Egypt April to July 1798

Most of Napoleon Bonaparte's Army of Italy is renamed the Army of England before being sent to conquer Egypt.

A map showing lower Egypt.


From the prespective of the present the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 seems risky. Doomed to failure, and a quixotic, indeed harebrained, endeavour. This is anachronistic.

In fact the French attack on Egypt was part of a long term colonial strategy dating back at least as far as the Seven Years War and to the Duc de Choiseul when he was foreign minster. It was hoped Egypt would be a replacement for more vulnerable colonies in the West Indies as well as a stepping stone to threatening the English position in India. The trade in tropical stables, sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate, cotton and spices had made England rich. The Dutch and many French merchants had also profited.

Those riches had helped the English and Dutch to financially prop up a whole series of opponents to French domination in Europe. It was a sensible strategic goal to want to take them from the English, depriving them of a critical resource and enriching France at the same time.

So the plan was not quioxotic. Likewise without the benefit of hindsight it does not seem doomed to failure and therefore harebrained.

War at sea in the eighteenth century was not like war on land in the 20th. There were no continuous fronts inpenetrable to any large scale enemy movement.

The tight blockades the English had achieved earlier in the War of the First Coalition were a costly and difficult to sustain innovation. The year 1797 saw the Bank of England having to suspend cash payments, the falling away of all their continiental allies, and mutinies in the Royal Navy. For a time the English abandoned the Mediterranean.

Both the Spanish and Dutch became French allies. On paper it might appear their numbers added to that of the French fleet at least equaled that of the far flung Royal Navy. In addition Napoleon had captured a number of Venetian ships of the line in the summer as part of his closing of the campaign in Italy. French bases in the Mediterranean were much closer to the scene of operations and they looked ready to use the successes of their armies to procure more and better ones.

The Directory, the men leading France, could not really afford to declare peace and accept the status quo. Their oversized armies were largely unpaid and living by plundering the foreign countries they occupied. A significant portion of that plunder was being sent back to France to pay at least some of the revolutionary government's bills.

Peace would mean bringing those armies home and convincing the hardened ideologically motivated warriors in them to return to peacetime pursuits despite being unpaid. Not a likely prospect. It would also mean doing without the plunder they provided and somehow dealing with the ambitious overweening generals that had led them. Peace was a frightening prospect for France's leadership.

Continued war seemed the better bet if not an ideal one. Direct attacks on England or a descent on Ireland were prepared for, but in the face of the Royal Navy in home waters very risky.

In the end a bold attack on both Malta and Egypt which would gain new bases in the Mediterranean far from England's main bases, and a potentially wealthy new colony, seemed the best way forward.

Background; A Strategic Ploy Long in the Making

In current economic theory merchantilism, the idea that a state should be an independent economic power without needing to trade with others for necessities, is a discredited theory. Be that as it may in the eighteenth century statesmen still believed in controlling as much of their trade as they could. The strength of the state in war was still the primary concern of most of them. What that meant more than anything was money. The main source of money being rich merchants engaged in trade.

Some of the most valuable and lucretive trade was in tropical products European states could not produce in their homelands. The aforementioned sugar, coffee, tea, indigo, chocolate, cotton and spices had to come from other lands. Ideally those lands would be colonies ensuring the profits of the trade went to the colonizing power, and that their supply could be assured.

Britain's location in the North Atlantic off of the coast of Western Europe gave her a significant advantage against Northern European powers, the French and Dutch most of all, in being able to trade with such colonies safely while attacking the shipping of other Nothern European powers that had to pass by her shores.

If the ancient trade across the Mediterranean could be revived much of that English advantage would vanish.

Egypt was more misgoverned than governed by a disunited caste of warrior slaves called "Mamelukes". Nominally they answered to the Sultan in Instanbul but, in fact, had been in a state of on again off again semi-rebellion for decades. They routinely ignored inconvenient commands sent from the capital and many years would not even bother sending the tribute owed. They dealt with peasants and merchants in a harsh arbritary manner while failing to provide secure stability, keeping the country poor and unproductive.

The French had since the 16th century been traditional allies of the Ottomans against the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. They were on good terms with the Sultan in Instanbul. They routinely received promises of good treatement for their merchants in Egypt that he was unable to make good on. The British who cut deals with the local "Beys", as the Mameluke chieftains were called, did better. The French were relunctant to bypass the Sultan and do so themselves.

The French believed that properly administered that Egypt could become a prosperous colony providing many of the tropical goods they otherwise had to source via routes more subject to English depredations. Better opened up it provided a safe route to India shorter than the one around the Horn of Africa, and, with efficient transhipment or the building of a Suez canal, a potentially faster and cheaper one.

