Empire of Liberty: Ali-Napoleon and the Armee d’Orient

“The peoples we will be living alongside are Muslims; their first article of faith is “There is no other god but God, and Mahomet is his prophet”. Do not contradict them; treat them as you treated the Jews, the Italians; respect their muftis and their imams, as you respected their rabbis and bishops. Have the same tolerance for the ceremonies prescribed by the Quran, for their mosques, as you had for the convents, for the synagogues, for the religion of Moses and that of Jesus Christ. The Roman legions used to protect all religions. You will here find different customs to those of Europe, you must get accustomed to them. The people among whom we are going treat women differently to us; but in every country whoever violates one is a monster. Pillaging only enriches a small number of men; it dishonours us, it destroys our resources; it makes enemies of the people who it is in our interest to have as our friends. The first city we will encounter was built by Alexander [the Great]. We shall find at every step great remains worthy of exciting French emulation.”

~Napoleon Bonaparte to his soldiers on the day the Armee d’Orient landed at Alexandria


Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

While these diplomatic formalities occurred, Napoléon campaigned across the Nile River delta culminating in the Battle of the Pyramids where his forces defeated 21,000 Egyptian Mamluks just nine miles for the Pyramids of Giza. French troops occupied Cairo that very evening.

By the beginning of August, the Royal Navy understood the extent of the deception. Jervis repeatedly wrote to London about the need for more ships but with operations in the Caribbean, the Indian Basin and the defense of the home islands, the Royal Navy found itself stretched thin. Now, Jervis wrote the dispatch he feared most and sent it on to London. Not only had the French fleet escaped but they took an army with them, led by one of France’s most able commanders and the key to Britain’s wealth stood in the balance.

Immediately, Jervis cobbled together a response squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Sir John Orde with instructions to investigate the situation in Egypt. Rumor had spread to Ajaccio from the waters around Tunis, Malta and lastly the Nile Delta of a large war fleet. While Jervis was not certain the target was Egypt, the consistent sightings and trajectory of the French fleet all but indicated Napoleon’s destination. Unless the Armee d’Orient intended to launch the Tenth Crusade, the Nile must surely be their target.

Meanwhile, Nelson laid siege to Malta as part of Jervis’ larger response. The dug-in French troops would hold out admirably until June 1799.

Orde proceeded to Naples where he definitively learned that the French had gone to Egypt and word had trickled back that landings had occurred earlier in July in Alexandria. Orde sent a dispatch to Barcelona in hopes of linking up with the Spanish Mediterranean fleet and set off to Syracuse where he hoped to meet with the Spanish. At Syracuse, however, Orde received bad intelligence that the French fleet was much smaller than it actually was. That bad intelligence also indicated that the French fleet would leave the Egyptian coast for the Anatolian coast any day now. Rumor had it the fleet was of little use to Napoléon while he campaigned along the Nile River and the French admiral wanted to force an encounter with an Ottoman fleet to bring the Sultan (the nominal head of Egypt) to the negotiating table. Fearing he had no time to lose, Ogre left a message for the Spanish and departed for Alexandria.

This proved to be Ogre’s fatal error.

Ogre arrived near Alexandria on the evening of September 6. His ships spent several hours trying to spot the French fleet and feared they had missed them. In reality, Alexandria’s harbor was too shallow for the French ships of the line so the French admiral had moved his fleet’s anchorage to Aboukir Bay about 20 miles east of Alexandria. He had positioned his fleet in such a manner that an Ottoman fleet coming from the east would find themselves in the direct center of their broadsides. Instead, Ogre stumbled upon the French in the middle of the night and believed he had the numerical advantage. Ogre possessed 11 ships-of-the-line, a fourth rate and a sloop. He believed the French fleet was comprised of nine ships-of-the-line. In reality, the French fleet was comprised of 13 ships-of-the-line, five frigates and several smaller support craft. Believing he had the advantage and had caught the French sleeping, Ogre sent his ships in a line, opting for speed rather than tactics, and fell right into the trap the fleet had set for the Ottomans. The French were hardly asleep and the Battle of the Nile was a decisive French victory. The entire Royal Navy squadron was sunk, crippled or captured while the French lost two ships-of-the-line, a frigate and suffered severe (but repairable) damage to three other ships. To this day, the victory is one of the chief accomplishments in French naval history.


