Napoleon's Campaign in Egypt: The Making of a Military Legend

February 11, 2021 Topic: History Region: Africa Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: FranceNapoleon BonaparteEgyptMilitary History

Napoleon's Campaign in Egypt: The Making of a Military Legend

To get at England, Bonaparte sets out in grand style to conquer the East.

Here's What You Need to Know: By the year 1798, the First Coalition was collapsing. Only Britain remained as France’s implacable foe. With the advent of relative peace, the governing body of France, the Directory, ever in need of cash, now sought new means of employment for the army and its general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Also for the first time since 1792, the war’s revolutionary zeal and national survival had given way to overt imperialism. The Directory’s desire for treasure and territorial aggrandizement coincided perfectly with a certain French general’s private thirst for military glory and political advancement.

The lure of the East had been considered by French governments for the previous 50 years. Louis XIV and his successors had maintained friendship with the ruler of the Turkish Empire, the Ottoman Porte. Merchants from Marseilles handled many commodities from the East such as rice, coffee, sugar, and cotton.

“The Fountain of Glory”

Napoleon’s reasons for attempting the expedition were many. First, the pacification of Italy was nearly complete and his proconsular authority would be terminated by the Directory—he would be one among many unemployed generals. He was also a dreamer who confided to his friend and secretary Bourrienne: “I see that if I linger here I shall soon lose myself. Everything wears out here; my glory has already disappeared. This little Europe does not supply enough of it for me. I must seek it in the East, the fountain of glory.”

In Charles Talleyrand, a new foreign minister in the Directory, Napoleon found an ally for an Egyptian campaign. In addition, French commercial interests outlined the importance of profits to be obtained from colonies. Thus on April 12, 1798 the Directory instructed General Bonaparte to seize Malta and Egypt; dislodge the English from their establishments; overthrow the corruption of the ruling Mamelukes, who badly ruled for Turkey; pierce the Isthmus of Suez; improve the living conditions of the native Egyptians; and maintain good relations with the Porte (Sultan of Turkey).

Preparing the Expedition

In the 10 weeks following the Directory’s approval, an energetic General Bonaparte was busily equipping his troops, assembling transports, outfitting warships, recruiting sailors, and enlisting a commission of civilian experts: engineers, scientists, aeronauts, artists, archaeologists, economists, pharmacists, surgeons, writers, musicians, interpreters, and printers to accompany his expedition. As a newly elected member of the Institute of Arts and Sciences, Napoleon felt deeply honored and always used this title in his proclamations. In a letter to Camus, president of the Institute, Napoleon wrote: “True conquests—the only ones that leave no regret behind them—are those that are made over ignorance. The most honorable, as well as the most useful, occupation for nations is the contributing to the extension of human knowledge.”

Consequently, Napoleon consulted with the engineer specialist, General Caffarelli, and the brilliant scientist Berthollet, in selecting 167 savants, such as the distinguished mathematician Monge, balloonist Conte, doctors Larrey and Desgenettes, and the great artist Denon. It was to be this last group of civilians who would achieve the ultimate victory of the campaign. Their scientific research and discovery would prove to be the most lasting and beneficial accomplishments, because the French enlightened the Western world to the ancient history of the pharaohs and the modern possibilities of a canal through Suez.

Most of the soldiers Napoleon mobilized derived from his Army of Italy. He had successfully molded these hungry revolutionary soldiers into an admirably disciplined, intelligent, and swiftly responsive mechanism. In addition to the army, navy, and scientific commission, there were women and children who were cantinieres, laundresses, and so forth. While most women were barred from the expedition, a few husbands and lovers succeeded in disguising their women and having them stow away on board. In this way, some three hundred women accompanied the armada.

Civilians included, the expedition totaled almost 38,000, outfitted with 60 field guns, 40 heavy siege artillery, a hundred day rations, 1,200 horses, and three hundred washerwomen. The French vanguard took the island of Malta (from the Knights Hospitallers, mostly French) on June 9, 1798. Working ever expeditiously, Napoleon had the island ceded to France and proceeded to liquidate the centuries-old state, establish the basis of new government, and confiscate the seven million francs in the treasury. He also abolished slavery and freed two thousand Turkish and Moorish slaves, an act he hoped would convince the beys (roughly,“princes”) of Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers of his friendly intentions in North Africa.

