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The Story of the Royal Scots
Chapter XI - The Napoleonic War, Egypt, 1801-1803


The Mediterranean Situation—Second Battalion in Egypt— The Landing in Aboukir Bay—Battles of March 13 and March 21, 1801—The end of French rule in Egypt— Troubles at Gibraltar.

The story of the service of The Royal Scots in Egypt will not be intelligible without a brief outline of the events which led to the great operations in the eastern Mediterranean. The regiment had met the young Bonaparte at Toulon, but had not yet been concerned in any of the campaigns which he had led as general. The early part of the war had witnessed England wasting her strength in futile operations in the West Indies, where, as we have seen, sickness slew fifty times more than the enemy’s steel and bullet. In 1795, England, Russia, and Austria had agreed to join forces against France, but our two allies behaved in a most unsatisfactory, not to say treacherous fashion. This year saw the Directory as the governing power in Paris, and Bonaparte as General of the Interior. The Treasury was empty, and successful war the only hope of France. In 1796 Carnot, Minister of War, sent Bonaparte to command the French army operating against the Austrians in Italy : his success was immediate. Sardinia and Naples collapsed at once and broke away from their Austrian allies. Lombardy and the Papal States were plundered.

The Italian peninsula, with its welter of jealous little powers, was at the mercy of Bonaparte if the British navy could be enticed or driven from the Mediterranean. Spain went over to the French side, and the British fleet evacuated the inland sea. Never had things looked blacker. Pitt and his associates had bungled in every direction at home and abroad: in domestic affairs, in foreign policy, and in the conduct of the war. Ireland was aflame with just discontent, and invasion threatened. Lazare Hoche tried a descent on Ireland at the end of 1796 but failed. The year 1797 saw the mutiny at the Nore. Austria ceased fighting with France, and Britain was isolated. Pitt tried to make peace but failed. The foolish operations in the West Indies kept the bulk of British troops tied there.

Bonaparte began to dream of the Mediterranean as a French sea, of a French Egypt, of a final and successful invasion of England, and of himself as supreme Governor of France.

In 1798 he committed the Directory to the seizing of Malta and the invasion of Egypt, but it was a blunder. He sailed from Toulon in May, but he counted without British sea-power. A fleet under Nelson returned to the Mediterranean at the end of the same month, but at first was very unlucky in the search for the French expedition and its convoying force of warships. Bonaparte took Malta easily on June 9, but passing round Crete on his way to Egypt got to Alexandria after Nelson had reached there and had sailed away again on his search. On July 25 Bonaparte entered Cairo, and on August 7 proceeded to the conquest of Lower Egypt.

Meanwhile Nelson came back and annihilated the French fleet at the battle of the Nile.

Bonaparte and his army were tied to the soil they had so easily conquered, but Nelson left only a small blockading fleet and sailed to Naples. There Lady Hamilton nursed his Nile wound and committed her patient and lover to his fantastic policy in help of Naples. So it happened that by October 1799 Bonaparte had eluded the British cruisers off the coast of Egypt and returned to France, after his Syrian campaign, which was broken by Sydney Smith and the British fleet at Acre. He left his army under Kleber’s command, and found France ready to acclaim his picturesque compaigns in the East as the work of one who could solve their domestic disorders. By Nov. 9 the Directory had been superseded by a Consulate of Three based on an elaborate and quite unworkable constitution, and by Christmas Day he was First Consul with despotic powers.

This very rapid sketch has been necessary in order to show Bonaparte’s position at the beginning of 1800. Henceforward he was the pivot on which swung the world’s activities until his final fall at Waterloo.

His first task was a complete reorganization and unification of the civil government of France, and very swiftly and thoroughly was it done.

