Bonaparte in Egypt and Syria, 1798-1799

Napoleon Bonaparte's Army secures Eygpt and attacks Syria.

A map showing lower Egypt and Syria up to Beriut.


It is August 1798. Bonaparte has defeated the organized resistance against him in Egypt at the Battle of the Pyramids. He holds Alexandria, Cairo and its surroundings, Rosetta, Damietta, and a string of outposts leading from Cairo out towards the Sinai desert. Ibrahim Bey fled that way with half the remaining Mamulukes, maybe a couple of thousand cavalry. Murad Bey remains in Upper Egypt with a core following of a similar number of men. He provides a seed of resistance for local forces and volunteers from as far away as Mecca to rally around.

Bonaparte's remaining tasks are to properly secure the territory of Lower Egypt, defeat Murad Bey in Upper Egypt, and to deal with any counter attacks. These counter attacks might be by the British. Bonaparte hopes they won't be by the Ottomans. He still hopes Tallyrand is in Istanbul talking the Sultan into accepting the French presense in Egypt.

All of this is complicated by Nelson's overwhelming victory over the French fleet at Abu Qir Bay. What Nelson has called, with a poetic touch for PR rivaling Bonaparte's own, the "Battle of the Nile".

Not only has the defeat of their fleet thrown the French in Egypt back on their own resources it has given heart to local resistence and tilted Istanbul towards joining the British and Russians in the fight against the French Republic.

The French Forces under Bonaparte

The loss or reassignment of divisional and brigadier generals resulted in a French command structure in mid-August that was somewhat different than what it had been at the beginning of July when they landed at Alexandria.

Additionally the French no longer needed to keep their army concentrated having defeated the main forces of the Mamelukes. They did need to disperse in order to assert their control over the country and collect "contributions". Contributions being both local looting to meet the immediate needs of army units and taxes, more or less legitimate in form, intended to provide money for the army overall.

French Army organization from late July through early August.

As you would imagine the "divisions" were greatly reduced from their initial size of about 5,000 men each to two thirds or half of that by detachments for garrisons, etc.. Desaix was sent to conquer upper Egypt with less than 3,000 men in late August. Bonaparte tried to make up his lack of men in various manners including the recruitment of sailors and locals.

In addition to the more or less permenant garrisons and divisions a number of battalion sized forces seem to have been dispatched in early August to pacify at least the capitals of provinces close to Cairo.

French army organization as of August 22nd 1798 as detailed in Corr. #3086. Note normally demi-brigades would have three battalions but in most cases detachments have been made. Also note the piecemeal parcelling out of cavalry and artillery.

For clarity's sake "Light" units are light infantry demi-brigades a.k.a. regiments, "Battle" unts are line or battle demi-brigades. The dragoons, chasseurs, and hussars are cavalry units.

The Ottomans

The "Ottomans" were anything but a single cohesive and homogeneous force. There was a core force of Mamelukes under Murad Bey in the provinces to the immediate south of Cairo. Murad Bey was attempting to levy taxes there. He was also trying to strengthen himself with local militias, bedouin allies, and volunteers from far and wide. The volunteers increasingly included men from the Mecca region of Arabia who would cross the Red Sea and enter Egypt through the port of Kosseir.

In the delta a variety of local forces bolstered by Bedouin tribesmen, and swamp fishermen, resisted French occupation and it was months before all the "revolts" were put down. The swamps and lakes south east of Damietta and in the area of the Mansura and El Manzala proved particularily resistent to French control. An initial French garrision of a little over a hundred men at Mansura proved insufficent and was massacred.

The Mamelukes and Jannisaries under Ibrahim Bey who'd fled to Syria appear to have been essentially absorbed into the overall Ottoman forces in that province. These forces would in a month be placed under the formal control of Djezzar Pasha based at Acre who also commanded considerable infantry and cavalry of his own. At some point El Arish and Jaffa were both garrisoned. Apparently a fact that proved a surprise to the French under Bonaparte. The pasha of Damascus was raising a large force (tens of thousands) of cavalry and infantry both.

The Turks also had a naval squadron working with the British to blockade the Egyptian coast. The pasha in Rhodes had considerable forces which were available for a maritime assault on Egypt. It would be a month or two before the orders were given for this and longer before the forces actually appeared.

The eventual Ottoman plan was a two pronged invasion. One prong the seabourne invasion under the Pasha of Rhodes. The second prong a strong land force under the Djezzar Pasha from Syria.

In mid-August the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul was still uncertain as to what had happened in Egypt and deciding what to do, but the plan was an obvious one once the Sultan had decided to go to war.

It was anticipated by Bonaparte.

The French Army in Egypt on Its Own

Nelson's victory of the 1st of August 1798 at Abukir Bay did not just cut the French army in Egypt off from France and lead to the Second Coalition of which the Ottoman Empire was a paid up member, it also more immediately imperiled the army's communications.

Without control of the countryside and before the autumn floods made most canals and even the Nile itself fully useable the main French line of communications ran partly along the Egyptian coast. From Alexandria to Rosseta, and on to Damietta both of which lay on a major channel of the Nile leading to Cairo.

At one point even water was being shipped along the coast from Rosetta to Alexandria. Substantial provisions in the form of agricultural products both for the garrison and to pay merchants in Alexandria in kind if specie could not be found needed to be moved from the area of Cairo through Rosetta to Alexandria where the French transports were still located. In the other direction the army's baggage and much of its artillery and supplies had left at Alexandria and needed to be moved to Cairo.

The squadron Nelson left behind under Admiral Hood made this difficult.

As dire as the French loss at "The Battle of the Nile" was it took time for the full impact to play out. The most immediate result was a blow to French morale.

Bonaparte's cold blooded, indeed semi-delusional and often dishonest, reponse to the naval disaster makes sense in this context.

Bonaparte quite explicitly believed Fortune to be fickle.

His policy was to wait on her and seize his chances when they appeared. He was not the sort to fold or concede the game until it had been played to the end.

The man believed you could never be sure if something would work until you tried it. In the end this may not have worked out for him, or those that followed him, but he did have his successes.

The policies detailed below that he followed in Egypt and Syria were not quite as delusional or irrational as they might seem.

