’s tactical situation.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Armchair General.