The Allies on their side were poorly organized for successful war. Russia had broken with England and Austria as the result mainly of the incredible follies and treacheries of the Austrians; the British army was scattered and disorganized. A scheme was worked out in 1799 fora Mediterranean campaign directed from Minorca, which was well garrisoned by the British, against Malta and the French army posted between Toulon and Genoa, but it was abandoned. By May 1800, however, Abercromby was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all our forces in the Mediterranean, and reached Leghorn on July 1. The King and Queen of Naples were therewith Nelson and the Hamiltons, and besought him to land his troops to defend Naples, but he resisted their entreaties and sailed for Malta. His army of 5000 was useless to resist the French, flushed as they were with the success of Marengo, and he sailed for Port Mahon, Minorca, then a British base. Meanwhile Bonaparte had detached Russia from England by promising Malta to the Tsar, and had brought Spain within his influence. Abercromby was then ordered to harry the Spanish arsenals at Ferrol, Vigo, and Cadiz, and, on his way, to pick up reinforcements at Gibraltar. We may now return to the private concerns of the regiment.

Early in the year 1800 the first battalion moved from Ireland to Scotland and later to England, where it remained till the end of the year, and the second was also in England until August. The seniority of the regiment gave it the privilege earlier in the year of organizing1 a famous experiment, which later was to produce great results. It was decided to form a battalion of riflemen, and a squad of two sergeants, two corporals, and thirty privates was drafted into this new unit from each of fourteen regiments, including The Second Royals. The men were chosen by officers of The Royals. After a period of training all these squads returned to their own regiments, except the three from The Royals, the Twenty-seventh and Seventy-ninth. These were ordered to join the force under Lieut.-General Pulteney which landed in August on the coast of Spain to attack the fortress of Ferrol, as part of the operations conducted by Sir Ralph Abercromby.

The second battalion as well as the experimental Rifle Corps was with Pulteney. After some skirmishes which revealed the strength of the position, the general decided that an assault would not be successful and re-embarked his force to join Abercromby, then about to attack Cadiz. The Rifle Corps, however, had eight wounded, a baptism of fire for the unit which was afterwards to develop into the Rifle Brigade. The operations against Cadiz were also ineffective, and Abercromby’s force, considerably depressed, moved to Gibraltar. Included in it were The Second Royals and three companies of the First in the new guise of riflemen.

Meanwhile Malta had fallen to the British arms on September 5, and by the end of October Abercromby was launched by orders from home on a campaign against the French in Egypt. A month later his two divisions were assembled at Malta, but did not sail for his objective until December. It was not until the 30th that his fleet and transports cast anchor in Mar-morice Bay, Asia Minor, not far from Rhodes, in order to get in touch with his Turkish allies.

The latter proved to be hopelessly unprepared and inefficient, and Abercromby had to trust to himself. The French general, Kleber, who succeeded Bonaparte in the command in Egypt, had been killed, and General Menou was in charge. On March 1, 1801, the British fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay, but heavy weather delayed the disembarkation until the 8th.

In the dead of night a first line of fifty-eight flat boats,1 each holding some fifty soldiers, rowed silently from the fleet to their appointed stations near the shore. Behind them came a second line of eighty-four cutters loaded with soldiers, a third line of thirty-seven launches with the field-guns, and some sailors behind these again in fourteen more. By nine o’clock the order was given to land, and the boats pulled in under cover of fire from the escorting gunboats. The French, who had been watching from the sand dunes, disappeared, but as the British neared the shore a tempest of shot and shell burst on them from the castle of Aboukir. One boat was sunk outright, and the enemy's musketry did much execution. The landing was made on a front of about a mile, south of a big sandhill, and until the boats grounded the invaders made no answer. The men leaped ashore, formed rapidly, and broke through the Frenchmen, who still fired volleys into the boats and stabbed at the waders with their bayonets. Major-General Moore was in command; the first three regiments to land on the right followed him up the great sandhill, the summit of which was held by a half-brigade of French. It was a wild scramble, followed by some bloody work with the bayonet at the top, and the French broke and fled, leaving four guns. Meanwhile the rest of the troops had done almost as well, and The Royals, with the Fifty-fourth, drove back the French infantry in brilliant fashion on the left.

