Warning: Mature Adults only
PART III: ALEXANDRIA
Harper and Finnigan returned to camp on 14th August with the last of Moore's three battalions that had supervised the embarkation of the Cairo garrison. They found that reinforcements were pouring in. Three new battalions had arrived from England, four battalions from Minorca, one from Malta, and a regiment of French loyalists from Trieste.
They resumed the tedious, humdrum schedule of camp life, thankfully not so demanding now since the new arrivals. But things were happening. Coote had been pressing for a new front on the isthmus to the west of Alexandria, but Hutchinson, down with dysentery at Giza, had given him no answer. Rumors were still flying about a French task force somewhere in the Mediterranean, and Admiral Keith was understandably ill at ease. Supply trains were still taking the long way into Alexandria around the new Lake Mareotis, and although some were intercepted, some still got through. General Menou, upon hearing of Belliard's capitulation at Cairo, had flatly rejected Coote's offer of the same terms, saying it would be better to die. His army didn't quite see it that way.
Hutchinson, still sick, had arrived at Rosetta and then went aboard the Foudroyant. Coote had again sent an urgent request to be allowed to set up a new front on the westward approaches. Hutchinson had long thought that a direct assault on the Nicopolis Heights would be far too costly. He gave his consent, and starting on the 4th August, the army began to bring up bombardment materials from the lakeside artillery depots. Coote would make the assault with three brigades, while in the east, Hutchinson would start hauling up siege guns, digging trenches and parallel approaches to the heights, forcing Menou to use precious soldiers to defend them.
The arrival of Moore's troops was the signal for the new assault to begin. Admiral Keith had moved twenty-six shallow draft vessels armed with twelve and twenty-four pounders into Lake Mareotis. On the night of the 16th, Coote's force, some four thousand men, embarked in nearly three hundred boats with their escort.
At dawn the next day, a new assault was opened on the outlying French positions around the Nicopolis heights. Its aim was to prevent Menou from moving any forces west to oppose Coote's landing. On the left wing, Craddock was to move forward and seize the Green Hill, which still wasn't green. On the right, Moore's division would drive in the enemy's pickets and seize a small sandhill some nine hundred yards in front of the French entrenchments. Because of its shape, the British called it the Sugar Loaf.
Harper and Finnigan, and the rest of the troops, assembled during darkness in front of their entrenchments, and half an hour before daylight, they began their advance. Harper could hear scattered musketry ahead, and see the flashes in the pre-dawn dimness. The Corsicans had encountered the French pickets, and soon the column would come up on them. Marching through the darkness with his musket poised, he fleetingly thought how ironic it would be if he had recovered his eyesight, just to die this morning, in what was probably the last assault of the campaign. He quickly put the unlucky thought out of his mind and convinced himself that he could not be hit as long as he didn't think about getting hit.
As dawn was breaking, so were the French pickets, running back to the heights. Moore's force pushed forward up the slope of the Sugar Loaf and waited below its crest. In the growing light, the French saw them and began to pour a heavy crossfire down on them. Harper and Finnigan crouched down as sand from the blasts rained over them. Their eyes met and they simultaneously shrugged. They had been through this before. There was nothing for it but to wait. The sandhill was too small to provide much cover, and too exposed if the French counterattacked. Already, Moore could see a blue column forming on the heights. As planned, he withdrew his troops back about halfway to their starting line. He had gotten Menou's attention. As they withdrew, Harper grumbled.
"But at least we're not under the guns anymore."
They began to entrench on their new line. Harper had never done so much digging in his life. His training in the marines hadn't warned him about this.
"What did they tell you in the marines? Fight for the honor of your country? Prize money? Did they forget to mention digging like a bloody mole every day?"
"Would you have signed up if they had?" asked Finnigan.
But on the left, the 30th and 50th battalions, led by Colonel Spencer, had occupied the Green Hill, and they had adequate cover and planned to stay. They cleared two small redoubts first built by the French. Now that the Sugar Loaf had been evacuated, the enemy diverted their counterattack at this column. Five hundred grenadiers pushed forward an attack, with drums beating and colors flying, right into the teeth of one devastating British volley after another, followed by a bayonet charge. The French broke and ran, losing a number of men.
