Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 16

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIX, chapter 16
The Syrian Campaign



In order to prevent hostilities by the Pashas of Syria and pursue the Mamelukes, on the 22nd of February 1799 Bonaparte entered that region of the world which the action at Aboukir had bequeathed to him. Napoleon was deceived; it was merely one of his dreams of power he was pursuing. Happier than Cambyses, he crossed the desert without encountering the southerly wind; he camped among tombs; he assaulted El-Arish, and triumphed in Gaza: ‘We reached,’ he wrote on the 6th, ‘the pillars planted at the boundary of Africa and Asia; we slept that night in Asia.’ That great man marched to the conquest of the world; he was a conqueror of climates which were not to be conquered.

Jaffa was taken. After the assault, a portion of the garrison estimated by Bonaparte at twelve hundred men and taken by others to be two or three thousand, surrendered and were shown mercy: two days later, Bonaparte ordered their execution.

Walter Scott and Sir Robert Wilson have told of these massacres; Bonaparte, at Elba and St Helena, found no difficulty in admitting them to Lord Ebrington, and the doctor O’Meara. But he rejected their odium because of the position in which he found himself: he could not feed the prisoners; he could not send them back to Egypt unguarded. Allow them their liberty on parole? They would not even have comprehended such a point of honour and such European procedures. ‘Wellington, in my place,’ he said, ‘would have acted as I did.’

‘Napoleon decided,’ says Monsieur Thiers, ‘on a terrible measure which is the only cruel action of his life; he had the remaining prisoners put to death at the blade of the sword; the army carried out, with obedience but with a species of terror, the execution he had commanded.’

The only cruel action of his life, that is a fine assertion after the massacres at Toulon, after all Napoleon’s campaigns that treated human life as of no account. It is a glorious thing for France that our soldiers protested, by a species of terror, against their general’s cruelty.

But did the massacres at Jaffa save our army? Had Bonaparte not seen how easily a handful of Frenchmen had overthrown the forces of the Pasha of Damascus? At Aboukir, had he not destroyed thirteen thousand Ottomans with a few cavalry? Had not Kléber, later, made a Grand Vizir and his myriads of Mahometans vanish? If he was acting rightly, what right did the French have to invade Egypt? Why did he cut the throats of men who were only employing the right of self-defence? Finally, Bonaparte could not invoke the rules of war, because the prisoners of the Jaffa garrison had laid down their arms and their surrender had been accepted. The event which the conqueror tried hard to justify embarrassed him; that event is passed over in silence or indicated vaguely in the official despatches and the reminiscences of men attached to Bonaparte. ‘I will avoid,’ says Doctor Larrey, ‘speaking about the horrible aftermath entailed in an assault: I was the sad witness of that at Jaffa.’ Bourrienne wrote: ‘That atrocious scene still makes me shudder when I think of it, as on the day I saw it, and I would prefer to forget it than be forced to describe it. Everything one could imagine of a day steeped in blood would still fall short of the reality.’ Bonaparte wrote to the Directory that; ‘Jaffa was delivered over to pillage and all the horrors of war which had never seemed so hideous to me.’ Those horrors, who commanded them?

On the 5th of May 1809, Berthier, companion to Napoleon in Egypt, being head-quartered at Enns, in Austria, addressed a forceful despatch to the major general of the Austrian army, violently opposing a claimed shooting incident in the Tyrol, where Chasteler commanded: ‘He has allowed the destruction (Chasteler) of seven hundred French prisoners and eighteen or nineteen hundred Bavarians; a crime unheard-of in the history of nations, which would have deserved a terrible reprisal if His Majesty had not considered the prisoners as protected by his faith and honour.’

Bonaparte says here all that can be said against the execution of the prisoners at Jaffa. What did such contradictions matter to him? He knew the truth and made light of it; he treated it as if it were a lie; he only had regard for the end, the means were all the same to him; the number of prisoners was an embarrassment, he killed them.

There were always two Bonapartes: one great, the other little. When you think to enter Napoleon’s life in safety, he renders that life appalling.

