Marshy and pestilential, Fashoda isn’t the kind of place you want to hang around. But it was right here in 1898, in today’s Kodok, South Sudan, that Britain and France almost came to blows. If they had, the First World War would have looked very different.
In the late 19th century, Britain was salivating over the prospect of spanning the length of the African continent with a railroad linking Cape Town in South Africa all the way to Cairo in Egypt. It would have taken a massive feat of engineering, but as far as the British were concerned, the commercial rewards were worth it.
What they didn’t fully realise was that the French had had the same idea – a railroad linking their colonies from Senegal, West Africa to Djibouti, on the East African coast. Like crosshairs, the two axes met at Fashoda. And so did the two opposing armies.
The French, led by Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand, set off east in grand procession, laden with champagne. The British, with Lord Kitchener at the head, was marching down, fresh from its victory in Khartoum. At Fashoda, the French dug in. The British told them to leave.
Marchand refused, arguing that the territory had been abandoned by Egypt (the British) during the course of the Mahdist War. But Kitchener had come to take it back. Exasperated, Kitchener told the French major, “I cannot argue these points, but I would suggest you consider the preponderance of the force at my disposal…”
That was no idle threat. The British army, backed up by the navy on the Nile, vastly outnumbered the small French force. So, the two sides agreed to sit it out quietly, and wait for word from London and Paris on what to do next.
Over in Europe, a full-blown crisis broke out. It got so bad that the Royal Navy was readied for action. The French made overtures to the Russians, but they weren’t much interested. While some on both sides called for calm, hotter heads called for war.
But for France, the danger was, in fact, much closer to home. While Kitchener and Marchand were merrily swapping war stories over whisky and champagne, the Dreyfus Affair exploded in Paris – an anti-Semitic political scandal that brought down the government. Kitchener was only too happy to keep Marchand supplied with newspapers brought down from Cairo.
France had been shaken. The new French government, formed on 2 November, wasn’t much in the mood for fighting a war, and the next day swallowed its pride and ordered Marchand to withdraw. The British threw a banquet for their ‘guests’, and played La Marseillaise. For the French, there was no drinking away the reality that it was a humiliating climb down.
Still, fearful of Germany, the Fashoda Incident didn’t stop France from signing the Entente Cordiale with Britain a few short years later in 1904. The stage was now set for the First World War. As for the British in Africa, they never did quite succeed in building their transcontinental railway.
Also on this day
On this day in 1975, the Queen turned on the North Sea oil tap, bringing crude from the newly-drilled Forties oil field to Britain. Read more here.