That afternoon, Spencer's men began to dig a battery on Green Hill, overlooking the enemy's batteries on the heights of Nicopolis. They pushed regular siege works forward to a first parallel resting on the sea and defended on both flanks by redoubts. By next morning, a two-gun battery and communications trench were under way. But still, Moore had his doubts. Those were damned formidable defenses up there. He had the trenches widened and deepened and the battery reconstructed.
He hoped that Coote was doing well.
He was not, at least at first. A change of wind during the night had driven more than half his vessels to leeward. By the time he had collected them, about ten in the morning, the French had assembled several hundred infantry and a pair of guns to oppose his landings. Coote had his armed launches pin them in place while the boats carrying the troops landed two miles further south.
The ground was different from the sand and palm groves to the east of Alexandria. This isthmus was of jagged limestone, treeless, barren, split by deep ravines and quarries; with no sand underfoot, only a fine white dust everywhere. The width of the isthmus varied from about two miles to only a thousand yards, and there were narrow roads along each side. The first objective was the capture of Fort Marabout, which guarded the long lagoon called the Old Harbor.
The troops quickly came ashore. One battalion remained on the beach to handle the stores and guns, while the remainder formed a defensive perimeter, facing north and east, to cover their unloading. Five battalions worked in rotation over the next day and night, hauling the cannon and dragging the stores across the ravines and quarries of the ridge, in the heat of the August day and through the frigid night. Fortunately, they had found plenty of fresh water in the plain beyond the ridge.
At five in the afternoon, the day after the landing, Coote was ready to attack Marabout. The fort was seated on a rocky peninsula, separated from the mainland by a submerged reef. On the landward side, a high rock commanded the island. Coote moved his force to within a mile and a half to the east, leading with the 1/54th. Two twelve-pounders and a pair of eight-inch howitzers were maneuvered with immense effort over the quarried ridge. At daybreak on the 19th, the guns were in place and the bombardment began. By seven o'clock that morning, they had sunk two gunboats and sent the third limping off to Alexandria. But their guns made no impression on the fort's solid masonry. It would take the heavies for that.
The bombardment fell silent to wait for them, and the infantry took over the siege. Coote positioned his sharpshooters on the heights. The French cannon were on open platforms firing over parapets without embrasures; and the light troops of the 54th picked the gunners off until the rest of the crews ran for cover. Soon, not a French head was seen above the parapet.
In the meantime, four British battalions had been ferried over from east of Alexandria to provide the labor needed. Of course, Harper and Finnigan got nabbed for the job. Throughout all of the 20th, he and Finnigan toiled like slaves, along with hundreds of others, hauling two twenty-four pounders across the precipice from the lake. Harper paused and slackened his rope a little, while some engineers fitted blocks under the gun's wheels. Finnigan also stopped, mopping his brow.
"Ah yes, join the marines, see the world, fight gloriously for His Majesty! They somehow forgot to mention hauling bloody great guns around like a bloody great ox."
Harper couldn't resist. "Would you have joined up if they'd told you?"
They fell to again with all the rest. The guns were finally in battery position that night. As the sun rose, Harper and Finnigan climbed the ridge to watch the show. The British gunners, as usual, were right on target. The first shot struck the fort's tower about four feet above the ground.
"Good shooting," Harper commented.
"What do you expect?" said Finnigan. "They didn't spend all of yesterday lugging those things up here. Give me the day to sit on my arse and I could shoot as well as any man's son of them."
Each succeeding shot struck the same spot, smashing a larger and larger hole in the masonry, till around noon, the whole tower collapsed with a tremendous crash, filling the ditch and spilling out, burying some British supplies and one of the twenty-four pounders as its crew ran. By the evening, the garrison had abandoned all of their fire positions and were sheltering among the rocks on the far side of the fortress. Coote prepared four companies of the 54th for the assault, and then sent the French commander a demand for his surrender. He immediately complied, and the hundred-sixty-eight men of the garrison went into captivity without complaint.
