Napoleon in the Middle East
By David Markham
When Napoleon returned in triumph from his success in Italy, the situation
for France seemed quite good. Only England remained in overt opposition
to France, and without her continental allies, perhaps she could
be dealt with once and for all. England's greatest fear had always
been an invasion across the channel, and this was the next order
of business for Napoleon. He was put in charge of planning for such
an invasion. The most critical difficulty was, of course, the complete
domination of the channel by the British fleet. While the French
navy, joined by Spanish ships, could be a significant force, they
were no match for the British.
Napoleon soon realized that the odds against success for such an invasion
were long. On February 23, 1798, he wrote the Directory:
Whatever efforts we make, it will still be many years before we achieve
supremacy at sea…The real moment for preparing this invasion
has passed, perhaps forever...
When Napoleon became convinced that an invasion of England was out of
the question, both he and the Directory searched for another appropriate
campaign. An idle general, who was also popular and ambitious was
a recipe for upheaval, and the Directory wanted none of that. A
way needed to be found to get him out of Paris, hopefully in a way
that would benefit France as well as the Directory.
Talleyrand, whose scheming would be both a boon and a bane throughout
Napoleon's career, suggested the ancient French dream of wounding
England by conquering Egypt. The Mediterranean was far larger than
the English Channel, and the British fleet was not nearly as dominant
in that area. France had removed a number of ports from British
use, most notably some in Italy. Its re-possession of the island
of Corsica should also be seen as part of this process, for it effectively
removed the British threat to the French fleet at Toulon, and greatly
weakened their position throughout the Mediterranean.
If France could remove the threat of a British presence in Egypt and
the Holy Land, it would harm their domination of trade with the
Far East and deal them a severe psychological blow. Moreover, it
would cement French domination of the Mediterranean, adding additional
security for France. This possibility had been considered before,
most recently in 1769 by Louis XVI.
For the Directory, the campaign had obvious advantages. Not only would
it wound the English, but it would also remove Bonaparte from Paris.
With any luck, he would achieve great success on the campaign, and
get killed while he was at it. For Napoleon, the advantages were
equally obvious. While he was very popular, he was not yet in a
position to seize power. An idle general's glory, however, is soon
forgotten. He needed additional glory and publicity, and where better
than the ancient, mysterious and romantic land of Egypt to find
that glory? The aura of mystery surrounding Egypt could only enhance
any success he might achieve.
Not surprisingly, then, Napoleon and the Directory
quickly approved the Egyptian campaign. Napoleon was given an army
of some 35,000 experienced soldiers. He took with him Berthier as
his chief of staff, along with Lannes and Murat. On May 19, 1798,
Napoleon set sail from the port city of Toulon. His entourage included
some four hundred troop transports, thirteen ships-of-the-line and
four frigates. The flagship, l'Orient, was the most heavily
armed ship in any navy at that time.
The Conquest of Malta
Before landing in Egypt, he took Malta for the French, securing both riches
and an important navy base. Lightly defended by the Knights of St.
John, the island fortress offered little resistance, and within
a week Napoleon was ready to leave for Egypt. Before leaving, however,
he completely reorganized the island, wrote a new constitution,
deported the Knights, initiated a new educational system, and confiscated
countless treasures. He gave religious freedom to the Jews, and
abolished slavery and feudal privileges. In six days, he mirrored
his reform-oriented approach that had been seen in Italy, was about
to be seen in Egypt, and soon enough would be seen in France.
Control of Malta, as with control of Corsica and other islands, was not
simply a secondary consideration. Any nation that wishes to control
the Mediterranean must control the major islands as well. This was
the fruit of the Roman's victory in the first Punic War, and it
was to be a basic consideration from then onward. That ancient goal
accomplished, Napoleon sailed on for Egypt.
The Situation in Egypt
The political situation in Egypt was complex. Since the defeat of the
European armies of the crusades, Egypt had been run by former slaves
from Eastern Europe known as Mamelukes. These rulers, known as Emirs,
were trained in the army and were a warrior class of rulers. Since
the 16th century the Ottoman Turks had controlled Egypt The
Mamelukes, however, paid little more than lip service to the Turkish
control of their country, and the Turks had done little to change
that situation. To Napoleon, this presented an excellent opportunity
to justify the invasion. He had long been interested in Turkey,
and could now claim that he was there on Turkish behalf, to defeat
the Mamelukes and restore Turkish control of the region. Egypt under
Turkish control friendly to France could be used as part of a short
route to the Far East, giving France a decidedly shorter route to
that area than that used by the British.
