On the Egyptian Frontier

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On the Egyptian Frontier is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle, first published in The Speaker: The Liberal Review (Cassell & Co., Ltd.) on 8 february 1896.

Arthur Conan Doyle describes an attack of a border village in Egypt. He also argues against the withdrawal of British troops from Egypt.

On the Egyptian Frontier

The Speaker (8 february 1896, p. 147)

The frontier of Egypt proper is at Assouan, the town of the first cataract, about 600 miles south of Cairo. Then comes Nubia, 200 miles in length, with an average breadth that may be measured in yards. It terminates at the second cataract, where the military poet of Wady Halfa, with its outlying place of arms at Sarras, forms the extreme defence against the attacks which have come, and will come, from the south. It was under debate, at the time of the Khartoum failure and the withdrawal of the British Soudan force, to limit the Egyptian frontier to Assouan. A wiser policy prevailed, and Nubia was included in the dominions of the Khedive. Thus a waste of 200 miles intervenes between the outposts of the Dervish power and the rich lands of Egypt proper. At present, the principal product of this wild frontier region is a highly mobile and efficient camel corps which may be relied upon to do all that is possible to avenge any Dervish raid upon the line of poor villages which lie along either bank of the river.

But there lies the weak point of the situation. They can avenge, but they cannot prevent. They may hope to cut off marauders on their return from their murderous work, but they have no means of keeping them off from the long defenceless strip behind them. No invasion in force could be attempted without the Egyptian Government having ample notice of its gathering, and after it was assembled, it could only advance along the few routes where water would be found. There is no frontier more admirably protected by natural defences against a large army. But there is no protection at all against small raids. A party of Dervishes, carrying their own water on camels, may any evening slip out of their camp of Akashe, and where they will strike the frontier no one can say. Once out in the desert all trace of them is lost, and they may emerge anywhere. Giving Wady Halfa a wide berth, they come down to the Nile to the north of it; and, come where they may, they will find a defenceless prey lying before them. Then, if they can but destroy the telegraph wires, they have every chance of getting back with their plunder before the Wady Halfa camel corps can cut off their retreat.

Such a raid took place some few weeks ago, and it is to be feared that its complete success will make it the first of many. I had the opportunity of inspecting the village and of hearing the story from the lips of the Sheikh. It was four in the afternoon when the Dervishes came riding over the low sand-hills which mark the end of the desert. "How do you know that they were not mere robbers?" I asked. "No, no; they were Dervishes," said the Sheikh. "They were in uniform; they all wore red turbans and yellow boots." Those yellow boots seemed to have made an impression upon the Nubian peasants, for they all corroborated this detail. At the sound of a bugle two flanking parties wheeled to each side, while the main body trotted into the village and opened fire with their Remingtons. Seventeen of the villagers were killed. One old fellow showed me with some pride the double pucker on his throat where a bullet had passed in and out. Then, when they had seized such plunder as the village could offer, their bugle screamed once more, and they vanished into the desert, never to be seen again until they rode up to their own outposts at Akashe.

"It was very well carried out," said an English officer to me at Wady Halfa. "It's a small thing in itself, but they are very proud of it, and by the time it has passed from month to mouth into Equatoria it will grow into a sack of Cairo. We are waiting now for them to do it again." I understood the significance of his words when I saw four hundred camels picketed, each with water and provisions for ten days lying alongside, the whole force ready to start at an hour's notice.

The obvious reflection which suggests itself to the visitor is that if no advance to the South is to be permitted, it would be as well to make peace with the Khalifa. Trade from the South has practically ceased, and it is to his interest, as well as to that of Egypt, that it should be restored. Fifteen years ago, the caravans which came into Assouan or Korosko numbered many thousands of camels laden with gum arabic, ivory, skins, and all the produce of the South. For years now there has been no outlet, and there must be an immense congestion somewhere. There are arguments for an advance and arguments for peace, but I cannot imagine any argument in favour of the present passive hostility.

Another conclusion which is forced upon the visitor is that until either the Khalifa's power is broken, or until a lasting peace is made with him, British troops must remain in Cairo. The knowledge of their presence strengthens the Egyptian frontier force, and makes an invasion a more formidable undertaking for the Dervishes. I believe that their withdrawal would at once be followed by a forward movement on the part of the Khalifa, and that Great Britain would in a very few months have to choose between seeing Egypt overwhelmed, or returning to Cairo in stronger force than before. It is true that at Ginnes and Toski the new Egyptian army showed itself capable of facing the Dervishes. But the number of the latter was on each occasion very little superior to that of their opponents. If the Khalifa made a serious advance upon Egypt, be might, while keeping a part of the Egyptian army busy at Suakim, bring anything from thirty to fifty thousand men against the Southern frontier. Fanaticism and the prospect of the spoils of Egypt would start his force with a formidable impetus. He has only to sweep a few thousand troops from his path to have a clear road to Cairo. The danger would, I think, become an imminent one if our troops were withdrawn; and we are confronted with the alternative of making serious war or lasting peace before we leave the country.