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A young Napoleon Bonaparte won himself renown and acclamation by successfully leading the French army in Italy between 1796 and 1797. Napoleon became immensely popular thanks to his victories which played a key role in forcing the Court at Vienna to sue for peace and brought an end to the War of the First Coalition in 1797. Britain remained hostile towards France, but with all her continental allies out of the war, there was little Britain was able to achieve on its own against the victorious armies of the French Republic. Nonetheless, with the Royal Navy as formidable as ever, France was in no position to mount an invasion of Britain just yet either.
Still, the Directory made plans to launch an ambitious invasion of England and offered the command to young Napoleon Bonaparte; however, he turned it down. He deemed the invasion too risky and was unprepared to throw away his hard-won reputation in such a haphazard endeavour. However, Napoleon’s thirst for glory was as insatiable as ever, and he came up with a counter-proposal, a French invasion of Egypt.
The plan was a lot less risky than the invasion of England, and the resources needed to conquer Egypt would have been considerably fewer. Egypt at the time was nominally under the control of the Ottoman Empire, a traditional friend of Paris; however, in reality, the province was ruled by the Mameluke beys Murad and Ibrahim, who were mainly acting independently.
The Mamelukes used to be great warriors, but by the late 1790s, their methods of warfare were hopelessly outdated, and the French expected to easily destroy any opposition the Mamelukes and the Egyptian militias could throw at them.
Napoleon and his ally Talleyrand hoped that they could sell the French takeover as restoration of Ottoman control to the High Porte in Istanbul. They, at least initially, would have been happy enough to pay some small tribute to Sultan Selim III.
On a grand strategic level, the French hoped they could turn Egypt into their province and use it to threaten the British domains in India and reinforce French allied Indian princes once their control was solidified. Furthermore, the French were toying with the idea of building a canal from the Nile Delta to the Red Sea, using which they could bypass British-controlled waters around Africa and the Indian Ocean.
On a more personal level, historians believe that the Directory partially agreed to the plan to rid themselves of the ambitious and increasingly overbearing Napoleon. From their point of view, the situation could have ended in two ways. In the first case scenario, Napoleon succeeds in Egypt, and the strategic position of France becomes stronger thanks to it. In the second scenario, he fails and gets discredited by the failure, in which case they will be rid of him forever.
From Napoleon’s point of view, he was eager for action and to keep his name in the spotlight by winning further victories. The invasion of England, from his view, would have been way too risky—Egypt seemed a safer bet to win further laurels for himself. Though the English Navy remained a danger on the sea, once his army landed in Egypt, he had little doubt that his army would steamroll the Mamelukes.
The Expedition Begins
The Directory was troubled by the cost of the expedition, but, in the end, they agreed to it in March 1798. Preparations began immediately, and a fleet of 13 ships of the line, 14 frigates and several hundred transport ships were assembled in the port of Toulon. The expedition's target was kept secret, and only a few of the leading members of the expedition knew their destinations—this measure, no doubt, was taken to avoid clashing with the British fleet of Nelson.
The fleet's departure was put initially to a halt as tensions rose with Austria, but once the situation cooled, Bonaparte was back at Toulon, and the fleet set sail on May 19, 1798. Their first destination was Malta, which the French intended to conquer and use as a naval base.
The French made their landing on June 11 and quickly overran most of the island as the once-feisty Knights of Malta put up minimal resistance and soon surrendered to the French. Napoleon left a small garrison to take control of the island and departed for Egypt.
By this time, Nelson had received reinforcements and was finally aware of the destination of the French fleet. He set sail towards Alexandria and arrived there a couple of days before the French, but very luckily for the French, the British departed before they arrived, so they were saved from confronting the formidable British fleet.
When the French arrived, they immediately began to disembark, and the first French troops made their landings on July 1. Once they received news that Alexandria would resist them, the French hastily marched on the city, and a force of 4,000-5,000 French soldiers stormed a fort nearby, putting Alexandria's defenders to flight.
The whole army was quickly disembarked in a couple of days, and Bonaparte decided to attack straight away, as he did not want to lose any time and give the Mamelukes a chance to fortify their positions.
