Sunday, September 9, 2007

Attrition Plagues French Army

From: Copies of original letters from the army of General Bonaparte in Egypt, intercepted by the fleet under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson. With an English translation (London, J. Wright, 1798-1800, 3 vols.), vol. 2, pp. 48-51.


[Captain Gay]
Cairo (9 Therimdor), July 27th[1798]

Dear Father and Mother,

I have not been able to send you a line since my embarkation, on account of the difficulty attending the couriers. The letter which I wrote you from Toulon was, I take it for granted, duly received.

I would willingly give you a detailed account of every thing which has passed since our leaving that port; but I must content myself at present, with a general and cursory view.

Our campaign opened with the capture of Malta; after which we continued our route towards Egypt. The disembarkation was made at Alexandria, and cost us a number of brave men, who perished under the walls of that ancient city. From thence the whole army marched in five divisions for Grand Cairo; where we arrived with the utmost difficulty, after suffering every thing that was possible for man to suffer. You will shudder at reading what follows. We marched seventeen days without bread, wine, or brandy; and five without water, over burning sands, with the enemy close at our heals! Figure to yourselves that we had to combat barbarians, wholly unacquainted with the rights of war, who exercised every species of cruelty upon the unhappy men who fell into their hands: cutting off the ears of one, the nose of another, the head of a third, and many other things which have slipt my memory, and which I tremble whenever I think of(1).

Would you believe that for seventeen days we had nothing to subsist on but water melons! Such, however, is the fact, and in consequence of it, an infinite number of the troops died of thirst and hunger! We could not expect any succour from the natives of these countries, seeing they are savages (2), who murdered us within half a musket-shot of our own columns.

In spite of the number of poor wretches who dropt from mere weakness, we were obliged to continue our march in close order; because the enemy’s cavalry took advantage of the slightest confusion in our ranks to fall upon us; and always with considerable effect. Night and day we were under arms, so that our fatigues were altogether intolerable. Discontent was painted on every face, and the whole army was on the point of refusing to advance. A great number of soldiers blew out their brains, and many flung themselves into the Nile. HORRIBLE THINGS WERE DONE(3)! Add, that in this dreadful interval, we had many battles to fight; all of which, however, we gained.

Arrived at length in the neighborhood of Grand Cairo, we found the Mameloucs awaiting our arrival in an intrenched camp. In spite of all the obstacles which stood in the way of our success, they were totally defeated. Three thousand of them perished either by our fire, or in the river; for we did not make a single prisoner. I must observe to you that ours was the only division which was engaged(4), and that it consisted of no more than five thousand men. The 18th and 32nd acquired new glory in this famous battle, which we now call the “Battle of the Pyramids.”

If we have the happiness of returning speedily to France, I will exert myself to the utmost to obtain my discharge at any price whatever. I can no longer endure this accursed business. Always hazarding my life, and at every hour of the day!—For the rest, I think I have done my part; let every one do a little.—I am no longer greedy of glory; I was once, I confess, because it was necessary to be so,--at present, my only wish is to pass my life in peace, with you. This is the sole object of my ambition. Some hopes of an approaching promotion are held out to me, but I want none of it. I have seen service in Europe, but I have no desire of seeing it in Africa, and in a country so hot as this.

Let me hear from you.—I please myself with thinking that the present will find you in good health. As to my own, it is excellent. The sea has been of infinite use to me. All my comrades are astonished at my being able to endure so many hardships, in a climate where the surface of the ground burns like fire!

I conclude, with embracing you, with all my heart; being, with respect,

Your son,

Gay, capt.

[British Translators' Notes]

(1)Captain Gay, who trembles to think on what he has forgot, has, not improbably, remembered what he never thought on! Though the conduct of the French, whose words were yet reeking with the blood of their slaughtered brethren, would justify any retaliation on the part of the Arabs; yet we much doubt whether the practices here mentioned, ever took place. Schecy (No. I.) relates, that after the General’s Proclamation, the prisoners were dismissed unhurt: indeed, we are convinced that these people never mangle such as fall into their hands; it is plunder, not blood, they seek, for properly speaking, the Arabs are not cruel.

(2)Here again is another precious sentiment. No assistance, it seems, was to be expected from the people whom they were destroying, because—they were savages! But Gay is right. The Swiss were no savages, nor the Flemings, nor the Dutch, nor the Italians, and therefore the French procured succour from them! And therefore they found degenerate wretches amongst them, eager to aid in riveting the chains of their brethren, and zealous to edge the sword that was to pierce the bosom of their dearest connections! O may the nations that yet remain untrampled on, and unspoiled, profit from these letters, and in a rejection of all communication with their destroyers, imitate these unenlightened, or, if they will, “savage” Egyptians!

(3)There is great strength in this rude picture of the dreadful state of the army; we scarce know whether it does not convey it more forcibly and distinctly to the mind, than the elaborate and eloquent description we have pointed out in the preceding letter. Gay himself seems to have been deeply affected with it, for we find him just below abjuring, with every mark of disgust, any longer continuance in the service.

(4)Gay is not correct here. We know from better authority than this, that four out of the five divisions were engaged; though we believe the weight of the action fell chiefly on Regnier’s and Desaix’.

No comments: