Battle of the Pyramids (July 21, 1798)

Battle of the Pyramids (July 21, 1798)

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Won over the Mamluks of Egypt, the Battle of the Pyramids will leave to posterity one of the most famous quotes of Napoleon Bonaparte: "From the top of these pyramids forty centuries of history contemplate you! »… In the footsteps of Caesar and Alexander, the young general launched the armies of the Republic on a crazy military and scientific adventure in the land of the Pharaohs, occupied by the legendary Mamelukes… July 21, 1798, at the gates of Cairo , their mythical cavalry, reputed to be the best in the world, is struck down by the infantry of the French expeditionary force. Tale of an "Egyptian Azincourt" at the foot of the thousand-year-old pyramids.

Crossing the desert

Outsmarting the vigilance of the English navy, the French expeditionary force seized Alexandria on July 2, 1798. Positioning itself as a liberator of Egypt driving out the tyrannical Mameluks with the blessing of the Sublime Porte, General Bonaparte in reality sought to found the first colony of the French Republic. A colony whose scientists are responsible for creating the first social, agricultural and industrial structures for long-term exploitation. It should also cut off a major trade route to the British and serve as a starting point for a great expedition to the Far East, to India, where the hereditary enemy would be fought alongside the Maharajah Tippoo Sahib. Hoping for the passivity of the Ottoman Empire in the face of a fait accompli, Bonaparte wants to take by surprise the 10,000 Mamluks who hold the country under the command of about twenty Beys.

Bonaparte has 40,000 men, morale is not good for the French soldiers who instead of an Eden find a poor and hungry country where the majority of the population is made up only of poor men eaten by vermin . Bonaparte therefore wanted to play for speed, to surprise his enemy and comfort his army in the euphoria of victory. The temperature reaches 50 ° C in the shade, thick Western uniforms are not suited to this stifling climate. The wisest, most reasonable path is the sacred river of Egypt, the Nile, a miraculous serpent of life in the midst of this arid land. But it is also the most predictable path, the one where it will be expected, and Bonaparte decides to bypass any possible defense device by cutting directly through the desert, leaving only a flotilla to descend the river from Rosetta to join the army in Ramanieh.

The division Desaix goes to the vanguard, followed by divisions Reynier, Dugua, Well and Vial. A week of crossing the desert, a week of incredible suffering under a blazing sun. Water is lacking, the wells are stoned or filled with salty earth, the cisterns found along the way are empty or poisoned, we dig to find the source. The soldiers hurry and crash for a sip of water, at the rear guard led by Bon, spoonfuls are ordered! Food is also lacking, the miserable shacks encountered do not provide the necessary supplies, without mills or ovens the army is unable to take advantage of the few wheat fields. The more far-sighted people carefully keep a few melons picked before departure, and especially beans.

The fourriers are sent to buy food in the rare villages encountered, but the hostile and destitute population has most often fled. In Damanhour, the quartermasters of the Reynier division were greeted with gunshots, the fight began and the resistance fighters went through arms. The desert expanses are melting the workforce, disappointed, exhausted, confused by mirages, suffering from ophthalmia, overwhelmed by heat and deprivation, men come to commit suicide, to stay behind… Around the Bedouins, predators, sneak around around a herd, which, unable to attack head-on, wait for a weakened element to detach itself from the group ... The unfortunate people who have fallen into their hands are abused, slashed, raped, and only bloody bodies are often found among them. The climate is revolted, the former members of the Army of the Rhine do not have the respect of those of the Army of Italy for the general-in-chief. The generals themselves doubt, lose their temper, trample on their hats. Desaix said bluntly to Bonaparte: "If the army does not cross the desert with lightning speed, it will perish." On the map, the journey is only about a hundred kilometers, but the conditions are extreme, we quickly decide to walk at night.

Chébreiss, the prelude to the Battle of the Pyramids

At the end of the journey the joy of the soldiers at the sight of the Nile is matched only by that of the Hebrews discovering the divine manna, the ½ brigades disband, all throw themselves into the river, a field of watermelons dedicates this long awaited moment . But already some Mamluks are approachingnt, they are chased away with guns. July 10 Mourad Bey sends a flotilla and 4,000 cavalrymen to meet the French, the shock takes place at Chebreiss where the formation in square by division is inaugurated: these squares are in fact rectangles, formed of six rows of infantry on the long sides, three ranks on the small ones, cannons loaded with grape-shot at the angles, cavalry, civilians and luggage protected in the center. The Mamelukes have blind faith in their cavalry, which is reputed to be the best in the world. Sinning from overconfidence, they gaze with contempt on this invader they think they will trample on at the first charge. A Circassian slave trained from an early age in war, the Mamluk rider is an overarmed warrior who, carrying all his wealth in his casts, shows himself all the more ardent in defending his property.

