The Egyptian campaign
1798 – 1801
The French Invasion of Egypt (1798-1801) was Napoleon Bonaparte’s unsuccessful campaign in Egypt and Syria to protect French trade interests and undermine Britain’s access to India. Despite several victories and an expedition into Syria, Napoleon and his Armée d’Orient were eventually forced to withdraw by local hostility, British naval power, and politics in Paris.
In August 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte proposed a military expedition to seize Egypt, then a province of the Ottoman Empire, in a letter to the directory, seeking to protect French trade interests and undermine Britain’s access to India. The plan was agreed upon in March 1798. The Directory, although troubled by the scope and cost of the enterprise, readily agreed to the plan in order to remove the popular general from the center of power.
At the beginning of the campaign, Bonaparte’s expedition seized Malta from the Knights of Saint John on June 9 and then landed successfully at Alexandria on July 1, eluding, for the time being, detection by the Royal Navy.
Conquest of Egypt
After landing on the coast of Egypt, Bonaparte’s force of 25,000 fought off a force of about 100,000 Mamelukes in the Battle of the Pyramids approximately nine miles (15 km) from the pyramids. He defeated the Mamluk cavalry using a larger version of the common infantry square, with cannons and supplies safely on the inside. In all 300 French and approximately 6,000 Egyptians were killed.
While the battle on land was a resounding victory for the French, the British navy managed to compensate at sea. The ships that had dropped off Bonaparte and his army had sailed back to France, but a fleet of ships of the line that had come with them stayed and supported the army along the coast. On August 1, the British fleet found these battleships anchored in a strong defensive position in the Bay of Abukir. The French believed that they were open to attack only on one side, the other side being protected by the shore. However, the arriving British fleet under Horatio Nelson managed to slip half of their ships in between the land and the French line, thus attacking from both sides. All but two of the French vessels were captured or destroyed. Bonaparte became land-bound. His goal of strengthening the French position in the Mediterranean Sea was thus frustrated, but his army nonetheless succeeded in consolidating power in Egypt, although it faced repeated nationalist uprisings.
After receiving word in Istanbul that the French fleet had been destroyed during the Battle of the Nile, the Turkish believed that this was the end of Napoleon Bonaparte. Sultan Selim III decided to wage war against France, and sent two armies to Egypt. The first army, under the command of Jezzar Pasha, only had about 12,000 soldiers; but Pasha (General) knew that he would get reinforcements from Damascus, Aleppo, Iraq (10,000 men), and Jerusalem (8,000 men). The second army, under the command of Mustafa Pasha, began on Rhodes with about eight thousand soldiers. He also knew he would get about 42,000 soldiers from Albania, Istanbul, Asia Minor, and Greece. The Turkish planned two offensives against Cairo. From Syria, across the desert of Salhayeh-Belbays-El Kankah, and from Rhodos by sea landing in the Aboukir area or the port city of Damietta.
In January 1799, Bonaparte learned of the hostile Turkish movements. He knew that he would not be able to defend against the Turkish army, and decided that the best defense would be to attack them first in Syria. A victory there would give him more time to prepare against the Turkish forces on Rhodes.
He prepared around 13,000 soldiers who were organized in divisions under the command of Generals Reynier (with 2,160 men), Kléber (with 2,336), Bon (2,449), Lannes (2,938), division cavalry under General Murat (900), brigade of infantry and cavalry under Brigade chief Bessieres (400), camel-company (89), artillery under Dammartin (1,387), and engineers and sappers under Caraffeli (3,404). Every infantry and cavalry division had 6 cannons. Bonaparte took 16 siege cannons which were placed on ships in Damietta under the command of Captain Standelet. Bonaparte’s French forces left Egypt on February 5, 1799, besieging and capturing Jaffa from 3 to 7 March.
He besieged but was unable to reduce the fortress of Acre, and was forced to return to Egypt in May. In order to speed up the retreat, Bonaparte took the controversial step of killing prisoners and plague-stricken men along the way. His supporters have argued that this decision was necessary given the continuing harassment of stragglers by Ottoman forces.
Bonaparte returns to France
Back in Egypt, on 25 July, Bonaparte decisively defeated an Ottoman amphibious invasion at Abukir. This partially redressed his reputation from the naval defeat there a year earlier. With the Egyptian campaign stagnating, and political instability developing back home, Bonaparte abandoned Egypt for Paris in August 1799, leaving his troops behind under Kléber. It has been suggested that Sidney Smith and other British commanders in the Mediterranean helped Bonaparte evade the British blockade, thinking that he might act as a Royalist element back in France, but there is no solid historical evidence in support of this argument.
End of the campaign
The remaining French troops, angry at Bonaparte and the French government for having left them behind, were supposed to be honorably evacuated under the terms of a treaty Kléber had negotiated with Smith in early 1800. However, British Admiral Keith reneged on this treaty and sent an amphibious assault force of 30,000 Mamelukes against Kléber. The Mamelukes were defeated at the battle of Heliopolis in March 1800, and Kléber then suppressed an insurrection in Cairo. Nevertheless, Kléber was then assassinated in June 1800 by a Syrian student called Sulayman Al-Halaby, and command of the French army went to General Menou. Menou held command until August 1801, when, under continual harassment by British and Ottoman forces, and after the loss of 13,500 men (mostly to disease), he eventually capitulated to the British. Under the terms of his surrender, the French army was repatriated in British ships, along with a priceless hoard of Egyptian antiquities.
An unusual aspect of the Egyptian expedition was the inclusion of a large group of scientists assigned to the invading French force. Among the other discoveries that resulted, the Rosetta Stone was found. One of the scientists was Joseph Fourier, and while in Egypt he did some of the empirical work upon which his “analytical theory of heat” was founded. This deployment of intellectual resources is considered by some an indication of Bonaparte’s devotion to the principles of the Enlightenment, and by others as a masterstroke of propaganda obfuscating the true imperialist motives of the invasion.
In a largely unsuccessful effort to gain the support of the Egyptian populace, Bonaparte also issued proclamations casting himself as a liberator of the people from Mamluk oppression, and praising the precepts of Islam.