French Invasion of Egypt, 1798-1801

Egypt before the French
French Intentions
French Preparations
The Sea Voyage and Malta
Napoleon Lands
Nelson and the Nile
After the Nile
Napoleon Leaves
After Napoleon
Egypt after the French

Egypt before the French

Eighteenth century Egypt was officially part of the Ottoman Empire, having been conquered in 1517. Prior to that, she had been ruled by the Mamluks, a dynasty of slave warriors, who had themselves seized control in 1250. The Ottoman conquest had not seen the destruction of the Mamluks, who had retained control of large parts of the country within the new Ottoman system. By the start of the eighteenth century, the Mamluks had regained most of their former power.

The Mamluks were not a unified force. Different Mumluk households fought for control over Egypt, and even when the Qazdagli faction was victorious (by about 1765), the fighting did not stop. Finally, in 1775, the winner of a particularly bitter conflict died, and the Mamluks descended into chaos. The followers of the two factions split into two main factions, that themselves each had at least two leaders. By 1778 the faction that included Ibrahim Bey and Murad Bey was victorious, at which point they then started fighting between themselves. Over the next few years they were constantly making and breaking peace agreements, before finally coming to a more permanent understanding in 1785. Unfortunately, by this time Murad Bey had so often threatened the foreign merchants upon whose taxes he depended, that after yet another attack on the merchants of Alexandria in1786, they appealed to Istanbul.

The government in Istanbul was already considering launching an expedition to regain control of what was one of their most valuable possessions. This expedition arrived in July 1786, but could only drive Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey from Cairo. They took refuge in Upper Egypt, their enemies were returned to power, while the Ottoman commander was recalled in 1787. For four years the two factions remained in balance – Murad and Ibrahim dominated the south, while Isma‛il Bey ruled in Cairo. The status quo was ended dramatically in 1791 when the plaque swept through Cairo, killing Isma‛il and most of his supporters. Murad and Ibrahim returned to Cairo in August 1791 with the Sultan’s pardon.

The last years of Mamluk rule were disastrous for Egypt. The constant infighting combined with the outrageous taxes, ruined Egypt’s trade. One of the triggers of the French invasion was the virtual destruction of French trade with Egypt by the 1790s. Murad and Ibrahim resumed their destructive activities after their return, this time inflicting their greed on virtually the entire population. By the time the French arrived, prosperous towns such as Damietta and Rosetta had lost over half of their population, Cairo had shrunk by 40,000 people and even Alexandria was almost ruined. Murad and Ibrahim were more concerned with restoring their personal fortunes than with actually ruling Egypt.

French Intentions

The original French plan was undoubtedly to seize Egypt as a colony. The French expected the Egyptian population, suffering under the Mamluks, to welcome them as liberators, while the Ottomans would at least tolerate the French as the price for expelling their overly independent subjects. Egypt was to benefit from the developments made possible by the revolution, her government modernised, new institutions created and old ones cast aside, just as had happened in France.

The role of the Ottomans was always tricky. France had traditionally been allied with the Ottoman Empire, and at least for the moment there was no intention of disrupting this. The French plan relied heavily on the Ottomans staying at least neutral, counting on their hostility to the Mamluks (demonstrated in 1786) overweighing their anger at the French invasion of what was still officially an Ottoman province.

The role of Islam had been considered, if not very realistically. In Napoleon’s first proclamation to the people of Egypt he claimed to ‘worship God more than the Mamluks do’ and went to claim that the French ‘are also true Muslims’. Needless to say, this claim was not convincing, although religion was not to prove one of the most serious problems that eventually faced the French.

French ambitions went beyond Egypt herself. Napoleon’s own personal ambition, needless to say, went even further. A side benefit was to be the seizure of Malta, still ruled by the Knights of St. John, by this point a rather faded force. Malta was to act as a French naval base. Beyond Egypt, the French hoped to challenge the British in India, where French influence had been ended during the Seven Years War. In order to achieve this, one of Napoleon’s orders was to dig a canal through Suez, to allow French fleets into the Red Sea.

