Go to WTJ Information Page Go to WTJ Portal Go to WTJ War Series Go to WTJ Archives Go to WTJ Articles Go to WTJ Gaming Go to WTJ Store Go to WTJ Home Page
Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 4b
El Kaffer—Arrival at the Nile —Order of march in the desert—Galley-slaves in Egypt—The Battle of the Pyramids

The whole army was united at Rahmanié, on the banks of the Nile, and the small squadron which had quitted Alexandria for the purpose of entering the Nile, had actually ascended it, and was at anchor abreast of the army. We remained in this position nearly a day, previously to resuming our march upon Cairo, which we did without quitting the borders of the river, the flotilla ascending as we advanced.

We no longer suffered from the want of water ; we had melons, lentils, and rice in abundance, and heaps of` wheat, ready thrashed ¹ : what we felt most difficulty in obtaining was bread ; and, for the greater part, we reached Cairo without having tasted any. At each step of our advance General Bonaparte quickly foresaw every thing that was to he done ; first, to render available the resources of the most fertile country in the world, and give them a suitable application; and also to secure to himself a glory of a different character from that which he had so abundantly acquired previously to his arrival.

It requires but the genius of one man to regenerate Egypt and all the East ; and that man should rather be a legislator than a conqueror. This country has so often been the prey of conquerors, in becoming their prize, that it holds them in as much abhorrence as the plague. The monarch, however, who would put an end to the evils attendant upon the yoke which oppresses them, would be hailed as the greatest of human beings by this wretched people, who are strangers to the rights of property, and incapable of acquiring or disposing of any. The harbinger of the benefits of civilization, unattended by the corruption too often following in its train, might for ever secure their attachment.

There can be no question but that the Directory, in sending General Bonaparte to Egypt, had no other object in view than to get rid of a chief; who had acquired popularity by his victories, and whose services they considered to be no longer necessary to them: on his own part, he had eagerly accepted the mission; first, in order to be beyond the reach of a jealous government; and, in the next place, to gratify the praiseworthy ambition of restoring to that people their former renown and prosperity. He would, perhaps, have proclaimed himself their chief, no matter under what title; I have no doubt of this, from what he afterwards told me ; but this was of little consequence as affecting the affairs of the rest of the world.

Continuing his march towards Cairo, General Bonaparte had, on his way, a serious encounter with the mamelukes at the village of Chebreissa. According to the instructions he had laid down, each division of the army marched forward in squares, six men deep on each side; the artillery was at the angles; and in the centre, the ammunition, the baggage, and the few mounted cavalry we had left.

This order of march protected us against all accidents, but retarded our already slow movements, because our cavalry, being already too inferior in its materiel and personnel to that of the mamelukes, we could not, unfortunately, employ it in scouring the country before us. We therefore commenced our marching movement by forming into squares; the second square not advancing until the first had begun to form again, for fear of danger ; or else, when the first was in full march, if the great distance of the mamelukes left us no ground for apprehension.

We must, occasionally, have marched four or five leagues a day in this order, compelled to break our squares, and form again, each time we had to enter a defile ; a necessity which repeatedly occurred in the course of the day. These defiles were owing to the road being intersected by canals of irrigation, which the water had not yet reached; they were all very broad, and of considerable depth: it was requisite, therefore, first, to slope down the elevation on both sides, which was a work of time. One can hardly form an idea of the sufferings which the heat occasioned to the soldiers who were in the centre of the square, from which all circulation of air was excluded, besides the difficulty they had to breathe, in consequence of the cloud of fine dust which hovered above their heads.

We all suffered from a parching thirst; several men died of it on the spot: the feeling of self-preservation was sufficient to convince the soldiers that they would have been exposed to be cut in pieces, had they been allowed to return to quench their thirst in the Nile ; but when a cistern, or a well worked by a wheel, was met with, we so contrived as to have it in the centre of the square ; we then halted, each one drank at his leisure, and our forward movement was then resumed.

