Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Abukir (1799)

Napoleon’s chances for a successful Middle Eastern campaign ended shortly after that campaign began, at the Battle of the Nile in early August 1798. The British victory there had far-reaching strategic ramifications–in essence, it left Britain the unquestioned master of the Mediterranean, with all that implies. At the more immediate level, though, what it meant for Napoleon’s campaign was that he could no longer rely on offshore French gunboats to support his progress into the Levant and he could no longer count on resupply from France (via Malta) to sustain his army. The former proved decisive during the Siege of Acre in May 1799, when the lack of French seaborne artillery allowed the city’s defenders time to bolster their defenses and to bring in reinforcements while Napoleon waited for his land-based guns to finally arrive.

After losing at Acre and seeing his dreams of conquering the Ottoman Empire collapse, Napoleon headed back to Egypt with an eye toward somehow returning to France, both because his expedition was clearly at an end and because the political situation in Paris demanded his attention. He staged a triumphal march into Cairo to mask the fact that he’d returned in defeat and lost almost 2000 men (between combat and the plague) in the process, with another nearly 2000 wounded. It was a fiction, and one that didn’t fool the Ottomans. Though in hindsight they would’ve been better off if it had.

The Battle of Abukir, by French painter Antoine-Jean Gros (Wikimedia)

When Napoleon invaded Egypt it was under the pretext that he was there to overthrow the thuggish, repressive Mamluks and restore true Ottoman control. Of course that was a lie, but Napoleon was hoping it was convincing enough that he could sign a treaty with the Ottomans once he’d secured Egypt. The Ottomans, influenced by Britain, had other ideas and declared war against France–hence Napoleon’s march into the Levant that ended at Acre. Now, with the French army in disarray and rumors that Napoleon himself had been killed either at Acre or during the return march (this was before he very conspicuously led his army back into Cairo), the Ottomans believed it was time to strike and take Egypt back. Britain was happy to lend them a hand.

On July 14 an Ottoman army of around 16,000 men landed at Abukir courtesy of the British fleet that had transported it from Constantinople. It was commanded by an Ottoman general named Mustafa Pasha, who had experience fighting European armies against the Russians and believed he’d solved the problem that had bedeviled the Mamluks–namely, how to counter Napoleon’s tight infantry square formation. Instead of charging at the squares, he’d form a defensive position and let the French come to him. Mustafa Pasha’s forces were augmented by several hundred fighters commanded by our friend the Mamluk leader Murad Bey, who had eluded French capture since the Battle of the Pyramids.

I’m not sure Mustafa Pasha meant to let them come all the way to him, but that’s what Napoleon did. The Ottomans, after making their landing, for some reason did not immediately start marching south toward Cairo. Instead they remained basically on the beach, long enough for Napoleon to lead his army out and catch them at Abukir. This was a bad spot for the Ottomans, who had nowhere to run with the sea to their backs and couldn’t get fire support from the British fleet because it was too far offshore. But they had built up some defensive works and indeed Napoleon opted to take the offensive despite being outnumbered more than two to one.

The initial French attack broke against the Ottoman line, but when the Ottomans decided to avail themselves of the opportunity to attack the already surrendered French garrison at their fort in Abukir harbor, Napoleon’s cavalry commander, Joachim Murat saw an opening. Apparently on his own initiative, he led a cavalry charge that cut the Ottomans off from the town of Abukir, and Murat himself burst into Mustafa Pasha’s tent and took the Ottoman commander captive–despite getting shot in the jaw for his trouble. The Ottomans collapsed without their commander, and thousands died either at the hands of French soldiers or by drowning as they ran out to the beach and attempted to swim to the ships offshore. Hundreds more holed up inside the harbor fort but had to surrender a couple of days later.

Napoleon’s success at Abukir was his “declare victory and get the hell out of there” moment. He slipped out of Egypt in August and managed to avoid the British fleet (there’s been some speculation that he may have somehow enticed the Brits, or at least some Brits, to allow him safe passage) and sail back to France, where obviously he went on to much bigger and better things. He left the remnants of his Egyptian expedition under the command of one of his generals, Jean-Baptiste Kléber, and Kléber quickly began to negotiate with Britain to allow the army to evacuate. Those negotiations ultimately went nowhere, and Kléber served as France’s governor in Egypt until he was assassinated by a student in June 1800.

France lost Cairo to Britain in June 1801, and at that point all it had left was Alexandria. There, in August 1801, Kléber’s successor Jacques-François Menou negotiated a surrender that allowed the remaining French army to be repatriated to France. Egypt would become a British protectorate by the 1880s, but that was still a few decades off. At this point, the Ottomans quickly sent a new military force in to reassert their control over Egypt. The second in command of that force was an Albanian named Muhammad Ali. He would eventually take control of Egypt as its autonomous viceroy, founding a royal dynasty that ruled the country until 1952.

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