Like many Asian and African rulers, Muhammad Ali (1805—1848), ruler of Egypt, and his grandson Ismail (1863—79) believed that the only way to resist 19th-century Western imperialism was by a wholesale adoption of Western technology and military systems. As a result there were two main periods during which Western mercenaries played a major significant role in Egyptian military history. The first was under Muhammad Ali himself, when the majority of such foreigners were French or Italian. They, and the army they helped to create, were astonishingly successful. A second period under Ismail, who recruited large numbers of Americans, was notably less successful.
Ismail was the first of his dynasty to enjoy the title of Khedive, or hereditary autonomous ruler. He had great ambitions for his country but was also aware that the Egyptian army had declined considerably since the glory days of Muhammad Ali. A report drawn up by a Russian, Rostislav Fadeiell, convinced Ismail that success depended upon a Europeanised officer corps while the uneducated rank-and-file should merely continue to obey orders. The officer corps was certainly in need of reform. It suffered from bitter ethnic rivalry between Turks, Circassians, Albanians and officers of Arab-Egyptian origin. The so-called Pasha System meant that senior commanders regarded their regiments almost as personal property, resisting outside interference and often being unable to delegate even minor tasks, while widespread illiteracy meant that even officers had to rely on Coptic Christian clerks. When experienced senior officers from the Muhammad Ali era retired, they had all too often been replaced by men who lacked interest in, or knowledge of, the technological aspects of warfare that were now so important. Since many of them had also been recruited from the ranks, their formal education was minimal.
Ismail's first foreign mercenaries came from Europe. Most taught in the advanced cavalry and artillery schools though Italian officers were also given active service commands in both the Army and the Navy. In the late 1860s Khedive Ismail of Egypt and Emperor Napoleon III of France quarrelled over the financing of the Suez Canal and by 1869 all French officers except three had been sent home. Meanwhile Ismail was already interested in the possibility of recruiting Americans. The latter had recent experience of modern warfare during the Civil War, many unemployed veterans were available, Ismail enjoyed good relations with Washington because Egypt took a firmly pro-Union stance, and as yet the USA had few interests in Egypt.
Ismail's first contact was Maj. Gen. Thaddeus P. Mott of New York who arrived in Egypt in 1869. He spoke fluent Turkish and convinced Ismail that he could recruit the best men available. In return Mott could offer recruits good pay, a five-year contract and the minimum rank of Bimbashi or Major. New York was also a good place to recruit since, in addition to ex-Union officers, many ex-Confederates had gone there to restore their fortunes.
The contract signed by Col. McIver was probably typical. Dated 23 March 1870, it stipulated that McIver should make, wage and vigorously prosecute war against all the enemies of his new sovereign, and that he should follow and enforce all orders of the Egyptian Minister of War. It also provided that if he fell ill through the effects of climate, he could resign his commission, receiving two months' pay and the cost of his journey home. One-fifth extra pay was allowed for active service in the provinces plus an additional allowance in the case of injury. If the recruit died from natural causes, one year's pay would be given to a legal representative, and if he was killed or died from wounds received in combat, a pension of one-half the deceased officer's pay would be paid to his widow or children.
The Khedive Ismail was fully aware of the potential problem of a culture clash and his senior Egyptian officers were told to be patient with these Westerners. It would be needed as, for example, when Major Morgan left in a hurry after accepting a rose from a member of the Khedive's harem then being chased by the lady's eunuch guards. Cliques even developed within the American ranks, and duels were fought. Some got bored and went home; others fell ill and left. Of the forty-eight Americans who are known to have served in the Egyptian Army, Navy and General Staff between 1869 and 1882, no more than thirty were present at one time.
The armed forces which the Americans joined were of mixed quality. The General Staff had ceased to exist, the Navy had been drastically reduced, the artillery was good, the cavalry few in number, the engineers poor and the commissariat bad. Infantry remained the backbone of the Egyptian Army but their tactics and training were extremely old fashioned. On the other hand the resulting large, open and rectangular formations proved their worth against tribal foes in the Sudan where the British used similar tactics to the end of the 19th century.
