After Napoleon fled Egypt, General Kléber took Napoleon’s place as the commander of the army, he was assassinated shortly after.
When Napoleon slipped so ignobly out of Egypt in August 1799, he left his deputy Kléber in an impossible position–and perfectly furious. The army’s morale, after the long and abortive Syrian expedition, was lower than ever. Many of its soldiers were sick, food was scarce, drinkable water scarcer still. Kléber managed, however, to negotiate an armistice with Sir Sidney Smith, by the terms of which his army would be returned to France at the expense of the Sultan and his allies. It must have seemed almost too good to be true, and so indeed it proved to be, since both parties were blatantly disobeying orders. As Kléber well knew, the First Consul had given clear instructions that the army was to remain in Egypt until the signature of a general treaty of peace, while Smith, desperate to get the French out of the country, had similarly ignored an equally explicit order from London that no terms were to be made which did not involve the surrender of French troops as prisoners of war. Not surprisingly, the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, Lord Keith, flatly refused to approve the document.
Meanwhile, the Turkish janissaries were once again on the march. Kléber had no choice but to put his men once again on a war footing–and conclusively proved that there was life in them yet. On 20 March 1800 he defeated the Turks at Heliopolis, and a month later accepted the surrender of the Cairo garrison. By this time the British government had decided after all to ratify Smith’s armistice, but these last successes had put a very different complexion on such matters. However ailing and homesick the French army might be, it was now back in control. To most of its senior officers evacuation was no longer an issue. One of the few who still had his doubts was Kléber himself, but on 14 June–the very day of Marengo–he was assassinated in Cairo by a Muslim fanatic, to be succeeded by the pompous and pot-bellied General Jacques–or, as he now preferred to be called, Abdullah–Menou. Menou had recently converted to Islam–largely, it was thought, the better to enjoy the companionship of an Egyptian wife, daughter of a bathhouse keeper in Rosetta, of which town he had formerly been governor. Though reasonably brave and not unintelligent, he was sadly deficient in judgement and, in short, a bit of a joke–by no means the man to shoulder the responsibilities that lay ahead.
With Austria finally off his back, Napoleon’s thoughts had returned to the Nile. ‘The great affair now,’ he wrote to his brother Lucien in December 1800, ‘is Egypt…to inspire the troops there with a sense of their important mission.’ Egypt was the bridgehead, the springboard, the gateway to the east. The old dream was revived: of a glorious expedition from Suez which would sweep through the Red Sea and, perhaps in a single campaign, drive the British from India forever. He, Napoleon, would then be master of his own mighty oriental realm, a latter-day Alexander the Great.
Meanwhile, in England, the same dream assumed the form of a nightmare, and there were those who took the danger very seriously indeed. Among them was the head of the War Department, Henry Dundas, a dour Scottish lawyer of whom his chief, William Pitt, had declared that ‘his comprehensive knowledge of the history of India…though it might have been equalled in the House, had never been excelled.’ It was plain to Dundas that the only solution lay in a preemptive strike, and equally clear that this strike should be carried out by the British force of some 22,000 men under his kinsman and fellow Scotsman General Sir Ralph Abercromby, then stationed at Gibraltar. Its purpose would be not to occupy Egypt, but quite simply to get the French out. Dundas had a hard time persuading some of his colleagues–King George III himself, remembering all too well the American war of a quarter of a century before, gloomily predicted that any army sent to Egypt would perish of starvation or disease or both–but at last, with Pitt’s strong support, the decision was taken.
Abercromby was now sixty-six. He was a man of the highest integrity, who had already refused a peerage and a grant of land in the West Indies. He had resigned a command in Ireland on a matter of principle, and had avoided service in America because of his sympathy for the rebels. He had, however, fought in the Low Countries and the Caribbean, where in 1796 he had commanded the largest expeditionary force ever sent abroad, and despite fearsome epidemics of malaria and yellow fever had recovered several important islands, including Trinidad, from the French. His most recent operation, an attempt in October 1800 to destroy the Spanish fleet and arsenal at Cadiz, had been a fiasco: the British troops had failed even to make a landing. The principal fault, however, had been that of his superior, Lord Keith, and a sudden tempest of almost tropical violence had done the rest. Abercromby had reached Gibraltar with his pride seriously hurt but his record untarnished.
Though he was naturally determined that the coming Egyptian campaign would restore his reputation, he had no delusions as to its difficulty. He possessed no wagons or beasts of burden, few cavalry and still fewer teams of artillery. Nor did he have a single map of the region; the French, thanks to their professional surveyors, by now had whole sheaves of them. Water, too, would be a problem; the British would almost certainly have to depend on the navy for their supplies. Theoretically he should have invaluable support from the Turkish army, but Major-General John Moore, whom he sent on a fact-finding mission to the Turkish headquarters at Jaffa, returned to report that the Turks were poorly provisioned, utterly undisciplined and commanded by an elderly one-eyed Grand Vizir who was devoid alike of qualities of leadership and of military knowledge. The British would be better off on their own.
The combined naval and military force assembled during the winter of 1800–01 at Marmaris, on the coast of Asia Minor. At dawn on 22 February Admiral Lord Keith gave the order to weigh anchor, and for the next ten hours the fleet–numbering no less than 175 vessels–sailed one by one out of the bay. ‘Never was the honour of the British army more at stake,’ wrote Abercromby’s son Robert from the deck of HMS Kent, ‘but an equal number of Britons never assembled who were more determined to uphold their own and their country’s valour.’
