Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present.
You can click the timestamp to jump to that time.
Mike Duncan (00:01):
This week’s episode is brought to you by Audible. Audible is the internet’s leading provider of audio entertainment with over 150,000 titles to choose from. When you’re done with this episode, go to audiblepodcast.com forward slash revolutions. That again, audiblepodcast.com forward slash revolutions. When you go to that address, you qualify for a free book download when you sign up for a 30-day trial membership. There is no obligation to continue the service, and you can cancel any time and keep the free book. You can also keep going with one of the monthly subscription options and get great deals on all future audiobook purchases.
This week, I’m going to go back and recommend for a second time The Black Count by Tim Rees, a narrative history of the Haitian-born general Thomas Alexandre Dumas.
I really thought I was going to have a chance to get into him, but he’s been just off to the left of the main narrative, and I just don’t have the time to spare. But just so you know, he was on the Italian campaigns. He single-handedly fought off a company of Austrians trying to take a bridge. He was the commander of cavalry during the Egyptian campaigns that I’m about to tell you about. Then he winds up captured, thrown in prison, and when he finally gets back to France, he’s all shunned by his former comrades, because he was not a fan of Napoleon Bonaparte’s endless self-aggrandizement. His is an amazing story.
So when you’re done with this episode, go get it. And get it at audiblepodcast.com forward slash revolutions so that they know who sent you. Episode 3.49 The Egyptian Expedition So as promised, this week we are going to spend the entire episode covering Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt. We are going to stick with him for a whole year, all the way through August 1799, when Bonaparte decides that for the good of France, he must abandon his army and sail home to take control of the disintegrating situation back in Europe that we will discuss in detail next week. And oh by the way, what I really mean is that we’re going to stick with Bonaparte through August 1799, when he decides that for the good of his own damn self, he must abandon his army, because by then their situation would not just be deteriorating, it would be utterly hopeless. When Bonaparte knew if he stuck around, that would be the end of him.
So we left off in June 1798, with Bonaparte’s massive fleet sailing from Malta to Alexandria, having somehow managed to slip by Admiral Nelson’s little squadron without being detected. The French soldiers now knew that they were headed to Egypt, and were likely licking their chops at the possibilities that lay before them. They were nearly 40,000 strong, well supported by a large fleet, led by the best general in France, and sailing towards a land of ancient wealth that was likely to be easily conquered. Personally, I would have been stoked to have been assigned to this expedition, but oh how everyone would come to regret it.
As the fleet approached Alexandria, Bonaparte ensured that his men would approach the coming campaign not merely with the utmost military skill, but also with the utmost political skill. This was not just going to be a smash and grab job, Bonaparte wanted to establish a permanent French occupation, so he absolutely forbade any kind of looting or pillaging that might antagonize the natives, and further ordered that every man was to go out of his way to show respect and deference to Islam. A major part of Bonaparte’s political strategy was to ingratiate himself with the local imams, that is the Muslim religious leaders. He couldn’t have undisciplined soldiers out there ruining things by desecrating mosques or like spitting on the high priests.
The other big component of Bonaparte’s political strategy though, was to paint the French expedition as an army of liberation. An army of liberation? How were a bunch of French republicans going to sell themselves as liberators in Egypt? I mean, who on earth did the Egyptians need to be liberated from? The answer is the Mamelukes, okay? So what the heck is a Mameluke? Now the word Mameluke just meant slave, and oddly enough, that’s what they were, slaves. But a very special kind of slave, warrior slaves.
Purchased as children and raised into an elite warrior caste, the Mamelukes acted as standing armies or permanent bodyguards for rulers across the Muslim world. And in some cases, their power and prestige became so great that these warrior slaves were able to push aside the nominal rulers and wield power directly, as was the case in Egypt. The Mamelukes wound up seizing Egypt way back in 1250, setting up what’s called the Mameluke Sultanate that ruled an independent Egypt until 1517. At that point, they were conquered by the Ottoman Turks and the independent Sultanate was dissolved. But once inside the greater Ottoman Empire, the Mamelukes in Egypt carved out a great deal of autonomy for themselves. And by the time Napoleon arrived, Egypt was once again basically a self-governing unit ruled by two Mameluke leaders who shared power with each other. One guy named Murad Bey, who ran the military, and his partner, Ibrahim Bey, who handled civilian administration. And just so you know, no, they are not brothers, Bey just means governor inside the Ottoman Empire. But the thing to keep in mind here is that the Mamelukes are foreigners. They are purchased into service from places like the Caucasus or the Balkans, and they are not native Egyptians. So when the French landed in July 1798, Bonaparte circulated a proclamation to the native Egyptians that said the French were here to rid them of the tyrant Mamelukes. And then that’s what he set out to do.