Miot, in the first edition of his Memoirs (1804) is silent about the massacre; one only finds it in the 1814 edition. Copies of that edition are scarce; I had difficulty finding one. To confirm a truth so tragic, I never accept less than an eye-witness’s report. One can know about the existence of something superficially, or one can comprehend its specifics: the moral truth of an event is only revealed in the details of that event; here they are according to Miot:

‘On the afternoon of the 20th Ventôse (10th of March, 1799), the Jaffa prisoners were marched into the centre of a vast square of soldiers formed by General Bon’s troops. A rumour of the fate being prepared for them made me determine, like many others, to mount my horse and follow that silent column of victims, to ascertain whether what I had been told had any foundation. The Turks, marching out of step, foresaw their fate; there were no tears; there were no cries; they were resigned. Some of the wounded, being unable to follow quickly enough, were executed at bayonet point. Others circulated in the crowd, and seemed to be giving advice helpful in the light of such imminent danger. Perhaps they hoped that by scattering over the area they were crossing, a certain number might evade death. All due measures had been taken in that regard, and the Turks made no attempt to escape.

Arriving eventually at the sand-dunes to the south-west of Jaffa, they were halted by a pool of yellowish water. There the officer commanding the troops divided the mass of men into several sections, and these groups, led to several different places, were shot. This terrible action required a great deal of time, despite the number of soldiers, reserved for the fatal sacrifice, and who, I must declare, only lent themselves with extreme repugnance to the abominable task demanded of their victorious weapons. Near to the pool of water one group of prisoners, among whom were several older leaders of calm and noble appearance, and a young man whose resolve was weak. At so tender an age, he believed himself innocent, and that feeling drove him to an act that seemed to shock those around him. He threw himself at the legs of the horse carrying the leader of the French troops; he clasped that officer’s knee, and implored his mercy. He shouted; ‘What am I guilty of? What wrong have I done?’ The tears he wept, his touching cries, were in vain; he could not alter the fatal order that determined his doom. With the exception of this young man, all the other Turks calmly washed themselves in the stagnant water of which I have spoken, then, taking each other’s hand, after carrying it to the heart and the mouth, as the Muslim greeting goes, they gave and received an eternal farewell. Their courageous hearts appeared to defy death; in their tranquillity one saw the confidence that their religion inspired in them, in those last moments, and their hope of a joyful afterlife. They seemed to say; ‘I leave this world to go and enjoy closeness to Mahomet in a lasting happiness.’ Thus that well-being after death, that the Koran promises him, sustains the Muslim, conquered but proud in his misfortune.

I saw a respectable old man, whose taste and manners proclaimed his superior status, I saw him….coolly dig a hole in the shifting sand before him, deep enough to bury himself alive: doubtless he did not wish to die except by his own hands. He lay down on his back in this sure and mournful tomb, and his friends, calling on God in suppliant prayer, covered him completely with sand, and then stamped on the dust which served him as a shroud, probably with the aim of hastening the duration of his suffering.

This scene, which made my heart thud, and which I have only feebly depicted, took place during the execution of the groups distributed among the dunes. At last, of all those prisoners, the only ones left were those standing near the pool of water. Our soldiers had exhausted their cartridges; they had to finish off the prisoners with bayonets and knives. I could not stand the dreadful sight; I fled, pale and ready to faint. The officers told me that night that those unfortunates, yielding to that irresistible natural urge to avoid death, even when they no longer hoped to escape it, flung themselves on top of one another, and received in their limbs the blows directed at their hearts which would have instantly ended their lives. They made, since it must be said, a dreadful pyramid, of dead and dying pouring out blood, and it was necessary to drag away the corpses of those already expired in order to reach the wretches who, sheltered by this awful, appalling rampart, had not yet been stabbed. The depiction is exact and faithful, and the memory makes my hand tremble which cannot describe the totality of the horror.’

The part of Napoleon’s life which contrasts with such pages explains the remoteness one feels from him.

Guided by the monks from the monastery of Jaffa to the sands south-west of the town, I made a tour of the burial site, once heaped with corpses, today a pyramid of remains; I walked among pomegranate trees burdened with ruby red fruit, while round me the first swallows, arrived from Europe, skimmed that fatal ground.

Heaven punishes violations of human rights: it sends the plague; it does not wreak total havoc in one go. Bourrienne criticises the error of historians who place the scene depicted in The Plague-Victims of Jaffa during the first French entry to that town; it only took place after the return from Saint-Jean d’Acre. Several army officers have previously assured me that the scene was pure fiction; Bourrienne confirms this information:

‘The beds of the plague-stricken,’ Napoleon’s secretary informs us, ‘were on the right on entering the first room. I walked beside the general; I confirm that I did not see him touch any of the plague-victims…He traversed the rooms rapidly, lightly tapping the yellow flap of his boot with the riding crop he held in his hand. While walking with long strides he uttered these words: “…I must return to Egypt to save her from the enemy who will soon arrive.”’