Napoleon himself appears to have gone beyond just the conquest of Egypt and India. During his Egyptian years, aged only twenty nine, he is on record as having said that Europe was too small for him, and that all greatness was achieved in the east (shades of Julius Caesar worrying that he had achieved nothing at the age that Alexander the Great had already conquered Persia). Having secured Egypt and expelled the British from India, he would rouse the Greeks, destroy the Ottoman Empire, capture Constantinople and attack Europe from the rear. Grand plans, although as events to show, French arms were certainly capable of defeating much larger Ottoman forces.

French Preparations

Portrait of Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, 1770-1823
Portrait of
Marshal Louis-Nicolas
Davout, 1770-1823

The French army was large, although perhaps not large enough to attempt the permanent occupation of Egypt on its own. The original plan included provision for reinforcements to be sent, assuming that France would retain her freedom to act in Mediterranean. Napoleon’s expedition included 30,000 infantry, 2,800 cavalry, 60 field guns, 40 siege guns and two companies of sappers and miners. This was enough for the initial conquest, but as will be seen it was severely stretched to provide both a garrison for Egypt and a field army. The officers that accompanied the army were an impressive group. As well as Napoleon, the army included Berthier, Murat, Marmont, Davout, Kléber, Reynier, Junot and Alexandre Dumas, the father of the famous novelist. To transport an army this size to Egypt required a massive fleet. Nearly 300 transport ships were accompanied by 13 ships of the line and seven frigates.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

One famous and unusual aspect of the expedition is that it was accompanied by a group of 167 savants, who were to form the nucleus of a new Acadamy Egypt. The work carried out by this academic expedition probably had the most long term impact, at least in Europe. Amongst its achievements was the discovery of the Rosetta stone, from which followed the deciphering of hieroglyphics and the rediscovery of ancient Egyptian history.

The Egyptian expedition was prepared at great speed and in impressive secrecy. It was proposed early in 1798, approved on 12 April, and departed from Toulon on 20 May after only ten weeks of preparation. The level of secrecy was equally impressive. News of their real destination only arrived in Britain with the French newspapers on 12 July. Even Nelson, cruising in the Mediterranean, took months to catch up with the French fleet.

The Sea Voyage and Malta

Napoleon sailed from Toulon on 20 May. The French expedition used several ports as well as Toulon, including Marseilles, Genoa, Civitavecchia and the ports of Corsica, making the level of secrecy even more impressive. The soldiers themselves were not informed of their destination until they were at sea.

Malta was reached on 9 June. By tradition, neutral states only allowed two ships from any belligerent fleet to use their harbours at any one time. Napoleon sent a messenger to Grand Master de Hompesch, the head of the Knights of St John, demanding that his fleet be allowed to enter harbour at Valletta to replenish their supplies. De Hompesch briefly demonstrated some backbone, insisting on the two ship limit. Napoleon replied that he would take what was need by force, at which point De Hopmesch lost his backbone, retreating to his palace.

The order that he presided over, the Knights of St John, had a long history of successful resistance against attack, but the order was a shadow of its former self. A group of French knights were acting as third column within the order, undermining its resistance by refusing to fight their countrymen. Even so, the remaining knights may have been about to offer resistance when the native Maltese broke into revolt. Faced with enemies within and without, the Knights of St John surrendered on 12 June, only three days after the French had arrived.

Napoleon spent a week on Malta, where he demonstrated both sides of his character. The positive side can be seen in the series of reforms he initiated. All religious orders on the Island, including the Knights of St John, were abolished. The tax system was reformed and the university and hospitals modernised. On the other hand, Malta was to spend the next two years under French military rule, while when Napoleon sailed he took most of the treasures of the Knights with him, including their library. This mix of reform, military rule and plunder was to be typical of Napoleon (and had already been seen in Italy).

The next leg of the voyage saw a close encounter with Nelson’s fleet. On the night of 22-23 June, French officers heard signals guns from the British fleet. Napoleon refused to believe that any significant British fleet could possibly be in the Mediterranean, no alarm was called and the fleets passed in the night. Finally, on the morning of 1 July, just after Nelson had sailed north in frustration, the French fleet reached the Egyptian coast.