The French landed near Alexandria on July the 1st, and Bonaparte was informed that Alexandria was preparing to resist. So he rushed 5,000 men ashore and then ran them ahead that very first night right up under the walls of the city. So when the Alexandrians woke up the next morning, they found the French at the gates and their defensive arrangements not yet complete. The soldiers garrisoning Alexandria ditched out the back door, and the French entered the city. With the port captured, Bonaparte then landed the rest of his army without incident.
But the real target was the Mameluke capital, Cairo, located a couple hundred miles up the Nile into the Egyptian interior. So without ever really even pausing to catch his breath, Bonaparte broke his army up into two and sent them marching towards Cairo from two directions. The division led by Bonaparte hugged the coastline and then turned and followed the Nile due south along the west bank of the river.
Other division plunged southeast out of Alexandria headed straight across the desert, and this was not the route you wanted to get sent on. Not only was it the hottest and driest part of the year, but the French column was harassed the entire way by Bedouin raiders, pity the Frenchmen who strayed from the pack.
The guys coming up the Nile were accompanied by a small flotilla of gunboats. But obviously the rest of the fleet couldn’t just sail up the Nile, so while he marched into the interior, Bonaparte told the French admiral to anchor at Abu Khirbe, about 20 miles northeast of Alexandria, and stay put. But only to stay put if the fleet was absolutely free of any potential danger. If there was even a hint of trouble, they were to sail all the way to Corfu, an island off the west coast of Greece in the Ionian Sea. The army would be able to take care of itself for a while, but it was imperative in the long run that the French fleet remain intact. The worst possible thing that could happen would be for the fleet to be destroyed by the British. And that, I believe, is what they call foreshadowing.
The Mameluke military commander, Murad Bey, made his first little stand against the French coming up the Nile, outside the town of Shubrakit on July 13th. And though the French outnumbered them 23,000 to 14,000, the Mamelukes had a massive cavalry advantage. And not only that, heavy cavalry was the particular speciality of the Mamelukes. It was what they did best, and it was why they ruled Egypt. But this was a new world, and it was a new world that Napoleon was helping to create right there on the spot.
To counter the Mameluke cavalry, Bonaparte formed his divisions into rectangular formations somewhat imprecisely dubbed divisional squares. These rectangles were six men deep and hollow at the center, which is where all the baggage and supplies and senior officers went. Artillery was then positioned at each corner, and everyone was told to hold their ground and fire at the charging cavalry as soon as they came into range. As it turned out, the divisional square was virtually impregnable. And in terms of Napoleon’s contributions to modern military tactics, the divisional square is right up there with the attack on the rear and the strategy of the central position. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, everyone would be using divisional squares.
Once Merid Baye realized that his cavalry charges were getting all his men killed and were doing exactly zero damage to the French, he retreated further up the Nile. After Schubert-Kitt, the French army coming up the Nile linked with the army coming out of the desert, and they all made the final push towards Cairo together. Old Cairo was located on the east side of the river, so Merid Baye massed 25,000 men on the west side of the river to prevent the French from crossing. Inside Cairo, Ibrahim Baye was waiting with reinforcements, but he could not get those reinforcements across the river in time to join the fight.
On July 21st, the two armies met outside the fortress city of Embabe. But about nine miles off in the distance, the Pyramids of Giza were visible. And so after the battle was won, Bonaparte decided that the Battle of the Pyramids sounded way cooler than the Battle of Embabe, or the Battle of Cairo, which is why we call it the Battle of the Pyramids. The battle itself was basically just a repeat of Schubert-Kitt on a larger scale. The French formed into five massive divisional squares and repelled every cavalry charge thrown against them. The Mamluk army lost a literally uncounted number of men. Napoleon would write home that the number was 20,000, which is, you know, insane, but thousands and thousands and thousands at least, and most of them elite cavalry. The French reported 29 dead and 260 wounded.
