Written for History 310 and Professor John Lynn, University of Illinois, 4/10/96
Every now and then, in the study of history one will encounter an episode so strange and unordinary that it captures the attention and the imagination. Just when you think maybe you have heard everything you will learn of something so fascinating, you will ask yourself, "Why haven't I heard of this before?" The Egyptian Campaign is one such example. At times it seems like a storybook, filled with famous places, colorful characters and vicious and strange action. Yet all of it is true. Between his European conquests, and before he became Emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte conducted a campaign in Egypt so whimsical, so devoid of real military purpose as to be chimerical. In his youth he had been fascinated with the east, and he always wanted to go there. When he got his chance, he took a whole army. I think he pictured himself following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, making an empire in the east. Perhaps only an ego as huge as that of Bonaparte's, in a time so confused as that of the French Revolution, could anything so unique ever occur. The following is an account and reflection upon those 12 months that Napoleon spent amongst the burning sands of North Africa.
The French government of 1798 was dangerously close to political upheaval. However, the star of Napoleon Bonaparte was on the rise. Napoleon had gone to Italy in 1796 as commander-in-chief of the French army. In the space of a year he won his reputation on the battlefield with an astounding parade of victories. The official number given was sixty three. His accomplishments included recovering Corsica from the English, defeating both the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia, gaining Savoy and Nice for France, and looting the arts and treasures of Italy. He was of course wildly popular with the French people. At this time, France was governed by the Directory of Five. Corrupt, and inefficient, the Directory was extremely unpopular. Napoleon described them as "fit only to piss on." (Fregosi, 114) Even so, he realized that the time was still not right for his coup d'Etat of the Directory of Five. To keep inactivity away, he thus began the preparations for the proposed invasion of England.
In this, the desires of both Napoleon and the Directory coincided. Bonaparte needed action to prevent his reputation from flagging. In the same vein, the members of the Directory were fearful of the army in general, and the popularity of Bonaparte in particular. As such, the Directory was anxious to get the ambitious general as far away from Paris and the government as possible. Also, they realized that their wartime emergency powers would not last a day of peace, and thus sought a continuation of hostilities. As Napoleon said, "The Directory was dominated by its own weakness; in order to exist it needed a perpetual state of war just as other governments need peace." (Chandler, 208)
But Napoleon's thoughts were not on England. Any reasonable individual could see that British naval superiority made an invasion of those isles a fool's errand. But the question then arises, if a direct strike at England is unfeasible, where should the French direct their efforts? According to Fregosi (p. 113), Napoleon first conceived of the idea of an Egyptian expedition during the Italian campaign (he was even seen reading Memoirs on Turkey, the Tartars and Modern Egypt). With the help of Foreign Minister Talleyrand, Bonaparte persuaded the Directory to delay the planned invasion of England and let him lead an army into Egypt. On April 12, the Army of England was officially renamed the Army of Egypt, and Napoleon was appointed commander-in-chief.
Why Egypt? First, a strong French army in the east would threaten to disrupt England's rich Asian trade. Second, the thought of Egypt as a French colony was an alluring idea (although the idea was nothing new; the plan was once proposed to Louis XIV in 1672, in order to undermine the power of Holland, but not undertaken (Life of Bounaparte, 92)). Third, the Egyptian expedition would be infinitely cheaper and less risky than the invasion of the British Isles. Finally there was a moral justification, albeit perhaps a manufactured one. Egypt was, in name, a part of the Ottoman Empire and therefore its ruler was the sultan of Constantinople. In fact the real power had lain with the Marmeluke caste for the past 500 years. There were probably 100,000 of these people living in Egypt at the time, of whom some 10,000 composed the Marmeluke cavalry which was to constantly harass the French troops during their stay in Egypt. Their occupation was robbery and oppression of the native Egyptian peasantry, or fellahin, and they taxed them outrageously. They lived in fine mansions attended by scores of slaves. (Fregosi, 121). According to Chandler, (p. 221) in the Republican spirit of France at the time, there was a genuine desire to improve the lot of the fellahin. It seemed fitting to the Directory that France, being the most civilized society in the world, should help to improve and enlighten the people of the cradle of civilization.
These considerations, an "amalgam of motive, realistic and visionary, genuine and bogus" eventually persuaded the Directory to undertake the expedition. The objectives of the venture were grandiose to a fault. Bonaparte's orders were to capture Malta, on the way to Egypt. Once there, his goal was to dislodge the English from their Oriental possessions, build a canal through the Isthmus of Suez, improve the situation of the Egyptian people and establish a permanent French colony. He would succeed in only one of these goals.
It is clear that Napoleon was thinking first and foremost of his own fame and position. He once told his friend and secretary Bourrienne, "Europe is but a molehill - all the great reputations have come from Asia." (Bourrienne, 68) Certainly he knew an invasion of England would end in disaster, and with his own name forever soiled. Alternately, a short adventure to the East of perhaps six months or so could enhance his own esteem, and at the same time give the Directory enough time to "hang themselves on their own rope", after which time he could return to France and seize power.
