Page 1



Arabian Horse In H istor y

he constant threat of war throughout the final part of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century marked a great change in Europe’s horse breeding industry. The armies of England and Russia, like those of Austria and Prussia, had made certain that their breeding farms were well prepared to supply an abundance of suitable horses for their respective armies. However, the same could not be said of France at the dawn of the Napoleonic Age. The provocateurs of the French Revolution brought an end to everything both good and bad that was remotely associated with the Ancient Regime. In their wrath they decimated and eliminated not only the nation’s nobility, but also all of the royal and aristocratic breeding farms.

Napoleon was the youngest, most dashing and successful general in French history. His limitless ambition became the catalyst of a self-perpetuating spiral of aggression that would inevitably leave a trail of incalculable death and destruction in his wake. However, in the beginning he was heralded as the champion of a New Order. Long before the Brumaire Coup of November 1799, which ousted the Directory and the signing of the new constitution that elevated Napoleon Bonaparte as head of a new Consulate, he became acutely aware that France’s equine production had fallen into an abysmal state. Quality cavalry horses assured speed and mobility on the open battlefields and were, more often than not, the key factor in decisive victories. They also pulled the caissons and supply trains; therefore, horses were essential to the success of any military campaign. To raise and train a horse for war was an expensive proposition that required a minimum of four years. Unfortunately, equines like human beings were vulnerable to the same wholesale slaughter that defined this period in history, and thousands

by Andrew K. Steen 96

Arabian Horse Times • October 2008

Arabian Horse Times • October 2008

A portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by David Jacques Louis.

of horses were devoured by the winds of the Napoleonic Wars. Consequently, any opportunity to obtain them was a top priority for every army. Therefore, from the onset of his rise to power, the production of suitable equines became one of Napoleon’s foremost aspirations. As an example, during the prolonged Swiss operations of 1799, French forces commandeered no less than 10,000 horses from that small country. Throughout the six years of the Peninsular War, they methodically stripped Spain of nearly every horse that the impoverished nation had. Their plunder was so complete that it created an equine crisis that endured for almost a hundred years. It was not until the first decade of the 1900s that Spain’s military, commerce, and agriculture managed to fully recover.


The Arabian Horse

In History

The French Army landed in Egypt on July 1, 1879. Its first engagement of the campaign was fought near Shubra Khit on July 13. Two wings of the French army advanced inland towards Cairo. The second column commanded by General Desaix united on the west banks of the Nile at El Rahmaniya. The face-off with Egypt’s Ottoman co-governors Murad Bey and Ibrahim Bey began to unfold. Murad with a force of 10,000 Mamelukes made ready his plan of attack. The Mamelukes were superior in their equestrian skills and for their handling of weapons, but they were inexperienced in European battle tactics and no match for the modern weaponry that was employed A Mameluke warrior facing the cold reality of a French "square," a defensive tactic used by infantrymen of the period to combat enemy cavalry. against them. Murad’s resolute horsemen made several direct assaults, but Napoleon had organized his five divisions into infantry squares and repelled each strike. In the midst The Mamelukes had originated in the 12th century, of battle a parallel engagement took place between when hundreds were bought as children in the slave gunboats on the Nile, which ended when the French markets of the Middle East and trained as fighters by artillery was diverted to river targets and blew up an the Turks. Most came from the Balkan region. The Egyptian munitions ship. Taken aback by the unusually following excerpt from Michael Wolfe’s book, “One heavy loses of several hundred men, Murad abruptly Thousand Roads To Mecca,” offers a brief explanation withdrew towards the south to regroup with Ibrahim of the Mamelukes: Bey and raise a much larger force. With the path clear, Napoleon’s soldiers were able to march the following “A slave soldiery introduced into Egypt in 1169, morning towards Cairo. Although unprepared for the the Mamelukes solved the need for a reliable military harsh desert conditions, his battle casualties numbered class in a state driven by factions. … They began as a only 29 dead and 50 wounded. private guard attached to the ruler, then grew into an urban-based elite. When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, then pillaged westward, it was the Mamelukes that stopped them.”

Napoleon stops to address his troops before The Battle Of The Pyramids.

