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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of the Nile

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The French army was returning to Cairo in triumph, a spectacle designed to dazzle the eyes of the Egyptians who thronged the city's ancient streets. Garrison commander Général de Division Charles F.J. Dugua had arranged the grand parade, acting on instructions from his commander in chief, Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte, shrewd in the ways of propaganda and display, was determined that this day, June 14, 1799, would be long remembered by the native population.

The infantry demibrigades tramped through Cairo's winding streets, sun-bronzed warriors smiling and waving to the onlooking crowds. When the head of the snaking blue column passed through the Bab-el-Nael, the 'Gate of Victory,' they found that palm fronds had been placed in their path in token of their triumph. The troops also wore small palm fronds in their round, sheepskin leather caps, headgear more appropriate to these scorching climes than their ubiquitous cocked hats. Throbbing drumbeats echoed through the streets, and captured Turkish standards were held aloft for all to see.

The French Armée de l'Orient had just come back from a grueling campaign in Palestine battling Ottoman Turkish forces, and beneath their friendly façade, most Egyptians were probably disappointed that their occupiers had not been destroyed. To most of the Egyptian population the French were not only invaders but also infidels who did not follow the precepts of Islam. There had been several revolts against the French, all bloodily suppressed, and resentments still simmered. Ever searching for signs of weakness, Cairo's citizens, according to Captain Jean-Pierre Doguerrau,'seemed extremely curious to find out how many of us were left.'

Bonaparte himself appeared in the parade, during which the général-en-chef lifted his cocked hat to the onlooking native crowds, saluting them. Although perhaps done for effect, it was a gesture of friendship extraordinary in a man whom the Egyptians labeled Sultan el- Kebir, the 'Ruler of Fire.'

The triumphal parade into Cairo, though magnificent, was a charade to cover up what had ultimately been an unsuccessful campaign. Often outnumbered, the French troops had performed wonders, winning several battles in spite of the odds. But try as he might, Bonaparte failed to capture the fortress at St. Jean d'Acre, considered by many to be the key to the region. Aided by a British Royal Navy squadron under Commodore Sir Willam Sydney Smith, Ahmed Djezzar Pasha's Turkish troops managed to hold the fortress for two months against repeated French attacks. Plague swept through the French ranks, and siege efforts were hampered by the lack of adequate artillery. By May 20, there was nothing for Bonaparte to do but to order a withdrawal back to Egypt.

The retreat back to the Nile was a nightmare of searing heat, torturing thirst, debilitating sickness and fatigue for the French troops. With the army so encumbered with sick and wounded, Bonaparte ordered that all mounted men — officers included — walk so that casualties could ride. And so it was that a ragged, parched, exhausted and semimutinous army stumbled back to Egypt and relative safety. Some of the wounded men were left at El Arish, and others were distributed to other towns. The failure at Acre and the army's crippling losses had to be concealed at all costs. Thus, the triumphal entry into Cairo was an exercise in skillful propaganda as well as an attempt to boost sagging French morale.

Once back in Cairo, Bonaparte assumed his role as de facto ruler of Egypt. Yet behind an imperious facade, Napoleon was secretly thinking of returning to Europe, where events had radically changed the geopolitical situation. Egypt, which a year ago had been the center of attention, was now a backwater.

While at Acre, Bonaparte received news that war with Austria was a virtual certainty. As time went on, more news filtered in through travelers' tales and out-of-date newspapers. A Second Coalition against the revolutionary French had been formed, principally composed of Britain, Austria and Russia. Indeed, French arms, once so victorious, had met with a series of setbacks and outright defeats.

Bonaparte was not about to be marooned in an Egyptian backwater when Europe was ablaze and France seemed to be in danger again. And there was always the hope that France's present government, the corrupt Directory, had been fatally weakened by those events. If so, maybe Bonaparte could test the political waters himself. But for now, he had to play a waiting game. Another Turkish force, the Army of Rhodes, was going to invade Egypt at any moment. There was also Egyptian resistance yet to overcome. Although defeated in the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798 (see Military History, August 1998), the Mameluke leader Murad Bey was still at large, fomenting revolt and generally making himself a nuisance.

Yes, Bonaparte was waiting to leave, and he secretly ordered Admiral Honoré-Joseph-Antonie Ganteaume to keep two frigates, La Murion and La Carriere, ready for the journey to France. Even the return journey required delicate handling. The Royal Navy commanded the sea, and Bonaparte had no burning desire to become an involuntary guest of the British government.

