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Six Heads a Day

Napoleon in Egypt

By Paul Strathern
Bantam, 2008


The dictator’s lot is not a happy one; plots and insurrections abound, and nobody you know can be completely trusted. But there’s at least one piece of luck shared by all aspiring world-conquerors who lived before the fourth century BC: at least you didn’t have to contend with Alexander the Great. And it wasn’t just a matter of contending with the man directly, although that could be quite bad enough, as thoroughly out-fought Persian kings, Bactrian satraps, and Indian princes could attest.

No, in a way it was worse after he was dead, because every would-be conqueror after Alexander died had to deal not only with plots and insurrections but with status envy. Yes, you overran six countries in as many weeks, yes, you extracted piles of tribute from far-flung peoples … but did you do it all by age 33? Alexander did. Did you do it all with an innate grace that as often as not had your conquered nations praising you? Alexander did. Did you keep your boyish good looks throughout it all? Hell, did you even have boyish good looks to start with? We have statues of Alexander; he was luscious. And Plutarch says his body odor was naturally pleasant. And there’s that whole the Great business – almost nobody gets one of those. No wonder subsequent conquerors always look irked in their portraits.

Irked and covetous. Ever since Alexander, certain bloody-minded men in the right set of circumstances have dared to dream of imitating the famous Macedonian teen-idol. And some of those men have been in the right position geographically to try their imitation using the exact same terrain. Julius Caesar, Marcus Crassus, Trajan, Genghis Khan, the odd Ottoman emperor … all dreamt of ramparting troops along the golden road to Samarkand in a dream of conquest stretching to the Indus River. Never mind that the topography makes it virtually impossible for you to keep what you conquer (this is another way in which Alexander was lucky: he didn’t live long enough to see his new possessions frittered away); never mind that the indigenous peoples of those regions are some of the most fractious and tough-minded in the world; never mind the cost, which no flow of tribute could ever ultimately justify … Alexander did it, and that spell has proven disastrously strong for would-be Alexanders ever since.

In all cases, Egypt is the key. Its location makes control of the sea possible, and its wealth in grain and exports, all backed by the mighty Nile, make it a storehouse of cash and provender so large and reliable that when you first possess it, you feel like you really can take the rest of the known world. It never works out that way (except for Alexander), but the allure is irresistible. Men with armies get drunk on the idea of Egypt and then reel eastward.

This is how it was for the thirty-one-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. He was a celebrity already for his ‘conquest’ of a supine and decadent Italy, and France’s revolutionary government, the Directory (ably if unscrupulously led by Talleyrand, who understood Bonaparte as well and instinctively as a surgeon understands his sharpest scalpel), was eager to find him employment – preferably someplace far from France. Bonaparte was a self-styled child of the Revolution, as he’d told the Directory – but children grow up, and the Directory was understandably eager to hold onto the power they’d so recently acquired. Luckily, Bonaparte had already caught the aforementioned allure of the East, so their instructions to him aligned exactly with his foremost dreams: he would go to Egypt, as a conqueror and liberator.

Napoleon in Egypt, by Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904)

This is the subject of Paul Strathern’s new book, Napoleon in Egypt, and it’s an odd and ultimately frustrating book, for all its merits.

It avails less than at first seems apparent to say one of those merits is Strathern’s strong narrative ability, although he has that ability, and it is indeed strong. It’s unhelpful to point this out because Bonaparte’s military adventures – and the pitched clash Napoleonic France had with England – are subjects on which it has always been difficult to be boring. Writing an exciting book on Napoleonic warfare is like making an omelette: you’ll never get any praise simply for being able to do it.

What matters is how you do it, and Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt leaves the objective historian with few alternatives but to break out the thesaurus and come up with as many alternatives to ‘egomaniacal folly’ as its pages contain. Strathern assures us:

Initially, Napoleon was unwilling to delegate. He appeared to be able to attend to the smallest details, yet at the same time keep in mind the larger picture. He knew precisely what he wanted.

But this simply isn’t true, and we have the complaints of many of Bonaparte’s generals and subordinates to say so. It’s true he didn’t delegate, but what resulted was not clockwork order but near-chaos on every level of organization. Bonaparte was in such a hurry to get to Egypt that his Army of the Orient was shipped out drastically under-provisioned, under-equipped, and lacking in even the most basic preparations, including desert gear and adequate amounts of water. Strathern knows all this, just as he must surely know the events that followed from it, and he says all the requisite things about vainglory and impetuosity – but drifting like ground-fog around every part of his book is nevertheless a sense of admiration for Bonaparte. This isn’t so surprising a reaction to encounter in witless business moguls and coke-addled Hollywood types, but it’s positively anachronistic in a historian.

