For various geographical reasons the possible invasion routes into Lower Egypt were limited to that from Alexandria through Tantah, and that from Ismailia through Zag-a-Zig. The first was guarded by Arabi Pasha’s entrenchments at Kafr Dawr, and the second by the fortified camp at El Tel-el-Kebir, ‘ the Great Hill.’ As soon as the Egyptian leader became aware of Sir Garnet Wolseley’s preparations at Ismailia, he hastened to Tel-el-Kebir and caused the fortifications to be greatly strengthened, while at the same time making several sorties in force towards the canal, in an endeavour to prevent the landings of the British force. These efforts had been repelled, though not without some difficulty, by the British cavalry before the arrival of the Highland Brigade and the main strength of the field force. By the time the brigade had reached Kassassin Sir Garnet was ready to take the offensive and drive into Lower Egypt. He lost no time whatsoever, and in fact started his offensive before the field force had really assembled. Although wholly successful, he has often been criticised for his rashness, which is indeed somewhat reminiscent of Wellington in his early days as a commander.
While the 74th were parading outside their tents at daybreak on the morning after their arrival Sir Garnet Wolseley rode by on his way to reconnoitre the enemy positions. A spare, soldierly figure, he sat very upright in the saddle, wearing dark sun-glasses and flourishing a fly-whisk. He was greatly respected by all ranks in the army, being known as ‘ our only general.’ The phrase ‘ All Sir Garnet,’ meaning ‘ everything’s as it should be,’ lasted a long time in the British Army, though it has been forgotten now. He was followed by his staff, among them being Captain Hilyard of the 71st, and by several senior officers, among them his Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, commanding the Guards’ Brigade, and afterwards Colonel-in-Chief of the Highland Light Infantry. He was a very fine and impressive-looking man in those days. The reconnaissance was escorted by the 19th Light Dragoons, who, it will be remembered, saved the remnants of the 74th at Assaye. They now called themselves Hussars for some reason. As the Duke of Wellington would have said, they ‘ did very well’ as Light Dragoons. Also in the field were the Madras Sappers and Miners, who wore, like the 74th, ‘ the elephant superscribed Assaye.’
The Egyptian position had its right on the railway line running along the Sweetwater Canal, near the station of Tel-el-Kebir. From the right flank the ground rose gradually towards the west, culminating in a range of hills that stretch from the railway about a mile and a half east of the station, northwards to Salahieh. Parallel to the canal is a second series of hills intersecting the first about two miles from the railway. The country is a barren and desolate region of sand and rock, with some slight scrub. The entrenchments ran along the crests of the hills, starting from the railway and carrying on in a northerly direction for over two miles beyond the intersection, making a frontage of nearly four miles in all. In front of the trenches was a dry ditch, about twelve feet wide and nine feet deep, behind which had been constructed a breastwork six feet high with a banquette to the rear.
Behind the defence works were innumerable shelter-trenches, traverses and breastworks. At the southern end of the line were two redoubts, each mounting three guns, on either side of the canal, while two more guns were In position on the railway. About a thousand yards in front of the lines was a polygonal redoubt on rising ground, which mounted six guns. Directly to the rear of this, and in the lines, was a battery of four guns. To the north, and at the intersection, was a five-gun battery, with another similar farther up the line.
There were two weaknesses in this otherwise formidable position. The first was that the majority of the defences Were incomplete, and the second that the frontage was too great for the force which Arabi Pasha had at his disposal, which as far as could be ascertained at the time, amounted to not more than twenty-five thousand of all arms.
At three o’clock in the afternoon of 12 September 1882 the orderly bugler of the 74th sounded for company commanders, who thereupon gathered in the orderly-room tent round the Colonel’s table. The Commanding Officer of the 74th, Lieutenant-Colonel John Jago, had been taken ill on arrival at Ismailia, and his place had been taken by the second-in-command, Lieutenant-Colonel Abel Straghan Colonel Straghan was a fine-looking man with short side whiskers, a heavy dragoon moustache, and a twinkle in his eye. On the fly-leaf of a book of notes from which some of the information for this chapter has been derived, is written in his mother’s hand, beneath the title ‘ 74th Highlanders,’ ‘ … in which Abel, the best of sons, was for 33 years.’ He had actually joined the Regiment in 1854, after the Kaffir War, but had seen some active service in Central India.
‘ Now, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘ we march tonight and attack at dawn. The 1st Division will be on the right, the 2nd in the centre, and the Indians and Naval Brigade on the left, along the line of the canal and railway. In the 1st Division General Graham’s Brigade will lead, supported by the Guards. In the 2nd Division the Highland Brigade will lead, supported by the 46th and 60th Rifles. The Highland Brigade will advance in line of column of double companies by half battalions ; from right to left–42nd, 75th, 79th and ours. There will be thirty paces interval between regiments. The guns will move between the two supporting brigades and the cavalry on the right flank.
