Warning: Mature Adults only
PART III: ALEXANDRIA
The Tigre once again took up station off of Alexandria, watching and waiting for any new developments. Harper and Finnigan continued to perform the routine shipboard duties of marines. News had come of Kleber's assassination, and Harper was sorry, he had seemed like a general who truly cared for his troops. Sir Sidney also grieved, for he and Kleber had come to understand and respect each other in their months of negotiations.
Kleber's replacement was General Jacques Menou, a through-going colonialist, whose heart and mind had been seized with the idea of bringing French culture and enlightenment to Egypt. He instantly dispensed with any idea of continued negotiations for French withdrawal, as far as he was concerned, Egypt was now part of France, and the French would be there forever. He had gone so far as to become a Moslem, taking the name Abdullah. His first official act after Kleber's funeral was to have the assassin executed in the traditional Muslim way, by burning off the hand that had wielded the knife, then impaling him and leaving him to die slowly.
So now the French would have to be pried out of Egypt by force, and that meant that more men would die. And it appeared that Whitehall had reached the same conclusion. As the months passed, more and more rumors came down about a new army being assembled to land in Egypt to force the French out, once and for all. It was even now at Gibraltar. The opinion was unanimous on board the Tigre; it was time to end this.
In mid-November, Sir Sidney received a letter from Lord Keith, then at Malta, the commander of the invasion fleet. Sir Sidney had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Turkish coast, and Keith wanted to know where he could find a safe anchorage for about ninety large ships. Without hesitation, Sir Sidney recommended the Bay of Marmaris. It was completely sheltered from the ocean, and was large enough to accommodate every ship in the British navy. Keith's further instructions were that Sir Sidney should join them there by no later than mid-January.
And so, in the first few days of the year 1801, Sir Sidney set sail for Marmaris, reaching it on the 15th. It was a rough passage, and he was glad to steer into the narrow channel that led into the bay. Harper was uneasy at just how narrow it was. He could have thrown a ship's biscuit and hit the cliffs on either side. But the Tigre and Theseus made it through without difficulty, and they came upon the splendid sight of a great British fleet at anchor. The Bay was as calm as a lake, surrounded by wooded hills, with the Taurus Mountains rising peak upon peak behind them. There was a great deal of activity; boats going back and forth, and soldiers running around on the shore on various errands. A sizable camp had been set up. This was the invasion force of Sir Ralph Abercromby, the man chosen to drive the French from Egypt once and for all. Harper had heard much of Sir Ralph, and liked most of what he heard. He was a lowland Scottish laird, aged sixty-six, and was well loved by his men. Although he had a strict sense of duty and expected his men to do theirs, he also understood that if they were to fight for him, he had to see to their needs. It had been Sir Ralph, more than any other man, who got the troops back home after the disastrous retreat through Flanders back in '94.
For the past two weeks, since his arrival, he had been trying to gather what he needed for the invasion, with little success. His commissaries had purchased an adequate store of pork, flour, and wine from the local towns. But there were no small craft for landing, and no wagons or draft animals. He was hiring horse transports in Smyrna, but they would not arrive before mid-February, a month from now. And neither the cavalry nor the artillery had any horses. A week after Sir Sidney's arrival, a shipment of four hundred arrived from Turkey. Not one was fit for cavalry. Many had back sores or were lame, many had to be shot or sold as unfit for any service at all. Perhaps a hundred and eighty were just barely fit to haul artillery. Sir Ralph sent purchasing parties inland, who were able to acquire some four hundred fifty handsome, spirited stallions. But they were small, none bigger than fourteen hands. Mounted on them, the British dragoons could make patrols, but lacked the weight for a cavalry charge.
He had no detailed maps of the Egyptian coast, and no reliable intelligence on the enemy, deficiencies that Sir Sidney hoped to make up. Abercromby summoned Sir Sidney for a conference on board the HMS Kent.
"Sir Sidney, I have brought you here to draw off of your expertise. Where is the best landing site if we wish to capture Alexandria?"
"Abuquir Bay, Sir, without a doubt. It puts us in an excellent position to capture Alexandria. That will sever their communications with France and give us an all weather harbor."
"Will the French fight for it? My strategy depends on bringing them to battle."
"Most assuredly, sir."
Now that the point of attack was settled, he needed to concentrate on preparing the expedition to land and survive on the barren shores of Egypt. All branches of the service worked on special training and modifying their equipment. The siege operations were the most intractable problem. The heavy guns were awkward to transport overland, and it was thought that naval carronades, being far lighter, would work just as well, and their carriages were altered for land use. They constructed gangways for landing the carronades and rolling them across sand and ditches.
Transporting ammunition was a further problem. They constructed handcarts and poles with rope slings, so that a pair of soldiers could carry ammunition boxes or kegs of musket cartridges. They designed wooden stretchers or barrows designed to be carried by a horse between the shafts at each end. They modified artillery ammunition boxes to take mixed batches of round and case shot, slung from camel's backs.