Napoleon threw himself into the preparations for the expedition with genuine zeal. Due to his energy and dedication, the entire Army of Egypt was ready to depart in two and a half months. Set to sail form the port of Toulon was one of the finest French armies ever assembled. Bonaparte called on thirty one demi-brigades, an army of 40,000 men and almost all of them were former members of the Army of Italy. They were experienced veterans, and they were men Napoleon trusted. (Chandler, 212) The fleet gathered to transport the army was equally large, some 10,000 sailors on 400 ships. This included 13 battleships 42 frigates and 130 transports under the command of one Admiral Brueys. (Fregosi, 116) This huge collection of ships must have been an impressive sight, as witnesses speak of the 'forest of masts' that it created in the sea.
A unique feature of this curious campaign was the large contingent of civilians. Like Alexander before him, Bonaparte surrounded himself with men of science and art. Among these savants was the notable French mathematician Gaspard Monge. Another interesting chap was the chemist Jacques Conte who, during the British blockade that was to come, invented the mixture of graphite and clay to replace the lead mineral in pencils. The result was the misnamed "lead" pencils still in use today. Also was a man named Mathieu de Lesseps. Years later, he would tell his son Ferdinand of the project Napoleon had often thought about, a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The Suez Canal was built by Ferdinand de Lesseps a half century later. (Fregosi, 117) There were even some women who tagged along. Some of the lower ranking officers were accompanied by their wives (or mistresses, as the case may be). One of them, Lieutenant Foures, made a great mistake in bringing his lovely, leggy wife Pauline along. Amongst the desert sands, Napoleon came to be very fond of the blonde Pauline, and before long the lieutenant found himself on a ship back to Europe, sans femme, by Bonaparte's order. Rank has its privileges, I guess.
The generals chosen by Bonaparte were of equally colorful variety, and included many of the future Marshals of France. There was the dashing cavalry officer Joachim Murat, who wore "lovely" uniforms of pink trousers, plumes, ruffles, and a yellow jacket. There was no telling what this man would wear to battle. Bonaparte's chief of the engineers was the one-legged but cheerful Louis Caffarelli, who was known for his witty conversation and amiable disposition. Then there was Louis Berthier, Bonaparte's chief of staff. Incredibly obsessed with an Italian woman he had left behind, he brought along with him a small shrine to her and some candles, and each night he would assemble it in his tent and kneel before it. Bonaparte found this practice most pathetic. Also were two of Bonaparte's former superiors, the brilliant generals Desaix and Kléber. Kléber was a former Alsatian and architect, who had distinguished himself fighting against the Austrians and Germans in Germany. Desaix was a former aristocrat (although a very ugly one; he had a nasty saber slash across his face rarely depicted in pictures) who had refused to flee France during the Revolution.
It seems that Frenchmen have an aversion to salt water, because when it was made known to the troops that they were destined for "service overseas" (the exact destination was still a closely guarded secret), they began grumbling and deserting. To rally the spirits of his men, Napoleon gave a speech, in which he promised "every soldier, that upon his return France he shall have enough to buy himself six acres of land." (Chandler, 214) This was to prove a hollow promise, and for nearly a third of his men the only land they ever received would be a resting place under six feet of Egyptian sand. Even so, the French convoy sailed at dawn on May 19.
Meanwhile, all of this activity at Toulon had caught the attention of the British. To investigate, they sent the indomitable Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson with a squadron of battleships and frigates. Nelson was a bit rough looking by 1798, having by this time lost an eye in Corsica and an arm in the Canary Islands, but he regarded the French as compatriots of th Devil and he hunted them tirelessly. The French were completely unaware of the attentions of Nelson's fleet, and it was only by luck that they slipped port at Toulon without being found. On May 21, a strong gale had dismasted his flagship H.M.S. Vanguard, and scattered his ships. (Chandler, 215) By the time they recovered and reached Toulon, the French had disappeared. On a hunch, Nelson sailed east (correctly), but it was not until June 14 that he received information that the French fleet had been spotted off the coast of Sicily. As Nelson flailed about the Med uncertainly, Napoleon arrived at the island of Malta.
The island of Malta is strategically placed, lying between Tunisia and Sicily, and so all east-west shipping through the Mediterranean can be harassed from this island. As such, no major European power wanted another power to control the island. Because of this, Malta had been governed by the crusading Knights of St. John since 1530, given to them by the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V at that time. (Fregosi, 119) Once a formidable force, by 1798 the Knights had turned into a bunch of soft-living womanizers (having not been on crusade for a couple hundred years or so). In addition, nearly 200 of the 300+ Knights were Frenchmen, and were little inclined to resist their countrymen. As a result, when Napoleon arrived on June 9 and demanded the surrender of the island, it was given up without a fight. The island still had considerable fortification, and had there been resistance its capture would have been a difficult undertaking. In the words of General Caffarelli, "it is lucky there is someone in the town to open the gates for us." (Bourrienne, 70) Bonaparte spent the next week at Malta, organizing things there as he saw fit, which included declaring Malta a part of France and installing a garrison of 3,500 troops under General Voubois. That done, he sailed for Alexandria on June 18th.