Muradbe fled with the remnants of his army deep into the upper Nile. Meanwhile, his partner, Ibrahimbe, abandoned Cairo and fled northeast. Bonaparte then set off in pursuit of Ibrahimbe, caught up with him, and after a quick battle sent the remaining Mamluks running clear out of Egypt and up into Syria. And this effectively ended 500 years of Mamluk rule in Egypt. So things are looking great for Bonaparte. But little does he know that just a week and a half later all of his fancy plans are going to get blown to smithereens.
As instructed, the French admiral had taken his 13 ships of the line, each with 74 guns and four frigates that had 36 or 40 guns apiece, into Abakirbe. But he disagreed with Bonaparte’s assessment that the army could live without the navy, and when he surveyed the scene, he decided that he could anchor his fleet in such a way that he would be able to repel any British attack. The critical point was that he thought that his line, which was arrayed northwest to southeast, was anchored to the northwestern shoal so tightly that the British could only approach from the east, which was not only at the strongest part of the French fleet, but against the prevailing winds. This however, is not how it is going to go.
On August the 1st, 1798, Admiral Nelson arrived at Alexandria with a fleet that was basically the same size as the French. He had 13 74-gun ships of the line, and a fourth rate, which is a ship of the line with 50 guns. But of course when he got to Alexandria, all he found was some light ships and a few transports. The main fleet was gone. But his ship scouted around, and one of them finally, finally, finally spotted the French fleet they had all been looking for for two and a half months.
Nelson’s fleet arrived at Abacur Bay at about 6pm on August the 1st. Now the French admiral sighted them, but assumed it was too late for an attack, and that he would have the night to make preparations for a battle in the morning. But instead, Nelson just charged right in. Focusing all his attention on the northwest side of the French line, that supposedly impregnable northwest side of the line, the British were able to double and triple team the targeted French ships, while their brethren arrayed down to the southeast, struggled against the winds to join the fight.
And then came the real thing. One of the British captains recognized that there was a navigable gap between the French line and the western shoals, and on his own initiative he sailed through, soon followed by three more ships.
The French were now surprised, surrounded and getting blasted from all sides. The French admiral was mortally wounded in the initial attack by a cannon blast. The French attempted valiantly to hold out, but their morale was crushed when a fire broke out on the deck of the Orient, the great flagship of the French fleet. At about 10 o’clock that night, the Orient just exploded. Kaboom. It sunk to the bottom, and as treasure hunters know well, it took with it a huge load of Maltese gold that has never been recovered.
Apparently, fighting stopped everywhere for about 10 minutes as a result of this massive explosion.
But when the fighting resumed, it practically turned into a mere mop-up operation for the British. With half the French fleet already destroyed or captured, the other half tried to make good their escape. But the British were right on top of them and trapped them inside the bay. Only two ships of the line and two frigates escaped. Of the 17 ships of the French fleet, 14 were either destroyed or captured. The British lost none. It was a spectacular victory for Admiral Nelson and a crushing defeat for the French.
So Bonaparte was on his way back to Cairo from his pursuit of Ibrahim Bay when the messengers arrived with news of the disastrous loss of the fleet. But though this must have been a knife to the gut, Bonaparte affected a cocky posture. Basically, eh, no big deal, we’ll stay, do what we came here to do, and when we leave I guess we’ll just have to conquer our way home. I mean, Caesar did it. That was the, uh, Vinny Vidi Vici campaign.
But in private, he had to have known how much the loss of the fleet wrecked everything. And on top of everything else, the British victory at the now so-called Battle of the Nile convinced the Ottoman Empire to join a new anti-French coalition, the Second Coalition, which we’ll talk about next week.
But Bonaparte continued to proceed as if it was all good. The first step would be a reorganization of the Egyptian political system now that the French were in charge. Well, maybe not a complete reorganization. What Bonaparte wanted to do was graft a new top-level administration on top of the existing system. So he appointed new divans to run various districts in prominent city. These divans, which is a word meaning a member of the Ottoman Privy Council, were natives, but personally selected by Bonaparte to tie their loyalty not just to the French, but to him personally.
He hoped eventually to create semi-representative ruling councils that would advise each divan, but the plans never got that far. And then, as I mentioned, he considered the buy-in from local Muslim leaders to be critical, and so he bent over backwards to flatter and cultivate them as allies. He gave them all kinds of favors and gifts and special perks. His letters are filled with professions of respect and admiration for Islam. And when the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday came around on August the 21st, Napoleon personally led a huge celebration in Cairo.
Aside from his political operations, Bonaparte also cut loose with an array of modernization projects, spearheaded by all the science and engineering nerds attached to the expedition.
