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Khedive Ismail's Army (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 70, Number 4, October 2006
pp. 1144-1145 | 10.1353/jmh.2006.0243

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During the Crimean War, troops from the Egyptian army fought admirably in southern Russia and a decade later also performed well fighting in the army of Napoleon III in Mexico. Yet, this same army suffered disastrous defeats in the 1870s during campaigns in Ethiopia. Why did the army of Khedival Egypt, which was armed with the most modern weapons, including Remington rifles and Krupp artillery, rise and decline so rapidly in the nineteenth century? In setting out to answer that question, John Dunn offers an insightful analysis of the problems of leadership and command for the modernizing Egyptian leaders. The explanation for the precipitous fall can be found in Khedive Ismail's personal failings as a strategist coupled with leadership deficiencies among the officers. On this score, Dunn points to the pasha system which led to the entrenchment of high-ranking officers who tended to look upon the regiments under their command as their personal property. This proprietary attitude mitigated any thorough-going innovation or modification. One approach to improving the quality of the leadership involved hiring foreign officers. As Dunn shows in colorful detail, these "neo-Mamluks" not only failed to raise the quality of the army, but in many ways played a direct role in generating the imperial overreach that culminated in the Ethiopian debacles. In the period 1863–79, Ismail employed hundreds of European, almost fifty American, and several Ottoman mercenary officers. Although purportedly these soldiers of fortune were hired to raise the quality of Egyptian technical capabilities and improve leadership, instead they proved largely incapable of fulfilling their obligations. In particular, the American mercenaries included ex-Confederates and mediocre Union officers whose quarreling amongst themselves impeded rather than improved Egyptian leadership. As Dunn describes them, "Some were insensitive to Egyptian ways; others were deadbeats, drunks, or cranks" (p. 55). Beside being bad hires individually, the foreigners failed to function as a team, and their self-seeking personal agendas fed Ismail's imperial appetites in the direction of the Horn of Africa. In this way, the mercenaries ruined both the army and the economy.

Dunn's work offers much to be commended. The book is engagingly written and it establishes the context well. For instance, the author does a fine job of integrating Egypt into the Eastern Mediterranean for the Ottomans and Crete while also appreciating the intricacies of the Sudan and the Horn of Africa. As the deployment of Egyptian troops ranged as far as Mexico, Dunn also covers those operations as well. Noting that the use of Egyptian troops in the French invasion of Mexico 1863–67 marked the only time a regular unit of African troops fought in the New World, Dunn demonstrates that the Egyptian army performed well in Mexico. They fought forty-eight major engagements, including an attack in which seventeen Egyptian soldiers held off three hundred partisans and beat them back, and were instrumental in covering the French withdrawal in 1867.

There is precious little scholarship in English addressing the army in nineteenth-century Egypt, and that paucity makes Dunn's contribution all the more valuable. One might desire a bit more social history about the army from below, but this book will stand as a key work on the khedival army.

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