Warning: Mature Adults only
PART III: ALEXANDRIA
It was early morning, after the regimental parade that Lieutenant Bromley came looking for them. Finnigan wondered if Captain Bretherton might have reported them for the brandy after all, but those fears were soon dispelled.
"Sir Sidney has a job for you two, and a few others. Be at his tent inside of ten minutes."
Harper and Finnigan exchanged glances. A "job" from Sir Sidney Smith was most likely to be both arduous and risky. Then they shrugged. They had not signed on to be nursemaided.
Seven minutes later, they were standing at attention in Sir Sidney's tent, along with the Lieutenant and ten other marines.
"At ease, gentlemen," said Sir Sidney. "Permit me to introduce Captain Thompson of the Coldstream Guards."
The marines went to parade rest, and he indicated a captain that Harper had not seen before. He was very thin, almost skeletal, with an unhealthy, yellowish complexion. He seemed weak, barely able to stand. Periodically, as Sir Sidney spoke, his body was wracked with a dry hacking cough, and he would hold a handkerchief to his mouth. When he took it away, Harper saw blood on it.
Sir Sidney paced up and down as he spoke.
"Here is our situation. The French are sitting up there on those damned heights of Nicopolis. As natural-made a fortress as you could ask for. All they need to do is wait for us to attack them. If we try to take those heights, we'll lose half our men, and likely as not they'll still throw us out again. And if we simply stay here and wait, we'll eventually run out of food and Sir Keith will be forced to seek a safer anchorage, where he will no longer be able to protect us from the French fleet or prevent them from landing reinforcements. Either way, the French win."
"Therefore, it is vital that they attack us. To do that, they will have to come off the heights, and the advantage of ground will lie with us. We must give them a good reason; persuade them that our position is weak enough for them to attack with hope of a quick victory. I have a plan to convince them, and have received Sir Ralph's permission to make the attempt."
"I am sending Captain Thompson to Salahieh, some one hundred fifty miles southeast of Rosetta, where he is to make contact with the Grand Vizier and his army. You will be escorting him. It will be your job to see to it that he is captured by the French."
Several of the marines could not restrain their surprise. Captain Thompson stepped forward and spoke in a dry, raspy croak.
"Sir Sidney, if you will allow me?"
Sir Sidney nodded, and Thompson turned back to the marines. As he spoke, Harper saw in his eyes that there was still something left of the vibrant and energetic solider he had once been.
"I will be carrying a number of dispatches in my case, and will have a further dispatch in cipher concealed on my person. My hope is that this will come to the attention of the French. The dispatch contains misleading information about our position here at Mandara, information that will provide them with an overwhelming temptation to attack us here, and where we are strongest."
"Sir Sidney has contacted a man in Rosetta who has worked with us in the past, and he has agreed to supply us with camels and provisions for the journey. However, we now know that he works for the French as well, and will doubtless betray us to them. He will allow us to leave Rosetta, so he will not be directly implicated, but I imagine that out in the desert, we will soon meet a patrol of French cavalry. You will make a defense, a good defense, mind you, but in the end; you will let the French break through and take me. I will be in an officer's uniform, and thus a natural target. You will attempt to rescue me, fail, and then make your escape as well as you can. Hopefully, if you put up a stout enough defense, the French will let you go, so long as they have me. It will then be my job to convince the French of what we wish them to believe."
Finnigan spoke up. "May I be permitted a question, sir?"
At Thompson's nod, he continued. "Begging your pardon, Sir, but have you gone daft? These are the Frogs, and they play by different rules than we do. The only way you can convince them that your false information is real is to let them beat it out of you. And once they have it, your life won't be worth tuppence to them."
"A legitimate question, if indelicately put. And deserving of an honest answer."
Thompson sighed, which turned into another terrible coughing fit. When he brought his handkerchief away from his mouth, there was blood on his lips. He seemed to gather himself, and looked the marines in the eye. His voice was resolute, if weary.
"Gentlemen, I am a dying man. I have a consumptive illness that has been rotting away at my insides for the past two years, and over the last four months, it has gotten steadily worse. I am in constant pain, the doctors say that I will not live to see the summer, and will be bedridden well before that. Sir Sidney has presented me with the opportunity to serve my country one last time and die in uniform, and General Abercromby has promised me that if I make the attempt, succeed or fail, he will see to it that my family is well provided for, out of his own pocket, if need be."