From Felicia Dorothea Hemans’ “Casabianca”, New Monthly Magazine, 1826. [1]

An admiral stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck

Shone round him o’er the dead.


Yet beautiful and bright he stood,

As born to rule the storm;

A creature of tragic blood,

A proud, though foolish form.


The flames rolled on–he would not go

The shame he felt so great;

His men, faint in death below,

Their voices no longer heard.


He cried aloud–I have failed all

A cursed life I live’

Once proud and full of vigor

The humbled man now wept.


Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

The victory emboldened Napoléon who was consolidating his gains in Cairo. Increasingly the general acted as absolute ruler of Egypt. In attempts to quiet nationalist uprisings, Napoléon marketed himself as a liberator and praised precepts of Islam and the friendship between the Muslim world and France. Bonaparte himself led the military parades celebrating the birthday of Mohammed and Egyptian leaders gifted him the title “Ali-Bonaparte”. Napoléon worked dutifully to bring European principals to Cairo. He established literary and scientific journals, museums, a zoo, municipal administrations, a library, gardens and even a chemistry laboratory. The scientists and scholars that had accompanied him set to work and developed an entirely new scholarly field: Egyptology. The occupation force published a French-Arabic dictionary and created a reworked calendar to align Arabic, Coptic and Republican dates. Despite his efforts, the Egyptian people never truly trusted the motives of the invaders and many worked tirelessly to bloody and drive out the infidels.

On September 26, word of the French victory at the Battle of the Nile reached Syracuse where the Spanish fleet was assembling. A day later, it reached a horrified Nelson who was still blockading Malta. Hurried dispatches sped towards Madrid, Admiral Jervis and London. Fearing French domination of the Mediterranean, the King of Naples sent six ships to Syracuse to join the Spanish fleet. On October 3, Spanish Admiral José de Córdoba y Ramos set off for Alexandria with a fleet of 11 Spanish ships-of-the-line, one Neapolitan ship-of-the-line, four Spanish frigates, four Neapolitan frigates and five smaller sloops and support ships [2].

On October 17 the Spanish-Neapolitan fleet scattered the damaged French fleet. They sunk three French ships, captured four more, and the rest scurried back towards Corfu and Toulon. This was all at the cost of two Spanish ships-of-the-line and a Neapolitan frigate. The Second Battle of the Nile was a rousing coalition victory, made Spain the ruler of the Mediterranean and stranded Napoléon in Egypt.

On October 22 a massive revolt rocked Cairo and was put down so brutally that no further rebellions occurred for the duration of the French occupation. The next day Napoléon received word of the defeat of his supporting fleet.


Excerpt from Charles Mullié’s, “Biographie des célébrités militaires des armées de terre et de mer de 1789 à 1850”, 1852. [3]

“This disastrous event did not disconcert [Bonaparte] at all – ever impenetrable, he did not allow any emotion to appear that he had not tested in his mind. Having calmly read the despatch which informed him that he and his army were now prisoners in Egypt, he said “We no longer have a navy. Well! We’ll have to stay here, or leave as great men just as the ancients did”. The army then showed itself happy at this short energetic response, but the native Egyptians, exhausted in the efforts to expel the French, found new life in the Spanish victory. As Cairo recovered from the revolt, many Egyptians busied themselves to find means to throw off the hateful yoke the foreigners were trying to impose on them by force and to hunt them from their country.”


Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

For the remainder of 1798, Napoléon distracted himself and his troops by exploring the Sinai. He crossed the Red Sea, rebuilt fortifications at Suez, searched for biblical locations and found the sand blown remains of the ancient Canal of the Pharaohs. Despite the loss of the French fleet and mounting losses in Egypt, Napoléon still hoped he could pacify the Nile and use it as a jumping off point for campaigns into Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, the Levant, Mesopotamia and perhaps even India.

In Constantinople, the Ottoman Sultan (who had been watching the situation in Egypt with great interest) took the destruction of the French fleet as the opportunity to involve himself. Selim III sent one army by land, through Syria, towards Cairo while another would mass on the island of Rhodes, cross the Mediterranean and land near Aboukir Bay. Napoléon learned of these movements while in the Sinai in January of 1799. Acting quickly he mobilized his forces and ventured north, out of Egypt and into Syria to meet the Ottoman army head on. He hoped to defeat the imminent threat coming by land before turning around and defeating the amphibious force coming from Rhodes. Napoléon entered Gaza in late February and then captured Jaffa in early March. The brutal subjugation of Jaffa remains one of the more controversial and darker chapters in Napoléon’s legacy.


