This Day in History: 1800-03-08

Sir Ralph Abercromby’s expedition to eject the French from Egypt is launched with an amphibious assault at Aboukir Bay, near Alexandria. Just as their linear successors, the 1st South Lancashires, will be on the Normandy coast on D-Day 144 years later, the flank companies of the 40th Foot are in the first wave of boats, ordered to land at the point of greatest danger.  As they near the shore, they are “assailed with such a terrible shower of grape shot and langrage as was never before probably directed against so small a point.”

When they reach the beach, the 40th are the first ashore, and are immediately engaged by the French who are at the water’s edge to meet them. Lt Col Brent Spencer, Commanding the 40th, leaps onto the sand to be confronted by a French soldier who, at close range, takes deliberate aim. The Colonel appears to be at his mercy. “Spencer, however, was not the least dismayed; he immediately raised his cane, for he had not drawn his sword, and with eyes flashing ferociously he shook it at the Frenchman and called out in a thundering voice, ‘Oh, you scoundrel!’ Confronted by this awesome figure, the soldier took fright, shouldered his musket ‘with all possible expedition’, and ran away to join his comrades among the sand-hills”.

The whole assault is in danger of failing under the cannon-fire from a French post atop a high and very steep sand hill. Composed of soft sand, the hill is considered unclimbable. But Spencer and his 40th, together with the 23rd Foot, immediately rush it, with some clambering up on their hands and knees. At the top, they carry the entrenchment with a bayonet charge, routing 2 French battalions who “panic-struck by such intrepidity, precipitately retreated, leaving two pieces of cannon behind them.”

The whole action, from reaching the beach to the French retreat, lasts only about 20 minutes. Fortescue, the great historian of the British Army, will late sum up the landing as ‘perhaps the most skilful and daring operation of its kind that was ever attempted’ and add that ‘undoubtedly the storming of the high sand-hill was the most brilliant as it was the decisive moment of the day.’

In the long annals of ‘The Fighting Fortieth,’ it was a famous victory. Their direct successors, the South Lancashire Regiment, annually observed 8th March as ‘Aboukir Day’ until the outbreak of World War II.