In the major-general’s official report of the 29th of May, not a word is said about plague-victims, the visit to the hospital, or the touching of plague-sufferers.

What becomes of Gros’ fine painting? It remains a masterpiece of art.

Saint Louis, less favoured by painters, was more heroic in action: ‘The good king, gentle and debonair, when he saw this, felt great pity in his heart, and set all other things aside for now, and had ditches dug in the fields and dedicated a cemetery there on behalf of the legate…the king helped inter the dead with his own hands. There was scarcely anyone who would give a helping hand. The king came, every morning of the five days it took to inter the dead, after mass, to the place, and said to his people: “Let us go and bury the martyrs who have suffered for Our Lord, and not weary of doing so, for they have suffered more than we have.” There, were present, in ceremonial habits, the Archbishop of Tyre and the Bishop of Damietta and their clergy who performed the service for the dead. But they held their noses because of the stench; though good King Louis was not seen by anyone to hold his nose, so steadfastly and devotedly did he act.’

Bonaparte laid siege to Saint-Jean-d’Acre. Blood was shed at Cana, which witnessed the healing of the nobleman’s son by Christ; at Nazareth, which saw the Saviour’s peaceful childhood; at Thabor, which saw the transfiguration and where Peter said: ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles.’ It was from Mount Thabor that the order of day was dispatched to all the troops occupying Sour (the ancient Tyre), Caeserea, the Cataracts of the Nile, the Delta mouths, Alexandria and the shores of the Red Sea, which bear the ruins of Kolsum and Arsinoe. Bonaparte was charmed with these names which he delighted in placing together.

In this country of miracles, Kléber and Murat renewed the feats of arms performed by Tancred and Rinaldo; they scattered the population of Syria, seized the Pasha of Damascus’ camp, saw the Jordan, and the Sea of Galilee, and took possession of Scafet, ancient Bethulia. – Bonaparte remarked that the inhabitants pointed out the place where Judith killed Holofernes.

The Arab children of the mountains of Judea taught me the surest of traditions when they shouted in French to me: ‘Forward march!’ ‘These same deserts, ‘as I say in Les Martyrs, ‘have seen the armies of Sesostris, Cambyses, Alexander and Caesar march by: centuries to come, you will send here armies no less numerous, warriors no less celebrated!’

After tracking the still recent footsteps of Bonaparte in the East, I returned when there was nothing more to be seen of his route. Saint-Jean was defended by Djezzar the Butcher. Bonaparte wrote to him from Jaffa on the 9th of March 1799: ‘Since my entry into Egypt, I have made known to you on various occasions that my intention was not to make war on you, and that my sole aim was to pursue the Mamelukes….I will be marching in a few days time to Saint-Jean-d’Acre. But, what reason do I have to waste years of my life on an old man I do not know? What are a few leagues more given the countries I have conquered?’

Djezzar was unmoved by these attentions: the old tiger defied the claws of his young adversary. He was surrounded by servants mutilated by his own hands. ‘They say Djezzar is a cruel Bosnian,’ he said of himself (narrative of General Sébastiani) ‘a person of no account; but I need no one to wait on me and they seek me out. I was born poor; my father left me nothing but his courage. I have risen by hard labour; but that does not make me proud: since all things come to an end, today perhaps, or tomorrow, Djezzar will come to an end, not because he is old, as his enemies declare, but because God wills it so. The King of France, who was powerful, is no more; Nebuchadnezzar was killed by a gnat, etc.’

At the end of sixty-one days of digging, Napoleon was forced to lift the siege of Saint-Jean d’Acre. Our soldiers, leaving their mud huts, ran after the enemy canon balls that our canons were returning to them. Our troops, forced to defend themselves from the town and the English ships at anchor, delivered nine assaults and scaled the ramparts on five occasions. At the time of the Crusades, there was, according to Rigord, a tower at Saint-Jean-d’Acre called the accursed. This tower had been replaced perhaps by the large tower which caused Bonaparte’s attack to fail. Our soldiers leapt down into the streets, where they fought hand to hand throughout the night. General Lannes was wounded in the head, Colbert in the legs: among the dead were Rambaut, Venoux and General Bon, who carried out the massacre of the prisoners at Jaffa. Kléber said of this siege: ‘The Turks defended themselves like Christians, the French attacked like Turks’: a criticism made by a soldier who had no love for Napoleon. Bonaparte left proclaiming that he had razed Djezzar’s palace and bombarded the town until not a stone was left standing, that Djezzar had retreated with his men to one of the coastal forts, that he was grievously wounded, and that the frigates had, on Napoleon’s orders, seized thirty Syrian boats full of troops.