The Campaign Begins

The entire armada landed at Marabout on July 1. By midday, with a toll of three hundred casualties, Alexandria was under French control. Immediately, proclamations were distributed announcing the coming of the French to be the will of Allah, and their purpose to free the Egyptians from their ancient servitude to the Mamelukes.

A terrible march toward Cairo ensued, the men suffering from thirst and a burning red dust that caused temporary blindness. At El Rahmaniya, the troops first saw the Nile and threw themselves into the river to drink. Napoleon then rallied them for battle. As the French played the Marseillaise, the Mameluke horsemen lined up for the charge.

Napoleon had each division form a square, six ranks deep, the center of the square to contain the cavalry, with the artillery placed at the corners. With a bloodcurdling cry, the magnificent horsemen charged headlong into the bayonet-bristling squares. The French answered with a barrage of cannon and rifles. The Mamelukes continued to circle the supporting squares looking for an opening and finding nothing but shot and steel.

Napoleon won at El Rahmaniya and proved that a modern, disciplined army could withstand a ruthless yet medieval enemy. But the bulk of the Mamelukes had escaped. The French marched on Cairo. Nearby Murad Bey waited on the left bank of the Nile, at the village of Embaba, which he had fortified. Ibrahim Bey was encamped at Bulaq to meet the French threat on the right bank. On the Nile, the Mameluke gunboats awaited the invader. Behind the formidable Mameluke line of battle loomed the Great Pyramids.

With a loud and inspiring voice, Napoleon addressed his men: “Soldiers, forty centuries look down upon you!” Placing all his confidence in his army’s ability to carry out his instructions, Bonaparte awaited the onslaught of the Mamelukes. The least weakness or panic could result in disaster. A break in the ranks and the impetuous Mamelukes, with dazzling speed, would have penetrated the French squares and carved a bloody path. The exhausted French were hungry, weakened by dysentery, demoralized, and fighting in an alien country. The Mamelukes, on the other hand, were well rested, in their own element, and enjoyed a numerical superiority of Murad’s six thousand Mamelukes and 15,000 foot militia allied to Ibrahim Bey’s 100,000 warriors. The French numbered 25,000 men.

Facing the desert was the French right, consisting first of Louis Desaix’s square, supported to the left rear by Jean Reynier. Desaix had also sent a detachment of cavalry and grenadiers to occupy the large village forming the extreme right of the French line. Honore´ Vial and Andre´ Bon were flanked to the left, parallel to the Nile, and opposite the town of Embaba. In the center, standing in reserve, was the division of Charles Dugua. Bonaparte and his staff found shelter within this square. At 3:30 pm the Mamelukes, with their long, bejeweled scimitars glistening in the sunlight, charged toward the French right with a terrifying yell, taking Desaix and Reynier almost by surprise. The squares closed up and soon fire-fringed rectangles greeted the torrent of horsemen. Only their discipline and good generalship would win this battle for the French.

After hitting these two squares, the Mamelukes plunged on to the rear where Dugua’s square greeted them with a firing howitzer. Soon the galloping horsemen swung round and swept back to the village near Desaix. The small French garrison held off the Mameluke horde until reinforced from Desaix’s division. Meanwhile, Vial and Bon, covered by the French flotilla’s guns firing from the Nile, prepared to storm Embaba. At first, Egyptian cannon held back this French attack. But these guns were positioned onto unmovable carriages and could not penetrate the continued French attack.

Recovering their élan, the soldiers of Bon’s division spread out into a number of attack columns supported by three small squares of General Rampon. In a few minutes, Bon’s men stormed their way into the village, and as the garrison of two thousand Mamelukes tried to escape up the Nile, Aguste Marmont rushed a demibrigade forward to seize a defile at the rear of the village. Their retreat cut off, the Mamelukes turned in desperation toward the Nile and attempted to swim across to join Ibrahim Bey’s watching multitude. By most counts a thousand drowned and six hundred more were shot down. By 4:30 pm, the battle was won and Murad Bey, with his three thousand surviving cavalry, fled toward Giza and Middle Egypt.

Napoleon Bonaparte had at last gained his decisive victory. The victorious French had accounted for two thousand Mamelukes and several thousand more fellahin or foot soldiers for a loss of 29 killed and 260 wounded.