Monday, October 15, 2007

French Soldier tells Heroic Story of the Battle for Alexandria

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. 15-24.


Alexandria, (19 Messidor)(1),July 7th.

SHECHY [Bernard MacSheehy], Captain Adjutant, &c. &c. to Citizen DOULCET(2), Rue St. Fiacre, at Paris.

I AVAIL myself of the only leisure moment I have had since the capture of this city to acquit myself of the engagement I entered into with you.

Our voyage from Toulon to Malta had scarce any thing in it worth mentioning. You are already acquainted with every particular respecting the capture of that important island. We quitted it on the evening of the 18th of June, and a north-west wind, which constantly prevails in those latitudes during the present season, carried us in twelve days to Alexandria.

On the evening of the 1st instant, after issuing the necessary orders for effecting an immediate landing, the Commander in Chief threw himself into a Maltese galley, to get nearer the shore; and in spite of the prudent(3) advice of the seamen, who insinuated that a debarkation was impracticable, on account of the violence of the wind, and of the reefs which fill the Bay of Marabout, General Bonaparte persisted in his determination to land, and actually did land in this very bay. I was one of the Staff that accompanied him. Marabout is about three leagues from Alexandria.

When we got on shore, we found the Generals Menou, Kleber, Bon, and Regnier; the three former with their divisions, the latter with only a few of his men about him(4); he as therefore left to secure the landingplace, while the others marched in three columns for Alexandria.

The Commander in Chief and his Staff, after sleeping for about two hours on the sand, got up, and put themselves at the head of the divisions. Kleber’s occupied the centre, and marched toward’s Pompey’s Column; Menou’s was drawn up on its left, and coasted along the sea; Bon’s on its right, and directed its march to the gate of Rosetta. I and my party put ourselves at the head of Kleber’s division.

At daybreak we discovered a few horse, who advanced upon us, and, seeing that we had no cavalry, discharged their carabines at us within pistol-shot; but some of our riflemen having rapidly gained the sand hills on our flank, soon forced them to retire. We continued our march till we got within two miles of the city. Here we found a mosque, with a cistern in it. We drank with delight of the water, which the fatigues(5) of the march made us think the sweetest we had ever tasted!

Arrived at Pompey’s Column, we made another short halt. Our riflemen, meanwhile, had advanced close to the walls, and were skirmishing with the Alexandrines, who lined them in every part. The Commander in Chief sent me forward to reconnoitre their situation, strength, &c. I advanced alone, till I came within pistol-shot—but had scarce begun to examine the forts with my glass, ere I heard a sudden scream from the women and children, that appeared in great numbers on the ramparts; at the same moment a brisk discharge of musquetry was made upon me. A volunteer who stood about thirty or forty paces behind me was shot in the left shoulder, and fell.

Having executed the business entrusted to me by the General, I went back to collect some volunteers who were scattered about the plain; and having by their assistance removed the wounded man, I had him conveyed to Pompey’s Column, where all the Staff Officers were assembled.

The General ordered the charge to be beat, and an attack to be made upon all points. Our troops flew to the ramparts, and got over them in an instant(6), in spite of a shower of bullets and stones, which killed and wounded a great number of them; he then dispatched me back to order the generale to be beat, and the troops who were in the city, and engaged with the inhabitants, to evacuate it immediately, and arrange themselves in order of battle under the eminence on which he then stood.

Having re-entered the city, and observed the desperate conduct of the Alexandrines, who continued to assail our troops with stones and musquetry from the roofs and windows of their houses, I found myself reduced to the necessity of lining the streets which I passed with small bodies of men, to prevent those hostile measures. In spite of all my precautions, however, several of my people were wounded by the stones.

I came up to a small fort, which was garrisoned by about thirty Turks; they discharged several muskets at me; but seeing that my numbers were continually increasing, they made signs of capitulating, by grounding their arms, and uttering the most dreadful cries.

As the General had ordered me not to attack any of the forts, but merely to block up such as lay in my way, by the troops of the different divisions, I judged it proper to accept of this capitulation; but at the very instant that I ordered the troops to cease firing on the fort, a musket-ball from an adjoining house killed a grenadier close to my side. He fell across my knees, without uttering a single word, and had nearly thrown me down by his fall. As I could not precisely point out the house from whence the shot was fired, and had before me a fort, of which I was scarcely yet the master, I was obliged to continue my route without taking VENGEANCE(7) for the death of the brave grenadier. Soon after I found myself before the principal fort of the city; it was already blockaded by Menou’s division; and in a few minutes after, the Captain of a Turkish ship of war, dispatched by the Commander in Chief, put it into our hands, as well as all the others which yet remained to be taken.

