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Friday, February 19, 2010

Conquest of the Nile: The 1798 Egypt Campaign: Part 1

The 1798 Invasion of Egypt by then-general Napoleon Bonaparte is a provacative and sometimes divisive topic. Napoleonic apologists tend to glorify it as a 'War of Liberation', and historians with a bone to pick with Bonaparte (pun intended) tend to view it as an early example of his imperialistic nature.

While the main cause of the invasion is often identified as disrupting British trade, there are several underlying reasons for this gesture.

-Napoleon brought with him a group of French scientists who were instructed to perform research. These scientists made many important discoveries during the campaign, including:

a) Pierre Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone,which would serve as a translation tool for linguists hoping to decode ancient dialects.

b) Joseph Fourier develops a new theory of heat.

-Napoleon also hoped to oust the Mamluks(or Mamelukes), a group who had splintered from the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to control all of Egypt. This allowed Napoleon to appear as a liberator, preaching the values of the Koran (Quran). He heralded himself as a believer in the principles of Islam. This kind of propaganda wasn't as successful as he would have hoped, but nonetheless gave him another tool for his conquest, and shifted public opinion in his favor.

When Napoleon arrived in Egypt, he forced a garrison at Malta to surrender. This garrison was manned by the famous Knights Hospitilier, or Knights of St. John, who had held the land since the Crusades. This was more a political tactic, as it was humiliating to Tsar Paul I of Russia, recently declared Grandmaster of the Knights.

Tsar Paul I of Russia

-The Mamuluks were waiting. The leadership at the time was strangely bicameral, split between Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey, two Mamluk chieftains. They chose to meet Bonaparte at the first major engagement of the invasion, the Battle of the Pyramids.

Murad Bey, Mamluk Chieftain

The Name 'Battle of the Pyramids' itself is a bit misleading, as the Pyramids were only visible over the horizon during the battle. The battle itself was, however, site of a completely new phenomena in the history of conflict. To see this, we must examine the situation.

-Battle of the Pyramids

"Forward! Remember that from those monuments yonder forty centuries look down upon you." - Napoleon, at the Battle

The French Republican Army, largely composed of civilians conscripted via levee en masse, numbered around 20,000. The Mamluk force, almost entirely composed of the cavalry they had become so well known for, numbered about 21,000.

Outnumbered from the start, and with the terrain not on his side, Napoleon needed to think quickly. Generally speaking, cavalry like those employed by the Mamluks would tear his men apart, running them down before they could retreat to a safe distance. To make matters worse, the Mamluks were apt to deal with the sandy terrain, while the French were likely to get bogged down in it.

Napoleon quickly hatched a plan. Under normal circumstances, when men were faced with a company of cavalry, they would form into what was called a square: a tightly packed square formation, with the front row of men kneeling down with their bayonets pointing up, and the men behind the holding their bayonets at a 45 degree angle. Essentially, the square would form a near impenetrable wall of sharp bayonets. The officer would stand in the middle of the square, directing the men's movements.

The effectiveness of the square lied in that horses would under no circumstances charge into it. Even if their riders directed them towards a square, the sharp bayonets would scare them off at the last minute. Taking advantage of the riders' lack of control, the officer inside the square would order his men to fire a volley into the now-disorganized horsemen. This tactic had become a staple in the warfare of the day.

But what about Napoleon's situation? He was facing an entire army of cavalry, armed to the teeth. He eventually decided to risk an incredibly unusual idea. Why not use the "Square" tactic on a larger scale?

When the Mameluks came hurtling at the French that day, Napoleon had formed the bulk of his army into 3 gigantic "Divisional-Size Squares." The Mamluk force was torn to pieces.

At the end of the day, Napoleon had lost only 29 men (with 260 wounded), but his army had managed to kill or wound approximately 2000 Mamluks. The legendary Mamluk Cavalry had been forever humbled.

To Be continued in Part 2 (British involvement in the Egypt Campaign)

1 comment:

  1. Nice article! Good job making it neat and concise yet informative! Just a point about Malta, don't underestimate it. Although the embarrasment to Emperor Paul I of Russia was a boon for the French, the far more pressing cause was the great military significance of the island; Malta is in such a position as to make it key to controlling the Mediterranean, apart from being rich in gold and a resupplying station. For that reason, Malta will play a major role in Franco-British relations for at least the next 5 years, and Britain's (they subsequently took it from the French) refusal to abandon the island in strict violation of the main clauses of the Treaty of Amiens (1801) would be in large part the causation of the War of the 3rd Coalition