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Napoleon in Egypt: End of a Dream

Updated on August 19, 2012

The Moment Napoleon's Dreams Died

The explosion of the L'Orient at the Battle of the Nile, extinguished Napoleon's dreams of an Eastern Empire.
The explosion of the L'Orient at the Battle of the Nile, extinguished Napoleon's dreams of an Eastern Empire. | Source

Aftermath of the Nile

The destruction of the French fleet at Aboukir Bay had drastically reduced Napoleon’s options. It was now totally impossible to send reinforcements, as the British now held a tight control over the Mediterranean. All of Napoleon’s grand plans for conquest in the east had to be abandoned. Nelson was all too aware of the significance of his victory at the Nile, and promptly sent word to India that the threat posed by the French had now gone.

The expedition had launched under great expectation and optimism, and it seemed that when Napoleon had swept into Cairo that he was well on his way to emulating Alexander the Great, but those dreams were now in tatters, the expedition had been reduced to a farcical slideshow. Napoleon even went as a far as saying that his generals would have to found an Empire themselves.

Return of the Mamluks

Despite suffering a crushing defeat at the Battle of the Pyramids, the Mamluks had not succumbed totally. Ibrahim Bey had managed to flee to Palestine, and muster up a force to reclaim Egypt. Meanwhile, in Upper Egypt, a much larger force under Murad Bey had spent ten months successfully evading French general Desaix. The graveness of the situation forced the French to split their forces to finish Murad off once and for all, however, such a move resulted in disruption to grain supply in Lower Egypt. In the spring of 1800, the French had to officially acknowledge Murad’s control of Upper Egypt.

Back from the Dead

Murad Bey, leader of the Mamluks who regained control of Upper Egypt in 1800.
Murad Bey, leader of the Mamluks who regained control of Upper Egypt in 1800. | Source

Egypt and the Middle East

Source

Mounting Problems

The last few of months of 1798 saw the France’s control of Cairo gradually slide away, with several eruptions of violence. They did manage to put these down, but it cost the lives of over 3000 Egyptians and more than 300 Frenchmen, ten times the number killed at the Battle of the Pyramids. It was now abundantly clear to Napoleon that holding onto Egypt was going to be far harder than the initial conquest. With no chance of reinforcement, the French simply could not afford any more significant losses.

The defeat at the Nile also extinguished any chance of the Ottoman Empire accepting French rule in Egypt. In Istanbul, British diplomats worked hard to influence the Sultan to view France as an outright enemy, the Sultan persuaded by these arguments declared war on France on the 9th September 1798. Where, once the French had been the invaders, now they in turn faced invasion from both land and sea. The Sultan assembled two armies that would hopefully be able to encircle and crush the French. One army would advance out of Damascus, travelling through Syria and Palestine. The other, supported by the British Royal Navy, would travel out of Cyprus, land at the mouth of the Nile, advancing eastwards towards Cairo.

The Stronghold

The Tower at Acre that repelled the French in 1799. Today the city belongs to Israel.
The Tower at Acre that repelled the French in 1799. Today the city belongs to Israel. | Source

Napoleon's Response

Napoleon sensed the impending danger and decided the only thing he could do was strike back. Mustering an army of around 13,000 men, he marched into Palestine and Syria in early February 1799. At Jaffa, Napoleon committed one of the worst atrocities of the war thus far. The Ottoman garrison had surrendered on the 7th March after a siege of four days. The French initially allowed the garrison to go free on the condition that they never take up arms against the French again. But Napoleon thought differently, demonstrating his ruthless streak he had all 3000 Ottoman soldiers executed. It would prove to be an extremely unwise decision, as the atrocity seemed to spur the determination of the other Ottoman garrisons to hold off the French.

The Ottomans would get the chance to justify this new found determination at the former Crusader stronghold of Acre. However, the once formidable defences had been neglected for centuries, and were in no condition to hold off a French attack. Fortunately for the Ottomans they were able to call on the aid of a small British naval squadron, commanded by Sir Sydney Smith and a Captain Phelippeaux, a French royalist to try and restore the defences to something resembling their former glory. The defenders were inadvertently aided by Napoleon’s decision to send his siege train to Acre by sea, giving them more time to bolster the stronghold. The French would attempt nine separate assaults on Acre, but the combined British and Ottoman garrison held firm.

In the wake of the French failure to break the siege, news reached Bonaparte that the Ottoman army from Damascus was approaching fast; the scouts estimated that there were at least 25,000 men on their way to smash Napoleon’s troops. Napoleon decided to send General Kleber and a scouting force of 2000 to carry out a more thorough assessment of the situation. The Ottoman cavalry spied Kleber’s men and charged ferociously, the French infantry formed their customary square formations, repelling charge after charge. Eventually, Napoleon arrived with aid and delivered a crushing victory over the Ottoman army.

Victory over the Ottomans had given the French a timely morale boost, and had even gone some way to justifying Napoleon’s expedition. But the little Corsican wouldn’t be fully vindicated until he could claim Acre. But, soon after the victory, plague broke out in the French army, severely reducing its strength. All the while, the Ottomans that had set out from Cyprus were closing in quickly. By the start of May 1799, Napoleon had finally received his remaining artillery pieces and was able to create a sizeable breach in the walls of Acre. He reacted to this by launching another desperate assault, this time the French met with some success by capturing part of the wall and north tower. But the British were able to repel the French until the Ottoman reinforcements arrived to relieve the besieged city. The French tried two more assaults over the next few days, but to no avail. On the 20th May, Napoleon reluctantly abandoned the siege, effectively ending his eastern expedition.

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Departure of Napoleon

After the failure of the Acre siege, Napoleon marched his disease stricken army back to Egypt. On the 11th July, the Ottomans who had sailed from Cyprus landed at Aboukir on the Egyptian coast, the very place where Nelson had won his famous victory a year before. In the space of a fortnight, Napoleon mustered a force of 10,000 men from Cairo to march against Mustapha Pasha, the Ottoman general. The infantry managed to punch their way into the ranks of Pasha’s Turkish troops, while General Murat, a veteran of Italy led a frightening cavalry charge that broke the Turks through sheer shock; they quickly fled back to their ships.

It was a victory, but it would be a final Egyptian victory for Napoleon, as he had been requested to return to France by the Directory (government). Barely a month after returning to French soil, he had proclaimed himself Consul; France was now in the grip of a military dictatorship that would remain until 1814. Napoleon’s departure however, did not mark the end of French interests in Egypt, the victory at Aboukir had seen to that. However, with their original plans of grandeur and conquest up in smoke, there seemed little point in being there. Two years later, the French were expelled from Egypt forever by the British, who maintained a presence in the country until Egypt finally gained independence in 1952.

References

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

First Part of a Documentary Regarding Napoleon's Quest for Egypt

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    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I know; the more I write about him, the more despise him. Just another delusional warmonger, who wanted nothing more than world domination. I'm glad he failed as well.

    • christopheranton profile image

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

      How typical of Bonaparte to massacre unarmed troops. So much for "Liberte, Egalitie, Fraternitie". I'm glad he got his comeuppance