Alternate history: what if Britain and France went to war in 1898?

A territorial dispute in 1898 may have been a small-scale confrontation over an unimportant patch of land in Africa, but it could have had "huge consequences" for the course of the 20th century. Jonny Wilkes talks to historian, novelist and broadcaster Saul David about the Fashoda Incident, and how it could have led to a very different looking World War I

Illustration of the French colonial army departing to fight under Colonel Marchand

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes talks to Saul David about what might have happened had the Fashoda Incident of 1898 escalated into war…

Advertisement

On 4 November 1898, the old adversaries of Britain and France stepped back from an escalating situation that threatened to add another bloody chapter to their long history of warfare. The so-called Fashoda Incident may have seemed like a small-scale territorial dispute over an unimportant patch of land in modern-day South Sudan, but it caused fear and warmongering back in Europe.

If fighting did break out, it would have had “huge consequences for international relations and the course of the 20th century,” says historian and author Saul David.

Africa in the late-19th century was being carved up, claimed and colonised by European powers in what is often referred to as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. Britain and France had footholds across the continent, and wished to connect their colonial acquisitions. Britain was ambitiously planning a railroad from South Africa to Egypt; France was looking to establish a line of control from east to west.

And right in the middle, where their respective ambitions intersected, was a small town called Fashoda. The French were determined to get there first.

In 1896, an expedition set out from Gabon made up of around 150 men – including 11 French officers and a large number of Senegalese troops – under the command of Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand. Following a gruelling trek across Central Africa, in which they kept getting lost and had to drag their boat across hundreds of miles of land, they reached Fashoda on 10 July 1898.

Although comprising little more than an abandoned fort in ruins, the strategic town was now in the hands of Marchand and his men. Fashoda would strengthen France’s trade route from West Africa to its outpost in Djibouti, and act as a base from which to force the British out of Egypt.

Marchand’s audacious expedition could not be ignored. The British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, ordered a force under Major-General Horatio Herbert Kitchener to advance south along the Nile River. Kitchener was on campaign to reconquer Sudan for British-controlled Egypt, having decisively defeated the Muslim Mahdists in the battle of Omdurman and occupied Khartoum.

He reached Fashoda on 18 September 1898 and met with Marchand. A second French expedition had set out from Djibouti in the east to reinforce Marchand’s men, but, despite having a shorter distance to cover, was forced to turn back while travelling through Ethiopia. This left the French with approximately a tenth of the British force.

Kitchener stated his position that French presence in Egyptian territory could not be accepted and made it clear that, while he would not instigate a conflict, he would not back down.

The French commander expressed the same, fully aware his enemy outnumbered his force 10 to one and was supported by gunboats. A standoff began as both sides waited for their governments to make their moves.

On the brink of war

Despite both men remaining calm, news of the Fashoda Incident sparked a political crisis in Britain and France. Newspapers were filled with rhetoric and patriotic fervour. The Royal Navy was put on alert and the fleet in the Mediterranean readied for action. There were calls for war in parliament. France attempted, unsuccessfully, to ensure Russian support in an imminent conflict. The longer that things went unchanged in Fashoda, the closer Europe seemed to get to all-out war.

In truth, neither side wanted that to happen. Lord Salisbury refused to send an ultimatum to Paris and the French had become consumed by other concerns, namely the Dreyfus Affair. The ongoing scandal had divided opinion between those who believed army captain Alfred Dreyfus had been rightly convicted of treason several years earlier, and those who believed he was the innocent victim of a military cover-up and anti-Semitism.

In context: what really happened in the Fashoda Incident?

The Fashoda Incident of 1898 culminated in a tense standoff between British and French forces over an abandoned fort in Africa. A 150-strong French expedition had secured the town of Fashoda (Kodok in South Sudan) in British-controlled Egypt, and had refused to back down when confronted by 1,500 men under Horatio Herbert Kitchener.

As the standoff dragged on, the political situation in Europe worsened as Britain went on a war footing.

On 4 November, however, the small French force withdrew, ensuring Britain maintained control over the area. The boundary of their respective dominions would be set at the Nile and Congo rivers with the French to the west and the British in Egypt.

A few years after the Fashoda Incident, in 1904, the two nations signed the Entente Cordiale, an agreement that greatly improved relations, ended colonial rivalries, and laid the foundations of the alliance against Germany in the First World War.

But the situation at Fashoda could have changed, believes David. A stray bullet, a moment of lapsed leadership, or a piece of miscommunication could have seen the British and French come to blows. If a firefight had occurred, Marchand would likely have lost badly due to Kitchener’s overwhelming numerical supremacy. While a quick victory may be have been enough to sate the British, the French would have been humiliated and all-too easily sought retaliation.

With Britain and France going to war, alliances would have been drawn up. The Russians were certainly hostile to the British due to the ‘Great Game’ – diplomatic and political confrontations over Afghanistan, Central and South Asia – so may have sided with the French, and Germany may have allied themselves with Britain.

A stray bullet, a moment of lapsed leadership, or a piece of miscommunication could have seen the British and French come to blows

It could have quickly become a world war if fighting were to consume colonies, which could have benefitted the British as they had a clear advantage at sea thanks to the Royal Navy.

Front page of
Le Petit Journal depicted Britain as the wolf ready to devour the French Red Riding Hood (Photo by Getty)

Whatever the outcome, the greatest result of an armed conflict would have been the loss of the Entente Cordiale in 1904. “Fighting would have kept Britain out of the loose ‘alliance’ with Russia and France that Germany found so threatening in the lead up to the First World War,” says David.

“Would this have prevented the war? Probably not. Germany had already embarked on its policy of world power, building up its navy to challenge Britain’s. That arms race would have continued.”

Yet a war in 1898 provoked by the Fashoda Incident may have kept Britain out of that world war entirely, continues David, drastically changing the complex networks of alliances that formed, how the war was fought, and who would have won. The Central Powers – Germany and Austria-Hungary – could have emerged victorious.

“That would have meant an authoritarian, anti-Semitic, nationalist government dominating mainland Europe for the foreseeable future, with much of Eastern Europe reduced to slave state status, and those in the west subordinated to Germany.”

Illustration of Alexander the Great marching to war (Illustration by Sue Gent_
Advertisement

This content first appeared in the September 2021 edition of BBC History Revealed