So the French arrival in Egypt is occasionally pointed to as the beginning of quote-unquote modern Egypt because of all the new stuff the French introduced. They pioneered new urban sanitary measures, they rebuilt canals, founded an official postal service, they brought in windmills, started working on a system of structured irrigation to replace the flood inundation that had been the basis of Egyptian agriculture for I don’t even know how many thousands of years, and the French also brought in the first printing press and launched the first newspapers, mostly as organs of pro-French propaganda. But still, this is a pretty big deal.
The French science nerds then formed themselves into a society called the Egyptian Institute, with a headquarters in Cairo, where they would house, catalog, and analyze all the material they planned to go out and study. And these guys were interested in everything. Archaeology, anthropology, botany, zoology, geology, hydraulics, linguistics, you name it, they were into it. They set up a main library, an astronomical observatory, laboratories, a botanical garden, a menagerie, and eventually their accumulated artifacts, data, observations, drawings, notes were all compiled into a series of volumes that were called the Description of Egypt.
Now the series did not start publication until 1809, but after that, 37 volumes were published before it ceased in 1826. And the Egyptian Institute, by the by, disbanded in 1801 after the final French surrender, but it was revived in 1836 as a little coalition of French, English, and German academics, and it still exists in Cairo today. It used to house something like 200,000 super-rare manuscripts, many of them gathered by Napoleon’s original crew, until it was burned down by an errant Molotov cocktail during the Egyptian uprising in 2011. Protesters and soldiers apparently both rushed inside to save what they could, but they only managed to pull out 30,000 to 40,000 documents. Sigh. Oh, also, ISIS just blew up the Temple of Balsam in Palmyra the other day. Double sigh.
Just to jump ahead a little bit while we’re on the topic, by far the biggest discovery by the French expedition was the Rosetta Stone, which was discovered in April 1799 by an engineering officer assisting in the re-fortification of the port city of Rosetta. He basically unearthed this large slab of black rock covered in ancient scribbles and said, hmm, this looks important, I think I’ll go tell one of the science nerds. And yes, it turned out to be pretty important. The Rosetta Stone is a decree that was carved in 196 BC during the reign of the Hellenistic king Ptolemy V. It was written in three different languages. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, pictograms that no one yet understood, demonic Egyptian, a rarely used and little understood left to right reading phonetic script, and then ancient Greek, which everyone understood. Members of the Egyptian Institute guessed, correctly as it turned out, that it was the same passage written in three languages, and that because they all knew Greek, that this might be the key to cracking the hieroglyphs. And it was, though it would be another 20 years before they were finally deciphered, and most of the credit going to the Englishman Thomas Young and the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion, but now we’re straying away from the story. They found the Rosetta Stone. Now we can read hieroglyphs. It was a big deal.
Anyway, despite Napoleon’s cultivation of the Muslim leaders, they were paying more attention to his deeds than his words, and to them, all of these French modernization efforts looked mostly like cultural imperialism by atheist Europeans trying to wipe out traditional Islamic culture. But even if they didn’t think that, they couldn’t help but notice the vast array of new taxes being imposed by the French. And I doubt they would have taken much solace in the knowledge that the French weren’t doing anything different to Muslims in Egypt than they were doing to, say, Catholics in Belgium.
The local religious leaders were helped along in their brewing hatred of the French by contact with the British and the Ottoman Turks, both of whom were saying, don’t believe a word Bonaparte says. Revolutionary France is about naked conquest and sacrilegious atheism. So the leaders in Cairo started to talk amongst themselves about booting the French out. Then they got a hold of some weapons and started to actively plot how to boot the French out.
In mid-October, the Imams began to spread guns throughout the native population of Cairo and urging everyone to join in a holy insurrection to expel the foreign invaders. On October 22, 1798, they launched an armed uprising using the Great Mosque as a base. It was a semi-organized bloodbath and any Frenchman caught out in the open was simply killed and that included the French general in charge of the garrison and one of Napoleon’s aide-de-camps. Bonaparte himself was outside the city when the uprising began but it did not take him long to rally a force to come pacify the city. He pushed his way in and then his men toured through the hastily erected Egyptian barricades. The French army then marched street by street, clearing everything in front of them and pushing the insurrectionaries back towards the Great Mosque. A brief standoff at the mosque ensued but Bonaparte, who was in a wee bit of a mood, opened up with the heavy guns. The French blasted their way in and killed everyone inside. So I guess we’re not worried about desecrating mosques anymore?