The French deluded themselves into believing that the Sultan would likely welcome such an occupation, since they were willing to recognize his authority de facto as well as giving it lip service, and because he'd benefit from the province's prospersity also. They discounted religion and pride.

At least this is what Tallyrand the French foreign minister in the summer of 1797 told both the French legislature and General Bonaparte in Italy. The General was wrapping up his Italian campaign against the Austrians and had recently subdued Venice and its Italian possessions. Venice had earned its former great wealth trading with the Far East via the Ottoman controlled Middle East. It ignited hopeful speculation on the part of the young imaginative, if very pragmatic, General Bonaparte.

It had been to circumvent the Venetian stranglehold on the trade with the East that Portugal had pioneered long distant navigation on the open Atlantic back in the 15th century. Their success had changed the face of the world, in the end more to the English benefit than their own. The French, and Bonaparte in particular, were dreaming of reversing that particular revolution.

It was a big dream, but the French, Tallyrand and Bonaparte, had some recent familiarity with revolutions. Big changes, revolutions, did not seem impossible to such men.

Opportunity Beckons

In any event with the war against the Austrians wrapped up in October of 1797 with the Peace of Campo Formio, the Directory needed something for General Bonaparte and his Army of Italy to do. Preferably something difficult and involving, far away from France proper. The Directory preceived Bonaparte as a political threat.

Part of the Army of Italy was to remain in Italy as a garrison, the rest was dispersed and renamed the Army of England. England was France's sole remaining major foe.

Bonaparte's correspondance from the 9th of November 1797 gives details broken down by demi-brigade (regiment) of the exact details of this reassignment.

Demi-Brigades of Light Infantry
For EnglandUnder ArmsFor Cisalpine RepublicUnder ArmsFor France and
other places in Italy
Under Arms Notes
2nd 1,500 15th 1,500 11th 1,200 -
4th 1,200 26th 1,800 12th 1,200 -
5th 1,500 20th 2,200 27th 1,800 -
18th 1,500 29th 1,500 - - -
21st 2,000 - - - - -
22nd 1,500 - - - - -
6 9,200 4 7,000 3 4,200 Totals
Demi-Brigades of Line Infantry
For EnglandUnder ArmsFor Cisalpine RepublicUnder ArmsFor France and
other places in Italy
Under Arms Notes
4th 2,200 11th 1,800 - - garrison Tortone
18th 2,000 12th 1,500 - - -
25th 2,000 13th 2,000 - - -
30th 1,600 14th 1,500 - - -
32nd 2,000 24th 1,800 - - -
40th 2,000 33rd 1,800 - - -
43rd 1,600 39th 1,600 - - garrison Anacona
51st 2,000 55th 1,600 - - -
57th 2,000 64th 1,600 - - -
58th 2,200 93rd 2,200 - - -
61st 2,000 - - 5th 1,500 Genoa
69th 2,000 - - 17th 1,000 Chambery
75th 2,000 - - 9th 1,500 Corsica
85th 2,400 - - 19th 1,800 Corsica
89th 1,600 - - 6th 1,600 Corfu
- - - - 79th 2,000 Corfu
- - - - 63rd 2,200 Lyon
15 29,600 10 17,800 7 11,600 Totals

Whether or not this plan to have Bonaparte attack England directly was a serious one or not is a question of some debate among historians. Many believe it was never more than a cover than the real plan to send an expedition to Egypt.

The Directory and Bonaparte took it serious enough to have him visit the French forces assembled on the Ocean Coast and report on their readiness. This report delivered in February 1798 did not rule the operation completely out, but it did label it highly risky. It opined that the best time for proper preparations had already passed for the current year. A direct blow at England would the the most effective if it succeeded, but proper preparations would be very expensive, and the operation would still be risky. An expedition against Egypt would less decisive even if successful, but it would also be cheaper and less risky.

There does not appear to be documentary evidence of the Royal Navy's successes against the Spanish fleet at St.Vincent in February 1797, and against the Dutch at Camperdown in October of the same year, barely two months before Bonapartes report, having been a consideration. Nevertheless having had hopes of concentrating the Spanish, Dutch and France fleets and disputing the Royal Navy's control of the Channel dashed must of had some weight in the French deliberations.

Whatever the exact path their thinking took, and whatever reasons they had, the French government had by early March 1798 decided that General Bonaparte and the best part of his former Army of Italy would undertake an expedition to seize first Malta then Egypt. They went to great lengths to keep this decision and the preparations for the expedition secret.