Excerpt from Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne’s “Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte”, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891. [4]

“The siege of Jaffa, a paltry town, dignified as the ancient Joppa, commenced on the 4th, and terminated, by assault and pillage, on the 6th of March. The carnage was horrible. Bonaparte sent his aides-de-camp Beauharnois and Croiser to appease, as far as possible, the fury of the soldiery; to examine what passed, and report. They learned that a numerous detachment of the garrison had retired into a strong position, where large buildings, or caravanserai surrounded a court year. This court they entered, displaying scars which marked their rank. The Albanians and Arnauts, composing nearly the entire of these refugees, cried out from the windows, that they wished to surrender, on condition of their lives being spared; if not, threatening to fire upon the officers, and to defend themselves to the last extremity. The young men conceived they ought, and had power, to accede to the demand, in opposition to the sentence of death pronounced against the garrison of every place taken by assault. I was walking with General Bonaparte before his tent, when these prisoners in two columns amounting to about four thousand, were marched into the camp. When he beheld the mass of men arrive, and before seeing the aides-de-camp, he turned to me with an expression of consternation,

“What would they have me to do with these? Have I provisions to feed them? Ships to transport them, either to Egypt or France? How the devil could they play me this trick?

The two aides-de-camp, on their arrival and explanations, received the strongest reprimands; to their defence, that they were alone amid numerous enemies, and that he had recommended them to appear the slaughter,

“Yes,” replied the General in the sternest tone, “without doubt, the slaughter of women, children, old men, the peaceable inhabitants; but not armed soldiers. You ought to have braved death, and not brought these to me: what would you have me do with them?”

But the evil was done – four thousand men were there – their fate must be determined. The prisoners, each with his hands bound behind him by cords, were made to sit down grouped together, before the tents. A gloomy rage was depicted in every lineament: they received a little biscuit and some bread, deducted from the already scanty stores of the army. A council was held in the General’s tent, which, after long deliberation, broke up without coming to any resolution. The day following arrived, in the evening, the reports of the generals of division; these were filled with complaints on the insufficiency of provisions, and the discontent of the soldiers, who murmured because of their rations being devoured by enemies withdrawn from their just vengeance. All these reports were alarming, especially those of General Bon: they even induced fear of a revolt.


On the 10th of March, the order, “that they should be shot,” was issued and executed. There was no separation of the Egyptians, as has been said – there were no Egyptian prisoners.

Many of these miserable beings, composing the smaller column, which amounting to about fifteen hundred, was drawn up on the beach, at some distance from the main body, while the butchery was going on, escaped, by swimming to some reefs out of gun-shot. Perceiving this, our men laid down their muskets on the sand, and employing the signs of reconciliation and of amity, which they had learned in Egypt, invited the return of their victims. They did return; by, coming within reach, found death and perished amid the waters. I limited myself to those details of this horrible necessity, of which I was an eye-witness. The atrocious scene makes me yet shudder when I think of it, as when it passed before me: much rather would I forget, if possible, than describe. All that can be imagined of fearful, in this day of blood, would fall short of the reality.


Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

Napoléon’s force reached Acre on March 18 and began a siege of the stubborn fortress. Inside were the bulk of the remaining Ottoman army forces that had been pushing towards Egypt. For sixty days, French troops battled entrenched Ottomans but could not achieve the breach needed for victory. However, the Ottoman navy could not keep up the resupply necessary to keep Acre in their hands and appeals to the nearby Spanish fleet for assistance fell on deaf ears [5]. A breach occurred on May 11 and the French tricolor waved over the city on May 12. The hard fought victory at Acre would forever be one of Napoléon’s favorite legacies.

Napoléon now had a major question before him. The defeat of the Ottoman land army had always been the goal of the Syria campaign but his victory opened all of Syria for invasion. He could be in Tyre in three days and Damascus within a week. However, his forces had taken significant losses, no fleet had yet arrived from France to challenge the Spanish (and provide escape) and to make matters worse several hundred plague victims now burdened his camp. The Ottoman Navy coming from Rhodes was also an imminent factor in Egypt. Napoléon reasoned that any further campaigns north would surely net glory but would likely lead to defeat at the hands of a far larger Turkish army somewhere in Anatolia. A push east could surely get him to Baghdad or Basra but his forces would run out of steam in Persia or the Indus River, similar to Alexander. His best bet was to regroup in Egypt and hope for a French relief fleet. Napoléon announced to his loyal troops in mid-May:

“After feeding the war for three months in the heart of Syria with a handful of men, taking forty guns, fifty flags, 10,000 prisoners, razing the fortifications of Gaza, Kaïffa, Jaffa, Acre, we shall return to Egypt.”