Sir Sydney Smith and Phelippeaux, an émigré artillery officer, assisted Djezzar: the former had been a prisoner in the Temple, the latter a companion of Napoleon’s studies.

Long ago the flower of chivalry, under Philippe-Auguste had perished before Saint-Jean-d’Acre. My compatriot, Guillaume le Breton, tells us so in twelfth-century Latin verse: ‘Throughout the kingdom one could scarcely find a place in which someone did not have a reason for tears; so great was the disaster that sent our heroes to the grave, when they were struck down by death in the town of Ascalon (Saint-Jean-d’Acre).’

Bonaparte was a great magician, but he lacked the power to transform General Bon, killed at Ptolemais, into Raoul, Sire de Coucy, who, expiring at the foot of the ramparts of that town, wrote to La Dame de Fayel: ‘Dead through loyally loving his lover.’

Napoleon could not have easily ignored the song of the canteors, he who was nourished on Saint-Jean-d’Acre as well as other tales. In the last days of his life, under a sky that is not ours, he was pleased to divulge what he intended in Syria, if that is he was not inventing plans after the fact, and amusing himself by building a fabulous future he wished us to believe in, on a past reality. ‘Master of Ptolemais,’ we recount those revelations of St Helena, ‘Napoleon founded an Empire in the East, and France was left to her fate. He flew to Damascus, Aleppo, and the Euphrates. The Syrian Christians, even those of Armenia, would have flocked to him. The nations were weakened. The remnants of the Mamelukes, the Desert Arabs of Egypt, the Druze of Lebanon, the Mutualis or oppressed Mahometans of the sect of Ali, were able to join the army which was master of Syria, and the tremor communicated itself to all Arabia. The provinces of the Ottoman Empire that spoke Arabic hailed the great change and waited on a man of happy destiny; he could be found on the Euphrates, in mid-summer, with a hundred thousand auxiliaries and a reserve of twenty-five thousand Frenchmen whom he had transferred successively from Egypt. He would have reached Constantinople and India and changed the face of the world.’

Before retreating from Saint-Jean-d’Acre, the French army touched at Tyre: abandoned by Solomon’s fleets and the Macedonian phalanxes, Tyre guarded only the imperturbable solitude of Isaiah; a solitude in which the dumb dogs refuse to bark.

The siege of Saint-Jean-d’Acre was raised on the 20th of May 1799. Arriving in Jaffa on the 27th, Bonaparte was forced to continue his retreat. There were about thirty or forty plague-sufferers, a number which Napoleon belittled to seven, who could not be moved; not wishing to leave them behind him, for fear, he said, of exposing them to the cruelty of the Turks, he proposed that Desgenettes administer a strong dose of opium to them. Desgenettes gave his well-known reply: ‘My trade is to heal men, not kill them.’ ‘No one administered opium to them,’ says Monsieur Thiers, ‘and his comment has merely served to propagate an unworthy calumny which is today discredited.’

Is it a calumny? Is it discredited? That is something I am unable to affirm in as peremptory a manner as the brilliant historian; his reasoning amounts to this: that Bonaparte did not poison the plague-sufferers because he only proposed to poison them.

Desgenettes, from a humble family of Breton gentlemen, is still held in veneration by the Syrian Arabs, and Wilson says that his name ought to be written solely in letters of gold.

Bourrienne wrote ten whole pages maintaining the poisoning occurred against those who denied it: ‘I cannot say that I saw the dose being given,’ he says, ‘I would be lying; but I am quite positive that the decision was made, and must have been made after deliberation, that the order was issued and that the plague-victims are dead. How should something which the headquarters staff regarded, from the moment of our departure from Jaffa the following day, as a certain fact, which we spoke of as an appalling misfortune, have become an atrocity invented to do harm to a hero’s reputation?’