Bonaparte left France with just under 40,000 men, sailing in 13 ships of the line, 42 frigates, and 130 transports (Strathern calls it “the first great seaborne invasion of the modern era”). With almost no resistance, he took Malta and turned his attention to Cairo, which, as a distant outpost of the Ottoman Empire, was defended by its Mamelukes, and by troops under the command of Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey. In pitched encounters at El Rahmaniya and then (after a grueling desert-march that claimed the lives of who knows how many of his unprepared and ill-equipped men) Cairo itself, the lurid spectacle of modern-era colonial warfare was re-enacted in all its pathetic splendor, with mounted, turbaned warriors shrieking their war-cries, waving their swords, and then getting blown to pieces by European artillery. Bonaparte would issue proclamations to the natives assuring them that he came as a friend to Islam, that he merely wanted to free them from their hated Ottoman overlords, but even from the start, he wasn’t believed – which was neatly synchronous with the fact that he was lying. He saw Egypt as a stepping-stone in his dream of conquering the entire near East, of striking into India, and of building an empire that would ultimately crush the hated British.

Naturally, all the native Egyptian groups had other ideas, and they fought him with a ferocity he hadn’t expected (Strathern intentionally echoes present-day world events by stressing that Bonaparte thought his French forces would be “welcomed as liberators.”) The British also had other ideas, and Bonaparte’s tawdry massacre of a “victory” at Cairo is overshadowed in history by the stunning defeat of his navy, stationed at Aboukir Bay under the command of Admiral Brueys. With Bonaparte’s approval, Brueys had set his ships in a line blocking the mouth of the harbor, each vessel anchored a set distance from each other and all under the watchful protection of the land-based batteries of the port.

This configuration of enemy forces confronted Admiral Horatio Nelson on August 1st 1798, and he immediately attacked, getting the famous Battle of the Nile quickly underway . Nelson’s ships found a gap in Brueys’ line sufficient to sail through and were thus able to rake the French ships at anchor from their shore-sides, where in many cases their gun-ports weren’t even open.

An enormous fire-fight ensued as night came on, and the French fleet was destroyed or captured. Nelson was wounded, and Brueys himself was killed in the action, thus sparing him the irritation of watching Bonaparte try to blame the whole thing on him once word of the defeat spread. (“Brueys, what have you done?”) And even if Brueys had survived the Battle of the Nile, he’d be dead by now, thus sparing him the irritation of watching Strathern agree that Bonaparte had no hand in the destruction of his own fleet:

Unfortunately, Vice-Admiral Brueys had not taken the precaution of blockading the western harbor [of Alexandria] as his ships entered, thus allowing a large number of boats bringing fish, tomatoes, melons and other fresh local produce from along the coast to flee. Napoleon was furious and reprimanded Brueys, but he remained even more concerned with defending the fleet against Nelson’s squadron, which could still have appeared at any moment.

Ah, the poor general! Beset on all sides by incompetents! Stathern’s quiet outrage is easily heard, and the reader is left to wonder why, if Bonaparte was so concerned with the safety of his fleet, he didn’t order it to safety once it had landed his Army of the Orient. Instead of doing that, he left the disposition of this most crucial matter in Brueys’ hands:

“The admiral will send a report tomorrow informing the general-in-chief whether the fleet can enter the port of Alexandria, or if not whether it would be able to defend itself against a superior enemy fleet whilst anchored in Aboukir Bay. In case neither of these possibilities is feasible, the admiral should, having disembarked all artillery, set sail for Corfu.”