Blind Man's Bluff in the Med

In 1796 a combination of Bonaparate's victories depriving them of vital ports like Genoa and Leghorn, and the Spanish (and their fleet under Admiral Langera) allying with the French, forced the Royal Navy out of the Mediterranean.

To quote a naval history of the period: "On 1 October 1796, Langara picked up 7 more ships of the line at Cartegena and sailed on to Toulon, reaching it on 26 October where he joined 12 French ships of the line and 7 frigates making a total of 38 ships of the line and 17 frigates, heavily outnumbering Sir John Jervis who then had only 14 ships of the line to hand."

The results of this being that: "The Mediterranean had thus been wrested from the control of the Royal Navy in 1796, not by the means of naval battles but by the use of diplomacy and the effects of adverse developments in land warfare along the northern shores of that sea, coupled with the resurgence of the Toulon fleet. The French navy, beaten repeatedly at sea, had control of the Mediterranean handed to it on a plate by her army's successes in northern Italy."

This, for the French, happy state of affairs continued for the whole of 1797, and into the early months of 1798.

If the French expedition had left Toulon in late April 1798 as originally planned they would have faced no threat from the Royal Navy.

In April 1798 against the advice of his professional advisors Pitt ordered ships detached from the Home fleet to reinforce the fleet based out of Portugal under the command of Sir John Jarvis now Lord St.Vincent. Pitt had had reports that the French were preparing some sort of expedition at Toulon and other places in the north west Mediterranean.

The squadron under Lord St.Vincent had similar reports from their own sources and he acted even before receiving Pitt's orders and reinforcements. On the May 2nd Nelson with three ships of the line and some frigates was detached to perform a reconnaissance of Toulon.

Forced off station by heavy weather Nelson missed the sailing of the main French force from Toulon on May 19th. Worse he lost the use of his frigates to the same storm.

In the meantime, however, St. Vincent had received Pitt's reinforcements, eight ships of the line, and orders to send up to twelve ships of the line into the Mediterranean. Troubridge sailed to reinforce Nelson on 24th of May. He had nine ships of the line under command.

The French fleet from Toulon had picked up reinforcements from Genoa on May 21st, by the 23rd it had reached a point south-east of Corsica where it joined yet another subsidiary convey that had departed from Ajaccio, Corsica. It waited three days there for an additional convey under Desaix that had sailed from Civita Vecchia (the port for the Papal States). Desaix had in fact sailed directly for Malta which he reached on the 6th of June. The main fleet joined him on the 9th of June.

Nelson had been joined by Troubridge on the 7th of June at a point north-west of Corsica. This gave him fourteen ships of the line. Troubridge had picked up an additional couple ships of the line off of what is now the Algerian coast. If Nelson could now manage to locate the heavily encumbered and poorly trained French fleet it was likely to go very poorly for them.

Bonaparte took Malta with minimal fighting on the 12th of June.

Nelson reached Naples on the 15th of June and was there when he learned of the French attack on the 17th. On June 21st Nelson was off of eastern Sicily where he received a report from a Genoese merchantman that Bonaparte had departed Malta for Alexandria six days before on the 16th. He crowded on sail hoping to catch them there.

The French had in fact only departed Malta on June 19th and heavily encumbered with troops were moving very slowly. Also they were not sailing directly for Alexandria but via a point just south of Crete, exactly because they did not want to encounter Nelson.

It is believed that the two fleets came very close to each other on the dark foggy night of June 22nd and 23rd. It makes a fine tale that Nelson missed his prize after coming so close.

In any event the French were south of Crete on the 26th and 27th of June.

Nelson reached Alexandria on the 28th of June, and departed there on the 29th to search for the French to the north east thinking that perhaps they were sailing for Syria.

Only hours later a French Frigate reconnoitered the city for the main French fleet which arrived on the morning of the 1st of July.

In the face of poor weather and his Admiral's advice Bonaparte insisted on landing his troops immediately at a point (Marbout) some eight miles west of the city of Alexandria.

The Opposing Forces

The French had dropped General Vaubois at Malta with 4,000 men. Below is a description of the men who arrived off Alexandria with concentration on those organized into infantry regiments (demi-brigades in the revolutionary terminology), light or line. There were also cavalrymen, many dismounted, artillerymen, engineers, sailors, and scientists as well but we're focusing on the infantry.