Prejudice and overt racism were added to the old ethnic rivalries in an officer corps which now included Turks, Albanians, Circassians, Egyptians British, French, Italians, Germans and Swiss. It was, however, the Americans who played the key role during the 1870s. But even they were unable to put aside their own Union-Confederate rivalries for several years. Most Americans also found the primitive living conditions outside Egypt almost intolerable. Only a few tried to learn Arabic or Turkish, usually communicating in a fractured form of French. Some Americans even resented having to speak French, which Lockett described as 'slippery gibberish'. The American habit of striking fellow officers made them deeply unpopular while the worst tensions were with their Muslim colleagues, particularly those of visible Arab or African origin. It was obvious that most of the Americans despised the Muslim faith and were horrified if any Westerner converted to Islam. Similarly the typical Middle Eastern habit of extreme civility and even familiarity between officer ranks was seen by the Americans as undermining authority.
Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that most of the Americans were given Staff, administrative or even civilian roles. In fact Mott and Stone revived the defunct General Staff despite resistance from senior Egyptian officers such as Muhammad Ratib Pasha, the Sirdar, or Commander, of the Army, who honestly saw no need for such an institution. When Stone became the new Chief of Staff in 1870, he found neither maps nor books while most officers who had received staff training before or during the Crimean War had either died, gone to other duties or had left the army. In effect, Stone started from scratch, having some of the best-educated Egyptian officers transferred to his department. Other Americans went to the War Office, again with Egyptian lieutenants. A military library and map collection was established and Stone even supported the creation of an arms museum.
Americans also commanded some of the Navy's few ships while others improved old or designed new fortifications, particularly along the vulnerable Mediterranean coast. On 25 September 1871 Gen. Stone himself submitted a detailed plan for the defence of the Nile Delta. He urged that earth from the regular dredging of irrigation and drainage canals be put on one bank, not on both as was normal, so as to create a useful military elevation. On 28 September 1873 another report by Gen. Stone suggested the use of 'torpedoes and other means of carrying on submarine warfare' to defend the Delta's canals and waterways.
The Egyptian officers who graduated through Stone's new Staff College were often ostracised by their colleagues and found their promotion slowed rather than accelerated. Efforts to teach Egyptian soldiers to read and write were more successful and by 1873 almost three-quarters of the rank-and-file could write their own application forms for leave. The children of NCOs so often accompanied their fathers to school in their eagerness to learn that Gen. Stone established a system of primary education for the sons of soldiers, with special arrangements for the families of men serving far from home. Most of the teachers were officers while ordinary soldiers looked after the school kitchens and dormitories.
In military terms, however, the 1870s were disastrous. The Khedive Ismail and Gen. Stone believed that Egyptian authority could be extended across the entire Horn of Africa. After all, a large punitive raid by Egyptian forces to stop raiding by Ethiopian 'bandits' had been a success in 1863. A larger British attack on Ethiopia in 1867—68 destroyed King Theodore and led to a fragmentation of authority throughout the country. The Italians then established themselves at Assab in 1869 but in June the following year Egyptian troops expelled the Italians, after which the Egyptian Navy 'showed the flag' along the northern Somali coast. Furthermore many Westerners saw Egyptian expansion as a way of combating the slave trade. Another punitive raid against the Ethiopians in 1872 was successful and Werner Munzinger, a Swiss mercenary who governed the Red Sea port of Massawa for Egypt, went on to fortify the strategic Keren area.
But King Yohannis of Ethiopia also re-established authority over his country by 1875 — the year Khedive Ismail purchased the Somali port of Saylac from the Ottomans and decided to launch a full-scale invasion. This was not to conquer Ethiopia but to impose Egyptian terms and Stone and Ismail assumed that it would be no more difficult than campaigning in Dar Fur or Equatoria. Nevertheless it was an ambitious affair involving thrusts from three directions under four commanders; three western mercenaries and one Turco-Egyptian. Henry F. McKillop Pasha, an ex-Royal Navy captain and now an admiral in the Egyptian Navy, with Col. Ward, late of the Confederate Navy, was to take control of ports along the northern and eastern Somali coasts as far as Kismaayo. Chaillé-Long would then land with a small force and make his way up the Jubba river before striking westward to link up with Gen. Gordon in Equatoria, surrounding Ethiopia with a belt of Egyptian territory.
