In the event, it proved even lower than he had been led to believe. On 22 June, the day the batteries were to be drawn into position, the gates of the city opened. The siege of Cairo was over before it had begun.
General Augustin-Daniel Belliard, commanding the Cairo garrison, had had little choice. There were less than two months’ rations in the city, and foraging was no longer possible. Ammunition too was desperately short, down to 150 rounds per gun. His men had no stomach for the fight; all they wanted was to get home. He also had to remember the local population, who had no love for his army and who would not hesitate to rise up against it when they saw the chance. There might perhaps have been a hope of retiring into Upper Egypt and continuing the resistance there, but another British force, from India, was rumoured to be on its way to Quseir on the western shore of the Red Sea, from which it would advance on Cairo from the south.
Most worrying of all was the realisation that his Commander-in-Chief had gone off his head. Just a week before, a courier from Alexandria had delivered a letter from Menou, describing how he had reported to Bonaparte that the British had suffered appalling losses on their way from Rosetta. Belliard himself, according to the same report, had destroyed the Turkish army and was now advancing down the Nile towards Alexandria. Meanwhile, reinforcements from France were on their way. Cairo must be held until they arrived.
To the luckless general it was now clear that he could no longer hope for any reasonable orders from his chief; henceforth, he was on his own. Having no authority to make terms, he summoned a council of war; it was only after assuring himself of the support of his senior officers that he sent one of them under a flag of truce to report his readiness to negotiate. An armistice was agreed at once, the capitulation signed on 28 June. The French, with their arms, baggage and artillery, would march under British escort to Rosetta, where they would be shipped back to France within fifty days.
During the ensuing period of well-deserved rest and recreation for the British–and, for the French, of preparation for their coming departure–Hely-Hutchinson arranged for officers and men alike to visit the Pyramids. Several of them, according to contemporary accounts, cut their names into the stone; Sergeant Daniel Nicol wrote in his journal: ‘I wrought very hard and got D. NICOL, 92 REGT carved, and broke my knife while finishing the job; this is in the southeast corner, and is likely to stand some time.’ Few, mercifully, seem to have shared the enthusiasm of a certain Colonel Cameron of the 79th, who in his eagerness to carry home a souvenir ordered one of his men to attack the royal sarcophagus with a sledgehammer.
For the citizens of Cairo, 9 July 1801 was the worst day that any of them could remember: it was the day when the French evacuated the city and when it was engulfed by swarms of Turkish soldiers, who had made no secret of the fact that the unrivalled prospects of murder, rape and pillage which it offered were the sole reason for their having crossed the deserts from Syria. The Grand Vizir’s army had always been cheerfully anarchic; now, as the orgies and the bloodbaths began, the last faint suggestions of discipline vanished. There was nothing the British could do as they formally took over the garrison; the Turks were their allies, and had given plenty of warning of their intentions. As for the French–who had withdrawn to Giza–they can have felt nothing but relief to be out of the city at last.
British, French and Turks together set off down the Nile on 14 July. The British were astonished to find that the French numbered not the 5,000 that they had estimated, but nearly three times that number. They were accompanied by some 300 small river boats carrying the sick and wounded with the baggage, vast quantities of loot and the corpse of Kléber, to be reburied under an appropriate memorial in France. Three weeks later, on 5 August at Rosetta, their embarkation was complete; on the 9th the last ship sailed for Toulon. Now finally the British could turn their full attention on Alexandria, and so–they very much hoped–draw a line under the whole Egyptian adventure.
Throughout the journey to the coast, the army was commanded by Moore. Hely-Hutchinson, having fallen sick, spent most of July recovering at Giza. Only on the 29th did he arrive by river at Rosetta, where he immediately boarded the flagship Foudroyant and remained there for another fortnight. It was essential that he should properly regain his strength before marching on Alexandria, and in any case no major operations could begin until Moore had finished supervising the French embarkation. By then, however, the Major-General had his plans ready: he would attack the city simultaneously from east and west. It lay at the centre of a narrow isthmus separating the Mediterranean to the north from the recently flooded Lake Mareotis to the south. From Rosetta, some forty miles east of Alexandria, he would advance with his heavy artillery. Coote, meanwhile, would be shipped with three brigades across the lake and take up a position on the isthmus some eight or ten miles beyond the city to the west. In a classic pincer movement, the two would then come together.
The attack began in the evening of the 16th, when under cover of darkness some 300 gunboats, carrying 4,000 men, sailed westward over Lake Mareotis. Then, at dawn on the 17th, two divisions under Moore and General Sir John Cradock advanced along the isthmus and attacked the advanced French positions. The expedition was successful, but Moore, to whom it had given an opportunity to see the eastern fortifications for the first time, found them formidable indeed and seriously doubted whether, with his existing resources, they could be overcome. Fortunately the defences to the west of the city were known to be a good deal weaker; on Coote, it seemed, the success of the operation might well depend.
Coote was certainly showing himself dependable. By the evening of the 21st, after superhuman exertions by his men in pitiless heat, he had taken the Marabout Fort, on a small island commanding the further end of the long and shallow lagoon, known as the Old Harbour, to the west of the city. At dawn on the 22nd he began his advance along the isthmus, flanked by the navy in the Mediterranean on his left and the gunboats in the lake on his right. Nothing, it seemed, could stop him; the French forward positions dissolved at his approach. By ten o’clock that morning they had lost about 200 killed, wounded and prisoners; British losses were three killed and forty wounded. That afternoon Hely-Hutchinson himself sailed across the lake to confer with Coote and look at the western fortifications for himself. There was no doubt that those he saw before him were far weaker than those on the other side of the city. There and then he decided that the main force of the assault must be from the west.