An issue of timing and of uncertain communication channels should also be noted. They didn't have radio in 1798. Messages and letters often tooks weeks to arrive and did so uncertainly. Bonaparte didn't hear about Aboukir Bay until almost two weeks afterwards. Two weeks that he spent chasing Ibrahim Bey out of Egypt and securing the easternmost delta provinces. Likely one factor in Ibrahim Bey's refusal to come to terms to him was that he'd heard about the French naval defeat before Bonaparte.

Securing the Delta

Map Showing Lower Egypt

A map showing Egyptian delta.

Bonaparte's first problem was that although he'd defeated the main organized forces opposing him decisively his army did not actually control much more than the ground it was directly standing upon.

He was still busy during the last week of July securing Cairo and its immediate surroundings.

As his fleet was being destroyed without his knowledge he was sending detachments, usually consisting of a little cavalry and some artillery and the third battalion of one of his divisional demi-brigades, to nearby provincial capitals.

General Vial with a battalion was one of the first detachments. He was sent to secure Damietta. The order for this (Corr. #2842) was given on the 25th of July. The massacre of a company sized detachment dropped off at Mansura by Vial was one of the first hints that the pacification of the Delta would require some work.

General Dupuy was made governor of Cairo. He received several detached battalions to handle this vital chore. Artillery was placed in the citadel to control the city.

Substantial garrisons had already been left in Alexandria and Rosetta under Kleber and Menou respectively.

General Zajonchek was ordered to Minuf north of Cairo on July 26th. (Corr: #2845)

On July 27th Desaix was asked to pass on orders for General Billiard to organize Gizah province on the west bank of the Nile opposite Cairo. (Corr: #2854)

Apparently not all Bonaparte's orders were in writing but on the same day of the 27th Murat is mentioned as responsible for the government of Qelyoub immediately north of Cairo and south of Minuf. (Corr: #2857) We know he later had one of the detached battalions he likely had it from the beginning.

On July 28th we see Bonaparte appointing intendants for a number of provinces. Mansura, Giza, Minuf, Bahyreh, Qelyoub, and Atyfeh likely all those that he had some hope of raising taxes or contributions in without significant resistance. (Corr.: #2868) See map at end of post for approximate locations of these provinces. Note they are all in the immediate proximity of either Cairo or the route of the march from Alexandria. These provinces provide the maximum extent of actual French control of Egypt at the time of the "Battle of the Nile" on August 1st.

Correspondance of the 30th of July confirms this organization and provides the information that as well as Vial commanding in Mansura and Damietta, Kleber in Alexandria, Menou in Rosetta, Balliard in Gizeh, Murat in Qelyoub, Zajohchek in Minuf that General Dumuy commanded in Bahyreh which would be essentially the area around Damanhur and Rahmaniya. (Corr.: #2892)

On August 1st while unbeknowest to Bonaparte his fleet was being destroyed he ordered General Leclerc to form a force to see off Ibrahim Bey who was operating to the immediate north east of Cairo in the area of Belbeys capital of Charqyeh province. (Corr.: #2911)

The 1st of August also sees General Rampon ordered south with a battalion to the northernmost provice of middle Egypt, Atfyeh. This is the province immediately on the Nile above Cairo. (Corr.: #2913) Bonaparte is expanding his reach as quickly as he dares.

That same day he orders reinforcements (the third battalion of the 61st under General Bribes) for General Dumuy who is apparently having trouble holding the lines of communications to Alexandria open. (Corr.: #2915 )

On August 3rd General Fugiere was ordered to take the third battalion of the 18th Battle demi-brigade via Qelyoub and Minuf to Mahallett-el-Kyber the capital of Gharbyeh provice and to take command of that province. (Corr.: #2959)

This city is only a march or two (as the crow flies) south west of Mansura and basically its province of Gharbyeh encompasses the central part of the delta.

On August 5th General Reynier is ordered to take his division and go to the assistence of LeClerc who is having trouble at the town of El-Khanqah (Kanka) not far to the north east of Cairo on the road to Belbeys and Es Saliya. (Corr.: #2975)

On August the 6th General Lannes and his division are added to the forces assembling at El-Khanqah. He is not alone Murat with two battalions is also ordered there. Detailed orders for adequate supply in the expectation of heavy fighting are made. It appears Bonaparte is anticipating a pitched battle with forces under Ibrahim Bey.(Corr.: #2986)

On August the 7th Bonaparte acknowledges a report by General Rampon that he has arrived at Atfyeh. (Corr.: #2998)

On the 8th of August Bonaparte is at El-Khanqah in person ordering Reynier to move on Belbeys. (Corr.: #3002)

By the 10th Bonaparte has passed through Belbeys, where he encountered a caravan on its way to Cairo, and is at Koraym (Korein).

The 12th and 13th of August finds him at Salheyeh (Es Saliya) where he pushes Ibrahim Bey out of Egypt and forces him to retreat Syria in a sharp little engagement. The 13th in particular sees him issuing a series of orders re-confirming the various commands or governerships of lower Egypt along the lines already detailed. He does have Reynier stationed in Salheyeh which is the last part of the delta before the desert that stretches to Syria. Salheyeh is fortified and garrisoned but Reynier's HQ seems to have later been at Belbeys. Perhaps with the news of the "Battle of the Nile" which Bonaparte received this day, and a greater than expected resistence to French occupation Bonaparte decided to play it a bit safer. (Corr.: #3004 - 3014)

In summary as of the 13th of August:

Gharbyeh Mehallet-el-Kebyr Fugiere
MenoufMenouf Zajonchek
Charqyeh Salheyeh Reynier
Qelyoub Qelyoub Murat
Mansourah & Damiette Damiette Vial
Mansourah & Damiette Mansourah Dugua (under Vial)

In addition to the bulk of the army at Cairo (Dupuy governer), Kleber was at Alexandria, Bribes at El-Rahmanyeh, and Rampon at Atfyeh.

This appears to be the settled organization of lower Egypt until at least December and the expedition to Syria. Some hard fighting remained to make all the country's inhabitants accept it especially in the north-east around Mansourah and Damietta.

