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. 3, pp. 38-52.
Head Quarters, Cairo, October 7th, 1799.
KLEBER(1), Commander in Chief, to the DIRECTORY.
THE Commander in Chief, Bonaparte, quitted this country for France on the morning of the 23d ult. without saying a word of his intention to any person whatever. He had appointed me to meet him at Rosetta on the subsequent day! I found nothing there but his dispatches. Unable to divine whether the General has had the good fortune to reach Toulon, I think it incumbent on me to send you a copy of the letter by which he transferred to me the command of the army, as also of another which he had addressed to the Grand Vizier at Constantinople, although he knew perfectly well, that this officer was already arrived at Damascus(2).
My first cares have been directed to obtain an accurate knowledge of the present condition of the army.
You know, Citizen Directors, and you have it in your power to procure the requisite statements; you know, I say, the actual strength of the army at its arrival in Egypt: it is reduced a full half!—and we occupy all the capital points of the great triangle, from the Cataracts to El Arisch, from El Arisch to Alexandria, and from Alexandria again to the Cataracts; meanwhile it is no longer a question, as it once was, of contending with a few hordes of dispirited Mameloucs; but of resisting and combating the united efforts of three great powers, the Porte, England, and Ruffia.
The absolute want of arms, of gunpowder, of cannon and musket-balls, presents a picture no less alarming than the prodigious and rapid diminution of our numbers. Our attempts to establish a foundry have failed of success; and the manufactory of powder, which we set on foot at Illhoda, has not hitherto kept pace in any degree without our expectations; in all probability it never will. Add to this, that the repairing of our small arms proceeds but slowly; and that, to give the necessary activity to these various undertakings, money and means, of which we have neither, are absolutely indispensable.
THE TROOPS ARE NAKED—and this privation of clothing is the more calamitous, as it is perfectly ascertained in this country, to be one of the most active causes of the dysenteries and ophthalmies which constantly prevail here. The first, in particular, has operated with an alarming effect this season, on bodies already weakened and exhausted by fatigue. The members of the Board of Health remark (and never fail to mention it in their reports), that although the army is so much diminished, the number on the sick left is considerably larger this year, than at the same period of the last.
General Bonaparte, previous to his departure, had, it is true, given orders for new clothing the army: but for this, as well as for a great many other projects, he contented himself with the mere orders(3):--the poverty of the finances (which is a new obstacle to be combated) reduced him, doubtless, to the necessity of adjourning the execution of this useless design.
Now I have mentioned the finances, I feel it my duty to say somewhat more in the subject.
General Bonaparte exhausted the extraordinary resources within a few months after our arrival! He levied at that time as extensive a military contribution as the country could possibly support! To have recourse a second time to this expedient, now that we are surrounded with enemies from without, would only pave the way for an insurrection the first favourable moment.
Notwithstanding all this, Bonaparte, at quitting us, did not leave behind him a SINGLE SOUS in the military chest, nor any thing capable of being turned into money! He left, on the contrary, a debt of near ten millions, more than a whole year’s income in the present state of things: the pay of the army alone is in arrear full four millions.
The present state of the inundation makes it impossible to recover the deficiencies of the year just expired, and which, if it were not so, would scarce answer the expenses of a month: we cannot, therefore, enter again on the collection of the taxes till the end of November; and even then it is clear to me, that we shall not be in a condition to attend sufficiently to it, because we shall have our hands full of fighting. In a word, the Nile being very low this year, many provinces, deprived on the inundation, will claim the customary exemptions, to which we cannot, in common justice, object.
Every syllable, Citizen Directors, which I here advance, I can authenticate either by verbal processes, or by estimates of the different services regularly signed.
Although Egypt is to all appearance tranquil ,it is nothing less than in a state of submission; the people are restless and uneasy, and in spite of all we can do to the contrary, persist in looking upon us as the enemies of their property: their hearts are incessantly open to the hopes of a favourable change.
The Mameloucs are dispersed, but not destroyed. Mourad Bey is still in Upper Egypt with a body of men sufficiently numerous to find constant employment for a considerable part of our forces. If we should quit him for an instant, his little army would increase with inconceivable rapidity, and he would descend the Nile and harass us at the gates of this capital, where, in spite of the most vigilant attention, they have constantly found means, to this very hour, to procure him supplies of arms and money.
