The Battle of the Pyramids, also known as the Battle of Embabeh, was fought on July 21, 1798 between the French army in Egypt under General Napoleon Bonaparte, and forces of the local Mamluk rulers. General Bonaparte named the battle after the Egyptian pyramids, because they were faintly visible on the horizon when the battle took place. The battle occurred during France’s 1798-1801 Egyptian Campaign and was the battle where General Bonaparte put into use one of his contributions to tactics, the massive divisional square. Actually a rectangle, the first and second demi-brigades of the division formed the front and rear faces, while the third demi-brigade formed the two sides.
In mid July of 1798, General Bonaparte was marching from Alexandria toward Cairo after invading and capturing the former. On July 13th, the first important battle took place at Shubra Khit, where the outnumbered Mameluke forces were easily defeated and General Bonaparte continued his advance towards the capital.
On July 21st, eighteen miles northwest of Cairo, at the fortified village of Embabeh, the main Mameluke army under Murad Bey had assembled waiting for the infidels on the left bank of the Nile. The size of Murad’s army is estimated at about 4,000 to 6,000 mounted Mamelukes, supported by 40 cannons and a small but professional Turkish contingent, mainly tough Albanian troops. To the right of the cavalrymen, closer to the Nile near Embabeh village, were some 15,000 fellaheen–peasant levies armed mostly with clubs and spears or long-barreled old muskets, who were essentially an ineffectual mob. On the Nile east bank, constituting no danger to the French until they crossed the Nile, was Ibrahim Bey’s force, composed of several thousand more Mamelukes and about 18,000 fellaheen-peasant infantry while on the Nile itself there was a small Mameluke flotilla manned by Greek mercenary sailors.
On the other hand, the French deployed about 25,000 men in 5 divisions supported by artillery and a few cavalry troopers. It is almost certain that the combined Mameluke forces enjoyed numerical superiority but the army of Ibrahim Bey did not engage while the Bedouins and most of the infantry, except the Turkish Albanians, were virtually worthless against trained european troops. Furthermore, Murad had made a great mistake by placing his troops on the left bank of the Nile, saving the French from having to cross the river under fire in order to attack him. Ibrahim Bey would have to cross the Nile river in order to help if something went wrong for Murad Bey. When General Bonaparte was informed about the enemy position and the advantage that the two beys had given to him, he decided to engage in a decisive battle. After giving his troops just one hour to rest, Bonaparte was ready to proceed into battle at 3 p.m. At 2 p.m. he sent out orders for advance on Murad’s army with each of the five divisions of his army.
He exhorted his troops, saying, “Forward! Remember that from those monuments yonder forty centuries look down upon you.” After 12 hours of marching under the hot Egyptian sun, the tired, hungry and thirsty French soldiers saw the army of the Mamelukes in the positions that Bonaparte wanted it to be, and the Great Pyramids ten miles behind it.
The French divisions advanced south in echelon, with the right flank leading and the left flank protected by the Nile. From right to left, Napoleon posted the divisions of Desaix, Reynier, Dugua, Vial and Bon. In addition, Desaix sent a small detachment to occupy the nearby village of Bechtil, just to the west. Murad anchored his right flank on the Nile at the village of Embabeh, which was fortified and held with infantry and some ancient cannons. His Mamluk cavalry deployed on the desert flank. Ibrahim, with a second army, watched helplessly from the east bank of the Nile, unable to intervene.
General Bonaparte realized that the only Egyptian troops of any worth on the battlefield were the cavalry. French soldiers could see before them the splendid horses of the Mamelukes, prancing magnificently and snorting in the heat of the day. Each rider was armed with a musket, a pair of pistols, several javelins of sharpened palm branch, whatever battle axes, maces and daggers he could attach to himself or his saddle, and a short, curved sword made of black Damascus steel. Riding into battle, a Mameluke could discharge his musket, fire his pistols–dropping them to the ground for his attendants to pick up–and then select an edged weapon as he approached the enemy.Since a Mameluke saw battle as his moment of glory, he carried with him valuable earthly possessions. Jewels, gold and silver coins were attached or hidden in his layers of bright silk vests and baggy silk trousers, which were covered with a full-length, long-sleeved, loose-fitting tunic called a caftan. A turban completed his ensemble.
The Mamelukes had one tactic, a cavalry charge. General Bonaparte had seen that tactic at Shubra Khit and devised a way to counter it. Placing his troops in square divisions, which may actually have been rectangular rather than perfectly square, he was able to withstand the charging hordes of Mamelukes from any direction.
At 3:00 p.m. the French divisions, commanded by generals Desaix, Dugua, Reynier, Vial and Bon, formed squares and having their field artillery at the corners and the cavalry along with the baggage in the center. Desaix and Reynier were ordered to penetrate the canter of Murad’s line and cut off his retreat while Dugua had to cut off the Mamelukes from the fortifications of Embabeh; Bon and Vial would reinforce according to the needs of the moment. Murad though had decided to attack first, believing that the French infantry was no match for his cavalry, and the Mamelukes launched a furious cavalry charge mostly against the squares of Desaix and Reynier.
