In 1800 the British Army was the laughing-stock of Europe. A year later, after forty years of failure, its honour and reputation had been redeemed. Such was the impact of the Battle of Alexandria (Canope) March 21, 1801. During the spring of 1801, the British army fought a series of three battles along the coast near Alexandria in Egypt: First an amphibious landing using longboats and barges against positioned French beach defenses; second a French assault leading to a British counterattack and advance under the French heavy caliber artillery outside of Alexandria (Battle of Mandara or Mandora), and finally a final pre-dawn French attack amidst Roman ruins, swirling French cavalry charges, Highlander charges, and the famous 28th Foot’s “about-face rear rank” engagement called the Battle of Alexandria or Canope.
After weeks of transported travel across the eastern Mediterranean sea, the British Army of Egypt was anchored in the bay of Aboukir. With modern-day precision, boat formations followed rehearsed landing skills, rowing the longboats and flat barges loaded with an assault wave of 5,000 British soldiers and sailors, directly under French artillery fire and musketry.
The landings were touch and go. Some British infantry battalions meet limited resistance apart from some token musketry or cannon fire. Other battalions had roundshot tearing holes into their packed craft, sinking a few, and causing havoc. Still, the line of boats and barges came ashore then returned to collect the next wave of battalions.
Under General Friant, some 2000 French troops, and ten field guns in dune positions had taken a heavy toll of the large British force disembarking from a task-force fleet in boats, each carrying 50 men to be landed on the beach. French dragoons charged into the surf to saber soldiers wading ashore or as the British soldiers attempted to form their ranks at the surf line. Successfully forming their proper ranks, especially behind a large dune, the British infantry, volleyed fired or rushed forward, overwhelming the defenders with fixed bayonets, thus enabling an orderly landing of the remainder of their 16,500-strong army, sailors, and its equipment. This skirmish was a prelude to the Battles of Alexandria and Mandara and resulted in British losses of 130 killed and 600 wounded or missing. The French withdrew, losing at least 300 dead and eight pieces of cannon.
The second part of this campaign was the Battle of Mandara (or Mandora), fought on 13 March 1801, between the French Armée d’Orient and the landed British expeditionary corps.
The battle occurred when a French force of 4,470 men under General François Lanusse, counter-attacked the British advance towards the defences of Alexandria. After hard fighting, the outnumbered French troops were thrown back in confusion. The British 90th and 92nd Regiments of Foot, who had borne the brunt of the fighting, were awarded the battle honour “Mandora”. During this battle, after defeating the initial French assault and French cavalry charge, the British army advanced across the open plain with units under the command of General Hutchinson (2nd CinC), taking the misnamed and barren “Green hill” position. The remainder of the British army stood by under arms by actually sitting down, as the French heavy artillery on the Heights of Nicopolis bombarded them. After some time, and additional losses to the infantry formations, the British generals figured out they couldn’t take the Heights of Nicopolis in a grand rush so the army retired back to the former French positions that morning. The Battle of Mandara had cost the British 1,240 killed and wounded. Most of the British wounded suffered limb dismemberment from the heavy round shot plowing though their “sitting formations”. The French losses are not documented but were estimated to be about 700.
Battle of Alexandria March 21, 1801
The Battle of Alexandria was the final field battle fought on the coast near Alexandria. On 21 March, the French troops were under arms at 3 a.m., and at 4:00 a.m. the French attacked and drove in the outposts. The French army now moved forward from their Heights of Nicopolis, with great rapidity, in their usual formation of columns and skirmishers while a predawn raid by French Dromedaries was against the exposed British redoubt garrisoned by sailors. A small French cavalry “brigade” of light cavalry kept the front line British 2nd brigade left transfixed during the morning battle till Lord Cavan’s brigade (3rd) came up later and formed a solid front along the dry canal.
The brunt of the attack fell upon Moore’s Reserve command near the roman ruins, and in particular upon the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot stationed in the forward earthwork. The British repulsed the first shock but a French column (21st DB Legere) penetrated in the early morning light between two British regiments. A confused, no quarter fight ensued in the ruins, in which several British regiments, including the 42nd Black Watch, the 58th Foot and the 23rd Welsh Fusiliers, led to the battalion destruction and standard capture of the 21st DB Legere.
