Finally, after four months away from Egypt, General Bonaparte and the Armee d’Orient Syrian expedition arrived back at Cairo during the month of June 1799. In the meantime Ottoman and British officials and local eastern Mediterranean traders had brought news of General Bonaparte’s failure at Acre to the inhabitants of Egypt, stating that his expeditionary force was largely destroyed and Bonaparte himself rumored dead. On his return General Bonaparte dismissed the rumours by re-entering Egypt as if he was at the head of a triumphal army, his soldiers carrying palm branches, emblems of victory at the head of the infantry columns.
At Cairo the Armee d’Orient found the rest and supplies it needed to recover from the arduous Syrian campaign, but its stay in the major Nile city of Egypt was short. General Bonaparte had been informed that Murad Bay had evaded the pursuits by generals Desaix, Belliard, Donzelot and Davout and was descending on the delta region of the Nile. Bonaparte thus marched out of Cairo to attack him near Giza or further south on July 14th, joining General Murat, but upon receiving communications that one hundred ships (Russian, English and Ottoman) were off Alexandria then in Aboukir Bay, turned his army quickly about to Cairo.
Without losing time and after straining the headquarter scribes, aides soon were carrying orders out of Cairo. General Bonaparte ordered his generals to make haste with quick marches. General Kleber’s division to march from Damietta, GD Desaix to re-approach Cairo and defend the southern Nile region around Giza, GD Reynier to watch the eastern approaches to Egypt. The citadel of Cairo was placed into a state of defense, stocked with supplies, to support Cairo’s GD Dugua’s garrison defenders (against possible revolt) after Bonaparte’s march to the coast. Before leaving Cairo, where he found them, Bonaparte wrote to Cairo’s divan, stating:
“80+ ships have dared to attack Alexandria but, beaten back by the artillery in that place, they have gone to anchor in Aboukir Bay, where they began disembarking. I leave them to do this, since my intention is to attack them, to kill all those who do not wish to surrender, and to leave others alive to lead in triumph to Cairo. This will be a handsome spectacle for the city.”
The Army of Rhodes, denied landing near Alexandria, sailed to the open bay of Aboukir and landed on the open beaches. The small French coastal fort garrison retired to their final defenses and awaited word from General Bonaparte. After a brief siege, the French three hundred strong garrison capitulated and was promptly massacred by the revengeful Ottomans, a revenge from the French treatment of Ottoman prisoners during the Syrian campaign earlier. The small coastal Aboukir fort was now garrisoned by the Ottomans while the bulk of their Army of Rhodes continued to land tents, materials and supplies for eventual advance on Alexandria and possibilities of linking with Murad Bey’s cavalry.
General Bonaparte first movement was marching quick to Alexandria. He left Cairo on July 16th, passing Rahmanieh on July 21st and 22nd, where his army detachments joined him except GD Kleber’s division. July 24th had his army resting and resupply from the Alexandria depot, then he marched towards the Aboukir wells on the cool evening of the battle.
Mustapha’s army was thousands strong* and supported by several cannon batteries, with redoubts and trenches defending it on the landward side and free communication with the Ottoman fleet on the seaward side. The actual numbers present has been debated since the cannon became silent. “Thousands” could mean 7,000 to 18,000 Ottoman soldiers and naval landing parties. Some historical writers quote the Ottoman Army of Rhodes landed with the lower numbers…7,000-8,000 active soldiers, while General Bonaparte wrote of the larger 18,000 number in his reports to the Directory and the Cairo Divan.
