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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Battles and Campaigns

Napoleon at Chobrakit



Napoleon in Egypt: The Battle of Chobrakit

Bob Brier, Long Island University
Mary Mendenhall Wood, Merion, Pennsylvania

The Napoleonic expedition to Egypt was a turning point in history for several reasons. Culturally it opened East to West. The East had grown somnolent compared to the more progressive West, the reverse of the Crusader period when sleepy Europe learned from aggressive East. Militarily, it was the first encounter of a professional, trained, modern European army with an Eastern military force. Military historians have pointed to the Battle of the Pyramids as the meeting that established the superiority of western over eastern military tactics, but this is not quite correct.

More than a week before the Battle of the Pyramids, Bonaparte fought a significant battle against the Mamelukes at a village north of Cairo, and it was here that tactics were tested, superiority established, and the inevitable outcome of the Battle of the Pyramids prefigured. The truly crucial battle fought in Egypt was the Battle of Chobrakit.

By mid summer, 1798, it was known that Bonaparte was in North Africa, but why? The man on the street in Paris could only try to guess the reason for French soldiers entering Egypt. Was it an attempt to block or usurp the British trade route to India? [1] Was it a substitute for the cherished plan to invade England, [2] or was it to rid the Directoire in Paris of the ambitious Napoleon? Some said there were secret plans to build a canal linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Perhaps it was just a diversion, something to occupy unemployed soldiers fresh from the successful Italian campaigns, especially since their promised reward of a thousand million livres simply was not available.

Because Napoleon idolized Alexander the Great, there may have been subliminal forces at work. In 332 BC Alexander was welcomed in Egypt as a deliverer from foreign occupation; he was 24 years old. Napoleon was already 28, a bit behind Alexander's schedule, but with a huge imported force perhaps he could catch up, subdue not only Egypt, but Jerusalem and Syria, even Constantinople and eventually India too, all propelled from his base in North Africa. He wrote the Directoire from Milan on August 16, 1797, that the French could dominate the Mediterranean with little threat from the fading Ottoman Empire; "let us occupy Egypt," he said, "...we would have the direct route to India." [3] Before he left Italy, then under his domination, he demanded from the library of Milan all books about Egypt, Syria, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, etc. [4] With his mind already in the Middle East, he arranged to have Arabic type, printers, interpreters found and hired away from the Vatican and Rome. [5]

To deflect opposition from the titular rulers of Egypt, warm assurances were drafted for presentation to the Grand-Seigneur in Constantinople, erstwhile friend of France, who presided over the Ottoman Empire and had possessed Egypt since 1517. The whole purpose of the invasion of Egypt, Napoleon wrote, was to punish the upstart Mamelukes and their governors the beys, once servants of the Sultan but now rich from tribute diverted to themselves. The French would restore to the Grand-Seigneur not only his rightful powers but the purloined wealth. [6] Foreign Minister Talleyrand was to sail to Constantinople to explain to the Sultan that General Bonaparte meant only to help an old ally who had lost control of Egypt to unmanageable mercenaries. But the foreign minister delayed his trip to Turkey too long. The Turks of the Sublime Porte on the Bosporous failed to hear of France's high resolve on their behalf until it was too late to object. When informed of the French presence in North Africa, the Sultan judged it an egregious invasion of his territory and a state of war was declared.

Before any hint of this massive plan to enter Egypt could be whispered in the ports around the Mediterranean Sea, the French quietly helped themselves to captured naval stores and arsenals in Italy as well as ships for transport. Bonaparte surreptitiously directed the collection of people, ships, arms and supplies. [7] He personally chose medical doctors, recruited artisans and skilled technicians, and invited scholars, men of science and artists to join the great adventure, all in secrecy, though many may have known the game afoot. Napoleon was particularly proud of the 164 men of learning [8] persuaded to come along. Conquests come and go but digging into mysteries both ancient and modern was a project of lasting worth. This part he got right. When it was all over, and Egypt was merely a bad, sad memory, it was these scholars who produced the only compensation for the lives and materiel lost in the sands of Africa -the great memoire of the Egypt adventure, the Description de l'Égypte, a massive, beautifully illustrated many-volume work with exquisite engravings of pharaonic ruins, drawings of practically all aspects of Egyptian life -antiquités, état moderne et histoire naturelle - plus written observations of life lived along the Nile. This work, published over a number of years, set ablaze the mania for Egypt that persists today.

