Napoleon in Egypt

Feb 2019
612
Serbia
#1
Since there were several instances of discussions on the theme of Napoleon branching off into something about the French Egyptian Expedition I hope to create a thread where these can be centralised and discussed.

To start: There's been some debate on whether or not the campaign was conducted well, whether or not Napoleon performed brilliantly and scored great victories against great odds or if he was biting off more than he can chew and had many blunders. What do you think of the conduct of the campaign in this case.
 
Mar 2016
1,116
Australia
#2
The wisdom of actually embarking on such a campaign was very dubious and probably should have been reconsidered since the French knew they probably wouldn't have been able to achieve naval superiority in the Mediterranean with the Royal Navy cruising about. They had a few very close escapes from Nelson on the way to Egypt. They should have turned back once they captured Malta instead of continually pushing their luck. The eventual destruction of the French fleet at Alexandria ensured that no reinforcements would be able to be sent to Egypt, which was a critical failure since the French only had roughly 40,000 soldiers at the beginning of the campaign and took major losses from attrition during Napoleon's desert marches. There's no way Napoleon could have held off the Ottomans when they marched south to retake Egypt with the remaining troops he had (even though he did have a couple of very impressive battlefield victories over vastly largely Ottoman forces, such as at Mount Tabor). Talleyrand apparently assured Napoleon that he would travel to Constantinople to negotiate with the Ottoman Sultan to ensure he didn't send troops to Egypt, but he didn't even leave Paris.

As far as the actual non-political aspects of the campaign, it was very impressive and fairly successful. Napoleon defeated several Mamluk armies with very minimal casualties (the greatest being the Battle of the Pyramids), rapidly marched on Cairo and captured it with ease, and then suppressed a major rebellion in the city, securing his control of the capital. Large-scale Mamluk resistance seemed to disappear after the fall of Cairo. Napoleon seemed to believe that the French would be staying in Egypt for a long time, since he embarked on some impressive development of the city, creating libraries, universities and scientific research centres. He was very enthusiastic to spread Enlightenment values to Egypt, even if his belief that he could convince the Egyptian locals he was a devout Muslim and the spiritual successor of Muhammad completely fell flat and did not work. He wanted to foster a degree of cooperation between the French and the Egyptians; he brought a Koran with him and repeatedly quoted it to support his regime, he allowed French soldiers to marry Egyptian women, he insisted that there be no discrimination or persecution against the Muslims, etc. Had things gone differently and the Ottomans not decided to send armies to retake Egypt, and had Egypt remained part of the French Republic's new empire, there's no doubt that Napoleon's expedition would be seen as a great success.

Where things fell apart was in 1799 when he invaded Palestine, took massive casualties at the failed siege of Acre, and the entire French fleet was wiped out by the Royal Navy at Alexandria. Even if he had managed to take Acre I don't think he could have gone much further north in Syria. He was hemorrhaging troops consistently and simply could not replace them, unlike the Ottomans. He could not afford to lose battles or sieges, not even one. For this reason he arguably should not have even embarked on the Palestine campaign, but there wasn't much else he could have done. Either he goes to Palestine to fight the Ottomans, or they show up in Egypt and he fights them there. Either way they'd have overwhelming numerical superiority, and Napoleon was never the defensive-minded general. He believed a rapid strike deep into Ottoman territory would surprise and disorient the Ottomans like it had done to the Austrians in 1797, but obviously that was not the case. Maybe his army could have resisted the Ottomans for longer had they set up a defensive position in Egypt, but I doubt it would have held up for long.

In summary, Napoleon's conducting of the campaign on a purely operational and tactical level was brilliant, with some very impressive victories like at the Pyramids and Mount Tabor, and he managed to maintain discipline over his soldiers even during brutally harsh conditions like the crossing of deserts due to his canny understanding of the soldier's mindset, and his intentions were clearly above that of a simple conqueror, considering his ambitions to develop Cairo and spread Enlightenment values as well as his tolerance (and occasionally great admiration of Islam itself) of the Muslims, but ultimately the campaign was doomed from the start because of Britain's superiority on the seas. Even had the fleet not been destroyed at Alexandria it's highly doubtful the campaign would have succeeded once the Ottomans retaliated in great force, unless the French government in Paris somehow managed to send large reinforcements to Egypt.
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,084
#3
The Operational Military campaign was generally pretty good, I just don't rate the opposition very highly at all, my reaidng of ottoman and persian efforts agianst the Russians. In my opinion any well lead reaosnable European force is going to win in the field almost no matter the odds. Napoloen provdioed good determined, aggressive leadership. I just don't call it brilliant., He won and won easily.

Military logistics pretty iffy, Napoleon seemed just hope it worked out rather the prepare and organize thoroughly.

Strategy, the original plan seems pretty vague , take Egypt and ? . Napoleon's expedition into Palestine was going where? What was the objective, wander around and hope the ottoman what cave because of something 1000's of miles from their heartland.? (it was hardly deep into Ottoman terrrority,) Even if wildly successful stretching the french forces wider is hardly workable. Without some Naval l control and ability little further could be expected. Strategically aimless. I always thought Napoleon was an improvisor, never really having much of a plan and relying on his operational skills to pull the rabbit out of the hat when required. It normally worked . He would have probably;y be a very effective conquistador.

