Sunday, July 1, 2012
Book review - British Victory in Egypt, 1801
I always considered this campaign very much a minor footnote in the Napoleonic Wars; sort of a precursor to the main event of the Peninsula War. The French were abandoned by Napoleon, Kleber had been murdered by an Egyptian fanatic and Menou had lost the respect of the French by turning native and converting to Islam. All that was left was for the British to kick the door in and the whole French edifice would collapse. Where was the glory in that?
This book sets the scene for the campaign, including the diplomatic, strategic and military importance that the campaign had for Britain at the time.
After Marengo the Second Coalition had collapsed, leaving Britain alone to face France. The mood was for peace, but before peace needed to be negotiated from a position of strength. The French occupation of Egypt was a dagger held poised at the throat of Britain's major imperial possession, India. If France held it when peace talks were held, Britain would be at France's mercy. If Britain could dislodge the French, their position in India would be secure and their bargaining power would be that much greater.
Also, it was the perfect opportunity to prove to the world that Britain's army was not the incompetent force that had lost America and had been so ineffectual during the first decade of the war. The most recent failure was the combined Anglo-Russian attack on Holland that had resulted in ignominious failure. Sir Henry Dundas, the minister for war and the author of a comprehensive manual of maneuvers, and his relative by marriage, Sir Ralph Abercromby, wanted to prove that a properly led, organised and provisioned army could succeed where all other armies had failed. Previous campaigns had had muddled strategic aims, were poorly led and supplied and more often than not ended in dismal failure. Abercromby was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War and also of the early years of the French Revolutionary War. He was an enthusiastic early adopter of Dundas' manual of arms and ensured that the officers and men under his command were thoroughly versed in it. He made sure that his officers and those of the Royal Navy were well practised in the skills of landing an army on a hostile shore and also managed to get as much provisions as possible from the ramshackle Turkish empire before he even attempted the landing.
While criticised as a tactician, and especially for exposing himself needlessly to danger, Abercromby was a brilliant organiser and planner and always made sure that everything that could be done to feed and supply his men was done. Everything that could give his men the edge over the enemy as well as to prevent needless exposure to danger he ensured was done. All this made him a favourite of the rank and file.
While the campaign was all but over after the first few battles around Alexandria after landing (which cost Abercromby his life), the campaign still could have ended in disaster if the French had been more ably led. As the upper ranks were riven by factionalism and lower ranks morale was at rock bottom, the French were never able to mount the decisive counter attack to the danger that Abercromby's landing represented. However, Dundas' manual of arms, British training and discpline and the support of the Royal Navy all ensured that the French efforts to resist were beaten.
As a definite morale boost and vindication of the fighting qualities of the British Army, the campaign was exactly what the army needed. Even though most of the senior officers never served on active duty again, the middle level of officers all came into their own in the Peninsula, including Moore, Hill, Beresford, Spencer and so on. Moore became convinced in the worth of light troops after seeing the advantage in facing the French with trained light infantry such as the Corsican Rangers and the 90th Foot, which had been extensively trained in the art of skirmishing.
The author makes clear that this campaign was an extremely important one in the annals of the British Army as well as setting the scene for a diplomatic coup in the upcoming peace negotiations with Napoleonic France. Rather than being a campaign in a backwater, it was a hugely important one for the future of British resistance to French hegemony.
I found this book an illuminating and enjoyable read. (Now to paint up the British foot in toppers and collect the rest of Strelets' Egyptian campaign figures....)