The military supervised working parties of soldiers to make the army self-sufficient in the timberless, waterless terrain of Egypt. They felled trees and cut them into lengths to make the engineers' fascines and gabions, for filing ditches and constructing siege batteries. They felled huge numbers of trees for cooking fuel, tent pegs, and mallets for pitching tents. In the fleet, the coopers were hard at work making small, eight-gallon casks for carrying fresh water on pack animals, big barrels to hold a hundredweight of boiled meat; and wooden buckets and pumps for drawing water from wells. The ships' carpenters made handbarrows and sledges to drag or carry supplies across the sand. Improvisation was the word. Through all of this, Harper, Finnigan, and the rest of the marines lent a hand. Harper was impressed by the obvious professionalism of the expedition; everything was being planned for, it seemed. Harper also noticed some changes in uniform. Most of the soldiers now sported the new stovepipe shako, though the marines kept their bicornes.
The army's sick were taken off ship and put ashore in tents, where clean air, pure spring water, and fresh food were working miracles. And the rest of the army drilled, and drilled, and drilled. And Harper and Finnigan drilled with them, in columns three ranks deep to maximize firepower, the ranks one pace apart, the files touching elbow-to-elbow; the marching pace a steady seventy-five paces a minute. They deployed in lines two ranks deep, which would allow them to flank an advancing enemy column on both sides. But they also deployed the Corsican Rangers as a screen of light troops; a lesson learned from the American War. Anticipating enemy cavalry attacks, they practiced forming squares, hollow squares, solid squares formed from marching column, and the new four-ranks deep square. They learned to march in hollow square so they could maneuver in the presence of French cavalry.
And when they were not drilling there were reviews, as they stood at attention in full kit for inspection. Harper would see General Abercromby walking up and down their ranks occasionally stopping to talk to a soldier. He was a small gentleman with a craggy face and great, bushy white eyebrows. His expression was stern, but Harper thought he could detect a twinkle in his eye; it was plain that he loved these men. Once he stopped to speak to the marine who stood next to Harper.
"Your knapsack, laddie. Wear it higher on your shoulders. T'will reduce the strain on your chest, and free up your arms."
For Sir Ralph, no detail was too trivial if it made his soldiers better soldiers. Sometimes, accompanying him was a younger officer, taller, with brown hair and hazel eyes. This was Major General John Moore, one of the up-and-coming general officers of the new British army, and considered by many to be its best trainer of soldiers.
The army was a mixed bag; there were ten seasoned battalions from the Mediterranean garrisons, the two foot guard battalions, and two Highlands battalions. These were the front line troops of the force. The remaining twelve were largely of understrength militia, and would need some hard training to come up to Abercromby's exacting standards. Moore was just the man for this. In Minorca, he had begun the process of welding these men into a sharp striking force with high morale, now he accelerated the process. By the time the expedition was ready to leave, he was able to report to Abercromby that it was impossible to wish for a more compact and efficient little army. Expressions of good humor and confidence were the rule on soldier's faces those days.
Harper had an opportunity to accompany some of the commissaries into the interior on a trip to purchase food. Lieutenant Bromley led the marine contingent. As they trudged along the path through the thick woods, Harper was delighted to see woodcock, partridge, and once a wild boar. He reveled in the sounds of croaking frogs and chirping crickets. They came upon the ruins of some long forgotten temple or villa, now just some blocks of marble and stumps of Doric pillars. Lieutenant Bromley and Harper had gotten used to their banter by this time, and performed it flawlessly.
These columns were built around the time of St. Paul."
"Really, Sir? That means the cromlechs of Donegal would only have been two thousand years old then." Both men grinned at their private joke, while the others looked on in bewilderment.
One crucial element of training remained, how to make a landing in the face of the enemy, the most difficult and hazardous of military maneuvers. Abercromby had participated in two landings before, Holland in '99, and Cadiz the year before now, and both had been sadly botched. He was determined that Egypt would not see the repeat of those mistakes. The Captain of the Fleet, Philip Beaver, was an expert in troop arrangements. It was his job to marshal the shipping from which the landing craft would be launched. Captain Alexander Cochrane was in charge of organizing the boats and getting the men on the beach, in fighting order and quickly reinforced. It was crucial that the troops land in their order of battle, and from the same boats in which they had rehearsed.
There was no room for mistakes here. The troops who would be opposing their landing were not half-hearted Dutch or Spaniards, but Bonaparte's battle-hardened veterans. Estimates put their total numbers at twenty-five thousand. They would strike hard against a landing, and each minute would count. The invaders had to secure a firm foothold before the French could bring overwhelming numbers against them.
