THE MOONLIGHT CHARGE, BATTLE OF KASSASSIN, EGYPTIAN WAR, 1882
Arthur Gordon Peacock, 1st Life Guards
Holy Trinity Church, Hull
In 1881 the Household Cavalry was, and still is, made up of two regiments, the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals. It had fought at Waterloo in 1815, but since that date had been non-combatative, stationed at home to protect the monarch and to pursue ceremonial duties. Still the elite, still the army's most senior and prestigious regiments, but they had not fought for a long time. Then, in 1881 Britain decided on war in Egypt, Sir Garnet Wolseley was appointed to lead the British forces, and Queen Victoria decided that some of her Household Cavalry should be sent as part of those forces. One can only speculate on her motives, but whatever they were they sent Arthur Peacock of the Life Guards to Egypt.
In 1881 Egypt was distinctly unstable. Its nominal ruler, under the suzereinty of the Ottoman Emperor, was one Tewfik Pasha, known as the Khedive, but he was widely perceived as being under the influence of the British and the French, and of favouring European interests before those of Egypt. This feeling was probably fair, given that the Europeans were invested heavily in Egypt because of the Suez Canal, and could exert considerable diplomatic and financial pressure.
Unrest at the situation grew, with particular dissent in the army. and in 1881 a group of army officers under the lead of one Ahmet 'Urabi eventually initiated a coup and overthrew the Khedive's government (not the last time, as it happened again in 1952 and 2013). As the new leaders were essentially anti-European, Britain and France took up opposition, and in January 1882 declared their recognition of, and support for, the Khedive. Not for the first time, British interests meant supporting the Ottomans.
By May Wolseley was ready to campaign, and British and French warship were sent to Alexandria as a threatening force. In June anti-Christian and European riots broke out in the city, with over fifty Europeans killed. 'Urabi quelled the riots, but declared his intent by fortifying the city, despite British warnings. In July, after an ultimatum to withdraw was ignored, the British navy began to shell Alexandria. It took just over twenty-four hours for the Egyptian garrison to surrender, and within three days the British marines and sailors had the city occupied.
Wolseley now looked at heading for Cairo via Alexandria, but with the city in ruins and considerable Egyptian forces blocking the route, he took an alternative. In August, with an army of forty thousand men, he invaded the Suez Canal Zone, thus preventing 'Urabi from asserting control over the canal. With that ensured, on August 26th he sent a force along the Sweetwater Canal (a feeder canal for the Suez) to secure the lock at Kassassin. The force camped without incident and, not expecting any trouble, its accompanying cavalry, including the Life Guards, set up camp four miles away.
Arthur Gordon Peacock was among those Life Guards. A twenty-five year old from Hull, in what is now East Yorkshire, he had been brought up as son of a timber merchant, and the grandson on his mother's side of the Ordnance Storekeeper at The Citadel in the city. The Citadel was on the site of Henry VIII's castle at the junction of the River Hull with the Humber, and is around where the tourist attraction The Deep is now. He only appears in one census, and in that he is staying with his mother's sister, the wife of the vicar of Misterton in Leicestershire, presumably because a sister had just been born and his mother needed assistance. he must have returned to Hull however, as the plaque in Holy Trinity Church refers to him being a member of the Volunteer Brigade of the East Yorkshire Rifles. The Volunteer Brigades, who were cavalry rather than rifles, despite the name, were predominantly drawn from those of the more affluent urban middle-class who had militaristic leanings and, perhaps from a more cynical viewpoint, also enjoyed the social cachet of wearing a uniform Usually grey or green). Arthur must have been more serious than that, as to go from the Hull Volunteers to the Life Guards is quite a jump. he must have been committed, and he must have impressed.
Seeking to deny Wolseley passage alongside the Sweetwater (which would save him an uncomfortable trek across the desert), 'Urabi attacked the two thousand men at Kassassin. The British were taken by surprise, but called into a defensive formation, and assistance from the encamped cavalry was called for. When the cavalry arrived the sun had set, but the terrain was flat and solid, and there was bright moonlight. What happened next became known as the Moonlight Charge, as the British horsemen charged at full gallop at the Egyptian army, bursting through the infantry and attacking the artillery, which was pummelling the British defensive position, from the flank. Cue 'Urabi's army breaking and fleeing, and the introduction into the Victorian imperial narrative another story of heroism and daring, this one commemorated in poetry and painting. Unfortunately, among all the glory and back-slapping, Arthur Peacock lay severely injured somewhere in the debris of the charge.
The war ended after one more decisive British success, at Tel el-Kebir. on September 13th. 'Urabi set up his forces to prevent British access to Cairo, but a surprise dawn attack led to a comprehensive British victory, achieved within an hour, with fifty-seven British killed against two thousand Egyptians. 'Urabi surrendered, and the Khedive was returned to power. That last sentence is relative. The Khedive was nominally in power, but the control was in the hands of the British and the French.
And Arthur Peacock? He was taken, wounded, from the battlefield, and transferred eventually to the military hospital at Netley in Portsmouth. He died there in October, unable to enjoy the fruits of the victory. He must have been a popular man, though, as it says something that his former colleagues in The East Yorkshire Rifles paid for a plaque to be mounted on the walls of Holy Trinity Church in the centre of Hull.
It's worth remembering that the whole scenario would be played out again in 1956: a nationalist army coup; a threat to British interests in the Suez Canal; British forces sent to establish control. No moonlight charges, though, and no Imperial glory.
N MEMORY OF/ ARTHUR GORDON PEACOCK/ 1ST LIFE GUARDS AGED 25 YEARS WHO DIED AT/ NETLEY HOSPITAL 19TH OCTOBER 1882 FROM/ WOUNDS RECEIVED AT THE BATTLE OF OF KASSASSIN/ 28TH AUGUST 1882. THIS BRASS IS ERECTED BY/ THE MEMBERS OF THE 1ST V.B.E.Y.R. OF/ WHICH HE WAS FORMERLY A MEMBER