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NAPOLONS

EGYPTIAN
RIDDLE
Though the young French general ultimately failed to
wrest Egypt from the Mamluks, he did win the trust
and support of his countrymen By James W. Shosenberg

22 MILITARY HISTORY MAY 2017


Napolons Egyptian
expedition initially
succeeded in limiting
Britains access to
India. This 1886 oil on
canvas of the general
by Jean-Lon Grme
suggests the scale of the
17981801 undertaking.

PICTURES FROM HISTORY/AKG-IMAGES


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L
ate on the wintry afternoon of Dec. 5, 1797, a 28-year-old Frenchman stepped from a carriage at 6 rue
Chantereine in Paris. At rst sight he seemed to me to have a charming face, noted newly acquainted
French Minister of Foreign Affairs Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Prigord, so much do the halo of
victory, ne eyes, a pale and almost consumptive look become a young hero.
The young hero was Napolon Bonaparte. Two years earlier the French Directorythe ve-member
post-revolutionary committee then ruling from Parishad given Bonaparte command of the Army of Italy,
Frances primary force along the border with that country. After resolving the armys systemic supply and
discipline problems, the ambitious general led the revitalized force to victory over ve Austrian armies,
the army of the kingdom of Sardinia and the forces of Pope Pius VI. He also recaptured Corsica from the British,
partitioned the ancient Republic of Venice and forced peace on continental Europe. By the end of the War of the First
Coalition in 1797 only Britain remained at war with the French Republic.
As word spread of the heros return, Paris exploded in celebration, and publishers, composers and poets praised Napo-
lon in print, music and verse. In his honor government ofcials renamed rue Chantereine (Singing Frogs) rue de la Victoire.
But on the south side of the Seine at Luxembourg Palace the ve members of the DirectoryPaul Barras, Jean-
Franois Reubell, Louis-Marie de La Rvellire-Lpeaux, Franois de Neufchteau and Merlin de Douaiwere far
less enthusiastic about Bonapartes return to Paris. The men suspected the young general had returned to the capital
specically to overthrow the Directory and seize control of France.
Bonaparte was no fool, however. He likely understood his public support was founded not only on his victories but
also on the perception he remained loyal to the republic. If he failed to sustain that illusion, his popularity would fade
as quickly as it had owered. The surest way to maintain the support of the people, he reasoned, was to personally
engineer the defeat of his nations sole remaining foesthe hated British.

The French Directorys plan to force Britain to its knees Continental Europes primary trade route to India from a
PIERRE MARTINET/AKG-IMAGES

centered on a cross-channel invasion, and it had assembled long sea voyage around Africas Cape of Good Hope to a short,
an army and eet for such a campaign. Bonaparte argued, French-controlled land route across Egypt to the Red Sea. The
however, that France must rst weaken the enemys com- Egyptian city of Alexandria would become a trading hub,
merce. Toward that end he proposed to lead an army to occu- and with French naval bases at Marseille, Toulon, Malta and
py Egypt. A successful campaign, he reasoned, would shift Corfu, the Mediterranean would become a vast French lake.

24 MILITARY HISTORY MAY 2017


The French expedition to Egypt was a study in
contrasts, with naval battles and desert marches.
Opposite, Napolons soldiers embark in 1798,
and here Bonaparte leads his parched troops.

While Bonapartes success would undoubtedly benet seized it from its rulers, the Order of the Knights Hospitallers
France, it would also benet the general personally. A fruit- of Saint John of Jerusalema military remnant of the First
ful campaign in the exotic land of the pharaohs would Crusade. On June 19 Napolon left 4,000 soldiers to garri-
enhance his martial reputation even as the increasingly son Malta, and the eet continued east toward Alexandria.
unpopular directors squandered what remained of their The French got their rst view of Egypt at daybreak on
authority and public support. July 1 and were underwhelmed. To the west I saw the coast,
The directors, for their part, relished the opportunity to wrote artist and expedition member Vivant Denon, which
send the upstart young general back abroad and out of the stretched like a white ribbon over the bluish horizon of the
public eye. With luck Bonaparte would be away for years. sea. Not a tree, not a dwelling; it was not just nature in her
He might even die in battle or succumb to a fatal disease. saddest array, but the desolation of naturesilence and
With the blessings of the directors Napolon formed the death. That night the troops put ashore at Marabout, 8 miles
35,000-man Army of the Orient, using troops largely drawn west of Alexandria. The sea was rough, and 20 soldiers
from his battle-tested Army of Italy. The force comprised ve drowned when their small boats capsized. Everyone, in-
infantry divisions under generals Louis Desaix, Jean-Louis- cluding the commander in chief, slept on the beach, wet,
bnzer Reynier, Jean-Baptiste Klber, Jacques-Franois hungry and thirsty. At 6 a.m. on July 2 Napolon ordered
Menou and Louis-Andr Bon and a cavalry division under his men to their feet.
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. In mid-March 1898 the Direc- Two hours later, tired and almost mad with thirst, the
tory established the Commission of Sciences and Arts, a French reached Alexandria, and Bonaparte ordered an im-
167-member institute of engineers, mathematicians, archi- mediate assault. Menou stormed the outlying Triangular
tects, artists, writers and interpreters, most of whom would Fort, while Klber and Bon attacked the city gates. Fortunately
HERITAGE IMAGE PARTNERSHIP LTD/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

