Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Middle East's First 'Shock & Awe' 2

"Alexandria was about to be turned into a testing ground for the latest advances in British military technology, including hydraulics, swiveling gun platforms, and compound armor. The standard British guns were superior to the Egyptian in every respect. They had a larger bore, faster muzzle velocity (the speed at which the shell leaves the barrel), and much more effective target penetration at a far greater range. The guns were mounted on rotating platforms on the Temeraire and within rotating turrets on the Inflexible, allowing both ships to fire in different directions without having to change position; they could also fire from a distance of up to five thousand yards, putting them well outside the range of the shore guns. The Inflexible was the first warship in the Royal Navy to be fitted with compound armor and underwater torpedo tubes. Each of its four 'monster guns,' as they were described in the London newspapers, now about to be fired for the first time in action, weighed eighty-one tons, had a barrel length of 26 feet, 9 inches, and could fire a 1,700-pound projectile (propelled by a charge of 370 pounds of powder and traveling a third of a mile a second) capable of penetrating twenty-two inches of iron plate at a thousand yards. Every shell fired from one of these guns cost the British taxpayer P25 10s. The destructive power of the Temeraire's four twenty-five-ton guns and four eighteen-ton guns was also very great. Against this massed naval might, the Egyptian shore guns were almost completely ineffective. Sir Beauchamp had no reason not to sleep well on the night of July 10.

"At 5:15 A.M. the Egyptian government sent a steamer to the Alexandra with a message accepting the British demands to stop work on the shore forts, only to receive a message from Sir Beauchamp that 'the time for negotiations was past.' The ships took up battle stations ranging from 1,000 to 3,700 yards offshore and opened up at 7:00 A.M., when the Alexandra fired the first shell at the Adda fort. The shelling continued until 5:00 P.M. 'All that matured science and modern skill could add to the inhuman science of death, mutilation and dire destruction was at work now,' one commentator wrote. Another thought the spectacle as exciting as watching a rugby match between Eton and Harrow. The effect on the Egyptian defenders as the coastal forts were pulverized by these giant shells was understandably demoralizing.

"Mansions on the shoreline were shattered. Even the royal palace at Ras al Tin was set on fire, starting in the harem and burning through the day. In the European quarter of the city, hotels, consulates, and shops were destroyed by the shelling or set on fire and pillaged as outraged Muslims struck back. As the bombardment continued, the French, Portuguese, and British consulates burnt to the ground. The Anglican church was damaged by a shell. The central market lay in ruins, the main square looked as if it had been swept by a hurricane, and some streets were so choked with debris that they could be traversed only in single file. The destruction was so great that a British correspondent who had lived in the city for seventeen years could no longer recognize the street the street where he lived even when he was standing in it. The European quarter was still burning days later. Perhaps two thousand Egyptian soldiers and an unknown number of civilians lay dead in the ruins of the forts or in the bombarded and burned center of the city. Admiral Seymour, the British government, and the London newspapers blamed bedouin, convicts, Egyptian soldiers, and incendiaries for the damage when most of the destruction had clearly been caused by the naval shelling. The British finally restored the order they had just destroyed by clearing the streets with Gatling guns, shooting arsonists, and hanging or flogging looters in what was left of the main square, but by this time most of Alexandria had been turned into 'rubble and ash.' In this welter of blood and destruction British military casualties amounted to five killed and twenty-seven wounded.

"After the event it was argued that 'the bombardment of this magnificent city, so long the emporium of Oriental commerce, produced dire consequences which had not been foreseen and to preclude which no measures had been taken.' European residents of the town were shocked that they had not been warned. 'Had Admiral Seymour given even forty-eight hours notice of his intentions to bombard, he and his government would have been spared the frightful responsibility which now weighs upon them of causing the horrible death of European men, women and children who perished miserably in the interior and the deaths of hundreds of Egyptian women and children who perished in the bombardment and in the panic flight from the hastily bombarded town.' In the wake of the shelling, reports started to come in from Zagazig, Tantah, Damanhour, Mahalla al Kabir, and other towns of the gruesome killings of Europeans (including an entire family dragged out of their train and laid across the line in front of the engine).

"Having established themselves in Alexandria, the British were now reinforced by a land army of more than forty thousand, many of them Indian Army veterans of the campaigns in Afghanistan. The pursuit of Urabi inland involved all the paraphernalia of a great imperial army on the move, from field hospitals, a postal department, and a wagon with a printing press (a wartime propaganda first) to pontoons, war balloons, heliographic equipment, and an armored siege train. A 'specialty ingenious arrangement' enabled a forty-pounder or a Gatling gun to be fired from the carriages without the train being damaged from the recoil.

"Urabi made his final stand at Tal al Kabir on September 12. The British force of thirteen thousand launched a night attack on a force at least twice the size and routed it. 'Enemy ran away in thousands, throwing away their arms when overtaken by our cavalry,' telegrammed the British commander, Sir Garnet Wolseley. 'Their loss is very great.' The bodies of thousands of slain Egyptians 'lay in heaps of thirty and fifty' across the battlefield. Many were headless, while others had been disemboweled or 'literally cut in two.' The British losses were almost trivial: nine officers and forty-eight NCOs and men killed, twenty-seven officers and 353 NCOs wounded, and twenty-two men missing. Urabi was captured and exiled to Ceylon for eighteen years after a sham trial. In the meantime, 'Mr Gladstone went out of his way to contend that the landing of British troops in Egypt was not an act of war.' Apparently the bombardment, invasion, and battlefield butchery were all acts of something else." (pp 36-41)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe General Buonapate was actually the first European colonialist to take a printing press to Egypt as a tool of propaganda. 1799.