We had a vast number of men killed and wounded in our attack upon the city, and during our march, by the Bedouins, whom we fell in with soon after our landing; they hung on our rear, and killed and took a great number of stragglers. These Arabs resemble the ancient Scythians: the world is their country, they live on rapine(8), &c.

These Arabs are divided into different tribes, which are frequently at war with each other. They are very formidable, never associate with the rest of the world, nor can ever be persuaded to adopt their customs, or their manner of living. This, perhaps, is the true secret of their power.

The Proclamation of General Bonaparte, (of which you will, undoubtedly, see a copy), having been communicated to them, they instantly demanded permission to become our friends, and even to make war in conjunction with us, against the Mameloucs, the oppressors of the country! They brought the General about thirty of our people whom they had made prisoner. Before they heard of the Proclamation, they had treated these unfortunate men in the harshest mannor; their women especially, made them suffer the most cruel torments; and even the children at the breast amused themselves with tearing their hair, and scratching their face with their nails; all which they were obliged to endure with patience, for fear of worse treatment from the men. As soon, however, as the Proclamation was made known to them, the French were treated with kindness.

I have snatched a few instants from my duty, to give you these details. We are so busy that we have not time to lie down, or to take a morsel of wretched food.

It is impossible for you to conceive the misery of our present situation; which, yet, is infinitely preferable to that which we are about to experience in the course of three or four days, in the midst of the Desert. We shall march the 6th or 7th.

I am indebted to the activity and good sense of my servant, for a camel, which I am already preparing to load with two goat-skin bags; one for water, and the other for vinegar; happy if I find it sufficient for the journey! This camel will also carry a part of my baggage, and that of my comrades, and five days provisions, consisting merely of hard biscuit, which we have been obliged to procure from the ships.

Desaix’s division is already on its march; Regnier’s is to follow it; Kleber’s will proceed on the morning, and Menou’s on the evening of the 6th. We shall speedily see the unraveling of all these projects; at present, Cairo is the mark to which we tend. The Mameloucs once beaten, I know not if we shall carry our views farther.

I am asleep with the pen in my hand. I am absolutely worn out with fatigue. As soon as I can find a few moments of tranquility, I will take the liberty of sending you a more circumstantial and a more satisfactory account of what we have seen and done.

Have the goodness to present my respects to Madame Dumuy, and pray let me hear from you. You cannot form an idea of the fatigues we have undergone. If we ever return from this expedition, we shall richly deserve Paradise. On board the fleet, we regretted France; in Egypt, I fear, we shall have to regret the fleet! In spite, however, of all the obstacles which we experience, success will crown our enterprise—nay, obstacles themselves are, with us, infallible indications of victory(9)!

I am so pressed for the regulations, &c. of the army, that I cannot add another word. The nephew of Lannes, who is at my side, desires to be remembered to you.


[British Translators' Notes]

(1) This and the foregoing letter appear to be post-dated by two or three days: the mistake arose probably from haste, and is, indeed, scarce worth noticing.

(2) We know nothing more of Shechy than what his letters tell us. His correspondent Doulcet de Pontecoulant was formerly an officer in the Gardes-du-corps. He followed the general example, deserted his benevolent master, and actively promoted the Revolution which brought him to the scaffold.

He repented, we suppose, when it was too late; for we find him in the list of the proscribed of the 18th Fructidor: he was, however, so far pardoned, on account of his former services, as to be permitted to withdraw to Switzerland. He is now, we see, returned to France; on what terms we know not—probably he has repented of his repentance, and is ready to begin anew. In the Convention he was looked on as Modere!

(3) Shechy uses this word with a sneer, but without reason. The landing was evidently dangerous; many of the troops were drowned in the attempt, and, according to several of the letters, the General himself was in the most imminent danger of being lost. But the fears of the English fleet prevailed over every other consideration

—“such a sight he dreaded worse than hell;”

and, if he had, with a precipitation and want of forecast, which must for ever destroy his reputation as a General, fled from Malta, without waiting to supply that important post with a sufficient quantity of troops or stores, and without taking in water for his own squadron (notwithstanding the remonstrances of Brueys), from a dread of being overtaken by Nelson; it cannot be supposed that any circumstances could easily occur powerful enough to detain him on board, when his escape now appeared to depend on the exertions of a few hours, and was, moreover, favoured by the night.

