Saturday, February 2, 2008

Berthier Describes Actions in the Syrian Campaign

From: An Account of the French Expedition in Egypt; Written by Bonaparte and Berthier; with Sir William Sidney Smith’s Letters. With an English translation (London, Edward Baines, 1800.), pp. 14-17

[ALEXANDER BERTHIER, General of Division, Chief of the Staff of the Army, to the Minister at War].

The 19th demi-brigade, the 3d battalion of the demi-brigade belonging to the Syrian Expedition, the Nautic legion, the depots of the cavalry corps, the Maltese legion, have again been sent to garrison Alexandria, Damietta, and Cairo; and, in order to form moveable columns, destined to keep in obedience the provinces of Lower Egypt, and to protect them against the Arabs, General Dessaix, as has been reported, occupied, with his division, Lower Egypt. The command of the province of Cairo was confined to General Dugua. The others are entrusted to the hands of Generals Beillard, Lanusse, Zayonschek, Fugieres, Leclerc, and to the Adjutant-General Almeyrus. Citizen Poussielgue, Chief Administrator of Finance, remains at Cairo. The paymaster-General of the Army, Esteve, a young man of distinction, is attached to the Expedition. The command of Alexandria was a very important trust, and was conferred upon Marmont, General of Brigade. Bonaparte gave orders to the Adjutant Almeyrus, to whom he confided the command of Damietta to carry on with all possible activity the fortifications that were to defend it. He ordered him to embark provisions and ammunition for the army of Syria, by taking advantage of the navigation of the Lake Menzale, and of the port of Tinch, from whence they should be conveyed to the magazines established at Cathich, at a distance of about five day’s march. He ordered artillery siege pieces to be embarked from Alexandria. Boldness and pertinacity often lead to victory. Bonaparte thought he should bid defiance to the English cruisers. The ships with the artillery failed. There were some frigates at Alexandria: Bonaparte ordered Read-Admiral Perree to set sail during the night with the Juno, Courageuse, and the Alceste, to cruise off Jaffa, and to keep up a communication with the army. He calculated that they should arrive at their destination within a given time. It was necessary to risk this expedient for conveying some siege pieces, in the supposition that the fortress of Acre should oppose an obstinate resistance. Besides, no accurate information had been obtained of the strength of that fortress. The obstacles to be encountered in the passage of the Desert did not admit of artillery being transported by land.—Prompt and extraordinary measures were taken at Cairo to collect together the necessary number of camels and mules for the carrying of every thing requisite for the passage of an army through the Desert; artillery, provisions, water, &c.

The gun-boats had been constructed at Bonlac, and brought to Damietta, to take possession of the navigation of the Lake Menzale. General Kleber received orders to embark with his division for the port of Tinch, by way of the Lake of Menzale, and from thence to Cathich, where he was to arrive on the [4th February]. General Regnier, who set out with the Staff from Belbeis, on the 4th Pluviose, on his way to Salehich, had again left that place on the 14th, in order to be at Cathich on the 16th of the same month, where he formed a junction with his advanced guard. He left Cathich on the 18th, and arrived before El-Arisch the 21st Pioviose. Near 2000 of the troops of the Pacha of Acre occupied El-Arisch and the fortress. On the 8th of February, General Lagrange; with two battalions of the 15th, one of the 75th, and two pieces of cannon, formed the advanced guard of General Regnier. On the 8th of February, when approaching the Fountains of Messondiat, he perceived a party of Mamelukes, who were dispersed by his rangers. He arrived in the evening at a grove of palm-trees, in the neighborhood of the sea, and before El-Arisch. On the 21st, he advanced with his column on the left of the village of El-Arisch, while general Regnier proceeded on the right. Pluviose 21st, General Legrange advanced with rapidity over the sand-hills, which command El-Arisch, where he took a position, and planted his artillery. He caused the charge to be beat, when the advanced guard threw themselves with rapidity from the right and left on the village, which he attacked in front. The enemy occupied the village, which stands in the form of an amphitheater; it consists of stone houses, with battlements on the top, and is protected by a front. Notwithstanding the most obstinate resistance, and a violent fire, the village was carried by the bayonet. The enemy retired into the fort, but with such precipitation, that in shutting the gates they excluded about 200 men, who were killed or taken prisoners. General Regnier the same evening blockaded the fort of El-Arisch, and this reinforcement continually increased till the 25th, when the enemy, emboldened by their superiority in cavalry, encamped within half a league of El-Arisch, on a plain covered by a very steep ravine, where they considered themselves as safe from an attack.

On the 25th Pluviose, General Regnier acquainted General Kleber with his project of surprising the enemy in their camp at El-Arisch, during the night, which was approved by General Kleber. During the night betwixt the 26th and 27th, a part of Regnier’s division turned the ravine which covered the camp of the Mamelukes, killed of made prisoners such as could not escape by flight, and took a great number of horses and camels, together with a large quantity of provisions, ammunition, &c. Two Beys, and some Califfs were killed on the field. The Commander in Chief had left Cairo on the 22d Pluviose, with his Staff, in order to pass that night at Balbeis, the 26th at Cathich. On the 28th he was to sleep at Messondiat, and the 29th at El-Arisch, where at the same time were to unite the park of artillery, the division of General Bon, and that of General Lannes. General Regnier had ordered a few cannon shot to be fired against the fortress, and had already begun to advance his line of attack; but not being furnished with a sufficient quantity of ammunition to batter it in breach, he summoned the commander of the fort, and closed in the blockade; he had also advanced a mine under one of the towers, which however was countermined by the enemy. On the 30th, Bonaparte ordered one of the towers of the castle to be cannonaded; the breach being opened, he summoned the place to surrender. The garrison was composed of Arnautes and Maugrabins, all rude barbarians, without leaders, unacquainted with any of the principles of war acknowledged by civilized nations. Their answer was, that they were willing to come out with their arms and baggage, as it was their wish to go to Acre. Bonaparte was anxious to spare the effusion of his soldier’s blood; he delayed the assault. At length on the 2d Ventose, the garrison, consisting of 1600 men, surrendered, on condition of being permitted to retire to Baydal, by the Desert. Some of the Maugrabins entered into the French service. We found in the fortress about 250 horses, two dismounted pieces of artillery, and several days provisions. On the 3d, the standards and the Mamelukes prisoners, were sent off to Cairo. General Kleber had set out with his division, and the cavalry, from El-Arisch. On the 4th he was to advance towards Kan Jounesse. The head-quarters removed from El-Arisch on the 5th, and arrived on the heights of Kan Jounesse without receiving any intelligence of General Kleber’s division. The Commander in Chief sent forward some of his escort to a village where the French had not as yet been. The Mamelukes who were in it took to flight, and withdrew to the camp of Abdalla Pacha, whom we decried about a league beyond Kan Jounesse, on the roads to Gaza. Bonaparte, having only a picket for his escort, and convinced that Kleber’s division must have gone astray, fell back upon Santon, three leagues behind Kan Jounesse, in the Desert. On our arrival at Santon, we there found the advanced guard of our cavalry. The guides had led General Kleber astray in the Desert: but he stopped some arabs, who put him into his road, for he had been a whole day out of it. He arrived on the 6th, at eight o’clock in the morning, after a most fatiguing march of 48 hours, during which he was without water. The division of Bon and Lannes, who had followed his steps, were also led astray for some time. The re-union of the three divisions, and the cavalry, which, according to orders, was to have moved on successively, being all arrived at Santon, soon exhausted the wells. We dug very laboriously to procure water, which we obtained, but in very small quantities, insufficient for our wants.

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