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Napoleon’s Misguided Oriental Adventure: Egypt To Syria
by Blaine Taylor

Photo: French soldiers (right) marvel at the antiquities of ancient Egypt. (LC.)


Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte’s summer 1798 sea-borne expedition to Egypt was the largest in the modern era, on par with that of the Persian ruler Xerxes against the Greeks and double in size to that of the famed Spanish Armada against England in 1588. The 2,000-mile voyage of 335 ships sailed from four different ports, with its leader aboard his appropriately named flagship, Orient. “Europe is a molehill,” he asserted contemptuously, as he took the Island of Malta along the way, on June 9-11, 1798.

He’d taken as his hero Alexander the Great, and Napoleon’s purpose was to follow in his footsteps and take India, then the jewel in the British Imperial crown. The ostensible reason for the expedition was “To liberate the Egyptians from the Mamelukes,” but the real purpose was multifold: to get the ambitious French soldier out of France by the political establishment, and to shift the focus of the wars away from Europe and to Britain’s own spheres of interest.

“I saw the way to achieve all my dreams,” the later Emperor recalled in his memoirs, written in exile on St. Helena. He arrived in Egypt on June 30, 1798, the first French soldier there since King Louis IX in 1248’s Seventh Crusade. As early as Sept. 13, 1797, Napoleon had written, “We must seize Egypt,” and now set out to do just that. The British at first thought that his fleet was for the long feared purpose of crossing the English Channel and invading the United Kingdom itself. His expedition contained 40,000 troops, and by luck he managed to land them in Egypt just ahead of the arrival of Great Britain’s Royal Navy Adm. Horatio Nelson. The rival fleets each had 13 Ships of the Line. Gen. Bonaparte was well aware the menace and threat that Nelson posed for him.

Having reached Egypt at last, Napoleon disembarked unopposed at Marabout, five miles west of Alexandria, at 1 AM on July 2, 1798. Alexandria was stormed, with his lieutenant Marmont entering the city through its Rosetta gate. Napoleon’s boot was fired upon by a sniper, but he wasn’t hit. The main invasion fleet arrived at Alexandria, and was unloaded by the 3rd.

The French Revolutionary Army was an atheist force ashore in a deeply religious land, but this didn’t prevent Gen. Bonaparte from issuing a proclamation to the Egyptian people declaring that “The French are true Moslems,” and that he came as resident power Turkey’s ally, not as the invader of their land. Neither the Egyptians nor the Turks were taken in, however, despite Napoleon intermixing his name with that of Allah.

After visiting the grave of Alexander, Napoleon appointed Gen. Kleber the conquered city’s governor before starting his overland march on Cairo with Desaix’s division moving out ahead of the main body as an advance element. Cairo’s Grand Mufti declared war on the French, ending the fiction that they had come as liberators. Rosetta was reached on July 8, 1798. Bonaparte’s insistence on haste caused his two most famous commanders---Murat and Lannes---to “fling their braided hats to the sand” and stamp on them in anger. Nevertheless, the advance drove on.

The Nile River was reached on the 10th, as Mameluke leader Murad Bey left Cairo with 3,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry to challenge Napoleon’s 20,000-man force in five

divisions, which the general reviewed on the 11th outside El Ramaniyah, addressing each of the divisions in turn.

“Well, general, are you going to take us into India?” he was asked. He smiled enigmatically. His force in Egypt was in reality two in one: the combined Armies of Italy and the Rhine, and thus, the latter were new to his command, an unknown quantity in the battles ahead. Ready for action, the army advanced in formed squares, six men deep instead of the usual three, with artillery posted at the corners of each.

The Mamelukes had defeated St. Louis’ Crusade in the 13th Century, and now also had artillery to best the hated French a second time. Now they were arrayed in battle formation before the French squares, according to cavalryman Desvernois: “It was a magnificent sight. In the distance, the desert beneath the blue sky, before us these beautiful, Arab steeds, sumptuously harnessed, snorting, neighing, prancing lightly and gracefully beneath their martial riders, who were covered with dazzling arms inlaid with gold and jewels.

