Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – On 24 June 1799 General Louis-Alexandre Berthier wrote a dispatch from Ottoman Palestine back to the French Ministry of War (people were more honest back then) about the French retreat from their failed attempt to take Ottoman Palestine. Since the army ravaged the Palestinian countryside with retaliatory attacks, given their failure to take Akka (Acre), and since they retreated through Gaza to El Arish in Egypt, the account is eerily reminiscent in places of contemporary neo-colonial Israeli tactics. I have commented on it in italics below.
I thought I would share this account, given that Ridley Scott’s film Napoleon, is being released this weekend and readers may be interested in this little-known episode. Bonaparte took Egypt in the summer of 1798, likely in an attempt to grab its grain and other exports for Revolutionary France and possibly also to cut Britain off from its Indian colony. The British, however, sank the French fleet soon after it cast anchor off the coast of Alexandria. Bonaparte and the French army were conquerors of Egypt but were also stranded there.
The following spring, General Bonaparte marched into Ottoman Palestine, then under the rule of an Ottoman vassal Cezzar Pasha. The British navy, however, intercepted the heavy artillery that had to be sent by sea from Alexandria to the Palestinian coast. The French could take overland only light artillery. They besieged Cezzar’s capital of Akka March through May but could not breach the fortified city walls. They then retreated, as described by Berthier. His letter was intercepted by the British along with a good deal of other French correspondence, and the British gleefully translated these letters and published them the following year in London.
I wrote a book about Bonaparte in Egypt for those of you who want to know more about the first major Western colonial war in the Middle East:
[Those who donate $100 to our annual fundraiser at IC will get a signed copy of Napoleon’s Egypt:
Personal checks should be made out to Juan Cole and sent to me at:
P. O. Box 4218,
Ann Arbor, MI 48104-2548
(Remember, make the checks out to “Juan Cole” or they can’t be cashed) ]
Now, on to Berthier:
From: An Account of the French Expedition in Egypt; Written by Bonaparte and Berthier; with Sir William Sidney Smith’s Letters. With an English translation (London, Edward Baines, 1800.), pp. 33-36.
[ALEXANDER BERTHIER, General of Division, Chief of the Staff of the Army, to the Minister at War].
Prairial 1.—The enemy, who had been bombarded and cannonaded by a very severe fire, and who saw the destruction of the palace of Dgezzar [Ottoman vassal ruler Jazzar, Cezzar Pasha], of that part of their fortifications which had not yet been attacked, and of all the public edifices, attempted another sortie at the 1st Prarial, at day break; they were again repulsed.
Although the French army could not breach the city walls, they could bombard it with artillery. They fired shells at the palace of Cezzar Pasha and at civilian buildings, wreaking great destruction on habitations.
At three in the afternoon they rushed forward, and attacked every point. They availed themselves of the reinforcements they had received, and their object was to throw themselves into our batteries. This attack was made with more than their usual ferocity; they were, however, repulsed on all sides, except at the turn of the glacis, near the breach tower, of which they took possession; but it was soon retaken by General Lagrange, who attacked the enemy with two companies of grenadiers, and even pursued them into their external armed post, of which he made himself master, and compelled the enemy to retire into the place.—The enemy, in that reconnoiter, lost a considerable number of their bravest troops.
Bonaparte reluctantly gave up on taking Akka at that point and gave the order to retreat back to Egypt.
The whole of the siege artillery was now removed. It was replaced in the batteries by some field piece. What was useful was thrown into the sea. By means of a mine, and sapping, we destroyed an aqueduct of several leagues in length, with which Acre was supplied with fresh water; all the magazines and the harvest in the environs of Acre were reduced to ashes.
In a scorched earth policy, on their way out the French attempted to deprive the people of Akka of potable water by blowing up an aqueduct. This was sheer colonial spite, since it was not done in hopes of taking the city. That goal had already been given up on. It was just a goodbye “screw you!” from a disappointed would-be colonizer. – JRIC
At nine in the evening of the 1st Prairial, the drums were beat to march, and the siege, which lasted sixty-one days after the opening of the trenches, was raised. When they had passed the bridge, the division of Kleber began likewise to move. It was followed by the cavalry, who left 100 dragoons dismounted to protect the workmen employed in destroying the two bridges. They had orders not to quit the banks of the river till two hours after the last of the infantry had crossed. General Junot, with his corps, had proceeded to the mill of Kerdanna, to cover the left wing of the army.
The enemy continued to fire upon our parallels during the whole night, and did not perceive till next day that the siege was raised. They had suffered so much, that they did not attempt any movement to follow us.
The army conducted the march with the greatest order. On the 2d we arrived at Cantoura, a port which had been our landing place for the articles coming from Damietta to Jaffa, and where it had been landing our besieging artillery, and the Turkish field pieces taken at Jaffa. This artillery, consisting of forty pieces, had been, from time to time, carried to the camp of Acre, to supply the place of the French field-pieces which we were obliged to employ as battering pieces in the siege. Bonaparte had not horses sufficient to draw this immense quantity of Turkish artillery. He preferred the mode of carrying off by sea to Jaffa his sick and wounded. He resolved to carry off only twenty Turkish pieces. He caused twenty to be thrown into the sea, and burnt the carriages and cases on the harbor of Cantoura.
On the 3rd the army slept upon the ruins of Cesarea. The following day several Naplousians [fighters from Nablus] appeared at the port of Abouzaboura. Some of them were taken and shot; the rest retired. Their purpose was to plunder the stragglers who are to be found about an army.
