The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. — G. K. Chesterton

Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler




From Cairo to Frejus


(1798-1799)


Napoleon was not the type of man who meets troubles half way and quietly accepts what some might consider to be the inevitable. He certainly believed, or pretended to believe, in his star, which was only another word for Fate, with a persistency worthy of an astrologer. At the beginning of his career this did not preclude him from taking the utmost precautions that his destiny should not be averted by any want of energy or forethought on his part. Such a policy is by no means the paradox it would appear. A soldier must pull the sword from its scabbard if it is to be of service; faith must be supported by works. Therefore, while the General recognised the seriousness of his position in Egypt, he was no less determined to fight to the end.

As Murad Bey was still at large, Desaix was sent with a detachment to Upper Egypt, where he was known to be, Napoleon setting off for Suez for the purpose of seeing at first hand whether the cutting of a canal was a practicable proposition. While he was engaged in this peaceful occupation, Europe, encouraged by Nelson's victory, was preparing to resist him in the field. England, Russia and Turkey were determined to overthrow French influence in Egypt. At Rhodes 20,000 Turks were ready to sail for the seat of war, in Syria a second army assembled to assist the other, while a third army was preparing in India to land on the shores of the Red Sea and attack the French in their rear. There seemed, indeed, a possibility that Napoleon might be caught between the upper and the nether millstones.

With the craft of the Oriental, Murad Bey, defeated but not crushed, still plotted and planned to rid Egypt of her conquerors. At his instigation Cairo revolted, but was taught a severe lesson by Napoleon; other conspiracies were dealt with in the same stern way. Presently came the startling news that the vanguard of the Syrian army was not only in the field, but had actually taken El Arish. With one of those swift movements inseparably associated with his science of war, Napoleon started with 10,000 troops on a five-days' march across the treacherous desert, the sun blazing down upon the men, scorching their faces, baking their feet, and parching their tongues. At last the dreary march came to an end, and at midnight the French bombarded El Arish and captured the town. But there was to be no rest for the tired troops; they resumed their march to Gaza, where another division of the Turkish army was routed. On the 4th March 1799, Jaffa was reached. It was more a massacre than a battle which ensued, and the Turks were compelled to retreat in disorder before the iron hail which decimated their ranks.

After this battle Napoleon ordered many prisoners to be shot. Warfare never has been child's play, and it must be remembered that Napoleon could ill afford to have his army hindered by the care of captives. At the same time it is difficult to extenuate the act, although some of the victims had been captured before and broken their promise not to fight again.

To reduce Acre, where a strong army was gathered, was the next item on the French military programme. The Turks were fortunate in having the assistance of so able an officer as Commodore Sir Sidney Smith, who commanded a small fleet with which he captured a French flotilla conveying a large number of guns and a considerable quantity of ammunition for Napoleon from Damietta. The task of reducing Acre soon began to look as difficult as that of Mantua in the last campaign. The French General had also to fight an unseen enemy in the plague which broke out in the army and caused serious mortality. To crown all, news was received of the approach of some 30,000 Turks and Mamelukes. Kleber, with an advance guard of 3,000 troops, was pushed forward in the direction of the enemy, followed by Napoleon with an equal number. Two thousand men were left at Acre to maintain the siege as best they could. "The fate of the East depends upon the capture of Acre," he told Bourrienne. "That is the key of Constantinople or of India." He counted on being able to raise and arm the whole population of Syria on the fall of the town. "My armed masses will penetrate to Constantinople, and the Mussulman dominion will be overturned. I shall found in the East a new and mighty Empire, which will fix my position with posterity." Vain and empty dream, but perhaps not so vain or so empty as a casual reader might suppose.

On the 16th April, Kleber came up with the enemy near Mount Tabor, and notwithstanding the disparity in numbers, held out for hours against the Turkish host. Napoleon and his troops arrived on the scene not a minute too soon; another half an hour in all probability would have decided the issue in favour of the Turks. The new detachments helped to stem the tide, but the Mussulmans continued their valiant attacks upon the French squares. The sterling courage of Murat was never seen to greater advantage. Apparently throwing prudence to the winds he charged with his troops into the enemy's ranks regardless of consequences. It may have been foolhardy, it was certainly dramatic, and turned the scales in favour of the French. The issue of the battle of Mount Tabor was an annihilation rather than a victory.

