Sunday, October 21, 2007

French Admiral Gives Account of Voyage to Egypt

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. 1, pp. 40-45.

Admiral BRUEYS, commanding the Naval Forces of the Republic in the Mediterranean, to the Minister of the Marine, and of the Colonies.

Citizen Minister,

I WROTE to you from Malta on the 14th of June; in that letter I gave you an account of the arrival of the fleet at Malta, and of the capture of that island. The ships of the line, and the transports were all under sail on the 19th, and on the 1st of July we were off the old port of Alexandria.

I had previously dispatched the Juno to bring the Consul on board. Citizen Magallon (the nephew) arrived on the 1st, and informed us that an English squadron had appeared in the line of battle off the port of Alexandria, on the 28th of June, that they had made sail to the north-east. The squadron was supposed to consist of fourteen ships of the line.

The Consul also told us that our arrival had been daily looked for, for some time; that there was a great fermentation in the country, and no inconsiderable degree of uneasiness and apprehension.

The Commander in Chief desired to be put on shore immediately; I therefore came to anchor on the coast, and during the night succeeded in landing 6000 men in a creak to the west of the Old Port, near a castle called Marabou, about two leagues from the city: not the slightest opposition was made to our descent.

The 2d, at noon, our troops were in the city, and in three hours afterwards the fort surrendered. There was some resistance attempted at the wall which surrounds the city, but it was immediately scaled. A few shot were fired into the streets from the windows of the houses; the fort too, fired a few cannon: but every thing was soon in our possession.

I disembarked all the troops, and the baggage belonging to them, and on the 7th, having satisfied myself that our ships of war could not get into the port for want of a sufficient depth of water at the entrance, I ordered the Venetian ships(1), and the transports, to come to anchor here, and stood off with the thirteen sail of the line and three frigates, with an intent of mooring in the Bay of Bequiers.

I arrived there in the afternoon, and formed a line of battle at two-thirds of a cable-length, the headmost vessel being as close as possible(2) to a shoal to the north-west of us, and the rest of the fleet forming a kind of curve along the line of deep water, so as not to be turned, by any means, in the south-west. This position is the strongest we could possibly take in an open road, where we cannot approach sufficiently near the land to be protected by batteries, and where the enemy has it in his power to choose his own distance.

Our troops entered Rosetta yesterday, and the army is not in full march for Cairo.

We have pushed into this branch of the Nile as many of our light vessels as possible; and the Commander in Chief has asked me for the Chief of Division, Perree, to command them. The flotilla sailed this morning to try if it be possible to get over the bar of Rosetta. You see that we are marching to the conquest of Egypt with the steps of a giant.

It is vexatious that there is not a port where a fleet can enter; but the Old Port, of which we have heard so much, is shut up by a reef of rocks, some under, and some above, water, forming a number of narrow channels, where the depth is only from 23 to 25 and 30 feet. The sea, too, is commonly very high: thus you see, that one of our seventy-fours would be in no small danger there, especially as she would inevitably go to pieces in a few minutes after touching the ground.

To gratify the wishes of the Commander in Chief(3), I have offered a reward of ten thousand livres to any pilot of the country who will undertake to carry the squadron in; but none of them will venture to take charge of a single vessel that draws more than twenty feet. I hope, however, that we shall succeed in finding a channel by which our seventy-fours may enter; but this can only be the result of many laborious and painful experiments.

I have already engaged two intelligent officers in this business; Captain Barre, commanding at present the Alceste, and Citizen Vidal, first Lieutenant. If they find a channel, they will buoy it for us; and then we may enter without much danger. The depth within the reefs increases to fifteen fathoms, but the getting out of the harbour will, in all cases, be very difficult, and very tedious; so that a squadron would engage to a vast disadvantage.

I have heard nothing further of the English. They are gone, perhaps, to look for us on the coast of Syria or rather (and this is my private opinion) they have not so many as fourteen sail of the line; and finding themselves not superior in numbers, do not think it quite so prudent to try their strength with us(4).

We look forward with the greatest anxiety to the time when the conquest of Egypt shall furnish us with provisions. We are now obliged to supply the troops continually—every hour new rains are made upon us. We have now only fifteen days biscuit on board; and we are in this anchorage just as if we were on the high seas—consuming every thing, and replacing nothing.

Our crews are weak both in number and quality. Our rigging, in general, out of repair; and I am sure that it requires no little courage to undertake the management of a fleet, furnished with such tools!

I do not think it necessary to enter into any further details on our present situation. You are a seamen, and will therefore conceive it better than I can describe it to you.

Before I conclude, I will transcribe a paragraph from a letter which I have just received from the Commander in Chief.

“I have asked of the Executive Directory, the rank of Rear Admiral for your Chief of the Staff, Ganteaume. I beseech you to appoint him. I have sought by this to give proof of my gratitude and esteem for the essential services, the activity, and the zeal manifested by your staff officers, and, generally speaking, the whole squadron, in executing the orders of the Government.


Health and respect.



[British Translators' Notes]

(1) Le Dubois and Le Causse, of the 64 Guns each, and two or three frigates.

(2) Never was there a more glorious testimony to the intrepidity and skill of the British seamen, than this letter furnishes. The French Admiral, a man of no common abilities in his profession, and anxious, above all things, to secure his fleet from being headed by an enemy, places his van ship as near the shoal as possible, and reposes in the most perfect confidence, that nothing can molest him in that quarter; and yet it was between this very shoal and ship, and through this very passage, which, after an examination of the twenty-four days (from the 7th to the 31st of July), the French Admiral conceived impracticable, that the gallant NELSON led his BRITONS (the men whom the Morning Chronicle pronounced to be “without courage, and ready to resign their swords to every puny whipster”) to victory, and everlasting fame!

(3) Here is positive proof of the falsehood of Bonaparte’s assertions respecting the sailing of the fleet. We beseech the reader to bear this passage in mind, for we shall by and by return to it.

(4) We were sorry to find such a passage as this in Bruey’s letter. He was evidently a man of courage and capacity, and ought to have known his enemy better. Such flights of vanity and imbecility are things of course in the dispatches of the Directory; but this is not an official letter; it is evidently meant for the private information of Bruix, and seems drawn up as a kind of defence against the probable remonstrances of Bonaparte.

It is needless to observe how much the unfortunate Admiral was deceived. His fate will not be altogether useless to his countrymen, if it gives them juster notions of our “prudence,” with equal, or even inferior numbers.

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