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.
Peaceful Aboukir town and fort during the 1820’s drawn by L. Meyer.
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.”
Fort du Bequier (Aboukir) and area map drawn by J N Bellin 1754. Note the sandhill enlarged upper left and the two old villages.
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.
Seid Mustapha Pasha. Leader of the Ottoman army landed at Aboukir.
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.
Portion of the Blackwood & Sons 1852 map showing the Battle of Aboukir 1799.