British fleet bombards Alexandria, killing hundreds
[ 11 July 1882 ]
On 11 July 1882, shortly after sunrise, a British fleet of fourteen warships began a deafening bombardment of Alexandria’s coastal defences and harbour area. It followed Egypt’s refusal to accept Britain’s supposed right to oversee and manage the country’s budget, which included huge payments in interest to the Suez Canal Company, in which William Gladstone, Britain’s prime minster, held shares. The shelling lasted for some ten hours, killing at least 600, injuring thousands, and reducing many streets across the town to rubble.
Lieutenant Percy Scott, a young ordinance officer, who formed part of a subsequent landing party and was given the task of examining the damage, observed that ‘the town appeared to me to have suffered more from the misses than the (coastal) forts from the hits.’1 He confessed that he could only find evidence of 10 shells which had precisely struck their mark.2 Yet, the British fleet had rained 3,782 shells and 37 rockets on Alexandria. Mixed with this cannonade, was an equally deadly hail of British bullets, 33,493, fired mostly from Nordenfelt rapid fire and Gatling machine guns mounted on the eight Ironclad battleships.3 Captain John Fisher of HMS Inflexible observed flippantly that ‘the Lord only knows where they went to.’4
Historian William Wright, writing in A Tidy Little War, a detailed history of the British invasion of Egypt, estimates that by mid morning ‘shells began overshooting the (Egyptian) forts at the rate of about two a minute.’5 Most landed in the city’s residential neighbourhoods. The buildings hit included a Jewish synagogue, an Anglican church and the Khedivial Free School which was directly struck by two shells in rapid succession, demolishing a number of classrooms. A Franciscan convent, which was crowded with refugees, was also hit, although by a near miracle the projectile failed to explode.6
During the entire bombardment, the British suffered just six fatalities and 28 wounded from return Egyptian fire. The precise number of Egyptian dead and wounded will never be known. Gunnery lieutenant George Field recalled that a landing party which had surveyed one small area around the old port counted over 600 corpses.7 General Pomeroy Stone, an American serving with the Egyptian army, estimated the total number of dead at 700.8 The total of wounded doubtless reached into the thousands. The historian Charles Royle, in his contemporary account of the bombardment, noted that after 10 am the first carts of the injured as well as of the dead ‘tied in with ropes’, were seen heading along the Boulevard de Rossette towards the hospital and that by midday, they ‘began to arrive in great numbers… many of the men showing ghastly wounds. Crowds of women followed them uttering cries of distress and lamentations.’9
- Sir P. Scott, Fifty Years in the Royal Navy, London, 1919, pp. 47-48.
- Robert T. Harrison, Gladstone’s Imperialism in Egypt: Techniques of Domination, Greenwood Press, London, p. 21.
- Charles Royle, The Egyptian Campaigns, 1882 to 1885, and the Events which Led to Them, Hurst and Blackett, London, 1886, Vol 1., p. 142 and William Wright, A Tidy Little War: The British Invasion of Egypt 1882, Spellmount, Stroud, 2009, p. 101.
- William Wright, op. cit., p. 101.
- Ibid., p. 103.
- Charles Royle, op. cit., pp. 170-171.
- William Wright, op. cit., p. 101.
- Charles Royle, op. cit., p. 158.
- Charles Royle, op. cit., p. 171.
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