Face-off at Fashoda: How Close Did Britain and France Come to War in 1898?

Face-off at Fashoda: How Close Did Britain and France Come to War in 1898?

Magazine cover depicting the French expedition to Fashoda

On 2 September 1898, Major-General Horatio Herbert Kitchener fought his most famous action of his military career, the Battle of Omdurman. It was the finale of a long campaign against the Mahdists of Sudan, and the even longer awaited avenging of General Charles Gordon’s killing over a decade earlier. Thousands of fanatical Islamic warriors lay dead or wounded in the burning sands, while their defeated leader, the Khalifa, scurried off to make good his escape. Thanks to Kitchener, Mahdism was all-but dead and Sudan returned to Egypt, albeit under British rule.

Within days of this stunning victory, Kitchener was about to become involved in a major confrontation with one of Britain’s oldest adversaries. Worries of a French invasion of Britain persisted throughout much of the nineteenth century, but few had envisaged a potential war between the two European powers originating in a remote part of Africa. Nevertheless, at the time of the so-called ‘Fashoda Incident’ the likelihood of war seemed real; but just exactly how close did the two countries come to war?

Mysterious Men
Immediately following the Battle of Omdurman, Kitchener entered the city of Khartoum and ordered its occupation. A few days later, on 7 September, a Nile river steamer called the Tewfikeyeh, which had been in the employ of the Mahdists, unexpectedly docked in the city. Believing the Mahdists warriors on board were unaware of their recent defeat, British soldiers quickly boarded the vessel and took the crew prisoner.

Major-General Horatio Herbert Kitchener

Under interrogation the captain of the steamer claimed he had been attacked on the White Nile by what he described as a party of well-armed black men commanded by white officers. As evidence of his claim, the captain showed off numerous bullet holes that riddled his vessel. What was more, many well-made nickel-plated bullets of small calibre were found to be still in many of these holes. This were not locally made ammunition, rather the bullets seemingly originated from Europe.

So, who were these men who had attacked the Mahdists? Gossip amongst the British officers was rife. Some believed they were Belgians from the Congo, others suggested it was the Italians, or even a privately organised British expedition of an unknown nature. It was a perplexing puzzle, but one man knew all too well who this mysterious party of armed men were, but he was not going to divulge that information just yet.

Kitchener ordered all newspaper correspondents at Omdurman, who had accompanied him on his Sudanese campaign, to leave Sudan immediately and return to Egypt. With the nosey newspapermen out of the way, he next ordered five Nile steamers (a sixth followed later) to make ready to sail to the White Nile to investigate the Mahdists’ story. Aboard these vessels, Kitchener took with him a substantial force, including two Sudanese battalions of the Egyptian Army and a company of British infantrymen.

A Nile Steamer

Kitchener’s Nile Expedition
Setting off on the 10th, this little river flotilla sailed 310 miles south from Khartoum, where it encountered another Mahdist steamer and a handful of small boats. On the east bank of the river about 500 warriors could also be seen. A sharp firefight ensued, during which a shell from one of the British vessels hit the Mahdist steamer in her boiler. Kitchener then landed some of his men to secure as prisoner several of the warriors. After talking with these prisoners, it became apparent that they had also recently been engaged in a fight with the mysterious party of men at a place called Fashoda.

Kitchener then resumed his journey down the Nile, and on the 18th, he reached a point just ten miles from Fashoda itself. Here he decided to rest for the night, but before he went to sleep, he quickly penned a note addressed to the occupants of Fashoda, informing them of his intended arrival the next day. This Kitchener did in the hope of avoiding a potential clash of arms. The note was duly delivered by two Sudanese soldiers travelling ahead of the steamers.

The following morning, Kitchener again resumed his journey, but after travelling a further five miles a rowing boat came into view, aboard which was a Senegalese sergeant and two privates. The sergeant handed the British officers a note, informing the general that Fashoda was in the hands of a French expedition of exploration. Signed by a Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand, it finished by congratulating Kitchener on his recent victory at Omdurman. The mystery was solved, but the general, of course, knew all along that the men at Fashoda were French. It also seemed that the French knew he would be coming.

Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand

Completing the final leg of their journey, the British steamers caught glimpse of the French Tricolore fluttering above a building in the tiny settlement. Marchand then appeared in a rowing boat, coming alongside Kitchener’s steamer. Coming aboard, the two men met and conversed for some 45 minutes in private. The French force ashore consisted of about 120 Senegalese troops, all armed with modern repeating rifles, although they had no artillery or machineguns. They were, however, augmented by some local warriors armed with spears.