In total, the French lost about 300 men, the local Egyptians somewhere on the order of 5,000 to 6,000. As further punishment, Cairo was hit with a punitive tax, their local divan was replaced by a direct French military commissioner, and anyone identified as a leader in the uprising was arrested and executed. These were harsh measures but for the rest of the time Bonaparte was in Egypt, there were no more revolts. So at the end of 1798, the French occupation of Egypt was relatively secure, though how permanent it could possibly be given that they were completely cut off from Europe was an open question.
Bonaparte though, kept acting like it was going to be permanent. And in December, he gathered up a company of about 300 guys and headed down to Suez, the main port on the north end of the Red Sea.
Now as I mentioned last week, one of the great dreams of the European powers was to carve out a canal that would link the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. As it stood right then, if you wanted to travel entirely by sea from Europe to India and China, you had to go around the tip of Africa, a long and arduous journey. You could cut the distance by something like 4,000 miles if you sailed up into the Red Sea, put in at Suez and handed everything off to hired porters or sold it to Arab middlemen and had them carry it up to the Mediterranean ports. But just adding those couple hundred miles by land jacked up the price of everything. I mean, just do the math on how many men and camels it would take to carry off the cargo that was loaded into just a single big ship. It was doable, and the British in particular were doing it. They used the Red Sea as a primary link to India, and this is one of the big reasons Bonaparte was so interested in Egypt. It would force the British to rely entirely on that long route around the Cape of Good Hope, making it much easier to run out, say, a combined navy of Spanish, Dutch, and French ships to isolate the British home island completely.
And then, if the French could build a canal from Suez to the Mediterranean, the sea route would be cut by 4,000 miles and the French would have a near monopoly on the Asian trade. So like I say, Bonaparte had big, fancy plans here.
Now what his little expedition to Suez was looking for in particular was the legendary Canal of the Pharaohs that had been attested to in numerous ancient sources. It had allegedly been built back in the 500s BC, running west to the Nile, rather than north directly to the Mediterranean. This legendary canal was abandoned after it was cut off from the Nile by shifts in the course of the river, but after some methodical searching, the party actually found the remains of the Canal of the Pharaohs, and they set to work studying its course and construction.
Now unfortunately for Bonaparte, he personally had to leave the mission in January 1799 because messengers arrived bearing the news that the Ottomans had finally been convinced to throw their whole weight against the French. They were massing to invade Egypt on two fronts, a land army swinging down through Syria and a sea army massing at Rhodes that would sail down and put in at Alexandria.
Napoleon likely expected something like this ever since the Ottomans had joined the war because it took him no time to launch a bold preemptive strike against the Ottoman army coming down through Syria. Rather than waiting for the Ottomans to come to him, he collected 13,000 men in February 1799 and marched them north into Syria to halt the Ottoman advance before they got anywhere near Egypt. And while he was at it, he would be able to capture a bunch of ports to strengthen the French position in the east.
On March 3, 1799, Bonaparte hit his first major objective, the port city of Jaffa, which is roughly where modern Tel Aviv is. Taking Jaffa was critical because the rest of Bonaparte’s campaign was premised on floating up heavy guns and siege equipment rather than hauling it overland through the desert and for that he needed a local port. Bonaparte expected Jaffa to just give up, but they refused. And not only did they refuse, but they beheaded the Turkish envoy Napoleon had sent in to negotiate their surrender. This insult infuriated Bonaparte. The French assaulted the city for four days until they finally fought their way in on March 7. Bonaparte let his guys run wild for two straight days on a nonstop terror campaign. Thousands were killed in the looting and destruction that followed. So I guess we’re not worried about pillaging the natives anymore?
The siege and occupation of Jaffa was also right around the time the French army was hit with a problem that would plague them, not just for the rest of this campaign, but for the rest of their time in the east. The plague. Literally, the plague. In March 1799, the plague started spreading ominously through the ranks of the French army, which impacted not just the basic health of the soldiers, but also their morale. The plague is a scary business. So before leaving Jaffa, Bonaparte set up a plague hospital to quarantine sick troops, and allegedly went and visited the victims personally to prove to the rest of his men that there was nothing to fear, and there’s a famous painting creatively called Bonaparte Visiting Plague Victims at Jaffa that depicts him laying hands on a sick man. But it is entirely possible that the entire visit was concocted propaganda. Napoleon personally commissioned this painting in 1804 on the eve of his self-coronation as emperor. And if there’s one solid staple of semi-divine rule across time and space, it’s the power of the ruler to heal the sick.