"One unexpected effect of my illness is that I have an unusually high tolerance of pain. Having lived with it for so long, it has become a familiar though not a welcome companion. Thus, I hope to endure whatever the French can do to me long enough to convince them that they have, as you put it, 'beaten the truth out of me.'"
Sir Sidney stepped back in at this point. "And this is the important thing, lads. You have to fight hard to save him and still fail. The French must not suspect for an instant that we wish Captain Thompson to be captured. If they do, then all is for nothing, and we'll sit here looking at those bloody great Nicopolis heights until we rot."
"And why us, sir?" asked Lieutenant Bromley.
"Because Sir Ralph said that no British soldier would be insane enough to attempt such a mission. So we are sending the marines. And as much as I value you lads, I don't have to tell you that you are all expendable if it means this mission will succeed."
"What does 'expendable' mean?" Harper asked as they and the other marines made their way to the beach, where a boat would take them out to the fleet.
"It means that if they throw a party and we don't show up, no one will notice," said Finnigan.
It was a good thing that Harper was used to being on ships, or his first experience on the back of a camel would have cost him his lunch over its side.
They had made their way on the sloop Petrel northeastward along the Egyptian shore by night, and had lowered the boat on a beach just out of sight of the French-held fort of St. Julian, where Harper and Finnigan had been held for a night three years ago. They had then made their way south for about five miles, traveling through the desert behind the fort and the city of Rosetta. By dawn, they had reached the outskirts of the city, where an Arab in dirty striped robes had penned twenty camels for them, six of which were loaded down with extra waterskins and provisions. Money was exchanged, but Harper could see nothing in the man's expression to hint at betrayal.
His first experience with a camel was not promising. He had walked closer, to get a better look at the beast he would be riding, and had received a glob of spittle on his coat for his trouble. As he was wiping it off, the camel casually reached over and bit him on the arm. Deciding that he'd had enough, Harper hit the creature with a solid right cross and put it down on the ground. The camel man ran over, cursing and gesticulating, and it took an extra payment to calm him down.
He had wondered how he would mount the long-legged animal without a ladder, until the camel man struck its side with his switch and it obligingly knelt. He had barely gotten one leg over when it rose to its feet, and he had to cling to the beast's neck to keep from being thrown. No a good start. The camel man had given them all switches similar to his own, and Harper learned that, to make the camel go, he must strike its flank with the switch and say "Hut, hut, hut!"
But now he found that he enjoyed the swaying gait of the beast. They were a damned sight more ill-tempered than a horse though, and they definitely smelled worse. It was amusing to see how some of the marines were still trying to find a comfortable position on their beast's hump.
His smile faded as he heard another long, racking cough from Captain Thompson. Surely his lungs must come out of his mouth if he kept that up. And it sounded like he was getting worse. He hoped he would live long enough to be captured.
It was midday by the time they spotted the horsemen. Obviously, the camel man had wasted no time, and neither had the French.
First, they were just a sparkle to the northwest, as the sun glinted off of swords and horse bits. It was not long before they could see their shapes, which grew in definition with each passing minute. Chaussers, about twenty-five of them.
A camel is much tougher than a horse, and can survive where a horse would never last. But there is one thing a camel cannot do, and that is outrun a horse, especially one that is well watered and rested. Nevertheless, they tried.
They struck their beast's flanks shouting "Hut, hut, hut!" and the camels increased their loping gait across the sand. As the swaying increased, some of the marines were sick over the side. Harper noticed though, with some admiration, that Captain Thompson held resolutely on to his beast.
But it was no use. The chaussers gained steadily. They could now make out the details of their uniforms, see the gold braid on pelisse and dolman and shakos.
When the French were six hundred yards behind, Thompson called a halt. "
This is far enough. We'll make our stand here."
They knelt their camels in a crude square, three to a side, while the other beasts stood a short distance off and regarded the whole situation with distaste. Bromley and Thompson stood in the middle of the square, their swords drawn. Unslinging their muskets, the marines ensured the weapons were primed and loaded, and then fixed bayonets. Still, Harper found the weight of his loaded volley gun on his shoulder reassuring.