As always, Bonaparte managed to keep himself busy during those weeks of waiting. Although he had shown administrative talents before, Egypt afforded him a golden opportunity to actually rule a country with little or no interference from his nominal superiors, the Directory. Egypt, backward and medieval, was malleable clay in the hands of its modern conqueror.

Bonaparte was a mixture of good and bad traits. He was a realist, yet his realism was tinged with romanticism and some genuine idealism. Bonaparte could be harsh, and he routinely ordered the executions of those perceived to be a threat to the French occupation — occasionally by beheading — on the flimsiest of pretexts. On the other hand, Bonaparte genuinely tried to improve the lot of the fellaheen, or Egyptian peasants. Hospitals were set up, sanitary rules enforced, mills built and irrigation projects improved. Cairo got its first street lamps and Egypt its first newspaper, Courier de l'gypte, under the French conqueror.

All these various administrative chores were interrupted by news that Bonaparte's old nemesis, Murad Bey, was at Gizeh, only a few miles from Cairo. In fact, it was said that the white-bearded old Mameluke had climbed the Great Pyramid of Khufu and signaled his wife in her home in Cairo. He had about 200 or 300 men, a nucleus around which to build future armies. Murad had played a cat-and-mouse game with General Louis Antoine Desaix for some time; maybe Bonaparte would have better luck.

Bonaparte moved his headquarters to Gizeh, but by the time he arrived, Murad Bey had slipped the net. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity to inspect the Great Pyramid for a second time. Bonaparte explored the area with his customary thoroughness, accompanied by an entourage that included his aide Gérard Duroc — limping from a wound acquired at Acre — and his secretary Louis Antoine Favelet de Borrienne.

He had just about completed his inspection when a courier arrived with a message from Général de Brigade August Marmont, commander of the seaport of Alexandria. More than 100 sails had been spotted off the coast. The long-awaited invasion by the Army of Rhodes was at hand.

This was a serious situation indeed, because the Army of Rhodes was not the only adversary Bonaparte had to contend with. Besides Murad Bey hovering to the south, there was also Ibrahim Bey, whose Army of Damascus had been defeated and scattered in Syria, but who was regrouping around Gaza.

Accounts differ as to what Bonaparte did next, but the differences are ones of detail, not substance. All agree Bonaparte acted with alacrity, issuing a flurry of orders far into the night of July 15. Bourrienne, for example, related in his Memoirs of Napoleon that Bonaparte dictated orders until 3 o'clock on the morning of the 16th. Couriers were sent in all directions with instructions to various commands. 'If the landing indeed proves serious,' ran one missive to Desaix, 'it will be necessary to evacuate the whole Upper Egypt while leaving a few of your men to garrison forts there.'

It was a bold, brilliant yet necessary gamble. Since Bonaparte needed every man for his confrontation with the Army of Rhodes, the southern portion of the country, as well as practically the entire northeastern desert contiguous to Sinai, was being evacuated. Only by denuding the country of troops and virtually abandoning Upper Egypt could Bonaparte hope to survive.

According to Bourrienne, Bonaparte finished dictating orders and was himself in the saddle heading northward by 4 a.m. He was 240 miles from Aboukir, and time was pressing. Some troops were on the move even earlier. Général de Division Jean Lannes' division and Général de Brigade Antoine Rampon's division (the latter replacing Général de Brigade Louis Bon, who had died of wounds received at Acre) were already marching by 1 a.m., their initial destination al-Ramaniyeh. Général de Brigade Joachim Murat was to gather what cavalry he could and form a vanguard for the infantry.

Cairo was transformed into a hive of activity by Bonaparte's orders. In some quarters there was panic as the full impact of the invasion was digested and the city ransacked was for every possible able-bodied soldier. Even the hospitals were searched for men capable of firing a musket. Cairo garrison commander General Dugua followed his chief's orders to the letter, first sending 1,200 men to Bonaparte, then following up with another contingent. Soon, the all-important Cairo garrison was a mere shadow of its former self.

General Bonaparte sternly admonished Marmont to 'maintain the greatest vigilance' — after all, he was closest to the enemy. While ensconced in Alexandria, he was to maintain defensive positions between Aboukir and Rosetta. 'No officer,' Bonaparte continued, 'is to undress at night; call the men frequently at night to ensure every man knows the position to which he is assigned.' Watchdogs were also to be posted outside Alexandria's walls as a kind of first alert against attack. In a sense, Bonaparte was preaching to the converted. Marmont was an able, energetic officer who was well-aware of the dangers he was confronting.

When the Anglo-Turkish armada appeared on July 11, Alexandria was subjected to a furious yet mercifully ineffective bombardment from the ships offshore. The fleet then anchored off Aboukir, about 15 miles east of Alexandria.

