Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Expedition to Egypt

When Bonaparte proposed to the Directors to conquer Egypt, and thus prevent the English from reaching India save by way of the Cape of Good Hope, his proposal was accepted—principally because the Directors were jealous of his success and popularity, and desperately afraid lest he should not only eclipse, but, in time, supplant them. Preparations were therefore hastened, and he sailed from Toulon in May, 1798, with a force of tried soldiers and fine officers.

The English, warned of the preparation of the French fleet, but not knowing its destination, sent ships to re-enforce their admiral Nelson, near Toulon, so that he could fight it. These ships arrived too late, and Nelson cruised wildly around the Mediterranean, trying to find the French fleet. Meantime, Bonaparte had stopped at Malta, where, under pretext of renewing his fresh water supply, he landed some of his troops. Then, as had been previously arranged, traitors threw open the gates, thus surrendering to the French, without a blow, the mighty fortress which had been the stronghold of the Knights Hospitalers ever since 1530. But such was the strength of these island defenses, that one of the generals, after examining them, exclaimed, "It was very lucky for us that there was some one inside to open the gates to admit us!"

On the way from Malta to Alexandria, Bonaparte and his staff spent long evenings on deck, enjoying the balmy air, blue seas, and starry skies. Once, when one of the officers expressed atheistic views,—such as were fashionable since the Roman Catholic religion had suffered an eclipse in France,—he was silenced by Bonaparte's pointing to the heavens above them and remarking, "You may talk as much as you please, gentlemen, but tell me who made all that?"

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


On nearing Alexandria, the French admiral wished to wait a few days to effect a safer landing; but Bonaparte, knowing that time was precious and that he must land before the English could come up to prevent it, insisted upon disembarking immediately. He soon became master of the city of Alexandria, and then, while the navy moved off to anchor at Abukir, he set out to march with the army to Cairo. On the way thither, perceiving that new conditions required new methods, Bonaparte arranged that at any alarm his troops should form in squares, placing their baggage, laden on donkeys, and all noncombatants in the center. As his expedition was accompanied by a corps of illustrious scientists,—to study the country and its resources, and to select its choicest treasures to ship back to France as trophies,—the usual cry, when any danger threatened, was, "Form square, donkeys and scientists to the center!"

It was within sight of the hoary Pyramids that Bonaparte first encountered the fierce Mamelukes who were then the ruling class in Egypt. He gave the signal for battle, with the brief reminder, "Soldiers, from the summits of those Pyramids forty centuries are looking down upon you!" Here the foe were so sorely beaten that all Egypt was practically conquered, and Bonaparte could enter Cairo without striking another blow. Then, while one of his generals pursued the fleeing Mamelukes as far as the Nile cataracts, Bonaparte busied himself and his corps of scientists in ascertaining the resources of the country so as to increase its productivity. He also ordered many of the ancient canals repaired, and planned a Suez Canal (not constructed till after his time). He respected the native customs and beliefs; ate lentils like the inhabitants; took part in the Nile festival,—at the time when the flood begins,—where he was called "favorite of Allah"; and appeared, we are told, in the native dress.

While Bonaparte was thus busy on land, the French fleet, riding at anchor in Abukir Bay, was discovered by the searching Nelson, who destroyed it in the famous "Battle of the Nile." It was during this battle that the ten-year-old son of Admiral Casabianca proved his obedience to his father's orders by standing "on the burning deck" of the Orient  until that vessel exploded. Should you not happen to remember this familiar episode, do read it in the poem by Mrs. Hemans.

On hearing of this naval disaster, Bonaparte exclaimed philosophically, "To France the Fates have decreed the empire of the land—to England that of the sea!" Nevertheless, he knew that this defeat would prevent his receiving supplies or even news from France, and would cut off all present chance of returning thither with his army. He therefore declared, "This reverse will compel us to do even greater things than we had planned," and prepared to cross the Isthmus of Suez and enter Syria, intending to gain the key to the East by becoming master of the fortress of Acre.

On the way to Acre, Bonaparte seized Jaffa, where he ordered a cruel massacre of the Turkish prisoners; and he would have secured the fortress he coveted, had not Sir Sidney Smith come with his fleet to help the Turks defend it. Later Bonaparte declared, "That man marred my destiny!" thinking that the possession of Acre would have enabled him to get the better of both the Turks and the English, their allies. Meantime, a plague had broken out in Bonaparte's army, so that his soldiers were panic-stricken. To hearten them by, proving that the plague was not contagious, Bonaparte went among the sick, even touching those who were most seriously affected by the disease.

Shortly after, forced to retreat to Egypt, and so closely pursued that he could not remove some hopelessly sick men from Jaffa, Bonaparte proposed to the doctor to give them a dose which would hasten their end and prevent their falling into the foe's hands while still alive. This doctor, even under such conditions, proved mindful only of his oath, for he coldly replied, "My art teaches me to cure men, not to kill them."

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


A host of Turks soon landed at Abukir Bay, with the intention of crushing Bonaparte and his forces. But, instead of accomplishing this purpose, they were themselves destroyed, so that Bonaparte's rule in Egypt was secure. Murat, the friend and future brother-in-law of Bonaparte, distinguished himself in this battle of Abukir by making a brilliant charge at the head of the cavalry. But before this battle could "decide the fate of the world," as Bonaparte said, it had to become known in France, where no news had been received of the Egyptian expedition for so many months, that the Directory felt sure that Bonaparte's bones must already be whitening on the desert sands!