‘The advance will commence at about 1.30 o’clock tomorrow morning. Sir Garnet wishes to get to charging distance by dawn. There is to be no firing, only the bayonet is to be used. The most perfect silence must be kept ; there must be no talking and orders must be passed quietly. The enemy have dug a deep ditch along their front, but most of it is incomplete and has not yet been revetted. The General thinks we should get across it all right. It must be done. You must also warn your men that the Egyptians are known to have a trick of lying down, pretending to be dead or wounded, and then they get up and shoot you in the back. Warn your fellows to take no chances, but to see that a man is dead before passing him. Especially watch out when we get to the guns–they dodge under the limbers.
‘ The regiments will parade at 6 o’clock. All tents will be struck and piled by the railway, but the fires must be kept going. I will have a word with the men before we move off. Now, if I have made myself clear, that will be all, gentlemen. Thank you.’
The captains touched their helmets and withdrew, moving in a thoughtful group towards their lines. Like the majority of their men, they were new to war. ‘ Deuce take it,’ said one, ‘ I don’t quite like what the Colonel said about seeing to it that all the Egyptians on the ground are dead. How’s one to tell if a man’s foxing or not ? ‘ ‘ I’m not going to read it to my company,’ said another, ‘ couldn’t possibly trust them. Why,’ he added with a look of positive horror, ‘ they might even bayonet a wounded man !’ ‘ It’s the Colonel’s orders,’ said a third, ‘ and I shall read it accordingly.’ The rest said nothing ; the group split up, and each officer went towards his company.
At 6 o’clock as ordered the tents were struck and piled, The Colonel said a few words to the Regiment on parade, merely warning them to keep good dressing and silence.
The Highland Brigade then formed up and marched westwards over the desert in echelon of battalions from the left, the 74th directing. There was no moon, but the stars shone brightly. After about an hour the Brigade passed through the cavalry vedettes, and a little later halted on some rising ground known as ‘ Nine-gun Hill.’ Here the line of advance had been marked out by directing posts fixed beforehand, and a star was pointed out to the Colonel of the Regiment to march by. ‘ I can almost see the star now,’ one of the officers wrote later, ‘ the second from the left of a constellation of four, due west, and at that time right over Kebir.’
The brigade then deployed into the double-company formation, piled arms and lay down to await the arrival of Sir Garnet Wolseley. Both officers and men at first sat about in groups, discussing the coming action, and wondering how far they had to march before coming to the bayonet point. There was then ‘ the thunder of horses galloping, and the rattle of sabres close in front.’ Everyone jumped to his feet and ran towards the piled arms, thinking the enemy cavalry had made a surprise attack, for there had been no warning that the British cavalry were out reconnoitring, The alarm became general along the brigade front, but fortunately the truth was discovered before harm was done, The troops then sat down again, and gradually lapsed into silence, ‘ even the most cheery could not help feeling more or less subdued, the dead silence, darkness and uncertainty of what was before us had a depressing effect. Moreover we had not halted in a pleasant spot, there being a most sickening smell of dead bodies, men killed in the skirmishes.’ At last the General arrived, and the men were roused and given a tot of very strong rum, after which Sir Garnet rode along the line to see that all was ready and gave the word to advance. The direction was now a little west of north, and was kept by a naval officer, Lieutenant Rawson, who marched with the brigade, while the General rode continually up and down the line. It was a risky business. A loose horse or a rifle accidentaly discharged might have brought disaster at any moment, but although the affair may seern somewhat casual, in fact the arrangements had been as thorough as they could well be. Dead silence was maintained as ordered, and the only sound was the steady crunch of several thousand pairs of boots moving through the sand, ‘ like the waves breaking gently on the seashore.’ It could hardly be expected that nothing would go wrong, and the first incident might have had very serious consequences. The two centre regiments, the 75th and 79th, stepped short to correct their alignment, while the flank regiments, the 42nd and 74th, marched on but maintained touch on their right and left. This caused the 42nd and 74th to wheel in towards one another, and had they actually met in the dark might well have thought each other to be enemy and acted accordingly. But a horseman rode up exclaiming, ‘ Where are you going to, Colonel ? You’re going all wrong. There’s your way ! ‘ It was Sir Garnet himself, although Colonel Straghan did not recognise him in the darkness. He wasted no time in explanations, but galloped back down the line and halted the brigade, after which he personally marshalled the 42nd and 74th into line. The reason he had to do so much work himself was that his staff were dismounted, only a few essential horses being allowed in the front line. In the 74th only the Colonel and the two Majors were mounted.