Parried on all sides, launching beastly howls, the frenzied charge has enough to impress the common people. But the French infantrymen are no longer impressionable young people for the most part, and these veterans of the Rhine or Italy wait impassively for orders to fire the deadly salvo. AT Chebreiss the Mamelukes counterattack was stopped sharply by the discipline of the French soldiers. They withdrew, leaving 300 cavalry, 400-500 infantry and 9 iron artillery pieces on the burning sand. On the river the fight is fierce, the French flotilla is approached by Egyptian ships. The sailors, the dismounted riders who were on board, but also the civilians on board (Monge, Berthollet, etc.) show bravery and repel the attackers. The Egyptian fleet retreats, as the current carries the remains of a gunboat.

“From the top of these pyramids, forty centuries are watching you! "

The Beys are not so calm by this defeat, they continue to palaver, no reconnaissance is really carried out, they always did not know where the enemy was coming from. Although certain of Bonaparte's presence on the left bank of the Nile, they did not take the necessary measures to defend Cairo: their army could have taken refuge on the right bank and patiently waited for a landing that it could repel at any point. thanks to the mobility of its cavalry. Instead Mourad Bey settles on the left bank while Ibrahim Bey remains on the right bank in case a French army has been able to land on the other bank.

After giving his troops a little rest, Bonaparte resumes its inexorable march towards Cairo, the army crawls through the burning sand dunes, still harassed by the Bedouins. On July 19, the village of Abou-Nichoubi opposed fierce resistance to the French avant-garde, the repression was ruthless, civilians were taken to arms and houses burned. This bloodthirsty example rallied some of the sheiks in the area. The divisions remain in sight of each other, on July 20 the pyramids loom on the horizon.

Warned by spies of the isolation of Mourad's army on the left bank, the attack was decided, at two o'clock in the morning the army set out and traveled 24km to reach the enemy at the beginning of afternoon on July 21, 1798. There Bonaparte launches his famous proclamation (perhaps edited afterwards):

"Bonaparte, member of the Institute, general-in-chief.


You came to these lands to tear them away from barbarism, bring civilization to the East and remove these beautiful regions from the yoke of England. Think that from the top of these Pyramids, forty centuries contemplate you! "

The Bey, with women, wealth and slaves, is entrenched with 6,000 men, fellahs, Nubians and janissaries, in the village of Embabeh, on the edge of the Nile, where the boats and galleys of Ibrahim sail. Along the river, the Mamluk cavalry and about 20,000 irregulars are positioned. The latter, a simple mob armed with sticks and clubs, have little military value, but the goal is to form a mass. Without tents to sleep or organized supplies, they are most often forced to return home in the evening.

Bonaparte made his divisions square and made them progress to the heights of Waraq-el-Hader (2 km from the enemy camp), Mamluk horsemen retreated as the army advanced, the right wing commanded by Desaix leans in the village of Biktil, which it passes. The village offering some resources and a formidable defensive position Reynier and Desaix positioned there grenadiers, dismounted dragoons, line and light infantry as well as an artillery company. Forming a curved line the French divisions (Desaix, Reynier, Dugua, Vial and Bon) extend from the pyramids to the Nile on which Bon's division rests. Thus positioned, rest is ordered and the men scatter to eat, drink ... Suddenly multicolored dots are agitated on the horizon. The Mamluks, feeling threatened by encirclement by the advancing right wing, took position. The French hastily join the ranks, reform the squares, and prepare to receive the best cavalry in the world. The first row is pointing the bayonets halfway up, the second and third row are long guns ready to fire, the last three are standing in reserve. After a salvo of artillery, the Mamelukes launch themselves into a tumult of hooves hitting the ground, a cloud of dust in the middle of which the golden harnesses throw lightning ...

The French soldiers remain impassive, shoulders to shoulders. Despite a violent headwind, this half-human or animal torrent rushes with fury on the Reynier and Desaix divisions, uttering wild howls. At half range, the French officers gave the order to fire, the murderous salvo brought down the front row, which collapsed amid the neighing of horses and the cries of the wounded trampled by their compatriots. A second discharge thunders the riders in a cloud of smoke. The charge, shot at point blank range, aborts a few paces from the French squares, the riders turn bridles, the most fanatical come desperately impale themselves on the bayonet wall. Some wounded find the strength to crawl into the French ranks and try to cut the hocks of the infantry with their scimitars, they are larded with a thousand blows. The riders whirl around, enraged, to turn the position they rush between Desaix and Reynier and are caught in crossfire. Unfortunately, the squares are not sufficiently offset, the fratricidal shootings claim about twenty victims. In five minutes 300 cavalrymen were killed, about twice the wounded, panicked part of the Mamluks left the battle. The others rushed against the village of Biktil where they were repulsed by the French entrenched on the roofs and in the gardens.

