Thursday, April 11, 2013

Great Moments in Stupidity: Napoleon Bonaparte (Part II)

There have probably been more words written about Napoleon Bonaparte than any other military commander that has ever risen above the rank of Staff Sergeant. These words almost invariably include such terms as "genius," "charismatic," "brilliant" and other such superlatives. But, as is well documented by historians of any nation but France, Napoleon was often blessed by the fact that, although he made some blunders during his military adventures, his opponents made more (and often much bigger) blunders that he did. A case in point is Napoleon's campaign in Egypt.

The whole idea of a French invasion of Egypt wasn't all that popular with the French Directory when it was first proposed by Bonaparte in March of 1798. But, since the capture of Egypt would protect French economic interests in the area as well as interfere with Great Britain's trade monopoly regarding India, they went along with the idea by reasoning that 1) they had nothing to lose if the plan didn't work and that 2) they would get Napoleon out of town before he developed a strong political base. Napoleon Bonaparte, the Hero of Remy and the man who had saved the Revolutionary National Assembly from being lined up against a wall and shot, promptly headed south to what he had assumed would be an easy conquest.
At first things went according to plan, with the French capturing the island of Malta from the English in early June before making an unopposed landing at Alexandria, Egypt on July 1st of that year. It was shortly after the landing at Alexandria that things began to go wrong for the French.
Their most pressing problem were the Mamelukes, who had been in control of Egypt since the time of the Crusades and were not about to roll over and play dead just because the French had come to town. Napoleon soon found his army of some 10,000 men facing a Mameluke force that has been estimated at somewhere between 25,000 (by Mameluke count) to 100,000 men (by French count). In addition to being outnumbered while fighting on someone else's turf (or sand, in this case), the French were dressed in their traditional wool uniforms. This is not the type of clothing to wear when you are about to fight a pitched battle at the feet of the great pyramids of Giza.
On this particular occasion, Napoleon's military skills saved the day when he organized his army into small squares with their supporting artillery in the center of each square. When the Mamelukes attacked they were cut down by the murderous combination of French artillery and rifles. Napoleon had won his first battle. The French navy was not quite so fortunate.
The fleet that had deposited Napoleon and his army at Alexandria had done so while being followed at a distance by an English fleet under the command of a gentleman named Horatio Nelson. The French escort ships, having done their job, had set sail for France in order to bring back the reinforcements that would be needed to maintain control of Egypt while leaving behind a fleet of battleships to guard the harbor at Alexandria. The French had deployed these battleships in a single line, believing that they could repulse any attack that came from the sea while using the shoreline as protection against being attacked from both sides at once. Care to take a guess as to what strategy Nelson employed?
Nelson sent half of his ships to the inside of the French line and hammered away from both sides after catching the French completely unprepared for such a move. By sunrise of the next morning only two French warships were still afloat, which pretty well ended any hopes of reinforcements from France arriving by sea and also left Napoleon in the unenviable position of being stranded in a foreign country while surrounded by a few hundred thousand irate Moslems.
Then things really started going badly for the French.
The French, having exhausted their supplies, began to rely on what was available locally for water and food. The locally-available water promptly induced dysentery while the local food was not properly cooked and added food poisoning to the rapidly increasing number of problems facing the French. In situations such as the one that now faced Napoleon, a reasonable commander would have taken up defensive positions and waited until the various diseases had run their course. Napoleon, as you might have guessed by now, was not a reasonable commander.
In the early part of the year 1799, Napoleon and his army moved into what was then the Ottoman Turkish province of Syria (modern Israel) where they were able to win several battles against numerically superior Ottoman forces. However, when the army laid siege to the city of Acre, their luck ran out and the army was almost destroyed by an outbreak of the Plague. Napoleon was forced to withdraw to Egypt.
At this point it will be necessary to remember why the French Assembly went along with Napoleon's scheme concerning Egypt: they wanted him out of the political picture at home. Napoleon was apparently smart enough to recognize this and had kept an eye on the home front by way of news dispatches or other such second-hand sources. But he also was one step of the Assembly's plans to thwart his political ambitions.
Napoleon had taken along several "correspondents" and other such hired guns whose sole responsibility was to write letters and dispatches for consumption back in France that praised Napoleon's bravery and skills as a military commander. In modern terminology we would refer to these as "spin doctors" or some other form of literary prostitute. Regardless of their titles or professional ethics, they were quite effective in that Napoleon Bonaparte's popularity at home was beginning to approach that of Joan of Arc. In fact, when Napoleon left behind his army in August of 1799 to return to France he was hailed as nothing less than a national hero upon his homecoming while what little remained of the army that he had abandoned was either killed or taken prisoner.
We will return to the domestic political exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte after a brief review of his career as it stood in October of 1799.
At the end of the year 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte has had his share of up and down moments regarding his military Career. By the age of 30 he has:
* Managed to be the only French officer to have won anything close to a battle with a foreign enemy.
* Put down a rebellion against the Revolutionary National Assembly with his famous "whiff of grapeshot" strategy.
* Become a little too popular with the French people, which caused the same National Assembly that he had saved from the mobs, to send him off to invade Italy in hopes that he would fail and thus lose favor with the citizens. Instead, he
* Kicks the Italians (and their Austrian allies) around like a soccer ball, which makes him even more popular at home
* Returns in triumph from the Italian campaign more popular than ever, proposes to invade Egypt as a prelude to conquering the Holy Land, and gets the National Assembly/Directory to go along with this insane plan just to get rid of him again.
* Wins one battle in Egypt while the better part of the French Navy gets sent to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, effectively stranding Napoleon and his army in the middle of nowhere.
* Thanks to a combination of dysentery, botulism, plague, and Moslem tenacity Napoleon, for lack of a more descriptive term, abandons his army to the mercy of the Ottoman Turks and returns to France where he is once again hailed as a hero because his spin doctors have kept the bad news out of the French Press. This one-man retreat is authorized by the French Directory/National Assembly which is afraid of an invasion of France by the armies of the Second European Coalition (which includes every nation between Russia and Great Britain except France).

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