Dawn arose for a warm sunny day. The French army started to march towards the Ottoman 1st Line defensive positions. Advance guard cavalry under GD Murat and left-wing D’estaing’s brigade of three different Demi-brigade (DB) battalions held the French forward positions. Backing up D’estaing was GD Lanusse’s division (four DB battalions) marching across the rock and sandy ground. GD Lannes’ division (five DB battalions) formed on the French right and advanced towards the sandhill redoubt. Armee d’Orient headquarters, including some heavy siege cannon, and the small cavalry reserve under Colonel Bessieres were positioned behind the central cavalry advance guard. Covering the Armee d’Orient rear was GB Davout’s screening cavalry and dromedaries preventing any expected interference by Murad Bey’s arab and mameluke cavalry. GD Kleber was expected to arrive during the afternoon to provide the army reserve with five DB battalions. Lastly, General Menou had orders to detach two battalions with two cannon to seal off the Lake Aboukir inlet by marching from Rosetta.
Facing the advancing French the Ottoman entrenchments and reserve positions teamed with the colorful Ottoman soldiers. The Ottoman 1st Line defense consisted of 3-4000 men with some light Ottoman artillery. These defenders garrisoned two hilltop redoubts and the small village between the redoubts and covered the Aboukir wells nearby. Behind this loose defensive line, the ground sloped downwards along a shallow escarpment to the Ottoman 2nd or main line of resistance occupied by 7,000 Ottoman warriors and two Ottoman batteries with twelve cannon. Central defense was a hilltop redoubt strongly garrisoned. Extending to the Mediterranean coast was a low earthen linear entrenchment again occupied by Ottoman soldiers. Several Ottoman units positioned themselves in the open ground left leading to the Aboukir village behind. Behind the 2nd Line redoubt the best Ottoman reserves of approximately 4,000 men, Army of Rhodes headquarters with Mustapha Pasha and his small suite of cavalry, and the Ottoman camp. Lastly the Aboukir fort was strongly garrisoned with 2-3,000 soldiers, commanded by Mustapha Pasha’s son. Offshore the Mediterranean coast, Aboukir Bay and Lake Aboukir saw the coming and goings of ship boats, warships, transports, and closer to shoreline, small arab gunboats or dhow.
Enlargement of the V. Denon legend script for somewhat better reading (french text): V.Denon map legend (.pdf)
After a short march of two hours, the advance guard cavalry came within sight of the Ottoman 1st LIne positions. General Bonaparte ordered the columns to halt, and made his dispositions for the attack. Brigade D’estaing was ordered to carry the Ottoman righthand independent hilltop redoubt, as the advance guard cavalry under Murat (3rd & 14th Dragoons) rode around and cut off their retreat (to the 2nd Line). The division of General Lannes (22nd DBL, 13th & 69th DB) to advance against the sandhill redoubt, again a detachment of the advance guard cavalry to swing around the rear. General Lanusse (18th & 32nd DB) to remain in the second line and central reserve position.
General of Brigade D’estaing, with the three battalions under his orders (4th DBL, 61st & 75th DB), charged the enemy with the bayonet. The Ottoman redoubt garrison didn’t hold long, feeling a bit detached from their fellow Ottomans behind them. They abandoned their redoubt in haste, retreating towards the village, but the greater part of the fugitives were cut down by the circling French cavalry. Seeing the fate of their brethren on the other hilltop, the two thousand defenders of the sandhill redoubt gave way. Seeing the unsteady confusion and retreat before them, the French cavalry charged home and scattered the Ottoman infantry, either killed or precipitated the whole corps into the sea, few escaped this affair. D’estaing’s battalions sweep forward into the small mud brick village, clear the weak defense quick with the bayonet, survivors fleeing to their 2nd Line position. So much for the Ottoman front line positions, sweep away in utter ruin by the rapid French attack.
While the troops took breath, several pieces of artillery were planted at the village and along the Aboukir Bay shore, firing at the redoubt and enemy entrenched position at right. D’estaing’s battalions formed up before the 2nd Line hill redoubt with the battalions of GD Lanusse (18th & 32nd DB) now on their left. Lannes’ division marching to the center position as Murat’s blood dripping sabers repositioned on the French right facing the un-entrenched Ottoman left. The 18th Demi-brigade (DB) formed column and marched along the shore, in order to force, by the bayonet, the right-wing of the Ottoman position. The 32nd Demi-brigade, starting from the village, ordered to hold the enemy in check and support the 18th DB assault. Lannes’ division stood ready to assault the redoubt itself and Murat’s rested cavalry, now joined by Bessieres’ Guides and Chasseurs squadrons, to charge the exposed Ottoman left positions.
