While writing my last blog post I was stunned to realize that I’ve never written about Napoleon’s invasion of Europe here on the Margins. I’ve hinted around the edges of the subject in posts on the Rosetta Stone and Tipu Sultan. But I’ve never written about the invasion itself. Which is kind of amazing given that the image on the header of History in the Margins (and on my website and on my business cards) is from Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (1886)–a painting that I think is a brilliant illustration of the complex relationship between Europe and the rest of the world during the long eighteenth century.
In December, 1797, France was poised to invade England. The revolutionary French Republic had made peace with Spain, Russia and Holland.* General Bonaparte was negotiating with Austria. Russia had not yet declared war. Only England and Portugal stood armed against France.
In February, after inspecting preparations for the invasion, Bonaparte wrote to the five-man committee who governed revolutionary France (hereafter referred to as the Directoire) and proposed France invade Egypt instead. He argued that the military and financial resources available for invading England were utterly inadequate.** The best way to attack England was through the East. The conquest of Egypt would not only weaken the Ottoman Empire, but would cut England’s access to India, thereby weakening Britain.*** The Directoire agreed.
The Egyptian campaign was a military disaster. (When Napoleon failed, he failed on the grand scale. )
The Army of the Orient sailed for Egypt on May 19, 1798. After capturing Malta, the French landed on the beach at Marabut**** on July 1. Without issuing supplies or giving his men time to recover from a grueling sea voyage, Bonaparte marched them across the Libyan Desert. They attacked first Alexandria and then Cairo. Both cities fell quickly. Always a master of the political spin, Bonaparte reported glorious victories to the Director. He left out the fact that French morale was low. One officer wrote home “…it was thirst which inspired our troops in the capture of Alexandria. At the point the army had reached, we had no choice between finding water and perishing.”
The morale of the conquering army would sink further. On August 1, 1798, Admiral Horatio Nelson annihilated the French fleet at Abukir By. He left behind a squadron of three battleships and three frigates to patrol the coast from Damietta to Alexandria, effectively cutting off all communication between the Army of the Orient and France.
Stranded with no news or supplies from France and an empty treasury, Bonaparte chose to lead with his chin. He moved the war into Syria, leading 13,000 men against the Ottoman Empire. He only got was far as Acre before he was turned back by a combined force of British and Ottoman troops. Bonaparte camouflaged the humiliation of the retreat in his reports to the Director with the news of a stunning victory against the Ottomans at Abukir.
Bonaparte slipped away from Egypt on August 18, 1799, without notice to either his staff or his successor. He reached France only a few days after the news of his victory at Adukis, in time to seize power in the coup of November, 1799. He left behind a deficit of twelve million francs and an occupying army demoralized by devastating losses, illness, and lack of supplies.
So much for following Alexander’s path to the east.
*That wouldn’t last.
** Check your atlas if you don’t have the relative positions of England and Egypt in relation to France firmly in your head. Then try to follow the reasoning.
***He did not mention his personal dream of following in Alexander the Great’s footsteps and conquering India.
****An islet down the coast from Alexandria. You might as well keep your atlas out if you are map-minded.