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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

Were assailed by the Mamelukes


Bonaparte flinched not. His stern composure offered the best rebuke to such childish sallies; and when out of a murmuring group there came the bold remark, "Well, General, are you going to take us to India thus," he abashed the speaker and his comrades by the quick retort, "No, I would not undertake that with such soldiers as you." French honour, touched to the quick, reasserted itself even above the torments of thirst; and the troops themselves, when they tardily reached the Nile and slaked their thirst in its waters, recognized the pre-eminence of his will and his profound confidence in their endurance. French gaiety had not been wholly eclipsed even by the miseries of the desert march. To cheer their drooping spirits the commander had sent some of the staunchest generals along the line of march. Among them was the gifted Caffarelli, who had lost a leg in the Rhenish campaign: his reassuring words called forth the inimitable retort from the ranks: "Ah! he don't care, not he: he has one leg in France." Scarcely less witty was the soldier's description of the prowling Bedouins, who cut off stragglers and plunderers, as "The mounted highway police."

After brushing aside a charge of 800 Mamelukes at Chebreiss, the army made its way up the banks of the Nile to Embabeh, opposite Cairo. There the Mamelukes, led by the fighting Bey, Murad, had their fortified camp; and there that superb cavalry prepared to overwhelm the invaders in a whirlwind rush

of horse (July 21st, 1798). The occasion and the surroundings were such as to inspire both sides with deperate resolution. It was the first fierce shock on land of eastern chivalry and western enterprise since the days of St. Louis; and the ardour of the republicans was scarcely less than that which had kindled the soldiers of the cross. Beside the two armies rolled the mysterious Nile; beyond glittered the slender minarets of Cairo; and on the south there loomed the massy Pyramids. To the forty centuries that had rolled over them, Bonaparte now appealed, in one of those imaginative touches which ever brace the French nature to the utmost tension of daring and endurance. Thus they advanced in close formation towards the intrenched camp of the Mamelukes. The divisions on the left at once rushed at its earthworks, silenced its feeble artillery, and slaughtered the fellahin inside.

But the other divisions, now ranged in squares, while gazing at this exploit, were assailed by the Mamelukes. From out the haze of the mirage, or from behind the ridges of sand and the scrub of the water-melon plants that dotted the plain, some 10,000 of these superb horsemen suddenly appeared and rushed at the squares commanded by Desaix and Reynier. Their richly caparisoned chargers, their waving plumes, their wild battle-cries, and their marvellous skill with carbine and sword, lent picturesqueness and terror to the charge. Musketry and grapeshot mowed down their front coursers in ghastly swathes; but the living mass swept on, wellnigh overwhelming the fronts of the squares, and then, swerving aside, poured through the deadly funnel between. Decimated here also by the steady fire of the French files, and by the discharges of the rear face, they fell away exhausted, leaving heaps of dead and dying on the fronts of the squares, and in their very midst a score of their choicest cavaliers, whose bravery and horsemanship had carried them to certain death amidst the bayonets. The French now assumed the offensive, and Desaix's division, threatening to cut off the retreat of Murad's horsemen, led that wary chief to draw off his shattered squadrons; others sought, though with terrible losses, to escape across the Nile to Ibrahim's following. That chief had taken no share in the fight, and now made off towards Syria. Such was the battle of the Pyramids, which gained a colony at the cost of some thirty killed and about ten times as many wounded: of the killed about twenty fell victims to the cross fire of the two squares.[104]

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