On the 18th of August Bonaparte found it necessary to order General Marmont with the 4th Light demi-brigade and a piece of artillery up to Rosetta in order to secure communications with Alexandria. He also was apparently concerned with the possibility of an English attack on the coast in the area. (Corr.: #3039-3042)

Bonaparte originally gave orders to Berthier to prepare Desaix's division for a movement into Beni Suef province just up the Nile from Atfyeh province on August the 16th. (Corr.: #3029) He added Fayoum province consisting of the great oasis of the same name as a goal on August the 22nd. (Corr.: #3071). Desaix actually marched on the night of the 25th.

It makes sense to assume he would not have sent Desaix up the Nile had he not believed the preliminary occupation of the Delta was complete.

Securing Upper Egypt

Map Showing upper Egypt

A map showing Egypt up to Aswan.

On the 16th of August (Corr. #3027) Bonaparte organized Desaix's division tasked with the conquest of upper Egypt as follows:

Substantial rations and the means to construct ovens were provided. Pilots for a voyage as far as Beni-Soueyf and Minyet were to be embarked.

Dessaix was ordered to take possession of the province of Beni-Soueyf (Beni-Suef).

The expedition seems to have delayed because Perree's boats were needed to convey a detachment to Rahmanyeh and Rosetta under Marmont tasked with restoring communications via those locations to Alexandria from Cairo.

On the 22nd of August (Corr. #3071) the "organization" of the provice of Fayoum (El-Faiyum) was added to Desaix's tasks.

In the event Desaix with some 2,861 infantry and 2 guns set out from Giza on the night of the 25th and 26th of August.

Mostly his forces stayed with their boats. He did not leave garrisons. Conquering upper Egypt was desirable, denying taxes and troops to Murad Bey was critical.

When he did leave his boats to try and engage Murad Bey the most he could force was a skirmish at Bahnasa (once Oxyrynchus). Murad Bey decamping from there for Faiyum province, the huge Western Desert oasis irrigated by the Bahr Yusuf (Joseph's canal) an alternate channel of the Nile.

Not caring to be separated from his boats which carried his supplies Desaix ascended the Nile to Dairut where Joseph's canal separates from the main channel. His flotilla entered the canal there on September 24th, by October 1st he was back at Bahnasa via the canal. He regained contact with Murad Bey's Mamelukes on October 3rd and on October 7th met them in the battle of Sediman (a.k.a. El Lahun).

Once again the Mamelukes were the small elite cavalry core of an army filled out with Bedouin irregulars and poorly trained and equipped milita infantrymen.

Once again the Mamelukes had no answer to the inpenetrable French square formation, or the superior French artillery. An attempted artillery ambush misfired.

The Mamelukes had four to five thousand cavalrymen of which they lost maybe 400 men. The French losses were about 44 killed and 100 wounded.

Not much more than a skirmish in intensity this battle led Murad Bey to abandon the provinces of Faiyum and Beni Suef and flee south.

After marching through Faiyum province Desaix evacuated it and was back with his division at Beni Suef by November 20th 1798.

Thus terminated the first part of Desaix's campaign. He'd eliminated Murad Bey's immediate threat but his men needed rest, and his force reorganization. Leaving his men at Beni Suef Desaix himself returned to Cairo.

On December 9th 1798 Desaix rejoined his army at Beni Suef. Eight hundred replacements as well as vitally needed supplies had proceeded him. One of the newcomers was General Billiard who took over the 21st Light demi-brigade. He was to prove an important aid to Desaix being capable of independent command. December 10th saw the arrival of General Davout with 1,000 cavalrymen.

On December 16th Desaix's division marched. They marched hard doing twenty-five to thirty miles a day. They reached Asyut on Christmas Day. Murad Bey eluded them there but they did catch his river flotilla. Desaix's forces pushed on to Girga. Murad Bey continued to flee in front of them always remaining a day ahead.

The French remained three weeks at Girga waiting for their flotilla delayed by adverse winds to catch up. Murad Bey built up an army at Hiw, thirty-five miles to the south. It consisted of 11,000 cavalry, 1,500 of them Mamelukes, and 3,000 infantry. He persuaded an old enemy, Hassan Pasha of Isna, to join him with an additional 400 Mamelukes. Murad Bey called for and received volunteers many from the Hejaz, the area around Mecca, who arrived via the red sea port of Kosseir.

Desaix's flotilla under Guichard caught up with him on January 19th 1799. The next day Desaix marched. On January 22nd 1799 he met Murad Bey in battle at Samhud.

Desaix had 3,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. Murad Bey had 2,000 Mamelukes, 7,000 mounted Arabs, and 5,000 thousand foot, 2,000 of of them 'Meccan' volunteers. Desaix was outnumbered 9 to 1 in cavalry and almost 2 to 1 in infantry. As usual he had better artillery, better infantry, and much better tactics.

As Herold reports "The battle went as usual". Desaix formed two infantry squares instead of just one. The Mamelukes probed but could not penetrate them. The Muslim infantry was slaughtered, the Meccans in particular. The Mamelukes retreated at speed.

The French lost one hussar and had some wounded.

The exact Mameluke losses in battle are unclear, but they began to desert. "Murad and his men were destroyed by hunger and want." The French might be unable to assert solid control over upper Egypt but they could deny its resources and any rest to the Mamelukes.

Marching south the French reached the ancient ruins of Thebes, Luxor, and Karnak on January 27th. On February 2nd they reached Aswan.

On February 4th, leaving General Belliard with the 21st Light demi-brigade at Aswan, Desaix marched back north with his other two demi-brigades and cavalry. He reached Asyut on March 9th. From there he wrote Bonaparte complaining of lack of support, pay, shoes and other supplies.

On the night of February 24th to 25th Belliard abandoned Aswan and moved north. He'd heard Murad Bey planned to move on Asyut and cut him off.

On March 8th 1798 Belliard's 1,000 men met 350 Mamelukes and 3,000 Meccan infantry at Abnud. Belliard had one light gun. The Mamelukes had several unmounted guns. Three days of desperate battle ensued. The Mameluke cavalry still couldn't penetrate a French infantry square but the close quarters fighting in the village of Abnud itself was vicious.

Sixty of Belliard's Frenchmen were killed, as many wounded. The Meccan infantry lost hundreds of men killed, a mininum of three hundred killed it would appear. The French held Abnud at the end of the battle and do not appear to have left any Meccan wounded alive.

