El KafferArrival at the Nile
Order of march in the desertGalley-slaves in EgyptThe 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
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
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
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
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.