Ibrahim Bey is at Gaza with about two thousand Mameloucs; and I am informed that thirty thousand men, part of the army of the Grand Vizier and Dgerzzar Pasha, are also arrived at the same place. The Grand Vizier left Damascus about three weeks ago; he is at present encamped near Acre: finally, the English are masters of the Red Sea.
Such, Citizen Directors, is the situation in which General Bonaparte has left me to sustain the enormous burden of commanding the army of the East! HE SAW THE FATAL CRISIS APPROACHING(4): your orders have not permitted him to surmount it. That such a crisis exists, his letters, his instructions, his negotiation lately set on foot, all contribute to evidence; it is of public notoriety, and our enemies appear to me no less perfectly informed of it than ourselves.
“If this year,” says General Bonaparte, “in spite of all my precautions, the plague should break out in Egypt, and carry off more than fifteen hundred men, &c. I then think that you ought not to venture upon another campaign, and that you are sufficiently justified in concluding a peace with the Ottoman Porte, even though the evacuation of Egypt should be the leading article, &c.”
I have pointed out this passage to you, Citizen Directors, because it is characteristic in more than one point of view(5); and, above all, because it clearly shows you the real situation in which I am placed. Of what consequence are fifteen hundred men, more or less, in the immense space of country which I have to defend, and against an eternal repetition of attacks?
The General further says, “Alexandria and El Arisch are the two keys of Egypt(6).” El Arisch is a paltry fort, four days journey in the Desert; the prodigious difficulty of [illegible] it, will not allow of its being garrisoned by more than two hundred and fifty men. Six hundred Mameloucs and Arabs might, whenever they pleased, cut off all communication with Catiez; and as, when Bonaparte left us, this garrison had but a fortnight’s provision in advance; just that space of time, and no more, would be sufficient to compel it to capitulate without firing a shot! The Arabs alone were capable of furnishing regular convoys of provisions through these burning deserts: but they have been so often over-reached and defrauded, that, far from offering us their services, they now keep aloof and conceal themselves; besides, the arrival of the Grand Vizier, who inflames their fanaticism and overwhelms them with presents, will equally tend to incline them to desert us(7).
Alexandria is by no means a fortress; it is a large intrenched camp. It was, indeed, tolerably well defended by a numerous heavy artillery; but since we lost it in the disastrous invasion of Syria, and since General Bonaparte has taken all the cannon belonging to the shipping, to complete the equipment of the two frigates with which he sailed for France, this camp can make, in fact, but a feeble resistance(8).
General Bonaparte deceived himself with regard to the consequences which he expected from his victory at Aboukir. He cut to pieces(9), it is true, near nine thousand Turks who had landed there: but what is such a loss as this to a great nation, from whom we have violently torn the fairest portion of its empire, and whom religion, honour, and interest, equally stimulate to avenge its injuries, and to re-conquer what it has been thus deprived of? As a proof of what I say, this victory has not retarded for a single instant, either the preparations or the march of the Grand Vizier.
In this state of things, what can, and what ought I to do? I think, Citizen Directors, that I should continue the negotiations entered upon by Bonaparte; though the result should be merely the gaining a little time, I should even then have sufficient reason to be satisfied with it. I have enclosed you the letter(10) which, in consequence of this determination, I wrote to the Grand Vizier; sending him at the same time, a duplicate of that from Bonaparte(11).
If this minister meets my advances, I shall propose to him the restitution of Egypt on the following conditions(12):
“The Grand Signor shall appoint a Pasha, as before.”
The Beys shall give up to him the Miri, which the Porte has had always de jure, and never de facto.”
“Commerce shall be reciprocally open between Egypt and Syria.”
“The French shall continue in the country, occupy the strong holds and the forts, and collect all the duties and customs, till the French government shall have made peace with England.”
If these summary preliminaries are accepted, I shall think I have rendered my country a greater service than if I had obtained the most brilliant victory. But I fear they will not be attended to: if the haughtiness of the Turks opposes no obstacle, I shall still have to combat the influence of English gold. Happen what may, I will endeavour to direct myself by circumstances.