join the expedition. While their presence would lend a schol- for the French, the Egyptians had neglected the citys once-
arly tone to the expedition, it would also have the unintended powerful defensive wall, which in places had crumbled to the
effect of aligning Bonaparte with Frances intellectuals. ground. As for the weapons, noted contemporary Egyptian
On May 19 some 300 ships carrying the troops and equip- chronicler Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, nothing remained
ment of the Egyptian expedition set sail concurrently from except some broken-down cannons, which were useless.
Toulon, Ajaccio, Genoa, Bastia and Civitavecchia. Once at sea Alexandria surrendered after three hours of fighting.
they assembled under the overall command of Vice Admiral The French suffered 300 soldiers killed or woundedthe
Franois-Paul Brueys dAigalliers and set a course for Malta. latter including both Klber and Menouwhile the defend-
The eet reached the island on June 9 and in just three days ers lost between 700 and 800 troops. The capture of Egypts

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second city burnished Bonapartes martial reputation and all who couldnt keep up. The French cavalry was unable to
raised the morale of his hot and thirsty army. But neither protect the column, for the number of riders was relatively
the general nor his men realized they had yet to confront small, and their horses were weak from the voyage. Parched
Egypts rulers and principal defendersthe Mamluks. soldiers soon exhausted the columns water supply. When
one division paused en route at a well, desperate soldiers
Unlike the local conscripts comprising the majority of Alex- trampled 30 of their fellows to death in the rush for water,
andrias defenders, the Mamluks were members of a highly while others, nding the well dry, killed themselves.
trained, highly motivated male military caste. The Egyptian When the French nally reached el Rahmaniya, Cap-
Mamluk ruling class had traditionally boosted its troop tain Jacques Miot recalled, The whole army, as if by one
strength by procuring child slaves from peasant families in impulse, rushed by thousands into the Nile. It was not
southern Russia and the Balkans, converting them to Islam enough to drink of its water. They did not stop to take off
and training them as warriors. By the late 18th century the their clothes, but ran in as fast as they arrived, that every
Mamluks numbered from 8,000 to 10,000, a fraction of Egypts limb might partake of the refreshment, and that they might
population of some 4 million people, the majority of whom drink at every pore. No sound of drums, no command of
were fellaheen, or peasants. A third group, the Bedouin, their ofcers could restrain them.
roamed Egypts vast desert tracts in the tens of thousands.
Despite their minority status, the Mamluks had ruled Mamluk riders appeared even as the French joyously re-
Egypt for 500 years. Though they freshed themselves in the Nile. Murad had marched north
were ostensibly subservient to the from Cairo along the river, shadowed by a otilla of armed
Ottoman sultan, two Mamluk beys feluccas (lateen-rigged sailboats). With 800 cavalrymen he
(chieftains), Ibrahim and Murad, ex- trotted forward along the riverbank and watched as French
ercised the real power. After Alexan- ofcers frantically herded their soldiers back into the ranks.
dria fell, Murad met in Cairo with Bonaparte formed squares six men deep, the first rank
Ibrahim and the other Mamluk lead- kneeling with bayonets pointing outward as the others
ers, who resolved to seek help from prepared to re over their heads. The French cavalry and
Ottoman Sultan Selim III. In the transport sheltered in the center, and sweating artillerymen
meantime, Murad lead an Egyptian dragged their cannons to the corners of the squares.
army against the French. What do Unfamiliar with the European square formation and the
we have to fear from the French? dangers it presented, Murad ordered a probing charge. His
he reportedly scoffed. If they land horsemen rode into a withering hail of cannon and musket
100,000, it will sufce to meet them re. Those few Mamluk riders who managed to make it to
with untrained young Mamluks, who the edge of the squares fell to the bayonets of the French
will cut off their heads with one slice infantry. Survivors wheeled into the desert, leaving behind
Murad of their scimitars. some 40 dead and wounded. Murad wisely ordered a general
Bey When word of the gathering enemy force reached Napo- withdrawal. The next day Duguas southbound column
lon in Alexandria, some 130 miles northwest of Cairo, he arrived in el Rahmaniya, followed by Perres otilla. The
immediately ordered the bulk of his Army of the Orient Army of the Orient was reunited, and Bonaparte had gained
to march on the capital. One column under General Charles a week on Murad at the cost of only a few hundred French
Dugua (replacing the wounded Klber, whom Napolon had livesmost to the desert and scavenging Bedouin.
assigned to garrison Alexandria) would march east along At dawn on July 13 Bonaparte learned Murad was de-
the Mediterranean coast to Rosetta, at the mouth of the Nile. ploying his newly reinforced army a few miles upriver
There Duguas troops would rendezvous with a flotilla around the village of Shubra Khit. The Egyptian com-
of riverboats under naval Captain Jean-Baptiste Perre. mander had assembled some 4,000 Mamluk cavalry sup-
Shadowed by the flotilla, the infantrymen would march ported by 10,000 fellaheen infantry, while on the Nile nine
upriver (south) to link up with the second French column or 10 feluccas stood ready to attack the French otilla.
at el Rahmaniya. The latter column comprised the bulk of Napolon marched upriver to meet Murad. To protect his
the French armysome 25,000 menand included the left ank from the Egyptian gunboats, the French commander
divisions of Desaix, Reynier, Bon and Honor Vial (replac- ordered Perre upriver with his otilla. Unfortunately, a strong
COLLECTION GREGOIRE/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

