NELSON AND THE BRITISH NAVY FRUSTRATE NAPOLEON’S STRATEGY IN EGYPT

Aboukir Bay: The Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798, Nicholas Pocock, 1808, National Maritime Museum

French Campaign in Egypt

British victory over the French at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

A week after the French occupied Cairo, Lord Nelson and his British naval task force appeared off the coast of Alexandria. French warships were anchored in shallow water just northeast of the city in Aboukir Bay in a line parallel to the shore. French Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers believed he had positioned his ships close enough to the shore to prevent British warships from getting between the French line and the shore. Thus, the arrayed French warships, in combination, had nearly 500 guns facing the sea, as their commanders believed that would be the only direction from which an attack could be mounted. Brueys’s fleet included 13 ships-of-the-line and 4 frigates; however, half of the Frenchmen serving aboard the vessels were under 18 years of age and most had never seen combat.

Boldness in war often initiates its own dynamic, creating opportunities that would not have been available without first seizing the initiative and “wrong-footing” the opponent in a dash of energy, speed, and decisive force. Such attributes had been part of the French army for centuries; they certainly were part of what made Napoleon one of the greatest military commanders in recorded history. However, the British navy had developed on sea what the French had perfected on land. Conducting military operations on the European continent offered interior lines from which to operate, and the French excelled in maneuver. However, the advantages offered in Europe were not available for a global French expeditionary force where SLOCs factored into operations. By the end of the eighteenth century, the British fleet sailed the world’s oceans without peer.

On August 1, 1798, following a month in which French military power destroyed the Mamluk army in Egypt and sent the Ottoman viceroy in headlong retreat into Syria, the British naval task force consisting of 13 ships-of-the-line finally located the French fleet supporting Napoleon’s land campaign. The British naval commanders were not aware of the configuration of the seabed between the French line of ships and the shore, but, they took a calculated risk and maneuvered half the British ships between the French and the shore. Once in position, Nelson’s ships were able to open fire from two directions. Admiral Brueys’s 118-gun flagship, the L’Oriente, took volley after volley, setting fires that eventually reached her powder magazine, which then created a massive explosion. Two French ships-of-the-line and two frigates were able to cut their cables and fight their way out to sea. By the time the battle was over, a day later, one French ship was at the bottom of the bay, three still floating but generally unrecognizable, and nine French warships captured.

The English were then in a position not only to patrol the coasts of North Africa and Egypt but also, having coordinated their efforts with the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, to traverse the entire eastern coast of the Mediterranean. It was said that “Napoleon did indeed have Egypt,” but cut off from the sea, “Egypt actually had Napoleon.” On September 11, 1798, Sultan Selim III of the Ottoman Empire declared war on France and formed an alliance with Britain, Austria, Russia, and Naples. Shortly thereafter, on October 21, the people of Cairo began rioting against the French.

Having received information that an Ottoman army was forming in Syria with the objective of attacking his forces in Egypt, Napoleon decided to strike first, and on February 6, 1799, commenced operations in Palestine as he proceeded north to Syria. With a force of 13,000 troops, Napoleon fought and overran enemy forces at El Arish (February 8-19), Gaza (February 24-25), and Jaffa (March 3-7), as he moved north toward the Syrian border. By mid-March, Napoleon laid siege to Acre and from March 17 to May 21 launched 7 assaults against the seaport fortress and dealt with 11 offensive operations from the city’s besieged forces followed by the French temporarily halting the siege and withdrawing at the approach of a large army coming out of Syria. Napoleon then turned and attacked the approaching Ottoman-Syrian army at the Battle of Mount Tabor where he defeated and dispersed the force. He then resumed the siege of Acre. Following the arrival of intelligence that a combined British-Ottoman fleet was planning on transporting a large Ottoman army for insertion into Egypt, Napoleon halted siege operations at Acre and returned to Egypt. In July 1799, the British-Ottoman fleet transported an 18,000-man Ottoman army and landed at Aboukir Bay. Napoleon promptly engaged this force in an attack mounted on July 25, killing or driving into the sea nearly 11,000 Turkish troops and taking 6,000 prisoners, including the commander of the force, Mustafa Pasha.

Following the victory at the Battle of Aboukir Bay, the French Directoire and other French leaders knew that Napoleon Bonaparte was too valuable a military leader for them to allow him to perish in the Middle Eastern theater surrounded by an overwhelming assortment of enemies and with the French unable to support or resupply his forces by sea. After the failure of French forces to take Acre, coupled with the siege of the French garrison on Malta (which would eventually fall to the British on September 5, 1800), and with the British cooperating with the Ottoman Empire, the French government knew that French control in Egypt, even if sustainable in the short term, would not create the conditions that would allow France to use it for launching operations in South Asia or in operations regarding succession issues of a crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Without the ability to challenge British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea, with Britain’s intent on protecting access to India through Egypt, and without a commitment of treasure and manpower that far exceeded that which French leaders were prepared to make at the time in the Middle East, France could not successfully and politically consolidate military gains in Egypt, Palestine, or Syria. If Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign had proven anything (beyond his brilliance as an operational and tactical commander), it was that even with one of the most capable generals in history, commanding one of the finest armies in history, the political objective of leveraging tactical military supremacy in order to establish a liberal democracy within a culture fractured by years of autocratic rule was, at the time, strategically and operationally unsustainable.

Following operations at Aboukir Bay, arrangements were quietly made for Napoleon to return to France where he would be promoted first consul. On August 22, 1799, Napoleon unceremoniously, accompanied by a small contingent of aides and staff, left Egypt by sea. General Jean-Baptiste Kleber was named commander of the French forces that remained in Egypt. Kleber was tasked with an orderly evacuation of French forces, but preliminary negotiations with the British were unsuccessful, and Kleber was forced to plan for continued military operations to protect French forces in Egypt. The French under Kleber successfully battled the Anglo-Ottoman coalition until 1800 when Kleber was assassinated in Cairo by a Syrian, and command of French forces was transferred to General Abdullah Jacques Menou, a French convert to Islam. Following the transfer of command, an Anglo-Ottoman invasion force surrounded French forces at Alexandria and Cairo. French army forces at Cairo surrendered on June 18, 1801, and Menou personally surrendered the Alexandria garrison on September 3. By September end, all French forces had been withdrawn from Egypt.

Following the departure of French forces from Egypt, Lord Nelson, the British admiral who helped sink French plans for the Middle East, observed at the time:

I think their objective is to possess themselves of some port in Egypt and to fix themselves at the head of the Red Sea in order to get a formidable army into India; and in concert with Tipu Siab [Sultan of Mysore], to drive us if possible from India.

Hence, the French objectives of establishing a foothold in Egypt to facilitate a move against Constantinople, the British in India, or both, were never reached. The actual results included the utter destruction of 700 years of Mamluk control in Egypt and the establishment of a vivid awareness within ruling circles in the Middle East as to how far the region had fallen behind European military capabilities and Western technology. Less apparent, but certainly not lost on an observant few, was the remarkable energy being generated by a revolutionary people under the banner of liberty, fraternity, and equality.

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