During the private meeting, it is said that Kitchener congratulated Marchand for his remarkable achievement in reaching Fashoda, despite the considerable dangers his expedition had surely faced. The Frenchman’s reply was reputed to be ‘It is not I but these soldiers who have done it.’ Later, Kitchener claimed that upon hearing this reply he knew Marchand was a gentleman. Nevertheless, the two men now disagreed, and that disagreement almost led to war.

The British general made it clear to Marchand that the presence of French troops was an infringement on territory owned by Egypt, which by extension was an affront to Britain. However, the Frenchman told Kitchener that he was at Fashoda under orders from Paris and that he could not withdraw without orders from his government. Marchand refused Kitchener’s demand that he leave Sudan, but as a compromise he agreed to the erection of an Egyptian flag in the village. The meeting then ended in stalemate.

Kitchener and Marchand meet at Fashoda

Marchand’s Secret Expedition
Marchand’s presence at Fashoda was largely due to himself, since he had first proposed the idea of leading an expedition some years earlier. Officially it was a mission of exploration, but in reality it was conducted in order for France to acquire a degree of influence during European talks regarding the exploitation of the potentially lucrative Upper Nile Valley. The French Government secretly agreed to the expedition, but it was to be a civilian and not a military one, nor was Marchand authorised to plant the French flag or make treaties with local tribes.

Following Kitchener’s commencement of military operations against the Mahdists in March 1896, the French hurried to get Marchand’s mission organised through fear of the British beating them to the Upper Nile. His secret objective was simply to get to Fashoda before the British, in what has become known as the ‘Race for Fashoda’. There was no guarantee of success, since the journey would be fraught with danger and could take months to complete.

After spending several idle months at Fort Desaix in Bahr al-Ghazal province, Marchand made ready for his final advance to Fashoda on 4 June 1898. He had a small flotilla of boats, including the large Faidherbe steamer, and 75 locally recruited Senegalese tirailleurs that would be commanded by a handful of French officers and NCOs. Because the local river had been so low, he had been unable to move, but it now seemed high enough to make an attempt. However, the Faidherbe could still not make the journey due to her draught, and so she was broken down into sections for hauling by locally acquired slave-labour. The vessel would have to be dragged across 400 km of difficult terrain, after which she would be reassembled and floated as soon as the river was deemed high enough.

Marchand’s Expedition in the Congo

After getting underway, Marchand’s journey became increasingly difficult, particularly due to the ever-present malaria carrying mosquitoes and the fact they repeatedly got lost. Nevertheless, on the 26th they reached Bahr al-Ghazal itself, where they rested for a few days. Pushing on, Marchand and his men finally arrived at Fashoda on 10 July. They had beaten the British, who were still preoccupied fighting the Mahdists elsewhere in Sudan.

Despite having been the longed-for prize, the village of Fashoda was disappointingly nothing more than a ruin. The proud fortress that once stood there had long been reduced to its foundations, yet the Frenchmen were happy to finally be stood within its remains. The following morning, Marchand’s little force began building a new fort, for which a dedication ceremony was held. During the dedication, despite his express orders to the contrary, the French Tricolore was erected, but as it began to flutter in the breeze the flagpole snapped, and it tumbled to the ground. Some in the expedition viewed this as a bad omen.

On 25 August, two steamers were suddenly seen approaching down river. They were packed with an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 hostile Mahdist warriors. To fend them off, Marchand had no more than around 100 men. Fortunately for the French officers, the modern rifles with which their Senegalese soldiers were armed caused a devastating effect on the attackers, quickly repulsing the assault. Days later, the Faidherbe finally arrived, which was immediately despatched to get additional supplies and men.

Marchand and fellow officers of the expedition to Fashoda

When news came in that the Mahdists had been decisively defeated at Omdurman, the Frenchmen breathed a sigh of relief. They had feared the return of their attackers in greater numbers, but now another battle seemed unlikely. When Kitchener arrived on the 19 September, the Frenchmen were overjoyed to see fellow Europeans, albeit they knew they were to become adversaries. They were safe, for now at least.

