Empire of Liberty: Where is Hoche?

Excerpt from Christopher Littleton’s “Bonaparte”, Random House Publishing, 2012. 

The end of the War of the Second Coalition brought peace to Europe for the first time in nearly a decade. Yet “peace in Europe” did not equate to a complete peace. The initial trigger to the war had been Napoléon’s daring expedition to Egypt and there a ragged French army remained. Unable to reinforce, or even consistently communicate with, the Armee d’Orient since his 1799 evacuation to France, the biggest godsend to the beleaguered Frenchmen across the Mediterranean came via the Treaty of London. The rapid conclusion of the Anglo-French conflict in the larger war not only allowed France to concentrate resources against Spain and Austria, it also opened the seas to the French Navy.

In late 1800 as the Partition of Spain finalized and the French bested the Austrians at the decisive Battle of Hohenlinden, Napoléon already began arranging to fulfill his promise to reinforce the trapped army. A flurry of memos and letters from Paris to supply depots and ordnance officers on the southern coast likely makes the legendary exchange between Napoléon and his personal secretary, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, apocryphal. Nonetheless, the spark of an idea and the vague question “where is Hoche?” has since captured novice history students and presented one of the great “what ifs” of history.


Novel adapted excerpt from HBO’s miniseries “Vive L’Empereur”, broadcast summer 2015

As the flotilla gathered in the harbor of Toulon, Napoléon gazed upon the mishmash of ships arranging before him. A dazzling array of flags danced in the wind. French, Batavian and Roman tricolors, the recently revived quadrisection flag of Castile with its distinctive red lion and yellow castle, the yellow and red multistriped “bars of Aragon” and the ancient golden lion of Venice on a red standard all displayed the reach of France’s power. With the larger war well in hand, Napoléon had called this fleet to convene to wipe the Mediterranean clean of Turkish power and hammer home the end of his last lingering conflict.

Then a wayward spark fired in one of the great general’s neurons. From that spark, an idea entered into his mind. Thus, the world changed in an instant.

“Louis,” asked Napoléon turning to his secretary. “Where is General Hoche’s army?”

“According to the latest correspondence they remain encamped near Barcelona,” replied Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, the Consul’s longtime aide and friend. “They are awaiting order to return to France.”

“What is the condition of that army?” asked the Consul, his eyes fixated on the fleet.

“It’s been several weeks since they have seen fighting but I believe they are rested and well provisioned,” replied Bourrienne unsure of where his friend was going with this line of questioning.

Napoléon mulled for a moment, staring at the fleet.

Then the silence snapped with a flurry of orders.

“Inform Admiral [Pierre-Charles] Villeneuve that his fleet will depart to Barcelona and obtain General Hoche’s forces. From Barcelona, they will proceed to Alexandria and reinforce whatever remains of General [Jean-Baptiste] Kléber’s force. Reserve a sizeable squadron of support and transport ships and ensure they are provisioned with all manner of supplies for a sustained campaign. Go into the countryside and the towns and purchase the provisions you need. Wine, brandy, drinking water, oats, horses, mules, salted meats, grains, powder, munitions, spare parts, nails, tools, anything you can think of. Coordinate the movement of the fleets and get them to Alexandria with all haste. With any luck, we can save General Kléber’s force and take victory where this whole damned war started!”


Excerpt from Christopher Littleton’s “Bonaparte”, Random House Publishing, 2012. 

So what was Napoléon’s rationale?

Firstly, France and the Ottomans were still at war over the initial invasion of Egypt back in 1797. Save for ongoing negotiations with Austria, all of his treaties had ended his various wars with the other powers. The other powers and even France assumed that Paris and Constantinople would conclude a treaty soon as the War of the Second Coalition wrapped up. Instead, Napoléon had won the war, sidelined the other powers, and the Ottomans found themselves exposed in an open war against a superior European state.

With Britain voluntarily on the sidelines, and much of her navy preoccupied with colonial adventures overseas, Napoléon reasoned that London would not intervene in this Near East adventure like it had the last time, sparking the War of the Second Coalition in the first place.

Quite obviously, the Spanish Partition knocked any of the Spanish states out of as a potential threat. In fact, many of the Spanish ships that had sunk the French fleet at the Second Battle of the Nile were now allies of France and sailing under the reborn flags of Castile or Aragon.

The Austrians had just lost two coalitionary wars to France and they were the last power that would intervene on behalf of the Ottomans, their oldest enemy.

If anything, the Russians would join with the French to make gains against the Ottomans. Even if they went to war again, the Russian fleet did not concern Napoléon.

Lastly, Napoléon supposed he might even have an ally against the Ottoman tributary states. After all, he knew very well how much political friction existed between the United States and the Barbary States of North Africa.