Since Brueys opted to stay at Aboukir rather than decamp for Corfu (no doubt wisely anticipating that had he gone to Corfu prior to the arrival of Nelson’s fleet, Bonaparte would have accused him of desertion), the Army of the Orient now found itself cut off from the sea and stranded in Egypt for good or ill (“So,” Bonaparte told them, “we are now obliged to accomplish great things, and accomplish them we will. We are obliged to found a great empire, and found it we will. The sea, of which we are not masters, separates us from our homeland; but no sea separates us from either Africa or Asia.…”)

It was mostly ill. Despite their antiquated weapons and tactics, the Beys and their forces put up a ferocious resistance to the French occupation, and forces in neighboring Syria (equally unwelcoming to these “liberators”) under Djezzar Pasha quickly marshaled to attack the invaders. Strathern’s book is never less than picturesque, and he efficiently evokes the physical realities of the poor Army of the Orient:

The entire army was exhausted, and all made do as best they could, through the damp chill of the night and the burning heat of the day, with the men and officers stretched out together amongst the tethered donkeys, transport camels, pack and cavalry horses. Such an encampment of over 20,000 men – with the soldiers washing themselves in the Nile, hanging out their scrubbed uniforms to dry, cleaning their equipment, checking their rifles and sharpening their bayonets, some muttering, some singing, others prostrate with fatigue – must have made quite a sight.

Battle of the Nile, by Thomas Luny (1759-1837)

But the fact remains that the Battle of the Nile struck a death-blow to Bonaparte’s dreams of conquest in the East. His army, dwindling every day through mismanagement, sniper fire and sporadic outbreaks of the plague, now found itself on foot in hostile country, with no allies and no means of re-supply from France. Strathern has read the justifications Bonaparte wrote (while stewing in exile, after it was all over), and he faithfully relays them:

Napoleon was convinced that all this [the invasion of India] could take place “regardless of the loss of his fleet,” for it was to be an overland expedition in the footsteps of Alexander the Great; indeed, preparations for this “march on India” had already been set in motion.

But these ‘preparations’ extended mainly to fighting those who dared to dislike his invasion of their country and planning to escape back to France when that fighting got too sticky. In addition to the inhuman privations Bonaparte’s army had to endure thanks to his mismanagement, there was also the savagery of the Egyptians and Bedouins they encountered at every step of the expedition historian Robert Harvey calls “the most harebrained, pointless and vainglorious in Napoleon’s entire career before his invasion of Spain and Russia …” French stragglers were killed or taken by the Bedouin fighters who shadowed the columns, and French garrisons were attacked and in many cases (the worst of which was the infamous El-Mansura) massacred, and under Bonaparte’s command, their own depravities were every bit as bad.

Strathern echoes the party line when he says “Disorderly behavior, especially in public, was liable to severe punishment; in line with Napoleon’s early proclamation, he was determined that as far as possible his troops should not upset local sensibilities.”

Those local sensibilities were probably offended by the looting and pillaging Bonaparte’s men and generals indulged in throughout their three-year stay in the Near East. Certainly European sensibilities were later offended by accounts of Bonaparte’s duplicities throughout his campaign, culminating in his order to slaughter the 6,000 Turks and Moroccans after the siege of Jaffa – Bonaparte guaranteed these men their lives if they surrendered, and when they did, he immediately had them all killed, protesting that he could ill-afford either the men or the supplies to keep them alive and send them back to Egypt. Strathern is eager to defend this indefensible piece of barbarity:

According to the rules of war, all the prisoners taken at Jaffa could be slaughtered: their commander had dismissed Napoleon’s offer of surrender. (What would he have done if they had all surrendered?) Thus Napoleon knew that he had a right to kill them. …The only real alternative would have been to abandon his march on Acre – and beyond. All Napoleon’s dreams, his destiny, rested on this decision.

Overlooking (or trying to) the fact that it’s the place of despots, not historians, to use justifying terms like “destiny,” the fact is Bonaparte could easily have spared a hundred armed men to escort these prisoners back to Egypt, and his stores of food and water were for once in sufficient abundance (thanks to the sack of Jaffa) to provide for such a move. Commanders in foreign countries must often be ruthless, but Bonaparte’s conduct at Jaffa goes well beyond what war could justify – an opinion which Napoleonic historians are in complete agreement, or were.

Even while he was fighting the armies of Egypt, Bonaparte was trying to convince its inhabitants that he was their friend, a respecter of their religion and customs. He instructed his generals to give due deference to local holy days and rituals, and he made at least some effort to do likewise himself, as in this passage from Strathern (in which his prose, alas, is not all it could be):

…Napoleon was determined to show that he came as an understanding friend of Islam. He promised El-Bekri that he would attend the holy ceremonies and celebrations in person, and he sent word to Kleber in Alexandria and Menou in Rosetta, ordering that they should organize and take part in their own local celebrations for the Birth of the Prophet. On the appointed day, Napoleon duly attended the ceremonies at the residence of El-Bekri, where prayers were said and the family tree of the Prophet was read out: a seemingly endless list of his genealogy extending from the seventh century to the present. According to some sources, Napoleon even went so far as to attend the ceremonies in Arabic dress.