The invading fleet was awesome indeed, 60 transports jammed with some 15,000 Turkish troops. The slow and vulnerable troop transports were escorted by Turkish ships of the line and the ubiquitous British Royal Navy squadron under Commodore Smith. Some accounts claim there were even Russian warships present. Mustapha Pasha, seraskier of Rumelia, was leader of the Turkish host, an old man who did not lack courage but was curiously passive as a general.

The Turkish landing went well. There were two fortifications in the area. One, Aboukir castle, was medieval but still boasted formidable turrets and walls; the other, just southwest of Aboukir village, was a newly built French redoubt that had been neglected since its completion. In consequence, when the Turks scrambled ashore, the small garrison there was unable to mount an effective defense. The redoubt batteries were overrun and the 300-man French garrison massacred.

Worse still for the French, the commander of the more formidable Aboukir castle ventured out in a sortie, only to have his troops cut to pieces. His rash act left a mere 35 men behind to hold the castle's immense works. A siege ensued, with the French inside the castle hoping that they might be relieved by Marmont.

General Marmont was indeed on the way, his sweltering troops marching in dust-wreathed columns on the road to Aboukir. But he had only 1,200 men, enough to hold a city but not enough to engage the immense Turkish army. He therefore withdrew back to Alexandria to await Bonaparte and future developments. After three days the French garrison at Aboukir castle surrendered.

At that point, the Army of Rhodes largely squandered the advantages it had gained in the opening moves. Mustapha Pasha decided to sit tight, and for two weeks not a man ventured from the beaches. The aged Turkish general was beset by problems. For one thing his army, so large on paper, was riddled with sickness. In a letter to his government, Mustapha wrote that he had only 7,000 men actually fit for combat.

Mustapha might still have attempted something — for instance, capturing Alexandria and using it as a base for reinforcements and future operations. Instead, he adopted a defensive mode, shutting himself off inside the Aboukir Peninsula. That played right into Bonaparte's hands, because from the French perspective the enemy was effectively isolated, cut off from the rest of the country it had come to 'liberate.'

In rough outline the Aboukir Peninsula looked like a pointing hand. To the north, a narrow finger of land thrust out into the water, its tip guarded by the formidable Aboukir castle. Mustapha Pasha's reserves and headquarters were at Aboukir village, just southwest of the castle, where the finger broadened. Beyond Aboukir village were two parallel entrenchments, dominated in their center by the now reused French redoubt. No less than 7,000 men and 12 guns, at least according to some sources, held these two lines.

Beyond the redoubt lines the peninsula broadened into a 'fist' that was marked by two sandy hills anchoring the right and left of yet another Turkish line. The 'Hill of the Sheiks' was on the Turkish right, crowned by a redoubt garrisoned by 1,200 men. To the left rose the 'Hill of the Wells,' also crowned with a redoubt but garrisoned, according to some sources, with some 2,000 men. The third Turkish line of defense stretched between those two hill redoubts, manned by some 1,000 men and 40 guns. The Turks had no cavalry. Although actual Turkish numbers are endlessly debated, the fact remains that the Aboukir Peninsula was formidably defended.

Given a reprieve by the enemy's unexplained inactivity, Bonaparte lost no time in concentrating his forces. By July 24, he had assembled some 10,000 infantrymen and 1,000 cavalrymen within striking distance of Aboukir. Général de Division Jean Baptiste Kléber's division had not yet come up, but Bonaparte, prescient as ever, decided now was the time to strike the Turkish army.

The général-en-chef summoned Murat to his tent for a consultation. Although brilliant on the battlefield, Bonaparte sometimes displayed a penchant for exaggeration. 'This battle will decide the fate of the world,' he declared grandiloquently. 'At least of this army' Murat replied, 'but every French soldier feels now that he must conquer or die; and be assured, if ever infantry were charged to the teeth by cavalry, the Turks shall be tomorrow charged by mine.' Murat's words proved prophetic.

The Battle of Aboukir (actually, the First Battle of Aboukir, since a second was fought between French and British troops two years later) began early on the morning of July 25. Murat was in the forefront as usual, and his immediate command consisted of a cavalry brigade, Général de Division Jacques Zacharie Destaing's infantry brigade and four guns. The cavalry brigade was made up of the 7th Hussars and the 3rd and 14th Dragoons. Lannes' division composed the French right, Général de Division Pierre Lanusse the left. Estimates of total French forces engaged vary widely from 7,400 to 10,000 men and about 15 guns.

