An aquatint print depicting the scene as British boats neared the shore of Aboukir Bay on the 1st March 1801, during the Egyptian campaign.
The French had been considering the possibility of annexing Egypt for twenty years when in 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte proposed an expedition to achieve this objective. In May he sailed from Toulon with 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors, first to Malta and then to Alexandria.
In August 1799, after mixed fortunes, he returned to France. Later he created the myth that he was the man who saved the country in the midst of crisis. He left his army behind, however.
The British government saw the opportunity to defeat this abandoned and demoralised army and in 1800 despatched an expedition under the command of General Sir Ralph Abercromby. After several weeks had been spent at Marmorice Bay practicing landings, the British force and its naval support under Admiral Keith sailed for Egypt.
They reached Aboukir Bay on the 1st March 1801, although contrary weather conditions delayed the landings until the 8th. This gave the French plenty of time to prepare their defences.
What happened as the British boats neared the shore is captured in this contemporary aquatint and most vividly described in the eye-witness accounts of Daniel Nicol of the 92nd foot, and Captain Thomas Walsh of the 93rd.
‘The scene now became dreadful, the vessels pouring whole broad-sides, the bomb ketches throwing shells and the gunboats and cutters exerting themselves to the utmost.
All eyes were directed towards the boats and every flash of the enemy’s guns was noticed to see whether the shot struck the water or the boats, and when there was any confusion among them we wondered how many might be killed or wounded.’ [Nichol p.26]
Two boats were sunk, including ‘a flat, conveying part of the Coldstream guards, [which] was struck in the middle by a shell, which, bursting at the same instant, killed and dreadfully wounded numbers; the rest went to the bottom…Nothing, however, could dismay troops so brave. Surrounded by death in its most frightful shapes, their courage was not to be damped. Through a fire rendered doubly tremendous by the impossibility of resistance, we continued steadily to advance, cheering and huzzaing as if victory had already been in our grasp, though yet without the power of returning a single shot.’ [Walsh p.77]
Walsh, Thomas, Journal of the Late Campaign in Egypt [London 1803]
Nicol’s Journal can be found in With Napoleon at Waterloo, the collected papers of Edward Bruce Low [Bell & Son 1911]