We have yet a few words to say on this subject.

The Morning Chronicle, with a disregard to truth and decency, highly worth of the cause which it espouses, after insinuating that this Correspondence is a forgery (not having heard, it should see, that is friends abroad allow it to be genuine), observes, with a rancorous smile—

--toujours Le ris sur son visage est en mauvaise humeur.

--that “it is to be deposited in the British Museum—together with the body of Bonaparte, to enable the English, who did not dare to face him alive, to look at him dead!!!” Where did this degraded and despicable paper learn, that the English feared to Bonaparte alive? Was it in the “AUTHENTIC NARRATIVE” of Captain Berry, which describes, in plain yet forcible language, the gallant Nelson, with an inferior fleet, pursuing this “dreaded hero,” with an eagerness that could only be surpassed by that with which Bonaparte fled from him!

But the unnatural rage of the Morning Chronicle to sacrifice the honour of this country to France, is too notorious to be farther dwelt upon. Callous alike to shame and detection, it blunders on, through universal hatred and contempt, from one ignorant and atrocious falsehood to another. The reader of the former part of this work cannot have forgotten with what consummate baseness it misrepresented the tendency of the publication, and, under the fulsome pretence of reprehending scandal, (which has no where to be found in it), gave a loose to its own darling licentiousness and impurity!

(4) Each of these divisions consisted of from five to seven thousand men; the reader may therefore form a tolerable estimate of the forces that attacked Alexandria. Boyer reckons them at twenty thousand; and this, if we include the unattached volunteers of the army, who were pretty numerous, was, we doubt not, the amount.

(5) This “fatiguing march” was one of little more than a league. The remark is of no farther importance than as it serves towards elucidating the history of this “terrestrial paradise,” where to “travel but four foot by the square a-foot,” as Falstaff says, “is to break one’s wind!”

(6) As, Heaven knows! They might well do; for we can assure our readers, from the testimony of persons well acquainted with those famous “ramparts” that many a park wall in this country presents a more formidable aspect. The only danger to be apprehended in this terrible escalade was, lest the assailants should pull down the old wall upon themselves—and this, we find, they actually did do; for General Menou, and several others, were wounded by the fall of the stones which gave way beneath their grasp!

If the catastrophe had been less tragical, we should have indulged a smile at the parade of arrangements made by Bonaparte for getting possession of this defenceless place. “It would have surrendered,” says Boyer “at the first summons;” and so it undoubtedly would—but then how scurvily would this have sounded in the pages of the Morning Chronicle, and the Redacteur! Hence the reconnoitering “within pistol-shot.” The beating of the generale, the scrambling over the wall, &c. Unparalleled achievements, and, in the judgment of the aforesaid papers, worthy of everlasting renown! Be it so: and yet, we trust, very few of our readers will be so dazzled by their splendour, as not to see that the instantaneous capture of the city renders the subsequent massacre of its inhabitants altogether inexcusable. Something may be allowed to rage, when success is at length obtained after an obstinate and destructive resistance. But Mr. Wakefeld himself must excuse us, if we do not feel inclined to make much allowance for a man, or more properly a monster, who, at one and the same moment, invests and carries in an open place (for such in fact it is), and then deliberately murders men, women, and children, in their very mosques!

(7) This was a great pity—but be of good heart, citizen; Bonaparte will enter the town as soon as it is completely in the power of his troops, then you, and they, and all, will have full leisure to take “VENGEANCE,” not only on the man who killed the grenadier that would have killed him, but on his wife and child, who are calling on heaven and earth for mercy!

(8) Here follows a short account of the Arabs, which, as it is merely a repetition of what is said respecting them in the former letter, we have omitted. Poor Shechy is a miserable historian; instead of comparing these people to the ancient Scythians, of whom he knows nothing, and who had very little in common with the Arabs, he should have looked out for a resemblance nearer home. If the sentence had run thus—“These Arabs resemble the modern French: the world is their country, they live on rapine, &c.” few, we believe, would have thought of disputing its accuracy.

(9) Excellent. To augur success from the very circumstances which oppose it, is, we believe, peculiar to the French.

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