Chapter 13


The Egyptian Campaign


First Half of 1799




Sept. 1798 – June 1799

Desaix pacifies Upper Egypt


General Desaix (1768-1800), who in 1798 was 30 years old, was certainly, along with future Marshal Davout, one of the greatest military leaders of noble birth ever to rally to the revolutionary cause. In Upper Egypt, in addition to his exceptional talents as a soldier, he demonstrated such skill as an administrator that he was favourably compared to his chief, which is no small compliment.


He had been a Divisional General since October 1793, when he was serving in the Army of Sambre-et-Meuse. He went to visit Bonaparte at the château of Mombello in July 1797. United in their love of their country, the two men became close friends. At the end of August, 1798, Napoleon gave him the mission of pursuing Murad Bey, who was retreating towards the source of the Nile.


Desaix left Cairo on August 25 with 3000 men, and proceeded carefully, ensuring that he remained in the good graces of the population, which was weary of the tyrannical oppression of the Mamalukes. He showed himself to be so human and friendly that the Egyptians knew him only by his nickname of the "Just Sultan." As a result, the French Army had no problems with provisions and was able to ensure the safety of its rear and its communications.


On October 8, Murad Bey lay in waiting for him at Sediman, 100 kilometers south of Cairo, with 5000 cavalrymen. Desaix formed two squares. The Mamelukes’ charges were violent and unrelenting; these horsemen of the desert rivalled their opponents in ardour. They spurred on their agile, nervous steeds and hurled themselves onto the veterans of the campaign of Italy, who had withstood many such charges and did not yield an inch. Finally, with Desaix and his generals at the fore, and to the sound of Le Départ, the French launched a counterattack that drove back everything in its path. Murad Bey retreated towards the south. He had lost 600 horsemen, whereas Desaix had lost only 40 infantrymen.


The next three months were spent pacifying the province of Fayoum. The Army, whose numbers had been brought up to 4000 by the inclusion 1000 cavalrymen and a group of 9 pieces of artillery, then resumed its progress towards the South.

On January 22, 1799, at Samhoud, 500 miles from Cairo, there was a new encounter with Murad Bey, who now had 14,000 cavalry. He had been reinforced by the troops of Hassan Bey and 2000 Arabs from Mecca. Faithful to his customary tactics in the face of massed cavalry, Desaix formed three squares commanded by Beliard, Friant, and Belliard. Murad attacks; first Friant then Belliard, but without success. Davout counterattacked with cavalry and artillery. The Mamelukes fled in every direction; Murad Bey abandoned his troops and personally rejoined the Turkish Army in Palestine.


At the beginning of March, Desaix reached Aswan, 800 kilometers from Cairo. At the end of May, he dispatched Belliard to Kosseir, the principal port linking Egypt with Arabia. A French garrison would be established there.


Napoleon sang the praises of his friend: "Desaix is the embodiment of natural talent enhanced by education and work. Success in noble endeavours is his very life’s breath; he is cast in the pure classical mould."


September to December 1798

Formation of the Second Coalition against France.


English Prime Minister William Pitt was an out-and-out warmonger. When Austria, after being conquered by Napoleon, had signed the Peace of Campo-Formo, he refused to support the peace initiative, which would have permitted the nations of Europe to work on improving the living conditions of their people. On the contrary, he launched a major diplomatic offensive and doled out huge amounts of money to rekindle the war. And he succeeded. At the end of December 1798, a second coalition of the old monarchies, England, Austria, Russia and Naples declared war on the French Republic. What is more, it managed to get Turkey to reverse its alliance with France, by agreeing to join the coalition and attack the French in Egypt.


Feb. 9-15, 1799

Victory at El Arish


Upon learning that a Turkish army of 50,000 men was coming from Syria to attack him, Napoleon decided to go out and meet it. On Feb. 9, at El Arish, Reynier’s vanguard ran into 1200 foot-soldiers and 600 horsemen backed up by a fortified castle. They took the village, but the fort resisted capture. On February 14, Kléber besieged it, and obtained the surrender of the garrison.


March 7, 1799

Capture of Jaffa


On March 4, the French arrived at Jaffa, a fortified city on a hill defended by 3000 men. While commencing the siege work, Napoleon wrote a message to the commandant of the city: "To avoid great misfortune falling on the city, I ask you to surrender peacefully. God is good and generous and we respect his Commandments. If you refuse my offer, you will be annihilated. Signed Napoleon Bonaparte."


The aide-de-camp presented himself before a door of the compound with four cavalrymen as escort. The door opened, and the delegation of peace messengers were admitted. A few minutes later, five bloody heads were displayed on spearheads on the battlements, and upon looking closely, it was seen that before being decapitated, the men had been subjected to the most odious of tortures: their genitals had been stuffed into their mouths.


The French had observed the spectacle from the trench. It scarcely needs saying that their attack was extremely efficient, provoked by such an act of barbarity. The city was taken in no time at all, and the 1800 surviving prisoners were herded unceremoniously onto the beach.