By the 19th Napoleon had returned to his work at Acre. Three French frigates brought him six cannon of large caliber and intelligence of a rapidly-approaching Turkish fleet, two vessels of which they had been fortunate enough to capture.

Almost every conceivable method of concluding the siege was now tried by both parties, and the place was literally honeycombed with mines. When the vanguard of the Turkish fleet was sighted, Napoleon knew that if he were to triumph it was to be now or never. With additional forces, both naval and military, the enemy would outnumber him in an alarming proportion, while his own ranks were diminishing hourly. Three columns were hurled to the attack; one was driven back, the others seized a tower which occupied an important strategic position. On the following day it became evident that without assistance the defenders would be forced to surrender. Sir Sidney Smith landed parties of sailors and marines, and was afterwards joined by reinforcements from the Turkish ships. By a subtle stratagem the French were prompted to make a false move which led them into the palace garden, where they were literally mown down. For ten days afterwards Napoleon struggled against the inevitable, and then, during the night of the 20th May, he began his first retreat to Cairo, via Jaffa and El Arish, a distance of some 300 miles, harassed by many a sharp skirmish with the enemy on the way.

After defeating Murad Bey and restoring some sort of order in Upper Egypt, Napoleon found it necessary to order Desaix to evacuate the province, an immediate concentration of troops having become imperative owing to the approach of yet another Turkish fleet at Alexandria and the landing of 10,000 Turks at Aboukir. Two battles were fought at Alexandria within a few hours, and many of the enemy were literally driven into the sea, but it was a close shave and Napoleon was within an ace of losing the second battle. Of the 10,000 Mussulmans who had landed to annihilate the French and restore Turkish rule in Egypt, 2,000 prisoners alone remained to tell the tale. It was one of the most marvellous of Napoleon's many extraordinary achievements in that country.

When arranging for an exchange of prisoners Sir Sidney Smith took the opportunity to send a little packet of newspapers containing news of vital importance to the French commander. He read of French reverses, of the great armies of the Second Coalition coming into being against the Republic, of despair and discontent in official and public circles. Indeed, the Directory had gone so far as to negotiate for Napoleon's return, so inextricable was the muddle they were in, but the General did not hear of this until later. He determined upon a policy which has been discussed in and out of season by historians for over a century; he would go back to France. Modern philosophers would have us believe that his decision was "perfectly justifiable on political grounds," but many Frenchmen at the time thought otherwise. To them it seemed a flagrant injustice to the army he commanded. "Bonaparte had fled from Egypt, as he fled from Russia and from Waterloo," says Baron de Frenilly. "A general does not flee—he retreats. But Bonaparte was ever the general of Fortune, and every time that she abandoned him he fled like a soldier, leaving the others to get out of the difficulty as best they could. This man, then, crept out of Egypt by night, glided between the English frigates and entered Paris. There he had to stoop and take what he wanted. France—after passing, during eight years, from the anarchy of revolutionaries to the anarchy of political comedians—was eager for the despotism of a single man."

There is much truth in the Baron's irony. For Napoleon the Orient had lost much of its charms; his political horizon was bounded again by the west solely because he had an eye for the main chance. His thoughts frequently wandered to the east at later periods of his career, the appeal becoming at times almost irresistible, so completely had the spell enchanted him. For the time being, however, it had lost its hold.

On the night of the 22nd August 1799, Napoleon left the inhospitable land of the Pharaohs never to return. There were grumbles and desertions on the part of the troops, which vague promises of relief from France did little to compensate. Kleber remained in command. On board the two frigates, alone available for Napoleon's use, he found accommodation for many of the best officers, including Lannes, Berthier, Murat, Marmont, and Duroc, useful men to have at any time. Few ships have ever had a more distinguished passenger list. God may be on the side of the biggest battalions, as Napoleon said, but assuredly Providence was with the little band which set out on so hazardous a voyage on that still summer night. The undertaking was fraught with perils, for many British ships were sighted, but having once more gazed on his beloved Ajaccio, where he was greeted with every sign of respect and admiration, Napoleon landed safely at St Raphael, near Frejus, on the 9th October 1799, after an absence from France of nearly fifteen months. He had not accomplished all he had set out to do, but he had added considerably to his military prestige, and that was everything in the position in which la belle France was now placed.