1798-9: Napoleon in Egypt

The Campaign

In March 1798 the campaign began in Toulon where Napoleon gathered his men and supplies. His force amounted to 35,000 troops, filled with a mixture young, ambitious men and veterans that had served him in Italy, including the Generals Lannes and Murat. Napoleon also managed to persuade a host of intellectuals to journey to Egypt alongside him, men such as mathematician Gaspard Monge and chemist Claude Berthollet. The cultural value of the trip was at the forefront of Napoleon’s mind. The expedition set sail on the 19th March 1798.

The biggest threat to the French expedition was the British – Admiral Earl Saint Vincent was the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, who patrolled the Mediterranean and bore the responsibility of protecting against the invasion of Naples, Spain, Portugal or Egypt. British secretary for war, Henry Dundas, was aware of Napoleon’s voyage to Egypt and devised a plan with Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson to destroy the French fleet. A stroke of luck saved the French this time – Nelson patrolled the Egyptian coast in mid-June (when Napoleon was supposed to be there) with fourteen ships, but Napoleon had taken a detour in order to capture Malta. By the time Napoleon’s fleet reached the Egyptian coast, Nelson had been forced to travel to Sicily to gather supplies.

Napoleon’s forces landed near Alexandria on the 1st July 1798 and he sent 5,000 troops to capture the city destination. It was a relatively uneventful feat and Napoleon continued across the desert with around 20,000 men. Ten days later, he reached Rahmaniya, where he met General Desaix and a second column of 10,000 troops. The French were particularly ill-prepared for marching through the desert –the troops were dressed in winter clothing, which meant that they boiled in the sun. At night, however, the troops froze as the temperature dropped. Napoleon lost around 1,000 men in that march alone. 

Horatio Nelson

By John Hoppner

The French first encountered the Mamelukes (the army under the command of Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey) on the 13th July, where they swiftly defeated them and continued their march to Cairo. Despite the support of 10,000 Egyptian infantry, the 6,000 Mamelukes were no match for French weaponry. The Mamelukes were great riders and excelled at hand-to-hand combat, however Napoleon arranged his divisions in squares (the standard European defence against cavalry attack) with canons at the corners so that the Mamelukes were met with immense firepower, and a formation that could not be outflanked. After a few unsuccessful charges, they withdrew. French casualties were light.


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