Monday, October 8, 2007

French Captain Describes Sailors as Traitors

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. 216-221.


Alexandria (23 Fructidor) September 9th.

ROZIS to his Friend GRIVET.

TIS with great pleasure, my dear friend, that I send you the present, hoping that it will have the good fortune to reach you, notwithstanding the prodigious difficulties we have been subjected to, since the unfortunate moment of the total destruction of our fleet.

While the land forces fight like so many lions, those of the fleet behaved like cowards! We ought not, indeed, by any means to blame the subaltern officers, the cannoneers, and some of the seamen; but the major part, together with the superior officers, certainly fought like traitors(1) to their country!

We inhabit a country with which we are all dissatisfied, to a degree not to be conceived. IF THE TROOPS HAD BUT KNOWN WHAT IT WAS, BEFORE THEY QUITTED FRANCE, THEY WOULD HAVE PREFERRED DEATH A THOUSAND TIMES TO THE MISERY WHICH THEY NOW FIND THEMSELVES REDUCED. We have the enemy every where, before, behind, and on each side of us; it is an exact counterpart of La Vendee. Happily, we have defeated the most formidable of them: 1, the Arabs; 2, the Mameloucs; 3, the Bedouins; almost all cavalry, all mounted on active little horses, that run as swiftly up the mountains as long as the plains. The troops fought like Caesars, and, indeed, nothing less than French soldiers could have defeated such an enemy!

We were almost always obliged to engage, formed into squares. In this inconvenient order of battle we made three days forced march; and, indeed, to have changed it would have been fatal to us all. The enemy made but few prisoners at first; if they saved any from death, it was only to render them subservient to their brutal passions.

The country of Alexandria is merely a country of sand, devoid of all cultivation; where the inhabitants would perish with hunger if they were not supplied with necessaries from the neighbouring districts. The natives who are called Arabs, are a sort of wild beasts, who pillage their own people as readily as strangers. They are always armed, live entirely on rapine, dwell constantly in tents, and carry their whole household with them. When they wish to incamp, they just trace out a few lines on the sand; they are here to day, and there to-morrow.

The Grand Turk is their sworn enemy: he has never been able to subdue them; that was reserved for the French to accomplish. They are not in the least afraid of our cavalry: to say the truth, we have not much of it; they are only intimidated by our artillery: they rush upon our bayonets, as the wild boar does upon the hunters when he is wounded. They have no cannon; if they had, no nation on earth would be able to subdue them.

We were many days without water or bread, or victuals of any kind; and even without means of procuring any. In five or six days, I speak without exaggeration, we lost six or seven hundred men by thirst alone!!! Having passed the Desert, we reached the neighbourhood of the city called Grand Cairo, a country extremely rich by its commerce, and very fertile in grain. It was here that the great battle was fought; we killed or drowned a part of them; while those who escaped, fled into the Desert; some of them with the intent of reaching Egypt, others the neighbourhood of Jerusalem! We pursued them as far as Upper Egypt, where we, in some measure, completed their destruction(2); as many as could escape, crossed the Desert with an intent of getting to Barbary. I have not yet learned whether we shall pursue them thither.

We are exceedingly reduced in our numbers. Besides all this, there exists a general discontent in the army. Despondency was never at such a height before: we have had several soldiers who blew out their brains in the presence of the Commander in Chief, exclaiming to him, “Voila ton ouvrage;” “THIS IS YOUR WORK!” I can go no farther, time will acquaint you with the rest.

I take the liberty, my good friend, of requesting you, as soon as you shall receive a letter from my brother, to forward my trunk to the place he shall direct; it will be, perhaps, to Dumoin’s at Auch; but that is a matter of no consequence.

You will, perhaps, have retired from the army before our return; and, in that case, I shall not know who will have the charge of the depot. It may thus happen that my property may be lost; judge what a loss for me! The best thing we can venture to look forward to, is to quit this country like so many little St. Johns(3). We are already four months pay in arrear; and we all fear that we shall be obliged to make a forced patriotic gift of it, towards re-establishing the thirteen sail of the line, and the twenty other vessels, frigates, &c. which we have unfortunately lost. Such is the recompence we expect, and such will be the fruit of all our labours!

You may take for yourself, my friend, from the trunk, a new coat, which was made for me at Liege, and a louis d’or in money. This, I think, is about what I owe you; if it be not sufficient, take what will make it so; then put the rest of the money in the trunk, cord it well, put a seal upon the lock, and see it sage in the diligence. Act for me in this case, I beseech you, like a friend.

If Durand and Jenot are with you, remember me kindly to them, and tell them how happy they are to be in their native country.

My respects to your wife: embrace your family for me a thousand times, and believe yourself the most fortunate of men, in not coming to join us in Italy.

Ever yours most sincerely,

ROZIS, Capitaine.


[British Translators' Notes]

(1) A plain statement of the fact will shew with what justice the crews of the French ships are accused by their countrymen of acting like traitors on the first of August.

The following is a correct copy of the certificate given in by the surviving commissaries and officers of the French fleet, and recognized as authentic by the Government.

Number of men on board the thirteen vessels captured of
destroyed in the engagement of the 1st of August 8930
(exclusive of the Hercules gun-boat)

Sent on shore by Lord Nelson in consequence of a
cartel established between him and the Commandant
of Alexandria, and acknowledged in the receipt
of Capt. Barry, Commander of the Alceste. 1605------------------

Wounded, in said cartel: 1500----------------------------------------

Escaped from the Timoleon while she lay on shore --------- 350
(these were murdered by the Arabs)

Escaped from the Hercules (gun boat)---------------------- 50

Officers, carpenters, caulkers, &c. detained by----------- 200
Lord Nelson

Total destroyed -------------------------------------------------------5225

If to these we add the wounded, we shall find, that of 8930, of which the whole consisted, 6725, more than three-fourths, were killed and wounded in an action in which they are said, by this bloody minded Captain, to have “behaved like traitors!” Rozis might (if he had pleased) have discovered a juster and much more reasonable cause of their defeat, in the superior skill and intrepidity of their enemies; but, except in the affair of his trunk, he does not appear to have exerted any great portion of positive inquiry.

(2) Unless Rozis be in correspondence with Sir John Macpherson, who hoped the House would be in “some degree unanimous,” we cannot account for his stumbling upon this expression. The precious traits of geographical knowledge which precede it, we leave without comment, to the admiration of our readers, contenting ourselves with recommending to their most serious notice, the paragraphs which follow, and which, as they merely relate to the objects of sense and feeling, we would as readily receive from Rozis as from any philosopher in the army.

(3) Meaning, we believe, NAKED; such being the manner in which the French had been accustomed, under the “old superstition, to see the infant saint represented in their churches.

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