South African Military History 
Society

P.O. BOX 12926
MOWBRAY
7705

CAPE TOWN BRANCH
NEWSLETTER NO. 323 - JULY 2005

At the beginning of his talk, fellow member John Feitelberg gave us a short run-down on the Napoleonic Society of South Africa which has been in existence for over 15 years, and is affiliated to similar Societies and Groups all over the world. There even exists a privately funded chair for Napoleonic Studies at the University of Miami.

The ostensible aims of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt were to wrest control of the Indian Empire from British hands, not to forget the lucrative trade routes from this country via Egypt to Great Britain, because the Suez Canal did not then exist, although the seeds to the gigantic feat of cutting the canal through the desert, were then sown. He committed 38 000 fighting men to this adventure which, from a military point of view, was little more than a disaster. When French land forces surrendered to the British on September 2, 1801, they had been cut off in Egypt for three years.

In 1798 Napoleon had massed a huge fleet in Toulon with his secret objective "to raise the French flag over the Pyramids of Egypt". On their way across the Mediterranean the French captured Malta, and in July about 400 transport ships landed some 34.000 troops near Alexandria. This included 1 000 civilians: administrators, artists, poets, botanists, zoologists, surveyors and economists. On 21st July, having marched through the desert always short of food and water for the soldiers who wore totally unsuitable, heavy uniforms, and short of fodder for the horses, continuously sniped at by locals, the French army met the Mameluks just north of the Pyramids of Giza . Here they ended the seven century long rule of Egypt by the Turkish Sultan. Having only little of his own cavalry available, but facing a highly developed enemy cavalry, Napoleon formed his infantry in hollow squares with guns at each corner, repelling a charge from any side.

But this victory was followed by disaster at the Battle of the Nile. The transport ships had sailed away, leaving the French fleet anchored at Aboukir Bay in a long crescent line close to shore, believing that only one side of the line would be exposed to attacks. But the British ships under Admiral Nelson, using their shallow draught to advantage, slipped between the French ships and the shore, raking them with fire, while the defenders struggled helplessly to move their guns to the unprotected sides. With the exception of two, the French ships were either sunk or captured. Admiral Brueys was blamed for the defeat because he refused to set sail as ordered by Napoleon.

The disorganization that marked the Battle of the Nile seems also to have been the cause for near mutiny before the battle of the Pyramids and the rivalry between Napoleon's generals. But Napoleon ignored the loss of his fleet and the castaway status it brought his army, and continued with his plans to pacify Egypt. To preempt an Ottoman attack, he marched on Palestine, sacking Jaffa and besieging Acre, which held out against him. Meanwhile, the bulk of his army forced its way down to Aswan, revealing to the stunned soldiers the magnificence of Thebes, Luxor and Karnak.

On August 23, 1799, Napoleon left his army in Egypt and slipped off in a small, swift vessel to France because military and political setbacks threatened the country. Taking advantage of the then existing political turmoil and through a coup d'etat, he became First Consul and years later Emperor. But his army fared less well. While largely met by military success in further battles, their numbers steadily dwindled through lack of supplies and of illness and in the end, when they surrendered to the British, one man out of every three had died.

The real winners of this campaign were not only the artists, historians and others, but, strangely enough, the Egyptians themselves. The French had brought a printing press, and on this Napoleon's proclamations were printed and the first book in Egypt, extracts from the Koran.

He founded the Institute of Egypt, established an Observatory and a Central Library which was open to all and a 300-400 bed Hospital. He created a school of medicine and Egyptian medicine and a pharmacy. And all this was done within a very short time-frame, something to which the Egyptians were grateful. The historians and archaeologists carried back numerous treasures, including the Rosetta stone, inscribed both in Greek and hieroglyphics, which later enabled linguists to decipher the hieroglyphs, and many volumes of books were written about the wonders and splendors of the orient, its depth and mysteries.

With the assistance of maps John led us on the marches of the French troops through the desert and the many battles and skirmishes. Especially his descriptions of French and enemy troops, their equipment and arms were most vivid, as well as the many historical details and stories. His informative talk was greatly appreciated by the audience.

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We regret to have to inform our members that fellow member Connor Johnston passed away last weekend at the age of 98. Our condolences go to his family.

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Future Lectures:

14th July MY FLYING CAREER IN THE SAAF FROM 1972 TO 1994
by Brigadier-General R.S. "Dick" Lord
11th August THE ZONDERWATER PRISON
A talk by Dave McLennan about the Italian POWs who were mainly kept at this Camp during WW II, and their life inside and outside.
8th Sept THE FALL OF TOBRUK 1942
Speaker: Colonel Lionel Crook
13th OctoberTHE REGIMENT WESTELIKE PROVINCIE FROM 1972 ONWARDS
Speaker: Colonel Ivan Bester

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Meetings are held on the 2nd Thursday of each month, except December, at 20h00 in the Recreation Room of the SA LEGIONíS ROSEDALE COMPLEX, Lower Nursery Road (off Lisbeek Parkway/Alma Road - Traffic Light), opposite Rosebank Railway Station. Secure parking inside the premises. All visitors welcome. Tea and biscuits will be served.

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Jochen (John) O.E.O. Mahncke, Vice-Chairman/Scribe,
Tel.: 021-797-5167021-797-5167
e-mail: koenigsberg@mweb.co.za


South African Military History Society / scribe@samilitaryhistory.org