The French Forces under Bonaparte

Divisional GeneralsBrigadiersDemi-Brigades
2nd Light (1,500)
25th and 75th Line (2,200 & 2,400)
21st Light (1,800)
61st and 88th Line (1,700 & 1,500)
4th Light (1,000?)
18th and 32nd Line (2,350 & 1,900)
22nd Light (1,300)
13th and 69th Line (2,100 & 1,300)
9th and 85th Line (1,500 & 2,400)
Dumas (Cavalry)
7th Hussars and 3rd Dragoons (470 & 450 )
22nd Chasseurs and 20th Dragoons ( 400 & 320)
14th and 15th Dragoons (520 & 300)
18th Dragoons (400)

Dommartin commanded the artillery, and Caffarelli the engineers. The numbers where present of are strengths in men from the 14th of April, the organization the 23rd of June, as modified on 27th and 29th, all from Bonaparte's correspondance. He complains in mid-May about wastage on the march of up to 500 men per demi-brigade but most of these units are noted as having arrived at their port of departure by mid-April. Doubtless there was some desertion so I've rounded the figures down slightly never by more than fifty men. Note that only 700 hundred cavalry horses accompanied the expedition (another 1000 or so for wagons and artillery) so most of the cavalry was dismounted pending the procurement of horses in country.

There were about 1,500 artillery men.

The total force of men gathered in Toulon, Marsailles, Genoa, and Civita Vecchia mid-April was 29,402. This did not count the men in Corsica numbering 3,900 infantry and 680 cavalry according to Chandler, given that the garrison of Malta took about 4,000 men this about evens out.

To sum up on the eve of the invasion of Egypt Bonaparte had about 30,000 fighting men available, organized in five infantry divisions of about 5,000 men. He had about 3,500 cavalry only one fifth of it mounted, and about 1,500 gunners.

Adding in engineers, sailors detached from the fleet for the river flotillas, officiers, scholars and others perhaps 32,000 individuals marched with the French army.

The Ottoman Egyptian Forces

The Ottoman Egyptian Forces to adopt Cole's terminology were no where near as well organized as the French. The core of their fighting forces were the Mamulukes themselves, of whom there may have been 6,000 in the entire country. Individually they were superb cavalrymen.

This likely understates their military strength as each Mamuluke had several "servants" that served as support in the field. Say in effect 20,000 support infantry in the country in total. This organization is similar to that of the medieval Christan "lance" where each knight brought several other fighting men along with him.

The Mamulukes had artillery but not well mounted for either movement or for the adjustment of bearing in battle. It was most critically out ranged by the better French artillery. Even given its basic nature it had been neglected.

A similar neglect had rotted away the strength of the seven units of Turkish troops that were stationed in the country. Cole writes that "[t]here were only a few thousand Ottoman troops from Turkish speaking Anatolia in Egypt. The slave-soldiers houses had increasingly marginalized them. To supplement their meager salaries, the Anatolians often worked as artisans and shopkeepers in the bazaar, especially the famed Khan al-Khalili market. Now, all of a sudden, the proud emirs needed their sultan and his Ottoman troops."

On paper according to Cole the seven Ottoman regiments numbered 18,000 men, 8,000 of them cavalry, 10,000 infantry.

After hearing of the French invasion the country's leaders assembled a "Divan" at Cairo and declared conscription. The conscripts were mostly peasants "fellahin", with little to no training or organization and according to French accounts many of them armed only with staves. They had little going for them militarily besides numbers.

Some accounts give the conscript army up to 100,000 men. Given their lack of military usefulness Cole suggests they were called up more as a political measure to reassure the populace rather than for any genuine military reason.

The Mamelukes having heard the French were mostly infantry were not concerned. In their experience infantry inevitably broke in the face of cavalry only to be cut down while disorganized.

The Ottoman Egyptian forces also included a riverine force of boats designed to control the Nile, and the Bedouin tribesmen of the desert.

In some sense the Bedouin were on nobody's side but their own, but they were Muslim, and the French were invaders as well as potentially valuable targets. The Bedouin would not directly challenge the French army itself but woe betide any stragglers or isolated messengers.

Force Balance Summarized.

In summary the Mamelukes had a medieval army roughly equal to that of the modern French army in size. It was much stronger in cavalry, and in numbers of infantry and artillery likely not too inferior.

Unfortunately for the Mamelukes in quality their infantry and artillery were much inferior. Given that the French, along with other European armies, and unknown to the Mamelukes, had developed infantry that could stand against unsupported cavalry this was a fatal failing.

Theoretically the large squares the French were to form to stave off the Mamuluke cavalry charges were vulnerable to other infantry, and most of all to artillery. Unfortunately for the Mamulukes they had no effective means to take advantage of this.

Contrary to some opinions victory in battle does not automatically lead to victory in a campaign or in a war.