General Bonaparte had his tent pitched, every night, on the banks of the river, in the midst of his army, and close to his small squadron, whenever it was able to keep up with us. The two small galleys which General Desaix had brought from Civita Vecchia led the van, because vessels of small dimensions were in less danger of running aground in a river with which we were unacquainted, and which we were navigating without a pilot. These vessels are well known to work their way in calm weather, and against currents, by means of their enormous oars, which are plied by the galley-slaves put on board for that purpose. These wretched people are always in a sitting attitude, and fixed by chains and padlocks to their benches of hard labour, from the first manning of the vessel until they are landed ; so that, if by any accident it should sink, they must inevitably perish.

General Bonaparte, seeing from the banks the flotilla passing on its way, noticed the condition of these wretches: this was two days before the encounter at Chebreissa: he immediately ordered the chains to be broken, and the men to be set at liberty.

It was on the next day but one, when the army was moving simultaneously forward, that we descried the army of the mamelukes, whose very want of order, together with their party-coloured dresses, and the splendid trappings of their horses, presented an imposing appearance. A flotilla, likewise, consisting of all kinds of vessels, manned by Turks and Greeks, was descending the Nile, to attack our small squadron.

They were already close to us, when General Bonaparte ordered his army to halt, for the purpose of forming it into five large squares, checker-wise ; the left square resting upon the Nile, and protecting the flotilla, the right square placed in the direction of the desert ; and all five reciprocally flanking each other. The mamelukes came and paraded their horses in our front ; but fearing to attack us, wheeled round our right, in hopes of finding in the rear some vulnerable point: we fired a few guns, which were sufficient to rid us of them, especially when they found as little chance of success at that side as at the first they had explored. They made no further attempt on this day.

On the river the case was very different ; the enemy's flotilla courageously bore down upon our's, attacked, and instantly boarded it in a position where a turn of the stream, and the elevation of the bank on our side, prevented our affording it any assistance. They at first carried our two small galleys, and cut off the heads of all their prisoners. The galley-slaves, who had scarcely been twenty-four hours at liberty, had thrown themselves into the water, with the remainder of the crews, in order to reach the opposite bank. The other vessels were also endeavouring to escape, though still continuing to fight ; and a very warm firing was kept up.

General Bonaparte ordered the left division to move close up to the bank. A fire of musketry and grape-shot soon compelled the assailants to give way, and to abandon the two small galleys, which fell again into our possession. Our squadron continued to ascend the river, and pressed closely upon the flotilla of the mamelukes. This engagement, however trifling, had been kept up with great spirit. The enemy's flotilla retreated to Cairo on the following night, and must have been burned by order of the Beys ; for it never more made its appearance.

The army continued its march the same day, following the course of the river; and two or three days afterwards we fought, exactly in front of Cairo, the celebrated battle of the Pyramids. The army arrived in five grand squares, each composed of a division. Ours was quite close to the Nile ; and our right was in the direction of the Pyramids.

The mamelukes were stationed at the village of Embabé, where the Nile must be crossed in order to reach Boulac, one of the suburbs of Cairo. They had fortified this village, towards the Nile, by digging a ditch, behind which they were seen ready mounted on their horses ². Behind this ditch they had indiscriminately placed twenty pieces of cannon, which kept playing upon our left square, which was the first that approached them. The other four squares marched abreast of the left, in the direction assigned to each. Desaix's division was on the extreme right, and had Regnier's division on its left.

General Bonaparte was with Bon's division, in the centre. He caused the village of Embabé to be attacked by the left division, which was nearest to it: the village was immediately carried, the artillery taken, and the mamelukes routed. Whilst this attack was going on, the more numerous body of the Beys, followed by their mamelukes, suddenly made their appearance in front of the squares composing Desaix's and Regnier's divisions, the soldiers of which were only attending to the movements on the left. The mirage, so prevalent in Egypt, the effect of which was yet novel to us, led us to imagine, when we first saw them, that they were at some distance ; and no sooner had we descried them, than, in consequence of the mirage, they were almost upon us³ .

