Today on July 21, 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army decisively beats the Mamluk warriors at the Battle of the Pyramids.
The Battle of Pyramids, also known as the Battle of Embabeh, was the first major conflict in the French Invasion of Egypt. Under the command of General Napoleon Bonaparte, their mission was to invade Egypt then march overland towards India — threatening Britain’s valuable holdings in the far east. But there were other motives as well. Napoleon desperately wanted to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Alexander the Great. At the age of 29, Napoleon was already the talk of Europe. He achieved several stunning victories during the Italian campaign of the French Revolutionary Wars. The young and confident general began drafting plans for conquest in the east. On May 19, 1798, he set sail from Toulon with more than 40,000 soldiers. Hundreds of transport vessels, protected by 13 battleships, sailed toward the port of Alexandria. Along the way, French forces captured British-held Malta and installed a new garrison in Valletta.
“Europe is but a molehill; everything wears out. This tiny Europe does not offer enough glory. We must go to the east; all great glory has always been gained there.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
The Egypt of Napoleon’s time had evolved into an Islamic state with mosques and minarets dominating Cairo’s skyline. The ancient country was now governed mainly by Mamluk warriors. Upon disembarking at Alexandria, the port city fell with little resistance. Napoleon’s immediate objective was to capture Cairo. But there was a serious problem. The army was completely ill-prepared for the stifling heat of the Egyptian desert. Men were equipped with wool uniforms and had inadequate waterbottles. Regardless, Napoleon ignored these issues and ordered them to march on. The situation quickly turned into chaos. Soldiers died or committed suicide every day — dysentery swelled among his ranks. Upon reaching the Nile three weeks later, the men broke formation and ran into the river.
Despite heavy losses, the army prepared for the inevitable Battle of the Pyramids. Napoleon knew they would face stiff resistance as they approached Cairo. The Mamluk’s formed a defensive line just outside of the city. Their forces mostly consisted of elite and experienced cavalrymen. Mamluk soldiers wore exotic uniforms and were well-armed with rifles, swords, daggers, pistols, and axes. At 2 p.m., the French advanced on their defensive position with the pyramids glimmering in the background. Napoleon ordered the men to form into the iconic square formations — a tactic he pioneered at the Battle of the Pyramids. The square formation consisted of rifles along the outside parametre and artillery on the corners. Baggage and cavalry units were protected in the center of the square.
“Soldiers, from the height of these pyramids, forty centuries look down upon you.” — Napoleon to his soldiers at the Battle of the Pyramids.
Napoleon delivered an inspirational speech to his soldiers before the fighting began. The Mamluk horses opened the battle by charging the squares. Napoleon’s well-trained soldiers held off firing until the enemy was directly upon them. The French infantry inflicted devastating casualties while easily holding their positions. The Mamluk cavalry reformed and attempted another charge. But again, they were met with heavy fire. The decisive Battle of the Pyramids left nearly 20,000 Mamluk warriors dead on the field. It’s estimated that only a few dozen of Napoleon’s men lost their lives. The French stripped the fallen Mamluk’s of their jewels and elegant weapons.
The French army entered Cairo and occupied the abandoned palaces left by the fleeing Mamluks. While Napoleon had gained victory on land, he faced utter defeat at sea — a trend that would haunt him for the rest of his career. Despite poor intelligence, British Vice-Admiral Nelson was determined to hunt down the French navy. After numerous failed searches, he found the fleet anchored at Aboukir Bay. The British virtually destroyed the entire fleet at what is now known as the Battle of Nile. The French flagship L’Orient famously exploded during the battle.