On July 2nd at one a.m., after six weeks at sea, the Army of Egypt began disembarking a few miles west of Alexandria. The seas were heavy, and a number of soldiers drowned trying to get ashore. Exhausted, wet and miserable the men collapsed and slept on the beach. News of the French conquest of Malta had caused quite a stir in Alexandria and the two principal Beys, Murad and Ibrahim had called their men to arms. Thus, when the French troops stirred the next morning and began their march upon the city, the Marmelukes were ready for them. Bedouin warriors on horseback swarmed along their flanks and rear. Stragglers, including women were taken prisoner. Of their experiences Castelot writes;
When the prisoners were returned several days later, the stories they told spread through the whole army and squelched any urge to straggle on subsequent marches. The male prisoners, with their soft white skin, had provoked the admiration of their captors, lean but vigorous, who had raped them repeatedly. The women were merely beaten. The tastes of people who subsist on camel's milk the year round are unpredictable. (Castelot, 106)
After a five hour march devoid of water, the French troops stormed Alexandria driven by thirst. General Menou stormed the Triangular Fort on the outskirts of the town, while Kléber and Bon stormed the Pompey and Rosetta gates of the city. Resistance was weak, and by the afternoon the city was entirely in the hands of the French. (Chandler, 220) During the day, the troops distributed leaflets containing Napoleon's proclamation to the people of Egypt. In it, he proclaims the coming of the French to be the will of Allah, to restore their rights and free them from the tyranny of the Marmelukes. (Bourrienne, 71) Also it declares, "What wisdom, what talents, what virtues distinguish the Marmelukes, so that they have exclusive possession of everything that makes life sweet and enjoyable? Is there a fine piece of land? It belongs to the Marmelukes. Is there a beautiful slave girl, a fine horse, a handsome house? Those things too belong to the Marmelukes. If Egypt is their farm, let them show us the lease that God gave them on it!" Of course this was but so much hot air, all Republican spirit aside. Bonaparte was pandering to the fellahin to rally around him, or at least to tolerate his presence in their country. I don't believe they bought it for a minute. As he would admit later, "One must be a charlatan! That's the way to succeed!" (Castelot, 106)
Alexandria under control, Bonaparte next set his sights upon Cairo, capital of Egypt. As the van of the army, General Desaix's division was sent at once to the villages of Damanhur and Rahmaniya, both some 45 miles to the southeast of Alexandria. General Bon's division followed Desaix's on the 5th. During this march, a large part of Bonaparte's army nearly came to mutiny. For both the men and the officers, this 72-hour hike became as close to hell as can be found on Earth. The men were loaded down with heavy, hot equipment and uniforms, ill suited for a North African campaign. The only food available was dry biscuits, and water was not to be had. The native Bedouin tribesmen would, at the approach of the French, either poison or fill in with sand what few wells could be found. Mirages of water frequently appeared to tempt the weary men. Under these conditions, some men went out of their minds, and some shot themselves. Many were afflicted with ophthalmia, which caused temporary blindness. The men asked themselves if perhaps this was where the six arpents de terre Bonaparte had promised was to be found. It was the joke of the whole army. When the soldiers arrived at Damanhur on July 9, they could take no more. Bonaparte was presented with an ultimatum from the mutinous men and officers. This he rejected with scorn, and one ringleader General Mireur was found dead the next morning in the desert, apparently suicide. A threat to shoot his compatriot, General Dumas quickly calmed things down again. (Chandler, 222)
The troops were involved in a number of minor skirmishes with Marmeluke cavalry, but they would always flee into the desert before the French could assemble enough soldiers for a real battle. When finally they reached the Nile, the soldiers were overjoyed that they had water. Also there were watermelons that grew abundantly along the banks. Some men over-indulged themselves and actually died from too much water. Many more contracted dysentery from the watermelons. Three days later, the skirmishes climaxed when a flotilla of Marmeluke gunboats attacked the French ships used to bring supplies and the savants down the river. After an inconclusive four hour battle between the boats, Bonaparte ordered some artillery to the water's edge, which quickly blew the Moslem flagship to bits. Disheartened, the Marmelukes withdrew, but they were far from defeated.
It was also during this march that something occurred that changed the character of Napoleon Bonaparte forever. It was July 19th, and Bourrienne was some distance away from Bonaparte. He watched him speak first to General Berthier, and then to an aide-de-camp, and finally to Junot. Bourrienne thought he was looking paler than usual. "There was even something convulsive in his face, and he had a lost look" Bourrienne would remember later. He struck his head with his hand several times and then suddenly exclaimed, "You are not loyal to me! Women!....Josephine!...If you were loyal to me you would have told me everything I have just learned from Junot!....They had better look out! I'll exterminate that race of puppies and pretty boys!...And as for her, a divorce!...Yes a divorce! A public, sensational divorce!" (Castelot, 107-108) Josephine had taken a young officer named Hippolyte Charles as her lover, which had been known to Parisian society for some time. Bonaparte's shock and grief were great and genuine. Hurt and disillusioned, he even wrote to his elder brother Joseph of giving up the military life and returning home. As David Chandler observes (p.227), from this point on much of the idealism in Bonaparte disappeared. Selfishness, suspicion and egoscentrism became, by degrees, more pronounced, and the tyrant inside Napoleon Bonaparte began to emerge. Interestingly, Bourrienne makes no note of this episode in his Memoirs.