In the meantime just a march or two to the north in the vicinity of Qena Desaix's flotilla was engaged with some 2,000 other Meccan infantry. They took the L'Italie with some 200 marines, 500 wounded and the band of the 61st demi-brigade aboard it. The Meccans massacred them.

Desaix himself was at Asyut on March 8th. Murad Bey had raised the fellahin there in revolt. Desaix drove Murad Bey's cavalry off and butchered the fellahin.

Murat Bey's forces split. He himself went to Kharga oasis. Hussan Bey feld south to Qena. A force of additional Meccans was somewhere between Qena and Kosseir.

Desaix followed the second group south back down the Nile.

Revolt flared in his rear. On April 5th he dispatched Davout and his cavalry back north to handle it. On May 1st Davout "put 2,000 embattled fellahin to the sword at Beni Adi. French losses: eight men".

Belliard and his force in the meantime marched and counter-marched between Aswan and Qena putting out fires.

On May the 26th Belliard left Qena for Kosseir with 350 camel mounted infantry, 400 supply camels, one gun and an escort of 60 Arabs. They occupied Kossir on May 29th.

"Leaving about two thirds of his men behind to garrison Kosseir and to fortify its harbour, Belliard left on June 1 and, three days later, was back at Qena."

The capture and garrisoning of Kosseir was the turning point. It cut off the supply of Meccan reinforcements. The French rule in upper Egypt might not be solid or secure, but from that point on they had the upper hand.

It had taken nine months of constant marching and counter marching in harsh conditions and over long distance against opponents always more numerous and mobile but finally the French could claim they'd conquered upper Egypt.

Festivities in Cairo

That the preliminary occupation of lower Egypt, the delta and the area about Cairo, was complete by late August 1798 does not mean the French held it securely or that they would not face further resistance. Furthermore Bonaparte needed more than sullen acceptance, he needed co-operation, without further resources from France everything he needed would have to be procured in country. He needed money to pay his troops, food for them, horses and fodder for them, and a great variety of other items.

Bonaparte at least wanted co-operation from as much of the native occupents of Egypt as he could obtain. He went to great lengths to get it.

August and September 1798 saw three great festivals in Egypt. These celebrated the birth of Mohammad, the return of the life giving waters of the Nile, and the French Revolutionary New Year.

The birth of Mohammad fell on August the 23rd in the Gregorian calendar for 1798. Festivities began three days earlier on the 20th. In the absence of traditional support for the holiday from the elites of Cairo Bonaparte funded them himself.

He was determined to normalize the French occupation, even to make it seem a beneficent event.

French troops paraded and their bands played on the day of the birthday itself.

As Cole reports "In all these steps, Bonaparte was playing the role of a Muslim sultan, honoring the progeny of the Prophet, and they in turn pledged to support the status quo and employ their religious aura to mediate desputes between ruler and ruled."

Results were mixed, and difficult to nail down, but it is notable Bonaparte made the effort and it likely softened resistance to his rule to some degree.

A more purely Egyptian holiday was the Festival of the Nile held on the 28th of August. It appealed in particular to the large non-Muslim minorities and common people of Egypt and dated back to the time of the Pharaohs.

Once again Bonaparte had his bands play, and took the traditional place of Egyptian rulers in the celebrations of the event.

All is well and we respect your traditions was his message to the people. He wanted to sooth not aggrevate them.

September the 22nd 1798 on the old Gregorian calendar was the New Year on the French Revolutionary one. Consol Bonaparte's return to the old calendar was still several years in the future.

It was the 1st of Vendemiarire, the windy month, year 7 of the Revolution on the new French calendar. Bonaparte ordered that "The Festival of the Republic" be celebrated in all of Egypt.

He sought to impress the Egyptians with the splendor and strength of his army and the Republic.

Once again decorations were hung and bands played. Cannons saluted, and troops paraded.

It seems perhaps that Bonaparte was seeking to bolster the morale of his troops as well as to impress the Egyptians and that he failed to fully suceed in either goal.

Whatever the exact effect of all the flim flamery that Bonaparte took the trouble of performing it in the midst of a busy campaign to fully pacify the country indicates he believed political symbolism and rituals to be important in his efforts to control Egypt.

It is hard to not believe in that much at least he was correct.

The Ottoman Sultan declares War

It is clear that in one respect the French, and Bonaparte in particular, erred.

Thinking in terms of purely secular power politics they believed that the Ottoman Sultan might accept, even condone, their invasion of Egypt.

The French Directory failed to fully support Bonaparte diplomatically. In particular Tallyrand, who was at least the co-sponser of the Egyptian expedition and who had promised to go in person to Istanbul to press the French case, failed to do so. One wonders if he ever had any intention of making the trip.

Also Nelson's smashing victory at Aboukir Bay certainly did not help.

Most of all though the Sultan was not a purely secular leader. He was not free to ignore the outrage of his Muslim subjects at the invasion of a Muslim country by what they still saw as a Christian country. They certainly could not accept Christian, or indeed non-Muslim rule, over a Muslim country.

The Sultan's imprisonment of French agents and merchants in the Ottoman Empire may of actually been the protective custody he claimed it was. The people were incensed.

On the 12th of September the Sultan formally declared war on the French Republic.

Holy war as well as conventional war.

It took the news time to penetrate into Egypt but Bonaparte could no longer credibly claim he was occupying the country on the Sultan's behalf.

Militarily volunteers flocked in from the area of Mecca. The Empire gathered more formal forces in both the Aegean and Syria poised for a two prong counter assault on Egypt, one by sea, the other by land.

Cario Revolts

Bonaparte seems to have been in real as well as formal denial about his support among the Muslim people of Egypt.

On the morning of October 21st a massive revolt of Cairo caught him off guard.

Dupuy the governer of the city was caught and killed, as well as one of Bonaparte's own aide de camps and many other surprised and unfortunate Frenchmen.

If the entire city had risen or the revolt had been better organized the French might have suffered worse than the loss of a number of isolated groups and individuals and a very bad scare.

As it was, however, after an initial period of confusion the French organized themselves, calling in troops from outside the city to methodically reduce the parts of the city in revolt. Artillery mounted in the citadel did murderous work.

It was the bombardment of the crowds in the Grand Mosque that lead the last hold outs to surrender late on Monday the 22nd. Hundreds of Frenchmen (Bonaparte claimed 21, but other accounts claim 250 to 800) and thousands of insurgents had died.