Assuming the army held even a fraction of its 1799 strength, significant reinforcements (such as Hoche’s army) arriving could tip the scales back in the favor of the French. Yet this time, France would command the waves ensuring supply lines and, if necessary, a path of retreat.

So Napoléon gambled.

And, as so often occurred for L’Empereur, the gamble paid off.

Hoche’s army landed at Alexandria on June 4, 1801 and found the state of French affairs to be dire at best. Revolts plagued the French in Alexandria and Cairo, and the small towns they controlled in those environs. Lack of consistent correspondence had hidden the stark reality that a local Egyptian student assassinated General Kléber in June of 1800. Improbably, Kleber’s successor, Jacques-François de Menou, baron of Boussay had married the daughter of a wealthy Egyptian, converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdallah de Menou. They even produced a son, Jacques Mourad Soliman de Menou who was born in Rosetta in 1800 [1].

Hoche quickly began to correct the chaotic situation. Hoche’s army quickly relieved the roughly 9,000 remaining and besieged Frenchmen from Napoléon’s initial Armee d’Orient and stabilized the situation across the Nile Delta. Stabilization occurred through a combination hands off approach coupled with shows of force when necessary. Unlike Napoléon who conquered Egypt and immediately began making reform attempts across a spectrum of Egyptian society, Hoche desired pacification above all else. With the exception of displacing Ottoman and Mamluk hierarchies with local Egyptian, or French, hierarchies, Hoche was largely hands off. The heavy-handed attempts at agriculture, land, industrial and financial reform that often followed later colonization efforts did not occur. To hammer home his point, Hoche actually lowered any existing taxes the locals were paying which endeared French rule to Egyptian farmers but centralized collection processes which, by 1804, made Egypt an administratively self-sufficient enterprise (excluding ongoing military costs, a tab Paris picked up across regions throughout the Napoleonic Wars). Of course, the French were not afraid to use a heavy hand when necessary. While few Egyptians shed tears for the expulsion of Turkish and Mamluk power, the French were still invaders, and they were Christian (sometimes even painted at godless atheist invaders) to boot. A wide range of prominent imams, to local village elders, would call for all manner of revolts, jihads, raids and murders from time to time, which necessitated French crackdowns. The legend that Hoche imported a guillotine from France is likely false but firing squads and hanging were not uncommon in Cairo and Alexandria at this time. Records show the burning of several villages along the Damietta Branch of the Nile Delta in direct response to a large revolt that occurred in the fall of 1802 in the northeast section of the Delta [2].

The aftermath of the French reinforcement was one of intense diplomatic scrutiny across Europe. The Portlandite government protested vigorously, and debates occurred in parliament about going back to war over this renewed invasion and the ongoing Partition of Spain. The diplomatic situation deteriorated so badly that Charles Whitworth, the new British ambassador to Paris, requested his passports from the Consul; at the time generally accepted as one of the first acts before a declaration of war. Ultimately, George III deferred to parliament and parliament came up two votes away from a renewed declaration of war. Whitworth would return to Russia as ambassador to the court of the new Tsar, Alexander, while Alleyne FitzHerbert, 1st Baron St Helens, a veteran diplomat, went to France [3].

Austria lodged protests but, as Napoléon suspected, they were lacking in their support of the Sultan.

With no European states coming to preserve the status quo, this meant that the Ottomans were in a full-scale war, one-on-one, with core territory on the line, against a European power for the first time since the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774. Sultan Selim III raised his forces and pushed another army south towards Egypt. Hoche swung north to meet the incoming Ottomans.

The war was a mirror of the one fought several years prior between Selim and Napoleon. Except this time, there would be no coalitionary navy coming to save the Turks. The French destroyed the supporting Ottoman fleet on September 3 at the Battle of Cyprus. More accurately, the battle took place 15 miles west of Cape Arnaoutis, the island’s westernmost point. With eleven ships-of-the-line, Admiral Villeneuve found himself outnumbered by Pasha Seyit Ali who commanded nine ships-of-the-line, eight frigates and three sloops but superior French firepower and favorable winds gave Villeneuve the advantage. Managing to catch the Ottoman fleet in the middle of two parallel lines, the battle effectively contained Ottoman naval resources within the Aegean and Black Seas. The victory not only prevented Ottoman resupply of its army marching down the Levantine coast but it allowed for French resupply of its own forces and opened Cyprus to a future invasion.

