No fool can be silent at a feast. — Solon of Athens

Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Expedition to Egypt


There is no more romantic phase of Napoleon's career than that of his expedition to the sunny land of the Pharaohs. He has himself told us that "Imagination rules the world," and although he was essentially practical by nature, a man who invariably worked out his plans to almost fractional details, whenever practicable, his ardent Southern temperament readily responded to the glow and glamour of the Orient. There history had been made, there history was to be made. He saw vast possibilities in the slumbering East, perhaps an awakening into prodigious activity under the rule of a military dictator with liberal ideas. He might revitalize Asia as he had revivified some of the moribund States of worn-out Europe. Briefly his object was to conquer Egypt, oust the British from India, where their rule was by no means consolidated, and on his return, crush the power of the Sultan. Everything seemed to favour him in engineering the machinery of this vast project. The scientists of France took up the scheme with avidity, and learned members of the Institute, to which he had been admitted in the place of Carnot, gave him the benefit of their researches.

The notion of the expedition was not a sudden inspiration, acted upon on the spur of the moment. So far n back as the 10th August 1797, when affairs in Italy were still far from settled, Napoleon had mentioned the subject to the Directory, following it up by a lengthy letter a month later. He now reasoned it out, read travel books, examined maps, interrogated men of accurate knowledge, brooded over it in the solitude of the study, and mentally weighed the chances of success and failure. The scales turned in its favour, and Napoleon determined to rival the doings of Alexander.

Before long, extensive preparations were going on apace at Toulon, Genoa, Ajaccio, and Civita Vecchia. It was eminently necessary that Great Britain, which was still at war with France and had commanded the sea since the Tudor Navy had broken the giant power of Spain, should be deceived as to the destination of the fleets. As a subterfuge the so-called Army of England solemnly paraded, marched, and counter-marched. Those who were not in the secret thought the soldiers were awaiting the signal to embark for England, but it became evident as time passed that offensive operations against the English were not intended, some of the smartest battalions being gradually drafted into a newly-formed Army of Egypt. Everything was done with as much secrecy and celerity as possible; the meetings of the Directory, when the project was under discussion, were held with closed doors. It is significant that the cost was largely defrayed by plunder and forced contributions from the long-suffering Swiss.

A magnificent fleet was fitted out at Toulon, and when all the convoys at the various ports already mentioned had been concentrated, it reached a total of thirteen battle-ships, fourteen frigates, seventy-two corvettes, and nearly four hundred smaller craft, chiefly merchant vessels. Even with this great armament there was overcrowding, for quarters had to be found for no fewer than 35,000 troops. In addition there were over a hundred members of the Commission of the Arts and Sciences, all of whom were liberally provided with instruments and books likely to be of service in the warfare against ignorance and the intellectual conquest of the East. The admiral in command was Brueys, who had weathered the battle and the breeze for many a long year, the generals were the pick of the French Army, doughty champions of the Republic and reliable upholders of Napoleon's supreme command; Kleber, Desaix, Berthier, Murat, Menou, Lannes, Andreossi, to mention a few of the more prominent.

Good fortune attended the expedition at the outset, and it was regarded as of good augury that Nelson's reconnoitring squadron had been forced to retire by a gale and obliged to make for Sardinia, and that the morning of departure was sunny and cloudless. The Fates were surely with the French! For good or evil, the armada left Toulon on the 19th May 1798, picking up the vessels lying in other ports, as it proceeded eastward. Napoleon, accompanied by the savants, sailed on l'Orient, reputed to be the finest three-decker afloat. Malta was the first object of conquest, or rather of aggression. The Knights of St John, to whom the island belonged, surrendered quietly and without opposition. A Judas had been found willing to sell the once great Order which had fought the infidel and the Turk in the Holy Land, before Napoleon had put his foot on shore. Having garrisoned the island, planned an incredible number of reforms within a week, and replenished his coffers, Napoleon gave orders for the anchors to be weighed. The monotonous voyage was continued; monotonous because the lust of conquest coursed through the veins of commander and men alike, and they were impatient to be in action, so long as it was not action against Nelson, who was to be avoided at any cost.

Napoleon was not a good sailor, and passed most of the time in his cabin reading, one of the works in his travel-ling library being Cook's Voyages. Sometimes he would talk over nautical matters with Brueys, or discuss abstruse subjects with one or other of the scientists. One fine night on deck he pointed to the stars, and said: "You may talk as long as you please, gentlemen, but who made all that?" He lost no time, availed himself of every opportunity of adding to his already extensive knowledge of the East, and was as energetic mentally as an athlete is physically.

On the 1st July the sandy shore of Alexandria was sighted, and in the evening disembarkation began. It was a long and trying task to hoist the horses from the holds and land the heavy artillery, ammunition wagons, supplies, and the thousand and one impedimenta of warfare, but by the following morning the task was accomplished. Napoleon had already counselled moderation in his soldiers, telling them to respect the Mohammedan religion and those who represented it as well as the national customs. The conquest they were about to undertake was to be "fraught with incalculable effect upon the commerce and civilization of the world." Having secured the city after a short fight, in which the Mohammedans behaved with traditional daring, Napoleon issued a proclamation to the people to the effect that he had come to restore their rights and their religion, and to punish the usurpers, namely the Mamelukes. He said harsh things of the savage hordes who held the country in terror, threatening dire results to those who should join their marauding forces against the French. "For them there will be no hope; they shall perish!"

