Up until the Second World War, Egypt had been one of the most important North African posts within the British Empire. It had gained a new importance with the opening of the French-financed Suez Canal on the 17th September 1869 which took off over 4,000 miles of the journey to India and Britain’s Far East possessions. Britain was initially against the opening of the canal for fear it may be used by France to challenge her regional superiority however it was a British warship, HMS Newport, that was the first ship through the canal.
Britain too had strong interests in Egypt and financed many projects that returned a profit for the treasury including the construction of an extensive railway system. At this time Egypt was under the leadership of the Khedives from the Muhammad Ali Dynasty. Seeing profit in working with the European powers the family cooperated with the British and French by authorizing such large scale projects such as the Suez Canal and the rail network as well as providing large numbers of slaves to work on them.
In 1879 the throne passed to Tewfik Pasha and he continued the policy of cooperation but a growing nationalist movement was under way in his country that resented the influence the foreigners were having on Egypt. Leader of this movement was Ahmed ‘Urabi (sometimes known as Ahmad Arabi or Arabi Pasha), an officer in the Egyptian Army who led a mutiny against Tewfik’s rule. Tewfik tried to counter this uprising for fear of looking weak in front of his naturally nervous foreign supporters but the sides in Egypt were rather equally divided. Tewfik therefore agreed to reform his cabinet with a number of ‘Urabi’s supporters holding positions. This did little to curb ‘Urabi’s nationalist movement however and by 1882 he was the de facto head of the Egyptian government.
In June 1882 Urabi’s displeasure at foreign nationals took fruition as he organized a force to march on the port city of Alexandria where a large number of British and French were living. By this time Britain had purchased the Khedive’s share in the Suez Canal and was an equal partner to France in its operation. In what was labelled as anti-Christian rioting by the British press the nationalist supporters forced out British, French and any other non-Egyptian or non-Muslim from the city. Knowing the European powers were responding by sending warships to Alexandria, ‘Urabi then began fortifying the city in preparation for what seemed to be an inevitable confrontation.
The warships sent to Alexandria were of an Anglo-French force and their standing orders were to protect British and French citizens; orders which were open to interpretation with regards to execution. Leading the British fleet was Admiral Frederick Beauchamp Seymour aboard his flagship, HMS Invincible, who had held the post of Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet since 1880. He had therefore kept abreast of events in Egypt and upon learning of the increasing fortifications at Alexandria believed that they would be used to fire on their warships the moment they entered harbour. He therefore issued an ultimatum on the 10th July 1882 to ‘Urabi’s forces demanding they withdraw from the fortifications or they would be bombarded.
It was at this point that the united front Britain and France were portraying collapsed. Political unrest in France meant that the French Navy was hoping to avoid a fight in case it had to be recalled home and were furious that Seymour had taken it upon himself to issue the ultimatum. They informed him that if the British fully intended to commit to a bombardment that the French fleet would have no part in it and would retreat to Port Said until the exchange stopped. This left Seymour and his force of 16 warships to carry out the bombardment alone. When ‘Urabi learned of this he felt his position had been reinforced believing that either the British were bluffing or that his own forces could repel the ships of the British Mediterranean Fleet. Either way the ultimatum passed and the nationalist forces remained in place. An incensed Seymour, whose honour was now at stake and was still acting under orders that allowed him to do what he felt was necessary, signalled from Invincible for the bombardment to commence at 0700 on July 11th 1882.
From an historical point of view Seymour’s fleet was a fascinating one as it aptly displayed the changing nature of warship design and technology of the era. Gone were the magnificently crafted wooden ships-of-the-line with their immense sails and two decks of muzzle loaded cannon balls. On the surface Seymour’s ships certainly resembled those days but now they were clad in iron armour and had much improved weapons but perhaps even more significantly they were all now powered by a mix of traditional sail and the revolutionary steam power. At the time the Admiralty saw the advantages in steam such as speed and manoeuvrability but didn’t trust its reliability and disliked the limited range compared to sail. Therefore sailing rigs were retained for long distances (with the steam used when the wind was low or combat was expected) and as a back up should the steam engines fail which was surprisingly often in those early days. Some ships such as HMS Monarch also had the first large naval turrets for ocean going use. An interesting addition to the fleet although one which played little part in the bombardment was HMS Hecla, a high speed torpedo boat!
Upon the passing of the deadline, Seymour ordered HMS Alexandra to commence the first attack by shelling the fort at Ras-el-tin. The Alexandra was a central battery ironclad armed with two 11-inch and ten 10-inch guns. Alexandra closed in and fired on the fort which in turn retaliated and was followed with shelling by HMS Sultan and Superb. The obvious advantage enjoyed by a warship over a fort is that it can remain mobile and therefore provide a difficult target. However during the bombardment of Ras-el-tin it was found that the gun crews had difficulty in properly aiming at the fort with shells landing short, too far or on parts of the fort already hit. Therefore by 0940hrs the order was given to bring the ships to a halt and fire a planned-out artillery barrage at the fort. While this improved accuracy it also made the warships more vulnerable and Alexandra took several hits. It would not be until the arrival of HMS Inflexible that the fort’s guns were finally suppressed. It was not the best start.