On 2 March 1801 the fleet hove to in Aboukir Bay, but by now the weather was steadily deteriorating, and it was another week before the sea was calm enough for a general disembarkation. Thanks to assiduous practice in Marmaris this was finally effected on the 8th, with some 13,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry and 600 artillery all being landed in a single day. The French were waiting for them, but Menou, who had persisted in believing that the Aboukir landing would be merely a diversion, had kept the main bulk of his army in reserve in Alexandria and sent off a subordinate, General Louis Friant, with just 2,000 men to oppose the invaders. Friant, with three iron cannon and a dozen field-guns, was confident in his ability to deal with a ragged line of boats and small parties of men struggling ashore as best they could; but the intensive training to which the British troops had been subjected at Marmaris had not been for nothing. Ignoring the French fire, Moore led them fearlessly in parade order up the beach, where they quickly formed a line, fixed their bayonets and charged. The French, hopelessly outnumbered, turned and ran.
Nonetheless, the British losses that morning were heavy. The army lost 625 men, the navy nearly 100. Enemy casualties were somewhat fewer, but there was no doubt as to the result of the battle. It had been the most spectacular success against the French that anyone could remember, and the British soldiers’ coolness and courage under fire had been beyond praise. They had won–and won heroically–their first foothold in Egypt. Morale soared. They looked forward to the future, as well they might. Abercromby, however, advanced down the peninsula to Alexandria only with the greatest caution. March on the city he must, but the terrain was unfamiliar and the French were unlikely to make the same mistake again. His column was attacked on 13 March and again on the 18th, but these engagements proved to be only minor skirmishes. Just three days after the second of them came the moment of truth.
The Battle of Alexandria began at dawn on Saturday, 21 March, and lasted for the next four hours. Both sides fought with courage, their generals–except Menou–setting a superb example to the men under them. Of the French, General François Lanusse, killed in battle at the age of twenty-nine, was perhaps the bravest–but also one of the most clear-sighted. To Menou, who rode up and spoke to him as he lay dying, he remarked simply that he was foutu–like Menou’s entire Egyptian colony. Of the British, Moore was once again the hero of the hour. Early in the fighting he had been seriously wounded in the knee and soon afterwards had had his horse shot under him, but he had fought on in a manner described by an eye-witness as ‘almost beyond belief’. As for Abercromby himself, in the early stages of the battle he had been hit by a musket-ball that had lodged in his hip; the doctors were astonished at the way he had continued to move about the battlefield. Only after the fighting ceased did he allow himself to be laid on a stretcher. A junior officer picked up a soldier’s blanket and put it as a pillow under his head.
‘What’s that?’ he muttered.
‘Only a soldier’s blanket,’ the officer replied.
‘Only a soldier’s blanket?’ he echoed. ‘A soldier’s blanket is a thing of great consequence. Return it to him at once.’ A week later he died.
His successor, Major-General John Hely-Hutchinson, was as much disliked in the army as Abercromby had been loved–to the point where a number of senior officers actively plotted his downfall. They would probably have succeeded but for determined opposition on the part of the still convalescent Moore. Hely-Hutchinson’s colleague Sir Henry Bunbury, who knew him well, wrote:
He was forty-four years of age, but looked much older, with harsh features jaundiced by disease, extreme shortsightedness, a stooping body and a slouching gait, and an utter neglect of his dress…He shunned general society, was indolent, with an ungracious manner and a violent temper.
From the start, the major-general found himself in a difficult position. The British had won another victory, so much was certain; they had inflicted some 3,000 casualties on the French, at a cost of 1,400 of their own. But Alexandria remained in enemy hands, held not by a small and demoralised garrison but by the bulk of the French army of Egypt, still probably more numerous than his own, under a Commander-in-Chief who had no intention of leaving. Nor could that army be starved out: the road to the west was wide open. Little effective help could be expected from the Turks. There was always the possibility that the French would themselves take the initiative, but Menou seemed bent on playing a waiting game.
Something clearly had to be done to break the stalemate, and Hely-Hutchinson at last decided to send a small force of two and a half battalions, plus 4,000 recently arrived Turks, to attack Rosetta on the westernmost branch of the Nile delta. The expedition was a success, the garrison at Fort Julien laying down its arms on 19 April after a three-day resistance. The way was now clear for shipping on the Nile, and possibly even for a major river operation. On the other hand, such an operation would seriously deplete the garrison which would have to be left outside Alexandria, and it was to protect this–and also to cut Menou’s line of communication–that Hely-Hutchinson now decided to flood the dried-up Lake Mareotis immediately to the south of the city. The canal dyke was cut in two places, and the waters of Lake Aboukir plunged down in ten-foot cataracts, carrying away 300 feet of the banks. Leaving his deputy, General Eyre Coote, to hold the front at Alexandria, Hely-Hutchinson set off on 21 April for Rosetta, and on 5 May headed up the riverbank towards Cairo.
The march took seven weeks–weeks during which the exhausted men, many of them sick with dysentery, were obliged to contend with 110-degree temperatures by day and monstrous spiders and scorpions by night. There were several skirmishes with the French along the way–but also, surprisingly, an unexpected meeting with the Turkish army, which to everyone’s surprise had somehow marched under its one-eyed Grand Vizir from Jaffa, defeating a French force en route. ‘It was the worst army that ever existed,’ wrote Hely-Hutchinson, ‘but bad as they are they will fight to a certain degree in their own way.’ On 7 June there was a violent sandstorm, but when it cleared there, on the horizon, were the Pyramids. By the 21st the last units had arrived, and the British and Turks together had Cairo effectively surrounded. Unfortunately Hely-Hutchinson now had only some 4,000 soldiers fit for duty. The Cairo garrison, he had learned from French prisoners, amounted to about 5,000, although their morale was said to be low.