He infused new life into the sleepy civic institutions of Alexandria, gave orders for the repair of the age-worn fortifications, and for the erection of new batteries as well as for building factories and schools. In less than a week he was ready to make a move in the direction of Cairo, leaving 3000 men at Alexandria under Kleber, who had been wounded in the preliminary brush with the Mamelukes.

A march across sixty miles of burning sand was but the beginning of the hardships these tried soldiers of fortune were to endure in a land which neither provided water nor flowed with milk and honey. It seemed more like the abomination of desolation. Parched, footsore, dispirited, soldiers and officers alike drew invidious comparisons between the barren deserts of Egypt and the fertile plains of Lombardy. The die was cast; there was nothing to do but to follow the leader who frequently walked at the head of the columns supporting the same discomforts with cheerful fortitude. Attacks by bands of Mamelukes occasionally created a diversion and thinned the ranks. A cloud of dust in the distance would put the army on the defensive. Presently little specks would emerge which ultimately would resolve themselves into horses and riders. A short, sharp tussle and again the wild warriors would be flying over the sand on their swift Arab steeds. The troops soon became inured to this kind of warfare and learnt to meet it by forming into squares which the native cavalry, however swift their onslaught, could not pierce. When the army reached the banks of the Nile the whole aspect of the country changed and the soldiers took fresh courage.

At last the minarets of Cairo glimmered through the haze. The city boasted a population of many thousands, and their task-masters were prepared to sell their lives dearly in its defence. Near the Pyramids, those monuments of ancient greatness, the army halted. "Soldiers!" Napoleon cried, "from those summits forty centuries contemplate your actions." A more pregnant sentence cannot be conceived; it acted on the soldiers like a stimulant. There was difficult work to do, for the city was intrenched and defended by artillery, musketry, and cavalry under the command of Murad Bey, one of the chiefs of the Mamelukes.

A flotilla with supplies had met the French previously, so there was no question of lack of ammunition, but the enemy, probably numbering 18,000 men, looked as though they would make a brave fight of it. They (lid not belie their appearance. The Mamelukes charged the dense squares with amazing recklessness but were driven back. Presently Napoleon gave the word, his troops surged forward, and Frenchman and Arab met in a death-struggle in the trenches. Those of the enemy who could make good their escape did so, others were mown down as they made the attempt. Some expired on the windswept sand, others perished in the turgid waters of the Nile. Thus ended the Battle of the Pyramids. At nightfall the Egyptian camp presented a very different spectacle from its appearance in the morning. Soldiers were ransacking the scarcely cold bodies of those who had fallen in the rout, searching the camp for booty, for jewels, for ornaments of silver and of gold. Never was there richer plunder. Napoleon, now master of Cairo, made his headquarters in a palace formerly occupied by the defeated Murad. As at Malta, Napoleon at once began his scheme of reform, only on a necessarily larger scale. A general Congress was established for the government of the country. A scientific institute was founded, its chief object being to collect facts and figures likely to be of use in the development of Egypt. Many of the indispensable accessories of modern civilisation, from windmills to printing presses, were introduced. Romantic fancies were becoming realities, when Napoleon heard of the irreparable loss of his fleet, news which burst upon him with almost stunning force. Think for a moment what the disaster meant. The fleet was his sole means of communication with France. Brueys had signally neglected to carry out his master's orders that he was either to enter the harbour of Alexandria or to return to Corfu, and he had thereby given Nelson the opportunity which he had long been seeking and which had eluded him again and again. Some excuse is afforded Brueys by reason of his bad health, and it is certain that he found it next to impossible to control his insubordinate crews. On the 1st August 1798 the little one-eyed, one-armed British seaman not only shattered a French fleet considerably superior in strength, but dealt a crushing blow at the supremacy of the Republic in Egypt, although the full effects were not to be felt at once. The French, who fought with conspicuous bravery, were aided by the batteries which they had erected on shore, whereas the British had only their naval armament to rely upon. Within a short time five French ships were put out of action; when fighting finished, but two of Napoleon's men-of-war and two frigates remained to make good their escape. The magnificent Orient  caught fire, and "by the prodigious light of this conflagration," Southey tells us in his Life of Nelson, "the situation of the two fleets could now be perceived, the colours of both being plainly distinguishable. About ten the ship blew up, with a shock that was felt to the very bottom of every vessel. Many of the officers and men jumped overboard, some clinging to the spars and pieces of wreck with which the sea was strewn, others swimming to escape the destruction which they momentarily dreaded. Some were picked up by our boats; and some, even in the heat and fury of the action, were dragged into the lower ports of the nearest British vessel by the British sailors. The greater part of the crew, however, stood the danger to the last, and continued to fire from the lower deck. This tremendous explosion was followed by a silence not less awful. The firing immediately ceased on both sides; and the first sound that broke the silence was the dash of her shattered masts and yards falling into the water from the vast height to which they had been exploded. . . . About seventy of the Orient's  crew were saved by the English boats. Among the many hundreds who perished were the Commodore, Casa-Bianca, and his son, a brave boy, only ten years old. They were seen floating on a shattered mast when the ship blew up."

Brueys paid for his carelessness with his life, and his victorious antagonist was severely wounded. The French admiral fought with superb daring, and his dying words: "Fight to the last!" muttered on the quarter-deck as he bore the most excruciating agony, are a fitting parallel to those of Nelson when he was struck down. "I will take my turn with my brave fellows," he said, as the surgeons came to attend to his wounds. They were both worthy sons of their countries, and if the gods had denied Brueys the genius they had so lavishly bestowed on Nelson, he proved himself to be every inch a man.