Napoleon's last victory in Egypt, the first battle of Aboukir saw the defeat of an Ottoman army sent to expel him from Egypt. The French expedition to Egypt had been planned with the hope of Ottoman neutrality. This hope had been reduced by the battle of the Nile (1 August 1798) and the destruction of the French fleet. This defeat, combined with British diplomacy, and persuaded the Ottoman Empire to declare war on France on 9 September 1798.
The first serious Ottoman attack came in 1799. One army was to advance overland from Syria to attack Egypt through Sinai, while another army was formed on Rhodes, ready to land on the Egyptian coast. Napoleon decided to strike first in Syria, and in February 1799 he struck into Palestine and Syria. At first his expedition went well, but at Acre he found a determined Ottoman garrison, supported by a British naval squadron, commanded by Sir Sydney Smith, who took effective command of the defence. The siege lasted from 18 March to 20 May, before Napoleon was eventually forced to retreat back to Egypt. However, on 16 April at the battle of Mt. Tabor, he had defeated the Ottoman army of Syria, so his expedition had achieved one of its objectives. On 14 June he made a triumphal entrance to Cairo.
One month later, the second Turkish army arrived in Egypt. They had first appeared at Acre, where they had played a part in repelling the most successful of several French assaults. From there, they had been transported south, supported by a combined Anglo-Turkish fleet. On 14 July they landed at Aboukir Bay. The French garrison of 300 men in Aboukir fort was quickly overwhelmed, but then the Ottoman commander, Mustapha Bey, decided to dig in rather than advance towards Alexandria.
One of the most interesting aspects of this battle is the light it casts on the difficulties involving in calculating the number of combatants on each side in a battle. The Ottoman army created on Cyprus was probably 15,000 strong. By the time it landed at Aboukir Bay, it had probably lost some men in the fighting at Acre, and was suffering from disease. At one point the Ottoman commander reported that he only had 7,000 men fit to fight.
Likewise, the French numbers are unclear. Numbers ranging from 6,000 to 8,000 can be found. We do have a good idea which French units were present, but we do not know how strong those units were at the time. We do know that the French demi-brigades were under strength, having been reorganised in June after the Syrian expedition, when they were reduced from nine companies to five, but even those new official sizes might not reflect the true position.
With such a wide range of figures available, all we can say for sure is that the French had at best the same number of men as the Ottomans, and at worst were outnumbered two to one. However, previous encounters would suggest that even in the worst case, the French could still enter battle with some confidence.
Marmont, the French commander at Alexandria, had quickly realised that he did not have enough men to deal with the Ottoman force. His response was to stay put in the barely fortified city, and call for help from Napoleon.
Napoleon’s response was to create a new field army, stripping forces from the French garrison. With this new army, he headed back to Alexandria, where he was delighted to find the Ottoman army still camped at Aboukir Bay.
The Ottoman army was formed up in two lines. The first was on the plain about a mile from the coast, the second on Mount Vizir, much nearer the sea. This division of their forces played directly into Napoleon’s hands, allowing him to defeat the Ottoman force in detail, even taking a short break between phases of the battle!
His previous battles in Egypt had seen Napoleon take a defensive posture while the Mamluk armies battered themselves to destruction. This time, he went on to the offensive. While the infantry attacked the centre of the first line, Murat’s cavalry was sent against both the left and right flanks of the Ottoman line. This first line was rolled up and forced back on to the second line. Napoleon then rested his army, before starting the second phase of the battle at three in the afternoon.
This second phase resulting in a crushing French victory. The Ottoman army was forced back into the sea. Thousands of Ottoman soldiers drowned attempting to escape, while Sir Sidney Smith’s fleet attempted to rescue as many men as possible. Amongst the escapees was the future ruler of Egypt, Mohammed Ali.
This part of the battle is probably most famous for one of the very few occasions where opposing generals fought a personal combat, in this case between Mustapha Bey and Murat, the French cavalry commander. Murat’s cavalry charge brought him within feet of Mustapha. The two commanders spotted each other. Mustapha fired at Murat from close range, hitting him in the jaw. Murat responded with a sabre blow, chopping off two of Mustapha’s fingers and taking his pistol with them!
The battle of Aboukir saw the defeat of the second prong of the Ottoman invasion, and secured the French occupation of Egypt, at least for the moment. However, the aftermath also saw Napoleon abandon the expedition. News from France reached him via the British fleet. Sir Sidney Smith hoped for a chance to capture Napoleon on his way back to France, not an unreasonable idea. Napoleon decided that his place was back in France, now threatened by the forces of the second coalition.
Accordingly, after briefly returning to Cairo, he sailed from Egypt on 23 August 1799. After a perilous journey, he reached France safely on 16 October. He never seems to have appreciated how lucky he was to get home without incident, and his two uninterrupted journeys to and from Egypt fatally lowered his appreciation of the quality of the Royal Navy. However, it was to be some time before this became apparent. On 9 November 1799, Napoleon seized power in France, and the revolutionary wars became the Napoleonic Wars.
Back in Egypt, the French occupation lingered on from another two years. It eventually took a British invasion, with yet another battle of Aboukir (8 March 1801) to expel the French army, and another four years before Egypt saw any real peace.