Prisoner of the Arabs

An account by Second Lieutenant [Joseph] Augustin Delesalle of the 3rd Dragoons, who was taken prisoner by the Arabs on Wednesday 13 March 1799.

A dragoon in Egypt

A translation of the short text Cent heures d’agonie, ou Relation des aventures d’Augustin Delesalle, published in Paris in Paris in 1800.

On 13 March 1799 a detachment of 25 men of the 3rd Dragoons, part of General Murat’s division of cavalry, was sent out to reconnoitre the area between Jaffa and Saint Jean d’Acre. Terrand and I lead them out and some five miles further on we encountered a column of around 200 Arabs on horseback with a vanguard of around 50 before them. We charged these, broke them and drove them back on their main body. This had also advanced when they had heard the sound of firing. We had gone too far to be able to retreat and so we resolved to attack the head of the enemy column in flank as it came up. The Arab commander, however, saw what we were about and, sending his men to the right and the left, managed to surround us, firing at us as they did so. The dragoons still went at them, fighting like Frenchmen. I myself, wounded in the arm by an enemy lance, found myself surrounded by four Arabs and we fought ferociously. I was wounded twice, once in the side and once in the neck, and I also had the misfortune to see the heads of many of my poor comrades carried away at the end of enemy pikes. This rendered me furious and I launched myself forwards again, only to be struck in the side once more. This blow unseated me and I fell to the ground where I was at the mercy of the Arabs. They threw themselves on me like famished vultures and stripped me down to my underclothes and shirt. One of them, hoping to get my ear-rings, made as if to cut off my ears but instead they struck me with a lance, even though I was naked and covered in blood. I parried the blow with my arm, but the lance went through it. Meanwhile, I watched as 14 of my companions, including Terrand, were hacked to pieces and they brought over, and made me kiss, their bloodied heads. I later learned that the others, despite being wounded, had managed to escape. Several Arabs came over and placed their knives against my throat, and I thought that they wanted me to share the fate of my brave companions, but, no, I was to be kept to be tortured. They then inflicted upon me all the suffering that cruel barbarism could imagine, and I do not know how it was that I cheated death. I do not think it was because I was brave or because I had stubbornly resisted, and that this had instilled in them a certain respect for me, but I did ascertain from signs they made to each other that they saw me as a worthy opponent, a brave man who could be of use to them.

Once the massacre was over, and the plunder divided, they set off, forcing me to follow them on foot despite my condition. I had lost a great deal of blood and soon fainted. As they wished to hurry, fearing that the French army would send some units out to pursue them, they set me upon the horse of one of the murdered dragoons. I rode along at the end of their column, trotting along with the captured horses they were leading by the reins. A little further on, I grabbed the reins and made off, but they came after me and, as their horses were faster than mine, soon caught up with me. They brought me back without, however, inflicting any punishment on me, so glad were they to have stopped me.

We passed through several villages where, as soon as the inhabitants saw me, they went mad and ran at me, those that got close spat in my face, others hit out at me with sticks or threw stones. The women, often with babies at the breast, were no less cruel than the men and they competed to join in or shout their incitements.

We then reached the mountains where the chief divided his men into detachments of 80, 60, 50 or 30 men. Five Arabs were to be my guards and we rode on. We halted in a ravine and the gathered around me. Their leader then had me bow my head as he drew his sabre, threatening me with it whilst repeating in angry tones the words “Jaffa, Jaffa, Marasthe”. I knew he was referring to the town of Jaffa, which our troops had just seized and where the inhabitants had endured the sacking of the place. It was just 18 miles away and events there hardly disposed the Arabs to my favour.

