Warning: Mature Adults only
PART II: ACRE
Captain Jean Calvet was beyond being disillusioned. He was sickened by what he had seen during the last two weeks.
Withdrawing from Acre was easier said than done. Just after the final assault on the breach had failed, Bonaparte sent a message to Rear Admiral Perree, whose flotilla was cruising off of Jaffa, instructing him to sail to Tantura, and from there transport the worst of the wounded back to Egypt. Perree was not keen on getting that near Sir Sidney's warships. Sending Bonaparte his polite refusal, he sailed for France. In doing so, he condemned many French soldiers to death.
Not all the sick were evacuated. The plague cases were left behind. Calvet had to harden his heart and ignore the plentitive cries of these unfortunates, who would be killed by Djezzar's men the moment the army left. Some hobbled after the army for a ways. Calvet could still remember one man's desperate cries.
"Brothers! Comrades! Do not leave me to die, for the love of God! The Turks will have my head as soon as you are over the next rise! I - I don't have the plague; I swear it on my mother's grave! I was just wounded in the chest, see, look!"
He had torn open his shirt and tried to show them his wound, but no one looked. Bonaparte had given strict orders; no one, under pain of death, was to have contact with the plague victims. The risk of contagion was too great, so a few had to die so the rest could survive.
Bonaparte knew that the Samaritan tribes would try to harry his retreat, and to neutralize them, he sent General Lambert and two demi-brigades on 13th May to raid into Samaria, burning and looting local villages. He ordered Junot, who held Nazareth, to destroy any supplies which could not be moved. As the French pulled out, they were mobbed by the Christian and Jewish inhabitants of Nazareth, who begged them not to leave them to the tender mercies of Djezzar Pasha, whose wrath would fall on any who had aided the invaders. Junot could do nothing for them.
Lannes division led the march; his men carrying him in a litter, since he could neither walk nor ride. They were followed by headquarters, the Foot Guides, the field artillery, the engineers, Bon's division (now commanded by General Rampon, Bon having died from a wound), and Reynier's division. Bringing up the rearguard was Kleber's division and Murat's cavalry. After crossing them, they burned the bridges over the Na'aman and Kishon wadis, to discourage pursuit.
Bonaparte divided the wounded into three categories, those who could walk, those who could ride, and those who could do neither. He ordered most of the horses, asses, and camels of the army to be put at the disposal of the last two, except for officer's mounts and those needed to pull the field guns. They reached Haifa, which had been set up as a field hospital, and now added to the wounded ranks, so that there still weren't enough animals to transport them all. Now he ordered infantry to act as stretcher-bearers. But many of the wounded found themselves unceremoniously dumped on the ground unless they had enough money to bribe their comrades to carry them. Some of the walking wounded stumbled off the path in the darkness and fell to the jagged rocks beneath. There was no time to stop and look for them in the dark, although their comrades could hear their cries for help.
After a long, hard march, they came to Tantura, where they found seven or eight hundred more wounded awaiting transport to Egypt. Because of Admiral Perree, they would now have to be transported by land. General Bonaparte dumped his remaining twenty-two field guns into the sea, so that the horses might transport the wounded, and issued orders that all officers were to give up their mounts to those who could not walk. Not all obeyed, but at least Bonaparte set an example and walked. Calvet would give him that much.
The journey grew more difficult. It was summer in Syria now, and the sun blazed down from a cloudless sky like a great, malevolent eye, turning the ground to a furnace beneath their feet. Water was short, they were thirsty and they were so tired. Litter bearers, even those who had been bribed for their services, were now leaving their charges by the side of the road, though Calvet saw to it that none of his company did so. Amputees, men with musket ball wounds and saber cuts, some with gangrene, were deserted and left to fend for themselves, reaching out with feeble hands as the army marched relentlessly by. As far as the marchers were concerned, they were already dead, as much as they might plead to the contrary. As soon as the last rank was out of sight, the local inhabitants killed them. Sometimes, the men of the rearguard heard their cries, but no one even bothered to look back, let alone go back to help.
