Warning: Mature Adults only
PART III: ALEXANDRIA
From the Nicopolis heights, two miles distant across the stony plain, General Jacques Abdullah Menou sat on his horse and examined the British position through his telescope. With him were generals Reynier, Rampon, and Lanusse.
Although he still looked like an innkeeper, with his balding head and potbelly, he was now commander of all French forces in Egypt, and he intended to do what a commander does, defeat the enemy. The British had a naturally defensible position, but it was too extended for the number of men who defended it. And they would not have the chance to complete their defensive works. With the intelligence he had just received, he would see to that.
The British right flank jutted out from the line in a salient of broken sandhills about five hundred yards wide, crowned by the Roman ruins. From the ruins, the sandhills slope gradually to the south into a flat open valley several hundred yards across, through which ran the road from Alexandria to Abuquir. Beyond the valley, the ground rose again to a sandy ridge some twelve hundred yards long. It was the main feature of their position, with several small redoubts mounting one or two guns at intervals along the crest. At its southern edge, the ridge fell away to a level plain five hundred yards wide and bounded by the banks of the Alexandria canal, where the line was anchored on a redoubt with a twelve-pounder. From there, the front turned back at a right angle along the canal to rest its flank on the waters of Lake Abuquir, facing a possible enemy flank approach across the dry bed of Lake Mareotis. The length of the front from coast to canal was about two miles, with a further half mile along the canal itself.
Menou had arrived in Alexandria with his cavalry on the evening of the 18th, and his infantry and artillery marched behind him. Since he had received the news of the British landing, he had been mobilizing his forces, first sending out Lanusse's three demi-brigades to face them at Mandara, then drawing in reinforcements from Upper Egypt, from Damietta in the delta, from the Syrian frontier, from the Red Sea approach, all to converge on his position at Rahmanieh. He had ordered General Reynier to remain and watch the Sinai for the approaching Turkish army. But the ambitious Reynier wanted to be in at the kill, and he put himself at the head of his troops when he rendezvoused with Menou. Menou let it go, and two days later the army crossed the Mareotis lakebed near Fort Marabout and made their way towards Alexandria.
And now, Menou had some eleven demi-brigades and all of his horse, leaving only a few thousand to garrison key positions elsewhere. Eleven thousand five hundred troops were formed before the British line. Although slightly fewer in number than their opponents, they were much stronger in cavalry.
But time was not on Menou's side. Menou had to control the country and maintain his flow of provisions. He needed to rush east to stop the Grand Vizier's new army. The British were supposedly going to land seven thousand more troops from India somewhere on the Red Sea coast. The Mamalukes would stir up trouble in Upper Egypt if left alone too long, and he had to cover Cairo. And even if he had ample time, Menou was a general of the Revolutionary army, whose one doctrine was attack, attack, and attack! And if he didn't, he would soon find himself replaced by a general who did. He pointed towards the British left, by the canal.
"The British flank there looks open, but it's flanked by guns on the southern edge of the ridge. They'll pour a devastating fire into any attacking force. The central ridge is a natural defensive position, they have protected it by field works, and it will have flanking fire from the redoubt on their right. Plus, the ground there is stony, unsuitable for cavalry."
Menou and his generals rode to the left side of the heights, facing the British right. Menou refocused his telescope.
"This looks much more promising, and the ground is good for cavalry. If we can clear through those ruins and sandhills, we'll tear a huge gap in their right flank. We'll roll up their center left to right. Our cavalry will pour through the valley, wheel, and take them in the rear, driving them back towards Lake Abuquir."
"First, we'll give General Abercromby a little nudge on his left, so he thinks the attack is coming from there. We'll send three hundred of our hussars in skirmishing order across the lake bed to attack the canal near those two small redoubts."
He turned to Lanusse and Rampon.
"General Lanusse, you will launch the real attack against the English right, with all four of your demi-brigades. When you clear their flank, Rampon, your three demi-brigades will feel their way into the valley, lap around their position on the ridge, and clear every last English soldier off of it."
Lanusse looked at the position through his own telescope.
"It looks well-manned, General."
"Pah! That is their pathetic attempt to deceive us. I have it on the most reliable authority that no more than two battalions hold it. You will roll over them like a wave over a sand castle."
He then turned to Reynier.
"You, with your five demi-brigades, will attack the front of the ridge and see that they make no counter thrust towards Alexandria. Meanwhile, Roize's full brigade of dragoons will wait behind our center, ready to burst through the English right."
"Once we have overrun their defenses at the right and center, we will reform and attack their second line. Lanusse, you will open the new assault, unhinge their broken right wing and then wheel around its flank. Rampon, you will follow his movement, and you, Reynier, will keep their whole left paralyzed."
He collapsed his telescope with a satisfying 'click.'
"Gentlemen, it began in Holland, continued in Cadiz, and it ends in Egypt. This is the last act of the tragedy. After we destroy their army here, the English will at last make peace."
