Thursday, June 26, 2008

Las Cases: Bonaparte on Officer Mutinies in Egypt

The Count de Las Cases, Memorial de Sainte Helene: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. I, Part the First (London: Henry Colburn & Co., 1823), pp. 204-207

As I am on the subject of Egypt, I will here note
down all the information I collected in my detached
conversations, and which may possibly not be
found in the Campaign of Egypt, dictated by Napoleon
to the Grand Marshal.

The campaign of Italy exhibits all the most
brilliant and decisive results to which military
genius and conception ever gave birth. Diplomatic
views, administrative talents, legislative measures,
are there uniformly blended in harmony
with the prodigies of war. But the most striking
and the finishing touch in the picture, is the sudden and irresistible ascendancy which the young
General acquired: — the anarchy of equality — the
jealousy of republican principles — every thing
vanished before him: there was not a power,
even to the ridiculous sovereignty of the Directory,
which was not immediately suspended. The Directory
required no accounts from the General-in-
chief of the army of Italy; it was left to himself
to send them : no plan, no system was prescribed
to him; but accounts of victories, and conclusions
of armistices, of the destruction of old states,
and the creation of new ones, were constantly
received from him.

In the expedition of Egypt may be retraced all
that is admired in the campaign of Italy. The
reflecting observer will even perceive, that in
the Egyptian expedition, the points of resemblance
are of a more important nature, from the difficulties of every kind which gave character to
the campaign, and required greater genius and
resources on the part of its conductor. In
Egypt, a new order of things appeared : climate,
country, inhabitants, religion, manners, and
mode of fighting, all were different.

1st. The expedition of Egypt was undertaken
at the earnest and mutual desire of the Directory
and the General-in-chief.

2d. The taking of Malta was not the consequence
of a private understanding, but of the wisdom
of the General-in-chief. " It was in Mantua"
that I took Malta," said the Emperor one day;"
it was the generous treatment observed towards "
Wurmser, that secured to me the submission of "
the Grand Master and his Knights."

3d. The conquest of Egypt was calculated
with as much judgment as it was executed with skill. If Saint Jean d'Acre had surrendered to
the French army, a great revolution would have •
taken place in the east; the General-in-chief
would have established an empire there, and the
destinies of France would have taken a different
turn.

4th. On its return from the campaign of Syria,
the French army had scarcely sustained any loss :
it remained in the most formidable and prosperous
condition.

5th. The departure of the General-in-chief for
France was the result of a grand and magnanimous
plan. How ridiculous is the imbecility of
those who consider that departure as an evasion
or a desertion.

6th. Kleber fell a victim to Musulmanic fanaticism.
There is not the slightest foundation for
the absurd calumny which would have attributed
this catastrophe to the policy of his predecessor,
or to the intrigues of his successor.

7th, and lastly. It is pretty well proved that
Egypt would have remained for ever a French
province, if any other but Menou had been appointed
for her defence ; nothing but the gross
errors of that general could have lost us the possession of Egypt.

The Emperor said, that no army in the world
was less fit for the Egyptian expedition than that
which he led there — the army of Italy. It would
be difficult to describe the disgust, the discontent, the melancholy, the despair of that army, on its first arrival in Egypt. The Emperor himself saw two dragoons run out of the ranks and throw themselves into the Nile. Bertrand had seen the most distinguished generals, such as Lannes, and
Murat, in momentary fits of rage, throw their
laced hats on the sand and trample on them in
the presence of the soldiers. The Emperor explained
these feelings surprisingly well. " This
army," said he, "had fulfilled its career. All the "
individuals belonging to it were satiated with"
wealth, rank, pleasure, and consideration; they"
were not fit for the Deserts and the fatigues of"
Egypt ; and, "continued he, "had that army"
been placed in other hands than mine, it is dif-"
ficult to say what excesses might not have "
been committed."

More than one conspiracy was formed to carry
away the flags to Alexandria, and other things
of the same sort. The influence, the character,
and the glory of the General, could alone restrain
the troops. One day Napoleon, losing his temper
in his turn, rushed among a group of discontented
generals, and addressing himself to the
tallest, " You have held mutinous language," said
he, with vehemence, "take care that I do not "
fulfil my duty; your five foot ten* should not "
save you from being shot in a couple of hours." [*French feet are of course here alluded to.]

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Michael Woodward said...

Is the 5' 10" officer alluded to at the end of the passage Alexandre Dumas (the first one)?