By July 21st, the French had reached the village of Embabeh, just across the Nile form Cairo and some 10 miles east of the Pyramids. Here the Marmeluke Beys, Murad and Ibrahim had collected their forces to battle the Infidel Frenchmen. To motivate his followers, Ibrahim was said to have given the following description of the French: "The infidels who come to fight you have fingernails one foot long, enormous mouths and ferocious eyes. They are savages possessed of the Devil, and they go into battle linked with chains." (Chandler, 222) The Marmeluke army was divided in two. On the west bank of the Nile (the same side as the French), Murad Bey commanded 40 guns, 15,000 untrained fellahin infantry and some 6,000 of the elite Marmeluke cavalry. Placed uselessly on the other side of the Nile were an additional 18,000 fellahin infantry under the command of Ibrahim Bey. (Fregosi, 122) The Marmeluke cavalry was certainly impressive to look at. The Marmeluke cavalry was considered by Napoleon (wrongly) to be the best in the whole world. Indeed they had fine horses, and were always armed to the teeth with pistols, carbines and bejeweled scimitars. Drums boomed and trumpets blared while the Marmelukes invoked the name of Allah to strike down their infidel foes, promising the pleasures of eternal life to those who fell in battle. Little had changed since the Crusades.
The French, for their part had some 25,000 men, 35 guns and a bit of cavalry under Murat. With the Pyramids shimmering in the distance, Bonaparte told his men, "Soldiers, form the summit of yonder Pyramids forty centuries behold you!" (Bourrienne, 75) The French then formed into elongated squares and waited for the Marmelukes to charge.
In this the Marmelukes were obliging, and at two in the afternoon (in the worst North African midsummer heat imaginable) they charged the French position with a great cry. As they charged, Generals Desaix and Reynier began marching their divisions to encircle the Marmeluke cavalry form their infantry. Murad saw this and reinstructed his cavalry to charge these encircling French divisions. The French calmly formed into squares and prepared to receive the charge, with orders to hold their fire until the Marmelukes were less than 50 paces away. (Fregosi, 123)
The French muskets had murderous effect. Sometimes the fighting was so close and so intense that the flash from their barrels would set afire the soft flowing robes of the Marmelukes, where they would fall and burn to death just yards form the impregnable French squares. Even so, the Marmelukes charged again and again for nearly an hour. Two other divisions, those of Vial and Bon then moved to attack the fellahin infantry. Within minutes, Bon's men stormed into the village, while another demi-brigade made an end-around to the other side of the village and cut off the defender's escape route. Trapped, the Marmelukes jumped into the Nile and tried to swim to Ibrahim's forces on the other side. In this, at least 1,000 drowned and 600 were shot in the water. (Chandler, 226) By four-thirty the battle was over, Murad Bey fleeing with some 3,000 cavalry towards Gizeh. Total French casualties amounted to 29 killed and maybe 260 wounded, while thousands of Egyptians littered the battlefield. The simple reason was that, for all their weaponry and flash, the Marmelukes were still essentially a medieval fighting force. They knew only how to charge (and then to flee), which was no match for the firepower and discipline of the European soldiers. This basic pattern was seen in every conflict, big or small, during the entire Egyptian campaign.
After the battle, the French began to search the bodies of the slain Marmelukes. It was their custom to take much of their wealth with them to battle, and so a single corpse often made a soldier's fortune. As a witness reported, "Some put on turbans still wet with blood; others proudly draped themselves in sable-lined pelisses or in gold-trimmed jackets." The next morning, the Sheiks and Imams of Cairo surrendered the city, and on July 24th accompanied by martial music from the band, Bonaparte entered the capital city of Egypt. Cairo, disappointed Napoleon, as had Alexandria before it. He wrote to the directory, "It is difficult to find a land more fertile and a people more impoverished, ignorant and degraded." He felt the 300,000 people of Cairo were the, "most wretched population in the world." (Castelot, 108-109)
On August 1st , disaster struck for the French. Nelson had at last found the French ships anchored in Aboukir Bay, twenty miles northeast of Alexandria. The result would be the Battle of the Nile, one of the most famous naval engagements of this era. On paper, the odds were about even. Nelson had 14 battleships of 74 guns; Admiral Brueys had 13 battleships of varying gunnery. Nelson had a toothache, Brueys had dysentery. However, the French were to lose the battle horribly, for reasons that don't appear on paper. Nelson's sailors were the best in the world, honed to perfection by years and years at sea. By contrast, the French crews were young and untrained (half were under 18), and already undermanned, nearly a quarter of the crews were ashore gathering food and supplies. On top of this, Admiral Brueys (for reasons which history leaves murky) had placed his ships in a bad position. The ships were lined up in the bay one and a half miles from the shore, bows facing the sea. Brueys apparently believed he could keep the British ships on the seaward side of this line, and out of the bay. Not only was he to be proved wrong, but the mistake would cost him his life.