Napoleon Lands

Time was now running tight. Nelson was now known to be in the area, and the Nile flood was due in August. Napoleon started his campaign with a calculated gamble. While some of his commanders suggested the French fleet sailed on to the Rosetta mouth of the Nile, Napoleon decided to land 5,000 men close to Alexandria, capture the port and land the rest of his force there. Against more determined opponents or better defences this would have been a risky option, but the defences of Alexandria were decrepit and the garrison small. On 2 July, Alexandria was in French hands, and Napoleon was able to land the rest of his force.

The Mamluks were confident that they could repel this foreign invasion. This was largely due to their ignorance of the military potential of the French army that had landed on their shores (other better informed commanders had already made the same mistake about Napoleon). It was also due to their confidence in their own military abilities. Murad Bey’s first reaction to the French invasion was to take a force of his best cavalry to repel the invaders. This force was defeated at Shubrakhit (13 July 1798) after Napoleon formed his infantry into squares.

The march to Cairo was grueling even with effective Mamluk resistance. Egypt was at its driest, just before the Nile flood. Bedouin raids cut off French stragglers, and under many under commanders the French army could have disintegrated in the heat.
The apparent success of the first phase of Napoleon’s plan was assured by the French victory at the battle of the Pyramids (21 July 1798). Fought within sight of the Pyramids, on the opposite bank of the Nile from Cairo, the battle saw the Mamluk cavalry dash itself against French infantry squares and come off second best. Only thirty Frenchmen were killed and another 300 wounded. Mamluk losses are harder to estimate, but may have been as high as 3,000.

The aftermath of the battle saw Napoleon in command of Cairo and with it most of Lower Egypt.  For a brief moment everything was going to plan. Before Napoleon could really settle down to enjoy the fruits of his conquest, news reached him from the coast. On 1 August Admiral Nelson had finally found the French fleet, at anchor in Aboukir Bay, and destroyed it.

Nelson and the Nile

Nelson’s chase had begun badly. On 20 May his flagship, HMS Vanguard had been dismasted in a storm, and nearly ran aground. Nelson’s determination played a crucial part in saving the ship, but the captains of his frigates were convinced that Nelson would be forced to return to Gibraltar to make repairs, and so they had returned there themselves, leaving Nelson without frigates until after the battle of the Nile.

Losing his frigates critically weakened Nelson’s fleet. The frigates were the eyes of the fleet, able to out-sail the main ships of the line, increasing the area of visibility – the frigates could sail at the limits of visibility from the main fleet, more than doubling the amount of sea visible at any one time. Without them, Nelson could only see as far as the view from the highest mast in the fleet. With no idea of the French destination, Nelson was effectively hoping to chance upon their fleet during his travels. When one considers how hard his job was, it is perhaps creditable that he came as close as he did.

As was discussed above, the two fleets appear to have come within earshot of each other on the night of 22-23 June, when Nelson’s faster fleet overtook the slow French transports. On 29 June, Nelson reached Alexandria, where he found no news of the French. His worry now was that the French had actually been heading somewhere further west, where they were now free to act without British interference. Accordingly, he sailed on, hoping to find the French wherever they had actually gone. He had missed Napoleon by at most two days, but it was to take over a month before he returned to Alexandria and finally found the French fleet.

In the meantime, Nelson’s fleet searched the eastern Mediterranean, sailing along the south coast of Crete and back to Syracuse (19 July). By this point, Napoleon was already approaching Cairo. At Syracuse it became clear that the French were indeed somewhere to the east. Nelson started east again, this time heading for Greece. Finally, on 29 July, Nelson finally received reliable news of the French, and was able to put on full sail and head for Alexandria for the second time.

This time he was not disappointed. On 1 August the British fleet reached Alexandria, where they found the French transports. They also found news of the French warships, probably when their sails were spotted from the masthead of one of Nelson’s warships. Their location and numbers were confirmed by signals from private ships in Alexandria.

During the long search, Nelson and his captains had discussed every possible French deployment, and Nelson had expounded his plans for dealing with each of them. Thus when the first British ships rounded the head of Aboukir Point and first saw how the French were moored, they immediately knew that they had to attack the French van and centre, ignoring the French rear. Captain Foley in HMS Goliath saw that he could actually sail between the French ships and the coastline, and led part of the British fleet into that gap. The front and centre of the French fleet was now sandwiched between two lines of British ships. The French rear never came into action. The battle of the Nile was one of the most crushing naval victories ever seen. No British ships were lost, while only two of the thirteen French ships of the line escaped. Napoleon was now cut off from France.