The invaders would face some unique difficulties. The shallow waters of Abuquir would force the large warships and troopships to lie miles off the coast; the landing would be fiercely opposed; and once ashore, the troops would have to be totally supplied by the fleet in the desolate interior. Cochrane would have to put the first wave on the beach in full fighting order, under fire; and then reinforce it rapidly to build it up to its full strength of thirteen thousand men and eight hundred horses. They would have to ferry in all the army's requirements - ammunition, ordinance and engineer stores, hospital equipment and tents, provisions, and probably fresh water. Each phase had to be planned to maintain the army's momentum and ensure its' survival.
The strength of the first assault wave would be limited by the available landing craft. The flatboats, the boats of the various warships and government troopships, and the boats of the hired merchant transports, totaled about one hundred eighty boats for the men, and twenty-eight for the artillery. This would allow them to land about ten battalions at a time, a bit over five thousand men. Rapid reinforcement would be difficult, for the larger ships would lie seven miles out in the bay. If the assault wave was launched from smaller ships close inshore, the first reinforcements would have to be fetched by a fourteen-mile haul there and back by tired oarsmen. This would make for a dangerous gap of some hours in the timetable, during which the French could destroy the first wave before it could be reinforced. Cochrane came up with the solution; they would reverse the arrangement. The reinforcements would be close inshore in the small boats, and the first assault battalions would be launched from the distant large ships. Thus, the boats would make their longest haul before the battle was joined, and after landing the assault wave, they could swiftly pull back a short distance for the reinforcements.
The first assault drill was on 21st January, a week after Harper arrived. It was on a small scale, only four battalions, marshaled in line just out of gunshot from the shore. They landed on the beach in immaculate order, and in minutes were formed and ready to advance. Behind them, two nine-pounders were run off their launches on ramps, and three minutes after touching the shore, they were ready for action.
This successful drill encouraged Abercromby to try a practice landing with the entire force on 2nd February. And this one, Harper and Finnigan were a part of. About fifty-eight of the assault craft were flatboats, designed during the Seven Years War. They drew only nine inches of water and could run up high into the shallows carrying fifty infantrymen. They were armed with a carronade in the bow and crewed by a gunner, a naval officer, and twenty oarsmen. The ships' boats consisted of thirty-seven launches containing twenty-five men each, and lastly, eighty-four rowboats for ten men. Harper and some other marines from the Tigre were pulling forward in her launch, heading for their position in the formation. Other boats were doing the same all around them. The whole operation was tightly controlled by flag signals from Captain Cochrane's cutter. These were repeated to the captains of the boat divisions, who repeated the orders down the line to their assault craft. The loaded boats arrived in the forming-up position and were marshaled into three lines: the first of flatboats and artillery launches, the second of cutters to rescue boats in trouble, and the third of cutters towing launches with more troops.
Harper and Finnigan's launch were in this line with the marine battalion, stationed on the right, between the 28th Foot and the 42nd Highlanders. They received a hearty round of curses from a launch full of soldiers that they darted in front of. After a long string of expletives, the soldier in the prow shouted, "Keep your own bloody place in line, you bloody marines!"
Finnigan shouted back.
"Such language, boyo! What would your saintly chaplain think?"
"My saintly chaplain knows what he can do!"
Both men were grinning; this was good-natured banter.
Between the boats of the first line there was an interval of fifty feet, to avoid bunching the troops on the shore and leaving space for the rearward line of towing cutters to beach themselves. Each battalion was identified by a camp color of its right-flank boat, to the left of which its companies formed by seniority. The right and left-flank boats steered for pre-determined marks on the shore, giving direction to the rest of the force. When Cochrane gave the signal to advance, the line of boats took their dressing from the flanks so that the whole force would touch the beach together. As the flatboats ran into the beach, they dropped their grapnels from the stern, ready to haul off as soon as the troops were ashore and returning to the shipping for the reinforcements.
This rehearsal was less orderly than the first, proving the value of this methodical training. Though there was a little confusion, most troops landed successfully, and as each soldier ran up the beach, he found his own place in line. But more work was needed, they were still too slow. But Harper was impressed. As he stepped out of the launch into shallow water and waded up onto the beach, he looked up and down and saw even companies landing in their proper place in line. The whole atmosphere was one of cool professionalism, careful planning, and a minimum of fumbling. He turned to Finnigan.
"You know, Finnigan, I think these lads might just do the job."
Cochrane drew up detailed embarkation tables and had copies of them distributed to the captains of the boat divisions. Final arrangements needed to be made. One of them involved landing the artillery. Most of the guns had been stowed in England, in the bottom of the ships, as heavy freight. To reach them, the water casks and other materials that had been stowed above them had to be unloaded onto light vessels alongside. In some cases, as much as seventy tons had to be removed to get at the guns. For the Egyptian landing, fourteen nine-pounders were unloaded from their holds and lashed onto the poops of the fleet's ships of the line. From there, they would be loaded into launches for the landing, each with a crew of fifteen artillerymen and twenty five seamen to row and haul it out. Gangways were made to run the guns onto the beach, and were so well constructed that in two of the landing rehearsals, the guns were ashore before the infantry.
