Sunday, September 16, 2007

French Soldier Describes Defeat at the Hands of the British

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.94-99


Alexandria, (18 Therimdor) August 5th.

LE PERE, to Citizen BEYTZ, Representative of the People, in the Council of Five Hundred.

I KNOW not, Citizen and Friend, whether my former letters have reached you; I am inclined to think they have not, and this for several reasons.

Hitherto the news which I have had to send you has been excellent: to-day it is my fate to present you with the reverse of the medal. Our success by land is invariable, and while we have Bonaparte to organize it, I flatter myself that it will always continue so; but his judgment and his fortune no longer influence and direct our fleet. Weep with me, while you peruse the melancholy detail.

Ever since the capture of Cairo, our condition had been improving in every respect(1). The number of our partisans was increasing, and our security becoming more and more assured; but the English,(2) those high spirited enemies, frantic at having missed us everywhere, and become certain at length, of finding us here, appeared off Alexandria, on the 31st ult. They made sail for Aboukir, a kind of port about four leagues to the east of the city, where our fleet was at anchor, and, as it flattered itself, strongly moored.

The English were but too well acquainted with our situation, as their conduct sufficiently proves. With their fleet still under sail, they fell upon the right division of our squadron, broke the line (several of their vessels falling upon each of ours) and entirely demolished it, before any of the other ships, rendered useless by their being at anchor, could move to its assistance.

The action began at six in the evening; the fire was terrible, and the action bloody. It lasted till three in the morning, ceased for a short time, began again at five, and finally terminated at nine. The English, though greatly disabled, are masters of the field of battle, and of the wrecks of our fleet. Our ships successively dismasted, crippled, and more or less torn to pieces, are become the prey of our enemies; two sail of the line only, and two frigates, have found their safety in flight, and are gone, perhaps, to France, to carry the most melancholy intelligence of a defeat, of which there are few examples, and of which the effects will be more sensibly felt here, than in the mother country.

Three hours after the action commenced, the l’Orent unfortunately took fire; and we had from this place the dreadful spectacle of a ship in flames; it burnt for near an hour, and then disappeared with a tremendous explosion. We were ignorant at the time, indeed, that it was a French ship, especially the flag one. I want courage to tell you how many brave men perished, and how many distinguished officers.

The English had only fourteen sail of the line, and brig; we had thirteen sail of the line, four frigates, and a few gun-boats. Our position would have infallibly doubled our strength, if we had been a little nearer the shore, formed in a closer line of battle, so as not to be broken, and really and truly moored; but, but,--ah! How many buts!

I must, however, do justice to the courage of our seamen, who fought like lions.

General Bonaparte was at Cairo, and his judgment and his fortune(3) were no longer companions of the fleet. He will be so much the more afflicted at this catastrophe, as it could not have taken place, if the Admiral had been more anxious to execute his plans, which were to carry all the ships into the Port of Alexandria (where the transports, &c. already were), as soon as the channels should be properly surveyed, and that had now been done near a fortnight. Speculations of pride, it is whispered, prevented this from being done; and this it is that mean and selfish considerations produce the most terrible calamities.

Would to Heaven that the English, fully occupied with the repair of their fleet, may return immediately to Gibraltar, without making any attempts on these seas, either at Malta or elsewhere. We who compose the land forces, however, still keep up our courage; our confidence in Bonaparte is unbounded.

My best respects to your wife, to the ladies De Gand, and to your little society.

A thousand friendly things to your colleague from Ostend (I forget his name), and to the Citizens Hopsomere and Meyer.

My health is good, and I have my hands full of business. I hope to leave this place almost immediately for Rosetta and Cairo. I write in haste that I may be in time for the packet, which is on the point of sailing.


[British Translators' Notes]

(1)This is a mere gratis dictum. The famous battle of the Pyramids (as it is modestly called by “the Hero of Italy”) was fought on the 21st of July. Cairo was entered on the 22nd, and Bonaparte’s dispatches are dated on the 23rd. It did not probably take less than five or six days to bring the news to Alexandria; but we are, luckily, not left to conjecture in the business: having the authority of the writer himself (see the preceding letter) for saying that the news on the capture of Cairo reached Alexandria on the 30th. Now, the engagement off Aboukir took place on the night of the 31st, which leaves one day for the ameliorations so sensibly felt by Le Pere! And thus it is that Frenchmen deceive themselves and the world!