After the Nile

The destruction of his fleet dramatically restricted Napoleon’s options. No reinforcements could be expected while the British controlled the Mediterranean, and without reinforcements the grander French plans to the east had to be abandoned. Nelson was well aware of this, and one of his first actions after the battle was to make sure the news was sent to India. With the threat to India gone, much of the strategic sense was gone from the Egyptian venture. Napoleon told his generals that they would have to found an empire, but in reality his expedition, launched with such great expectations, was now something of a sideshow.

Despite their defeat at the battle of the Pyramids, the Mamluks had not been destroyed. Ibrahim Bey had escaped to Palestine, while a larger force under Murad Bey retreated to Upper Egypt. Depending on your point of view, for the next ten months this force either managed to evade a French force under General Desaix, keeping it pinned down in Upper Egypt, or alternatively General Desaix managed to keep a much larger Mumluk army on the run for ten months, preventing it from threatening the French occupation of Lower Egypt. The first view is rather more convincing. The French were forced to split their forces to combat Murad, much of Upper Egypt remained outside their effective control, and the grain supply to Lower Egypt was disrupted. Eventually, in the spring of 1800 the French had to officially acknowledge Murad’s control of Upper Egypt.

October 1798 saw the first of several outbreaks of violence in Cairo. These first riots were put down rapidly but violently. Some 3,000 Egyptians were killed after two days of street fighting. The French lost 300 dead, ten times their losses at the battle of the Pyramids. It was clear that holding Egypt was going to be rather harder than conquering it had been. With reinforcements denied them by the destruction of their fleet, the French could not afford to lose men in such numbers.

Any real chance that the Ottoman Empire would accept the French conquest ended after Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the battle of the Nile (1 August). British diplomacy at Istanbul was now able to steer the Empire towards outright opposition, and on 9 September 1798 the Ottoman Empire declared war on France (early in 1799 Russia joined with Britain and Turkey, forming the Second Coalition. Napoleon now had to face the real danger of invasion by land and by sea. Two Ottoman armies were to be involved in the invasion. The army of Damascus was to advance through Syria and Palestine and attack Egypt across the Sinai. Another army, to be formed on Rhodes, would, with protection from the Royal Navy, land near the Nile. The French would be surrounded and outnumbered.

Napoleon’s response was to launch a pre-emptive attack into Palestine and Syria. He gathered a field army 13,000 strong, and on 6 February 1799 began his march east. This was not to be one of Napoleon’s lightning marches, illuminated with victories. The Ottoman garrison at al-‘Arish resisted for eleven days, a rather better performance than the 3,000 strong garrison of Jaffa, who only held out from 3 March to 7 March. Their surrender was followed by one of the more shameful incidents of the war. On the grounds that some of the garrison of Jaffa had been released on parole having given their word not to fight against the French, and also that the French had neither the food or the spare men to guard the prisoners, Napoleon had the 3,000 prisoners executed. This undoubted atrocity appears to have had the effect of increasing the willingness of the Ottoman garrisons to resist the French as long as possible.

This was soon to be demonstrated at Acre. Once a powerfully defended Crusader stronghold, the defences of Acre had generally been neglected for many years, and appeared to be in no shape to resist a determined siege. Acre was defended by the bulk of the Ottoman garrison of the area, supported by a small British naval squadron commanded by Sir Sydney Smith. When Smith had first had Acre inspected, the report he received suggested that the town was almost indefensible by land. With British help, and that of Captain Phélippeaux, a French royalist, the defences were put back into some sort of order. The defenders were greatly helped by Napoleon’s decision to send his siege train to Acre by sea. The guns were promptly captured, and in an ironic twist used to defend the city. Smith himself reached Acre on 15 March 1799, three days before Napoleon arrived to begin the siege. The combined British and Ottoman garrison resisted nine determined French assaults, helped by the weakness of the French artillery.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman army of Damascus was approaching. This was another large army, possibly 25,000 strong. Napoleon had heard of its approach and sent Kléber with a force 2,000 strong to scout it out. Kléber succeeded almost too well. The battle of Mt. Tabor (16 April) saw his 2,000 men resist repeated cavalry attacks by forming infantry squares, until eventually Napoleon arrived from Acre with a relieving force and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Ottoman army.

