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Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 4a
El Kaffer—Arrival at the Nile —Order of march in the desert—Galley-slaves in Egypt—The Battle of the Pyramids

WE had passed the whole day at Beda, where the small stock of provisions brought by each of us from the vessels had been nearly consumed; and whatever we beheld was calculated to create a feeling of despondency.

Nevertheless, we resumed our march at sunset, in the direction of Damanhour: the place at which we were to find water was called El-Kaffer, half way from Beda to Damanhour. We were annoyed during our march by Arabs, the boldness and rapidity of whose excursions, carried to within a hundred paces of the column, made a forcible impression upon our soldiers.

We had received orders not to fire ; first, because we had no other ammunition than what each soldier carried in his cartouch-box and knapsack, and which was to suffice for the conquest of Egypt, unless a fresh supply could be provided; and, in the next place, because, if we had once engaged the Arabs, the firing would have been incessant, and would have consumed time, which we could not spare from the march.

The night was extremely dark when we arrived at El-Kaffer: and although we could not see the place, we took up our position as well as we could in its vicinity: each column formed into a square, and remained in that situation until the approach of day. A slight but unavoidable disorder was the result of this position, which could not, however, be altered until daylight.

The soldiers, in searching for water to allay their thirst, discovered, outside of the village, a cistern used for the purpose of watering some cultivated land. The report of this discovery was no sooner spread than every one rushed towards the cistern; and the crowd became so great, that those who were drawing up the water were in danger of being thrown in.

Those who could not approach the cistern hit upon the idea of crying out that the water had been poisoned. The stratagem succeeded ; even the most thirsty drew back, and its contrivers obtained free access to the cistern.

During the stillness of the night a sentinel fancied he saw an Arab, and fired: the alarm spread in all directions ; every one sprang up ; and without reflecting that it had been found impossible to alter the position of the troops, owing to the darkness of the night, each soldier fired. This sudden terror might have occasioned some serious accidents ; but it was not attended with any more fatal consequences than the dispersion of the greater part of our horses.

As the country was wholly unprovided with wood, it had been impossible to tie them; they were, besides, so completely knocked up, that the precaution was considered almost superfluous. Being loose, therefore, when the firing commenced, they took fright, and ran away, without its being possible to pursue them. The artillery preserved only such as were attached to the gun-carriages ; but the leaders, which had been untied, for the purpose of enabling them to turn round and feed with the wheel-horses, were lost, together with the greater part of the horses belonging to the cavalry and staff and even the charger usually rode by General Desaix.

Such of them as were not taken by the Arabs, who were hovering round us, proceeded, from a natural instinct, in the direction of the Nile (towards Rosetta), where General Dugua's division, which had already arrived there, collected them, and restored them to us a few days afterwards. That division was greatly alarmed at seeing so many horses flying in disorder, with their saddles and harness, and concluded that we must have met with some severe check.

On the morning after this adventure we found ourselves in a very awkward predicament: the loss of the cavalry horses could easily be put up with ; not so, however, with respect to the draught horses belonging to the artillery ; the order was accordingly given for taking all those that had not fled ; and General Desaix, desirous to set the first example, gave up the only one he had saved. The artillery was fortunately provided with a cart-load of harness, which proved of invaluable service to us on this occasion ; and we were, eventually, enabled to resume our march.

Previously to quitting our position we entered the small village of El-Kaffer, which the inhabitants had surrounded with a wall built of sun-baked bricks: this wall was about ten feet high, surmounted with battlements, and flanked with towers, as a protection against the Arabs, whose whole life is a scene of plundering warfare.

A real Arab possesses nothing beyond his horse, generally beautiful one, and his lance. It is a principle with him, that if a robbery call procure him the cost price of his horse, and twenty pares (fifteen sous) besides, he should not hesitate to attempt it. Arab children are reared up in the midst of privations ; to abstain as long as possible from drink is a qualification instilled into them as paramount to every other: accordingly, when Arabs praise their children, they lay stress on the number of days they can resist thirst.

General Desaix sent me with his interpreter to El-Kaffer, to endeavour to purchase horses. He was naturally averse to plunder and disorder, and he carried the virtues of disinterestedness and probity to so great all extreme, that his soldiers were occasionally the sufferers from them ; but the respect they bore their general never failed to secure him their admiration and attachment.

I succeeded in purchasing for him a serviceable horse, the only one he rode the whole time he was in Egypt, and another for myself. When about to pay for the horses, which had been sold to me for fifty Spanish dollars each (the only coin known to the people), I found I had not any dollars, and endeavoured, though in vain, to satisfy them respecting the value of French gold, of which I had plenty about me ; in vain, also, I offered to double the price of their horses ; I could not induce them to accept in payment a gold coin with which they were unacquainted ; and was compelled to return to the division, change my gold for dollars amongst the officers, and go back to pay for my horses.

