This finely executed and beautifully coloured manuscript plan depicts the Battle of Abukir (1799), a critical event during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egypt Campaign. During this dramatic battle, a French army routed a much larger Ottoman force, and, in doing so, stopped the planned Turkish re-conquest of Egypt. Not only did the battle preserve the French presence in Egypt for another two years, but is provided Napoleon with a desperately-needed PR victory that allowed him to return home a hero, and to become the dictator of France.
The present map, while beautifully executed and correctly depicting the major actions of the Battle of Abukir, drafted over a generation after the battle occurred, it is obviously not a primary source. The map seems to have been derived from Ambroise Tardieu’s plan, Bataille d’Aboukir, which appeared within the book Victoires, conquêtes, désastres, revers et guerres civiles des Français de 1792 à 1815 (Paris, 1818), vol. 11 (p. 23). Tardieu, in turn, loosely based his depiction on Dominique Vivant Denon’s authoritative map of the battle, ‘Plan de la Bataille d’Aboukir le 27 Juillet 1799’ contained within his great work, Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute-Egypte pendant les Campagnes du General Bonaparte (Paris 1807).
The present manuscript was drafted by Jacob Bodendorfer (signed and dated ‘4/9 1833’ lower left margin), who we later became an infantry officer in the Imperial Austrian Army. While a matter of conjecture, Bodendorfer may have drafted the map while still a cadet, as part of a training exercise in military cartography.
The Battle of Aboukir – Napoleon’s Critical Victory
The Battle of Abukir was a key event during Napoleon Bonaparte’s flamboyant (yet ultimately disastrous) Egypt Campaign (1798 – 1801). To set the scene, Napoleon had conquered most of Egypt in 1798, although his forces would always have trouble controlling the country. The former Mameluke Dynasty never formally surrendered and mounted a guerrilla campaign, while the Ottoman Empire, Egypt’s nominal overlord, vowed to evict the French. Making matters worse, Britain’s Royal Navy crushed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile (1798,), essentially severing the French force’s connection with the homeland.
As Napoleon’s bedraggled and depleted armies returned to Egypt from their quixotic Palestine-Syria Campaign, the Ottomans saw an opportunity to retake Egypt. They sent a large force, of 18,000 men, under Seid Mustafa Pasha, an experienced veteran of the Ottoman-Russian wars. This force was transported from Turkey courtesy of the British Navy.
Mustafa Pasha chose the port of Abukir (Abu Qir), to the northwest of Alexandria, as his landing point and initial base of operations. As shown on the present plan, the town was well-fortified and nicely situated on the end of a peninsula allowing good communications to the British fleet. From Abukir, Alexandria was only a shot march away, and from there Mustafa could link up with the Egyptian guerillas to march on Cairo. In theory, the Pasha’s plan was sound.
As shown here, Mustafa made two defensive lines, on either side of the fortified rise that guarded the landward approach to the town. As noted in the key, in the lower right part of the map, Mustafa based himself at c. Hauptquartier das Pascha (The Pascha’s Headquarters) in the heart of the town, closely guarded by his cavalry regiment, a. Türkische Cavalerie. (Turkish Cavalry); while the main part of his army was set up between the town and the inner defensive line, at b. Türkische Lager. (Turkish Camp), which also housed the army’s auxiliary troops, d. Türkische Reserve. (Turkish Reserve forces).
However, a complacent Mustafa proceeded to make a serious error by procrastinating in the relative comfort of Abukir, instead of quickly marching upon Alexandria. If he had done the latter, it is widely held that the city would have fallen easily. Instead he allowed Napoleon’s forces to reorganize themselves and go on the offensive.
In the early hours of July 25, 1799, a French force of 9,000 French forces under Napoleon, with lighting cavalry under General Joachim Murat, assembled along the ridge of hills at the base of the Abukir Peninsula, as shown on the present map. The Ottomans were in a somewhat somnolent state and were slow to react to the threat.
The French made a lightning strike upon the outer Ottoman line, which quickly folded. However, their assault upon the second line was initially repelled. At the same time, the Ottomans looked a touch dazed and confused, unwisely leaving a hole in their defences. Murat saw his opportunity and led a rapid cavalry strike thought he breach, catching the defenders completely off guard.
Murat personally stormed the started Mustafa’s tent, and in a scuffle severed two of the Pasha’s fingers with his sabre. In response, Mustafa shot Murat in the jaw, before being subdued and taken prisoner. Amazingly, both men survived and quickly recovered.
The Ottoman forces were then thrust into chaos, with many troops attempting to swim to the British vessels off shore, with thousands drowning in the sea. The battle was a complete route with 8,000 Turkish casualties (to only 1,000 French fallen), with the rest taken prisoner.
The Ottoman re-conquest of Egypt was stopped cold, giving the French occupation a reprieve of execution. That being said, the French regime was living on borrowed time, as local opposition would force France out of Egypt in 1801. Importantly, however, the victory at Abukir gave Napoleon a critical PR victory that allowed him to declare himself dictator of France shortly after his return home (disguising the fact that his Egypt Campaign was an overall fiasco). In this sense the Battle of Abukir was of great historical consequence, as if there was no Aboukir (or if the French lost the battle), Napoleon Bonaparte would likely have been a historical footnote, as opposed to a Pan-European Emperor.