Chapter 14


The Egyptian campaign


Napoleon’s Return to France


Victory at Aboukir


July 14, 1799

A Turkish army lands at Aboukir


18,000 Turkish foot-soldiers and cavalrymen under the orders of Mustapha Pasha landed at Aboukir, at the very spot where Nelson, on August 1, 1798, had destroyed the French fleet. This army was transported in 60 ships escorted by five Turkish vessels and the British Navy under Commodore Sidney Smith.


With the support of the English cannons, the Turks had no difficulty overcoming the 300 French who defended the fort and capturing the castle. All prisoners were immediately slaughtered in the same way as the emissaries at Jaffa. Mustapha remarked with satisfaction and arrogance to Murad Bey, who had joined him, “So these are the French whose presence you found so intolerable. All I need do is show my face, and they flee before me!” Murad replied: “Thank God and the prophets that the French are retreating, because if they return, you will be swept away like dust before the wind.”


Mustapha shrugged, but on the advice of Sidney Smith, he did not launch an attack on Cairo immediately, as he had intended. He set up three successive lines of trenches and parapets to establish a bridgehead, which, under the protection of the fleet’s cannons, ought to have been unassailable.


July 25, 1799

Napoleon's victory at Aboukir


As soon as he learned of the landing, Napoleon left Cairo and travelled with 6000 infantry and 1000 cavalry towards the invasion site. On the evening of July 24, he made contact, and at dawn the next day, after a good artillery preparation that sowed considerable confusion in parts of the first line of defence, and without waiting for Kléber to arrive with his division, he launched his attack. Lannes threw himself into the breach, which he widened with a bayonet charge. Caught from the rear, the Turks soon had to abandon the trench in an attempt to regroup. They were immediately charged by Murat’s cavalry. Murat, decked with plumes and resplendent in his gilded tunic that flashed in the sunlight, must have offered an extraordinary spectacle at the head of his soldiers. Overwhelmed by these superb demons who cut them down with their sabres, the Ottomans fled in disarray and sought refuge in the sea. The second line, whose centre was occupied by the fort, now experienced the terrible effects of the concentrated, accurate fire of the French cannons. The heavy naval guns were no help; they could not be used because the fighting was at such close quarters. Once more throwing himself at full gallop into a breach opened by the cannon fire, Murat annihilated everything in his path. On the left wing, the 18th demi-brigade was having difficulty containing a vigorous counterattack. The Turks seemed to be gaining the upper hand as they advanced, systematically massacring all the wounded. Then the 69th arrived, their bayonets fixed. The enemy was driven back and the fortifications were taken in their wake. Lannes took Mustapha prisoner with all his general staff. Now a blind panic seized the Turks, who attempted to escape in every direction, but mostly towards the sea. They abandoned weapons, shoes, turbans and robes, as they attempted to swim back to their boats.


The Fort, which had been besieged by Menou since the beginning of the battle, surrendered on August 2. In total, the French took over 5000 prisoners, who were very well treated. On their side, they had no more than 200 killed in the entire battle.


When Kléber arrived on the scene, he said to Napoleon, “Mon général, I have witnessed many battles, but none as beautiful and successful as this one.” The great Marshall Bertrand, for his part, told the Emperor on St. Helena, “The first time that I found myself close to you in a battle was at Aboukir. I confess that I was so dumbfounded by certain of your orders that I began to wonder whether I was not losing my senses. For instance, I heard you call out to one captain: ‘Go, mon cher Hercule, take 25 men and charge that rabble!’  That “rabble” was almost 1000 Turkish cavalrymen!”


August 5, 1799

Napoleon decides to return to France


After the battle, Napoleon dispatched an aide-de-camp to the Turkish Admiral to agree on a delivery of supplies for the prisoners. Sidney Smith handed this officer a copy of the Gazette française printed in Frankfurt, dated June 10, 1799. Napoleon spent the night reading the news: there had been French defeats in Germany at the hands of Archduke Karl and in Italy at those of Souvarov. The Austrians and Russians were on the point of returning to France and restoring the Bourbon monarchy. With all its conquests swept away, the impotent Directory was staggering from crisis to crisis. It seemed like the death knell of the Republic. At dawn, Napoleon reached his decision: he would return to France. He could certainly be more useful in the homeland, even to the army of the Orient. In fact, what would become of the army if the Bourbons returned to power? They would doubtless join forces with the English. Kléber was amply qualified to assume command during his absence.


It should be added that in May 1799, the Directory had ordered Napoleon to return to help defend France’s borders. The message never reached its intended recipient, since it was intercepted by the English.


