On May 20, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the lifting of the siege of Acre, marking the end of a campaign that resulted in his failure to conquer Syria and, along with Egypt, permanently block the British passage to India. This ill-fated adventure cost him almost half of his forces (including those left in the Middle East under the command of Jean-Baptiste Kléber) and prompted his return to France. There, he orchestrated a coup against the Directory, ultimately becoming consul. It was the first significant setback in his career, more severe than those in Bassano and Caldiero.

Two years earlier, the power struggle within the Directory between supporters of the monarchical majority (led by François Barthélemy and Lazare Carnot) and committed republicans (led by Jean-François Reubel and Louis Marie de La Révellière-Lépeaux) had been resolved in favor of the latter through a coup. Napoleon played a pivotal role by claiming to have uncovered a conspiracy and sending General Augerau to arrest the monarchists. This event took place on the famous 18th Fructidor of the Year V (September 4, 1797).

At that time, Napoleon was a highly esteemed military figure, thanks to his suppression of revolution enemies in 1795 and his successful intervention in Italy. Although he didn’t gain direct political power, he had considerable influence over Barras, the de facto leader of the Directory. This dependency led Barras to readily accept Napoleon’s plan to conquer the Middle East and cut off British communication with India.

The campaign gained worldwide fame in Egypt, with historians and artists participating as propagandists of the French Enlightenment. This effort gave rise to Egyptology as a science, popularized the Orientalizing style (the famous Empire style), led to the publication of the fabulous Description de l’Égypte, and resulted in the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which Champollion would later use to decipher hieroglyphics. However, the campaign also involved the conquest of Malta as a preliminary military operation.

In Egypt, the Grande Armée defeated the Mamelukes in the Battle of the Pyramids, granting Napoleon the authority to implement modernizing reforms. Despite promises to respect Islamic principles, these reforms were poorly received by the local population. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy, commanded by Nelson, destroyed the French fleet at Abukir, leaving the French army virtually isolated, especially after the British and the Ottomans formed an alliance.

Despite the inability to receive reinforcements or supplies, Napoleon persisted with his plan to emulate Alexander and reach India. He selected thirteen thousand men and marched towards Syria to confront Djezzar Pasha, the local governor known to be preparing to reconquer Egypt. Crossing the Sinai Desert weakened his forces, and it took ten days to capture El-Arish through a pact with the defenders, allowing them to leave without bearing arms against the French again.

The next city to fall, Jaffa, also resisted fiercely due to the breach of the agreement by the forces that withdrew from El-Arish, mainly Albanians, and an outbreak of cholera among the French ranks. The retaliation by the French resulted in two days of massacres and rapes, facilitating the surrender of Haifa without a fight. This led Napoleon to believe that the same would happen in Acre, estimating that he could seize the city within two weeks and reach Damascus. However, things did not unfold as expected.

The ancient Crusader fortress had become a Muslim city of strategic value, positioned dominantly on the route between Syria and Egypt, boasting a seaport, and naturally protected by a peninsula extending into the sea.

Napoleon hoped that the fall of Acre would incite a rebellion against Ottoman rule. Unfortunately for him, the enemy had anticipated him, and Commodore William Sidney Smith had just anchored there with two ships, disembarking a force of a thousand men.

Smith, a veteran of the American War of Independence, the Russo-Swedish War, and several battles against French ships, had been sent by Nelson with an eighty-gun ship, HMS Tigger, and the seventy-four-gun HMS Theseus.

This formidable artillery, combined with the land-based cannons, amounted to two hundred and fifty pieces, decisively outnumbering the French, who only had a dozen field guns, four howitzers, and siege gunboats that were useless against warships and were eventually captured.

Therefore, Napoleon was surprised to see that his initial attack on March 28, carried out solely with infantry, was thwarted by well-armed defenses. The Ottomans refused to surrender, recalling the fate in Jaffa, and the city’s Jewish population also collaborated, as Farhi, their leader, served as the governor’s aide. Napoleon’s strength lay in pitched battles, not sieges, and he overestimated his chances given the numerical and material inferiority against the enemy.

This enemy had about thirty thousand men, later reinforced by another twelve thousand five hundred, receiving continuous supplies from Cyprus and Tripoli. In contrast, French forces were dwindling due to a variety of reasons: a thousand casualties (dead and wounded) in the battles of El-Arish, Jaffa, and Haifa; another thousand were convalescing from dysentery and other diseases in the hospitals of these cities, plus Nazareth, Shafa-Arm, and Ramleh; and two thousand more were spread across the garrisons of these locations and Katiéh.

Therefore, Napoleon faced a shortage of human and material resources. In the first attack, the grenadiers advanced toward a breach but encountered a five-meter-wide trench and a three-meter-high counterscarp that forced them to retreat, losing a hundred men in the process.

Moreover, the defenders received assistance from Colonel Antoine Le Picard de Phélippeaux, an artillery officer who had studied with Bonaparte at the military school of Brienne but was in exile for anti-revolutionary activities. He arrived with new cannon batteries and organized a second perimeter line.

Phélippeaux, feeling confident, conducted several sorties to obstruct the French mining operations. Although consistently repelled and incurring eight hundred casualties, he succeeded in his goal of delaying them.

