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Napoleon in Egypt: The Battle of the Pyramids

Updated on August 19, 2012

Clash of Arms

The French and Mamluks do battle
The French and Mamluks do battle | Source

Leader of the Mamluks

Murad Bey, the commander of Mamluk forces alongside Ibrahim Bey.
Murad Bey, the commander of Mamluk forces alongside Ibrahim Bey. | Source

March to the Pyramids

At 2pm on the 21st July 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte and his vast army reached the village of Embabeh, about eight miles distant of Giza and the Pyramids. They’d been forced to endure a gruelling march from Alexandria in the stifling heat of Egypt’s dry season. Murad Bey, leader of the Mamluk forces charged with the protection of Cairo, and indeed all of Egypt was waiting for the little Corsican on the eastern bank of the River Nile. In order to do battle, the French would have to cross it, not exactly the easiest river to cross. So it is entirely understandable that the Mamluk leader felt supreme confidence in his ability to repel these invaders that had arrived from a far and distant land. However, Murad made a rather strange decision, instead of remaining where he was and using the impassable boundary of the river to his advantage, he elected to take the fight to Napoleon on the western bank. As a result, the Mamluks were now divided; Murad’s rash decision had left fellow leader Ibrahim Bey to defend the eastern bank alone.

Napoleon, just like his troops had suffered in the heat, but was ready to do battle. However, his fatigued men needed rest, so he allowed them to do so for an hour. He took the time to assess his enemy that lay just over a mile away from his position. The Mamluks had between 4000-6000 mounted cavalry, supported by 40 cannons and by a small but professional Turkish army. To the right of the cavalry where 15,000 fellaheen or peasants, armed mostly with clubs, effectively they were a mob, a citizen’s army.

Immortal Words

For Napoleon this was the moment he had been waiting for, a battle that would surely decided the fate of Egypt. At such moments, his mind filled with a sense of destiny, he was following in the footsteps of two men he revered greatly; Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. He called together his commanders, outlined the battle plan and delivered the following speech: ‘You are going into a battle which will be engraved upon the memories of mankind. You will be fighting the oppressors of Egypt.’ He then turned away from then and gestured towards the distant Pyramids and uttered those immortal words: ‘Soldiers, forty centuries of history are looking down on you.’

Napoleon would later say that he faced an army of 78,000 on the west bank, but his tendency to exaggerate was legendary, in fact the name ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ is credited to Bonaparte himself. He felt it sounded far grander than the ‘Battle of Embabeh’. The French could see all before them, they marvelled at the Mamluk horses prancing freely around their camp, snorting in the heat of the day. Each Mamluk rider was armed with a musket, a pair of pistols, several javelins of sharpened palm branches and whatever weapons they could attach to either the saddle or themselves. When rising into battle, they were able to fire a musket, then fire their pistols and drop them to the ground to be retrieved by their attendants. Once free of weapons that required loading, they were free to select whatever blade they wanted to cut through the enemy. For a Mamluk, the moment of battle was seen as a glorious occasion, each man carried valuable earthly possessions; such has jewels, gold and silver. Usually these were tucked safely away in layers of either their bright silk vests or their baggy trousers, which in turn was covered by a full length tunic called a Cafton, to complete the ensemble, each man adorned a turban.

The Mamluks were some of the finest horsemen in the world, and they had unshakable faith in their cavalry charge, it had helped them in the past, it would help them against the French. However, Napoleon had already seen a cavalry charge in action during a skirmish at Shubra Khit, and managed to devise a way to repel it. He had placed his troops in square formations, to withstand any charge regardless of whatever direction it came from. Each square consisted of ranks of infantry, 6-10 men deep with cavalry positioned in the middle of each one. On the outer corners of each square, he placed artillery to further discourage any charge.

Bonaparte positioned his 5 divisions commanded by Generals’ Bon, Vial, Dugua and Reynier next to the river. On his flank, farther away from the Nile, but closer to the enemy he placed a division commanded by General Desaix. Napoleon and his staff decided to position themselves in the centre of the middle square; this allowed him protection from either flank and allowed him to survey the battle, in particular the two squares that lay either side of General Dugua.

Napoleon also had extra support in the form of a flotilla of 15 river boats, manned by 600 sailors, commanded by Captain Perree. Perree had been ordered to assemble at Rosetta and sail up the Nile to assist the army. The key to success for the French was discipline, if their squares held firm, then the Mamluk charge would fail entirely. But still, worry and doubt crept into Napoleon’s mind, he realised that the soldiers were weakened by their gruelling march; many were blighted by hunger, eye disease, diarrhoea, which understandably left most of them dispirited. This situation, Napoleon realised was not conducive to obeying orders that went against the soldiers’ natural inclination.

The Field of Battle

Source

Enter the Cavalry

The Mamlukes charge the French squares.
The Mamlukes charge the French squares. | Source

The Charge

Napoleon’s five divisions advanced slowly; for the Mamluks this was the signal that the battle had started and they charged ferociously, concentrating the bulk of their attack on the French right flank. The five French divisions tightened their square formations, each man drawing a deep breath in anticipation of the oncoming charge. It was Desaix’s square that would take the first hit; the howitzers protecting each side fired into the oncoming horde. The infantry though, were to hold fire until the last moment. When the order was finally given, the Mamluks were sliced down as their horses charged right up to the line of bayonets; they reared up, screaming in panic. A few rider-less horses toppled over into the French lines, as the men followed the command to reload.