France had other reasons for wanting to control Egypt and the Middle East,
which was their ultimate goal. An African colony just across the
Mediterranean could yield riches beyond those involving trade with
the Far East. The goal of civilizing a backward land and improving
their living standards was certainly in the European tradition.
Finally, by at least on the surface helping restore Turkish control
over the area, they would cement relations with their traditional
allies, the Turks.
Unfortunately, the political justification for the expedition would be sabotaged
by political inaction in France. Foreign Minister Talleyrand was
to travel to Turkey and explain Franceís pro-Turkish motives in
the invasion. The French were sure that Sultan Selim III would understand
and support the French action. For some reason, no doubt including
his lack of interest in promoting the fortunes of this ambitious
young general, Talleyrand chose not to make that trip, and the Turks
were never informed of France's intentions.
In many ways, Napoleon was a romantic, and he certainly had a good
understanding of history. The most famous conqueror of that part
of the world was Alexander the Great. Like Napoleon, he had the
goal of unifying the region under one power (his) and then bringing
to his new subjects the enlightenment of the Greek world. He also
was willing, often to the consternation of his generals, to adopt
many of the Persian ways in an effort to keep them from a constant
urge to rebellion. While he was at it, Alexander would learn all
he could of these new lands, and sent back information and plant
samples to his former tutor, Aristotle.
Once serious consideration was given to an Egyptian campaign, Napoleon
became even more fascinated with the campaign of Alexander the Great.
He read all he could find on the subject, and no doubt began to
see himself as the new Alexander who would produce a new empire.
Thus, it is not surprising that there are numerous parallels between
the two campaigns.
Napoleon was not content to simply bring with him a substantial military
force. He also brought a large number of civilians to study every
aspect of this largely unstudied land. This group included some
167 scholars from a variety of fields. There were naturalists, mineralogists,
painters, surveyors and others, all intent on extending western
knowledge of all things Egyptian. While there, this team would record
everything that they found, and artists would create images that
would become the basis for a virtual Egyptian stylistic frenzy in
France that would last many years.
Napoleon had an Egyptian Institute formed, which provided overall supervision
of the scholarly work that was done. Its first director was art
historian Vivant Denon. Under his leadership, the groundwork was
laid for what would become the crowning glory of the Institute.
In 1802, Napoleon ordered the preparation of a publication that
would combine all of the work done by these scholars and artists
(Denon alone had produced over 200 drawings).
Over the next twenty years, a team of over 400 copper-engravers produced
Description de l'Egypt. Finally published in 1822, this monumental
work consisted of ten folio volumes so large that a special bookcase
was designed to hold them. Later two anthologies would be produced.
The work contains more than 3000 illustrations, including 837 copper
engravings. It is a sumptuous work of art and considered by many
to be the greatest result of the French expedition to Egypt.
An even more important accomplishment that led toward
a greater understanding of the ancient Egyptian world was the discovery
of the Rosetta stone. A French soldier found the stone in a wall
near the town of Rosetta. This stone contained the key to translating
the ancient hieroglyphics, as it contained material written in Greek
and hieroglyphics. Members of the Institute immediately recognized
its importance and made many copies of its text. The British
also recognized the stone's importance, and when the French withdrew
from Egypt, the British insisted on taking it to England, where
it currently resides in the British Museum. Nevertheless, the Frenchman
Jean-François Champollion translated the Rosetta stone in 1822,
opening the floodgates of knowledge that would feed the western
fascination with all things Egyptian.
Napoleon's interest in the study of Egypt offers a fascinating and important
insight into the man himself. It shows the great breadth of his
intellectual interests. He did not just order the Institute formed,
but played an active role in its work. More important was the fact
that he even conceptualized the Institute and the importance of
the artistic and scientific work that accompanied the military expedition.
His love of history and of knowledge allowed him to see the expedition
in far wider terms than simply a military conquest. He fully understood,
of course, the trade-route possibilities and other geo-political
implications of the military action beyond simply keeping the British
Like Alexander, Napoleon recognized the opportunity to make a wider contribution
to history beyond simple conquest. He saw himself as a modern liberator.
He had liberated the Italians from the domination of the Austrians.
Here, he would liberate the Egyptians from the centuries old domination
by the Mamelukes and their often cruel leaders called Beys. Under
overall Turkish control, the Egyptians would gain a great deal of
self-rule. He would be the founder of modern Egypt. In this goal,
at least, he was largely successful.