They had to make this look good.
The chaussers were two hundred yards away now, and pushed their horses into a full charge, unslinging their carbines as they did so. Then they were a hundred yards away. Then fifty.
Then a hundred feet.
Captain Thompson brought his sword down. His voice betrayed no illness, as if he had forgotten it in the crisis.
The marines' volley tore into the oncoming cavalrymen, and two of them went down. The camels snorted and tried to start up as the muskets fired over their backs, and the marines grabbed them by the fur on their necks and forced them down again. Before the north side of the square could reload, the chaussers hit them.
All was a madhouse of bellowing camels, neighing horses, slashing, stabbing steel, cursing men, and the crack! of musket and carbine. Harper fired point-blank into a snarling, mustached face and saw it explode in blood. As the man fell, his horse reared, kicking out. Harper ducked low and gave it the bayonet in the chest, the blade sunk in and the horse screamed like a woman and gave back, galloping off across the desert, its dead rider trailing behind it, his boot caught in a stirrup. Another chausser fired his carbine into a camel, and as the beast bellowed and collapsed, he spurred his horse over it, riding down the marines to Harper's right and plunging into the midst of their little square, slashing left and right with his saber. Finnigan took him in the small of the back with his bayonet. He groaned and reached around him with his left hand, and then Thompson slashed him out of his saddle with his sword.
Then the chaussers were past them, reforming on their south side. They had one marine dead. And three camels as well.
"Form on the south!" Thompson cried.
The chaussers were almost on them by the time they formed up in a double rank on the south. Fifty feet away, the marines opened up, and two more chaussers and one horse went down, their comrades behind swerving to avoid them. The chausser whose horse had been shot rose to his feet and charged on foot, waving his saber like a madman. They hit the marines like hell unleashed, screaming their rage. A chausser's horse rammed into the camel carcass Harper sheltered behind, sending the rider careening forward out of the saddle and onto Harper's upraised bayonet. Not yet dead, the horseman snarled and raised his saber with a final effort. Harper pulled the trigger and shot him off of the steel spike. He whirled and saw that five chaussers were inside the square now, slashing wildly. One bore down with his sword on Thompson's upraised blade, driving him to his knees. Harper's musket butt caught the Frenchman behind the ear and toppled him from his saddle. His horse panicked, kicking out and striking another horse, which reared and threw its rider to the ground, where the marines finished him off.
Then the chaussers were out, forming up and charging again. They were now eighteen. Lieutenant Bromley was wounded in the arm, but the defenders had no dead beyond another camel. It was getting harder to make the beasts stay kneeling, and Harper heard the crack of a musket as a marine shot a particularly uncooperative beast.
Already, the chaussers towered over them. Harper fired at the man and horse that filled his vision, and heard firing to both sides of him. The Frenchmen were hidden for a moment in a cloud of smoke, then the horse lunged out of it and its leg glanced off of Harper's chest, knocking him to the ground. He rolled to the side as the hooves came down and then he stabbed at the steed's belly. Its scream was drowned out in the noise of battle. From his position on the ground, he saw a chausser slam the butt of his carbine into the back of Captain Thompson's head, beating him to his knees. The Frenchman reached down and gripped the back of the Captain's collar. Harper rose and brought his own musket's butt down on the man's head, dropping him from the saddle. Then he felt a saber graze along his ribs, cutting through cloth and slitting the skin. He turned and swung his musket, deflecting the back-stroke. The chausser pushed his horse forward, backing him against the carcass of a camel. Harper reversed his musket and stabbed his bayonet at the horse's face, slitting a flaring nostril. The animal screamed and reared, and he ducked as sharp hooves struck the hairy camel-wall he'd had his back to. Over the horse's shoulder, he could see another chausser sweep the semi-conscious Thompson over his saddle and spur towards the open desert. Harper snarled and threw himself forward.
Make this look good, Sir Sidney had said.
