CDG 62 – Anglo-Egyptian War, 1882
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 Arabi’s 1881 coup that placed him in control of Egypt and its substantial military forces, British leaders feared his anti-Western policies threatened their extensive economic interests in the country. Moreover, the British 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 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 to 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 occupying a 4-mile-long line of trenches and strongpoints. The 12-foot-wide 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 could overcome the Egyptians’ defenses and their 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 enemy trenches. As British artillery battered the center of the Egyptian trench line, Wolseley’s infantry brigades stormed the trenches on the right and left. 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 forces 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 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. (See “After Action Report.”) Assaulting across a wide front had the advantage of fixing the defenders in place, thereby preventing the enemy from shifting troops to mass defenses that could prevent a British breakthrough at any single point of attack. Although a frontal attack against entrenchments was risky, this plan allowed the attackers to capitalize on surprise, a stealthy approach, and a final, rapid assault by disciplined troops to close quickly with the Egyptians, thereby reducing the attackers’ exposure to enemy fire. Moreover, this plan’s enveloping cavalry attack disrupted the cohesiveness of the enemy 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 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 supporting effort to engage the main line frontally with rifle and artillery fire failed to fix the defenders in place, the Egyptians could have shifted forces to launch a strong counterattack that would have caught the attacking British troops in a dangerously exposed position and with the obstacle of 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 who were clearing the trench line at risk of incurring “friendly fire” casualties from the concentrated rifle and artillery fire of the British troops who were engaging the Egyptian line.
AFTER ACTION REPORT
Key Points for an Attack on an Entrenched Position
- RECON THE ENEMY POSITION thoroughly to identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
- APPROACH THE POSITION silently and stealthily under cover of darkness or masking terrain.
- SURPRISE THE DEFENDERS with timing and exact points of attack.
- FIX THE DEFENDERS IN PLACE with infantry attacks and artillery bombardments.
- LAUNCH THE ATTACK from as close to the enemy position as possible.
- REDUCE EXPOSURE to the defenders’ firepower by quickly closing with the enemy.
- SUPPRESS ENEMY FIRE (artillery and small arms) by employing all available fire support means.
- DISRUPT THE ENEMY REAR AREA with artillery fire and coordinated enveloping attacks.
- EXPLOIT BREAKTHROUGHS using reserves/follow-on forces.