GENERAL MICHEL FRANCESCHI
BONAPARTE IN EGYPT
THE SUBLIME HESITATION OF HISTORY
Napoleon in Egypt by Job
Translated by Jonathan M. House
INTERNATIONAL NAPOLEONIC SOCIETY
The time that I spent in Egypt was the best of my life because it was the most ideal... The true conquests are those made over ignorance. (Napoleon at Saint Helena)
Historians have somewhat neglected Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt. They have sometimes even turned it into an object of derision. What a mess they have made of this matter! Their attitude is especially regrettable because this was a truly fabulous event on the military, political, and cultural planes.
Over the course of time, Napoleon’s reputation had suffered a number of vicissitudes, oscillating between the “golden legend” and what his detractors term a “black legend.” The latter view appears in the insidious form of a vast historical literature that falsely claims to be objective.
At the International Napoleonic Society, we have imposed on ourselves the mission of rendering full justice to Napoleon while sweeping away the falsehoods and calumnies that impugn his honor and gravely insult his memory.
1 - A Strategic Concept of Great Worth
After his brilliant victories during the war in Italy (1796-1797), Bonaparte made a triumphal entry into Paris on December 5, 1797. In the name of the Directory, on November 30 at Rastadt he had signed a treaty ending the war with Austria, but a general peace was far from being established.
Named to command the Army of England, he devoted time to a thorough geo-strategic review. Among the many enemies of the new France, the most intractable and dangerous was unquestionably Britain. London was already trying to form a new European alliance to destroy the France that had emerged from the Revolution. Britain could not tolerate the shining expansion of France because Paris represented a mortal danger to British monarchical institutions and constituted a major obstacle to its colonial imperialism.
Short of immediate surrender, war was unavoidable. It was thus in France’s vital interest to immediately find the best means to defend itself against Britain.
To fight the intractable Albion, two military options were available:
-A direct invasion of Great Britain or
-An indirect operation against Britain’s imperial communications.
Bonaparte first studied the feasibility of an invasion of England. In February 1798, with his aides Lannes, Bourrienne, and Julkowski, he made a fifteen-day tour of inspection of the coastline and ports. He minutely examined the possibilities offered by the ports of Etaples, Ambleteuse, Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, Furnes, Newport, Ostende, Anvers, and the island of Walcheren. They registered all the means of transport that could be assembled in coordination with the navy. The results were disheartening: France fell far short of having the force necessary to defeat Britain’s naval power. Bonaparte informed the Directory that they must renounce the invasion of England because France had not constituted a national navy in proportion to its foreign and defense policy. This was a task that needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency. This question would reappear under better circumstances in 1805...
Given that a direct attack on Britain was impossible for the near future, the only alternative was an indirect strategy. After mature reflection, Bonaparte proposed to the Directory an expedition to Egypt.
A Project Matured by Long Study
Why Egypt? Much nonsense has been written on this subject. Some have suggested that the purpose was to remove an “unemployed hero” from Paris because he was a threat to the institutions of government. This is too simple an explanation. If it were true that the conqueror of Austria posed an irritant to the government, there were many quicker methods of neutralizing him. Moreover, if this hypothesis was correct, why did the Directory hesitate so long before approving his request?
Others have viewed the expedition as a “fantasy” granted by a confused Directory to a prestigious general who wished to pose as the equal of Alexander and the Caesars. This hypothesis is even less plausible.
In reality, the Egyptian expedition implemented a grand strategic idea conceived well before the Revolution and revived to fit the situation. The desire to distance Bonaparte from Paris played only a very minor role.
In 1672, Leibniz had written to Louis XIV to encourage him to conquer Egypt in the war against the Netherlands: Egypt is the point to strike. There you will find the great commercial route to the Indies. You would seize this commerce from the Dutch and thereby ensure the eternal domination by France of the Levant. You would rejuvenate all of Christianity. You would fill the world with surprise and admiration. Far from cooperating against you, Europe would applaud you.
Louis XIV displayed some interest but could not pursue the project.
In 1769, Choiseul revisited the project under Louis XV “to replace the loss of the American colonies.”
Under Louis XVI—what continuity!—Monsieur de Sartine in turn tried to convince the king with the same arguments Leibniz had used, but with the British taking the place of the Dutch. These official proposals were reinforced by the reports of consular agents and other traders or influential travelers.
Implemented in 1798, the conquest of Egypt brought France considerable geo-strategic advantages.
By menacing the route to the Indies, the jewel in the British crown, this conquest turned Britain partially away from Europe. It forced the British to disperse their naval elements.
The possession of Egypt and of its natural outpost, Malta, represented an incomparable bargaining chip in all future peace negotiations.
Moreover, in law if not in fact Egypt belonged to the decaying Ottoman Empire. The presence of France on this territory placed it in the best possible situation to inherit from the Ottomans or to participate in the eventual partition of that empire.
Finally, consular agents reported that Britain had for some time been intensifying its direct relations with the beys of Egypt, on the basis of a treaty of commerce signed with them in 1775. Manifestly, London was preparing to make Egypt the keystone of its colonial expansion to the east. The simultaneous possession of Egypt and Malta, in addition (since 1713) to Gibraltar, assured British supremacy in the Mediterranean and posed a permanent menace to the southern coasts of France. Under these circumstances, France might also see the compromise of its entire African policy.
France was at home in the Mediterranean, which it bordered for a thousand kilometers without counting Corsica. This was not the case with Britain, which sought to make the Mediterranean into a springboard for its imperialism.
In sum, Egypt constituted a major stake in the confrontation with Britain. A fast track was available to control the country. In the higher interests of France, the Directory could not afford to miss the opportunity.
Egypt at the end of the Eighteenth Century no longer owed anything to the pharaohs of its origin, nor to its prestigious later conquerors, Alexander, Ptolemy, Caesar, and Saladin. The Coptic Christians were the only remaining people indigenous to the land. They had been submerged in the Seventh Century by the Arab conquest but had not renounced their religion. The Ottomans imposed themselves in the Sixteenth Century. These three human classes existed virtually everywhere in the Ottoman Empire, known as the Sublime Porte.
The great human originality of Egypt at that epoch lay in the presence of a fourth component that existed nowhere else: the Mamelukes or “slaves” in Arabic. Around 1230, a Sultan of Egypt purchased twelve thousand young Caucasian men, principally Georgians and Circassians, to make them into the elite of his army. Hand picked, they quickly acquired a great influence and, in the next generation, they became by force the masters of the country. Once in power, they brought to Egypt a refined civilization, further enriching the two preceding cultures, Pharaonic and Arab.
Upon their arrival in 1517, the Ottoman Turks reached an arrangement with the Mamelukes. In exchange for recognition of Turkish sovereignty, represented by a pasha, the Turks left the administration of the country to the Mameluke beys organized into a governing council, the diwan, nominally chaired by the pasha.
The noble justification for an intervention was thus readily at hand, even more so because France was the traditional friend of the Sultan of Constantinople. On the diplomatic plane, it was perfectly possible to play the card of an operation to rescue a friendly and oppressed population in this era of emancipation of peoples.
Yet, the Directory remained to be convinced!
Certain authors attribute to Talleyrand the entire authorship of this affair. Let us examine this allegation further...
Since his first readings in history at Brunne, Bonaparte’s fascination with the Orient grew steadily, focusing on the epochs of Alexander the Great and of Julius Caesar.
Bonaparte’s interest in Egypt, cradle of numerous prestigious civilizations, was sharpened in particular by reading the Voyage to Egypt and Syria by Constantine de Volney, whom he met in Corsica during one of his leaves. He remained profoundly marked by the experience.
It was at Ancone, during the war in Italy, that he focused his previously-vague oriental dreams. He entered this Adriatic port on February 5, 1797. He moved immediately towards the sea in a sort of rapture. It was this that some have labeled “the Revelation of Ancone.” He, who by habit never remained stationary anywhere, stayed for ten days to learn about this “port of the Orient.” He urged upon the Directory the value of keeping direct control over Ancone, as well as the islands of Corfu, Zonte, and Cephalonia in the Adriatic.
His ideas became more precise in the following weeks, notably at his headquarters in Passariano. His generals and aides de camp were the first to learn about his Egyptian project. They agreed with him completely, as did Gaspard Monge, founder of the Ecole Polytechnique and already part of Bonaparte’s entourage.
By a letter of June 16, 1797, he prepared the government for the idea of an expedition to Egypt:
The time is not far off when we will conclude that, to truly destroy England, we will have to seize Egypt. The vast Ottoman Empire, which teeters on the brink of death, forces us to think in a timely manner about the means to protect our trade with the Levant.
The government remaining deaf, Bonaparte wrote to Talleyrand, Minister of Foreign Relations, by courier on September 13, 1797. He elaborated upon the ideas he had previously propounded and suggested a diplomatic approach to the government in Constantinople.
Upon his arrival at the Ministry of Foreign Relations, Talleyrand had studied with great interest the archives previously mentioned with regard to Egypt. He immediately saw the political and strategic importance of a project that had again become timely. Bonaparte’s initiative could not have been more opportune.
In his prompt response, Talleyrand expressed his complete agreement. “Your ideas concerning Egypt are great and of obvious value. I will write more on this subject later.” Yet he did nothing on the matter. His diplomatic prudence somewhat deceived the seething commander-in-chief of the Army of Italy.
Upon his return to Paris at the end of 1797, Bonaparte again raised the issue, which became significant in his relations with the Directory. One of the directors, La Révelliere-Lépeaux, wrote, “Nonetheless, we cannot expose 30,000 of our best French soldiers to the risks of a naval battle for the sole purpose of ridding ourselves of an ambitious general!”
Talleyrand took a decisive role in the matter. To prepare the way, upon Bonaparte’s suggestion he presented a memorandum on Egypt to the Institute during the last months of 1797. On February 13, 1798, he sent the Directory a “Report on the Question of Egypt.” He argued deftly in favor of an expedition. Several extracts from this report bear repeating:
Egypt was a province of the Roman Republic; it must became a province of the French Republic... The Romans restored the Egypt of the illustrious kings in arts and sciences; the French will relieve it from the most terrible tyrants who ever existed. The former government of France had long contemplated the project of this conquest but was too weak to accomplish it. This expedition is reserved to the executive Directory, as the compliment to all that the French Revolution has presented to an astonished world in terms of what is beautiful, great, and useful.
Some later claimed that, in this situation, Talleyrand was bribed by the British to rid them of the storm that menaced them on the continent. That is a pure calumny. One proof is that the British had no idea of the expedition’s destination, a destination that they would have emphatically opposed.