His bayonet raked along the horse's flank, laying it open to the bone. The animal shrieked and lurched as it cleared the camels that formed the square's wall. Thompson and the rider were thrown, landing in the sand outside. But a chausser riding just behind scooped the dazed Captain into his saddle just he was struggling to his feet. Then all the chaussers were through and riding out to reform once more. And now was the time for the volley gun. Harper unslung it and braced it against his shoulder, planting his legs. He was careful to point it at the chaussers away from the one who carried Thompson. The blast echoed through the desert, toppling two more riders from their horses into the bloody sand, while a third slumped in his saddle.
He hoped that looked good enough.
Then they were out of range, forming up once again on the flank. The defenders now numbered eight, plus the wounded Lieutenant Bromley. There were fourteen chaussers left.
The horsemen seemed to be having an argument among themselves. Some pointed back to the marines, who crouched behind their now mostly dead camels, ready to meet their next charge. Others pointed back towards the northwest and Rosetta. Apparently, they were trying to decide if it was worth another charge to wipe the marines out. And it seemed that the vote was no. They had lost nearly half their number, and the way things had been going, the marines would still have three men left when they were all dead. And they had their prize. Let the English die in the desert. Or they'd be caught when they tried to return to Rosetta.
Just before the chaussers whirled their horses around and made for Rosetta, Harper made eye contact with Thompson, as he lay slung across the saddle. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he detected the faintest trace of a smile on the Captain's face. As the Chaussers rode off, he shook his head in amazement at the man's courage. He must have known the hell that was awaiting him.
They were able to catch six camels, and Lieutenant Bromley coaxed a French horse to let him mount. Then they made for the coast. But not towards Rosetta, where the French would be watching for them. They headed due north towards the shore of Lake Bourlos, a shallow inland body of water, which, like Lake Abuquir, lay just the other side of the isthmus from the sea. As they had pre-arranged, a shallow-bottomed boat from the Petrel was cruising its southern coast, looking for them. They boarded at sunset, after releasing their camels and horse into the desert. Harper hoped that not one of them found their way back to their traitorous master. All aboard the boat, the marines headed north towards the ship that would take them back to the British camp.
"I do so detest violence, Captain. I hope your cooperation will make it unecessary."
Captain Thompson was tied to a chair bolted to the floor, in a small, windowless room in Fort St. Julian. He had been stripped down his breeches. So far, he was unhurt. He was thankful to be out of the blazing sun.
The speaker was a young man, rather small, in the uniform of a lieutenant of grenadiers. He was quite unremarkable looking, with no decorations of any kind, and no distinguishing features except some pits in his face left over from childhood smallpox, and his spectacles.
Until you looked into his eyes. They were lifeless, emotionless. Lizard eyes. The eyes of a man without a soul, a man to whom no act was unthinkable, so long as it produced the desired results. Such a man could flourish in the new Republic of France.
Thompson stared into those eyes calmly.
"Thompson, Captain, His Majesty's Coldstream Guards."
The lieutenant sighed, removed his glasses, polished them for a moment, and then replaced them.
"You English. Always so melodramatic."
The lieutenant looked again at the paper in his hands. They had of course, gone through the documents in the dispatch case he carried on his crossbelt. It had produced nothing more than some general supply requisitions from the fleet. Nothing of any particular use. But the lieutenant had insisted on a more through search of the man's clothing. And sewn into the inner lining of his left boot, they had found this paper written in cipher.
Standing before the bound Englishman was a big dragoon sergeant with a brutal face and a bristling mustache. His expression was eager, and now, at the lieutenant's nod, he unsheathed his long straight sword.
"You can't do this!" the captain protested. "It's against every rule of war."
"An inconvenience that the Republic of France has divested itself of. Now, once again, Captain. What are the contents of this paper? How is this cipher decoded?"
Captain Thompson looked at the gleaming sword, gulped, and then set his jaw.
"Thompson, Captain, His Majesty's Coldstream Guards."
The lieutenant nodded to the sergeant.
The sword slashed down, opening up Thompson's right cheek to the bone.
"What are the contents of this paper?" the lieutenant asked again.
"T-Thompson, Captain, His Majesty's Coldstream Guards.
Again, the lieutenant nodded, and the sword slashed down across Thompson's chest, slicing the flesh from left shoulder to right hip.
"How may this cipher be decoded?"
"Thompson, Captain, His-"
The sword slashed out again, crisscrossing the first cut across the Captain's chest.