A few soldiers dispatched to fetch water in a small nearby village rush to join the squares. A dragon is overtaken by a Mamluk horseman and an epic duel ensues, for a moment the army holds its breath. Captain François recounts:

“As the Mamluks rushed towards the village of Belbeis, several soldiers escaped and rejoined their divisions. A dragon of the 15th regiment was attacked by a dismounted Mamluk; a fight ensued between them, in the center of the Desaix and Reynier divisions. These two generals ceased fire on the side where the two adversaries were at grips. Finally, the dragon killed the Mamluk and entered the square; he had taken his enemy's saber, a saber with a massive silver scabbard, his dagger and his pistol. "

The battle of the pyramids

In twenty minutes of battle the cavalry disbanded, a few cavalrymen took refuge in a park planted with palm trees, to the west, where they were dislodged by skirmishers. The others join the camp, sowing panic in Embabeh where the Cairenes rush in the rowboats to save their lives. While the soldiers of Desaix and Reynier, who have suffered the brunt of the load, rush to strip them to recover equipment and treasures left in the casings and belts. Bonaparte, galloping from square to square, advances Dugua's division to interpose between the Mamluks and Embabeh and orders Bon and Vial to capture this village. Formed in a column, two detachments assaulted them, taking advantage of a ditch that protected them from enemy artillery. Vial rounds the village around the west while Bon sends Marmont and Rampon to attack. The flankers who left in front are charged in their turn, forming the square they machine-gun the Mamelukes with a burning doublet, so ready that the powder ignites the tunics which continue to burn on the corpses.

The defenders fire their bad artillery and have no time to reload when the French rush on them. The Cairenes have disbanded, there are only around 1,500 Mamluks who are killed or thrown into the Nile. Chasing the fugitives, the assailants take the village. The hunted Egyptians run along the Nile until a wall forces them to throw shovels into the river ... Before Ibrahim's reinforcements can disembark the rout is complete. Many fugitives drown in the holy river, such as Ibrahim's son-in-law who a rower exasperated by the disaster strikes repeatedly to kill him. Some sailors board their ships so as not to leave them in the hands of the French, Mourad's ship, filled with powder, runs aground and is set on fire. Meanwhile, the Desaix division resumed its march towards the pyramids of Giza, pushing before it the last warriors of Mourad Bey.

On this memorable day, which will become a milestone in the Napoleonic era, the French were killed and wounded 300. For their part, the Mamluks had between 1,500 and 2,000 killed and wounded, lost 20 cannons, 400 dromedaries and all the baggage of the Mourad camp. The latter, injured, fled to Upper Egypt as Ibrahim Bey rushed towards Syria. Bonaparte announces that he has crushed the bulk of the Mamluk forces, which must be put into perspective as they usually fled when they realized the impossible victory. However, the general-in-chief can now return to Cairo deserted by his elites and proclaim Egypt liberated. In fact, he has just won over all of Lower Egypt and regained the confidence of his army. Enriched by the booty, finally bivouacking on the fertile banks of the Nile, the French savor their victory over this exotic enemy of incomparable bravery. A clash of cultures, infantry maneuvers defeated the most violent charges. Disconcerted, the Egyptians remain convinced that to have such a countenance the French soldiers had been tied together in the squares.

The Cairenes who had fled, looted by the Bedouins and somewhat reassured by the behavior of the victor, gradually resigned themselves to returning to the Egyptian capital.

Although the battle takes place at Embabeh, Bonaparte rightly thinks that she will better mark public opinion, and her personal glory, by associating her with the pyramids, symbols of Pharaonic Egypt.

Bibliography and sources

- Barthorp (Michael), Napoleon’s egyptian campaigns 1798-1801, Osprey publishing, London, 1978.

- Denon (Vivant), Voyage in Lower and Upper Egypt during the campaigns of General Bonaparte, Paris, 1802.

- Gabarit (Abdurrahman), Journal of Abdourrahman Gabarti during the French occupation of Egypt, translated from Arabic by Alexandre Cardin, La librairie Orientale, Paris, 1838.

- Garnier (Jacques), Atlas Napoléon, Napoléon Ier Editions, 2006.

- Joffrin (Laurent), The battles of Napoleon, Editions du Seuil, 2000.

- Jourquin (Jacques) (presented by), Journal du captain François dit le dromedaire d'Egypte, Tallandier, 2003.

- Laurens (Henry), The Egyptian Expedition 1798-1801, Editions du Seuil, 1997.

- Mou ’(Allem-Nicolas-El-Turki), French Expedition to Egypt, translated from Arabic by Alexandre Cardin, La librairie Orientale, Paris, 1838.

- Pigeard (Alain), Dictionary of the Battles of Napoleon, Napoleonic Library, Tallandier editions, 2004.

Video: Battle of the Pyramids Napoleon Total War online battle #84


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