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British and French Soldiers in Egypt and the Levant, 1798-1920

by Paul Fox and Fergus Robson

The French and British armed forces were involved in four conflicts on Egyptian territory between 1798 and 1918, all of which stimulated metropolitan interest in the region. European cultural producers in Egypt and at home represented significant events, the landscapes of the Nile valley, the daily lives of Europeans at war, and of Egyptians too.

The arrival of a French fleet carrying 38,000 troops in 1798 marked the point of departure for a new, intensive phase of European engagement with Egypt. Bonaparte and the Directory regarded Egypt as a staging post for the planned overland invasion ...

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Paul Fox

Egypt on the Thames

Did you go to the exhibition Bonaparte and the British: Prints and Propaganda in the Age of Napoleon at the British Museum (until 16 August 2015)? If you did, you probably looked at this engraving by prominent satirist, James Gillray. Published in December, four months after the Battle of The Nile (1—3 August 1798), it depicts Horatio Nelson, who led the British fleet to victory, standing colossus-like in the estuary of the Nile with the Giza pyramids and city of Alexandria behind him. The ...

Catriona Kennedy

Military topographies: the British army on the Egyptian coast, 1801

An understanding of topography, an ability to identify and describe the salient features of a particular landscape or locale, has always been central to the waging of war. By the end of the eighteenth century it was becoming an increasingly formalized element of British army officers training. In his ‘Instructions on Reconnoitring’ Major-General William Roy (1726-1790) gave the following advice to British army officers:

“As the encampments, marches, and every possible movement proper for an army to ...

Mahon Murphy

The British in Jerusalem 1917-1920: The Imagined City

Unlike the other areas discussed throughout the period 1792-1920, Palestine and especially Jerusalem did not have to be introduced to the European public imagination. Although it was to gain its fame as a musical number during the First World War, William Blake’s poem And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time was first published in 1808 had helped spread ideas of a connection between the pioneers of the British Empire and the image of Britain as the spiritual successor and therefore protector of Jerusalem. Coupled to poetry, photography in the years before the First World War presented Jerusalem as a biblical site most relevant to ...

Mahon Murphy

The British in Jerusalem 1917-1920: The Encountered City

While the prevailing pre-war imagery of Jerusalem presented the city as virtually uninhabited and untouched by modernity, the reality was somewhat different. However, once the British troops entered and took control of the city, they were to come face to face with the reality of the city. However, the occupation of Jerusalem existed in two spheres, as noted by Mark Sykes: The local sphere and the international sphere. The international propaganda narrative once again meant that Jerusalemites disappeared to make way for a primary narrative focused on ...

Fergus Robson

French Soldiers’ Gaze upon Italian and Egyptian Women: Gender, Masculinity and Sexuality in Militarised Cultural Encounters

The way soldiers interact with and treat women has been problematic for probably as long as soldiers have existed. While the previous post introduced the ‘tourist gaze’, where women are concerned this interacts with the ‘male gaze’. The intersection of the two is a powerful means of defining, categorising and exerting control over women. This discussion will not avoid sexual violence and coercion which are seemingly inseparable from warfare, it will however focus on the discursive and definitional aspects of encounters between French soldiers and the female populations of countries they travelled through or occupied. The analysis will go ...

Paul Fox

Spoils of War in Egypt, 1798-1882

Thirteen days after the 21st Lancers’ controversial charge at Omdurman on 2 September 1898, a soldier wrote to relatives in London from the banks of the Nile, north of Khartoum:

“My Dear Uncle and Aunt,

...No doubt you have read of the fight at Omdurman & and the great victory & have seen the account of our regiment's work & the charge. Tom and me went through it all & I am glad to say "Thank God" came out all right it has been an awful campaign for us [...] we are on our way down now to Cairo & it is awful nothing but hard biscuits and bully beef & marching in the sun all day & at night smothered with flies & insects.... I have seen enough of Egypt & the Soudan [...] I have got a spear & a couple of daggers which I will bring home with me all being well....

Fergus Robson

French Soldiers encounter European and Arabic Architecture

Architecture, from the symbolism of vast palaces, sites of power and places of culture, to the layout of city streets and the construction of the dwellings of the poor, both urban and rural, constitutes one of the first omnipresent sights of difference when we arrive in a new country. Sometimes this difference is pronounced, sometimes it is subtle, in today’s world a degree of architectural homogenisation is breaking down older stylistic differences. Most of the soldiers whose writings we are using had in many cases barely left their own region prior to enlisting or being conscripted. This meant that, when they encountered the building styles typical of ...

Mahon Murphy

The Records of the Pro-Jerusalem Society during the period of the British Military Administration

This brief essay will introduce the Pro-Jerusalem Society and its proposed projects through a look at one of the most fascinating objects on Town-planning under a military occupation; the edited volume by British architect Charles Ashbee Jerusalem 1918-1920: Being the Records of the Pro-Jerusalem Council during the period of the British Military Administration (published in London in 1921). A link to the full text can be found here:


The book offers a textual and visual representation of the proposed plans for the newly occupied city and highlights ...

Fergus Robson

Hygiene and Pollution: French soldiers gaze upon dirt, dust and disease

The eighteenth century saw many changes in the way people thought about bodily hygiene, smells, rotting matter and pollution. These changes however were gradual and emanated from the elite, and older understandings of the intersection between environmental, bodily and moral-spiritual pollution still loomed large alongside more modern notions of disease and cleanliness. This post will consider the ways French soldiers saw, described and thought about dirt, disease and pollution in Italy and Egypt. Some of their ideas now seem humorous, others ...