A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 2, 2015

The British Intelligence Section in Cairo at the End of 1914: Part II, Confusing Chains of Command

In Part I of this post, I introduced the newly beefed-up Military Intelligence section in Cairo in Dcember 1914, in which Lt. Col. Gilbert Clayton's small Military Intelligence operation was reinforced by the arrival of Captain Stewart Newcombe and four newly-commissioned ex civilians: MPs Aubrey Herbert and George Lloyd,  along with archaeologist Leonard Woolley and T.E. Lawrence. they would be joined by many others in the coming weeks and months. I'll be discussing those men in more detail in Part III, but I realized that first I have to discuss the rather confusing chains of command that existed in Britain as the war with the Ottoman Empire broke out, since it can be quite confusing and was a source of many complaints at the time.

Colonel Clayton himself is an excellent case in point.  As I mentioned in the previous post he headed both a small Military Intelligence unit, as well as a civilian intelligence unit. Clayton was also a representative of the Governor-General of the Sudan in Cairo. (Despite all these responsibilities he had until recently been only a captain.) 

In his Military Intelligence capacity, Clayton reported to the General Officer Commanding, British and Imperial Forces in Egypt, General Sir John Maxwell (and ultimately to the War Office in London). Those headquarters were in the Savoy Hotel, discussed in Part I. In his Civil Intelligence capacity he was responsible to the High Commissioner, as the British Agent/Consul General had been renamed after Britain declared a protectorate on December 18, soon to be Sir Henry McMahon (as of January 9), and the Oriental Secretary, Ronald Storrs, and ultimately to the Foreign Office in London. These were headquartered at the British Residency or Embassy, then as well as now in Garden City near the Nile.As for his Sudanese responsibilities, there he worked with the Governor-General of the Sudan, Sir Reginald Wingate, who also held the title of Sirdar or Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Army. (Just to be clear: the GOC was a British General commanding British and Empire troops, but the Sirdar was a British General commanding the Egyptian Army, which was not a formal belligerent.) The Sirdar's headquarters when in Cairo were at a three-block-long compound in Zamalek, known as the Sirdaria.

As in any bureaucracy, Clayton's multiple identities allowed him to play each of his masters off against the other. Speaking of a slightly later time in the war, Lawrence would comment, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
We were not many; and nearly all of us rallied round Clayton, the chief of Intelligence, civil and military, in Egypt. Clayton made the perfect leader for such a band of wild men as we were. He was calm, detached, clear-sighted, of unconscious courage in assuming responsibility. He gave an open run to his subordinates. His own views were general, like his knowledge; and he worked by influence rather than by loud direction. It was not easy to descry his influence. He was like water, or permeating oil, creeping silently and insistently through everything. It was not possible to say where Clayton was and was not, and how much really belonged to him. He never visibly led; but his ideas were abreast of those who did: he impressed men by his sobriety, and by a certain quiet and stately moderation of hope. In practical matters he was loose, irregular, untidy, a man with whom independent men could bear.
Others in the Intelligence Section might coordinate with still other agencies; Lawrence, for example, being the group's mapmaker, commuted regularly with his liaison at the Survey of Egypt, across the Nile in Giza. For this he had the use of a car, though only a newly-commissioned second lieutenant.

These three major poles of power would shift in influence as the military buildup in Egypt grew. And it would become even more complicated. In March 1915, a new Expeditionary Force and general staff, the Mediterranean Expeditionary Forces, was created under independent command for the landings at Gallipoli. Meanwhile, as we have seen in earlier posts, the command of all British forces in Mesopotamia and the Gulf was under the India Office and the Indian Army. This would extend to liaison with the emergent House of Saud, who would become the India Office's Arab Allies while the Hashemites became the Foreign Office's Arab Allies, as well as to affairs in Aden and Oman. The rivalry between London and Cairo on the one hand and Delhi and Simla on the other would at times be pronounced.