By the morning of Tuesday the 23rd the execution of captured prisoners and suspected ringleaders had begun. Thousands more of the insurgents died in the coming days.

Most of the executions occured in secret. In public Bonaparte made a point of clemency. He still needed the nominal support of the Muslim elites, some of whom had in fact had remained loyal.

In practise from this point on Bonaparte appears to have relied less on the Muslim population for support, both the elites and common people, and more on minority groups such as the Copts and Greeks.

A Preemptive Strike into Syria

It was not Bonaparte's way to surrender the initiative to his opponents.

Having tamped down unrest in lower Egypt and sent Desaix to keep Murad Bey busy in upper Egypt, Bonaparte began in early December 1798 to prepare for an attack into Syria. (Corr:. #3738, #3754, #3792, #3794-3797 ) The Ottoman forces there were commanded by Djezzar "The Butcher" Pasha.

On December 23rd 1798 he ordered a reconnaisance of the eastern desert fringes of Egypt up to Katiya (a.k.a. Qatyeh). (Corr.: #3792 )

Over Christmas he finally took the time to personally secure the Red Sea port of Suez and thereby the rich trade through it.

On the 5th of January 1799 Bonaparte ordered several battalions to Katiya which he'd had fortified and supplied the month before. It was to be the staging post for his attack into Syria. (Corr.#3809, #3829, #3848)

In all Bonaparte assigned four of his five whittled down divisions to the attack on Syria. Those commanded by Kleber, Reynier, Bons and Lannes. Each division with about 2,500 men for about 10,000 infantry. Eight hundred cavalry under Murat, 1,755 sappers and artillerymen, 400 mounted Guides, and the 80 men of his new camel corps brought his total strength up to about 13,000. Not an overwhelming force.

Neither did they all move in a single mass under Bonaparte's direct control at first.

Bonaparte delegated the initial stages of the expedition to Kleber (Marmont had been ordered to relieve Kleber as commander of Alexandria at the end of November. Corr.:#3685)

On January 18th 1799 Bonaparte wrote the commander of the advance guard (under Reynier) at Katiya, Brigadier General Lagrange, that General Kleber was leaving Cairo for Damietta. Kleber was to ensure that that Lagrange's brigade, the spear tip of the expedition, was properly supplied. (Corr.: #3876)

On January 21st Bonaparte wrote Kleber now at Damietta detailed instructions both regards logistics and the movements of his division. (Corr.: #3886)

Kleber was to depart Damietta on the 12th of Pluvoise (the 1st of February) with two battalions of the 25th demi-brigade and three of the 2nd Light demi-brigade. They should arrive in Katiya on the 16th or 17th of Pluvoise (the 4th or 5th of February).

Lagrange was already at Katiya with his brigade consisting of the 75th and 85th demi-brigades.

On January 27th of 1799 Bonaparte directed Berthier to order General Reynier then at Bilbeys to leave on the 12th of Pluvoise (31st of January) for Katyia. He was to take the 9th demi-brigade, his staff, and his divisional artillery with him. He was to arrive on the 16th of Pluvoise (4th of February). (Corr.#3906)

On the same day he ordered his chief of Engineers, General Caffarelli, to leave Kaytia on the 5th of February for El Arish. He was to take at least 250 sappers and their equimpment in order to build proper fortifications there. That there were already adequate fortifications at El Arish proved an unpleasant surprise to the French. (Corr.: #3907)

Their advance guard under General Lagrange consisted of only 1,500 men. (Corr.: #3927) Bonaparte was not expecting significant resistance at El Arish. He had hopes of being at Gaza further on as early as February the 8th, although he did allow it could take until the 18th. (Corr.: #3911) He was not intending to be present himself during these preliminaries. General Kleber was in overall command. (Corr.: #3927)

Bonaparte (still in Cairo) directed Berthier to give the orders kicking off the campaign on the 31st of January. (Corr.: #3927, #3928) Reynier was to march with the 9th, 85th, and 75th demi-brigades, his staff, and his artillery on February the 5th. His object was El Arish.

In the event Reynier's advance guard under Lagrange set off on the 6th of February and by the 8th they'd reached El Arish where they found not only a well garrisoned fort, but an large encampment of Mamelukes and the village of El Arish itself. Reynier stormed the village on the 9th. The fort continued to hold out. It was garrisoned with 1,500 men and was well supplied.

Bonaparte himself left Cairo shortly afterwards. On February the 11th he was in Belbeys, on the 12th in Salheyeh, on the 13th he was in Katiya. (Corr.: #3954, #3957, #3958)

Kleber was a little ahead of him arriving in El Arish on the 11th of February, his artillery made it there on the 14th.

None too soon as he and Reynier needed to beat off a relief attempt of from Gaza. Something they accomplished brilliantly with a night attack on the Ottoman encampment. Estimates of the number of men in the encampment vary from 1,800 to 8,000.

The divisions of Bon and Lannes were on the march along the same route that Bonaparte took; Korein, Salheyeh, Katiya, and finally El Arish. (Corr.: #3954, #3960, #3967 )

On February 17th Bonaparte rode into El Arish to find the fort there still untaken. He was not happy.

Perhaps if he'd been there earlier the fort would have fallen already but that is not clear. What is clear is that Bonaparte, perhaps understandably, erred uncharacteristically on at least two points.

One, he did not expect significant resistance at El Arish and instead of concentrating maximum force there he attempted to stage relatively small forces through the place with the aim of not overstretching his logistics. The area was barren it could not support any significant force for any length of time out of local resources. Ironically the Ottoman garrison was apparently being supplied from Egypt despite the supposed French occupation.

Two, he left the opening stage of operations to his less bold and more methodical subordinates. Instead he remained in Cairo attending to governmental issues and making sure of the Delta. He didn't leave for El Arish until well after the operation started.

Bonaparte violated his own precepts that time was priceless and the ruthless prioritization of objectives critical.

In the event after a couple of days of combined artillery bombardment and bad faith bargaining El Arish capitulated on the 19th. (the WPA says 20th, but Chandler and Herold the 19th).

Chandler's take on this (p.236) is worth quoting "El Arish cost Bonaparte eleven invaluable days, a delay which compromised the success of the entire campaign."