Finally convinced, the Directory approved the expedition on March 5, 1798. General Bonaparte received “full powers to assemble thirty thousand men at Toulon, together with a squadron to transport and protect the expedition.” For obvious reasons of security, the destination was kept secret until the last possible moment...
This is how the expedition to Egypt came about. The idea was part of the national heritage. Bonaparte brought the concept to the fore again, but without Talleyrand the plan would probably have remained unrealized.
2 – An Action Conducted by a Master
For reasons related to the flooding of the Nile, the project had to begin in July at the latest.
Preparations Made at the Double-Time
Between the decision of March 5 and the departure from Toulon on May 19, the leader of the expedition had only ten weeks to assemble the most powerful fleet seen in the Mediterranean since the Battle of Lepanto.
From the ports of Toulon, Genoa, Civitavecchia, and Ajacio, almost 300 vessels set sail simultaneously. These included 13 ships of the line, nine frigates, 11 corvettes and sloops, and 232 transports. This fleet carried, in addition to 17,000 crew members, an expeditionary corps of 33,000 men including 25,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 3,000 artillerymen, and a thousand auxiliaries. The French also embarked more than a thousand pieces of field and siege artillery, 100,000 cannon balls, 12,000 spare muskets, and quantities of cartridges and powder. In addition, they shipped 467 wagons and caissons, 680 horses, and rations for three months, not to mention a library and a printing press, cause for stupefaction for many. What a nonsensical idea to take a library and a press to war!
Bonaparte chose to take with him the flower of French officers, many of whom would later constitute the hierarchy of the Grand Army: Berthier, already chief of staff, generals of division Desaix, Kléber, Menou, Reynier, Bon, Dugua; brigadier generals Lannes, Murat, Marmont, Davout, Lanusse, Vial, Veaux, Rampon, Friand, Belliard, Dumas, Leclerc, Verdier, and Andréossy. Juno, Duroc, Eugene and Louis de Beauharnais performed the functions of aides de camp. Bourrienne, a fellow student at Brienne, ran the secretariat.
The fleet was under the command of Vice Admiral Brueys, assisted by five rear admirals including the soon-to-be-famous Villeneuve.
In company with his close collaborators Bonaparte boarded the Orient, a ship of the line, commanded by Captain Luce de Casabianca.
Yet what distinguished this military operation from all others was the cultural and scientific dimension which few historians accord its proper value. In effect, Bonaparte insisted to the Directory that the expedition should also seek to advance the “Progress of Knowledge and the Development of Science and the Arts.” This idea aroused surprise but no opposition. Without a doubt, it was this aspect of the affair that prompted Thiers, who was otherwise not a supporter, to remark, “In his entire prodigious career, Napoleon never imagined anything grander or beautiful.”
Once the government signed its decree, Bonaparte assigned Gaspard Monge to form a commission of Savants and artists willing to accompany him. They were authorized to choose as assistants volunteers from all the great schools and establishments of the state: Polytechnique, Central, Normale, Mines, Bridges and Highways, Conservator of Arts and Crafts, Museum of Natural History, etc . . . medicine, architecture, archaeology, and even painting and music were also recruited.
For the others, everyone sought to go. This was a revealing sign of the new times and a dazzling mark of the vitality of post-revolutionary France, overflowing with volunteers despite the obvious dangers involved. Several of the great names of the age did not hesitate to give up their careers and perhaps their lives in what was fundamentally a military expedition. Let us note in particular, in addition to the mathematician Monge, the chemist Berthollet, the engineer Conté, the geographer Lescene, the zoologist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the botanist Conquevert de Montbret, the physicians Desgennes and Larrey, the mineralogist Dolomieu, the artist Vivant Denon, etc., etc. In all, 177 scientists, of whom many were young students, divided into eighteen disciplines. As a sign of his interest, Bonaparte listed himself among the geometricians.
In this assembly of very diverse intellectuals a singular exaltation reigned. One of them, du Bois-Aymé, has left us a description that illustrates the common spirit of this courageous elite: “We did not know where Bonaparte would take us because the objective of the expedition had been kept rigorously secret. But that didn’t matter to us! The celebrated warrior inspired us with a blind confidence... ”
The cultural harvest of these audacious pioneers would redound considerably to the world renown of France.
To ensure that all was in order, Bonaparte conducted a final review shortly before the departure. The troops had a fine appearance. As with the Army of Italy two years earlier, he gave them an old-fashioned harangue. He was already a past master of this art of direct communication between the leader and his men at the crucial moment. He exalted their hearts and motivated their spirits. He filled them with dreams...
The grandiose enterprise that awaited them demanded an epic tone:
The Roman legions that you have sometimes imitated but not yet equaled fought Carthage first on this same sea and then on the plains of Zama. Victory never abandoned them because they were constantly brave, long-suffering, disciplined, and united. Soldiers, the eyes of Europe are upon you. You have a great destiny to fulfill, battles to fight, dangers and fatigues to conquer. You will do more than ever before to advance the prosperity of the Nation, the happiness of men, and your own glory... I will take you into a country where, by your future exploits, you will surpass those achievements that have already astonished your admirers... I promise to each soldier that upon the return of this expedition he will have enough to purchase six acres of land.
An immense cheer responded to this, punctuated by shouts of “Vive la République!”
The gigantic preparations have been completed in record time, the troop put in good spirits, and the departure conducted with fanfare, it was now important to make a good landfall.
The scale of preparations had obviously alarmed the British government. Urgently dispatched from Gibraltar, Nelson took command of the available warships while awaiting prompt and substantial reinforcements. His mission permitted no ambiguity: “Search out the French forces before they can escape and, once in contact with them, capture them, sink them, burn them, destroy them.” This devastating goal spoke volumes about the implacable determination of the British government and of its consciousness of the stakes involved. What more convincing justification can there be for the expedition itself?
Nelson correctly analyzed the strategic situation: “I believe that the French intention is to seize some Egyptian port in order to send a strong army to the Indies,” he wrote to his superiors. Controlling warships that sailed twice as fast as the French, Napoleon thought they could not get far. Yet, misled by false reports, he searched in vain the four corners of the Eastern Mediterranean without ever encountering the French fleet. In retrospect, he barely missed intercepting the French on two occasions. During the night of June 22-23, the two fleets crossed paths within a few miles of each other in complete ignorance! Then, upon his arrival at Alexandria, Bonaparte learned that Nelson had departed to the north some 36 hours earlier. In these two circumstances, Napoleon’s entire career hung by a thread! One can only conclude that his legendary lucky star was watching over him.
The reader should also note that Brueys skillfully chose a course along the northern coasts of the Mediterranean before turning south, thereby distancing the French fleet from Nelson’s natural search areas.
Yet, before arriving without incident at Egypt, one must consider the issue of Malta. The French could not continue their expedition without ensuring possession of this invaluable key to maritime communications between the eastern and western portions of the Mediterranean. And this had to be seized quickly because of Nelson...
Malta Captured In Stride
The fortress island of Malta belonged to the order of the same name since the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had given it to the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem after they had lost the island of Rhodes, their last outpost in the east. These soldier-priests had heroically resisted all the assaults of Islam. Their grand master, Jean Parisot de la Valette, earned for the island a reputation of inviolability when in 1565 he defended it with 9,000 soldiers against 40,000 Turks.
Since that date, however, this prestigious bastion of Christianity had been in constant decline. In 1798, it no longer gave even the appearance of power. Divided into eight nations since their origins, the Knights numbered at most 300, whose average age was advanced and who were on poor terms with the 20,000 inhabitants of the island. Among this group were 200 Frenchmen, including the influential Bosredon de Rancijat.
The forts and ramparts were in poor repair. The fortress’s antiquated artillery lacked ammunition. Its navy was almost non-existent. The 9,000 militiamen, the principal force of the island, were poorly equipped and mediocre soldiers.
The ruling grand master, the Hungarian Ferdinand vonHompesch, had rashly aligned himself with the enemies of the republic and placed the fortress under the protection of Tsar Paul I. During the war in Italy, France had confiscated all the property of the order.
Hoping to hasten the surrender of the island, several months earlier the Directory had dispatched Poussielgue as chargé of its mission. He had succeeded in gaining favor among the French knights.
Thus, when the French armada appeared before Malta on June 9, 1798, the situation was favorable, although a rapid capitulation was by no means assured. Bonaparte had to demonstrate his strength by deploying his line of battle along the coastline.
This military gesture shook the nerves of the garrison. At dawn the next day, the French disembarked simultaneously at seven different points, encountering weak opposition. By 10 a.m., the entire island was conquered with the exception of Valetta, whose resistance collapsed that evening. The grand master capitulated, and the island became French.
Before continuing the expedition, the French needed to organize the position and ensure its defense. There was not a moment to lose, again because of Nelson. To give an idea of the intensity of the work accomplished in these circumstances, in eight days Bonaparte dictated 176 decrees concerning all aspects of the administration of the island. A modern order replaced an obsolete power. The immense riches of the island became French property. Bonaparte granted the island’s Jews the right to construct a synagogue, a prelude to his great project of emancipating the Jewish people in France. It is also noteworthy that he freed some 700 Muslim slaves serving in the rowing galleys of the Order.
Returning to sea on June 18, the fleet embarked these Muslim prisoners to serve as witnesses who would convince the Egyptian population of French power and as messengers of French friendship with regard to Islam. Two thousand men of the Maltese Legion and 42 volunteer chevaliers also joined the expedition.
General Vaubois remained on the island with four thousand soldiers to ensure that this irreplaceable strategic position did not fall into British hands.
Bonaparte dedicated the remainder of the voyage to a psychological preparation for the debarkation at his destination with regard to the three principal actors of the operation—his army, the Egyptian population, and the Sultan’s representative in Cairo.
On 22 June, he had read in each vessel a new proclamation to the soldiers, requiring an exemplary comportment with regard to the populations of Egypt. He subsumed the entire coming action under the subject of true tolerance. Filled with humanism, his proclamation merits extensive quotation:
Soldiers! You are about to undertake a conquest that will have incalculable effects on the civilization and commerce of the world. We will make exhausting marches. We will fight numerous battles. We will succeed in all our enterprises, because destiny is with us . . . The Mameluke beys who favor English commerce exclusively, who have covered our negotiations with insults, and who have tyrannized the unfortunate inhabitants of the Nile, will cease to exist within several hours after our arrival.
