We have invaded Egypt quite frequently, starting first with the Crusades. People tend to think of the Crusades as purely happening in the Holy Land, but there was quite a lot going on elsewhere at times. And Egypt’s one of the places Brits invaded.
An English contingent in 1249 decided to join the Seventh Crusade, led by Louis IX. It wasn’t a wise decision, and the English knights would have lived to regret it. That is, if they had lived. First, when they arrived at the port of Damietta, they fell out with the French, but the quarrel was patched up in time for the English to join the march south towards Cairo. The leader of the English contingent was one William Longsword.
Longsword but perhaps not quite long enough, since, along with all but about one of his followers, he was cut down at the Battle of Mansourah in February 1250. Mind you, the French didn’t do much better there. In fact, they had an even worse time. Thousands were killed or captured in the battle and the pursuit after it, and Louis IX himself ended up as a prisoner.
We left Egypt alone after that, but by the late eighteenth century we were back. To be fair, it was Napoloen who started it. He decided he would invade Egypt partly as a way of getting at British India. It does rather make you wonder about Napoleon, since it is still a long, long way from Egypt to India.
Anyway, Napoleon took Egypt fairly easily, in 1798, but then Nelson destroyed his fleet at the Battle of Abukir Bay, or Battle of the Nile, on 1 August. Nelson managed to get his ships on both sides of the French fleet, which from the French point of view was definitely a bad thing. After failure at the Siege of Acre, Napoleon returned to France, and then it was our turn to invade Egypt. Our Admiral Keith cooperated with the Mamelukes to attack the remaining French troops, and even though the French won the Battle of Heliopolis, they lost a land battle to us at Abukir when we landed a British army under General Abercromby there. Eventually, the French surrendered to us and we got the Rosetta Stone as well, which was handy from an Egyptology point of view. We invaded Egypt again in March 1807, but, in the face of opposition from locals, we didn’t achieve very much.
Then we were back in 1840. In the Syrian war (or second Syrian war, or Egyptian-Ottoman war, or second Egyptian-Ottoman war – why have one name for a war when you can have several?) our naval forces helped push back the Egyptian forces that had taken a lot of ground from the Ottoman forces (hence the Egyptian-Ottoman thing) in Syria (hence the Syrian thing, though quite a lot of it was in what is now Lebanon) and the coast to the south (see Israel). Commodore Charles Napier followed this by turning up at Alexandria with his squadron in November 1840 and blockading it before negotiating a peace treaty.
In 1854, the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps was granted permission to build the Suez Canal, and its opening in 1869 gave us a whole new strategic interest in Egypt. In 1875, with the Khedive of Egypt in serious financial difficulties, Disraeli stepped in to buy the Khedive’s Suez Canal company shares. Gradually, British and French influence over Egypt increased, and in 1881 there was a national uprising. On 11 July 1882, British ships opened fire on the defences at Alexandria with HMS Alexandra firing the first shot. The defences were silenced, but a resulting fire in the city destroyed many buildings. In August 1882, a British force under Lieutenant-General Garnet Wolseley landed and took control of the Canal Zone before destroying the rebel forces at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. Prince Arthur, son of Victoria and Albert, was present at both the action at Mahuta and at Tel el-Kebir in command of the 1st Guards Brigade. Cairo was taken the next day. To a great extent we now controlled Egypt, even though there was still a Khedive. Sorry if this all sounds a bit condensed, but, as you can see, the story of our involvement with Egypt is a big one, and this is only a modest book.
In 1914, the Khedive was pro-Ottoman, so we chucked him out and put a Khedive more friendly to us in power. And when the Turks invaded Egypt we pushed them out. But after riots in 1922 we gave Egypt independence. Sort of. Then in the Second World War, we had to push the Italians and Germans out of Egypt on the other side. In the period after the Second World War relations between Britain and Egypt became increasingly tense, with Britain keen to hang on to control of the Suez Canal and Egyptians keen to see us depart.
In 1954, Nasser came to power and an agreement was reached between Britain and Egypt for Britain to withdraw its forces from the Canal Zone in 1956. This went ahead, but a separate crisis had developed over funding of the construction of the Aswan Dam. When Britain and the US withdrew their contributions to the dam project, Nasser retaliated by nationalising the canal. On 29 October 1956, Israel attacked Egypt from the east. On 5 November, we and the French launched our invasion of Suez. Air attacks targeted the Egyptian air force and British and French paratroopers went in. On 6 November there were sea and helicopter landings. Militarily, the British and French invasion was on its way to being a success. Diplomatically, though, it was a disaster. UN pressure forced a ceasefire at midnight on 6 November and pressure from the UN, US and the Soviet Union forced Britain and France to withdraw their forces.