Bonaparte’s despatches from Egypt (Part I)

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What follows are excerpts translated from the collection of letters and other documents relating to the operation of the Armée d'Orient in Egypt published in June/July 1801 (pp. 71-77).

The Battle of Chebr-khéïs

Meanwhile, I learned that Mourad Bey, at the head of his army mainly composed of cavalry, but with eight or ten large gunboats with cannons as well as several batteries along the Nile, was waiting for us at the village of Chebr-khéïs. On the 24th [Messidor, Year 6, i.e., 12 July, 1798] in the evening, we marched so as to get closer. On 25 at daybreak we came upon him.
We only had 200 cavalry, still temporarily disabled and shaken by the crossing, whilst the Mamluks had a magnificent cavalry corps, decked in gold and silver, armed with the best London carbines and pistols, the best sabres in the Orient and riding perhaps the best mounts on the continent.
When the army was arranged each division formed a battalion in a square with the baggage in the centre. The artillery was placed in-between the squares. In order, the second and fourth battalions were set behind the first and third. The five divisions of the army were placed in echelon, flanking each other and themselves flanked by the two villages which we had occupied.
Citizen Perrée, chief of the marine division, attacked the enemy flotilla with three gunboats, a Xebec and a half galley. The battle was extremely dogged. Both sides put together fired more than one hundred and fifty cannon shots. Citizen Perrée, chief of the division, was wounded by a cannon ball in the arm but by his intrepid and well-arranged action he managed to retake the three enemy gunboats and also the half-galley which the Mamluks had taken, and also set fire to their flagship. Citizens Monge and Berthollet who were on the Xebec, showed great courage in moments of serious difficulty. General Andreossy, who commanded the disembarking troops acquitted himself perfectly.
The Mamluk cavalry soon swept over the plain, going round both wings seeking on all sides (and flanks and rear) to find the weak spot. But at every turn the enemy found that the line was firm on all sides and that it fought back with a double fire from the front and the flanks. They made several atempts at charges but they were never decisive. One or two hardy attackers came to skirmish, but they were met with fire from the carbines placed to the front of the gaps between the batallions. After having spent part of the days under fire, they began their retreat and disappeared. There losses can be estimated at three hundred men killed or wounded.
We marched for eight days, deprived of everything in one of the hottest climates in the world.
On 2, Thermidor [i.e., 20 July] in the morning we saw the pyramids.
In the evening of the same day we were six leagues from Cairo and I learned that twenty-three beys with all their men were entranched at Embâbéh, and that they had fortified their trenches with more than sixty artillery pieces.


Battle of the Pyramids

On 3 Thermidor [i.e., 21 July] at first light we came across their avant-garde which we drove from village to village.
At two o'clock we reached the enemy trenches.
I ordered the division under Desaix and Reynier to take up a position on the right between Djyzéh and Embâbéh, so as to cut the enemy's line of communication with Upper Egypt, its natural retreat route. The army was set out in the same way as it was for the battle at Chebr-khéïs.
As soon as Mourad Bey saw Desaix's movement he resolved to charge and he sent one of his bravest beys with an elite corps which, with the speed of lightning, charged the two divisions. We let them approach to fifty paces and then received them with a hail of cannonballs and bullets which killed a great many there on the battlefield. They then hurled themselves into the gap between the two divisions where they were met with fire from two sides, and this assured their defeat.
I seized the moment and ordered the division of General Bon (which was by the Nile) to attack the trenches, at the same time ordering General Vial (who was commanding the division of General Menou) to take up a position between the enemy corps which had just charged and the trenches with triple aim of:
preventing that corps from returning;
cutting of the retreat of those reinforcing them;
and finally, if necessary, of attacking the trenches on the left.
As soon as Generals Vial and Bon were close enough, they ordered the first and third divisions of each batallion to form into battle columns, whilst the second and fourth were to remain where they were, still forming a square batallion but now only three deep and which was advancing to support the attack columns.
The attacking columns of General Bon, commanded by the bold General Rampon, were hurling themselves upon the trenches with their habitual ardour, despite the fire from a considerably large number of guns, when the Mamluks made a charge. They left their trenches at the galop. Our columns had time to halt and to fight on all sides, receiving them with bayonets fixed to the ends of their guns and a hail of bullets. All at once the battlefield was strewen with bodies. Our troops soon took the trenches. The Mamluks fled in a mass to their left. But a batallion of Carabiniers, under whose fire they were forced to pass at five paces, made of them a horrible carnage. A very great number of them threw themselves into the Nile and drowned.
We took more than 400 camels loaded with baggage and fifty pieces of artillery. I estimate the Mamluk losses at two thousand elite cavalrymen. A great number of the Beys were wounded or killed. Mourad Bey was wounded in the cheek. Our losses amount to 20 or 30 men killed and 120 wounded. On the same night the town of Cairo was evacuated. All the cannon gunboats, corvettes, brigs and even a frigate were set fire to. On 4, ou troops entered Cairo. During the night the populace had burned the houses of the beys and committed some excesses. Cairo, which has more than 300,000 inhabitants, has the wickedest populace in the world.


Pièces diverses et correspondance relatives aux opérations de l'armée d'Orient en Egypte.
Imprimée en exécution de l'arrêté du TRIBUNAT, en date du 7 Nivose an 9 de la République française.
Paris, Baudouin…Messidor an IX.

Publication Title :
Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien
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