"What are the contents of this paper?"
This time, the Sergeant didn't wait for the lieutenant's nod. But as he slashed again, the sergeant's young captain of dragoons burst into the room, his face crimson with anger.
"Lieutenant, I must protest the use of my sergeant in this barbarism!"
The lieutenant was calm.
"Not your sergeant, Captain. France's sergeant. General Bonaparte's sergeant. And since I represent the General, he is my sergeant. You have the least claim to him of all of us."
"We are a civilized people, damn it! Even the Turks don't do this!"
"Wars are not won by civilized people, Captain. I have dispensed with civilization, and any other hindrance to the furtherance of the destiny of France. But since you have such qualms of conscience, I will not require you to participate in this interrogation."
The lieutenant's face remained calm, but his voice lowered to a hiss like a snake.
"But if you ever interfere with me again, I guarantee you I will see you demoted to a private and posted to the most fever-ridden West Indies outpost that France possesses. Is that clear?"
Glowering, the dragoon captain nodded.
"Then say it."
Although he outranked this man, the captain didn't dare cross him. He knew of his influence with Bonaparte, and what harm that influence could do him. Through gritted teeth, he snarled.
"It is clear."
"Then if you will excuse me?"
The captain stormed out. Behind him, he heard the lieutenant's calm, flat voice.
"What are the contents of this paper?"
Half an hour and some fifty slashes later, the Englishman was broken, covered with blood from head to foot, which pooled around his chair. Bit by bit, he explained the contents of the paper and the cipher that would decode it, the "rail fence." The lieutenant sat at his desk and deciphered it, while the dragoon sergeant stood at attention and the Englishman bled. After a time, the lieutenant turned back to his prisoner. His voice gave no hint of emotion.
"So, General Abercromby wishes help from the Grand Vizier, to strengthen his right flank, which he currently holds with a mere two battalions. This is invaluable news, my friend. France thanks you."
Thompson lifted up his ruined face, and mumbled through slashed, bloodied lips.
"Go to hell."
"Another myth that I have dispensed with."
The lieutenant rose and walked over to his bound prisoner.
"However, I still have a slight problem which I hope you can appreciate. It has occurred to me that you may have allowed yourself to be taken prisoner in order to place a false message in my hands. I must now determine whether this paper represents the true British troop positions, or if you have delivered a lie to me."
"Those are the positions, as the letter to the Grand Vizier states."
The lieutenant sighed again, and turned to the sergeant, who had been heating his sword in a small charcoal brazier. He now withdrew it, glowing orange at the tip.
"I wish I could believe you, my friend."
He nodded, and the sergeant pressed the glowing blade against Thompson's shoulder. He groaned in pain, and bit his lip so hard that new blood flowed.
"What are the true British troop dispositions?"
Thompson spat in the lieutenant's direction, but failed to connect.
"You already have them!"
The lieutenant nodded, and the sergeant laid the blade across Thomson's left cheek. He howled.
"What are the true British troop dispositions?" Outside the door, the two sentries heard the screams and smelled the odor of burning flesh. They shuddered, crossed themselves, and moved farther away.
An hour later, the lieutenant nodded in cold satisfaction. The Englishman was telling the truth. No liar could have stood up to such punishment.
He nodded to the sergeant. "Finish him."
The sergeant drew back his sword a last time and thrust it through Captain Thompson's throat, spilling what blood remained to him down his chest. The captain sagged dead in his chair; his body so slashed and burned it was barely recognizable as human. The lieutenant motioned toward the corpse.
"Dump him in the desert for the jackals. When you leave, send in my dispatcher. And sergeant, tell the quartermaster to issue you an extra ration of brandy on my authority. This has been a good night's work."
The sergeant saluted, untied the body, slung it over his shoulder, and strode out the door. The lieutenant sat back down at his desk, took quill and ink, and dashed off a letter to General Menou. It instructed him to attack the British as soon as he was up to full strength, and focus on their right flank, which was their weak spot. Then he folded the letter, dripped wax over it, and sealed it with General Bonaparte's seal. He smiled thinly. Soon, the British army would be driven into the sea, their pathetic country would sue for peace, and France's eastern empire would be firmly established. And he would return to France, having established his value to General Bonaparte more firmly than ever. That man's star was rising, and he would rise with it. It was amazing what a man could accomplish when he did not allow minor inconveniences like a conscience to restrain him.