General Kléber was still not present, though he was well on his way. But there was also the matter of the French lines of communication with Alexandria, which had to be kept open, as well as the protection of the French flanks and rear. These tasks were assigned to Général de Brigade Nicholas Davout, the future 'Iron Marshal.' Davout, just recovering from a debilitating attack of dysentery, had not only cavalry but also some 100 men of the French Régiment de Dromedaires — that is, troopers mounted on camels.

The battle opened with a French cannonade that must have surprised and shaken the Turkish defenders. Then General Destaing moved forward against the Hill of the Sheiks, with Lanusse in support, while Lannes attacked the Hill of the Wells. Already thrown into disarray by the French barrage, the Turks soon abandoned the two hills, and the first defensive line dissolved like a desert mirage. Before the collapse, Murat had found a way around the Turkish line through what he described as 'a fine plain, which separated the wings of the enemy.' Thus, as the Turks fled they found Murat's cavalry already in their rear and ready to pounce.

The French cavalrymen moved forward at a gallop, sabers drawn, with the dashing Gascon general at their head. Scores of Turks were cut down or driven into the sea. But there were still two more defensive lines to take before the French could call the day their own — and these lines were particularly strong. There was an entrenched village out in front and a formidable redoubt in the center just behind — the same redoubt the French had built. Also, on the Aboukir Bay side of the peninsula, some 30 Turkish gunboats stood ready to lend artillery support.

The French attacked the village in both flank and rear, and after some hard, sharp fighting, they took it. Thus far, the French had won an astounding victory. Some 1,200 Turks had been taken prisoner, while about 1,400 had been killed and wounded and a number had been driven into the sea and drowned. Some 50 standards had been taken (Middle Eastern armies were in the habit of carrying a large number of flags).

The last Turkish defenses were a hard nut to crack, however, and almost proved Murat's undoing. Bonaparte brought up what artillery he could and eventually neutralized the support fire the Turks were getting from their offshore gunboats. Even Bonaparte's young stepson Eugne de Beauharnais, though only an aide de camp and just two months shy of his 18th birthday, was pressed into service as an impromptu artillery officer.

At his stepfather's order, Beauharnais directed the fire of two guns at the gunboats and had beginner's luck. The young officer noted that one of his shots landed so close to a launch that the resulting waterspout drenched the boat's occupants. Years later, Eugne found out that one of the people he soaked was none other than Commodore Smith.

But before the ship's guns were neutralized, gunboat fire gave Murat a rough time, creating a cross-fire with land-based Turkish artillery. Mounts reared and plunged, horses and riders were mangled into bloody ruin, but Murat kept his head and rallied his men.

In the meantime, the French infantry was immersed in troubles of its own. The central redoubt was strong, and its Turkish defenders were more determined than those previously encountered. In fact, the Turkish troops had Janissarries among them, the Sultan's famed elite troops. There was a moment of peril when the janissaries staged a strong sortie from the redoubt. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued, bayonet against scimitar, with the janissaries momentarily gaining the upper hand. The French 18th Demi-Brigade de Ligne was overrun and faced annihilation, though it resisted bravely. Janissaries had been promised a silver auguette for each Frenchman dispatched, the reward collected when a soldier presented an infidel's head as proof. In their avid quest for heads the janissaries were sparing no one, not even French wounded.

At that juncture, General Lannes came up with the 69th Demi-Brigade de Ligne and disaster was averted. The 69th had witnessed the wanton slaughter of their comrades in the 18th Demi-Brigade, and the rage they felt gave their attack a new impetus. In any case, the janissary sortie turned out to be a mistake, because the tide turned when they were caught out in the open, far from the redoubt's sheltering mounds. Once the janissaries were dispatched, Lannes and his avenging infantrymen soon gained entry into the redoubt and captured it after some hard fighting.

Once again Murat and his cavalry appeared at a crucial moment. While Lannes' infantry seized the redoubt, French cavalry again found a gap to exploit in the Turkish lines. Squeezing through the line, Murat and his horsemen galloped toward the main Turkish camp, where the Army of Rhodes' main reserves were waiting. Battlefield indecision was never one of Murat's failings — he was ready to take on whatever he might encounter. The troopers were a magnificent sight, sabers aloft, dragoon helmets gleaming, the 'love locks' and mirlton caps of the hussars bobbing and flaring in the wind.

Not content with merely leading his men, Murat sought out individual Turks to engage in personal combat. This knightly élan, so anachronistic in an age of cannons and gunpowder, was underscored by the legend 'l'honneur et dames' — honor and women — engraved on Murat's blade.

