British Army: War with Revolutionary France, 1792–1801 Part II

The regiments in which they served were changing, too, both outwardly and in substance. Gone were the proprietor-colonels, for the financial arrangements had become much tighter. Colonelcies were now largely honorific, and increasingly the domain of senior officers or royalty. Command in all its executive functions was in the hands of the lieutenant-colonel, who nine times out of ten would have purchased the rank, although as the war rolled on and new regiments were raised (and casualties mounted), there was a marked increase in ‘field promotion’ – promotion without purchase as reward for merit, or in strict seniority to fill dead men’s boots.

And the regiments now went by different titles. Originally known by its colonel’s name – Barrell’s Regiment, for example, or Howard’s – and from 1751 by its number in ‘the line’, in 1782 each regiment was identified with a particular part of the country in an attempt to stimulate recruitment. So the 34th Foot now became, for instance, the 34th (Cumberland) Regiment of Foot, and the 9th Foot became the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment. Some of the most senior regiments were allowed a grander title, such as the 4th (King’s Own) Regiment, whose colonel was General Sir John Burgoyne, rehabilitated after his Saratoga humiliation. Some were distinguished as ‘Fusiliers’ in addition to their territorial affiliation, such as the 21st (Royal North British Fusilier) Regiment, or (later) as ‘Light Infantry’ rather than mere pedestrian ‘Foot’, such as the 43rd (Monmouthshire) Light Infantry. As in other reorganizations of the British infantry in the past two centuries there were territorial anomalies, such as the renaming of the very Scottish 25th Foot as the 25th (Sussex) Regiment – until 1805, when its recruiting area was transferred to the Scottish Borders, whose name it then took. These county affiliations served the regiments well in more ways than the original recruiting intention, but their greatest test – the rapid expansion of the army in the First World War – proved that the system was indeed an act of genius, if accidental. Would, for example, the county of Durham have been able to raise fourteen extra infantry battalions in 1914–15 quite so easily, and the War Office have had them battle-ready so quickly, had not the battalions been able to take on the instant identity of the Durham Light Infantry? It is doubtful.

The ‘county’ system continued until the twenty-first century, when the cull and reorganization of 2006 left only one county name in the whole of the army as the regiments disappeared into ‘regional’ – or, in the case of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, national – multi-battalion groupings. The exception was the three-battalion Yorkshire Regiment, which says much for the consciousness of that independent-minded county, as well as the shrewdness of the regiment’s elders in holding fast to a firm local identity when the strong recruiting power of its former regiments (the Green Howards, the Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire, and the Duke of Wellington’s) was lost.

Changes in the infantry were by no means the only developments during the 1790s, which in many ways was the decade of waiting. While the duke of York was gathering up the reins at the Horse Guards as best he could, the army had the great good fortune to find there was now an able man in charge of the Board of Ordnance – Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond. Besides thoroughly reorganizing the Ordnance’s administration and the supply of gunpowder, Richmond raised the Royal Corps of Artificers to supervise military construction, the Royal Corps of Artillery Drivers to replace the civilian hireling gun teams, and the Royal Horse Artillery to support the cavalry. Without these reforms the army would simply not have been able to take the field against the rapidly modernizing forces of Revolutionary France.

But when would the opportunity come to put these innovations to the test? In 1799 there was another ignominious expedition to Flanders, led gallantly but ill-advisedly by the duke of York in person, and there were more costly and futile descents on the enemy coast, urged by the prime minister, the younger Pitt, just as his father had championed the equally ineffectual tip and run raids forty years earlier. Although these showed an offensive spirit of sorts, they showed no instinct for, and arguably no understanding of, the decisive use of force. The breakthrough – in Egypt – was to come almost by accident.

On 8 March 1801 at Aboukir, at the mouth of the Nile, the British army carried out its first successful opposed landing from the sea. The ships were under the command of Admiral Alexander Cochrane, uncle of the famous Sir Thomas – the ‘sea wolf’, the only captain who could rival Nelson in daring – and himself a bold and resourceful officer, fruit of the two decades of spending on ‘the safeguard of the sea’. The landing force was commanded by a fellow Scot, Sir Ralph Abercromby, with yet another, the 39-year-old Major-General John Moore, as his deputy.

Into the boats at the ships’ side clambered 5,000 red-coated marines and infantry – 5,000 muskets with little expectation of keeping their powder dry, knowing the work would have to be done with the bayonet. Once the boats were full, redcoats packed tight as the cargo on a slaver, the ‘bluejackets’ began pulling for the shore.

Half a mile distant, in the sand dunes of the Nile Delta, 2,000 Frenchmen lay waiting for them. An onshore breeze made the sea choppy, and as the boats ploughed through the swell several of them were overwhelmed, sinking with the loss of all but the strongest and least encumbered swimmers. Cannon shot now smashed into others, the French guns hardly needing to take aim against so numerous a flotilla. And then, as the boats began running in through the surf, into the breakers charged the French cavalry to cut at the assault troops before they could scramble out and gain a footing.

But the tide of redcoats was as unstoppable as the waves themselves. Men landing on a beach find little cover and, after a galling fire on the run-in, have little thought but getting at those shooting at them. And there were none more determined to go to it with the bayonet that morning than the 42nd Highlanders, the Black Watch, the only regiment in the army as yet allowed to wear the kilt (and with the red hackle in their bonnets, a distinction whose origins are long forgotten but which even today evokes a fierce sense of specialness). The fighting, hand to hand and with little quarter, did not last long. The cold steel of the Forty-second and half a dozen other regiments – English, Welsh and Irish (truly a microcosm of the newly constituted United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) – at last silenced the guns and chased the rest from the dunes and back towards Alexandria. The assault landing, ever a precarious business, had succeeded: could Abercromby now complete his task of destroying the French army in Egypt?