A hussar entered, stood at attention, and saluted. The lieutenant handed him the letter.
"Deliver this to General Menou, immediately."
"At once, Lieutenant Ducos."
The marines returned on the 18th March. Over the past few days, some comforts had begun to reach the front. Officers, though not the men, were allowed to bring ashore a change of clothing, and gratefully stripped off their tattered uniforms. A small issue of tents arrived for the regiments. Army rations were supplemented with food bought from the Bedouins, who had begun to appear around the camp. A native market was set up and strictly policed, roped off to protect the Arabs from being robbed and cheated. All the buying had to be done across the ropes and during fixed hours. Vegetables, sheep, eggs, scrawny chicken, and some excellent fish were sold at carefully regulated prices, and there was a brisk trade with the Highlanders for ostrich feathers to add to their bonnets. Still, life on the sandy isthmus remained hard and comfortless.
Nevertheless, the army's morale was good. The past few days of movement and fighting had bolstered their confidence, and their commander's confidence in them. The battle of Mandara had shown the inestimable value of the drill and training that Abercromby had put them through. It was this alone that allowed them to march through cannon fire with the utmost of precision, to repel the French chaussers. But there had been a price to pay. Mandara had cost the army almost thirteen hundred casualties, most maimed by cannon shot. And the lack of cavalry meant that Abercromby could not reap the fruits of victory by pressing a withdrawing foe. French losses were estimated at only seven hundred. Since he had landed, Sir Ralph had lost about one seventh of his force. And the campaign was far from over. The defenses of Alexandria still defied him from the skyline. The city was open to supplies on its westward side; they could not blockade it. They would have to take it by storm.
So now they were halted on the Roman ruins position, to cover the bringing forward of their heavy artillery. The first phase of the assault would be to assault the Nicopolis heights, and then entrench there under French bombardment. Then they would begin to dig trenches and parallels, and then push forward breaching batteries against the city walls. It would not be an easy siege. Alexandria had a garrison of seven thousand, and the longer it took, the greater the danger of disease in the camp. They could anticipate heavy casualties.
And then there was General Menou to deal with. Moore had determined that the dry bed of Lake Mareotis was passable for an army. And on the 17th, his scouts to the south had been chased off by a French advance guard of cavalry. They did not get close enough to see Menou's army, but there was little doubt it was on the way. Time was not on Abercromby's side.
But there was no doubt of one thing; he had to make the attempt to take the city. In the eyes of many, this was the last chance for the British army. They were committed.
On the afternoon that the marines returned, a small body of Menou's hussars and light infantry were seen reconnoitering along the canal, intercepting and killing Arabs who were on their way to the British market to sell food. Colonel Archdall of the 12th Light Dragoons hastily mounted a mixed body of about a hundred men from his own regiments and the 26th Light Dragoons. Without seeking orders or informing anyone, he galloped off to the attack. Harper and Finnigan had been put to work hauling stores from the depot that day, and the first they knew of it was when the horsemen thundered across their path and down the causeway. They raised a cheer as their dragoons and hussars charged through each other.
"Give 'em hell!" said Finnigan.
The melee was nearly a thousand yards away, but Harper could imagine the clash of the sabers and the snorting of the horses. Then the two forces broke apart. The French, on their well-schooled Arabians, reined in and re-formed. The British, on the other hand, ran on carried by their momentum towards the parapet of an old redoubt. And then suddenly there were blue-coated infantry all along it, firing a stinging volley. Very distantly, they could hear the faint crackle of their muskets. It was an ambush! The Hussars then attacked them from the rear. Harper could see British dragoons falling, those not killed or taken prisoner only escaped by mounting double with their comrades. Then, they were racing back for the safety of the camp with the Hussars on their tail.
"Bloody hell." said Harper.
