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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

Napoleon's Mamelukes

Pawly, Ronald. Napoleon's Mamelukes. (Men-at-Arms, 429.) Illustrated by Patrice Courcelle. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2006. 48 pages. ISBN# 184176955X. Softcover. $15.95.

The Mamelukes were among the most painted units in Napoleon's Imperial Guard. Their imagery and their influence in military fashion was large. Their outlandish costume is a maze of contradictions in styles that the author of this volume fails to engage. Brightly coloured and distinctively Middle Eastern, the red, yellows and green outfits of these legendary warriors grabbed the imagination of much of Europe. In society it became fashionable for women to wear large turbans and shawls and children to be dressed in Mameluke styles.

The Author outlines the history behind the fierce horsemen who took over Egypt and ruled, at varying stages, large Middle Eastern provinces through beys. Mamelukes were selected from slave markets where light-skinned Christian boys were bought, converted to Islam and then began a lifelong service in war for their masters. They were at their best while fighting, and were renown for their tactical and weapons skills and unwavering courage. In the 1770s the Mamelukes came to power in Egypt under the nominal overlordship of the Ottoman Turks.

In 1798 the West clashed with the Mamelukes when Napoleon invaded Egypt. Their lan and bravery was of an age long gone. The Mamelukes were no match for the veterans of Bonaparte's army. After Napoleon returned to France, General Menou formed a Mameluke detachment which soon became part of Bonaparte's personal guard. Their loyalty was never questioned and they, fatally for some, became synonymous with Napoleon and his empire. His final fall led to many Mamelukes in France being murdered by vengeful Royalists. Throughout the long wars the Mamelukes serve with the Imperial Guard's Chasseurs Cheval.

The colour illustrations by Patrice Courcelle and detail of the drawings provided in this book make it stand out from many of the recent Men-at-Arms books. The narrative is clear and concise history and organisation. Aside from covering the history of the Mamelukes and detailing their military campaigns under Napoleon, the section on the personalities was particularly interesting. The brief biographies open a window on the type of men serving in the regiment and also how brave they were. Chahin, for example, suffered no fewer than 40 wounds in the emperor's service. There is a good section upon standards and flags but no illustrations to go with them. 
The brief of the book may have been too large for only 14,000 words. Half the book talks about Mamelukes in general and not those who served loyally Napoleon as would be expected by the title. This has squeezed out information that would have synthesized the uniforms and equipment that has been traditionally been given equal weight in an Osprey volume. I would have liked more information on the weapons, equipment, horses and style of dress that are shown in the fine illustrations. I would have especially liked to see an indication whether the illustrations were typical for the unit or for a particular person and what variations there were through the period. Certainly there seemed to be such an indication that by 1813-14 there was a mixture of Arabic and French styles in dress and equipment. One of the plates refers to Mameluke Regulation Dress but that does not seem to be further explained. 
Plates A to D and many of the illustrations clearly show the Mamelukes riding Arabs indicated by their narrow their high carry. The horses for the later period seem to be sturdier European light horse blood stock.  A comment upon this would have been useful.
This book is of use for those interested in the Mamelukes, the Imperial Guard, the Egyptian Campaign or those readers who are collectors of the MAA series. Its clear writing style and illustrations makes it a light read for about an hour or so. The main criticism is the MAA format does not do justice to this subject. The Mr. Pawly provides a general history book that is lavishly illustrated and, like many of the recent Ospreys, lacks a bibliography-- thus being unhelpful to those who wish to learn more about these fascinating warriors. For a person who is fascinated in the uniforms, equipment, arms and horses, I was disappointed with this book that promised so much.  This is certainly not the best of his books upon cavalry of the French Napoleonic Cavalry which I would recommend.

Reviewed by Stephen Summerfield
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2006