In March 1798, General Napoleon Bonaparte, not yet the prime enemy of Great Britain, yet a rising star in the military of the French Republic, conceived of a grandiose plan to conquer the East, including British India, by landing an Army in Egypt. The Directory, which held executive power in France at the time, was dubious about the expedition, but approved it nevertheless as a means to remove a popular General from the center of power.
Napoleon gathered a fleet and an army, as well as a contingent of scholars and scientists, as the expedition was seen to be as much one of exploration as conquest. He eluded the British Mediterranean fleet, then under Admiral Horatio Nelson, and seized the island of Malta from the Order of the Knights of St. John on June 9th. Leaving a small garrison on the island of Malta, Napoleon proceeded on to Egypt, landing near Alexandria on July 1st. Napoleon seized the port of Alexandria with hardly a shot fired, and then proceeded down the Nile to conquer Cairo.
The march, which took place in the summer heat of Egypt, without adequate supplies of water, was brutal to the French soldiers. Some died of exposure and thirst. Others actually committed suicide on the march, rather than continue their suffering. Nevertheless, Napoleon and his Army arrived in the shadow of the Pyramids.
The army of the ruling Mamluks, led by Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey, confronted Napoleon’s Army with between fifty thousand and seventy five thousand men, most primitively armed cavalry. Napoleon had twenty five thousand men, armed with modern muskets, as well as some artillery. Napoleon deployed his men in squares. He rode out along the French front, haranguing his troops. “Forty centuries of history look down upon you.”
The Mamluk cavalry charged the French squares. Each charge was broken up by artillery and musket fire. Then Napoleon stormed the Mamluk camp, dispersing the Mamluk infantry. The surviving Mamluks dispersed to Syria (modern Israel) to regroup. All of lower Egypt, along with Cairo, lay at Napoleon’s feet.
The Battle of the Nile
In the meantime, Admiral Horatio Nelson, with a fleet of fourteen ships, scoured the Eastern Mediterranean for the escaped French fleet. About three weeks after the French landing in Egypt, Nelson located the French fleet, numbering fifteen ships, anchored in Aboukir Bay, near Alexandria. The French fleet was anchored in shallow water, protected by a shoal on the port side. The starboard side faced the open sea. The French ships were chained together, the better to prevent the British from breaking the French line and defeating the French ships in detail.
Admiral Nelson decided to attack on the evening of August 1st, when the French did not expect him. He divided his fleet into two divisions. One division would sail between the French fleet and the shoal, the other down the opposite and deeper side. The wind favored the British, coming from the north, and would prevent the French ships from raising anchor and attempting to concentrate.
Admiral Nelson’s fleet proceeded to take the French ships apart, concentrating fire on each ship in turn. The first French ship to suffer the broadsides of the British fleet, L’Orient, was dismasted, drifted away, and eventually caught fire, blew up, and sank. Each French ship in turn received similar treatment. Only two French ships, Genereux and Guillaume Tell, along with two frigates, managed to escape the battle intact. The British ship Culloden ran aground during the opening moments of the battle and took no further part.
Thus the British achieved absolute naval superiority in the Mediterranean. More importantly, Napoleon and his army had become land bound, the sea route back to France cut off.
Despite losing his fleet, Napoleon still had an intact army. He managed to consulate his power in Egypt, despite a number of local uprisings. In early 1799, Napoleon began his grand eastern design by invading the Ottoman province of Syria (modern Israel.) He defeated Ottoman forces in several battles, but disease and lack of supplies took their toll. Napoleon was unable to take the port town of Acre, as it was being resupplied and otherwise supported by the British fleet. Napoleon retreated back to Egypt and, on July 25th, defeated an Ottoman amphibious invasion at Aboukir.
Realizing that there was no glory left to be won in Egypt and aware of political unrest taking place back in France, Napoleon handed over command of the army in Egypt to General Kleber and slipped through the British blockade in a single ship to return to France.
The French Army in Egypt lasted another two years. Another British supported Ottoman invasion was defeated at the Battle of Heliopolis in March of 1800. An uprising in Cairo was suppressed. Then General Kleber was assassinated by a Syrian student in June of 1800. Command of the French Army in Egypt went to General Menou. In August 1801, under continued harassment by the British and Ottoman, his troops decimated by disease, Menou capitulated to the British. His surviving troops, along with an immense haul of Egyptian antiquities, were repatriated to France.
Napoleon’s grand design of a French Empire in the East lay in ruins. Nevertheless, Napoleons fortunes did not suffered due to the calamity. Napoleon overthrew the government of the Directory in a military coup and named himself “First Consul”, in effect ruler of France. Eventually he had himself crowned “Emperor of the French” and went on to ravage Europe for the next fifteen years, winning numerous victories, until the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.
One of the sidelights of the Egyptian Expedition was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which was written in three scripts, including ancient Greek, and Egyptian hieroglyphs. This discovery eventually led to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone has resided in the British Museum since 1802.