REVIEW BY PATRICK MERCER
When I joined the army there were sphinxes all over the place: on cap badges, collar badges, sporran badges, embroidered on Regimental Colours… The Gloucesters even wore two, one fore and another aft, to commemorate fighting back-to-back in the desert sands of Egypt. That was such a major feat for Sir Ralph Abercromby’s expeditionary force – which had been sent in 1801 to clear Egypt of Frenchmen – the little, mythical creature was worn with enormous pride for centuries afterwards. Now, if you want to understand the background to all this and to be informed in a scholarly but highly entertaining way, you should read Jonathan North’s excellent volume. And, once you have read it, you should read his other works on Napoleonic history. You will not be disappointed.
North’s structure is clean and logical. He takes us from the decision eventually made by the French Directory, but designed by Napoleon, to abandon any hopes of crossing the Channel and landing troops in Ireland in favour of an expedition to Egypt. There had been a number of failed attempts to land in Ireland, and I would have liked more on why the Irish rebels were eventually abandoned to their own devices in May 1798, but North concentrates on the logic of trying to cut Britain’s route to India while simultaneously dealing a blow to the Ottoman Empire.
This book’s strength lies not in strategic matters, though, but in the first-hand accounts of French officers and soldiers, diplomats and the curious parcel of academics, philosophers, and civil administrators who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt with a view, it was supposed, not just to conquering the country militarily, but ideologically as well.
I fully expected Nelson’s victory over the French fleet (but not the army) at the Battle of the Nile to be one of the main focuses of the book – and, certainly, the author underlines the disaster. Refreshingly, however, he then concentrates on the dilemma in which the French were placed, as they were effectively stranded with no transport home, and disaffection with Egypt grew. Again, Admiral Sidney Smith – who did so much to thwart French plans – takes much credit, but the author is more at pains to examine Napoleon’s ill-fated excursion into Syria, and then the Emperor-to-be’s abandonment of his troops, rather than British achievements.
There follow a totally unexpected and riveting couple of chapters that analyse the often successful attempts by the French to come to terms with the culture and habits of the desert and its people, and the slow disintegration of the army and its followers once its chief had decamped to follow his political ambitions. Worse was to come when Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the general to whom command in Egypt was handed in Napoleon’s absence, was killed by a local fanatic.
The denouement comes, of course, with the amphibious landings of the British in March 1801, almost three years after the adventure began. Once again, though, North uses solely French eye-witness accounts to depict the battle, the death of the British commander, and the surrender of a dispirited and demoralised army which, nonetheless, made the British fight hard to gain the right to wear the sphinx.
It is expected now that anything coming from Jonathan North’s pen will be minutely researched and supported by outstanding footnotes. Above everything else, though, is his style of writing. Never laboured, and always sparing with the text that links first-hand accounts, the author enthrals with his depth of knowledge and skill. So buy the book and enjoy sentences like these: ‘Napoleon then quit Egypt before the years of defeat set in and, like a victorious Roman Consul returning from distance provinces, returned a saviour… He thus converted his rash and costly adventure into the most beautiful and exotic stepping stone on his path to power.’
Amberley Publishing, hbk (£22.99)