On July 1, 1798, Napoleon aboard the flagship L'Orient, arrived off Alexandria. On shore the people "when they looked at the horizon could no longer see water but only sky and ships ...[and] were seized by unimaginable terror."[9] Most of the European soldiers had no clear idea where they were, but hoped to discover a land of plenty and plenty of land in a sunny place parts of which, once conquered, would ultimately be shared among them. Bonaparte, just before departure from Toulon, made a speech which he concluded by promising each individual of his army six acres of land. [10] Even knowledgeable folk aboard the ships pictured Egypt as a fair but ancient country "where vegetation is unbelievably lush and luxuriant and where flourish together the richest products of the four quarters of the world" as was quoted in the Salle des Seances in Paris (July 16, 1798) before actual reports arrived. [11] Once they saw the coast, however, the desolate limitless desert depressed the Europeans, and soldiers cracked bitter jokes about which six acres each one would have. Nevertheless all were vastly relieved to plant their boots on even the shiftiest of sand and leave behind the smelly ships where food and water were growing scarce or going bad. But the landing was not easy.


Principle Market, Alexandria
(Descr. de l'Egypte)

The French convoy was obliged to anchor well off-shore. Ships drew too much water to enter either the Old Port or the New Port of Alexandria. Bonaparte urged navy chief Admiral Brueys to offer 10,000 francs to any native pilot who could bring the ships inside the Old Port but not one was found. Not just shallow water, but rocks, ruins and neglect made the harbors hazardous.

Smaller boats loaded with men were sent ashore to a place called Marabout, a league and a half to the west of Alexandria. [12] The weather was stormy and the water rough, but landings went on all night. Twenty soldiers drowned. The fear was that the English fleet, known to be in the vicinity, would appear at any moment. Just as Bonaparte and officers of the general staff came off the flagship in a Maltese galley and the chaotic scramble into small boats was at its worst, a sail was sighted far out on the sea and a howl went up, "The English!" From Bonaparte came the agonzied response: "Fortune, would you abandon me?" Fortune took pity. Napoleon's "star" in which he trusted and to which he often referred, still beamed upon him; the ship was a laggard French vessel, not English. [13]

Tower at Marabout

Tower at Marabout where the initiasl embarkation took place
(Descr. de l'Egypte)

Ashore with Bonaparte came some of his favorite officers but as yet no horses. In the hours before dawn, more than 4000 foot soldiers formed in three columns: General Jean-Bapiste Kléber, leading 1000 men, General Jacques Menou with 1800, and General Bon with 1500. Scouts began to lead the way toward Alexandria. It was still dark, walking was difficult; sea legs on an unknown shore had trouble in the sand and hummocks of parched grass. General Louis Cafarelli du Falga with his wooden leg marched along resolutely. Just a half hour before daylight the advance guard was attacked by a party of Arab horsemen and a man was killed, shots were exchanged in the dark, and the raiders galloped off into the desert. [14] Within the hour the French reached Alexandria and the great adventure began.

Napoleon at Chobrakit

On July 13, 1798, the French army of 30,000 men [15] plus wives, sailors and scholars, with Napoleon as commander-in-chief, found themselves together on the west bank of the Nile still many days' march from Cairo. The place of gathering was a village named Rahmanieh. How they managed to get even this third of the way to Cairo is a painful story, with tragic episodes along the way; nevertheless this huge military community was gathered together for the first time after weeks of sailing the Mediterranean, after a chaotic disembarkation at Alexandria and a week long stumble through blistering desert, some half starved, some already barefoot, a few sick from too much watermelon, and no one quite sure of the reasons for this strange assignment.