(2)Our enemies seem to take a barbarous pleasure in mortifying the Morning Chronicle, and in disclaiming, by anticipation, the sacrifice it is so forward to make of English courage at the shrine of Falsehood and of France. “The DISGRACED English,” says that paper, “FEARED TO LOOK BONAPARTE IN THE FACE.” “The HIGH-SPIRITED English,” says Le Pere, “FRANTIC AT HAVING MISSED HIM, AND BECOME CERTAIN OF FINDING US HERE, appeared,” &c.

We hope this will prove a lesson to the M.C. and induce it in the future—not to do its country justice, this we cannot hope,--but to be silent, when from the absurd and shameless nature of its LIES, it must be manifest to all the world, that the French will be compelled to reject them, with a blush at such unskillful attempts to serve them. This is not the first time that they have been driven to exclaim of the Morning Chronicle and its coadjutors,

---Pol! Occidistis, AMICI,---

(3)This is the second time, in this letter, that those words have occurred. To talk of the “judgment” of Bonaparte in a naval engagement is almost too ridiculous for a Frenchman. What his “fortune” might have done, we know not; but if we are allowed to say what we think on the subject, we shall just observe, that though it would not have delayed the victory a single moment, yet if the General had been present, and either fallen like the ill-fated Brueys, or been blown up like the innocent hostages (Part I. p. 193), it “might have been truly salutary to the army, which, by a speedy surrender, would have probably rescued itself from the lingering but inevitable destruction to which his “judgment and his fortune,” or, to call things by their true names, his perfidy and his cruelty have destined it!

But did Le Pere continue to think thus highly of the General! We fancy not. A letter, which there is every reason to believe authentic, but of which we certainly do not possess the original, has been transmitted to one of the most respectable Journals on the Continent, the Journal de Francfort, and inserted in its 332d Number. It is from Le Pere to the same Beytz, to whom our letter is addressed, but is of a later date (10 Fructidor, August 27.); and contains, besides a recapitulation of what we have given above, several additional circumstances, highly worthy of a place in this collection.

“Amidst a variety of distressing accidents; daily reduced in our numbers by trifling checks, or rather by multiplied assassinations, constantly on the alarm amongst a people heedless of the blessings of liberty, and whose ignorant superstition menaces us without ceasing; obliged to take all those precautions which are rendered necessary by an invasion, for which the way has not been smoothed before hand; and reduced to a scarcity of food, which can only be extorted from the natives by dint of money; we still flattered ourselves with the hopes of a favourable change, when the disastrous business of the 1st of August came to overwhelm, to annihilate, and to mark our future fortune, with the image of all the furies which are destined to pursue us.

Brueys, who fell like a hero, is become the scape-goat, and will be obliged to carry off all the blame. It is said by many well-informed people, that he wished to sail immediately after the debarkation of the troops, but that Bonaparte objected to it; and, indeed, it is not easy to conceive why the General should obstinately persist in compelling our fleet (which consisted at that very time of fifteen sail of the line, twelve frigates, and a large galley) to hide itself in the port of Alexandria, when it was highly capable, if not of beating the English, yet certainly of contesting the day with them; and, at all events, was sufficiently strong to return to Toulon, to protect the sailing of the second expedition.

What will become of us now, that we have the mortification of being blocked up by three sail of the line and three frigates, which take all our advice boats before our face, and deprive us of all news and all succour. In vain do they attempt to fool us on this head, with pretending that we shall be relieved, as soon as the forces which we have at Corfou, Malta, and Toulon have joined. Children may be amused with such trifling; but we are not quite simple enough to believe that Admiral Nelson will permit this junction to be effected.

The General has fortified Damietta, and several other important posts, he has also detached Desaix into the Said, after Morad Bey. We ought to believe that Bonaparte has no intention of precipitating our fate, by thus extending and dividing his army: but, I repeat it, without succours from France, our future condition will be most miserable. We are enervated by the climate, and tormented and harassed to death by insects. Our army is consumed by sickness and continual losses. Many of our detachments of cavalry have already disappeared. Since the last victims which I named to you, we have lost the Commissary Jaudbert, Peyres, and the Renard. Such is our situation, which, considering the rooted hatred of the Egyptians, and the neverending hostility of the Arabs, I must look on as the second volume of our ancient crusades, if the English persist in their interceptions. And, good Heavens! Who knows but the Turks will also declare war against us!”

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