The Second Battle of Jaffa, fought on September 18, 1801, was a decisive French victory over the Ottomans. Any gains the Ottomans had made in the prior few years were undone as France found itself in a position to enforce its claim from Egypt into the Levant. However, it was not all smiles for the French. General Hoche took a bullet to his shin early in the battle and continued to command the lines through the pain throughout the day. The army’s Genoan-born chief surgeon, Paolo Suardo wrote:

“Despite our efforts at intervention, the General insisted the wound was superficial and that he remain in command of the battle. With great bravery he rode the battlefield for an additional five hours, in an intense heat, showing no signs of pain or fatigue. Only at the end of the day when Ottoman resistance collapsed and General Desaix entered the city did [Hoche] allow an examination. Frightfully pale, the general accepted water and rest while myself and Mssr. Rolland examined his leg. The general had lost much blood throughout the day but without an exit wound we concluded the bullet remained in his shin. After a brief rest, in which time the general continued to give orders, he submitted himself to our care and we extracted the bullet and bandaged his wound. All appeared well, and the general took food and some wine that night. Only upon sleeping did his condition rapidly deteriorate. His condition remained pale and he could only rouse himself to brief moments of coherence. Before noon the following day he developed a fever. Throughout this process we repeatedly had to change his bandages, concern set in that the general might succumb. For three long days, this remained the general’s condition and on the early morning of the 22nd one could tell that his wound had soured. Fearing gangrene, accounting for the failure of the wound to heal, and knowing the fragile condition of the General, we determined an operation to be his best chance at survival. We removed the general’s lower leg with great expediency while he remained in his delirium and closed and bandaged the stump as best we could. It is a testament to the general’s strength that he endured as long as he did but few men could survive such abuse and indeed, the general expired around four in the morning on the 24th.[4]”

News of Hoche’s death swept across Egypt and France over the coming weeks. Napoleon ordered a week of mourning for the great general but his correspondence hides any emotion regarding his death. It is likely that while Napoleon lamented the death of a great French military officer, he would shed no tears for one of his chief adversaries for control of power in France. Indeed, many historians speculate that the great question “where is Hoche?” stemmed not from logistical expedience in sending any nearby army to Egypt as quickly as possible, but rather to keep Hoche out of France for as long as possible [5].

Command in Egypt fell to General Louis Desaix, one of Napoleon’s closest friends and confidants [6]. Unlike Napoleon who was unable to follow up on his own Levantine military successes due to being cut off at sea, Desaix actually had consistent resupply coming from France. This allowed him to propagate the war on the peripheries of the Ottoman Empire. Desaix would dispatch a daring young officer, Jacques Macdonald, south along the Nile into Upper Egypt, a similar expedition to one he had commanded himself shortly after he and Napoleon had captured Cairo years before [7]. Macdonald, the descendant of a Scottish Jacobite family that had immigrated to France with Prince Charles Edward Stuart after the 1745 uprising and the final defeat of Jacobitism, proved incredibly competent. Before the French reinforcement, a tentative alliance existed between the French in the Delta and the Mamluks in Upper Egypt under the command of Murād Bey [8]. By this point the 1797 pretensions of invasion (that France was invading to put down Mamluk power on behalf of their historic ally the Ottoman Sultan) had faded and the realities of power had emerged. France outright fought for control of Egypt to establish a power base in the east, this conflict was contested by the Ottomans, and the Mamluks, caught in between, found themselves more willing to cooperate with Paris than Constantinople. In 1798 and 1799, Desaix played cat and mouse with Murād from Al-Faiyum to Luxor. With the French situation increasingly desperate, and the Mamluks increasingly alienated from their Ottoman overlords, Kléber struck an alliance with Murād whereby the Mamluks would govern Upper Egypt on behalf of the French [9]. This perplexing pact held up, until Desaix returned with thousands of fresh French troops and, perhaps more importantly, a viable fleet. His enemy having returned, and the writing on the wall regarding French intentions, Murād revolted and began conducting raids.

Macdonald gave chase to the wily mamluk but Murād found old tactics failed where they worked before. On the advice of Desaix, Macdonald made sure that every medium-sized town on the Nile had at least a small French garrison to maintain the peace and ensure the Mamluk raiders remained stranded in the harsh desert. Slowly the noose closed around Murād but the decisive moment in the campaign for Egypt occurred not in the Upper Egypt or Lower Egypt, but rather across the Red Sea.

Then, on January 9, 1802, the tenuous Ottoman control over Mecca and Medina came to an end when the House of Saud launched a raid from the Arabian Desert and captured the two holy cities [10]. The surprise capture reverberated across the Muslim world and undermined the authority of the Sultan from the Barbary regencies to the Balkans. In Upper Egypt, the exhausted populace ran out of patience with the situation. By this point French occupation had endured for five years, Murād had switched sides multiple times, the Mamluks were discredited and the Sultan appeared impotent. Murād struggled to find the shelter amongst the Egyptian populace and on April 10 intelligence leaked to Macdonald about Murād’s whereabouts that allowed the French to track the Mamluk raiders to the town of Dalija. The brief Battle of Dalija lasted less than 20 minutes and saw the final defeat of the Mamluks. With a thoroughly disinterested populace more interested in stability than anything else, French control of Egypt finally cemented.