The only really successful thrust was that commanded by a Turco-Egyptian officer, Muhammad Rauf Pasha, who had earlier served under Baker in the southern Sudan. His small force struck inland from the Gulf of Aden and took the historic Islamic city of Harer, the cultural and economic centre of eastern Ethiopia, plus its dependencies. It was a hard-fought campaign for Muhammad Rauf's troops, the great majority of whom were Egyptians rather than Sudanese. More remarkable, in the light of Egyptian failures under western mercenary officers elsewhere, was the continued success of Egyptian troops under Muhammad Rauf's successors at a time when Egyptian authority was collapsing, not only in the Sudan but when Egypt itself was occupied by the British.
Urged on by Stone, Werner Munzinger took a tiny force in an attempt to confirm Egyptian authority along the southernmost Red Sea coast and thus isolate the newly established French enclave at Obock. It was a fiasco with Munzinger being killed in the appalling Denakil region on 13 November 1875; his surviving troops made a fighting retreat under his second-in-command, Izzet Bey, back to the coast where they were supported by the Egyptian fleet.
A second larger force, commanded by a Danish officer named Soren Arendrup Bey, also set out in October. Though not highly regarded by most other mercenaries, Arendrup was Gen. Stone's loyal lieutenant and came from his General Staff. Second-in-command was Rustem Bey Naji, a veteran of recent successes in Crete, supported by Bimbashi J. A. Dennison. Unfortunately their army had virtually no cavalry and faced huge problems with the terrain, climate and an inadequate transport system. To overcome these difficulties, Arendrup divided forces but advanced too far, too fast. The Ethiopians selected the battlefield and inflicted a catastrophic defeat at the battle of Gundet (16 November 1875). Here Arendrup left the fortifications erected by Dennison and went off to help Count Zichy's tiny reconnaissance unit. Dennison urged Arendrup not to make this dangerous move, but the Dane went anyway and was soon overwhelmed by a far larger Ethiopian force. This left Majors Dennison, Rushdi and Rushton Bey in three separate positions in very rough terrain. When he heard firing, Rushton Bey moved out to help but was similarly overwhelmed, the veterans of Crete putting up a fierce resistance before being bowled over by sheer numbers. Dennison and Rushdi now joined forces on a mountaintop which their men fortified as best they could. Next day, refusing Ethiopian demands to surrender and with their hopelessly outnumbered men close to panic, Bimbashis Dennison and Rushdi placed themselves at the head of a close-packed column with revolvers in their hands, threatening to shoot anyone who marched ahead of them. An epic march through the Eritrean mountains followed, before the survivors reached the safety of Massawa.
Most of the men who fell into Ethiopian hands were slaughtered, the rest being castrated before being sent to Massawa with the message: 'Here are your soldiers Ismail. If you want any more eunuchs for your harem, drive up the rest of your army.' Furthermore the Ethiopians captured so much weaponry that the military balance was altered. Nevertheless Khedive Ismail insisted on revenge. Gen. Stone wanted total victory over the Ethiopians but most of the senior Turco-Circassian officers favoured a limited punitive expedition. This, they correctly believed, was more realistic. The Turco-Circassians also wanted one of their own men in command, while the Americans wanted one of theirs. In the end Ismail compromised all round. The aims of the January—March 1876 campaign remained unclear; the Sirdar Muhammad Pasha Ratib was in command with Amir-Liwa Loring as second-in-command. Unfortunately Loring regarded himself as co-commander while many Americans considered that he was actually in charge. While Loring was hot tempered, used his cane on junior Egyptian officers, spoke neither Arabic nor Turkish and had limited French, Ratib was different in almost all respects. This small, wizened man was not the incompetent coward described by most Western commentators. Courteous and with genuine concern for his troops, Muhammad Pasha Ratib was an experienced and courageous veteran of the Cretan campaign. He was also a cautious commander in the style of Ulysses Grant or Montgomery. His old-fashioned ideas may also have been more attuned to Egyptian capabilities. In addition to cultural and personality clashes, there was argument about tactics. Loring and Dye wanted a rapid advance over a wide front by several columns. This reflected their Civil War experience but was probably impossible with the available transport. Ratib wanted a cautious approach along a single axis and garrisoning their supply lines. Disagreement at the top filtered down to more junior officer ranks, Dye even striking an Egyptian Bimbashi named Ibrahim Lutfi.
