Before the Campaign. A Letter From Cairo

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Before the Campaign. A Letter From Cairo is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Westminster Gazette on 1 april 1896.

Arthur Conan Doyle accompanied the special force as a correspondent for the Gazette. This is the first article of a series for The Westminster Gazette.


Before the Campaign

The Westminster Gazette (1 april 1896, p. 1)
The Westminster Gazette (1 april 1896, p. 2)

A Letter From Cairo.


I do not know what effect the advance upon Dongola has had upon native Egyptian sentiment, for native Egyptian sentiment is not an easy thing to gauge. It has always been assumed that the native statesmen were eager to reconquer their lost provinces, and that England's hand has been a restraining one. A patriotic Egyptian is supposed to yearn after Dongola as a patriotic Frenchman does for Alsace-Lorraine. If so, they should be delighted at the approaching realisation of their wishes. But as far as the English and Anglo-Egyptian community goes, there can be no question as to their view of the matter. A quiet heartfelt sigh of satisfaction and relic has gone up from club and barrack and Government office. "At last!" is the ejaculation everywhere. From Queen's officers, from English officers of the Khedive, from soldiers and officials alike, it is always the same exultant "At last!"

There is no better place to feel the pulse of British sentiment than the Turf Club, a central and much-frequented little house with its hall tun of notices of polo ponies for sale and lists of entries for some approaching Ghezireh steeplechase. Here the British officers do congregate clad in what the natives must have begun to regard as some form of undress uniform, tweed coats, riding breeches, high brown boots, and straw hats with many-coloured ribands. Now and then, with a clinking and a clashing, a spurred and red-sashed soldier comes bustling in to look at the last telegrams — on duty he, and within ten minutes of his having regain, his personal liberty he will have shed his military skin and be back once more in his free-and-easy civilian costume. Of these uniformed warriors you will observe that some wear the red tarboosh or high Egyptian fez, which seems a strange setting for their light-moustached and blue-eyed faces. These are the English officers of the Egyptian Army, and it is worth while taking a second glance at any of them who pass, not only because they are all picked men, but also because, as far as can at present be seen, it is upon them that the weight of the approaching campaign will fall. Will their Egyptians behave well or ill? You must not ask them the question, and their lives and reputations will depend upon the answer. The backs are all right. The most carping military critic will assure you of that. But the brown-faced fellah troops are another matter. You must not ask too much of them. At any rate, it will not be the fault of the red-tarbooshed officer boys it they do not go straight.

There is a broad and comfortable sofa in the hall of the club, and if you sit there about luncheon time you will see a fair sprinkling of Anglo-Egyptians, men who have helped to make, and are still helping to make, the history of our times. You have a view of the street from where you are, and perhaps in the brilliant yellow sunshine a carriage flies past with two running syces before it and an English coachman upon the box. Within, one catches a glimpse of a strong florid face with a close-cropped soldierly grey moustache, the expression good-humoured but inscrutable. This is Lord Cromer, whom Egypt has changed from a major of gunners to a peer of the realm, while he in turn has changed it from a province of the East to one of the West. One has but to look at him to read the secret of his success as a diplomatist. His clear head, his brave heart, his physical health, and his nerves an iron are all impressed upon you even in that momentary glance at his carriage. And that lounging ennuyé attitude is characteristic also — most characteristic at this moment, when few men in the world can have more pressing responsibility upon their shoulders. It is what one would expect from the man who at the most critical moment of recent Egyptian history is commonly reported to have brought diplomatic interviews to an abrupt conclusion with the explanation that the time had come for his daily lawn-tennis engagement. It is no wonder that so strong a representative should win the confidence of his own countrymen, but he has made as deep an impression upon the native mind, which finds it difficult under this veiled Protectorate of ours to estimate the comparative strength of individuals. "Suppose Khedive tell Lord Cromer go, Lord Cromer go?" asked a donkey-boy, and so put his chocolate finger on the central point of the whole situation.

But this is a digression from the Turf Club, where you are seated upon the settee is the hall and watching the Englishmen who have done so much to regenerate Egypt. Of all the singular experiences of this most venerable land, surely this rebuilding at the hands of a little group of bustling, clear-headed Anglo-Saxons is the most extraordinary. There are Garstin and Wilcocks, the great water captains who have coaxed the Nile to right and to let, until the time seems to be coming when none of its waters will ever reach the Mediterranean at all. There is Kitchener, tall and straight, a grim silent soldier, with the weal of a Dervish bullet upon his face. There you may see Rogers, who stamped out the cholera; Scott, who reformed the law; Palmer, who relieved the overtaxed fellaheen; Hooker, who exterminated the locusts; Wingate, who knows more than any European of the currents of feeling to the Soudan — the same Wingate who reached his arm out a thousand miles and plucked Slatin out of Khartoum. And beside him the small man with the yellow-brown moustache and the cheery, ruddy face is Slatin himself, whose one wish in the world now is to have the Khalifa at his sword-point — that Khalifa at whose heels he had run for so many weary years.

These are among the senior men who have built up modern Egypt, and now is the time when the solidity or their work is to be tested, and the world is to learn whether the country is equal, either from a financial or from a military point of view, to rolling back the Dervish power for another two hundred miles. For, as far as we can learn, it is to the Egyptians alone that the fighting is to be left. British troops may garrison the frontier station, but not go beyond it. The Club is full of men of the Bays, of the Connaughts, and of the North Staffordshires discussing the situation. "If we get as far as Assouan they can't help letting us go to Halfa, and if we get to Halfa the devil himself won't hold us," says a young Staffordshire. "We may not be on the first scene, but we'll all be there for the grand finale in September," says a dragoon, and all the straw hats nod together.

The spirit of these youngsters is excellent. A clean-cut cavalry man in his undress frogged frock-coat and his high boots comes clumping noisily is "What have you been doing, Wilson?" — "Good business for myself." "How's that?" — "Got leave to go to the front" "Lucky dog!" At his heels is a doctor in an incoherent ecstasy of delight. "Only been in the country three weeks, and dropped right in for this!" He is ordered up by the first boat, and his exuberance annoys those who have to stay behind. Here's the Arab waiter with a telegram, and the knot thickens round the board, the cigarette smoke reeking up from them like steam from a wethouse. "They've evacuated Kassala!" cries a voice. "Why, that gives away the whole show," says a subaltern of the Connaughts. His major thinks not, and gives his reasons. Then someone mentions French opposition, and feeling instantly runs high. Among the Anglo-Egyptians who have had to bear the misrepresentations and abuse of the French Press for thirteen years there is a bitterness of feeling such as I have seen nowhere else against the "grande nation." Press attacks mean little or nothing to us at home, but to these whole-hearted and earnest men they mean incessant interference with, and spoiling of, the work to which they are devoting their lives, and so their Anglo-Saxon tolerance has turned at last to very bitter dislike. "What possible rifts have they to interfere?" cries an angry colonel of Engineers. "Well," says a bystander, "they have associations with the country." "Their main association with the country is that we turned them out once before," says the angry colonel, and the straw hats all stud their approbation.

Such is a glimpse of the politics of the Turf Club, but indeed nobody here knows anything for certain, and the air is full of rumours. The Egyptian troops are hurrying to the front. The blacks are already there, save for the garrison of Suakim. The Staffordshire go to Wady Halfa. Everybody thinks the thing will be big, but nobody knows how big. In a few days I hope to be in Assouan where something more definite will be known. But, in any case, you are likely to know it in London long before we have dis-entangled the one truth from the hundred lies in Egypt.

A. C. D.