Orders were quickly drafted, and issued by ten o'clock that night. At three in the morning, the army, barely rested after its march from Cairo, stood to arms and formed their columns in the darkness two hundred yards in front of the heights; their skirmishers forming a loose line before them. No drums sounded the reville. At four-forty, an hour and a half before dawn, the columns advanced in silence, despite their liberal issue of alcohol, down the escarpment and out across the rock-strewn plain. Towards the Roman ruins held by General Moore's Reserve. There, the battle would be won or lost.
On Lanusse's far right, Captain Jean Calvet marched through the darkness with the grenadiers of the 18th Demi-brigade de Ligne, the men he had led since they had landed in the thrice-damned country three years ago.
He was heartily sick of this dusty pesthole, and of serving under Menou, who he still regarded as a fool. He would have liked to see France again, though he'd never let any of his men know that. He knew his duty this morning, to lead his men in killing every English soldier that got in their way, and keep on killing until he told them to stop. He was glad to be fighting an enemy he could see and shoot and stab, instead of hunger and disease and homesickness, which he could not. He silently cursed his men as they stumbled, and peered into the darkness. It wouldn't be long now. And then, finally, an end to this idiotic war.
From their position a hundred yards before the redoubt that fronted the Roman ruins, Harper and Finnigan peered into the darkness as they had been doing since they went on picket duty an hour before. Harper reflected uneasily that if Sir Sidney's plan had worked, they were directly in the path of the French assault. A few minutes after they had come on duty, they heard someone coming, and on demanding and receiving the password, saw that it was General Moore. Both sprang to attention.
"At ease, gentlemen." He looked out into the darkness, the moon had set, and he could see only vague shapes. "Any movement?"
A flare burst above the heights for a moment.
"Just those, Sir," said Finnigan.
"Nothing unusual. They probably won't come, but we can't let our guard down. Keep an eye out."
He left them, continuing his inspection of the pickets along the right wing, then on to the Guards and Coote's brigade forward of the sandy ridge, then Cradock's in the plains on the left, and finally Cavan's watching the line of the canal. At four o'clock, he ended up with the left-most picket of the reserve. Behind the lines, the regiments were now getting under arms for the morning stand-to, and it would soon be time to withdraw the pickets. All was still quiet. Moore left orders with the field officer of the Reserve to withdraw his pickets at daybreak, and rode off along the front, passing along the order as he went.
As he joined the further picket of the Guards, he heard musket fire on the left from the direction of the canal. The commanding officer out there had seemed jumpy, and since it was so quiet everywhere else, he guessed that the men were just firing at shadows. He rode over that way to sort it out.
At the redoubt guarding the southern approaches of the canal, a troop of dismounted hussars rushed over the earthworks just as the sentries were being called back. They took a dozen prisoners, and then turned the twelve-pounder against the British left. They fired one shot into the darkness before the canal's second redoubt opened fire on them. They quickly withdrew, taking their wounded and prisoners with them. Meanwhile, their comrades out on the lakebed had formed a skirmish line and kept the shooting going.
Harper and Finnigan heard the distant shooting and looked at each other. The French couldn't be coming, not while they were out here ahead of the main army.
But then again, Patrick had complained about missing the action at Mandara. Perhaps someone had heard him.
All along the British front, listening officers and men could hear the continued musketry and an occasional cannon shot on their left. In the reserve line, General Stuart began to march his Foreign Brigade across the army's rear towards the sound of the guns, uncovering the valley on Moore's flank as he did so. Everyone peered into the darkness, straining their ears for any faint clue of what was happening. Behind them, the faintest suggestion of gray was beginning to show, but day seemed reluctant to break, and the valley was shrouded in mist and darkness. Gun crews were still working by lanterns.
The 92nd Highlanders, their numbers reduced by sickness and casualties, were on their way to the rear. They had begun their march half an hour after reveille, and were passing Abercromby's headquarters when the firing began. The General was standing outside of his tent, sending off his aide-de-camp and staff to the front line. Major Napier, acting commander of the 92nd, approached him and saluted.
"Sir! The 92nd respectfully requests permission to return to their station in line, Sir!"
Abercromby waved his hand dismissively.
"Ach! Dinna worry yourself, Major. Tis only a wee brew-up with the outposts, not worth your trouble, man."
Everything was still quiet in front of the reserve. Any minute now, stand-to would sound, and Harper and Finnigan could withdraw to the comparative safety of their lines.
From the darkness before him, Harper heard the twitter of the small birds which nested in the sand. Something had disturbed them.
Then the cannonade began. It sounded as if the entire world had fallen on the redoubt and Roman ruins in a blinding, deafening, crash and thunder.
And in the light of the muzzle flashes, Harper saw an enormous French column barely a long musket shot away.
"God save Ireland!"
He and Finnigan fired off hasty warning shots, and scurried back to the redoubt. Harper really would have to be more careful of what he wished for. Because now they were in it up to their necks. Already, French tirailleurs were rushing forward, charging up the slope towards the redoubt.
When the barrage started, all of Abercromby's uncertainty vanished. He turned to Consul Baldwin.
"Tis an attack upon our right." Then to the 92nd: "Back to the line, ladies!"