More–and heavier–guns were hastily embarked on the lake and carried across to Coote’s camp. The moment they were in position the artillery bombardment began, and with it the steady advance on the city. Rather than heading immediately for Alexandria, however, Coote’s plan was to occupy a vantage point on the high ground just above Pompey’s Pillar to the southeast of the city, from which he could fire down on its defences. This, however, proved unnecessary: at about half past four on the afternoon of the 26th a French officer arrived at one of his advance posts with a request for an armistice. Coote immediately suspended the firing while the letter was taken to the Commander-in-Chief; and when a little after midnight he heard that Hely-Hutchinson had agreed he stood down his men. The fighting was over.
True, there were moments in the next few days when it looked as if it might be resumed. General Menou, having obtained his armistice, did his best to wriggle out of his obligations. First he asked for a brief extension of the armistice period; then he suggested a convention rather than a capitulation; then he proposed a return of all the men-of-war and most of the artillery to France; then the retention of all Egyptian public property in French hands. Finally he even tried to have the armistice prolonged until 17 September, on the understanding that the French might then resume hostilities if their expected reinforcements had arrived. But Hely-Hutchinson was having none of it. He simply sent Menou his terms: repatriation for his army with personal arms and ten pieces of artillery, all shipping and public property to remain in Egypt. If these terms were not immediately accepted, Alexandria would be blown to bits.
Menou gave in. There was no fight left in him, still less in his exhausted and demoralised men. A capitulation was signed, on what were still remarkably generous terms. At 11 a.m. on 2 September the British took over Alexandria, while the band of the 54th assembled around Pompey’s Pillar and played the national anthem. It was just at this triumphant moment that the force despatched from India arrived at Rosetta after its long march from the Red Sea. Hely-Hutchinson’s men–who were half-starved and had lived in their clothes through appalling heat for the past six months–were incredulous when they saw it: it included whole regiments of cooks, with exotic foods, wines and spirits; its tented camp looked more like the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The sepoys, for their part, were shocked by the shabbiness of the British troops. No wonder that Hely-Hutchinson thought it wiser to keep the two forces well apart.
So the bulk of the British army sailed away–from the point of view of every single fighting man, not a moment too soon. In its determination to prevent any attempt by the French to return, however, the government in London ordered a surprisingly large garrison–6,000 strong–to remain at Alexandria at least until the peace, under the command of a reluctant and angry General Moore, who despite his grave wound still thirsted for action. A further 7,000 got no further than Malta, where a strong base was deemed essential, but Malta–where many of the men had left their wives–was a paradise after Egypt, and there were few complaints.
The cost of the Egyptian expedition had been considerable, and not only in financial terms. It left behind 633 British killed or missing; about another 1,000 had died of wounds or disease. The wounded who lived to be repatriated numbered over 3,000, including 160 blinded by ophthalmia. Politically and strategically, on the other hand, the operation had been a triumphant success. In six months British forces had achieved their objective: to show Napoleon that Egypt would never be his. In doing so they had captured both Cairo and Alexandria, and throughout had shown quite astonishing steadiness and discipline, impressing their own officers almost as much as they impressed the French. They had also proved wrong the pessimists at home. A heartwarming story is told of how one day King George III had ridden out to the home of old Dundas in Wimbledon, where he had raised a glass of madeira to the only begetter of the expedition. ‘When a person has been perfectly in the wrong,’ he declared, ‘the most just and honourable thing for him to do is to acknowledge it publicly.’
The British had been victorious; the French had been defeated. ‘Quand les armées croient possible de sortir d’une position critique avec une convention sans se déshonorer, tout est perdu,’ wrote Napoleon. He spoke no more than the truth. But what, it may be asked, of the Egyptians themselves, who had probably suffered more from the three years of fighting than anyone else? Once the foreigners had gone, they were left in much the same situation as before: in theory under the hopeless misrule of the Ottoman Empire, in fact under the tyranny of the Mameluke beys. But this situation did not last long. On 22 October 1801 all the principal beys were invited to a banquet on board the flagship of the Capitan Pasha, admiral of the Ottoman fleet, which was lying at anchor off Alexandria. Most of them were mowed down by a Turkish gunboat before they had even reached the vessel; the remainder were imprisoned as soon as they arrived on board. Although a few survived–some had been in Constantinople, others had remained in Cairo–and struggled on for two or three more years, their power was broken. Nor could they continue to recruit their soldiers from the slave markets of the east, since in 1802 the Sublime Porte prohibited the exportation of young boys to Egypt. Unfortunately, however, the moribund Ottoman Empire was incapable of instituting an effective government in their place. Thus it was that, virtually overnight, Egypt ceased to be a bone of contention and became a vacuum. Writing in 1803, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Wilson–who had kept a meticulous journal throughout the expedition and subsequently published a detailed history of it–expressed his astonishment that ‘no adventurer endowed with fortitude, talents and ambition had proposed to command a body of auxiliaries to act against the Mamelukes’, while in the following year a nameless American gentleman wrote from Cairo to Admiral Sir Alexander Ball, Governor of Malta, that ‘Egypt has no master…she must have a new master, and the first comer will be welcome.’