Occupying a country means boots on the ground. That is forces widely dispersed to control the population and vital places.

Even weak third rate forces can defeat a technically superior one if that force has to disperse itself into small penny packets, subject to being overwhelmed in detail, cut off from communications and supply, or ambushed.

In addition to their own forces the Mamelukes should have been able to call on the Ottoman infantry, the local people, and the Bedouin. In practice because of long standing political divisions they failed to do so successfully and once their heavy hand was removed the country fell into chaos.

A country in chaos was a problem for the French, but it was one they could overcome methodically one bit at a time.

This anticipates our story some. In the event the bulk of the Mameluke forces in the country formed up along with the Ottoman regiments on the West side of the Nile under the command of Murad Bey. A remainder of Mameluke forces along with the bulk of the conscripts formed up near Cairo on the East side of the Nile under Ibrahim Bey.

The French Land at Alexandria

Against the advice of Admiral Brueys Bonaparte began to land his troops around noon on July 1st on a beach called Marabut eight miles west of Alexandria. It was not an ideal location the ships had to remain miles offshore and there was a strong wind from the north kicking up the seas.

"The approachs to the shore were obstructed by rocks and reefs; the sea grew steadily worse, and was eight o'clock when the first troops reached land. The operation turned out to be a night-long inferno. Many of the soldiers had to be lowered into the launches and longboats by ropes. The sea was covered with capsized boats, and the screams of the men could be heard above the noise of the waves; very few of the men could swim; everbody - soldiers, sailors, marines - was desperately seasick. Some of the boats took eight hours to row three miles. It seems a miracle tht only nineteen men were drowned; this, at least, is the figure given by Bonaparte" writes Herold of the exercise.

Be that as it may by three the next morning (July 2nd) under a bright moon Bonaparte marched on Alexandria with at least 5,000 men from the divisions of Kleber, Menou, and Bon.

"By eight in the morning, the French columns reached the outer fortifications of Alexandria". Bonaparte "ordered his troops to attack without rest."

"General Menou's division had taken position in the east, opposite the so-called Triangular Fort; Kleber's division, in the north, facing Pompey's Gate; General Bon in the west facing the Rosetta Gate. Although the walls were defective in many places, it was difficult to breach them without artillery. While the French were trying to scale them, the defenders pelted them with rocks and bullets." Both Generals Kleber and Menou were wounded in the fighting. French officers at the time led from the front. "This phase of the fighting was over very quickly; impetuous and thirsty, the French breached and scaled the fortifications in several places, while the defenders beat a hasty retreat to the city proper."

Some fighting, much of it involving civilians, took place in the city proper. But "[s]hortly before noon, a deputation appeared at Pompey's Pillar to surrender the city and swear an oath of obedience."

Desert Marchs

It took until July 5th to disembark all the troops, horses, and civilians. "Troops were still disembarking when, on July 3, Bonaparte ordered General Desaix's division to begin the march to Damanhur. Desaix's men, who were bivouacking just outside Alexandria, began their march at nightfall, followed on July 5 by Reynier's division. The other three divisions were to follow in the next two days - two them by way of Damanhur, the third by way of Rosetta; the entire army was to join at El Rahmaniya, on the left arm of the Nile Delta."

The division directed via Rosetta was Kleber's now commanded by Dugua since Kelber was wounded. Menou also being wounded his division was commanded by Vial.

After a rough sea trip, a rougher landing and little rest at Alexandria the march from Alexandria to Damanhur was an excruciating trial for the French troops. At that time the area was a virtual desert with very limited water available. It could be found in just a few widely spaced places with cisterns and wells. Most of the French troops had nothing to carry water in, no flasks, jugs or canteens. Their rations were dry biscuits. Desaix's troops reached their first water stop El Beydah at dawn on the 4th to find the two cisterns there had been filled by rocks and dirt by the Bedouin. The same Bedouin who were haunted their march route picking off stragglers.

Of Reyneier's division following behind Desaix's Herold writes: "[i]t was only at eight in the morning of July 6 that Reynier's troops came upon a cistern that Desaix's men had not managed to empty before them." This was El Karioun, the second of the four water stops on the way to Damanhur that Bonaparte's orders mention. (The four stops being El Baydah, El Karioun, Birket-Ghuytas, and El-Qerouy, Corr.: #2724)

Vial's (ex-Menou's) then Bon's divisions followed in Desaix's and Reynier's footsteps. "All four divisions reached Damanhur between July 6 and 9. On paper, their losses looked small: a few hundred men had died, committed suicide, or been killed by Bedouins". Morale was badly hurt though and Bonaparte had to quell an incipent mutiny at Damanhur.

