Winston Churchill: The River War IV

    An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan (1902 edition)

TABLE OF CONTENTS


CHAPTER IV: THE YEARS OF PREPARATION

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

In the summer of 1886, when all the troops had retreated to Wady Halfa and all the Soudan garrisons had been massacred, the British people averted their eyes in shame and vexation from the valley of the Nile. A long succession of disasters had reached their disgraceful culmination. The dramatic features added much to the bitterness and nothing to the grandeur of the tragedy. The cost was heavy. Besides the pain produced by the death of General Gordon, the heavy losses in officers and men, and the serious expenditure of public money, the nation smarted under failure and disappointment, and were, moreover, deeply sensible that they had been humiliated before the whole world. The situation in Egypt was scarcely more pleasing. The reforms initiated by the British Administrators had as yet only caused unpopularity. Baring's interference galled the Khedive and his Ministers. Vincent's parsimony excited contempt. Moncrieff's energy had convulsed the Irrigation Department. Wood's army was the laughing-stock of Europe. Among and beneath the rotten weeds and garbage of old systems and abuses the new seed was being sown. But England saw no signs of the crop; saw only the stubborn husbandmen begrimed with the dust and dirt, and herself hopelessly involved in the Egyptian muddle: and so in utter weariness and disgust, stopping her ears to the gibes and cat-calls of the Powers, she turned towards other lands and other matters.

When the attention of the nation was again directed to Egypt the scene was transformed. It was as though at the touch of an angel the dark morasses of the Slough of Despond had been changed to the breezy slopes of the Delectable Mountains. The Khedive and his Ministers lay quiet and docile in the firm grasp of the Consul-General. The bankrupt State was spending surpluses upon internal improvement. The disturbed Irrigation Department was vivifying the land. The derided army held the frontier against all comers. Astonishment gave place to satisfaction, and satisfaction grew into delight. The haunting nightmare of Egyptian politics ended. Another dream began—a bright if vague vision of Imperial power, of trans-continental railways, of African Viceroys, of conquest and commerce. The interest of the British people in the work of regeneration grew continually. Each new reform was hailed with applause. Each annual Budget was scrutinised with pride. England exulted in the triumph of failure turned into success. There was a general wish to know more about Egypt and the men who had done these great things. In 1893 this desire was satisfied, and yet stimulated by the publication of Sir Alfred Milner's 'England in Egypt.' His skilful pen displayed what had been overcome, no less than what was accomplished. By explaining the difficulties he enhanced the achievement. He showed how, while Great Britain was occupied elsewhere, her brilliant, persevering sons had repeated on a lesser scale in Egypt the marvellous evolution which is working out in India. Smaller systems circulate more rapidly. The administrators were guided by experience. The movement had been far swifter, and the results were more surprising. Such was the wonderful story, and it was told in a happy moment. The audience were eager and sympathetic. The subject was enthralling. The story-teller had a wit and a style that might have brightened the dullest theme. In these propitious circumstances the book was more than a book. The words rang like the trumpet-call which rallies the soldiers after the parapets are stormed, and summons them to complete the victory.

The regeneration of Egypt is not a theme which would fall within the limits of this account, even if it had not been fully dealt with by Sir Alfred Milner. But the reorganisation of the Egyptian army, the forging of the weapon of reconquest, is an essential feature. On the 20th of December, 1882, the old Egyptian army—or, rather, such parts as had escaped destruction—was disbanded by a single sentence of a British decree, and it was evident that some military body must replace that which had been swept away. All sorts of schemes for the employment of foreign legions or Turkish janissaries were devised. But Lord Dufferin adhered firmly to the principle of entrusting the defence of a country to its inhabitants, and it was determined to form a new Egyptian army. The poverty of the government, no less than the apparent folly of the experiment, demanded that the new army should be small. The force was intended only for the preservation of internal order and the defence of the southern and western frontiers of Egypt against the Bedouin Arabs. The Soudan still slumbered out its long nightmare. Six thousand men was the number originally drawn by conscription—for there are no volunteers in Egypt—from a population of more than 6,000,000. Twenty-six British officers—either poor men attracted by the high rates of pay, or ambitious allured by the increased authority—and a score of excellent drill-sergeants undertook the duty of teaching the recruits to fight. Sir Evelyn Wood directed the enterprise, and became the first British Sirdar of the Egyptian army. The work began and immediately prospered. Within three months of its formation the army had its first review. The whole 6,000 paraded in their battalions and marched past the Khedive and their country's flag. Their bearing and their drill extorted the half-contemptuous praise of the indifferent spectators. Experienced soldiers noticed other points. Indeed, the new army differed greatly from the old. In the first place, it was paid. The recruits were treated with justice. Their rations were not stolen by the officers. The men were given leave to go to their villages from time to time. When they fell sick, they were sent to hospital instead of being flogged. In short, the European system was substituted for the Oriental.

