Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign

Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904). Napoleon in Egypt, ca. 1867-68. Oil on canvas.
Princeton University Art Museum

In 1798 the French Revolutionary War in Europe reached a temporary pause, with the forces of revolutionary France and their enemies at peace. Only Britain remained at war. The French were still looking to secure their position, wished to knock out Britain out. However, despite Napoleon Bonaparte, the hero of Italy, being assigned a command to prepare for an invasion of Britain, it was clear to all that such an adventure would never succeed: Britain’s Royal Navy was too strong to allow for a workable beachhead.

Napoleon’s Dream

Napoleon had long harbored dreams of fighting in the Middle East and Asia, and he formulated a plan to strike back by attacking Egypt. A conquest here would secure the French hold on the Eastern Mediterranean, and to Napoleon’s mind open up a route to attack Britain in India. The Directory, the five-man body which ruled France, where equally keen to see Napoleon try his luck in Egypt because it would keep him away from usurping them, and give his troops something to do outside France. There was also the small chance he’d repeat the miracles of Italy. Consequently, Napoleon, a fleet and an army sailed from Toulon in May; he had over 250 transports and 13 ‘ships of the line’. After capturing Malta while on the way, 40,000 French landed in Egypt on July 1st. They captured Alexandria and marched on Cairo. Egypt was a notionally part of the Ottoman Empire, but it was under the practical control of the Mameluke military.

Napoleon’s force had more than just troops. He had brought with him an army of civilian scientists who were to create the Institute of Egypt in Cairo, to both, learn from the east, and begin to ‘civilize’ it. For some historians, the science of Egyptology began seriously with the invasion. Napoleon claimed he was there to defend Islam and Egyptian interests, but he wasn’t believed and rebellions began.​

Battles in the East

Egypt might not be controlled by the British, but the Mameluke rulers were no happier to see Napoleon. An Egyptian army marched to meet the French, clashing at the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21st. A struggle of military eras, it was a clear victory for Napoleon, and Cairo was occupied. A new government was installed by Napoleon, ending ‘feudalism’, serfdom, and importing French structures.

However, Napoleon could not command at sea, and on August 1st the Battle of the Nile was fought. British naval commander Nelson had been sent to stop Napoleon landing and had missed him while resupplying, but finally found the French fleet and took the chance to attack while it was docked in Aboukir Bay to take on supplies, gaining further surprise by attacking in the evening, on into night, and early in the morning: only two ships of the line escaped (they were later sunk), and Napoleon’s supply line had ceased to exist. At the Nile Nelson destroyed eleven ships of the line, which amounted to a sixth of those in the French navy, including some very new and large craft. It would take years to replace them and this was the pivotal battle of the campaign. Napoleon’s position suddenly weakened, the rebels he had encouraged turned against him. Acerra and Meyer have argued this was the defining battle of the Napoleonic Wars, which hadn’t yet begun.

Napoleon couldn’t even take his army back to France and, with enemy forces forming up, Napoleon marched into Syria with a small army. The aim was to prise the Ottoman Empire apart from their alliance with Britain. After taking Jaffa – where three thousand prisoners were executed - he besieged Acre, but this held out, despite the defeat of a relief army sent by the Ottomans. The plague ravaged the French and Napoleon was forced back to Egypt. He nearly suffered a setback when Ottoman forces using British and Russian ships landed 20,000 people at Aboukir, but he moved quickly to attack before the cavalry, artillery, and elites had been landed and routed them.

Napoleon Leaves

Napoleon now took a decision which has damned him in the eyes of many critics: realising the political situation in France was ripe for change, both for him and against him, and believing only he could save the situation, save his position, and take command of the whole country, Napoleon left his army and returned to France in a ship which had to evade the British. He was soon to seize power in a coup d’etat.

Post-Napoleon: French Defeat

General Kleber was left to manage the French army, and he signed the Convention of El Arish with the Ottomans. This should have allowed him to pull the French army back to France, but the British refused, so Kleber attacked and retook Cairo. He was assassinated a few weeks later. The British now decided to send troops, and a force under Abercromby landed at Aboukir. The British and French fought soon after at Alexandria, and while Abercromby was killed the French were beaten, forced away from Cairo, and into surrender. Another invading British force was being organized in India to attack through the Red Sea.

The British now allowed the French force to return to France and prisoners held by Britain were returned after a deal in 1802. Napoleon’s oriental dreams were over.

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Wilde, Robert. "Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).