Rediscovered: George Hugh Gough and Anglo-Egyptian War

James Peters writes:

This is the first in an occasional series of Special Collections Blog posts describing some of our less well-known archives and manuscripts. Some of these have been with the Library for many years, but have not been catalogued or otherwise publicised. We want these collections to be better known, so we will be publishing a series of posts about these ‘rediscovered’ collections.

The Journal of Captain G. H. Gough  (English MS 1375)

The Hon. George Hugh Gough (1852-1900) was a well-connected career soldier. He served in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, where he kept a detailed journal of his experiences. The Library purchased this journal from a  book dealer in 1970, but it has only now been catalogued, forty-seven years later (oops), as English MS 1375.

The Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882 saw the beginning of what has been described as the “veiled protectorate”, as the Britain slowly came to dominate the government of Egypt, a process which arguably only ended with the Suez Crisis in 1956.

The War was fought between followers of Ahmed Urabi [Arabi] Pasha (1841-1911), an Egyptian soldier and politician, and a British-Indian expeditionary force led by General Sir Garnet Wolseley. Urabi had effectively sidelined Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive, Tawfiq Pasha, who was supported by the British, and his insurgency was considered a grave threat to British financial and strategic interests in the country.

In the summer of 1882, a British naval force bombarded the port of Alexandria, following riots against its European population. William Gladstone’s government then dispatched an expeditionary force, which was charged with defeating Urabi and restoring the Khedive’s authority. Gough served in this force as the aide-de-camp to Lt General Edward Hamley, who was commanding the force’s Second Division.

Gough describes his arrival in Alexandria, where he observes the damaged forts, and a city largely under curfew. The British had originally planned to make a direct attack on Cairo from Alexandria. However, in a bold change of plan, Wolseley moved the main force to the Suez Canal zone, from where he planned to advance along the main rail line and canal to Cairo.

On arriving at Ismailia on the Canal, Gough witnessed at first-hand the  logistical problems, which threatened the British plan. The British able to move quickly by water, but a lack of rail transport slowed the advance to Cairo. Urabi then regrouped his forces at Tel-el-Kebir, twenty five miles from the Canal, where they dug in, and threatened to cut the water-supply to Ismailia. To counter this, Wolseley determined on a bold but risky frontal attack on Urabi’s army (which outnumbered the British), which required a complex night march to meet the enemy.

G. H. Gough’s map of the British advance from Ismailia

Gough’s description of the battle of Tel-el-Kebir on 13 September is the most dramatic part of the journal. The British advanced across the desert at night, guided by the stars. They marched in formation and in silence, and Gough describes the “strange creaking noises” their boots made on the sand. The soldiers got to within 150 yards of the Egyptian lines before they were seen and fired at. The British then launched a bayonet charge. Gough was in the thick of ferocious fighting: “From every side… sheets of flame show, and the air hisses with bullets”. Facing stiff Egyptian resistance, Gough was ordered to fetch reinforcements, but as he rode away his horse was shot from under him. Help eventually arrived, and within hours Urabi’s army had been routed and put to flight.

de Neuville, Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe, 1835-1885; The Storming of Tel el Kebir
Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville, ‘The Storming of Tel el Kebir’, National Museums Scotland. Wikimedia Commons public domain image.

The British forces then advanced rapidly to Cairo, capturing Urabi, and restoring the Khedive. Gough spent several weeks in Cairo, mainly sight-seeing. He received a medal, the Order of Mejidie (4th class), personally from the Khedive and left Egypt in a state of relief: “What a lucky fellow I’ve been; how much I have to be thankful for.” He reached Britain in early November, to find he had been promoted to major. Gough continued in the Army until his death on active service during the South African War in 1900.

Although the journal is mainly concerned with the practicalities of war, Gough makes some interesting political observations, noting Urabi’s popularity with ordinary Egyptians: “this is a national movement, that rightly or wrongly the Egyptians hate us, and that [Urabi] is a representative of their sentiments”. Gough was also critical of the Khedive, whom he met on several occasions, and commented on his poor grasp of political realities.

Surviving first-hand accounts of the Anglo-Egyptian war seem to be quite rare, so Gough’s journal provides an interesting viewpoint from the British side of this largely forgotten war.

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