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

The final victory in Napoleon's Egyptian campaign provides him with enough political cover to abandon the failed expedition and return to France.

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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 at the Nile meant that Napoleon 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 garrison time to bolster their defenses and to bring in reinforcements while Napoleon waited (and waited) for his big guns to arrive overland.

After losing at Acre and seeing his dreams of his very own Alexandrian empire collapse, Napoleon headed back to Egypt with an eye toward somehow getting home to France. He had several reasons for wanting to leave. For one thing, as we’ve established his expedition had clearly petered out. For another, the deteriorating political situation in Paris demanded his attention—or, more to the point, his exploitation. Bonaparte staged a triumphal return march into Cairo to mask the fact that he’d returned in defeat—and had 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 probably should’ve played along anyway.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt it was under the pretext that he was there to overthrow the thuggish Mamluks and put the Ottomans back in control. Of course that was a lie, but Napoleon hoped 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. 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 take Egypt back by force. Britain was happy to lend them a hand.

On July 14 an Ottoman army of around 16,000 men landed at Abukir courtesy of a 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 army come to him. Mustafa Pasha’s forces were augmented by several hundred fighters commanded by our old 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 the French army 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 more or less on the beach, long enough for Napoleon to lead his army north and catch them at Abukir. This was a bad spot for the Ottomans, who had nowhere to run with the sea at 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 Napoleon opted to take the offensive despite being outnumbered more than two to one.

The initial French attack broke against the Ottoman line, but the Ottomans quickly frittered away their sudden advantage. They decided, in a lull, to attack and secure the already surrendered French garrison at their fort in Abukir harbor. It was at this point when 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, though he got himself 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 (at least some historians have speculated that he may have 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. With promises that he would definitely be back soon with reinforcements, Napoleon left the remnants of his Egyptian expedition under the command of one of his generals, Jean-Baptiste Kléber. As Kléber knew there would be no reinforcements, he 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.