Among the most decisive battles in history are the ones that never took place.
In the 1890s European nations vied for colonies and influence in what has come to be known as the “Scramble for Africa.” Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain all secured their shares of the continent, but the major players were France and Great Britain. French influence largely centered in northern and western Africa, while the British dominated the south and parts of the central and eastern regions. Egypt—as much in the news then as it is today—became a vital component of the British empire in Africa after its occupation in 1882.
As the 19th century waned, Anglo-French rivalry for Africa focused on the Upper Nile in what is now Sudan and South Sudan. British forces under Lord Kitchener pushed into the region to defeat the Mahdist uprising that threatened Egypt and won a crushing victory at the Battle of Omdurman on Sept. 2, 1898. The opportunity arose to cement British dominance in East Africa, linking up Egypt with British-controlled Kenya. Kitchener left Omdurman a week after his victory and followed the Nile south toward the tiny settlement of Fashoda (presentday Kodok in South Sudan). He commanded a flotilla of gunboats and barges carrying more than 2,000 African colonial and British troops with machine guns and artillery.
By then the French had already taken Fashoda. French colonialists, hoping to extend their influence from the west across to the Red Sea and French Somaliland (present-day Djibouti), had long set their sights on the Upper Nile. In 1897 an expedition under Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand began an epic journey from West Africa toward Fashoda, where he had orders to establish a French protectorate. After a grueling journey Marchand’s force, comprising only 120 Senegalese soldiers and a handful of white officers, arrived at Fashoda on July 10, 1898. Marchand duly laid claim to the region and awaited reinforcement from two other French expeditions approaching from the east.
British and French policymakers viewed the possibility of a confrontation between Kitchener and Marchand with equal complacency. The stakes seemed big enough to justify a war that each side thought it would win. The primary players in the approaching drama also seemed unsuited to play the role of peacemakers. Marchand, a 34-year-old colonial officer with a reputation for bravery and bellicosity, despised the British, having had previous encounters with them elsewhere in Africa. Kitchener, the hero of Omdurman, was known as a rigidly inflexible officer. Given an objective, he would pursue it whatever the cost.
Marchand and Kitchener at least had one thing in common— fear and hatred of the Muslim Mahdist rebels, who threatened to incite rebellion against European colonial rule throughout North Africa. When the Europeans came into contact on September 18, therefore, French and British emissaries found cause for mutual congratulation in the victory at Omdurman. Even so, both the French and British had their orders to formally establish control of the Upper Nile, even if it meant escalation into a full-scale war.
Of the two, Kitchener had the far superior force, with gunboats at his disposal; but Marchand hoped for reinforcement from the expeditions still attempting to reach him from the east. No one would have blamed either man for squaring off for a fight. Policy and public opinion in both France and Great Britain demanded an aggressive posture.
After exchanging polite notes, Kitchener and Marchand met on the deck of a gunboat. Kitchener spoke French, and they engaged in conversation. It went downhill fast. Both men vigorously pressed their respective claims. British Lt. Col. Horace Smith-Dorrien, watching through his binoculars, stood horrified as Kitchener and Marchand shouted and gestured angrily as if about to grapple in hand-to-hand combat. War seemed inevitable.
Then, as Kitchener and Marchand stood glaring at each other, the seemingly impossible happened. A native arrived with a tray bearing whiskey and soda. Smith-Dorrien watched in astonishment as the two officers clinked glasses, drank a toast and settled down to peaceful negotiation. The result: a compromise by which the officers decided to fly the French, British and Egyptian flags over Fashoda and await the decisions of their respective governments before taking any further action. In succeeding months the diplomats got to work, the French government backed down, and a catastrophic war was averted.
At the moment of crisis Kitchener and Marchand—who had little reason to like each other—both sensed that much more was at stake than personal pride. Their mutual decision to let diplomacy work not only defused the immediate crisis, but also set the stage for the Entente cordiale between Britain and France that would play such an important role in the 20th century.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.