He sent a division under the command of Desaix through the desert to capture Damanhur while he took the Nile route with his forces, followed by a flotilla of gunboats and transport ships with supplies. The French army was reunited on July 8, and once the fleet caught up on July 12, they continued their march south towards Cairo.
The next day, they ran into resistance but easily defeated their enemies at the Battle of Chobrakit. They halted for a day after the battle but then continued their march in the extreme heat. The soldiers were struggling badly, but Bonaparte pushed them south mercilessly.
The Battle of the Pyramids and the Nile
They made contact with the main Mameluke armies only some 15 kilometres north of the Pyramid of Giza. The French used their tactical superiority and formed giant infantry squares when the Mamelukes charged them with their cavalry. Man for man, the Mameluke were probably superior to their French counterparts, but in terms of tactics, they had no answer to the squares, and the French easily defeated their enemies at the Battle of the Pyramids.
The forces engaged were probably comparable in numbers, and probably the French even had a numerical advantage as the forces of Ibrahim bey did not engage them that day. For the loss of less than 300 of their own, they inflicted several thousand deaths on the Mameluks, perhaps as many as 10,000. Crucially though, the leaders of the Mamelukes, Murad and Ibrahim bey, escaped and continued their resistance against the invaders.
Murad bey retreated towards upper Egypt, and Napoleon despatched Desaix to pursue him, which he did successfully and pushed his enemy further and further south, but Murad kept escaping capture. Ibrahim retreated towards the East and caused trouble for a time but was soon pushed out of Egypt altogether.
The notables of Cairo met Napoleon on July 22, the day after the battle, and surrendered the city to the conquerors. Napoleon set up his headquarters in Cairo and tried to assure the locals that their religion and customs would be respected; however, he achieved only partial success: internal peace was rather short-lived in the aftermath of his conquest.
The victory at the Battle of the Pyramids was soon followed by utter disaster. Nelson finally localized the French fleet at the bay of Abukir and surprised the fleet of Admiral Brueys. Nelson smashed the French fleet in a battle known as the Battle of the Nile. Nearly the entire French fleet was wiped out, and with the loss of their fleet, the army of Napoleon became virtual prisoners of their conquered land.
Despite French efforts to win over the local population, discontent soon grew, and it erupted in a huge uprising in Cairo in October 1798. Around 300 French soldiers were killed during the uprising, but through the brutal house-to-house fighting, the French suppressed the revolt and reestablished peace for the time being, though at the cost of 5,000-6,000 dead Cairenes. Napoleon turned increasingly more tyrannical in the aftermath of the uprising and did not shy away from arbitrary executions on trumped-up charges.
The loss of the French fleet weakened the French position considerably, and Sultan Selim III decided to wipe out the isolated French force occupying Egypt and reestablish Ottoman control.
Receiving assistance from the British Royal Navy, the Sultan decided to send two armies toward Egypt. One took a land route through Syria and Palestine, and the other went through the sea and landed in the Nile Delta. The two pincers would significantly outnumber the French if they could unite in Egypt.
Furthermore, the French invasion and plans to annex Egypt succeeded in alienating a host of European nations from them, who, under the leadership of Great Britain, formed the Second Coalition. This was a real disaster for the French army in Egypt, as the Directory was now facing another coalition of European states and it was in no position to send any reinforcements to them.
The hostile Ottoman movements convinced Napoleon that war with the Sultan was imminent. He decided that waiting for the enemies to come at him was foolish, and the attack was his best option. He hoped to capture the ports of the Levantine coastline. Thus, he would rob the British of safe harbours and face one of the Ottoman armies arriving from Syria.
The French organized an attacking force of 13,000 men and set out against the Ottomans in February 1799. The French vanguard first arrived under the walls of Arish and overran most of the town. Ibrahim bey and his soldiers were also in the area, but they were put to flight by the French. The garrison of Arish surrendered on February 14.
