Today’s object is a pewter button in a rather poor condition. Any eagle eyed viewers may just, with a certain degree of ‘eye of faith,’ see the numbers 42 in the middle of it. This button was picked up on the battlefield of Alexandria after the Second World War and donated to the museum in 1952. Its age makes it one of the oldest pieces of uniform equipment we have in the Museum Collection.
The Battle of Alexandria was fought on the 21st March 1801 between the French under General Menou and the British, commanded by Sir Ralph Abercrombie. In 1798 the French Directorate, the French States Government, in charge after the French Revolution, decided to threaten Britain’s interests in India and the Mediterranean. The best way to do this was to land a force in Egypt, and as a result the Armee D’Orient was formed and shipped over. With Nelson’s victory over the French Fleet at the Battle of the Nile, 1st-3rd August 1798, L’Armee D’Orient was effectively stranded in Egypt. A British Expeditionary Force, under Sir Ralph Abercrombie, landed to combat this French threat, and the first battles, of Abukir and Mandora, occurred on the 8th and 13th of March 1801 respectively.
The decisive clash though was at Alexandria. The British were in an extended line with their flanks protected by the Roman ruins of Nicopolis on their right, and Abukir Lake on their left. At 3.30 am on the 21st the French launched a night assault on the British lines which came close to succeeding. The British outposts were driven in and a confused fight broke out in the Roman ruins. An attacking French column managed to get between two British regiments in the dark, but the 42nd realising what had happened, attacked this column in the flank and managed to capture a French standard or colour, a fragment of which is on display in the Black Watch Castle and Museum.
Having successfully repulsed the French infantry the British now found themselves under attack by cavalry, the 42nd in particular having a tough fight against a unit of Dragoons. It was at this point that Sir Ralph was mortally wounded by a cavalryman, but stayed on the battlefield, dying on the 28th of March.
By 8.30 in the morning the fighting at last began to slacken, and by 10 o’ clock it was all over. Some 14,000 British had been attacked by around 20,000 French, and had not only held their own, but by their devastating volley fire had smashed the attacking columns. For the French this was a taste of things to come. The British proved themselves able to take on the battle hardened French, and that their highly trained infantry had a battle winning weapon in their devastating volleys.
General Menou retreated towards Alexandria where, following a brief siege, he surrendered what was left of his forces on 30th August 1801. He was permitted to evacuate his force back to France, but had to surrender the Rosetta Stone to the British, this stone, written in three languages would provide the key to deciphering hieroglyphics. Having resumed a political career in France he was eventually appointed Governor of Venice in 1807, dying in that city some three years later.
As for Sir Ralph Abercrombie he was to die of his wounds aboard HMS Foudroyant a week after the battle. His friend The Duke of York was to write of him “His steady observance of discipline, his ever-watchful attention to the health and wants of his troops, the persevering and unconquerable spirit which marked his military career, the splendour of his actions in the field and the heroism of his death, are worthy the imitation of all who desire, like him, a life of heroism and a death of glory.”
The Black Watch were honoured for their capture of the standard by the award of a medal, designed by Benjamin West, which depicts a Black Watch Officer in the act of capturing the Colour. They were further honoured by the awarding of the magnificent Highland Society Vase, which can be seen, along with examples of the medal, in the museum.