In the summer of 1798, a French fleet carrying an army of 33,000 arrived off the coast of Egypt. The curious soldiers peered out from their ships at lone and level sands stretching away. There was nothing to be seen beneath the burning sun but a tower, which some said was a mosque, but orders soon shook them from their reveries, and they were sent clambering into barges and rowing boats which took them across the waves to the barren shore.

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt had begun.

Napoleon’s fleet, and his future plans, was destroyed by Nelson in Aboukir bay in August 1799, just a few weeks after the French landing.

It is a fascinating episode and not just because of the complicated geopolitics (Napoleon was hoping to strangle British trade routes to India) but also because we have a huge number of first-hand accounts describing what it was like to take part in this exotic expedition. A good number of officers and men left diaries, letters and memoirs, and many of the scholars Napoleon took with him to survey modern Egypt, and the ancient treasures it was said to contain, also left detailed recollections. This allows us to recreate the campaign and the experience through the eyes of the participants. And this is something I have spent the last few years doing.

Map of the Battle of the Nile.

For the vast majority of those who went to Egypt (predominantly men but with a handful of officers’ wives) it was their first time out of Europe. Some had not even seen the sea. Their initial impression of Malta, their first stop on the way, was that it was barren, rather too hot and that it was a culture which treated women badly. Egypt was, then, an even greater shock. Of course, they marvelled at the pyramids (“the biggest is 500 paces high and each face 680 paces wide” according to Jean Claude Vaxelaire), broke into spontaneous applause when they caught sight of Dendera, swam in the Nile (despite being terrified of crocodiles) and climbed the sphynx. But they were shocked, and even a little horrified, by everything else.  They really struggled with the food, finding it either bad or weird (Jean-François Detroye noted that “sour little lemons are the only fruits here. And bananas which taste a bit like some of our pear varieties in Europe”), and they really missed white bread and red wine. They took to drinking copious amounts of strong coffee (stirring it with a twig for want of a spoon) and imitated the natives by smoking pipes (a habit which kept some moisture in the mouth, although others tried sucking lead shot). They baulked at some of the strange local manners, especially those concerning meals (as General Belliard put it, bemoaning the lack of chairs and cutlery, “bum on the floor, as tradition dictates, and the fork Old Adam [i.e., fingers] made use of”) and resented the way women were kept out of sight and out of the way. They found the landscape unwelcoming, missing the greenery and variety of Europe, and found travelling across it a hazardous undertaking on account of the heat as well as bands of Arab raiders, bandits and vengeful Mamelukes. Local hostility was matched by the risks of local diseases which could strike just as unexpectedly, and many of the French were laid low by exotic afflictions such as the plague or ophthalmia or were forced to brave the indignities of dysentery. All this, combined with the general indifference of the Egyptian population to these new infidel invaders, meant the French felt unwelcome, persecuted even, but also incredibly isolated, locked up as they were both physically and psychologically in the towns and their forts.

Baron Lejeune’s almost panoramic painting of the battle of the pyramids is a glorious depiction of battle, even if a little romanticised when it comes to some of the realities of this first major encounter between the Frenc and the Mameluke warlords of Egypt.

Still, for all the dangers they braved, and all the energy they had expended keeping a wary eye out for signs of trouble, and an ear open for whisperings of jihad, the survivors were not altogether bitter and many brought back more than just the odd mummified cat and bag of coffee. They came back with some pride that they had been part of an adventure in which the eyes of the world had, momentarily, rested on them. That they had overcome so many dangers, sometimes gloriously and often only just. That they had overthrown an ancient government in an ancient land and that the flag of their new republic now fluttered over Cairo, Suez and Jaffa. And, no doubt, that they had shared in some of the glory of fighting alongside Napoleon. But, reading their accounts, there is a quieter more understated sentiment, too, one which reminds us that whilst Napoleon may have conquered Egypt, it was their triumph to have survived it.

Jonathan North's book Napoleon's Invasion of Egypt is available for purchase now.