Journal Volume 6 2010
Sir William F. Butler (continued/8)
Butler’s next military deployment was to Egypt in 1882. He was by now 44 years old and a Lieutenant-Colonel. The background to this military adventure harked back to the political structure of Egypt which was nominally a province of the Ottoman Empire ruled by a viceroy called ‘the Khedive’. In reality The Khedive Ismail exercised authority without reference to Istanbul. For many years he had made a practice of hiring British civil servants and soldiers on secondment to buttress his administration. Ismail was intent on modernizing Egypt and he spent lavishly on infrastructure projects including public buildings in Cairo, Railways and the Suez Canal. Unfortunately it was all borrowed money and by 1879 the country was bankrupt. Britain bought 40% of the Suez Canal Co for a fraction of its value but it was not enough to satisfy the bankers in London, Paris and Zurich. Ismail was deposed and replaced by his eldest son Tewfik. Before long the Egyptian peasantry, reduced to misery by government exactions to repay foreign loans, rose in revolt. A popular uprising led by Colonel Arabi staged a coup in which Tewfik was overthrown. Gladstone did all in his power to avoid getting Britain embroiled but the financial lobby and the press, citing the safety of British residents, prevailed and an expedition of 20,000 men was launched under Sir Garnet Wolseley in August 1882.
Alexandria was bombarded; the British force landed and marched to Ismailia on the Suez Canal. The Egyptian army was based at Tel-el-Kebir 25 miles to the east. Butler served on Wolseley’s staff planning the campaign. In mid-September following a night march, the British force, following an intense artillery bombardment, launched an assault on the Egyptian camp which caught the defenders unprepared. They did not panic but fought bravely against overwhelming odds. In an hour the British victory was complete.
Butler in his autobiography pays tribute to the Egyptian soldiers:
‘They fought with the greatest determination and gallantry against overwhelming odds. The heaps of dead lying with and across their rifles facing the upcoming sun bore eloquent testimony to that final resolve of these poor fellows. Peace be to them … No word should soldier utter against them; let that be left to the money-changers. They died the good death.’
In the aftermath of the fighting there was a conspiracy to put Colonel Arabi on trial and execute him. Butler knew that his commander Wolseley supported this idea. He also suspected that the British administrators, who detested Gladstone, wished to implicate him in a vengeance killing. Butler was outraged at this unchivalrous behaviour and not for the first or last time committed an act of insubordination. He sat up all night writing a letter to Wolseley’s Chief of Staff protesting against the plan to execute Arabi, which he described as ‘a national crime which will raise the voice of the civilized world against us’. Arabi was in fact reprieved and sent to exile in Ceylon.
Butler returned to England after Tel-el-Kebir little knowing that he was to return within two years as part of an expedition to rescue the man he admired most in the world, Colonel Charles Gordon, besieged in Khartoum by the rebel force of Muhammad Ahmad, ‘the Mahdi’.