Napoleon: The Original Fake News
It’s widely acknowledged that Napoleon was the first modern leader to make substantial and systemic use of propaganda that is recognizable to a modern audience. The massive portraits depicting Napoleon as emperor, ancient warrior, and Christ-like healer remain timeless testaments to Napoleon’s authorship of his own image. It comes as no surprise that Napoleon also controlled the press and censored the performing arts and literary publications in order to maintain the narrative that he wished his citizens-subjects to retain. Of all of Napoleon’s disinformation campaigns, the most brazen continues to dazzle today: his Egyptian campaign.
Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign lasted just over three years (1798-1801) and took place before he crowned himself emperor in 1804. And yet, the patently false claims he made about it prove that not only was he a manipulator well before seizing power, but that he was so masterful at it that most people associate Napoleon’s Egypt expedition with the Rosetta Stone and the establishment of the Institut d’Égypte – the research facility in which the 160 savants who accompanied Napoleon studied and disseminated their findings on Egypt.
Acre was the location in which Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign unraveled in May of 1799. Napoleon attacked the Ottoman city twelve times, only to ultimately lift the siege, but not without first losing 2,300 men, with another 2,200 ill and wounded. And yet, he spun the retreat to the remaining men in a ludicrously baldfaced manner in a bulletin, for all to see. He began with bombastic praise and appraisal of the triumphs of the Grand Armée: “Soldiers: You have traversed the desert which separates Asia from Africa, with the rapidity of an Arab force. The army, which was on its march to invade Egypt, is destroyed. You have taken its general, its field-artillery, camels, and baggage. You have captured all the fortified posts, which secure the wells of the desert. You have dispersed, at Mount Tabor, those swarms of brigands, collected from all parts of Asia, hoping to share the plunder of Egypt. The thirty ships, which twelve days since you saw enter the port of Acre, were destined for an attack upon Alexandria. But you compelled them to hasten to the relief of Acre.”
Napoleon tries to convince his remaining men that their comrades fell, and they sacrificed so much not for the pointless failure at Acre, but rather in order to keep Alexandria secure. Napoleon used words and hope in order to combat the futility, rotting corpses, and thirst that his men were facing. He continues to assure his men about their key role in maintaining French occupation of Egypt, and recounts the successes of the campaign: “Several of their standards will contribute to adorn your triumphal entry into Egypt. After having maintained the war with a handful of men, during three months, in the heart of Syria, taken forty pieces of cannon, fifty stands of colors, six thousand prisoners, and captured or destroyed the fortifications of Gaza, Jaffa, and Acre, we prepare to return to Egypt, where, by a threatened invasion, our presence is imperiously demanded. A few days longer might give you the hope of taking the Pacha in his palace.”
Napoleon doesn’t concede to his own men that they are in retreat. He depicts the battle at Acre as either a triumph in the category of the battles at Jaffa and Gaza, or as a battle that’s within their reach but for the fact that they are needed back in Egypt. Plus, it’s too hot and they are needed elsewhere: “But at this season the palace of Acre is not worth the loss of three days, nor the loss of those brave soldiers who would consequently fall, and who are necessary for more essential services. Soldiers, we have yet a toilsome and a perilous task to perform. After having by this campaign secured ourselves from attacks from the eastward, it will perhaps be necessary to repel the efforts which may be made from the west.”  Yet, Napoleon’s downplaying of his losses at Acre was not readily accepted by everyone.
Hannah Cowley (1743-1809), a preeminent British playwright (and less successful poet) summed up what everyone, even Napoleon’s men, knew, in her introduction to an epic poem she wrote celebrating the victory of Sir Sidney Smith and the British over Napoleon’s forces at Acre: “This Poem celebrates one of the most important Events of the French Expedition under General Bonaparte to Egypt and Asia-the effectual stop put to their progress, through British aid, at Acre.”
Of course, Napoleon’s men were used to being lied to. The phrase “to lie like a bulletin,” was pretty common in French slang at the time, as it was so ingrained how untruthful Napoleon’s bulletins were. The unfortunate man who Napoleon left in charge of the army in Egypt when he fled to France, was General Jean-Baptiste Kléber. For years, Kléber put up with Napoleon’s idiosyncrasies, but when Napoleon asked his deputy to meet him at the Rosetta Stone only to stand him up and flee to France, Kléber was livid: “That bugger has deserted us with his breeches full of shit. When we get back to Europe we’ll rub his face in it.”
Kléber was referring to the debacle of a campaign of which he was now at the helm. Depending on which unofficial estimate you believe, of the 38,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors who went with Napoleon to Egypt, less than half would survive the campaign, Kléber included. But the public knew very little of the reality. Acre, Napoleon’s first Waterloo, for lack of a better idiom, was trumpeted as a success to the unsuspecting French public. Of course, it helped that Napoleon forbade any mention of Sidney Smith in French newspapers, and that he timed his return to follow the bulletin reporting on his (actual) victory at Aboukir.
Following Napoleon’s return to France, the Coup of 18 Brumaire brought Napoleon to power in November of 1799. His troops would still languish in Egypt for another two years. Acre, where it all fell apart, and which Napoleon claimed to have “bombarded the city in such a manner that not one stone remains in its place,” actually prospered for another three decades. When Napoleon and his men had departed Toulon for Egypt only a year and a half earlier, he had promised each man who returned six acres of land presumably in whatever part of Europe they would conquer next. But by then, half were dead, and the other, withering in the desert amidst hostile enemies, probably never wanted to hear the word “acre” again. But that hardly mattered. France was now in the throes of Egyptmania, entranced by its conquering hero, and soon-to-be Emperor, as he airbrushed his defeat at Acre aside and turned to plunging Europe into chaos for the next decade and a half.
- From the preface to The Siege of Acre: A Poem in Four Books, by Hannah Cowley, G. Wilkie and J. Robinson, London, 1810
- Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life. Penguin Books, 2015, p.201. Andrews continues “That pleasure was denied him, for in June 1800 a twenty-four-year-old student named Soliman stabbed him to death (Soliman was executed with a pike driven into his rectum up to his breast.).”
- Holtman, Robert, Napoleonic Propaganda, Louisiana State University Press,1950 See pages 54 and 187
- General Correspondence of Napoleon vol. V, 428