It was hardly possible that the fertile soil and enervating climate of the Delta would have evolved a warrior race. Ages of oppression and poverty rarely produce proud and warlike spirits. Patriotism does not grow under the 'Kourbash.' The fellah soldier lacks the desire to kill. Even the Mohammedan religion has failed to excite his ferocity. He may be cruel. He is never fierce. Yet he is not without courage—a courage which bears pain and hardship in patience, which confronts ill-fortune with indifference, and which looks on death with apathetic composure. It is the courage of down-trodden peoples, and one which stronger breeds may often envy, though they can scarcely be expected to admire. He has other military virtues. He is obedient, honest, sober, well-behaved, quick to learn, and, above all, physically strong. Generations of toiling ancestors, though they could not brace his nerves, have braced his muscles. Under the pressure of local circumstances there has been developed a creature who can work with little food, with little incentive, very hard for long hours under a merciless sun. Throughout the river campaigns, if the intellect of the army, if the spirit of the troops, have come from without, Egypt herself has provided the sinews of war.

Such was the material out of which the British officers have formed the new Egyptian army. At first, indeed, their task was embittered by the ridicule of their comrades in the British and Indian Services; but as the drill and bearing of the force improved, the thoughtless scorn would have been diverted from the Englishmen to fall only upon the Egyptian soldiers. But this was not allowed. The British officers identified themselves with their men. Those who abused the fellah soldier were reminded that they insulted English gentlemen. Thus a strange bond of union was established between the officers and soldiers of the Egyptian Service; and although material forces may have accomplished much, without this moral factor the extraordinary results would never have been achieved.

It was not long before the new military organisation was exposed to the stern test of war. The army that was raised to preserve internal order was soon called upon to guard the frontier. The revolt in the Soudan, which in its earlier stages seemed the least of the Egyptian difficulties, speedily dwarfed all the rest. The value of the new force was soon recognised. In June 1883 we find General Hicks, then preparing for his fatal march, writing to Sir Evelyn Wood: 'Send me four battalions of your new army, and I shall be content.' But fortune protected the infant organisation from such a disastrous beginning. The 'new army' remained for a space in Cairo; and although during the Nile expedition of 1884-85 the Egyptians were employed guarding the lines of communication, it was not until the British troops had been withdrawn from Dongola that they received at Ginniss their baptism of fire. Henceforth their place was on the frontier, and from 1886 onward the Egyptian troops proved equal to the task of resisting the northward pressure of the Dervishes.

The numbers of the army grew with its responsibilities. Up to the end of 1883 the infantry still consisted of eight fellahin battalions. In 1884 the first Soudanese battalion was raised. The black soldier was of a very different type from the fellahin. The Egyptian was strong, patient, healthy, and docile. The negro was in all these respects his inferior. His delicate lungs, slim legs, and loosely knit figure contrasted unfavourably with the massive frame and iron constitution of the peasant of the Delta. Always excitable and often insubordinate, he required the strictest discipline. At once slovenly and uxorious, he detested his drills and loved his wives with equal earnestness; and altogether 'Sambo'—for such is the Soudanese equivalent of 'Tommy'—was a lazy, fierce, disreputable child. But he possessed two tremendous military virtues. To the faithful loyalty of a dog he added the heart of a lion. He loved his officer, and feared nothing in the world. With the introduction of this element the Egyptian army became a formidable military machine. Chance or design has placed the blacks ever in the forefront of the battle, and in Lord Kitchener's campaigns on the Nile the losses in the six Soudanese battalions have exceeded the aggregate of the whole of the rest of the army.

It was well that the Egyptian troops were strengthened by these valiant auxiliaries, for years of weary war lay before them. Sir Reginald Wingate, in his exhaustive account of the struggle of Egypt with the Mahdist power, [MAHDISM AND THE EGYPTIAN SOUDAN, Sir Reginald Wingate] has described the successive actions which accompanied the defence of the Wady Halfa frontier and of Suakin.