It was a daunting enough task. The French had been in Egypt for three years. It had been General Napoleon Bonaparte’s great egotistic mission, a speculative strategic adventure which vaguely threatened British interests in India by menacing the Levant. Bonaparte had come by sea, but a month later, in August 1798, at the battle of the Nile Nelson had made sure he could not leave that way, famously sailing into the shallows on the enemy’s blind side and destroying the French fleet as it lay at anchor. With his army washed up amid the pyramids it was not long before Bonaparte was back in Paris on the pretext of fulfilling his destiny. But a stranded army abandoned by its general was still an army, and it was Abercromby’s own destiny to deal with it.

He had some 14,000 men against 20,000 – unpromising odds, but the French officer opposing him was not of the first water. The brilliant General Kléber, whom Bonaparte had left in charge, had been assassinated by a Syrian student the year before, and in his place now stood Jacques-François de Menou, or Abdullah as he preferred after his ‘conversion’ to Islam. Menou was to prove as sedentary as Abercromby was active, though at 48 he was sixteen years Abercromby’s junior.

The route to Alexandria, the French army’s base, offered neither room for manœuvre nor opportunity for surprise. Abercromby’s lodgement was at the point of a narrow spit of land in the Nile Delta, with the sea on one side and Lake Aboukir on the other. But he lost no time in enlarging the perimeter to gain depth in case of a counter-attack, and to make space for his regiments to recover after their passage from Sicily. On 13 March, five days after the initial landing, he struck out from the bridgehead, skirmishing briskly with Menou’s outposts at Mandora, and by the twentieth had managed to extend his front across the 3 miles of the isthmus, with his right flank resting on the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Nicopolis and his left on the lake and the Alexandria canal. Expecting a counter-attack, he placed John Moore’s division on the right of the line, the Guards brigade in the centre and three more brigades on the left towards the lake, backing them with a second line of two brigades and dismounted cavalry. And this would prove prudent, for, having progressively lost the initiative over the past fortnight, Menou now managed to stir himself into a night attack.

He struck in the early hours of 21 March, but Abercromby, anticipating the move, already had his men stood to arms. The main weight of the attack fell on Moore’s division, in particular the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment. As day broke, the Glosters (the spelling is one of those cherished peculiarities of every regiment) found themselves so hard pressed that their colonel ordered the rear rank to turn about to fight off an envelopment – a drill not found in the Dundas regulations. With both front and rear ranks simultaneously engaged and therefore unable to support each other, all the Glosters could rely on was their speed of reloading, the vigour of their bayoneting and the toughness belied by their pastoral recruiting area. They literally fought back to back, the French dead piling up by the minute to both front and rear, until the attack was utterly spent.

In recognition of this singular feat of arms the Glosters were awarded the distinction of wearing Sphinx badges both at the front and at the back of their head-dress – another of those cherished peculiarities which 200 years later would still somehow convince a Glosters soldier that he was a part of something special, still make a man fight just a little harder because he knows that others wearing the same badge have managed to fight hard in the past.

The battle of Alexandria was as hard fought as any one of Marlborough’s great ‘quadrilateral’. The casualties were heavy on both sides, but the French could make no impression on the British line, and towards late morning, with their cavalry blown, their guns running out of powder and their infantry exhausted, they turned tail for the security of the ancient port of Egypt after which the battle was named. A few months later Menou and his besieged, demoralized army surrendered.

Aboukir (Abu Qir) and Alexandria were magnificent turning points in the British army’s reputation – the culmination of, in the words of one of Bonaparte’s officers (later a Russian general), Henri Jomini, ‘l’époque de sa régénération’. The infantry especially had somehow regained that doggedness and defiance which seemed to have reached its high-water mark at Minden and been on the ebb ever since, particularly after Yorktown. In Egypt British generals had planned things well, and executed them even better; and superior French numbers had been overcome by sheer fighting spirit. The army of Revolutionary France which would soon under ‘Emperor’ Napoleon become the Grande Armée was not invincible after all. Although it took a little time for the truth to sink in (the cabinet had agreed to unfavourable peace terms in October before even knowing the outcome of the fighting), the King’s ministers could at last see that a well-found and well-generalled British army supported by the Royal Navy could gain decisive results. The question that they now had to answer was where that decision should be sought.

But fate played a cruel, if ultimately obliging, trick at Alexandria. Armies are much the better for being led by generals who take a good share of the shot rather than just the major share of the prize money. Sir Ralph Abercromby, who despite his years was in the thick of the fighting at Alexandria (at one point grappling hand-to-hand with two French dragoons), had been fatally wounded. Moore, his deputy, who was also wounded (as well as three other generals), took command in the hour of the dying hero’s triumph – with eerie portent of his own later fate. And Moore, thrust into the prominence of command, would thereby gain in due course the authority to work his own reforms, and take them to the enemy on the mainland of Europe.

In Egypt, then, the British army had served notice that it was to enter the fight on land and as a force to be reckoned with – exactly as Marlborough had done by his march into Bavaria a hundred years before. And the army’s elastic order of battle would stretch to its greatest length to date. Once again, officers were learning how to rebuild an army – and in the face of their most dangerous enemy yet.

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