The British squadron arrived shortly after 4 p.m. and to the surprise of Admiral Brueys, they immediately went into the attack. Nelson's keen eye (the one he had left, anyway) noticed that the Brueys had anchored his ships too far from shore, and resolved to sneak some ships through the French line, in between the French and the shore of the bay. This way the British could attack the French ships from two sides instead of just one. Part of the British squadron, led by H.M.S. Goliath and H.M.S. Zealous managed to slip in between and pound the immobile French ships from their port side. The effect was decisive. As the French had not expected an attack from that side, many port holes were blocked and the port side was often cluttered with rubbish, making it difficult or impossible to return fire. (Fregosi, 128)
The British tactic was now to simply move up and down the French line, blasting each ship one at a time. Admiral Brueys was wounded on his flagship L'Orient early on in the fighting when a shot carried off most of his leg and thigh. He refused to go below for treatment and died on deck, fighting to the last. Nelson too was wounded, and a flap of skin fell over his eye, temporarily blinding him. Thinking himself dead, he cried out, "I am killed. Remember me to my wife." (something of an irony, as he had been sleeping with one Lady Hamilton, and not his wife, for quite some time) He was however only lightly wounded, and after a surgeon cleaned the wound he was back on deck blowing away Frenchmen. One by one the French ships surrendered, except for four that got away. By three thirty in the morning it was over.
The next morning Aboukir Bay was filled with wreckage and the bodies of dead seamen 'mangled, wounded and scorched, not a bit of clothing on them except their trousers' recalled one British sailor. 1,700 French sailors were killed, in total. During a special religious service on H.M.S. Vanguard, Nelson thanked Almighty God for his help in the battle, as was his wont. I agree with Paul Fregosi when he writes, "There must be moments when God is grateful to atheists. At least they don't kill in His name and thank Him for the corpses afterwards." (p.130)
On the morning of August 14, a peasant delivered a letter to one of Bonaparte's aide-de-camp. It was from an officer in Alexandria, and it contained news of he battle in Aboukir Bay. Bonaparte kept the secret to himself until lunch. Then to his guests he announced, "You seem to get along well in this country. That is fortunate, because we have no more fleet to take us back to Europe..." (Castelot, 109) From this point on Napoleon, and all who had accompanied him, were prisoners to this mad campaign. Furthermore, all trade with France was of course impossible, meaning the entire Army of Egypt had to be self sufficient in Africa. Bonaparte set himself to making this a reality, and establishing a permanent French presence in Egypt.
Of course, the men lacked of everything. Soap, oil, sheets, wine, surgeons, seeds, et cetera, et cetera. There was more grumbling amongst the men. They disgusted the country and the natives (of course, the feeling was mutual), and wanted nothing more than to go home. An event at this time gives yet another insight onto the character of Bonaparte. One evening at dinner, Bonaparte asked General Murat, "How are you fairing in Egypt?"
"Very well." the flamboyant cavalry officer replied.
"So much the better! I know that some of you are talking of mutiny. Let them beware! The distance between me and a general and me and a drummer is the same. If necessary, I would have one shot as quickly as the other. As for you, Murat, if you falter, I'll see to it that you get a bullet in the head." (Castelot, 111-112) Besides being an incredibly rude way to speak to a future brother-in-law and King of Naples, it shows just how nervous Bonaparte had become by this time, and the terror-tactics he was capable of to keep an army together.
The French army would remain in and about Cairo for some six months. During this period, the French did some good deeds and genuinely tried to win the favor of the people. An Institute of Egypt was founded on August 22, through which the savants could finally come into their own. The Institute was divided into four sections: Math, Physics, Political Economy, and Literature & Arts, the whole presided over by the genius of Monge. Of course their greatest achievement was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone on 1799, which proved to be the key to deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Also by their efforts, hospitals were set up in Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta and Cairo. Law and order was improved, and the local population was disarmed. The French built mills, closely controlled the markets and improved irrigation. Street lanterns were set up every 30 yards. Bonaparte wisely tried to rule through the established sheiks and divans of the city. To further integrate himself, he would participate in their feasts and holidays. One day, he presented himself to the local dignitaries in a turban and Oriental robe. Such was the laughter of his general staff that he wore it for only one day. He even hinted to the sheiks that his men might take up the Moslem religion. (Chandler, 228)
At the same time, Bonaparte did some things that offended the Egyptians religion and sensibilities. For example, some mosques were transformed into cafes, which must have caused untold anger to many people. Similarly, he issued the senseless order that the tricolor flag should be flown from the minarets of the mosques, which only offended more. His attempts to bestow tricolor cockades and sashes upon the dignitaries of the city was poorly received. Bonaparte's martial justice over the population must have seemed just as harsh as that of the Marmelukes. Every day, five or six heads would roll off the guillotine. He appointed as chief of police a man named Barthelemy, who seemed to enjoy lopping off heads. Augustin Belliard, a historian of the Egyptian campaign wrote, "When you saw him marching towards the Citadel with his naked scimitar, followed by his garroted patients, it was a sight well calculated to suppress all evil intentions in a great many people." Thus, the local people never took to the French and rose up in rebellion.
