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1798-9: Napoleon in Egypt

The Battle of the Pyramids

As Napoleon continued his advance on Cairo he was met again by forces commanded by Murad Bey at the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’. Bey’s force consisted of a mixture of 6,000 Mamelukes, 20,000 Egyptian infantry and 4,000 Arab horsemen. Ibrahib Bey commanded a further 6,000 troops and 14,000 Egyptian infantry on the other side of the Nile – however, Ibrahim sought Turkish protection in Syria and left Murad to fight the battle. The French went confidently into battle, knowing that their modern weapons would produce another decisive victory. Napoleon stuck to the same battle structure with his divisions split into squares for easy manoeuvres. It was another victory for the French, who suffered just 300 casualties in contrast with around 6,000 casualties amongst the Mameluke and Egyptian troops. Napoleon was extremely impressed with the Mamelukes fighting and adored their extravagant dress with its colourful, exotic flare; he would later recruit a few Mamelukes for his Imperial Guard. The Battle of the Pyramids was the ideal propaganda story and he would make good use of it on his return to France, accelerating his rapid rise to power.


Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids

By Antoine-Jean Gros

With this victory, the French occupied Cairo. However, Napoleon’s campaign swiftly began to sour. After the victory of British Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet at Battle of the Nile, Napoleon was left marooned in Egypt. The battle began on the 1st August when Nelson’s fleet of 14 ships sailed into Aboukir Bay and attacked the 13 ships moored in the shallows by Admiral Brueys. Tactically, Brueys should have had the upper hand as the logic behind anchoring his fleet in the shallows was that it would force the enemy to travel along their lines and face their immense firepower. The British captured or sank all but two of the French fleet, effectively tipping the balance of power in the Mediterranean in their favour.


To make matters worse, the Ottoman sultan declared a Holy War on Napoleon and the Egyptians wreaked havoc on the streets of Cairo, murdering Frenchmen and burning French infrastructure. Bulking up his army with Mamelukes, Napoleon killed or captured the revolting Egyptians, being every bit as brutal and merciless as the Egyptian rioters. When the situation in Cairo calmed down, Napoleon, lacking any orders from Paris, decided to embark on his own mission to Syria.

In Syria on the 17th March 1799, Napoleon began the disastrous Siege of Acre. Acre was an ancient fortress with a strong wall guarded by 250 guns and commanded by the Turkish pasha and French émigré, Colonel Antoine Le Picard de Phelypeaux. The British fleet, under Sir Sidney Smith, had yet again set out to thwart Napoleon’s mission and captured the French siege artillery at sea before it could reach Napoleon at Acre. The British also supplied the city of Acre so that the French siege would fail, asserting their dominance over the French once again. The French infantry found it impossible to take the city, and the situation was worsened when the Turkish Army of Damascus struck a fatal blow to the French at the Battle of Mount Tabor. Despite technically winning the battle, the French lost a few hundred men, it took a huge mental toll on the troops, who were already exhausted and frustrated. Furthermore, plague began to spread throughout the divisions, so Napoleon made the decision to abandon the siege on the 20th May. Of his 13,000 original troops, around 2,500 died and of the 2,500 sick men, only around half survived the journey back to Egypt.


The final battle of the Egyptian campaign was the Battle of Aboukir, arguably one of  Napoleon’s most successful battles. Under Mustafa Pasha, 20,000 Turks occupied the fortress at Aboukir and formed two defensive lines at the tip of a narrow peninsula, supported by guns and gunboats along both shores. Napoleon’s first assault on the 25th July was enough to send the Turks fleeing. Napoleon had structured his troops cleverly – his plan was to send two divisions on the left and right of the fort into battle first, then exploit the gap in the middle of the forts. The division on the right was under General Lannes and the left under General Destaing - General Murat waited in the middle with the cavalry. The plan proved extremely effective and the Turks lost thousands of men; 2,000 killed in action, 11,000 drowned, 5,000 captured (including Mustafa Pasha) and 2,000 unaccounted for.


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Up Next: Egypt: The Aftermath

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