Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Napoleonic Fiasco
Why Egypt?

Battle of the Pyramids 1798

Napoleon was, undoubtedly, one of the greatest military geniuses of all time yet he was involved in number of truly disastrous military fiascos.1 The purpose of the following essay is brief look at the preliminaries of the first and probably least costly of these fiascos the Egyptian Expedition.

Although Napoleon only commanded the expedition for the first part of the expedition, (1798-1799), it is obvious that by the time he left the whole thing was headed for disaster and failure unless the French simply cut their losses.

The expedition had in many respects aspects that gave it the appearance of a hair-brained scheme. For example it involved transporting a large French army across the Mediterranean to Egypt in order to conquer and occupy it. That in the face of English naval superiority was more than a bit reckless. Further it involved attacking a possession of a power that was if not an ally of France a power favourably inclined to France; the Ottoman Empire. How annoying the Ottoman Turks made any sense is questionable. In other words the expedition stood a very good chance of being isolated in Egypt under attack by an infuriated formerly friendly power and the British.2

So just why was this hair-brained scheme approved and carried out? Well first of all the scheme although still quite a risk was not quite as hair-brained as appears in retrospect.

It all started in the mid 18th century after the French had established various commercial and governmental agents in Egypt. In the year 1777 the French government sent a diplomat named de Tott to check out the French position in Egypt. After completing his mission de Tott produced a memorandum for the French Minister of the Marine in which he claimed the defences were meagre and the country could be occupied with ease. De Tott mentioned that occupation of Egypt would lead to control of land routes to India, Persia and Arabia to say nothing of the advantages of digging a canal from the Red sea to the Mediterranean. Further the wealth of Egypt itself was quite considerable. Further to this the governing class in Egypt was the Mameluke's, who were both stunningly corrupt and very unpopular.3

The Mameluke's had more or less governed Egypt for more than 5 centuries. They had originally started out as slave soldiers for the Sultans of Egypt in the mid 13th century. They were generally from the peoples who lived in the Caucasus region at the eastern end of the Black sea. By c. 1260 they had achieved control over Egypt. In 1517 C.E., the Ottoman’s conquered Egypt and overthrew the last of the Mameluke Sultans however despite this Egypt remained largely under their control.4

Under their rule, government, administration, taxes etc., became increasingly capricious and arbitrary. So that by 1798 it appeared that Egypt was ripe for the taking. Especially since the Ottoman Turks had little control over Egypt.

Also as a matter of course the Mameluke's although personally capable of great bravery were to put it bluntly quite inept at the art of war. In all it seemed like a good idea.

It did however have some rather severe drawbacks which should have caused the idea to be permanently shelved as a pipe dream.

First was the simple fact that the invaders would be at least nominally Christians would set off a great deal of animosity in an Egypt that was largely Muslim. So however much the average Egyptian may dislike the Mameluke's and their corrupt brutal rule they were not likely to have positive feelings regarding being ruled by Christians.

French Supressing an Uprising in Cairo

Secondly the climate of Egypt was one not very comfortable for European troops and very unhealthy for the inhabitants much less un-acclimatised Europeans. That Europeans would do badly health wise in this climate with its myriad diseases was a given.

Thirdly in the face of English Naval supremacy such an expedition would be likely to be cut off from reinforcements and basically trapped in Egypt.

Fourth despite Ottoman Turk dislike of their nominal vassals the Mameluke's any invasion of Egypt by the French would be regarded as and a declaration of war and would certainly cause a war between the Turks and the French.

Fifth the Turks, English and Russians regarded each other with great suspicion. The Turks for example, with cause, thought the Russians were aiming at the partition of the Ottoman Empire. The Russian’s thought the English were out to deny them commercial advantages in the Middle East and the English regarded both the Turks and Russians as out to screw them over. An Invasion of Egypt was all too likely to bring all these enemies together, at least temporarily, to drive the French out.

Sixth finally the simple fact is the current Ottoman Sultan and his government were very favourably inclined towards the French government and was basically an ally of the French. Under those circumstances it seemed pointless to annoy the Ottoman’s by invading one of their provinces.5

But the course human stupidity cannot be stayed. It appears that aside from the rather overdeveloped tales of the riches to be obtained by occupying Egypt that the real reason was quite simple. The government in France was frustrated at being unable to get a grip at its main enemy England. English Naval supremacy made an invasion of Egypt seemed a cheap and cost effective way at, somehow, striking at England. The fact that the blow struck someone else seemed beside the point.

Further despite English Naval superiority since 1796 the English had evacuated the Mediterranean because of Spain’s alliance with France. So it seemed that perhaps an invasion of Egypt did not have to worry about English Naval superiority.

Napoleon had his own reasons. He apparently underplayed the difficulty of the task and looked at it as a way of adding to his fame and fortune for home political advantage. In 1797 Napoleon had already explored the possibility of overthrowing the government and making himself ruler of France. At the time the idea sunk like a rock and he got virtually no positive feedback for that idea. Meanwhile the Directory that ruled France regarded Napoleon as a danger to it and thought the idea of Napoleon 1000+ miles away a really great idea. In Egypt Napoleon could not intrigue against the government. Napoleon saw it as another way to build up his fame and fortune.6

Well the results were predictable and virtually inevitable. The invasion was the catalyst that led to the formation of the Second coalition against France. The Ottoman Turks declared war on France. Egypt was conquered but proved difficult to hold, even with the manifest military incompetence of the Mameluke's. Nelson destroyed the French fleet in the battle of the Nile and trapped the French in Egypt. In late 1799 Napoleon abandoned his troops in Egypt in order to reap advantage from a political crisis in France. Perhaps at another time I will write about that shameful episode. In late 1799 Napoleon engaged in a coup that brought him to power.

In Egypt disease and attrition steadily reduced the size of the French forces. Finally in 1801 after years of steady attrition and a decaying situation the French left after negotiating a face saving capitulation that allowed them to return to France. Of the c. 50,000 French soldiers and sailors that went to Egypt 23,000 came back the rest were dead. This does not include the large number of Egyptian, dead from massacre, starvation, war, and one must add the English and Turkish dead.7

Aside from the fact that this Expedition marked the beginnings of modern Egyptology from the work of the scientists and specialists Napoleon brought with him the Expedition did little good. Perhaps at another time I will discuss other aspects of the Expedition.

French measuring the Sphinx

1. In Chronological order these fiasco's are The Egyptian Expedition, 1798-1801, The St. Dominique Expedition, 1801-1803, The Peninsular War, 1808-1814, The Russian Campaign 1812.

2. Herold, J. Christopher, Bonaparte in Egypt, Harper and Row Pub., New York, 1962, pp. 4-21, Fregosi, Paul, Dreams of Empire, Cardinal, London, 1989, pp. 146-154, Esdaile, Charles, Napoleon’s Wars, Penguin Books, London, 2007, pp. 61-70, Blanning, T.C.W., The French Revolutionary Wars 1787-1802, Arnold, New York, 1996, pp. 228-230.

3. Herold. p. 8-10, Fregosi, pp. 156-158.

4. IBID.

5. Kinross, Lord, The Ottoman Centuries, Morrow Quill Paperbacks, New York, 1977, pp. 417-418.

6. See Footnote 1 and Blanning, T.C.W., The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars, Longman, New York, 1986, pp. 173-199.

7. Herold, pp. 1, 388-389.

Pierre Cloutier

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