To a certain extent, the victory at Mt. Tabor meant that Napoleon’s expedition into Palestine and Syria had achieved its main aim, but he could not claim it as total success unless he could capture Acre. Time was now starting to run out. Plague had broken out in the French army, reducing its strength, while the Ottoman army of Cyprus was known to be closing in. By the start of May, the remaining French artillery had arrived by the overland route. Finally, by 4 May, they had finally managed to create a breach in the walls, and were preparing for what Napoleon hoped would be the final assault. By this point, Napoleon was reacting to events. The date of the assault was decided by the appearance of the ships carrying the Ottoman army from Cyprus on 7 May. Napoleon was forced to launch a desperate assault. This succeeding in capturing part of the wall and the north-east tower of Acre, but British forces from Smith’s fleet were able to hold the French until the Ottoman reinforcements were able to land and repulse them. Two more French assaults, on 8 May and 10 May, were repelled by the reinforced garrison. Finally, on 20 May Napoleon was forced to abandon the siege.

Napoleon Leaves

Napoleon is sometimes considered to have deserted the army in Egypt. This is not entirely true, although the furtive manner of his departure does encourage such suspicions.

Admiral Étienne Eustache Bruix
Admiral Étienne
Eustache Bruix

The French Directorate had decided that they needed Napoleon back in France. They had sent the letter with Admiral Bruix, who in March 1799 was able to evade the British blockade of Brest with the aim of relieving the troops trapped in Egypt. Bruix had managed to enter the Mediterranean, where he outnumbered any force that the British could have raised to oppose him. However, he failed to take advantage of the opportunity, and after causing the British a great deal of concern eventually returned to Brest having accomplished very little else.

However, he had made some attempts to get Napoleon’s new orders through to Egypt, and they had been captured by the British. Ironically, it would soon seem to be to their advantage that Napoleon received his orders.

Sir Sydney Smith, having successfully defended Acre, now had a Turkish army of probably 15,000 men (estimates of the size of this army vary) willing to follow his suggestions. Accompanied by British, Russian and Turkish ships (one partial outcome of the battle of the Nile was that both Turkey and Russian had come into the war against France, although neither stayed in for long at this point), on 14 July this force landed at Aboukir Bay and captured the French fort at the tip of the western arm of the bay.

This was their last success. General Marmont, the French commander at Alexandria, sent news to Napoleon, now back in Cairo. Napoleon gathered together a force of 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, and headed for Alexandria. To his relief, Mustapha Pasha, the Turkish general, had remained at Aboukir. As much as half of his army was out of action due to illness, and he clearly felt it could not risk taking on the French in the field.

This allowed Napoleon to win his last victory in Egypt, at the first battle of Aboukir (25 July 1799).  Despite some hard fighting, the French victory was complete. Somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 Turks were killed during or immediately after the battle, when many drowned attempting to escape, while Mustapha Pasha was captured. The French position in Egypt was safe, at least for the moment.

In contrast, Napoleon was soon gone. During the post-battle negotiations over the exchange of prisoners, Smith made sure that Napoleon’s new orders finally got through. When one considers that with months of his return, Napoleon had seized power, this doesn’t look like such a good move, but Smith’s hope was that he could capture Napoleon when he attempted to return to France. This was a perfectly reasonable gamble to take, but it failed. Napoleon briefly returned to Cairo, before heading to the Nile delta on what he claimed was a tour of inspection.

Admiral Lord Keith
Admiral Lord Keith

Once there, Napoleon boarded the frigate Le Muiron, the flagship of Admiral Ganteaume. Le Muiron was new, well designed, and fast, and could probably have eluded any of Smith’s ships, but there were no encounters. The nearest Napoleon came to a British fleet was a distant site of Lord Keith’s fleet off the coast of Provence, and on 9 October Napoleon landed in France. Just over a month later, he seized power.