Rule of Egypt. I'm a lot more cynical , it was conquest, tributary foreign rule imposed by naked armed focre designed to extract as much as possible from the local Population. Sure Napoleon tried to win over the Local population minimize friction, get some sort of collaborationist puppet proxies to be a kinder more local in touch face on his exploitative colonial rule. Overall it was a failure, it did not really make the Egyptians truly embrace French rule. Rule rested on Military force and little else. But given the circumstances it was reasonable effort. Napoleon had soem talent as a organizer and administrator and propagandist. Things were organized reasonably well. I don't think the propaganda worked much of the locals, bit given it was a totally foriegn culture, it would have been very exceptional if it had. Though it has certainly cast stars in the eyes of many who uncritically accpet much of it today. I'm not saying Napoleon did not want a more productive , happy,, Egypt, he did it was in his interests.

I view Napoleon as an enlightened absolutist. Such as Frederick the Great, Joseph II. Many principles of the enlightenment would lead to a more rational effective, government.
 
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Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,418
#4
Already before the Suez Canal Egypt was the handy connecting stop-over for Britain to maintain its (reasonably recently acquired) Indian empire. Handicapping the UK over India without having to go to the trouble of going all the way to India...
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,084
#5
Already before the Suez Canal Egypt was the handy connecting stop-over for Britain to maintain its (reasonably recently acquired) Indian empire. Handicapping the UK over India without having to go to the trouble of going all the way to India...
No it was not. You sail in a ship the length of the Mediterranean only to sail back and keep going to India. A stop over that makes the trip longer by many thousands of miles is in no way handy. Nor did the British ever do this as handy stop over.

How exactly did it "Handcap" British India?
 

Edratman

Ad Honorem
Feb 2009
6,602
Eastern PA
#6
Already before the Suez Canal Egypt was the handy connecting stop-over for Britain to maintain its (reasonably recently acquired) Indian empire. Handicapping the UK over India without having to go to the trouble of going all the way to India...
There is not so.

When the French invaded Egypt the "best" map available was from 1765 and was a compilation of other, older maps. It was reasonably accurate, but had limitations. This is a sure indication of the all but total lack of knowledge that Europeans had regarding Egypt, which was an Ottoman province at the time of the French invasion.

The British did not have any interests in Egypt. The concept of sailing to Alexandria. trekking across the desert to the Red Sea and then boarding ships to India is fantasy.

"The best map of Egypt that was available to the French expedition was one from 1765, which meant it was more than thirty years old before Napoleon’s forces arrived in Alexandria. It had been compiled from books and from other maps by a cartographer named Bourguignon d’Anville, and it gave a good overall impression of the Nile Valley and the Delta. It could not provide much accuracy, since it was not based on actual observations and measurement with instruments. "

Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition to Egypt | Linda Hall Library
 
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pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,084
#7
There is not so.

When the French invaded Egypt the "best" map available was from 1765 and was a compilation of other, older maps. It was reasonably accurate, but had limitations. This is a sure indication of the all but total lack of knowledge that Europeans had regarding Egypt, which was an Ottoman province at the time of the French invasion.

The British did not have any interests in Egypt. The concept of sailing to Alexandria. trekking across the desert to the Red Sea and then boarding ships to India is fantasy.

"The best map of Egypt that was available to the French expedition was one from 1765, which meant it was more than thirty years old before Napoleon’s forces arrived in Alexandria. It had been compiled from books and from other maps by a cartographer named Bourguignon d’Anville, and it gave a good overall impression of the Nile Valley and the Delta. It could not provide much accuracy, since it was not based on actual observations and measurement with instruments. "

Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition to Egypt | Linda Hall Library

And how would you co-ordinate such travel. You leave England in s ahip, how does word get out to the iNdiaan ocean for a ship to waiting ahead of you when you arrivie after trekking across Egypt to the red Sea,. Without soem mahgical unavailabel communication sysetm I cannnot se ho wit could be workable in the slightest
 
Feb 2019
612
Serbia
#8
Already before the Suez Canal Egypt was the handy connecting stop-over for Britain to maintain its (reasonably recently acquired) Indian empire. Handicapping the UK over India without having to go to the trouble of going all the way to India...
Not really. If the French annexed Egypt how could they get to India? Napoleon's fantasy of imitating Alexander and marching to India aside what could the French do to India through Egypt? They couldn't march to it, they couldn't really land as they simply didn't have the capacity to maintain an invasion and they didn't threaten the trade routes all that much, I wouldn't say it would really damage Britain let alone handicap it.
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,418
#9
No it was not. You sail in a ship the length of the Mediterranean only to sail back and keep going to India. A stop over that makes the trip longer by many thousands of miles is in no way handy. Nor did the British ever do this as handy stop over.

How exactly did it "Handcap" British India?
Well, there was the "Overland route". But maybe that was later? Guess I was wrong.
 

AlpinLuke

Ad Honoris
Oct 2011
26,223
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#10
Actually the most important aspect of the French adventure in Egypt is about Egyptology. Now I'm a bit on a hurry, but I will come back to this. Napoleon allowed French researchers to run the first "almost professional" research in the field of Egyptology.

I know that Paris wanted to annoy the British Empire [India was and is on the other side ...], but personally I remind Napoleon in Egypt related with Egyptology.