The people with whom we are going to live are Mohammedan. Their first article of faith in this: There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet. Do not contradict them. Deal with them as we have dealt with Jews and Italians. Give the same respect to their muftis and imams that you give to rabbis and bishops. Give the same tolerance to their ceremonies with regard to the Koran and mosques that you would show with regard to convents, to synagogues, to the religions of Moses and Jesus Christ.
The Roman legions protected all religions. You will find Egyptian customs different from those of Europe. You must adjust to their differences. The people we are visiting treat their women differently from us. Yet, in all countries, anyone who violates a woman is a monster. Pillage will enrich only a few men. It will dishonor us, destroy our resources, and make enemies of the people whom it is in our interest to have as friends. The first city we will encounter was built by Alexander the Great. We will find at every step artifacts worthy of exciting emulation by the French.
To the Egyptian population, Bonaparte addressed a reassuring proclamation in Arabic. He condemned the Mameluke oppressors, promised liberation from their yoke, swore to respect the local administration, and above all proclaimed his friendship for Islam, without confusing toleration with weakness:
People of Egypt, for too long this pack of slaves that governs you has imposed the most severe tyranny in the world. But God, on whom all depends, has commanded that their empire will end. Some will tell you that I came to destroy your religion. Do not believe them. Reply that I came to restore your rights, to punish the usurpers, and that I respect Allah, His prophet, and the Koran more than do the Mamelukes . . . What wisdom, what talents, what virtues distinguish the Mamelukes such that they should have exclusive control of everything that renders life desirable and sweet? . . . If Egypt is their leasehold, let them show the lease given them by God! . . . All classes of Egyptians will be called upon to manage their towns. The wisest, best educated, the most virtuous shall govern, and the people will be happy . . . Caliphs, sheiks, imams—tell the people that we are the true sons of the Muslims . . . Have we not for centuries been the friends of the Great Ruler, the Sultan of Constantinople, and the enemy of his enemies? The Mamelukes, to the contrary, revolted against the authority of the Great Ruler whom they continue to disregard. Those who are with us will be triply blessed! . . . Yet misfortune, three times misfortune to those who will arm themselves for the Mamelukes and will fight against us. There will be no hope for them—they shall perish!
Now was the time to contact the Sultan’s representative in Cairo, Abu Bakr, a sort of sluggard-king. It was important to reassure the Sublime Porte, working in parallel with Talleyrand’s diplomatic action. It was essential to avoid any conflict with Constantinople. Yet, the subtle British diplomacy would create obstacles.
Written on board the Orient on the eve of the debarkation, the letter to the Pasha was intended to announce that the French Army came only to liberate him from the humiliating tutelage that the Mameluke beys had imposed. It was carried to Cairo by a Turkish officer picked up at Malta, and read as follows:
The Executive Directory of the French Republic has repeatedly asked the Sublime Porte to chastise the beys of Egypt who interfered with French merchants... the French Republic has decided to send a strong army to put an end to the brigandage of the beys of Egypt, as it has been obliged to act several times against the beys of Tunis and Algiers. You, who should be the master of the beys who hold Cairo without authority and without power, you should view our arrival with pleasure. You are undoubtedly aware that I have no intention of taking action against the Koran or against the Sultan. You know that the French nation is the sole and only ally that the Sultan has in Europe. Come, therefore, to meet me and work with me to overthrow the impious race of the beys.
In short, Bonaparte proposed to Abu Bakr a protectorate that would be advantageous to Constantinople, replacing the humiliating Mameluke tyranny. Unfortunately, that letter did not reach its intended destination. Might it have influenced him? In truth, one must doubt it.
After this psychological conditioning, it was now time for action!
The Harsh Seizure of Egypt
On the eve of debarkation, Bonaparte needed accurate information about the local situation. On June 27, he asked Admiral Brueys to detach a swift ship to Alexandria in order to embark the French consul Magallon. Assigned to that task, the frigate Junon returned during the afternoon of June 30 by way of the high seas. Magallon reported that the British squadron had just left Alexandria sailing north. Brueys expressed his concern about being between two perils, Nelson on the one side and, on the other, a storm that rendered debarkation dangerous. He suggested a delay of several hours to allow the weather and seas to calm somewhat. For Bonaparte, however, the principal risk was an inopportune return of Nelson. He therefore ordered Brueys to commence debarkation operations as soon as possible. These proved to be very storm-tossed. Several sloops capsized and a certain number of drownings occurred. The troops set foot on the breach at Marabout, several kilometers to the west of Alexandria.
Bonaparte disembarked during the night of July 1-2. After a short nap on the sand, he reviewed the troops already ashore. Without waiting for their reinforcement by the artillery still onboard ship, he immediately launched them towards Alexandria so as to allow the defense no time to organize itself. Speed was always the preferred mode of operation of Bonaparte and later of Napoleon.
Taken by hasty assault, the city fell in the morning, not without several serious fights. Kleber was wounded.
They immediately alerted the entire country and Murad assembled his forces at Cairo. It was with Murad and his fantastic Mameluke cavalry that the French Army had principally to deal.
Faithful to the principle of going where you are least expected, Bonaparte sent only one division along the first route, a division temporarily commanded by Dugua in lieu of Kléber. This force escorted a flotilla commanded by Admiral Pérée, transporting all the impedimenta of the army. The four other divisions—Vial, Bon, Reynier and Desaix—with the last as advance guard, took the difficult desert route. The commanding general anticipated the reassembly of the army at Ramenyah for a direct advance on Cairo with all forces reunified.
Bonaparte had underestimated; the crossing proved terrible. Thirst almost overwhelmed the army which reached Ramenyah on July 10 at the price of atrocious suffering, followed by a three-day rest. Dugua rejoined the rest on the 12 th, and the reunited troops resumed their advance on July 13.
The exhausting desert crossing
Learning of these difficulties, Murad was emboldened to the point of foolhardiness. He thought that his cavalry would easily scatter this group of stragglers who were constantly harassed by his scouts and auxiliaries. He decided to give battle as soon as possible.
The Battle of Chebreis
The first encounter occurred on July 14 at Chebreis (or Chobrakhyt.) The spectacle of these terrible gleaming cavaliers made a great impression. In addition to diverse firearms, their redoubtable scimitars shone with a thousand lights on their trappings, given an extraordinary effect. Their blazing uniforms flashed in the sun. Richly caparisoned, their purebred horses pawed the ground while waiting for the charge. The blind fanaticism of these redoubtable warriors was legendary. Their method of fighting was very rudimentary: charge straight ahead and crush everything in their path. This cavalry including about 4,000 Mamelukes, supported and covered by other cavaliers and Arab infantrymen. The total was some 15,000 men...
Bonaparte met them with the sole tactic that works in such a case: sustained and concentrated volley fire in divisional squares. The sides of these squares consisted of six ranks each of closely-packed infantrymen. At the four corners, the artillery could sweep the terrain over 266 degrees. In the center with the equipment, the cavalry remained in reserve. Of the six ranks of infantrymen, three could advance in a counterattack with or without cavalry support.
These squares were not immobile, because such immobility would generally facilitate defeat. They maneuvered on foot without breaking ranks. The distances between squares were calculated so that they were mutually supporting.
When, in a loud voice, Bonaparte ordered “Form square, wagons in the center!” a wag was heard to add “the scholars with the asses!” That remark somewhat related tensions, especially for the intellectuals accompanying the army, who were asking themselves what business they had to be in this situation.
To put some heart into the troops, troubled by the novelty of the situation, the massed bands began to play the Marseillaise. How appropriate on July 14 th! The effect was magic.
If the French were impressed by the Mamelukes, their opponents were disconcerted by the French deployment, advancing bravely towards them in perfect order. The Mamelukes soon foundered on the squares in attempting to open a breech. Having failed, they regrouped and tried again, somewhat more concentrated, against the French right. Obedient to orders, the French held their fire until the last second, spilling the enemy’s guts at the feet of the first ranks. They swirled about for a few more moments, then withdrew towards Cairo, leaving 200 dead on the ground in comparison to only a few French wounded. The tactic had worked perfectly.
Minimal in its casualties, this Battle of Chebreis had a great moral reverberation. The Mamelukes lost their haughtiness, while the French regained confidence in themselves after the terrible tests they had just endured. They had achieved a moral ascendancy over the enemy, and this would determine the war.
The passage from Chebreis to Cairo was not without incident. The troops again suffered from heat, thirst, and hunger. Murad practiced scorched earth tactics. To impede and weaken the French advance, he harassed it with hordes of plundering Bedouins. Whoever strayed from the column was pitilessly massacred with atrocious sufferings.
The Decisive Victory of the Pyramids
The expedition finally reached the area of Imbaba in the early afternoon of July 21, 1798. The dazzled eyes of the soldiers now witnessed a grandiose scene. In the distance, on the far bank of the Nile, the hundreds of minarets of Cairo were visible, as were the ramparts of Saladin’s citadel. On their right, the pyramids of Giza reached towards the sky. And before the troops, on this side of the river, lay the entire army of Murad, drawn up in order of battle with the intrepid Mamelukes attracting the eye.
Betting everything on one throw, Murad had mobilized all that Egypt could muster in the way of combatants: 6,000 Mamelukes, thousands of fellahin and Bedouins, and the Janissary corps of Pasha Abu Bakr, in total about 50,000 men.
Bonaparte noted the linear disposition of his opponents, backed against the left bank of the Nile. Their left rested on Giza, where Murad’s camp and the Mamelukes were located, while the right was anchored on the village of Imbaba, fortified and held by a mass of fellahin and Turkish Janissaries.
The French Army assumed the same disposition in squares as at Chebreis. Shortly before the order to attack, Bonaparte addressed his usual harangue to the troops. The majesty of the location and the historic significance of the battle inspired him to his celebrated metaphor:
Soldiers! You are about to conduct a battle that will remain engraved in the memory of mankind! You are about to fight the rulers of Egypt. From the top of these monuments, forty centuries are watching you!
A great cheer rose from the ranks... and the famous Battle of the Pyramids began...
On the right, Desaix’ and Reynier’s squares advanced to outflank Giza, threatening Murad’s communications with Upper Egypt. Bon’s and Vial’s squares occupied Imbaba. Dugua stood at the hinge.
The Mamelukes charged continuously against the entire front. They shattered on the squares with extremely heavy losses, and failed to penetrate the French formations. Quite the contrary, Bon and Vial sent out attack columns and seized Imbaba. Giza fell in turn. Murad escaped towards Upper Egypt with two thousand fugitive Mamelukes. The remainder of his army attempted to flee across the Nile. The artillery unlimbered, exterminating the fugitives in a terrible carnage.