That night, a final conference was held aboard the Kent. Sir Ralph opened the discussion.
"Gentlemen, I have had some disturbing news. Two French frigates have run the blockade and delivered eight hundred fresh troops to Menou, along with artillery, ammunition, and supplies. I have it on good authority that a second convoy is now assembling at Toulon that will bring him an additional four to five thousand troops. We must make our landing soon, before the French grown too strong."
Moore spoke next. "Our most pressing problem is one of supply. We have no draft animals, no wagons, but yet we must move our provisions, equipment and siege guns along the isthmus to Alexandria. As I understand it, this is a distance of eighteen miles. And where are we to get fresh water? The French will have access to the city's cisterns. We must somehow survive outside while conducting a siege. We will be completely dependent on the boats of the navy for our daily water, as well as most of our other needs. What I must ask is; can the navy do it?"
George Baldwin, British Consul-General of Egypt, spoke next.
"Why not use Lake Abuquir?"
"Lake Abuquir?" questioned Moore. "Never heard of it."
"That's no surprise. It's only existed for the past twenty years, and it's not on any of our maps. It was formed when the sea wall was breached. I don't know how close it comes to Alexandria, but if it's navigable by small boats, we'll have a completely sheltered supply route."
"Also, " said Sir Sidney Smith, "we can find fresh water by digging down three or four feet at the base of palm trees. We will be encamped on the upper levels of the Nile's outflow."
"All this is valuable," summarized Abercromby, " but for the time being, we'll have to conserve water. We'll use seawater only for washing and steam cooking. Fortunately, the local horse won't need as much water as our European ones. They are to be tightly rationed."
"But in any case, the demands on the navy will be massive. Besides the boat crews hauling the drinking water, large numbers will be needed ashore to haul and carry, bringing up the heavy artillery and the immense supplies of ammunition and engineer's stores needed. Lord Keith, I must ask you directly, can you spare the seamen from the fleet?"
Lord Keith stood. "Sir Ralph, I will commit myself to five hundred and forty five sailors to work ashore with the army, plus eight hundred twenty to work the boats, in addition the to the marines who will be serving with the army. This comes to forty percent of the fleet's manpower. Any more than that, and my ability to protect the army from attack by a French fleet will be impaired."
The meeting broke up soon after. Many there had doubts of the enterprise's chances, but none voiced them. They were committed, and it was needful to put on a brave and serene face before the men. But Abercromby motioned for Moore to remain behind. A real trust had sprung up between the two men, and Abercromby felt a freedom to unburden himself in Moore's presence that he had not felt in the meeting.
"John, if I can do only one thing before I die, I want to restore the army's reputation. We have become the laughingstock of Europe; first losing the American War, then being chased off the continent by the French. If we lose here, we may never recover."
"Sir Ralph, if any man can bring off this operation successfully, I believe it to be you. We have never planned or prepared more carefully. We have every reason to hope for success."
Abercromby's jaw tightened in determination. "I will not allow the army to be humiliated again!"
On 16th February, the horse transports arrived. Five hundred mules ordered from Smyrna had not, but Sir Ralph could wait no longer. The horses were embarked, their destination was revealed in General Orders, and two engineer officers were sent ahead to survey the coast and the passage into Lake Abuquir. On shore, the tents were struck and the troops were returning to their ships, which were now crammed with provisions, fuel, and equipment.
It was time to leave. But luck was not with them, and the winds blew contrary and wild for four days. But at daybreak on the 22nd, the wind came fresh from the northwest, and Lord Keith gave the signal to unmoor and weigh anchors. One by one, the ships moved out though the narrow passage and into the open sea. At the head of the van squadron was Keith's flagship, the Foudroyant. Behind her was Sir Ralph in the Kent. And after them, issuing from the shadow of the Taurus Mountains, the great fleet, one hundred seventy -five sail spread upon the sea: men of war, troopships and transports from England; polacres, xebecs, and feluccas gathered from the ports of Asia, the Aegean, and the Adriatic.
With them sailed the honor of the British Army.
Three days out from the shelter of Marmaris, the weather struck again. The wind turned foul and a gale blew up. Everything breakable that was not fastened down was broken. Water poured into the Tigre's holds, and Harper and Finnigan could only wait in sodden misery along with the other marines. When the weather calmed on 28th February, the entire day was lost in collecting the scattered fleet. They were not able to find the Greek horse transports and Turkish gunboats, and sailed on without them.
On 1st March, they sighted the flat, brown Egyptian coast. The fleet held its course and closed with the land until they were so close that they could see the colors of the flags on the masts of French ships in Alexandria harbor. And the enemy could count every ship in the fleet. There would be no taking them by surprise. The following morning, the fleet entered Abuquir Bay, even though it was too rough for a landing.