They cheered him as he mounted and rode past, then reversed direction and took up position in Coote's brigade on the ridge. Meanwhile, General Stuart, marching towards the left, halted his brigade when he heard the heavy cannon and musket fire behind him.
Moore tuned to his aide-de-camp.
"This is the real attack. Let us gallop to the redoubt."
They sped along the rough ground through the dark, and the pickets of the Guard whom they passed were already falling back towards the line.
Harper listened as the tromp, tromp, tromp! of thousands of booted feet marching towards him. The entire French army was marching towards him. Not against the British right wing, but against him. From behind them, the 28th's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Paget walked up and down the line.
"Steady lads. Steady. Don't shoot until I give the word."
The sound of marching grew louder, and the musketry grew in intensity. Hits from field pieces threw up dirt from the redoubt in his face, or whistled over his head to smack into the ruins. Bullets slammed into wooden supports or thudded into bodies. All rivalry was forgotten now; he stood shoulder to shoulder with men who had resented his presence the night before. They gripped their muskets, their bayonets a glittering hedge. As always, Harper had his volley gun slung over his shoulder, loaded and ready for the right target. Men compressed their lips in a firm, white line. Someone drew a long, shuddering breath.
Most of the 28th were standing-to on the parapet of the redoubt, but Moore had placed two companies outside of it to protect his left flank and the open rear of the redoubt. Behind them, the 58th Foot manned the huge fallen blocks of Roman masonry, and had thrown up redoubts of boulders between the gaps. The Corsican Rangers moved forward to block the gap between the ruins and the beach, until there was enough light for the gunboats to fire by.
In case of attack, the 42nd Highlanders were to come forward immediately from the second line and extend his flank into the valley. But they were not here yet. Moore would have to fight with an open flank until they showed. Where was the enemy's attack falling?
Tromp, tromp, tromp! The sound was much closer now, and he could see a dim mass out in the darkness. Then he could make out the white crossbelts and the gleam of lowered bayonets. Then those odd leather helmets. Now he could see their faces, mustached and snarling, a scattered line of tiraulers, and behind them, a massed column of grenadiers. A drum, somewhere out there in the darkness, beat the charge, and they broke into a run, yelling out their cries; "En avent! En avent! Vive la Republique!"
"Front rank, fire!"
Harper felt the impact against his shoulder as he fired, and long orange tongues licked out of an acrid cloud of smoke. The tiraulers were thrown to the ground, red blossoms over their hearts, holes in their heads. But the rest kept on coming, and the grenadiers increased their pace. Harper took his place in the rearward line as he reloaded, while the second line stepped up to the parapet and presented their muskets.
Moore, galloping towards the redoubt, could see that it was already under heavy attack, French infantry swarming all around it. The black sky was lit by gun-flashes, red and yellow, and blazing volleys of musketry sounded like the long roll of drums. A pall of smoke from cannon and muskets obscured the already-dark battlefield. It was plain, the fight was here. He needed support on his flank, now. He turned to his aide-de-camp.
"Bring up the 42nd to support their flank! Then have the 23rd and 40th come forward to support the 58th in the ruins."
As Moore spoke, his horse was hit in the face by a stray shot. It gave a gigantic quiver and reared, thrashing in agony and fear, throwing its head in the air with a high-pitched whinny. The animal was unmanageable, and Moore flung himself from the saddle and ran towards the redoubt on foot. Climbing up into the interior, he spotted Paget.
"Colonel Paget, what is your situation?"
"Sir, I have - unhhhh!"
Paget was hurled back, blood pouring from his neck. He caught himself with his left hand, and looked up at Moore, trying to staunch the blood with his right.
"Sir, I am killed."
Moore turned to two soldiers in the rear rank, then to the 28th's next senior officer.
"You two, take him to the field hospital. Colonel Chambers, you have command."
As the soldiers stepped forward to help him, Paget shakily got to his feet.
"It's all right, I can walk."
With a soldier supporting each arm, he made his way to the rear.
With a roar and a final surge, the 4th Demi-brigade surged forward and down into the ditch before the redoubt, washing around its sides likes waves breaking around a rock. They tried to scale the parapet, their legs churning in the earth; they stabbed at the defender's faces with their bayonets, and tried to pull the muskets out of the defender's hands. But it was too steep, and they fell back. From point blank range, one of the outside companies of the 28th poured a volley into their right flank, and men crumpled and fell, knocking down their companions. Blood flowed like rainwater in the ditch. Harper, now reloaded, took his place at the parapet again, marked his target, and fired. His man went down. Already, his face was black with powder residue, and it was all he could taste in his mouth. He withdrew to reload. The French kept on coming.
On the seaward side of the right wing, General Valentin was leading his brigade along the beach, and then angled them in to attack the redoubt from the flank. Still in column, his brigade pushed into the angle between it and the front of the ruins. The 58th was ready for them. Colonel Houston raised his sword, and his men held their fire, waiting, waiting. Now Houston could see the starlight glinting off of the leather caps.