The High Commissioner and the Embassy: "Bayt al-Lurd"

From the time of Lord Cromer to the present day, Britain's diplomatic presence (and at times, control) has been located along the Nile in the Garden City quarter. The original building (still in use with others) was completed in 1894 after Comer complained of cramped quarters downtown. Until the 1952 Revolution, the grounds actually ran all the way down to the river. The Nasser era saw Egypt purchase the land along the Nile to complete the Nile Corniche, reducing the British Ambassador's view, but the location is the same as a century ago. From the days of Cromer and Kitchener, Egyptians referred to it as "Bayt al-Lurd," House of the Lord."
The Agency/Residency/Embassy: "Bayt al-Lurd"
Although the title of Britain's near-Viceroy in Egypt shifted at the declaration of the protectorate from "British Agent and Consul-General" to that of "High Commissioner," these anodyne titles concealed the real power, demonstrated when Britain deposed the Khedive and installed his uncle as Sultan.

Lord Kitchener (at left, wanting YOU), who had been Agent and Consul-General, was on home leave in England when the European crisis boiled towards war in July 1914. As he was about to embark on his return to Cairo, the Cabinet called him back. As he was England's most famous soldier, he was given the War Office. His deputy Milne Cheetham had served as Acting British Agent during the intervening months, but in December a new High Commissioner was designated: at the new year he was en route from India.

McMahon (Seven Pillars)
This was Sir Henry McMahon. McMahon was a third-generation servant of the raj, well-acquainted with Indian affairs but with no experience in Egypt. In 1914 as Political Secretary in Simla he had negotiated the McMahon line, the border between India and Tibet. In Egypt he would be involved with borders yet again, in the famous (or notorious) Hussein-McMahon Correspondence.
Ronald Storrs
Given his lack of experience in Egypt, McMahon was dependent on his advisers, both for domestic Egyptian affairs and for regional politics. The key figure for regional affairs was the Oriental Secretary, Ronald Storrs. We previously met Storrs in the negotiations with Hussein Kamil over the Sultanate. In Seven Pillars, Lawrence would describe Storrs' role in generally flattering if somewhat conditional prose:
The first of us was Ronald Storrs, Oriental Secretary of the Residency, the most brilliant Englishman in the Near East, and subtly efficient, despite his diversion of energy in love of music and letters, of sculpture, painting, of whatever was beautiful in the world's fruit. None the less, Storrs sowed what we reaped, and was always first, and the great man among us. His shadow would have covered our work and British policy in the East like a cloak, had he been able to deny himself the world, and to prepare his mind and body with the sternness of an athlete for a great fight.
The British Army GOC, Sir John Maxwell,  the Savoy Hotel

Gen. Sir John Maxwell
We have already met Sir John Maxwell on this blog; the General Officer Commanding British and Empire Forces in Egypt since September 1914. A veteran of both the Mahdist and Boer Wars and later infamous for his crushing of the Easter Rising in Dublin). T.E. Lawrence in a 1915 letter to his brother characterized him:
We meet very few other people, except officers on business... see a good deal of them, from General Maxwell downwards. He is a very queer person: almost weirdly good-natured, very cheerful, with a mysterious gift of prophesying what will happen, and a marvellous carelessness about what might happen. There couldn't be a better person to command in Egypt. He takes the whole job as a splendid joke.
The old Savoy Hotel
As I noted in Part I, Military Headquarters was in the old Savoy Hotel on Midan Suleiman Pasha, not to be confused with the later Continental Savoy. See the earlier post for details. Clayton's Military Intelligence Section operated out of several rooms on an upper floor.

The Sirdar at the Sirdaria: Sir Reginald Wingate

Clayton's role as a Cairo representative of the Governor-General of the Sudan, Sir Reginald Wingate, gave him yet a third HQ to report to. The Governor-General of the Sudan also served as Sirdar or Commander of the Egyptian Army. He commanded primarily Egyptian troops under British officers.  When not in Khartoum Sir Reginald had a Cairo base called the Sirdaria, a compound taking up several blocks in the middle of Zamalek on Gezira island. The location is shown on this period map, north of what on this map is labeled Sh. Fouad and became 26th of July Street:
I couldn't find a photo of the Sirdaria on short notice.

Wingate was a veteran of Egypt and Sudan (he had been on the Gordon Relief Expedition and subsequent Sudanese campaigns and knew Arabic; in 1916 he would replace McMahon as High Commissioner).

The proliferation of chains of command produced rivalries and competition, and as I noted earlier. would get worse in 1915.

In Part III, I hope on Monday, I'll discuss those new arrivals in the Intelligence Section.