Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 15

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIX, chapter 15
The Army’s opinion

But was Bonaparte, in the midst of the cares which preoccupied him and the plans he had conceived, truly obsessed? While he appeared to wish to stay in Egypt, fiction had not blinded him to reality, and he wrote to Joseph, his brother: ‘I expect to be in France in two months time; make sure I have a country house when I arrive, near Paris or in Burgundy; I count on spending the winter there.’ Bonaparte never thought for a moment that anyone might oppose his return: his will was his destiny and his fortune. This correspondence having fallen into the Admiralty’s hands, the English dared to suggest that Napoleon had no other object than to destroy his army. One of Bonaparte’s letters contains complaints about his wife’s coquetry.

The French, in Egypt, were all the more heroic in that they felt their ills vividly. A sergeant wrote to one of his friends: ‘Tell Ledoux not to be foolish enough as to embark for this wretched country.’

Avrieury: ‘Everyone who goes inland says that Alexandria is the best of the towns: alas, what must the rest be like! Imagine a confused pile of badly-built one-storey houses; the finest with a terrace, a little wooden door, lock idem; no windows, but a wooden grill so close-made that it is impossible to see anyone on the other side. Narrow streets: except the quarter for the French and the grandees. The poorer inhabitants, who make up the vast number, naked save for a blue shift down to mid-thigh, which is rucked up half the time by their movements, a belt and a ragged turban. I have had my fill of this charming country. I hate being here. Wretched Egypt! Sand everywhere! What a joke of a nation, dear friend! All these fortune seekers, or rather all these thieves, are depressed; they would like to go back where they came from: I can well believe it.’

Rozis, captain: ‘We are very wretched; also there is general discontent in the army; the tyranny has never been as bad as today; we have soldiers who have been put to death in front of the commander in chief, while shouting at him: This is all your doing!’

The name of Tallien shall terminate the list of these virtual unknowns today:

‘As for me, my dear friend, I am here, as you know, much against my will; my situation becomes more disagreeable day by day, since, far from my country, and all I hold dear, I cannot foresee the time when I will return to it.
I confess to you freely, I would a thousand times prefer to be settled with you and your daughter in some corner of the earth, far from all passion, all intrigue, and I assure you that if I have the good fortune to touch the soil of my own land again, it will be in order to leave it no more. Among the forty thousand Frenchmen here, there are scarcely four of them who think otherwise.
Nothing is sadder than the life we lead here! We lack everything. For five days I have not closed my eyes; I am lying on the floor; the flies, bugs, ants, mosquitoes, all the insects devour us, and twenty times a day I regret our delightful cottage. I beg you, my dear friend, don’t relinquish it.
Farewell, my good Thérésia, tears flood the paper. The sweetest memories of your kindness, of our love, the hope of finding you ever-loving, ever-faithful, of embracing my dear daughter, they alone sustain me in wretchedness.’

Fidelity counted for something in those days.

This unanimity of complaint is the natural exaggeration of men who have tumbled from the heights of illusion: the French have always dreamed of the East; chivalry traced out a route for them; if they no longer had the faith which might lead them to the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre, they had the courage of crusaders, and a belief in the royalty and beauty that the chroniclers and troubadours wove around Godfrey. The victorious soldiers of Italy saw a rich country to capture, caravans to rob, horses, weapons and seraglios to conquer; novelists caught a glimpse of the Princess of Antioch, and scholars added their dreams to the enthusiasm of the poets. It was not just about the Voyage de Anténor, which passed at first for scholarly reality: they would penetrate mysterious Egypt, descend into the catacombs, search the Pyramids, find unknown manuscripts, decipher the hieroglyphics and awaken Thermosiris. When, instead of all that, the Institute descending on the Pyramids, the soldiers encountering only naked fellahin and dried mud huts, found themselves faced with plague, Bedouin and Mamelukes, it was an enormous disappointment. But their unmerited suffering blinded them to the permanent result. The French sowed in Egypt the seeds of civilisation which Méhémet has cultivated: Bonaparte’s glory increased; a ray of light penetrated the darkness of Islam, and barbarism was breached.