Before fleeing into the Sinai, followed by Abu Bakr, Ibrahim Bey set fire to the Nile flotilla to impede the river crossing towards his abandoned capital.
Battle of the Pyramids
The battle had only lasted a few hours. The victory was complete. Stripped of protection, Cairo was within arm’s reach.
Left to itself and prey to the greatest fears, the city’s population rose up against the notables and committed numerous violent acts. The Arab sheiks and the ulema assemblies of notables named a delegation to negotiate the city’s surrender, seeking the best possible terms. Bonaparte received the delegation at his headquarters at Giza, showing them all courtesy and assuring them of his good intentions. He named General Dupuy as military commander of Cairo and ordered him to take immediate possession.
He had the following reassuring proclamation posted: “I have come to destroy the race of the Mamelukes, to protect commerce and the natives of the country... Have no fear for your families, your homes, your property, and least of all for the religion of the prophet, which I respect... “
Comforted by the reassuring conduct of Dupuy’s soldiers and by the soothing proclamation, the population immediately calmed down.
Yet Bonaparte remained cautious. Before making his entry into Cairo on July 25, 1798, he took security measures.
Presentation of a tricolor scarf to a bey and The Sultan El Kebir]
One day, he even went so far in his desire for integration as to wear eastern dress.
This mimicry, however, made him appear ridiculous to his companions, and he did not renew the experiment.
The question of economic and technical development was also one of Bonaparte’s main preoccupations. In this area, the savants brought an invaluable contribution, especially by the chemical engineer Nicolas Jacques Conté, future founder of the Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. These men laid the foundations for the opening of Egypt to the modern world, including the idea of a future Suez Canal.
The devoted Monge became president. One of the other savants, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, described the reigning studious ambiance in the following terms: “I found here men who thought of nothing but the sciences. I lived at the center of a dedicated group of intellectual lights. We earnestly studied all the questions that interested the government and the sciences to which we had voluntarily dedicated ourselves.”
The Independent Epic of Desaix, “The Just Sultan”
It was in this cultural context that the escapade of the Desaix Division played out, launched into Upper Egypt to pursue the Mamelukes involved in Murad’s retreat. Desaix suffered incessant harassment all along the Nile as far as Syene ( Aswan), 900 kilometers above Cairo. Murad risked a pitched battle on only three occasions. On October 8 at Sediman, he attacked the French squares as he had done at the Pyramids, with a numerical advantage of three to one. He suffered the same severe defeat. On November 8, he tried again at Medinet el-Fayoum, with identical results, but this time to the cheers of the populace. On January 21, 1799, at Samanhut, Desaix inflicted a final and crushing defeat on Murad, opening Aswan to the French Army.
The most significant result of this campaign was the scientific expedition that was conducted in parallel by Caffarelli and Vivant Denon, leaders of a team of twenty students from the Ecole Polytechnique who accompanied the army.
The splendor of the monuments discovered made the expedition forget the extreme conditions of their existence, notably a severe epidemic of conjunctivitis.
Not even the toughest of soldiers escaped emotion. The extraordinary Captain Duvernois, who had been wounded nineteen times, recounted the shock that the soldiers felt upon seeing the Temple of Karnak: “Without any order being given, the men formed into ranks and presented arms to the sound of drums and bugles.”
The only damage that occurred was some graffiti written on the stones, not all of which was the work of Frenchmen. The Duponts were neighbors to the prestigious Valerius Priscus and other such as Quintus Viator...
The French Army at Syene ( Aswan)
In the face of the vastness of these discoveries, Bonaparte decided to reinforce the first group of savants with two commissions. One was to record the topography of the Nile Valley, while the other was to study the wall inscriptions, keys to the newborn study of Egyptology.
The attitude of the population of the Nile Valley agreeably surprised the soldiers. These people appreciated being liberated from the Mameluke yoke. At first intrigued by the work of the savants, they quickly learned the deeper purpose of the project. The populace intermingled with the troops and cooperated in the measurement of artifacts.
One of the most brilliant Frenchmen, Villiers de Terrage, has left an eloquent account of the fabulous adventures of Desaix in Upper Egypt:
At the northern edge of the city of Esné, there was a magnificent oriental-style garden that had belonged to Hassan Bey. The French used the garden as a place for walks and social meetings. During our stay at Esné, the principal sheiks hosted a formal dinner whose uniqueness and open gaiety made it impossible for me to forget. It reminded me closely of the descriptions that had reached us concerning the type of celebrations held by the ancient peoples of the Orient... All the officers of the garrison and the principal residents of the town gathered in the garden. The entire length of the main path was covered with cloths on which the dinner was served. Around these cloths the French and the Musulmen were seated pell mell. Although the Egyptians knew little of the French languages and the French knew little Arabic, the conversation never flagged... The inhabitants of Esné were naturally genial... A portion of the brave 21 st Light Demi-Brigade, having vanquished the Mamelukes, enjoyed at Esné the peace that they had earned. Many of these soldiers found it both profitably and pleasurable to exercise their previous civilian professions. The young Egyptians apprenticed themselves to our workers. Habits, customs, and languages became intermingled to the point that they were soon merged.
We celebrated the advent of the Year VIII of the Republic, our national holiday, with great pomp in the rooms at the Palace of Luxor. Struck by the marvelous nature of this collection of ruins, the generals and the soldiers themselves paid great tributes of admiration. General Belliard harangued the troops in the midst of the largest palace at Thebes. The cries of victory and happiness were repeated in these ruins which had for so long been dedicated to silence, the ruins echoing to the lightning sounds that had never before been heard there.
Another admirer added: “All night long, until daybreak, the temps were illuminated as Desaix’ cavaliers, mingling with the residents of Thebes, danced the farandole around the rams of Amon and the falcons of Horus... ”
In short, on his own Desaix had conducted in Upper Egypt an epic within an epic. Bonaparte communicated his great admiration to the general.
Yet, the evolution of the military situation called them all back to the harsh realities of war...
The Naval Disaster of Aboukir Bay
After having committed Desaix in Upper Egypt, Bonaparte in person launched the pursuit of Ibrahim Bey in the Sinai desert. Not until August 14, at Bilbays, did he learn of the naval disaster that had occurred on August 1 at Aboukir Bay. What had happened?
Upon his departure from Alexandria for Cairo, Bonaparte had obviously not lost interest in the fate of his naval squadron, guarantor of communications with France. He had directed Admiral Brueys to place himself beyond reach of the British fleet that would inevitably return at some time in the near future. Having no further immediate need for his services, he had even suggested that Brueys should protect the squadron at Malta or some other location. Yet, whether from cowardice or from some other error of judgment, Brueys decided to anchor the ships of the line in Aboukir Bay, leaving the transport vessels at Alexandria.
Sheltered on the north by a small island separated from the mainland by a protective sandbank, this harbor appeared at first glance very secure and appropriate to establish a defensive line facing the open sea. To increase the firepower of the ships, the broadsides facing the sea were reinforced at the expense of those on the landward side.
Brueys overestimated the value of this position to the point of neglecting to conduct reconnaissance. He aggravated his negligence by allowing shore leave to an excessively large number of his crew members.
Learning on July 24 that the fleet was still at Aboukir Bay, Bonaparte sent Brueys a messenger carrying an order to set sail immediately. This order, which might yet have saved everything, never reached its destination, the messenger having been intercepted and murdered.
The tragedy came to fruition on the night of August 1, 1798. Nelson’s squadron came into view of Aboukir Bay about 6 p.m., completely surprising Brueys. Nelson attacked immediately, focusing all his strength to the north against the French van. In theory, the forces present were roughly equivalent. Brueys had 13 ships of the line and four frigates, compared to Nelson’s 14 ships of the line and a brig. Yet, the shelter of Aboukir Bay proved to be illusory. By chance or by skill, the British discovered a passage between the island and the French anchorage, allowing them to sail around the northern end of Brueys’ line. The French fleet, with the exception of the rear guard under Villeneuve, was caught between two fires. The two squadrons engaged in a cannonade that, except for a few brief pauses, continued for 15 hours.
About midnight, the French flagship the Orient, with a thousand man crew, exploded like a grenade, provoking severe secondary damage on other French vessels. All the treasures of Malta went to the bottom along with the Orient.
Thereafter the British triumphed. Only two French ships of the line and two frigates of the rear guard escaped, along with Admirals Villeneuve and Decres. The remaining French ships were destroyed, with the exception of two that the British were able to repair and add to their fleet. The British squadron was also gravely damaged. At one point, Nelson received a wound to the head that he thought would be fatal.
French casualties included 3,000 killed and wounded, three times the level of British losses.
The Naval Disaster of Aboukir Bay
Lacking the means to guard them, the British abandoned another 3,000 prisoners on the coastline.
All such tragic events have both heroes and cowards, and the naval disaster of Aboukir Bay was no exception. Most men of both sides fought bravely. Admiral Brueys died at his post, which he refused to abandon despite numerous wounds. Dupetit-Thouars, captain of the Tonnant who had vainly advocated that the fleet set sail, lost a leg to a musket ball. He had himself propped up on a barrel to slow the bleeding, then continued to command his ship until death. Hats off to him!
Before the explosion, a science of ancient tragedy occurred. Captain Luce de Casabianca had his ten-year-old son Giocante serving with him as a cabin boy. Seeing the fire move closer to the powder magazine, the father ordered his son to abandon ship along with the crew. Giocante flatly refused, throwing himself into his father’s arms. A few moments later they entered into legend together. The French Navy perpetuated the memory of these two heroes by giving their name to one of its vessels. In a happy twist of fate, the submarine Casabianca, having survived the catastrophic scuttling of the fleet at Toulon on November 27, 1942, played a significant role in the liberation of Corsica in 1943...
Yet, alongside numerous acts of bravery, one must deplore the fact that a number of French ships had lowered their colors more quickly than necessary. And what should one make of Villeneuve’s attitude? He ignored Brueys’ signals ordering him to use the rear guard to attack the British flank. Instead, for hours he watched passively as his comrades were massacred. It is true that, in this manner, he saved four ships. Moreover, as a meager consolation, Villeneuve captured the British vessel south of Crete that was transporting to Britain the prizes of Aboukir Bay.
Henceforth, Britain benefited from maritime supremacy in the Mediterranean.
