The French thrust into the African interior was mainly from the continent's Atlantic coast (modern day Senegal) eastward, through the Sahel along the southern border of the Sahara, a territory covering modern day Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Their ultimate goal was to have an uninterrupted link between the Niger River and the Nile, hence controlling all trade to and from the Sahel region, by virtue of their existing control over the caravan routes through the Sahara.
The British, on the other hand, wanted to link their possessions in Southern Africa (modern South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia), with their territories in East Africa (modern Kenya), and these two areas with the Nile basin. Sudan (which in those days included modern day Uganda) was the key to the fulfillment of these ambitions, especially since Egypt was already under British control. This 'red line' (i.e. a proposed railway, see Cape-Cairo railway) through Africa is made most famous by Englishman and South African political force Cecil Rhodes, who wanted Africa 'painted [British] Red'.
When one draws a line from Cape Town to Cairo (Rhodes' dream) and another line from Dakar to French Somaliland (now-Djibouti) by the Red Sea in the Horn (the French ambition), these two lines intersect in eastern Sudan near the town of Fashoda (present-day Kodok), explaining its strategic importance. The French east-west axis and the British north-south axis could not co-exist; the nation that could occupy and hold the crossing of the two axes would be the only one able to proceed with its plan.
Fashoda was also bound up in the Egyptian Question — a long running dispute between the United Kingdom and France over the legality of the British occupation of Egypt. Since 1882 many French politicians, particularly those of the parti colonial, had come to regret France’s decision not to join with Britain in occupying the country. They hoped to force Britain to leave, and thought that a colonial outpost on the Upper Nile could serve as a base for French gunboats. These in turn were expected to make the British abandon Egypt. Another proposed scheme involved a massive dam, cutting off the Nile’s water supply and forcing the British out. These ideas were highly impractical, but they succeeded in frightening many British officials, who sought to protect Egypt by securing the Nile.
A French force of 150 tirailleurs set out from Brazzaville under Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand with orders to secure the area around Fashoda as a French protectorate. They were to be met there by two expeditions coming from the east across Ethiopia, one of which, from Djibouti, was led by Christian de Bonchamps, veteran of the Stairs Expedition to Katanga.
After an epic 14-month trek across the heart of Africa the Marchand Expedition arrived on 10 July, 1898, but the de Bonchamps Expedition failed to make it after being ordered by the Ethiopians to halt, and then suffering accidents in the Baro Gorge. On 18 September, a powerful flotilla of British gunboats arrived at the isolated Fashoda fort, led by Sir Horatio Kitchener and including Horace Smith-Dorrien. As the commander of the Anglo-Egyptian army that had just defeated the forces of the Mahdi at the Battle of Omdurman, he was in the process of reconquering the Sudan in the name of the Egyptian Khedive. Both sides were polite but insisted on their right to Fashoda.
News of the meeting was relayed to Paris and London, where it inflamed the imperial pride of both nations. Widespread popular outrage followed, each side accusing the other of naked expansionism and aggression. The crisis continued throughout September and October, and both nations began to mobilise their fleets in preparation for war.
In naval terms, the situation was heavily in the United Kingdom’s favour, a fact that French deputies were to acknowledge in the aftermath of the crisis. The French fleet was badly built and poorly organised, while the British held an advantage both in numbers and technology. The French army was far larger than the British one, but there was little it would have been able to do against Britain without efficient naval support.
This fact was undoubtedly an important one to Theophile Delcassé, the newly appointed French foreign minister. He was keen to gain Britain’s friendship in a future conflict with Germany, and saw no advantage in a colonial war with them. He therefore pressed hard for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. At the same time, people increasingly began to question the wisdom of war for the sake of such a remote part of Africa. In France, the reopening of the Dreyfus Affair did much to distract public opinion from events in the Sudan. The French government quietly ordered its soldiers to withdraw on 3 November.
Some historians consider that the resolution of this incident and the increase in strength of Germany were the precursors of the Entente Cordiale. In any case, it was the last serious colonial dispute between Britain and France.