Change of theatre, 1798
The Directory discussed the invasion of England, but Napoleon charged with its execution concluded that the French Navy was not able to support such an expedition.
Instead Napoleon devised a plan to invade Egypt to interfere with British communications to and from India. His plan was to weaken Britain’s control of what was an increasingly lucrative India.
The Directory proved eager to support the plan as it would effectively remove Napoleon and his veterans of the Italian campaign away from the centre of power at home.
The French still had a strong naval presence in the Mediterranean, so Napoleon’s force left from Toulon in May 1798 to deliver a 35,000-strong army to Alexandria, Egypt.
Horatio Nelson had just completed recuperation since his loss of an arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (he had lost the use of his right eye in 1793 in Corsica – Napoleon’s birthplace) and was despatched with a squadron of six ships from Gibraltar to try to find out just what was going on. But a storm dismasted his flagship and scattered the rest of the squadron. His flagship was repaired and he was joined by 11 other ships to take up the chase.
Napoleon gathered further ships from Genoa and after a day of conflict took Malta. The island had been a neutral state run by the Knights of St John, the order’s head was Paul I, Tsar of Russia. Napoleon stirred up opposition as he resupplied his fleet and garrisoned the islands as French.
Nelson called in to Naples to learn that Napoleon had passed Sicily on his way to Malta, he tried to get the Neapolitans to support him with further ships but fearing reprisals they refused. Nelson concluded that the French force must be headed for Egypt and set off, passing the slow moving convoy in the dark because he had set a course directly for Alexandria.
Nelson got there ahead of the convoy and finding the French were not there moved off. But his presence at Alexandria led Napoleon to land his troops at a remote location away from the port and marched by land to storm Alexandria. He marched on Cairo, where he met with a Mameluk force six kilometres outside the city. He quickly assessed that their cavalry was their main threat.
Napoleon fielded 25,000 against the Mameluks with 21,000. The local cavalry had a formidable reputation but they could not break down Napoleon’s squares that fired musket and cannon into the thick of their charges. The French infantry advanced and took the Mameluk garrison and trapped the local infantry against the Nile; hundreds died trying to swim to safety across the river.
The French losses were just 29 killed and under 300 wounded, while the Mameluks lost 3,000 of their cavalry and uncounted numbers of infantry; this Battle of the Pyramids ended 700 years of Mameluk rule of Egypt. Napoleon was poised to maraud and conquer the Middle East, but just ten days later this was to be foiled by Nelson.