9 March 2008

March 7, 1799

A snip from Chapter 18 of the Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Complete by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne which documents the siege of Jaffa during Napoleon's expedition to Egypt. Napoleon's army secured the city of Jaffa on 7 March, 1799 and after a two day deliberation over the fate of his Muslim prisoners he decided to slaughter over twenty five hundred troops who had previously sworn an oath never to take arms against the French after they were released by Napoleon after the battle of El Arish.

Arrival at Jaffa--The siege--Beauharnais and Croisier--Four thousand prisoners--Scarcity of provisions--Councils of war--Dreadful necessity--The massacre...

On arriving before Jaffa, where there were already some troops, the first person. I met was Adjutant-General Gresieux, with whom I was well acquainted. I wished him good-day, and offered him my hand. "Good God! What are you about?" said he, repulsing me with a very abrupt gesture; "you may have the plague. People do not touch each other here!" I mentioned the circumstance to Bonaparte, who said, "If he be afraid of the plague, he will die of it." Shortly after, at St. Jean d'Acre, he was attacked by that malady, and soon sank under it. On the 4th of March we commenced the siege of Jaffa. That paltry place, which, to round a sentence, was pompously styled the ancient Joppa, held out only to the 6th of March, when it was taken by storm, and given up to pillage. The massacre was horrible. General Bonaparte sent his aides de camp Beauharnais and Croisier to appease the fury of the soldiers as much as possible, and to report to him what was passing. They learned that a considerable part of the garrison had retired into some vast buildings, a sort of caravanserai, which formed a large enclosed court. Beauharnais and Croisier, who were distinguished by wearing the 'aide de camp' scarf on their arms, proceeded to that place. The Arnauts and Albanians, of whom these refugees were almost entirely composed, cried from the windows that they were willing to surrender upon an assurance that they would be exempted from the massacre to which the town was doomed; if not, they threatened to fire on the 'aides de camp', and to defend themselves to the last extremity. The two officers thought that they ought to accede to the proposition, notwithstanding the decree of death which had been pronounced against the whole garrison, in consequence of the town being token by storm. They brought them to our camp in two divisions, one consisting of about 2500 men, the other of about 1600.

I was walking with General Bonaparte, in front of his tent, when he beheld this mass of men approaching, and before he even saw his 'aides de camp' he said to me, in a tone of profound sorrow, "What do they wish me to do with these men? Have I food for them?--ships to convey them to Egypt or France? Why, in the devil's name, have they served me thus?" After their arrival, and the explanations which the General-in-Chief demanded and listened to with anger, Eugene and Croisier received the most severe reprimand for their conduct. But the deed was done. Four thousand men were there. It was necessary to decide upon their fate. The two aides de camp observed that they had found themselves alone in the midst of numerous enemies, and that he had directed them to restrain the carnage. "Yes, doubtless," replied the General-in-Chief, with great warmth, "as to women, children, and old men--all the peaceable inhabitants; but not with respect to armed soldiers. It was your duty to die rather than bring these unfortunate creatures to me. What do you want me to do with them?" These words were pronounced in the most angry tone. The prisoners were then ordered to sit down, and were placed, without any order, in front of the tents, their hands tied behind their backs. A sombre determination was depicted on their countenances. We gave them a little biscuit and bread, squeezed out of the already scanty supply for the army.

