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In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte persuaded the ruling Directory to invade Egypt. He sailed from Toulon on 19 June with a French fleet commanded by Admiral Brueys of nearly 100 warships and 400 transports for his army of 40,000 men.

The fleet arrived in Malta on 6 June and after some limited resistance the Knights of Malta capitulated on 11 June.

Napoleon landed near Alexandria in early July and advanced towards Cairo. The first major battle took place four miles from Cairo within sight of the Pyramids on 21 July. 6000 Mameluke horse commanded by Murad Bey supported by 12000 fellahin foot attacked the French divisional squares. Some 2000 Mamelukes died in unsuccessful assaults on the squares whilst French assault columns captured the fortified village of Embarbeh on the Nile opposite Cairo. Murad fled south and Napoleon entered Cario on 24 July.

On 1 August Napoleon's communications with France was cut when Nelson destroyed the French fleet at Aboukir Bay.

Other than police actions there were two main campaigns. The first was in Upper Egypt when Desaix with 3000 foot and 1000 cavalry drove the Mamelukes out of Egypt. This campaign included battles at Sediman (8 October 1798), Sabhud (22 January 1799) and Abnud (8 March 1799).

Meanwhile Napoleon took a force of 13,000 men to invade Syria. Capturing El Arish on 20 February 1799 and Jaffa on 7 March. The campaign ground to a halt outside the walls of Acre where the Ottoman governor supported by British ships commanded by Sir Sidney Smith resisted several assaults. The Pasha of Danascus also attempted a relief but was beaten at Mount Tabor (15/16 April) by Kleber and Napoleon. Without adequate guns Napoleon abandoned the siege of Acre on 14 May and retreated back to Egypt.

In July 1799 an Ottoman army of around 12000 men landed at Aboukir and entrenched in front of the old castle. The French assault included a ferocious cavalry charge led by Murat that overpowered the Ottoman defences.

After learning of political developments in France Napoleon decided to leave Egypt in August 1799 leaving command to Kleber. He resisted a much larger Ottoman invasion at the battle of Heliopolis on 20 March 1800  before being assassinated on 14 June.

Command then fell on Menou who faced a British invasion on 8 March 1801 led by Abercromby again at Aboukir. A sharp action was fought at Mandora on 13 March followed by the decisive battle at Alexandria on 21 March. Disciplined British firepower drove off attacks by French infantry columns and cavalry. With Menou bottled up in Alexandria the British captured Rosetta and then Cairo. Combined assaults on Alexandria began in August when Menou asked for terms. The French embarked for France on 14 September and the French adventure in Egypt was over.

For a more detailed essay on the campaigns see the Napoleon series and the bibliography below.

The Armies

The French Army of the Orient was organised as the revolutionary army with infantry in 15 Demi-Brigades of around 1700 men supported by two regiments of light cavalry and five of Dragoons. Artillery included a siege train, 72 field guns and 24 howitzers. On embarkation the army was equipped in the uniforms of the period but conditions in Egypt soon forced changes. These included a black leather peaked cap for the infantry called the "petits-casquettes" together with lightweight cotton or linen tunics. These changes were confirmed in the Kleber Ordance of 1799 that resulted in a variety of colourful uniforms. Specialist units included the Regiment de Dromedaires and locally raised forces from the Greek and Coptic communities together with some Mamelukes and even Janissaries.

Napoleon Bonaparte with a sapper.

Chasseurs a Cheval

Dragoons

Regiment de Dromedaires

Howitzer and crew.

French Line Infantry

More French line.

 

The chief opponents of the French were the Mamelukes. These included the flamboyant Mameluke horse, together with local Ottoman forces including Janissaries and Spahis. They would be supported by Bedouin Arabs from the desert tribes and mobs of fellahin some armed with little more than clubs. Ottoman invasion forces included the usual Spahis horse and Janissaries together with Albanian and Moroccan infantry.

Mameluke horse

and more Mameluke horse

Bedouin horse

Cairo Janissaries

Fellahin

The wargame figures above are 28mm figures mostly from the Old Glory and Dixon ranges. Other figures are from Trent Miniatures and a new range from Britannia.

Bibliography

The two must have titles both for the narrative and Bob Marrion's wonderful colour plates is Charles Grant's two volume Napoleon's Campaign in Egypt.

There are a number of useful Ospreys:

Napoleon's Egyptian Campaigns 1798-1801  MAA 79

French Soldier in Egypt 1798 - 1801 Warrior 77

Armies of the Ottoman Empire 1775 - 1820 MAA 314

and finally for uniforms there is Mark Bevis - Tangier to Tehran, a Wargamers Guide to Middle Eastern Armies of the Napoleonic & Pre-Colonial Era 1780-1830.

For the history of the campaign the best in my opinion is the recently published Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern, and for the Syrian campaign, Nathan Schur's Napoleon in the Holy Land. Plus the story of the French officer Captain Moiret in Memoirs of Napoleon's Egyptian Expedition 1798-1801.

For more of a political focus there is Juan Cole's Napoleon's Egypt. On the British intervention there is Beware of Heroes by Peter Shankland that covers Sidney Smith.

There are two older histories that are worthwhile reading: Bonaparte in Egypt by Christopher Herold and Bonaparte Governor of Egypt by F. Charles-Roux.

 

This army is on display with Glasgow and District Wargames Society in 2008 at a number of Scottish wargames shows starting with Battle of the Pyramids. There is also a feature article in Wargames Illustrated July 2008 edition.

 

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Copyright 2005 Balkan Military History
Last modified: 01/23/12