The Landings in Egypt
The British, naturally enough, viewed these developments with some alarm.
Informed of the mission by spies, they dispatched a fleet under
the command of Rear Admiral Nelson to intercept and destroy the
French fleet. Several times the two fleets almost came upon each
other, but each time French good fortune intervened and contact
was not made. In the first few days of July, Napoleon's soldiers
were on Egyptian soil, and the campaign was underway.
Like Alexander before him, Napoleon understood the need to show respect
to the religion and culture of those people whom he was, after all,
there to liberate. To that end he issued two proclamations; one,
in Arabic, to the people of Egypt, and one to his soldiers. The
one to the Egyptians was designed to reassure them as to the intentions
of the French presence, and to whip up antagonism toward the Beys.
It reads in part:<
Bonaparte, the General of the French Republic, according to
the principles of liberty, is now arrived; and the Almighty,
the Lord of both Worlds, has sealed the destruction of the
All men are equal in the eyes of God...Yet are
they [the Beys] the only possessors of extensive tracts of land,
beautiful female slaves, excellent horses, magnificent palaces!...
Our friendship shall be extended to those of the
inhabitants of Egypt who shall join us, as also to those who
shall remain in their dwellings, and observe a strict neutrality;
and when they have seen our conduct with their own eyes, hasten
to submit to us; but the dreadful punishment of death awaits
those who shall take up arms for the Beys, and against us. For
them there shall be no deliverance, nor shall any trace of them
Napoleon's proclamation to his men sought to raise their spirits
as to the glory of their campaign, while also warning them of the
necessity to respect the people and customs they would encounter.
It reads in part:
You are going to undertake a conquest, the effects of which
upon commerce and civilization will be incalculable.
You will give the English a most sensible blow,
which will be followed up with their destruction.
We shall have some fatiguing marches; we shall
fight several battles; we shall succeed in all our enterprises.
The Destinies are in our favor...
The people, among whom you are going to live, are Mahometans.
The first article of their faith is, There is no
other God but God, and Mahomet is his Prophet. Do not contradict
them. Act with them as you did with the Jews and with the Italians.
Treat their Muftis and their Imans with respect, as you did
the Rabbis and the Bishops...
The Roman legions protected all religions. You
will find here customs which differ from those of Europe; you
must accustom yourselves to them.
The people among whom we are going treat women
differently from us; but in every country he who violates them
is a monster!
Pillage enriches but a very few men; and it renders
these people our enemies, whom it is our interest to have for
The first city we shall arrive at was built by
Alexander, and every step we take we shall meet with objects
capable of exciting emulation.
They landed a short distance from Alexandria, and faced no opposition
in putting ashore. No opposition, perhaps, but due to weather conditions
the landing was dangerous nonetheless. However, delay risked facing
Nelson's ships before the troops had disembarked. Nelson had been
searching for Napoleon's fleet, and the two had unknowingly passed
quite close to each other. Had contact been made, Nelson would almost
certainly have been the victor, and Napoleon's career might well
Speed was, therefore, quite necessary. Once again, Napoleon exhibited
the determination, leadership and bravery that marked his entire
career. Contrary to advice given by his admiral and others, Napoleon
gave the orders to disembark at once. Captain Shechy wrote in part:
On the evening of the 1st instant, after issuing the necessary
orders for effecting an immediate landing, the Commander in
Chief threw himself into a Maltese galley, to get nearer the
shore; and in spite of the prudent advice of the seamen, who
insinuated that a debarkation was impracticable, on account
of the violence of the wind, and of the reefs which fill the
Bay of Marabout, General Bonaparte persisted in his determination
to land, and actually did land in this very bay.
Napoleon's forces quickly secured Alexandria and its vital water
supply. Napoleon wasted no time in making clear his intentions.
He sent out the bulletins proclaiming the liberation of the Egyptians
and, like Alexander the Great before him, promising to respect local
customs and, especially, the religion of Islam. Alexandria secure,
the next phase of the campaign began. Napoleon sent some ten thousand
troops, as many as could fit on their transports, with General Desaix
up the Nile. He then set out across the desert with about fifteen
thousand troops. Their destination was El Rahmaniya, where they
expected to find the Egyptian Mameluke leader Murad Bey with his
The March on Cairo
When Alexander the Great marched back to Babylon, he and his men suffered
untold agony. Water was scarce, and was usually bad. The heat was
unbearable, driving some men mad and killing others of thirst. Napoleon's
trek across the desert was in keeping with Alexander's experience.