The next untoward incident was the result of the difficulty of issuing rum to Scotsmen in the dark and making sure that each got his fair share and no more. One at least got more, and when the Regiment was only a short distance from the enemy lines he started to shout in an alarming manner. After the long period of dead silence his voice sounded as if it might be heard in Cairo, and the shock which his comrades received may be imagined. There were angry mutterings of ‘ Throttle him,’ ‘ Stick a bayonet into him,’ and so on, but fortunately the doctor was on the spot, chloroformed him in a twinkling, and bundled him on to a stretcher. He was thereafter carried the rest of the way by a couple of rather disgruntled bandsmen–the first casualty of the 74th !
The stars paled and the sky behind began to lighten, showing up the advancing troops like a dark wall to the enemy. There was not long to wait now, for the Bedouin scouts soon detected them and the first shots were fired. The Highland Brigade marched on steadily without replying, hearing the enemy trumpeters sounding the alarm two or three hundred yards in front. The advance had been well timed, and the leading troops had arrived within charging distance just at daybreak, as Sir Garnet had intended. The 74th had just time to make out the dark silhouette of the enemy works when it was lit up by a blaze of rifle fire. At the same time the Egyptian guns opened up and the noise became deafening. The enemy at first fired high, as might be expected, and the swish of bullets filled the air, ‘ like wild-fowl in flight.’ The order had hardly been given to fix bayonets before the Colonel’s field bugler was sounding the charge. The 74th gave a thunderous cheer and rushed forward, fixing bayonets as they ran, ‘ crouching a little, but there was none of that ducking which is supposed to occur with troops the first time under fire.’
It was still not light enough to see properly, and all were blinded by the blaze of rifle fire in front. The Regiment came under enfilade fire from the left and men fell fast. The leading companies then fell into the ditch, which in the centre had been fully completed. It turned out that the 74th had attacked immediately in front of the five-gun battery established at the intersection, where the defences were most formidable and the counterscarp of the ditch perpendicular and unscaleable without ladders. Those in the ditch milled about vainly seeking some way out, while the supporting companies were thrown into confusion by the cross-fire and became hopelessly mixed up. With desperate efforts the officers got them back into some kind of order, assisted by Colonel Straghan and Major Colville on horseback. The Major was soon killed, and as he fell from the saddle his charger was shot through the heart and died with him. Lieutenants Kays and Somervell were also killed at this time and Lieutenant Midwood badly wounded, while some fifty other ranks had also fallen.
The companies on the scarp then commenced firing by volleys, while those in the ditch, led by Lieutenant Goold Adams and Corporals Buchan and Adams, at last found a way up the counterscarp and drove in upon the enemy battery at the bayonet point. Meanwhile the sound of bagpipes rose on either side, accompanied by wild cheering, as the flank companies, which had not met with the same difficulties, crossed the ditch and carried all before them. The surviving enemy left their defences and ran ; the moment of peril had passed and the day was won.
It was now nearly broad daylight and the masses of Egyptians could be seen running in all directions. The Goth Rifles and 45th Regiment came up in extended order, the former, being all marksmen, halting every few yards to fire at the retreating enemy. The rout was completed by the cavalry sweeping up and fanning out in pursuit, the gay pennons on their lances ominously lowering as they were brought down to the level of an Egyptian’s waist-belt. As the 74th pressed on through the enemy batteries there was a trumpet blast from the rear. Way, way, way ! Make way for the guns ! Many a time, in the brave days of old, the 74th had heard the stirring shout, and had hastily opened ranks or flung themselves into a ditch as the guns went forward with a roar and a rattle. Old soldiers in those days, they had thought nothing of it. Young soldiers now, they had never seen guns going into action before and halted, amazed by the gallant sight. Fifty yards ahead rode the battery commander, signalling with his sword, while behind him came the six guns in line, ‘ the horses going as hard as they could lay legs to the ground.’ With the drivers flourishing their whips to keep the led horses up into their collars, the battery galloped through the 74th and came into action on some rising ground to the front. Almost, as it seemed, in one movement, the teams were unhooked and the trails brought round, the shells from the limbers flew from hand to hand, the breech-blocks slammed, and the thunder of the first shots commenced, as the teams moved leisurely back under cover.
The 74th, with the companies still all mixed up, crossed the inner line of entrenchments and descended the hill to the railway station, stopping every so often to deal with Egyptian ‘ dead,’ who came to life again as the Colonel had warned. ‘ If some of their wounded got bayoneted,’ an officer wrote afterwards, ‘ it was their own damned fault.’ Experience had made him tougher than he had been the night before. The Regiment passed through Arabi Pasha’s camp by the railway, which had been left intact after the enemy’s hasty evacuation, and camels, horses and mules were wandering about unattended. The 19th Hussars galloped past, waving a green standard which they had captured, and were given a cheer by the 74th. There was a good deal of cheering and high spirits at this time, but it died down when the roll was called.
