In 1799, the British Government assembled an expeditionary force for use in a joint operation with the Russians against French held Dutch ports. The campaign, commanded by the Duke of York, was a dismal failure, blighted by poor intelligence, inter-service friction and competing agendas on the part of the allied commanders.
Fought to a standstill, the 30,000 strong British force was withdrawn, and the campaign came to an ignominious conclusion. Although the campaign was a strategic failure, the British forces had nevertheless demonstrated some tactical flair on the battlefield. The British government now had a substantial and somewhat impressive expeditionary force at its disposal, and cast around for a suitable target.
Initially, the expeditionary force was deployed to the launch several attacks against targets of opportunity on the French coast and in the Mediterranean, but after several disastrous assaults against Isle de France, Vigo and Cadiz, Ministers in Whitehall were at a loss as to what to do with the 30,000 troops.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte had landed an army in Egypt with the intention of expanding French control into the Middle East, and possibly as far as India. Although his supporting naval force had been lost at the Battle of the Nile (1 August 1798), Napoleon was still able to conquer Egypt and march into Syria. Eventually his army ran out of steam and proved unable to take the city of Acre, Turning back, the French retreated Egypt and Napoleon himself abandoned his army to return to France.
In late 1800, the British government decided to use its expeditionary force to liberate Egypt, aware that a French presence in on the coast of the Red Sea represented a threat, however remote, to the security of India. The commander of the expeditionary force, General Sir Ralph Abercromby, received orders to prepare his army for an amphibious assault on the Egyptian coast.
Having experienced serious difficulties launching amphibious attacks in the Netherlands, France and Spain, Abercromby ordered the expeditionary force to the coast of Turkey for intensive training. Previous attacks had been marred by poor inter-service relations and communications, and over the course of a month, these were improved.
Meanwhile, a systematic plan for the deployment of units ashore was devised, and a beach master appointed and trained to oversea preparations for the assault. At the same time, one of Abercromby’s brigadiers, General Sir John Moore, visited the Ottoman Army with which the British were to cooperate. Moore found an army totally unprepared for allied operations, viewing it at best as an irregular force, at worst as undisciplined. Nevertheless, preparations were made for conjoint operations once the British and established a foothold on the Egyptian coast.
In early March 1801, the decision was taken to launch the invasion. On 8 March, the British landed in Abukir Bay, facing relatively light resistance. As the British pressed along the coast towards Alexandria, on 13 March they encountered a French force drawn up in a strong defensive position. In a hard fought battle, the British managed to dislodge the French. Seven days later, Abercromby was preparing to attack the French outside Alexandria, when they beat him to it. The battle of Alexandria was a desperate battle, but the British were able to prevail by utilising a combination of infantry tactics, some based on European methods, others on experiences gained fighting in the Americas.
Unfortunately, Abercromby was shot in the thigh and died a few days later. His second-in-command, John Hely-Hutchinson, was less decisive that Abercromby, but his methodical planning enabled him to take his army successfully south down the Nile and, in combination with the Ottoman Army, force the surrender of the French garrison of Cairo.
Returning to Alexandria by August, which had been besieged since 21 March, Hely-Hutchinson decided to attack and capture the city. He broke several damns that had prevented the Nile flooding a shallow lake to the south of the city. After a few days, the water was deep enough to bring in a fleet of gunboats to transport troops under cover of darkness to the rear of the city – a position the British had previously been unable to attack. Confronted by British forces on all sides, the French garrison surrendered. Egypt had been liberated and cleared of French troops in little over six months.
The Egyptian campaign of 1801 is increasingly forgotten as the British Army achieved more impressive successes in the later years of the Napoleonic Wars. But the campaign is important and interesting for several reasons.
First, it marked a turning point for the British Army which has previously been seen as an incapable and incompetent force. The success in Egypt clearly demonstrated that although small, it was clearly a force to be reckoned with.
Secondly, and more importantly, the campaign was a watershed moment. It was commanded by veterans of Britain’s eighteenth century campaigns in America and Europe. Abercromby was a veteran of European campaigns during the Seven Years War and later in the Caribbean, Moore had cut his teeth in the American Revolutionary War, and had likewise served with Abercromby in the Caribbean. But the mid-ranking officers in Egypt would go on to achieve startling successes under the command of the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War.
It seems highly unlikely that in an two-year period spent floating around the Mediterranean, that Abercromby, Moore, and other veterans of America and Europe did not pass on their experiences and knowledge to their subordinates. You can read more about my research into the Egyptian campaign here.