“They were clad in varied, brilliantly-colored costumes, some wearing turbans bedecked with egret feathers, others wearing golden helmets, armed with sabers, lances, maces, spears, rifles, axes, and daggers, each with three double-barreled pistols, two attached by cord to the twin pommels of their saddle, the other tucked into a belt on the left side of their stomach.”

They were arrayed before the French in a single long line of extended cavalry, ready for the charge. The battle of Shulra Khit of July 13, 1798 was about to commence, with by now 20,000 Mamelukes arrayed against Napoleon’s deployed 18,000 infantry, with 2,000 more held in reserve. The squares were likened to “porcupines of steel,” and---as at Waterloo 17 years later---the Arab horses could not be induced to pierce the squares’ bayonets. After suffering 300 dead, the Mamelukes rode off, leaving nine guns behind, but intact to fight another day. Napoleon’s lack of real cavalry strength (he had but 200 riders) meant that immediate pursuit was impossible. The French lost 300 dead and wounded with 1,500 artillery rounds fired. The battle lasted from 9 AM to 12:30 PM.

With Cairo now but 80 miles upstream, the French advance resumed, with each artillery piece dragged over the hot sands by a team of six horses. “Several soldiers committed suicide” for lack of water, and 900 native men, women, and children were killed in a rage over food en route. Now there were two Mameluke armies ahead of Napoleon, one directly posted before the walls of Cairo itself; 500 years of Mameluke rule were not to be swept aside easily. The Turks had conquered Egypt in 1517, and garrisoned her over that time with the fierce Mameluke warriors.

At Cairo, Murad Bey’s army numbered 6,000 Mamelukes; 15,000 armed Egyptians, and 3,000 Bedouins. Ibrahim Bey’s force was also there with a thousand mounted Mamelukes. Outside the city there was a trio of ancient pyramids; the Nile split Murad Bey’s forces off from those of Ibrahim Bey.

Before this famous July 21, 1798 “Battle of the Pyramids” Napoleon gave his famous address to his generals: “Soldiers! 40 centuries of history are looking down on you!” As at Shulra Khit, Napoleon fought a Wellington-like battle, with his squares arrayed again in squares moving forward against abortive “wave upon wave” enemy cavalry charges. “Not until the order was given did the men fire their muskets.” The result was again the same: “The battle was becoming a rout,” and was watched, reportedly, by the city’s entire population from the walls. In actuality, the pyramids were 10 miles away, and so the actual battle was fought at Embaba.

Ibrahim Bey crossed over to aid his embattled rival, Murad Bey, but to no avail: “The corpses of the men and horses presented a hideous spectacle,” noted one eyewitness. “After two hours of indescribable horror,” Murad Bey and 8,000 Mamelukes escaped complete annihilation, again, for lack of a powerful French cavalry arm.

Gen. Bonaparte entered the city in triumph on the 24th “At the head of a column of grenadiers,” and that night, took up residence in Murad Bey’s own palace at Giza. The people of Cairo looted and burned Ibrahim Bey’s abandoned palace, while marauding Bedouins looted fleeing Cairo refugees in the desert. Cairo was larger than Paris, with 500,000 people. Napoleon became known as Sultan El-Kebir---or “The Great Ruler.” He promptly set about reforming the municipal government along modern French lines.

As this proceeded, news arrived of Nelson’s great victory over the now destroyed French Fleet in Aboukir Bay that became known as the Battle of the Nile. The French were now stranded in Egypt whether they wanted to be or not.

Nonetheless, Napoleon dreamed of “a United States of Asia” of Africa-Asia-India that would be both conquered and ruled by him, personally, independent of the faraway French Republic. Jolting him from this vision was the fact that Sultan Selim III of Turkey declared war on France on Oct. 10, 1798, thus becoming England’s newest ally, a blow to Bonaparte’s grand dreams of oriental imperium. Before that, however, on the 21st, Cairo had risen in revolt against the French occupation, with the Military Governor of the city---Gen. Dupuy---murdered.