Wave upon wave of Mamluk cavalry threw themselves against the French, all the time emitting blood curdling screams and brandishing their fearsome scimitars that glinted in the sun. Each charge though, broke against the disciplined squares of Desaix’s division. Some Mamluks swerved to the right, to avoid the ever building carnage in front of them, but they headed straight into another square belonging to General Reynier. Just like Desaix’s troops, Reynier’s held fire until the last moment, when the command was relayed; more and more screaming Mamluks were cut down and silenced forever.

While Desaix and Reynier were repelling attack after attack; the howitzers that protected Dugua’s square shelled any warriors positioned between Embabeh and the French squares. Desaix decided to send a detachment of cavalry and grenadiers into Embabeh itself, they climbed quietly onto and along the flat roofs of the houses and fired on the Mamluks lurking nearby. On the opposite shore, the Mamluks not engaged in battle screamed encouragement at their comrades. However, this may have actually worked against those they cheered, as their encouragement only served to spur the Mamluks to continue suicidal charges into the French ranks.

Single Combat

While this was going on, a curious encounter occurred; a white bearded Mamluk warrior rode up to General Bon’s division on the French left, in a taunting, mocking fashion; he was offering single combat. Lieutenant Nicholas Desvernois accepted the challenge and rode out of the square to meet his bearded foe. The two faced each other, gradually closing the distance, in a manner reminiscent of two medieval knights. Desvernois fired his pistol, which succeeded in dislodging the Mamluk from his horse. The bearded warrior now reduced to crawling around on his hands and knees retrieved his scimitar and slashed the lieutenant’s horse’s feet off. The duel now moved to terra firma and came to an end when Desvernois’ sabre caught the Mamluks head, disabling him. Almost on cue, the French soldiers raced out of the squares to finish off the Mamluk with their rifle butts. Desvernois was richly rewarded, claiming gold pieces that had been sewn into his opponents clothing. He also claimed a magnificent sword, inlaid with gold along the rhino horn handle and sheath.

The Battle of the Pyramids as depicted in Napoleon Total War

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Victory for France

The battle waged on; Bon and Vial’s divisions launched an assault from the left flank into the village protected by covering fire by the newly arrived flotilla from Rosetta. The Mamluks used their own cannons hidden in the village to bombard the French, but they were immobile on account of being mounted on fixed carriages, which prevented them from being repositioned, they proved ineffective in halting the French attack. When they reached the village, a brigade was sent forward to try to cut off the Mamluk retreat. Murad Bey, the leader despite picking up a nasty facial wound managed to flee with fragments of his cavalry towards Giza. The French moved quickly to seal off any possible escape routes, so many of the Mamluks resorted to plunging into the Nile in the hope of reaching their comrades on the other side. Around 1000 men drowned in the great river, others were shot, and some were even clubbed to death by oars used by the French boatmen. According to most accounts, Ibrahim Bey had considered crossing the Nile to aid his brethren, but apparently a dust storm had blocked his view of the fighting. Realising that he was unable to help, he elected to abandon Cairo during the middle of the night, fleeing to the east.

On the morning of the 22nd July, twenty four hours after the battle had started, the Sheiks and Imams of Cairo decided that the best course of action was to surrender the city to the French; Napoleon did not arrive until the 24th July. Around 2000 Mamluks lost their lives at Embabeh, along with several thousand fellaheen (peasants). The official French losses were 29 dead and 120 wounded, the battle itself had barely lasted an hour. The victorious French took the opportunity to plunder the dead, even going as far to fishing drowned corpses from the Nile, finding as many as 200 to 300 gold pieces on each body. Napoleon at times harbours a justified reputation as a fearsome commander, but he was very generous to his men in Cairo. He arranged entertainment, encouraged his men to fraternise with the local population and even organised trips to the Pyramids. It seemed as if everything was going to plan for Napoleon, he could finally relax and revel in his grand achievement, but within days of the victory, he received the grave news that Admiral Nelson had finally found the French fleet in Aboukir Bay.

More to follow:

An Ancient Wonder of the World

In the wake of victory, Napoleon organised trips to ensure that all of his men could gaze upon the iconic monuments to Ancient Egypt.
In the wake of victory, Napoleon organised trips to ensure that all of his men could gaze upon the iconic monuments to Ancient Egypt. | Source

References

http://www.historynet.com/napoleonic-wars-battle-of-the-pyramids.htm

Dwyer, P, Napoleon- The Path to Power 1769-1799, Bloomsbury Books, 2008

Grant, R.G, Battle, Dorling Kindersley, 2010

Rickard, J (16 January 2006)French Invasion of Egypt, 1798-1801

Rothenberg, Gunther, The Napoleonic Wars, Cassell, 1999

Strathern, P, Napoleon in Egypt, Jonathan Cape, 2007

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    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      It is no wonder that the Mamluks drowned, when they had all that gold sewn into their trousers.

      You really bring the whole story to life.

      Thank you.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I know it seems silly doesn't it. You can understand why the French were willing to fish them out of the river.

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