The most important thing for the French was to keep their solid square formations. If the square was broken in one side things would be very difficult for them and hand to hand combat favored the Mamelukes. The French held their fire until the screaming Mamelukes approached in a distance of a few meters, so that not a single cartridge would be wasted. Dead and wounded men and horses started piling up around the French squares but the Mamelukes continued to attack all over for about an hour despite their heavy losses. Although the Mamelukes’ cavalry charge was highly unsuccessful against Bonaparte’s division squares, they repeated the tactic again and again, as if sheer determination could overcome French firepower. At times during the furious onslaught, some Mamelukes would penetrate the square, only to be finished off with bayonets and rifle butts. Greek-Mameluke, Hussein, charged into a square and sliced with his scimitar the barrels of the French rifles. He received several wounds but survived and joined the French army later. This suicidal bravery of the Mamelukes, though, could not help them against the continuous volley fire and shelling of experienced european troops.
While the Mamelukes were engaging the two squares on Bonaparte’s right, Dugua’s square in the middle was using howitzers to shell the warriors in the area between Embabeh and the squares. A detachment of cavalry and grenadiers, sent by Desaix into the Bechtil village on the French right, climbed onto the flat roofs of the houses and began firing on the Mamelukes. Dugua managed to cut off the Mamelukes from Embabeh while Bon and Vial, fighting and advancing, were ready to storm the fortifications. Realizing that the battle was lost, Murad decided to retreat towards Giza and later withdrew to Middle Egypt.
Nevertheless, the battle was far from over. Those that had already retreated, under French pressure, towards Embabeh had to face Bon and Vial. As the battle continued, Bon’s and Vial’s divisions launched an assault from the French left into the village, under covering fire provided by their riverine flotilla. The French came under fire from cannons hidden in the village. But the cannons, which were mounted on fixed carriages that prevented them from traversing the field of battle, proved ineffective in stopping the attack. Facing desperate fighting, the French stormed the fortifications, massacred Mamelukes and Albanians and drove them into the Nile. With their escape routes blocked, the Mamelukes and their fellaheen plunged into the Nile in an effort to reach their forces on the opposite shore. Perhaps 1,000 drowned and hundreds more were shot. Some warriors were reportedly clubbed with oars by French boatmen trying to check their escape. During this portion of the battle Lieutenant Desernois went out of his square, in Bon’s division, and had a duel with a Mameluke which ended when the Lieutenant broke the head of his opponent after he dismounted him. An hour later, the French emerged victorious and started looting the corpses of the Mamelukes, finding many gold coins in their silken clothes.
The French troops would get additional support from a flotilla of 15 river boats, manned by 600 sailors and the contingent of scientists and scholars (“savants”), under the command of Captain Jean-Baptiste Perrée, which Bonaparte had assembled at Rosetta and sent up the Nile to assist his army. The flotilla and most of the French infantry had played an unimportant role in the early battle. Ibrahim’s army was unable to cross the Nile and reinforce Murad mainly because of a sandstorm. Most historians suggest that Ibrahim did not even try to help Murad. In any case, after the battle, Ibrahim left for Cairo at first and for the Sinai desert later on, along with his treasures and the Turkish pasha. The Mameluke army had been dispersed for ever.
The Mameluke losses are not accurately known. According to the official French report 2,000-3,000 Mamelukes were killed but this could probably be the total number of enemy casualties, including infantry and Bedouins. Other French military sources of the period reduce the number of dead Mamelukes to 800-1,200. As for the French, they had 29 dead and 260 severely wounded. During the night, panic prevailed in Cairo; many people left the city, others started looting while the remaining authorities decided to send a delegation to Bonaparte. After some negotiations, General Bonaparte entered Cairo on July 24. Lower Egypt was under complete French control for the moment.
General Bonaparte and his troops had defeated their opponents, despite the difficulties caused by the climate and the problems of logistic support. After all, the Mamelukes seem to have limited knowledge of strategy, lacked discipline and modern fighting methods. The times that individual bravery and medieval-type cavalry charges against infantry counted the most in the battlefield had passed forever long ago. With this battle General Bonaparte managed to destroy, disperse or demoralize the main enemy forces, occupy Cairo and secure his conquest of Egypt. The battle can be considered of having some importance if we see it as part of an action that enabled the French scientists to study and revive a lost civilization, to put the foundations of Egyptology which could not have been developed under the Mameluke regime. It was a collision of two different worlds, taking place near the mysterious monuments of a great ancient civilization. After all, not many soldiers throughout the history of warfare had the opportunity to fight while “forty centuries were looking down upon them.”
For the reader who may want to game out a scenario of Mameluke cavalry charging French squares, I have written up some basic scenario notes, an order of battle, a summary of our group’s square formation rules and some subjective victory conditions. In addition, I have added some internet links for information of interest.
Battle of the Pyramids scenario notes (.doc): Battle of Pyramids 1798 Scenario Notes
A Battle of the Pyramids After Action Report (AAR) on this scenario is linked. It shows the scenario displayed in 25-28mm miniature and general play: Battle of the Pyramids AAR
Campaigns and commentary on Murad Bey (Napoleon series): Question of Faith: Murad Bey 1798-1801.
Cheers from the warren.