Your RDA of Irony

The Art of War and Public Relations

Napoleon needed something to do in 1798. The 28-year-old general had conquered Italy and forced Austria to capitulate–but that was a year ago. He sensed that his glory was already fading. The French government–a collection of kleptocrats known as the Directory–did have a project for him. He had been named “General of the Army of England.” Invading England certainly would be exciting; the British Navy would guarantee that. A French platoon was unlikely to make it to shore; and if it had, the English population would not be particularly cordial. No the invasion of England was a certain catastrophe, and definitely not Napoleon’s idea of glory.

A second proposal at least seemed less hopeless: invading Ireland. Allowing for the improbable prospects of a myopic British navy and a competent French one, a French army landing in Ireland would find itself very popular among the oppressed and impoverished victims of English rule. The Irish would have offered all they had to the French: potatoes and volunteer militia armed only with farm implements. Nonetheless, Napoleon might have succeeded in driving the English out of Ireland–and then what? The British navy would have kept him penned up in Ireland. He might have been the de facto ruler of Ireland and its grateful people; but Napoleon did not want the gratitude of a poor people. Generals of the Directory worked on commission, and liberating Ireland just wouldn’t pay.

There was a third idea, however, that promised Napoleon enough wealth and glory to sate his megalomania: invade Egypt. There was a military rationale for this plan. Egypt was the transit between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean; the trade and communication between Europe and the Orient passed along the Suez trail. (Yes, there was talk of building a canal.) A French army in Egypt would have a stranglehold on Britain’s link to India. Of course, there was also an economic incentive for invading Egypt; all that trade was quite lucrative. Finally, there seemed a political advantage as well. No one else seemed to rule Egypt. The country was a nominal province of the Ottoman Empire, but the weak Sultanate was unable to enforce its rule there. Egypt was in the hands of squabbling, medieval warlords–the Mamalukes. What could be more tempting than a rich and defenseless country?

He would invade Egypt with an army of 34,000 men. Never lacking confidence, Napoleon expected a glorious military victory but he also envisioned his campaign as a cultural triumph. He would rediscover Egypt and reintroduce a great civilization long forgotten. So, in addition to his military preparations,(which actually were inadequate; he overlooked the need for water canteens in a desert) he assembled several hundred scientists, historians and artists to accompany his expedition. While he conquered, they explored, discovered and illustrated–inspiring a fascination with ancient Egypt that continues to this day. Our very knowledge of hieroglyphics began with Napoleon, when some French soldiers dug up a very interesting stone at Rosetta, Egypt.

Such a massive undertaking could not have escaped the attention of the British. However, they assumed that the General of the Army of England was a literal title. The British navy was patrolling the English Channel and the western Mediterranean while the French fleet was heading toward Egypt. On the way, the French stopped at Malta to seize the island. By doing so, the French had finally revealed their whereabouts, and the British guessed Napoleon’s real intentions. The British navy sailed immediately to Alexandria and arrived before the French. In view of the French absence, however, the British now wondered where the French might be headed. Was Malta a feint and Napoleon was heading past Gibraltar to sail to England? So, the British fleet raced northwest while the French fleet lolled southeast to Alexandria.

However, the British had not reached Gibraltar, let alone Penzance, when they learned that the French had actually arrived at Alexandria. Turning around–again, His Majesty’s Ships now raced east. In the intervening month, the French army had disembarked in Alexandria, defeated the Mamalukes in a battle picturesquely near the Pyramids and now was in Cairo. The French fleet was at anchor at the mouth of the Nile, in Abukir Bay. Late in the afternoon of August 1, the British fleet attacked. The French were in a good defensive position, the ships aligned close to the shore and with the added protection of darkness. Who would attempt to navigate narrow gaps between the French ships, skirting the Egyptian shore in the dark? Did I mention that the British commander was Horatio Nelson? He could have assured you that it is easy to sail at night when you have burning French ships to light your way. Most of the French fleet was either sunk or captured, and the French army now was stranded in Egypt.

The Ottoman Empire did not grieve over the Mamalukes, but it did not consider the French control of Egypt as an improvement. Assured of British support, the Sultan declared war on France. Napoleon was not one to wait for an attack. He marched into Syria, expecting the conquest of that province would compel the Turks to cede Egypt to France. Although he had just 15,000 men, his campaign began with its customary success. The Turkish forces were equipped to fight a 16th century war. Napoleon even began to entertain the notion of taking Constantinople. However, his triumphal march did not get past the fortifications of Acre–in what is now northern Israel. The garrison’s Turkish gunners had the benefit of European training and the aided assistance of the British navy. Napoleon found himself outgunned and ill-prepared for a siege; worse, bubonic plague broke out in the French camp. Although unaccustomed to retreat, he had no choice.

Napoleon now realized that the Egyptian campaign would inevitably fail; however, no one else in France seemed aware of it. Bonaparte really should be considered one of the pioneers of public relations. He dictated communiques–press releases–telling the public exactly what he wanted it to believe. Napoleon was never shy about self-aggrandizement; every victory was magnified, any defeat was minimized if not omitted. (Despite its ability to do so, the British navy never bothered to impose a complete blockade on Egypt, so individual French ships could manage to go back and forth carrying Napoleon’s communiques.) The French public was convinced that the Egyptian campaign was a complete triumph. Ironically, however dubious or pyrrhic those victories, that was the only good news that the French public heard at the time.

With Napoleon in Egypt, Austria felt emboldened to resume the war. Aided by a Russian army, Austrian forces had recaptured most of Italy and now threatened France itself. Feeling endangered, the French wanted their best general back home to defend them. Since the public demanded it, Napoleon was willing to save France–and flee his hopeless situation in Egypt. Of course, he did not tell his abandoned army or even his second-in-command of his French itinerary. That was a surprise. Just as surprising was the fact that the French army held out for another two years, contending with Turks, Bedouins and disease. By 1801, the acting French commander was half-mad but he still managed to get generous terms of surrender. What was left of the army–its 17,000 ragged, sickly survivors–was repatriated to France. (The British did confiscate many of the ancient artifacts that the French had found; that is why the Rosetta Stone is at the British Museum.)

The survivors of the Egyptian campaign found that France had considerably changed in their absence. The corrupt, unpopular Republic had been replaced by a less corrupt, much more popular dictatorship–and guess who the dictator was. He had proclaimed the invasion of Egypt to be a glorious campaign–and who were they to disagree?

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