The purpose of the armada had been so well concealed that nearly all the 54,000 men set out with no knowledge of their destination. In a characteristic proclamation to the new “Army of the Orient” Napoleon merely called it a “wing of the Army of England,” and asked his sailors and warriors to trust him though he could not yet define their task. The secrecy served some purpose: the British government was apparently misled into thinking that the flotilla was preparing to fight its way past Gibraltar and join in theinvasion of England. Nelson’s ships were lax in their watch on the Mediterranean, and the French argosy evaded them.
On June 9 it sighted Malta. The Directory had bribed the grandmaster and other dignitaries of the Knights of Malta*to make only a token resistance;67 as a result the French took the supposedly impregnable fortress with the loss of only three men. Napoleon dallied there a week to reorganize the administration of the island Gaulward. There Alfred de Vigny, poet-to-be but then a child of two years, was introduced to the conqueror, who raised him and kissed him; “when he lowered me carefully to the deck he had won one more slave.”68 The godlike man, however, was seasick nearly all the way to Alexandria. Meanwhile he studied the Koran.
The fleet reached Alexandria July 1, 1798. The port was guarded by a garrison, and a landing there would be costly; yet an early and orderly disembarkation was imperative if the squadron was not to be surprised by Nelson’s fleet. The neighboring surf was threateningly rough, but Napoleon in person led a landing party of five thousand men upon an unprotected beach. These, without cavalry or artillery, advanced at night upon the garrison, overcame it at the cost of two hundred French casualties, took possession of the city, and provided the protection under which the ships deposited the soldiers and their armament upon Egyptian soil.
Armed with this victory and a few words of Arabic, Napoleon persuaded the local leaders to sit down with him in conference. He amused and then impressed them by his knowledge of the Koran and his clever use of its phrases and ideas. He pledged himself and his army to respect their religion, laws, and possessions. He promised—if they would help him with laborers and supplies—to win back for them the lands seized by the Mameluke mercenaries who had made themselves masters of Egypt under indolent dynasties. The Arabs half agreed, and on July 7 Napoleon bade his wondering army follow him across 150 miles of desert to Cairo.
They had never experienced such heat, such thirst, such blinding sand, such indefatigable insects, or such disabling dysentery. Bonaparte partly quieted their complaints by sharing their hardships silently. On July 10 they reached the Nile, drank their fill, and refreshed their flesh. After five more days of marching, their vanguard sighted, near the village of Kobrakit, an army of three thousand Mamelukes: “a splendid body of mounted men” (Napoleon recalled them), “all gleaming with gold and silver, armed with the best London carbines and pistols, and the best sabers of the East, riding perhaps the best horses on the Continent.”69 Soon the Mameluke cavalry fell upon the French line, front and flank, only to be felled by the musketry and artillery of the French. Wounded in flesh and pride, the Mamelukes turned and fled.
On July 20, still eighteen miles from Cairo, the victors caught sight of the Pyramids. That evening Napoleon learned that an army of six thousand mounted Mamelukes, under twenty-three district beys, had assembled at Embaba, ready to challenge the infidel invaders. The next afternoon they fell in full force upon the French in the crucial battle of the Pyramids. There, if we may trust Napoleon’s memory, he told his soldiers, “Forty centuries have their eyes upon you.”70 Again the French met the onslaught with cannon, musket fire, and fixed bayonets; seventy of them died there, and fifteen hundred Mamelukes; many of the defeated, in heedless flight, leaped into the Nile and were drowned. On July 22 the Turkish authorities in Cairo sent Napoleon the keys of the city in token of surrender. On July 23 he entered the picturesque capital without any offensive display.
From that center he issued orders for the administration of Egypt by Arab divans (committees) subject to his control. He prevented pillage by his troops, and protected existing property rights, but he continued and appropriated, for the support of his army, the taxes customarily levied by the Mameluke conquerors. He sat down with native leaders, professed respect for Islamic rites and art, recognized Allah as the one and only god, and asked for Moslem aid in bringing a new prosperity to Egypt. He summoned his scientists to design methods of eliminating plagues, introducing new industries, improving Egyptian education and jurisprudence, establishing postal and transport services, repairing canals, controlling irrigation, and joining the Nile with the Red Sea. In July, 1799, he organized local and French savants into the Institute of Egypt, and set up spacious quarters for it in Cairo. It was these scholars who prepared the twenty-four massive volumes financed and published by the French government as Description de l’Égypte (1809–28). One of these men, known to us only as Bouchard, found in 1799, in a town thirty miles from Alexandria, the Rosetta Stone, whose inscription, in two languages and three scripts (hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek) enabled Thomas Young to begin (1814), and Jean-François Champollion to establish (1821), a method of translating hieroglyphic texts, thereby opening up to “modern” Europe the astonishingly complex and mature civilization of ancient Egypt. This was the chief—and the only significant—result of Napoleon’s expedition.