On the first day of their arrival a council of war was held in the tent of the General-in-Chief, to determine what course should be pursued with respect to them the council deliberated a long time without coming to any decision. On the evening of the following day the daily reports of the generals of division came in. They spoke of nothing but the insufficiency of the rations, the complaints of the soldiers--of their murmurs and discontent at seeing their bread given to enemies who had been withdrawn from their vengeance, inasmuch as a decree of death; in conformity with the laws of war, had been passed on Jaffa. All these reports were alarming, and especially that of General Bon, in which no reserve was made. He spoke of nothing less than the fear of a revolt, which would be justified by the serious nature of the case. The council assembled again. All the generals of division were summoned to attend, and for several hours together they discussed, under separate questions, what measures might be adopted, with the most sincere desire to discover and execute one which would save the lives of these unfortunate prisoners. (1.) Should they be sent into Egypt? Could it be done? To do so; it would be necessary to send with them a numerous escort, which would too much weaken our little army in the enemy's country. How, besides, could they and the escort be supported till they reached Cairo, having no provisions to give them on setting out, and their route being through a hostile territory, which we had exhausted, which presented no fresh resources, and through which we, perhaps, might have to return. (2.) Should they be embarked? Where were the ships?--Where could they be found? All our telescopes, directed over the sea could not descry a single friendly sail Bonaparte, I affirm, would have regarded such an event as a real favour of fortune. It was, and--I am glad to have to say it, this sole idea, this sole hope, which made him brave, for three days, the murmurs of his army. But in vain was help looked for seaward. It did not come. (3.) Should the prisoners be set at liberty? They world then instantly proceed to St. Jean d'Acre to reinforce the pasha, or else, throwing themselves into the mountains of Nablous, would greatly annoy our rear and right-flank, and deal out death to us, as a recompense for the life we had given them. There could be no doubt of this. What is a Christian dog to a Turk? It would even have been a religious and meritorious act in the eye of the Prophet. (4.) Could they be incorporated, disarmed, with our soldiers in the ranks? Here again the question of food presented itself in all its force. Next came to be considered the danger of having such comrades while marching through an enemy's country. What might happen in the event of a battle before St. Jean d'Acre? Could we even tell what might occur during the march? And, finally, what must be done with them when under the ramparts of that town, if we should be able to take them there? The same embarrassments with respect to the questions of provisions and security would then recur with increased force. The third day arrived without its being possible, anxiously as it was desired, to come to any conclusion favourable to the preservation of these unfortunate men. The murmurs in the camp grew louder the evil went on increasing--remedy appeared impossible--the danger was real and imminent. The order for shooting the prisoners was given and executed on the 10th of March. We did not, as has been stated, separate the Egyptians from the other prisoners. There were no Egyptians. Many of the unfortunate creatures composing the smaller division, which was fired on close to the seacoast, at some distance from the other column, succeeded in swimming to some reefs of rocks out of the reach of musket-shot. The soldiers rested their muskets on the end, and, to induce the prisoners to return, employed the Egyptian signs of reconciliation in use in the country. They, came back; but as they advanced they were killed, and disappeared among the waves.

I confine myself to these details of this act of dreadful necessity, of which I was an eye-witness. Others, who, like myself, saw it, have fortunately spared me the recital of the sanguinary result. This atrocious scene, when I think of it, still makes me shudder, as it did on the day I beheld it; and I would wish it were possible for me to forget it, rather than be compelled to describe it. All the horrors imagination can conceive, relative to that day of blood, would fall short of the reality. I have related the truth, the whole truth. I was present at all the discussions, all the conferences, all the deliberations. I had not, as may be supposed, a deliberative voice; but I am bound to declare that the situation of the army, the scarcity of food, our small numerical strength, in the midst of a country where every individual was an enemy, would have induced me to vote in the affirmative of the proposition which was carried into effect, if I had a vote to give. It was necessary to be on the spot in order to understand the horrible necessity which existed.

War, unfortunately, presents too many occasions on which a law, immutable in all ages, and common to all nations, requires that private interests should be sacrificed to a great general interest, and that even humanity should be forgotten. It is for posterity to judge whether this terrible situation was that in which Bonaparte was placed. For my own part, I have a perfect conviction that he could not do otherwise than yield to the dire necessity of the case. It was the advice of the council, whose opinion was unanimous in favour of the execution, that governed him, Indeed I ought in truth to say, that he yielded only in the last extremity, and was one of those, perhaps, who beheld the massacre with the deepest pain. After the siege of Jaffe the plague began to exhibit itself with a little more virulence. We lost between seven and eight hundred, men by the contagion during the campaign of Syria'
A muslim account of the massacre describes Napoleon's men using their bayonets to kill the prisoners when they ran out of ammunition and looting and pillaging the city until the point of exhaustion two days later.

Picture of the day. Napoleon lost more men to disease than to the enemy during his siege of Jaffa. The shame and disgrace the Bush fils White House let the wounded veterans of his war suffer at the Walter Read medical center will be remembered long after his swan song this weekend to the Washington establishment, which in their clubby way was acknowledged with a standing ovation from the partisan crowd. Stephen Colbert gave Bush his proper send-off in 2006.


Matt Jones said...

This blog is a fascinating read-you're tackling quite a subject in Mr Kubrick & his aborted Napoleon project. Good luck & I hope you get to complete your documentary. I'll be very interested in seeing the finished article & even reading Kubrick's screenplay-do u know of any plans to publish it?

K. S. La Boca said...

The Kubrick estate plans to publish the screenplay as part of a book on the Napoleon project to be released this spring by TASCHEN. I have not heard yet whether it will be the earlier version posted on the InterWebs or the later version revised by Kubrick to include Napoleon as narrator of the story.

Matt Jones said...

Fantastic! Great news, thnx for the info