Battle of Alexandria, (20-21 March 1801)

The Battle of Alexandria, 21 March 1801, Philip James de Loutherbourg

After Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile and the unsuccessful French siege of Acre, Napoleon had returned to France in 1799, evading the British navy. He had, however, left his army in Egypt. It appeared both a threat to the overland route to India and a vulnerable target against which the British could use the advantages of amphibious power.

The resulting campaign of 1801 was the most successful British land operation in the Revolutionary War. Abercromby was appointed Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, and in 1801 he carefully trained his troops so that they should be able to face the French veterans. Abercromby stressed the need for professionalism on the part of officers, trained the troops in light infantry exercises, and adapted the close-order drill to make it more appropriate to battlefield conditions. He also focused on a crucial aspect of British operations, the assault landing, and held landing exercises on the Anatolian coast, developing effective co-operation with the navy. Abercromby had learned from the confusion of the 1799 landing on the Dutch coast.

The 5,000-strong Anglo-Indian force under General Sir David Baird would advance by way of the Red Sea. Vice Admiral Viscount Keith had 164 vessels-2 frigates, 100 transports, 5 ships of the line, and 57 Turkish vessels at his disposal. The army commander, General Sir Ralph Abercromby, was well respected, and his professionalism brought new life to the expedition. His subordinate was Major General Sir John Moore, later to become famous for his role in the Peninsular War.

The British landings at Aboukir bay. The organized lines of boats, controlling craft and signals seen in this period print at the Gloucestershire regimental museum.

The results were seen on 8 March 1801 when the British successfully landed in Aboukir Bay in the face of French opposition. A contested landing was never an easy operation, but Abercromby’s well-trained men were up to the challenge: training and tactics were applied in battlefield conditions, and with success. The first battle prior to the capture of Alexandria was fought on 8 March 1801 after an astounding amphibious operation disembarked 6,000 British troops at Aboukir Bay. The fifty men to each boat carried sixty rounds of ammunition and three days’ rations. The British, supported by gunboats, overcame strenuous opposition from the French and established a foothold. The French Armée d’Orient, commanded by General Menou, were quickly driven off the beach. Hudson Lowe, Major Commandant of the Corsican Rangers, a force of Corsican émigrés that took part in the landing, wrote to his father:

The fleet arrived in Aboukir Bay on the 1st but contrary winds prevented our disembarkation until the 8th. The French availed themselves of this interval to strengthen their position on the coast, collected about 3000 men to oppose our landing and lined the whole coast with their artillery. About 2 o clock in the morning the first division of the army were in the boats and after rowing five hours came within gun shot of the coast when the enemy opened the hottest fire upon us, at first of shell and round shot and as we approached nearer of grape and musketry. Several boats were sunk, many persons killed and in one boat alone 22 persons killed and wounded by musketry before the boat took ground, but nothing could withstand the ardent spirit and impetuousity of our troops who forced their landing in spite of every opposition immediately attacked the enemy whom they completely repulsed after an action of about half an hour. The number of our wounded and killed in this short but sharp contest was 640, that of the enemy about half the number. Their cavalry attempted to make some charges but its effects were felt alone by the Corsicans who stood the attack and had 19 men sabred but not without killing or dismounting as many of the enemy.

Abercromby then advanced towards Alexandria. On 13 March a French covering force was driven back at the battle of Mandara. Two French cavalry charges were beaten off by the steady fire of British lines, and the infantry attacks that followed were similarly defeated. Light infantry was used to hold off French skirmishers. Lowe recorded that the French had `a numerous and well served artillery’ and

offered a powerful resistance at every step we approached but our troops continued to advance, returned their fire with the most decisive effect. Nothing could be more admirable than the steadiness and discipline of our troops on this occasion. Every movement was performed with more regularity and precision than I have ever seen practised at any review or field day, though the men were dropping in the ranks under the hottest fire of the enemy’s grape and musquetry.

The Battle of Alexandria, beginning late on the night of 20 March and lasting until just before dawn of the following day, was fought at Nicopolis, some 12 miles from Alexandria, a town of 4,000 people. After constructing field fortifications, 14,000 British troops were deployed-three brigades on the left; Moore’s reserve division on the right, facing southwest toward Alexandria; the Foot Guards in the center; and a second line consisting of dismounted cavalry and two infantry brigades.

The British were fully prepared for battle before sunrise on the twenty-first. However, British intelligence had been faulty, and the unexpectedly high number of French troops-12,000-concerned Abercromby. The French were ordered to drive the British into the lake, and they attacked under cover of darkness, before Baird’s reinforcement would arrive. Moore’s reserve, the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Foot, as well as the 23rd (Royal Welch Fusiliers), 42nd Highlanders (the Black Watch), 58th (Rutlandshire) Foot, and four companies of the 40th (2nd Somersetshire) Foot, repulsed the first French attack.

The French twice renewed their attacks. The British, with bayonets fixed, dashed up sandhills to capture the French guns; they were supported by heavy guns from the Royal Navy ships at anchor, which also defended the ground already captured. French grenadiers and cavalry penetrated between the lines of the 28th Foot and the Highlanders, surrounding them front and rear in their vulnerable unfinished redoubt. However, the order “Rear rank 28th; Right About Face” was given, resulting in ferocious hand-to-hand combat by the stubborn and determined British troops, who fought for four hours. By facing about and offering staunch resistance, the regiment saved itself from destruction; as a result, they were thereafter granted the right to wear regimental badges on the backs of their headdresses.

The Black Watch was attacked twice, suffering many casualties, but it eventually captured the colors of an opposing regiment, most of whom had become casualties. The volleys of the Fusiliers throughout the battle were particularly beneficial; the French, to their cost, did not employ infantry in this fashion, instead relying on cavalry and artillery. The cannonades from the British gunboats caused appallingly high French casualties. The fighting was over by 10:00 A. M. Menou’s final charge resulted in slaughter; he lost 3,000 killed and wounded.

In the course of the battle, Abercromby personally fought some French dragoons, suffering a fatal wound in his leg, though he remained engaged and in command until his collapse on the field. He died of his wounds on 28 March. Moore was also wounded but recovered. The British suffered 1,468 casualties. Moore pushed the French into Alexandria, which fell in April. Menou, with only 7,300 French effectives, surrendered Cairo in June and, later, Alexandria on 2 September. The French occupation of Egypt was at an end.

References and further reading

Bierman, Irene A., ed. 2003. Napoleon in Egypt. Portland, OR: Ithaca Press. Brindle, Rosemary, trans. and ed. 2002. Guns in the Desert: General Jean-Pierre Doguereau’s Journal of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition. Westport, CT: Praeger. Chandler, David G. 1994. On the Napoleonic Wars. London: Greenhill. Fortescue, Sir J. W. 2004. History of the British Army. 20 vols. Vol. 4, part 2. Uckfield, UK: Naval and Military Press. Herold, J. Christopher. 2005. Bonaparte in Egypt. London: Leo Cooper. Mackesy, Piers. 1995. British Victory in Egypt, 1801: The End of Napoleon’s Conquest. London: Routledge.