On October 20, a sheik ran through the streets shouting, "Let all those who believe that there is but one God come to the Mosque El Azhar! Today is the day to fight the Infidel!" (Castelot, 114) Near five in the morning, Bonaparte was awakened by an aid and informed that General Dupuy had been killed in the street by a lance thrust. He immediately ordered his troops to mobilize all over the city, and he also ordered the Mosque El Azhar torn down. One particularly valued aid-de-camp named Sulkowski was sent with a message to General Dumas. While riding through the city his horse stumbled, and he was thrown. He was then beaten and massacred by the people, and his body thrown to the dogs. When one of Sulkowski's guides returned to Bonaparte, covered with blood and gave him the news, he was enraged. He ordered an officer named Croiser to take his men and find the tribe responsible for the uprising and the murder, burn their huts, kill their men and bring their heads back to show the population. Croiser and his men returned the next day, laden with sacks. As Bourrienne remembers, "The sacks were opened in the principal square, and the heads rolled out before the assembled populace. I cannot describe the horror I experienced : but at the same time, I must confess that it had the effect for a considerable time of securing tranquillity." (Bourrienne, 81) In total during two full days of fighting, some 300 Frenchmen and 2,000 Arabs lost their lives in the insurrection. (Chandler, 230)
The longer the French stayed in Egypt, the more the situation deteriorated. On September 9th, Turkey had declared war on France, and the Sultan of Constantinople had declared a Holy War against the French on the 22nd . The bubonic plague had visited Alexandria, Cairo and Damietta, which claimed some 17 men a day until 2,000 more of his soldiers died. The British blockade had been completely successful, so none of the supplies or prostitutes Bonaparte had requested were reaching Egypt to raise the morale of the men. Turkish armies had been massing, and were planning a twofold attack upon the French in Egypt. One army would be transported by sea with the assistance of the Royal Navy, while another would approach Egypt by way of Damascus and the Sinai. Napoleon being who he was, during January he planned and readied his men for a preemptive strike into Syria. His goals were to leave 10,000 troops in control of Egypt, and take the rest into Palestine, seize the fortress city of Acre, defeat the Damascus army, and then hurry back in time to face the sea-borne force. (Chandler, 234) It seems an especially ambitious plan, considering his supply state and the attitude of his men, and it would prove to be unsuccessful.
During January, Bonaparte left with four divisions of the best troops he had left. He himself commanded one division, while the others were given to Generals Kléber, Reynier, and Lannes. The total force was some 13,000 men. The large siege guns, being to heavy to transport through the soft desert sands, were placed aboard ships to be picked up at St. Jean d'Acre, when Bonaparte arrived there.
Their first obstacle was a fortress at El Arish, manned by 1,500 tough Ottoman Empire soldiers, mainly Moroccans and Albanians. It took a full ten days of siege before this relatively small garrison capitulated by Feb 18th. The defenders were released on the condition that they march straight to Baghdad and no longer take up arms against the French. They agreed, many of them lying through their teeth, and went to Jaffa, where they would oppose Napoleon again. Continuing the march, Gaza was taken without hostilities on Feb 24th, and by March 1 they were not far from Jerusalem.
When the French arrived at Jaffa on March 3rd, the defenders there refused to surrender. On the 7th, the French launched a strong attack and the town fell that evening. During and after the attack, many French soldiers ran amok through the town slaughtering Jews, Christians and Moslems indiscriminately (for reasons I cannot divine). The carnage was terrible. To escape the rage of the troops, part of the garrison locked themselves into a large building, described by Bourrienne as a sort of 'enclosed court'. Bonaparte sent two aides-de-camp (who get all the dirty jobs, I guess) to negotiate with these men. Safely walled up inside, they offered to surrender if their lives would be spared. If not, they threatened to fire upon the aides and defend themselves to the last man. The aides of course accepted their surrender, and marched them, some 4,000 men, back to the French camp. So began one of the blackest chapters in the history of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bourrienne, being present at Bonaparte's side gives the best account of what followed.
"I was walking with General Bonaparte, in front of his tent, when he saw this multitude of men approaching, and before he even saw his aides-de-camp, he turned to me with an expression of grief, 'What do they wish me to do with these men? Have I food for them - ships to convey them to Egypt or France? Why have they served me thus?' (Bourrienne, 82)
Bonaparte gave his aides a scathing reprimand and asked them what he was supposed to do with all these men. For three days the prisoners were held, hands tied behind their backs. During this time, Bonaparte and his generals held council to determine the fate of these men. Rations were, of course, chronically short and the soldiers loathed giving any of their bread to the prisoners, which they were ordered to do. As time went on the threat of another mutiny became a real danger yet again. Adding to the irritation was the fact that many of these men had broken their parole at Jaffa and fought here again (a capital offense under military law). As such, the orders to begin shooting (and later simply bayoneting) the prisoners was given on the 10th. Accounts vary on the actual number killed. Bourrienne says 4,000. Fregosi puts the figure between 2,000 and 3,000. Bonaparte himself would later claim it was only 1,000 to 1,500 men. At any rate it was a great deal of cold-blooded killing that forever left a stain on the reputation of Napoleon Bonaparte. As if in retribution for this horrible event, the bubonic plague once again reared its ugly head and began claiming yet more victims from the French ranks.