A soldier of my escort having noticed the ignorance of these people, purchased dates and tobacco from them, and gave in payment a large white button, which he took out of his pocket ; the Turkish tradesman returned him some change, in a small coin named paras, which the soldier counted before him, as if to ascertain whether the change was correct, and went away satisfied ; but he took care to relate the story to his comrades: it was not thrown away upon them, for they all availed themselves of the same means to procure the small articles they stood in need of, and which they could otherwise have obtained only by means of plunder, which was strictly forbidden.

This little species of fraud was carried on until the period of paying the taxes, when these good people must have discovered the deception practiced upon them, by the refusal of the collector to take the buttons in payment.

We had recruited our strength at this little village of El-Kaffer, where we had purchased an abundance and variety of provisions, with the exception of bread, which was not to be had. We proceeded on our march this day at an earlier hour, preferring a slight inconvenience from heat to running the risk of a renewal of the misfortune of the preceding night.

On leaving El-Kaffer, we followed the road to Damanhour, where we expected to arrive the same night. We had heard so many brilliant descriptions of this town, that we all marched towards it with the sensations we had formerly felt on approaching one of the splendid Italian cities.

Great was our disappointment on beholding a heap of decayed houses, denominated a town, merely because this is the largest place between Alexandria and the Nile. It stands in a plain, of an extent which the eye could not reach ; it is supplied with water from wells only ; and except a few stones, scattered here and there, amidst the ruins of ancient monuments, the smallest pebble could hardly be met with ; generally speaking, there are no stones to be found in Egypt.

General Desaix caused his division to bivouac in an enclosure of very fine orange and pomegranate trees, having a cistern worked by a wheel, for the purpose of watering them: the men found themselves well quartered; and Damanhour supplied us with some provisions.

We were overtaken at this place by General Bonaparte and the whole staff; Messrs. Monge and Berthollet were with him. He showed himself greatly displeased at the manifestations of discontent prevailing among the soldiery, owing to the privations they had already suffered, and which they were apprehensive of again encountering. He could afford them no relief, and promised that, by perseverance, the army would shortly be in the midst of abundance. We remained two days at Damanhour, and then marched to Rahmanié, another small town at the junction of the canal of Alexandria with the Nile.

General Bonaparte took the lead with an escort of mounted guides, his aides-de-camp, and the officers of his staff, leaving the equipages of the head-quarters in the rear of General Desaix's division, which had resumed its march along the borders of the canal. He knew that Dugua's division had reached Rosetta, and had sent orders for it to march upon Rahmanié, where it was expected to have arrived. Nothing had yet been discovered in the plain when he left us, and moved forward with his escort.

We had been marching for a few moments, when a firing of musketry was heard behind us. We made a short halt, and saw a cloud of dust every moment drawing nearer to us. It proceeded from the headquarters, which had started in a body for Rahmanié with all its baggage, and had been attacked by a cloud of Arabs, who came upon them like a swarm of bees. The escort accompanying that convoy consisted of foot guides, who were too weak to form into a square, so as to protect the baggage, round which they kept constantly turning, in order to drive off the Arabs, who annoyed them and prevented their advance. This escort was, fortunately, provided with two eight-pounders, attached to the regiment of guides ; otherwise it never could have joined us, and must have been destroyed. We waited its arrival half an hour ; and indeed it was high time it should come up with us.

We had no sooner resumed our march than we saw before us, on the road to Rahmanié, a considerable body of mamelukes, the first we had yet met with. Their appearance gave us great uneasiness about the fate of General Bonaparte, whom we had seen at the same spot within the last hour, with an escort not one-fourth of the number of the mamelukes who were within sight of us. This was not the moment for clearing up conjectures, and we instantly halted. General Desaix formed his division into two strong close columns, at a certain distance from each other ; placed his artillery in front, all his camels and baggage in the centre, and in the space intervening between both columns; the guides on foot with their two eight-pounders closing the march.

As soon as these movements were completed, and instructions given that, in the event of a charge, the army should merely move in platoons either to the right or left, and commence firing, we began our march: the mamelukes made a feint upon us, at the head and tail of the column; but a few cannon-shot soon ridded us of their presence. We continued in this order of march as far as the Nile, where we arrived parched with thirst, and oppressed by the heat of a still powerful sun.

We no sooner saw the river than officers, soldiers, and all, rushed into it ; each, regardless whether it was sufficiently shallow to afford security from danger, only sought to quench the ardency of his thirst, and stooped to drink from the stream ; the whole army thus presenting the appearance of a flock of sheep ; no soldier had stopped to take off his knapsack, or lay down his musket.

We found ourselves, on quitting the river, in the midst of fields covered with a great variety of melons and other fruit, which soon made us forget the sufferings of the desert. The country assumes, indeed, a very different aspect on approaching the Nile: the aridity of the desert is there relieved by a cheerful verdure; the most luxuriant vegetation presents itself to the eye. Trees, of which we had not had the slightest glimpse since we left Italy, offered us their shade, the value of which can be duly appreciated by those only who have been marching through a desert; the Nile also was at our feet, the object so eagerly sought for by travellers exposed in the same desert to the rays of a burning sun. We were much gratified to learn that General Bonaparte had arrived in safety: he had not even met the corps of mamelukes which had made the attack upon us.

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