Saturday, September 8, 2007

French Express Disillusion with the Egyptian Campaign

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. 36-43.

[Note: Among the scientists brought along on the invasion were three botanists: Ernest Coquebert de Montbret, Alire Raffeneau-Delile, and Hyppolite Nectoux. This letter is probably from one of those three. - JRIC]


Grand Cairo, (8 Thermidor) July 26th [1798].

It is after a most fatiguing march, without bread to eat, or water to drink, that the army is arrived here, and after many actions, in which it has constantly been victorious. I have regretted a thousand times, my dear Miot, that your friendship for me ever prompted you to engage me in this expedition. I have seen numbers of my associates assassinated, and my own existence, amidst so many extraordinary events, is a riddle which I cannot yet comprehend. The worthy Sucy himself has not escaped the Ill fortune by which we are all pursued; he has been wounded in the arm by the Arabs, and will probably lose the use of it entirely. Our march into the country was signalized by the loss of a French general, and of forty subordinate officers(2). A soldier who had only loitered fifteen paces behind one of the columns was shot!

Savary has deceived us all with respect to Egypt. It is not that charming country view of which he boasts so much; nor that balsamic dew that is drawn in with the morning air. It is the country of misery! its inhabitants are savages, who have, in every respect, incurred the disgrace of nature. They have absolutely nothing on their side; and you may always conclude, that you are in the midst of a band of assassins, when you find yourself in any village of Lower Egypt(3).

The army marched to Demanhour the first day, and from thence to Rahmanie. The general preferred making a detour(4), that he might arrive the sooner at the banks of the Nile. I offered, on the march from Alexandria to Demanhour, a louis d'or for a glass of water: having drank and distributed all my own amongst my friends.

In the relation of our expedition, I shall enlarge upon the miseries we endured; they are innumerable; and it is with bitter disgust of soul, that the whole army is arrived at Cairo. It had placed all its hopes in this city; how much have they been deceived! And notwithstanding we were told that we should all be satisfied here, the only desire of the generals and of the soldiers themselves, is to get back to France.

As for myself, my dear friend, it is by the most miraculous of all miracles that I am neither dead nor sick. Poor Milord(5) is not quite so fortunate. I am afraid he will not be able to support this country long; here is neither hay nor oats, and horses must therefore be content with beans, and a little chopped straw. If he has any recollection of his manner of life at Turin, he is mightily to be pitied.

However, in the midst of all my sufferings, which I have hitherto supported with courage, I have not overlooked the advantages to be derived from my temporary residence here, and my observations have been directed generally to every object that has presented itself. I am now engaged in studying the language; but I have no grammar, and, indeed, am likely to have no master but necessity.

I have seen from Gizeh [Giza], the place of head-quarters on the day of the famous battle of Boulac, the beautiful Pyramids(6). If we wish to have a nearer view of them, we shall be obliged to go in a body of three or four hundred! It is impossible to stir from the city; and Boza was lately pursued by a number of Arabs, for having imprudently ventured about a musket-shot beyond it. You see now the danger of herborizing, and will consequently surmise that your herbal is rather neglected. "Yes," say you, "but in your marches you may certainly collect such plants as fall in your way." Shall I speak frankly? It has scarce ever entered my head, what with the troubles we have had, and the hardships we have undergone, that I should ever meet with a plant sufficiently curious to attract my notice. Botanists are woefully misplaced in an army! All that I can do, my dear friend, is to promise you, that the moment I can walk out of the city without fear of being assassinated, I will seriously set about preparing a little herbal for you.

I shall say at present either of the country, or of the matters of the inhabitants. Although they are in some degree known to you, yet I shall venture, when I have a little leisure, to send you a few details on those subjects, which may not perhaps be altogether uninteresting.

You cannot have forgot how much the sight, nay even the idea of a criminal executed, or about to be executed, used to affect me. War is a sovereign remedy for this weakness. I have seen the dead and the dying, scattered heads and limbs, and my heart failed me no longer; here is a sufficient proof, then, of the possibility of accustoming one’s-self to carnage(7). I rode through the midst of three thousand slaughtered Mameloucs [Mamluks]; Milord trembled under me, while I fixed my eyes on those poor victims of ambition and vanity, and said to myself,--“WE CROSS THE SEA, WE BRAVE THE ENGLISH FLEET, WE DISEMBARK IN A COUNTRY WHICH NEVER THOUGHT OF US, WE PILLAGE THEIR VILLAGES, RUIN THEIR INHABITANTS, AND VIOLATE THEIR WIVES; WE WANTONLY RUN THE HAZARD OF DYING WITH HUNGER AND THIRST; WE ARE EVERY ONE OF US ON THE POINT OF BEING ASSASSINATED; AND ALL THIS FOR WHAT? IN TRUTH, WE HAVE NOT YET DISCOVERED!”

