Middle East - The Napoleonic Historical Society












Napoleon in the Middle East 
1798 -1799

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's Scholars

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 out.

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 Beys…
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 remain.<

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 friends.
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 have ended.

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 cavalry.

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.

Further Setbacks

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 down.

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 two.

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 themselves.

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 solders.

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 play.

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, he notes:

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 them!

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 with Brumaire.

David Markham is a former President of the Napoleonic Alliance and Executive Vice-President and Editor in chief of the International Napoleonic Society.

© 1999 David Markham.

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