The withering volley rolled down the line through every gap in the wall, and the 69th recoiled as if bitten by a great snake. They were so close that some had their cloths set afire by burning wadding as they were thrown to the ground. The fell back towards the shelter of the hillocks and hollows behind them, and this only brought them within the arc of the redoubt's twenty-four pounder. Filled with double grapeshot, it blasted out, tearing them apart, throwing limbs and viscera through the night air. Those closest to the blast virtually ceased to exist, and others fell, perforated with bloody holes. The column wavered, began to break apart. And into the chaos rode General Lanusse, trying to salvage the chaotic situation. There were far more than two British battalions here! He held up his hand shouting, "Stand! Stand! Return to the attack!" But then a shot hit him in the knee, shattering it. White-faced, he fell from his horse, blood gushing from the ruined limb. Two grenadiers carried him to the surgeon to the rear. His leg was promptly amputated, but the surgeon tried in vain to stem the bleeding. As he lay dying, General Menou rode up to him.
"General Lanusse, I hope you are not critically hurt."
Lanusse snarled at him, there was no point in holding back now.
"I am finished, you fool. My one comfort is that so is your precious Colony of Egypt. As for you, you are not fit be an onion peeler in the kitchens of the Republic."
Menou grimaced, and then rode off into the darkness, leaving his general to die.
Without his leadership, his two brigades were left leaderless and disarrayed. Each attack had been repulsed, and they now lacked the direction to make the united effort that was needed. Calvet and the 18th, in General Silley's column, were moving into the attack when the 32nd demi-brigade, commanded by Adjutant-commandant Sornet, blundered into their path, blocking their advance. As the French troops milled together in confusion, Calvet shook his fist.
"Get out of our way, you bastards!"
More and more of the battle was being sucked in the direction of Moore's Reserve, and the 32nd found itself thrown into the fight for the redoubt. Meanwhile, the rest of General. Rampon's central column, the 21st de Ligne, advanced down the Abuquir road in the valley, and past the flank of Moore's heavily engaged forces, angling towards their rear. But finally, the 42nd Highlanders were coming up on that threatened flank. Major James Sterling led his five companies to form with their right on the redoubt. The red hackles on their bonnets were just discernable in the darkness. Sterling formed his line with the enemy to the front, and they were enduring heavy fire. But the Highlanders showed their usual stolid coolness and dressed their ranks as their comrades fell. Then, a message from his light company on the left informed Sterling that a French column with a color and a gun was advancing along the road beyond his left flank.
Sterling rode across to the left to identify the enemy for himself. He turned to the officer of his light company.
"Be ready to form on our flank if the enemy tries to turn it."
The firing was now very heavy along his entire front, especially his right, and he road back along the line. As he reached his right flank, he heard a discharge of grapeshot to the left, and galloping back towards it, he could see a French battalion in his rear, followed by a towed field gun. He snapped out an order without hesitation.
"Rear rank, about face! Drive those fellows!"
The rear rank of the 42nd whirled about and charged in line, bayonets lowered. There were few more terrifying sights on the battlefield. They poured a volley into the column's flank, and then plunged in with the steel. The French, surprised and unable to deploy, were broken and quickened their march to escape. The Highlanders captured the gun and gave pursuit.
Moore had taken up a station at the rear of the redoubt, which was still being swarmed by French troops, and still holding. He could see more troops forming on the left, but couldn't quite make them out. An officer came up to him and saluted.
"Sir! I have to report that the Reserve has been flanked by an enemy column on the left."
"You are mistaken, sir. It is only the 42nd, coming up to protect our flank."
At that moment, Lieutenant Colonel Paget rode up, his neck heavily bandaged, and interrupted.
"General Moore, I can assure you that the French have turned us, and are moving towards the ruins."
Moore realized that his flank had been turned and the French were wheeling in across his rear. Just then, the right wing of the 42nd came up. Moore ran on foot up to their commanding officer, Colonel Alexander Stewart, and pointed to the rear.
"Colonel, face your men about, the enemy is at your mercy!"
Stewart obligingly shouted "42nd, about - Face! Charge!"
They turned, to see the French column racing across their new front towards the ruins, with the 42nd's left wing on their tail. Now the right wing smashed into their flank, and the united regiment drove the French against the left face of the ruins, pursuing them without mercy. The Highlanders' blood was up, and they were not inclined to give quarter. Their bayonets drank deep and red that morning. The French screamed.
Seeking any cover they could find, the French fled into the sandy arena of the ruins, surging through gaps in the walls, and blundering unexpectedly onto the left flank of the 58th. Their commander, Colonel Crowdje, wheeled two companies around to face them. Sixty paces behind the 58th, the 23rd Welsh Fusiliers arrived from the rear and deployed into line. It was dark, but their commander, Lieutenant Hill, could recognize the distinctive French hats. In silence, he wheeled his men to the left and gave the order to fire. They delivered their volley at thirty-five yards. In the enclosed space, it was devastating. The French tried to return fire, but, packed tightly into their column, only a few could do so. The Welsh reloaded like clockwork and delivered a second volley, piling corpses upon corpses. Meanwhile, two more Fusilier companies wheeled up on their flanks. It was bayonet time. A command rang out: "Charge!" The Fusiliers rushed forward, and the French, pinned within the pen of the stone ruins and attacked from all sides, were overwhelmed by a merciless torrent. Outside the walls, the 42nd cut off their one line of retreat. It became a slaughter, like sheep among wolves, with some French soldiers transfixed to the stone walls by the bayonets impaling them. The survivors, some three hundred and fifty, surrendered. Their captured color was seized by Major Sterling and handed to a sergeant of grenadiers. The 21st Demi-brigade, seasoned veterans of the Italian campaign, had ceased to exist.