The ten years that elapsed between Ginniss and the first movements of the expedition of re-conquest were the dreary years of the Egyptian army. The service was hard and continual. Though the operations were petty, an untiring vigilance was imperative. The public eye was averted. A pitiless economy was everywhere enforced. The British officer was deprived of his leave and the Egyptian private of his rations, that a few pounds might be saved to the Egyptian Treasury. The clothing of the battalions wore thin and threadbare, and sometimes their boots were so bad that the soldiers' feet bled from the cutting edges of the rocks, and the convoy escorts left their trails behind them. But preparation was ever going forward. The army improved in efficiency, and the constant warfare began to produce, even among the fellahin infantry, experienced soldiers. The officers, sweltering at weary Wady Halfa and Suakin, looked at the gathering resources of Egypt and out into the deserts of the declining Dervish Empire and knew that some day their turn would come. The sword of re-conquest which Evelyn Wood had forged, and Grenfell had tested, was gradually sharpened; and when the process was almost complete, the man who was to wield it presented himself.

Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the eldest son of a lieutenant-colonel, was born in 1850, and, after being privately educated, entered in 1869 the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich as a cadet of the Royal Engineers. In the spring of 1871 he obtained his commission, and for the first ten years of his military service remained an obscure officer, performing his duties with regularity, but giving no promise of the talents and character which he was afterwards to display. One powerful weapon, however, he acquired in this time of waiting. In 1874 accident or instinct led him to seek employment in the surveys that were being made of Cyprus and Palestine, and in the latter country he learned Arabic. For six years the advantage of knowing a language with which few British officers were familiar brought him no profit. For procuring military preferment Arabic was in 1874 as valueless as Patagonian. All this was swiftly changed by the unexpected course of events. The year 1882 brought the British fleet to Alexandria, and the connection between England and Egypt began to be apparent. Kitchener did not neglect his opportunity. Securing leave of absence, he hurried to the scene of crisis. Alexandria was bombarded. Detachments from the fleet were landed to restore order. The British Government decided to send an army to Egypt. British officers and soldiers were badly wanted at the seat of war; an officer who could speak Arabic was indispensable.

Thus Kitchener came to Egypt and set his feet firmly on the high road to fortune. He came to Egypt when she was plunged in misery and shame, when hopeless ruin seemed already the only outcome of the public disasters, and when even greater misfortunes impended. He remained to see her prosperous and powerful; to restore empire to her people, peace to her empire, honour to her army; and among those clear-minded men of action by whom the marvellous work of regeneration has been accomplished, Herbert Kitchener will certainly occupy the second place. Lord Wolseley on his arrival soon found employment for the active officer who could speak Arabic. He served through the campaign of 1882 as a major. He joined the new army which was formed at the conclusion of the war, as one of the original twenty-six officers. In the Nile expedition of 1885 Arabic again led him to the front, and in the service of the Intelligence Department he found ample opportunity for his daring and energy. His efforts to communicate with Gordon in Khartoum did not, however, meet with much success, and the Journals bristle with so many sarcastic comments that their editor has been at pains to explain in his preface that there was really no cause for complaint. Major Kitchener, however, gave satisfaction to his superiors in Cairo, if not to the exacting General at Khartoum, and in 1886 he was appointed Governor of Suakin. This post, always one of responsibility and danger, did not satisfy Kitchener, whose ambition was now taking definite form. Eager for more responsibility and more danger, he harried and raided the surrounding tribes; he restricted and almost destroyed the slender trade which was again springing up, and in consequence of his measures the neighbourhood of Suakin was soon in even greater ferment than usual. This culminated at the end of 1887 in the re-appearance and advance of Osman Digna. The movements of the Dervishes were, however, uncertain. The defences of the town had been greatly strengthened and improved by the skill and activity of its new Governor. [See dispatch from Major-General Dormer to War Office, Cairo, April 22, 1888: 'With regard to the military works and defenses of the town, I was much struck with the great improvement that has been effected by Colonel Kitchener since my last visit to Suakin in the autumn of 1884.] Osman Digna retreated. The 'friendlies' were incited to follow, and Kitchener, although he had been instructed not to employ British officers or Egyptian regulars in offensive operations, went out in support. At Handub on the morning of the 17th of January, 1888, the friendlies attacked the camp of Osman Digna. They were at first successful; but while they dispersed to plunder the enemy rallied and, returning, drove them back with loss. Kitchener arrived on the field with the support, to find a defeat instead of a victory awaiting him. He bravely endeavoured to cover the retreat of the friendlies, and in so doing was severely—as it first seemed dangerously—wounded in the jaw. The loss among the friendlies and the support amounted to twenty men killed and two British officers and twenty-eight men wounded. The Governor returned in great pain and some discomfiture to Suakin. In spite of his wound and his reverse he was impatient to renew the conflict, but this was definitely forbidden by the British Government. Colonel Kitchener's military conduct was praised, but his policy was prevented. 'The policy which it is desirable to follow ... in the Eastern Soudan,' wrote Sir Evelyn Baring on the 17th of March, in measured rebuke, 'should consist in standing purely on the defensive against any hostile movement or combination of the Arab tribes, in avoiding any course of action which might involve the ultimate necessity of offensive action, and in encouraging legitimate trade by every means in our power.' [Sir E. Baring to Consul Cameron, March 14, 1888.]