Following his victories in Italy, Bonaparte was given the command of an army that was allocated the task of invading Ireland in early 1798. However, he quickly concluded that those plans were unfeasible and that the mission was highly imprudent. Therefore, he set about searching for other opportunities for glory. With Talleyrand’s support he secured the government’s approval of a risky and ambitious invasion of Ottoman-ruled Egypt. Gambling that the operation would reap a huge amount of booty and disrupt England’s trade and domination of India, he also hoped to provoke a war in Europe that would enhance his personal political career. Napoleon’s small army and the French Mediterranean Fleet departed from Toulon in May of 1798. Along the way he seized Malta, reorganized its entire administration system in only five days time, and stationed a French garrison of 4,000 men to defend the island under the command of an artillery officer named Vaubois.


Renowned as superb horsemen and fierce combatants, they eventually became the dominant ruling cast of the semi-autonomous Ottoman pashalik (province) of Egypt. In the late 18th century they ruled by brute force and were only nominally under the yoke of the Sublime Porte. Probably the best description of these remarkable warriors is found in “Napoleon In Egypt,” the translated version of Captain M. Vertray’s book, “Journal d’un officer de l’armée d’Egypt:”

General Louis Charles Antoine Desaix, the commander of the French division that faced the Mamelukes at The Battle Of The Pyramids.

Arabian Horse Times • October 2008

Co-Governor of Egypt Murad Bey led a force of 10,000 Mamelukes against the French Army during the first engagement of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign.

Arabian Horse Times • October 2008

“In the background, the desert under the blue sky; before us, the beautiful Arabian horses, richly harnessed, snorting, neighing, prancing gracefully and lightly under their martial riders, who are covered with dazzling arms, inlaid with gold and precious stones. Their costumes are brilliantly colorful; their turbans


The Arabian Horse

In History

are surmounted with aigrette feathers, and some wear gilded helmets. They are armed with sabers, lances, mace, spear, rifles, battle-axes, and daggers, and each has three pistols. This spectacle produced a vivid impression on our soldiers by its novelty and richness. From that moment on their thoughts were set on booty. Every Mameluke was an arsenal on horseback. Riding Cossack style, he would first discharge his carbine, slide it under his thigh, then fire his several pairs of pistols and throw them over his shoulders to be picked up by his footservant later, then throw his lethal djerids and finally charge the foe with scimitar in hand. Sometimes he carried two scimitars, swinging both while gripping the reins with his teeth. Years of practice enabled him to sever a head with a reverse blow. “ … A Mameluk was almost never captured; he was either victorious, or he was killed, or he fled with the same lightning speed with which he had attacked.”

The next major engagement occurred on July 21, roughly 30 miles northeast of Cairo near the town of Embabeh, where Napoleon confronted a far more serious challenge to halt his invasion. Some 6,000 Mamelukes and approximately 14,000 native Egyptian infantry assembled on the Nile’s west bank with a few better-trained Turkish army units. There also was something on the order of 14,000 Arab horsemen (from various tribal groups) laying in wait behind Murad’s forces, which were not under his direct command. Bonaparte had 28,000 men equipped with modern firearms who were a disciplined military unit, whereas the Egyptian army was largely untested. Another factor that hindered Murad was that his ill-equipped conscripts owed little or no loyalty to their Ottoman overlords.

Supported by flank attacks from General Louis C. Desaix, the French advanced towards Murad in tight formation, inflicting important losses as the Mameluke attacked in wave after wave of frontal cavalry strikes, until they and their horses collapsed with exhaustion. Near sunset, fraught with serious losses, the defending army of Egypt broke ranks and fled up the Nile. They were pursued by Desaix (one of Napoleon’s favorite generals who was killed two years later at the Battle of Marengo) until they reached Sadiman, were they were overtaken, routed, and dispersed. Ibrahim Bey retreated into Syria. The invading French forces had suffered only 300 losses, whereas over 2,000 Mamelukes and as many as 5,000 Egyptians had perished. The Arabs and Turks call the confrontation the Battle of Chobrakit.

Renowned French painter Carle Vernet's depiction of a Mameluke warrior.


The Battle Of The Pyramids, July 21, 1798.