Meanwhile, Napoleon sent five hundred soldiers under General Philippe Junot to prevent Djezzar from amassing reinforcements in the rest of the territory. Insufficient on their own, Kléber’s cavalry had to come to their aid. This marked the beginning of a series of attacks and counterattacks that eventually enveloped the French, prompting them to seek Napoleon’s assistance.

Napoleon, leaving the siege of Acre in the hands of Generals Jean Lannes and Jean-Louis-Ébenezel Reynier, marched to the Fouli plain with the division of Louis André Bon, just in time to save two thousand riders under Kléber from being overwhelmed by tens of thousands of enemies. Napoleon pushed them toward the Jordan River, where he had ordered Joachim Murat—his future brother-in-law—to position himself to block their escape. The news of this victory, coupled with the imminent arrival of Admiral Perrée with three frigates carrying siege artillery, brought joy to the besiegers of Acre. It would be another disappointment.

The sorties by the defenders continued to hinder the operation, and every time the defenses were breached, unexpected ones were found behind them. Ammunition was running out, and a reward had to be offered for each recovered projectile.

General Louis Caffarelli had to have his arm amputated after being wounded by a cannon shot, while his comrade Rambeaud died in a volley of shots fired from the houses after entering the city with two hundred grenadiers. Lannes also took a shot to the neck, which caused difficulty in speaking and left his head permanently tilted.

Rambeaud’s grenadiers found themselves isolated in a mosque and only avoided being lynched because Sidney negotiated their surrender. Meanwhile, Ottoman reinforcements continued to land, and Lebanese Christians informed Napoleon of more reinforcements arriving from Rhodes. This prompted him to attempt a desperate new assault. It failed. Although his soldiers managed to clear the first line of defenders, the tables turned, and several officers from his staff lost their lives, including Bon. It became clear that it was futile to persist, especially considering an outbreak of a plague in the French camp.

Sixty-two days after its initiation (a few more, and Acre would have fallen, as Napoleon claimed to his soldiers in a display of rhetoric, as he would later admit), the siege was lifted. Initially, the numerous wounded and sick were evacuated, followed by the others. Lannes commanded the vanguard, Kléber the rearguard, with Junor covering the left flank (the right was relatively safe as it faced the coast, although Sidney’s ships occasionally cannonaded them). The sad column advanced laboriously, without water and harassed, until reaching Jaffa, where those fit for service embarked.

The plague had already begun to take its toll, and Napoleon later told the Directory that he refrained from taking Acre because it was infected. The truth is that there was hardly any impact there, and only Phélippeaux succumbed to the disease. But those spared by the plague fell victim to Djezzar, who ordered the slaughter of all Christians in the city, living up to his nickname, meaning “the Butcher.” Years earlier, he had earned this name by ambushing a Bedouin tribe and massacring them in revenge for the death of his master. In reality, his name was Ahmed Pervan, and he was a former Mameluke slave, originally from Bosnia, who had served as the governor of Cairo and Beirut before being appointed pasha of Acre by Sultan Abdulhamid I.

Napoleon had lost five thousand men. As he would do on other occasions, he left his troops behind, reached Egypt, and sailed to France, where he orchestrated the coup of the 18th Brumaire that led to his consulship, evading the British blockade and leaving Kléber in command with the order to resist until reinforcements arrived. He authorized surrender if they did not arrive before January 1800, and as they didn’t, Kléber negotiated with the Ottomans in El-Arish for the repatriation of the French army. The British opposed it, but Sidney intervened, acting independently.

By that point, the commodore enjoyed great popularity. He had lost the Theseus in an accident—a fire caused the powder magazine to explode, nearly sinking the ship—but managed to capture the three French frigates, and his contribution to the salvation of Acre was decisive (That man made me lose my destiny, Napoleon said of him). Sidney approved the agreement between Kléber and the sultan. Ironically, in the long run, this would arouse suspicion from superiors, although for the time being, commanding the Tiger, he still participated in the invasion of Abukir led by Sir Ralph Abercromby. Sidney would fight in multiple battles during the Napoleonic Wars and eventually dedicate himself to combating slavery.

From that Syrian adventure, various stories and anecdotes, some improbable and others impossible to verify, have endured. It was said that Napoleon promised Farhi, Djezzar’s right-hand man, to deliver Palestine to the Jews and restore Solomon’s Temple if he switched sides. If the proposal was real, and despite Farhi being Jewish, he did not accept, as seen earlier, but it all seems more like a later apocryphal rumor. However, it is known that the French legislated in favor of Jews and Coptic Christians in the territories they controlled.

On another note, a humorous Arab legend tells that Napoleon’s last order before lifting the siege was to fire a cannon at Acre loaded with his hat, so at least a part of him could enter the city. Perhaps it was a consolation for him—lean as he was—to know that Acre still has a street named after him, and the place where his camp was located is now called Napoleon’s Hill. Not bad for what was the first major setback in his career.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 21, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en El fallido asedio de Acre, primer gran fracaso de Napoleón

Sources

Napoleon Bonaparte, Guerre d’Orient: Campagnes de Égypte et de Syrie, 1798-1799 (memorias dictadas al general Bertrand) | Miguel del Rey, Napoleón en Oriente. Las campañas de Egipto y Siria | Albert Manfred, Napoleón Bonaparte | Andrew Roberts, Napoleón. Una vida | John Knox Laughton, Smith, William Sidney (en Dictionary of National Biography) | Juan Antonio Granados Loureda, Breve historia de Napoleón | Wikipedia


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