Napoleon wanted to be the new Alexander, but would no doubt have
been quite willing to forgo that particular element of his history!
Napoleon's men found little water or shelter, but plenty of heat. Worse, unlike
Alexander's men who were, after all, properly attired for a desert
march, Napoleon's army was more prepared for another Italian conflict
than they were for war in the desert. Their heavy uniforms and packs
became an intolerable burden. There was an acute shortage of canteens
for water. At one point, morale was so low that there was talk of
a mutiny. Savary recalled that "We all suffered from a parching
thirst; several men died of it on the spot."<
Napoleon was unflappable, however, and the army continued its march. In three
days they reached the Nile, and the scenes of the men's jubilation
upon finding that source of drinking and bathing water can only
be imagined. It had been a difficult journey, but the French were
at the Nile, and the real fighting was about to begin.
As predicted and desired, Murad Bey was in the neighborhood and ready
to give battle. His ten thousand Mamelukes were an impressive sight
to behold, but they were unable to break the French formations.
Napoleon had arranged his soldiers in squares with cannon at each
corner. The Mamelukes were certainly fearsome looking, but their
ancient weapons and frontal assault style were no match for the
firepower of the French squares, and they soon gave up the attack.
Indeed, this first confrontation was to be mostly between the French
and Mameluke gunboats on the Nile. The battle was fiercely fought,
but Napoleon's artillery support ultimately made the difference,
and the Mameluke navy was no more. Seeing this, Bey and his cavalry
beat a hasty retreat.
Two days later near Cairo, the Mamelukes were again prepared to give
battle. This battle would become known as the Battle of the Pyramids,
and took place on July 21, 1798. Once again, the tactics of the
Mameluke cavalry were no match for the French squares, and in the
end the Bey lost several thousand men to less than 100 French. It
was a lopsided victory, on the order of Agincourt, and left Napoleon
in control of Cairo.
Nelson destroys the French Fleet
Cairo was his, but Napoleon's fortunes would
soon take a dramatic turn for the worse. The French fleet was anchored
at Aboukir Bay. On August 1, Admiral Nelson arrived with his fleet.
French Admiral Francois-Paul Brueys was in command of the French
fleet. Napoleon had ordered him in July to either enter the port
of Alexandria or quickly provision himself and leave for Corfu.
Had Brueys obeyed his orders, the campaign might well have turned
out quite differently. Brueys, however, lined his 13 ships at anchor,
near the coast, hoping to force Nelson's 14 more lightly armed ships
to proceed along this line. Brueys, however, had not positioned
his ships properly. The French had established shore batteries that
could have trapped the British ships, but the French ships were
too far away for the batteries to be effective. The French ships
were also too far from the shallow water, which allowed the British
ships to encircle them. Finally, the ships were too far from each
other, which prevented them from lending assistance to each other.
With the British fleet able to surround the French fleet, the outcome
was never really in doubt, and by the morning of August 2 the French
fleet was no more. The most dramatic moment came when the French
flagship, líOrient, exploded twice and quickly sank, losing
most of her crew. The battle paused for about ten minutes as sailors
of both sides watched in horror and awe.<
The battle of Aboukir provides us with an example of the value of modern
underwater archaeology. The discovery of l'Orient and two
other French ships have confirmed the poor positioning of the French,
which allowed the British to record their overwhelming victory.
The implications of this defeat were tremendous. Any hope for French
domination of the Mediterranean was now gone. French naval power,
such as it had been, was never to recover. Of more immediate concern
was the fact that without the French fleet, Napoleon was now isolated
from France. This meant that there would be no reinforcements, no
supplies, and no communication of any great significance. Napoleon,
of course, discounted this setback as best he could. He had planned
to get most of his supplies from Egypt itself but even he understood
that this had been a major blow to his chances for success. Two
other blows to him or his mission were to follow.
Cairo was his, but not all Cairo was willing. On October 21st, thousands
of citizens of Cairo engaged in open revolt against the French.
The uprising killed large numbers of French soldiers unlucky enough
to be isolated or in small groups, and even laid siege to the Institute.
General Alexander Dumas, father of the author of The Three Musketeers
and The Count of Monte Cristo was serving as cavalry commander,
and, largely because of his leadership, the insurrection was put
Napoleon then suffered a second potentially disastrous setback. Talleyrand
had never informed the Sultan Selim II of France's aims; indeed,
he had never told Napoleon of this breakdown in communication. Thus,
the Sultan was not pleased when he learned of France's invasion
of Egypt. When he learned of the destruction of the French fleet
by Nelson, he decided that the time was right for him to reclaim
his control of Egypt.