Within seconds, the Dragoons had gained the safety of their own lines, and a volley from the 28th discouraged the hussars from further pursuit. But they were close enough to hear them laughing. That was almost worse than a bullet. Thirty-three dragoons were killed or captured. Worse still, they lost forty-four horses. Sir Ralph delivered a stinging rebuke to Colonel Archdall, who read it while he was waiting for his shattered arm to be amputated. Abercromby could ill afford to lose the men, but the horses were a catastrophe. He promptly issued a general order warning against advancing without proper support.
Bit by bit, the accumulation of stores needed for the assault neared completion. Since the landing, there had scarcely been a day when the weather was calm enough to land supplies on the beach. They were thus wholly dependent on the lake. From dawn till dusk, the boats rowed to and fro, bringing materials from the ships in the bay to the Commissary's depot on the lakeshore behind the front. Engineers' stores and entrenching tools for the siege were accumulating, and the barrels of the heavy guns were slid off the boats and hoisted onto their carriages. Ammunition was stacked for the bombardment.
But by the 19th, it was plain that they would lose the race to attack Alexandria before Menou's troops joined the enemy garrison. Through their telescopes, Abercromby and Moore watched a long line of camels and draught animals filing into the city over the dry lakebed. Moore's voice was grim.
"Now we'll be attacking a force of strength equal to our own, in a strong natural position protected by field works. And even if we succeed, we'll then come up against the French's final line of defense, Alexandria itself."
Abercromby's voice was weary as he replied.
"There is no alternative but to attack. Even failure and the prospect of massive casualties are preferable to the humiliation of not even trying. The army would never recover. When the heavy guns are ready in a couple of days' time, I will push them forward by night, form the infantry under whatever cover is available, and advance against the heights at dawn to attack both enemy flanks. If the assault fails, the army will fall back to its fortified position and hold it while a secondary line is established in our rear, to cover our retreat and re-embarkation."
He almost couldn't get the last words out. He continued, his voice even more dispirited.
"It is just like Holland back in '99. But if it comes to that, I hope I don't live through it."
Moore had nothing to say to this intimate disclosure. Abercromby continued.
"The only possibility that might avert such massive losses is if Sir Sidney's mission of deception succeeds; if the French will attack us, in our own fortified positions."
Abercromby gave a last sigh.
"But no, that is too much to hope for; Menou could not possibly be so foolish."
Nonetheless, the evening stand-to was enforced with the severest discipline; any officer who was late at his alarm post would be arrested, and any soldier not fully equipped at night would be subject to a drumhead court martial.
On the morning of 20th March, General Moore sat on his horse and surveyed the defensive line. The defense of the critical coastal sector on the right was given to his Reserve, not two, but six battalions. If Sir Sidney's ruse worked, it was here in the ruins that the crucial struggle would take place, and if they were lost, the valley on his left would be opened up and the army's whole position compromised. The beach to the right of the ruins were commanded by the cannon of Captain Maitland's flotilla of gunboats, and the left angle of the walls was covered by a big new redoubt with emplacements for two heavy twenty-four pounders. The redoubt had a raised parapet for infantry with a ditch in front. Forward of the redoubt was a small redan; an angled field work with a single gun. The 28th manned the redoubt, and the 58th the front wall of the ruins.
His second line, commanded by General Oakes in reserve behind the ruins, consisted of the 23rd and the 42nd, the four flank companies of the 40th, and the Corsican Rangers. He placed his handful of cavalry, a hundred badly mounted dragoons, to the rear of the unoccupied valley. In the event of an attack, Oakes was to immediately send forward the left wing of the 42nd to protect the valley flank of the redoubt.
South of the valley, the ridge that formed the center of the position was occupied by the Guards and by Coote's brigade, with a large battery and signal station between them. On Coote's left, Craddock's brigade held the plain towards the canal.
The second line, behind the ridge, consisted of Hutchinson's three brigades. On the left, Cavan's brigade guarded the flank approach across Lake Mareotis, and was posted so that it could wheel to the left and line the canal with its flank resting on Lake Abuquir. On the right, Stuart's Foreign Brigade stood ready to move up and close any gap between the Reserve and the Guards should one appear. Doyle's brigade along with some five hundred unmounted cavalry, formed a final reserve.
Some twelve thousand men stood ready on the off chance the French would attack.
And From the heights of Nicopolis, General Menou prepared his master stroke that would drive the British back into the sea.