I think it is indisputable that Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most callous generals in history. Never does he seem to have even the slightest bit of care or concern for the lives of the men he leads. Because of this, what he did on March 11th deserves mention. By this time hundreds of French soldiers were put up in hospitals as they suffered from the plague. On this day Bonaparte, accompanied by his general staff, toured the hospitals and visited the plague-infested victims, without regard for his own life. Whether this was a flash of genuine concern on his part, or just a stunt to raise himself in the eyes of his soldiers is certainly debatable. Perhaps it was just a whim, 'playing sport with life and death' as Castelot writes.
After this, the army again departed and marched to St. Jean d'Acre, the outskirts of which he reached on March 17. Reaching the summit of Mount Carmel, just south of Acre, Bonaparte looked into the bay to his left. He must have winced when he saw two Royal Navy ships anchored in the bay. They were the H.M.S. Theseus and the H.M.S. Tigre, under the command of the dashing Commodore Sir Sydney Smith. Then, Bonaparte watched in horror as these two ships began capturing the nine small transports that were bringing in his siege artillery, with which he had planned to reduce the fortifications of Acre. Not only was he to be deprived of these guns, but now they would be used against him!
Also within the city was a former classmate of his named Louis Phélipeaux. Phélipeaux and Bonaparte went to the same military college at Brienne, fifteen years ago (according to Castelot, they could not stand each other even then, and the young Bonaparte would kick Louis under the desk between lessons). A Royalist during the Revolution, Phélipeaux had fled France and was now serving as an expert in fortifications for the Ottoman Empire. (Fregosi, 162) His efforts would go a long way towards keeping the walls of Acre in good condition, and thereby foiling his old rival.
Bonaparte began the siege on March 28th, and an assault was launched. The city of St. Jean d'Acre had been constructed on a short peninsula of land that jutted into the bay. This way, three sides of the city were surrounded by water, and therefore impregnable. The Turkish defenders, under the command of a man named Djezzar Pasha (a.k.a. the butcher; by all accounts a real psycho-killer), were concentrated on the one well defended side. With the help of the British, the European expertise of Phélipeaux, and deprived of adequate artillery, the French were running themselves into a brick wall. The assault failed. The French soldiers who were captured by the Turks were strangled to death, to the horror of the British.
Again and again they tried to capture the town, again and again they failed. A total of seven major assaults were launched. They tried to mine it, build trenches around it, and storm it with ladders, but nothing worked. To make matters worse, Djezzar refused to allow a truce to bury the dead, and so corpses would remain where they had fallen, filling the air with a horrific stench day after day.
The fighting was not limited to the siege at Acre. Local Arab tribesman, together with Turkish regulars repeatedly attacked the French besiegers and had to be repulsed. There were four important engagements during April of '99. Apparently the Turks fought like the Marmelukes, because on each occasion a French force defeated a Moslem force two or three times its own size, once near Nazareth on the 5th, once at Canaa on the 11th, once along the Jordan river on the 15th, and finally near Mount Tabor on the 16th. In this final example, Kléber and Bonaparte beat a Syrian army of 35,000 infantry and cavalry, with only 2,000 French (of which two were killed and 60 wounded). (Fregosi, 164) The French could find victory everywhere, except at Acre.
The siege lasted a full two and a half months, before Bonaparte would admit defeat. Of the 13,000 who started the Syrian assault, nearly 1,200 French soldiers died in combat, another thousand succumbed to plague, and 2,300 were seriously sick or wounded. Four more generals also lost their lives: Rambaud, Bon, Dommartin, and the one-legged Caffarelli (who ordered that as he bled to death, Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws be read to him; a true Revolutionary to the end) On the other side, Phélipeaux himself died on May 1st, presumably from the plague. By the middle of May, Turkish reinforcements were pouring into the city by the sea. It was time to go home.
The siege was lifted on May the 11th, and the march back to Cairo began on the 20th. Most of the sick had to be left behind, even though the French knew the Turks would cut off their heads as soon as they had left. Some of these poor doomed souls did their best to follow the army, crying not to be abandoned and left to the Turks. (Castelot, 121) Some of the sick were given opium to poison themselves, and some were given horses to ride back to Egypt.
They left during the night, but the next day they were subjected to bombardment by the British ships as they marched along the shoreline. Under the most debilitating heat and thirst, some shocking cruelties were perpetrated. Injured officers were thrown from their litters by the men carrying them, and left to die in the dunes, and some wounded soldiers were abandoned in cornfields. (Bourrienne, 86) Like the retreat from Russia some thirteen years later, villages and crops were burned as the army moved along. They set the whole countryside ablaze, and the sun was often obscured from the smoke which the fires expelled. The whole was a scene of defeat, horror and death. Some 5,000 men had been sacrificed in the campaign to Syria, but the Ottoman Empire had not been adversely affected in the least. On June 14, 1799 those that were still alive and fit to walk stumbled through Cairo's Gate of Victory. Bands played and the soldiers smiled and waved (just happy to be alive, no doubt). Napoleon claimed victory in Syria, but he wasn't fooling anyone. One returning French officer wrote that the people of Cairo, "seemed extremely curious to discover how many of us were left." (Fregosi, 165)
By this time, England and her allies had formed the Second Coalition, and France was again under assault from the forces of Europe. In Napoleon's absence, France had lost Rome and most of Italy. Defeated in the east, and another major war facing France, Napoleon immediately began to plan his exodus from Egypt. He remained only another two months and then left secretly. He took with him his secretary Bourrienne, four of his aides-de-camp, his stepson Eugene de Beauharnais and three of the savants, Monge, Berhtollet and Denon. Six of his most valuable generals accompanied him also, as well as a Marmeluke from Georgia named Routstam, who would serve as his manservant for the next fifteen years. (Fregosi, 167) Apparently, his mistress Pauline Foures was left behind. He and his party left Egypt in two French frigates on August 23, and sailed for southern France.