The Governor could scarcely be expected to carry out a policy so much at variance with his views and inclinations, and in the summer of 1888 he was transferred to a purely military appointment and became Adjutant-General of the Egyptian army. For the next four years he worked busily in the War Office at Cairo, effecting many useful reforms and hard economies, and revealing powers of organisation which, although not yet appreciated by his comrades in the Egyptian service, were noticed by one vigilant eye. In 1892 Sir F. Grenfell resigned the post of Sirdar, and the chief command of the Egyptian army was vacant. Two men stood out prominently as candidates—Colonel Wodehouse, who held the command of the Halfa Field Force, and the Adjutant-General. Colonel Wodehouse had undoubtedly the greater claims. He had been for several years in command of a large force in continual contact with the enemy. He had won the action of Argin, and was known throughout the Soudan as 'the conqueror of Wad-el-Nejumi.' He had conducted the civil administration of the frontier province with conspicuous success, and he was popular with all ranks of the Egyptian army. Kitchener had little to set against this. He had shown himself a brave and active soldier. He was known to be a good official. But he had not been in accord with the Government in his civil administration, and was, moreover, little known to his brother officers. Sir Evelyn Baring's influence, however, turned the scale. Somewhat, therefore, to the astonishment of the Egyptian army, Kitchener was promoted Sirdar. Lord Cromer had found the military officer whom he considered capable of re-conquering the Soudan when the opportunity should come.

The years of preparation, wasted by no one in Egypt, were employed by no department better than by the Intelligence Branch. The greatest disadvantage from which Lord Wolseley had suffered was the general ignorance of the Soudan and its peoples. The British soldiers had had to learn the details of Dervish fighting by bitter experience. But the experience, once gained, was carefully preserved. The Intelligence Branch of the Egyptian army rose under the direction of Colonel (now Sir Reginald) Wingate to an extraordinary efficiency. For ten years the history, climate, geography, and inhabitants of the Soudan were the objects of a ceaseless scrutiny. The sharp line between civilisation and savagery was drawn at Wady Halfa; but beyond that line, up the great river, within the great wall of Omdurman, into the arsenal, into the treasury, into the mosque, into the Khalifa's house itself, the spies and secret agents of the Government—disguised as traders, as warriors, or as women—worked their stealthy way. Sometimes the road by the Nile was blocked, and the messengers must toil across the deserts to Darfur, and so by a tremendous journey creep into Omdurman. At others a trader might work his way from Suakin or from the Italian settlements. But by whatever route it came, information—whispered at Halfa, catalogued at Cairo—steadily accumulated, and the diaries of the Intelligence Department grew in weight and number, until at last every important Emir was watched and located, every garrison estimated, and even the endless intrigues and brawls in Omdurman were carefully recorded.