Luckily, the French assaults had paused while the 42nd dealt with the threat to its rear. But now a fresh storm was about to break, and Moore led the regiment back to the slopes beside the redoubt, leaving Oakes in charge of the ruins. And no sooner had the 42nd regained their position on the flank of the redoubt, then the French attacked again.
How many days had he been loading and firing? Harper wondered. It must have been at least two or three. Those two actions had become his entire world, that, and the growing piles of dead and dying Frenchmen before the redoubt, and the roar of the cannon and the crackle of musketry. He spared a single glance at Finnigan; saw him fighting side by side with the private of the 28th who had so objected to the marine presence in his regiment. But all that was forgotten now, for combat made men brothers.
Now, unable to break into the front of the redoubt, the French were lapping around to their right in one wave after another, seeking to break through the 42nd and find a way into the redoubt through its open rear. Rampon's 32nd Demi-brigade plunged into the fight; his horse was killed out from under him, and his sub-commander mortally wounded.
No one noticed when Moore was shot in the leg, he flinched only a little. But afterwards, people noticed that he was having difficulty walking, and had to borrow a horse. And now General Abercromby appeared, as always, where the fighting was hottest. He was near the rear of the 42nd, unaccompanied by any of his staff. He rode up to Colonel Stewart, shouting over the noise of the cannonade.
"The French must not be allowed to gain the height." Then he turned to the soldiers.
"My brave Highlanders, remember your forefathers."
They would never forget those words. Stewart ordered them to charge, and they drove the French back down the slope of the sandhills. But this time, their boldness led them too far. Their attack took them into the dense cloud of smoke that hung across the battlefield. The smoke which concealed the French cavalry. Now the grenadiers retreated between the horses, clearing the ground for a charge. As the disordered 42nd emerged from the smoke, they save five regiments of French dragoons deployed on their left flank. Colonel Stewart saw the avalanche that was about to descend on his men and called out to them desperately.
"Withdraw! Withdraw! Form up on the grenadiers by the redoubt!"
But it was too late. Most of them did not hear the order above the roar of gunfire. While some of them were attempting to retreat and others were attempting to rally, the dragoons slammed into them. The Highlanders gave a good account of themselves, clumping together in any where from two to ten soldiers, standing firm, back to back, shooting the horses before the dragoons came within sword-length. Some made it to safety, but others were ridden down into the dust. The dragoons pressed on through the gaps, only to stumble among the sleeping pits the 28th had dug before the redoubt, or else tangling their horse's legs in the guy-ropes of the tents pitched the previous day.
All this time, the Guards on the ridge beyond the valley had been having a quiet time of it, watching the continuous blaze of fire in the darkness around the redoubt and the ruins. On their left stretched a gap created by the departure of the 92nd. But Major Napier and his Gordons were hurrying back to the lines, and as their leading files closed the gap, the enemy struck. The pickets fell back toward the line through the growing dawn, and following them, a column of French grenadiers preceded by light troops. It was the two left-wing brigades of Rampon's division.
The Coldstream and 3rd guards sent out their own flankers to harass them, and when these were driven in and the French were only a hundred feet away, General Ludlow gave the order to open fire. The column almost seemed to be pushed backwards by the deadly volley, and then it shook itself and came on, into the second ranks' fire. By this time, the first rank had reloaded, and their new volley stopped the French cold. Now the column veered left, trying to turn the Guards, only to run into the massed fire of Coote's brigade. The left wing of the 3rd Guards wheeled back and poured a lethal flanking fire into the column, while the Royal Scots advanced on their flank. Hit from both front and flank, the French fell back, firing in retaliation, leaving the field strewn with their dead. They did not renew the attack.
But the main battle continued to be around the redoubt and Roman ruins on the British right. The French continued to pour in their reserves to achieve a breakthrough there, eating up the troops they would have needed to exploit any success.
Harper, reloading and firing for surely the ten thousandth time, wondered: Have I died and gone to hell? Is my fate to spend the rest of eternity loading and firing, loading and firing, shooting endless hordes of French demons?
The British were defending their outworks with desperate defensive fighting and bold counter-attacks, and the battle swung back and forth, minute by minute in a confused cacophony of muskets shots, grunts of agony, the dull thud! of lead striking flesh, the roar of cannon, screams from mangled, slowly dying men, snarls and curses of rage, and the sucking sound bayonets make when withdrawn from a body. Again and again, waves of new French troops poured through the thick white smoke to hurl themselves at the redoubt and ruins, to be hurled back again, to be replaced by still more attackers. And again and again, the French artillery slammed both positions, slowly reducing them to shapeless piles of rubble that men still defended and other men still attacked, all in a pall of white, choking smoke.