On the 4th the army encamped four leagues from Jaffa, up on a river which formed a kind of creek. Detachments were sent to burn the villages which had sent parties to harass our convoys during the siege. The grain was burnt, and the cattle carried off.
The French, of course, could not know from which villages the fighters came that harried them as they retreated. They likely burned villages indiscriminately and stole their cattle, in a bid to frighten others into leaving them alone as they withdrew.
On the 5th the army arrived at Jaffa. A bridge of boats had been thrown over the little river of Bahahia, which is with difficulty passed at a ford along the bar, formed at the place where it falls into the sea. On the 6th, 7th, and 8th, the army stopped at Jaffa. This interval was employed in punishing the villages which had conducted themselves improperly. The corn, as well as the cattle, was carried off. The fortifications of Jaffa were blown up. The merchants of Jaffa paid a contribution of 150,000 livres.
Even as they were leaving, the French plundered villages for corn and cattle, damaged the fortifications of the city of Jaffa that protected it from rural raiders, and shook down the merchants of Jaffa for a large sum of money. The annual income of a well-off noble family just before the revolution was 150,000 livres. Bonaparte was famed for making the people he conquered pay for the conquest, but here he made the people who had resisted him successfully pay for his defeat.
General Dugua wrote to Bonaparte from Egypt, informing him that symptoms of revolt had manifested themselves in the provinces of Benisness [Beni Suef?], Carkie [Sharqiyyah], and especially in that of Bahire [Beheira]; that the English had made their appearance at Suez: that the Mamelukes who were driven from Upper Egypt, and who had descended into the provinces of Lower Egypt, made several attempts to stimulate the people to insurrection; but every thing was quieted by the activity of the troops; and the vigilant conduct of the generals, but that the city of Cairo, and the other principal cities of Egypt, had remained in the most perfect tranquility.
These insurrections were a ramification of the plan of a general attack, which was to have been made upon the French in Egypt, and that at the time Dgezzar was to go into Syria, and when the Anglo-Turkish fleet was to present itself before Damietta.
The army set out on the 9th; Regnier’s division forming the left column, marching by Ramie, with orders to burn the villages, and destroy all the harvest. The head quarters, the division of Bon, and that of Lannes, took the central road, and likewise burnt the villages and the corn harvest. A column of cavalry was detached to the right along the coast. They scoured the downs, and drove in all the cattle that had there been collected.
The French appear to have wrought widespread devastation as they retreated, torching fields and villages and leaving people to starve without shelter. They confiscated all the cattle they could find, turning themselves into a sort of weird French cowboys and cattle rustlers in Palestine.
Kleber’s division formed the rear guard, and had orders not to quit Jaffa until the 10th. In this order the army marched as far as Jounisse; that immense plain presented but one blaze of fire; so dreadful was the vengeance inflicted for the assassinations committed on our troops, and for the very frequent attacks on our convoys, while this severe measure, rendered necessary by the laws of war, deprived the enemy of all means of furnishing magazines and securing provisions.
Although Bertier attempted to excuse these atrocities, which turned the fertile plains of Ottoman Palestine into enormous conflagrations that appear to have encompassed entire groups of villages, even in the eighteenth century this behavior was considered outrageous.
The army encamped on the 10th at Mecheltal, and arrived on the 11th at Gaza, form which it moved again on the 12th. That city had conducted itself very peaceably: it was therefore entitled to protection of persons and property. The fortress was blown up, and three of the rich inhabitants, whose conduct had been very hostile, we taxed with a contribution of one hundred thousand livres.
Ironically, the French generally spared Gaza the sort of vengeful devastation they wrought elsewhere in Palestine. But even there they blew up the city’s fortress, leaving it defenseless before bedouin raids, and they shook down three large merchants for enough money to keep an Ancien Regime noble family in style for a whole year.
Kleber’s division continued a day’s march behind. The army arrived at Kan-Jounesse on the 12th, and again pursued their march on the 13th. They entered the Desert, followed by an immense quantity of cattle which they had taken from the enemy, and with which they intended to provision El-arisch. The desert between this place and Kan-Jounesse comprises a space of eleven leagues, inhabited by the Arabs, who had frequently attacked our convoys. We burnt several of their camps; we carried away a great number of their cattle and camels, and set fire to a small harvest that was collected in some parts of the desert.
On the 14th, the army stopped for the day at El-Arisch. Bonaparte there left a garrison. He ordered new works to be constructed for the defense of the fort. He caused it to be supplied with stores and provisions. The army continued its march to Cathich, where it arrived on the 19th. The divisions, although marching successively, sustained great inconvenience from want of water. The desert is 22 leagues in extent, in which there is no supply to be had, except about half way, where there is a bad well of brackish water.
On the 18th the army continued its march. The head quarters were removed on the 19th, in order to proceed to Salchich. The division of Kleber marched to Tiach, to embark for Damietta.—The rest of the army was collected at Cathich, where it remained for some time, and then proceeded to Cairo, where it arrived on the 26th. The natives were astonished to see the army in the same state as it just came out of barracks. The soldiers considered themselves as it were in their native country in returning to Cairo, and the inhabitants received us as their compatriots.
The army engaged in the Syrian Expedition, in four months lost about 700 men by disease, 500 killed in battle, and about 1000 wounded, 90 of whom underwent amputation, and were rendered incapable of serving but in the invalids. Almost all the other wounded men are cured, and have joined their corps.
General of Division, Chief of Staff.
Cairo, 6 Messidor, Year 7.