The reports of the spies were at length confirmed and amplified by two most important witnesses. At the end of 1891 Father Ohrwalder made his escape from Omdurman and reached the Egyptian territory. Besides giving the Intelligence Department much valuable information, he published a thrilling account of his captivity [TEN YEARS' CAPTIVITY, Father Ohrwalder], which created a wide and profound impression in England. In 1895 a still more welcome fugitive reached Assuan. Early on the 16th of March a weary, travel-stained Arab, in a tattered jibba and mounted on a lame and emaciated camel, presented himself to the Commandant. He was received with delighted wonder, and forthwith conducted to the best bath-room available. Two hours later a little Austrian gentleman stepped forth, and the telegraph hastened to tell the news that Slatin, sometime Governor of Darfur, had escaped from the Khalifa's clutches. Here at last was a man who knew everything that concerned the Dervish Empire—Slatin, the Khalifa's trusted and confidential servant, almost his friend, who had lived with him, who was even permitted to dine with him alone, who had heard all his counsels, who knew all his Emirs, and moreover Slatin, the soldier and administrator, who could appreciate all he had learned, was added with the rank of Pasha to the Staff of the Intelligence Department. While his accurate knowledge confirmed the belief of the Egyptian authorities that the Dervish power was declining, his tale of 'Fire and Sword in the Soudan' increased the horror and anger of thoughtful people in England at the cruelties of the Khalifa. Public opinion began to veer towards the policy of re-conquest.

The year 1895 brought in a Conservative and Unionist Administration. A Government came into office supported by a majority which was so strong that there seemed little reason to expect a transference of power for five or six years. Ministers were likely to be able to carry to a definite conclusion any projects they might devise. They belonged chiefly to that party in the State which had consistently assailed Mr. Gladstone's Egyptian policy. Here was an opportunity of repairing the damage done by their opponents. The comparisons that would follow such an accomplishment were self-evident and agreeable even to anticipate. The idea of re-conquering the Soudan presented itself indefinitely, but not unpleasingly, alike to the Government and the people of Great Britain. The unforeseen course of events crystallised the idea into a policy.

On the 1st of March, 1896, the battle of Adowa was fought, and Italy at the hands of Abyssinia sustained a crushing defeat. Two results followed which affected other nations. First, a great blow had been struck at European prestige in North Africa. It seemed probable that the Abyssinian success would encourage the Dervishes to attack the Italians at Kassala. It was possible that they might also attack the Egyptians at Suakin or on the Wady Halfa frontier. Secondly, the value of Italy as a factor in European politics was depreciated. The fact that her defeat had been assisted by the arms and munitions of war which had been supplied to the Abyssinians from French and Russian sources complicated the situation. The Triple Alliance was concerned. The third partner had been weakened. The balance might be restored if Great Britain would make some open sign of sympathy.

Moreover, the expectations of the Egyptian military authorities were soon fulfilled. The Dervishes threatened Kassala as soon as the news of Adowa reached them, and indeed there were signs of increased activity in Omdurman itself. In these circumstances the British Government determined to assist Italy by making a demonstration on the Wady Halfa frontier. They turned to Egypt. It had always been recognised that the recovery of the lost provinces was a natural and legitimate aspiration. 'The doubtful point was to decide the time when the military and financial resources of the country were sufficiently developed to justify an assumption of the offensive.' [LORD CROMER'S REPORTS: EGYPT, No. 2, 1896.] From a purely Egyptian point of view the best possible moment had not yet arrived. A few more years of recuperation were needed. The country would fight the Soudan campaigns more easily if first refreshed by the great reservoirs which were projected. For more than two years both projects had been pressed upon the Government of his Highness the Khedive—or, to write definitely, upon Lord Cromer. At regular intervals Sir Herbert Kitchener and Sir William Garstin would successively visit the British Agency (it would be treason to call it 'Government House')—the one to urge the case for a war, the other to plead for a reservoir. The reservoir had won. Only a few weeks before the advance to Dongola was ordered Garstin met Kitchener returning from the Agency. The engineer inquired the result of the General's interview. 'I'm beaten,' said Kitchener abruptly; 'you've got your dam'—and Garstin went on his way rejoicing.

The decision of the British Government came therefore as a complete surprise to the Cairene authorities. The season of the year was unfavourable to military operations. The hot weather was at hand. The Nile was low. Lord Cromer's report, which had been published in the early days of March, had in no way foreshadowed the event. The frontier was tranquil. With the exception of a small raid on a village in the Wady Halfa district and an insignificant incursion into the Tokar Delta the Dervish forces had during the year maintained 'a strictly defensive attitude.' [EGYPT, No. 1, 1896.] Lord Cromer, however, realised that while the case for the reservoirs would always claim attention, the re-conquest of the Soudan might not receive the support of a Liberal Government. The increasing possibility of French intrigues upon the Upper Nile had also to be considered. All politics are series of compromises and bargains, and while the historian may easily mark what would have been the best possible moment for any great undertaking, a good moment must content the administrator. Those who guarded the interests of Egypt could hardly consent to an empty demonstration on the Wady Halfa frontier at her expense, and the original intention of the British Government was at once extended to the re-conquest of the Dongola province—a definite and justifiable enterprise which must in any case be the first step towards the recovery of the Soudan.