In the meantime on July 6th Dugua had marched with Kleber's former division towards Rosetta along the coast taking Fort Akubir on the morning of July 7th. The French squadron of ships of the line under Admiral Brueys dropped anchor in Abukir Bay that afternoon. It assisted Dugua's troops in crossing a narrow channel between the sea and Lake Idku that blocked their way. The operation lasted the entire day. The division reached Rosetta around noon of July 8th. On July 10th they resumed their march down the bank of the left branch of the Nile.

On July 11th all five divisions of the French army met at El Rhamaniya on the Nile.

The Nile is Reached and Breached

"Already on July 10, Desaix's division had had a brush with a Mameluke detachment of about 300 horsemen under Mohammed Bey el-Elfi; the Mamelukes' undisciplined attack had been repulsed easily and without losses by the French artillery. Reassured by Desaix's report on the Mameluke's tactics, Bonaparte decided to meet Murad Bey at Shubra Khit."

He ordered his infantry divisions to march all night to reach Shubra Khit at daybreak July 13th. His river flotilla under Perree moved in parallel.

"As soon as the army halted before Shubra Khit, Bonaparte ordered each division to form a square, each side six ranks deep; in the centre of the squares he placed what little cavalry there was as well as the baggage trains; the artillery was placed at the corners of the squares."

Murad Bey had laughed when told Bonaparte had almost no cavalry, but on the morning of the 13th his horsemen circled and probed for a weak spot in the French formations and found none.

"Then, some time between eight and nine o'clock, the two flotillas came face to face on the Nile, and a cannonade began. Shortly afterwards, the Mameluke cavalry at last began to charge."

Still the French stood and whenever the Mamelukes came in range of their squares they drove them back with cannon and small-arms fire. The Mamelukes withdrew after an hour.

In the meantime the real battle had been taking place on the Nile.

The French under Perree had "three gunboats, a galley, and the chebek Le Cerf". The Eygptions had seven "Cairene gunboats".

At first the Eygptians aided by shore batteries and miltia on the banks of the Nile got the better of it. By 11:00 am Perree was requesting assistence from the land forces.

Finally the Le Cerf scored a lucky hit on the Mameluke flagship which blew up. The Mamelukes withdrew.

"The land troops had suffered no losses". Perree reported twenty men wounded. and several killed. This despite reports of extremely desparate fighting and the expenditure of large amounts of munitions.

As Herold reports: "Bonaparte had proved to his army that there was no cause to fear the Mamelukes, but he had let the Mamelukes escape." He blamed this on the need to assist the river flotilla.

A Battle in Sight of the Pyramids

Another four days of gruelling march commenced on the afternoon of the 13th. Bonaparte was determined not to give the Mamelukes, or his own troops, any breathing space.

The French army moved along to the west of the west bank of the Nile. It assembled at Wardan on July 18th where the troops were allowed two days of rest.

"The march continued, with much the same hardships, on the 20th."

The Army "arrived in the evening of July 20 at Omm-Dinar, a village near the point where the Nile branches out to form the Delta, about eighteen miles north of Cairo. It was there that Bonaparte received intelligence of the disposition of the Mameluke forces in defence of the capital. Murad Bey was awaiting the French on the left bank of the Nile, opposite Bulaq, at the village of Embaba, which he had fortified. Ibrahim Bey with the rest of the Mamelukes and the miltia was encamped at Bulaq, to head off the French in case they should arrive on the right bank. On the Nile itself, the Mameluke flotilla was awaiting the French."

"At two o'clock in the morning of July 21, the army was ordered to march on Embaba and to engage the Mamelukes in decisive battle. It reached its destination at 2 p.m., during the worst heat of the day. About one mile from the the French the Mameluke battle line was drawn up; behind it loomed the Great Pyramids" Cairo could be seen to the left. After hour's rest in which they foraged upon the local watermelons Bonaparte ordered his troops to attack.

Tactically this Battle of the Pyramids was a reprise of Shubra Khit. The French formed up into squares the Mamalukes could not penetrate. In consequences the battle was far different. This time the Mameluke cavalry charged home and took heavy losses doing so. This time the Mameluke infantry stood in the fortifications of Embaba where the French infantry wheeling left trapped them against the Nile and destroyed them.