The news of this disaster stunned Bonaparte, although he betrayed no emotion to his entourage. He returned immediately to Cairo. Now that the entire army was virtually imprisoned in Egypt, he needed to provide hope in order to raise the morale that had reached rock bottom. He assembled the troops and harangued them at length. He pointed out that the army still possessed its transport ships at Alexandria and that France still had an Atlantic Fleet. Moreover, the Army of Egypt was numerous and victorious, controlling the vast expanses of the charnel house of Africa and Asia. It could do great things and even found an empire. Bonaparte’s magic oratory prevailed again. He succeeded generally in reassuring everyone.
Found an empire... Thus the dream conceived at Ancone, a dream which he still held in his memory, received a form of encouragement from the isolation created by the loss of the fleet. The concept became clarified by circumstances. Putting aside the strategic diversion that he had created in Egypt and indeed throughout the region, he dreamed of forming, in the role of the Sultan el Kebir, a vast union of Arabs, liberated from the Ottoman dominion and friends of France. Cairo could become the capital of a federation extending from Baghdad to Morocco. He already had the support of the Sharif of Mecca and the Sultan of Muscat to raise an Arab army of liberation.
The essential condition for this project was the support of Islam, which explained his religious policies extending far beyond Egypt. He conducted an extended correspondence with the Caliph of Constantinople, with the Sharif of Mecca whose pilgrims he protected, with Syria, the Beys of Tripoli and Tunis, with the Bey of Algiers and the Pasha of Acre. He expected soon to make contact with the Sultan of Darfur, the Sultan of Morocco and that of Mysore, and with Tippoo Sahib, sworn enemy of the British. Such were the general outlines of Bonaparte’s famous “oriental dream.”
Of course, Bonaparte thought of Alexander at that precise moment. Yet, his imaginary empire differed totally from that of Alexander in terms of motive and methods. Alexander was essentially a conqueror. His objective was forcibly to impose Greek civilization on the populations he controlled. In addition, Alexander’s empire did not survive him. By contrast, Bonaparte imagined the active participation of peoples in their own liberation from a foreign yoke. As a convinced heir of the French Revolution, Bonaparte’s objective was to emancipate these peoples and his method was self-government, a humanistic protectorate rather than a brutal annexation.
In any event, the strategic diversion had achieved its intended effect, regardless of the outcome of his “dream.”
For the moment, Bonaparte had to put the dream aside and deal with immediate concerns. The disaster of Aboukir Bay had greatly encouraged his enemies. Before exploiting the new military situation, they first attempted to foment internal subversion in Egypt.
The Bloody Insurrection of October
At the news of the Aboukir disaster, the Egyptian people remained calm, at least in appearance. To distract their thoughts, Bonaparte organized a month filled with numerous festivities.
Yet, Turkish and British secret agents and agitators redoubled their actions, stimulated by the Sublime Porte’s declaration of war upon France. Disguised as beggars or traders, they surveyed the Nile Valley. Everywhere they encouraged the religious fanaticism of the population. Their arguments presented the French as rascally infidels who had no respect for any religion, let alone Islam. The agitators called for a holy war.
Accompanied by discrete bribes, these violent imprecations succeeded in influencing even the ulemas of El-Azhar.
Started in Alexandria and the delta, the insurrection spread rapidly to Cairo. During the night of October 20-21, 1798, thirty notables met secretly in the El-Azhar Mosque to finalize the details of an uprising. The next morning at dawn, the muezzins called from their minarets, exhorting the people to a jihad. Quickly the entire city was in flames. An angry crowd seized cutlasses and spread throughout the neighborhoods. The crowd murdered without distinction European traders and surprised soldiers. Muslims suspected of collaboration with the French suffered the same fate. Provocateurs openly led the furious mob. In less than an hour the entire city was in a state of open revolt. Nearby Bedouin came to reinforce the uprising.
One of the first to die was General Dupuy, military governor of Cairo. As soon as he was informed, Bonaparte ordered all troops to retake the city with maximum force. In carrying these orders, his trusted aide Sulkowski was murdered in turn.
The French did not restore order until the end of the second day of violence, when the Grand Mosque capitulated after being bombarded for several hours.
The rebellion cost the lives of 300 Frenchmen, including several savants and senior officers. The insurgents suffered more than 3,000 dead. The French Army had demonstrated its strength, which evoked respect in the local mind.
Bonaparte finished the affair in oriental style, showing himself to be simultaneously merciful and merciless. He granted quarter to all those who were not captured with weapons in hand. By contrast, he publicly beheaded the instigators as well as all prisoners caught in the act of murder or brigandage. Their bodies were thrown into the Nile and carried towards the sea.
Satisfying the local customs, this pitiless treatment struck the population’s imagination. The rumor spread that Allah favored the “Sultan el Kebir,” that He had appeared to approve the punishment of the criminal people of Cairo...
Eight days later order had been restored everywhere, after several measures for administrative reorganization.
Yet, mindful of the versatility of the Orientals, Bonaparte as a precaution ordered construction of a series of forts around Cairo to dominate the city.
Having failed in their attempt to launch a popular insurrection, Britain and the Sublime Porte turned next to a military invasion of Egypt, providing additional proof, if any were needed, that the engagement of France in Egypt posed a real problem for British imperialism.
3-The Stubborn Defense of the Conquest
At the time that the expedition was conceived, Talleyrand had agreed that he would personally lead a diplomatic mission to Constantinople in an effort to coax the Sublime Porte away from its British alliance. Yet, Talleyrand did nothing of the kind. He undoubtedly believed that the meager chances of success did not justify the personal risk involved. Self-evidently, the mission would have been doomed to failure if it had no resources beyond diplomatic rhetoric. For the Sultan of Constantinople, maintaining even theoretical sovereignty over Egypt was obviously worth more than the offer of a protectorate and the risks of spreading rebellion to its other provinces. Conflict with the Ottoman Empire was as inevitable as an Anglo-Turkish alliance, signed in December 1798 soon after a Russo-Turkish alliance was concluded.
At the beginning of 1799, two military menaces threatened Egypt: a land invasion coming from Syria and an amphibious landing in the Nile Delta. The two threats might even be combined. According to information received, the first option was imminent. The maritime operation in the delta would take longer to mount, allowing the French Army a certain respite.
Conforming to his principles, Bonaparte’s strategic conception consisted of defeating the land menace as early and as far away from Egypt as possible, and then to defeat the maritime threat. To accomplish this, he had to move quickly.
A Springtime in Palestine
Bonaparte organized an expeditionary corps, the “Army of Syria,” including the three divisions of Reynier, Kléber, and Bon. Lannes and Murat were also included, for a total of thirteen thousand men. In anticipation of besieging fortified towns, Admiral Perée embarked the siege train on ten transport ships, escorted by three frigates that had escaped from Aboukir Bay. Their mission was to accompany the army along the coast, prepared to disembark cannon as required.
Bonaparte took pains to convince his subordinates that this new expedition across difficult terrain was well conceived. Would it not be less tiring and more certain, they asked, to await the enemy in Egypt? He eventually convinced them that in war it is always preferable to advance and surprise the enemy before he is completely ready. This action would also procure more maneuver space and, as a third advantage, it would be the enemy’s lands that suffered the inevitable collateral damage of warfare. This is a key principle of Napoleon’s art of war.
The first units departed on January 24, 1799. Both sand and rain rendered progress difficult.
On February 9 at El Arish, the expedition made contact with the Ottoman army of the Pasha of Acre, El Jezzar, known as “the butcher,” a nickname that summarized his legendary cruelty. This “humanist’s” favorite pastime was the persecution of Christians using the most atrocious procedures. Thus from the beginning it was apparent that the struggle would be without mercy.
By a skillful night maneuver, Reynier brilliantly won his first engagement. Then Gaza fell on February 24 after a brief struggle.
On March 3 at Jaffa, matters began to become serious. Conforming to local custom, Bonaparte sent an emissary to the military commandant to offer to spare the lives of the garrison in exchange for its immediate surrender. In case of refusal, the French would not grant quarter. This was the merciless and unique rule in force during the war.
The only response was to ostentatiously display on the ramparts the severed head of the messenger. This barbarous provocation was obviously not of a nature to encourage mercy. Matters were displayed in stark simplicity: there would be no pity on either side.
The fortress resisted for two days of ferocious combat. The sack of the town was ghastly. The French soldiers had a lively recollection of the horrible massacre of hundreds of their comrades during the Cairo insurrection. They remembered the fate reserved to stragglers and lost soldiers, savagely murdered after unspeakable tortures and mutilations. Thus they were enraged against the garrison and against the inhabitants captured with weapons in hand. In such circumstances, it was impossible to avoid excesses. At least the officers attempted to limit and block the more extreme actions, conforming to Bonaparte’s instructions. Among many others, General Robin did not hesitate, at the risk of his life, to take his saber to his own soldiers in order to halt such debaucheries.
It was in these atrocious circumstances that the tragic execution of some 2,500 Turkish prisoners, the majority of them Albanians, occurred. The last to resist had taken refuge in the citadel, their fate already sealed by their previous refusal to capitulate. Just before they would have been destroyed, Bonaparte nonetheless sent Eugene de Beauharnais and another aide de camp, Crozier, “to calm as much as possible the furor of the soldiers. As soon as these two were recognized by their distinctive insignia, the besieged asked to surrender to them, on condition that their lives should be spared. Listening only to their better nature, and in defiance of the death sentence implicitly pronounced against the combatants, these two officers accepted their surrender and conducted them to the French camp.
This was an appalling misunderstanding! Bonaparte had sent his aides solely to save the women, children, and old people and not to make an exception concerning combatants.
The French commander was thus placed in a terrible crisis of conscience. If he honored the measure of clemency promised by his aides de camp, his intractable enemy would regard it as a mark of weakness, thereby encouraging resistance to the death. Future operations would be compromised.
On a practical plane, this human mass was unmanageable. The severe shortage of food made it impossible to feed the prisoners. A negotiated exchange of prisoners with El Jezzar was unthinkable. To simply abandon these men in the open desert would be to condemn most of them to a slow and horrible death, with the survivors rejoining the ranks of enemy combatants.
In the higher interests of the mission, therefore, Bonaparte was forced to execute them in cold blood, fulfilling a death sentence that would have been applied without moral dilemma if it had occurred in the heat of action.
Yet, he only took this cruel measure with the agreement of his major subordinates, obtained after long deliberation in a council of war. Each one was asked for his opinion, and the first meeting ended without agreement. Two subsequent meetings failed to resolve the issue. Finally, in a long meeting attended by all the generals of division, the council bowed to the inevitable.
It was a horrible butchery that does not deserve further comment.