The battle renewed with the French cavalry charging several times into the swirling mass of Ottoman infantry. With great impetuosity, it cut down, or drove into the sea all before it, but they could not penetrate beyond the redoubt without being placed between its fire and that of the offshore Ottoman gunboat dhow. Impelled, however, by their ardour into this terrible situation, the French cavalry fell back again and again, regrouped and charged back into the Ottomans, while the thinning ranks of the Ottomans were supplied by fresh troops from the Ottoman nearby reserve. Meanwhile the foolhardy 18th DB charged at the Ottoman sea shore linear entrenchment. This time the Ottomans didn’t wait to receive the charge, they sortied from their positions and engaged the fronts of the columns man to man, the Ottomans endeavoring to wrest the bayonets from the French, weapons found so destructive, in despair they flung their own muskets behind them, and fought with the saber and pistol. Reaching the linear entrenchment while battling the surrounding Ottoman infantry, the 18th DB could go no further, the cannon fire from the redoubt above stopped the columns. Several french leaders…. General Fugieres and Le Turq, wounded and killed, fell in the desperate struggle. The 18th turned about, maintaining formation back towards the village, leaving a trail of dead and wounded Frenchmen. The Ottomans, seeing the French retreat before them, darted from their entrenchment and hill redoubt, in order to cut off heads of the dead and wounded to obtain the silver aigrette, which their government bestows on every soldier who brings the head of an enemy.
As the Ottomans were hacking off heads of dead and wounded Frenchmen, Bonaparte ordered Lannes’ tempered division into action followed by GB D’estaing’s men. Charging forward the 22nd DBL and 69th DB, soon joined by the 75th DB, stormed into the reduced defenders of the redoubt. GD Lannes leaped into the ditch and soon upon the parapet followed by furious French bayonets. The head chopping Ottomans, seeing the central French assault in the redoubt, turned to rejoin their entrenchments. But too late as the “no quarter” 32nd DB slammed into their disordered ranks, soon followed by the 18th DB seeking revenge for their beheaded countrymen. This isn’t european warfare but warfare of no quarter medieval times. Seeing the opportunity and the waiving Ottoman defense in the redoubt, the French cavalry, led by Murat personally, again charged with such vigour and effect into the positions below the redoubt, all the way up to the ditch. The enemy, confused and terror-struck, beheld death on every side; the infantry charged them with the bayonet, the cavalry cut them down with the saber, no alternative but the sea remained. Thousand fled and committed themselves to the waves, showers of musketry and canister followed them…. very few survived as the larger ships were two leagues distant in the roads of Aboukir Bay.
Mustapha Pasha, seeing the destruction of his Army of Rhodes, charged forward with his small personal mounted guard. GD Murat personally countercharges with French dragoons, a swirling melee amidst the carnage of battle. Mustapha fired his pistol, wounding Murat, before forced to surrender to Murat when his horse was killed. The French army sweeps into the Ottoman camp, looting and killing if any resistance found. Tents of Ottoman wealth, twenty cannon, two of which given to the Grand Seignior by the Court of London, fell into the French hands. Awhile this was happening the garrisoned Aboukir fort didn’t fire a shot, for all within were panic struck. A flag of truce was sent out. It was proposed to them to surrender, some were inclined to agree, while others refused. The remainder of the day was spent in parleying and the early afternoon arrival of GD Kleber’s hard marching division (five DB battalions). In the night the enemy offshore squadrons communicated with the fort, the garrison were re-organized and defended the fort. Accordingly French batteries of cannon and mortars were elected for its reduction. During this late afternoon operations, General Bonaparte repaired to Alexandria, the condition of the defenses he examined.
The glorious day cost the French hundred and fifty killed and seven hundred wounded. The Ottoman losses were massive, almost the entire Army of Rhodes was killed, wounded or prisoner of the French, soon to be marched through the streets of Cairo.