ing the wounded Menou, who garrisoned Rosetta). To reach tailwind propelled the French gunboats into contact with
el Rahmaniya on schedule, Napolon ordered his divisions the enemy well ahead of the infantry. The Egyptians opened
on a 60-mile march due east across the merciless desert. up on Perres otilla with land-based artillery, then followed
The column set out on July 7. By the end of the rst day up with a naval assault, soon claiming three of the French
men suffering from blistered feet, sore eyes and exhaus- vessels. To relieve the embattled otilla, Bonaparte hurried
tion lagged behind the column. To straggle was to die, for his soldiers forward and formed them into squares. Ignoring
Bedouin marauders harassed the march, robbing and killing the lessons from el Rahmaniya, the Mamluk horsemen again

26 MILITARY HISTORY MAY 2017


Though the pyramids make a
stunning backdrop, as in this
1798 painting by Franois-Louis-
Joseph Watteau, the ancient
tombs were scarcely visible on
the horizon during the July 21,
1798, Battle of the Pyramids.

charged directly into the French guns, most toppling from


While the soldiers might complain,
their horses, dead or wounded, before they could strike a
blow. Even as Murads riders faltered, French naval gunners
all knew only one course remained
scored a lucky hit on the magazine of the Mamluk agship,
blowing it from the water. Murad again ordered a retreat.
open to themto follow Napolon
Keeping the Egyptian army on its heels, Bonaparte ordered
his exhausted men to march on Cairo, some 80 miles to loudly than the soldiers, he later reected, because the
the south. Our sufferings, Miot recalled, now greatly comparison was proportionately more disadvantageous to
increased. All the villages were deserted, and the soldiers them. In Egypt they found neither the quarters, the good
had not bread to eat, though we actually lay upon heaps table nor the luxuries of Italy.
of corn. We were totally without animal food, though there But while the soldiers might complain, and the ofcers
were fruits in abundance. The Arabs, always hanging on give notice, all knew only one course remained open to them
MUSE DES BEAUX-ARTS/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

our anks, cut off all stragglers. to follow Napolon.


As the march dragged on, one irate grenadier reportedly
hollered out to Bonaparte, Are you taking us to India? On July 21 the French army nally neared Cairo. Bonaparte
Not with such soldiers, the indefatigable general shot had some 22,000 infantrymen, a few thousand cavalrymen
back for all to hear. and 40-odd cannons. The Mamluks were extended before us
Resignations poured in from the French ofcers. Bona- in a long and splendid line, Miot recalled. The novelty and
parte disregarded them. The officers complained more splendor of their appearance, their glittering colors and stan-