Accordingly, in September the Sultan declared war on France. Napoleon, who heard
of the action from a neutral ship, had thus acquired an additional
opponent, one that could prove to be more formidable than the Mamelukes.
The Turks, it should be noted, were not just another easily defeated
opponent on the order of the Mamelukes, or a "civilized"
army on the order of his European opponents. They were ferocious
fighters with a well-deserved reputation for cruelty. Lopping off
heads or other body parts was a normal part of their approach to
intimidating subjects and foes alike, and Napoleon would have his
military abilities tested when he faced them. Soldiers, diplomats,
the wounded, women: none would be safe should they fall into the
hands of the Turks. The Turkish sultan had declared a holy war against
France, and there would be no holds barred.
Two Turkish armies were sent to challenge the French: one by sea, and
one by land. However, due to the wind conditions, it would be several
months before the sea-borne army would be able to arrive in Egypt.
The land army, however, was on the march. Napoleon was determined
to defeat it before it arrived in Egypt. To maintain his control
of Egypt and fulfill his dreams of being the new Alexander, he would
now have to march north to Syria to fight the Turks.
Napoleon's third misfortune was far more personal in nature, though possibly
of longer lasting significance. Since the very beginning, he had
been completely in love with Josephine. The flames of her passion
for him, however, had always burned somewhat cooler. During the
campaign in Italy he had written her constantly, and ultimately
had demanded that she join him there. In Egypt he had been consumed
with military, political and educational (the Institute) matters;
none of his letters to Josephine during the Egyptian campaign are
known to survive, but it is reasonable to presume that he had written
often. It is also reasonable to presume that he had given little
thought to following the example of many of his officers and taking
a local mistress.
His friend Andoche Junot, however, provided him evidence that Josephine
had not been quite so unable to ignore amorous possibilities in
his absence. She had long taken up Hippolyte Charles, a captain
in the French army. Napoleon had been aware of their friendship
before, but now knew that it had become more than friendship. Worse,
he discovered that all of Paris knew of the affair, and that he,
Napoleon, had become something of a laughingstock.
In addition to the affair, Napoleon heard of a great deal of profiteering
by Josephine, who was heavily involved in the provision of military
supplies. This outraged and embittered Napoleon, and he would never
quite be the same again. He wrote his brother Joseph on 25 July:
In two months I may be back in France. Please look after my interests.
I have great private unhappiness; the veil has at last quite
fallen from my eyes...Arrange for me to have a country house
when I get back, either near Paris or in Burgundy; I intend
to shut myself up there for the winter: I have had enough of
human nature. I need solitude and quiet; grandeur bores me;
my emotions are dried up. Glory is stale at twenty-nine; I have
used everything up; it only remains to become a real egoist...
When this letter was intercepted and published by the British, Napoleon's
humiliation was complete. He became less optimistic, and more cynical.
He contemplated serious measures, but ultimately decided on only
Napoleon decided that he would divorce Josephine as soon as he returned to
France. In the meantime, he was determined to show that two could
play at Josephine's game. He decided to take a mistress. This was
not difficult, given his position. He became enamored with Pauline
Fourés, the pretty twenty-nine year old blond wife of a junior officer,
Jean-Noel Fourés. Pauline had been smuggled to Egypt dressed as
a soldier, but when discovered lived with her husband in the normal
fashion. A beautiful woman with long legs, she was often the center
of attention, and Napoleon soon became determined to bed her. He
had little use for the local women, whom he found too heavy.
Napoleon arranged to send her husband to France, and then began to pay closer
attention to Pauline. When she realized his interest, she willingly
became his mistress. The two were seen together constantly, and
Napoleon no doubt hoped that Josephine would hear of his having
taken this measure of revenge. Unfortunately, her husband was captured
by a British ship and was returned to Egypt; a return probably calculated
by the British, who were well aware of the situation, to embarrass
the young General Bonaparte.
Fourés' return was marked by outrage and some violence, so the couple quickly
divorced. Now Pauline and Napoleon were free to do as they chose.
Napoleon called her his "Cleopatra," and it is entirely
possible that had she borne him a son he might have divorced Josephine
and married her. No such thing happened, however, and when he later
left for France she stayed behind as Kléber's mistress. She eventually
returned to Paris, where she married and spent the rest of her days.
The divorce from Josephine would have to wait until his return to France.