The disgust of the army is universal. All the administrations are disorganized. There exists among us a selfishness, a fretfulness that absolutely incapacitates us from associating together. With respect to myself, I plunge into business, and thus escape general ennui. I am still with the same commissary of war; but you must allow me to observe to you, that I have no inclination to wait till I am five-and-twenty, to become a commissary myself. Do not forget me then, and, above all be assured, that the sooner you can obtain my recall the better it will be for me.

The career in which I am engaged at present, is a most humiliating one, and we are constantly squabbling with the generals. The Commander in Chief is the only one who pays us any attention; but he is obliged, at the same time, to wink at every thing in the officers. He treats them with great delicacy, and evidently fears that the army, which already begins to murmur, will at no great distance of time, proceed to something more alarming. In a word, take into your consideration too, that Sucy has lost much of his influence; that since he left Alexandria, he has executed no part of his office, on account of his having had the imprudence to go on board the flotilla (to insure, as he pretended, the subsistence of the troops), and that he found himself, as he ought to have foreseen, without the possibility of rejoining them. Finally, take notice, that in consequence of the climate, we are become, in spite of ourselves, listless and inactive; and that we have the greatest difficulty in determining ourselves to put one leg before the other.

I leave to your prudence and good sense to reflect on what I have said; confident that your friendship for me will lead you to what is fittest and best. I shall look for your answer with impatience.

Sucy’s wound prevents him from writing; it appears that he will lose all but two fore fingers of his right hand: he supports his misfortune, however, with patience; which is more than he does the immense space that separates us from our country.

I am very seriously engaged on the history of our expedition: having already collected a vast quantity of materials, which I shall immediately set about putting in order. Adieu; I love you entirely. Adieu, my dear Miot; when shall I have the satisfaction of locking you in my arms? write to me, pray write.

[British Translators' Notes]

(1) At length we have a letter from one of the innumerable Savans, whom Bonaparte dragged in his train on this far-famed expedition. What he writes merits, and we hope will receive, the deepest attention; it confirms, almost beyond the possibility of a doubt, what was suggested in the Introduction to the First Part, that the army was meant to be sacrificed; and leaves us no other regret than that (since it was to be done) it was done at home by noyades, mitraillades, or by any other of those sweeping methods of destruction which the dictionary know so well to employ, and which have, at various times, choked the Seine with the carcasses, and swelled the Loire and the Rhone with the blood of all that was innocent and virtuous; of an incorrupt peasantry, of children, women and priests.

Had this been done; had the importunate claimants of Toulon and Genoa, and the daring revolters against the authority of Massena at Rome, been this quietly disposed of in the “good old way,” it would have saved us many a pang which we have felt in perusing these Letters; from seeing that the vengeance of the Directory could not fall upon the refractory army without involving in their destruction an unoffending, and, in their own opinion perhaps, a happy people, whose hard fate is depicted in the course of this well written letter, in language that must wring every feeling heart. We conclude with again recommending it to the reader’s most serious attention.

(2) Employés, in the original. It may also mean persons in official situations about the army, such as commissaries, agents, clerks, &c. &c.

(3) Oh, if the Egyptians wrote letters! But we wonder whether our Savant ever thought of asking himself what THE FRENCH WERE in the midst of these same villages of Lower Egypt? Most probably he never did. If any curious person, however, should be tempted to put the question, we will endeavour to satisfy him. THEY WERE “a band of assassins” infinitely more savage than those they found there, led on by a hypocritical Cartouche, who snuffed the scent of carnage like a vulture; and, amidst the most whining professions of universal benevolence, sacrificed the companions of his victories and his crimes to the fears of the Directory, and cosigned them to inevitable destruction, with the same indifference that he did the remote and peaceable possessors of a few mud huts, and a waste of sand!

(4) To make a detour by way of getting the quicker to a given point, would be admirable in the mouth of an Irishman; indeed it is very well any where.

Setting aside the writer’s ignorance of the topography of the country, the simple truth is, that Bonaparte (who, like the old Hermit of Prague, is supposed by these people to have some extraordinary reason for every thing he does) had no preference in the matter. He merely took the common road; a camel driver would have done the same. In fact there was no other; unless he had gone round by Rosetta, which at that time, was hardly practicable.

(5) His horse, which, from the name, we suppose to be an English one. The joke of calling him Milord is not a very refined one, it must be confessed; but Savans have now and then odd ideas of humor. The animal, however, appears to have fallen into the hands of a kind master.

(6) This is a strange epithet for the Pyramids; but the French have learned from Savary to talk of the stupendous monuments of ancient Egypt with a silly affection of fondness, that is really disgusting.

(7) There is a passage in Macbeth so perfectly applicable to the sentiment before us, that we cannot resist the temptation of laying it before the reader.
Macb. I have almost forgot the taste of fear.
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse, and stir
As life were in’t. I have supp’d full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

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