For a while he was allowed to enjoy the pride of conquest and the zest of administration. In later retrospect he told Mme. de Rémusat:
The time which I passed in Egypt was the most delightful of my life…. In Egypt I found myself free from the wearisome restraints of civilization. I dreamed all sorts of things, and I saw how all that I dreamed might be realized. I created a religion. I pictured myself on the road to Asia, mounted on an elephant, with a turban on my head, and in my hand a new Koran, which I should compose according to my own ideas…. I was to have attacked the English power in India, and renewed my relations with old Europe by my conquest…. Fate decided against my dream.71
Fate’s first blow was the information conveyed to him by an aide-decamp, Andoche Junot, that Josephine had taken a lover in Paris. The great dreamer, with all his intellectual brilliance, had neglected to consider how hard it would be for so tropical a plant as Josephine to go for many months without some tangible appreciation of her charms. For some days he mourned and raged. Then, on July 26, 1798, he sent a despondent letter to his brother Joseph:
I may be in France again in two months…. There is plenty to worry me at home…. Your friendship means a lot to me; were I to lose it, and see you betraying me, I should be a complete misanthrope….
I want you to arrange to have a country place ready for me when I return, either in Burgundy or near Paris. I am counting on spending the winter there, and seeing no one. I am sick of society. I need solitude, isolation. My feelings are dried up, and I am bored with public display. I am tired of glory at twenty-nine; it has lost its charm; and there is nothing left for me but complete egotism….
Goodbye, my one and only friend…. My love to your wife and Jerome.
He found some distraction by taking as a mistress a young Frenchwoman who had followed her officer husband to Egypt. Pauline Fourès could not resist the interest that Napoleon took in her gay beauty; she returned his smiles, and made no insuperable protest when he cleared his path by sending M. Fourès on a mission to Paris. When the husband learned the reason for his distinction he returned to Cairo and divorced Pauline. Napoleon too thought of divorce, and played with the idea of marrying Pauline and begetting an heir; but he reckoned without Josephine’s tears. Pauline was solaced with a substantial gift, and survived the mishap by sixty-nine years.
A week after Junot’s revelation, a major disaster imprisoned the Army of the Orient in its victory. On leaving his fleet at Alexandria, Napoleon (according to Napoleon) had ordered Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys to unload all matériel useful to the troops, and then to sail as soon as possible to French-held Corfu; every measure must be taken to avoid interception by the British. Bad weather delayed Brueys’ departure; meanwhile he anchored the squadron in the neighboring Bay of Abukir. There, on July 31, 1798, Nelson found him and soon attacked. The opposed forces seemed evenly matched: the English with fourteen ships of the line and one brig, the French with thirteen ships of the line and four frigates. But the French crews were rebelliously homesick and inadequately trained; the British sailors had made the sea their second home; now their superior discipline, seamanship, and courage won the day—and night, for the bloody conflict lasted till dawn of August 1. At 10 P.M. on July 31, Brueys’ 120-gun flagship blew up, killing nearly all men aboard, including the Vice-Admiral himself, aged forty-five. Only two French vessels escaped capture. Altogether the French lost over 1,750 dead, 1,500 wounded; the British lost 218 dead, 672 (including Nelson) wounded. This and Trafalgar (1805) were the last attempts of Napoleonic France to question England’s domination of the seas.
When the news of this overwhelming reverse reached him at Cairo, Bonaparte realized that his conquest of Egypt had been made meaningless. His tired adventurers were now shut off, by both land and sea, from French aid, and must soon be at the mercy of a hostile population and an uncongenial environment. It is to their young commander’s credit that in his own grief he found time to console the widow of his vice-admiral:
Cairo, August 19, 1798
Your husband was killed by a cannon ball whilst fighting on board his ship. He died honorably, and without suffering, as every soldier would wish to die.
Your sorrow touches me to the quick. It is a dread moment when we are parted from one we love…. If there were no reason for living it would be better to die. But when second thoughts come, and you press your children to your heart, your nature is revived by tears and tenderness, and you live for the sake of your offspring. Yes, Madame, you will weep with them, you will nurture them in infancy, you will educate their youth; you will speak to them of their father and your grief, of their love and the Republic’s. And when you have linked your soul to the world again through the mutual affection of mother and child, I want you to count as of some value my friendship, and the lively interest that I shall always take in the wife of my friend. Be assured that there are men … who can turn grief into hope because they feel so intimately the troubles of the heart.72
Adversities multiplied. Almost every day there were attacks upon the French settlements by Arabs, Turks, or Mamelukes unreconciled to their new masters. On October 16 the populace of Cairo itself erupted in revolt; the French suppressed it at some cost to their morale; and Napoleon, abandoning for a time the role of an amiable conqueror, ordered the decapitation of every armed rebel.73
Hearing that Turkey was preparing an army to reach and reclaim Egypt, he determined to meet the challenge by leading thirteen thousand of his men into Syria. They set out on February 10, 1799, captured El ‘Arish, and crossed the Sinai Desert. Napoleon’s letter of February 27 described some aspects of that ordeal: heat, thirst, “brackish water, often none at all; we ate dogs, monkeys, and camels.” Happily they found at Gaza, after a hard battle, a flourishing agriculture and orchards of incomparable fruit.
At Jaffa (March 3) they were stopped by a walled city, a hostile populace, and a citadel defended by 2,700 virile Turks. Napoleon sent them an emissary to offer terms; these were rejected. On March 7, French sappers made a breach in the wall; French troops rushed in, killed the resisting population, and pillaged the town. Napoleon sent Eugène de Beauharnais to restore order; he offered a safe exit to all who would surrender; the citadel troops, to save the town from further desolation, gave up their arms, and were brought as prisoners to Napoleon. He threw up his hands in dismay. “What can I do with them?” he asked. He could not take 2,700 prisoners along on the march; his men had all they could do to find food and drink for themselves. He could not spare a guard numerous enough to take the Turks to imprisonment in Cairo. If he set them free there was nothing to prevent them from fighting the French again. Napoleon called a council of his officers and asked them for their judgment. They decided that the best course was to kill the prisoners. Some three hundred were spared; 2,441 (including civilians of all ages and both sexes) were shot, or were bayoneted to save ammunition.74
The invaders marched, and on March 18 they reached the heavily fortified town of Acre. The Turkish resistance was led by Djezzar Pasha, aided by Antoine de Phélippeaux—who had been Napoleon’s fellow student at Brienne. The French laid siege, without the siege artillery that had been sent them by sea from Alexandria; an English squadron under Sir William Sidney Smith captured those weapons, delivered them to the fort, and then kept the garrison supplied with food and matériel during the siege. On May 20, after two months’ effort and heavy losses, Napoleon ordered a retreat to Egypt. “Phélippeaux,” he mourned, “held me back before Acre. If it had not been for him I would have been master of the key to the Orient. I would have gone on to Constantinople, and would have restored the Eastern Empire.”75 In 1803, not foreseeing 1812, he said to Mme. de Rémusat, “my imagination died at Acre. I shall never allow it to interfere with me again.”76
The return along the coast was a succession of tragic days, with marches sometimes of eleven hours between wells, to find almost undrinkable water that poisoned the body and hardly quenched thirst. A heavy burden of wounded or plague-stricken men slowed the procession. Napoleon asked the physicians to administer fatal doses of opium to the incurably diseased; they refused, and Napoleon withdrew his suggestion.77 He ordered all horses to be turned over to the task of carrying the sick, and gave to his officers the example of marching on foot.78 On June 14, after a march of three hundred miles from Acre in twenty-six days, the exhausted army made a triumphal entry into Cairo, displaying seventeen enemy flags and sixteen Turkish officers captured, as proof that the expedition had been a proud success.
On July 11 a hundred vessels deposited at Abukir an army of Turks commissioned to drive the French from Egypt. Napoleon marched north with his best troops, and inflicted upon the Turks so overwhelming a defeat (July 25) that many of them rushed to death in the sea rather than face the onrushing French cavalry.
From English newspapers sent to him by Sidney Smith, Napoleon was astonished to learn that a Second Coalition of the Powers had driven the French out of Germany and had recaptured nearly all of Italy from the Alps to Calabria.79 The whole edifice of his victories had collapsed in a series of disasters from the Rhine and the Po to Abukir and Acre; and now, in a humiliating checkmate, he found himself and his decimated legions bottled up in a hostile blind alley where only a little time would be needed for their annihilation.
About the middle of July he received from the Directory an order, sent him on May 26, to return to Paris at once.80 He resolved to get back to France somehow, despite the encompassing British; to forge a path to power; and to displace the fumbling leaders who had allowed all his gains in Italy to be so quickly annulled. Back in Cairo he arranged affairs military and administrative, and appointed the reluctant Kléber to command the battered remains of the Egyptian dream. The treasury of the army was empty, and was six million francs in debt; the pay of the soldiers was four million in arrears; their number, their morale, were falling with every day, while their reluctant hosts were increasing in strength, and waiting with silent patience for another opportunity to revolt. At any time the governments of Turkey and Great Britain might send to Egypt a force that, with native aid, could sooner or later bring the French to a helpless surrender. Napoleon knew all this, and could only excuse his departure by claiming that he was needed in Paris and had been ordered to return. When he bade goodbye to the troops (to each of whom he had promised six hectares of land after a triumphant homecoming) he vowed, “If I have the good fortune to reach France the rule of those babblers [bavards] will be finished,”81 and aid would come to these immured conquerors. It never came.
Two frigates—the Muiron and the Carrère—had survived the holocaust at Abukir. Napoleon sent word to have them prepared for an attempt to reach France. On August 23, 1799, he, with Bourrienne, Berthollet, and Monge, boarded the Muiron; Generals Lannes, Murat, Denon, and others followed on the Carrère.82 By permission of fog and the great god Chance they escaped all the eyes and scouts of Nelson’s fleet. They could not stop at Malta, for the victorious British had seized that stronghold on February 9. On October 9 the ships anchored off Fréjus, and Napoleon and his aides were rowed to shore at St.-Raphaël. Now it was to be aut Caesar aut nullus—either Caesar or nobody.