Revisiting the French expedition to Egypt

By Yves Martin.

To most readers interested in the Napoleonic period the story of Egyptian conquest by the French seems like a familiar tale. Upon closer observation, especially when digging through the very rich French archives and memoirs, there are still many aspects to uncover.

Although wanted, planned, and initially led, by Bonaparte, he commanded it for barely more than a year, leaving at the end of August 1799. Kleber was then in charge, until his untimely death by the hand of an assassin in June of 1800. Menou was its ultimate, least popular, and least competent commanding officer until he surrendered to the British on 31 August 1801.

The fact that three very different French generals headed up the expedition over the three years it lasted is usually ignored. From a military history standpoint, the Egyptian campaign is all too often limited to Bonaparte’s command. Abercromby’s invasion of Egypt is the only other part which has received some decent historical treatment. The scientific part of the expedition ultimately achieved greater and more global fame than the rather dubious military adventure Bonaparte had sparked.

Yet, this endeavour gave the French, a renewed taste for colonies and some experience of the Orient. It was therefore no surprise that in 1830, the French royal army stormed Algiers and started a conquest which would lead to French presence there until 1962.

The invasion plans for Algeria had been drawn up based on spy reports which Napoleon had ordered, as he, again dreamt of the Orient in the early part of his reign as Emperor. At least one interpreter in 1830 had been part of the Egyptian expedition, and, as he approached to discuss the surrender of the Bey of Algiers, he vividly remembered the fate of French negotiators in Syria, whose leader had been beheaded. Finally, as the French army set in to conquer the rest of the country, they, like their forefathers in Egypt, raised native troops and organized a dromedary corps. I happen to be the descendant of some of these French colonists of Algeria. I feel cousin to those men who embarked in 1798 for an unknown, exotic land. Without them, I probably would be here today.

I first came across the French army of the Orient through the articles published by the French military artist Albert Rigondaud (RIGO) in the early 1970s. I was struck by the dazzling colourful unusual uniforms worn by those men.  I started reading all I could on the topic.

Yet, the more I read, the more I felt many questions were left unanswered. As I enjoyed a professional break some 20 years ago, I decided to dive into the French military archives in Vincennes. Since that day, I’ve never stopped. As technology progressed and digital photography became a medium of good enough quality, this enabled me to collect thousands of pages from the very rich B6 series devoted to the expedition.

Oddly enough, few researchers have systematically collected and reviewed the daily orders issued for the army by its successive commanders. These primary sources, published on a quasi-daily basis, paint a living image of the army. The topics mentioned in these documents range from the very mundane (theft of an officer’s watch) to fascinating precisions (soldiers should not wander off alone for risk of being assaulted). The B6 series is composed of 199 individual items: registers, boxes of correspondence, army returns etc. One can estimate this to roughly at least 150,000 individual documents of variable sizes. I have to confess I am far from having gone through all of these.

But as I went through them, cross-checking them with memoirs, publications of the period, a new image of the French Army of the Orient surfaced. It was both somewhat similar to what I knew, but it also had some more tragic aspects and also some rather comic ones. This book is the fruit of all this research. It is the story of men stranded in a land so foreign they could not comprehend its culture, nor, in reverse, could its inhabitants understand them. It is the story of an army which managed to survive three years cut from its main supply source with almost no reinforcements. It is the story of the incredible ingenuity and adaptability of the human being.

I have not focused my writing on the narration of the expedition. This has been told many times before. I have written a book about the men; officers and privates. How they lived. How they were organised. How they dressed. The book details the unit organisations and orders of battles that a wargamer or military historian may need. It describes, for the military dress enthusiast, the latest findings on the uniforms worn, including some never seen before period iconography.

It is the book I would have loved to have when it all started. I hope readers will take as much pleasure in reading it, as I had in researching and writing it.

What will be next? I am putting Egypt to rest for a while. I have multiple other topics of interest which I have also researched in the Vincennes archives, as well as through my own collection of iconography. There have been some publications on Polish troops during the 1792-1815 period. However, just as for Egypt, archival research and lesser-known memoirs have much to bring which is new. The Imperial Guard, despite being a favourite area for publications and research, has still some shadowy areas. It probably had the most complex organisational evolution, and an in-depth overview of this could probably be of help to historians as well as hobbyists.

So, there is no lack of subjects for me and I have to say, I have been delighted working with Helion and look forward to our future new projects!

The French Army of the Orient 1798-1801. Napoleon’s Beloved ‘Egyptians’ is now available here.

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2 Responses to Revisiting the French expedition to Egypt

  1. Mark Bevis says:

    Looking forward to seeing a book on the Ottoman, Egyptian and Syrian armies to complement this book.

    Did you come across any reference to the “Cairo flamethrower”, some kind of cart mounted ‘flamethrower’ the French used in the Cairo uprisings?

    • Yves Martin says:

      Hello, Thank you for your interest. No I did not hear about the “flame thrower” and to be frank, first time I hear of this. Do you have any reference ? Did you hear of this about the first or second uprising ? My guess would be the second as this was a more protracted affair, involving almost full siege work. All the best. Yves Martin

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