Arabian Horse Times • October 2008

Arabian Horse Times • October 2008


The Arabian Horse

In History

declaration of a “jihad” against the French by the Ottoman Sultan on the September 9th, the two unforeseen incidents ignited a disorganized, but intensely violent, popular revolt. Although it was quickly extinguished, the riots forced the Corsican to devote his time to the city’s pacification. Despite conscientious efforts to bring the fruits of an enlighten culture and French institutions to Egypt, the increasing repressive regime recognized that their long-term plans were futile and that they could not govern without popular compliance to their occupation.

The climax of the Egyptian invasion occurred when Napoleon’s small army of 11,000 men (that were suffering from fatigue, ammunition shortages and in the midst of a plague epidemic) attempted to take the fortress of Acre beginning on March 17, 1799. The month before, the everconfident Napoleon had left half his army in Cairo and marched 350 miles into Syria via Qatia, El Arish, Gaza, and Jaffa without a fixed battle plan. Undoubtedly underestimating the determination of its garrison and the abilities of its commander, the An engraving of Napoleon Bonaparte on horseback.

Napoleon, facing no further obstacles, led the main body of his forces into Cairo the next day. A horde of French writers and artists turned his technically unsophisticated victory into an important propaganda triumph and conjured up the pretentious title for the conflict without a pyramid in sight.

Prior to the invasion, French planners had assumed that Egypt, plagued by chronic social instability and almost universal hatred for the Mameluke governing caste, was ripe for colonization. Although at first the people of Cairo accepted submissively Napoleon’s army of occupation, it all changed with Horatio Nelson’s naval victory at Abu Qir Bay (which is known as The Battle of the Nile) on August 1, 1897. Coupled with a


The decisive naval victory by Britain's Admiral Horatio Nelson at The Battle Of The Nile was a crucial turning point in Napoleon's Egyptian campaign.

General Jean Baptiste Kleber, depicted here leading the attack on Alexandria, Egypt, was left in command of the French forces in the Middle East when Napoleon returned to France in 1799.

Arabian Horse Times • October 2008

French émigré Colonel Phélypeaux, he set siege to the ancient citadel. To complicate matters more for Napoleon, a Royal Navy squadron commanded by Commodore William Sidney Smith (who was easily the most reckless, colorful, swashbuckling British Navy officer of the era) had captured the French artillery that had been sent by sea from Egypt. Consequently, Napoleon was left with little choice but to mount a series of frontal infantry assaults, which all failed under the fire of the bastion’s 250 cannons and the bombardments of Smith’s offshore gunboats. An attempt by Achmet Bey’s army of Damascus to relieve Acre was repulsed exactly one month later at the Battle of Mount Tabor, but Bonaparte’s minor success had cost him some 300 men. Upon learning that British warships were planning to escort another Ottoman

Arabian Horse Times • October 2008

army from the Island of Rhodes, he abandoned his military adventure in Syria and pulled his remaining 7,000 troops back to Cairo.

The last battle in the Middle East fought by Napoleon was an impressive victory over the numerically superior Turkish forces, which had been escorted by the Royal Navy from their base in Rhodes to the coastal fortress at Aboukir. Their commander, Mustafa Pasha, failed to march on Cairo and exploit the unpopularity of the French occupation of that city. Instead, he dallied off the coast until July 15, 1799, when his forces occupied the fortress and “dug-in” to await an attack from the French. Dividing his 20,000-man army into three groups, the Turk


The Arabian Horse

In History

A Mameluke soldier of the Ottoman Imperial Guard.

deployed most of his men in two lines of trenches in front of the citadel and retained a smaller force inside the walls. Smith’s gunboats also patrolled the shoreline on both sides of the fortress. Despite ample time to prepare, Napoleon could muster only 17 cannons and 7,000 troops. Nevertheless, he apparently had no misgivings about attacking with such a small force. On July 25, he advanced on Mustafa Pasha’s first line at dawn sending a division of lancers against both flanks of the fortified hills, and then launched Murat’s cavalry through the breach that had been


created in the center of the first line of defense. The Turks quickly retreated to the second line, which they held against infantry assaults, but their defenses were undermined by a concentrated artillery attack against its western end. Murat’s horsemen were then able to roll up the line and drive the defenders into the sea, effectively destroying the Turks by the end of the day. The fortress garrison surrendered on August 2. The Ottoman losses totaled 13,000 dead (11,000 of which had drowned), 2,000 missing, and 5,000 prisoners, including Mustafa Pasha.

