Thursday, March 27, 2008

British Attempt to Repulse French Invasion

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. 47-51.

TIGRE, at Anchor off Jaffa, May 30, 1799.

MY LORD,

The providence of Almighty God has been wonderfully manifested in the defeat and precipitate retreat of the French army. The means we had of opposing its gigantic efforts against us being totally inadequate of themselves to the production of such a result. The measure of their iniquities seems to have been filled by the massacre of the Turkish prisoners at Jaffa, in cool blood, three days after their capture; and the plain of Nazareth has been the boundary of Bonaparte’s extraordinary career. He raised the siege of Acre on the 20th May, leaving all his heavy artillery behind him, either buried or thrown into the sea, where, however, it is visible, and can easily be weighed. The circumstances which led to this event, subsequent to my last dispatch on the 9th instant, are as follow:--Conceiving that the ideas of the Syrians, as to the supposed irresistible prowls of these invaders, must be changed, since they had witnessed the checks which the besieging army daily meet with in their operations before the town of Acre, I wrote a circular letter to the Princess and Chiefs of the Christians of mount Lebanon, and also to the Sheiks of the Druses, recalling them to a sense of their duty, and engaging them to cut off the supplies from the French camp. I sent them at the same time, a copy of Bonaparte’s impious proclamation, in which he boasts at having overthrown all Christian establishments, accompanied by a suitable exhortation, calling upon them to choose between the friendship of a Christian knight and that of an unprincipled renegade. This letter had all the effect I could desire. They immediately sent me two Ambassadors, professing not only friendship, but obedience; assuring me, that in proof of the latter, they had sent out parties to arrest such of the mountaineers as should be found carrying wine and gun powder to the French camp, and placing eighty prisoners of this description at my disposal. I had thus the satisfaction to find Bonaparte’s career farther northward effectually stopped by a warlike people inhabiting an impenetrable country. General Kleber’s division was sent eastward, towards the ford of the Jordan, to oppose the Damascus army; it was recalled from thence to take its turn in the daily efforts to mount the breach at Acre, in which every other division in succession had failed, with the loss of their brave men, and above three-fourths of their officers. It seems much was hoped from this division, as it had, by its fierceness, and the steady front it opposed in the form of a hollow square, kept upwards of 10,000 men in check, during a whole day, in the plain between Nazareth and Mount Tabor, till Bonaparte came with his horse-artillery, and extricated these troops, dispersing the multitude of irregular cavalry, by which they were completely surrounded.