         *         *         *         *         *         * 

It will be convenient, before embarking upon the actual chronicle of the military operations, to explain how the money was obtained to pay for the war. I desire to avoid the intricate though fascinating tangles of Egyptian finance. Yet even when the subject is treated in the most general way the difficulties which harass and impede the British administrators and insult the sovereign power of Egypt—the mischievous interference of a vindictive nation, the galling and almost intolerable financial fetters in which a prosperous country is bound—may arouse in the sympathetic reader a flush of annoyance, or at any rate a smile of pitying wonder.

About half the revenue of Egypt is devoted to the development and government of the country, and the other half to the payment of the interest on the debt and other external charges; and, with a view to preventing in the future the extravagance of the past, the London Convention in 1885 prescribed that the annual expenditure of Egypt shall not exceed a certain sum. When the expenditure exceeds this amount, for every pound that is spent on the government or development of Egypt another pound must be paid to the Commissioners of the Debt; so that, after the limit is reached, for every pound that is required to promote Egyptian interests two pounds must be raised by taxation from an already heavily taxed community. But the working of this law was found to be so severe that, like all laws which exceed the human conception of justice, it has been somewhat modified. By an arrangement which was effected in 1888, the Caisse de la Dette are empowered, instead of devoting their surplus pound to the sinking fund, to pay it into a general reserve fund, from which the Commissioners may make grants to meet 'extraordinary expenses'; those expenses, that is to say, which may be considered 'once for all'(capital) expenditure and not ordinary annual charges.

The Dongola expedition was begun, as has been said, without reference to the immediate internal condition of Egypt. The moment was a good one, but not the best. It was obviously impossible for Egypt to provide for the extraordinary expenses of the military operations out of revenue. The Ministry of Finance therefore appealed to the Caisse de la Dette for a grant from the general reserve fund. Here was an obvious case of 'extraordinary expenses.' The Egyptian Government asked for £E500,000.

The Caisse met in council. Six Commissioners—representing England, France, Russia, Germany, Austria, and Italy—duly discussed the application. Four Commissioners considered that the grant should be made. Two Commissioners, those representing France and Russia, voted against it. The majority decided. The grant was made. The money was handed to the Egyptian Government and devoted to the prosecution of the war.

Egypt as a sovereign power had already humbly begged to be allowed to devote part of the surplus of her own revenues to her own objects. A greater humiliation remained. The Commissioners of France and Russia, who had been out-voted, brought an action against their colleagues on the grounds that the grant was ultra vires; and against the Egyptian Government for the return of the money thus wrongly obtained. Other actions were brought at French instigation by various people purporting to represent the bondholders, who declared that their interests were threatened. The case was tried before the Mixed Tribunals, an institution which exists in Egypt superior to and independent of the sovereign rights of that country.

On the part of the Egyptian Government and the four Commissioners it was contended that the Mixed Tribunals had no competency to try the case; that the attacking parties had no right of action; that the Egyptian Government had, in applying, done all that the law of liquidation required; and that the act of sovereignty was complete as soon as the Caisse, which was the legal representative of the bondholding interest, had pronounced its decision.

The argument was a strong one; but had it been ten times as strong, the result would have been the same. The Mixed Tribunals, an international institution, delivered its judgment on strictly political grounds, the judges taking their orders from the different countries they represented. It was solemnly pronounced that war expenses were not 'extraordinary expenses.' The proximate destruction of the Khalifa's power was treated quite as a matter of everyday occurrence. A state of war was apparently regarded as usual in Egypt. On this wise and sensible ground the Egyptian Government were condemned to pay back £E500,000, together with interest and costs. After a momentary hesitation as to whether the hour had not come to join issue on the whole subject of the financial restrictions of Egypt, it was decided to bow to this iniquitous decision. The money had now to be refunded. It had already been spent. More than that, other sums were needed for the carrying on of the war. The army was by then occupying Dongola, and was in actual expectation of a Dervish counter-attack, and it was evident that the military operations could not be suspended or arrested. It was impossible to stop; yet without money it seemed impossible to go on; and, besides, it appeared that Egypt would be unable to repay the £E500,000 which she had been granted, and of which she was now deprived.