After Napoleon

The rest of the French occupation is often ignored, but the French remained in Egypt for another two years. Their problem now was to decide what their aim was. Their original plans were now in tatters. The Egyptian population had not welcomed them as liberators. Any prospect of restoring an ancient Suez Canal had had to be dismissed after an inspection of the area. There was not longer any realistic hope of undermining British rule in India.

Napoleon’s immediate successor was General Kléber. His first priority was to arrange for a French evacuation. The military situation in Europe was sufficiently worrying for the French government to want to get as many troops home as possible. In September 1799 he opened negotiations with the Ottoman Empire. His initial terms were somewhat ambitious – in return for evacuating Egypt, he demanded the end of the Second Coalition, the return of the Ionian Islands, and the end of Ottoman involvement in the siege of Malta.

Circumstances started to turn against the French. The Ottoman army seized the Egyptian border post at al-‘Arish on 29 December, while the French army became increasingly mutinous. On 24 January 1800 Kléber agreed to the Convention of al-‘Arish. In return for the French evacuation of Egypt, the Ottomans agreed to the safe return of their troops to France and to pay for the redeployment, but remained in occupation of the Ionian Islands and part of the coalition.

This treaty was not to last. The British were not happy with the idea of an experienced French army returning to Europe, although the government eventually agreed to confirm the convention. By the time they had made this decision, the slow speed of communications meant that their discussions had no meaning. In early March Admiral Lord Keith, the British commander in chief in the Mediterranean informed the French that he did not accept the terms of the convention. Up till then, the French had been obeying the terms of the agreement, and had withdrawn to Cairo, while an Ottoman army of 40,000 was waiting outside the city.

Kléber was able to restore the situation with another crushing military victory. On 20 March he launched a surprise dawn attack on the Ottoman army at Heliopolis (north east of Cairo). During a day long battle, his force of 10,000 men devastated the Ottoman army. His problems were still not over. Another more serious revolt had broken out in the Nile Delta and Cairo, and so Kléber had to settle down to another reconquest of Egypt. This culminated in a siege of Cairo that finished with an assault on the city on 21 April 1800. In the aftermath of the rebellion, he was forced to come to a formal agreement with Murad Bey, recognising the Mamluk rule of Upper Egypt. What Kléber would have done next will never be known. On 14 June 1800 he was assassinated, and succeeded by General Menou.

Menou stayed in charge for the remaining fourteen months of the French occupation. He was not interesting in evacuation, and in any case Napoleon had restored the military situation in Europe. Menou was interesting in establishing a permanent French presence in Egypt. He had converted to Islam and married an Egyptian. His rule saw the most wide ranging tax reforms as well as a consistent policy of seeking support amongst the local elites.

The French occupation was finally ended by a British invasion. At the end of 1799, the Second Coalition started to break up. Russia left the coalition, and became increasingly anti-British. Austria was looking increasingly vulnerable after defeats in June 1800 (although she remained a combatant until February 1801). In August, the French offered Britain a naval armistice. Perhaps surprisingly, this was actually considered. Some British politicians advocated putting all of her efforts into propping up Britain’s allies in Europe. In the end, it was decided to concentrate on Britain’s own global interests.

There was only one active British army in the field at this point. A force 20,000 strong, commanded by Lord Abercromby, had been ordered to the Mediterranean in May 1800. In September 1800, this force had captured Valetta, ending the French occupation of Malta. An attempt to seize Cadiz had failed. Finally, in October 1800 it was decided to use this army to expel the French from Egypt.

It was to be part of a three pronged assault. The British, supported by a smaller Ottoman army, would land on the Egyptian coast. A second, larger, Ottoman army, in the end commanded by the Grand Vizier, would invade through Palestine, while a third British force, made up of troops from India reinforced from Britain would land on the Red Sea coast and march down the Nile to Cairo.

Engraving of General Sir Ralph Abercromby, 1734-1801
Engraving of General Sir Ralph Abercromby, 1734-1801

Abercromby’s force arrived first. Aboukir Bay saw its third battle in three years (Second battle of Aboukir, 8 March 1801). Perhaps as many as 4,000 French troops lined the sand dunes of Aboukir, where they faced a determined assault commanded by Sir John Moore, which succeeded in establishing a beachhead. After a second clash at Mandora (13 March), the key battle of the campaign came on 21 March (battle of Alexandria, fought on the ancient site of Canopus). Here, the British troops showed that they could resist large French forces, proving that the apparently irresistible French columns could be defeated. The main British loss was Abercromby, fatally wounded during the battle.