Napoleon never erased a single one of his faults; like a tender father, he preferred those of his children who were ugliest. The French army was less indulgent than the admiring historians; it largely believed the poisoning, not merely of a few sick men, but of several hundred. Robert Wilson, in his History of the English Expedition to Egypt, was first to advance the more serious allegation; he affirmed that it relied on the views of French officers who were prisoners of the English in Syria. Bonaparte gave the lie to Wilson, who replied that he had merely told the truth. Wilson is that same Major-General seconded by Great Britain to the Russian Army during the retreat from Moscow; he has since had the good fortune to contribute to Monsieur de Lavalette’s escape. He raised a Legion opposing the legitimacy during the Spanish War of 1823, defended Bilbao and returned Monsieur Desbassyns, who had been forced to anchor in the port, to his brother-in-law, Monsieur de Villèle. Robert Wilson’s version then from various points of view carries great weight. The majority of accounts are agreed concerning the fact of the poisoning. Monsieur de Las Cases admits that the rumour of poisoning was believed by the Army. Bonaparte, who became more truthful in captivity, told Mr Warden and the doctor O’Meara that, in the state the plague-sufferers enjoyed, he would himself have found in opium a release from his pain, and that he would have administered the drug to his own son. Walter Scott recounts all that has been churned out on this subject; but he rejects the version that swells the numbers of condemned patients, maintaining that such a mass poisoning could not have been executed successfully; he adds that Sir Robert met the seven Frenchmen mentioned by Bonaparte in the hospital at Jaffa. Walter Scott maintains the greatest impartiality; he defends Napoleon as he would have defended Alexander from the accusations with which his memory has been charged.

The retreat beneath the Syrian sun was marked by a wretchedness that recalls the miseries of our soldiers during the retreat from Moscow in the depths of frost: Miot says ‘In the huts on the sea shore there were still some unfortunates waiting for transport. One soldier among them was attacked by plague, and, in the delirium that sometimes accompanies its agonising symptoms, he believed doubtless, seeing the army marching to the sound of the drum, that he was about to be abandoned; his imagination conjured up the extent of his misery if he should fall into the hands of the Arabs. One assumes that it was this fear that agitated him so greatly and suggested to him the idea of following the troops: he took up his haversack, on which his head had been lying, and placing it on his shoulders made the effort to rise. The poison of the dreadful epidemic which coursed through his veins robbed him of strength, and after a few steps he fell back face upwards on the sand. This tumble increased his terror, and, having spent a while, with wandering eyes, watching the column of marching troops, he rose a second time no more successfully; at his third attempt he succumbed, and falling nearer the sea, remained where fate had chosen the site for his grave. This soldier’s gaze was horrific; the chaos of his babbling speech, his grief-stricken face, his eyes open and staring, his tattered clothes, revealed all that is most hideous of death. His eyes fixed on the marching troops, he had lacked the sense, simple for someone calm, to turn his head to the side: he had seen Kléber’s division and that of the cavalry which were leaving Tantura after the others, and the hope of being saved might perhaps have prolonged his life.’

When our soldiers, who had remained impassive, saw one of their unfortunate comrades following them like a drunken man, stumbling, falling, rising again, and then falling forever, they said; ‘He has gone into quarters.’

A single page from Bourrienne will realise the scene:

‘A devouring thirst,’ the Memoirs state, ‘the total lack of water, excessive heat, and the wearisome march through burning sands demoralised the men, and caused the cruellest selfishness, the most grievous indifference, to defeat every generous feeling. I saw the stretchers reserved for amputee officers, organised by the transport officers, who had even been paid money in recompense for their efforts, thrown aside. I saw the amputees themselves, the wounded, the plague-stricken, or those only suspected of being so, abandoned amongst the crops. The march was illuminated by torches lit in order to burn the little towns, markets, villages, hamlets, and rich harvest with which the earth was covered. The countryside was all ablaze. Those who been ordered to preside over these disasters seemed, by extending desolation everywhere, to seek revenge for their setbacks and to find solace for their suffering. We were surrounded only by the dying, by looters and by incendiaries. The dying, abandoned by the edge of the track cried in feeble voices; ‘I am not plague-stricken, I am only wounded; and, in order to convince the passers-by, one saw them tear open their wounds or make fresh ones. No one believed them; they said: He’s done for; they passed by, wavered a moment, then all was forgotten. The sun, in all his glory in that beauteous sky, was obscured by the smoke from our continual incendiaries. We had the sea on our right; on our left and behind us was the desert we were creating; in front the privation and suffering that awaited us.’