Bonaparte reacted with studied brutality: “Exterminate all who are in the mosque!” he brusquely ordered. It and the entire town were bombarded with artillery from the Citadel. “What you have begun it is for me to finish!” he roared, as three columns cleared the city of rebels. The revolt had been put down by the night of the 22nd with 100 French dead and 200 wounded, as opposed 3,000 civilians: “A massacre.” Once again in complete charge, Napoleon was generous to the subdued Iman chieftains, but ordered beheaded all POWs captured under arms. The major ringleaders were beheaded on Nov. 3, 1798.

“Sedition has been put to sleep. Let him be accursed who destroys its slumber,” was Bonaparte’s edict. Arms were seized. “Many people had their throats slit, and were thrown into the Nile.” Two alien cultures were now fully at odds. “The power of God passes through me” Napoleon asserted, “with refuge neither in this world or the next.” His power was unchecked and without outside supervision of any kind.

Suez was taken on Dec. 8, 1798, and Napoleon conceived the idea of a future canal there that would be built 50 years later by another famous Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Suez was his first step on the new road of conquest that would lead to India. For this expedition, he organized a new French camel corps to cross the desert. He ordered Desaix to buy 3,000 black slaves to form a special colonial corps of infantry as well. On Jan. 1, 1799, he wrote to Tippoo Sahib---who was fighting Wellington in India, but never received a reply, as Wellington won the key Battle of Seringapatam on May 4th that year.

Meanwhile, Gen. Desaix was based in Upper Egypt with 3,000 men, engaged in the futile pursuit of the twice defeated but elusive Murad Bey, winning the Battle of Sediman. As for Napoleon, he would fight and win more battles than Alexander and Julius Caesar combined, but is today remembered mainly for his defeat at Waterloo. Had he reached India, Bonaparte might’ve faced Wellington almost two decades earlier, but it was not to be, alas.

French outpost garrison forts were now being stormed and besieged behind Bonaparte, but on he went, just like Alexander before him. By day, the temperature was in the nineties, dropping to below freezing at night, a novel experience for soldiers used to European weather. Desaix faced Murad Bey again at the inconclusive Battle of Samhud on Jan. 22, 1799. Once again, the enemy escaped complete destruction.

Before the French arrival at Thebes, crocodiles of from 18-40 feet long were reportedly seen. It was Desaix’s victories in his rear that made Napoleon master of Egypt, but now there was a new and far more dangerous foe---bubonic plague---and 200 French died of it by February 1799. Still, he planned to cross the Indus River into India by March 1800 with a renewed force of 40,000 men, his French troops being augmented by colonial draftees garnered along the route of advance. He would take Syria first, then India.

Napoleon advanced on Syria with two divisions on Feb. 2, 1799, as Gen. Reynier took El-Arish and Joachim Murat seized Gaza. Bonaparte took Jaffa and Tel Aviv in the Holy Land. After seeing their peace emissaries killed out of hand, the French “charged through the main breech and all were put to the bayonet---a massacre” of 2,000 Turks at Jaffa.

After the surrender of the Citadel, Napoleon was faced with what to do with 4,000 POWs, many of whom had violated their El-Arish parole; his own army was threatening to mutiny over a shortage of rations already. After conferring with his senior commanders, he later wrote, “Our unanimous decision was to shoot them.”

Egyptians, Moroccans, and Turks were led to the sea in groups and shot or bayoneted as they attempted to swim away, many to drown, children as well as men. The three-day slaughter took place over March 8-10, 1799, and Napoleon was responsible before history.

