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Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 3b
Arrival before Malta—Junction of the Fleet—Arrival at Alexandria—Landing—Our first march through the desert—Meeting with an Arabian woman.

General Bonaparte, upon hearing the account given by the French consul, exclaimed, ``Fortune! fortune! I ask but three days more !'' and he ordered the whole of the troops to land with the least possible delay. The operation began the very night of our arrival: the men of war and the ships under their convoy were at anchor close to the town: the ships, boats all put off, quite full of soldiers, in a few moments, and stood in for the shore, leaving the town on their left. The sea on a sudden became so stormy, as to prevent their landing; and the boats were compelled to return, and make fast to the ships nearest to the coast. In this manner they passed the night, being loaded with soldiers, and entirely at the mercy of the waves: no sooner, therefore, did calm weather return than they hastened to unmoor, and to reach the shore, which was, in a few hours, completely lined with soldiers. I had the command of the first detachment of General Desaix's corps, and had been forced to return, and make fast to a small galley ; in which situation I passed a very stormy night, and ran the risk of sinking. It was impossible to return on board the ships ; which were, besides, encumbered with soldiers.

In Egypt, the dawn of day is short, and calm weather generally returns with the sun, so that our hardships were soon over. After the landing of the troops, which was completed in the course of the evening, the next object was to bring the horses ashore. I was also charged with the duty of landing those that formed part of our convoy.

This operation could not fail to take up much time: it was perfectly new to me. I resorted to a plan that succeeded: I began by landing six horses; placing the horsemen in a boat, and letting the horses down into the sea, each dragoon holding his horse by a halter, The first horse thus removed from the ship was obliged to support itself by swimming until the last had been let down into the sea; after which I ordered the boat to steer for the shore, towing after it the six horses that were swimming, and to place them on land as near as possible to the water's edge, in order that they might be seen by all the horses that were about to follow in the same manner.

I afterwards placed in the boats all the dragoons, hussars, artillery-men, and soldiers of the train, with their saddles and harness, that they might go ashore, and there wait for their horses ; and whilst they were on their way, I had the horses of each vessel hoisted out on both sides at once, and let down into the sea, without taking any other precaution than placing the halter round their necks.

A boat was in readiness to pick up the first that were thus sent off, and lead them gently to overtake the others on shore. Those that were taken out of the ships went, by a natural instinct, to join those already in the water: and I thus had a long file of horses swimming, and keeping up with the boat ahead of them, They all arrived safe ; and upon arrival were led out by their riders, who had waited for them upon the beach, close to the borders of the desert, and who saddled and mounted them forthwith.

My operation was completely successful ; and General Desaix, who was on the seaside, expressed his satisfaction to me, when he beheld the landing of this file of horses.

It was scarcely the hour of sunset when the landing of the personnel of the army was effected, and nearly the whole army united close to Pompey's pillar, at the distance of a few hundred yards from Alexandria. This was the first monument presented to our view ; but our minds were so engaged in reflecting upon the objects we were about to behold, in a country which did not exhibit the slightest trace of vegetation, that this column, which stood quite isolated in the desert, did not attract our admiration.

Kleber' division, the first that was formed, marched at once upon Alexandria.

The fortifications which enclose the town are the same that were erected by the Arabs. Towards the angle in the direction of which we were approaching, there was discovered a large regular opening, which appears to have been formerly intended for some particular purpose, but presented now to the eye nothing more than a large hole, at an elevation of twelve feet from the lower part of the wall.

Here the Turks had mounted a wretched gun upon a pile of stones: they loaded it without cartridges or shot, but with loose powder and stones, and fired it with a lighted brand. We very soon discovered how perfectly ignorant they were of the science of artillery.

It will hardly be credited that an army like ours, which reckoned in its numbers several officers of undoubted talent, should persist in assaulting this wretched hole, which cost us many men, and where Kleber, amongst others, was wounded ; whilst we had, at the distance of a few hundred yards on our right, the great gate of Alexandria, on the road to Damanhour, which had not even been closed.