Interestingly, the story of the mamluks does not end at Dalija. Nearly 2,000 mamluks remained in Egypt. The defeat at Dalija combined with increasing French power placed them in tremendous stress. Surrounded, and at the mercy of Desaix, their remaining leader Osman Bey al-Bardisi, quietly negotiated a solution with the French. Allowed to remove their families, slaves and much of their movable wealth, the outgunned mamluks migrated south beyond Aswan and Elephantine Island out of Upper Egypt and into Nubia and the northern frontier of the Sultanate of Sennar [11].

And of course, in Egypt the war was not over.

To the north, Desaix himself struck a blow when he commanded the Armee d’Orient in the capture of Damascus that February. This, combined with some grandiose adventuring in the northwest Arabian Peninsula, gave France decisive control over the Holy Land in addition to Egypt. Combined with spiraling events and diplomatic crises in the Balkans, the Sultan found his position perilously unstable. A desperate bid by the Sultan to make peace by awarding Cyprus to France and allowing ludicrously favorable trade deals and military concessions to Paris fell on deaf ears that spring. With such a favorable situation unfolding, Napoleon would settle for nothing less than the full surrender of Egypt and Cyprus in exchange for peace. Before long, the Levant would be added to that list of demands as well. It should be noted that the record is mixed on this, as Napoleonic correspondence seemed to indicate he only desired Egypt and Cyprus. It appears Napoleon (rightfully) feared that a full partition of the Ottoman Empire, especially just after the Partition of Spain, would surely bring the full weight of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Britain against France.

Napoleon was keenly aware that the longer this desperate situation endured for the Ottomans, the more likely a new coalitionary war would break out with Europe against France. Having narrowly survived a renewed war with Britain over the Partition of Spain and the French successes in Egypt and the Levant, he feared France would not lucky a third time. He needed allies and a way for the collapse of Ottoman power to divide Europe against itself and not combine it against France.

With destiny seemingly in his pocket, Napoleon received both of those things in 1802.

———- Author’s Notes ————–

[1]: Amazingly, this is true in our timeline as well.

[2]: Keep in mind that in our timeline, the British worked with the Ottomans to expel the French from Egypt in 1801. The radically different war allows the French to keep up their conquests that also means a longer period of internal unrest.

[3]: The changing diplomatic situation warrants a reshuffling. In our timeline, St. Helens never went to France and instead is more known for his efforts in Russia. Whitworth was the ambassador who Napoleon famously exploded on at a public party over the issue of Malta that immediately precipitated a return to war between Britain and France in 1803.

[4]: In our timeline, Hoche died of tuberculosis in Germany in 1797 at the age of 29. The earlier end to the War of the First Coalition allows him to be elsewhere thus he lives longer.

[5]: This is true of our timeline as well. Napoleon engineered events around him to make sure he was in the right place at the right time to be the leading military man in a coup. The conspirators wanted other figures but they were away and before his death Hoche was a beloved military figure in France who surely would have been at the top of conspiratorial lists.

[6]: With no Battle of Marengo in this timeline, Desaix does not die a premature death. His experience in Egypt in Napoleon’s initial campaign means Napoleon sends him overseas with Hoche.

[7]: In our timeline, Macdonald eventually rose the ranks to be one of Napoleon’s marshals.

[8]: Murad Bey was one of the most powerful Mamluks in Egypt in our timeline and was the key leader in the Mamluks guerilla fight in Upper Egypt against the French.

[9]: This was true in our timeline as well, and was basically the only reason the stranded French held on as long as they did.

[10]: In 1802, the Saudis captured Mecca and Medina from the Ottomans as well. The Ottomans expelled them once their Egyptian situation stabilized. The capture occurs in this time line but the ongoing war in Egypt and the Levant means we have a drastically different divergence.

[11]: Amazingly, many mamluks fled in the 1810’s to Sennar (basically where Sudan is today) after Egypt cracked down on the remnant still in power.

Source Materials

Roberts, Andrew. “Napoleon: A Life.” Penguins Books, 2014.

Vovsi, Emam. “The Power and Question of Faith: Murad Bey’s Pros and Cons during the French Invasion of Egypt, 1798-1801.” Napoleon-Series.org. Accessed March 31, 2018. http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/battles/Egypt/c_MouradBey.html.

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