Ceremonies were attended, one gathers.

In the end, however, such transparent gestures didn’t matter. Not only did Bonaparte face continued resistance at every step of his march, but what news from the Continent managed to slip through the British blockade of Egypt was more and more disturbing. Great Britain, Russia, and Austria had formed the Second Coalition and rolled back Bonaparte’s conquests in Italy. “So!” Bonaparte exclaimed, “My presentiments were not wrong! Italy is lost! The wretches! All the fruits of our victories have disappeared! I must depart!”

Note the pronoun. The dark news from France gave Bonaparte the justification he needed to do what he’d surely been thinking about doing ever since his dream of Alexander-style conquest started hitting tangible obstacles: quit. Readers who’ve watched him lie and deceive throughout even so sanitized an account as Strathern’s will hardly be surprised to learn that when Bonaparte thought of leaving, he thought only of himself, not his army, and he kept his plans a secret, despite the delusions of grandeur that had long since taken hold of him in his self-perceived role as Egypt’s benevolent conqueror:

[General Jean-Baptiste] Kleber was very much an army officer, especially in his dislike of politics; yet what he was reluctantly witnessing was the development of Napoleon the political administrator. Napoleon was beginning to emerge as Sultan El-Kebir, a man behoven [sic] to no superiors, the ruler of Egypt in every respect, giving the first intimations of the emperor he was to become: exuding power, charisma, and even charm.

The great Sultan was still talking to his loyal troops about the march through Egypt, the penetration into India itself, and Strathern is still willing to take him entirely at his word:

The regaining of a few trading posts in India hardly merited such a dramatic description. And as for the future peace treaty he mentioned, this relied upon French conquests in Europe which seemed highly unlikely in light of the latest news he had received. It looks as if this triumphant declaration was nothing more than a piece of propaganda, designed to keep his troops happy: this was what they wanted to hear. However, its sheer mendacity points to Napoleon’s indecisive state of mind. He did not know what to do next. He was dithering: for once in his life, keeping his options open had paralyzed his ability to decide.

But in actuality Bonaparte wasn’t indecisive at all; he knew exactly what he wanted to do: get the hell out of Egypt, away from its miserable wadis and its recalcitrant population of subhuman non-Europeans. Alone among contemporary historians of the period, Strathern seems so trusting of Bonaparte’s intentions that the reader almost becomes worried that Strathern will end up stranded in Egypt, left behind by the commander he so implicitly trusted not to simply cut and run back to the Directory:

This cannot have been a strong possibility in his mind; he would hardly have suggested to his army that they would soon be going back to France if he was seriously thinking of doing so himself and simply abandoning them. This was no way to retain the loyalty of the army. On the other hand, he could remain in Egypt, laying down firm foundations for the establishment of his Oriental empire. At this point, he appears to have viewed none of these possibilities with much conviction. Were they even plausible? Or were they just dreams? It is possible that at this point Napoleon had stage fright before the enormity of his ambitions.

In Strathern’s view, there can be only one word to explain how Bonaparte overcame this “stage fright,” and it’s a word we’ve encountered before:

His dream of an Oriental empire was beginning to look like just that – a dream. And the situation in Egypt was not getting any better, with his army running out of men and money. His only realistic hope of the glory he so craved lay in France: he would leave Egypt and take his chances with destiny.

Stage fright overcome, Bonaparte did indeed abandon the Army of the Orient (as one commander put it, he “left us our breeches full of shit”), sending back helpful tips about dealing with the surly locals, like “If necessary, cut off six heads a day, but keep smiling.…”

Needless to say, there were few smiles in Egypt when Bonaparte left. The country and the region were in uproar like a kicked wasp’s nest, the bedraggled and starving Army of the Orient was left to its own devices, and Europe was about to get a dictator in the cold, calm gaze of whose eyes, as J. Christopher Herold puts it, “there was a quality that inspired devotion in some, terror in all, and love in none.”

Less than half of Bonaparte’s soldiers in Egypt made it back home alive. Destiny should be more kind, and historians in 2008 less so.

___
A bosun on the HMS Belleisle, Steve Donoghue fought in the Battle of Trafalgar. He took to land afterwards with a dull clerkship and recaptured the ferocity of the fight in his writing, which can be seen on his literary blog Stevereads.

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