It was nine in the evening and my wounds had still not be tended to. I had a raging fever, I had not been fed and it was also very cold. My guards did nothing for me. At eleven o’clock four of them went off to cut some wood and the fifth remained with me. The others came back, set the fire and began to calmly smoke their pipes. I thought I might try to escape again. I gathered what little strength remained to me, turned and carefully made off into the hills where I thought it would be hard for them to follow, given that all the paths were difficult, especially for horses. I had gone some way before I looked back and spotted one of the Arabs. I threw myself into the undergrowth and only continued on after an hour had passed, and despite being barefoot, my shirt in rags, my body torn by the thorns and my wounds still bleeding. I climbed the steep rocks or crawled along on my hands and knees like a wounded deer. I did 18 miles like this and passed 30 of the Naplousian campfires, always trying to make my way towards where I supposed General Kléber’s division must be. He had under him General Murat’s cavalry division in which the 3rd Dragoons served. After my forced march, literally dropping from fatigue and exhaustion, I thought I must have made it. But, as drawn broke and it grew light, I found myself squarely between two enemy villages and still more than three miles from the French lines. I was so exhausted that I could not go further and not only did I fail to summon my reserves, I also failed to sufficiently rally my thoughts. So I remained there for half an hour before coming to my senses and exerting myself. I wrapped my rags around me and dragged myself forwards a thousand paces more before I was spied by three armed Turks. They approached me and seemed to sympathize with my state, covered as I was in blood, even helping me to stand and guiding me to their village. There I was presented to the head of their village, a man called Joseph Joucrosse, who had 3,000 horses at his command. However, here I was treated again as I had been when I was captured, and they threw me into a cell. It was not until the evening of the 15th, and after 37 hours of misery, that I received something when a servant of the tribal leader, having seen me gnawing at some grass, felt enough pity to bring me some rice in oil and some water.

As that day was coming to an end, they came and dragged me from my cell and brought me before a council of elders, some 200 men from all the neighbouring districts. They interrogated me through an interpreter who spoke Italian, and asked whether I would turn Moslem. I replied that I was bound by honour to my country and that I would not betray it. That they might be killed, something which I would view as a mercy and an end to my torment. Or, should they deliver me to the French lines, then I would pay 100 piastres as my ransom and would guarantee that they would come to no harm. However, my words seemed to irk the chief and I was sent back to my cell. I lay on the floor burning up with fever until midnight when they came to fetch me a second time in order to bring me before the head of these cannibals. He ordered me to pray to Mohammed but I refused. They made threatening gestures and again commanded me to pray to their prophet. I would not and I was removed from the chamber and handed over to three mounted Naplousians who bound my hands behind me and pushed me so that I marched off before them.

So there I was in the middle of the night, bound like a criminal, suffering excruciating pain, alone with three Naplousians. I knew how ferocious these men could be and, although nothing was said, I sensed I was being taken to a place of execution. However, I could barely walk and only managed a few steps before fainting. One of them dismounted and threw me across the saddle of one of his companions. After an hour’s ride, the horse we were on fell and the Turk and I found ourselves pinned beneath it. I tried to have myself understood so that the other two riders were able to drag us out using their reins, and we were all soon on our way again. When we reached a hamlet I was placed at the back of a lowly hut and a few Moors kept watch over me. They soon made me regret that my initial escort had gone. I tried in vain to elicit some pity, by showing them my wounds, especially that of my right arm where the rope had rubbed and enflamed the wound. Nothing would sway them so I resigned myself to my situation and did what I could to make myself comfortable.

It was a painful thing to do, but I did manage to bring my arm behind my back and then bring my legs up so as to slip through the rope that tied my hands. This at least allowed me to then start chewing on the knot to loosen it, easing my situation. However, when dawn broke my three Turks reappeared and I was happy to leave behind a place that those Moors had rendered disgusting to me. We marched the entire day, making perhaps 30 miles and encountering columns of Arabs on horseback, perhaps even 4,000 of them. They all lacked generosity of spirit, with the result that the most horrid insults rained down upon me until we reached a small town some 12 miles from Acre.

No sooner had the inhabitants there seen me than a great number of them rushed out to see the Christian slave, the crowd cheering and shouting. I was taken to a large house but was not badly treated, indeed they appeared to take pity upon me. Even so, and notwithstanding my still untreated wounds, I was placed in irons.

The following day we continued on to Acre. As we reached the shoreline I was forced to dismount. I made use of the opportunity to bathe my feet and wash my wounds. We then continued on to the gates of the city and the seat of a cruel governor just then preparing to face a French attack. Many of the inhabitants had been forced to leave whilst the governor and 4,000 Albanians, swearing that they would be buried in the ruins of the fortress, made ready.

