"... forgets an army in Egypt... " - The Battle of Alexandria in 1801 and the end of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt and Syria
21 March 1801, General Menou’s defeat at the Battle of Alexandria, fought between French and British troops, marked the final stage of Napoleon’s failed campaign in Egypt and Syria.
“Frankreichs Liebling, die Säule der würdigeren Freiheit, rufet er der Vorzeit Begeisterung zurück, Zeiget dem erschlafften Jahrhundert römische Kraft“ (“France's favourite, the pillar of dignified freedom, he calleth back of old enthusiasm, Shew the slack century Roman force” - Caroline von Günderrode "Buonaparte in Egypt")
|Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740–1812): The Battle of Alexandria, 21 March 1801 (1802)|
It was a bit thick. After realising that his dreams of becoming a second Alexander the Great by conquering the Orient were decidedly over, Napoleon sneaked on board of one of the last French frigates in the eastern Mediterranean, slipped the blockade with the words “Bah! We'll get there, luck has never abandoned us, we shall get there, despite the English" and left his army in the lurch. 65 years later, Dostoevsky’s creation Raskolnikov, while preparing for his gory Übermensch exam, mused: “The real Master to whom all is permitted storms Toulon, makes a massacre in Paris, forgets an army in Egypt, wastes half a million men in the Moscow expedition and gets off with a jest at Vilna. And altars are set up to him after his death, and so all is permitted. No, such people, it seems, are not of flesh but of bronze!" They set up altars even during his lifetime. With the command of the Armée d'Orient and consequently the blame of her failure shifted to General Kléber, who was conveniently murdered in Cairo by a Kurdish Muslim student in 1800, Napoleon came off the adventure with a deserved reputation for tactical brilliance and his fame enhanced. He became First Consul, factual sole ruler of France, after his coup d'état of 18 brumaire, November 1799, even while his forgotten army fought on in the sands of Egypt.
|Thomas Luny (1759–1837): "Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 pm" (1834)|
Basically, the whole undertaking went belly-up already before it really started when Nelson virtually annihilated the French Levant Fleet in the Battle of the Nile in August 1798, admittedly too late, after he couldn’t manage to bring the huge French convoy shipping the Armée d'Orient to Egypt to bay before Malta was captured or the 40,000 men strong army was landed in the first place. Never the less, Napoleon was cut off from supplies, the Royal Navy had him bottled up in hostile territory and could supply the Egyptian Mamluks and Ottomans in Syria with men and materiel at will. After half-bakedly securing his conquests in the Nile Delta, Napoleon tried to break out by the way of Syria, foundered at the Siege of Acre, now Akko in present-day Israel, in May 1799 and was forced to withdraw back to Egypt while the men of the Armée d'Orient died like flies from disease and exposure. The situation was hopeless and after the Corsican rocher de bronze had quit the place three months later, the newly appointed supreme commander Jean Baptiste Kléber did his utmost to agree on favourable conditions to withdraw what was left of his army with the British, was finally reneged, won an astonishing victory over an Ottoman army at Aboukir but was murdered before he could exploit his hard-won but still meagre advantage. And while his successor Menou desperately tried to hold the strings of the frazzling expedition together, the British landed 30,000 men under the old warhorse Lieutenant-General Ralph Abercrombie in Aboukir Bay for the coup de grâce.
|Jean-Léon Gérôme: Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, (ca. 1868)|
Desperately trying to halt Abercrombie’s advance on Alexandria, Menou threw against him what he had left of battle-hardened French troops and in the wee hours of March 28th, two veteran European armies faced each other on the outskirts of the city on the small isthmus between the Mediterranean sea and Lake Aboukir, 14,000 British and almost 20,000 French with a huge cavalry superiority. However, the British held against the French infantry columns and cavalry charges, even though Abercrombie himself was mortally wounded amidst his countrymen of the 42nd, while the “Black Watch” repulsed an assault of French dragoons for the second time on this morning. The siege of Alexandria commenced and six months later, on August 31th 1801, Menou and the Armée d'Orient surrendered and the 10,000 survivors were shipped back to France by the Royal Navy, the prelude to the short-lived Peace of Amiens concluded a year later. To the winner went the spoils, however, and it was a stroke of luck that the “savants”, the host of scientists accompanying the French army to Egypt, did not carry out their threat to rather throw their veritable hoard of discoveries, finds and notes into the sea rather than surrender them to the British. They finally did, though, and while they had caused the first wave of Egyptomania in Europe anyway, artefacts like the Rosetta Stone went to the British Museum where it became the arguably its most-visited object.
And more about the battle of Alexandria on:
and the French Campaign in Egypt and Syria on