Book Review - An Egyptian-Sudanese battalion in the Franco-Mexican War

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Friday 29 Jan 2016

More than a mere curio, Prince Omar Toussoun's book on the Egyptian-Sudanese battalion that fought in the Franco-Mexican War is a treasure detailing a remarkable moment in Egypt's history

Butulat Al-Ortah Al-Masriya Al-Sudaniyya fi Harb Al-Maxeec (The Heroics of the Egyptian-Sudanese Battalion in the Mexican War) by Prince Omar Toussoun, General Egyptian Book Organisation, Cairo 2014. pp.137

It is astonishing that this book wasn't republished for more than 80 years. Negligence or oversight? Different historical writings didn't take notice either. It was rare that the reader finds mention of this book as a reference. This book recounts a luminous page not only from the annals of the Egyptian-Sudanese Army, but from the entire period of modern Egyptian history. The book's author is Prince Omar Toussoun, who was a member of the Muhammad Ali Pasha dynasty. Its first edition was published in 1933.

If it was natural that the army be engaged in different wars since Muhammad Ali ruled Egypt in the early 19th century, during which his vanguards reached the outskirts of Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, and broke into the African jungles, it will be astounding for the reader to know that there was an Egyptian-Sudanese battalion that was dispatched and traversed the Atlantic ocean to participate in the Franco-Mexican War.

The story started, as Prince Omar Toussoun narrates it, in 1860 when the Mexican government maltreated the subjects of Spain, France and Britain and looted their money. Thus, the three countries agreed on using force against it and each of them sent a military expedition to Mexico in 1861. However, disputes soon erupted resulting in Spain and Britain withdrawing their expeditions and France alone bearing the burden of war. Due to the extremely hot climate in the Mexican coastal areas and the spread of illnesses such as yellow fever and dysentery, the French soldiers were dying by the dozens. Since the blacks, to quote the prince, were "characterised with natural immunity against those two illnesses, France used to recruit soldiers from them for this war, especially from its colonies." He added that the French Emperor Napoleon III requested from Said Pasha, the wali of Egypt, to supply him with a brigade of Sudanese soldiers (Egypt and Sudan were at the time one country ruled by one ruler). Said Pasha dispatched a battalion of 453 soldiers and officers who were engaged in the Franco-Mexican War from 1863 until 1867.

To a great extent, Prince Omar Toussoun relied on French sources and reports that elaborated the bravery and cleverness of the Egyptian battalion, in addition to official correspondence in the Egyptian War Ministry and the Khedive diwan. Many lost their lives during those battles, the first of whom was the battalion commander himself. A French general wrote a report on a famous battle in the war in the following terms: "The most supreme laurels have been laid over the heads of the Sudanese and Egyptians who bore the burden of this fight, for they nonchalantly disregarded the intense fire that the enemy poured in their direction and repelled them while they were outnumbered nine times and made the enemy retreat in a vanquished state."

Prince Omar notes that 1864 witnessed the death of 47 soldiers and officers because when the battalion arrived it was in almost total isolation, due to the natives' ignorance of the battalion's language and traditions. He devotes several pages to the description of the battles the battalion fought and the hard tasks to which it was assigned, such as securing transport lines and the residence of the Mexican empress. Subsequently, battalion members were awarded the highest medals and decorations, whether in France or Mexico.

The battalion spent four years and 17 days in Mexico, after which it ceased its operations, sailed to France first where the Imperial Guard commander himself presented them to Emperor Napoleon III who paraded with the Egyptian war minister during a grand celebration. Afterwards, the battalion headed to Alexandria, returning with 313 soldiers and officers. Thus, 140 of its men had been lost. In Ras El-Tin Palace, Khedive Ismail paraded the battalion and banquets were held in its honour. All its members received exceptional promotions to higher ranks, in recognition of their heroics. Prince Omar was meticulous in reporting all official statements detailing the ranks and decorations the Khedive was keen to bestow upon every battalion member without exception. He sent a formal order to the war minister to implement his special commands on this matter.

A major addition Prince Omar contributed to this record was researching and bringing to light sources on those who received French decorations. The prince subsequently published a summary in Al-Ahram of what the battalion had done, and asked readers who had information concerning this issue to correspond with him.

Prince Omar Toussoun took special care in attributing every piece of information he obtained to its source, whether in Egypt or outside it. This book is truly a special contribution, because the author followed the details of the lives of those heroes, their jobs, dates of their deaths, and the available information regarding their families.

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