We had scarcely time to give the alarm and open our fire, when we found that this formidable cavalry had already surrounded us. So great had been the rapidity of its charge, that we were unable to alter the position of our two divisions, which masked one another to nearly the extent of half a battalion in front.

The danger was pressing: we commenced firing, never supposing that the two divisions, which were only a hundred paces asunder, would be under the necessity of keeping up a fire towards those parts of their flank fronts which masked one another for a few yards. The contrary, however, came to pass. The charge of the mamelukes was extremely impetuous in our front, where a fire of grape-shot and musketry brought the men and horses down in heaps round our squares ; but what exceeded every thing else in extravagance and daring was, that all who escaped this destructive fire still rushed on with so much rapidity, as to penetrate into the space between Desaix's and Regnier's divisions, under the incessant fire of both faces of the divisions, which played upon them at the distance of fifty paces. Not a single mameluke retreated; and it is remarkable that a smaller number fell in their charge through this opening than on their first charge upon our fronts. About twenty of our men fell from each other's fire, an accident occasioned by the too great proximity of the divisions.

Although the troops that were in Egypt had been long inured to danger, and familiarised with all the chances of an encounter, every one present at the battle of the Pyramids must acknowledge, if he be sincere, that the charge of those ten thousand mamelukes was most awful, and that there was reason, at one moment, to apprehend their breaking through our formidable squares, rushing as they did upon them with a confidence which enforced a sullen silence in our ranks, interrupted only by the word of command of the chiefs.

It seemed as if we must inevitably be trampled, in an instant, under the feet of this cavalry of mamelukes, who were all mounted upon splendid chargers richly caparisoned with gold and silver trappings, covered with draperies of all colours, and waving scarfs, and who were bearing down upon us at full gallop, rending the air with their cries. The whole character of this imposing sight had filled the breasts of our soldiers with a sentiment to which they had hitherto been strangers, and made them attentive to the word of command. Accordingly, the order was no sooner given to fire, than it was executed with a quickness and precision far exceeding what is exhibited in an exercise or upon parade.

No field of battle had ever displayed a similar spectacle to the eyes of two contending parties, who then met for the first time. This action decided the fate of Egypt, and it was the last effort of the Beys, as a united body, to dispute our conquest of the country. They dispersed the same night: the two most powerful amongst them, Mourad and Ibrahim, whose former misunderstandings had rendered them mistrustful, and exceedingly wary in what related to their personal interests, still continued rivals of each other. Ibrahim recrossed the Nile with the lesser Beys, his feudatory dependents, and without stopping at Cairo, took the road to Syria: he only waited a few days at Salahié, at the entrance of the desert of Asia, for those of his mamelukes who had not joined him since the battle, and to enable his harem and baggage to reach Syria. Mourad, on the contrary, took with his vassals the road to Upper Egypt, and ascended the left bank of the river, being followed in his retreat by the flotilla at his command.

General Bonaparte, on the very night of the battle, established himself in the town of Gizeh, at Mourad Bey's residence ; the army followed him, and on the next day he took possession of Cairo.

¹ - In Egypt, the harvest of each village is piled up, in common, round the village; each one takes the corn he wants: they have no idea of corn-lofts or granaries; poultry and birds are hardly excluded from sharing in this common stock, since the children set as a watch to drive them off are generally at play or asleep.

² - The mamelukes were strangers to the use of infantry, and considered it disgraceful to fight otherwise than mounted. They were excellent horsemen, but totally ignorant of whatever relates to the art of war, or the composition of armies.

³ - The mirage is produced by the heat of the sun, which condenses the vapourous exhalations from the earth, and prevents their rising in the atmosphere: they form a cloud, extending, in the daytime, over the, surface of the ground, and, at a distance, resembling a calm sea. Towards night they fall in copious dews, so that, after sunset, the eye embraces a greater extent of country than it does in the daytime.

  Copyright © 1996-2003 by The War Times Journal at www.wtj.com. All rights reserved.