13 September – On this day

The Battle of Tel el-Kebir was fought between the Egyptian army led by Ahmed Urabi and the British military near Tel-el-Kebir. After discontented Egyptian officers under Urabi rebelled in 1882, the United Kingdom reacted to protect its financial and expansionist interests in the country, and in particular the Suez Canal.

Lieutenant General Garnet Wolseley was placed in charge of a large force with the aim of destroying Urabi’s regime and restoring the nominal authority of the Khedive Tawfiq. The total force was 24,000 British troops, and 7,000 Indian troops.

Wolseley first tried to reach Cairo directly from Alexandria. Urabi deployed his troops at Kafr-el-Dawwar between Cairo and Alexandria and prepared very substantial defences. There, attacks by British troops were repelled for five weeks at the Battle of Kafr-el-Dawwar.

Wolseley then decided to approach Cairo from a different route. He resolved to attack from the Suez canal. Urabi knew that Wolseley’s only other approach to Cairo was from the canal, and he wanted to block it, but was convinced by others that the British would never risk damaging the canal, and would avoid involving it in operations at all costs. Urabi committed a grave military and political mistake following this advice. As a result, Wolseley’s forces were able to quickly secure the canal. By the 6 September, the canal was securely in British hands.

Urabi attempted to recapture the canal when he attacked the British forces near Kassassin on 10 September. The British troops were caught by surprise, as they did not expect an attack. Fighting was intense, and there were heavy losses on the British side. Fortunately for them, the arrival of fresh reinforcements, including 7th Dragoon Guards and the Highland Brigade, forced the larger but weary Egyptian force to retreat.

Urabi redeployed to defend Cairo against Wolseley. His main force dug in at Tel el-Kebir, north of the railway and the Sweetwater Canal, both of which linked Cairo to Ismailia on the canal. Wolseley made several personal reconnaissances, and determined that the Egyptians did not man outposts in front of their main defences at night. So Wolseley planned to approach the position by night and attack frontally at dawn, hoping to achieve surprise.

Wolseley began his advance from Ismailia on 12 September, with two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade. The approach march of the main forces was made easier because the desert west of Kassassin was almost flat and unobstructed, making it look like a gigantic parade ground. Even though there were repeated halts to maintain dressing and alignment, the British troops reached the Egyptian position at the time Wolseley intended.

At 5.45 a.m. Wolseley’s troops were barely three hundred yards from the entrenchments and dawn was just breaking, when Egyptian sentries saw them and fired. The first shots were followed by several volleys from the entrenchments, as the British troops, charged with the bayonet. The resulting battle was over in an hour. Most of the Egyptian soldiers were tired, and the hasty defences, provided no obstacles in front of them to disrupt the attackers. In the end, it was less a battle than a massacre. Official British figures gave a total of 57 British troops killed. Approximately two thousand Egyptians died. British cavalry pursued towards Cairo, which was undefended.