Egypt 1801: the end of Napoleon’s eastern empire

Within the space of three years between 1798 and 1801, Napoleon’s aspirations for an eastern empire were smashed. Not in Europe, where he reigned militarily supreme, but far away in the Near East – by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798; in Palestine after being repulsed by Sir Sydney Smith at the siege of Acre of March-May 1799; and, finally, at the Battle of Alexandria on 21 March 1801 by Sir Ralph Abercromby and at the city’s subsequent siege.

This last battle has received far less coverage in print than the previous two. It was largely overshadowed by England’s ecstatic reaction to Nelson’s destruction of the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, east of Alexandria, at the Nile in 1798.

A ferocious sea battle fought over two days, the Nile left the French Army isolated in Egypt, where, with its attendant group of savants, it continued the internal conquest of the country while also recording its nature and architecture.Napoleon, meanwhile, evading the English blockade of the country, returned to France to declare himself First Consul in November 1799, leaving General Jean-Baptiste Kléber in charge of French forces in Egypt. Kléber was assassinated on 14 June 1800, and succeeded by the incompetent General Menou.

Following the Battle of Alexandria in March 1801, the problems and setbacks endured by the British until the end of the siege in September were enormous. Because of the shallow off-shore water, the British Army – 16,000 men plus officers – had to be rowed to land from transports anchored miles out. Many, burdened by heavy equipment, were drowned when some of their transports capsized.

Other issues, such as the logistics, inhospitable terrain, and the hostility of the native Bedouin, as well as the well-entrenched French positions holding Alexandria, are well described by Stuart Reid. His army background gives him a very clear understanding of events.

Following on from descriptions of the hard-fought landings, later chapters give detailed accounts of the events of March to September, and the brutal localised battles which led to the final capitulation of a strongly defended Alexandria, at 12pm on 2 September 1801.

The often-overlooked involvement and advice of Major-General John Moore, given to his half-blind superior officer Lieutenant-General Ralph Abercromby, is well documented here. Major Robert Wilson’s much-cited contemporary account is invaluable, and copious notes from it support this text.

At the back of the book, five appendices present much information not easily found elsewhere. The first four list and describe in detail the regiments and uniforms of both sides, while the fifth gives the composition of the British Army, and a brief listing of the French.

The book is not without faults. For instance, the colour plates are overloaded with uniforms. The reader would have been better served by an image of Abercromby’s impressive life-sized sculpture memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral, in which he is depicted slipping mortally wounded from his horse. That, or an image of the 42nd Foot, Black Watch, memorial medallion, with a similar representation of him being saved from the French hussars. An opportunity has clearly been missed.

A more serious fault, to this reviewer’s mind, is that there is just one casual reference to the contested Treaty of Alexandria of 1 October 1801.

The terms of this treaty included the repatriation of the French army, together with their arms, and the savants. Notably, Article 16 assigned all Egyptian monuments held by the French in Alexandria to the British, including the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering the previously mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The above comments aside, this is a thoroughly recommended, excellent, and detailed account of a history-making campaign that is often overlooked.

Review by Peter A Clayton
Egypt 1801: the end of Napoleon’s eastern empire, Stuart Reid, Frontline Books, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-1526758460.