The fleet's leading ships of the line were still seven miles out from the shore when soundings showed depths of six to nine fathoms; they could go no farther, and they anchored. The Foudroyant's cable chafed against a wreck beneath the surface; it was L'Orient, destroyed by Nelson nearly three years before. The British troopships and transports worked farther into the bay, but five miles offshore, they too, had to anchor in shoaling water. A cutter went forward to take soundings, and plumbed only two fathoms when she was still three or four miles out from the beach. As Abercromby had feared, the landing craft would have a long run in.
The sky cleared, and the soldiers cooked three days provisions for their haversacks. Abercromby had heard nothing from the two engineers he had sent on ahead to reconointer the site. It was later learned that the French had captured them. So, along with Moore, he boarded a cutter himself and went inshore to find a landing place. Abercromby pointed towards shore.
"From the fort there at Abuquir Pont, to where it disappears around the bend, I make it to be about two miles. Where do we land?"
Moore pointed to the right. "Too far to the right will put us under the fort's guns. And to the left, the ground looks broken and wooded, quite unsuitable for an advance."
"I agree. The obvious point is the middle. Those long sand dune stretch for nearly a mile. But I am concerned about that." 'That' was a sandhill some sixty feet tall which dominated the beach. Moore nodded in agreement.
"We'll have to storm it to secure our right flank." Sir Ralph opened his telescope and scanned the landing site. "Hmmmm. I can see their engineers emplacing guns on the hill, and they have cavalry patrolling the beach. But their main strength is concealed behind the dunes."
Abercromby returned to the Kent and issued orders to land on the following morning. He needed ten hours of calm weather to get his whole force ashore. But that evening, the wind began to blow again from the northwest. A heavy swell rolled into the bay, and breakers were crashing on the beach in lines of surging foam. All over the bay, distress signals were going up as transports parted their cables or struck on shoals. To try to land troops in these conditions was hopeless.
That night, Sir Ralph received news that ten French ships of the line had escaped from Brest, and at least six of them were in the Mediterranean. So now they had the added worry of an enemy fleet. That night, two more French frigates slipped into Alexandria to unload their ammunition and reinforcements, and one of them anchored underneath the fort, to add her guns to its batteries.
On 5th March, the sea was calm enough for Abercromby to take another reconnoiter. From a mile and a half from the beach, he could see no sign of entrenchments, but the movement of French troops throughout the day had plainly increased; probably reinforcements had arrived. How many, it was impossible to know. But one thing was certain; the bad weather was giving the enemy time to prepare. With every day that passed more movement could be seen, and more cannon were appearing.
And Harper and Finnigan sat in the holds and waited, as helpless as anyone else.
But on the 6th, the wind moderated, allowing the transports to weigh anchor and work in closer to shore, where they were marshaled in three groups. The general took a last reconnaissance and then ordered the landing for the early morning of the 7th. But again, it had to be postponed, for the wind was too vigorous. However, later that day it calmed, and again, three days pack-rations were cooked. The infantry of the second wave began to transport to the small craft that would hold them in readiness closer inshore. The two bomb-vessels Tartarus and Fury were anchored inshore near the forming-up line, and before dark the gunboats and armed launches that were to provide close fire support were brought forward to their battle positions.
In the evening came the signal for all boats to be ready by 2 am. Daylight faded, and the dark line of the shore merged gradually with the sea and sky. Harper and Finnigan both went up on deck for a while. They could see the fires of French pickets twinkling on the low crests of the dunes. They looked at each other, grim faced.
"Do you think they'll give us much trouble?" Harper asked.
"No, I think they'll welcome us with tea and crumpets. What do you think?"
Both were weighed down with the tension of the momentous events unfolding around them. The next few hours would decide everything. The contrary weather had given the enemy five days to prepare. What force was waiting for them out there?
For the dozenth time that night, General Louis Friant cursed his commander General Menou as a fool. He had insisted on concentrating the bulk of his forces in Cairo, a hundred miles to the south, and had spread the rest of them to the four corners of Egypt, since "attack could come from any direction." Any idiot knew that the British were the real threat; that if the Turks conquered nine tenths of Egypt while the French were fighting off the British in the remaining tenth, the French could then still re-conquer Egypt again inside of a month. Even now, Menou insisted that the British fleet at Alexandria was only a feint, and the real attack would come to the east, at Damietta.
And now Friant faced this invasion with a mere two thousand men. But these were the British he was fighting, and the British were as useless on land as they were invincible at sea. He had been among those who drove them from the continent, now would be no different. The landing would be confused, with troops crowded on the beach seeking their units. He had a strong position; a narrow front with fixed batteries defending the flanks. In his center on the beach was a battery of three twenty-four pounders, and his dozen field guns were dug in on the commanding points of the dunes to give the approaching landing craft a warm welcome of round shot and grape. The main body of his force was concentrated south of the great sand hill, the Monticule du Puits, sheltered from naval bombardment by the dunes. As the assault craft drew closer to the beach, the British ships would have to cease fire for fear of hitting them, and at that point, his grenadiers and dragoons would be unleashed on the soldiers struggling in the surf. It would be a massacre.