Abercromby, now joined by Colonel Hope, was at the critical point, and increasingly, the situation was being brought under control. British reserves were marching forward from the second line to block the open valley on Moore's left; Stuart's Foreign Brigade advanced to hold the gap between the 42nd and the Guards, and behind the sand ridge in the center, Doyle's brigade was marching across to form a new reserve line in the rear of the valley. It was dawn, and the four gunboats anchored off the shore could now join in the battle, and their fire rendered the beach and the right side of the ruins impassable by the enemy.
And now another French attack surged forward. It was the 18th Demi-Brigade. Captain Calvet in a sort of wild despair, led his men in a hopeless effort. He had been promised an easy time before a lightly defended position. But plainly, Menou had been proved wrong again. Calvet was sick of it all, and wished only to spit in the enemy's face a last time as he died. They surged down into the ditch, which, being filled with French bodies, was now level with the parapet. Firing their muskets at the heads of the defenders, which was all they could see, they surged forward, stabbing with their bayonets, and then scrambling over the parapet to fight bayonet to bayonet! For the first time that night, the redoubt had been penetrated. A chaos of fighting, cursing, stabbing, clubbing figures surged before him. Again, Harper took aim . . .
And suddenly found Jean Calvet in his sights. He was scrambling into the redoubt to fight alongside his men. Their eyes met, and in that instant, they recognized each other. Harper's mind whirled for a second, and then he made his decision. He shifted his aim to the grenadier charging to Calvet's right, fired, and brought him down. When the smoke cleared from the shot, he could see the man he had killed, but Calvet was nowhere in sight.
He owed Calvet for saving his life on the road to Cairo when he was a prisoner. Now the debt had been paid. Someone else might kill the captain today, but not him. Already, the handful of grenadiers of the 18th who had made it over the parapet were dead, prisoners, or had retreated, giving back like all the others, the combined fire of the 28th from the redoubt, the 58th from the ruins, and the 42nd from the left flank simply too much for them.
Every assault the French had thrown at them, they had beaten back. Though the French had attacked with daring and bravery, the discipline and steadiness of the British had counted for more. The enemy had taken heavy losses, most of their commanders in this section were dead or wounded, and their assault had lost all order and momentum. Their surviving infantry were now dispersed among the sandhills in front of the Ruins where they were keeping up a skirmishing fire. No force on earth, and certainly not General Menou, could make them attack that position again.
With defeat staring him in the face, Menou rode around the rear of the French positions in a stupor. His beautiful plan to drive the British into the sea had failed! And their right! They were supposed to have been weak on their right! He was unable to function, unable to make the most elementary decision or issue the simplest command. He could order neither another attack nor a withdrawal. Then suddenly, he rode up to General Roize of the second line of dragoons. Suddenly, his mind once again found focus.
"General Roize, you will form up your dragoons and charge the British right. Destroy them!"
"But mon Generale, their position is unbroken. The assault has lost all impetus, and there is no fresh infantry available to exploit any breakthrough we may achieve-"
"You heard me. Charge the British right."
"Mon Generale -"
"Charge the British right. That is an order."
Roize saluted. Doom was already written in his face. He dressed the ranks of the dragoons and put themselves at their head. He was a veteran of twenty-three years; had served on the northern frontier, in the Alps, in Italy, and with Murat against the Turks. If this were to be his last charge, it would be a desperate deed of glory.
He trotted forward with his three regiments in columns of squadrons, nine hundred strong. At three hundred yards, he went to a canter, and at two hundred, a full-out gallop. He could see the redoubt ahead of him and angled for the thinly held line to its left, held by those strange terrifying troops from Scotland. He could see puffs of smoke from the line now, the small ones of muskets, the larger ones of cannon. He was dimly aware of dragoons being hit behind him, heard the screams of men and horses, but blocked them out of his mind. That thin line of men was coming closer, closer, the thunder of hooves drowning out everything else- The dragoons hit the 42nd with the irresistible shock of a thunderbolt. Weakened from their losses, they could no more stop it than they could have stopped the floodwaters of the Nile. The dragoons crashed through them, unstoppable as an avalanche. The sergeant carrying the captured standard of the 21st Demi-Brigade was wounded, and the dragoon who had cut at him seized the flag and headed towards the rear. But the Highlanders were still full of fight, lunging furiously with their bayonets, every man shooting, stabbing, or dying where he stood, whether alone or with his mates, fighting on while they still lived.
Through the broken line of Highlanders, the rushing horsemen swirled on round the commanders and their staffs. Moore's aide-de-camp Captain Anderson was wounded, captured, and rescued within the space of a few minutes. Moore caught sight of Abercromby holding his ground, shouted and waved at him to get back. But at that instant, Sir Ralph was surrounded and thrown from his horse. A dragoon lunged at him, and the sword blade passed between his arm and his body, cutting through his coat and grazing along his ribs. A corporal of the 42nd shot the dragoon, who fell, leaving his sword in Sir Ralph's grasp. The first man to arrive at Abercromby's side was Sir Sidney Smith, who rode up with his dragoon orderly. Abercromby noticed that Sir Sidney's sword was broken; he was holding the useless hilt in his hand. Reaching beneath his arm, he took out the French dragoon's sword and held it out.