Such was the painful and difficult situation which a friendly nation, in the utmost exercise of her wit and the extreme compass of her legal rights, had succeeded in producing in a country for whose welfare she had always professed an exaggerated regard. Such was the effect of French diplomacy. But there is a Nemesis that waits on international malpractices, however cunning. Now, as before and since, the very astuteness of the French Ministers and agents was to strike a terrible blow at French interests and French influence in Egypt. At this period France still exercised a considerable force on Egyptian politics. One Egyptian party, the weaker, but still by no means insignificant, looked towards her for support. The news of the French success cheered their hearts and raised their spirits. Orientals appreciate results. The result was a distinct reverse to the British. The conclusion to the native mind was obvious. Great Britain had been weighed in the European balances and found wanting. In all Eastern countries a large proportion of the population fluctuates uncertainly, eager only to be on the winning side. All this volume of agitation and opinion began to glide and flow towards the stronger Power, and when the Egyptian Government found their appeal from the decision of the Court of First Instance of the Mixed Tribunals to the International Court of Appeal at Alexandria quashed, and the original decision confirmed, the defeat of the British was no less complete than the triumph of the French.

But meanwhile the Consul-General acted. On the 2nd of December he telegraphed to Lord Salisbury, reporting the judgment of the Court of Appeal and asking that he might be 'authorised to state directly that her Majesty's Government will be prepared to advance the money on conditions to be hereafter arranged.' The reply was prompt, though guarded. 'You are authorised,' said Lord Salisbury, 'by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to state that though of course the primary liability for the payment of the £E500,000 rests with the Egyptian Government, her Majesty's Government will hold themselves prepared to advance, on conditions to be decided hereafter, such a sum as they feel satisfied that the Egyptian Treasury is powerless to provide.' [The original £500,000 was afterwards increased to £800,000; which sum was paid by the British Exchequer to the Egyptian Government, at first as a loan, and later as a gift.] This obvious development does not seem to have been foreseen by the French diplomatists, and when, on the 3rd of December, it was rumoured in Cairo that Great Britain was prepared to pay the money, a great feeling of astonishment and of uncertainty was created. But the chances of the French interference proving effective still seemed good. It was believed that the English Government would not be in a position to make an advance to the Egyptian Government until funds had been voted by Parliament for the purpose. It was also thought that Egypt would be utterly unable to find the money immediately. In the meantime the position was humiliating. France conceived herself mistress of the situation. A complete disillusionment, however, awaited the French Government. The taxes in Egypt, as in other countries, are not collected evenly over the whole year. During some months there is a large cash balance in the Exchequer. In others the money drains in slowly. It happened at this period of the year, after the cotton crop had been gathered, that a considerable balance had accumulated in the Treasury, and on the guarantee of the English Government being received, to the effect that they would ultimately assist Egypt with regard to the expenses of the expedition, Lord Cromer determined to repay the money at once.

The event was foreshadowed. On the 5th of December the Egyptian Council of Ministers, presided over by the Khedive in person, decided on their own initiative to despatch an official letter expressing in warm terms their gratitude for the financial help offered them by her Majesty's Government. 'I am desired,' said Boutros Pasha, 'to beg your lordship to be good enough to convey to his lordship the Marquess of Salisbury the expression of the lively gratitude of the Khedive and the Egyptian Government for the great kindness which her Majesty's Government has shown to them on this occasion.' [EGYPT, No. 1, 1897.]

On the 6th of December £E500,000, together with £E15,600 interest and costs, in gold, was conveyed in boxes in a cart from the Egyptian Treasury to the offices of the Caisse de la Dette. The effect was tremendous. All Cairo knew of the difficulty. All Cairo witnessed the manner in which it had been overcome. The lesson was too plain to be lost on the native mind. The reverse of the French diplomacy was far greater even than its success had appeared. For many years French influence in Egypt had not received so heavy a blow; yet even in the short space of time which this story covers it was to receive a still more terrible wound.


The River War by Winston Churchill | Project Scenewash | Project Gutenberg

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