With Arish captured, the French moved north towards Gaza and from there towards Jaffa. The French besieged Jaffa on March 3, and the fort fell four days later. Most of the garrison was either killed or surrendered; however, what followed was one of the darkest moments of Napoleon’s military career. Neither having the food to feed the prisoners nor willing to let them go and rejoin his enemies, Napoleon ordered the execution of the prisoners they captured in Jaffa.
As if divine punishment was sent to punish this barbaric act, a plague broke out in the French camp and incapacitated several hundreds of French soldiers. Napoleon showed great personal courage by visiting a hospital full of sick soldiers, and his courage seemingly reestablished the troops’ morale. That said, some historians believe this story was made up by later Napoleonic propaganda.
After the capture of Jaffa, the French moved towards Acre, but disaster struck their campaign again. The heavy siege artillery that was necessary to break down the walls of Acre was transported by sea, and it was captured by the British. Without his siege guns, the French needed to resort to the old methods of digging trenches around the defences and bringing their troops and artillery closer to the walls in the trenches. During the siege, a part of the French army encountered and defeated the Ottoman army on its route toward Egypt, eliminating one head of the pincer movement.
The fort was also right next to the sea, and thus it was easily resupplied through the ships of the Royal Navy. The siege dragged out for two months, but after several failed assaults, Napoleon conceded defeat and ordered a general retreat.
The French situation was very difficult, as they had to retreat through a hostile country carrying the numerous wounded and sick. In another controversial episode of the Syrian campaign, Napoleon suggested euthanizing his soldiers who were beyond saving, and it is still a matter of debate whether it happened.
The cost of the Syrian campaign was high, and in total, maybe as many as 1/3 of the force was among the casualties (killed, wounded or incapacitated with illness).
Final Months in Egypt
Attempting to hide his failure, Bonaparte reentered Egypt and Cairo in victorious ceremonies, but he did not stay for long. After receiving information that the Mamelukes evaded his commanders in Upper Egypt, he marched out to meet them, only to receive news that the second Ottoman army had arrived in Egypt and was disembarking in Abukir Bay.
Losing no time, he led 8,700 men toward the Ottomans. He was assisted by the passiveness of the Ottomans, who were seemingly happy enough to stay on the seaside near Abukir. The French caught up with them on July 25, 1799, and destroyed the Ottoman army in a swift and decisive battle. Most of the Ottoman army was killed or captured, and only a few thousand scattered troops succeeded in escaping the French.
With the second Ottoman army defeated, Egypt was safe for the time being. However, historians believe that Napoleon was determined to leave Egypt and return to France by this time.
Despite the French’s victories in the field, their long-term prospects looked rather hopeless. Their numbers were constantly dwindling, and without receiving reinforcements, the only long-term outcome insight was surrender, which no doubt would have damaged Napoleon’s reputation.
In secret, he prepared a ship to return, and in August, he departed with a few dozens of his close companions. He transferred command to general Kleber, who was outraged by the behaviour of Napoleon but hid his anger from the troops to restore their morale.
Back in France, Napoleon soon staged a coup and overthrew the Directory to become the first consul, virtually dictator of the country. With France on the backfoot during 1799, the first consul led an army into Italy and decisively defeated the Austrians at Marengo. The French victory at Marengo was followed up by another one at Hochenlinden in Germany by general Moreau. The Austrians suffered two crucial defeats, which forced them to sue for peace and brought an end to the War of the Second Coalition.
Despite their victories in Europe, the French failed to reinforce their isolated army in Egypt, which resisted heroically for another two years. In the end, they were forced to surrender in 1801.
Historians often view the French invasion of Egypt as the first episode of European imperialism that became very much the norm during the 19th century. By bringing a large number of scholars with him, Napoleon tried to sell his invasion as a scientific endeavour. Still, despite the very real and valourous work the French scientists accomplished in Egypt, few doubt that the main driving force of the expedition was lust for glory and the expansionary politics that the Great Powers of Europe pursued during the era.
Chandler, David. (1973). The Campaigns of Napoleon. Scribner.
Esdaile, Charles. (2009). Napoleon's Wars: An International History. Penguin.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler