The Egypt Campaign: Introduction
I just completed a new book about Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. It's available for Kindle. Here's a taste of what the book is about:
The Egypt Campaign
IN 1798, NAPOLÉON BONAPARTE LED AN ARMY OF 50,000 TO OVERTHROW EGYPT'S DESPOTIC RULER AND SPREAD ENLIGHTENMENT THROUGHOUT THE MIDDLE EAST. THIS IS ONE SOLDIER'S STORY OF THAT FATEFUL EXPEDITION.
Napoléon Bonaparte’s Egypt campaign began in the summer of 1798 when his army captured Alexandria, and continued until August 30, 1801, when the remaining French forces surrendered to the British.
The campaign was the second major campaign of Napoléon’s career and one that is perhaps the most forgotten. It was significant because it set the stage for Napoléon to become First Consul of France, and lead the French armies during the epic battles of the French Revolution that would follow.
In 1798, five years after the French monarchy had been overthrown, France stood alone on the battlefield of continental Europe. Victorious against the European powers who had tried to crush the revolution, only Britain stood against her.
The French Directory ordered General Bonaparte to take command of the Army of England and invade the British Isles. Napoléon, however, knew that without control of the channel, such an invasion was impossible. Instead, he developed a bold plan to weaken England by seizing the Levant and Egypt, thereby cutting the British lifeline to India. In doing so, Napoléon would also overthrow the despotic ruler of Egypt and bring enlightenment to the Egyptian people.
But rather than view the French as liberators, the Egyptians revolted. The Ottoman Empire, the suzerain power of Egypt, allied with the British, and the French army found itself cut off and engaged in a vicious insurgency far from home. The war would last two and a half years longer, and cost thousands more lives than either the French, or Bonaparte, had ever imagined. But it would also lead to the rediscovery of a lost civilization, and the key to unlocking those mysteries: The Rosetta Stone.
“Soldier, You are one of the divisions of the Army of England: you have waged war in the mountains and on the plains, you have laid siege to cities. Now the time has come to fight at sea. The Roman legions, which you have sometimes resembled but not yet equaled, fought the might of Carthage on this same sea and on the plains of Zama. Victory was always theirs, for they were ever brave, patient and unmindful of fatigue; they were disciplined and united in their aim. Soldiers, the eyes of Europe are on you! You have a great destiny to fulfill, battles to win, dangers and difficulties to overcome. You will achieve even more than ever before for the prosperity of the fatherland, the welfare of mankind and your own glory. Soldiers, sailors, infantry, cavalry and artillery, be as one! Always remember that on the battlefield you need each other. Soldiers and sailors, you have, until now, been neglected; today you are the first concern of the Republic: you will be worth of the Army of which you are part. The spirit of liberty has, since its birth, made the Republic arbiter of Europe; pray that it may ever be so across the seas and in the most distant countries.”
—Bonaparte, addressing his troops after they had embarked aboard their ships in Toulon harbor, the 21st Floréal of the Year VI of the Republic [May 10, 1798].
Prologue: The Siege of Alexandria
We are surrounded, trapped like rats in a cage, and slowly dying of hunger. I vividly remember the optimism we felt storming the walls of Alexandria three long years ago, sending the Mameluke’s reeling. Now, we’re the ones who stagger backwards under the thrusts of the British, who have us surrounded.
Although General Menou holds out hope that Admiral Ganteaume’s squadron, carrying much needed reinforcements, will arrive at any moment, the rest of us, some seven thousand out of an army that was once seven times that size, have no such expectation.
It is true that the five thousand additional men sent by Napoléon to relieve us and break British General Coote’s siege would be a blessing. But we have already lost Egypt. On the 4th Messidor, General Belliard surrendered his army of thirteen thousand men to the combined British and Turkish forces outside Cairo.
It is now the end of Thermidor, and the British are attempting to starve us into submission. The British have cutoff Alexandria by breaching the seawall holding back the Mediterranean and flooding the interior lowlands, forming a new lake, Lake Maryut. The British have brought armed sloops and small boats to defend the lake. The only way out of Alexandria by land is along a narrow causeway. Meanwhile, their ships lie off the harbor, threatening to sink any of our transports foolish enough to try and escape.
The army is dying slowly. Two-thirds of the men have scurvy. We’re reduced to eating rancid biscuits and vile water. We have not received a ration of vegetables or meat in a month. In a matter of days, the British will be able to walk into Alexandria; we no longer possess the strength to defend the town.
My only concern, however, is Jamilah. I hurry along the lines at the Redoubt of Pompey, built on a hillside beside Pompey’s Pillar. Abdul follows me. He’s an Egyptian I befriended in Cairo a seeming lifetime ago. I am fairly sure he’s an insurgent, but he hasn’t tried to slit my throat, yet. Tonight, however, will provide him with an opportunity. But I’ve got a pistol hidden in my cape and a dagger stowed in my boot just in case.
We reach our encampment behind the redoubt and quickly enter Paul’s tent. Paul Dafoe is a lieutenant in my company, and the one man I trust to watch my backside. As I duck beneath the tent flap, I hardly recognize my friend, and reach for the pistol beneath my robe.
“Effective, eh?” he asks with a grin. He’s dressed as an Egyptian, complete with Moroccan sandals, billowing silk shirt, a turban, and scimitar. “Quick,” he says, handing me a set of Arab clothes. I undress while Abdul remains outside, guarding against watchful eyes.
We are dressing as Egyptians to slip through the French and British lines and bring in Jamilah, who is making her way to Alexandria with a friend of Abdul’s. She’s the princess of a Mameluke killed in the Battle of the Pyramids I fell in love with in Cairo. I want to bring her here so that when the French army surrenders, which will be any day now, she can come with me, and start a new life in France.
Suddenly, Abdul hisses and Paul dowses the lantern. If we’re found out now we could be shot as traitors. Menou has vowed to fight to the last man and has already sent Generals Reynier, Damas, Adjutant General Boyer, and Chief Commissioner Daure back to France in irons. We’ll also be shot because of what we’ve promised Abdul: The Rosetta Stone, which is hidden inside the city’s walls.
Paul and I figure that the British will never allow us to take it back to France. It’s as good as lost already, so why not make some use of it while we still possess it? The stone contains the key that will unlock the mysteries of ancient Egypt. The inscriptions chiseled into its black, polished surface provide the means for translating the writings of the pharaohs. The odd-shaped piece of basalt is 3-feet, 9-inches in length, 2-feet, 4 ½ -inches in width, and 11-inches thick. It is worth its weight in gold and Abdul knows this. We’ll tell him where the stone is once we return, but my greatest fear is that he already knows where it is, and is leading us to our death.
Abdul signals the all clear and we leave the tent. I put my fears aside. Paul and I are armed to the teeth. We’ve survived many battles, a raging insurgency, and the retreat from Acre. One more task and we’ll be finished, ready to go home.
In the inky dark, we creep through the French lines, then walk along the sandy shore of Lake Maryut where Abdul has hidden a boat. I concentrate on the sound of my soles striking the sandy soil. It reminds me of the sound my boots made when I walked, for the first time, across the deck of the Spartiate, as the great warship rocked at anchor in Toulon harbor.
It seems like so long ago.