This Egyptian force was larger and better equipped than Arendrup's but its morale was far inferior. It also faced problems with drinking water, especially after establishing a fortified position at Gura. The Ethiopians now arrived more quickly than expected. Ratib wanted to make the Ethiopians attack the Egyptians in their well-prepared position. Loring and Dye insisted on taking the offensive, and Ratib gave way. The resulting battle of Gura (7—9 March 1876) was another disaster with the hugely outnumbered Egyptians advancing into the open where they were overwhelmed by Ethiopian warriors who made excellent use of the broken terrain. The survivors, their morale shattered, took refuge in their field fortifications where Ratib refused to permit a cavalry sortie and concentrated on strengthening the defences. This forced the Ethiopians to attack, as he had always wished, and as a result they suffered as many casualties as the Egyptians. It was now stalemate and eventually the Ethiopians had to withdraw, since their supply system was even worse than that of the Egyptians. Of 2,189 Egyptians captured at Gura, only one hundred and thirty were sent back; the rest were massacred. The American Surgeon-Major Johnson also survived capture and appalling suffering.
Muhammad Pasha Ratib dismissed all Americans from his staff and although the Turks, Circassians and Egyptians agreed that the foreigners should go, they themselves blamed each other for the defeat. The battle of Gura was a disaster, the Egyptians suffering heavy casualties and losing massive quantities of weaponry. More serious was the impact on Egyptian morale and their economy, both of which collapsed. When the layers of Western propaganda and self-justification are removed, the reasons for the Egyptian Army's defeats in Ethiopia become clear. Khedive Ismail, unlike his grandfather Muhammad Ali, failed to inspire his ordinary soldiers with enthusiasm and there was a catastrophic failure of leadership, command and organization. An Egyptian Army could succeed in small-scale operations. In Ethiopia it had been grossly over-extended and its foes seriously underestimated.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the moral impact of these disasters was limited to the African front. Elsewhere Egyptian soldiers under their own officers continued to perform well, most notably the 30,000 who fought alongside Ottoman troops against Russians in the Balkans in 1877. By then, of course, Khedive Ismail was tiring of his American mercenaries and was looking elsewhere for replacements. Egypt's financial crisis meant that nothing came of this. The size of the Egyptian Army was reduced drastically and, on 30 June 1878, all the Americans were dismissed, with the exception of Gen. Stone who remained Chief of Staff until 1882. He remained loyal to Khedive Tewfiq throughout the Army rebellion led by Col. Urabi Pasha, staying by his side when rebels surrounded Cairo's Abdin Palace and when the British invaded Egypt in 1882.
Americans served in Egypt in larger numbers than any other mercenaries except perhaps the French. They included veterans of both sides in the Civil War and many gave good service, but in the end they proved to be a poor investment. Some were cranks or deadbeats and, as Col. S.H. Locket once wrote: 'General Stone and Egypt have been cursed with some of the worst Americans that could be found . . . so much drunkenness and inefficiency . . .
It is a wonder to me that H. H. [His Highness] lets another American in as an employee of the government.' Western attitudes to Muslim peoples had changed since the glory days of Muhammad Ali when French, Italian and Spanish mercenaries still had a grudging, if somewhat romanticised, respect for Islamic civilisation. By the middle of the 19th century, however, racism and an overweening sense of superiority had taken hold throughout most of the western world. It was Egypt's tragedy, and that of the Americans who served the Khedive, that they arrived when they did.
by David Nicolle
About the Author
Dr David Nicolle worked in the BBC Arabic Service, gained an MA from the School of Oriental and Asian Studies and a PhD from Edinburgh University. He taught world and Islamic art at Yarmuk University, Jordan, and is one of Osprey’s most prolific and popular authors.
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