On the 23rd the French crossed over the border into Syria. On the 24th they took Gaza against little resistence. Beyond this point they were moving into territory that was less barren though their resources remained constrained.

They reached Jaffa on the 3rd of March. Jaffa was not to surrender without a fight. They assaulted it on the 7th. The assault was a success, but several thousand hold outs in the citedal surrendered themselves to a pair of junior officers, including Bonaparte's step son, who took it upon themselves to offer generous terms in his name. Bonaparte reneged on the deal and executed them. The act has been considered a blot on his name ever since.

Enough so that some consider the plague that began to afflict his army there a form of devine retribution.

In any event Bonaparte's army resumed its march on the 14th, reaching Hiafa on the 17th, and his main object, Acre, on the 18th.

So began a seige that was to last until the 20th of May.

Bonaparte's cause was not helped by the fact that the same day, the 18th, he reached the city his convoy carrying his seige train was intercepted by the British just off shore from his army and half his heavy cannon lost. Not just lost, in fact, but captured and turned against him.

A Counter Stroke Stopped

Djazzar Pasha's forces at Acre were not the only Ottoman forces in Syria. The Pasha of Damascus had assembled tens of thousands of both cavalry and infantry and they were moving to the relief of Acre.

There was a lull in the French assaults (a term of art) on Acre for the first three weeks of April. It had become apparent after a failed pair of assaults at the end of March that Acre was not going to fall quickly or without much more preparation. In the meantime the local people had to be persuaded to become allies or at least deterred from attacking the French depending on the particular community in question. Also the forces that had been raised in the rest of Syria, particularily those of the Pasha of Damascus, had to be met and defeated.

Bonaparte kept most of three divisions (Lanne's, Reynier's, and Bon's) in front of Acre, but he sent detachments from them, his cavalry, and Kleber's division out towards the Sea of Galilee (a.k.a. Sea of Tiberius) and down the wide valley running south-east from Acre to the Jordan valley to find and defeat any forces that might hinder his logistics or seek to relieve his seige of Acre.

On the 26th of March Bonaparte had ordered Murat to take 200 cavalry, 500 light infantry, and two cannon and reconnoiter the road to Damascus through the fortress town of Safed and as far as the crossing of the Jordan at the bridge of Banet-Yakoub. (Corr.: #4060)

The waning days of March and early April saw further expeditions inland under Junot (Corr.: #4017) and Kleber (Corr.:#4075) as well as Murat. It was a situation both complicated and unclear. The high level glosses we read of them today seem like semi-miraculous fables combining well known names out of scripture with decisive French victories against immense odds by small French task forces. It's hard to not suspect some of Bonaparte's trademark exaggeration.

We may never know exact size of the Ottoman forces the Pasha of Damascus managed to raise. His main force is often reported to have consisted of 25,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry. Rather round figures. Some sources say he had only 20,000 men total not 35,000. In any event the French under Kleber were significantly outnumbered when they met them in the plains south west of Mount Tabor. Junot and Murat both met large forces north of there in the hills of Galilee, three or five or eight thousand, the numbers vary but neither Junot or Murat ever had much more than a thousand men, there is little doubt they too dealt with Ottoman forces that heavily outnumbered them.

It is clear that in numbers the Ottomans had the advantage. Neither does their motivation appear to have been lacking. What they lacked was training and experience.

The French were also careful to keep the initative. This despite being infantry heavy forces facing cavalry heavy ones.

The French blocked the main route through the hills between Acre and the crossing to Damascus north of the Sea of Galilee. Murat placed a garrison at Safed.

They backed up this static defense by aggressive action on the part of their mobile forces under Junot and Murat.

On the 19th of Germinal, Year 7, (April 7th 1799) Junot met an Ottoman force in what Bonaparte was pleased to call the "Combat of Nazareth". Bonaparte reports it was a numerous army that had marched from Damascus and crossed the Jordan two days previously. Bonaparte (Corr.: #4124) gives Junot 500 men from the 2nd and 19th demi-brigades. Secondary sources just describe it as "several times its superior" or "a far superior force". Junot succeeded in repulsing this force and Bonaparte has him taking five flags and leaving the field strewn with enemy dead. Despite Bonaparte's naming of this battle it actually took place just south of the village of Lubia 10km west of Tiberias on the road to Cana.

Apparently Bonaparte wasn't entirely reassured by Junot's success as he dispatched Kleber on April the 9th with a further 1,500 men to aid him (Corr.:#4087). On the 11th " Kleber with 1,500 men drove back a Turkish force three times that strength" in what Bonaparte was pleased to describe to the Directory as the "Combat of Cana". Bonaparte didn't have many details to add other than Kleber formed two squares and drove them enemy off with cannon and musket fire. (Corr.: #4124) Chandler has Kleber "routing 6,000 Turks".

Responding to reports of further Turkish forces crossing the Jordan north of the Sea of Galilee Bonaparte dispatched further troops from around Acre under the command of General Murat. (Corr.: #4090)

On the 15th of April Murat found the Turkish camp "on a height overlooking the Jordan" and charging home routed some 5,000 Turks. Bonaparte calls this the "Combat of Safed" (Corr.:#4124) and claims the purpose was to lift the seige of Safed and rescue the stores in Tiberias. He claims the enemy was with their baggage and were as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands of the sea, poetic if not precise. He also claims Murat left the field of battle littered with the enemy dead.

The 16th of April saw the "Battle of Mount Tabor" which actually took place in the plains to its south-west near the town the French called "Afouleh", modern "Afula". Kleber had attempted a night march and attack but the approach march took longer than expected and dawn found them in the presence of the full Turkish army. They formed squares and spent the entire day fighting it off. Towards the end of the day just as they were beginning to despair Bonaparte arrived with Bon's division and saved the day. The Turks fled. Villages were burned. The threat that the Pasha of Damascus might relieve the seige of Acre was removed. (Corr.: #4124)

So was, as it happens, any threat Egypt would be invaded from Syria. A point sometimes lost against Bonaparte's failure to take Acre and the heavy losses he incurred in trying to.

Stymied at Acre

It's hard to beseige a place better supplied than you are.

It's as hard to assault a place better supplied with cannon and the munitions for them.