The French systematically took what they could carry from the villages they encountered, and put the rest to the torch. They wanted to make it impossible for the Turks to either give chase to them or invade Egypt by this route. Pillars of smoke marked their route of march, darkening the sun; and the wind swept the flames to the foothills of the mountains. The French were eager to take out the frustration of their failed campaign on whatever hovels they came across. To their right was the sea; to their left and rear, the desert they had made. The villagers dogged their tracks, sniping at them from sand dunes and hills, eager for revenge if an opportunity presented itself; and these grew in number as the march progressed. No one dared straggle behind; that meant certain death.
The army's spirits were dark and dejected. Several soldiers fell out of march and shot themselves rather than go another step. And then they came under bombardment from a flotilla of British gunboats that had followed them. To avoid this, they were forced to march inland, and thus lost the sea breeze, which had been their only relief from the sun.
Two days out of Acre, they reached Caesarea, where Bonaparte and his staff enjoyed a swim in the sea. When they resumed the march, the attacks increased in intensity. There was little food left; and they needed rest desperately. Men staggered along in a half-asleep stupor, some falling to the ground repeatedly. All they could think about was getting to Jaffa, and the supplies left there.
When they arrived, they were greeted by the stench of thousands of inadequately buried dead from the massacre of the Turkish prisoners. They found Jaffa a wasted shell of the prosperous city it had once been. Only about a quarter of the original inhabitants still lived there. They had left some two hundred plague cases in the Armenian monastery at Jaffa. A Turkish doctor named Hadji Mustafa had cared for them. Now that the army was returning after a two-and-a-half month absence, those who were left were mostly in the final stages of the disease. Perhaps twenty-five had recovered and returned to active duty. The healthy soldiers were not quartered in the town because the plague was rampant there. They camped outside the walls in the surrounding orchards and gardens. Many of Calvet's men gorged themselves on unripe fruit and came down with dysentery.
At Jaffa, some four hundred of the seriously wounded were put aboard ships bound for Damietta. That was all there was room for, the rest would have to go by land. Some, left behind on the quay at Jaffa, begged passerbys piteously and in vain to help them find a place on the boats. The remainder, about thirteen hundred, set out along the road to Gaza two days later, some by horseback, some on litters carried by Turkish prisoners, and the rest walking.
The army had brought with them some additional plague cases who had been newly diagnosed. They were quarantined in the Armenian monastery. Together with the ones who had been left when the army marched on Acre, they came to about sixty men.
The day before the army left, Calvet went into the monastery to see the four men of his company he had left there. The guard tried to bar his entrance, but he shoved them aside with a snarled "Out of my way." All around him, men lay, suffering in silence. He ignored the stench of vomit, blood, and infection that hung the air like a foul miasma. After asking around, he was told that Canacourx and Drouete had died in early May. He found the two others lying on palettes next to each other. Villar was unconscious and in the last stages, but Milliere was still lucid, though weak. His pale complexion, bathed in sweat, the dark circles under his eyes, and the buboes under his arms told Calvet that he did not have much time left, though.
"Hello, Captain. I thought you said Frenchmen were too tough to die."
Calvet shrugged. "Don't believe everything you hear, Private. How are they treating you here?"
"Like a dying man. They're going to have to leave us behind, you know. If any of us are still alive, the Turks will finish us off. I've heard they're giving us opium so our passing will be quicker."
Calvet grimaced. Drugged to death in a hospital was no way for a soldier to die.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
Milliere hesitated, and then nodded earnestly.
"One thing, Captain. Get me out of this shithole. Let me die with the sun in my face. I want to see the sky one more time. Please, Captain."
Calvet hesitated only for a moment, and then nodded. He had braved musket fire and grape shot, this was just one more chance, and no riskier than the others. He bent and lifted up Milliere in his arms. The Private weighed no more than a child. The guards thought about stopping him, but saw the look on his fierce, mustached face, and reconsidered.
He carried Milliere to the seashore, as far as he could get from the place where the prisoners had been massacred. They sat on the beach and watched the waves gently roll in as the sun dipped lower. Milliere talked about his home in Provence, and the delicious ratouille his mother made, with tomatoes, green squash, onions and garlic. Calvet maintained that nothing could beat a good cassoulet; made with beans, duck, lamb, pork, and above all, bacon. They debated whether Provence or Gascony had the better wine. They talked about family, and the smell of fresh bread in the morning, and how good it was to get the fall harvest in at last. And they told each other jokes.