Decidedly, Jaffa did not bring luck to the army. An epidemic of the plague broke out and spread rapidly. Some were tempted to regard this as a manifestation of impending punishment. In fact, the first cases had appeared in Alexandria before the departure, and Bonaparte had hoped that the illness would not follow him. El Jezzar and the British could not have wished for a better ally! The morale of the army plummeted despite the devotion and competence of the chief physician, Desgenettes, and his staff.
A great psychological shock was needed to get things moving again. To demonstrate visibly that exposure was not fatal, Bonaparte made an extended visit to the hospital, seeking contact with the sick. In a very crowded room, he helped move the body of a soldier disfigured by the rupture of an enormous bubo. This was certainly a theatrical gesture, but he did it at the risk of his life. In truth, because he felt a strong sentiment of invulnerability, the idea of death by the plague probably never even entered his head.
“Bonaparte visiting the plague-stricken of Jaffa” Gros
Spreading rapidly throughout the force, the news of the general-in-chief’s courage produced the desired effect. A minor miracle followed, as confidence returned immediately to the entire army. Ultimately courage proved more contagious than the plague, and the army set out again...
On March 19, the advance guard reached the formidable fortress of Acre, strongly garrisoned and commanded by El Jezzar in person. Here they approached the holy places of Christianity. The French Army followed in the footsteps of the crusaders who were able to capture this fortress in 1189 only after three years of siege. The great hour of Bonaparte’s destiny had come. For two months, history hung in the balance...
It was a difficult problem. The sea protected the fortifications along one third of their circumference. Two ships of the line and numerous other British naval vessels were anchored in the port, along with several Turkish gunboats.
A new naval disappointment awaited Bonaparte. Smith had captured the flotilla transporting the siege artillery, and these guns were turned against the French on the ramparts of Acre. Another measure of Phélippeaux’s felony!
In response to an offer of peace, El Jezzar massacred several hundred Christians of the city, without any protest from Smith or Phélippeaux.
Bonaparte had no choice. Despite the absence of siege artillery, notably the large 24-pounders that would permit him to break the walls, on March 28 he began a series of costly assaults. After several days of bombardment and mining, the assailants were on the point of carrying the town. An assault group commanded by Mailly de Chateaurenaud reached the keep and seized the Ottoman pavilion. This hero was the brother of the parliamentarian beheaded at Jaffa.
The Siege of Acre
Seized by panic, El Jezzar fled to a Turkish galley in the harbor, taking his treasure with him. But the troops assigned to support Chateaurenaud, impeded by a counterscarp, were swept away by a counter-attack. Instead, Chateaurenaud fought to the death with his detachment. The attack failed and El Jezzar returned to his palace. Two days later, he attempted a sortie, took several prisoners and had them ostentatiously strangled.
Several ther unsuccessful attacks followed in subsequent days.
The Superb Victory of Mount Thabor
In the midst of all this, Bonaparte learned that Abdullah, the imposing Pasha of Damascus, was advancing on Acre to take the French Army in reverse. The French commander dispatched Murat at the head of a mobile column of a thousand men. They advanced to Jacoub in Jordan, north of Lake Tiberias. Falling like a thunderbolt on the advance guard, Murat overthrew it, invaded the camp of the Pasha’s son, carrying off his artillery and a considerable booty. All hail Murat!
Learning of the affair, on April 10 Bonaparte sent Kléber’s division to the rescue. This unit destroyed a new advance guard of 7,000 men of the Pasha of Damascus on the hill of Lubya, then occupied Nazareth along with Junot. Between them, the two commanders numbered no more than 2,500 men.
The body of the Damascene army, 30,000 men and an excellent cavalry, moved south with the intention of cutting the French off from the sea. To elude this trap, Kléber conceived an audacious maneuver. He decided to exfiltrate by a night march between the enemy and the Jordan River, and then surprise their camp with a dawn attack.
He sent a messenger to inform Bonaparte of his intentions.
But events did not go as he planned. The guides were astray so that by the time Kléber arrived at the enemy’s camp it was already full daylight on April 16, 1799.
Bonaparte immediately assembled those forces on which he could lay his hands, primarily Bon’s division, some cavalry, and an artillery battery. They marched at full speed towards Mount Thabor, some fifteen kilometers away.
Kléber was at the point of throwing his remaining forces into an attempt to break out. It was a near-run thing, matter of minutes. Bonaparte recognized the gravity of the situation at first glance. Therefore, rather than taking the time for a stealthy approach march followed by a hasty attack, he announced his presence with a salvo of artillery.
He surprise was general. For Kléber’s troops, “hope changed camps and combat changed spirits.” “There’s our little corporal!” exclaimed the veterans of Italy, who immediately went over to the offensive. For their part, the reinforcements charged with spirit in a concentrated attack. Petrified and caught between two fires, the Ottomans collapsed, seeking to save themselves by a frantic flight towards Nablus and the Jordan River, which unfortunately for them was flooded. Several thousand drowned. The supplies, artillery, and unit colors all fell into French hands. The French pursued the fugitives for the remainder of that day and into the following day. The Ottomans were exterminated without difficulty. To the north, near Jacoub, Murat intercepted the last escapees and put them to the sword without pity. The army of the Pasha of Damascus ceased to exist.
A magnificent feat of arms, the victory of Mount Thabor constituted one of the best tactical combinations of the Egyptian campaign. It illustrated in magisterial fashion the legendary aptitude of Napoleon to deal with unforeseen situations. The majority of historians are not even aware of this battle!
At that moment, the fabulous city of Damascus lay stripped of its defenses and only a few hours’ march away. Bonaparte was tempted to send Kléber to raise the tricolor flag over the tomb of Saladin. But wisdom told him to renounce this idea for lack of forces.
He wanted to tarry in these locations full of history and spirituality. He went to Nazareth and attended a solemn Te Deum mass. Nor did he neglect to visit Mount Thabor, where Nebuchadnezzar had climbed and Christ had been transfigured... Yet, by April 18 he had returned to Acre where the situation was as bleak as ever.
The siege had become a battle of attrition, a game at which the besiegers must lose. Because the sea was open to the Ottomans, the garrison received a never-ending stream of provisions and reinforcements, especially several thousand men from the island of Rhodes, transported by 30 British and Turkish vessels.
The seventh assault on May 8 was on the verge of success when a counter-attack again threw it back. The eighth and last occurred the next day, with no more success than its predecessors.
French losses reached 500 killed and 1,800 wounded or sick. Among the dead were Generals Bon, Rambaud, and Caffarelli. The only good news was the death from sunstroke of Phélippeaux on May 1, struck by a sort of poetic justice.
The ratio of forces had become extremely unfavorable. Bonaparte could no longer tarry far from a Nile Delta threatened by invasion. He had to renounce capturing the fortress. His heart breaking, on May 17 he ordered the return to Egypt, after a resounding proclamation to the troops.
His “oriental dream” had shattered on the walls of Acre, reducing to nothing the fabulous possibilities of that springtime in Palestine.
Bonaparte was even more disappointed because he had crowned his oriental visions with the most difficult of projects: the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1799, almost 150 years before the eventual foundation of the state of Israel.
As a worthy heir to the Enlightenment, Bonaparte had during the wars in Italy become acutely aware of the distress of the Israelites in Europe. Treated as pariahs, they had since time immemorial lived in a degrading regime of apartheid: confinement in ghettos, wear of a distinctive insignia, and prohibition against serving as government officials. It is true that a Convention decree of 1791 had granted them full citizenship, but the implementation of that law had been very imperfect. That law had at least permitted Jews to serve in the French Army and to be the first to enter Ancone on February 9, 1797. There Bonaparte had received more than a revelation of an “oriental dream.” He had also discovered the horrendous ghetto of the city. He had immediately abolished the ghetto, and promised himself to resolve the problem if he ever came into power.
The operation in Palestine gave him the idea to restore the ancient sovereignty of the Jewish people over the holy places which they shared spiritually with the Christians and Muslims. The essential precondition for this was the capture of Acre. On April 20, 1799, he wrote an audacious essay in the form of a “Proclamation to the Jewish Nation” from the “Commander-in-Chief of the armies of the French Republic in Africa and Asia, to the legitimate heirs of Palestine.” The text of this remarkable proclamation reappeared in Prague shortly before World War II. It included, notably,
Make haste! A moment like this will not return for a thousand years to allow you to reclaim your civil rights, your place among the peoples of the world. Your nation has a right to a political existence among the other nations. You have the right to worship God freely according to your religion.
The resistance of Acre killed this grand idea at birth. Later, Napoleon in France was the first head of state to implement full integration of the Jews, despite strong opposition. Ever since, he had continued to pay the exorbitant price for his courageous toleration.
Truly, history hesitated cruelly not once but twice in that springtime of 1799 in Palestine.
The return to Egypt has been portrayed as a disastrous retreat, prefiguring that of Russia. This is a gross exaggeration. If the progression was sometimes slow, that was because it was conducted on foot for everyone, including the general-in-chief. Mounts were reserved for the transport of the wounded and sick. The expedition was never endangered by the enemy, and was always conducted in good order.
It was also necessary to deal with the contaminated plague victims of Jaffa—again that devilish town! Upon arriving in that city on May 24, the French had to accommodate the tragic problem of evacuating the wounded and sick they had left there, notably the plague victims. Bonaparte again visited the hospital and consulted with Desgenettes. If they could not be transported, these victims must be abandoned to inevitable massacre by the Turks. To avoid such suffering, one possibility was to administer enough opium to poison the individuals involved. Desgenettes nobly refused, and the matter rested there. In any event, it was not in Bonaparte’s nature to order such a thing. The decision was left to Desgenettes, who received no such order. Some accounts affirm that the poisoning was impossible because the pharmacy had run out of opium, being forced to replace it with various organic concoctions.
The arrival at Cairo was quite simply triumphant, the news of the victory of Mount Thabor having preceded the return of the expeditionary corps. The Diwan warmly received Bonaparte at the entrance to the city: “He arrived at Cairo, the ‘well respected,’ the chief of the French Army, General Bonaparte, who loves the religion of Mohammed,” it proclaimed. El Bekry, a sheik descended from Mohammed, offered the general a superb black charger, covered with a magnificent horse cloth decorated with embroidery and precious stones. He also gave Bonaparte a young Mameluke slave named Rustan, who showed his new master absolute devotion until 1814 and then abandoned him. Bonaparte mounted the horse and entered the victory gate at the head of the procession.