General Kléber was appointed the new commander-in-chief of the Army of Egypt, and was left holding the bag, so to speak. The army was surrounded by the Royal Navy and some 80,000 approaching Turkish regulars, not to mention the Bedouins and the Marmelukes. Faced with this hopeless situation, he wrote a letter to Sir Sydney Smith suing for peace. Kléber didn't really have much longer to suffer in Egypt, as he was assassinated on April 22nd by a religious fanatic from Aleppo who claimed he did it 'for the glory of God.' Enraged, the French soldiers took the man's right hand (the one with which he had done the deed) and roasted it over a bed of hot coals. At the same time they planted a stake through his body, into the ground, and waited for him to bleed to death. He took four hours to die in this manner. (Fregosi, 171) Ah, the glorious, romantic past. On this happy note I will conclude my study of the Egyptian Campaign.
There are a few lessons and bits of insight that can be gained from the consideration of this most unusual campaign. First is example after example of the supremacy of 18th century weapons and discipline over crusade-like 16th century tactics. No big surprise here. The siege of Acre was the first time Napoleon had been confronted with an enemy supported by European science and the British. It was also the first battle he lost. Secondly, we can see that for any operation in North Africa and the Holy Land, control of the Mediterranean is essential. Bonaparte's dreams of a colony in Egypt were impossible as long as the Royal Navy held a monopoly over the sea, and again the necessity of naval supremacy was driven home again at Acre, when his siege artillery was taken from him. Napoleon once said, "If it had not been for you English I would have been Emperor of the East." (Chandler, 246)
This brings me to another point. The campaign shows many facets of Napoleon's character, most of them bad. He was ruthless to his men and to those over which he ruled. The men of his army were simply objects of his desire and ambition. He would tend to use them until they broke, and then cast them away. When his Army of Egypt had been defeated, he quickly lost interest and left for Europe. Furthermore, to suit his ends he could be a liar and a charlatan when it profited him. He had no qualms about deluding his own men, the members of the Directory (to which he repeatedly sent rosy reports), or the people over which he ruled. Finally, he had a pronounced tendency towards megalomania and dreamy ambition. Take as an example the evening of the 8th of May 1799, when Bonaparte was at Acre. Bourrienne writes;
"Almost every evening during the siege Bonaparte and myself used to walk together, at a distance form the sea-shore; and when employed on this manner on the day after the unfortunate assault of the 8th of May, he felt distressed at seeing the blood of so many brave men which had been uselessly shed. He said to me, 'Bourrienne, I see that this wretched place has cost me a number of men, and wasted much time. But things are too far advanced not to attempt a last effort. If I succeed, as I expect, I shall find in the town the pacha's treasures, and arms for 300,000 men. I will stir up and arm the people of Syria, who are disgusted at the ferocity of the Djezzar, and who, as you know, pray for his destruction at every assault. I shall then march upon Damascus and Aleppo. On advancing into that country, the discontented will flock round my standard, and swell my army. I will announce to the people the abolition of servitude, and of the tyrannical governments of the pachas. I shall arrive at Constantinople with large masses of soldiery. I shall overturn the Turkish empire, and found, in the East, a new and grand empire, which will fix my name in the records of posterity. Perhaps I shall return to Paris by Adrianople, or by Vienna, after having annihilated the house of Austria.'" (Bourrienne, 85-86)
Such were the dreams of Napoleon Bonaparte, which seem like opium dreams to me. But Bonaparte would expend men's lives and the resources of his nation copiously to follow these dreams, without compunction. It must be realized that, while he may have been a great military leader and strategist, Napoleon Bonaparte fought for no higher cause than Napoleon Bonaparte.
As for the impact of the expedition, it was mostly fleeting. Politically, the invasion of Egypt and the high-handed seizure of Malta certainly irritated Russia and the Ottoman Empire and hastened the formation of the Second Coalition against France. All of the works and improvements of the Institute of Egypt were transient, and when the savants left, their knowledge and expertise went with them. The Rosetta Stone was the only lasting benefit. One Moslem historian, in reference to the year 1799, completely failed to mention the French invasion entirely, stating only that, "this year the pilgrimage to Mecca was discontinued." Europeans come and go, but the Middle East always stays the same.
No Author. The Life of Buonaparte. London: Plummer and Brewis, 1803.
Fregosi, Paul. Dreams of Empire. London: Century Hutchinson Ltd., 1989
Bourrienne, F. de. Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1903.
Fournier, August. Napoleon the First. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1903.
Castelot, Andre. Napoleon. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1966.[ Military Index | Battles Index ]
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