27
The French
Drive to Cairo

T
he French coveted Egypt as a means to several ends. Seeking a
way to sting longtime enemy Britain but realizing it wasnt yet
ready for large-scale direct confrontation, the French govern-
ment accepted the plan of its ascendant young General Napo-
lon Bonaparte to seize Egypt and open it to the Crowns Euro-
pean rivals as an overland route to the Indian subcontinent,
which Britain had dominated since formation of the Raj in 1858.
Should it succeed, France might also master the Mediterranean.
In assigning the expedition to Bonaparte, the ruling French directors saw
an opportunity to rid themselves of the upstart young general, who posed an
increasing threat to their waning authority at home. At minimum he would
be abroad for years, with the off chance he might die in battle.
Bonaparte for his part saw only the opportunity to further burnish his
martial reputation and ultimately realize his dreams of sole autocratic rule.
On July 1, 1798, Bonaparte landed his 30,000-man Army of the Orient on
the coast at Marabout. The next morning the troops marched on Alexandria,
which capitulated after a short ght. After garrisoning the city, Bonaparte sent
one column west to Rosetta and then up the Nile, shadowed by a French
otilla, while he led the main army across the desert. After rejoining forces at
AKG-IMAGES

el Rahmaniya and prevailing at Shubra Khit, the French set out for Cairo. The
Mamluks were waiting for them at Embabeh, across the Nile from the capital.

28 MILITARY HISTORY MAY 2017


Trade Route to India
India straddled ancient maritime routes, luring
silk-laden ships from the East with its celebrated
spices and eventually serving as a trading hub
and cross-cultural bridge between the Eastern and
Western worlds. Egypt was the shortest land link
between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.

Battle of Shubra Khit


The French arrived on the Nile at el Rahmaniya
in dire need of water and rest, but Mamluk riders
launched an immediate probing raid. In battle the
next day Bonaparte formed his men into infantry
squares, with cannons at each corner. The tactic
thwarted the Mamluks, who withdrew upriver.

Battle of the Pyramids


Despite having been on the march in desert condi-
tions since landing three weeks earlier, Bonapartes
men made the 80-mile trek to meet the Mamluks
opposite Cairo at Embabeh. There the Mamluk
horsemen again repeatedly charged the French
infantry squares, which routed them and took Cairo.

MAPS BY STEVE WALKOWIAK/SWMAPS.COM


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dards, excited a general admiration among us. Never was Vials and Bons soldiers poured over the entrenchments
displayed a more impressive scene. On the left was the Nile, into the village. Here, the Mamluks had 30 or 40 pieces of
and Cairo beyond it, with all its hundred minarets and domes; cannon, Miot recalled, which they knew so little how
on the right were the Pyramids, the highest, the oldest, the to use that they had not time to load them for a second
most durable of the works of men. Bonaparte pointed to them discharge. They were routed at the point of the bayonet;
when he gave the word and exclaimed, Remember that from some of them had their clothes set on re by our muskets
the summit of yonder monuments 40 ages are beholding us! and were in this dreadful manner burnt as they lay mor-
Murad anchored the right of his line on the Nile at the tally wounded. Scores of panicked Egyptian soldiers
village of Embabeh, where he stationed 40 guns and 15,000 drowned attempting to swim the Nile as Murad and other
infantrymen. On his left he positioned his 6,000 Mamluks. survivors ed south. Witnessing the slaughter from across
For reasons that remain unclear, his fellow commander, the river, Ibrahims men also ran for their lives.
Ibrahim, had massed his 18,000 infantrymen and all his When the people saw that Ibrahim Bey and his followers
artillery across the river, where they would had ed, al-Jabarti recalled, they took to their heels and
Magnicently have little effect on the battle. ran like the waves of the sea in such a way that the cleverest
Despite their weak positionsand poor among them became he who ran faster than his neighbor.
Dangerous recent performancethe Mamluks were su- The Battle of the Pyramids, as the ght became known,
In the wake of battle premely condent. [The Mamluks were] con- cost Murad perhaps as many as 3,000 Mamluk horsemen
French soldiers collected temptuous of their enemy, unbalanced in their and untold infantrymen. Bonaparte, by contrast, lost just
Mamluk equipment and
reasoning and judgment, conceded Egyptian 40 killed and 260 wounded. The next day the French occu-
arms for presentation
to Napolon. The saddle chronicler al-Jabarti. [They] saw themselves pied Cairo and its citadel.
below, one of three in as ghters in a holy war. They never consid- Once the euphoria of victory faded, however, the morale
the Muse de lArme ered the number of their enemy too high, nor of Bonapartes soldiers again plummeted. All goes very ill,
in Paris, features ornate did they care who among them was killed. cavalry commander Dumas wrote to Klber from Cairo six
red velvet upholstery, About 2 p.m. Bonaparte ordered Desaix days after the battle. The troops are neither paid nor fed,
gold embroidery, oral and Rey nier to take up position on the and you may easily guess what murmurs this occasions
and crescent detailing, French right and prepare to seal off the ene- loudest perhaps among the ofcers.
and gilt copper studs. Yet mys only viable route of retreat. Noting the Moreover, the Egyptian people viewed the French as her-
the bit and stirrups were
movement, Murad sent an elite etics, not liberators. They have intercourse with any woman
sharp enough to use as
Mamluk cavalry corps in a sweep- who pleases them and vice versa, al-Jabarti wrote. They do
weapons during battle.
ing charge against the flanking not shave their heads nor their pubic hair. They mix their
enemy divisions. foods. Some might even put together in one dish coffee,
Captain Jean-Baptiste Vertray sugar, arak [distilled spirits], raw eggs, limes and so on.
was in Reyniers division. [We] The French mutually detested the Egyptians. Once you
had the honor of being the first enter Cairo, what do you nd? Major Jean-Franois Detroye
attacked, he recalled. General reected rhetorically. Blind men, half-blind men, bearded
Reynier gave the command, To men, people dressed in rags, pressed together in the streets or
your ranks! and in the twinkling squatting, smoking their pipes, like monkeys at the entrance
of an eye we were formed in square of their cave; a few women of the people, hideous, disgusting,
six men deep, ready to sustain the shock.Scarcely had hiding their eshless faces under stinking rags and display-
the order to commence firing been given, when a cloud ing their pendulous breasts through their torn gowns; yellow,
of cavalry surrounded us. skinny children covered with suppuration, devoured by ies.
Screaming Allah! Allah! Mamluk riders swarmed Morale within the Army of the Orient plunged even
around the French squares, ring pistols, hurling lances lower in early August when news arrived that a British eet
and slashing with razor-sharp scimitars. In reply Napolons under Rear Adm. Sir Horatio Nelson had destroyed the
disciplined riemen drove thousands of well-aimed musket French expeditionary eet at anchor in Aboukir Bay near
balls into the careening horsemen. The ries of the French Alexandria. Bonapartes men were stranded. A month later
were like a boiling pot on a erce re, al-Jabarti wrote. Ottoman Turkey declared war on France, and Sultan Selim III
The Mamluk torrent swept around the unbreakable amassed large armies to drive the French from Egypt. Coming
French squares of rst Reyniers division and then Desaixs months witnessed Bonapartes invasion of Syria, his re-
until nally ebbing to the south, leaving behind hundreds pulse at Acre and his temporary reprieve with a 1799 victory
of dead and wounded. I seized that moment, Bonaparte ashore at Aboukir.
MUSE DE LARME, PARIS

recalled, and ordered General Bons division, which was on


the Nile, to go in to attack the fortications [at Embabeh], For the French the expedition to Egypt was a futile mis-
and General Vialto move between the force which had adventure, its only lasting achievement an exhaustive tome
just charged and the emplacements. on the region published by the Commission of Arts and

30 MILITARY HISTORY MAY 2017


Bonaparte triumphantly captured Cairo, losing
just 40 men in the process, but morale among his
tired, hungry, unpaid troops soon hit a low point.

Sciences. But the cost paid for the 23-volume Description have combined the experience of the two worlds, exploit-
de lgypte was dear: Of the 35,000 soldiers sent to Egypt, ing for my own prot the theater of all history, attacking the
nearly 9,000 perished. power of England in India.The time I spent in Egypt was
Despite his failure, however, Bonaparte experienced a the most beautiful of my life because it was the most ideal.
decidedly different outcome. On Aug. 23, 1799, he aban- The long-suffering soldiers he had abandoned in Egypt
doned his army, transferred command to Klber and stole held quite a different view, one expressed in the words
away to France, again receiving a heros welcome. A month of a song written by Antoine-Charles-Louis de Lasalle,
after his return he overthrew the Directory in a bloodless who joined the expedition as a major and later became a
coup and wrested control of the French government as rst celebrated general in his own right:
consul. As he had foreseen, the expedition to Egypt laid
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

the foundation for the next step in his career. The water of the Nile is not champagne
Through his remaining days Bonaparte expressed fond Why make war where there are no cabarets? MH
memories of his time in Egypt. I found myself freed from
the obstacles of an irksome civilization, he told one con- James W. Shosenberg writes from Oshawa, Canada. For
temporary. I was full of dreams.I saw myself founding further reading he recommends Bonaparte in Egypt, by
a religion, marching into Asia, riding an elephant, a turban J. Christopher Herold; Napolons Egypt, by Juan Cole;
on my head and in my hand a new Quran that I would have and Memoirs of the French Expedition to Egypt and
composed to suit my needs. In my undertakings I would Syria, by M. Jacques Miot.

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