On July 26th the Aboukir fort was summoned to surrender. The son of Mustapha Pasha, his Kiaya, and the Ottoman officers were willing to capitulate but the soldiers refused, fearing another French tit for tat massacre. Slowly a bombardment of the fort commenced with additional battery positions created on July 28th. These batteries bombarded the fort daily, sank some pesky nearby gunboat dhow and dismasted a frigate which was forced to put to sea. Ottoman small party sorties entered the nearby Aboukir town for food stuff as provisions in the overcrowded fort were sparse. General Lannes was wounded in his leg repulsing these Ottoman marauders near the town. July 30th saw General Davout force the trenches, and after some slaughter, cleared the town completely. With the dawn of 2nd August, the fort by now was reduced to a heap of battered stones, the garrison with dire want of provisions. That afternoon the starving Ottomans threw down their arms en mass and came in a crowd to embrace the knees of the victors. Two thousand men made prisoner along with the Kiaya. Three hundred dead and eighteen hundred wounded were found in the ruins. Later another four hundred died through excessive eating and drinking.
Mustapha’s son and prisoners soon marched back to Cairo as part of the French triumphal procession. Seeing Bonaparte return with these high-ranking prisoners, the population of Cairo superstitiously welcomed him as a prophet-warrior who had predicted his own triumph with such remarkable precision.
The land battle at Abukir was Bonaparte’s last action in Egypt, partly restoring his reputation after the French naval defeat at the same place a year earlier and Acre during the Syrian campaign. However, with the Egyptian campaign stagnating and political instability developing back home, a new phase in Bonaparte’s career was beginning – he felt that he had nothing left to do in Egypt which was worthy of his ambition and that (shown by the defeat at Acre) the forces he had left to him there were not sufficient for an expedition of any importance outside of Egypt. Bonaparte thus decided to return to France. During the prisoner exchange at Aboukir and notably via the Gazette de Francfort newspaper Sir Sidney Smith had sent him, he had learned of military and political events in France, the Rhine region border, and northern Italy. As Bonaparte saw it France was thrown back into military retreat, its enemies had recaptured France’s conquests, France was unhappy at its dictatorial government and was nostalgic for the glorious peace it had signed in the Treaty of Campo Formio. France needed him in his eyes and would welcome him back home after leaving the Armee d’Orient in Egypt.
He only shared the secret of his return with a small number of friends whose discretion and loyalty were well-known. He left Cairo in August 1799 on the pretext of a Nile River voyage in the Nile Delta without arousing suspicion, accompanied by the scholars Monge and Berthollet, the painter Denon, and generals Berthier, Murat, Lannes and Marmont. On 23 August 1799 the proclamation posted below informed the Armee d’Orient that General Bonaparte had transferred his powers as commander-in-chief to General Kléber just as Bonaparte’s sails filled with wind that early morning heading for France.
This news was taken badly, with the soldiers angry with Bonaparte and the French government for leaving them behind, but this indignation soon ended, since the troops were confident in General Kléber, who convinced them that Bonaparte had not left permanently but would soon be back with reinforcements from France. Future major events for the Armee d’Orient included the outnumbered Battle of Heliopolis, the assassins death of General Kleber, and defeat at the hands of the British outside Alexandria 1801, featured as another WR egyptian campaign scenario.
Bonaparte’s 41-day voyage back to France on the frigate Muiron did not meet a single enemy ship to stop them, It has been suggested that Sir Sidney Smith and other British commanders in the Mediterranean helped Napoleon evade the British blockade, thinking that he might act as a Royalist element back in France, but there is no solid historical evidence in support of this conjecture.
Napoleon later had a finely crafted scale model of the frigate Muiron made for his study in Malmaison. This wooden model is now on display at the Musée national de la Marine in Paris. Named after Jean-Baptiste Muiron (1774-1796), one the hero figures of the Napoleonic legend. He was Bonaparte’s ADC in Italy, and fell beneath a hail of Austrian bullets at Arcole bridge on the 15th of November, 1796, using his body to protect his general.