And yet because of the fact Acre was a port and a British squadron containing two ships of the line under Sir William Sidney Smith controlled the waters off of Acre this was the situation the French faced there.

The French hopes relied solely on their superior discipline, morale, and ferocity. In the end it was not enough.

Given these facts it's tempting to conclude Bonaparte never had any real chance of taking Acre.

Given that he'd just taken two port towns that were just as well fortified during the last few weeks Bonaparte had good reason to think differently. Sir Smith himself, often credited for making the defense of the town successful, felt differently. Herold quotes him writing Lord St. Vincent that Acre "is not, and never has been, defensible according to the rules of art."

Indeed the seige of Acre seems to have anything but a passive deadlock. Rather it was a dynamic back and forth battle that cost both sides heavily and which could have seen the town fall at a number of junctures.

All the primary sources for it seem to be either French or English. One might suspect Sir William Sidney Smith in his letters of exaggerating the role of himself and his friend Colonel Phelipeaux, but it does seem in fact that the intervention of his squadron was decisive on multiple occasions. The local forces under Djazzer Pasha and the Ottoman reinforcements under Hussein Bey were not particularily trusting of each other. In one letter Smith remarks all of Djazzer Pasha heavy guns pointed out to sea as hitherto he'd been more concerned with maintaining independence from Istanbul than attacks from land. The English appear to have helped bridge the distrust between the different Turkish factions. The fire from the British ships and the batteries they set up, and in general their understanding of modern European seige methods were critical in repulsing the earlier French assaults. These early successes appear to have made their continued presence key to maintaining Turkish morale in the town.

It will help in understanding the siege to break it down into three phases.

The first running from March the 20th to April 1st during which initial approachs and mines were constructed and the first assaults made and driven off. A second running from April 2nd to April 23rd that saw sorties and counter-sorties but no assaults attempted while a second effort at a mine and other preparations were being made. And finally a third phase that lasted from April the 28th to May 20th that saw to and fro efforts on the walls of the town and multiple assaults.

It's hard to improve on Herold's description of the initial part of the siege. Barrow does contain more detail, but Herold explains it better for the modern reader. So I'll quote extensively from Herold.

Herold begins by explaining the basic nature of the two major seige operations: "To attack Acre, approaches had to be made first - that is, trenches had to be dug from the camp to the walls, to shelter the assailants from the defenders' cross fire. In addition, mines had to be placed underneath the walls or towers. While these works were in progress -- the various units taking turns in the digging -- the defenders, if they had sufficient ammunition, would rake the diggers with cannon balls and bombs; or else, they might quietly watch them perform the work and then undo it in a massive sortie -- a counterattack from the fortress -- combined with a judiciously directed fire. At Acre, both these techniques were used."

Herold continues by explaining once the mines and trenches had been finished that a artillery barrage would be begun on the wall to produce a breach. Normally at the point intended to be assaulted but sometimes elsewhere too to mislead the defenders as to where the attack was planned. From the nature of assaults and from a seige conducted by King Henry V and immortalized by Shakespear comes the expression "once more into the breach" as well as that of "forlorn hope". The defenders of a fortified location might surrender once a breach had been made in the walls, but if they did not the ensuing struggle in the breach was guaranteed to be desperate and bloody. Siege warfare might be a highly technical military science but the fighting on the walls and in a breach was a major test of the opposing forces' morale.

At Acre after eight days of preparation Bonaparte ordered an assault on March 28th. Despite the fact that, as Herold writes, "[h]is subordinate commanders were sceptical about the adequacy of the works of approach".

The assault "began at 4 a.m. on March 28 with a bombardment of the fortress. The Turks, assisted by the naval guns of Sir Sidney's squadron, replied with a cross fire so devestating that, by 6 a.m., forty French gunners were wounded or dead and all but three of their guns were out of commission. Still, a breach of sorts was made; being more than twenty feet above the moat, it was obviously impracticable, a consideration which did not prevent Bonaparte from ordering his men to scale it with ladders twelve to sixteen feet high."

Despite the seeming poor odds this assault came close to succeeding as the Turkish morale nearly broke. At least one observer felt the fortress should have fallen this day. Still fail it did.

Another mine was completed on the 31st of March and another assault attempted on April the 1st. "Almost every man who took part in it was either wounded or killed"

With this Bonaparte realized he needed better preparations and the three week hiatus in assaults that formed the second phase of the seige insued. It was during this hiatus that the relief attempt by the Pasha of Damascus was driven off in a series of operations that culminated in the Battle of Mount Tabor.

On April 19th the replacements for the lost seige artillery were landed at Jaffa. Bonaparte expected Acre to fall by May 6th.

Even before his seige artillery had been deployed he ordered another assault for April 24th. Why is unclear. Herold appears to believe it was sheer bloody mindedness. This seems an inadequate explanation as Bonaparte, as opportunistic and amoral as he was, rarely seems to have been irrational.

Be that as it may the assault on the 24th failed and Bonaparte ordered another for the 25th. It was a bloody affair taking the lives of several generals including his head engineer and friend, General Caffarelli. It also failed.

The artillery arrived on the 30th of April and Bonaparte ordererd another assault for the 1st of May. It failed. "A night attack on May 4 also failed; Djezzar had illuminated his entire front with lanterns as a precaution. The sixth major attack, on May 6, was repulsed like the others. On May 7, all the seige artillery was in position, and another attack began at 9 a.m. Its partial success showed that Bonaparte might well have taken Acre if he had had the patience to wait for his big guns, instead of wasting his men and resources on hopeless improvised attempts."

Reinforcements under Hassan Bey, 3,000 in all, including 1,000 men from a regiment trained in European tactics had landed during the attack on May 7th just in time to join the fighting. The Turkish forces had been restored in numbers to those they'd started with. Nevertheless Bonaparte using fresh troops from Kleber's division ordered yet another assault on for the 10th of May.

The attack went in as ordered and once again some French troops made it into the city, but inadequately supported were taken prisoner or killed. A rest ensued. Bonaparte ordered another assault and reportedly tried to lead it in person. It was a vicious fight the last gasp of the French, General Bon was wounded, one of Bonaparte's aide-de-camps killed. The attack having failed Bonaparte decided to retreat.