Once back in Cairo, Napoleon resumed all his activities. The sheiks and the ulemas were deeply impressed by his lightning victory over the powerful army of Mustapha Pasha. For them, and for all Egyptians, he was now Sultan Kebir, the Sultan of Fire. They bowed low before him, swearing eternal fidelity. He wrote instructions for Kléber  that included not only general political directives, but also details for the effective continuance of the administration of Egypt. He ended with: “In France, my everyday concern will be to obtain reinforcements for the army of Egypt.” He drew up the list of those he would take with him: Bourrienne, Berthier, Eugène de Beauharnais, Duroc, Marmont, Monge, Berthollet, Vivant Denon, the Mamelouk Roustan and three hundred soldiers.


August 23 – Oct. 9, 1799

Return to France


The return fleet was composed of two Venetian frigates, the Muiron and the Carrére, and two sloops, the Revanche and the Fortune. Napoleon decided to stay close to the African Coast. Thus, if he came in contact with an English fleet, he would be able to go ashore and continue to journey on foot.


Let us hear the words of Las Cases in his Memoir from Saint Helena. “Admiral Ganteaume has often recounted this voyage to me. This officer had remained at headquarters since the destruction of the fleet at Aboukir. Napoleon asked me to go to Alexandria and arm the Venetian frigates there and to alert him when they were ready. When that moment arrived, the General-in-chief and his companions got into the dinghies that took them to the ships. They cast off that very night, to ensure that by daylight, they were out of sight of the English cruisers moored at Aboukir. Unfortunately they ran into calm seas and were still in sight of land; from the tops of the masts, the moored English ships could be seen. Given this situation, I proposed returning to Alexandria, but Napoleon opposed this, and soon we were happy to find ourselves on the high seas.


The crossing was very long and disagreeable; we were constantly afraid of being surprised by the English and were very nervous: only Napoleon remained calm and composed. When he came up on deck, it was in the gayest, the freest of moods, and he chatted about all manner of inconsequential things.


After reading the newspaper provided by Sidney Smith, Napoleon felt certain that disasters were taking place in France; indeed he was convinced that the enemy had crossed the Alps, and had already occupied several southern departments. Accordingly, when we were approaching France, he ordered the captain to set a course for Port-Vendre. We came into Corsica with a stiff wind behind. We landed in Ajaccio, where we availed ourselves of the latest news. (We learned that Masséna had driven Souvarov back, and that Brune was holding his own against the Austrians.)


Baron de Ménéval, Secretary to the First Consul and Emperor, wrote an account of this stay in Ajaccio, which was to be Napoleon’s last on the island of his childhood: “Held up in Ajaccio by unfavourable winds, General Bonaparte found the troops in a lamentable state. For nineteen months, the soldiers had received neither pay nor supplies of any kind. He hastened to distribute to them all the money he had, that is, forty thousand francs, keeping for himself only as much as he needed to finish his voyage to Paris.” On October 7, favourable winds returned and the fleet set sail for Saint-Raphaël, where it arrived without mishap on October 9, 1799. They were not subjected to quarantine, the enthusiastic crowd greeting Napoleon with cries of: “We’d rather have the plague than the Austrians.”



Conclusions on Napoleon’s time in Egypt.


First of all, a word on the Suez Canal. For a thousand years, from 250 B.C. to 750 A.D, a canal joined the Nile to the Red Sea. It was begun under the Pharaohs and finished under Ptolemy II (Philadelphus). This was the Old Canal, which was abolished by Caliph Abou Gafar el Mansour. Napoleon showed an intense interest in re-establishing a maritime transportation route between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. He carried out many surveys with the engineers and topographers of the Institute of Egypt and after admiring the sand-covered vestiges of the old canal, he chose a direct route (not incorporating the Nile), which was the one adopted by Ferdinand de Lesseps sixty years later.


Let us pass the word to Las Casas once more: “The Italian campaign showed what brilliant and positive accomplishments military concepts and genius can give birth to: diplomatic triumphs, talented administration, and innovative legislation accompanied the wonders of war every step of the way. The most remarkable thing, without which this picture could not be complete, is the sudden, irresistible rise of this young general. Indeed, everything that is admirable in the Italian campaign can also be found in the Egyptian expedition. Whoever is capable of observation and reflection will find that everything is raised to an even higher level there, because of the myriad difficulties that typified this expedition and required more resourcefulness and creativity of its leader; because here everything was different: the climate, the land, the inhabitants, their religion, their manners, their way of fighting, everything.


Napoleon was immensely popular. He inspired special respect for his own person; wherever he appeared, everyone rose in his presence. The constant regard that he showed toward the sheiks, his adroitness in winning them over, had made him the sovereign of Egypt. Once, an unfortunate Egyptian peasant was killed by foreign Arabs. Napoleon had their caravan pursued to ensure the crime was punished. This was witnessed by the great sheiks, who said to him: “ Sultan Kebir, this is not a wise move. Don’t meddle with such people. Why all this fuss just because they killed a poor wretch? Was he your cousin?  “Far more than my cousin, Napoleon replied proudly, all those under my rule are my children; this power was given to me solely to guarantee their safety.” Hearing these words, the sheiks bowed low, saying, “Thou speakest like the Prophet.”




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