Napoleon himself could have explained his invasion of a peaceful land by citing at least a dozen excuses. But what he advertised widely in printed leaflets distributed to a primarily illiterate population, read by a few Copts and sheikhs, was that his mission was to rid the land of Mamelukes, the warrior class who lived like princes off the labor of the very poor Egyptian peasants, and who abused the European merchants by extortion of wealth and outright physical damage. "Mamelukes" means "bought men" in Arabic. They were purchased as boys usually from Christian families in various parts of Asia and raised as Moslems, were trained warriors, and had ruled Egypt since the 13th century. They exercised political control in Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517 when the Ottoman empire came into being. But not very much changed under the rule of Constantinople's sultan, and the beys, local overlords risen from the ranks of the Mamelukes, perpetuated exploitation of the farmers and laborers by means of the glittering, armed and deadly dangerous horsemen, the Mamelukes themselves. Estimates of their numbers in Egypt ranged from eight to ten thousand when the French arrived. [16]

Mourad Bey

Mourad Bey - Chief of Napoleon's first adversaries, the Mamelukes
(Descr. de l'Egypte)

Many leagues up the Nile from the village of Rahmanieh where Bonaparte's army was recovering its vitality, two powerful overlords, Ibrahim Bey and Mourad Bey, who had co-managed Lower Egypt for years and exacted tribute for their own benefit, received frequent reports of what was happening. Ibrahim, the more pacific of the two, lived in Cairo, and Mourad, the militant, lived in Giza. These two governed in fact while the Ottoman Empire's representative, the Pasha, titular ruler of Egypt, played a lesser role. Ibrahim upon learning that Bonaparte intended to avenge the "insults" levied upon the French merchants, furiously accused Mourad of creating the troubles and bringing down such wrath upon Egypt and in effect said, "You caused this crisis, now you deal with it." So it was Mourad Bey whom Napoleon must face if he would occupy Cairo. [17] This tall, scarred Circassian with his great turban and beard gathered reports from spies that a huge army was bearing down upon him. He professed, however, to fear nothing and to trust in Allah and the skill of his horsemen to chase the interlopers back to their ships. His scouts gleefully reported the agonies of the European footsoldiers struggling through the sand, parched for water, beset by Bedouins, tortured by the July heat. Mourad was told about the suicides, the ophthalmia in the fierce sun, and the need for food. As for the sheer military might of the French, only cavalry would impress the Mamelukes of Mourad Bey, and this branch of the French army was weak, with horses the worse for a long rough sea trip and meager forage.

Beach near Alexandria

French troops drilling on the beach near Alexandria
(Descr. de l'Egypte)

With such an army in tow as he had, Napoleon, for all his diminutive size, youth, and unimpressive uniform, remained in control to an amazing degree. As usual he was in a hurry. He wanted to move the divisions to Cairo before the adversaries could make defensive preparations or empty that city of provisions, so General Desaix and his men had been sent marching out of Alexandria almost immediately after their arrival. Had they spent a day or so longer they might have learned of the barren and waterless terrain ahead. Within days two more divisions followed Desaix. Bonaparte himself lingered a few days in Alexandria to make sure pacification was complete. General Kléber, recuperating from wounds received in the short, intense fight to capture Alexandria, was left in command of the city.

Beach near Alexandria

The Arab Keli house, 18th century, in Rosetta (today, Rashd) standing in Napoleon's time

Napoleon sent a fourth division some miles east to capture Rosetta at the nearer mouth of the Nile, and arranged for a flotilla of shallow-draft vessels to enter the Nile and prepare to meet and support the rest of the Army upstream. The division assigned to win Rosetta's surrender was temporarily commanded by General Dugua in place of General Menou, who, like Kléber, was recuperating from wounds received in taking Alexandria. Dugua, encouraged by the town of Rosetta's reasonable response to Napoleon's assurances not to harm the townspeople nor change the religion, quickly settled a detachment to govern the town, then marched from Rosetta to join the commander in chief and the three divisions marching from Alexandria on a short cut to the Nile which crossed some farmland and a hot, dry piece of the Sahara desert.

