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Battle of the Pyramids 1798

Background

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte persuaded the ruling Directory of France to invade Egypt. In truth the Directory were pleased to see the famous young General go. Napoleonís successful Italian campaign had made him a popular figure in revolutionary France, a potential threat to the rule of the Directory.

 

Napoleon sailed from Toulon on 19 June 1798 with a French fleet commanded by Admiral Brueys of nearly 100 warships and 400 transports. He commanded an army of 35,000 men organised into five infantry and one cavalry divisions. The expedition also included a large number of scientists and artists (Savants) whose task it was to modernise this new French colony. After evading the British fleet they arrived in Malta on 6 June and after some limited resistance the Knights of Malta capitulated on 11 June. After securing the island and raiding the Treasury the fleet moved on to its final destination, Egypt.

 

In 1798 Egypt was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire and ruled by a puppet Pasha representing the Ottoman Sultan Selim III. In practice it was ruled by the Mamelukes, warrior slaves mostly originating from the Caucasus region commanded by Murad Bey.

 

Campaigns in Egypt

Napoleon landed near Alexandria on 1 July. The city capitulated two days later after a short fight and Napoleon immediately began the advance towards Cairo. The logistical preparations for the advance were poor with little transport or even horses for the cavalry.

 

The first skirmish happened at Shubra Khit on 13 July. The French army fought in divisional squares with artillery at the corners. Disciplined fire drove off the Mamelukes supported by a small flotilla of gunboats. The French then advanced soutwards but were so exhausted they had to rest for two days.

 

Battle of the Pyramids

This was the first major battle of the campaign and took place four miles from Cairo within sight (just) of the Pyramids on 21 July.

 

Napoleon ordered an advance on the Mameluke army led by Murad Bey with each of the five divisions of his army organized into hollow rectangles with cavalry and baggage at the center and cannon at the corners. The French divisions advanced south in echelon, with the right flank leading and the left flank protected by the Nile. From right to left, Napoleon posted the divisions of Desaix, Reynier, Dugua, Vial and Bon. In addition, Desaix sent a small detachment to occupy the nearby village of Biktil, just to the west.

 

Murad anchored his right flank on the Nile at the village of Embabeh, which was fortified and held with infantry and some artillery. His Mamluk cavalry deployed on the desert flank. Ibrahim Bey, with a second army, watched helplessly from the east bank of the Nile, unable to intervene. (Chandler asserts that Napoleon's 25,000-strong army outnumbered Murad's 6,000 Mamluks and 15,000 infantry.)

 

At about 3:30 pm, the Mamluk cavalry hurled itself at the French. The divisional "squares" of Desaix, Reynier and Dugua held firm and repelled the horsemen with point-blank musket and artillery fire. Unable to make an impression on the French formations, some of the frustrated Mamluks rode off to attack Desaix's detached force. Even this was a failure. Meanwhile, nearer the river, Bon's division deployed into attack columns and charged Embabeh. Breaking into the village, the French routed the garrison. Trapped against the river, many of the Mamluks and infantry tried to swim to safety, but hundreds drowned.

 

Napoleon reported a loss of 29 killed and 260 wounded. Murad's losses were far heavier, perhaps as many as 3,000 of the irreplaceable Mamluk cavalry and unknown numbers of infantry. Murad escaped to Upper Egypt, where he carried on an active guerrilla campaign before being run to earth by Desaix in late 1799.

 

For the later battles in the campaign come and see us at Carronade (10 May) and Albanich (5 July) wargame shows.

 

The Armies

The French Army of the Orient was organised as the standard revolutionary army with infantry in 15 Demi-Brigades of around 1700 men supported by two regiments of light cavalry and five of Dragoons. Artillery included a siege train, 72 field guns and 24 howitzers. On embarkation the army was equipped in the uniforms of the period but conditions in Egypt soon forced changes. These included a black leather peaked cap for the infantry called the "petits-casquettes" together with lightweight cotton or linen tunics. These changes were confirmed in the Kleber Ordance of 1799 that resulted in a variety of colourful uniforms. Specialist units included the Regiment de Dromedaires and locally raised forces from the Greek and Coptic communities together with some Mamelukes and even Janissaries.

 

The chief opponents of the French were the Mamelukes. These included the flamboyant Mameluke horse, together with local Ottoman forces including Janissaries and Sipahis. They would be supported by Bedouin Arabs from the desert tribes and mobs of fellahin some armed with little more than clubs. Ottoman invasion forces included the usual Sipahis horse and Janissaries together with Albanian and Moroccan infantry. 

The Wargame

The wargame figures in this display game are 28mm figures mostly from the Old Glory and Dixon ranges. Other figures are from Trent Miniatures and a new range from Britannia. The Nile Flotilla is a bit of a challenge, but the ships boat from Redoubt adds an interesting element to the battles around the Nile. The rules are Principles of War. We use the brigade scale in the Napoleonic version for the larger battles such as the Pyramids. For smaller actions each unit becomes a battalion or even a company.

 

Further Reading

The two must have titles both for the narrative and Bob Marrion's wonderful colour plates is Charles Grant's two volume Napoleon's Campaign in Egypt. There are a number of useful Ospreys including:

Napoleon's Egyptian Campaigns 1798-1801  MAA 79

French Soldier in Egypt 1798 - 1801 Warrior 77

Armies of the Ottoman Empire 1775 - 1820 MAA 314

 

Also for local uniforms there is Mark Bevis - Tangier to Tehran, a Wargamers Guide to Middle Eastern Armies of the Napoleonic & Pre-Colonial Era 1780-1830 and for the Ottoman army William Johnstonís Crescent Among the Eagles.

 

For a history of the campaign there is the recently published Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern, and for the Syrian campaign, Nathan Schur's Napoleon in the Holy Land. Plus the story of the French officer Captain Moiret in Memoirs of Napoleon's Egyptian Expedition 1798-1801.

 

 

 

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Last modified: 09/21/09