As some of our soldiers were wandering along the wall, which is not protected by a ditch, they discovered that gate: they entered, and were already near the houses of the town ²; whilst we still persisted in our attempts against the opening, which we were bent upon forcing. It occurred to us, at last, to follow the road taken by our stragglers, and Alexandria fell into our power.

The whole army was soon united in the midst of these venerable ruins ; but, with all their admiration for the remains of so many testimonials of antiquity, the troops began to show signs of discontent, and to murmur at beholding nothing but heaps of dust in the midst of a desert, instead of what they had expected to find in the country to which they had been transplanted.

It need only be observed, in illustration of this feeling, that our army was composed of troops which had left Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice, Genoa, and Marseilles; and that nearly the whole staff came from Paris. The disappointment was generally felt ; and the discontent gained ground during the march we had to make from Alexandria across the desert, in order to reach the Nile.

Previously to quitting Alexandria, General Bonaparte caused all the vessels of the convoy to enter the port. He ordered that the squadron should disembark every thing belonging to the army ; and, upon leaving it, gave instructions that it should enter Alexandria, if the opening of the harbour did not throw any obstacle in the way ; and in the contrary case, that it should proceed to Corfu, at the entrance of the Adriatic Sea.

Admiral Brueys delayed obeying this order, no doubt from a feeling which did him honour, and came to anchor at the point of Aboukir, between Alexandria and Rosetta, conceiving that the choice of this position might enable him to afford assistance to the army, in case of a reverse of fortune, of which he, perhaps, entertained some apprehension.

He remained, however, too long a time at this anchorage, where he was about to be destroyed, with the whole squadron.

The army left Alexandria on the night of the very day of the capture of that city: it consisted of five divisions, commanded by Generals Desaix, Bon, Regnier, Dugua, and Vial, who had replaced General Kleber.

The three last-named divisions took the road from Alexandria to Rosetta, by way of Aboukir ; the other two proceeded from Alexandria to Damanhour, marching along the borders of the canal that crosses the desert, and leads from Alexandria to the Nile in the seasons of inundation.

General Bonaparte remained some days longer at Alexandria for the purpose of forming a military administration. He gave the command of the town to General Kleber, who stood in need of repose to recover from his wound ; and he organised a flotilla of ships of war and transports, composed of the lightest and smallest vessels, out of the ships of war taken up as escorts at Civita Vecchia; such as the Pope's two small galleys, a few brigs and gun-boats, which had, by his orders, been brought up to the town for this purpose.

After embarking on board this little squadron the ammunition and provisions of which the army might stand in need on commencing its operations, he ordered all the personnel of the army and the dismounted cavalry to be put on board.

He next directed the squadron to set sail in his presence, and proceed to the mouth of the Nile, which it was instructed to ascend, keeping always abreast of the army.

He left at Alexandria the commission of learned men, who were not to follow until he should have arrived at Cairo.

After completing these arrangements, he quitted Alexandria, and proceeded on the road taken by Desaix's and Bon's divisions, which he came up with at Damanhour.

I have said that these divisions left Alexandria overnight. We were marching in columns, and at a slow pace, to enable those who lagged behind to keep up with us. We had proceeded but a short distance when a very dark night overtook us: our march was across a white surface of country, which cracked like snow under our feet: on tasting, it proved to be salt, formed by the evaporation of the waters that stagnate in the plain at the time of inundations. The march was painful: we chiefly suffered from the want of water, the canal along which we proceeded being, as is well known, constructed in many places of artificial mounds of earth, and dug out in others, for the purpose of bringing the waters of the Nile to Alexandria ; but it was so obstructed with mud, owing to its never having been repaired since the time of its construction, that it no longer received any water except at the period of the highest rise of the Nile: we therefore had only the water of the preceding year to quench our thirst with; and this water had settled in the mud at the bottom of the canal, and had, here and there, formed into sinks covered with moss and the most disgusting insects: it was, nevertheless, drunk with avidity.

