Saturday, October 27, 2007

Officer Recalls Arrival at Cairo

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. 76-79.


Boulac, near Cairo, July 27th.


WE are arrived at length, my friend, at the spot so much and so eagerly desired! How different is it from what the most cool and temperate imagination had figured it to be! This execrable doghole of a city is inhabited by a lazy set of wretches, who squat all day before their filthy huts, smoking, and taking coffee, or eating pumpions, and drinking water.

It is easy enough to lose ones-self for a whole day in the stinking and narrow streets of this illustrious capital. The quarter of the Mameloucs [Mamluks] is the only one which is habitable; the Commander in Chief resides there in a tolerable and handsome house, which belonged to one of the Beys. I have written to the Chief of Brigade, Dupuis(2), at present General and Governor of Cairo, to reserve a house for thee. I have not yet received his answer.

The division is quartered in a kind of town, called Boulac, upon the Nile, about half a league from Cairo. We are all lodged in houses deserted by the owners, and wretched enough in all conscience. Dugua’s is the only one which is tolerable.

General Lannes has just received an order to take the command of Menou’s division, in the room of the Vial, who is going to Damietta with a battalion. He assures me that he will not accept it. The 2d light battalion, and General Verdier, are stationed near the Pyramids, on the left bank of the Nile, till the position which he occupies can be fortified, so as to receive a garrison of a hundred men.

A bridge is intended to be thrown over the river, nearly opposite Gizeh. The spot is at present occupied by the reserve of the artillery and engineers. Regnier’s division is stationed two or three leagues in front of Cairo; Desaix’s is about to occupy Old Cairo; Bon’s is stationed in the citadel, and Menou’s in the city.

Thou hast not an idea of the fatiguing marches we made to get to Cairo; never halting till three or four o’clock in the afternoon, after broiling in the sun all day; the greatest part of the time without food; obliged to glean what the divisions which preceded us had left in those detestable villages, which they had frequently pillaged; and harassed during the whole march by those hordes of robbers called Bedouins, who killed not only our men, but our officers, at five-and-twenty paces from the main body. The Aid-de-camp of General Dugua, called Geroret, was shot in this manner as he was carrying an order to a file of grenadiers, not a musket shot from the camp. It is a more destructive war, on my soul! Than that of La Vendee.

We had an engagement the day we arrived in the neighbourhood of Cairo. The Mameloucs, who had the good sense(3) to place themselves on the left bank of the Nile, offered us battle, and got a good beating. We call it the Battle of the Pyramidsl they lost (to speak without exaggeration) seven or eight hundred men; of these, a great portion perished in attempting to swim across the Nile.

I wish very much to know how thou art, and when thou think’st thou shalt be able to come and take the command of the division, which is in very feeble hands(4).

Every body is desirous of having thee here. There is a general relaxation in the service: I do all I can to preserve unity among the different parties; but all goes very ill. The troops are neither paid nor fed; and thou may’st easily guess what murmurs this occasions:--they are loudest perhaps among the officers. We are cajoled with promises, that in a week’s time the administrations will be sufficiently organizes to enable them to make their distributions regularly—but a week is still too long.

If thou com’st soon, which I most ardently wish, take care to be escorted even on board, by a party of fusiliers, capable of securing thee from the attacks of the Arabs, who will most assuredly make their appearance on the banks of the Nile, and endeavour to destroy thee in thy bark.

The first Commissary, Sucy, had his arm fractured on board the flotilla, in his passage to Cairo. Thou may’st perhaps come to us in the gun-boats, lighters, &c. which have been dispatched to bring round the baggage of the army from Alexandria.—come, come, prithee come!

Thine entirely.


My regards to Augustus and his Colleagues.


[British Translators' Notes]

(1)This well written letter is from one of the best officers in the French service; it is another proof of what we observed in a former page, that Kleber had no attempts made on his credulity; every thing is represented to him in its true light.

(2)See a letter from him, No. XXIII.

(3)L’Esprit in the original; Damas speaks ironically. It is evident that if those brave and unfortunate men had not entered into a pitched battle, but retired before the enemy to the right bank of the Nile, and contended themselves with harassing them, and disputing the passage, the whole army must in this case have been destroyed. Nothing, in short, but a blind reliance on their own courage, and a total ignorance of the European manner of fighting, could have induced between three and four thousand men (for this was their utmost number) to attack 24,000 of the best troops of France, furnished with artillery, and bristled with an impenetrable force of bayonets. That they should be defeated, is not so wonderful as that they should be able to do any injury at all to the French—which we yet find they did.

Bonaparte reckons his loss, in his letter to the Directory, at 150 killed and wounded; in another letter (not to the Directory) he states the number to be 210; most probably it was the greater still. We are glad, however, to find from the authentic statement before us, that the loss of the Mameloucs was not so great. Damas reckons it at 700 or 800 men, and even so, he is apprehensive that he shall be suspected of exaggeration. This is more than was necessary to teach us to read the rhapsodies of the Commander in Chief cum grano.—

(4)These feeble hands are Dugua’s; the division was intrusted to him, in consequence of Kleber’s wound, which detained that General at Alexandria. The remainder of this letter is highly important.

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