Political Stalemate
Back in London and Cairo, news of Marchand reaching Fashoda had come as no surprise. Strangely, prior to commencing the expedition the French had sent a telegram outlining their general intentions, a copy of which had been obtained by the British. Following this, on 2 August 1898, Lord Salisbury, the then British prime minister, sent a despatch to Lord Cromer, the consul-general of Egypt in Cairo, outlining what actions should be taken following the recapture of Khartoum. In this note, the prime minister made it clear that once the Mahdists were defeated Kitchener was to send armed flotillas up both the White and Blue Niles, proceeding himself to Fashoda. The general was strictly to avoid armed conflict with the French, but at the same time he was under no circumstances to do anything that made Paris think the British officially recognised their claim to the territory.

London formally asked Paris to immediately remove its expedition from Fashoda. The French outright refused, even though they knew Britain, which had seen the blood of its soldiers recently spilt in Sudan, were not going to let the matter drop easily. It quickly became a political stalemate, with the British refusing to even negotiate on the matter.

Lord Salisbury

Meanwhile, on 26 September, the meeting between Kitchener and Marchand at Fashoda had come to the attention of France’s newly appointed foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé. Unfortunately for Marchand, who had initially set off on his expedition over two years earlier, the European political landscape had changed. Relations between Britain and Germany had greatly improved, and the Russians, who were long-standing rivals with Britain in the so-called ‘Great Game’, showed no interest in siding with France on the matter. There was also internal political turmoil in France following the reopening of the Dreyfus Affair, which was now considered of more national importance than the backwater that was Fashoda.

A disinterested Delcassé wanted a way out, but it had to be one that did not result in loss of face for France. He met with Sir Edward Monson, the British ambassador in Paris, and informed him that Marchand’s expedition was a privately organised civilian enterprise and did not represent official French Government policy. This, of course, was a lie and Monson knew it. The British ambassador told Delcassé that he must withdraw Marchand or face potential war.

Britain and France were now in political stalemate. In a bid to resolve the issue, Delcassé sent the Baron de Courcel, who was a known anglophile, to London in order to meet with Salisbury. The intention was to persuade the British to allow France to keep a token presence in the Upper Nile Valley in return for the withdrawal of Marchand’s expedition. The meeting took place on 5 October, but the British prime minister quickly rejected the offer with little discussion.

Théophile Delcassé

Calls for War
In the hope of forcing the French to backdown, Salisbury made the unusual move of releasing parliamentary papers containing information on the recent talks between Britain and France to the public. These were pounced on by the newspapers, some of who called for war with France. Even MPs from across all parties in the House of Commons threw their weight behind the prime minister and called for strong action against Paris. As a result, the Royal Navy was put on alert and war orders sent to the fleet in the Mediterranean during the last week of October. Salisbury wanted to appear that he was sending a clear message: Britain would not backdown, even if it meant war.

Privately, however, Salisbury had no interest in committing to hostilities with France. In fact, his ploy of releasing parliamentary papers had worked too well, and he now found it difficult to keep in check the growing calls for war. Europe was seemingly in a dangerous position, but the prime minister managed to persuade his cabinet that going to war with France over remote Fashoda was simply not worth the loss of British lives. No ultimatum would be sent to Paris that could provoke war, but neither was Britain going to give in over the matter.

There was no desire to go to war in Paris either. Delcassé knew the French navy, despite its apparent size and reputation as a modern fighting force, was incapable of taking on the Royal Navy and winning. Even the French admirals admitted they could not beat the British in a fight, and if the Russians were not prepared to send their ships – which they were not, and they were currently trapped by ice in the Baltic anyway – there was simply no hope of success.

Map of Marchand’s expedition to Fashoda

The situation seemed hopeless and so a reluctant Delcassé decided he had no option but to agree to Salisbury’s terms. Marchand was ordered to leave Fashoda and return home, albeit he did so only grudgingly and after some coercion. In response, the British prime minister made a speech at the Guildhall in the City of London announcing the backing down of the French, which was met with vigorous cheers and rapturous applause. Britain had won and war was averted.

In truth, it was highly unlikely that Britain and France would have gone to war over Fashoda. Despite the tough political talk, neither side had any interest in spilling blood over some ruinous village in southern Sudan, even if the real issue lay in the wider politics of European colonialism. However, politics is a fickle game, and if the French had not backed down the situation could have deteriorated further and become even more desperate. Neither country had fired a shot in anger at one another since 1815, and that would thankfully remain true. Indeed, sixteen years later both would be allied against Germany during the First World War, although the alliance would be strained at times.