Bringing the past to present times

Egypt 1801-1802

The Egyptian Campaign (1801-1802)

One of the rare success stories of the war against Revolutionary France occurred in Egypt in 1801, when 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 and 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 British operation was taken in late 1800, by which time Pitt, rather belatedly, had agreed to a substantial increase in the size of the army, providing 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.

british royal marines disembarking from a task-force fleet in boats at aboukir bay 1801
British Royal Marines disembarking from a task-force fleet in boats at Aboukir Bay 8th March 1801 – painted by Aleksandr Yezhov

But the shortage of talented generals was still apparent. Despite his less than glorious record in the Helder campaign. Abercromby was chosen to command the Egyptian, chiefly because there was no-one of comparable stature available. Among his subordinates was Moore, recovered from his latest wounds, and 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, 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 and this enable the rest of 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 Moore’s brigade on the right. The 42nd Highlanders (Black watch) fought exceptionally well, maintaining coherence even after being attacked by cavalry, but it was 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, upon which 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.

battle of alexandria 1801
The Battle of Alexandria, 21st March 1801 – painted by Philip James de Loutherbourg

Despite casualties of nearly 1,500 men, the British secured victory at Alexandria, pushing the French back into the city, where they were besieged. Abercromby, wounded in the battle, died a week later with his record significantly enhanced, but it was Moore who showed the importance of inspired leadership, for 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, who 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 which faced disbandment. In the event, war with France was renewed in May 1803, before the reduction could be fully implemented, but 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.

Published by on 25th September 2020
Last updated on 25th September 2020