“Instead of seeing Napoleon’s army as liberators, the Egyptians revolted and the French found themselves cut off and engaged in a vicious insurgency far from home.”
By David Smethhurst
The expedition was launched just five years after the Bourbon monarchy had been overthrown. France stood alone on the battlefield of continental Europe. Victorious against the European powers that had tried to crush the revolution, only Britain stood against her.
The French Directory ordered its best commander, General Bonaparte, to take charge of the Army of England and invade the British Isles. But the budding conqueror knew that without control of the channel, any attempt to land on England’s shores would be impossible. Instead, he developed a bold plan to weaken Great Britain by seizing the Levant and Egypt, thereby cutting off the enemy’s lifeline to India. In doing so, Napoleon would also overthrow the despotic ruler of Egypt and bring French enlightenment to the Egyptian people.
But instead of seeing Napoleon’s army as liberators, the Egyptians resisted. The Ottoman Empire, the suzerain power of Egypt, sided with the British, and the French suddenly found themselves cut off and fighting a vicious insurgency far from home.
The war would last two-and-a-half-years and cost thousands more lives than either the French or Bonaparte had bargained for. But it would also lead to the rediscovery of a lost civilization, and the key to unlocking those mysteries: The Rosetta Stone. It was also significant because it set the stage for Napoleon to become First Consul of France and to lead his nation’s armies during the epic battles that would follow.
Here are some little-known and interesting facts about Napoleon’s Egypt Campaign:
Meet the Mamelukes
In the 13th Century, the sultan of Egypt bought 1,200 Circassian and Georgian boys from slave traders and transported them to Egypt to form what would become the Mamelukes, an elite mounted fighting corps. These warrior slaves mastered their craft and in time rose in rebellion, eventually taking Egypt for themselves. In fact, the Mamelukes ruled the region until the Turks conquered it in 1517. The Ottomans, though, were no fools. They put a lord, or pasha, in charge, but let the Mamelukes remain the true power. Their beys or chieftains, each with his own army, governed the country for generations. By the time of Napoleon’s arrival, the Mamalukes had been ruling Egypt for more than five centuries. Their original Georgian and Circassian founders long since dead, the Mamelukes replenished their ranks by buying fresh children, some as young as eight, from the Caucasus and raising them to become the next generation of warriors. It was this army of some 9,000 to 10,000 cavalry and 20,000 servants that stood in the way of the French conquest of Egypt.
Adapting to Desert Warfare
After the destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon’s army was marooned in Egypt and left to fend for itself. Cut off from home by the Royal Navy, it had to refit and adapt for a long stay in Egypt.
Realizing he could not pursue Mameluke cavalry across the desert with just infantry, in early 1799, Napoleon ordered the establishment of the Régiment des dromadaires, a sort of impromptu mounted camel corps. Armed with muskets, bayonets and lances, the unit could fight in infantry squares using their mounts as shields, and then form up to attack like cavalry.
The British naval blockade also led to manpower shortages. Without fresh recruits coming in from France, Napoleon was forced to turn to the navy to fill his ranks. After the French fleet’s defeat by Nelson at the Nile, Bonaparte drafted sailors into the infantry, forming the Légion Nautique.
The climate also proved to be a challenge, one that Bonaparte dealt with by ordering the issue of new cotton uniforms, which were much cooler than conventional heavy wool tunics. Soldiers were also supplied with sheep’s hide peaked caps. Unlike the standard infantry shako, the improvised headgear had flaps on the side and back that could protect soldiers’ necks from the sun during the day, and helped them stay warm at night.
Lastly, unable to get wine or brandy from France, Napoleon’s troops drank a locally-brewed fruit eau-de-vie made in special distilleries they established.
Fighting a Counter-Insurgency
After the defeat of the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids, Napoleon believed Egypt was his. However, soon after the French took up residence in Cairo, the Turks issued a special decree, or firman, urging Egyptians to rise up and drive out the infidels. This they did on the night of Oct. 21, 1798. One of the first victims was the governor of Cairo, General Martin Dupuy, who was killed by the insurgents. The French responded swiftly, storming a mosque occupied by the guerrillas and putting down the rebellion. There would soon be another uprising in the city and the insurgency would continue to smoulder in the countryside throughout the campaign. The French controlled the most of the towns and villages, but when traveling between garrisons, columns often fell prey to hostile Bedouins. Meanwhile, one of the two Mameluke beys who Napoleon defeated at the Battle of the Pyramids, Murad Bey, refused to surrender and took his army deep into Upper Egypt. General Louis Desaix pursued, and in doing so, discovered the ancient monuments of Thebes, Edfu, Philae and Dendera.