Napoléon’s forces were barely able to get the rest and resupply they needed in Cairo before they had to march north. The Ottoman Navy was landing a force near Alexandria. On July 25 the French outmaneuvered the landing Ottoman force and defeated them soundly at the Battle of Aboukir (the third battle to take place near this location on land and sea). Napoléon triumphantly marched into Cairo. The zenith of his campaign also marked its end. After two years in Egypt and Syria, his army had been ravaged by the climate, disease, insurrection and numerous battles. Reinforcements never arrived nor did a relief fleet. Napoléon had won his battles but he was now effectively stuck. The Syria Campaign had shown he had a definite limit to his army’s range north and east. Any campaign south would eventually strand his forces in the middle of nowhere while exposing them to further disease. A push west towards Benghazi or Tripoli was not possible without naval support. Having done all he could do, and hearing that the Directorie was on the verge of collapse, Napoléon decided to return to France. Without arousing suspicion, Napoléon quietly left Cairo with his best aides, many of the scholars who had accompanied him and his best generals. Napoleon’s small flotilla made it back to France without incident having slipped the Spanish watch off Egypt and with most of the Royal Navy focused on Malta.

Napoleon left about 10,000 troops in Egypt under the command of General Jean-Baptiste Kléber. While the next phase in Napoléon’s personal saga was about to begin, the Armee d’Orient’s story was only just beginning in its own right.

———— Author’s Notes ———–

[1]: This is a slightly edited version from our timeline’s version of Casabianca.

[2]: José de Córdoba y Ramos is the same Spanish naval commander who lost the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in our timeline. Because that battle never occurred in this one, he is not disgraced and is still in command.

[3]: This excerpt from Mullie is actually an our-timeline source. I’m repurposing it for use in this timeline (with the single edit of changing “English” to “Spanish”) since it still works perfectly, but want to give credit where it is due.

[4]: This excerpt from Bourrienne is also an our-timeline source. I’ve made no edits and am using a large excerpt to show, from an eye-witness account, the massacre of prisoners at Jaffa, the situation of Napoleon and his army and the brutality of the executions.

[5]: In our timeline, the British actively helped the Ottomans in the siege of Acre. The very Catholic Spanish, who now rule the waves in this timeline, never had a great relationship with the Ottomans so they are content to let Napoleon and the Sultan bloody each other.

Source Material

Adkins, Roy & Lesley. The War for All the Oceans. Abacus, 2006.

Amini, Iradj. Napoleon and Persia: Franco-Persian Relations Under the First Empire. Mage, 1999.

Bonaparte, Napoleon;. C.A. Fischer. Collection Générale et Complète de lettres, discours, proclimations de Napoléon le Grand.  Leipzig: H. Graff, 1808

Clowes, William L. The Royal Navy, A History from the Earliest Times to 1900. Vol. IV. Chatham Publishing, 1997.

Cole, Juan. Napoleon’s Egypt; Invading the Middle East. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Gardiner, Robert. Nelson Against Napoleon. Caxton Editions, 2001.

Hemans, Felicia. The Poetical Works of Felicia Dorothea Hemans. Oxford University Press, 1914.

Maffeo, Steven E. Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson. Chatham Publishing, 2000.

Mullié, Charles. Biographie des célébrités militaires des armées de terre et de mer de 1789 à 1850/Bonaparte. Poignavant, 1851.

Rose, J. Holland. Napoleon and Sea Power. Cambridge Historical Journal. Vol. I, 1924.

Vovsi, Eman. “The Power and Question of Faith: Murad Bey’s Pros and Cons during the French Invasion of Egypt, 1798-1801.” The Napoleon Series. Accessed January 26, 2018. http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/battles/Egypt/c_MouradBey.html.

Warner, Oliver. The Battle of the Nile. B. T. Batsford, 1960.

Next Chapter: A Damned Game of Chess

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