Reinforced with a force of four divisions, Gen. Bonaparte moved on toward Acre in what the Romans called Palestina, or today’s Palestine. The port of Haifa was reached on March 17, 1799. The Siege of Acre began on March 18, 1799. If it fell, Bonaparte could then take Aleppo, and then either Constantinople or India, but---defended by a Turkish garrison and re-supplied by sea by Sir Sydney Smith’s Royal Navy fleet---Acre would not fall, despite a fierce artillery bombardment and charges by French grenadiers. The plague was also still present within the French Army, with a hospital established on the slopes of Mt. Carmel for 9,000 men, during the ongoing siege. Battles were also fought at Mt. Tabor and at Cana. Nazareth was taken. In the 50th day of the siege at Acre, French heavy artillery finally went into action, but the British-Turkish fleet in the harbor still re-supplied and reinforced the city. Lanterns were hung on the walls at night to prevent the French engineers move their trenches closer to the city by digging in darkness.

Smith’s Royal Marines defeated the famed French grenadiers at the Battle of the Tower at Acre. The wall was breached by French artillery, and Lannes lead his men through it with bayonets, knives, and sabers before being wounded. Bonaparte’s last assault on Acre occurred on May 10, 1799, led by Kleber against his orders. Blunted by a mine explosion, the attack failed, and the siege dragged on for another 10 days. Smith sent an insulting letter to the chagrinned French commander: “Asia is not a theater made for your glory.”

Reluctantly, Napoleon agreed, and the humiliating retreat from Acre back into Egypt began on May 21, 1799 after 62 days and 15,000 enemy lives versus 1,200 French killed in action, and another thousand dead from the plague, plus 2,300 wounded, including seven generals. Thus died Napoleon’s first dream of conquering the Ottoman Empire, but one he would renew eight years later with Russian Tsar Alexander I on the famed raft at Tilsit. Later---as Emperor---Napoleon said ruefully of Smith, “That man made me lose my destiny.”

He made his famous visit to the plague victims’ hospital at Jaffa, however, as the French Army mutinied on the return trip, dumping the carried wounded from their stretchers in frustration when the desert was again encountered, and no water was at hand. The grenadiers refused to march at night any longer, and confronted their officers with bayonets. Gen. Kleber simply ignored them and marched on; they followed. By June 14, 1799, Napoleon was back in Cairo. He’d already made his decision to leave Egypt by sea secretly, return to France, and there seek his “European” destiny instead. Two ships were made ready to sail at a moment’s notice at Alexandria, a year after his Egyptian arrival. He’d been in Syria for four months, and many in Egypt had thought he was dead, killed at Acre.

Meanwhile the “Mustafa” uprising against the French also failed, with 15,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry in a “jihad” holy war that was defeated by Gen. Lanusse on May 9, 1799. Ahmed “the Mahdi,” or Expected One, was killed in action. Napoleon was by now expecting a joint British-Turkish sea-borne invasion at any time. The French Army of the Orient was now short of men, weapons, and ammunition.

The Turkish invasion began at Aboukir Bay on July 15, 1799 with 15,000 men, to which Napoleon immediately responded with a Murat-led force of 10,000 infantry buffed up by a new cavalry arm of 1,000 horse. Napoleon joined him at Aboukir Bay on July 24, 1799, telling Murat, “This battle will decide the fate of the world,” in Bonapartist hyperbole. The Battle of Aboukir Bay was fought the next day, with the enemy driven back into the sea: “They all drowned, the most horrible sight I have seen,” Napoleon later wrote. Murat captured the Turkish commander, Sayd, personally. Murat’s own cavalry charge had won a glorious victory for French arms. Despite a jaw wound, Murat wrote, “My lips are intact,” as a grateful Bonaparte promoted him to the rank of General of division.

There were 6,000 dead Turks as opposed to 100 French dead and 500 wounded, but there were still 5,000 Turks inside Ft. Aboukir. After a siege, the fort surrendered on Aug. 2, 1799. Afterwards, Napoleon suffered a bout of stage fright, about what to do next: return to France or try again for India. His decision, he knew---one way or the other---would change his life, career, and history forever.

After reading some French newspapers from Europe describing the political situation on the Continent, Napoleon dramatically exclaimed, “I must depart!” and left Gen. Kleber in command in Egypt. He reentered Cairo once more on Aug. 11, 1799, and left his deputy these instructions: “Cut off six heads a day, but keep smiling!” On the 17th, he left Cairo for good with his senior officers in a camel caravan for the sea.