In addition to combatting insurgents, the French army was forced to do battle with an even deadlier foe: the bubonic plague. While several garrisons in Egypt, notably Rosetta, Damietta, Aboukir, and Alexandria, reported small, localized outbreaks of the plague, it wasn’t until after Napoleon’s army stormed Jaffa, and put to death thousands who had surrendered, that signs of the plague began to appear. Bonaparte understood that the epidemic threatened to decimate his army and cause panic. French doctors were ordered to avoid even using the term “plague” as hundreds fell ill. Special hospitals were setup to isolate the diseased and prevent infection. But the French soldiers knew what the buboes meant, so Napoleon fought fear with courage. René-Nicolas Desgenettes, the chief medical officer observed:
On March 11, 1799, General Bonaparte, followed by his general staff, felt it incumbent upon himself to visit the hospital…The general walked through the hospital and its annex, spoke to almost all the soldiers who were conscious enough to hear him, and, for one hour and a half, with the greatest calm, busied himself with the details of the administration. While in a very small and crowded ward, he helped to lift, or rather to carry, the hideous corpse of a soldier whose torn uniform was soiled by the spontaneous bursting of an enormous abscessed bubo.”
An estimated 2,000 French soldiers died of the plague during the campaign. Their loss quite possibly contributed to the French defeat at Acre.
A Second Alexander
From the moment Napoleon set foot in Egypt until the spring of 1799, his armies were victorious in battle. Things changed when Bonaparte surrounded the city of Acre in present day Israel. The siege was a disaster and is seen by many as the decisive turning point of the French campaign in the Middle East.
Up until that point, Napoleon had hinted that his ambition was to emulate Alexander the Great and use the victory as a sort of springboard into larger Asian expedition. In fact, Bonaparte toyed with the idea that he might one day march his army to India itself.
[Had I] been able to take Acre, I would have put on a turban, I would have made my soldiers wear big Turkish trousers, and I would have exposed them to battle only in case of extreme necessity. I would have made them into a Sacred Battalion–my Immortals. I would have finished the war against the Turks with Arabic, Greek, and Armenian troops. Instead of a battle in Moravia, I would have won a Battle of Issus, I would have made myself emperor of the East, and I would have returned to Paris by way of Constantinople.
Issus, incidentally, was where Alexander defeated the King of Persia in 333 BCE. Instead, on May 21, 1799, under cover of darkness, he ordered his army to retreat from the gates of Acre and return to Egypt.
The Rosetta Stone
Although ultimately a military disaster for France, the campaigns in Egypt and Syria weren’t a total loss. In fact, the 167 scientists and scholars that accompanied the expedition managed to unearth a trove of lost knowledge that has since helped advance our understanding of the ancient world.
One such breakthrough occurred on Aug. 20, 1799. That’s when French soldiers working to strengthen the fortifications of Fort Julien in Rosetta, Egypt, tore down an old wall and discovered an odd-shaped piece of dark grey granite measuring three feet, nine inches in length and two feet, four inches in width. The slab was 11 inches thick and featured writing carved into it in three scripts: Greek, Egyptian demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphic. Captain François-Xavier Bouchard, who was in charge of the engineers, reported the discovery to the Institute of Egypt in Cairo where Michel-Ange Lancret, one of Napoleon’s scientists, immediately understood that if the inscriptions chiseled into its surface could be deciphered, they would provide the means for translating the writings of the pharaohs. When the French surrendered in 1801 they turned the slab, which would become known as the Rosetta Stone, over to the British, who transported it to London’s British Museum aboard the captured French frigate HMS l’Egyptienne. Even though the British took possession of the mysterious artifact, it would not be until 1822 that a Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion, would finally decipher it.
David Smethurst is the author of The Egypt Campaign. A dual citizen of the United States and the United Kingdom, he earned a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University, and a Ph.D. in geography from the University of California at Berkeley. His writing career includes stints as an editor for two national magazines; his freelance work has appeared in numerous publications including Outside and Parenting. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two daughters.