As we approached another crowd, this time of armed men, came out to meet us. I heard them open fire and, although I was not hit, I was struck by their lances and sticks. Here I must do credit to my escort, for they protected me using the bodies of their horses, doing what they could to hold back this tide of enraged humanity. I was now brought in through the gates and presented to Djezzar, standing before him in my rags with what was left of my shirt now being used as a sash and with a swollen right arm and a face covered in blood. This monster was unmoved by such a sight and his face remained emotionless. After hearing my escort, his interpreter asked me in French where I had been taken prisoner. I thought it apt to disguise the truth and only replied that I had been involved in a skirmish between outposts, and that, having seen 20 of my dragoons killed I had then been wounded, stripped and left for dead on the field of battle. However, coming round that evening, I had attempted to regain French lines but had become lost in the hills and I had been captured at an enemy encampment and added, pointing as I did so, that I had been brought here by these three men. I did not wish to mention that I had escaped from my first captors but he must have known that I had, for 80 men from that tribe had come to present him with the 15 heads of my comrades and that their leader had told him that the sultan, by which he meant me, had escaped. The pasha then had me come kiss his hand and I stepped forwards, though little inclined to go along with this ceremony. He saw my reluctance for when I bent to kiss his hand he drew it back angrily, thinking I was perhaps unworthy of such an honour.

Following this interview, I was taken to a small, filthy cell with barely any daylight as it lay beneath the palace staircase. I was not alone but was again in irons, however, before long, a surgeon came to attend to me and treat my wounds. I cannot express the relief I felt, my blood rose and I felt at once renewed. Whilst this was taking place, Commodore Sir Sidney Smith had arrived at the pasha’s palace and was informed that a French slave, a commander of dragoons, was being held there. The knight requested to see me and I was brought before him naked and in chains. He was dressed like a European and had with him staff from the army and navy as well as [Antoine Le Picard de] Phélippeaux, a French emigrant. My appearance made an impression, for they warmly promised to do what they could to alleviate my situation and have me released. Smith even spoke to the pasha on this and in my presence. He would arrange an exchange, he said, for it was possible that Bonaparte was holding some Turkish prisoners, and that, by means of negotiations, prisoners could be swapped. The pasha made it clear to the commodore through his interpreter that should Bonaparte hold any Turks prisoners then he could freely behead them, as that is what he would be doing to any Frenchmen who fell into his hands. Mr Smith then sought to reassure me by telling me that he would try again and the pasha may prove amenable then. I replied to his encouragement, saying that, having cheated death these last three days, but having grown accustomed to its presence, I did not fear it, indeed the opposite, although I was grateful for Smith’s good intentions and hoped he would continue.

I was returned to my cell and my companions in misfortune. There were 12 of them, 11 Christians, merchants from Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo, and a priest who spoke Italian. I was astonished by their appearance, for, like me, they were in a terrible way. As I did not then know who they were, I kept my silence but two of them, seeing my state, attempted to speak to me in Italian. They then informed me that they had been here for seven months, their fortunes had been seized and they were being left to rot in this dungeon. They were all Christians, and, to prove it, they fell to their knees and made the sign of the cross. I did too, and we embraced, covering each other with tears. They raised me to my feet and each presented me with an item of clothing, so that, despite the vermin and smell, I was at least dressed.  

It was on 17 March, at nine in the evening, that Commodore Smith sent his secretary, Mr John Keith to me bearing a letter for the pasha. The letter requested that I be escorted upon his ship. Djezzar, in a better mood, had told him that since the commodore attached great importance to me being freed then I would be sent onboard the Tigre. Mr Keith had then informed the British consul of this decision and he had made ready to receive me. The pasha kept his verbal promise and at eleven the doors to my cell were thrown open. Torchlight helped me discern the colonel of the Albanians followed by 15 armed men and the pasha’s interpreter. I actually thought my last hour had come. However, the interpreter told me that I was being freed. I told them that I knew what I might expect from the hands of a master as cruel as theirs, but that I would go with them to my execution. My escort formed up and I came out of that terrible prison leaving behind my companions in misfortune. I still thought I was to be put to death but, instead, we reached the consul’s house and my irons were removed. I was given a robe to cover myself and in order to slip past the guards in the streets and the consul himself escorted me down to the quay where I was transferred to Sir Sidney Smith’s Tigre. It was midnight. After so much woe I could breathe again at last. What a profound change, what unexpected happiness. The British officers, no matter their rank, came to welcome me. My dirty clothes were thrown overboard, I took a bath and my wounds were then treated by the commodore’s surgeon. I was then given some fresh clothes. The commodore himself came to see me a few minutes later. His welcome was kind and frank, he congratulated me for having escaped from great danger, for the French army would soon arrive before the walls of Acre and informed me that, at the first gunshot, my head would have been detached from my shoulders. I expressed my gratitude modestly but with feeling, and he expressed the sentiment that he was happy to have been of service to a French officer in the army commanded by General Bonaparte.