"Did you hear the one," asked Milliere, "about the general with a wooden leg, who came home and found his wife in bed with another man?"
"No, what happened?" Calvet asked.
Milliere didn't answer. After a while, Calvet turned his head and looked at him. Milliere was still sitting with his knees drawn up to his chin, looking into the sun setting over the waves. And he was dead. Calvet rose and left him there. It would be at least as wholesome as being thrown in a pit with the other plague victims.
He would often wonder how the joke about the one-legged general with the unfaithful wife turned out.
The Samaritans attacked a last time while the army was camped around Jaffa, and Murat's cavalry beat them off without any problem. The last day of their stay, they demolished the fortifications of Jaffa, so the Turks could make no use of them. The garrison they reincorporated into the main army. Murat, with a rearguard of five hundred cavalrymen, stood watch over the final plague victims until all were dead. It took slightly over a day. Hours after they left, tribesmen infested the city, looting whatever they could find, killing any who resisted.
From then on, the march became somewhat easier. The Bedouins shadowed their route, but were a danger only to stragglers. There were less sick and wounded to transport. Most of the serious cases had been embarked by sea, sent on ahead earlier, or were dead. The remainder were now carried by Turkish prisoners acting as stretcher-bearers. This was better, at least for the French. They had ample food, too. But they were re-entering the desert, an unwelcome change after the comparative fertility of Syria. Marching through the soft sand dunes was difficult, and it was hotter than ever.
Calvet saw a corporal stripping a money belt off of a plague victim who had fallen by the roadside. The man begged.
"Please, let me keep the twelve francs I've got in there. I may be able to bribe a Bedouin to spare my life."
"You're fooling yourself," grumbled the corporal.
"Then at least leave me the hope."
Calvet interceded. "Give him back the money, Corporal, and march on."
His tone and face invited no dispute. The corporal dropped the coins in the dust. Calvet watched the sick man scrabble for them for a few moments, and then left him where he lay.
As before, Lannes' division was in the vanguard position, with Bon's division following. Reynier's men made a detour east through Ramle, to destroy the supplies there. Murat's cavalry covered their right flank, in the sand dunes near the seashore. They continued to burn down nearby villages, looting the cattle and putting the harvest to the torch. This was needless, since there was no longer any danger of pursuit, but the French still had a lot of frustration to work off, and Bonaparte made no effort to stop them. They were grumbling enough against him as it was. And the army marched on, leaving a trail of dead in their wake.
On the 30th, they reached Gaza. They had left some two hundred plague victims here as well, but happily, over half had recovered and now returned to the ranks. A few were still alive, but obviously not for long, and had to be left behind. The garrison was reintegrated into the main army. They stocked up on water for the next leg of the march, through the desert of Sinai. Kleber's division, which still brought up the rear, blew up the citadel of Gaza, which the French had just restored, and put the torch to the remainder of the stores.
On 1st June, they entered Raza, thus officially leaving the Holy Land. There were still some plague cases breaking out among the soldiers. Some found the going so excruciating that they asked their comrades to shoot them and put an end to their misery. Their request was usually granted. Those plague victims who could not keep up and straggled behind were killed by the Bedouins.
On 2nd June, they collapsed into El-Arish. Since it was considered part of Egypt, it would not be blown up. Bonaparte had it strengthened against the expected Turkish invasion. They were tired, hot, and hungry, and rested there for two days, drawing off the supply of water and rations for the final push back to Egypt. Morale was low, and soldiers held their officers in the lowest esteem. When they marched out of El Arish, Calvet saw some of the men of his company sitting by the side of the march and refusing to go on, cursing anyone who tried to get them to their feet. He let it go. He knew they needed to blow off some steam. After a while, they got up and rejoined the army's progress.
