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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

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THE BATTLE OF THE PYRAMIDS

[413] AFTER the Treaty of Campo-Formio was signed, Napoleon went back to Paris.

Citizens and peasants alike greeted him as though he were a king. Every one was anxious to do honour to the conqueror.

The welcome he received was such as might well have satisfied the most ambitious. But Napoleon was not greatly moved by the admiration of the crowd. He knew too well how easily it might change to hatred.

"This same unthinking crowd," he said, "under a slight change of circumstances, would follow me just as eagerly to the scaffold."

The directors at Paris, who had made Napoleon commander of the army in Italy, soon grew jealous of the favour the people showed to the Little Corporal.

Rumours reached them that the soldiers thought that the general whom they idolised should become King of France. After that the one idea of the directors was to get Napoleon out of the country again as soon as possible.

So, in 1798, the great general was made commander-in-chief of the army which was meant to conquer England. But Napoleon knew that he was not yet strong enough to conquer England, so he determined instead to go on a great expedition to Egypt. If he could win that country he would be able to spoil Britain's trade with India, and to conquer that country was ever his great desire.

In May 1798 a great fleet was fitted out, and Napoleon [414] sailed from Toulon with a splendid army, which included many of his bravest and best-disciplined soldiers.

Nelson, the great English admiral, was cruising in the Mediterranean, keeping a sharp look-out for the French. But a great storm arose and many of the British ships were damaged, and the fleet was forced to take refuge in a port. And while the English fleet was in the port Napoleon sailed away out of Nelson's reach.

Taking the island of Malta on the way, the French at length, in the beginning of July, came in sight of Alexandria.

After a short but sharp struggle the city was taken and the French flag hoisted on her walls. Leaving soldiers to hold the town. Napoleon then marched on toward Cairo, which was in the hands of the Mamelukes.

The Mamelukes were slaves who had long ago either been taken prisoners of war or had been bought as slaves in the market-places of their own homes, which lay hidden here and there among the Caucasus Mountains. They had been trained as soldiers from the time that they were quite little children, and at first, when they were carried into Egypt, they were made the Sultan's bodyguard.

Before they had been long in their new home they became so powerful that it was no unusual thing for a Mameluke himself to become the Sultan of Egypt.

By the time that Napoleon came to Egypt much of their power had been taken from them by the Turks. They were still, however, fierce and terrible warriors.

Over the burning sand, the sun pouring its rays relentlessly upon them, the French soldiers marched. Parched by thirst, sometimes attacked by snakes, they were little able to repulse the wandering tribes by which they were attacked.

The heat made the thirst of the troops intolerable. Even when they reached a well, it was usually to find that the Arabs had filled it with stones and that it would be possible to get water only after hours of toil. Even brave officers gave themselves up to despair, and [415] in their misery tore off their cockades, murmuring threats of rebellion.

But neither the heat nor the clamour of his men disturbed the Little Corporal. Unheeding the discontent of his soldiers, he marched before them, his uniform on as usual, while they, so intense was the heat, had flung off most of their garments.

One of his officers, bolder than the others, even dared to taunt Napoleon, saying to him, "Well, general, are you going to take us to India thus?"

"No, I would not undertake that with such soldiers as you," answered Napoleon quickly.

After that the officers were less ready to let the general hear their complaints.

At length the weary march was over, and the army reached the banks of the Nile and was able to quench its thirst. It then took up its position near the Pyramids. These were the tombs of the ancient kings of Egypt, which had stood silent, unchanged, during many hundred years. As the French awaited the onslaught of the Mamelukes, who were also encamped near the Pyramids and were preparing to attack the rash invaders, Napoleon rode up and down the ranks of his army. "Soldiers," he cried, reining up before them and pointing to the Pyramids, "from these summits forty centuries watch your actions."

Then the Mamelukes, shouting strange wild battle-cries, rushed like a whirlwind upon the solid squares of the French army.

The steady fire that received them swept the fierce horsemen aside, until at length, leaving their comrades slain in heaps, the Mamelukes turned to flee.

Thus in July 1798 the battle of the Pyramids was won by the French, and Napoleon entered Cairo in triumph.

Soon after this great victory Napoleon was thunderstruck to hear that his fleet, which had been sailing in the Bay of Aboukir, had been attacked and defeated by Nelson at the [416] battle of the Nile. It was a serious blow, for it left Napoleon with his army cut off from France.

But he was too good a general to show his soldiers how much the destruction of his fleet disturbed him.

A little later he defeated the Turks with great slaughter at the battle of Aboukir.

Many of the enemy threw themselves into the sea to escape the terrible attack of the French cavalry.

After the battle was over. Napoleon, hearing that he was needed at home, resolved to leave his army and go back to France. His soldiers, had they known that their great commander meant to leave them, might have proved restive. So one night in the month of August, when it was dark save for the light of the stars, Napoleon stole away and embarked at Alexandria. With some difficulty his ships escaped the English, who were cruising about in the hope of capturing French boats, and in October 1799 Napoleon reached Paris after an absence of about fifteen months.


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