My suffering was now coming to an end. There were to be more before I would return to France, but they stemmed from a different cause and were perhaps less great. Still, I should keep my promise and relate them here. On 22 March Sir Sidney Smith sent his envoy Mr John Keith to see General Bonaparte. I used this opportunity to inform the commander of the 3rd Dragoons, Colonel Bron, that I was here, that I had been captured and that I very much hoped the general would negotiate my exchange for a Turkish prisoner. When Mr Keith returned I learned that they had thought I had been killed and that they had sold my horse and my possessions on 14 March. Between 22 and 29 March we cruised off the shores of Tripoli before returning to Acre. It was then that Lieutenant Lallemand of the Guides came onboard the Tigre, acting as envoy from General Bonaparte. I learned from this officer that Djezzar the Butcher had massacred all the Christians of the town as soon as the French had arrived before the walls. The French consul had also perished and all the bodies had been dumped into the sea in sacks, many of them being washed up on the shore. Lallemand brought me a letter from Captain Curto which, on behalf of all the officers in the regiment, offered me all the help I might need, accompanying the offer with expression of the keenest interest and most laudable friendship. I gave Lallemand my reply to my brave comrades, along with a short list of items which I had need of. Sir Sidney Smith could not agree to the terms [the terms requested that he free all French naval officers he held] that Lallemand had carried on behalf of General Bonaparte. Indeed, I next saw Lallemand after my return to Paris where he was then aide-de-camp to General Junot, governor of Paris. This officer had maintained his real concern for me since the time we had come to know each other in Egypt.

So Sir Sidney Smith chartered a vessel from Lieutenant Hedoux, a Frenchman, in order to transport those officers and sailors in his possession on the promise that they would not bear arms against his Britannic Majesty. A Russian ship was obtained and an exception was obtained for me, as a prisoner of the Turks, and so I was granted a passport to return to the continent. On the day we were about to set sail we were informed that the French army had attempted six assaults against Acre and had six times been repelled. We could hear the bombardment all around us. We put in at Rhodes where there were a number of French prisoners, men who had fallen into Turkish hands following the battle of Aboukir, and all treated cruelly. I shall give one example, one which horrified me then and which still keeps me awake. Barbarians, you play with human life, tigers are more humane than you. Two unfortunate compatriots, seeing our ship come in, managed to slip from their leg irons, strip and jump into the sea. They swam to us and implored our help with outstretched arms. They placed all their hope in us. The Greek lieutenant of our ship had the boat launched and it collected them, only to take them back to the shoreline where their torturers and a cruel death awaited them. We were on a prison ship and we could do nothing to intervene to save French lives. But I can say no more, only that the English officer with us did what he could to help but was unsuccessful as the Turks were pitiless. We quit Rhodes and contrary winds kept us in the Greek islands for nine more days before we were once again sailing through the Mediterranean. Then a storm broke and raged for seven hours. The ship was taking on water and everyone onboard, animated by the same spirit of self-conservation, all that is except the Russians and Greeks who were hiding below decks, did what they could. The French officers, soldiers and sailors stepped forwards and, using their skill, and working together under the direction of Lieutenant Heroux, that calm and collected officer who was everywhere at once, saved the ship until the storm relented. We continued on to Syracuse where we spent three days taking on water and supplies. There we learned that the Sicilians had massacred the passengers of two ships coming from Alexandria at Augusta, 12 miles up the coast. There had been 300 killed, 200 of them French and among them Sussy of the commissariat. We then sailed on to Messina where we put into the port for 24 hours and from there we reached Marseille on 9 June 1799, and, once we were out of quarantine, I disembarked and was attached to the expeditionary force [to reinforce the troops in Egypt] being collected at Marseille.

Note: Joseph Augustin Delesalle was born in what is now Belgium on 22 March 1773. He had volunteered for the 3rd Dragoons on 8 September 1793 and fought in Flanders, Italy and Switzerland before his regiment was sent to Egypt in 1798. He had only recently been promoted to officer (on 20 January) before being captured and taken to Acre. Following his return to France, he participated in campaigns in Austria, Prussia (where he was promoted to captain) and Poland, before being sent to Spain. On 23 November 1809 he received a wound to the knee that nearly crippled him, although he continued to serve until 1811. Then he retired from service, although he was active during the 100 Days as governor of Hesdin in northern France. He died at Lille on 17 July 1838.