Arabian Horse Times • October 2008

It was during the negotiations for the exchange of prisoners with Commodore Smith that Napoleon learned of the Second Coalition’s success, which from his point of view was an extremely dire development. The news prompted his immediate departure for home. He sailed from Egypt on August 24, with a few aides and officers, leaving the army to fend for itself under Kléber’s command. He reached the small port of Frejus on the southern coast of France on October 9. He arrived in Paris one week later. On March 8, 1801, an Anglo-Ottoman expeditionary army of 15,000 troops, led by veteran British General Ralf Abercromby (1734-1801), disembarked at Aboukir and re-captured the castle A painting of The Battle Of The Pyramids by 10 days later. Baron Menou de Boussy, who could call Polish artist Wojciech Kossak. only a 10,000-man force into the field, had assumed command of the French Army that Napoleon had Although the Mamelukes suffered repeated defeats left behind in Egypt. Utterly confident of success, he by the French, their ferocity and astounding closeunderestimated his rivals and the engagement quickly combat battle techniques impressed the Europeans disintegrated into confused carnage that cost him who saw them in action. Napoleon recruited a number 3,000 casualties. He retreated to Cairo, aware that of them for service in his personal guard, but because the British could starve his army into capitulation, they were precariously difficult to discipline, he never which is what occurred on August 31, 1801. deployed them in groups of more than 100 men. Among the Turkish rank and file that had arrived Napoleon’s personal Mameluke bodyguard was a giant to do battle was a humble, illiterate former tobacco named Roustan, who became a figure of considerable merchant originally from Kavala, Albania, named notoriety in the Emperor’s court. Roustan was never Mohammed Ali (1770-1849). His incredible military far from his master’s side, where he menacingly lurked and political exploits would later be during all of Napoleon’s public appearances. compared to those of Bonaparte himself! Reportedly when the Mameluke squadrons Although Napoleon had won a few swept toward him in the Battle of the battles and stretched his army’s resources Pyramids, Napoleon had been so mesmerized to its limits at Acre, those wins were by the beauty and quality of their spirited more or less irrelevant in comparison Arabian steeds, that he could barely give his with the colossal conflicts that were artillery the order to fire on them. It is also brewing in Europe. However, thanks recorded that he regarded the Arabian to be to his well-orchestrated propaganda the best horse in the world: “A thousand times machine, he succeeded in presenting his better fitted than the Thoroughbred to improve failures in Egypt as a series of glittering every other race, because in it we return to the A portrait of General triumphs, which had been fought against unmixed purity and power of an original race.” Jean Baptiste Kleber an extremely treacherous enemy. His Among the important consequences of by artist Jean-Baptiste victory at Aboukir, like that at the Battle Napoleon’s Egyptian and Syrian campaigns Paulin Guerin. of the Pyramids, was proclaimed as proof were the radical changes made in his cavalry. of his military genius, and the Middle East adventure Having observed large numbers of Oriental horses became the catalyst for tremendous public adulation first-hand in combat, the high-ranking French upon his return to France. officers were able to appreciate their unparallel qualities of endurance, courage, and speed. Most of the Arabian horses that Napoleon acquired as spoils of war came directly from the Mamelukes. Judging from all reports (as well as numerous sketches, In the intervening months the French were paintings and sculptures), they were of the finest tremendously adept at looting Egypt and acquiring quality. The “hot-blood” of the Oriental horses that huge amounts of materials and goods. They also were captured on the banks of the Nile, when infused carted off many of Egypt’s magnificent ancient relics. with the indigenous French breeds, unquestionably Not surprisingly, among the first treasures that they gave Napoleon’s cavalry a subtle, yet vital, advantage commandeered were numerous Arabian horses, in every skirmish and clash that followed. which they shipped back to France.

Arabian Horse Times • October 2008


Arabian Horse in History  

Warhorses for the Corsican

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you