I know all the importance of the possession of Egypt. I used to say in Europe, that this country was for France the point of fixture, by means of which she might move at will the commercial system of every quarter of the globe; but to do this effectually, powerful lever is required, and that lever is a navy. OURS HAS EXISTED! Since that period, every thing has changed; and peace with the Porte is, in my opinion, the only expedient that holds out to us a method of fairly getting rid of an enterprise no longer capable of attaining the object for which it was undertaken.
I shall not enter, Citizen Directors, into the details of all the diplomatic combinations which the present state of Europe might furnish: this is not my province. In the forlorn situation in which I stand, and so far removed form the centre of action, I can scarce give a thought to any thing but the safety and honour of the army which I command: happy if, in the midst of my distresses, I should have the good fortune to meet your wishes; at a less distance from you I should place all my glory in obedience.
I have annexed to this an exact climate of the more material articles of which we stand in need for the service of the artillery; and also a summary recapitulation of the debt contracted and left unpaid by General Bonaparte(13).
Health and respect.
P.S. At this instant, Citizen Directors, just as I am making up my dispatches, I learn that fourteen or fifteen Turkish vessels are at anchor before Damietta, where they are waiting for the fleet of the Captain Pasha, now at Joppa, and having on board, as I am told, from fifteen to twenty thousand land forces; besides these, there are still fifteen thousand men at Gaza, and the Grand Vizier is marching from Damascus. A few days since, he sent us back a soldier of the 25th demi-brigade, who had been made prisoner in the neighborhood of El Arisch; after having showed him all his camp, he desired him to acquaint his comrades with what he had seen, and to tell their commander to tremble. This seems to announce either the confidence which the Grand Vizier has in his forces, or a wish to enter upon an accommodation. With respect to myself, it will be absolutely impossible for me to get together more than five thousand men capable of taking the field against him: notwithstanding this, I will try my fortune, if I do not succeed in gaining time by my negotiations. Dgezzar has withdrawn his forces from Gaza, and marched them back to Acre.
[British Translators' Notes]
(1)This is the first letter that has yet appeared from Kleber, and it is such as might have been expected from one of his distinguished reputation. It is sensible, and manly; forming a complete contrast in every respect to the letter of Bonaparte, of which it is a shrewd and impartial critique.
To point out that superior penetration and good sense of Kleber, would be superfluous; but it may not be so to compare his manner of proceeding with Bonaparte’s treatment of Brueys. That unfortunate man, after being reluctantly detained on the coast of Egypt by Bonaparte’s express and reiterated orders, was no sooner dead, than Bonaparte published, in the face of all Europe, that he had fallen a victim to his own obstinacy, and contempt of authority!—though the remonstrances of Brueys, and Bonaparte’s rejection of them, both existed, to convict him of so base, cowardly, and malicious calumny. While Kleber, with the calm dignity of a soldier, and a man of honour, indulging in no random speculations, patiently reviews the General’s statement, which he transmits to the Directory, with his own remarks, always intelligent and convincing;--that they may be enabled to judge of the facts on which they are founded, and the opinions from which they are drawn.
(2)It is not easy to account for this vagary of Bonaparte’s: the most natural way of obtaining his purpose, would certainly have been to look for the Vizier where he was sure to be found. Kleber apparently feels some resentment at this trifling with the miseries of the army, by a feeble attempt at procrastination.
(3)Kleber has fallen into a slight mistake here. Bonaparte did not absolutely content himself with ordering the clothing—no, he went farther—he set the Savans of the Egyptian Institute upon consulting what coloured cloth was best adapted to the climate: and these venerable sages, after discussing at great length the merits of several, of which there was not an ell in the country, ultimately fixed upon a gris-de-lin, of which there was still less! Nor did the General stop even here: he asserted in his dispatches that many thousand ells of this cloth (so judiciously chosen) had been delivered to the army! The readers of the Jacobin newspapers here cannot yet have forgotten their generous triumph at this inconvertible proof of the improving condition of the “Army of the East!”
