Thursday, September 13, 2007

French Officer Describes Conflict with British Navy

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. 75-82.


Alexandria (12 Therimdor), July 30th.
To the female citizen Blanc, Rue Helventius, no. 667, at Paris

My dear Life

I wrote to you about the middle of this month. I was exceedingly uneasy at not hearing from you; but now I know the reason: the English have taken the first advice boats that were dispatched from Toulon; they were bringing me the first letters respecting all that is interesting to me on earth. Yes, your Julien Francois had but one concern, that for your dear letters; and those he is deprived of. ‘Tis a sacrifice that has cost me dear,--but I add it with pleasure to all those which I have previously made to procure a decent competence for my Julia, and my children.

Bonaparte took Cairo on the 22nd of this month: I expected it; and, indeed, nothing less than this event was necessary to enable us to support the state of privation, to which the interception of all communication by the Nile, has reduced us. We shall now be supplied with rice and corn; for the possession of Cairo will procure us provisions in abundance.

The questions now is, what the Grand Seignior will think of all this. And the English—will they keep the sea this winter? These are doubt, the solving of which is of the utmost importance to our existence in this remote country. Not that we are in want of articles of the first necessity in Egypt; but that a free communication by sea is of the highest consequence, in the situation in which we shall find ourselves a few months hence, when the Nile is low—but enough, when that period arrives, we shall see what the news from France will say.

I must inform you that I have read the public papers up to the 23d of June. Louis Bonaparte, who is detained here by sickness, has constantly procured me the Gazettes brought by our packets. I see with pain that in this favourable moment for a descent on Ireland(1), nothing is thought of it in France; but there are still three months proper for the attempt, and it may yet, perhaps, be made.

I am too much engaged in organizing the administration of the Lazaretto, and of the positions along the coast, to be able to compose an historical journal of what passes here for each of those whom I could wish to inform,--but I will tell you what has struck me on the subject. I will draw up this journal as succinctly as possible; I will then direct it, my love, to you; and you shall send it to the newspaper-writer Teinier.—This, however, I insist upon your doing, only when you yourself judge it not improper. It may sometimes happen that I shall be able to send you only a rapid sketch in a letter,--this you may report viva voce to our friends, for the letters of Julien Francois to his love out only to be seen by her who inspires them.

O my Julia! You are now once more on the point of renewing my title of father, and I am far from you,--pardon a thousand times, O pardon the absence of your fond friend, who cannot soothe your agonies in a moment so painful yet dear to you.—I know the heart of my Julia: if she suffers, yet she experiences a new sensation of happiness in giving her husband a new pledge of her love. Ah! If your prayers are this time heard, a sweet little Camilla will console you for the absence of her father. If it shall prove a boy, may the name of Tell recall the memory of that which we lost! I long to hear of your safe delivery, but I also long to hear if you have given me a Camilla. Kiss her a thousand times for her father.—But no more: my eyes suffused with tears of tenderness and delight, compel me to postpone the completion of my letter.

Noon, August 1st. Fourteen English vessels are this moment hove in sight. We make them to be twelve sail of the line, and two frigates: these last came within cannon shot of Alexandria, but on ascertaining that our fleet was not in the harbour, they stood off again immediately; and, with the rest of the ships, are now making with a press of sail for Aboukir,--a port about three leagues from this city, where the French fleet is at anchor, strongly moored, as they say here, and in a situation to give the English a good reception.

Five o’clock. We discern the English fleet very clearly with our glasses. It seems about to drop anchor at Aboukir, for the purpose of attacking us. Half after five—The cannonade begins, and about six, increases. Seven—It is now night, and the fire still increases. Half after seven—The whole horizon seems in flames; this shews that a ship is on fire. Eight—The cannonade slackens a little. Nine—The flames augment. A little after nine—The vessel blows up! How tremendously beautiful! A sky covered with fire!

Half after nine—The cannonade slacks, and a thousand sailors are dispatched to Aboukir by land. Ten—The moon rises on the right of the spot where the explosion took place. The French here are all under arms. We are assembled at the house of General Kleber, and on the terraces. Fresh detachments are hourly dispatched to Aboukir, to reinforce the crews of our ships.

Midnight—The firing, which has never totally ceased, recommences with redoubled fury. It is evident that the English are determined to sink or be sunk(2). We burn to know what has happened, but we shall be kept in suspense till nine in the morning.

Three o’clock—The firing increases in violence. It has now continued an hour. Six—The firing still increases, more sailors and cannoneers are sending off. It is now eight, and the firing is as brisk as ever.

Noon—An express is arrived from Aboukir. O fatal night! O fatal action for the honour of France! The fleet is destroyed. Of thirteen sail of the line, and four frigates, two only of each have made their escape. They are sailed for France, to carry you, I imagine, this dreadful news.