The net was now closing in around the French in Egypt. General Menou was now trapped in Alexandria. At the end of April the main British army, combined with the main Ottoman army, advanced on Cairo. They reached the city on 21 June, and after a short siege the French garrison of 13,000 troops surrendered on 27 June. The second British force had landed on the Red Sea coast early in June, and began its crossing of the desert on 19 June. Although this force played no direct part in the fighting, it probably persuaded France’s new Mamluk allies not to take part in the fighting.

The Cairo garrison was shipped out of Egypt on 30 July. General Hutchinson, who had replaced Abercromby, was now able to concentrate on Menou, still isolated in Alexandria. Resistance here was more determined, lasting from 9 August until the final surrender on 30 August. Two weeks later, Menou’s force embarked for France. The occupation of Egypt was over.

Ironically, the war itself was also winding towards a temporary halt (the peace of Amiens). With Austria out of the war in February 1801, negotiations between Britain and France soon followed. On 1 October 1801 the two sides signed the Peace of London (which was to lead to the Peace of Amiens). As part of the peace, the French agreed to evacuate Egypt and restore it to the Ottomans. Ironically, this agreement was made after the French had already been expelled, but before the news of their defeat.

Egypt after the French

This first period of British occupation was short lived, ending early in 1803. There was no intention to stay in Egypt at this period. The Peace of Amiens was never entirely stable, and the main British preoccupation in Egypt was to make sure that the French could not repeat their conquests.

The main role the British were to play over the next two years was to protect the remaining Mamluks from Ottoman revenge. The British were not convinced that the Ottomans had the military potential to resist the French, and despite the poor Mamluk record considered them to be the better bet. In the meantime, the Ottomans were determined to remove the Mamluk threat forever.

In reality, the Mamluks played a significant role in their own downfall. Critically weakened by the losses they had suffered under the French, their only hope was to unite against the other forces fighting for control of the country. This they failed to do, and their inability to unite saw them finally lose all power in Egypt.

The eventual winner in what was effectively a civil war was Muhammed ‘Ali. He was an Ottoman military commander, who had been present at the first battle of Aboukir in 1799. After the French left, he was sent to Egypt as second in command of an Albanian contingent sent to support some of the most professional Ottoman troops. The Albanians had a reputation for wildness, which they were soon to live up to. In 1803 they mutinied, forcing out the Ottoman governor of Egypt. Their commanding officer was then assassinated, leaving Muhammed ‘Ali in charge. He combined with some of the Mamluks to capture the Ottoman governor, before using Mamluk divisions to defeat his temporary allies. By 1805 he was in effect command of Egypt, and his position was recognised by the Sultan in Istanbul. For the next forty years, Muhammed ‘Ali ruled Egypt almost as an independent state, although he never sought full independence. That was left for his descendants, who ruled Egypt (or at least held the throne) until 1952.

General Sir Ralph Abercromby and the French Revolutionary Wars, 1792-1801, Carole Divall. A biography of one of the more competent British generals of the Revolutionary Wars, killed at the height of his success during the expulsion of the French from Egypt. Inevitably most of his experiences during the Revolutionary War came during the unsuccessful campaigns in northern Europe, but he managed to emerge from these campaigns with his reputation largely intact, and won fame with his death during a successful campaign. An interesting study of a less familiar part of the British struggle against revolutionary France (Read Full Review)
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Egypt 1801- The End of Napoleon’s Eastern Empire, Stuart Reid. Looks at the successful British campaign to expel the French from Egypt, carried out in a hurry to make sure that France wasn’t able to retain the area in the upcoming peace treaty, and that was one of the few clear British military successes in the first half of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Covers the formation and training of the British army under Abercromby, the impressive opposed landing at Aboukir, the eventual successes under General Hely-Hutchinson, as well as the French response and the Ottoman involvement (Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 January 2006) French Invasion of Egypt, 1798-1801,

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