Pausing only to curse Menou once more, he again trained his telescope on the dim bay from which the invasion would come.
As the night turned towards morning, Harper and Finnigan, just like soldiers and marines all through the fleet, were packing and fitting their equipment for the landing. They had to carry food and shelter for the next two days. Into their packs and pouches, they crammed two spare shirts, two pairs of socks, sixty balls and cartridges, two spare flints, and three days rations of freshly cooked bread and pork. Over all of this they had to fit blankets, entrenching tools, and camp kettles. On their belts, they had a full canteen of water; rum would be issued once they were on shore. Officers were required to carry all their gear just like the enlisted men; their servants were obliged to take their positions in the line with the soldiers. Bandsmen would perform the non-combatant duties, and regimental surgeons were allotted orderlies to carry their field chests of instruments. Each brigade also had medical staff attached from the fleet's surgeons.
The marines stood at attention on the foredeck of the Tigre, and Lieutenant Bromley went up and down the line, inspecting their muskets. No one said anything, the atmosphere was very tense. But Bromley paused, his eye caught Harper's, and he grinned encouragingly. The wind had dropped, and a gentle night breeze from the shore lifted the ships at their cables. Boats passed to and fro, transferring the second wave of infantry to the small vessels lying inshore. On the warships poops, officers trained their telescopes on the distant watch fires of the Army of the Orient twinkling beneath the Egyptian stars.
Midnight tolled, it was the 8th March.
One o'clock; and the ships were astir. On the quarterdecks of the troopships, the infantry and marines of the assault wave formed up by companies. The warships of the fleet hoisted their boats out, ready for the two o'clock signal from the admiral.
There was subdued excitement and anxiety. Men who were new to combat wondered if they would acquit themselves well that morning. Harper had seen action before, but still, his heart was pounding. What was waiting for them behind those concealing dunes? Then he turned and saw Finnigan's confident grin. He couldn't help but grin back.
It was time to end this.
Two o'clock. Out in the darkness to the eastward, in deep water where the great ships lay, a single blue rocket soared, to explode in a shower of sparks. It was the signal for the waiting boats, which began to pull away from their parent ships toward their rendezvous with the troops. The launch pulled up next to the Tigre and tied off. Lieutenant Bromley's voice rang out.
"Marines - Embark!" They filed off by ranks through the upper gunports and down the gangways. They found their places and sat in strict silence, their muskets between their knees. The boats were soon loaded and ready.
At three o'clock, a second rocket blazed into the dark sky. The boats pulled clear and the oarsmen started the long pull towards the forming up line. Under the brilliant stars, nothing disturbed the silence of the night except the dipping of thousands of oars in the rippling water. The seamen were kept warm by their rowing, but Harper, Finnigan, and thousands of others huddled against the chilly night breeze. Behind them, darkness was dissolving into a gray dawn. At six o'clock, the sun rose on a bright morning, and the boats lifted their bows to the wavelets of the bay as they were directed to their places in the line. But it was eight o'clock before the last boats were positioned and the line was dressed. There was a pause for about a quarter of an hour while the sailors rested on their oars before the final pull into the mouths of the French cannons. All was happening just as they had planned and rehearsed. The flatboats in the first line had taken station at their intervals of fifty feet, and behind them the rescue cutters were placed to assist sinking boats and drowning men. In the third line were the cutters with the towed launches.
At the right of the attack were the six battalions of Moore's Reserve, along with the marine battalion, the strongest formation of the assault. Moore and his second in command, General Oakes were in Captain Cochrane's barge, a little ahead of the first line to control its alignment by signal.
In the center of the assault wave was General Ludlow's two battalions of Guards, and on the left, the two and a half battalions of General Coote's brigade in transport boats manned by merchant seamen. Interspersed with the infantry in the front line were fourteen artillery launches carrying the field guns and their crews. All in all, some five and a half thousand men.
These men had now been in the boats for five or six hours. The tense minutes ticked away, and the silent soldiers glanced anxiously at the shore and at each other. Even Finnigan couldn't think of anything to say to break the tension. For the past two hours, they had watched enemy troops and cannon moving into position. At the foot of the sand hill was the heavy battery of three twenty-four pounders. Along the crest of the dunes, the barrels of General Friant's field guns and howitzers were dark against the pale sky, their sinister black mouths waiting in the bright morning.
A little forward on the flanks of the boats, gunboats and armed launches waited to provide fire support. Behind them, three sloops were ready to give heavier fire. The two bomb-vessels, the Tartarus and the Fury, were ready to lob explosive shells from their heavy mortars on to the dunes. But all the heavy fire support would be long-range shooting, and thus not very accurate. The warships could not risk anchoring close enough inshore for the enemy to sweep their decks with grape shot.