The Turks, however, needed more immediate attention. Napoleon was
determined that they not be allowed to advance to Egypt, for fear
of the effect that would have on the Egyptians. Instead, he would
march to Syria to meet them on the field of battle.
The March into Syria
The French march across the Sinai Desert with some fourteen thousand
soldiers was reminiscent of the march to Cairo in the nature of
the deprivations suffered by the soldiers. Once again Napoleon's
force of will egged them on. They arrived at the fortress of El
Arish and easily captured the neighboring town. The fortress, however,
delayed them for a fortnight, though they ultimately prevailed,
capturing some two thousand Turks in the process.
The delay at El Arish was to prove fatal to the campaign. The campaign
in Palestine was designed to be something of a blitzkrieg, a quick
destruction of the Turkish land army, followed by a triumphal return
to Cairo and an equally quick destruction of the sea-borne Turkish
army. After El Arish, this tactic was no longer possible.
The time taken to conquer Gaza was longer than expected, but another
even more difficult problem emerged. An army on the march is ill
suited to the maintenance of prisoners of war. Moreover, Napoleon
was very short on food, and could not afford to feed the two thousand
Turks he had captured. Using his western sense of honor as his guide,
he freed the Turks on the condition that they swear not to fight
the French ever again. British and other western soldiers would
adhere to their word of honor. For the Turks, however, western concepts
of honor would prove to have little relevance. They were in a holy
war against the infidel, and one does not honor pacts with the devil.
Thinking that problem solved, Napoleon marched north to Jaffa. On March 7,
he took the port city of Jaffa. This was a significant military
victory, but it led to one of the more controversial episodes in
Napoleon's career. In taking Jaffa the French also took about four
thousand Turkish prisoners. Many of these prisoners were the very
Turks who had earned their freedom at Gaza by swearing not to fight
the French again. Moreover, the problems of food and transportation
that existed in Gaza were even more serious with the French further
north and the number of Turks doubled.
Napoleon was thus faced with a very difficult situation. He could, of course,
release the Turks. Doing this would mean, however, that they would
eventually rejoin the Turkish army and kill more French soldiers.
Clearly, Napoleon could not have any faith in their oaths. If Napoleon
kept them prisoner, they would either starve to death or cause the
starvation of French soldiers. Napoleon was torn by the options,
and consulted at length with his advisors. In the end, however,
he ordered the Turks shot.
This was obviously not a pleasant option, and is used by some to question
Napoleon's character. However, a general in the field has as his
first responsibility the welfare of his soldiers, and from that
point of view he had little choice. It is all too easy to suggest
that he could have taken some other action; no other action that
would protect French lives was available. Henry V had a similar
horrifying predicament at Agincourt, and made the same decision.
Napoleon was unhappy with his choice, but defended it to the end. In exile
on St. Helena, he wrote of the incident:
The reason was, that amongst the garrison of Jaffa, a number of
Turkish troops were discovered, whom I had taken a short time
before at El-Arish, and sent to Bagdad upon their parole not
to serve again, or to be found in arms against me for a year...But
those Turks, instead of proceeding to Bagdad, threw themselves
into Jaffa, defended it to the last, and cost me a number of
brave men to take it, whose lives would have been spared, if
the others had not reinforced the garrison of Jaffa.
Moreover, before I attacked the town, I sent them a flag of truce. Immediately
afterwards we saw the head of the bearer elevated on a pole
over the wall. Now if I had spared them again, and sent them
away upon their parole, they would directly have gone to St.
Jean d'Acre, where they would have played over the same scene
that they had done at Jaffa. In justice to the lives of my soldiers,
as every general ought to consider himself as their father,
and them as his children, I could not allow this.
To leave as a guard a portion of my army, already small and reduced
in number, in consequence of the breach of faith of those wretches,
was impossible. Indeed, to have acted otherwise than I did,
would probably have caused the destruction of my whole army...I
would...do the same thing again to-morrow, and so would Wellington,
or any general commanding an army under similar circumstances.
Outraged at the behavior of the Turks, upon entering the conquered city of
Jaffa Napoleon's soldiers sought their revenge by raping the local
women and pillaging everything that they could find. Napoleon and
his officers were unable to restore order until the following morning.
One reason that the soldiers had been willing to engage in such excesses
was that a few days before, two French soldiers had been accused
of raping a local woman. Anxious to prove to the local populace
that such action was intolerable, the French quickly tried the two
men, found them guilty, and executed them. A few days later, two
local Arabs confessed their guilt; the two French soldiers had been
wrongfully accused and executed. This incident embittered the soldiers
toward the local populace.