Further along the coast, HMS Invincible and HMS Temeraire began their attack on the fortifications around the Mex Citadel. Temeraire fired salvoes of 10- and 11-inch ammunition from her rifled guns with a fair degree of accuracy. Invincible supported the attack but occasionally turned guns on the troublesome Ras-el-tin fort to support Alexandra. Meanwhile a small number of the main force fired from long ranges with mixed success. Then disaster struck as Temeraire hit a previously uncharted reef grounding her but fortunately not causing any significant damage to the hull. She was nevertheless a sitting duck to the shore batteries who sensed an opportunity.
The grounding was witnessed by HMS Condor, commanded by Lord Charles Bereford, who ordered his ship to steam to Termeraire’s assistance. HMS Condor was categorized as a composite gun vessel which is broadly equivalent to a modern day gunboat in that her size and armament was relatively light and more suited to security missions than bombarding Egyptian forts. Her armament comprised of one 7-inch muzzle loaded gun and two 64-pdr muzzle loaded guns. She displaced just 774 tons compared to Temeraire’s 8,500 tons but nevertheless the two crews persisted and together they pulled Termeraire off the reef and continued their attack on the forts.
With the bulk of the Royal Navy force firing at long ranges to distract or suppress the guns of the main fortifications, three ships – HMS Condor, HMS Monarch and HMS Penelope – were ordered to close in on the nearby forts at Mars-el-kanat and Fort Marabout. Firing from a much shorter range they produced more accurate results. At this point Admiral Seymour’s flagship, HMS Invincible, had strayed into range of the guns at Fort Marabout and sensing an opportunity the Egyptian gunners fired relentlessly at the large British battleship. HMS Condor decided to go to her flagship’s aid and steamed inland to offer an easier target while at the same time firing accurate shells at each of the fort’s gun emplacements. Having saved a second ship and successfully suppressing the gun emplacements at Fort Marabout, Seymour signalled from Invincible “Well done Condor.”
It was now early afternoon and both sides were trying to take stock of the situation. The forts at Ras-el-tin, the Mex Citadel, Mars-el-kanat and Fort Marabout had all taken a heavy pounding and were either destroyed or their occupiers had retreated. At 1330hrs HMS Superb was shelling a fifth fort, Fort Adda, when a direct hit on stacked ammunition caused an immense explosion that put the entire fort out of action. In the chaos of the fighting the Egyptians had observed several British ships such as the Alexandra receive hits and somehow came to the conclusion that three British warships had been sunk. While the Royal Navy had taken hits from defensive batteries the entire force was still operational.
The British did have a problem however; they had expended a large quantity of their ammunition. Having suppressed the main fortifications he had intended to, Seymour elected to pull his ships back to the open sea and assess the overall condition of his fleet. Despite some casualties the fleet had come out of the action relatively intact. With the fires from the damaged or destroyed forts still burning Seymour decided to wait until the next day to launch a reconnaissance operation to asses the results of the bombardment.
HMS Temeraire was chosen to lead the reconnaissance mission and in the early hours of the morning of the 12th July 1882 the ship returned to the waters off Alexandria. Her lookouts observed that some of the defences were being rebuilt by ‘Uradi’s men and upon reporting this back to Seymour he ordered that Tameraire and Inflexible should return and bombard them again. At 1030hrs the two ships fired on the rebuilt defences. ‘Urabi’s men were not as determined to resist for a second day and within twenty minutes flags of truce appeared on the shore and the bombardment stopped.
An Egyptian boat carrying representatives of ‘Urabi’s government sailed out to the British fleet to begin negotiations. These negotiations failed miserably as neither side were willing to submit. Therefore in late afternoon the bombardment resumed however the spirited defence the British had encountered the day before had gone and many of the forts, against ‘Urabi’s wishes, flew the white flag and were therefore not attacked. As late afternoon gave way to night large numbers of ‘Urabi’s men abandoned their posts believing a British invasion was imminent. With no law in place in Alexandria they went on an orgy of looting and arson.
Seymour had a contingent of Royal Marines at his command but refused to land them until the situation on shore had been established. It would not be until two days later, the 14th July 1882, that he finally took his ships inland and landed his troops. Instead of fighting ‘Urabi’s men the Royal Marines found themselves fighting off bands of looters. Nevertheless Seymour had achieved his goal of securing Alexandria.
There was much criticism of Seymour’s actions after the event. Some were furious that he took it upon himself to effectively make up Britain’s foreign policy, that of armed intervention, regarding Egypt on his own. Some also accused him of exaggerating the strength and threat the fortifications presented to British interests in the region. Others however have argued in his defence stating that even if he had attempted a more diplomatic approach it would only have delayed the inevitable confrontation by which time ‘Urabi’s men would have been even stronger. Either way the event cost Seymour’s force ten men dead and 27 wounded. The number of Egyptians killed in the bombardment and in the chaos of the following two days before Royal Marines restored order is thought to be much higher.
If a hero was to emerge from the whole affair then the title has to go to Lord Charles Bereford, captain of HMS Condor who rescued the grounded Temeraire and then came to the defence of the flagship Invincible. Proof that even in the Victorian era it was not always the biggest ships that had the glory. Despite resistance from the British government under William Gladstone, British troops were eventually landed in Egypt and ‘Urabi’s revolt was crushed once and for all. Tewfik Pasha was restored as head of the Egyptian government and Egypt became a British protectorate. Among the officers of the Army embarked upon this mission was a brash young Lieutenant named Winston Spencer Churchill.