Lord Keith and Abercromby had taken their positions in the Tartarus. They had planned, rehearsed the plan, and issued the orders, now it was up to the troops. All up and down the fleet, the rails and rigging were crowded with silently watching men. Sir Ralph tried hard to hide his anxiety. His careful planning was about to throw over five thousand British soldiers and marines into a firestorm form the enemy's waiting guns. What if the French fire was too destructive to be endured? What if the front of the big sand hill where Moore was to land proved too steep, or the sand too loose to be scaled?
He couldn't help himself. There were a few minutes left before the assault began. He sent a boat with a message for Moore:
If the fire from the enemy is so great that the men cannot bear it, I will fly the signal to retire, and therefore desire that you and Captain Cochrane should look occasionally to the ship on board which I have my station. Do you continue of the same mind, to land exactly opposite the hill, or would it not be better to incline more to the right, as the hill appears to be very steep in front?
Moore looked at the hill, which dominated the beach. He had arranged to assault it frontally with his right hand battalions, while leaving the command of his left to Oakes. He could see the enemy on the heights, but the hill did not seem unscalable, and once his men were on the beach they could form up in the dead ground, invisible from the crest. He wrote a brief note for his commander:
The steepness is not such as can prevent our ascending, and is therefore rather favorable.
Abercromby smiled when he read his reply. "That's taking the bull by the horns!" he said.
A moment later, the Tartarus hoisted the signal to advance. The whole line sprang forward, and the guns of the warships roared out their salvos. As he peered ahead, Harper could see the sand flying where the round shot had hit. But he could see few of the enemy. As the assault line passed the two bomb-vessels, they raised the elevation of their mortars and began to drop shells on top of the dunes. For a while, the boats rowed on in silence, pulling hard against the strengthening breeze from the land. Smoke from the warship's guns was drifting back across the bay, and the shells of the bomb vessels were bursting in little puffs across the dunes. Steadily, the flatboats pushed on, each stroke bringing them closer to the enemy. Harper allowed himself a moment's idle hope that the French guns had all been knocked out.
Suddenly, flame and smoke leaped from the muzzles of fifteen cannon, followed by their sound booming across the bay. Harper's hope had been in vain. A column of water erupted from the water ten feet to his right, soaking him to the skin. All around the boats, he could see the shots hitting, and looking up, could see them arcing down. With the first barrage, three of the boats were hit, the round shot smashing through their hulls and sending the survivors thrashing into the water. Harper could see the cutters dart in to the rescue, the sailors reaching over to grasp struggling arms. Farther to his right, a howitzer shell burst in the midst of a boat full of Coldstream Guards, tearing them up horribly in a mess of splintered wood and broken bodies. It looked like there were only a few survivors. The boat drifted helplessly, and those behind swerved to avoid it.
Sir Ralph watched from the Tartarus, clutching in his hand the flag that would signal retreat.
The assault line was only three hundred yards from the shore, and the French switched from round shot and shell. Now a hailstorm of grape and canister tore into the desperately pulling boats, and the French infantry added their musket fire. All around Harper, he could hear the cries of men being hit, or the dull thud! of lead plowing into flesh. Harper allowed himself one look and saw a boat with at least twenty-two men hit. He didn't look after that. All of his attention now was on that shore that seemed three hundred miles away, and growing no closer. More men were being hit with every yard they advanced. How anyone could live through this thick fire he could not guess, but they were still alive. And suddenly, he stood up in the boat and roared out,
"Is that the best you've got, you bastards?"
Perhaps they didn't hear him, but it made him feel better anyway. And all around him, the British soldiers were cheering and yelling, no longer bound to keep silence. The left part of the line lagged behind, the merchant seaman who rowed had not been paid to risk their lives. But the center and right wing surged forward through the blood-soaked waves. Cochrane's barge was first on the beach, below the sand hill, and the crew put out their landing planks and held out their boarding pikes like they were at a pier. As Moore dashed over the planks to the sand, the boats of his brigade swept up beside him, in almost as straight a line as when they had begun the move to shore. Sand crunched under Harper's boat, and he leaped over the side, felt the chill of the waves about his knees, and plunged forward, musket at the ready. Finnigan was right by his side, roaring like a lion, for all his small size. Some men fell in the shallows; Frenchmen rushing from the dunes bayoneted others. But the rest splashed through the sand and began to form a firing line.
From his command post, General Friant watched in stunned disbelief. This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen! The ragged line of boats were supposed to break up in the storm of fire he unleashed upon them, until only a handful of bedraggled survivors struggled ashore through the blood-soaked waves, where his dragoons would cut them down without mercy.