In twenty minutes the British had secured their landing, as accomplished a tactical adventure as the records of the army can show. It is comparable with the superb exploits of the British in 1915 at Gallipoli, where The Royals renewed the glories of their forerunners of 1801. Abercromby’s troops were now eleven miles from Alexandria, on the strip of land, averaging about two miles in width, which divides the sea from the salt lake of Aboukir, or Maadieh. Abercromby’s front faced west and his flanks rested on the two shores, and as his gunboats had entered the salt lake, he had naval aid on both flanks, and a water line of supply. The French main army was at Cairo, under Menou, and the garrison of Alexandria, under Friant, moved out about five miles from the city to meet Abercromby. There was a garrison at Aboukir Castle, but this was contained by two British brigades. Friant’s position covered the point where the Aboukir lake ended, and was divided from the adjacent lake of Mareotis by a dyke. It was called the Roman Camp, and, as it stood high, commanded Abercromby’s force as it approached from the east. Friant’s guns were posted there.

On March 12 the British had moved to within a] mile and a half of this position, and early on the 13th Abercromby attacked in three parallel columns, The Royal Scots in the centre.

After strenuous fighting the French fell back on a line of fortifications known as the Heights of Nico-polis. The honours of this engagement were with two Highland regiments, the Ninetieth and Ninety-second, which were the advanced guard. Between them they had nearly four hundred casualties, whereas The Royals only lost twenty-five. The defective eyesight of Abercromby prevented him appreciating the strength of the French positions, and made the success more costly than perhaps it need have been. However, he had captured five guns and secured the Roman Camp, which was forthwith entrenched. But the unwholesome climate played havoc with the British, already inferior in numbers, and Menou was bringing up his Cairo troops to Alexandria. On the other hand Abercromby was awaiting reinforcements from India as well as some Turkish allies, and Menou decided to advance against him. This was on March 21. The attack failed, but The Royals had a severe ordeal when both the French sharpshooters and their artillery poured in a hail of lead. The action lasted from dawn until ten o'clock in the morning, and the regiment lost nine killed and seventy-three wounded. Next came the capture of Rosetta city and the siege of the fort of St. Julian, during which The Royals were posted with a covering force at Hamed, on the Nile. After St. Julian surrendered, the regiment moved with General Hutchinson’s force towards Cairo, and arrived within sight of the Pyramids on June 1.

The French surrendered Cairo soon afterwards, and the British, with their Turkish allies, reduced Alexandria by September.

So it was that The Royals played their part in destroying Bonaparte’s dream of a French Empire in the east. His army evacuated Egypt, and for the first time for many years British arms had achieved a real success not only worthy of the military effort, but notable in its effect on international politics. The Sphinx and the word “ Egypt ” on their colours record these doings. The second battalion was back at Gibraltar in December, and remained there during the whole of the following year, 1802. There is nothing pleasant to record of this period of garrison duty.

“Immorality, laxity of all military rule and insubordination among the men prevailed to an alarming extent. The troops on parade presented a slovenly appearance and want of uniformity in their dress and appointments, while inaccuracy in their movements was apparent to every observer. Discipline was at the lowest ebb; the men were often in a disgraceful state of intoxication, and no unprotected female could walk the streets, even in the daytime, without being subject to insult, and sometimes brutal violence.” When matters were at their worst, H.R.H. Edward, Duke of Kent, Colonel of the regiment, came out as Governor, with instructions to correct the state of affairs which existed.

The Duke gripped the nettle firmly, and despite lukewarm aid from his subordinates, set about disciplinary measures of adequate severity.

This sudden change, and the severe punishment meted out in those days to offenders, produced the inevitable results amongst the bad characters to be found in every garrison and battalion. A party of the battalion got drunk on Christmas Eve, forced open the barrack gates and rushed to the barracks of another regiment, with* a view to inducing them to join. Having failed in this attempt, another

barracks was visited, but the alarm had been given. The Grenadier company of the battalion, stationed there, was formed under arms, and received the mutineers with a volley, killing and wounding several of them. This brought the remainder to their senses, and order w’as restored. On the next night, a party of another corps broke barracks, and attacked the barracks of The Royals. A party of the battalion being under arms, and coming up to assist in quelling the disturbance, received some of the fire which had been directed on this corps, one man being killed and five wounded.

This acted as a cold douche on the disorderly spirits, and discipline was soon restored. It is not a pretty picture, but the blame is to be laid at the door not so much of The Royals, but of the army system then prevailing, which alternated between gross slackness and arbitrary severity. In April 1803 the second battalion returned to England, but re-embarked for the West Indies in May.


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