"I perceive you are without a sword, Sir Sidney. Pray, take this one."
Sir Sidney nodded his thanks, dropped his hilt, and took the French blade. Abercromby continued.
"I find myself in need of a horse. Do you see a spare one handy?"
Just then, a round shot took off the head of Sir Sidney's orderly, and his body fell from his starting steed. Smith looked at this calmly, and then back at Abercromby.
"Sir Ralph, that is destiny. The horse is yours, Sir."
Grimacing at Smith's macabre histrionics, Abercromby nodded his thanks and mounted. Just then, he was struck in the hip by a musket ball. He barely flinched, and throughout the rest of the battle, gave no hint of the excruciating pain he was in.
The great body of the dragoons wheeled to the left and charged into the open rear of the redoubt, pouring in behind the 28th, who were still trading heavy fire with the infantry to their front. Harper had just retired to the rear rank to reload his musket.
What happened then would become a legend that would endure for generations. Colonel Chambers shouted out:
"Rear rank, 28th! Right about face!"
In that instant, Harper knew that the time had come. He dropped his musket and swept his volley gun off his shoulder. With machine-like smoothness, the rear rank turned about on the parapet. In the instant before he fired, Harper saw a dragoon before him, horse rearing, sword raised. His eyes met those beneath the bronze helmet. For the second time that day, he saw a familiar face among the enemy.
It was the scar-faced dragoon who had kicked him down when he was two slow to disarm following the final battle with the Mamaluks. The one he had promised himself he would remember. Harper smiled. This time he didn't hesitate. The rear rank fired as a single man. The massive blast of his gun drowned out their volley. When the smoke cleared, the dragoons had been destroyed, thrown down in a horrid tangle of bloody men and horses. And Scar-face now had no face.
The 28th returned to the shooting match from the parapet. A few minutes later, they ran out of bullets. If the French attacked again, all they would have would be their bayonets. But they still would have beaten them; nothing was going to force them out of that redoubt. However, the French didn't attack.
Moore spurred his horse to get clear of the dragoons, and galloped across the ruins to where he knew he could still find troops formed and in good order. Near the south front of the ruins were the flank companies of the 40th Foot. He shouted to its commander.
"Fire on the dragoons, now!"
"But Sir, the 42nd is in the line of fire!"
"You have your orders, sir!"
The 40th formed into line, presented, and poured first one, and then two volleys at point-blank range into the desperate melee of dragoons and Highlanders. In a moment, the field was strewn with stricken men and horses, and riderless steeds were careering about the field in confusion. Single horsemen and unhorsed dragoons were trying to make their way back through the gaps in the British line. Most were brought down. General Roize was among the dead. He had led his last, glorious charge. On the left of the much reduced 42nd, Stuart's Foreign Brigade was coming into line to complete the destruction of the dragoons, and a soldier from the Minorca Regiment killed the officer who had recovered the standard of the 21st Demi-Brigade, taking the flag back. With the crisis dealt with in the valley, General Abercromby dismounted with the aid of a Highlander and walked quietly along the line of the 42nd and Stuart's brigade, until he came to the ridge occupied by the guards, where he had a view of the battlefield from the redoubt on the crest. He remained there until the battle died away, watching the fighting intently, walking up and down in the rear of the battery, giving no indication of his wound.
The long fight for the redoubt and the Roman ruins was at last won. Brigades from the second line closed the gap in the valley; and most of the French attacking formations had been committed and broken. One enemy battalion still held the advanced redan in front of the redoubt; but the rest had dispersed to skirmish in the sandhills and on the slopes of the ridge occupied by the Guard's and Coote's brigade. Most of the British and some of the French infantry were now out of ammunition. Knowing that they were safe from musket fire, some Frenchmen entered the ditch of the redoubt and began pelting the defenders with stones, which the British promptly threw back. To put an end to this contest, the two grenadier companies of the 40th, who still had ammunition, moved out to clear the ditch, and then pushed on to drive the sharpshooters out of the hollow in front and retake the redan. But now the British cannon fell silent. They too, had run out of ammunition. For an hour, they could make no reply to the French cannons, which inflicted heavy casualties with close-range bombardment, while again, their sharpshooters closed in with impunity.
But this continuing fighting was useless to the French. The battle was lost. Menou sat his horse, impassively watching, with General Reynier by his side.
"Mon Generale, we must disengage and reorganize our battalions."
Menou said nothing.
"If you will not retire, then allow me to make a new attack with my forces, they are still fresh."
Menou said nothing, but then he mumbled, just barely coherent.
"Their right. They were supposed to be weak on their right . . ."
The French infantry continued to wage a skillful harassing action, while their guns hammered the British lines. Moore gathered as many of his troops as he could behind the shelter of the redoubt and ruins, but on the open level fields to his left, the 42nd and the Minorca Regiment suffered severe casualties from ricocheting round shot. Along the ridge, the Guards and Coote's brigade also took heavy losses, and some of the shots went over the crest, to cause casualties in the British second line.