After depositing a garrison to hold Jaffa, Bonaparte marched with the rest of his army north, to the city of Acre, where a good portion of the incoming Ottoman army were stationed, awaiting further reinforcements from Damascus. The French began a siege on March 20th, and Bonaparte confidently predicted that Acre would fall in a matter of days, and then they could all move on. But instead, this was as far as his army was going to go in the Syrian campaign. The Ottoman defenders were well led by a French emigre officer, who also happened to be a former classmate of Bonaparte’s. Supplied by the British navy with provisions and equipment, the garrison at Acre settled in to outlast the French.
And then came the critical blow. The flotilla bringing in the French siege equipment was captured by the British navy, leaving Napoleon with only infantry to carry out his siege and no way to prevent the British from resupplying the city at will. To add insult to injury, the British then delivered the captured guns to Acre, where they were used against the French.
With the siege stalled out, Bonaparte then got news that a huge relief army was on the way from Damascus. Napoleon dispatched 2,000 men under General Jean-Baptiste Clébert, a guy who I have been ignoring so far in the show in the interest of narrative clarity, but Clébert has been around for a while now. He was part of that Mainz garrison that was forced to surrender way back in the summer of 1793 and was then transferred over to the Vendée, where they played a crucial role in defeating the insurrectionary Catholic and royal army later that year. General Clébert was one of the lead Republican generals in that run of battles out in the West in September-October 1793. Well now, he’s with Napoleon in Egypt, and he’s off with 2,000 men to face 35,000 Ottomans. And despite the insane numerical difference, he actually liked his chances so much that he decided to go on the offensive. Clébert located the relief army camped at the base of Mount Tabor, and he scheduled a night raid for the wee hours of April 16th that would hopefully confuse and scatter the enemy. But unfortunately, it took Clébert longer to get into position than he planned, and so when dawn broke on the 16th, the little army was spotted. The surprise raid botched, Clébert formed his army into two compact divisional squares, and for the next ten hours fought off wave after wave of Mamluk cavalry. Holding out was actually pretty easy, but by the end of the day, the French were running low on food, water, and ammunition.
But that is when Bonaparte showed up leading another 2,000 men. Having heard of the pickle Clébert had gotten himself into, Bonaparte scrambled a relief effort. And when Napoleon arrived at Mount Tabor, his idea was to attack the Ottoman baggage and force them to divert attention away from Clébert. And this worked beyond his wildest expectations, because when Bonaparte attacked the baggage, the Ottoman soldiers suddenly believed that they were surrounded, so they panicked and retreated south. And as soon as they started to run, both Bonaparte and Clébert’s armies pursued them and turned the retreat into a chaotic rout. Just like that, this huge Ottoman relief army was busted and scattered to the four winds, leaving thousands of dead behind.
But though they had stopped the relief army from coming, the siege of Acre still ended in failure for the French. The plague was continuing to spread, and they had no real way of breaking into the city. After one last-ditch assault on May 10th, Bonaparte decided to give up. Sort of. He announced to his men that since they had defeated the Ottomans and taken a string of cities, that their work here was done. They were victorious already and didn’t need dumb ol’ Acre anyway. Basically, he declared victory and left.
But the march home was pretty brutal. All the sick had to be kept quarantined in the back of the army, and the wounded could only move so fast. Their slow progress exposed the retreating French to repeated Ottoman raids. So eventually, anyone who couldn’t keep up was just abandoned. And there is a story that after passing back through Jaffa, that Bonaparte ordered a surgeon to administer lethal doses of laudanum to men infected with the plague, but the doctor refused to do it.
At the end of June, Bonaparte arrived back in Cairo, and keeping up appearances, he entered the city like some conquering hero. But the four-month campaign had cost him 600 dead of the plague, 1200 killed in action, and 2000 wounded, none of whom could be replaced. And it netted him only a temporary reprieve from an Ottoman offensive via Syria. Because meanwhile, this other 20,000-man Ottoman army was being ferried by the British navy from Rhodes down to Alexandria.
And I have to think that right about now is the time Bonaparte looks around and says, this is a hopeless situation, I’m cut off, I have no hope of reinforcement, I’m governing a probably hostile native population with a dwindling army weakened by plague, there is very little chance of permanent success to be had here. But there was nothing he could do about his situation at the moment, except try to counter this seaborne Ottoman invasion.
