Egypt 1801: The End of Napoleon’s Eastern Empire
Pen and Sword (Frontline, 2021)
Hardback, 248 pages
Illustrations: 16 colour plates
It is a brave historian who tackles the subject of Britain’s campaign in Egypt in the closing months of the French Revolutionary Wars. Although first published nearly four decades ago, Piers Mackesy’s British Victory in Egypt remains the definitive study and is readily available in paperback. More recently, Carole Divall has written a biography of the expedition’s commander, Lieutenant General Sir Ralph Abercromby (Pen and Sword, 2019) and a study of his army (Helion, 2018). One might reasonably ask, therefore, what another book on the same topic has to offer. The answer in fact, is quite a lot, although there is also inevitably a lot of ground that needs to be covered for the sake of the story but where the author does not add anything inherently original to the narrative.
The opening chapter sets the scene by reviewing the Mediterranean campaign from the sailing of Bonaparte’s Armée d’Orient up to the allied recapture of Malta. We are then introduced to Sir Ralph Abercromby and the growing army under his command, reviewing its formation, the experience or otherwise of its commander and his staff, and the abortive combined operation against Cadiz which, to steal a phrase, at least showed how not to do it. This experience was then put to good use for the successful assault landing at Aboukir Bay on 8 March 1801. Although the focus of the book is on the British forces, these introductory chapters also provide a succinct overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the French forces in Egypt so as to put the battle-narratives that follow into their proper context.
It is these battle narratives too, that form the strongest portion of the narrative, for it is here that Reid shows that he does still have something new to say both in terms of his sources – using French accounts and the contemporary cartography of Captain Thomas Walsh to reconstruct the course of the actions at Mandara and Canope/Alexandria in some detail – and his analysis of them. This enables him to synthesise accounts from both sides of the battlefield and work out exactly who was fighting who and where; not an easy task with much of the action having taken place in darkness. These three chapters take up over 40 pages and provide the core of the book’s content. The narrative then continues through to the desert operations leading up to the fall of Cairo (nothing here that is especially new, but a clear and easy-to-follow account) and then back to Alexandria for the final surrender. The role of Turkish forces, and the difficulty in achieving cooperation with them, are emphasised throughout and the whole narrative is liberally sprinkled with well-chosen extracts from eyewitness accounts.
The above content takes us up to page 148; just under 100 further pages are given over to appendices, copious notes, bibliography, and index. Appendices include a detailed overview of the opposing forces at the outset of the campaign (to supplement orders of battle scattered throughout the main text), uniform details for the British, East India Company, and French forces, and a compilation of strength returns for the various forces. Sixteen pages of colour allow the inclusion of a selection of images, including two excellent plates by Bob Morrison and some rather more naïve figures produced by the author (which do, however, provide all the necessary details of the uniforms depicted and are better by a sight than any scrawl that this reviewer could produce, so let us not be too sniffy!). The remaining images are a mixture of the usual suspects from the public domain and a single re-enactment reconstruction.
As noted, the book’s strengths are its clear and concise narrative and its intelligent reappraisal of the main field actions of the campaign. It is not, however, without its faults although most of these relate to the structure of the book rather than the contents. The only significant failing with the text itself (leaving aside an annoying inconsistency regarding French unit designations that will irritate the pedant but does not harm the reader’s understanding of the narrative) is that in its otherwise-commendable reliance on primary sources it fails to engage with any of the scholarship that has gone before it. This is particularly telling with respect to Reid’s analysis of the two main British commanders; Abercromby himself, and Major General John Hely Hutchinson who succeeded him. Since Reid is rather more scathing about the former, and sympathetic to the latter, than his predecessors it would have been helpful to have seen that analysis placed in some sort of historiographical context. Does he reject Divall’s more sympathetic take on Abercromby, or, since neither of that author’s relevant works feature in the bibliography, is he not aware of it?
As an aside regarding the bibliography, this for some reason fails to list the majority of the archival material used for the work, for details of which one must consult the specific citations. This, however, brings us to the main structural failings of the book, which is that the citations are contained within endnotes that also contain a great deal of supplementary information relevant to the main narrative. These notes take up no less than 38 pages, or 16 per cent of the total page count exclusive of index and front matter. Although a handful of these notes are simple one-line citations, the majority of them contain details and analysis (supporting quotations, explanations of terms, biographical notes, comparison of sources) that really deserve to be in the main text, or at the very least in page footnotes so that they can be more readily consulted. The need to flick back and forth if one wants to appreciate the full range of Reid’s research and analysis significantly mars the reading experience, but if one is prepared to put up with this then the book should form a useful addition to the library of anyone with an interest in this campaign.