The soldiers also remembered the cruel fate of their emissary sent under
a flag of truce prior to the opening of hostilities. That breach
of what the French considered the international rules of war regarding
flags of truce enraged the soldiers, and gave them reason to feel
that they were not dealing with "civilized" people and
were not, therefore, bound by "civilized" rules of behavior
This was by no means the first or the last time in history that soldiers
took out their anger and frustrations on a local population. It
was the horror of war at its worst, and it deeply troubled Napoleon.
Then, outbreak of the Bubonic Plague caused death and despair among
his troops, and Napoleon was personally struck by their suffering.
Napoleon showed true compassion for his men who contracted the plague;
their excesses notwithstanding, what greater punishment could he
possibly order, than that which they were already suffering? He
had them given the finest food and had military music provided on
a regular basis.
Another heroic image for Napoleon's legend was created when he visited his
plague-stricken soldiers, and is generally portrayed as touching
their sores. It may be that he did not go quite that far, though
on St. Helena he claimed to have done so. Regardless, by even running
the risk of visiting them he earned the love and respect of his
The Siege of Acre
Napoleon continued up the coast to Acre. This port city was defended jointly
by Turks led by Djezzar Pasha, known as "The Butcher"
for reasons that are easily imagined, and by some eight hundred
British sailors led by Sir Sydney Smith. It was Smith whom Napoleon
had defeated at Toulon, and turn about was about to become fair
It was at Acre that the delay at El Arish proved disastrous. Sydney
Smith had arrived only four days before Napoleon. Had Napoleon beaten
him there, it is entirely possible that the city would have been
quickly taken. Reality, however, was quite different. Smith was
anchored just off the coast where he could bring his guns in support
of Acre. Worse, he had captured the siege guns that Napoleon had
sent to Acre by ship. Napoleon was thus without the means to batter
down the walls, and was up against a significant defense. El Arish
cost Napoleon dearly.
After an unsuccessful siege of some six weeks, Napoleon was forced to
abandon his efforts to capture the fortress of Acre. He had come
close on several occasions, actually breaching the wall, only to
find an inner wall blocking the advance of his soldiers. Ironically,
the defenses had been augmented by fortifications designed by the
royalist Frenchman Phelippeaux. Without his efforts, Napoleon might
have been successful even with the intervention of Sidney Smith.
Acre provides us with another irony. Napoleon could have used observation
balloons, which would have alerted him to the difficulties to be
encountered. His spies on the ground, along with soldiers who managed
to penetrate somewhat into the fortifications, had given him incomplete
and somewhat inaccurate information regarding the inner defenses.
A single observation from a single balloon would have made all the
difference in the world, but that never happened. Napoleon seems
to have had an aversion to such new technology, a rather amazing
fact given his genius and use of modern tactics, and he refused
to use them. It was a critical mistake.
Napoleon did have one important victory during that six week period, however.
General Kléber had been guarding his flank near Mt. Tabor, and was
in danger of being overrun by the Army of Damascus, which was attempting
to encircle Napoleon's encampment at Acre. Napoleon personally led
a rescue mission, and was able to completely defeat a far larger
force, reducing the danger of an attack on Cairo.
Indeed, the Battle of Mt. Tabor was a major redeeming feature of the campaign
in the Holy Land. Napoleon's forces completely routed the large
Mameluke force, inflicting thousands of casualties on them. The
French also captured their entire baggage train, including all their
tents, ammunition and, most importantly, their spare horses. After
Mt. Tabor, the Mamelukes were finished as an effective fighting
force for the rest of the campaign.
Retreat to Egypt
Napoleon had sent to France for reinforcements, but they had not been forthcoming.
His soldiers stalled at Acre, with their ranks decimated by plague,
Napoleon had little choice but to return to Cairo. Acre had been
a disappointment, but the basic goal of preventing an attack from
the north had been accomplished.
The return trip was long and painful; there seemed as many sick and
wounded as healthy soldiers. They were forced to throw many of their
cannon into the sea. Nevertheless, after leaving most of the sick
and wounded in outlying villages, Napoleon led the troops in a triumphal
return to Cairo, giving all the impression that his trip to Syria
had been a great success.
For some two hundred years, Napoleon's detractors have spread the story
that he poisoned a large number of his wounded and soldiers, rather
than leave them in Jaffa on the return trip. Even if this were true,
it might have been a humane action, given the torture that undoubtedly
awaited them at the hands of the Turks.