Now the Old Harbor was open to British and Turkish ships, which could support the army's left flank. At daybreak, Coote advanced. The first French line of defense, twelve hundred men supported by heavy batteries on the flanks and field artillery to the front, was about two miles to the east. The isthmus was only a mile wide, and was broken by a ravine. The British advanced with the precision of a parade, with a strong line of skirmishers in front and six field guns that frequently unlimbered to cannonade the enemy. On both flanks, the flotilla of gunboats and armed launches kept pace with the troops, adding to the bombardment. The smoke of their cannon drifted across the harbor and lake. The skirmishers and their supporting columns advanced confidently in the morning sun, driving back the enemy's pickets with non-stop fire.
The French did not wait to receive the assault. They withdrew, abandoning their heavy guns, and formed a new line on a ridge to the rear, and from there they maintained a galling fire of grape and musketry. Coote was right out in front, looking for the best route as the skirmishers overran the French camp and baggage. Down by the harbor, the 26th Dragoons charged a squad of French chaussers, only to find themselves faced with a line of infantry behind them. It was a perfect set-up for an ambush, but the French just fired a single volley that hit no one, and then the cavalry was among them; slashing with their sabers and taking prisoners. The French lost some two hundred men and seven guns; the British had only three casualties. The famed ilan de la Republique had faded away, the French simply had no spirit left. They kept up a heavy skirmish fire, though, but the British made skillful use of the land's natural cover to avoid needless losses.
Coote had rushed over four miles that day, and overrun all the French forward positions. He was now within fourteen hundred yards of the first main defensive work, the Fort de Bains. It was only late morning. But the siege guns had not come up, and it would take days before they arrived. So Coote took up a position within cannon shot of the fort, looking down on the crumbling city walls, the shipping in the harbor, and the bustling around the quays. There was no fresh water near this new position, so it had to be hauled from the previous night's camp, four miles to the rear. Everyone was hot, dusty, and savoring the taste of certain victory.
When Hutchinson received word of Coote's quick advance and exposed forward position, he knew he had to take action. For the past few days, he had seen signs that the French were thinning out their position on the Nicopolis heights for a counterstroke against Coote. He had to be reinforced, and pressure brought to bear on Menou's eastern sector. Hutchinson ordered the 6th Brigade to embark and join Coote. By they would not be ready to leave until nightfall, so a diversion had to be mounted quickly to hold the enemy until Coote was reinforced.
On the morning of the 23rd August, before daybreak, he attacked with Moore and Craddock's forces, driving in the French pickets up the heights of Nicopolis and getting inside the safety of the dead angle of the enemy guns. The French beat to arms and launched a thunderous cannonade that landed harmlessly in the empty plain below them. Harper and Finnigan crouched against the sandstone face, watching the muzzle flashes over their heads.
"A fine fireworks show," said Harper. "Is it Guy Fawkes Day, I wonder?"
"Just hope they don't burn you in effigy, boyo," answered Finnigan.
"Effigy?" wondered Harper. "That's just outside of Cork, isn't it?"
When daylight came, they braced for an infantry attack, but none came. They passed a sweltering day at the base of the heights, and then withdrew back to their own lines. The French, alerted to a possible second attack on the heights, ceased withdrawing their garrison.
Coote's men spent all of the 24th in the stupendous effort of bringing up the heavy cannon. On the morning of the 25th, four twenty-four pounders and four mortars were in bombarding positions. But the bombardment was a failure. The gun platforms were badly constructed and soon began to collapse, and at fourteen hundred yards, the range was still too great to make a breach in the fort's walls. Coote decided to seize a ridge eight hundred yards to his front. A French outpost of one hundred men held it. The 20th battalion got the job of taking it from them. That night, they advanced in column along the base of the ridge. Their muskets were unloaded, so no one would accidentally fire and give the game away. They bypassed the ridge and then wheeled left into the high ground behind the outpost, then charged down with the bayonet. Surprised and surrounded, the French fired a few shots and tried to retreat, but there was no place to go, and they were all bayoneted or captured.
