Seymour actually demanded that the Egyptians surrender the forts. When they refused, he prepared for an attack. At this point the French withdrew their ships. At 7am on 11 July Seymour’s eight iron-clad warships began their bombardment. After a relentless ten-hour bombardment the Egyptian guns fell silent. Although the Egyptians mounted a brave defence, the battle was completely one-sided, providing further testimony that the forts posed no threat. The British had five men killed and 28 wounded, while Egyptian casualties were in the region of 2,000 men killed and wounded.
By the time the bombardment ended, much of Alexandria itself was in ruins. The British blamed this on Egyptian mobs, but there is overwhelming evidence that most of the damage was the result of the British shelling. One young naval officer was detailed to recover unexploded shells from the town. “Our gunnery, during the bombardment”, he acknowledged, “had not been very good, and the town appeared to me to have suffered more from the misses than the hits”.25 An army officer on the scene later recalled that though he could see that “considerable damage had been done to the town of Alexandria by the bombardment, and the fire which followed it, the forts that lined the coast had suffered but little”.26 Another officer reported that “the huge shells flew wide and high, some of them reaching Lake Mariout, two miles inland”.27
Clearly this was a shameful episode costing hundreds of lives, many of them defenceless civilians. What is of interest is how little it has affected the reputations of those involved. The horror of a city under bombardment is airbrushed out, an incidental detail in the careers of great men. The reality was somewhat different. Those responsible delighted in what they had done. Dilke wrote in his diary at the time, “My room at the House [of Commons] presented a most animated appearance while the bombardment of Alexandria was going on… Hartington, Brett, Childers and other members of our Jingo gang kept coming in to hear the news by telephone from the FO”.28 The bombardment, he was to observe, “like all butchery is popular”.29
The Egyptian army was decisively defeated at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir on 13 September 1882. The British overwhelmed their defences in a surprise attack just before dawn and carried out a textbook massacre, a model of well-executed colonial warfare. British casualties were 57 killed and 382 wounded. Estimates of the Egyptian dead, as is the way with colonial wars, range from 2,000 to 10,000 dead. No one counted. According to one British officer, Colonel William Butler, an Irish Catholic and admirer of the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, the Egyptians had put up a brave but hopeless resistance against a British attack that had fallen on them like “a thunderbolt”. There was, he felt, no glory in this sort of one-sided encounter. It was a “gift war-horse which the Stock Exchange is now able to bestow” and which one could not afford to examine “too severely in the mouth”. What, he asked, was “the bad revolting star of this Egyptian business…which guided us to overwhelm the sleeping fellaheen host at Tel-el-Kebir? The Egyptian peasant in revolt against his plunderers or an English Liberal government in revolt against Liberalism?” He remembered “vast numbers of Egyptian dead”.33
Butler was not alone in being appalled at the slaughter. The Presbyterian chaplain with the expedition, the Reverend Arthur Male, wrote of “a strange and horrible sight” on the battlefield: “as far as the eye could reach, a line of bodies lying or kneeling or reclining against the parapet, from end to end. There they had stood till the rush of our men was upon them, and there they had fallen.” Although Male’s commitment to the British soldier was absolute, he could not accept that this was a just war. The Urabist movement was “really a national protest against the tyranny of a government with a weak viceroy at its head and men alien to its country as its ministers”. Urabi had the Egyptian people behind him and as for his being an adventurer as was alleged in Britain, Male observed that he “was a poor man when he began his movement; he was no richer when he ended—a strange fact, indeed, had he been nothing but an adventurer”. But for the British, Urabi would, in Male’s view, have been an Egyptian Oliver Cromwell.34 Another officer, Colonel William Hicks, confessed himself “ashamed of the fuss” made over such a one-sided victory and was convinced that it had been “magnified…to make political capital for Mr Gladstone…honours and decorations in bushels”. It was “enough to make one sick”.35
The British meanwhile continued to consolidate their control over Egypt by means of “all the now-familiar techniques of overcoming peasant resistance…military raids, secret police, informants, massive imprisonment (the country’s jails were filled to four times their capacity) and the systematic use of torture”.41
Sudan was not to be reconquered by the British until Kitchener’s campaign of 1898 that culminated in the battle of Omdurman on 2 September. On this occasion the Sudanese conveniently launched a frontal assault on the invading army and were massacred in a display of overwhelming firepower. Modern rifles, machine guns and artillery destroyed the Sudanese army before it even got close enough to the British to begin inflicting casualties. The British themselves were very much aware of how one-sided the battle was. One NCO described the slaughter (his words) as “dreadful”, “I thought it was like murder”, and another considered the battle “more like a butcher’s killing house than anything else”. After the battle the bodies of some 10,800 Sudanese were counted but many more who had fled the scene would have subsequently died of their wounds. The British themselves estimated the final Sudanese death toll from the battle at 16,000. British losses were 48 killed and over 400 wounded.
The aftermath of the battle saw prisoners and wounded being shot and bayoneted out of hand. The troops were ordered “to bayonet and shoot everyone we saw” in revenge for Gordon and some of them entered into the killing with considerable enthusiasm. One soldier later boasted of killing “about 25, I think,” and after each one “I said ‘Another one for Gordon’”.45 The young Winston Churchill, a participant in the battle, wrote home that the victory was “disgraced by the inhuman slaughter of the wounded” for which he blamed Kitchener. He singled out in particular for censure the troops under the command of Colonel John Maxwell. Maxwell was subsequently put in charge of the occupation of the town of Omdurman where, he privately admitted, he “quietly made away with a bunch of Emirs”.46 Some 18 years later the by then General Sir John Maxwell was to command the British forces suppressing the Easter Rising in Dublin. Meanwhile, as part of the revenge for Gordon, the Mahdi’s tomb was broken into and subsequently blown up, his skeleton thrown into the Nile and his skull presented to Kitchener as a trophy. Even Queen Victoria thought that this “savours…too much of the Middle Ages” and complained that as the Sudanese had respected British graves so theirs should also have been respected. The Mahdi’s skull was buried in secret.47
::sigh:: such brave lads...