It took over a week to make the preparations for this tricky operation. A week which included an intense four day bombardment of Acre from May the 12th to May the 15th. The French were going to have to leave their precious seige artillery behind. They might as well blow off the munitions for it. It allowed Bonaparte to claim he'd destroyed Acre even if he'd not actually taken it.

Between May 17th and 20th Bonaparte issued a series of detailed orders for the retreat. (Corr.: #4139-4146) On the night of the 20th and 21st the French began the long unpleasant trek back to Egypt.

Bonaparte's hopes of securing Syria and maybe even marching further had been dashed. His losses had been severe. Severe in numbers of men, in equipment, and in reputation.

Nevertheless he had spiked the proposed Ottoman attack from Syria.

Back in Egypt

" At last, on June 3, the survivors limped into Katia and fell like starved vultures on the drink and supplies stored there. The Syrian adventure was over."

Having made it back to Egypt Bonaparte and his weary troops faced a second invasion by the second prong of the Ottoman counter attack.

On the morning of July 15th 1799 "Bonaparte, still encamped at the Pyramids, received word from Alexandria that a Turkish fleet had arrived off shore and was about to disembark an army estimated at 12,000 to 15,000 men."

"Three days later, he was at El Rahmaniya, a hundred miles to the north, concentrating a striking force against the Turks."

In the meantime the Turks had landed and overwhelming the French defenders taken the fort on the Abokir peninsula. They "made no further move but entrenched themselves instead"

" On July 24, nine days after receiving news of the Turkish landing, Bonaparte had assembled close to 10,000 French troops in the vicinity of Abukir. Although Kleber's division had not yet reached the rendezvous, he ordered the Turkish camp to be attacked the next morning."

Chandler ventures the opinion that this was likely because the French for once had a superiority in cavalry. The Turks had not yet landed their horses from their transports offshore.

"The French began their attack in the early morning. The Turkish position was strong. Three successive lines of entrenchments cut across the neck of Abukir Peninsula, allowing only a direct frontal attack, and the gunboats off shore lent them effective support."

"Bonaparte's victory was due largely to the impetuosity of his attack, which forced the Turks back despite their very brave resistance. The decisive moment came shortly after midday, when Murat's cavalry charged with such speed and momentum that it reached the fort within a matter of minutes, while two infantry battalions led by Lannes were still dislodging the Turks from their main redoubt. From that moment, the battle turned into a shambles. Some thousand Turks managed to reach the fort; about 2,000 were cut down with sabres and bayonets; at least twice that number sought to swim to their ships and either drowned or were shot from the shore."

"In the fort, about 2,500 Turks, ... continued to resist." Hungry and thirsty they finally surrendered a week later on August the 2nd.

Herold reports French losses of 220 men killed and about 750 wounded. The Turks had lost almost their entire army which Bonaparte reported at 18,000 men an often repeated figure, it was likely more in the order of eight to nine thousand.

Bonaparte had staved off all the immediate threats to French control of Egypt.

Back to France

Bonaparte by now realized the most he could hope to do in Egypt was to hold on, while the situation in France was ripe for his intervention.

The conventional story has Sir Sidney Smith passing Bonaparte a package of newspapers with European news. News that led to Bonaparte's decision to abandon Egypt and his army there and to return to Franch to seek his fortune by appearing as her savior in a time of threat. There is evidence that Bonaparte had considering such a return once he'd taken care of the twin Turkish threats from Syria and Rhodes since March at least.

After a quick week long trip to Cairo, August 11th to 18th, Bonaparte departed that city for good. He arrived at Alexandria on the 22nd.

Some quick letters to General Kleber his successor and the army, and by the 24th he was at sea bound for France. After a trip of forty-seven days he landed in France on October the 9th. Ignoring the quarantine regulations he was back in Paris by October 16th 1799. The government was in crisis. Partly because it was seen as having abandoned him and his army. Tallyrand had had to resign as Foreign Minister.

By November the 10th Bonaparte by means of the coup of the 18th of Brumaire (November the 9th) had made himself Consul. His political position was still shaky and his rule not absolute, it would be a few years yet before he crowned himself Emperor, but he was now the leading man of France.

He'd done well enough in the East that he could sell himself as victorious to the French people.


Although the point will likely always remain controversial, Bonaparte's Egyptian expedition wasn't the insanely romantic and irrational adventure it is sometimes presented as.

There were good reasons for it based on ideas that had been widely held in French society for some time.

The effort had better chances of success than it is often given credit for. The return of the English Navy to the Mediterranean and under leadership as fully outstanding as that of Bonaparte's was not something that was foreordained.

Not just Nelson's complete victory at Abukir but also Sir Sidney Smith and Phelipeaux's support to Djezzar Pasha made a critical difference.

Arguably real support from the Directory might have done so too. There is considerable circumstantial evidence that they were more concerned about retaining their own positions than winning the war against the Second Coalition.

Their failure in that war is what made Bonaparte's return from Egypt and ascension to power possible, and indeed desirable in the eyes of the French people.

Although not as simple as the outright lasting conquest of a rich country, the outcome of this campaign had repercussions that linger to this day.



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:

Egyptian Provinces with some French Presence 27 August 1798

From Corr. #3122, 27th August 1798. Note French control of Fayoum and Beny-Soueyf (Beni-Suef) at least at this period was very "aspirational". Of a certainty Damietta, Mansurah and Bahyreh were not fully pacified either.

A map and table of modern Egyptian provinces can be found on Wikipedia at . This is not a perfect guide some of the capitals of provinces (e.g. Qalyubia, Monufia & Gharbia) in the delta in particular have changed but its not a bad starting point to get orientated.

Map Showing Bonaparte's Egyptian Provinces to Beni Suef

A map showing Egyptian provinces.

The Original French Forces under Bonaparte

It is useful to detail the original demi-brigades in Bonaparte's army as there were only 14 of them. Most of them had their third battalions detached and assigned to various garrisons and special task forces in late July and August of 1798 which can be tracked by commanders and location names. Knowing the demi-brigade numbers is very useful in tracking troop movements despite changes in commanders and in catching errors like the magical appearance of a 65th demi-brigade at one point. One thing the French did right at this point was to try and avoid breaking up troops who were used to working together. It helps immensely in determining the actual identity of units despite the odd transcription error.

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)

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