Some argue that this four months’ military incursion into Palestine and Syria was an obvious defeat. It would be more accurate to speak of a semi-success. Certainly Acre did not fall, but all the rest was positive. The French Army had seriously thrashed the Ottoman Army and pushed back for a long period any possibility of land invasion of Egypt. It had also deflected towards Acre the first force that might otherwise have invaded the delta from the sea. It is true that this operation cost close to 5,000 killed and wounded. Yet, the enemy suffered five times that number of casualties.
The Anglo-Turks obviously did not consider themselves defeated...
Revenge on Land for Aboukir Bay
On July 11, 1799, a fleet of one hundred Anglo-Turkish ships discharged an army on the peninsula of Aboukir. The army consisted of 18,000 Turks, cadred by the British and including a Janissary corps.
Bonaparte learned of the invasion in Cairo on the afternoon of July 15. Once again, he needed to move swiftly to defeat the enemy. He recalled Desaix from Upper Egypt to Cairo. He redeployed his other forces to the delta by forced marches. To secure his rear, he wrote to the sheiks of El Azhar. He assured them that he would crush the invaders and advised them to “look to the public order at this time.”
On the morning of July 25, he took up positions at the entrance to the peninsula of Aboukir. Lannes (2700 men) was on the right, Lanusse (2400 men) on the left, and Murat (2300 men) was in the center with his cavalry and Destaing’s brigade. Davout was in reserve behind the front. Kléber’s division had not yet arrived.
As was his habit before a battle, Bonaparte minutely observed the enemy dispositions, organized in two defensive lines. He noted that enemy forces continued to disembark, progressively reinforcing the position. On his right, the peninsula projected out into the sea. That was the key to victory, somewhat akin to the fort of l’Eguillette at Toulon. Having finished his observations, Bonaparte placed a great battery of artillery whose strong fires would destabilize the defense. The brave Colonel Crétin was in charge of the battery.
Time was working against Bonaparte. The longer he waited the more the enemy could reinforce. The same delay would also bring Kléber closer. Bonaparte attacked immediately. Charges by Lannes and Lanusse broke into the first line, and were exploited by Murat in the center. The Turks replied with a timid counter-attack.
The land battle of Aboukir
It was now time for the second line. The artillery fires, carefully adjusted by Crétin, achieved wonders. Crippled, the janissaries fell back in disorder towards the fort. Murat then launched a massive cavalry attack into the breech, with Lannes following in his wake. Seized by panic, the Turks tried to save themselves by plunging into the sea to rejoin the ships at anchor. They were cut down on the beach or drowned en masse. Thousands of turbans floated on the waves. The entire peninsula was conquered, because the French left did not stand idly by. Only a few fanatical janissaries resisted in the fort of Aboukir before surrendering on August 2. Commodore Smith barely escaped capture. The battle ended in single combat between Mustapha and Murat. The former wounded the latter slightly on the chin with a pistol shot. Murat cut two fingers from Mustapha’s right hand and took him prisoner.
In a few hours, the Ottoman army had been annihilated. Only a few men succeeded in reaching the ships. Ten thousand were killed or wounded and three thousand captured. One hundred flags, thirty-two artillery pieces, four hundred horses and all the baggage fell into Bonaparte’s hands. The French suffered only two hundred dead.
Kléber rejoined Bonaparte soon after the battle. Falling into his chief’s arms, the argumentative grumbler abandoned himself to emotion and pronounced words that history has recorded: “General, permit me to embrace you. You are as great as the entire world, but the world is too small a place for you!”
The joy of the Egyptians equaled that of the French. The debarkation of the Ottoman army had appalled them. A Turkish army would have inflicted terrible reprisals on those who had collaborated with the French.
After the victories of Mount Thabor and Aboukir, Egypt was tranquil for some time. It was the situation in France and Europe that now claimed Bonaparte’s attention.
The Situation in France Decides Bonaparte To Return
Overwhelmed with satisfaction on the evening of Aboukir, Bonaparte was soon disenchanted. He had not received news from France in months. On August 2, 1799, on the occasion of negotiations for an exchange of prisoners, Sidney Smith insidiously passed the newspapers of Europe to the French. He included the Gazette francaise de Frankfort and the Courier of London. Dating from the month of June, the news carried by these journals concerning the situation in France plunged Bonaparte into profound concern and lively anger. In a single year, the Directory had frittered away all the acquisitions that he had left them on parting. A series of failures had cost France all his conquests. In Germany the Archduke Charles, his defeated adversary in Italy, had in turn defeated the French. Germany was lost. The Austro-Russian armies had defeated Scherer on the Adige and Moreau on the Adda. Mantua was besieged. The Cisalpine Republic had ceased to exist. Suvorov’s Cossacks patrolled the French border in the Alps. Malta, key to the eastern Mediterranean and irreplaceable communications relay with Egypt, was in a critical situation. A riot had broken out and Nelson had besieged the island.
At home, the Vendée had again fallen into insurrection, and anarchy was becoming general.
As for Egypt, the Directory had disbanded the “Convoy of Egypt,” the organization charged with logistical support to the expeditionary corps. Thus did the government respond to all his requests for reinforcement; Egypt was simply condemned to a long asphyxiation.
The only good news was that the Atlantic Squadron, cruising the Mediterranean, had not dared to pass Gibraltar as it had been ordered to do; instead, the French ships returned to Toulon, where they remained.
What to do? Remain immobile and hope for an imaginary solution? Knowing the Directors, that would be to wish for a miracle. No, there was only one choice to make. Bonaparte’s overwhelming duty was to return to Paris as quickly as possible, not only to argue the cause of supporting the expeditionary corps of Egypt, but above all to save France from the abyss over which it was tottering. He had to do this regardless of the serious dangers of such a voyage home. The choice was heart rending, but it had to be made.
Here one must begin by completely rejecting the infamous accusation that Bonaparte deserted his post. The Directory had given him full powers, including that of naming his own successor if necessary. Yet, he had never had occasion to use this prerogative. Few are aware that on May 26 the Directory itself had decided to recall him. Bonaparte learned of this decision at the end of July, which eliminated any scruples he might still have had.
Moreover, he was not abandoning an army in difficulty but reluctantly leaving a victorious army, bathed in the glory of Aboukir, commanded by excellent generals, situated in a pacified country where the Franco-Egyptian symbiosis was well established. Far from a desertion, this was a sacrifice for Bonaparte. He also let it be known that he intended to return to Egypt eventually.
In addition, what kind of cowardly fugitive would in good conscience have taken the enormous risk of being captured at sea by the British warships that pursued him? And what ambitious person would risk his future on such a roll of the dice?
Some have even accused Bonaparte of lacking the courage to meet with his designated successor, Kléber. How far will the desire to discredit him go in the face of logic? Why would he be intimidated by the general whose life he had saved a few months earlier at Mount Thabor and who, 15 days earlier at Aboukir, had embraced him and proclaimed, let us repeat, that he was “as great as the entire world, but the world is too small a place” for him?
In truth, the explanation was quite simple. Bonaparte had summoned Kléber to his embarkation to personally present him with his orders. Admiral Ganteaume, responsible for the voyage, at that point insisted that the commander must embark immediately. They expected to see British ships reappear at any moment. Immediate embarkation therefore had to take priority over waiting for Kléber, whose exact arrival time could not be predicted. This is why Bonaparte charged General Menou to give his written directives to Kléber. For the same reason, he could not wait for General Desaix, who had to follow him separately and rejoin Bonaparte at Marengo.
In sum, Bonaparte left Egypt solely to save France. Woe unto those who don’t believe the truth.
He passed the days prior to his departure in putting everything in order. To the Diwan of Cairo, he recommended that you maintain confidence among the people. Tell them frequently that I love the Moslems and that my intention is to make them happy. Make them understand that I have two means to manage people: persuasion and force. With one I make friends, and with the other I destroy my enemies.
His proclamation to the army was intended to reassure it:
News from Europe has convinced me to depart for France . . . The interest of the Nation, its glory, my obedience, the extraordinary events that have just happened—all of these have decided me to pass through the enemy squadrons and return to Europe. The army will soon hear of me. I cannot say more. It pains me to leave soldiers to whom I am so attached, but it will only be for a short time. And the general I will leave over you has the government’s confidence as well as mine.
He tried one final attempt at peace with the Sultan of Constantinople. He sent the Sultan a letter by way of his vizier, Mustapha Pasha, taken prisoner at Aboukir. In this letter, Bonaparte wrote,
. . . therefore I urge you to cease these expensive and pointless armaments. Your enemies are not in Egypt; they are on the Bosporus, at Corfu, and in the islands . . . Prepare to deploy the standard of the Prophet not against France but against the Russians and Germans, who are laughing at the pointless war between us. Once you are sufficiently weakened, they will loudly announce the claims they already hold against you . . .
His directives to Kléber covered all eventualities. Of course, Kléber was required to retain Egypt. But, in extremity, he was authorized to negotiate his evacuation if there was no other means to save the army. Bonaparte promised his entire solicitude and support: “The army that I leave to you is composed of my children... I will regard any day as wasted when I do not do something for this army and to consolidate the magnificent establishment whose foundations we have just laid... ”
He emphasized the stakes of his mission:
You will know better than anyone, Citizen General, how important is the possession of Egypt for France. The evacuation of this beautiful province would be a misfortune exceeded only by the possibility that it would fall into other European hands... I leave Egypt with the greatest regret. The interests of the Nation, its glory, my obedience, the extraordinary events that have just happened have decided me to pass through the enemy squadrons and return to Europe. I will be with you in heart and spirit. Your successes will be as important to me as will those I achieve myself...
As a final formality, he asked Director General Sartelon to render a statement of losses suffered by the Army of Egypt. From debarkation up to two months after his departure, these losses were as follows: killed in combat: 3,614; died of wounds: 854; died by accident: 290; died from ordinary diseases: 2,468; died of the plague: 1,689. Total: 8,915. It is noteworthy that illness and accidents together (4,447) had killed as many as did battle (4,468).
Bonaparte embarked for France on August 22, 1799, in the circumstances described above.
A survivor of the naval disaster of Aboukir Bay, Admiral Ganteaume formed a small convoy of four vessels, principally two frigates, the Carrere and the Muron, the latter named for Bonaparte’s beloved aide de camp, killed on the bridge at Arcole while shielding his general’s body. Bonaparte went on board with his principal assistants. Two xebecs escorted them, the Revanche [Revenge] and the Fortune. Berthier, Murat, Marmont, Bessieres, Andreossy, Bourrienne, Eugene de Beauharnais, and the savants Monge, Berthollet, Vivant Denon, and Parseval Granmaison accompanied him. Three hundred picked soldiers composed his escort.