In Egypt, it is the practice to travel on without any concern about a resting-place for the night, each one who can afford it having with him his baggage and his tent: to those who cannot afford this luxury, the canopy of heaven is the only covering.

Water is the only thing anxiously sought for ; the pains bestowed by the wretched public administration of this country being solely directed to the object of procuring water, by means of wells, for travellers or beasts of burthen.

Beda is the first station on the road leading from Alexandria to Damanhour: this was also to be our first halting place, and we had been provided with a guide for the journey. We halted from time to time, in order to enable the soldiers to overtake the main body; for they could not find out the road when they had once wandered from it.

I was riding in advance with fifteen mounted dragoons ; but kept within call of the column. We had started at a late hour, and marched the whole night to avoid the heat ; at daybreak we arrived at Beda, which is not a village, but a well' three feet in diameter, without either cord or bucket, it being indispensable to come provided with them. This wretched spot has not a single tree to afford shelter from the sun, which in Egypt breaks out a few moments after daylight and shines until nightfall.

On arriving at Beda, I found the well filled up with sand to its very mouth: it is impossible to describe our feelings of disappointment at the failure of this resource. My fifteen dragoons gave way to a state of silent despair, which the solitude of the desert carried to its height, and could only be compared to the stillness of the grave.

The absence of any human being, and the non-arrival of our column, which had unexpectedly halted, were circumstances which filled me with apprehension.

I feared I had lost my way, when sharp and plaintive cries reached my ears: some dragoons ran to the spot whence they issued ; perceiving that they stopped close to a human being, I rode up to them.

I beheld a tall blind woman, whose eyes appeared to have been recently put out; she held a child at the breast, who vainly endeavoured to suck its milk.

I ordered a dragoon to dismount and bring her to the well. She perceived, by a natural instinct, that she had reached the spot she was in quest of; she felt the edge of the well with her hands and feet, and upon discovering that it was filled with sand, she renewed her lamentations in spite of all our efforts to calm her.

I discovered she was thirsty, and had wine offered to her, of which we had a small quantity left out of the provision we had brought from the vessels. She drank it with avidity, and ate of some biscuit which the dragoons put into her hands. We found it impossible to understand each other. I waited the arrival of General Desaix's column, which had made a short halt, and did not arrive until a quarter of an hour afterwards.

This wretched woman, on recovering a little from her fright, placed her hands upon us, felt our clothes, and the helmets and arms of our dragoons, and must have soon found that we were not the same men whom her eyes had last beheld. The column arrived. She was questioned by General Desaix's interpreter ; and before replying to him, she asked if we were not angels sent from heaven to her relief.

She told us that her husband, deceived by another of his wives, had entertained suspicions concerning the birth of his child, and reduced her to that state, after leading her into the desert, where he had abandoned her at a distance from the cistern, which she was in search of when we fell in with her.

She begged we would put her to death, if we could not take her away with us. She was twenty-four years of age, and but for her tawny colour, to which we were not accustomed, we should have considered her a beauty.

Though engaged with this woman's adventures, we had not neglected the object of clearing out the cistern: it had been attended to since our first arrival: the work took four hours, before we could discover any water ; the first that was drawn out was distributed in glasses to the men who suffering most from thirst. It had been found necessary to station a guard of officers round the well. We succeeded, at last, in overcoming this first means of defence resorted to by those who were to impede our invasion of Egypt.

Preparations were made for resuming our march, after leaving with the unfortunate woman some bottles of water, and a provision of biscuit; and as it was impossible to bring her away, her adventure was written on a piece of paper, which was tied to her dress ; and she was told that other men of our country would come up to her; and that if she remained at the same spot, and showed the paper, they would take care of her.

We continued our march, always starting at nightfall, and learned from the troops that passed the same place after we had left it, that the woman had been found dead, near the cistern, as well as her child, both being covered with wounds..

We inferred that the deed had been committed by the husband, who had witnessed, from a place of concealment in the desert, the assistance we had afforded her, and who had perpetrated the murder after our departure.

² The distance between the enclosure of the town and the inhabited houses is considerable, and quite choked with ruins and rubbish.

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