Eyewitness accounts lend no credibility to this story, however, and Napoleon
himself always denied its truth. Nathan Schur concluded that Napoleon
may have left a small amount of poison to be available for those
wounded who wanted it, but that most of those who died evidently
died of their illness. The fact of the matter seems to be that Napoleon
left a rear guard to protect a handful of soldiers so sick that
they would die in a matter of hours. The rear guard left, and Sir
Sydney Smith arrived on the scene, the Turks evidently staying from
the hospital for fear of infection.
Smith, whose dislike for Napoleon is evident in his writing, nevertheless
never claimed that Napoleon had poisoned any of the soldiers. Indeed,
The heaps of unburied Frenchmen, lying on the bodies of those whom
they massacred two months ago, afforded another proof of divine
justice, which has caused these murderers to perish by the infection,
arising from their own atrocious act. Seven poor wretches are
left alive in the hospital; they are protected, and shall be
taken care of.<
Another Turkish army was arriving by sea on some 60 transports accompanied
by the British Navy under Sydney Smith, and on July 11 they landed
near Alexandria at Aboukir. Napoleon had pulled together all available
resources, and was ready for them. Led by the dashing General Joachim
Murat, the French cavalry defeated the larger Turkish force and
drove it into the sea. Of the nine thousand Turks, seven thousand
were killed and the rest captured.
The second battle of Aboukir, this one fought on land, resulted in a
far better result for Napoleon than had been experienced in the
sea battle by the same name. Napoleon was now, at least for the
moment, secure in his position in Egypt. He had defeated the Mamelukes
and both Turkish armies sent to dislodge him.
It should be pointed out that Napoleon had actually done quite well
in Egypt, contrary to the feeling among some historians. He had
faced the tremendous environmental difficulties of fighting in a
waterless desert, a naval disaster due at least in part to the disobedience
of his orders, and a Syrian campaign made necessary by political
treachery in Paris. Yet in spite of it all, only Acre was a defeat
to him personally and that was almost a success.
This level of success must be attributed to Napoleon's ability to inspire
his men and organize them in whatever way necessary to achieve success.
In the final analysis, it was his sheer will, combined with his
abilities, that prevented a major disaster and, indeed, allowed
a considerable amount of success.
Napoleon's Return to France
Success in Egypt or not, Napoleon began to hear of French defeats in Germany
and Italy. A new coalition had formed against the Revolutionary
government, and had achieved some significant military successes
against French interests. Not the least of these was the retaking
of Italy and the Cisalpine Republic by the Austrians, thus undoing
the good that Napoleon had done.
Napoleon longed to be where the real action was. Now, perhaps, the time was
ripe for a triumphant arrival in Paris, followed by either a takeover
of the government or another heroic defense of the nation. Either
way, his personal fortunes, and those of France, would be little
served by his continued presence in Egypt. He made secret plans
to depart, and in October he and a handful of men left for France.
His letter to General Kléber, whom he left in command, tries to
put the best possible spin on the situation:
Accustomed to look for the recompense of the toils and difficulties of
life in the opinion of posterity, I abandon Egypt with the deepest
regret! The honor and interests of my country, duty, and the
extraordinary events which have recently taken place there;
these, and these alone, have determined me to hazard a passage
to Europe, through the midst of the enemy's squadrons. In heart
and in spirit I shall still be in the midst of you! Your victories
will be as dear to me as any in which I may be personally engaged;
and I shall look upon that day of my life as ill employed, in
which I shall not do something for the army of which I leave
you the command; and for the consolidation of the magnificent
establishment, the foundation of which is so recently laid.
The army I entrust to your care, is entirely composed of my own
children. I have never ceased, even in the midst of their most
trying difficulties and dangers, to receive proofs of their
attachment; endeavor to preserve them still in those sentiments
for me. This is due to the particular esteem and friendship
I entertain for you, and to the unfeigned affection I feel for
They stopped at Corsica for one week, and Napoleon got a taste of his
enormous popularity, as he was the constant subject of visits by
those wishing to bestow additional adulation. Indeed, he was sometimes
forced to escape his home through a trap door in a bedroom floor,
simply to achieve some privacy! It was a gratifying homecoming,
but when he left Ajaccio, it would be for the last time. His destiny
was with France and the continent, and his next appointment was
David Markham is a former President of the Napoleonic Alliance and
Executive Vice-President and Editor in chief of the International
© 1999 David Markham.
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