A Turkish Regiment having been censured due to the ill success of their sally, and their unsteadiness in the attack of the garden, made a fresh sally the next right. Solimon Aga, the Lieutenant Colonel, being determined to retrieve the honor of the regiment by the punctual execution of the orders I had given him to make himself master of the enemy’s third parallel, and this he did most effectually; but the impetuosity of a few carried them on to the second trench where they lost some of their standards, though they spiked four guns before their retreat. Kleber’s division, instead of mounting the breach according to Bonaparte’s intention, was thus obliged to spend its time and its strength in recovering these works, in which it succeeded, after a conflict of three hours, leaving everything in status quo, except the loss of men, which was very considerable on both sides. After this failure, the French grenadiers absolutely refused to mount the breach any more over the putrid bodies of their unburied companions, sacrificed in former attacks by Bonaparte’s impatience and precipitation, which led him to commit such palpable errors as even seamen could take advantage of. He seemed to have no principle of action but that of pressing forward, and appeared to stick at nothing to obtain the object of his ambition, although it must be evident to everybody else, that even if he succeeded to take the town, the fire of the shipping must drive him out of it again in a short time; however, the knowledge the garrison had of the inhuman massacre at Jaffa rendered them desperate in their personal defense. Two attempts to assassinate me in the town having failed, recourse was had to a most flagrant breach of every law of honor and of war. A flag of truce was sent into the town by the hand of an Arab Dervice, with a letter to the Pasha, proposing a cessation of arms, for the purpose of burying the dead bodies, the French became intolerable, and threatened the existence of every one of us on both sides, many having suffered diseases within a few hours after being seized with the symptoms of infection. It was natural that we should gladly listen to the proposition, and that we should consequently be off our guard during the conference. A volley of shot on a sudden announced an assault, which, however, the garrison was ready to receive, and the assailants only contributed to increase the number of dead bodies in question to the eternal disgrace of the general, who thus disloyally sacrificed them. I saved the life of the Arab from the effect of the indignation of the Turks, and took him off to the Tigre with me, from whence I sent him back to the General, with a message, which made the army ashamed of having been exposed to such a merited reproof. Subordination was now at an end, and all hopes of success had now vanished, the enemy had no alternative left but a precipitate retreat, which was put in execution in the night between the 20th and 21st. I have above said, that the battering train of artillery (Except the carriages, which were burnt) is now in our hands, amounting to 23 pieces. The howitzers and medium twelve-pounders, originally conveyed by land with much difficulty, and successfully employed to make the first breach, were embarked in the country vessels at Jaffa, to be conveyed coastwise; together with the worst among the two thousand wounded, which embarrassed the march of the army. This operation was to be expected: I took care, therefore, to be between Jaffa and Damietta before the French army could get at the former place. The vessels being hurried to sea without seamen to navigate them, and the wounded being in want of every necessary, even water and provisions, they steered straight to His Majesty’s ships, in full confidence of receiving the succors of humanity, in which they were not disappointed. I have sent them on to Damietta, where they will receive such farther aid as their situation requires, and which it was out of my power to give to so many. Their expressions of gratitude to us were mingled with execrations on the name of their General, who had, as they said, thus exposed them to peril rather than fairly and honorably renew the intercourse with the English, which he had broken off by a false and malicious assertion, that I had intentionally exposed the former prisoners to the infection of the plague. To honor the French army be it said, this assertion was not received by them, and it thus recoiled on its author. The intention of it was evidently to do away the effect which the Proclamation of the Porte began to make on the soldiers, whose eager hands were held above the parapet of their works to receive them when thrown from the breach. He cannot plead misinformation as his excuse, his Aid-de-camp, Mr Laliemand, having had free intercourse with these prisoners on board the Tigre when he came to treat about them; and having been ordered, though too late, not to repeat their expressions of contentment at the prospect of going home. It was evident to both sides, that when a general had recourse to such a shallow, and, at the same time, to such a mean artifice, as a malicious falsehood, all better resources were at an end, and the disaffection in his army was consequently increased to the highest pitch.

The utmost disorder has been manifested in the retreat, and the whole track between Acre and Gaza is strewed with the dead bodies of those who had sunk under their fatigue, or the effect of slight wounds; such as could walk, unfortunately for them, not having been embarked. The rowing gun boats annoyed the van column of the retreating army in its march along the beach, and the Arabs harassed its rear when it turned inland to avoid their fire. We observed the smoke of musquetry behind the sand hills from the attack of a party of them which came down to our boats, and touched our flag, with every token of union and respect. Ismael Pasha, governor of Jerusalem, to whom notice was sent of Bonaparte’s preparations for retreat, having entered this town by land at the same time that we brought our guns to bear on it by sea, a stop was put to the massacre and pillage already begun by the Naplousians. The English flag, re-hoisted on the consort’s house (under which the Pasha met him), serves as an asylum for all religions, and every description of the surviving inhabitants. The heaps of unburied Frenchmen lying on the bodies of those whom they massacred two months ago, afford another proof of Divine Justice, which has caused these murderers to perish by the infection arising from their own atrocious act. Seven poor wretches are left alive in the hospital, where they are protected, and shall be taken care of. We have had a most dangerous and painful duty in disembarking here to protect the inhabitants, but it has been effectually done; and Ismael Pasha deserves every credit for his humane exertions and cordial cooperation to that effect. Two thousand cavalry are just dispatched to harass the French rear, and I am in hopes to overtake their van in time to profit by their disorder; but this will depend on the assembling of sufficient force, and on exertions of which I am not absolutely master, though I do my utmost to give the necessary impulse, and a right direction. I have every confidence that the officers and men of the three ships under my orders, who, in the face of a most formidable enemy, have fortified a town that had not a single heavy gun mounted on the land side, and who have carried on all intercourse by boats, under a constant fire of musquetry and grape, will be efficaciously to assist the army in its future operations. This letter will be delivered to your Lordship by Lieutenant Canes, first of the Tigre, whom I have judged worthy to command the Theseus, as captain, ever since the death of my much lamented friend and coadjutor Captain Miller. I have taken Lieutenant England first of that ship, to my assistance in the Tigre, by whose exertions, and those of Lieutenant Summers, and Mr. Atkinson, together with the bravery of the rest of the officers and men, that ship was saved, though on fire in five places at once, from a deposit of French shells bursting on board her. I have the honor to be,

W. Sidney Smith.

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