In the second major combined arms attack French dragoons inflicted severe losses on the 42nd Foot Royal Highlanders during their charges as they reformed from the battle with the 21st DB Legere. Sir Ralph Abercromby was riding about nearby leading his army, and about this time received a mortal wound in his leg, though he remained on the field and in command to the end. The French DB infantry attack on the centre hill, lead by a battalion column of converged grenadiers, was repulsed by the cool and steady fire of the Guards, as the left-wing British brigade maintained its position with ease with just some skirmishing French light cavalry to their front.
As the French infantry slowly pulled back from their initial attempts on the central hill position, the battle around the earthwork and ruins continues with unabashed fury. General Menou ordered forward the remaining three French dragoon regiments to charge. “A sacrifice to desperation charge” said General Roize, who tried to dissuade Menou since he viewed the battle as lost. Later on his body was found among the dead near the roman ruins.
As the battle around the earthwork and roman ruins progressed into the morning light, the 28th Foot again found enemy infantry to their front and now more charging French dragoons to their rear. The front and rear ranks of the 28th were being simultaneously engaged, whereby the soldiers received their colonel’s order “Front rank stay as you are, rear rank about turn” and the conduct of the regiment won for it the distinction of wearing badges both at the front and at the back of their head-dress.
About half-past eight the combat began to wane, and the last shots were fired at ten. With the retirement of the French cavalry the 2nd line British brigades, in particular 5th Brigade (Stuart) and his Minorca regiment along with De Roll’s (Swiss), advanced in perfect order and cleared the positions around the roman ruins. The gap between the roman ruins and center hill was closed. Several hard-fought British and French battalions were completely out of ammunition; case in point, some Frenchmen pelted the 28th with stones, killing a sergeant of the 28th. Slowly the two armies parted, but not before the French mobile artillery and their skirmishers inflicted additional losses on the stationary British infantry. The French returned to their Heights of Nicopolis. The British army remained in their morning positions, knowing full well the strength of the French heavy artillery on the heights before them in the distance.
Eyewitness accounts stated the real attack had been pressed home on the British right, with many officers saying that “the determined attack would have been successful against almost any other troops.” The steady British infantry had in its volleys a power that no other troops then existing possessed, and it was these volleys that decided the day even more than the individual stubbornness of the men. Early shades of the later war in the Peninsular and Maida.
Part of the French losses were caused by the gunboats which lay close inshore and their cannonade on the left flank of the French columns, and by two heavy 24lb naval cannon placed in the earthwork battery. The forces engaged on this day were approximately 14,000 British to about 13,000 French, and the losses were: British, 1436 killed, wounded and missing, including Abercromby (who died on 28 March), Moore and three other British generals wounded. For the French; 1700 killed, wounded and missing with Generals Roize, Lanusse and Adj. Sornet killed.
Battle of Alexandria map (Faden) above. Click on linked map to enlarge map details.
Update: The Battle of Alexandria 1801 scenario play AAR now posted.
Scenario notes: For this scenario, WR has his normal supportive documents (.doc and .xls) and scenario tabletop map. Scenario notes, French and British excel roster spreadsheets are linked here: Alexandria 1801 Scenario notes (.doc), the British Alexandria Roster (.xls), the French Alexandria Roster (.xls).
A little note of history. In 1810 Thomas Brotherton, then serving with the Coldstream Guards, was a bold captain of light dragoons in Egypt. On one occasion of discussion with his general, who was fussed by the approaching French cavalry. ‘I must say, I was rather annoyed at the remark’, he wrote; ‘for I was one of Sir Ralph Abercromby’s soldiers, and had seen some service before the Peninsula.’
The Battle of Alexandria 1801 must rate high on WR’s favorite battles. The scope of unique subjects found at this battle is lengthy: French and British soldiers fighting in the Middle East (Egypt), naval amphibious landings and gunboats patrolling, sandy ground with date palms, camels (French dromedaries), a converted French general to Islam (Menou), sailors dragging cannon, ancient roman ruins, those French demi-brigade in all shades of color uniforms, siege artillery, dismounted cavalry, predawn assaults,….it defiantly not your typical napoleonic battle.