Then followed the event which ever since, has caused so much to be written by the enemies of Napoleon, who continue to exploit it, to fuel their slander against his memory. This was the elimination of the prisoners. Napoleon had no means of feeding them. If he had given them their freedom, they would have returned immediately to the ranks of the enemy, who were already far superior in numbers. This is what Stendhal said about the dilemma: "A military leader must decide to sacrifice four enemies if that can save the life of three of his soldiers." It was with great reluctance that Napoleon chose the decision imposed upon him by circumstances. But he made some exceptions: he allowed 500 prisoners of Egyptian origin to return in freedom to the banks of the Nile. The rest were assembled with their backs to the sea, which allowed a large number to escape by swimming towards the rocks, where they waited for the French to depart. The great Sir Winston Churchill was nowhere near as considerate when he coldly murdered 1700 French sailors who were not even his enemies, but his allies.


Saint-Jean d'Acre


March 18 to May 20, 1799

Failure at Acre


The French reached the fort at Acre on March 18. Officially, the fortress was under the orders of Djezzar Pasha, but in reality, its defense was primarily assured by Commander Sidney Smith and several English ships and by the French traitor Antoine de Phélippeaux, who had set up a second line of fortifications within the city walls. This Phélippeaux had been a classmate of Napoleon’s at the Military School in Paris in 1785. He had emigrated in 1791, and served with the Duc d’Enghien in the army of Condé and killed French soldiers in 1792 in Valmy and in Jemmapes. He then slipped into France in 1795 to organize an insurrection in Berry. He was arrested at Bourges, from whence he escaped. He resurfaced in Paris and organized the escape of Sidney Smith from the Temple Prison. They traveled together, first to England, then to Constantinople before joining Djhazzar Pasha in Acre at the beginning of March 1799.


The French fleet that had left Damiette with the large siege cannons and provisions was captured by the English. On March 28, a first attack failed. On March 30 and April 6, there were sorties by the besieged Turks that were easily repulsed. The French were now threatened by a Turkish army that was approaching over land. Napoleon sent Junot on a reconnaissance mission with 500 cavalrymen and camel soldiers. Napoleon had formed camel squadrons and now often rode a dromedary, which is the only animal capable of running 60 kilometers a day in the desert without food or water. On April 13, Junot attacked a cavalry detachment near Nazareth, and gained intelligence on the movements of the enemy. On April 15, Kléber was sent with 1500 reinforcements. He dispersed 4500 Turks near Cana and came into contact with the main force of the army of Abdallah, the Pasha of Damascus. On the morning of May 16, Kléber, with 2000 men, found himself facing a cavalry force of 25,000 horsemen. He formed squares commanded by Junot and Verdier, which vigorously resisted the repeated massed cavalry attacks. In the afternoon, when the situation was becoming critical, Napoleon arrived with the 2000 men of the Bon division and 200 cavalry. Immediately attacked, he formed two infantry squares, commanded by Vial and Rampon, and a cavalry square. He then directed Rampon against the flanks of the Turks who were attacking Kléber, while Vial attacked the enemy’s rear. Kléber counterattacked in turn, smashed through the Turkish cavalry and drove it back in total disarray towards Jordan and Mount Thabor, which was to give its name to this fine victory of one against six.


Back in Acre, Napoleon launched a new assault on April 24. He failed. General Caffarelli, the brilliant commander of the army of the Orient, had his elbow smashed by a bullet. He had to have his right arm amputated even though he had already lost his left leg to a cannonball on Nov. 27, 1797, as he was serving under Kléber in the army of Sambre-et-Meuse. This truly exceptional man, Louis-Marie-Joseph-Maximilian Caffarelli du Falga, was born on February 13, 1756 in the château of Folga (Haute-Garonne). The oldest of ten children, he refused to exercise his rights as the elder to ensure that he inherited the larger part of his parents’ wealth. He had it divided equally. He continued to fight for his country with a wooden leg. In Egypt he was known and adored by the entire army. The soldiers liked to say of him: "Caffa doesn't give a damn what happens; he's always sure to have one foot in France." He was also a philosopher, who was elected to the Institute of Egypt on February 13, 1796 in the class of moral and  political sciences. He was part of the commission in charge of drafting the regulations of the Institute of Egypt and accompanied Napoleon on the surveys to trace the route of what would one day be the Suez Canal. After this second amputation, in spite of his suffering, all he could think of was learning to write with his left hand and finding ways of continuing to serve with only one arm and one leg. Unfortunately he was stricken with gangrene and died of a fever. Napoleon wrote in the order of the day: "Our universal regrets accompany General Caffarelli to the grave; the army is losing one of its bravest leaders. Egypt one of its legislators, France one of its best citizens, and science, an illustrious scholar."


During a new assault, on May 7, the French passed through the outer city walls and took control of the main tower that dominated the ramparts. On May 8th, Lannes penetrated the inner compound, but came up against the line of fortifications built by Phélippeaux. General Rambaud was killed and Lannes wounded. On May 10, Kléber failed in one final attempt. On May 17, Napoleon decided to abandon the siege and to return to Egypt. On May 24, he returned to Jaffa, where, scorning the risk of contagion, under the horrified gaze of his general staff, he embraced his soldiers stricken with the plague. On June 14, 1799, Napoleon returned to Cairo.


The failure at Acre had enormously harmful consequences on the events that have been tearing the Middle East apart for the last two centuries. In fact, Napoleon had composed a proclamation that established a State of Israel and defined its borders with a Palestinian State. In other words, Antoine de Phélippeaux is the man responsible for the current bloodshed in the region and much more besides. His betrayal brought him no luck, however, as he was carried off by the plague only a few days later.



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