But nothing had gone like that. The lines of boats had advanced through his curtain of fire as if on parade. When the assault craft burst through his final barrage of musketry, the soldiers disembarked, officers and men ran up the beach, and the colors were planted in the sand. Men rallied around them, and the line began to form. The men began coolly to load their muskets and fix their bayonets. Already, the right of the assault force had gained the lee of the Monticule du Puits, and were safe from any further barrage. Friant had one chance left to break up the assault before his force was overwhelmed. Grenadiers of the 75th demi-brigade and horsemen of the 18th and 20th dragoons surged forward through the gaps in the dunes.
In moments, the marines, the 28th, and the 23rd were ready and loaded, and Moore waving them forward with his hat, led them up the face of the hill, sword in hand. No armchair general here! Harper surged forward and tripped as the soft sand slid out from under his feet; then got up and plunged ahead, scrambling on his hands and knees up the deep, loose surface, as hundreds were doing all around him. They were holding their fire. As they neared the summit, the line seemed thin, and the slope behind them was studded with redcoated bodies. They burst over the crest of the hill in an unstoppable wave. Harper saw some French infantry before him, and was surprised at how few there were. A crackling volley rang out, blue-coated figures fell, and then they surged down with the bayonet, plunging the cold steel into warm flesh. The French broke and ran, leaving four six-pounders and part of their horse teams behind. The British had no cavalry to pursue with; they had to let them go. But they had cleared the height that dominated the beachhead.
Looking back down the way he had come, Harper could see General Oakes' battalions landing under heavy musket fire. The steady, intrepid 42nd Highlanders and the 58th Foot fell into their ranks and loaded with complete composure. And now a column of French infantry surged out of the dunes, headed for their flank. But a line of green-coated infantry interposed themselves and fired a volley into the oncoming enemy. Harper recognized them; the Corsican Rangers.
But now a squadron of French dragoons slammed into the Corsicans' right flank, scattering them and striking them down with their great swords. Harper saw about ten of them go down, and the dragoons rode out into the surf, to thrust and slash at the soldiers still in the boats. But by now, the 58th had formed up on their left, and poured out a devastating volley, dropping dragoons and horses like flies. This gave the Guard battalions time to scramble out and form up on their left. And now Coote's battalions were landing on the far left of the beach, just at the moment when a new column of Frogs were advancing against the Guards. As the Royal Scots and the 54th Foot formed up in line, the French gave off one hasty volley and withdrew.
All up and down the beach now, the British were advancing, led forward by their dismounted generals and field officers, gaining the crest of the dunes. At every point, the French gave back, briefly rallying on the rearward sand hills, maintaining a scattered fire to cover their comrades' retreat, until they were finally dislodged and pushed back into the plain beyond.
Harper and the rest of Moore's detachments came upon the French bivouacs. He noted that the Frogs had lost none of their skill in making themselves comfortable. There were snug huts of date palm planking, abundant fresh water, and camp kettles still bubbling on the fires. A stray French shot clanged off of a kettle, and at Harper's elbow, a young ensign of the 23rd flinched.
"Don't be afraid, Sir. You'll soon get used to it."
He suddenly recalled, with wry humor, that Finnigan had said the same thing to him nearly three years ago, the night they were captured by Calvet, just a short distance from here.
Sir Ralph was on the beach before the fighting was over, he could not help himself. He had watched the long ordeal by fire, the forming of the line, the loading under attack as his soldiers struggled out of the surf and seized the sand hill. Dear God, but he was proud of these men! They had accomplished a marvelous feat of arms, the result of careful organization, planning, and rehearsal. And it had paid off.
From the decks of the ships, nothing could be seen of the British infantry, who had vanished beyond the crests of the dunes. On the beach, surgeons were dressing wounds and extracting musket balls before the casualties were embarked. The flatboats were hauling off to embark the reinforcements. On this run, speed mattered more than tactical order, and the boats were to simply head for any ship flying its ensign at the foremast, the signal that there were troops of the second wave on board. As soon as a ship was empty of troops, she hauled down her ensign. The artillery launches made for the ordinance transports, some to pick up four howitzers and the remaining pair of nine-pounders, others to ferry engineers' stores, ammunition, and hand carts for delivering it to the front line.
Other boats were detailed to land the dismounted cavalry and their horses. The beasts were hoisted out of their transports. Dunnage of matting or brushwood was placed in the bottom of he boats for the horses; it seemed that nothing had been overlooked in this operation. Eventually eight hundred would be landed, though this would take more time than Abercromby liked. Now the first reinforcements were moving inland to join the assault line about a mile from the beach, pushing past the scattered dead, among the cries and groans of the wounded. The first line was now halted, waiting for the remainder of Coote's brigade and the arrival of the reserve ammunition. No artillery had yet reached the front, but by mid-afternoon, the advance was resumed in three columns, with little sign of the enemy who were withdrawing in front of them. About three miles from the beach, the columns halted and deployed to take up positions for the night.
They had done it. Their losses were heavy, ninety-seven seamen and six hundred twenty-five soldiers, as against perhaps two or three hundred enemy casualties.
But they had won a foothold in Egypt. And they weren't leaving.