Sir Ralph Abercromby was the most successful British general of the French Revolutionary Wars, admittedly not a period that saw the British army at its best. He was born into the Scottish gentry in 1734, and studied civil law at Leipzig before purchasing a commission in the army in 1756. He served in the 3rd Dragoon Guards during the Seven Years War, and began an admirer of Frederick the Great of Prussia. He did not serve during the American War of Independence, as he had some sympathy with the cause of the colonists. In 1783 he retired from the army, and ended Parliament as the MP for Clackmannanshire.
He returned to the army at the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in 1793 and was soon sent to the continent, as part of the Duke of York’s expedition to the Netherlands. There he commanded the attempt to recapture Boxtel on 16 September 1794, which nearly ended in a rout, but generally enhanced his reputation.
In the autumn of 1795 he was appointed to command a new expedition being sent to the West Indies. He was given 15,000 men and the support of a naval squadron, and orders to capture parts of the French and Spanish empires in the islands. He arrived in the West Indies in April 1796. He soon recaptured St. Lucia, and went on to take St. Vincent and Grenada in June 1796. Before his return to Britain in 1797 he also captured Demerara and Trinidad, although San Domingue and Guadeloupe remained in French hands.
On his return to Britain, Abercromby was appointed commander-in-chief in Ireland, but resigned after a short frustrating period in charge, leaving before the outbreak of the 1798 Irish revolt. He took part in the unsuccessful 1799 expedition to the Netherlands, and again emerged with his reputation enhanced.
In May 1800 he was appointed to command the only active British army, 20,000 men who were to be sent to the Mediterranean. This expedition attempted to surprise the Spanish naval base at Cadiz, before ending the French occupation of Malta in September 1800. In the following month it was decided to use Abercromby’s army to expel the French from Egypt.
Abercromby’s force was to be one of three involved in the invasion of Egypt. It would land on the Egyptian coast, and advance on Alexandria. A second British army, from India, was to land on the Red Sea coast and march down to Nile to Cairo, and a large Ottoman army, commanded by the Grand Vizier, was to invade through Palestine.
Abercromby’s force moved first, landing on Aboukir Bay. The French were defeated close to the shore (second battle of Aboukir, 8 March 1801), and again at Mandora (13 March), before the British approached Alexandria. On 21 March Abercromby’s army defeated an attack by the French columns (battle of Alexandria or of Canopus), splitting the French garrison of Egypt in half. Abercromby himself was fatally wounded towards the end of the battle, dying on a British warship one week later. In a period that had seen British armies suffer a series of often embarrassing defeats, Abercromby had provided most of the few British victories on land.
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