From there on, it was a march through a friendly country rather than a retreat from a hostile one. But it was still so hot, and men were still dropping dead from heat exhaustion. At Katia, where they had first assembled for the invasion, Bonaparte inspected the frontier and began to make arrangements for the defense of Egypt. Kleber's division had particularly low morale, and so they were sent to garrison Damietta in anticipation of a Turkish invasion force landing there. Also, Bonaparte did not want them marring his victory parade into Cairo. Only the healthiest French soldiers remaining would be allowed to participate. They would receive new uniforms, in place of their tattered campaign clothes, and would march with palm fronds in their hats, the captured Turkish battle flags preceding them, while the band played "La Marseille." At least Calvet and his men were spared this final farce.
The whole thing sickened Calvet. This was not what he had signed on for.
Patrick Harper stood at the rail of the Tigre and watched the spectacle of Turks fighting Frenchman unfold before him again, grateful this time to be only a spectator.
It was now 14th July, nearly two months since the French had given up the siege of Acre. After the French left, the British ships departed for Rhodes. Harper was happy to leave. Djezzar Pasha seemed quite put out over the death of his executioner, and Harper figured that the longer he stayed, the more likely he was to end up minus a nose, an ear, or something even more vital. Sir Sidney had sailed to Rhodes, where the Turkish fleet was massing to make its landing in Egypt and drive the French out for good. A portion of the fleet had already left, and Sir Sidney's ships formed the escort for the second part.
It was am impressive flotilla as it anchored off of Abuquir Bay. Besides Sir Sidney's ships, the Turks had five ships of the line of their own, three frigates, and some fifty or sixty transports. Their commander, an elderly Turk named Mustafa Pasha, the Seraskier of Rumelia, had insisted that, unlike Acre, this be a solely Turkish operation, though Sir Sidney could give covering fire from his ships if he wished. When they arrived, he had already landed his five thousand men and overwhelmed a French earthwork redoubt of three hundred. The survivors, some thirty-five in number, had taken refuge in the old fort at the end of Abuquir Point, where they held out desperately. Sir Sidney had managed to persuade Mustafa Pasha to surrender them into his custody, and the French, happy to escape a massacre, were taken on board the Tigre.
The troops Smith landed swelled Mustafa Pasha's numbers to seven thousand. Smith had also tried to persuade the Turkish commander to either take Alexandria, which had nowhere near enough troops to resist him, or else move inland to meet General Bonaparte's expected attack. He would do neither, but instead fortified Abuquir Point instead. It was a strong position, with three lines of trenches guarding a narrow peninsula, so that its flanks could not be turned. But it was also a dangerous position, for the Turks had no line of retreat, except into the small fort at its tip, or into the sea.
Nine days after they landed, Bonaparte arrived, with ten thousand infantry and a thousand cavalry. He wasted no time, but attacked early the next morning. British gunboats gave what supporting fire they could, but the Turks were slowly driven back, though they resisted bravely enough. The decisive moment came around noon, when the French launched an attack with all their cavalry. Even at a distance, Harper had no problem recognizing who led the charge; there was no mistaking Murat in his brilliant uniform. He cut through everything the Turks threw in his way, and reached the fort within minutes. Lannes' infantry poured into the gap. After that, it became a rout. Thousand of Turks were cut down; they surged back in panic, and with nowhere to go, poured into the sea to either drown or be shot as they thrashed in the water. Harper could see thousands of white turbans and red tarboushes bobbing in the blood- soaked waves, and then sinking beneath them. He heard Lieutenant Bromley shout from behind.
"Sir Sidney is dispatching all available boats to pick up survivors. They'll need close covering fire."
Within minutes, Harper and Finnigan were cutting through the waves in the Tigre's launch. Those Turks with horses had ridden them out into the Bay, and then, leaping from their backs when they could go no further, swam for their lives. Some of the ones with sense enough to tear off their heavy robes made it. Harper reached out and pulled a richly dressed officer on board, he recognized him from when he had visited Sir Sidney on board the Tigre, and his name was Mehemet Ali. The Turk paused only to kick the Turk swimming behind him in the face. In other boats, the marines had to shoot the desperate Turks milling around their boats to keep from being swamped. It was plain that very few would be saved. It was also plain that the French would not be leaving Egypt anytime soon.