Tuesday, November 6, 2007

General Gives Unflattering Account of the Battle for 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. 131-134.


Grand Cairo, July 28th.

Adjutant-General BOYER, to the Commander in Chief of the Army of England(1).

My General,

OUR entrance into Grand Cairo will doubtless excite that sensation at home which every extraordinary event is calculated to produce; but when you come to know the kind of enemy we had to combat, the little art they employed against us, and the perfect nullity of all their measures, our expedition and our victories will appear to you very common things.

We began by making an assault upon a place with out any defence, and garrisoned by about 500 Janizaries, of whom scarce a man knew how to level a musket. I allude to Alexandria, a huge and wretched skeleton of a place, open on every side, and most certainly very unable to resist the efforts of 25,000 men, who attacked it at the same instant. We lost, notwithstanding, 150 men, whom we might have preserved by only summoning the town—but it was thought necessary to begin by striking terror in the enemy(2).

After this we marched against the Mameloucs; a people highly celebrated amongst the Egyptians for their bravery. This rabble (I cannot call them soldiers,) which has not the most trifling idea of tactics, and which knows nothing of war but the blood that is spilt in it, appeared for the first time opposed to our army on the 13th of July.

From the first dawn of day, they made a general display of their forces, which straggled round and round our army, like so many cattle; sometimes galloping, and sometimes pacing in groups of 10,50, 100 &c. After some time, they made several attempts, in a style equally ridiculous and curious, to break in upon us; but finding every where a resistance which they probably did not expect; they spent the day in keeping us exposed to the fury of a burning sun. Had we been a little more enterprising this day, I think their fate would have been decided; but General Bonaparte temporized, that he might make a trial of his enemy, and become acquainted with their manner of fighting.

The day ended with the retreat of the Mameloucs, who scarcely lost five-and-twenty men. We continued our march up the Nile till the 21st, which was the day that put a final termination to the power of the Mameloucs in Egypt.

Four thousand men on horseback, having each a groom or two, bore down intrepidly on a numerous army of veterans: their charge was an act of fury, rage, and despair. They attacked Desaix and Regnier first. The soldiers of these divisions received them with steadiness, and at the distance of only ten paces opened a running fire upon them, which brought down one hundred and fifty. They then fell upon Bon’s division, which received them in the same manner. In short, after a number of unavailing efforts, they made off; and, carrying with them all their treasures, took shelter in Upper Egypt. The fruit of this victory was Grand Cairo, where we have been ever since the evening of the 22d.

I should be familiar with the language of the country, and, what is of still more importance, in the confidence of the Great, to be enabled to give you an idea of the resources found in this city; but, from the complaints I hear, and the demands of several Generals who wish to return, I can easily perceive that there are vast discontents in the army. Generally speaking, it is hardly possible to conceive the miseries endured by the army, during its seventeen days’ march; finding no where a bit of bread, nor a drop of wine, we were reduced to live on melons, gourds, poultry, buffalo meat, and Nile water.

Such, my General, is the succinct account of our operations. There is talk already of our ascending the Nile as far as the Cataracts: an expedition that will make a number of officers throw up their commissions.

I beg you to present my respectful homage to Madame Kilmaine, and to believe me.

Your subordinate, BOYER.

Have the goodness to remember me to my comrades, Rivaud, D’Arbois, and Villard.


[British Translators' Notes]

(1)General Kilmaine. This is the letter of an experienced officer, giving an account to his superior, whom he neither dared, nor, perhaps, wished to deceived, of such military operations as fell under his immediate inspection.

The “account” we know, from the most indisputable authority, to be as correct as it is spirited. It derogates a little, it must be confessed, from the wonderful prowess of Bonaparte and his band of heroes—but what are we to think of a General, who gravely tells of the difficulty of scaling the ramparts of a town, which has scarce a wall or a gate that might not be forced by a serjant’s guard! Or of the prodigies of valour exhibited in defeating a horde of brave but undisciplined troops, with a regular and well appointed army, of more than six times their numbers!

(2)It was a branch of this necessity, we suppose, that prompted Bonaparte, with equal judgment and humanity, to give up the inhabitants of Alexandria to indiscriminate slaughter for the space of four hours! Mr. Gilbert Wakefield tells us, that this General (with whose character he appears to be as well acquainted as he evidently is with most of those with whom he meddles,) “prefers the preservation of a single citizen from death, to the melancholy glory that could result from a thousand triumphs of a conqueror wading through floods of slaughter.” All this is doubtless very fine and very true and we must, therefore, conclude that the General had just then forgotten that the unfortunate Alexandrines were “citizens”—a circumstance the more to be wondered at, as he had not long before, termed them so in his Manifesto.

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