Agreement on accurate numbers seems impossible for this battle. Herold gives 25,000 French facing 6,000 mounted Mamelukes supported by 10,000 to 12,000 foot soldiers. Chandler gives Murad Bey 6,000 Mamelukes and 12,000 fellahin for 18,000 total. He gives Imbrahim Bey 100,000 men which he calls a "horde" and a "multitude". The West Point Atlas gives the French 25,000 men opposed by 40,000 Egyptians "over half of whom would only be useful for mop up operations". Cole does not give a fixed total but a figure of 18,000 for the Ottoman regiments and 6,000 for Mamelukes elsewhere. He says the Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey divided their forces so perhaps 24,000 supposedly professional troops at the battle of the Pyramids supplemented by maybe 20,000 miltia. The general impression is that the French were outnumbered in terms of raw bodies but in turn had a definite advantage in actually trained and experienced troops. Along with their advantages in weaponary and tactics this was more than enough to decide the battle in their favor.

The French losses in the battle were minimal. Only 29 killed and 260 wounded according to Chandler. Again the numbers for the Mamelukes are uncertain but Murad Bey fled south with maybe 3,000 of his Mameluke cavalrymen. His infantry appears to have been annihilated. Ibrahim Bey despite enjoying a supposed numerical advantage in an entrenched position fled east. One suspects the miltia and conscripts with him decamped for their homes while only his Mamelukes and Ottoman troops remained with him.

The Battle of the Pyramids provided rich loot for the previously demoralized French troops and laid Egypt open to being occupied by them.

Not Just a Foreign Country to Conquer, A Whole Civilization

Despite their victory the French had significant work in front of them. A hostile unfamiliar country of four million is a lot for a small army of some 30,000 men far from home to hope to conquer.

Bonaparte took control of Cairo on July 24th. As he had all along he claimed to be in Egypt with the endorsement of the Sultan in Instanbul and to be a friend of the Muslim faith. This was not an "Eighth Crusade". The French attempted to make political and religious hay out of the humilations they'd imposed on the Pope in Italy and their disestablishment of the Catholic Church in France.

In the next few days he set up hospitals and bakeries as well as establishing the French adminstration of the city.

On the 26th Bonaparte ordered General Vial with a battalion to Damietta on the Eastern mouth of the Nile, and General Zajonchek to Menuf the capital of a province just the north of Cairo.

His orders for the organization of Egypt continued to issue forth on the 27th. General Desaix in Old Cairo was responsible for the province of Giza, Kleber for Alexandria and its province of Bahyreh, Menou for the province of Rosetta, and Murat for the province of Qelyoub.

Supplies not only for the army but the fleet were a major concern.

On July 30th Bonaparte wrote that the richest provinces of Egypt were under French control. The province of Menuf under Zajonchek, Qelyoub under Murat, Giza under Belliard, Mansourah and Damietta under Vial, and Bahyreh under Dumuy.

On the 31st he confirmed all the property rights of landowners in Egypt, all the pious Muslim foundations were confirmed, and that all the administration of justice and civil affairs would continue as before. Bonaparte did not want to rock the boat by rapid unsettling change. He wanted to continue to milk Egypt as the Mamelukes had but more efficiently.

On the 1st of August he gave orders to form a party to pursue Ibrahim Bey's force. It was to operate along a line through Bilbeys.

Dealing with Ibrahim Bey

Ibrahim Bey had fled east from Cairo. He "and his 2,000 cavalrymen had taken control of the adjacent province Sharqiya province, with its capital at Belbeis".

On August 1st Bonaparte ordered General Leclerc to take his cavalry brigade plus the mounted troops of the 15th Dragoons, three companies of grenadiers, a battalion from the the 9th demi-brigade of Reynier's division, and two pieces of artillery and march on Belbeys( Belbeis). Leclerc did so the next day, the 2nd of August.

Additional orders went out to achieve the pacification of other provinces and cities including ones such as El Raymanyeh and Damanhur that the army had already passed through but which in the absence of sufficient garrisons had rebelled.

In the meantime Leclerc's force had reached "al-Khanqa, a village nine miles from Bilbeis on the route to Syria. They took the town, initially with little resistance, on 4 August." Ibrahim Bey counter attacked the next morning.

At first the French fought off the cavalrymen's attacks inflicting heavy casualties but then the townspeople revolted and the French had to withdraw to their camp plagued by clouds of Bedouin.

On August the 5th Bonaparte ordered General Reynier with the balance of his division to march on El-Khanqah (his spelling for al-Khanqa) and relieve Leclerc. He also issued orders for the setting up of a supply base there.

The 6th saw Bonaparte issuing orders to reinforcements to Reynier, a division under Lannes and several other piecemeal reinforcements. The French seemed to have been spread thin and there was much shuffling to concentrate an effective force at al-Khanqa (Kanka on the map).

Reynier took al-Khanqa against what seems to have been minmal resistance from armed locals.

