The Egyptian Campaigns
Napoleon landed in Alexandria in 1798 with an expeditionary force composed of soldiers and scholars. It was, in part, a scientific expedition, and among the numerous discoveries was that of the Rosetta Stone which paved the way for the discipline of Egyptology. Primarily, however, it was a military campaign. And at the beginning everything went just as expected. Napoleon won a series of victories, the most important being at the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21 1798. It was during this battle, which saw the almost total annihilation of the Mamluk-led Egyptian Army, where Napoleon first put into practice his infantry square formation—a tactic allowing infantry to defend themselves more effectively against cavalry under the constant cover of tightly-packed fire.
But Napoleon’s victory on land would be completely overshadowed by his defeat at sea. After days of hunting for the French fleet, the formidable British admiral Horatio Nelson finally spotted it docked in the Bay of Abukir on August 1. Through a masterful series of maneuvers Nelson managed to surround the fleet, and for three days he set about destroying the French Republic’s Navy. Only two of the 17 French ships escaped, with the French suffering up to 5,000 casualties. By contrast no British ships were sunk and only 218 men were killed (though many more, including Nelson, were wounded).
The Battle of the Nile consolidated British naval superiority; not just for the remainder of the “Napoleonic Era” but for the remainder of the century. It also irreversibly jeopardized Napoleon’s campaign. When Napoleon besieged the Syrian city of Acre between March and May 1799 the Ottomans put up a staunch resistance; foiling Napoleon’s artillery attacks by building reserve defences behind the city walls. But they were also assisted by a British flotilla under the direction of Commodore Sidney Smith, which provided additional firepower from the coast. And to make matters even worse, a plague started to spread around the French camp; one that would claim the lives of over 2,000 men by the campaign’s conclusion.
Acre was the site of one of Napoleon’s few losses. But it was a significant one. Lifting the siege he retreated to Egypt with a wilted, demoralized force. Determined to save face, however, he entered Cairo triumphantly, oversaw a final victorious land battle at Abukir (for which credit really should go to Murat) and organized a “voyage down the Nile” with a handful of companions. In reality, the voyage was a mere ruse, and deciding that his work in Egypt was done he took the opportunity to escape back to France. In late August 1799 he boarded a ship with a small retinue of officers and scholars, leaving his 20,000 men behind. Fortunately for him, dead men tell no tales.