Mustapha Pasha awaited the onslaught, surrounded by a bodyguard of 200 janissaries, but the French would not be denied. The advancing mass of horseflesh collided with the janissary infantry, and once among the Turks, the French wielded their sabers, which bit into necks, heads, torsos, each strike coating blades with a fresh layer of crimson.

And then occurred an event rarely seen outside the realm of fiction: a battle between two enemy commanders. Murat easily spotted Mustapha Pasha, a robed and turbaned figure whose venerable status was proclaimed by his long white beard. Murat shouted for the Turkish general to surrender, but Mustapha's response was to raise a pistol and fire it almost point-blank into the Gascon's face. The ball narrowly missed Murat's jaw, went in near his ear, then came out the other side without injuring his tongue or even breaking a tooth. It was, Murat admitted after the battle, 'a rare and extremely lucky wound.'

Murat, blood pouring from his jaw, brought his sword down on Mustapha Pasha's gun hand, severing two of the Turkish commander's fingers in the process. Disarmed and helpless, Mustapha Pasha surrendered. Later, Murat brought his illustrious prisoner back to Bonaparte in triumph. In a sudden act of compassion, Bonaparte used his own handkerchief to bandage the old Turk's maimed hand. Ever the paladin, Murat refused to leave the field until the battle was over. Pausing only to quickly wind a strip of cloth around his head as a makeshift bandage, the cavalryman was soon back in the fray.

As Turkish resistance collapsed, the battle became a one-sided slaughter. Although they had fought bravely, the Turks now dissolved into a panic-stricken mob seeking escape. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, plunged headlong into the sea in a vain attempt to reach the safety of allied ships offshore. Only a handful managed to reach the vessels; most drowned in the attempt. One lucky survivor was Mehmet Ali, later ruler of Egypt and founder of a dynasty that ended in the 1950s with King Farouk.

General Bonaparte was far from squeamish, yet he was affected by the overwhelming sight of battlefield carnage. He later recalled, 'Floating on the water were thousands of turbans and sashes that the sea cast back upon the shore,' this multihued flotsam a visible sign of those who had perished in the sea.

Bonaparte had succeeded beyond perhaps even his own wildest dreams. He had gained an overwhelming victory at minimal cost. Turkish casualty figures vary according to the source; perhaps 2,000 were killed in battle, some 2,000 to 4,000 more drowned in the sea. In addition, 100 standards and 32 guns were taken by the French as trophies. French losses were 220 killed and 750 wounded. Murat, of course, was one of the wounded, and he had escaped serious injury because his mouth had been open when the ball passed through his face. 'It's the only time,' Bonaparte wryly remarked, 'he's opened it to good purpose.'

But witticisms aside, Bonaparte gave credit where credit was due, lavishing praise on Murat in a dispatch to the Directory. 'The success of the battle,' he stated in no uncertain terms, 'which will so much enhance the glory of the Republic, is principally due to General Murat.' In a more jocular mood, he even said, 'Did the cavalry swear they would do everything today?'

There was something of a postscript to the battle, because not all Turkish forces at Aboukir had been destroyed. Some 2,000 to 2,500 fleeing Turkish soldiers had managed to reach the temporary safety of Aboukir castle, the massive fortress on the tip of the peninsula. Although they could hold the French at bay, they found they had scant food and little water.

The morning after the battle, Bonaparte sent generous surrender terms out to the castle's residents, even promising safe passage to the fleet that still hovered off the coast. The Turkish officers were inclined to accept the French offer, but the rank and file were not. This Egyptian campaign had often degenerated into a war of mutual extermination, with little quarter given. The French had, for instance, killed prisoners in a mass execution at Jaffa, and the garrison at Aboukir expected a like fate.

And so Aboukir castle held out for a week, bombarded by French forces under Général de Division Jacques-François de Boussay, Baron Menou. When it finally surrendered on August 2, the French described its famished garrison as looking 'like ghosts.' Perhaps 1,000 had died during the siege, more from hardship than from French gunfire. Crazed with thirst, some had even taken to drinking seawater and subsequently perished.

Less than a month after the battle, Bonaparte was gone, sailing back to France on August 23 with a select entourage. When he landed in France on October 17, he found that the news of Aboukir had preceded him. This last great Middle Eastern battle had secured — for the time being — French rule in Egypt and also allowed Bonaparte to leave Kléber in command and return to Paris a hero. The dazzling victory, however, obscured the fact that the général-en-chef had left a weakened and homesick army behind.

For Bonaparte, the Battle of Aboukir was a stepping stone, even a springboard, to power. For the languishing Armée de l'Orient, the victory allowed the soldiers to survive but also condemned them to two more years of hardships and homesickness before finally being repatriated to France by the victorious British in 1801.

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