Fields along the Nile

Fields along the Nile at Ramanieh where Napoleon's men gathered on the way to Cairo

By cutting southeast from Alexandria, Napoleon sent three divisions to the Nile by what had appeared a viable route along a major canal linking Alexandria and the river. That the canal was dry came as a surprise; the great annual inundation had not yet begun. Villages, supposed to provide food and bread, were either abandoned or temporarily deserted; rarely was there drinkable water in the wells. Among the thousands of items shipped with the army to Egypt, water canteens were not included, nor were mobile water tanks. The 30,000 exhausted, malnourished, thirsty, desperate Frenchmen stumbled toward the gathering place on the Nile, some having perished on the way, some having been murdered by Bedouins, some having shot themselves. When these survivors, after slogging fifty miles through hell, at last caught sight of the big river, many rushed forward and threw themselves fully clothed into the water. All drank their fill. Finally, as General Berthier wrote later, "the drum recalled them to their flags." Order was restored with difficulty, camps were established and officers regulated how many could bathe in the Nile at one time. Not only was abundant water now available but a field of ripe watermelons was discovered nearby; just what a hungry, thirsty man needed. Watermelons were in fact principal food for the troops all along the route to Cairo. Of those who survived the Egyptian campaigns, few forgot their debt to those melons. True, some suffered intestinal problems, and the medical staff tried to warn that pumpkins and watermelon should be cooked before eating, but who ever cooked watermelon?

The 10th of July Bonaparte wrote to General Dugua who was still approaching the rendez-vous point from Rosetta, saying:

"General Desaix had, this morning, a scuffle with a thousand mounted Mamelukes. [Others judged the number to be about 300.] They did not appear to be very capable. They had a dozen or so horses killed and several men. I am only awaiting your arrival and that of the gunboats to begin the grand march on Cairo. I expect that will happen tomorrow morning. Write to citizen PerrÈe [commanding the supporting flotilla] that, if he is late, he will become useless to us. Also write for them to hurry the arrival of the boats loaded with cartridges and artillery." [18]

General Louis-Charles-Antoine Desaix de Veygoux (b. Aug. 17, 1768) was almost exactly one year older than 28-year old Napoleon (b. Aug. 15, 1769). A man of ability and initiative, he was used by Napoleon as his advance man, a spearhead to push into unknown situations. He it was who later doggedly pursued Mourad Bey all through Upper Egypt for months while protecting Vivant Denon, the artist, who traveled with the army to visit and sketch the pharaonic monuments. Desaix was a soldier's soldier who revealed little of his own emotional climate. After Napoleon returned to Europe in 1799, he sent to Egypt for Desaix to come and join him in renewed Italian campaigns. In Italy, Desaix, age 31, was killed at the Battle of Marengo at almost the same instant General Kléber, age 47, whom Napoleon left in command of the Egyptian army, was assassinated in Cairo, June 14, 1800; if relative merit can be assessed, those two generals -Desaix and Kléber- were the stars of the Egyptian campaigns.

Map of the Delta

Map of the Delta, Egypt

While encamped around Rahmanieh Bonaparte ordered detachments of infantry out into villages on both sides of the Nile to gather something to eat. Some meat, vegetables and beans came in, Perrée and his flotilla were bringing rice from Rosetta, but flour for bread was still unobtainable. Heaps of wheat were everywhere but there were no flour mills. According to Monsieur de Chabrol, one of the savants who made a study of Egyptian diet, the fellahin [peasants] regarded bread -as the French knew it- as a luxury only for the rich. [19] Chabrol further explained the lack as resulting probably from scarcity of combustibles for baking plus sheer laziness. The commander-in-chief was careful to order portable rations distributed to suffice for two days, most of which was a pound of beans per man, camel-drivers included. Butchers, traveling with divisions, could slaughter cows or buffaloes if they could be found; but wary villagers had driven the animals into hiding to protect them.

Orders were issued against firing weapons in camp to avoid false alarms and to conserve munitions; valuable horses had already been stampeded out of camp one night when shots were fired. A shortage of wad-pullers used in cleaning guns [20] made it necessary to discharge some arms, in which case the corps chiefs were ordered to gather the men and shoot all at once. Bonaparte repeated admonitions to treat villagers as friends and to remember: no shooting at houses or pigeons.

But rest and recuperation at Rahmanieh was short. Scouts reported a sizeable Mameluke army approaching not only with cavalry on land but with gunships and artillery in the river. [21] The skirmish earlier with General Desaix was merely a preview. Bonaparte had only 200 mounted cavalrymen on horses which he described as "crippled and still hurting from the crossing." (Local horses were taken wherever and whenever they could be found-often out of hiding places.) It was certain that a showdown was at hand. Not a single Frenchman underestimated the enemies' dexterity in handling arms from horseback. The afternoon of July 12 Bonaparte began moving troops up the left bank from Rahmanieh to be closer to the position of the enemy. To move 30,000 men and baggage over farmland intersected by ditches of variable muddiness took time. General Desaix and his men once again formed the vanguard and in the night occupied two villages about two kilometers from the enemy. The bulk of the army was directed to an encampment near Meniet-Salameh about one-third of the way to the enemy. General Dugua was ordered to guard the rear and make sure no French were left behind at Rahmanieh. The sick and wounded were sent back to Rosetta with 18 men and an officer. The clear intention, stated in several orders issued to division generals, was to be ready to attack the Mamelukes at dawn the next morning. [22] Some 200 men de troupe a cheval- Berthier says they were "unmounted cavalry"- were embarked on boats of the flotilla; they were to prove valuable. General Andréossy on the flagship Cerf would direct the interaction between the land army and the flotilla directed by Division Chief Perrée, who also was escorting several native boats.

The night before the Battle of Chobrakit, Adjutant General Boyer was sent by water to reconnoiter. In trying to locate the enemy Boyer, advancing upstream, claimed he visited every village on both sides of the Nile, maybe 10 or 12. General Boyer was deficient in truth-telling, as we shall see, yet his anecdotes ring true. At some towns, the populations usually numbering about 60 families living in low mud brick houses, he, his interpreter and entourage were fired upon, at others, they were received with kindness. At one place he reported an encounter with a sheik who stepped forth from a crowd of his villagers and

"...demanded to know by what right the Christians were come to seize a country which belonged to the Grand Seignior. I answered him, that it was the will of God and his Prophet to bring us there. But, rejoined he, the king of France ought at least to have informed the Sultan of this step. I assured him that this had been done; and he then asked me how our king did? I replied, very well; upon which he swore by his turban and his beard that he would always look on me as his friend." [23]

The king of France was not very well, having lost his head. But neither Boyer nor Bonaparte knew at this time that Talleyrand had not gone to Constantinople and that the sultan was on the verge of declaring war against France.

Toward evening Boyer found enemy installations and a river force at a very small place on the left bank called Chobrakit. [24] He sent reports back to the commander in chief of the approximate number of their boats -8 or 10 big cannon sloops ready for action with several batteries mounted along the bank which rose here somewhat higher above the river than in most places. He evidently remained close to the scene on a little ship L'Amoureuse, ready for action the next day and the night passed quietly. E. Jomard, one of the "scribblers" as Napoleon nicknamed the scholars brought to Egypt for serious study of the people, reports in the Description de l'Égypte that Arabs never attacked at night and probably Mamelukes followed suit. [25] If they knew of the presence of the French they made no trouble for them in the dark.

The Nile at Chobrakit

The Nile at Chobrakit - location of the first real battle against Mourad Bey's Mamelukes

Adjutant General Boyer, in a letter to his parents written later from Cairo, described his view of what happened the next day:

"As soon as the day broke, I clambered up the mast of my vessel and discovered six Turkish shalops bearing down upon me; at the same time I was reinforced by a demi-galley. I drew out my little fleet to meet them and at half after four a cannonade began between us which lasted five hours; in spite of the enemy's superiority, I made head against them, they continued nevertheless to advance upon me, and I lost for a moment the demi-galley and one of the gun-boats. Yielding, however, was out of the question, it was absolutely necessary to conquer; in this dreadful moment our army came up and I was disengaged. One of the enemy's vessels blew up. Such was the termination of our naval combat." [26]

He may, indeed, have accomplished some of the feats claimed, and a bit of bragging may be excused in a letter to one's parents, but he, Boyer, was not commander of the French flotilla but was under the command of General Andréossy, and it was Division Chief Perrée who had charge of the "little fleet." The principal vessels of the French flotilla had anchored off Meniet-Salameh the evening of July 12 but began sailing upstream [south] at 2:00 a.m. on the 13th, pushed by wind from the north and at daybreak virtually ran into the enemy, and was forced to fight well ahead of the army's arrival by land.

The many sections of the French army were scattered several kilometers along the river. Captain Deponthon, an engineer with the Desaix division, wrote in his journal:

"...The enemy let us rest very quietly; but as soon as the dawn began to appear, we saw the enemy mounted, running here and there and seeming to prepare for a great fight; their number had increased noticeably, and they arranged themselves on a single line in front of the village of Chobrakhit, the right end reached the river and the left extended toward us in the country; to some observers they appeared to be about 12-15,000 men, and some peasants, a few armed with guns and the majority armed with clubs... we armed without leaving our position, but they were content to dispatch several platoons of cavalry which came flying toward us and consequently caught some cannon shot. The time passed this way until about 8 o'clock in the morning; then our flotilla which was coming up, engaged in combat with those on the banks of the river; finding themselves attacked at one point, they brought there nearly all their forces and since they had several pieces of cannon placed on the bank of the river, they sank two of our boats." [27]

Louis Alexandre Berthier, [28] fanatically loyal to Napoleon at this stage of his career and chief of staff, always dressed properly night or day in case he was called to relay orders. His estimate of the enemy numbered far less than Deponthon's: "By daybreak...we could see the cavalry of the Mamelukes drawn up in battle formation in the plain, numbering about 4,000 men." [29] It is hard to say how many of the enemy were actual combatants; every Mameluke is described as having two to four servants with him, whether mounted or on foot is not clear.

The French occupied two villages with light infantry, linked by battle infantry, and the scanty cavalry between. Bonaparte himself described his battle formation (the same that would later be used at the Battle of the Pyramids):

"The army was arranged, each division forming a square batallion, with the baggage in the center and the artillery in the intervals between the batallions; the batallions were arranged with the 2nd and the 4th behind the 1st and the 3rd. The five divisions of the army were placed in echelons, flanking each other...and flanked by two villages which we occupied." [30]

He also described his adversaries as "a magnificent body of cavalry, covered with gold, silver, armed with the best carbines and pistols from London, the best sabers of the Orient and mounted on perhaps the best horses of the continent."

Placement of the divisions in off-set squares with artillery placed to present fire on whatever side the enemy approached, proved devastating. Brigadier Sulkowski, an aide-de-camp, recorded in his notes that the divisions squares were six men deep on all sides and in the middle was equipment and the cavalry, which made an almost solid mass. From all accounts the only tactic the Mamelukes knew was to circle, hunt for weak spots and bore in; but when they came within half a cannon shot distance the divisions were ordered to fire, and shells and cannonballs took a toll. "Certainly," wrote Sulkowski, "against other badly organized hordes, that movement (circling around to find weak spots) could be very dangerous; but against a disciplined army it was only ridiculous. They left quickly at a gallop." [31] Bonaparte wrote to the Directoire, "Some brave souls tried to skirmish; they were received by fire from the platoon of sharpshooters placed in front of the intervals of the batallions."

In leaving the scene of their first foray, the Mamelukes headed off toward Meniet-Salameh only to come "under the vigorous fire of the sharpshooters of the three divisions of Reynier, Vial and Dugua. Upon arriving in the village, another fusillade threw them back." As one European observed, the enemy tried to attack the famous square formations like a terrier after a hedgehog but the bristling bayonettes plus fire power simply repelled them on all sides.

The river battle was much more evenly matched. Fire power was considerable from vessels of both sides and the guns mounted on the river bank. Two French gun -boats and the galley were run ashore while their crews scrambled to safety, and the Bey's men promptly occupied all three vessels. However, General Andréossy's cavalrymen-without-horses on board the flagship Cerf, plus all other available hands, set to work and reclaimed at least two of the French boats. Monge and Berthollet, mathematician and chemist, respectively, [32] who had elected not to stay in Alexandria or Rosetta with many of the 164 scholars and who happened to be on board, served well in the emergency. Bonaparte later reported they "showed a great deal of courage in difficult moments." [33] Two small boats under orders to come in close to shore to pick up any wounded foot soldiers, may have been the two that ran ashore and were abandoned by their crews, then later reclaimed. Several French officers were wounded, including Division Chief Perré.

