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From Egypt to Aldershot: the story of the Mandora Mess tablets

By the junction of Louise Margaret Road and Hospital Road stands the old Mandora Officers’ Mess, now used as a business centre. Mandora is the only surviving officers’ mess in South Camp from the Victorian garrison, built between 1890 and 1895. (In North Camp, Lille Officers’ Mess also dates from this period and is still in use.) The entrance of Mandora retains many original features, including a fine mosaic floor, but is dominated by a set of large stone tablets set into the wall, on which are lengthy inscriptions relating to the campaign in Egypt in 1801. Where did these tablets come from, and why are they in this building?

The story begins in 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte led a French invasion of Egypt which threatened British interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Napoleon took Cairo and occupied Egypt, but Admiral Nelson’s brilliant naval victory at the Battle of the Nile (1 August 1798) isolated the French from their homeland and encouraged the Turks to attack from the north. After Napoleon defeated the Turks at the Battle of Aboukir (25 July 1799) he judged the situation to be sufficiently stabilised that he could leave his army in Egypt and return to France. However, resistance to French occupation continued, and in 1801 Britain sent an expedition to re-take Egypt, commanded by General Sir Ralph Abercromby.

The army landed at Aboukir Bay on 8 March 1801, opposed by heavy enemy fire, but the landing was so skilfully handled that almost the entire force was on shore by evening. On the morning of 13 March Abercromby began his march towards Cairo. The British advanced guard encountered a superior French force at Mandora and, after some fierce fighting, successfully drove them off. The Mandora battle honour was subsequently awarded to two regiments, the 90th Foot (later the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)) and the 92nd Highlanders (later the Gordon Highlanders), in recognition of the gallantry with which they had held off the French attack despite suffering heavy casualties. The French attacked in force on the morning of 21 March, and in the resulting Battle of Alexandria the British won a decisive victory, marred by the death of Abercromby who died from wounds received during the fighting. The British reconquered Egypt, the French surrendered on 31 August and were allowed to return to France.

The British authorities wanted to create a suitable memorial in Egypt to Abercromby and his great victory, but feared that any monument erected would be torn down again as soon as the British forces left the country. Near Alexandria were two large ancient obelisks dating from the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III, c.1500 BC, which over time had broken off their pedestals and were lying on the ground. The British officers had an account of the 1801 campaign engraved onto a large block of stone, which was fixed into the pedestal of one of these obelisks. The new British commander, the Earl of Cavan, wanted to bring one of the obelisks back to Britain in 1802, but this was not possible so the monument, and the stone tablet in its pedestal, were left in Egypt.

In 1831 the Egyptian government offered one of the fallen obelisks to Britain as a gift. Despite public support for bringing it to Britain, and the efforts of some politicians, nothing was done. However, the stone tablets bearing the inscriptions of the 1801 campaign came into the possession of Lord Hill, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. It is not clear how this came about, but one of the plaques says this was done “on the removal of Cleopatra’s obelisk”, so it was probably during preparatory work for shipping the obelisk to Britain at this time, even though in the end it was not loaded on board a transport ship.

Hill gave the stones to King William IV, who had them set in the walls of the “Temple of Military Fame” in Kew Gardens. At this time Kew was privately owned by the Crown, and William had two “temples” built, the Temple of Victory, designed by Sir William Chambers, and the Temple of Military Fame, designed by Sir Jeffry Wyatville in 1837. The purpose of these was to commemorate British victories from 1760 to 1815, and in the Temple of Military Fame were cast-iron plates commemorating the names of the battles and commanders, along with busts of leading figures including King George III, King George IV and the Duke of Wellington. The stones from Alexandria fitted into this theme. Today, Chambers’ Temple of Victory no longer stands, but Wyatville’s building, now re-named King William’s Temple, can be seen in the Mediterranean Garden at Kew, although without the sculptures which were removed to Buckingham Palace.

In 1877 the Egyptian government again offered one of the ancient obelisks to Britain, and this time there was more willingness to accept it, especially after seeing the effect of an obelisk from Thebes which the French had erected in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. A public subscription raised £15,000 to cover the cost of transportation, a special cylindrical iron ship, the “Cleopatra”, was constructed to carry the monument, and the voyage from Alexandria began in September 1877. There was a near disaster when a storm in the Bay of Biscay caused the Cleopatra to be cut free from the ship towing it, and six men were drowned in an attempt to take off the crew. Remarkably, the Cleopatra remained afloat and was found five days later by another ship, which took it in tow. The Cleopatra, with its ancient cargo, finally sailed up the River Thames in January 1878. With great care, using hydraulic jacks, iron supports, pivots, levers, and much engineering skill, the obelisk was raised to the vertical position and set on a new stone pedestal on the Victoria Embankment between Waterloo and Charing Cross bridges. It stands there to the present day, familiarly known as “Cleopatra’s Needle”.

In early 1891, the Director of Kew Gardens wrote to the Chairman of London County Council offering him the stone tablets recording Abercromby’s victories. He apparently believed that it would be appropriate to have them with the obelisk as they had been originally being set into the pedestal in Egypt. The Chairman accepted, believing that it was just a small tablet, but when the size of the stones were seen the Council decided that they could not be fixed to the new pedestal. Unsure of what to do with them, the tablets were temporarily housed with the United Services Institution.

In October 1891 the London County Council contacted General Sir Redvers Buller, the Adjutant-General at the War Office, to ask if the Army would like the tablets, perhaps at the Horse Guards. Buller thought that the stones could go to Aldershot, where there was much construction work as new barracks were being built to replace the old wooden huts from the original camp. He suggested they could go against the new St George’s Church, or in the new Headquarters building, or in one of the new barracks which could then be named “Abercromby”. The GOC in Aldershot, General Sir Evelyn Wood, had already proposed names for all the new barracks, and as one of these was to be called “Mandora” after the battle of 13 March 1801, he suggested that the stones would be best sited there “against the wall opposite the fireplace in the hall of the Officers’ Mess”. Buller agreed, and asked the London County Council to pack them up and send them to Aldershot.

One of the officers in the War Office, seeing the correspondence, pointed out that the correct name of the place in Egypt was “Mandarah”, not “Mandora”, and that the barracks in Aldershot should “use the right name”. However, the Inspector General of Fortifications pointed out that the battle honour held by the Cameronians and Gordon Highlanders was “Mandora” and “therefore it seems to me that it is unnecessary to try for great accuracy in the spelling of the name”. Buller agreed, saying that “we must have loyalty to ancient customs” and ordered that the name should stay as Mandora.

So the Abercromby tablets were fixed in Mandora Mess in 1894, with the addition of a further inscription describing their final journeys from Kew to the London County Council to the War Office. Here they remain today, one of the oldest and most remarkable memorials in Aldershot.


Credits

Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 013, April 2017/May 2017

Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.