Later that night, the French counterattacked with a thousand men. There was a confused night battle, with flashes of cannon and musketry in the dark. But the 20th held on until the rest of the army came up in support, and after an hour's fighting, the French gave up and withdrew beyond the Fort de Bains. Every indication was that the French were almost finished. The prisoners that Coote took all told the same story; they were sick of this country and had no desire to die for it, were exhausted from non-stop siege duties, and just wanted to go home.
On the morning of the 26th, Coote pushed his approach trenches forward, and erected two more strong batteries. He would complete the first parallel that night, and thirty cannons, howitzers, and mortars would be ready to open the bombardment come next morning. Meanwhile, Hutchinson kept up a pressure on the heights of Nicopolis, concentrating his fire on a redoubt covering the canal bridge and on the right hand battery of the French line. He soon silenced both.
And at about half past four that afternoon, a French aide-de-camp rode out to Coote's outpost under a flag of truce. Blindfolded and led into the British lines, he asked for a three-day truce to draw up terms of surrender. At the same moment, an identical proposal was being made to Hutchinson. White flags were hoisted, and both sides at once ceased fire.
For three days, nothing more was heard from Menou. Then on the 29th, eight hours before the cease-fire was to end, a second aide-de-camp rode into Hutchinson's lines. He now proposed a thirty-six hour extension to the truce, at which time, Menou would be willing to receive the British peace delegation to discuss terms. Hutchinson's patience was at an end. He informed the Frenchman that if Menou did not settle by midnight, he would resume firing, and Coote would do the same.
Time crawled by, and at nine o'clock, the aide-de-camp returned with Menou's promise that he would present his surrender proposal by two o'clock the following afternoon. Hutchinson conceded the extra time. But on the afternoon of the 30th, the terms that Menou proposed were outrageous; he and his troops would be returned to France with their ships, their artillery, all public property requisitioned from Egypt, and most audacious of all, that the cease-fire should be extended an extra nineteen days until 17th September. Until that date, Menou would be free to resume hostilities if reinforcements reached him.
It would have been laughable if Hutchinson were in a laughing mood. He quickly amended the terms. The French would surrender immediately and embark within two weeks, taking with them their personal arms, private property, and ten pieces of artillery. All shipping and Egyptian property would be turned over to the British army. If these terms, without alteration, were not agreed to immediately, he would re-open fire.
Jacques Abdullah Menou wearily looked at the terms of surrender that his aide-de-camp had delivered to him, and realized that he had no more room to maneuver. His defenses were still strong, virtually impregnable on the Nicopolis heights, and extremely tough here in the west. He could hold out for at least two more weeks, until his forward field works and forts had been overrun, then till his interior defenses were taken or breached, till the Arab walls had been forced, Forts Cretin and Cafferelli taken, and a practical breach made in the strong inner defense line that barred the way to the new town on the isthmus. He had enough rice for a month, and if he butchered the horses, enough meat for twice that long.
But what would be the point? No help was coming from France, and deep down inside, he knew that. His soldiers were exhausted and demoralized. Many were sick with scurvy, dysentery and bad water, and they were totally spent from night after night of standing under arms, constantly repairing the walls so the English cannons could knock them down again. They were in no mood to resist to the end and be slaughtered as they had slaughtered the Turks at Jaffa. And his generals were against any further resistance. They had simply had enough.
He ran his hand lovingly over the walls of Alexandria. His wonderful Colony of Egypt, France in the Orient, was at an end.
He told his aide-de-camp to deliver a message to General Hutchinson that his terms were accepted. They were the same terms that General Kleber had negotiated. Only now it was several thousand deaths later.
On the following day, General Hope entered Alexandria to sign the capitulation. He accepted Menou's invitation to dine. The main course was roasted horsemeat.
That morning, at eleven o'clock, Moore and Craddock's forces, with Hutchinson at their head, marched forward to take possession of the Nicopolis heights, with drums beating and colors flying in the sunshine. When he got to the top, Harper was glad they'd never had to storm the place; the butcher's bill would have been horrendous. Finnigan agreed.
The band struck up "The Grenadier's March."
The sound of the music suddenly made Harper feel like the past five month's labor had all been worth it.
It was finally over.
Tomorrow they would march into Alexandria.