Napoleon’s Prisoners

It is 1799 and we are in what we call in the modern-day “The Land of Milk and Honey” (or Mossad and Hamas).

General Napoleon Bonaparte is 28 years old when he leaves to lead the Egypt campaign. The operation is intended to threaten british interests in India, as it was still France’s archenemy.

Napoleon lands in July 1798 in Alexandria with 25,000 men and marches on Cairo. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson of the British navy takes advantage of this by destroying the French naval fleet at Aboukir. The French army, isolated, therefore heads west. Without much effort, it takes Arish on February 20th, Gaza on the 24th,  and Ramallah on the 28th.

But in Jaffa, there’s a snag: a resistance of 5,000 men is organized in the city.

The emissary sent by Bonaparte must not have been very convincing because he is decapitated by the besieged, and his head displayed on the battlements. A vengeful and fierce attack is organized against these ‘barbarians’. 2,000 fighters are killed by the French army, who only lost around 50 men in the battle. The 3,000 survivors take refuge in nearby buildings and begin negotiating the conditions of their surrender.

Bonaparte’s advisors consent to sparing their lives. They then officially became prisoners. But the general is furious, “Where do you want me to put 3,000 prisoners?”  “How do we monitor or feed them?” “You think that we can don’t have enough to do?” In order to fix the problem… the prisoners were discretely executed between the 8th and 10th of March – mostly via the bayonet in order to save munitions.

The status of prisoners of war wasn’t really defined until 1907 with the Hague Convention This was reinforced with the Geneva Convention of 1929 and 1949 Before this, a prisoner was often just dead weight.

During antiquity, he would have been reduced to slavery. And if he was an officer or sovereign, he would have been used as a hostage or a bartering tool. This was notably the case with King Francis I of France, who was taken prisoner by the army of Charles V after his defeat at the Battle of Pavia in 1525. When a prisoner wasn’t of any use, his fate was left up to the discretion of the victorious armies. Well now, there’s a very ancient Latin expression that is very clear on the subject: “Vae Victis”… “Woe to the vanquished”

Napoleon was sent to make war in Egypt by the Directory, the young general benefited from a bulky reputation especially after his victories in the Italian campaign at Arcola and Rivoli. We know that he was ambitious, so it was probably a way for them to distance him from Paris all the while benefiting from his military talents.

As for Napoleon himself, he saw an occasion to increase his reputation, and he saw himself as following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar.

The wars in Egypt and Syria lasted over two years, A third of all French forces involved died there from disease or in combat. We can speak readily about the expedition in Egypt because the army was accompanied by more than 160 scholars, engineers, historians, and artists.

In order to counter English propaganda about his abuses in Jaffa, Napoleon immortalized his visit to the plague victims in May 1799.

bonaparte visiting the plague victims of jaffa
Oil on canvas – Antoine-Jean Gros

“Bonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa“, was painted in 1804 by Jean-Antoine Gros, so 5 years after the actual events. We see a gloveless Napoleon touching a plague victim with his bare hand irrespective of the danger. It alludes to the old myth about the kings of France supposedly having the power to heal by contact.

We have a tendency to forget that, at the time, he had proposed to euthanize the sick just for convenience. Napoleon never really expressed remorse for having those 3,000 unarmed men killed But he did miss the liberty that he benefited from while in Egypt. Count Chapal reports these words of the emperor:

In Europe, only Wellington and I are capable of carrying out such measures. But a difference between him and I is that France, which we call a nation, will criticize me whereas England will approve of him.

I have only ever been free in Egypt. Thus I have allowed myself to carry out such measures.