Here, however, I break off, my dear Julia, for the purpose of calming your apprehensions. The English, whom the stupidity of our marine contributes to raise more than their own exertions, have no prospect of success in attempting anything against us. The ports of Alexandria, flanked by batteries, and defended by nature, offer nothing but disgrace and death to an enemy who, I must again repeat it, are only formidable through the ignorance of our marine! Imagine our fleet in a position which allowed the English to fight them three or four to one! A piece of stupidity like this(3) could not escape an enemy who has made the sea his peculiar element.

It will appear very surprising to you, that at the moment of writing this (three days after the fatal affair) we should still be totally ignorant of the real state of the English vessels. Some say that four or five of them are lost, or, at least, incapable of keeping the sea; while others insist that they have but five or six in all, in a state of service,--but I am very apprehensive that they will return with more than they came,--and,I am sorry to observe, that this idea is gaining ground.

Such is this unfourtunate event: but let us have done with these melancholy details; and do you still console yourself with respect to the fate of our colony. We are here well intrenched, and have little to complain of but the want of intelligence from France. O Julia! how happy would it make me to receive a letter from you at least once a fortnight!

We are told that Bonaparte has left six thousand men at Cairo, where he has re-established the ancient government, which was subverted by the Mameloucs. You will allow that this is the way to procure us a powerful friend in the country.

We expect him here every day, for in consequence of our defeat, his presence for some time at Alexandria is indispensable. Many people are already speculating on the expedition to India; this appears to me, however, to be rather a distant object,--at any rate, you shall know our destination is my next.

The frigate which was going to France with dispatches from Marmont(4), in which he had sent for his wife, was taken, I hear. In that case, the departure of this charming woman will be delayed; and, to say the truth, I do not see much wisdom in sending for one’s wife, before things are a little better settled. This, however, is Marmont’s concern.—For you, Julia, be tranquil; the first moment your coming can be determined on with propriety, your husband will summon you to him with all the ardour of the most impassioned lover.

I am obliged to fold up my letter, for they tell me that a vessel is on the point of sailing for France. May it reach you in safety, Julia, with the kisses which I have imprinted on every line for you, and my children!

Ever yours,

B. Julien Francois

[British Translators' Notes]

(1)This expression strongly marks the restless nature of these people. Julien allows that the situation of the French army is extremely critical; nay, that its existence depends on contingencies,--yet, with want of every kind staring him in the face, with a prospect of a new enemy in the Grand Seignor, and with hatred and hostility kindling around him, his thoughts still turn on INVASIONS; and, in the very jaws of destruction himself, he is as anxious as ever to extend its ravages to a distant nation!

The calumniators of the councils, as well as of the arms of their country, will not do amiss in taking notice of this and other passages of a similar nature to be found in these letters. They will see in them the secret opinion of the French themselves (which, indeed, was fully justified by the event) on the ill conduct of their own affairs; and they will be convinced (though we do not expect them to acknowledge it) that all wisdom and all vigour are not the exclusive possession of an enemy, who forwards an expedition only in the intervals of private feuds, and sends it at last slowly prepared, and ill concerted, to open destruction.

(2)We know not how Julien will settle this matter with the Morning Chronicle.—‘What can the English do?” says that patriotic paper,--“they are so disgraced that it will require no efforts to disarm them: any puny whipster may get their swords”!!!

(3) Observe that this philippic on the the stupidity of his vanquished countrymen comes from the man who had said just before,--“Our fleet is at anchor strongly moored, and, as they say here, in A SITUATION TO GIVE THE ENGLISH A GOOD RECEPTION”

Such is the foresight impudently arrogated in defiance of a recorded opinion, a moment after the event had shewn that the fleet might be insulted with impunity! When shall we learn to distinguish the passionate starts of these people from sound politics, and prize their judgment at its true worth?

(4)Marmont is a young man of family and fortune. We do not know what posts he holds in the army, but as he is said to be a particular favourite of Bonaparte, it is probably an honourable and lucrative one. His wife, of whom Julien speaks just below, is a daughter of Perregaux the banker; we believe, an only one. They were married but a short time before the expedition took place.


Heidi said...

so did Julia have a successful birth and was it a boy or girl. Did the child survive to adulthood? I hope it all worked out for them, and everyone else. Invasions and wars and such take such a human toll. I think that is the worst part of it all. The incredible waste of human lives. All these folks are blissfully dead now, yet its still so poignant.

Jim Mikulak said...

Who is the the Grand Seignior?

David L. Boyle said...

After consulting with professor Cole, the term "Grand Seignior" would have referred to the Ottoman Sultan, Selim III in this context.