Aboard ship once more, Napoleon told them, concerning the rule of the French Directory at Paris, “The reign of these chatterers is over, that bunch of lawyers. I will install myself at the head of government.” After a 47-day voyage, the party landed at Frejus on Oct. 9, 1799, just as the news of his victory at Aboukir arrived in France as well. He was back in Paris on the 16th.

His political Brumaire Coup occurred during Nov. 9-10, 1799 with Napoleon emerging as the First Consul of three, crossing the Alps with 40,000 men to win the Battle of Marengo near Genoa in Italy against 30,000 Austrians on June 18,1800. “It’s three o’clock. The battle is lost, but there’s still time to win another!” It was won, but his brave ally Desaix was killed. The First Consul now called his compatriots “my Egyptians.” He was 31.

Back in Occupied Egypt, Kleber roared, “That bugger has deserted us with his pants full of shit! When we get back to Europe, we’ll rub his face in it!” There wasn’t “A sou in the till,” and a deficit of 10 million francs to boot left behind in Cairo. Kleber began negotiating a secret exit treaty with Sir Sydney that was duly signed as the Convention of El-Arish on Jan. 28, 1800, but later disavowed by both London and Paris.

Kleber won the Battle of Heliopolis on March 20, 1800 with his 10,000 men beating a Turkish force four times its size, but still Cairo fell. Kleber himself---excellent soldier, but poor administrator---was assassinated with a knife on June 24, 1800 by Soliman, himself executed with a spike shoved up his anus. Kleber was succeeded by Menou, who promptly fired all of his predecessor’s deputies.

British Gen. Abercromby landed in March 1801 near Alexandria with 17,000 English soldiers, followed by a Turkish force and a later joint British-Indian expedition as well. Menou was defeated at the Battle of Canopus on March 21, 1801; oddly, Wellington had almost been named to lead the Allied hosts. Gen. Abercromby died from a leg wound, and French Gen. Lanusse was also fatally wounded.

Murad Bey died on June 22, 1801, and peace was eventually signed on exactly the same terms that had been agreed upon 18 months before. Cairo fell to the British, and the French Army marched out for the last time on July 6, 1801 13,000 strong and bearing Kleber’s embalmed body. They left Rosetta harbor aboard British Royal Navy troopships bound for Europe. The famed Rosetta Stone went, therefore, to London for study, and not to Paris.

Menou meanwhile, still held Alexandria, but he, too, accepted the British terms on Sept. 2, 1801, and thus the last of the Army of the Orient left Egypt in October 1801 after three years.

Having swam to safety at Aboukir, the Albanian Mohammed Ali took over Egypt in 1803 and ruled it for the next 40 years. De Lesseps built the Suez Canal in 1869. Upon seeing St. Helena in 1815, the exiled Emperor Napoleon I stated, “I would’ve done better to have stayed in Egypt. By now, I would be Emperor of allof the East. I would’ve founded an empire there. If only Acre had fallen, I would’ve changed the face of the world.” He wanted to “Egyptize” black Africa, an unrepentant European colonist to the end.

Instead, he went from being Alexander’s successor to being that of Caesar; from Acre sprang the defeat at Moscow; his landing at Frejus was followed by that at Golfe St. Jean in 1815. Indeed, even Smith was present at Waterloo. He died in Paris in 1840---the same year the Emperor’s body was returned---the admiral’s body wrapped in the Union Jack flag.

The man whom a contemptuous Kleber called “That Corsican runt” once declared that “Great events hang by a thread.” “But for you English,” he roared, “I would’ve been Emperor of the East!”

On the orders of his nephew and successor---Emperor Napoleon III---the Great Napoleon’s 32 volumes of Correspondence was published in Paris during 1858-70, the year that Imperial France was again defeated by Prussia, in the Franco-Prussian War that led to the overthrow pf the Bonapartist dynasty for the third---but maybe not the last!---time…

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* Napoleon’s Misguided Oriental Adventure: Egypt To Syria


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