On July the 14th, 1799, that is the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the British navy landed the Ottoman army at Alexandria and easily established a beachhead and captured the city, which was not particularly well-garrisoned. On July the 25th, Bonaparte arrived with about 7,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, and saw that the Ottomans were deploying themselves in two defensive lines with their backs to the sea, which Napoleon quickly deduced left them nowhere to run if it got bad for them. So he ordered his men to attack, and they broke through the first Ottoman line before it had a chance to fully form. They had a tougher time cracking the inner line, but the French cavalry general Joachim Murat identified a weak point on the Ottoman flank, turned it, and charged in behind them. Murat charged so fast that he broke into the tent of the Ottoman high command and personally captured the Ottoman commander-in-chief, taking a gunshot to Ja for his trouble. But Murat will live, as we’ll see.
The broken Ottomans tried to flee, scatter, swim back to the British ships, whatever. Of the 18,000 who put to shore, 6,000 died, 1,500 were captured, and 2,000 just went missing. The French casualties, again, numbered in the mere hundreds.
But though here we are, with Bonaparte having won every open battle he fought in Egypt and Syria and won them all in pretty spectacular fashion, none of it changed the larger strategic picture. Bonaparte’s army was still cut off from home and could expect no relief or reinforcement. And then the British admiral running the fleet that had been blockading Bonaparte from all possible relief decided it was high time to let news from Europe finally get through to the French. He forwarded dispatches that spelled out the scope of the disasters that had befallen the French army in the year since Bonaparte had left for Egypt, disasters he had no knowledge of until that moment, and disasters that we will pick our way through next week.
Napoleon concluded that if France was going to be saved, and more importantly if his glorious personal ambitions were going to be saved, that he was going to have to ditch the men he had dragged to Egypt and sail for home. And with this latest resounding victory against the Ottomans, he could return home bearing good tidings of his unbroken string of triumphs. Now he did not dare tell his men he was leaving, though. Pretending to be headed merely on a scouting expedition to the Nile Delta, Bonaparte boarded a frigate with a small company of loyal associates as night fell on August the 22nd, 1799. Then he sailed for France.
The next morning, General Clébert got up and read the proclamation announcing Bonaparte’s departure, and that he himself had been pointed commander in chief. Now this practically led to a riot, but Clébert told him, no, no, guys, it’s cool, he’s just going home to get reinforcements, I swear. But this was a bald-faced lie. Bonaparte is not coming back.
So all those men who had been licking their chops as they sailed from Malta to Alexandria in June 1798, and who counted themselves as lucky ducks for getting picked to go off on this grand adventure with Napoleon Bonaparte, were utterly abandoned to their fate. Those that weren’t already dead of the plague, or had been killed in battle, or in native uprisings, that is.
Now just to wrap up the fate of these poor guys, since it will extend beyond the scope of the show, the French occupation went pretty much as you’d expect. His army dwindling, and with no expectation that Bonaparte was ever coming back, Clébert opened up negotiations with the British and Ottomans, promising to abandon Egypt if they were all just allowed to go home to France.
But after agreeing to these terms, the British reneged in March 1800, and landed a huge Mamluk army to destroy the supposedly fatally weakened French army. But Clébert won the subsequent Battle of Heliopolis, but then he himself was assassinated by an angry native in June. The demoralized French hung out until 1801, when the last of them finally wound up holed up in Alexandria, besieged by a British expeditionary force that finally secured the French surrender in September 1801.
And we’ll end today by noting that this surrender is the reason why the Rosetta Stone sits today in the British Museum, and not the Louvre. The details are sketchy, but it appears that the British knew all about the stone, and just straight up jacked it and sailed it back to London, where it remains to this day.
Next week, we will wind back the clock a bit, and pick up that deteriorating situation back in Europe that I’ve now hinted at a few times. A deteriorating situation that led to the formation of the Second Coalition, a coalition that now included the Russians and the Ottomans, and which General Bonaparte was convinced that it was his destiny to save France from, so that he himself could proceed with everything else he believed destiny had in store for him.
In July 1798 Bonaparte and his healthy, hopeful army arrived in Egypt. In August 1799 Bonaparte ditched his now demoralized, plague-ridden army and sailed for home.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
Podscript is a personal project to make podcast transcripts available to everyone for free. Please support this project by following us on Twitter.