The losses suffered by the 74th were greater than those of any other regiment in the battle, and amounted to three officers and eighteen other ranks killed, and five officers and
fifty-four other ranks wounded, three mortally. It might have been much worse, and such losses would not be considered anything very much these days. Whether by accident, or design on the part of the General, the Regiment had in the darkness by-passed the polygon redoubt in front of the enemy lines. Had it come upon it, its losses would have been much greater; but, as it was, its casualties seemed bad enough to a green and inexperienced regiment. The fact that for the 74th the campaign consisted of the one battle only was unusual. Soldiers are, as a rule, introduced more gradually to action and the inevitable bloodshed which accompanies it.
The 74th received general commendation for their fine efforts, and pictures of them crossing the ditch and storming the redoubt appeared in the Illustrated London News and other papers. It is indeed not apparent in what way experienced troops, such as the men of Badajoz, could have done better. The battle of Tel-el-Kebir was, therefore, in every way a worthy ending to the tale of the 74th Highlanders, for their manful conduct fully maintained the proud reputation so firmly established by their forebears.
The same afternoon the Highland Brigade, less the 42nd, marched for Zag-a-Zig by forced march, and arrived during the night of 14 September. The 74th, like all the others, were by now looking something like soldiers, ‘ unshaven, mud-stained, helmets battered out of shape, and tunics black with sweat and dust.’
On reaching Zag-a-Zig the Regiment entrained and went on to Benha, being run into on the way by the train carrying the Guards, who were driving it themselves. The 74th escaped with cuts and bruises, and a certain amount of shock, for they were all asleep at the time and awoke thinking that the train had been blown up by the Egyptians. At Benha the refreshment room was broken into by the officers with the sanction of the Colonel, who, however, insisted on them entering what they had taken in a book. They did themselves well on champagne and potted lobster, sincerely hoping, as one said, that the book would be lost, ‘ or some day I shall get a real startler in the shape of a bill.’
Sir Garnet Wolseley had lost no time in following up his victory, and while the 74th were following by march route and train, the cavalry had already entered Cairo. Before starting the campaign Sir Garnet had stated that he would march into Cairo on 16 September. Actually he arrived on the 15th. This was not a matter of luck, but of careful appreciation and planning down to the last detail. Arabi Pasha had, in fact, delivered up his sword to General Lowe on the 14th.
The 74th reached Cairo on the 16th, having been preceded by one company which had accompanied the General. The Regiment marched up to the Citadel in the dusk, passing Sir Garnet Wolseley by El Hassan Mosque. ‘ What regiment is that ? ‘ he called. ‘ The Seventy-Fourth ! ‘ replied Colonel Straghan. ‘ I forgot, I should not haye said that,’ he remarked a moment later. ‘ The General does not like us using the old numbers. Still,’ he continued with a sigh, ‘ the second battalion the Highland Light Infantry is the very deuce of a mouthful !’
On 30 September the British army marched past the Khedive at Abdin Palace, and the 74th were particularly commended for their fine marching and appearance, for razors, button brushes and pipeclay had arrived and the stains of warfare had been obliterated. The Regiment moved from the Citadel first to Ghezira, and then to the Kasr-el-Nil barracks.
The object of the British intervention in Egypt was thus accomplished, peace restored to the land, and the rule of the Khedive firmly established. British prestige was at its height, both inside Egypt and throughout Europe. In the subsequent campaign in the Sudan the Egyptian army fought having been disbanded, an army of occupation of twelve thousand British troops was left in the country, and the remainder of the field force returned home. The 74th sailed in H.M.S. Serapis on 5 February 1883, and took up quarters at Plymouth. The campaign medals were presented at Devonport on 3 March.
For their services in the Egyptian campaign Colonel Straghan was made a Companion of the Bath, Major Leigh a Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel, and Captain Macdonald a Brevet Major. Lieutenant Edwards received the first Victoria Cross awarded to the Regiment, ‘ for the conspicuous bravery displayed by him during the battle of Tel-el-Kebir on the 13th September, 1882, in leading a party of the Highland Light Infantry to storm a redoubt. Lieutenant Edwards, who was in advance of his party, with great gallantry rushed alone into the battery, killed the artillery officer in charge, and was himself knocked down by a gunner with a ramrod, and only rescued by the timely arrival of three men of his regiment.’ Colour-Sergeant Robinson received the Distinguished Service Medal, and seven officers, non-commissioned officers and men were mentioned in dispatches. In addition several decorations were bestowed by the Khedive.
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