After success in meeting the first enemy attacks on the plain, Bonaparte sent troops to assist Perrée's flotilla by attacking enemy batteries on the river bank. Bon's division, nearest the town, moved forward and occupied a little plateau in the middle of the plain. Sulkowski observed the Mameluke leaders urging their horsemen to resume attack, but in the face of lively artillery fire, they fled. When this development was noticed by the men manning cannons on the riverbank, they too picked up and left, abandoning eight pieces. Bonaparte reported in his dispatch to Paris that more than 1500 cannon shots were fired in this stubborn mini-naval battle in the middle of the Nile at Chobrakit. He requested the Directoire to promote Division Chief Perrée to contre amiral (third officer of a fleet) not only for his valiant struggle against Mourad Bey's river fleet but because of hard work later, moving the flotilla up river to keep pace with the marching army when water was so low he was finally forced to leave the galley, two gun boats and the Cerf behind to be retrieved when the inundation began.

After success in meeting the first enemy attacks on the plain, Bonaparte sent troops to assist Perrée's flotilla by attacking enemy batteries on the river bank. Bon's division, nearest the town, moved forward and occupied a little plateau in the middle of the plain. Sulkowski observed the Mameluke leaders urging their horsemen to resume attack, but in the face of lively artillery fire, they fled. When this development was noticed by the men manning cannons on the riverbank, they too picked up and left, abandoning eight pieces. Bonaparte reported in his dispatch to Paris that more than 1500 cannon shots were fired in this stubborn mini-naval battle in the middle of the Nile at Chobrakit. He requested the Directoire to promote Division Chief Perrée to contre amiral (third officer of a fleet) not only for his valiant struggle against Mourad Bey's river fleet but because of hard work later, moving the flotilla up river to keep pace with the marching army when water was so low he was finally forced to leave the galley, two gun boats and the Cerf behind to be retrieved when the inundation began.

Berthier, in a lengthy report to the minister of war in Paris, dated July 24, estimated the Mameluke losses of the day at 300. Others said 400. Boyer, who seemed to have difficulty agreeing with his fellow officers in many ways, wrote from Cairo some two weeks later that enemy losses were only 25 or so. [34] Boyer's chief complaint against the Mamelukes at Chobrakit was that they kept the Frenchmen out in the blazing sun most of the day; he felt that Bonaparte "temporized" and did not slaughter the enemy so that he could judge the fighting style of the enemy. He made known his views to General Kilmain, Commander of the Army of England, saying: "This rabble (I cannot call them soldiers) which has not the most trifling idea of tactics, knows nothing of war but the blood that is spilt in it."

It may well be the case that Napoleon decided not to win quickly, knowing that more decisive battles against this enemy would be fought. Thus when the Battle of the Pyramids developed, Bonaparte had already determined the most efficient formations to be used and was sure of the outcome.

Pyramids of Giza

Pyramids of Giza - approximately as would be seen from the second major military engagement between the French and the Mamelukes, namely, the Battle of the Pyramids

When the fight at Chobrakit was over, the cavalry-without-mounts who had fought through the morning on the boats, were unloaded onto the right bank of the Nile to gather food - the constant need that was so hard to satisfy. The commander-in-chief ordered them, for the days ahead, to keep pace with the army on the left bank as they marched to Cairo, and to send as much food as possible across the Nile to their cohorts. The French found many villages along that route abandoned. We assume that villagers simply fled away from the river to avoid this swarm of invaders plodding along devouring foodstuffs as they went.

The night after the battle, July 13-14, the divisions camped around Chobrakit. Their march was resumed next morning. Seven days later, the troops could see the pyramids of Giza in the distance. The day after, July 21, in the same battle positions as were used at Chobrakit only slightly modified to make them more deadly, the French thoroughly whipped the Mamelukes near the town of Embaba. This was the Battle of the Pyramids.

The tattered survivors led by Mourad Bey fled into Upper Egypt. Because Mamelukes often carried their wealth with them into battle when flight afterwards could be necessary, the bodies of the fallen provided great treasure. It was reported that the victorious French measured out gold coins by the hatfull. Berthier dryly observed: "Our brave men were amply compensated for the trouble they had experienced." [35]

On July 22,1798, the French entered Cairo as conquerors.