In consultation with Ganteaume, Bonaparte chose a course along the African coast, intended to allow them to escape or land on the coast in case of interception by the British fleet. Many on board doubted their ability to evade the enemy. The resulting course was much longer but more certain. The choice turned out to be a wise one, and another minor miracle occurred. Bonaparte’s start continued to protect him. One day the Muron passed through the British fleet in the midst of a fog. Ganteaume instinctively wanted to change course, but Bonaparte prevented him so as not to give the alarm. The fog saved the cruiser.
After a voyage that was monotonous other than this one incident, they reached Ajaccio on October 1. Bonaparte had decided to make this stop in order to receive the latest news from France and not to revisit his native island, of which his last memory was always painful. His reception was enthusiastic. Except for his nurse, Camilla Ilari, who lavished signs of maternal attention on him, his family was absent, having returned to the continent after restoring the family home that had been pillaged by the Paolists. He did not wish to tarry, but contrary winds held him until October 7. On October 9, he disembarked at Fréjus, seventeen months after his departure from France. The next day he reached Aix, from which he informed the Directory by letter of his arrival.
The trip to Paris released an overwhelming popular enthusiasm at every stop. In Avignon, an immense crowd welcomed him in front of the hotel when he alighted. Lyon illuminated and draped all its houses for his arrival. People danced in the streets and fired muskets in the air. The theater presented a special performance in his honor. Everywhere one heard cries of “Long live Bonaparte,” often followed by “who has saved the country.” Everywhere one also heard complaints against the Directory.
Debarkation at Fréjus
The fever moved progressively throughout France as the news of his return spread. At Nevers, conscripts who had previously refused to rejoin their regiments changed their minds. At Pontarlier, “Republicans wept, believing they were dreaming,” according to a chronicle of the epoch.
When he reached Paris on October 16, the popular celebration bordered on delirium. In theaters, the public interrupted performances to sing patriotic songs. Casernes sent out their regimental bands playing military marches. The Gazette de France wrote that “nothing could equal the joy which greeted the return of Bonaparte. This was the only event in a long time that has inspired public enthusiasm.”
At the Palais Bourbon, the Council of Five Hundred, already developing the rebellious nature that it would display in the near future, gave him a standing ovation to cries of “Vive la République!” and ended its meeting by singing patriotic airs.
The crowd assembled in front of Bonaparte’s home in Victory Street intoned a vibrant Marseillaise, interrupted by “Long Live Bonaparte, Savior of the Country.” When night came, improvised torches illuminated all the streets.
Bonaparte had not erred in his decision to return. The people awaited him with great impatience. He was immensely popular in the street, which defied the discredited and inept Directors. France gave itself to him in a fashion so blatant that, regardless of the process by which he came to supreme power, no one could contest his popular anointing.
Bonaparte having departed the stage of Egypt, it remains only to relate the epilogue. But we can conclude in the poet's manner that: «His colossal foot left an eternal trace on the moving front of the desert.» (Victor Hugo).
Between the departure of Bonaparte in August 1799 and the end of the French adventure in September 1801, the situation in Egypt took many turns.
Kléber began his administration badly. In order to protect himself in advance, he sent the Directory an extremely pessimistic situation report, a report that went directly to Bonaparte who, in the interim, had become First Consul. Bonaparte was deeply distressed because the majority of Kléber’s allegations were either false or greatly exaggerated.
A brave soldier but a poor governor for an Arab and Muslim province, a man whose rigid personality could not easily grasp oriental nuances, Kléber rapidly alienated both the notables and the population. Unaware of the implications, he demonstrated an inordinate brutality by sentencing Sheik Saada, a descendant of the prophet, to 200 strokes of the cane. He thereby pronounced his own death sentence.
Sooner than expected, the new commander had to deal with another military invasion. The attempt that Bonaparte had launched to appease the Sultan of Constantinople had obviously failed. He could not deceive himself otherwise. Generous British subsidies were much more convincing that political pleas.
At the end of October 1799, a new corps of Janissaries disembarked at the mouth of the Nile, transported there by 53 British vessels commanded yet again by Sidney Smith. Simultaneously, the Grand Vizier Nassif Pasha, commanding an army of 40,000 men based in Syria, besieged El Arish. The British did not haggle about costs.
Reacting as he had been taught, General Verdier fell upon the janissaries and tore them to pieces near Lake Menzala. He killed more than 2,000 and captured 800, setting the rest to flight and seizing 16 cannon and 32 colors. This extraordinary success was achieved with only a thousand men! The enthusiasm of the Anglo-Turks was cooled for several weeks.
Nonetheless, conscious of the precarious nature of his position, at the end of December Kléber agreed to negotiate with Sidney Smith, on the condition that hostilities were suspended during the discussions. This clause was not conveyed to Nassif Pasha, whether by design or accident.
Meanwhile, as soon as he became First Consul Bonaparte sent the Army of Egypt a new proclamation dated December 2, 1799, confirming the solicitude of the consuls and of France and encouraging the army to hold firm: “Soldiers, all Europe is watching you. I constantly think of you. Regardless of the situation that the hazards of war may impose on you, remain the soldiers of Rivoli and of Aboukir and you will be invincible!”
Becoming impatient, Nassif Pasha could not resist the temptation to exploit a mutiny of the garrison at El Arish, which garrison opened the gates of the town to the Turks. He seized the town and massacred all the Frenchmen without distinction. Then he marched on Cairo, where another rebellion broke out.
Furious at this violation of the truce, and suspecting Smith of duplicity, Kléber became his former self: “The only response to such insolence is victory. Prepare for combat,” he proclaimed grandly in addressing his troops.
Assembling all his troops, he advanced resolutely against Nassif Pasha and conducted himself one final time as a great captain.
At Heliopolis on March 20, 1800, he achieved a victory so complete that it bordered on the miraculous. He even seized the camp of the grand vizier, who fled to Syria. Then, returning to Cairo, he dealt firmly with the insurrection, fining the residents 12 million francs.
In only a few days, Kléber had retrieved the situation. Unfortunately, on June 14, 1800, a young Muslim fanatic stabbed him to death at almost the same moment that Desaix found his glorious death at Marengo.
The situation against changed completely. Kléber’s successor, Menou, was practically the opposite of him. Menou was both cultured and skilled in administration. Having married a Muslim and converted to Islam, he excelled in dealings with the Egyptians. Yet, as a commander, he was totally incompetent and detested by the other generals. The soldiers mocked this general who prayed five times a day while facing Mecca.
Kléber having radically resolved the situation, calm reigned in Egypt for ten months. Menon put this time to good use by deepening Franco-Egyptian friendship. In justice, one must recognize that Menou’s efforts were largely responsible for this friendship enduring even to the present day.
At the beginning of March 1801, the First Consul’s early decisions took the form of a first reinforcement of 600 men being sent to Egypt. They constituted the advance guard of a detachment of 5,000 soldiers transported by Ganteaume. The situation appeared to be improving.
Yet, they could not delude themselves. After repeated disappointments with the Turkish Army, the British cabinet had decided to take a more direct role in matters. At Malta, which had fallen into Nelson’s hands, the British assembled a landing force of 17,000 men. At the same time, a second body of 5,000 men from the East Indies and southern Africa prepared to land on the Red Sea coast, thereby forming a pincers movement against the Army of Egypt.
Menou remained strangely passive in the face of these preparations, of which he was aware. On March 8, 1801, he permitted the British coming from Malta to disembark without opposition at Aboukir and seize the fort, whereas he should have attempted to throw them back into the sea before they had organized a beachhead. Then, leaving half of his troops with General Belliard in Cairo, Menou advanced on the enemy with only 9,000 men against 16,000 of the British General Sir RalphAbercromby. The disaster was pre-determined!
On March 21 at Canope, between Alexandria and Aboukir, Menou suffered a defeat, losing 4,000 men as compared to only 300 for the British. The heroism of the soldiers could not compensate for Menou’s confusion.
Generals Boussart, Roize, Beaudot, Silly, and Lanusse all died in the battle. Before expiring, this last spat out his contempt for Menou. On the British side, Abercromby was mortally wounded. General Sir John Hutchinson replaced him.
With the survivors, Menou shut himself up inside Alexandria to wait for Ganteaume’s reinforcements. This new error left the initiative to Hutchinson.
More seriously, mutiny broke out in the French Army. Fearing that General Reynier would relieve him of command, Menou had him arrested along with General Dumas and sent both of them to France.
The situation went from serious to tragic when on April 13 the British blew up the isthmus separating Lake Madyeh from Lake Mareotis, producing a great flood that at one stroke destroyed centuries of drainage work. The garrisons of Alexandria and Cairo were cut off from each other; Menou and Belliard could no longer communicate.
Adding to this misfortune, in another maritime disappointment the cowardly Ganteaume did an about-face south of Crete and returned to Toulon. Bonaparte let him know the full force of his dissatisfaction, but it was too late.
Henceforth, the loss of Egypt was sealed. The denouement was only a question of time.
Belliard was attacked by more than 20,000 combatants of the grand vizier coming from Syria, an attack coordinated with General David Baird advancing from the Red Sea. Cut off from Menou, Balliard capitulated at Cairo on June 27, 1801. He negotiated an agreement to evacuate Egypt by way of Damiette with his 12,000 effectives and 1,300 sick. Fearing reprisals, almost 800 Coptics, Greeks, and Mamelukes were authorized to accompany him.
At Alexandria, Menou waited in vain for Ganteaume, then resolved to capitulate in turn on September 2, 1801. Soon thereafter, he embarked for France with what remained of the expeditionary corps.
The Egyptian expedition thus ended in defeat a little more than three years after its departure. A great page of French history had been turned. In the distress of the moment, no one suspected that this great operation had founded Egyptology and sowed the seeds of the influence and spread of France in the Near East, which is still alive in our day.
A fantastic epic of youth , Egypt had indelibly marked the innermost being of Napoleon Bonaparte. Until his death, he would conserve the memory of this marvelous oriental mirage. His destiny had hung in the balance at Acres. Between Alexander and Charlemagne, between the Eastern and Western Empire, Providence hesitated and then expressed itself decisively.
When, on board HMS Northumberland at dawn on October 15, 1815, he saw the silhouette of the foggy, unfortunate island of Saint Helena, he could not stop himself from exclaiming, “I would have done better to stay in Egypt!”
Sutrello, September 2006