By the 8th of August Bonaparte was at "El-Khanqah" himself issuing orders for an advance on Belbeys.

In the event Belbeys fell without a shot being fired.

By the 10th of August Bonaparte had reached "Koraym" (a.k.a. al-Quryan or Korein) on the other side of Belbeis (Belbeys) on the route to Syria.

The 12th of August saw Bonaparte in "Salheyeh" (a.k.a. Es Saliya) where an action against Ibrahim Bey was fought. This was the last town in the well inhabited part of Egypt before the Sinai desert.

The result of the battle can be variously seen as the French ejecting Ibrahim Bey from Egypt or Ibrahim Bey successfully standing off the French and escaping to Syria.

Sources conflict but each side seems to have lost about a hundred men.

Nelson's a Genius Too

"Indeed, to any enemy other than Nelson and his team, Bruey's position at Abukir would have seemed unassailable."

Nelson after leaving Alexandria on the 29th of June was a loss as to where the French expedition had gone. He thought perhaps Syria but failed to find it. His orders were to at all costs to prevent it escaping to the west. To this end he beat west arriving at Syracuse on Sicily on July 19th where he stayed several days to water and re-victual. He found no positive report of the location of the French fleet there and concluded it must still be to the east.

On the 28th of July the Turkish governor of Coron reported to Captain Troubridge of the Culloden who'd been dispatched there that the French fleet had been seen four weeks ago off of Candia steering south-east towards Egypt.

Nelson's fleet made sail for Alexandria.

"On the 1st of August, at 10 a.m., the towers or minarets of Alexandria, the Pharos, and Pompeys's Pillar, made their welcome appearance". It was immediately apparent the French fleet or at least its transports was present at Alexandria. "[T]he Zealous, a little before 1 p.m., just as the Pharos tower bore from her south-south-west, distant four or five leagues, signalled that 17 ships of war, 13 or 14 of them formed in line of battle, lay at anchor in a bay on her larboard bow."

Nelson had found Admiral Bruey's French squadron. Anchored in what the French believed to be an impregnable position in Akubir Bay.

The French had held off British squadrons using similar tactics in previous years.

Against anyone other than Nelson, commanding a squadron as well trained as his, they might have been in a strong position.

In the event without hesitation Nelson sent half his force between the French forces and the shore. So close that one ship actually went aground. He caught the van (that part of its line to the north-west) of the French fleet between two fires from both sides and destroyed them. The wind being adverse and many sailors being ashore the French ships to the south-east were unable to intervene until the English were ready to deal with them in their turn. Only three ships of the line from the very south-east rear portion of the line managed to escape and one of those ran aground.

Only two ships of the line and a frigate got away for the time being. It hadn't been just a victory it been, most unusually, a battle of annihilation. Eleven out of thirteen French ships of the line had been destroyed or captured.

English dominance in the Mediterranean had been restored leaving Bonaparte and his army in Egypt isolated.

"The news of Abukir was brought to Bonaparte on August 13 near Es Saliya, a town at the edge of the Sinai Desert, where he had gone in pursuit of Ibrahim Bey. Ibrahim Bey with his followers had escaped into Syria, and Bonaparte, leaving the occupation of the north-eastern provinces in the hands of his generals, was on his way back to Cairo."


Bonaparte took the news of the defeat at Abukir Bay in stride, but not only did it practically weaken his position in Egypt by cutting him off from support from France, it had immense adverse political impact throughout Europe and the Middle East. It reinvigorated the Second Coalition, but worst of all it decided the Ottoman Turks under their Sultan to throw in with the English rather than condoning his invasion of their wayward province.

It would be wrong, however, to believe Nelson's victory, stunning and as complete as it was, to have rendered Bonaparte's own successes in Egypt completely moot. The Napoleonic mule still had a lot of kick left in it.

The first part of the story was over, but in the next year Bonaparte would lead an expedition into Syria whose defeat was anything but automatic.

Even after Bonaparte had departed the scene the re-claiming of Egypt was a hard fought effort requiring the committment of substantial resources on the part of the British and Turks, and indirectly on the part of the Russians too.

One of the most surprising outcomes of the efforts of both Bonaparte and Nelson was that for time the Turks and the Russians, those old enemies, fought on the same side.

Bonaparte may not have achieved what he wanted in Egypt but he did change the world.



Main References

Some Notes on Names

As is to be expected when dealing with sources that were originally in multiple different languages, written over a period of a couple of hundred years, and which in many cases are natively in a non-Latin alphabet names are often represented in varient forms.

Both place names such as:

And personal names such as:

Blog Table of Contents