  1. Louis Reybaud, Histoire de l'expédition franÁaise en Egypte., Vol. I. (Paris: Denain, 1836), 16-18.
  2. Observations sur l'expédition du Général Buonaparte dans le Levant..., André, trans. (Paris: Bureau de la Librairie, 1799), 7.
  3. Reybaud, 8.
  4. André, 11.
  5. J. Christopher Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt., (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 29.
  6. M. Ader, Histoire de l'expédition d'Egypte et de Syrie., (Paris: Dupont et Cie, 1826), 32-35.
  7. Reybaud, 35.
  8. Vivant Denon, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt during the Campaigns of General Bonaparte., (London: Crosby and Co., 1802), I xxii.
  9. Herold, 62.
  10. Ibid, 34.
  11. Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universal., Dispatches to the Directoire in Paris from Egypt, 1798-99, 391-393.
  12. Copies of Original Letters from the Army of General Bonaparte in Egypt, Intercepted by the Fleet under the Command of Admiral Lord Nelson, with an English Translation. 2nd Edition (London: Wright, 1798). 18.
  13. Reybaud, 117.
  14. Louis Alexandre Berthier, Relation des campagnes du Général Bonaparte en Égypte et en Syrie., (Paris: Didot l'Ainé, 1801), 5.
  15. P. Martin, Histoire de l'expédition franÁaise en Égypte., (Paris: Eberhart, 1815), I, 203-205.
  16. Janissaries and Mamelukes had similar origins, both recruited as boys from Christian families, but the so-called "Janissaries" in Egypt were an elite corps serving the sultan, and who evidently policed Cairo.
  17. The French soldiers thought it a prime joke that the pronunciation of "Mourad" and "Murat," the latter one of their own generals, sounded exactly the same.
  18. C. De La Jonquière, L'expédition l'Égypte., 5 vols. (Paris: Henri Charles-Lavauzelle, 1798-1801) Bonaparte to General Dugua, 10 July, 1798.
  19. Chabrol, "Essai sur les moeurs des habitans modernes de l'Égypte," Description de l'Égypte., Etat Moderne, Tome Second (IIe Partie), 408-409.
  20. A "wad" is a soft plug or stopper to retain the charge of powder in a muzzle-loader gun.
  21. Gazette Nationale ou Le Moniteur Universal., General in Chief Bonaparte's dispatch to the Directoire Executif, from Cairo, 24 July, 1798., 440.
  22. C. De La Jonquière, L'expédition d'Égypte, Vol. II, Chapter V, "The Battle of Chobrakhit."
  23. Copies of Original Letters, 154.
  24. This town's name has many spellings: Chobrakhit, Chebreisse, Jibbrish, Schebreki, Chebriki, etc.
  25. Jomard, E. Observations on the Arabs of Middle Egypt, Vol. I, État Moderne, Description de l'Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches... (Paris: L'Imprimerie Impériale, 1809), 587.
  26. Copies of Original Letters, 155.
  27. Journal of Captain Duponthon, engineer with Desaix, from the Archives Générales, quoted in de La Jonquière's L'expédition d'Égypte
  28. Berthier was described by Madame Junot as a small fellow, "ill shaped" with hair neither light nor dark, and often called upon to endure his leader's ill humor, but one of the few men Bonaparte would address as "tu"- Laurette Junot, Memoirs of Napoleon, His Court and Family., 2 vols., (New York: Appleton and Co., 1867), I-306, etc.
  29. C. De La Jonquière, Berthier to Ministry of War, 24 July. 2: Chapter V.
  30. Gazette Nationale ou Le Moniteur Universal., 1798-99, Dispatch to the Directoire Executif from the General in Chief Bonaparte. Cario, 24 July, 1798.
  31. C. De La Jonquière, L'expédition d'Égypte., 2: Chapter V
  32. Gaspard Monge, inventor of descriptive geometry, and Claude-Louis Berthollet, chemist and organizer of the Institut Nacional and the Egyptian Institute, who among other things, discovered that chlorine has bleaching power.
  33. Gazette Nationale., Dispatches to the Directoire Executif, Paris, 440.
  34. Boyer to Gen. Kilmaine in Paris, Copies of Original Letters, 132-133.
  35. Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universal. Berthier to the minister of war in Paris, July 24, 1798., 444-446.


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