Source for this short blog piece include the excellent book “British Victory in Egypt 1801” by Piers Mackesy, various web sites and a board game. Piers’ book gives an excellent account of the entire 1801 Egyptian campaign from the British army and naval preparations, the Ottoman Empire involvement, the voyage across the eastern Mediterranean sea, the three battles near Alexandria, the campaign up the Nile and the French surrenders at Cairo and Alexandria. All under one book cover.
A poem on the battle the Alexandria found on McGonagell on Line.
The Battle of Alexandria or the Reconquest of Egypt
It was on the 21st of March in the year of 1801,
The British were at their posts every man;
And their position was naturally very strong,
And the whole line from sea to lake was about a mile long.
And on the ruins of a Roman Palace, rested the right,
And every man amongst them was eager for the fight,
And the reserve was under the command of Major General Moore,
A hero brave, whose courage was both firm and sure.
And in the valley between the right were the cavalry,
Which was really a most beautiful sight to see;
And the 28th were posted in a redoubt open in the rear,
Determined to hold it to the last without the least fear.
And the Guards and the Inniskillings were eager for the fray,
Also the Gordon Highlanders and Cameron Highlanders in grand array;
Likewise the dismounted Cavalry and the noble Dragoons,
Who never fear’d the cannons shot when it loudly booms.
And between the two armies stretched a sandy plain,
Which the French tried to chase the British off, but it was all in vain,
And a more imposing battle-field seldom has been chosen,
But alack the valour of the French soon got frozen.
Major General Moore was the general officer of the night,
And had galloped off to the left and to the right,
The instant he heard the enemy briskly firing;
He guessed by their firing they had no thought of retiring.
Then a wild broken huzza was heard from the plain below,
And followed by a rattle of musketry from the foe;
Then the French advanced in column with their drums loudly beating,
While their officers cried forward men and no retreating.
Then the colonel of the 58th reserved his fire,
Until the enemy drew near, which was his desire;
Then he ordered his men to attack them from behind the palace wall,
Then he opened fire at thirty yards, which did the enemy appal.
And thus assailed in front, flank and rear,
The French soon began to shake with fear;
Then the 58th charged them with the bayonet, with courage unshaken,
And all the enemy that entered the palace ruins were killed or taken.
Then the French Invincibles, stimulated by liquor and the promise of gold,
Stole silently along the valley with tact and courage bold,
Proceeded by a 6 pounder gun, between the right of the guards,
But brave Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart quickly their progress retards.
Then Colonel Stewart cried to the right-wing,
Forward! My lads, and make the valley ring,
And charge them with your bayonets and capture their gun,
And before very long they will be glad to run.
Then loudly grew the din of battle, like to rend the skies,
As Major Stirling’s left wing faced, and charged them likewise;
Then the Invincibles maddened by this double attack,
Dashed forward on the palace ruins, but they soon were driven back.
And by the 58th, and Black Watch they were brought to bay, here,
But still they were resolved to sell their lives most dear,
And it was only after 650 of them had fallen in the fray,
That the rest threw down their arms and quickly ran away.
Then unexpected, another great body of the enemy was seen,
With their banners waving in the breeze, most beautiful and green;
And advancing on the left of the redoubt,
But General Moore instantly ordered the Black Watch out.
And he cried, brave Highlanders you are always in the hottest of the fight,
Now make ready for the bayonet charge with all your might;
And remember our country and your forefathers
As soon as the enemy and ye foregathers.
Then the Black Watch responded with a loud shout,
And charged them with their bayonets without fear or doubt;
And the French tried hard to stand the charge, but it was all in vain,
And in confusion they all fled across the sandy plain.
Oh! It was a glorious victory, the British gained that day,
But the joy of it, alas! Was unfortunately taken away,
Because Sir Ralph Abercrombie, in the hottest of the fight, was shot,
And for his undaunted bravery, his name will never be forgot.
After the battle the British army had several more months sitting before the walls of Alexandria. Not until the French forces at Cairo were forced to surrender did the British army, reinforced with new regiments and some Ottoman Albanian infantry, finally besiege the city and force the end of the French occupation in Egypt.
I plan to visit the Battle of the Pyramids March 1798 next to determine if a suitable scenario can be created from the Mamelukes cavalry charges. Would be a good opportunity to examine the square formation rules used in our club games.
Till then….Cheers from the warren, as the camels stroll by….