The Egyptian Campaign is one of the rare success stories of the war against Revolutionary France that occurred in Egypt in 1801. An expeditionary force of 16,000 British soldiers wrested the country from a French army that had originally occupied it under Napoleon Bonaparte three years earlier. Napoleon had abandoned his troops in 1799 to further his political career in Paris, leaving them isolated but apparently secure. They posed a threat to British domination in the eastern Mediterranean. There was a fear in London that they might be used to forge a link with pro-French native forces in India.
The decision to mount the Egyptian Campaign was taken in late 1800. The British Prime Minister William Pitt, rather belatedly, had agreed to a substantial increase in the size of the army. He provided funds that would boost it to the unprecedented of 300,00 men (220,000 regulars and home-based ‘Fencibles’, plus 80,000 militia). It was a sign that the war, at last, was being taken seriously.
But the shortage of talented generals was still apparent. Despite his less than glorious record in the Helder campaign. Lieutenant-General Sir Ralf Abercromby was chosen to command the Egyptian Campaign, chiefly because there was no-one of comparable stature available. Among his subordinates was Colonel Sir John Moore, recovered from his latest wounds. It was he who led the British spearhead ashore at Aboukir Bay on March 1801.
His brigade, comprising the 23rd, 28th, 42nd and 58th Foot as well as four companies of the 40th. He landed within range of French guns in Aboukir Castle but wasted no time it confronting the enemy. A rapid advance up a steep hill caught defending troops by surprise, forcing their withdrawal. This enable the rest of Lieutenant-General Abercromby’s men to land safely. Four days later, the British began their advance on Alexandria, 12 miles away.
They encountered the main enemy force on 21st March, close to Alexandria. The French commander, General Menou, opened the battle with feint on his left and a major attack on Colonel Moore’s brigade on the right. The 42nd Highlanders (Black watch) fought exceptionally well, maintaining coherence even after being attacked by cavalry. The 28th Foot (1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment) who achieved lasting fame.
Engaged by infantry to their front, they suddenly came under pressure from cavalry behind them. The rear rank turned round and faced the new threat. Their coolness under fire earned them the right to wear regimental badges on both front and back of their headdress. An honour maintained by the Gloucestershire Regiment throughout its subsequent history. It was the sort of incident that helped to build the fighting spirit of the army.
Despite casualties of nearly 1,500 men, the British secured victory at Alexandria. This pushed the French back into the city, where they were besieged. Lieutenant-General Abercromby, wounded in the battle, died a week later with his record significantly enhanced.
Colonel Moore showed the importance of inspired leadership. Without his efforts at both Aboukir and Alexandria the French defeat would have been much difficult to effect.
As it was, Alexandria fell in April, allowing the British to reconquer the whole of Egypt by September. By then, Pitt had been replaced as Prime Minister by Henry Addington. He actively pursued the possibility of peace with France. The result was the Treaty of Amiens, signed on 27th March 1802.
Britain kept Trinidad (taken from Spain) and Ceylon (taken from Holland in 1796), but agreed to hand back all other captured territories, including the French islands in the West Indies. In a move that was now familiar, Addington celebrated by ordering a reduction to the size of the army. Taking it down to a strength of only 113,000 men. It was to be supported at home by 48,000 members of the militia, but they were a poor substitute for the laboriously created regular units. Many of these units were faced with disbandment.
In the event, war with France was renewed in May 1803, before the reduction could be fully implemented. The speed with which the government had moved to effect financial savings came perilously close to destroying all the benefits so painfully accrued since 1793.