- Guns in the Desert: General Jean-Pierre Doguereau’s Journal of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition
The Egyptian campaign of 1799–1801, while well known, has few primary sources published in English devoted to it. The exotic locale, disputes over Napoleon Bonaparte's rationale for the campaign, and the contributions of the French savants who accompanied the French Army of the Orient still make the campaign worthy of study.
Guns in the Desert is the journal of Jean-Pierre Doguereau, an artillery lieutenant assigned to the staff of the artillery reserve during the Egyptian campaign. His narrative begins just prior to the army's debarkation at Toulon in 1798 and ends three and a half years later when Doguereau returned to France on a British warship. After the Egyptian campaign, Doguereau remained in the artillery, and later commanded the French artillery in Pamplona, Spain, until it surrendered to the Duke of Wellington's forces in 1813. After the Napoleonic wars ended, Doguereau rose to the rank of general and commanded the artillery school at Fère.
Rosemary Brindle's translation is based on Doguereau's Journal de l'Expédition d'Égypte, published in French in 1997. This text was in turn based upon a 1905 manuscript published in Paris by the Didier Academic Library. The first thing the reader notices about Doguereau's journal is its descriptive, almost sparse text. He did not waste words or time speculating about the campaign—his journal described the events without embellishment. Given his junior rank in the expedition, he was not privy to the discussions [End Page 505] and deliberations of the senior officers, but his position on the artillery staff allowed him a much greater freedom to observe conditions than other officers of his grade. His relatively junior rank also meant that at times his observations could be incorrect. For example, in describing the movement of the infantry divisions south after the initial landings at Aboukir Bay, Doguereau's dates and order of movement are wrong (p. 21). However, the translator caught this particular error and corrected it in the notes at the end of the chapter.
These minor inaccuracies do not detract from the importance of the journal for researchers on the Egyptian Campaign, but rather reinforce the difficulties and challenges in getting accurate information even from primary sources. Because of his position, Doguereau accompanied the army into Syria and participated in the siege of Saint-Jean d'Acre. The fate of the plague victims after the lifting of the siege is an example of Doguereau's blunt style. Napoleon's decision to kill the plague victims who could not be evacuated was dismissed in a single, unimpassioned line: "I was assured that steps had been taken to prevent them falling alive into the hands of the Turks" (p. 99). Doguereau wasted no time in discussing the morality of the act, and a researcher looking for an insight into the Army's opinion of Napoleon's decision would be unable to find it here.
Where the journal is at its best is in the description of one particular event and the conditions surrounding it. Doguereau's account of the initial troop landings in Egypt (p. 7) highlighted the challenges of crowding the men into small boats in heavy seas; the disorder that resulted meant that much of the night had to be spent assembling General Jean-Baptiste Kléber's division. The ordeal of moving artillery in the desert, with the guns nearly axle deep in the soft sand was particularly trying on men and horses. Yet issues such as the army's opinion of Napoleon Bonaparte's decision to leave Egypt and return to France are not recorded. Doguereau noted the rumors as to whether Napoleon and his staff had departed from Cairo, and casually mentions Kléber's assumption of command but does not mention what the reaction of the army was (p. 120). While most...