On 1 October Napoleon’s small flotilla entered port at Ajaccio, where contrary winds kept them until 8 October, when they set out for France. When the coast came in sight, ten British ships were sighted. Contre-amiral Ganteaume suggested changing course towards back towards Corsica, but General Bonaparte said “No, this manoeuvre would lead us to England, and I want to get to France.” This courageous act saved them and on 8 October 1799 the frigates anchored in the roads off Fréjus. General Bonaparte was back in mainland France, interesting near to the starting point of his later 1815 France final tour.
The scenario for the Battle of Aboukir 1799.
Scenario Notes and forces (.doc): Aboukir 1799 Scenario Notes
French Armee d’Orient roster (.xls): French Aboukir roster
Ottoman Army of Rhodes roster (.xls): Ottoman Aboukir roster
The tabletop Aboukir 1799 scenario map and pictures of the actual terrain tabletop.
Preview of the Aboukir 1799 scenario set up with terrain in place and miniatures in their starting positions. All terrain and painted 25/28mm miniatures from the WR’s own collection.
Quick tutorial on WR’s gunboat dhow manufacture: The players can use their own scale gunboat or dhow miniature model from their collection or construct the following symbolic dhow markers. The same instructions are attached to the Aboukir 1799 scenario notes (.doc). Basic materials list: Two port and starboard dhow images scale to size your game requires, some stiff backing material… basswood, cardboard, foam board, white PVC glue, and basic tools.
The gunboat or arab dhow images: Dhow Images
Make two scenario dhow by printing both ship views (left and right view) twice from above .doc file. Glue on a piece of cardboard, foam board, or basswood for firm backing. Cut to shape as required and then glue dhow hull edge on flat stand afterwards painted and textured for sea waves etc. Paint the exposed vertical “dhow” edge with various flat light blues for the sky vertical edge. Place a large dot for measuring target ranges on flat stand’s dhow hull center point. Example of the final dhow production pictured below.
Source material for this Aboukir 1799 historical scenario is thin on most counts in WR’s library. WR’s best reading comes from a 1997 facsimile edition published by Worley Publications of a 1816 book written by M.J. Miot (Commissary of War) called “Memories of my service in The French Expedition to Egypt and Syria.” The 1816 book covers the basic French campaign in Syria and Egypt, army movements, the campaign battles and some political discussion for the era. Unlike the other sources pictured below with limited battle text, this book gives pages 73 to 107 (in his Book the Third chapter) to details of the Aboukir battle and the campaign period of time just before and after the battle plus a portion of a map… which looks like a typical map drawn by Thiers. Should be noted this battle occurred at the same location of the British boat landing in 1801 and, offshore in Aboukir Bay, the naval Battle of the Nile in 1798. Readers should read WR’s scenario for the Battle of Alexandria 1801 for a comparison. The 1801 British contested boat landings came ashore directly in front of the sand hill shown on the Aboukir 1799 scenario map (F4 and F5 map squares). Battle of Alexandria 1801 scenario link.
The Aboukir 1799 scenario game and after action report soon published on WR. Till then, cheers from the warren.
Update 02/21/2016: Aboukir 1799 scenario after action report now published on WR:
* The size of the Ottoman Army of Rhodes question. WR went with the larger size army of approximately 18,000 for his scenario. If only 7,000 landed, the small fortress garrison alone held 2,000+ Ottomans near its surrender. That leaves only 5,000 facing the French with three defensive lines to man. The largest number quoted… by Bonaparte was 18,000 Ottomans. That number seems large for active Ottoman soldiers in the small space of the Aboukir peninsula. But if the Ottoman army included sailors, landing parties, camp followers and servants in that number… i.e. total head count, then 18,000 divided over 80-100 ships works out to 180-200 landed sailors and soldiers per ship. Similar ratio to the later British 1801 expedition to Egypt.