Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign

1798 to 1801

French Casualties in Egypt
Map of Campaign

By Richard Moore

The French attempt to exert influence over Egypt was due to economics, a political need to weaken Britain and the personal needs of General Napoleon Bonaparte, who saw the shadow of unemployment - and a loss of influence - looming as his armies in Italy were nearing the end of their successful struggles against Austria.

Having seen the benefits of Britain's profitable colonies, France's Directory listened to Bonaparte's idea to invade Egypt, expel the ruling Mamelukes and establish a modern style of government friendly towards French ways.

Within three months, the young general had raised and outfitted an expeditionary force of just under 40,000, which included scientists, engineers and veteran troops from the Army of Italy.

On the way, the French seized Malta, and its considerable treasury, and then proceeded on towards Alexandria where the city fell to Bonaparte within hours of the French fleet's arrival.

The first major engagement against the Mamelukes occurred at El Rahmaniya, where Bonaparte showed the fierce, excellent horsemen that their bravery could not match modern European weapons and tactics.

The French forces then continued their difficult march down the Nile towards Cairo, enduring heat, disease and exhaustion.

On 21 July they drew within sight of Cairo and were treated to an awe-inspiring view of the Pyramids and a large Arab and Mameluke army. The total force was some 120,000 men in two bodies. The first, under Murad Bey, was some 6000 Mamelukes and 15,000 irregular troops. Ibrahim Bey's army - estimated at 100,000 - was split from the vanguard and waited across the Nile. They took no part in the battle.

Forming large squares that incorporated cannon the 25,000 French troops waited for the Mameluke assault under Murad Bey and when it came repulsed the attacks with steady, disciplined fire.

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