The conclusion of this paragraph is an evident sarcasm. Kleber knew that Bonaparte was as well acquainted with the state of the finances before these orders as after them. He knew too, what all the world besides knows, that they were only given to procure a momentary popularity, and carry on that system of fraud and hypocrisy with which he began, and with which he will most assuredly end.
(4)Here is the key to Bonaparte’s flight. With respect to the orders Kleber mentions, he must either speak ironically, or, which is more probable, to convey an idea that the insinuation couched under the word [illegible] in Bonaparte’s letter, was false, and justified by no authority from home; he puts Bonaparte and the Directory at issue upon the point; and as it must be manifest who is really culpable, it is, perhaps, fortunate for the former that his present usurpation sets him above the immediate dread of the guillotine, for an act of equal treachery and disobedience.
(5)The general opinion of the good sense and humanity of Kleber would be ill justified, if he had omitted to set a mark of reprobation upon the passage he has quoted: it is, indeed, characteristic of Bonaparte! It is marked with his usual contempt of human sufferings, with his lavish expenditure of blood, and with his wanton sacrifice of his followers to projects at once useless and unattainable!
It is permitted to hope, however, that the more serious views of Kleber will induce him to close the disastrous scene, though a few less than fifteen hundred men should be the victims of the next pestilence.
(6)The statement which follows of the real strength and importance of El Arisch, and which differs so materially from that of Bonaparte’s is corroborated by a general officer in a letter which will be found.
There is no doubt of its accuracy, and it bears hard either on the veracity or the military skill of Bonaparte. The latter (of the former there are no doubts) has long been somewhat problematical; and the attentive readers of this correspondence will probably be inclined to think not much more highly of it than Kleber appears to do, or the very judicious officer, to whole strictures we allude.
(7)There are two roads from Syria to Egypt; so that it is by no means necessary to pass by El Arisch. Both these roads furnish water; one of them has just been discovered.—Note of Kleber.
(8)This circumstance is not less characteristic than the one so properly pointed out by Kleber a few pages above: to provide for his own personal safety at the expense of that of the whole “Army of the East,” is only a part of that narrow and selfish system on which he has always acted. But does any thing in it relish of the great general? Or can his most enthusiastic admirers see any thing that did so in his unfurnishing the only defensible place in his possession (of the importance of which he takes care to remind Kleber), for the sake of a wild and desultory expedition, he knew not where, at the hazard of leaving it an easy prey to the first enemy that might be apprized of its unprotected condition?
It is scarcely possible, on reading these and similar passages, not to call to mind the sensible exclamation of Lacuee; “Oh! How many false reputations were acquired in Italy! And how many pedestals will now rest without statues!”
(9)This does not mean absolutely cut to pieces, but destroyed as a bdoy, and indeed it appears from Bonaparte’s dispatches to the Directory, that more than two thousand of those who had disembarked were prisoners. From this General’s well-known talents for exaggeration, a reasonable hope might be entertained that when he stated the loss of the Turks at eighteen thousand men, he had merely put down a cipher too many; this hope is now done away by the unsuspected evidence of Kleber, which unfortunately reduces Bonaparte’s number only one half. The rest of Kleber’s information is of the most important and consolatory nature. The army of which Bonaparte and Berthier represent the whole to have been destroyed, was merely a detachment, it appears, from a much greater force; which, without any sensible diminution of its numbers or resolution, was still hovering near the place of action, and alarming the French for the safety of Brulous and Damietta!
(10)See No. XVI.
(11)See No. XIV.
(12)Of these conditions, the first is unnecessary, the second impracticable the third nugatory, and the forth inadmissible. It is evident, however, the Kleber expected nothing from them; they are merely projected in obedience to the commands of Bonaparte, to whom this excellent officers pays the same deference as if he were still at the head of the army. Indeed the whole of his conduct, as it appears in this well-written letter, is admirable in the highest degree; he feels that he is betrayed, yet not a murmur escapes him on his own account; and though he holds it a part of his duty to expose the weakness of which Bonaparte either was, or affected to be ignorant, he determines to hazard more, perhaps, than his own better judgment approved, to carry his instructions into executions with the smallest deviation possible.
(13)See No. VI.
(14)See No. VII.