But at last, new ammunition came up for the British artillery, and now the French paid the price for hanging on too long. Now they would have to withdraw across the open plain under fire. The field pieces opened up a devastating barrage, and in the redoubt, Major Duncan of the artillery personally laid the twenty-four pounder to sweep the French files as they raced for the cover of the dunes. Two French ammunition wagons blew up with huge explosions; the enemy fire began to slacken; and about nine o'clock, they began to withdraw in good order, harassed by British round shot as they crossed the plain.
There was no pursuit. The British didn't have the cavalry. Any advance by the infantry into the plain would only have put them under the guns on the heights of Nicopolis. The enemy continued their withdrawal till they were beyond effective range, and at ten o'clock that morning, all firing had ceased.
One of the last shots of the battle killed Moore's borrowed horse from under him. As it settled between his knees, his wounded leg took the weight, and he realized how much it hurt. For over five hours, he had commanded the storm-point of the battle with determination and courage. Not once had he even considered leaving the battlefield while he could still sit a horse. Now his duty was done, and it was time to hand the brigade over and find a surgeon. His second in command, General Oakes, was also wounded in the leg. His third, Colonel Paget, was wounded in the neck. So he handed over command to his fourth, Colonel Brent Spencer of the 40th. He then rode slowly off with Oakes down the fatal valley strewn with the debris of battle. He turned to Oakes.
"I never saw a field so covered with the dead."
Of the nearly fourteen hundred British casualties, nine out of ten of them were around the redoubt and the ruins, or the gap to their left. The entire battle had been a struggle to stop the French breakthrough there. Pressure, and casualties on the other sectors of the front had been slight.
Beyond the battlefield, the tents in their neat rows had been shredded to ribbons by the French bombardment, and many camp followers had been killed. Hundreds of spent cannonballs littered the ground. Three thousand French dead and wounded littered the field. As hard as he could try, Harper could not see a single bare patch of ground within a hundred feet of the redoubt's front. All was covered with French bodies, piled upon each other, in many places two and three deep. The French were horribly mauled by grapeshot, and some of their guns had blown up, roasting the artillery teams. Close in front of the redoubt lay the team horses and gunners of an abandoned French field gun, which had been brought too close in the darkness and blasted by grapeshot. It was still burning.
Sir Ralph's son, Colonel Robert Abercromby, noticed that his father's left breech leg was soaked in blood.
"Father, you are wounded. You must have the surgeon see to it."
Abercromby waved his hand dismissively.
"Ach, 'tis only a scratch, son. I'll not drag the surgeon away from the poor fellows who have been truly wounded."
Having said this, he promptly fainted, sliding down with his back against the wall of the redoubt. His son sent for a surgeon, who examined the wound and found that the musket ball had entered the thigh. Sir Ralph had recovered consciousness, and refused to leave the field until he had been reassured that the battle was truly over. The Assistant Adjutant-General, Lieutenant John MacDonald of the 89th, picked up a soldier's blanket that lay nearby, removed the slings in which it was rolled, and arranged it as a pillow under the General's head. Abercromby stirred.
"What is that you are placing underneath my head?"
"Only a soldier's blanket, Sir."
Sir Ralph raised himself on his elbow.
"Only a soldier's blanket! A soldier's blanket is a thing of great consequence. You must send me the name of the man to whom it belongs, that it may be restored to him."
Bearers from the 92nd carried his stretcher down the rearward slope of the ridge, passing across the rear of their depleted, exhausted regiment. When the word was passed among them that the General was wounded, they all rose to their feet and lined the route the stretcher took to his tent. There, his wound was examined again by Dr. Green. He made a large incision to extract the ball, but could not find it, and advised that the General should be taken to the hospital ship without delay. Abercromby ordered his son to return to his duties, first reassuring him.
"Dinna be concerned, son. I shall soon be well."
He was embarked in one of the boats that were standing by to take off the wounded. He left the blanket behind for MacDonald to return, and set off on the twenty-mile passage to the fleet in Abuquir Bay.
Harper and Finnigan leaned against the parapet and looked at each other. They were both so blackened by powder residue that they looked like Negroes, and their uniforms had a fine layer of dust raised when French cannonballs had struck the earthworks. Neither could speak, they were both too exhausted. All around them, men of the 28th looked at each other in stunned fatigue, unable to believe that it was really over. Finnigan managed a weak smile. Harper returned it, and they clasped hands. They had taken the best the French could throw at them. And they were still on their feet. Harper mouthed a silent prayer for the soul of Captain Thompson, whose astonishing courage had made this victory possible.
By nightfall, almost all the dead were buried, including most of the French. On the following morning, the men of the 54th saw a dog lying out in front of their lines. It would not be driven away by the soldiers, and all through the night, it scraped at the ground and let out piteous howls. In the morning, a French prisoner told them that the dog's owner was a French captain who they had buried at that spot after the battle. For two days and nights, the dog stood guard over the grave, till a sergeant-major coaxed it away and adopted it. It eventually returned with its new master to England.